The boy and the Airmen

Alexander Jefferson and Quinn Thorne in 2014. Image via Facebook.

Quinn Thorne is 9 years old. He’s loved flying for as long as he can remember.

Alexander Jefferson is 95 years old. He is one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the World War II squadron of African-American pilots.

The two would seem to be unlikely friends: a young white boy from Idaho and an elderly black veteran from Detroit. But Quinn has a fascination with the Airmen, and veterans like Jefferson are more than happy to welcome his interest.

“Quinn is quite an interesting young person,” says Jefferson in a phone call from his home near Detroit.

Quinn’s interest began with “Red Tails,” the 2012 film about the Airmen. When he turned 5, he met one of the pilots and was then invited to a Tuskegee Airmen convention in Las Vegas. He met several others — including Jefferson — and he’s been hooked ever since. His Facebook page is dotted with photos of him standing next to his heroes.

“Every year I go to the convention,” he says, noting that the next one is in Orlando.

The Tuskegee Airmen have received more notice in recent years, but their story is always worth telling. Before World War II, African-Americans weren’t allowed to fly for the U.S. military. The armed forces were segregated, and Jim Crow laws still dominated the South. During training in Alabama, the early trainees were subjected to prejudice and discrimination.

Even within the military itself, there were doubts that African-Americans were up to the task: a 1925 Army War College study described African-Americans as a “mentally inferior subspecies of the human race.”

“People who never grew up during segregation can’t realize how rigid it was,” pilot Roscoe C. Brown Jr. told the Air Force News Service.

The Tuskegee Airmen, of course, distinguished themselves during the war, particularly with their work in Italy and Germany. Daniel Haulman of the Air Force Historical Research Agency credits them with 112 victories. Airman Benjamin O. Davis Jr. later became the Air Force’s first black general.

Quinn is interested in their legacy. World War II veterans like the Tuskegee Airmen are now in their 80s or older; their numbers are sadly dwindling.

“(Their age) concerns me,” says Quinn, worried that they won’t be remembered. “I want to continue their legacy and tell everybody about them.” He has hopes of going into the Air Force himself, knowing that “my friends will be up there with me.”

That’s the kind of legacy Jefferson wants. The longtime teacher and school administrator has worked as a liaison with the military to attract young people into the service.

And it’s not like he’s slowed down. At 95, about the only concession to age he’s made is allowing his granddaughter to drive. Otherwise, the former pilot is still aiming high.

“I’m still active,” he says. “I’m still involved.”



Sunday read: What makes a hero?

Image of Tiananmen Square “Tank Man” from Jeff Widener/AP via

Years ago, around the time of the State of the Union address, I pitched a story about people who had committed heroic acts. I particularly wanted to interview Larry Skutnik, the man who dove into the Potomac’s frigid waters to save the life of a passenger after the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 in 1982. A few weeks later, he was in the audience at Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union.

I never got ahold of Skutnik, other things got in the way, and the story was never done.

(To its credit, Politico found him last year. He turned out to be rather crusty and quite prescient.)

Mr. Skutnik was one kind of hero — the kind who, on the spur of the moment, performs a selfless deed. But there are other types. Humane leaders who maintain and proclaim their ideals in the face of criticism and violence. Bold explorers who take off for places unknown. Scientists who toil in anonymity while coming up with a breakthrough.

In these parlous times, when the world is either retreating from itself or suffering from anger and distress, I can’t help but wonder: Will some new heroes emerge?

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Review: ‘Anatomy of a Song’ by Marc Myers

Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and PopAnatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop by Marc Myers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You can see the underpinnings of a more thorough book in “Anatomy of a Song.”

In this work, Wall Street Journal columnist Marc Myers collects 45 of his articles from his column of the same name, providing a tour of rock history through some key singles. He starts with Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and concludes with R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” taking time to breeze through “Please Mr. Postman,” “Chapel of Love,” “My Girl,” “Different Drum,” “Maggie May,” “Rock the Boat” and several others — 45 songs in honor of the 45 rpm record, the longtime form of the single.

“Breeze” is the operative word. Though there are a few revelations — I had no idea Fats Domino played piano on “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” or there was an early, crummy mix of “Rock the Boat” (and Jim Gordon and Larry Carlton played on THAT) — too much has been written elsewhere, and sometimes you get the feeling chapters are cut off before the artists (or producers, or writers) really have a chance to dig deep.

That’s a given with an 800-word column, but it shouldn’t necessarily be a given in a book from those columns.

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On Marches and Life

From a friend. Not to explain something that I got right away, but just to clarify: When he says, “I am pro-life,” he’s describing the general voice of someone who proclaims they’re “pro-life” … then ticks off all their exceptions, as my friend points out.

Tikkun olam.

The World's Common Tater

Last weekend was the women’s march in Washington. I had a lot of friends go down to march and I support them and their right to march.. I had other friends who did not support the march because pro-choice organizations and people were involved. Today is the march for life. I’m sure I have friends who are in Washington for that as well.I also support them and their right to march. I hope that regardless of how you feel about either march you understand that the right to march is a fundamental part of America. You can disagree, but you have to support the right to free speech.

Now, the next part has been in my head for a day and I have hesitated  writing and posting it because I think people will be angry with me. I am operating on 5 hours(split into two 2.5 segments with 9 hours…

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Mary Tyler Moore, 1936-2017

Image from Getty Images via Parade.

I always hated the scenes in “The Dick Van Dyke Show” in which Mary Tyler Moore, as Van Dyke’s wife Laura, would moan, “Oh, Rob!” and be on the verge of tears at some presumed failing.

Hated it because, even if it was part of the character, it didn’t seem fair to Moore. It was the one bit of the ’60s show that seemed part of a ’50s TV cliche. No, Moore was smart. Cool. Hell, Laura Petrie was often more sensible than her screen husband, who was once convinced they’d brought the wrong baby home.

To his credit, “Dick Van Dyke” creator Carl Reiner knew this. He and his writers showed Moore to be more than just a pretty face, which is one reason that show still seems fresh more than 50 years later.

And Moore (and her own husband, producer Grant Tinker) knew this, too. That’s why “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” which went on the air in 1970, worked so well. Mary Richards was smart. Tough. She had heart. She had spunk. (Lou Grant originally hated spunk, but he grew to love it.)

Oh, she could get rattled, but what TV producer didn’t? She also had a terrific sense of humor. You had to, in a newsroom with Ted Baxter and Sue Ann Nivens.

About the only real failing Moore’s character Mary Richards had was she couldn’t host a dinner party to save her life. Not even when Johnny Carson was coming by.

Mary Tyler Moore — great actress, terrific talent spotter, brave and funny soul — died Wednesday. She was 80.

And though I hated “Oh, Rob!”, I’m left sad and speechless myself.

Oh, Mary. RIP.

The mourning of the #Oscarnominations

Image from Summit Entertainment via Indiewire.

The Oscar nominations were announced this morning. “La La Land” led all films. That wasn’t a surprise, though the number of nods it earned probably was: 14, tying it with “All About Eve” (an actors’ showcase) and “Titanic” (a massive blockbuster) for the most nominations by any film in history.

I found this out the way most everybody else did — online, at home.

This is the first time in 16 years I haven’t been at CNN Center to actually watch the announcement. When I was there, the day (and day before) had a rhythm: put together a list of possibilities, write an advance story about the possibilities, wake up early on Tuesday morning (though not as early as the folks in Los Angeles, where the major nominations were announced at 5:38 a.m.), get ready, and then write as fast as I could.

I had two goals — to get it right and to beat The Associated Press. If my first story was out before 9 a.m. ET — which, dammit, it was — I felt pretty good … though I usually spent the rest of the morning updating it a couple times to add comments from nominees, notations on surprises and whatever colorful trivia I could shoehorn in there.

This year, away from CNN, I didn’t have to wake up early, nor did I have to handicap everything beforehand (with tons of help from Tom O’Neil’s terrific site). Still, it felt weird.

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‘1984 Revisited,’ now with #alternativefacts

Image from WorldLiteratureEblock.

In 1984, there was a lot of talk about “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel was referenced in one of the great commercials of all time, the Apple Macintosh ad directed by Ridley Scott that aired during the Super Bowl. “You’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984,’ ” the commercial proclaimed.

Later that year, a film was released based on the novel. John Hurt played protagonist Winston Smith. The work was critically praised but didn’t do well at the box office — no surprise for a piece that ends with the hero, who has sought to break free of his totalitarian state, tortured and once again loving Big Brother. (A similar film, Terry Gilliam’s 1985 “Brazil,” was more inventive — when you had Bob Hoskins as a malevolent technician and Robert De Niro as the fix-it hero Tuttle, how could it not be? — but also had a downbeat ending.)

But the work I remember was a CBS documentary that aired in the summer of 1983, “1984 Revisited.”

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Sunday read: The man who spent 44 years in solitary confinement

Image from Answer Coalition.

Last February, Albert Woodfox finally walked out of a Louisiana jail. He had been in prison since 1971, most of it spent in the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.

Almost 44 years of his imprisonment was spent in solitary confinement.

Imagine living the vast majority of your life in a dimly lit, six-by-nine-foot cube. Imagine living the vast majority of your life in silence, with only snatched conversations, occasional books and irregular visitations to break the monotony. Imagine being despised by the prison guards and wardens as much for your beliefs — Woodfox was motivated by the self-improvement philosophy of the Black Panthers — as your crimes.

And imagine that you may have been placed in solitary based on a crime you may not have committed. Punishment, certainly. But justice?

Much has been written about Woodfox in the last year, but few pieces have been as powerful as Rachel Aviv’s recent take in The New Yorker. It’s my Sunday read.

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Urgent: The sun rose today

Image from Getty Images via New York magazine.

Per the Constitution by way of the 20th Amendment, at noon today Donald J. Trump took the oath of office and became the 45th president of the United States of America.

The earth did not open up to reveal hellfire and sulfurous caverns, nor did the clouds part for heavenly trumpets.

The temperature in Washington was 45 degrees Fahrenheit. It was cloudy with a band of rain moving through town. A friend tells me it’s been raining on and off with gray skies. It was a winter’s day.

Anyone who’s read this blog (both of you) know that I’m not a fan of the new president. I worry about his unpredictability and impulsiveness. I cringe at his bullying need for dominance. I disagree with many of the positions he’s espoused and with the stands of many of his cabinet appointees.

I find myself seeking comfort in one of the watchwords of the Jewish people — not the Shema, but a song from the great bard Mel Brooks, “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst.”

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Odds and ends: Baseball, awards, ‘Face’

Image from
A few things that have crossed my brain …

  • Three cheers for Jeff Bagwell, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez and Tim “Rock” Raines for making the Baseball Hall of Fame yesterday. All three are deserved Hall of Famers, and I was particularly pleased to see Raines — much overlooked, even in his heyday, because of the truly amazing Rickey Henderson — finally get the necessary 75% of ballots. The guy could always steal a base, but unlike folks like Vince Coleman, he could also hit, hit for (some) power and play solid defense. The big problem for Raines was that he mainly played for the Montreal Expos, where he was never going to get any notice. Hell, I’d forgotten that he had some late-career years with the Yankees and actually picked up a World Series ring.

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