Monthly Archives: July 2011

Travel: Alaska Whale Watching

Several whale species migrate off the majestic coast of Alaska between late March and September. Gray whales are first, followed by humpbacks, belugas, and orcas. Uploaded by

The Alaskan coast is an amazing place for viewing America’s most spectacular marine environment. You can see porpoises, sea lions, seals, walrus, and sea otters as you navigate past magnificent glaciers. But the greatest attraction is seeing the majestic whales that swim along the coast on their way to and from their feeding and mating grounds.

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Which whales you can see depends on the season you visit. Gray whales come up from Baja California in late March through May on their way to the Bering Sea. Humpback whales make their way along the southeast coast of Alaska between May and September. Orcas (killer whales) aren’t actually whales at all; they’re the largest member of the porpoise family. Even so, they’re thrilling to witness off Alaska’s coast in the summer months. It’s also possible to see humpback and beluga whales in Alaskan waters.

If you’re taking an Inside Passage tour (Great American Things, June 10, 2009), during these seasons, whale watching will definitely be a featured part of your itinerary. To make a visit just to see whales, head for the southeast Alaskan towns of Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka, and Skagway. Or visit the south central region, including Homer, Seward, and Kodiak. It’s not hard to find a reputable tour operator who can be sure you see these spectacular animals up close. Just don’t forget your camera!

Theater: Grease

When it made its original run on Broadway, Grease ran for 3,388 performances - at that time, the most ever. Since then, it's had several revivals and national tours, not to mention countless community theater productions. Uploaded by

Hard to imagine now, but this show was created initially with very little music. And when it debuted in Chicago, it even had a different title: Greased Lightning. Some smart people saw the show and told the creators (Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey) that it could be a hit on Broadway with a little work. I guess they were right – the show opened in New York in 1972 and ran for a then-record 3,388 performances.

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When we think of Grease today, we’re influenced by the movie version. No wonder – the play has changed during its several revivals to include plot elements and songs (“Hopelessly Devoted to You,” “You’re the One that I Want,” “Sandy,” and “Grease”) from the film version. It’s had Broadway revivals in 1994 and 2007, and national tours in 1994, 2003, 2008, and 2010-11. Not to mention productions at community theaters from coast to coast.

Quite a few stars have had parts on Broadway or on the national tours. Among them:

DANNY: Barry Bostwick, Treat Williams, Patrick Swayze, David Hasselhoff, Rex Smith, Jeff Conaway, Jon Secada, Richard Gere, and Ace Young.

SANDY: Andrea McArdle, Lea Salonga, and Debbie Gibson.

RIZZO: Adrienne Barbeau, Lucy Lawless, Rosie O’Donnell, Linda Blair, Debbie Boone, Sheena Easton, Jasmine Guy, Joely Fisher, Maureen McCormick, Mackenzie Phillips, Jody Watley, and Brooke Shields.

OTHERS: Tracey Ullman, Marilu Henner, Megan Mullally, Davy Jones, Chubby Checker, Jennifer Holliday, Al Jarreau, Taylor Hicks, Mickey Dolenz, Joe Piscopo, and Peter Scolari.

Music: Yo-Yo Ma

He's recorded dozens of albums, performed with the world's leading orchestras, written and performed film scores, and won a zillion Grammys. And he plays the cello. THE CELLO. Uploaded by

He’s a virtuoso on the cello. The cello. As if the violin isn’t geeky enough. But the thing is, Yo-Yo Ma somehow makes it cool. He brings out the beauty in an instrument that had always been second fiddle. Second fiddle – somebody stop me!

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When his friends see him, do they say, “Yo, Yo!” And does he say, “Don’t use my middle name.” Okay, I think I’m finished being silly. Probably. Ma was born in Paris to Chinese parents who moved to New York and taught him German music. He was the epitome of the concept of child prodigy. As Mark Salzman wrote on the liner notes for Classic Yo-Yo: At four, he learned his first Bach cello suite; at five, he gave his first concert in Paris; at six, he dazzled Isaac Stern; and at seven, he played in a televised concert hosted by Leonard Bernstein and attended by President and Mrs. Kennedy.”

Yo-Yo Ma has performed all over the world with the leading orchestras and musicians. He’s recorded dozens of albums, and shown how the cello adapts to a wide array of musical forms. And he’s a virtual Grammy machine, having won 16, mostly for Best Chamber Music Performance and Best Instrumental Soloist Performance. And this year (2011), he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Yo!

Person: Bill Cosby

Bill Cosby has excelled in so many segments of the entertainment industry. Stand-up comedian, actor, author - and citizen. Uploaded by

Which Bill Cosby do you like best? Maybe the stand-up comedian, who broke ground with memories of his childhood – Rudy, Mushmouth, Russell and Fat Albert (“Hey, hey, hey!”). And who put the story of Noah into a perspective it hadn’t been told before (“Riiight…what’s a cubit?”).

Maybe you like Bill the serious actor, from his stint as the first African-American to co-star in a dramatic series (I Spy), movies (Let’s Do It Again, Uptown Saturday Night, Mother, Jugs and Speed),  situation comedies (The Bill Cosby Show and, of course, The Cosby ShowGreat American Things, June 20, 2009) .

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Or perhaps it’s Bill Cosby the outspoken citizen, who has urged the black community to pay less attention to sports and rap music, and more to raising strong families and focusing on education.

Cosby is beloved by Americans of all ages and races, as his honors reveal. Professionally, he’s won three Emmys and nine Grammys. He’s received honorary doctorates from major universities. And he’s been awarded both the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2002) and Kennedy Center Honors (1998).

All this, and we haven’t even talked about Jell-O…

Sports: Man o’ War

Blood-Horse magazine's panel of horse-racing experts selected the 100 greatest thoroughbreds of the 20th century. Secretariat was number 2. Man o' War was chosen number 1. Uploaded by

Think of him as “Secretariat: The Prequel.” In 1920, the Triple Crown of horse racing had not yet been recognized as the standard of excellence it’s since become. And Man o’ War’s owner felt the Kentucky Derby came too early in the year for a three-year-old to race a mile and a quarter. But Man o’ War did win the Preakness (in a Pimlico track record time) and the Belmont (by 20 lengths).

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During his racing career, Man o’ War won 20 of 21 races. The one he lost? He got off to a horrific start (starting gates didn’t come until later) and got trapped in the middle of the pack. Even so, he came on strong down the stretch, finishing just a nose behind. The winning horse’s name? Upset.

When Sports Illustrated compiled its list of the top 100 athletes of the 20th century, Man o’ War came in at number 84. Yeah, I know. It’s a horse. But get this. A panel of horse-racing experts at Blood-Horse magazine compiled its list of the top 100 thoroughbred racehorses of the 20th century. They named Man o’ War number one. Secretariat (Great American Things, April 24, 2010) came in second.

Singer: Bonnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt was well known inside the music community, but didn't experience commercial success until 1989's Nick of Time, which earned the Grammy for Album of the Year. Uploaded by

Exactly how did a white Quaker girl from Radcliffe College become an acclaimed blues guitarist? (No, the answer isn’t ‘Practice, practice, practice.) In Bonnie Raitt’s case, she became friends and then a protegé of blues promoter and journalist Dick Waterman. Waterman represented such artists as Mississippi John Hurt and “Lightnin'” Hopkins, and he took Raitt under his wing.

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Raitt, daughter of Broadway musical star John Raitt, didn’t need a whole lot of help. She was the total package. Great musician, great singer and, of course, great DNA. She received lots of recognition among musicians and insiders, but didn’t see commercial success until the release of the album Nick of Time, her tenth album, in 1989. Featuring some great songs (“Thing Called Love,” “Have a Heart,” “Nick of Time”), it earned the Grammy for Album of the Year, and Raitt won both Best Female Pop and Best Female Rock Performances.

But it was her follow-up, Luck of the Draw, that produced her signature song, the hauntingly beautiful “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (Great American Things, January 15, 2010). Raitt has now earned a total of nine Grammy awards. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

Food: M&M’S

Milk chocolate M&M'S (nee plain) were created in 1941, but because of their slow-melting nature, were only sold to the military. The world became a better place when peanut M&M'S came along in 1954. Uploaded by

I couldn’t decide whether to make this post about plain or peanut M&M’S. I love them both. I vacillated. Plain. Peanut. So, what the heck. They’re both great.

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Named for the company’s founders (Mars and Murrie), M&M’S are made by Mars, and have been around since 1941. Back then, however, you couldn’t purchase them across the counter – because they resisted melting, they were sold only to the U.S. military. Peanut M&M’S made their debut a little later, in 1954, and were only available in tan at first. Speaking of color, there’s been a lot of mythology surrounding this candy’s colors, and they’ve changed over the years.

M&M’S can now be personalized with your own message. And they’re available in a bunch of different flavors, like peanut butter and pretzel. Yeah, yeah. Whatever. They can make them in caviar and truffles, but they won’t improve the originals. And if you’re beyond a certain age, you probably will never forget their former advertising slogan: “M&MS milk chocolate melts in your mouth, not in your hands!”

Song: “Good Vibrations”

Good Vibrations was selected as the number 6 song in Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and the RIAA named it the number 24 song OF THE CENTURY. Uploaded by

Between 1965 and 1967 a recording rivalry developed between Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys (Great American Things, May 16, 2009) in the U.S. and the Beatles in the U.K. The Boys had things their way before the Beatles wave swept over them. Even so, the two groups were frequently in the top 10 together – and then the Beatles released Rubber Soul.

Brian Wilson recognized the album’s groundbreaking production, which he tried to top with Pet Sounds. Lennon and McCartney then released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which inspired Wilson to create Smile. In the midst of this deluge of great music, studio recording changed forever. And “Good Vibrations” played a huge role.

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The song came into being through 17 recording sessions at four different studios. Wilson recorded elements of the song, then edited them together in a musical collage. Tony Asher wrote the original lyrics, but very little of his words made the final version (though he did come up with the words, “I’m picking up good vibrations”). Mike Love of the Beach Boys tried to turn the strange sound into a more accessible romance by adding “She’s giving me excitations.”

“Good Vibrations” is acclaimed as one of the top songs of the rock era. It made number six on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and made the top spot in Mojo’s Top 100 Records of All Time. The RIAA rated it number 24 in its list of Top Songs of the Century.

TV Show: The Office

It's either the pride or the shame of Scranton, Pa. The Office has won many awards, including four Emmys and an untold number of Dundies. Uploaded by

Adapted from the original British series, the American version of The Office is no less brilliant. Though it’s lost some of its original radiance (it jumped the shark when Jim and Pam married), at its peak it made you cringe, and snort, and wince, and laugh in equal measure.

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None of us has actually had a boss as spectacularly clueless as Michael Scott, but we’ve all known a supervisor who’s close. Michael teaches respect for women in a way that demeans them, promotes racial equality with unrecognized insults, and destroys office morale even as he endeavors to enhance it.

The Office has a large cast, almost all of whom are fantastic. Worthy of special note are John Krasinski as Jim (especially when getting under the skin of) Rainn Wilson as Dwight, Creed Bratton as Creed, Ed Helms as Andy, and of course, Steve Carell as Michael. The show, which is either the pride or the shame of Scranton, Pa., has received 26 Emmy Awards and won four, including Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Writing, and Outstanding Directing. (And untold Dundies.)

Book: The Great Gatsby

Neither Fitzgerald nor The Great Gatsby were revered when the book was first published in 1925. Now, Modern Library ranked it the second best novel of the 20th century. Uploaded by

I just re-read The Great Gatsby, having skimmed my way through it somewhere during what’s called my “formal” education. May I encourage you to go back now and re-read some of those books you only endured before? Stick to the 20th century – I wouldn’t read Moby Dick again for a thousand dollars. Shoot, I wouldn’t read Wuthering Heights for ten grand.

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But I thoroughly enjoyed The Great Gatsby. It’s easy to understand why F. Scott Fitzgerald is revered as one of our greatest authors, and why this is his prize. As a reader, I like tight plots, and I’m not much for descriptive language. But how can you not appreciate writing like this depiction of a character early in the book:

He had changed since his New Haven days. Now he was a sturdy, straw haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining, arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body – he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage – a cruel body.

Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby wasn’t a commercial success. The book’s reputation, as well as Fitzgerald’s, have improved over the decades, such that he is considered one of our great novelists. And Modern Library ranked The Great Gatsby at number two in its list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century.

Film: From Here to Eternity

From Here to Eternity featured a terrific cast, including Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, and Donna Reed. It received 13 Oscar nominations, winning 8, including Best Picture. Uploaded by

What does it take for a movie to rise above an enjoyable diversion for a couple of hours and achieve status as a classic? A great story, of course – in this case provided by the James Jones novel. An outstanding cast – would Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, and Donna Reed suffice? And a talented director, like the underappreciated Fred Zinnemann (High Noon, Oklahoma!, A Man for All Seasons, Julia).

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Made in 1953, From Here to Eternity is noteworthy for several reasons. It includes one of the iconic scenes in all movie history, with Lancaster and Kerr kissing (wink wink) in the surf. The Army wouldn’t cooperate in the making of the movie until the filmmakers agreed to make changes that didn’t reflect so harshly on the service. And the movie is credited with saving Frank Sinatra’s career, the singer having got the part only after begging Harry Cohn for the part – and after the original selection for Maggio, Eli Wallach, changed his mind and took a Broadway role instead.

From Here to Eternity received 13 Oscar nods, and won 8, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor (Sinatra) and Actress (Reed). In the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies, it ranked number 52.

Sports: Mia Hamm

High school champion, NCAA champion, Olympics champion, World Cup champion, professional champion. Mia Hamm - Champion. Uploaded by

As Americans revel in our improbable and wildly dramatic Women’s World Cup victory over Brazil this week, lots of us remembered back to the last time women’s soccer captured the national imagination. Mia Hamm led that American squad in capturing the World Cup, capped by a dramatic shootout win over China before 90,000 crazy fans in the Rose Bowl.

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Mia Hamm was always an individual soccer phenomenon. She led her high school team to the state championship. At UNC, she took the Tar Heels to four NCAA championships. She was the youngest American woman ever to win a World Cup at the age of 19 on the 1991 squad. She led the 1996 and 2004 women’s teams to gold medals in the Olympics. And her Washington Freedom team won a professional championship in 2003.

Now Hamm is the mother of twins (she married baseball star Nomar Garciaparra) and manages the Mia Hamm Foundation for patients with aplastic anemia, and their families. Her adoptive brother, Garrett, died of the disease. Did she lead women’s soccer to the promised land some predicted following that 1999 World Cup? No. But her athletic career and personal achievements have made all Americans proud.

Travel: Panama City Beach

It's too bad that Panama City Beach has a reputation as one of America's best spring break beaches. Because the other weeks of the year its gorgeous powder sand beach and turquoise water are perfect for life break, and stress break, and work break. Uploaded by

Some of America’s most gorgeous beaches lie along the Gulf Coast, and neither hurricanes (rare) or oil spills (rarer) can long spoil their beauty. One of the most spectacular is Panama City Beach, with soft, powdery white sand and calm turquoise waters. And, most of the year, no spring break crazies.

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Because it’s located on Florida’s panhandle, Panama City Beach doesn’t offer the warm winter temperatures that others at more tropical latitudes enjoy. What you will enjoy all year long is the sun – the Visitors Bureau boasts of 320 sunny days annually. And the average high in the winter months is in the 60s, which sounds pretty good if you’re in Michigan or Massachusetts.

There’s lots to do at Panama City Beach. It’s a great area for sport fishing… dolphin watching… scuba diving (it’s called the Wreck Capital of the South, which I trust isn’t because of automobiles)… and of course, swimming and soaking up the sun. It’s about 100 miles from Tallahassee, and 300 miles from Atlanta. And…it’s a lot closer (and less expensive) than the Bahamas.

Actor: Kevin Costner

With Tin Cup, Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, and For Love of the Game, Kevin Costner stakes his claim to being the best actor of all time in sports movies. Uploaded by

Kevin Costner is the greatest sports movie actor of all time. Now, that in itself may not be enough to secure a place on a list like this. But he’s had enough success in other genres to supplement his sports movie success to make me comfortable with the selection. Most of all, I just like the guy.

Costner almost had his breakthrough role in the hit The Big Chill – except his scenes were famously cut from the finished film. It would be two more years, in his twelfth picture, before Silveradohelped bring him to the public’s – and Hollywood’s – attention. Here are some of his most notable movies:

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  • Silverado (1985)
  • The Untouchables (1987)
  • No Way Out (1987)
  • Bull Durham (1988)
  • Field of Dreams (1989)
  • Dances With Wolves (1990 – Nominee, Actor; Winner, Director)
  • Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
  • JFK (1991)
  • The Bodyguard (1992)
  • Wyatt Earp (1994)
  • Tin Cup (1996)
  • For Love of the Game (1999)

In my opinion, Bull Durham is the best baseball movie ever. And Field of Dreams is in my top 10 all-time favorite movies. Both have rightfully found a place on this blog. Costner carried them both, and was entirely believable. He’s not always made the best choices – in fact, his last decade is almost entirely forgettable – but the above list includes some terrific movies. So Kevin, as a voice one time said: Go the distance.

Music: Tommy Dorsey

Tommy Dorsey had an amazing 286 songs make the Billboard charts, and 17 went all the way to number one. Three of his recordings are in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Uploaded by

America has produced some great American pop and rock performers. I’ve paid tribute to some of them here: Tom Petty, The Rascals, Credence Clearwater Revival, Jack White (see more in the Singer category). But I believe the finest popular music America has ever produced came during the big band era, most notably from Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey.

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Tommy’s first success came with his brother Jimmy in the late 1920s, but they had different musical directions in mind, and split to form their own orchestras in 1935. One of Tommy Dorsey’s hallmarks was his ability to surround himself with great musicians. Among those who sang or played in his band were Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Doc Severinsen, Buddy DeFranco, Buddy Rich, and Gene Krupa.

Tommy Dorsey and his smooth trombone placed a phenomenal 286 songs on the Billboard charts, with 17 making it to number one. Among his most memorable songs:

  • “Marie”
  • “Stardust”
  • “Little White Lies”
  • “I’ll Never Smile Again”
  • “I’m Gettin’ Sentimental Over You”
  • “Dolores”
  • “Opus One”
  • “Music, Maestro Please”
  • “Hawaiian War Chant”
  • “The Lady is a Tramp”

Dorsey’s recordings of “I’ll Never Smile Again,” “Marie,” and his theme song, “I’m Gettin’ Sentimental Over You,” have been inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame. One side note…Tommy and Jimmy made up in the 1950s, and had a TV show called Stage Show. Its claim to fame is that it marked the first television appearance of a young Southerner named Elvis – before his famous Ed Sullivan Show gig.

Holiday: July 4th Fireworks

Fireworks have been around for centuries, but they were mostly like large firecrackers until traces of flammable metals were added, and then they exploded in color. Uploaded by

They can be spectacular. In New York City, they exploded more than 22 tons of pyrotechnics a couple of years ago. Or they can be modest, a few minutes of “oooh” and “aaah” in small towns all across the country. Big or small, they reflect the pride Americans feel on their greatest patriotic holiday.

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The celebration probably goes back to 1777, the first anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In Philadelphia they rang bells, fired guns – and lit what firecrackers they had. John Adams, the second President, wrote, “”It ought to be celebrated by pomp and parade, with…illuminations from one end of this continent to the other…”

Fireworks also evoke this line in the “Star Spangled Banner”: “And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air…” Historically, fireworks were known more for their sound, creating a loud bang but not much color. In the 1830s, trace metals that burn at high temperatures became standard, and suddenly fireworks were a visual treat as well. Unfortunately, video doesn’t do them justice, but here’s a part of the 2010 July 4th show in New York:

Song: “God Bless America”

Kate Smith has always been identified with this great song, written in 1918 by Irving Berlin. She introduced it on her radio show in 1938, then sang it in the movie "This Is The Army" during World War II. Uploaded by

Hard to believe, but “God Bless America” languished unsung and unknown for its first twenty years. The great Irving Berlin (Great American Things, May 11, 2010) composed the song in 1918 for a review he created, then decided it didn’t really fit. Then, as World War II threatened Europe (and Berlin’s fellow Jews), he resurrected the song for Kate Smith, who sang it during her radio show on the twentieth anniversary of the end of WWI.

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Many people are unaware of the opening stanza, which Kate Smith always included: “While the storm clouds gather far across the sea / Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free / Let us all be grateful for a land so fair, / As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.” Of course, Smith has been associated with the song ever since. She performed it in the WWII musical, This Is the Army, itself adapted from Berlin’s Broadway Musical of the same name.

“God Bless America” is easier to sing, and less “militaristic” than the Star Spangled Banner, leading some to urge its adoption as our national anthem. That’s not likely to happen, but the song can still bring a thrill to any Patriotic American. Here’s Kate Smith’s original version, followed by a great rendition by Martina McBride.

Americana: USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”)

Commissioned in 1797, the USS Constitution is the world's oldest floating commissioned naval vessel. Though she serves primarily as an educational vessel, she's still seaworthy, and will take sail on July 4 to celebrate Independence Day. Uploaded by

Commissioned in 1797 and named by George Washington, the Constitution earned her nickname “Old Ironsides” during the War of 1812 when she defeated the HMS Guerriere. The ship also fought in the First Barbary War.

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In 1930 a rumor spread that she was about to be scrapped, having already outlasted the usual life span of a wooden ship. Then Oliver Wendell Holmes published his poem “Old Ironsides” in the Boston newspaper, and the public rallied to preserve the famous ship. The American people have rallied to her preservation ever since.

The Constitution is a frigate, with three masts and a wood hull. She remains the world’s oldest floating commissioned naval vessel. Today, she serves primarily as an educational ship, and tours are given most days by active duty Navy personnel. Her crew of 60 recognize theirs as a very special assignment. And yes, she is still seaworthy. In fact, USS Constitution and her crew will get underway from the ship’s berth in Charlestown, Mass. July 4, to celebrate Independence Day. Wouldn’t it be glorious to see her under sail again?