Monthly Archives: November 2010

Kid Stuff: Animal Crackers


Nabisco animal crackers, or Barnum's Animals, come with a signature string on top. Nabisco uses 8,000 miles of that string each year. Uploaded by

The first cookies baked in the shape of animals came from the kitchens of Stauffer’s Biscuit Company in York, Pennsylvania back in 1871. The National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) began marketing them as “Barnum’s Animals” in 1902. They have a long history, and since they have something of a retro feel to them, you’d think these animals might become extinct.


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But you’d think wrong. Even though they’re not as sweet as other cookies, kids still love ’em. And though they’re not exactly the height of nutritional excellence, parents know that lots of other treats their kids might otherwise enjoy are a lot worse.

The animals used to be somewhat hard to identify. The details were lacking, and a bear looked a lot like a lion, for example. But techniques have improved, and the animals are much more distinct today. It’s said that there have been 37 different animals represented since 1902, though today that number is 19 (in Nabisco’s product). Of course, animal crackers wouldn’t be the same without the characteristic string on top. Some say it was added so the box could be a Christmas ornament; others think it’s simply a convenient handle. Either way, Nabisco now uses 8,000 miles of string on its boxes each year…


TV Show: The Red Skelton Show


Red Skelton's show was built around his cast of characters, including the Mean Widdle Kid, Klem Kadiddlehopper, and Freddie the Freeloader. Uploaded by

For twenty years, 1951-1971, The Red Skelton Show was one of the top shows on television, trailing only Gunsmoke (Great American Things, October 1, 2010) and The Ed Sullivan Show (Great American Things, August 25, 2009) in the ratings.

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The show featured Red performing his cast of characters, which included the Old West sheriff “Deadeye,” the crooked real estate agent “San Fernando Red,” the boxer “Cauliflower McPugg,” the hick “Clem Kadiddlehopper,” the brat “Mean Widdle Kid,” the seagulls “Gertrude and Heathcliffe,” and the hobo clown “Freddie the Freeloader.” The show usually had a musical act (the Rolling Stones made their first American appearance with Red) and a guest star. During the skits, it wasn’t unusual for the guest or Red to crack up, which was part of the show’s charm.

The show won a few Emmy Awards, but its greatest triumph was the loyalty its fans had during its long run. Red Skelton’s closing each week was the same, and is one of the most memorable in TV history: “Good night, and may God bless.”

Sports: Pipe Masters Surfing


The Pipeline Masters is the last event in the Triple Crown of Surfing. It's held in December on Oahu's North Shore, the famous Banzai Pipeline. Uploaded by

This event, one of the Triple Crown of Surfing, takes place each December at Hawaii’s famous Banzai Pipeline on Oahu. This year’s competition will be the 40th anniversary of the event, which is usually won by Hawaiians though there have been eight winners from the US mainland, eleven from Australia, and even one from South Africa. The prize money for the event is $400,000.

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The Pipe Masters is the final event of surfing’s annual Triple Crown, and the event surfers most want to win. They’ll come to Oahu’s North Shore, to Ehukai Beach Park, where powerful waves crash across a shallow reef. “Ehukai” is the Hawaiian word for “sea spray.” They’ll be greeted by hundreds of spectators, many of whom come from great distances to witness the world’s best surfers take on the world’s most dangerous waves.

The Banzai Pipeline regularly features twelve-to-twenty-foot waves, but that alone isn’t what makes the area famous. It’s also the most dangerous surf spot in the world. An average of one person per year dies trying to master these exhilarating waves. Andy Irons, a four-time Pipeline Master, explained the peril. “There are big coral heads that look like anvils underwater. “When you hit those it just splits you open. People die there just from hitting it.” Irons is in the news as this is written, having been found dead in his hotel room from still unexplained causes.

Singer: B.B. King

B.B. King has always been one of the hardest-working musicians in the country, playing an estimated 15,000 shows in his career. Uploaded by

What would the blues be without Riley King? He got his nickname from his time playing on Beale Street in Memphis (Great American Things, January 21, 2010), where he was “Beale Boy” or “B.B.” Today, King owns the popular B.B. King’s Blues Club that anchors that headquarters of the blues — and has other locations in cities from coast to coast.

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During his prime, King was one of the hardest-working musicians in the business, routinely performing 300 or more shows a year. He worked his way up playing the “chitlin‘ circuit,” the smoky blues clubs of the South. One night, two men got into a fight during one of his shows, knocking over kerosene barrels and setting the building on fire. Although two people died in the blaze, King rushed back in to get his favorite guitar. He later learned the two men were fighting over a woman named “Lucille,” and that’s been the name of his world-famous guitar ever since.

Only blues enthusiasts know most of King’s singles, though a few have become popular hits. His signature song is “The Thrill Is Gone,” which earned him the Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male in 1971. King is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, was selected by Rolling Stone as number three on its list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time,” and he has won both the Kennedy Center Honors and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Book: The Right Stuff


Tom Wolfe found out that Navy pilots had a 23 percent chance of dying in accidents. What made them so eager to take the risks, especially the risk of space flight? They have The Right Stuff. Uploaded by

Every now and again you find an author whose work is both wonderfully entertaining and extraordinarily well written. That was my experience when I found The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. I wasn’t breathlessly waiting for someone to write a book about America’s early space program, so I didn’t rush to read this one. But when I did, I was a Tom Wolfe fan for life.

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The Right Stuff details the exploits of test pilot Chuck Yeager as he endeavored to break speed and altitude records, then transitions to NASA’s Mercury program. The film adapted from this book was good, but Wolfe’s book is so much better. (As is the case for virtually every movie made from a book.)  Wolfe found that Navy pilots had a 23 percent likelihood of dying in an accident. So why were they so eager to become pilots in the first place? Because they had something special inside them — “the right stuff.”

Here’s Wolfe’s explanation of how he came to write The Right Stuff: “This book grew out of some ordinary curiosity. What is it, I wondered, that makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan, or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse? I decided on the simplest approach possible. I would ask a few astronauts and find out.”

Food: Bucket of Chicken


Why sell folks two or three pieces of chicken when you can sell them a dozen or two? Uploaded by

Here’s a fascinating bit of trivia. The famous Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket was invented (if that’s the right word) by Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s. Seems Thomas originally had a KFC franchise, and came up with the idea of the paper bucket as a way to keep the chicken crispy. Thomas also developed the rotating bucket sign that became a KFC icon.

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As I write this, it’s election day. The bucket of chicken holds a special association with elections for me. As a senior in high school, my best friend and I skipped school on election day and worked at the polls. After a chilly day outside, we stopped by Kentucky Fried Chicken and bought a bucket of chicken. We ate heaven only knows how many pieces (we were eighteen years old, remember) and watched our man win the presidency.

I’ve kept that tradition for every presidential election since. And since this off-year election promised to be unusually interesting, I made a trek to KFC for my fix. Of course, it’s not a bucket anymore; I don’t think I could eat that much chicken in a month…


TV Show: Columbo

Peter Falk presented Columbo as disheveled, quirky, and unassuming. Then he used his prey's overconfidence to his advantage in bringing them to justice. Uploaded to Photobucket by skjern 2007.

The TV classic Columbo was an “anti-whodunit.” Typically, we saw the crime being committed at the beginning of the episode, and knew who the “perp” was. The rest of the show was devoted to watching the wonderful Detective Columbo figure out the crime and catch the bad guy.

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The wonderful Peter Falk portrayed Detective Columbo as a rumpled, disheveled mess who was constantly underestimated by those he suspected of crimes. He didn’t usually carry a gun or need to resort to force, his unexpected wits and powers of observation being his main crime-solving tools. I’m sure he occasionally used forensic evidence, but Columbo is about as far from the CSI school of detection as it’s possible to get.

Columbo began as a segment of the NBC Mystery Movie (other segments: McMillan & Wife and McCloud). Its primary run on NBC lasted from 1971-1978, though it aired infrequently on ABC a decade later. By the way, the first season premiere “Murder by the Book” was written by Steven Bochco and directed by Steven Spielberg (Great American Things, July 22, 2009), both relative unknowns at that time. That’s one way to kick things off the right way, wouldn’t you agree?