Monthly Archives: December 2010

Travel: St. John, USVI


The sand is impossibly white. The water is warm, aqua, and calm as a bathtub. The temperature is almost always in the mid-80s. It's what you imagine the Caribbean to be. Uploaded by USVI forum member mscolleen.

(Originally posted April 30, 2009)

The marketing theme for the U.S. Virgin Islands used to be “America’s Caribbean.” So while at first blush it may seem odd to have a Caribbean island in a blog about Great American Things, it definitely belongs.

What makes St. John unique in the Caribbean is that the Virgin Islands National Park covers more than 7,000 acres on the island, limiting development and preserving the quality of the natural habitat. The beaches consist of that amazing sugar-white powder. Shades of aqua you can’t imagine being real make

Photo by Jeannie Chalkley.

each bay more wonderful than the last. The snorkeling is some of the best in the world, and you can swim to the reefs from shore. If all that isn’t enough, the temperature remains in the mid-80s year-round.

There are plenty of dining options, but no chain restaurants. The language is English, American money is used, there’s even a slow-as-home post office. You’ll have to drive on the left, however, and that’ll throw you until you get used to it.

St. John is breathtakingly beautiful, and as safe as the Caribbean can be. No wonder it pulls us back year after year.


Photo by Ben Whitney, uploaded to


Photo by Margo Gripp.

Photo by Teresa Scott.

Photo by Pam Pizzino.

Photo by Teresa Scott.

Photo by Teresa Scott.

Photo by Teresa Scott.

Photo by Teresa Scott.


Sports: Joe Namath


How does a guy with a record of 62-63-4, 173 touchdowns and 227 interceptions make it into the Hall of Fame? One way is to be bigger than the game, which Joe Namath was. Uploaded by

Before I get specific about Broadway Joe, let’s give a shout out to western Pennsylvania for its unbelievable string of great quarterbacks. Joe Willie Namath is one, but the list also includes Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Johnny Lujack, George Blanda, Jeff Hostetler, and others. Namath grew up in Beaver Falls, about 20 miles from Pittsburgh. He received several offers to play Major League Baseball, but chose to play college football for Bear Bryant at Alabama.

That’s a little bit of a puzzler, looking back on it. It’s not that Namath couldn’t play within a team concept, but his personality was so large that it might have been expected to conflict with his coach’s. He was suspended for a couple of

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games once, but he came back the next year and helped the Crimson Tide win the national championship. Instead of signing with the NFL, he chose the rival AFL, whose New York Jets had made him the first pick in the draft. He was a four-time all-star, and led the Jets to the AFC championship in 1968.

1969 was the third year that the AFC champion took on the NFC champ in the Super Bowl (the leagues merged the following year). The first two games were NFL blowouts, and Namath’s Jets were huge underdogs in Super Bowl III. In one of the great upsets in sports history, Namath guaranteed that the Jets would beat the Baltimore Colts – and he made good on his promise. It’s no doubt the single game he’ll always be known for.

Namath was a party guy, and he got in trouble for opening a bar in New York City called “Bachelors III.” What you might call your “unsavory types” became regulars, and the NFL ordered Namath to sell his interest in the club. But far from ruining his reputation, this walk on the wild side actually enhanced it. He’s now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite what are actually very ordinary statistics. But he was a legend, and even today, everyone still loves Broadway Joe.

Singers: Creedence Clearwater Revival


Characterized by the distinctive voice of John Fogarty, CCR had a string of nine consecutive top-10 hits between 1969 and 1971. Uploaded by

CCR didn’t have a long career – their first single (“Suzie Q”) made the charts in 1968, and they disbanded in 1972. But their lack of longevity was offset by the uniqueness of their sound and their amazing run of hits – nine consecutive top 10 songs from 1969-71.

Their musical genre is often called “swamp rock”, which is ironic considering that the band was from the San Francisco area. Their style was even more remarkable when you remember that San Francisco was ground zero for the

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psychedelic music that took the world by storm in the late 60s. But John Fogerty had a distinctive voice that was perfect for CCR’s music, and was  instantly recognizable on the radio. As his brother Tom said, “I could sing, but John had a sound.”

Creedence Clearwater Revival (a much better name than their original choice, The Golliwogs) received induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Great American Things, August 31, 2009). The Hall of Fame’s website says this about CCR: “The term “roots rock” had not yet been invented when Creedence came along, but in a real way they defined it…”

Here are CCR’s biggest hits, with the highest position each reached on the Billboard chart. (Note: Creedence should have been more careful about releasing singles. Many of their most famous songs were B-sides.)

“Proud Mary” (2 – b/w “Born on the Bayou”) * “Bad Moon Rising” (2 – b/w “Lodi”) * “Green River” (2) * “Down on the Corner (3 – b/w “Fortunate Son”) * “Travelin’ Band” (2 – b/w “Who’ll Stop the Rain”) * “Up Around the Bend” (4 – b/w “Run Through the Jungle”) * “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” (2 – b/w “Long As I Can See the Light”) * “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” (8 – b/w “Hey Tonight”) * “Sweet Hitch-Hiker” (6)


Album: “Frank Sinatra: The Capitol Years”

Frank Sinatra was at the top of his game between 1953 and 1961 when he recorded some of his most memorable songs on the Capitol label. Often backed by the terrific arrangements of Nelson Riddle. Uploaded by

It’s cheating in a way to have a “Best of” album honored here, but that’s not exactly what “The Capitol Years” is all about. This isn’t a greatest hits album, but a compilation of 75 of the finest Sinatra recordings during his years with Capitol Records (1953-1961).

This was the era when Sinatra was at his very best. He had matured beyond the pop idol status he held during the big band era, and hadn’t become the

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self-satisfied geezer that Saturday Night Live parodied. Here he was in full voice, with enough life experience to make his love songs credible, whether he sang about love gained or lost. And he had the benefit of amazing arrangements by the great Nelson Riddle and Billy May.

You can find the full 75-track listing elsewhere, but here are some of the notable highlights on the album:

“I’ve Got the World on a String” * “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” * “I Get a Kick out of You” * “Young at Heart” * “In the Wee, Small Hours of the Morning” * “Love and Marriage” * “(Love Is) The Tender Trap” * “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” * “The Lady is a Tramp” * “Night and Day” * “Witchcraft” * “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)” * “Autumn in New York” * “Come Fly with Me” * “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” * “Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night of the Week)” * “High Hopes” * “Almost Like Being in Love”

Kid Stuff: The Polar Express

The Polar Express is a picture book, written by sculptor turned illustrator/writer Chris Van Allsburg. It won the Caldecott Medal for Children's Literature in 1986. Uploaded by

Children’s author Chris Van Allsburg created this beautiful Christmas story about a fantasy train that carried children to the North Pole on Christmas Eve to see Santa Claus. One boy in particular is picked up in front of his house, then journies with other kids in their pajamas on this magical adventure.

When he arrives at Santa’s workshop, the boy is chosen by Santa himself to receive the first gift of Christmas. The boy can choose anything in the world he wants, but he asks for a beautiful-sounding silver bell from Santa’s sleigh. He puts the bell in his pocket, but soon realizes in horror that his pocket has a hole

Chris Van Allsburg. Uploaded by

in it, and the bell is gone. The next morning, however, his sister sees a package with the boy’s name on it at the back of the tree. It’s the bell, of course, which Santa found on the seat of his sleigh.

Director Robert Zemeckis adapted The Polar Express and made it into a live-action animated film, “starring” Tom Hanks. The movie was well received, but it’s the book that still captures the imagination of children with its beautiful and evocative illustrations. It won the Caldecott Medal for Children’s Literature in 1986. Both the book and the movie end with this beautiful quote:

“At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.”

Holiday: Andy Griffith Show Christmas Episode

The Christmas Story is the title of this memorable and touching episode, the only one The Andy Griffith Show ever made with a Christmas theme. Uploaded by

This is the first time a single episode of a TV show has been featured on this list, but this one is a logical choice. The Andy Griffith Show (Great American Things, April 20, 2009) was in its first season, and this was just its eleventh episode. But all the attributes that would make it one of America’s all-time favorite shows were on display from the start.

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The plot – and I certainly hope this isn’t spoiling it for anyone, surely you’ve seen this episode – involved department store owner Ben Weaver insisting that family man Sam Muggins be put in jail for selling moonshine. Andy has no choice but to agree, knowing that it means Sam won’t spend Christmas with his family. Then he and Barney have the idea to move their Christmas celebration, complete with Barney dressing as Santa, to the jail and inviting the Muggins family.

Ben appears to be furious, but Andy soon realizes the miser has no one to celebrate Christmas with, and wants to join the celebration. Eventually, Ben has himself arrested so he can participate, but not before bringing gifts for everyone. Two interesting facts about this episode, titled “The Christmas Story”: It was the only one the show ever produced with a Christmas theme, and its cast included Margaret Kerry, the model for Tinkerbell in the animated classic Peter Pan.

As of now, the whole episode is available on YouTube:

Film: The Movies of 1979


In this year of excellent movies, Kramer vs. Kramer won Oscars for Best Picture, Actor, Director, Supporting Actress, and Adapted Screenplay. Uploaded by

What makes some movie years better than others? Perhaps it’s better studio executives making good decisions about which movies to “green light.” Maybe a particularly talented group of directors is working in the same era. Or maybe… it just happens that way. For whatever reason, 1979 was one of those outstanding years, and here are some of the reasons why:

10 – Bo Derek, Dudley Moore, and Ravel’s “Bolero.” Directed by Blake Edwards.

Alien – Did it belong in the sci-fi or horror category? Yes. Starring Sigourney Weaver, directed by Ridley Scott.

All That Jazz – Lots of dancing, lots of dancer drama. Starring Roy Scheider, directed by Bob Fosse.

…And Justice for All – “You’re out of order! This whole trial is out of order!” Al Pacino goes nuts, directed by Norman Jewison.

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Apocalypse Now – The true madness of Vietnam. With Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando, and Martin Sheen. Directed by Frances Ford Coppola.

Being There – Peter Sellers’s tour de force as Chauncey Gardner. Directed by Hal Ashby.

Breaking Away – A father, a son, a bicycle race, a surprise hit. Directed by Peter Yates.

The China Syndrome – The movie that has crippled America’s nuclear industry. Starring Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon, directed by James Bridges.

Kramer vs. Kramer – Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep fight for custody of their child. Directed by Robert Benton. Won Academy Award for Best Picture.

Manhattan – I wanted to move to NYC after I saw this movie. I still do. Woody Allen directs, with Diane Keaton and Mariel Hemingway.

The Muppet Movie – The highest-grossing movie of the year. Directed by James Frawley.

Norma Rae – Sally Field proves she had true acting chops. Directed by Martin Ritt.

Food: McDonald’s French Fries

Anything eaten to excess can be bad for you, including french fries. But once in a while, nothing is better than properly cooked McDonald's fries. Uploaded to Flickr by roboppy.

(Originally posted March 31, 2009)

So I decided to start a new blog devoted to chronicling the little things that are special about America, and I choose McDonald’s fries as my first entry. Am I nuts?

Uploaded to Flickr by complexify.

Fact is, whether you like fast food or not, whether you think it’s a quick and tasty way to eat or a curse on humanity, you have to appreciate this amazing product. When freshly cooked and lightly salted, there’s almost nothing you can eat that compares.

I can still remember enjoying them at the first McDonald’s where I grew up, on W. Mercury Blvd. in Hampton, Virginia. They were, I think, fifteen cents. They’re a bit more now, but they still retain that great flavor, and how many things can you say that for after several decades?

Directors: The Coen Brothers

With movies like The Big Lebowski in their past, the Coen brothers' pictures are almost like cult films. But you don't get Academy Awards for Best Picture - as they did for Fargo and No Country for Old Men - if you're directing cult movies. Uploaded by

I have both brothers down as Directors, because they’ve shared those duties, though until recently only Joel Coen received directing credit. Brother Ethan typically received credit as producer, the brothers shared writing credits, and they also edit their own films, using the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes. They are informally known in Hollywood as “The Two-Headed Director.”

You’d almost consider their movies as cult films, except cult films don’t win Academy Awards. But there’s no question that certain of their pictures have achieved cult status, most notably The Big Lebowski. And the brothers have developed a loyal following. From their first movie, Blood Simple, in 1984 to the upcoming (as I write this) release of the remake of True Grit, there’s a special buzz among movie lovers when “a new Coen Brothers movie is coming.” For me, it’s the writing, which is inevitably memorable. O Brother is one of the most quotable movies of all time.

True Grit will be their 15th movie. Some have already received recognition as Great American Things: Raising Arizona (January 31, 2010), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (June 5, 2009 – 2 nominations ), and Fargo (July 16, 2009 – 7 nominations, won Best Picture). Among their other outstanding films: Miller’s Crossing * Barton Fink – 3 nominations * The Hudsucker Proxy * The Man Who Wasn’t There – 1 nomination * No Country for Old Men – 8 nominations, won Best Picture * A Serious Man – 2 nominations.

Holiday: Toys for Tots

One woman wanted to donate a toy to a needy child, but couldn't find an organization to work with. So she asked her husband, a Marine reservist to help. He did - by starting Toys for Tots. Uploaded by

We all know, and are grateful for, the toughness of our U.S. Marines. But since the late 1940s, millions of American children are glad they have a softer side, too. A member of the Marine Corps Reserve, Major William L. Hendricks of California, learned there was no place to donate toys to kids when his wife wanted to give away a handmade doll. He started an organization locally, and gave away 5,000 toys that first Christmas. The Marine Corps Reserve adopted the program and took it nationally the following year (1948).

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For many years, people could donate new or used toys. Marines would fix the old ones before they were given away. The program was so successful that not enough time was available for refurbishing used toys, and only new ones have been accepted since 1980. A separate organization, the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, now exists to provide fundraising and operational support for the program.

Toys for Tots has often been a favorite project of America’s First Ladies. Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, and Michelle Obama have made the charity one of their priorities. Between their efforts and that of the Marine Reserve, they’ve obviously been hugely successful: the charity has collected and delivered more than 500 million toys.

Americana: Vanity License Plates


Vanity plates are used to show support for an organization, a cause, a college, a landmark - or just an opinion. Uploaded by

According to experts, and experts know stuff, there are about 10 million vehicles in the U.S. and Canada sporting personalized license plates. You’ll find a higher percentage in Virginia than anywhere else, followed by New Hampshire, Illinois, and Nevada. As of 2005, these were the only states in which more than ten percent of all vehicles had vanity plates.

Uploaded to Flickr by chicago pm.

It used to be that you could instantly recognize what state a car was from by its license plates, since they were all standard. No more. Now there are unique plates for organizations, causes, colleges, landmarks, and anything else that can bring extra revenue to a state. It’s all about bringing in extra money, from the state’s point of view. For vehicle owners, it’s a chance to express your creativity.

On a white Ford Explorer: NOT OJ. On a hearse: UR NXT. On a sports car: ICU2COP. On a Volkswagen: EW A BUG. On a Hummer: 1 MPG. On a commuter’s car: DAMN IM L8. On a movie fan’s car: GONE WTW.  What are some of the good ones you’ve seen…or have on your car?

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Uploaded to Flickr by NYCviaRachel.