Wednesday, December 31, 2008

California Dreamin' on a Winter's Day

As the year 2009 opens its arms to welcome us all, I'm heading out to my California home town to look for a place to live. I know, I know, I was going to Israel and what with a new war looming there a tempting place it is. But family and my conscience have convinced me to at least make a try at California. And anyway, if you want to huddle in the corner of your house, weeping, while rockets rain on your roof, you can do that just as well by living near your mother.

Los Altos, California is still a really pretty little town. In the hills, lot sizes cannot be smaller than an acre. And though I grew up in what I like to call "Baja Los Altos" (not the hills, that is, which I call "Alta Los Altos") the whole place has become pretty posh since I left. Little ranch style houses sell for $1.7 million and are immediately torn down. I suspect there will be a little less of that during these economically challenging times.

Los Altos was one of several beautiful little towns on the San Francisco peninsula founded by the Southern Pacific Railway. They had built a track between San Jose and San Francisco and they wanted people to ride on their train, so they founded a couple of cities and subdivided the lots for sale. In spite of their efforts, most of the Santa Clara Valley (now nicknamed Silicon Valley because of all the computer companies, but I like the old name better) continued to be largely agricultural until well into the 1970s. Apricots, cherries, and almonds all thrived in the mild Mediterranian climate.

The train, which we called the Daylight, actually still had a steam-powered engine when I was a child. It ran once in the morning from San Jose to San Francisco, and once in the evening back the other direction. If you got up high enough on our backyard swing, you could see the smoke from the engine against the foothills of the Coast Range as the train chugged down from downtown Los Altos to the next stop at Rancho, and then on to the stop at Loyola Corners. You can't see it anymore. They pulled up the tracks in the 1960s and built the Foothill Expressway, not nearly as nice.

If I could choose anywhere in the world to live, it would be at the very top of the Coast Range along Skyline Drive just above Los Altos. On a good day you can look down and see the whole of San Francisco Bay ranged below you on one side, and if visibility is really good (what my Dad and his pilot friends used to call a CAVU day--Ceiling And Visibility Unlimited), the Pacific Ocean way off in the distance down the other side of the range. It is just a few miles up Moody Road from Los Altos to the top of Skyline, though I used to think it was a long, long way. Of course that's because it wasn't somewhere I could ride on my bicycle: way too steep a grade. I say that, but the last time I was home I drove up to Skyline and all those people in those cycling uniforms on their expensive bicycles were going as fast as I was up the hill in the old family car. Everybody is very bloody healthy in California.

It will be a challenging time: living near challenging parents during a difficult time in their lives. Since I'm reading more now about Boderline Personality Disorder, it is helping me gain some insight into what triggers some of the angry behavior and how I can best deal with it.

But yesterday I got a letter from my Dad and that reminded me of why I want to go. It is so incredible to me that my father goes to the trouble he does to write these letters. First, he sits at the kitchen table and writes a rough draft on a yellow legal pad. Then, he hobbles into the back room with his walker to get his special lined letter paper. Then, he has my Mom proof his draft, and then he carefully copies it out on his letter paper before he sends it to me. It makes every letter so precious.

The letter I got yesterday is about a family clock that belonged to my Dad's father, Roy Chapman, whose initials are the same as mine. He writes:

"What I am really writing you about is the R.C. clock. It was Dad's hobby and he kept it going himself for many years and we have just had it serviced. As you know it is not a thing of beauty, but serves as a constant reminder of who we are." Dementia is a strange disease. It has damaged some of Dad's brain, but not all of it. Some things are not clear in his mind, and others, like the symbolism of his family clock, are very clear indeed. And he can still write about them.

He continues: "You know so well what it looks like. I would like for you to have it, but it is up to you. We would love to see you as soon as possible whatever you think about the clock. Love, Dad"

I will take temporary possession of the R.C. clock with pleasure, Dad, and I'll make sure it is secured to the table it sits on in my new Los Altos home--in case of earthquake, as all fine objects must be in California. (The R.C. clock flew across the room in the Loma Prieta 'quake in 1989, landing on its back and cracking the case. Fortunately, the glass door on the front and its folk art painting were undamaged.)

But more than that I want to be near you, Dad. You are much more valuable to me than an old Seth Thomas clock, and nowadays, much more fragile. Yes Dad, I'll be pleased to accept your gift of the family clock and I can't wait to see you and the R.C. clock again soon in sunny California.

The old R.C. clock, a Seth Thomas daily wind, with the folk art painting it acquired somewhere along the way.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Debunking a Tale of Love: The Angel Did Not Appear at the Fence

If you had been in Buchenwald concentration camp and survived, you wouldn't think you would have to embellish your life story. But that's what Herman Rosenblat did in his memoir Angel at the Fence. The book was scheduled for publication in February 2009 by Berkley Books, but that publication has now been cancelled. It turns out that Herman Rosenblat made the whole thing up. No word yet on what will happen to the upcoming film FLOWER OF THE FENCE that was being made from the memoir.

For about a decade, Rosenblat has been telling friends about how he met a girl at the fence of the camp one day who tossed him an apple and who then came every day and gave him apples and bread. Somehow he learned she too was Jewish but was hiding in a nearby village, living as a Christian. Later, when he came to America and met Roma Radzicky on a blind date, he said they talked and realized she had been the girl at the fence. The two married.

When I read the story last fall, I clipped it from the paper and put it in a stack of stories I wanted to mention at year's end. So, here in my blog, I repeated it.

When I did, I received an email from a reader alerting me to the reports that had begun circulating that the story may not be true. The New Republic did the most thoughtful job of investigating the tale. The point of looking into it is not to be cruel to Herman Rosenblat: it is to make sure that people who tell Holocaust tales do not invent history and thus, lend credence to those who want to believe the the Big Lie that the Holocaust never happened.

So it has been Jewish scholars who have dug into their research to find that there was no point at which a prisoner on the inside nor a child on the outside could have approached a fence at the Buchenwald sub camp where Rosenblat was imprisoned, to exchange food. It just couldn't be done. And it has been Jewish friends of Rosenblats, who survived with him in the camp, who have gone on record about the story. Ben Helfgott, a camp survivor, said he was with Rosenblat the entire time and never heard the story until recently. He said it could not have happened. "The story is a figment of his imagination."

Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, was one of the many scholars who debunked Herman's story. But she urges people to look on this tale without rancor, since Herman's lie about the girl at the fence does nothing to mitigate the suffering he endured at Buchenwald. As she told the New Republic:

"He invented a love story to go with it. I am not excusing him for doing this--of course this could be a false memory incident--but I am cautioning a note of sadness as opposed to some of the 'gotcha' things that are floating around."

For Herman Rosenblat's entire life, he may have wondered why no one ever did find a way to the prison fence to give him something so small as an apple. Why an entire world stood by and did not lift one hand to rescue his family and six million others like him from Nazi terror. Herman may have begun to believe his made-up tale as a way of redeeming his fellow man. And after what Herman Rosenblat lived through, he has every reason to believe we need a lot of redeeming.

Herman's story is a cautionary tale in many ways. It will continue to be evidence that we all need to be both sceptical and compassionate when we hear the stories people tell us of their lives.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

An "Old Fashioned Christmas" from England

(Robin's note: I've been telling you about one of my favorite holiday books, Treasury of Old Fashioned Christmas Stories, edited by one of my favorite people, writer Michele Slung. She's in England for Christmas, so appropriate for Michele, who has always looked as if she belonged in an English cottage, curled up by a coal fire, sipping a cup of tea. In fact, I think that is exactly what she was doing, when she sent us this lovely Guest Blog ... )

Michele near her farmhouse in upstate New York.

Christmas Eve morning, East Anglia from Michele Slung

"Any book you've never read is a new one" was the message printed on a sign I saw long ago in a secondhand bookstore --- and it seemed one of the most perfect pieces of plain truth I'd ever encountered. Inhabiting a culture, as we do, that, faster than ever before, changes its touchstones, icons, shibboleths and avatars, I often wonder what it is about the past that so offends. The answer's, in fact, an easy one: the newly packaged, the freshly dreamed up, the smartly branded, the hot, the hip and the the already-selling-out are where the money is.

Just not my money.

A shabby, faded volume, missing its dustjacket and sitting a-tilt on the farthest back shelf of a side-street shop, may look rejectable to most, but, to me, it's all about the intoxicating possibility it promises. (In the thirty years I spent as a frequent reviewer for the New York Times, the Washington Post and others ---an activity I've now finally, and happily, renounced --- I was actually always faking it, preferring for my real reading pleasure books forgotten for decades by any assigning editor.) Clearly, I'm addicted to the thrill of discovery, and, as someone who's also made a good deal of her income by assembling anthologies in various genres, I'm also hooked on sharing my finds.

As I write now, I'm in England, where I've come to spend every Christmas since the late 1980s and where I was first introduced to a story of just the sort I love, one that had passed from memory for several generations. "Innocents'Day" by F. M. Mayor, the tale of a spinster and her genteel illusions, became one of the inspirations and then one of the cornerstones of the last collection I published, A Treasury of Old-Fashioned Christmas Stories (Carroll & Graf/RunningPress, 2006). Its author, Flora Mayor, in fact, happens to be the great aunt of the friend with whom I regularly eat my turkey and mince pies (not mention the breadsauce, brussels sprouts, Christmas pudding and Stilton), which is how I came to know of her. Far from a household name, she died in 1932, and yet two of her three much-admired novels --- The Rector's Daughter and The Third Miss Symons --- are still available in those splendid Virago paperback reprints.

Such serendipity is the very essence of the assemblages I try to create for the reading joy of like-minded souls. Later, as I began in earnest to work on the Treasury, having three or four themed oddities already chosen, I headed from my farmhouse in upstate New York down to Washington and the Library of Congress, where I then spent five eleven-hour days (each of which went by in a flash), sniffing out the names of tantalizing, lost Christmas stories.

Requesting and then reading them, I sat there, almost invisible behind the tall stacks the clerks kept bringing from the stacks. Among my favorite finds: Willis Boyd Allen's Dickensian "Mrs. Brownlow's Christmas Party," John Kendrick Bangs' satiric "The Child Who Had Everything But" and the environmentally prescient "A Christmas White Elephant" by W. A. Wilson.(In all cases -- in every story in the book, really -- the Christmas we read about is little different from the one we celebrate today.) But perhaps my greatest triumph was to be able to present a humorously heartwarming Christmas tale by O. Henry that isn't "The Gift of the Magi!"

Who wouldn't want to read for a living?

(Robin's note: it makes a wonderful last minute gift. Just send it via Amazon.)

Michele is also the author of Momilies: As My Mother Used to Say and this photo is of Michele with a painting of her grandmother, Minnie Magidson, whose sayings, in a way, got the whole thing started.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

A Holiday Visit With Roy Rogers and Dale Evans at the Double R Bar Ranch

Robin's note: Earlier this month, I introduced you to a friend of mine, Steve Latshaw, who lives in Los Angeles and makes his living writing for the movies. We've been exchanging emails lately about how much we love (and miss) heros like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. It all led to Steve's latest guest blog ...

Roy, Dale, and Me by Steve Latshaw

When I was about three years old, I remember two TV shows vividly. Something called SKY KING, about a cowboy who flew a plane, and THE ROY ROGERS SHOW, also about a cowboy. See a recurring theme here? This was 1962 and it was still all about Westerns on TV, particularly on Saturday mornings when the folks were still asleep. And it was safe for them to sleep while I was downstairs watching this kind of TV. The images were crisp black and white. And so were the morals of the stories, good vs. evil, bad vs. good, and good will never let you down. Another famous movie and TV cowboy, Gene Autry, once said he felt like he’d been babysitter for a generation of American kids. More than one, pardner. I recently looked at my old baby book. By the fall of 1963, I had listed Roy Rogers as my biggest hero. Right under my Dad. And just above President Kennedy.

Roy Rogers had been the biggest cowboy star in movie history from the 1940s to the early 1950s. Roy had originally been brought in by Republic Pictures as a replacement for Gene Autry, in 1938, during a contract dispute. By 1943, thanks in part to a famous cover story in Life Magazine; the whole world was calling Roy “King of the Cowboys.” And Roy came by it honestly. A fine singer, he formed The Sons of the Pioneers with pal Bob Nolan, sang on their biggest hits like “Cool Water” and "Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and kept them employed for years after the hits stopped coming. He cherished his family and his children, loved to hunt, fish and garden, didn’t drink and his favorite dish was a plate of bacon and eggs. He was truly that guy you saw on screen, with his only vice, apparently, a passion for an occasional smoke.

By 1944 he was co-starring with Dale Evans in their first film together, COWBOY & THE SENIORITA. Within a few years, after the tragic death of Roy’s first wife, Dale became his second. Soon, they were both turning into surrogate parents for all of us, forever and always. And there they were, year after year, in the movies and on TV, always a reassuring presence. By the time I first met them, in 1962, courtesy of our black & white RCA, their television series had been off network TV for five years. But it was still hot in reruns and I got rapidly hooked on the whole cast: Roy, fast as ever on that beautiful palomino Trigger, Dale with that tiny little cowboy hat on Buttermilk, Bullet the dog, and sidekick Pat Brady, so popular and funny he got his own hat named after him. (Ask for a “Pat Brady” or “Shady Brady” hat today at your local Western store: straw, high brims, kinda mashed down, like someone took it off your head and hit you with it). And Pat, of course, drove that jeep “Nellybelle.” Man, oh man, I loved that jeep.

So Roy and Dale kept the faith, year after year, popping up all the time on Hollywood Palace or The Dean Martin Show. Roy had a new hit record in 1975--"Hoppy, Gene & Me”--and they opened a chain of restaurants in the late 70s (the biscuits and chicken are out of this world--I found a Roy Rogers Restaurant earlier this year in New Jersey while on a trip to visit my son at his Coast Guard Base). In the 80s they had their own show on The Nashville Network, hosting their old movies and interviewing fellow western stars. And by God, he’d kept his old costumes and still fit them, sometimes he even wore the same shirt he’d worn in the movie they were showing. In the 90s another comeback of sorts, in a famous Tribute LP, gathering together the likes of Randy Travis and Clint Black (who looks like Roy, right down to the eyes).

Personally, Roy and Dale endured happiness and heartbreak, adopting children, losing some to accident or natural causes, and rediscovering their faith. Dale was always an outspoken guest of Christian TV, plain speaking, having little patience for money hungry “celebrity” TV evangelists like Jim Bakker. She wrote books and toured and appeared on TV, teaching what she knew the best way she knew it. Her books inspired quite a few new generations. Roy, on the other hand, practiced his faith the best way he knew, and lived as the hero we all knew he was: enjoying life and the land and his family, showing up on TV when he had to or whenever Dale called, bowling with the local league, fishing some river or hunting some patch of woods the rest of the time, more often than not with his ever expanding family of kids, grandkids and great grandkids.

But the best darned thing Roy and Dale ever did for us was building that Museum of theirs down in Victorville. Kids of all ages could come from all over the world and relive Roy and Dale’s lives and with them, the history and spirit of everything good about America. It was a quiet, place, surrounded by fort walls, with pictures and guns and costumes and memorabilia and cars (Nellybelle!) and even Trigger, Bullet and Buttermilk, all stuffed for us to see and enjoy like it was still 1962. “What else was I going to do,” asked Roy? “Feed ‘em to the worms?”

And Roy himself would drive down to the museum, every day, sneaking in the back unannounced. A visitor might find himself suddenly standing next to Roy. Grown men would cry. One large, middle-aged fan even picked Roy up like a Teddy Bear, crying like a baby, hardly believing his good fortune. He put Roy down quickly after realizing what he’d done. Roy grinned ear to ear and welcomed the man’s family to the museum with a personal tour.

But time marches on. Troubled for years with a bad heart, Roy passed away in 1998. Dale followed in 2001. The family announced that the Museum, at least in Victorville, would have to close. It seemed as if the dastardly land grabbers were going to win after all these years. Inheritance taxes were such in California that over half the family’s hard-earned assets were about to disappear forever. They would be forced to sell the museum. They planned on pulling up stakes, leaving the Apple Valley with its streets named for Roy and Dale, and moving the entire collection to Branson, Missouri. A perfect fit, really. The last bastion of the Heartland of America.

About two weeks before the Victorville Museum closed for good I visited for one last time. As I entered the old wooden fort the years disappeared… I was again that young kid watching Roy and Dale and Pat and Nellybelle on TV. I blinked again and it was bright and early some Saturday Morning when the world was young and the man from Massachusetts was our beloved President. Quietly, almost solemnly, I walked through the glass cases of toys and memorabilia to the automobile section beyond.

There it was, parked in front of a large photo of Pat Brady... that old jeep Nellybelle. And there I stood, at the age of 43, hunched over the railing, clenching it tight, staring down at that tired hunk of metal and rubber and heart, tears streaming down my cheeks. I was seeing again a part of my childhood and knowing it would soon be gone from my life forever, at least gone from California.

This was part and parcel of who I was. Who I’d always be. And as I would soon discover, part of the raw, rich clay of what I was privileged to do for a living.

A year or so later I finally got to write my own Roy Rogers movie, a picture called AMERICAN BLACK BEAUTY, starring Dean Stockwell and filmed out near Kentucky Farms (just past Lake Sherwood), where Roy and Company shot MY PAL TRIGGER back in 1947. We had a short schedule, much like those late 40s Roy & Dale pictures and, just like those days, we had Western gear and horses and a good family story to play with. I even got to dress in Western garb and play a part in the film, as "Cookie" (named for Roy’s late 40s sidekick Andy Devine), showing an old B western on 16mm for some local farm families. Character actor Peter Jason, who played the Roy Barcroft-style mayor in the piece, sent my script to his friend, award-winning actor Stacy Keach for his opinion. Keach read it and told Jason to do it. He said it was one of the sweetest scripts he'd seen... no real bad guys bad in it and everyone gets to redeem themselves in the end. Like life should be. Well, that was my intent. Roy and Dale taught me that. Peter Jason grinned. He got it.

Dean Stockwell got it, too. Early in the shoot I was talking to one of the actors on set about a place called "The Hitching Post," a movie theater in the 40s and 50s that specialized in westerns. I had mentioned it in the script. Dean Stockwell whirled on me, fixing me with those steely eyes of his that I remembered from BLUE VELVET and MARRIED TO THE MOB and QUANTUM LEAP and even going back to the old movie KIM. He growled "What the hell do you know about the Hitching Post Theater?" I told him I was a fan of old Westerns. His face softened and I could tell this 68 year old, tough-as-nails actor, who'd had a tough go as a child star back in the1940s, was remembering good times past. I knew it when he smiled and started talking about going to the Hitching Post and seeing his heroes... Wild Bill Elliott... Johnny Mack Brown... and Roy Rogers, week after week.

A few months after we made that picture I returned again to Victorville. I'd stayed the weekend down in Pioneertown, another old movie location near Palm Springs, chasing up more B western ghosts. I had decided to return to LA the back way, through Lucerne Valley up to Apple Valley. When I got to Victorville, I took the turn for the museum, driving down the street named after Roy Rogers, wondering if maybe someone had turned that old Fort into a bowling alley or bar or something.

But all I found was a circular, curbed piece of property, vacant, empty, covered with dirt. You could drive across it, drive across all that was left of a lifetime of memories.

And all to show for those memories were a couple of tumbling tumbleweeds blowing gently in the wind. I said my goodbyes that day.

And I vowed to visit Branson, Missouri, very soon. For a time, the Roy Rogers Museum flourished there, perfectly set-up in the heartland of America. But times are tough and it looks like the old Double R Bar Ranch is in trouble again. The B movie villains are at the door and the Rogers family is fighting hard to keep the doors open. As Gabby Hayes said, in countless westerns, “Roy’s in trouble! We gotta help!”

This time we have to. I know I will. In part two I’ll have an interview with Roy’s grandson Dustin explaining just what the family is up against and how we all can help.

But in the meantime I want to leave you with a favorite memory of mine. It seems that one of Roy’s favorite movies was Mel Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES. Dale hated it, of course, but Roy just loved it.

Especially that scene where Slim Pickens and his men are eating beans--too many beans--around the campfire.

That’s what always made Roy different from all the other movie cowboys. He was a kid, just like the rest of us.

And he was cool.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Christmas in Jerusalem

Robin on the Mt. of Olives with Old Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock behind her.

I hadn’t planned on being in the Holy Land that Christmas. I was there working during the second week of December and my schedule was to return to Florida on December 22.

But for some reason the boss told me to stay behind when he departed on the 22nd, and gave me several assignments at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I rebooked my ticket so I could head out and arrive at my sister’s house in Colorado on Christmas night.

My Israeli contact on this project was a huge, friendly, Sabra, a foreign ministry employee who was also, in his spare time, a decorated three star General. They have a lot of those in Israel.

Anyway, Mr. Sabra, another one of Robin’s numerous happily married admirers, helped her make appointments with all the right people and shepherded her through the complexities inside the chronically feuding Israeli government. In between work assignments, I took time to see the things in Israel that I had always wanted to see, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built in 326 A.D. by Helena, the mother of Constantine I, the first Roman Emperor to accept the Christian faith.

The Church is in the center of Old Jerusalem and is fascinating to see. It is a warren of nooks and crannies filled with candles and incense, darkness and dim light, dampness and stone, pilgrims and priests, and a confusing array of sects and the chapels they operate. It all looks in terrible need of repair, but this is a result of the feuding factions that control this ancient place. Within these walls, the responsibilities and shrines are divided among the Eastern Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolics, the Roman Catholics, the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriacs, with the Patriarch of Jerusalem supposedly in charge of them all. Yet none of these sects controls the front door. The Turks decided long ago that the entranceway would be put in the charge of two Moslem families who still hold the keys to this day.

The sects within this Christian edifice regularly quarrel over it in a most un-Christian fashion. In 2002, a Coptic monk moved his chair from the sun into the shade and the Ethopians were so offended that a fistfight broke out that sent eleven people to the hospital. A few years later, somebody accidentally left open a door during Lent and the police had to be called in. This year there have been at least two fights between Greek and Armenian priests, leading one to beg the popular questions: what would Jesus do?

I was able to visit the Church several times, once during a late Thursday afternoon. When I left the building to walk out of the Old City I had my directions a little confused and got lost among the old streets. As I walked along trying to get my bearings, some Moslem children ahead of me turned and shooed me away. “Wrong place, wrong place,” they said. Turns out I had left the Christian quarter and was getting a little too close to the Dome of Rock mosque just before prayer time. I quickly turned back.

The next afternoon I asked Mr. Sabra to drop me off at the Israel Museum so I could see the Dead Sea Scrolls. You probably know that these were found by an Arab shepherd in caves near Qumran in 1947, and contain the only known surviving copies of Biblical documents made before 100 A.D. I spent a couple of hours in the museum and since it was December it was dark when I walked out and headed back to the Holiday Inn. “Safest place you can walk in Israel,” Mr. Sabra told me. “You walk right by the Knesset.”

The streets were dark and not many people were out walking. When I saw a man in the distance walking toward me with a camera bag slung over his shoulder, I felt relieved to see another tourist on the streets. But he never looked directly at me, as we closed the distance between us, and that made me nervous. Then, I saw him turn off suddenly and walk into the gates of what I later learned were the grounds of the Knesset. I might have heaved a sigh of relief at this point if I hadn’t noticed something odd as he turned. The thing he had slung over his shoulder was not a camera bag. It was a small gun on a strap.

I never walked so fast in my life.

At dinner, I told the group my story about running into the man with the gun. I had seen lots of military men and women in Jerusalem, slouching about street corners with their weapons slung over their shoulders. But what had worried me about the man I had seen that night was that he was wearing civilian garb. I learned from my friends that he was likely a Knesset guard who had checked me out, assessed that I did not pose a threat, and had gone on his way.

“But it was such an odd looking gun,” I said. “It was the size of a revolver but it was on a strap.”

Mrs. Sabra turned to Mr. Sabra at this point and said through her hummus, “Ah, that must be the new mini Uzi.”

“Um,” said Mr. Sabra reaching for the falafel: “I hear that’s a fine weapon.”

My colleague and I just looked at each other. Where but in Israel would people casually discuss the new mini Uzi sub machine gun over dinner with American guests? (I’ve since learned there is also a micro Uzi, but that is clearly a story for a different day).

I was finally able to head home to the States on Christmas Day. In line at the El Al counter I encountered another friendly feature of the Holy Land, the El Al security woman. She looked through my luggage and asked me if anyone had given me anything suspicious. When I said they hadn’t, she did not seem satisfied. “You are a Christian. Why are you not home with your family on Christmas Day? What would you be doing on an El Al jet on a day like this?”

I didn’t even ask her how she knew I was not a Moselm or a Jew. Things are so amazing in Israel I just let that pass.

“Madam,” I said with great respect. “I asked myself that very question today. But because of the rotation of the earth and the direction of my flight, I will actually be able to take this flight to London and then Chicago and then land in Denver where my sister lives and it will still be Christmas Day.” The uniformed lady shrugged and walked away, finally satisfied.

I must say I was glad to see her go. I definitely hadn’t wanted her to pull her mini-Uzi on me. After all those fistfights in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, she probably figured we Christians were a pretty dangerous bunch.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Stories We Like From Y2008

I notice several "B Team" anchors are filling in on the big cable channels. Members of Congress have all gone home for the holidays and a lot of the Big Foot Anchors have taken the opportuniuty to spend some time with their families. News stories start to thin out this time of year and it reminded me to look through a pile of articles I'd clipped from 2008 that I thought were worth remembering. Come along with me as we walk into the land of three small news stories, each memorable in its own way.
(The lightning photo is by Orlando's incredible David O. Stillings, known as "The Lightning Stalker")
The Story of Thunderman
This year I stumbled across the story of Tad Staples, a story uncovered by Jeff Klinkenberg of the St. Petersburg, Florida Times. Tad Staples loves the summers in Florida because he loves the sound of thunder, and Central Florida, you may have heard, is the lightning capitol of the world.

Staples has microphones and recorders everywhere in his house and knows just about all there is to know about the sound of thunder.

"I have a theory about thunder," he says in Klinkeberg's article: "You can tell how powerful a storm is going to be by its lowest audible frequency. I would love to work with someone about this. We could warn people about the storm by the sounds of thunder. I can't get scientists interested."

Tad Staples is blind. What others can tell by looking at a radar screen, he has learned to tell by listening.

"My blindness was a blessing. It allowed me to devlop my other talents. I listen very well."

When was the last time anyone really listened to you?

Tad Staples sees a great deal that the rest of us miss.

A Dog That was Residue Became Rezadu
Narcotics Deputy J.D. Maney in Lakeland, Florida had a problem. His previous canine partner, a real dog, was forced into early retirement. Bad hips or something like that. A new dog, trained and ready to go would cost the department $5000 and the Polk County Sheriff's Office decided it just couldn't afford the price.

So Maney decided to see if he could find a dog at the pound who might come up to snuff, so to speak. He made many trips to the county animal shelter and reviewed, he said "many, many, dogs." Then, one day, he met a young black Labrador retriever who was friendly, playful, and curious. Maney decided to give the dog, whom he named Rezadu, a try.

Beginning in March 2008, the new partners trained together for 12 weeks. Deputy Maney noticed that Rezadu seemed to be afraid of being inside a car, so he spent hours playing with the dog inside the county's fleet of patrol vehicles. "There were probably people driving by thinking I was crazy, jumping around on the seats," says Maney. "But I didn't care."

On August 5, Deputy J.D. Maney took Rezadu for his big test: certification with Hillsborough County, Florida, Cpl. Terry Dixon, a master trainer for the North American Police Dog Association. Reporter Jeremy Maready, who uncovered this story writes: "Rezadu passed with flying colors."

Rezadu had been a pound dog. But he is now, officially, a genuine Deputy (Dawg).

A Wartime Love Story
This is a true story that reads like a movie script, in fact a movie script that somewhat resembles the recent Boy in the Striped Pajamas, but with a better ending.

Herman Rosenblat was a child in a Nazi concentration camp in Schlieben, Germany during World War II. One day, a little girl came down the road outside the camp carrying a basket of apples. She saw the little boy and stopped. Her family was Jewish too, but they were hiding in the nearby town posing as Christians. She threw an apple over the fence to Herman and ran away. He ran away too and shared the apple with his family.

Each returned the following day and for several months the routine continued. They never spoke: each afraid the guards would spot them. When Herman Rosenblat learned he would be moved, this time to Theresienstadt, in what is now the Czech Republic, he finally spoke to the girl and told her he wouldn't be able to return.

"I won't see you anymore," she said.

"Right, right. Don't come around anymore," he answered.

It wasn't long after that that the war was over and the concentration camp was liberated. The girl, whose name was Roma, managed to get to Israel. Herman went to London and later moved on to America. One night a friend called and urged him to go out on a blind date with a young lady he'd met. Herman was reluctant, but was finally persuaded.

Associated Press reporter Matt Sedensky writes: "It went well enough. She was Polish and easygoing. Eventually talk turned to their wartime experiences. Rosenblat recited the litany of camps he had been in, and the young lady's ears perked up. She had been in Schlieben, too, hiding from the Nazis. She spoke of a boy she would visit, of the apples she would bring. And then, the words that would change their lives forever:

'That was me,' he said.'"

In 2008, the Rosenblats celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in North Miami Beach. In this one particular case, the woman gave the man the apple and it all worked out just fine.

Reporters Jeremy Maready, Matt Sedensky, and Jeff Klinkenberg originally wrote and reported these stories.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Another Strange Tale of a Book

I’m beginning to believe that the ownership stories that surround books like a penumbra are almost as wonderful as the things you find inside their covers. I’ve already told one tale of how a book moved from a man in New York City into the hands of a book dealer and into my own library and turned out to have belonged to the father of some very close friends who lived just down the road from me in Florida. That story gave me goose bumps. Now, another has made a shiver cross the back of my neck. It is a true story. You read it and tell me what you think of the coincidences.

When I was in college I had a friend called Chris. We never dated and I’m not sure all of the reasons why we didn’t but I did go out with one his close friends for a time and that may have been one of the reasons. He was very smart and we did have long talks about what we planned to do with our lives, about politics, about books, and about lots of other interesting things. When I left school he had to go into the Army for his reserve tour and I moved on into my television career and I only saw him once after that.

He was in law school in California and I was at KRON-TV and we had lunch, and after he went away, I said to myself, well that person is clearly never ever going to ask me out on a real date, so the heck with him! A few weeks later I met someone and fell in love and in due course I got married. And that was probably the last time I thought of Chris for thirty years. It was very likely the last time he thought of me as well, as he too got married soon afterward.

I worked in San Francisco, Washington D.C. and then Florida television, losing a husband and gaining a writing career along the way. In 2006, I applied for and won a research grant to do biographical research on the life of a former best-selling writer called Irving Bacheller. He died in 1950 and his literary fame did not outlast his life. But he had written quite a few of his best-selling books in Winter Park, Florida, been on the board of Rollins College and on the boards of several banks, and these things made him interesting, at least, to local history.

His books are all out of print, but you can occasionally find them in used bookstores and garage sales, but I don’t think I’d ever seen one with a dust jacket—dust jackets being the real prize in book collecting. One of his cover artists was the great N.C. Wyeth, and that in itself should suggest the stature he had with his publishers back in the day.

I made my final presentation to the Smith Grant Board and we were all pleased with the story we uncovered of Bacheller’s life. It is true, his literary fame had not survived, but his life had been one of great service to the state of Florida. He had even saved a Winter Park bank during the Great Depression by pledging his own personal fortune. His story was very much a “Wonderful Life” kind of tale.

So, when I began to build my Web site and my blog, I tossed in a little bit about old Irving Bacheller. I had one more lecture to give about him and it gave me an excuse to tell a few stories.

About this same time I got an email from my old friend Chris. It had bounced around the Internet for eight months and finally landed in my electronic “in box.” We exchanged hello-how-are-yous: he had been married thirty years and had grown children and I told him about my television career, my divorce, and my new work in writing. I didn’t talk about my research grant or Irving Bacheller. The old faded writer just didn’t come up in our abbreviated catch-up email chit chat.

I wasn’t a good correspondent with Chris. My family issues out West have left me with little emotional capital to spend on happily married men who used to have long talks with me in college. So, for a month or so, wicked me--I didn't even answer his last email.

Last week I returned from California as wrung out as an old dishrag. I had been fighting with my mother. I had seen my beloved father deconstructing before my eyes. And I had the flu. So, I went to bed with a bottle of Advil for several days, and then finally got hold of myself and dragged the old corpse to my P.O. Box.

In the box was a check for some of my books, always a nice thing. And, there was a package from Chris. Inside the package was an old book. Before he had been able to reach me by email he had read odds and ends about me on the Internet and I’ll let him tell the rest, the way he did in his enclosed letter:

“One spring weekend, I found myself in the garage, making another of my periodic efforts to get rid of “stuff” that we have collected over the years. Among the “stuff” I particularly have a hard time getting rid of are books. My appetite for books always exceeds my capacity, and I have a very difficult time getting rid of, in particular, a book that I have not yet read. Anyway, among the books that I started to put in the “donate” pile was the enclosed. It looked old, was clearly something I had “inherited” rather than purchased and I could not quite figure out where it had come from. Had my Dad bought it as a young man, particularly as he had grown up in Florida and attended the University of Florida in the 30s--well after the book had been published? But no. The book had two old bookmarks in it, both of which had left discolorations inside and showed that the book had been purchased long ago at the Caravan Book Store in Los Angeles. Weird. I set the book aside, as I thought it may have been authored by the guy I had read you were doing research on, but at the time I was not sure it was the same guy, nor did I know if I would ever hear from you.

Several days later, as I was continuing my garage clean-up efforts, I came across a Robin Chapman letter from long ago, which you will find inside the cover of the book. It was among the stuff from my Army days. Being a silly old man, I re-read the letter and with the Bacheller grant notion in the back of my mind was struck by your comment in this old letter that, ‘I’ve decided I would like to write a biography of someone one day—if only I could figure out who. Any suggestions?'"

The book Chris had enclosed was a first edition of Irving Bacheller’s 1919 A Man for the Ages, a book Bacheller wrote about the young Abraham Lincoln. And wow, it had a dust jacket! It was the first Bacheller one I had seen and it was a beauty: a color-tinted lithograph done by Brandywine Valley artist John Wolcott Adams, a descendant of the two presidents. Adams was an especially appropriate choice for a cover artist on a book about Lincoln. The entire story of this book was beginning to seem pretty wonderful and strange. As my old-and-only-recently-mysteriously-reappeared friend Chris put it:

“Crazy series of events, huh? If they had not happened in the order that they did, I probably would never have connected them. I could easily have disposed of the book or your letter any number of years ago. But I didn’t. And when I read your web page about Bacheller, it just all connected up.

By the way: I never have figured out where the book came from nor how it got into my garage.”

Thus, my second Strange Tale of a Book. My friend Chris, lucky, kind, and happily married, continues to find Robin completely resistible. But this old man, Irving Bacheller--now that guy just won’t leave me alone.
Irving Bacheller--he must be the perfect old geezer for me.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Letter from the Afghan Front

Americans--at least the ones I run into--don't talk much about the fact that we are at war. Since I've had several family members serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, the war we are fighting against what we can only label as "terror" is very real to me. My neice, Dana, has recently returned from Afghanistan, and she returned a bit battle scarred I think--not physically, but in spirit. It was tough over there. As I was cleaning out a pile of stuff this morning, I found this email from her, sent at the very beginning of her tour, that I had printed out and saved. She's a good writer and it gives the reader a taste of what it must be like to fly into what would be, to most of us, the unknown. I print it here with only edits for her security. It was written in July 2008. (The photo is of a lighthearted moment with some of her pilot friends here in the States.)
Greetings from Afghanistan,

My trip was uneventful and smooth, with the primary excitement being a delay in the States on my flight from Tampa to Dulles due to a thunderstorm. I made my connecting flight, Dulles-Doha (Qatar), without event, and arrived in Camp As Sayliyah on the evening of the 1st of July. The temperature was 105 at six in the morning when we stepped off the plane.

I spent a couple of days in Qatar, checking in, receiving my general gear issue and enjoying my allowed three beers a night. I was surprised that Camp As Sayliyah is used as a rest and relaxation (R&R) point for troops deployed forward. (Editor's note: I think she is suggesting she wouldn't want to R&R in this particular place, if given a choice.)

I spent the majority of my 4th of July trying to get comfortable in a cargo net of a C-130, using my body armor as a pillow. I slept a little bit, looked out the window a little bit, and otherwise enjoyed the ride to my base in Afghanistan.

I am living in a four person "hooch" which is a plywood building with plywood closets separating the room into four sections. Three of us are living there, but we will soon be down to two as my replacement, and one of the other girls in the room are rotating out. I've never met the other girls as they work a day shift and I work zulu hours, which puts us on opposite shifts.

The days are long, but there is some down time during the shift to sneak out and take a short nap, or go to the gym, so it isn't as bad as it sounds. The showers are decent and the toilets are decent and the chow is tolerable.

None of the amenities are worthy of much complaint or much praise. The purpose of all amenities here is their utility not their enjoyment. I am sure the reconstituted cow milk product from the United Arab Emirates has the requisite calcium--it just isn't something to savor on one's cereal. The base is safe. I'll take some pictures of the things that I can take pictures of, but might not be able to send them out until I get home.

The Himalayas are visible and beautiful (and the gym is great).

I hope and trust that all is well at home.

(Below is a pic of Dana in the Gulf on a previous assignment.)

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Only Love Can Break a Heart: Only Love Can Mend it Again

Below is a picture of Robin, at the age of five, dressed in her dad's work clothes, in an early effort at trying to be someone else. Someone, that is, who might be more lovable.

I once was in an abusive relationship that necessitated a court order requiring the abuser to keep his distance from me. It also landed me in therapy, something that turned out to be the healthiest thing I've ever done for myself.

"Did you have abuse in your family?" asked the therapist. "Did your father hit your mother, for example?"

"Oh no," said I. "My father would never hit my mother."

And then, through my reading and therapy, I learned that even worse than physical abuse for a person's self esteem, is verbal abuse. People who have grown up on a diet of verbal abuse often seek out abusive people to reinforce their low opinions of themselves.

Thus it is that I can tell you about a family I know, so beautiful from the outside. Such a nice house, in such a nice neighborhood of such an exclusive town. Such a handsome father, with a degree from a fine school. Such a beautiful mother who spends hours in front of a mirror fixing her hair and makeup to look just so before she goes to church to pray.

"Your father just doesn't have any talent with people," says the wife of 64 years to one of their children. "You know he's had good jobs but he's never been able to keep them." His last job lasted 27 years and when he retired he discovered his investing had been so successful his income was higher as a retired person than it was as a working executive. Yet he always felt like a failure.

"I'd be nothing without your mother," he says.

Two kind, dutiful daughters, neither with any self confidence. "I think it is so nice your sister is doing some substitute teaching," said the mother one day. "It is so good for her self confidence." Then in front of a group of dinner guests she criticized the meal the daughter had lovingly cooked to ease the workload on the 87 year old mother. "This pork, unfortunately, needed to be cooked at least two hours longer," said the mother. The sister slumped in her chair. "I never do a good job of cooking when I'm here," she said.

The other daughter appears to have spent her life jumping up and down at the back of a large crowd yelling "I'm here! Notice me! Please tell me you love me! I'm trying to be good enough! I'm trying to be better than good enough!!!" Once, long ago, when she had written an article that was published in a prestigious national magazine her mother said to her with some disdain: "Will it be here, in our edition?" When the love of the daughter's life left her, in what she now knows was a self-fulfilling prophecy, the mother said: "He was certainly a luxury you could ill afford." This child, successful on paper, thinks she is unlovable, a nothing, a failure, unable to do even one thing right. Except, of course, spend money, which she does in an effort to make herself beautiful enough to be worthy. "You live such a wasteful, lavish lifestyle," says the mother.

Words have power. In some families they are used to fix a positive seal on the heart of a child that will last a lifetime. "I love you. You are such a good child. You are such a good person." When words are used for evil they sear like a hot brand. "What's wrong with you? Only a baby cries over a thing like that. You always waste your money. You never mind me." Children live up or down to the words placed before them.

I'm reminded of a friend who was beloved by her parents. She had no sisters nor brothers and she and her parents created a tight bond. To spare her trouble in caring for them, they sold their house when they were in their 80s and moved into a continuing care community. First, she lost her father. Within just a few months, she lost her mother. She was devastated. But when she went to the summer home she had inherited from them she opened a drawer one day and found a note: "Never in all your life did you give me one single minute of unhappiness. You were such a joy to me. All my love, Mom."

Such powerful words they were, they even bridged the abyss between life and death.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

When Writers Need Inspiration and Refuge: Go Into Danger

That's Robin in her previous role as foreign correspondent in Iraq.

I'm a journalist by profession and even though most of that time I've been a television journalist I have, along the way, learned to write the English language and thus can also claim to be the author of three books. What do writers do when their lives are full of challenges and they need something to do that doesn't have anything to do with the reality they know? Why, they do that Hemingway thing, and go abroad.

That's my new plan.

My Dad has Alzheimer's disease and spent my most recent visit accusing me of stealing his keys, aimlessly driving his car (though I was doing errands for him), putting regular gas instead of premium in his tank, not changing his oil at regular intervals, stealing his wallet (my mother has done that for safety) and in between telling me he loved me and wished I would move there.

My mother, who doesn't have Alzheimer's, but is a terminal narcissist, accused me of waiting for her death so I can spend up all her money (which at this point we don't even know if she has, since she is clueless about managing money) and in addition accused me of planning to spend all the family fortune (in advance, whenever she actually does die, which does not appear to be imminent) so there would be none left for her great grandchildren (whom she has kept as far away from her as possible) and told me that though my father wants me to move to California to be near him, she doesn't want me anywhere near her. Especially not staying at her house, even while I look for a job. My Mom and I have a challenging relationship to put it mildly and what I did to cause this, other than be born, and have the love of my father, I do not know.

Since I caught the flu on the flight out there (my seventh--trip, not flu--at a total cost to me, including incidentals $15,000 in one year during which they have been in hospitals, nursing homes, had pneumonia, and broken bones) and since I had just given up my lease so I could move out there to a) avoid all the costs of flying there and b) find a better job to support my full time job of making sure they are okay and since c) my mother doesn't want me anywhere near her, I have come home to nurse my flu and revise my plans.

So, my new plans involve putting what my mother calls my "lavish lifestyle" into storage and going to the Middle East to work as a correspondent in what I believe will be the next hot spot. If there is one thing a reporter likes its a hot spot. Can't beat that for fun, and the occasional shot at glory. Course you could die, get blown up, or get your head separated from your body, but from what I can tell, that is much more likely to happen when I'm in close proximity to my mother. Anyway, I have friends in Israel (friends being often kinder to one than one's family) and I think I can get a temporary room with them while I look for a place to live and some freelance bureaus to hook up with. Worst case scenario: I just blog my way through a year and report my experiences here in the blogosphere.

Israel is a fascinating place: kind of a wild west version of America, where everybody is an entrepreneur. And oh, by the way, everybody packs a gun. Can't beat that for a great place to park your computer and dig up a story or two! I love my Dad, and I'll dedicate all my stories to him. He can't help his disease and I think I'm better working at something I enjoy rather than weeping daily as I see the man I adore disappear before my eyes. My mother, as always, will take care of her own dear self. That's her life's work and she is truly expert at it. She spends all of her time looking in the mirror, so she won't even notice I'm gone.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Cool Place to View Classic Films: Old Movie Palace in Palo Alto

If you love old films and live in or visit the San Francisco Bay Area, there is a great place for you. The old Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto has been restored, thanks to the David and Lucille Packard Foundation (of the Hewlett-Packard computer family). Within this beautiful space the Stanford Theatre Foundation schedules really fine programs of classic films.

Recent fare featured the films of Bette Davis with a special focus on the very first films she made when she came to Hollywood, in many of which she played small and supporting roles. You could even see her in the rarely seen CABIN IN THE COTTON in which she uttered the now famous line: “I’d love to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair.”

Last summer the theater offered a collection of Jimmy Stewart classics in honor of his centennial, and this fall showed a really interesting program called “Gainsborough Melodramas and Other Rare Treasures of the British Cinema.” The theater had a special showing of VERTIGO in October, honoring the creepy Hitchcock classic’s 50th anniversary—especially appropriate since nearby San Francisco is practically a character in this film.

At present, the theater has been running a series honoring Humphrey Bogart. Even if you have seen any or all of these famous films it is so much more enjoyable to see them on a big screen in the kind of place they were shown when they were new. This is one of the goals of the theater’s founders: “The Stanford Theatre Foundation is dedicated to preserving films from Hollywood’s golden age, along with the theatrical environment in which people first saw these films. It would be tragic if future generations had to experience the cinema only through images on personal video screens.” I say Amen to that.

On weekends, a double feature (just $7.00) includes the surprise appearance of an organist rising on an elevated platform from the theater’s orchestra pit during intermission, playing music from the scores of old films. It is difficult to find time to make a rest stop (and the restrooms are gorgeous and immaculate) with the excellent program and the wonderful live music.

The Stanford Theatre is right on University Avenue, in Palo Alto, just across El Camino Real from Stanford University. During the school year this center of downtown Palo Alto is always jumping with the sounds, vistas, bars, restaurants, and the rowdy young people of a college town. It is noisy and fun in downtown Palo Alto and the theater just adds more spice to the stew.

This is not a place you’ll want to bring a pal who won’t leave his cell phone behind, or a friend who makes loud noises when she slurps her cola. This is a place to sit in comfortable seats and breathe in the air of Hollywood in its golden age. As the program puts it: “The Stanford Theatre is famous for its intelligent and respectful audiences. If people are talking or making noise with their food, it can ruin the movie for others. Enjoy the movie, but please allow other people to enjoy it too. While the organist is playing during the intermission, we suggest that you keep your conversation as quiet as possible as a courtesy to those listening to the music.” It is slightly scolding in tone, but it makes its point.

If this worries you, there is a gigantic and beautiful lobby where you can sit and talk with friends if you need a break from an overdose of cinema classics. The popcorn is made right there and slathered in real butter—if your cholesterol can take it—and costs just two dollars.

When I want to relax, I head for a Stanford double feature, buy a bucket of fresh popcorn, and sit in the darkness watching a world where men wore suits and women wore silk, where both sexes put on hats to go out, drove large, shiny sedans, and went dancing for fun. Where the good guys put the bad guys behind bars in the last reel. Where Bogey says goodbye to Bergman for all the right reasons, Jimmy Stewart makes friends with a six-foot-two-inch invisible rabbit, Bette Davis follows her lover to a leper colony to save him from yellow fever, and everybody does everything wearing really great clothes.

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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Weeping Over an Oil Change: Welcome to Alzheimer's Disease

My father, back when he kept his cars in perfect condition, and really was a car expert.
I try to make my father's battle with this horrible dementia disease as funny as I can because it is funny sometimes, and laughing about it helps to keep away the tears. Today, for example, he woke up with a paranoid obsession about his car. He told me there was a conspiracy of the "enlisted men" against the "officers" to not care for his car properly, and since my sister's husband was a Marine enlisted man, he was sure his son-in-law was in on the conspiracy along with "that other husband."

"But I don't have a husband," I told him.

"Well, you clearly know more about this than I do," he said and on that particular subject I have to say I am the sole expert.

But the car oil change-conspiracy-obsession ceased to be funny when we picked up my sister at the airport this morning and all he would talk about was how we had to have the oil changed. We looked for the service report and saw that it had been changed in October and since my parents drive about 10 miles a month (my father, thank goodness, no longer has a licesnse) it is clear the oil does not need to be changed. But he would not be denied and grew increasingly agitated, which caused Mom to yell at me (when I tried to distract him with a photo album) and my sister to threaten to put him in a nursing home. I put my computer in the basket of the three-speed Raleigh and headed out to the WiFi Bakery for some blogging relief.

It reminded me of a story I heard at a support group for Alzheimer's families I attend. One woman there wept and told us this month that she had had to put her husband in assisted living because he has been insisting on calling her by his first wife's name. He was married to his first wife only four years and he has been married to his present one for fifty, but he kept perusing his old divorce papers and crying and telling his present wife that he never loved "that woman he was married to for fifty years." His agitation grew each day and he just became too much for his wife to handle.

That's the way my Dad was this morning. My sister has come all the way from Colorado and I've come all the way from Florida so we can give him a birthday party tomorrow and right now I don't even want to see him. I know it isn't his fault, but I want my old Dad back. And like the lady at my support group, even though I know an oil change is no big deal, I weep.

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Meet Steve Latshaw: Guest Blogger and Screenwriter from Hollywood U.S.A.

(Note from Robin: During my years in television I met a very unique person who was always making monster movies. Turns out he became a real, honest-to-goodness screenwriter, and has remained a loyal friend. Here's a guest blog from him in what I hope will be a regular series.)
My name is Steve Latshaw. I have been called a screenwriter, filmmaker, sometimes actor, occasional television journalist in the 80s and 90s (except that I couldn’t stand to wear contact lenses but it lead to a brief stint on the TV series ADVENTURES OF SUPERBOY and other career opportunities, so what the heck.)

Mostly, I am known as a screenwriter. I didn’t start out that way… I began my semi-illustrious Hollywood career as a director, making low budget monster movies in Florida. I thought of myself as the “Roger Corman of Florida” (a maverick indy filmmaker) in those days, although critics of the time and since often compared me to Ed Wood. It’s certainly true that one of my movies of that era, JACK-O, featured starring roles played by both John Carradine and Cameron Mitchell. It didn’t help that both of those giants of cinema were dead at the time we made the movie… and appeared courtesy of unused out-takes provided by our producer Fred Olen Ray ...

After five such features, I moved the family to Los Angeles to really begin my film career. As Orson Welles (who also began at the top) once said, after that, “it was all downhill.” Of course he was referring to CITZEN KANE, not JACK-O. I didn’t work for a couple of years – it’s a closed town, this Hollywood, and no one cares what you’ve done in Florida or Illinois or, for that matter, Barstow. But gradually, I found work as a screenwriter (its own bizarre story), got my balance again and some thirteen years, one divorce and thirty-five produced movies later, here I am.

My credits you can peruse to your heart’s content on I work in the straight-to-video tier, mostly with stars like Treat Williams, Daniel Baldwin, Michael Dudikoff and that ilk. The biggest stars I’ve worked with so far are Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. In fact, I am currently working on my second project with Dolph, which is very good news for me, as his star is on the rise again. But it shows you where I fit in the spectrum. Mostly, I like to think of myself as legit. Produced. Experienced. The Real Thing. Because I possess whatever skill necessary to finish a reasonably decent and commercial screenplay in a reasonable amount of time I am reliable. And so I get hired. It is, as they say, a living. Sometimes. But more about that later. It’s what I do, not who I am.

Who am I? A movie nerd. The same kid who haunted his public library looking at movie stills from the 30s, 40s and 50s because the local TV stations in Decatur, Illinois usually didn’t run those movies. Especially the old westerns, serials, monster movies and various and sundry B pictures I loved. So I looked at those old pictures of Hollywood and California. But sometimes I’d get lucky. I jumped up and down when the occasional Roy Rogers or John Wayne movie popped up on screen, or Bogart, or Errol Flynn… watched with rapt attention as ROBOT MONSTER lumbered through Bronson Canyon or COMMANDO CODY zoomed over the big, dusty boulders at the Iverson movie ranch in Chatsworth, CA. And I cried after watching the original A STAR IS BORN or reading the last chapter in Errol Flynn’s biography, vowing at the tender age of 15 that I’d never end up the way those sad cases did. Bit players like Roy Barcroft and Kenne Duncan and Lionel Atwill were my heroes.

So what I guess I am trying to say is that I mostly came to Hollywood to chase ghosts. And there are plenty out here. I’ll be chasing them in this blog for you, while stopping from time to time to offer my perspective on the movie business, or provide descriptions of chance encounters with the famous and semi-famous. I’ll give you a little taste today.

Lunch Monday. Art’s Deli. Favorite Deli Hangout in Studio City. Jerry’s Famous Deli also good but suffers from High Prices and We’re-Now-A-Chain syndrome. Art’s is more homey. Art himself told me once the key to Deli success is you must maintain three lines of business at once… walk-in customers/restaurant, pick-up/delivery and catering. One will always carry the other two. Art also refers to the giant color photographs of sandwiches on his wall as Jewish Erotica, so go figure. Personally, I like the Reuben. For obvious reasons.

Anyway, Lunch Monday at Art’s. Was meeting my pal Billy Hinsche for lunch. Billy is a longtime rock and roll star. Back in the 1960s he was one third of that powerhouse teen trio DINO, DESI & BILLY, Dino being Dean Martin’s son Dean Paul, Desi being Desi and Lucy’s son Desi and Billy being Billy. Their big hits included “I’m A Fool” and “Not The Lovin’ Kind.” You may have caught them on the Ed Sullivan show. They auditioned, by the way, for Reprise Records under decidedly harrowing conditions. The audition took place in Frank Sinatra’s living room. The audience consisted of Lucy Arnaz (aka Lucille Ball), Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. But I digress. Anyway, Billy is a consummate musician (guitar, piano, anything you want) and went on to play for some 30 years as a member of The Beach Boys band, singing hits like “Sail On Sailor” in front of audiences as big as 500,000 (Washington DC Mall… July 4, 1985). (Robin’s note: I was in Washington D.C. covering that concert and it was such a zoo. So much alcohol, consumed by so many, photographed by we few!) Being a confirmed, life long Beach Boys fan, I have also been a Billy Hinsche fan. He’s been a great friend for the last ten years and my entrĂ©e into the world of the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson.

So anyway, we’re at Art’s Deli. Billy lives in Vegas but when in LA on business likes to have the Pastrami at Art’s. So we’re having the Pastrami at Art’s when famed LA character actor Miguel Ferrer walks up to the table. Turns out he and Billy were best buds at Beverly Hills High and have remained friends ever since. Miguel’s Mom was Rosemary Clooney. His Dad was famed actor Jose Ferrer and George Clooney is his cousin. But Miguel, balding, muscular, bearded most of the time, gruff voice, is one of the most engaging character actors in the business, in features, and frequent starring roles in TV series. An amazing resume. Look him up. But what we sit there and talk about is High School, relationships, who married who, family stuff. Fun stuff. Normal stuff. Cool. Nice. Soon, we’re talking about the pending possible SAG (Screen Actor’s Guild) maybe strike. Hopefully not. But it’s these sort of normal conversations that remind you that you made it, you’re making a living, you’re in the business, you’re respected. And I need that. We all need that in this business. Because out here, we need a hell of a lot of validation to get through the day. Some guy once said Hollywood is the only place you can starve from encouragement. I didn’t say it. But I know what he meant.

On to the ghosts.

I live in Burbank. I am a block from something called Toluca Lake, which was primarily a lake surrounded by a golf course called Lakeside Country Club and lots of nice houses where movie stars like Bob Hope and WC Fields lived and radio personalities like Dick Whittinghill had lots of drinks and golfed lots of balls. It’s still a nice place, with the wonderful old school steakhouse called THE SMOKEHOUSE nearby (try the cheese bread). I live across the street from Warner Brothers and, more importantly, around the block from the original, first, Bob’s Big Boy. And I’m five minutes from Hollywood. But it also means I’m about 30 miles from ocean or desert or, most importantly, old movie locations. And a guy’s got to get out. Know what I mean?

A While Back I visited a place described in the as “California Highway 118 between Simi Valley and the outskirts of Moorpark, CA… Southern Pacific Railway crossing. At Strathearn.” What this really is is a movie location from my childhood.

In 1968, when I was 9, my Grandfather Clyde “Pop” Wheeler bought a Super 8mm projector and camera. It triggered my obsession with movies, naturally, but also came with its own movie. Something called “Have Badge, Will Chase,” starring Abbott & Costello. What it was was an edited version of “Abbott & Costello Meet The Keystone Kops” (1955). In it, Bud & Lou, on a motorcycle with side car, outrace a train, then get stopped (along with the Keystone Kops) in the middle of the track as the train roared down on them. This was the first old movie I held in my hands, the first black & white, dust and boulder-strewn images I have had of Southern California and Hollywood. I watched it, over and over again, year after year, until I wore it out. And now, 40 years later, on this Sunday afternoon, I drove down an asphalt road, along a railroad track bordered by a dirt cliff. I reached a railroad crossing, turned around and faced the way I came.

There it was. I was standing in the original camera position used by the Universal-International film crew. On that hot, dusty day in 1955, they called “Action!” and camera rolled as Bud & Lou sped across that very railroad crossing where I stood – big cliffs in the background - as a massive, belching locomotive tried to catch them. That location hadn’t changed much in all those years. In the late afternoon sun it still looked like 1955.

And after all these years, it felt like it was 1968. And I was 9 again, and had actually climbed inside that moving picture image flickering from my Pop’s movie projector, like Alice … well, Steve, In Wonderland.

In the right frame of mind you don’t have to go looking too far for your childhood out here in Hollywood. It’s just around the corner, waiting for you to come out and play.

Steve Latshaw
December 4, 2008
Hollywood, CA

In Steve's honor, here's a picture taken during the shoot of his film ON LOCATION FLORIDA, which was hosted by Robin Chapman. Robin is seen here with Steve's now grown son Ryan.)

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Visiting my father in California these days almost always involves the unexpected, so I'm not quite sure what I will see when I arrive there this week. In February, when I made my first visit of 2008, everything was just great with the parents as far as I knew. Mom didn't say there was anything wrong with Dad, and my Aunt Ruth was even going to be there, making it a double family get together.

From the moment I walked in the door, it was clear things were not okay. Mom and my aunt were in the kitchen laughing and carrying on but I found my father in the back hallway struggling to get into the kitchen to see me. He was in such great pain that he was hunched over and pushing a chair, holding onto it for support. I knew he had fallen about a week before and hit his head and seeing him now, I was afraid he had also broken his hip.

"Oh he is just so spoiled," my mother said. "I'm the one's that suffering. I have a terrible cold." She was not happy when I called his doctor, set an appointment for the next day, and rushed out to get him a walker. At the doctor we learned Dad had a fractured pelvis. He went immediately into the hospital, and it was there, in the disorienting conditions of a hospital room surrounded by nurses and other strangers that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

"When I woke up this morning," he told me on the first day, "I thought they had remodeled my room."

"You're an engineer Dad. Does this hospital room look like your remodeled bedroom to you?"

"No. No it doesn't now. But I just thought ... " Over the three days he was in the hospital he constantly asked for my mother, always worried that she wouldn't know where to find him. I spent a lot of time assuring him. He worried about remembering his phone number--and I went over it lots of times with him, always finding him comforted when he learned he could still recite it from memory.

I was so worried about him I spent one whole day at his bedside, talking with him. Near the end of that day he told me he was going to take a nap and--ever the polite gentleman from Birmingham, Alabama--he asked me if I minded. No, no, I said. I have to go home and have dinner with Mom. He put his head back on his pillow and looked at me before he closed his eyes:

"You know, Robin, I think this is the first day we've spent together in, I don't know, forever," and then he smiled a little. "It was nice," and then he went to sleep.

Mom didn't seem to want to visit Dad in the hospital. We think this was because she couldn't accept the idea that he was ill and being in denial helped her get through it.

"Your father is doing better because he's made up his mind," she has told both my sister and me recently, much to our mutual dismay. "I wish he'd make up his mind not to have dementia," I said under my breath, but I don't think my mother heard me.

Denial is a defense mechanism. In fact, at a Thanksgiving gathering, my sister heard a story from a family friend that illustrated this. The friend was a fireman who once went on a call to the home of an elderly couple. The woman was dusting when they arrived and said her husband had fainted in his chair.

"I hope he'll be all right. We have to leave to visit our grandchildren in half an hour," she said. But the fireman found that the old man in the chair was dead, and had been for some time.

"He must be able to travel", said the old woman, with some impatience. "We really do have to go."

But the old man was gone already. It must have been a shock. It was probably the first time in many years the old man had gone anywhere ... without first checking with his wife.

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