Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Star Wars Trilogy: A Book Review

(C) 2002 Del Rey/Lucas Books

(Note: This review refers to the 2002 25th Anniversary Special Edition Star Wars Trilogy hardcover)

In 2002, to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the premiere of Star Wars and coinciding with the release of Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Del Rey and Lucas Books published a new hardcover omnibus edition of the Star Wars Trilogy's novelizations.

It wasn't the first time that Del Rey, a division of Ballantine Books, had released a three-novels-in-one-volume edition; in 1983, when Return of the Jedi premiered, there was a "Star Wars Saga" trade paperback volume, as well as a less-expensive boxed set of three paperbacks. Later, when the Star Wars franchise was rejuvenated by the success of Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy and the 20th Anniversary Special Editions, Del Rey once again published omnibus editions both in trade and mass-market editions, as well as hardcover editions of each novel with the new artwork for the THX remastered VHS videos. (These circa-1995 reissues featured not only the new artwork, but also introductions written for each novel by director George Lucas; these introductions reappear in this commemorative edition.)

Having read the original paperback movie tie-ins (plus a hardcover edition given to me by my best friend Rogers), I noticed that the only change Del Rey had made to any of the text was to fully capitalize "TIE" (the acronym for Twin Ion Engine) when the Imperial fighter is mentioned by name in Star Wars (a.k.a. Episode IV: A New Hope.)

Part Two: Brief Commentary About the Novels

Star Wars -- Episode IV: A New Hope
(Formerly Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker)

Adapter: Alan Dean Foster (Credited to George Lucas)

Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars (Above Average)

In December of 1976, Ballantine Books published the first edition of Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, a novel by George Lucas. Adorned only with conceptual art by Ralph McQuarrie, it did not set the literary world on fire. As it turned out, however, the "major motion picture" it was heralding on its cover blurb became one of the biggest box office hits in history, and Star Wars went on to become a huge part of our pop culture.

Although it really wasn't George Lucas who wrote this first published tie-in to what would later be called Episode IV: A New Hope, the novel reflects the director's vision. Author Alan Dean Foster, who had adapted the scripts of the Star Trek animated series into the Star Trek Logs books, took Lucas' fourth revised draft of the script and wrote a masterful adaptation that truly captures the spirit of the movie's characters and situations.

Star Wars begins with a short prologue that, with a few "special modifications" in the text, is really the outline for the Prequel Trilogy. In the form of an excerpt from "the first saga -- Journal of the Whills," we are told that the once-powerful Galactic Republic, protected by the Jedi Knights, "throve and grew. But as often happens when wealth and power pass the admirable and attain the awesome, then appear those evil ones who have greed to match." Insidiously, like a house under attack by termites, the Republic rotted from within until "[a]ided and abetted by restless, power-hungry individuals within the government, and the massive organs of commerce, the ambitious Senator Palpatine caused himself to be elected President of the Republic.... Once secure in office he declared himself Emperor...."

The novel then segues directly into the famous opening scene of Star Wars: an Imperial Star Destroyer (called here an Imperial cruiser) chases Princess Leia's Rebel Blockade Runner and captures it over the desert planet of Tatooine. After a brief battle, Imperial stormtroopers take over the ship, and Leia is taken before Lord Darth Vader, who wants to know what she did with secret data "transmitted by Rebel spies."

Leia, of course, has wisely hidden the data -- the plans of the Empire's ultimate super weapon, the Death Star -- into the memory banks of Artoo Detoo, an astromech droid. Artoo and his loyal but easily rattled counterpart, See-Threepio, have managed to flee aboard a tiny escape pod down to the hostile wastes of Tatooine. They are "found" by jawas, a race of small desert scavengers, then sold to a moisture farmer named Owen Lars and his nephew Luke Skywalker....and when Luke stumbles on a fragment of a message for someone named "Obi-Wan Kenobi," well, things really get interesting.

Foster's novelization is very faithful to its screenplay source, and even the "added" material (Luke's first appearance in the novel as he repairs a vaporator, or scenes with Biggs and his friends at Tosche Station) comes from Lucas' fourth revised draft (available in Carol Titleman's The Art of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope). Most of the "deleted scenes" later appeared in Brian Daley's Star Wars: The Radio Drama, and the encounter between Han Solo and Jabba the Hutt (spelled Hut in this novel) was restored and tweaked with CGI in the 1997 Special Edition re-release. Of the three Classic Trilogy novels, this is the best written. Foster's style is crisp yet elegant, and it does not read like it's a screenplay adaptation.

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Adapter: Donald F. Glut

Rating: 4 of 5 stars (Above Average)

Donald F. Glut's novelization of Lawrence Kasdan's screenplay for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, based on a story by George Lucas, is among one of the better adaptations in the continuing saga of the Galactic Civil War and the adventures of Luke Skywalker.

Three years after the Battle of Yavin, the Rebel Alliance is fighting for its very existence. Though they had won a significant victory with the destruction of the Death Star, the evil lord Darth Vader survived and made his way to the Imperial capital, where Emperor Palpatine gave him the ultimate assignment -- to find and destroy the Rebel leadership and crush the Rebellion once and for all. For three years Vader's Imperial Death Squadron of six Star Destroyers -- including his own massive flagship -- has pursued the Rebels from system to system.

Vader is driven, too, to find one Rebel commander in particular: Luke Skywalker. Sometime after the defeat at Yavin, Vader discovered that Luke was the pilot who, with the assistance of the mystical energy field known as the Force, fired the torpedo that destroyed the Death Star. Realizing the young Rebel's untapped -- and untrained -- Jedi powers, Vader has made it his mission in life to capture Luke and, eventually, turn him to the dark side of the Force.

So when an Imperial probe droid spots evidence of a hidden Rebel base on the remote ice world of Hoth, Vader unleashes his legions of stormtroopers against the small Rebel force. In a brief but violent battle, the Empire overwhelms the Alliance troops fighting a rear-guard action, but the bulk of the Rebels, including Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, Luke, and the droids escape.

Vader doesn't know, however, that the Star Warriors have set out on diverging paths. While Han, Chewie, Leia and See Threepio fly off in the damaged Millennium Falcon in a desperate attempt to rejoin the Rebel fleet, Luke and Artoo are on their X-wing starfighter on a different mission altogether. For the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Vader's former Jedi Master and now Luke's spirit-guide, has sent Luke to the Dagobah system. There, he will seek Yoda, the Jedi Master who first instructed Kenobi.

Although Glut (like all Star Wars adapters) had to use an earlier draft of Kasdan's screenplay (Yoda, for instance, is described as being bluish and with long white hair parted in the middle), he is a good enough writer and captures the essence of the film's characters and new settings.

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

Adapter: James Kahn

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars (Average)

Return of the Jedi is divided into two halves, one almost independent of the other but predetermined by the events of The Empire Strikes Back. The first half begins with a short prologue in which Darth Vader arrives at Endor, a small sanctuary moon where the Empire is building a second Death Star. The Emperor, it seems, is not happy with Moff Jerjerrod's "current lack of progress" and has sent the Dark Lord to "find new ways to motivate" the Death Star commander and his men to complete the battle station as planned.

Then, using material later deleted from the final draft of the screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas, Luke is in Ben Kenobi's Spartan hut, hard at work on his new lightsaber. Then Kahn takes up the film's plot threads and describes how Leia, Chewbacca, Lando and Luke rescue Han Solo from the clutches of the vile gangster Jabba the Hutt.

The second half of Jedi starts with Luke returning to Dagobah to complete his Jedi training, only to find that Yoda, his 900-year-old Master, is dying. "No more training do you require," says Yoda on his deathbed, but warns Luke that the true final examination as a Jedi will be to confront Darth Vader.

"Luke knew this would be his test," Kahn writes, " it could not be otherwise. Every quest had its focus, and Vader was at the core of Luke's struggle. It was agonizing for him to put the question to words, but after a long silence, he again spoke to the old Jedi. 'Master Yoda -- is Darth Vader my father?'

"Yoda's eyes filled with a weary compassion. This boy was not yet a man complete. A sad smile creased his face, he seemed to grow smaller in his bed....

"Luke stared at the dwindling teacher, trying to give the old one strength, just by the force of his love and will. 'Yoda, I must know,' he whispered.

" 'Your father he is,' Yoda said simply."

Kahn then follows the three separate threads of the Battle of Endor: a mission led by Han to destroy the shield generator that provides the unfinished Death Star's main protection; Lando Calrissian's starfighter attack on the battle station itself; and Luke's desperate personal struggle to reclaim his father from the thrall of the evil Emperor Palpatine. It is classic Star Wars action, with heroic deeds, huge space battles, and a final, decisive clash of lightsabers between father and son.

Kahn, who is also a recovering emergency room doctor and has published a science fiction trilogy of his own, has done several novelizations of movie scripts, including Poltergeist and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. His style is clear and snappy, although Foster and Glut are better writers.

What I Like About This Book:

Although I really did not need this book, per se, because I already have the individual novels (and had a trade paperback omnibus edition), I just couldn't resist "the dark side" of temptation when I saw it at Waldenbooks. I bought it, along with the paperback edition of James Luceno's Star Wars: Cloak of Deception, simply because the book cover was so nifty looking. Instead of the stereotypical "Darth Vader-on-the-cover" art used in all the other Trilogy reissues, there is the original Ralph McQuarrie concept depiction of Luke holding a lightsaber against a plain black background above the words "The Star Wars Trilogy" and the names of the three credited authors (Lucas, Glut, and Kahn). I really didn't have many Silver Anniversary collectibles beyond the three action figure 2-packs (Swing to Freedom, Death Star Escape, and Final Duel), hadn't gone to the convention in Cincinnati, and Episode II hadn't yet been released on DVD.

But even if it was just a redundant buy, I still think it was a good purchase. My mass-paperback edition (which doesn't have the introductions by Lucas) is dog-eared and without its front cover, and my trade paperback was in danger of meeting the same fate. Having the three novels in one volume and in hardcover makes it both convenient to take on a trip -- one book takes up less space than three, after all -- and won't easily suffer from wear-and-tear as the cheaper paperbacks do. In addition, the larger print size means my eyes won't tire as quickly as they do when I read ordinary paperbacks.

© 2012 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Fab Four Still Rock My World: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the evolutionary, nay, revolutionary 1967 album by The Beatles, is one of the best, if not THE best, rock recordings ever. From the fantastic and iconic cover art by Peter Blake to the interesting idea of the "concept album," Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band broke away from The Beatles' previous "I Want To Hold Your Hand"-styled songs and took the Fab Four into new musical territory.

According to the liner notes included with the booklet, the conceit of the album was that The Beatles had morphed into an entirely new and different band, hence the title "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Geoff Emerick, the group's recording engineer, explains: "The Beatles insisted that everything be different, so everything was either distorted, limited, heavily compressed or treated with excessive equalization." This pure "studio album" was definitely avant garde for its mid-1960s era audiences, and even staid TIME magazine was impressed enough to give it a laudatory cover story. And even though many bands and singers since have adopted the "concept album" format (Billy Joel's "An Innocent Man" comes to mind) and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band has been imitated, it still stands heads and shoulders above the crowd.

The crowd...oh, yes. The famous cover with all those people on it. Because the album's concept was that it was a concert by this new band, the people on the cover, including Karl Marx, Mae West, Laurel and Hardy, George Bernard Shaw, and Alistaire Crowley, are the audience The Beatles would have liked to have. Interestingly, the acerbic wit of the group, John Lennon, would have also included Jesus, Gandhi, and Adolf Hitler, but this was nixed as a result of John's comments about The Beatles being "more popular than Jesus," a statement that led to some churches promoting Beatle album burnings in the United States.

Controversy and technical trickery aside, though, this album (one of the earliest Beatles records to be released in CD in the 1980s) is quite wonderful to listen to.

Considering there are only 13 songs on it, it's hard to believe the group and the recording engineers put over 700 hours of work into it, but the sheer creativity and variety of styles justifies all the effort. Starting with the title track, written and sung by Paul McCartney (in a clear departure from ballads like "Yesterday" and "Love Me Do") in a more hard-rock style, and ending with "A Day In The Life," with its mysterious lyrics and use (for the first time in rock history) of a full orchestra in a crescendo of musical thunder, The Beatles take the listener on a musical roller-coaster ride.

Each of the four Beatles gets his moment to shine...Ringo Starr sings the lead in "With A Little Help From My Friends," while George Harrison gets to showcase his chops as a songwriter/lead singer in "Within You Without You." The album also includes the charming, almost retro "When I'm Sixty-Four," the often misinterpreted but always mesmerizing "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds," "Getting Better," which is heard now in Philips' electronics commercials, and the melancholy "She's Leaving Home."

The CD includes a very informative retrospective article, the lyrics, and reproductions of the original 33 1/3 RPM LP's cutout artwork. And although the album (not the CD!) is 44 years old, its musical content still sounds uniquely original and relevant. It's worth listening to.

Key Tracks: My Top 10 Beatles Songs from Pepperland
(Track Number, Song Title)

1. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
2. With a Little Help From My Friends
3. Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds
4. Getting Better
5. Fixing a Hole
6. She's Leaving Home
9. When I'm Sixty-Four
10. Lovely Rita
11. Good Morning, Good Morning
13. A Day in the Life

© 2012 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved

Friday, August 12, 2011

High School Doesn’t Always Prepare Students for College

High school doesn’t always prepare students for college. One of the concepts that most, but not all, of the teachers I had in high school tried to sell us was that if we worked hard, if we behaved and earned good grades, we would be prepared to deal with the challenges we’d face after commencement. I’m sure that this was – and still might be – true for students in advanced placement or “college bound” classes, but for those of us who attended regular courses in the core curriculum and then went to college – either at the two-year community college or four-year institutions, it was the educational equivalent of the snake oil and other fake remedies sold by “medicine peddlers” in the late 19th Century to cure almost any ailment known to man – but didn’t.

(One thing that our high school teachers did not tell us was that more than half of us "regular class" students would have to take remedial courses in math or English at the community college level, but that's another topic for another time.)

Sure, I did well in all three of my English composition and most of my mass communications/journalism courses thanks to my three years on the newspaper and/or yearbook staffs at South Miami, but when it came to many of the Core Curriculum classes at Miami-Dade Community College, I initially felt that I was way out of my league, especially in Prof. Jay Brown’s humanities class and Prof. Isabella Harty-Hugues’ social studies course.

Both of these instructors were very opinionated and academically challenging; Prof. Brown was a libertarian who assigned us to read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and had no patience for students who simply thought showing up in class and took notes would suffice to earn a passing grade. He wasn’t shy about critiquing mainstream religion and explaining how the rise of Christianity had actually reversed the progress of European civilization during the Dark Ages, and many students hated him for it.

In a similar vein, Prof. Harty-Hugues (who died a few years ago in a tragic accident in front of her home) was a very left-leaning “progressive” who tried to convey, among other things, that President Lincoln’s goal during the Civil War wasn’t merely to restore the Union or free the slaves, but rather to protect the business interests of Northern financiers and industrialists. She was somewhat sympathetic toward the various Marxist-inspired Latin American revolutionary movements and very critical of the Reagan Administration, two stances which were not popular among my classmates.

In sharp contrast, I do not recall ever really knowing what political beliefs most of my high school teachers held dear. Sure, I knew that my 11th grade English teacher leaned toward the Democratic party and its policies, but that was because I was aware that she was dating an architect with political ambitions and some of us students were volunteers for his campaign to be mayor of Miami. To this day, however, when I think about my other instructors I remember them either for the subject they taught or by their personality traits (Ms. Brock, my 10th grade English teacher, was sarcastic and bubbly, while Mr. Bridge, my first journalism teacher, was calm and efficient as a lecturer and adviser), but not for their political views.

Another huge contrast I noticed was that both professors made us aware that while most of us were adept at taking notes and memorizing information by rote, hardly any of us had been taught the art of critical thinking. Again, this skill may have been taught in the AP or “college-bound” classes at South Miami, but not to us in “regular” classes. This was most obvious whenever “tough” profs tried to engage us in lively class discussions; most of my classmates would either sit at their desks with blank expressions on their young (and bored) faces or try to rely solely on their notes without any original viewpoints or insights. (It was during these classroom debates that Prof Brown would say exasperatedly, “Obviously you people weren’t taught how to think!” Of course, many students resented such comments, and quite a few of my HUM 1020 classmates dropped the class before “Drop Day” came and went in late March of 1985.)

As for me, I managed to adapt to college-level coursework by studying hard and trying to be as open-minded as possible without compromising my own core beliefs regarding politics and philosophical values. I think that being really curious about the world and having a passion for learning helped, but what I think really helped me survive the transition from public high school to the college level was the year and-a-half break that I took between graduation and my first semester in college. That 18-month gap gave me time to read a great deal, recharge my mental and physical batteries, and think about what I wanted to achieve in the future.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Concorde: Airport '79 - Universal's Floundering Franchise's Final Flight

Considering the ever-decreasing amount of realism and quality in Universal Studio's Airport series, I'm willing to bet that the late Arthur Hailey, in the moments when he wasn't writing soapy novels or screenplays, sometimes had second, third, and even fourth thoughts about having sold the film rights to his original soapy-but-at-least-credible best selling novel Airport to producer Ross Hunter. True, Hailey's novels are in the same literary level as Sidney Sheldon's or, dare I say, Danielle Steel, but at least the first film of the airplane-in-distress franchise was good enough to earn over $40 million in the U.S. alone and earned various Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture (it didn't win) and Best Supporting Actress (Helen Hayes, who did win).

Although movie studios, like all business enterprises, have always been interested in making big profits for their owners and stockholders, the Changing of Hollywood in the late 1960s that saw the retirement of the Zanucks and the Warners and the handing over of 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Universal, and Columbia Pictures to companies like Coca Cola and Music Corporation of America meant that people who did not know anything about film making were now running America's Dream Capital.

Everything, it seemed, now centered on demographics, box-office gross, and, unfortunately, the deadly trend of exploiting a good-to-excellent "property" (Planet of the Apes, Jaws, Superman, American Graffiti) for every nickel and dime possible even if, as in the case of the Airport series, each chapter was worse than the one that preceded it and earned less money. (According to the Internet Movie Database, The Concorde: Airport '79 only grossed $13 million in the United States during its theatrical run. How about that for diminishing returns?)

Having watched (twice!) Airport '77 at the movies and thinking that the series could get no sillier, I wisely avoided wasting my-then substantial $2.00 ticket money by going to the nearest two- or three-screen theater to catch The Concorde: Airport '79, I had remained blissfully ignorant about this turkey of a flick's bizarre and contrived storyline, awful directing, even worse acting, and incredibly bad casting. (Charo? For Pete's sake, why would anyone cast Charo in anything but cheesy 1970s TV shows a la Fantasy Island or, jeez, The Love Boat?)

But such bliss had to end someday, and for me it happened when my friends Ivan and Danny went out of town for a conference and asked me to cat-sit. Knowing I write reviews for Epinions, they also gave me permission to look through their DVD library, which is far more extensive than mine. This I did, and among such titles as Salon Kitty, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Flightplan, I spied The Concorde: Airport '79.

As bad as Airport '77 is, its plot of a 747 that somehow sinks pretty much intact in the Atlantic Ocean cruises at the same lofty levels of Kenneth Branagh's Henry V in comparison to The Concorde: Airport '79, which stars France's Alain Delon as Captain Paul Metrand and (inexplicably) George Kennedy as Captain Joe Patroni, the only carryover character from the other Airports and, by the powers invested to screenwriter Eric Roth (Ali, Munich), transformed from chief ground crew and operations manager to a fully-rated Concorde pilot.

Roth and director David Lowell Rich must have been on a particularly strange mindset when they were working on this SST (Stupid Silly Turkey), or perhaps they had been kidnapped by the same aliens that allegedly took off with Elvis Presley a few years before, because there is no other explanation for the sheer awfulness of Airport '79. They must have had a huge list of discarded ideas (plane gets eaten by a Yeti, plane gets attacked by a great white shark because a Brody family member is aboard, plane is taken over by Darth Vader) before they came up with this scenario:

First up, a radical Greenpeace-like group of environmentalists wants to prevent the Concorde from landing in Washington, D.C. by doing the aerial equivalent of blocking a whaling vessel with rubber boats - they want to block a runway by using a, get this, a hot air balloon. How this is going to deter a supersonic transport from landing at a major airport is beyond anyone with half a brain, but that is the radical environmentalists' brilliant plan.

Second, screenwriter Roth (or his Thalaxian double) follows the Airport by-the-numbers formula by focusing on various romantic/sexual entanglements, including Capt. Metrand's dalliances with hot stewardess Isabelle (Emmanuelle's Sylvia Kristel) and John Davidson's Robert Palmer's alarmingly creepy trysts with Russian gymnast Alicia Rogov (Andrea Marcovicci, whose Russian accent is only slightly funnier than co-star Mercedes McCambridge's outfit of oversized smock and scarf).

The Delon-Kristel subplot of chief pilot boffing the chief stewardess is, along with Joe Patroni's presence, is a tired echo of Airport and Airport 1975, while the Davidson-Marcovicci liaison is both weird and an attempt to cash in on the not-yet-boycotted Summer Olympics scheduled to take place the following year in Moscow. (The Olympic angle also explains the appearance of comedian Avery Schreiber as, of all things, a Russian Olympic team coach.)

Third, having decided that maybe it would not be a good idea to feature sharks or wayward Yeti as the flick's cause de disastre, Roth figured out that maybe having a villain from the James Bond School of Nefarious Industrialists would be the best solution to the question of "how do we place the Concorde in jeopardy?" Enter It Takes a Thief's Robert Wagner as Dr. Kevin Harrison, a handsome, wealthy weapons manufacturer who is, in the tradition of Blofeld and Auric Goldfinger, out to make a fast billion or so bucks by selling weapons to The Wrong People.

But after Harrison's TV-reporter girlfriend Maggie Whelan (Susan Blakely) witnesses the murder of a Harrison Industries whistleblower, escapes from the killer and is handed evidence of the Bad Doctor's dastardly dealings, Wagner's character goes into full-blown villain mode and hatches no less than three separate attempts to stop Concorde-flying Maggie from spilling the beans, all of them involving the destruction (by various means) of the passenger-laden Anglo-French supersonic transport.

Mayhem and unintentional madcap comedy ensue, as Delon and Kennedy manfully fly the Concorde as if they were driving an F-15 fighter and attempting such missile-evading tactics as firing a flare to decoy a heat-seeker and (amazingly) shutting off the airliner's engines to reduce its heat signature.

All the while, all the wild maneuvers violently toss and throw the cast-offs from a Love Boat casting call, including a lost-looking Eddie Albert as the airline owner and Playboy Playmate of the Year Sybil Danning as his trophy wife, Jimmie Walker of TV's Good Times as a pot-smoking jazz sax player, and, inexplicably, Charo as an English-mangling cuchi-cuchi passenger who is attempting to bring her chihuahua on board the plane against airline regulations.

To call this movie woefully inept is a gross understatement. Roth, who obviously has written better films both before and after The Concorde: Airport '79, crams way too many plot twists that are insanely inane for this movie to be even enjoyable trash. For instance, after your plane somehow survived attacks by a drone and a jet fighter and you were tossed all over the cabin, would you board the same plane for the next leg of a flight? I didn't think so, but that's what all the passengers of this flight do, probably because they don't want to miss the Moscow Olympics. The story is bad, the acting is mediocre at best, and the dialog is absolutely the pits.

Isabelle: You pilots are such... men.
Capt. Joe Patroni: Well, they don't call it a "cockpit" for nothing.

Fortunately for the moviegoing public, when this movie crashed and burned at the box office, a modicum of sanity returned to Universal's head offices and we were spared from Airport '81: The Yeti Ate Flight 19. The Thalaxians returned with the real Eric Roth, who went on to write or co-write The Onion Field, Forrest Gump, The Horse Whisperer, and the Michael Mann biopic of Muhammad Ali, with the proviso that Charo be confined to Hollywood Squares and GEICO commercials.

The Concorde: Airport '79
Partial Cast List

Alain Delon .... Capt. Paul Metrand
Susan Blakely .... Maggie Whelan
Robert Wagner .... Dr. Kevin Harrison
Sylvia Kristel .... Isabelle
George Kennedy .... Capt. Joe Patroni
Eddie Albert .... Eli Sands
Bibi Andersson .... Francine
Charo .... Margarita
John Davidson .... Robert Palmer
Andrea Marcovicci .... Alicia Rogov

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Things I Remember: 10th Grade Edition (1980-81): The Saga Begins

When I graduated from South Miami High in June of 1983, I felt so connected to my alma mater, my teachers and my friends that it was inconceivable that I had had any moments in which I had not felt any stirrings of "Cobra Spirit" from my first day as a sophomore almost three years earlier.

After all, by the time we of the Class of 1983 gathered at Miami-Dade Community College's Gibson Center to accept our diplomas I had served on both the yearbook and school newspaper staffs, sang in two choir ensembles, helped kick off Cobra Media Productions' TV club, and even attempted to perform in one of the drama classes. I proudly wore my South Miami High baseball cap regularly, along with various T-shirts which touted some of the above-mentioned groups or activity clubs.

And yet, part of me still remembers that my initial feelings about the school were not, um, exactly positive.

You see, from third grade on, I had been assigned to schools which were in Southwest Miami Senior High's "feeder" system. From 1972 to 1977 I attended Tropical Elementary, then went (literally) next door to Riviera Junior High for grades seven through nine, and from there I was slated to go to Southwest as a member of its Class of '83.

This, of course, had been the path that friends one or two grades ahead of me had taken, and all of my plans for 10th grade were based on the premise that I, as a student assigned to Riviera Jr. High's Special Ed department, would also follow that path.

Little did I know, however, that fate (or the Dade County Public School system) had other ideas.

While I was doing my best to finish ninth grade with decent grades and prepare for the transition from Riviera to Southwest, friends of mine who were already in "Eagle Country" were having a hard time because the school's early 1960s design was not really amenable for students with disabilities. Like many high schools, Southwest had a multi-story main building (so did Riviera) but lacked an elevator which could accommodate kids on wheelchairs or with physical limitations that made climbing staircases difficult, particularly in a school setting in which students had to go from classroom to classroom every 55 minutes or so.

Naturally, those Special Ed students who were mainstreamed into regular classes were seriously affected by the absence of wheelchair ramps or an elevator; they'd arrive late to class and had other issues. Of course, they and their parents complained, so the powers that be divided Southwest's Special Ed program into several groups.

Those students with vision, hearing and learning disabilities but no serious physical limitations stayed on campus, while those with mobility issues were sent, indiscriminately, to the more modern facility at South Miami. And for some reason, I was included in the latter group, even though I could, and still can, walk up and down staircases and hallways just as well as a non-disabled person.

As I said earlier, given my fondness for my high school and the friends I made there, it's hard to believe that I was not thrilled by the news I received about a month before the end of the 1979-1980 school year - namely, that I'd not be going to Southwest with most of my Tropical/Riviera buddies, but to a high school where I only knew a few students.

Thus, in contrast with the sadness that I felt on my last day of high school, my first day as a Cobra was one full of frustration, angst and resentment.

Things I Remember: My First Day

1. The Worst Morning Ever: Not only was I so nervous and restless that I woke up at three in the morning on that day in late August of 1980, but I ended up arriving several hours late to school because my bus driver, thinking that I was one of her wheelchair-bound pickups, sped by me as I stood patiently at my bus stop. I had no idea that that bus had been my bus so instead of calling the school and telling them what had happened, I simply stood there like a doofus for two hours (from six to eight in the morning). I ended up having to ask my mom for a ride to a place I had never been to, and we got lost on the way to South Miami. We eventually did get to campus and I was whisked off to the auditorium, where other students who had not been given their class schedules were also waiting.

Sometime around 10 AM, Mr. Passman (who had been a Special Ed teacher at Southwest) collected me and handed me my schedule...and I ended up starting my high school years in Mr. King's third period Business Math class.

2. Dr. Burchell: My next class was Mr. Bridge's Newspaper Production and Basic Reporting course, which my Riviera Jr. High guidance counselor had chosen for me without my knowledge. This class was on the second floor (Mr. King's math class was on the first) and it was emptying just as I arrived because it was lunch time. (If I remember correctly, South Miami had two or three separate lunch periods, and Mr. Bridge's class "got" first lunch.)

Now, even though I had made a stop at the school main office upon my arrival on campus, I only knew - thanks to the "welcome to South Miami" card I had received in the mail a few weeks earlier - that the principal's name was Dr. Warren G. Burchell. I had no idea what he looked like, so when I first saw a scary-looking middle-aged man with a balding head and a walkie-talkie radio in one hand, I assumed that was the principal. (As it turned out, the balding man was one of the assistant principals, Mr. Farthing, who had been given the nicknames "Mr. Lightbulb" and "Bombillo" by previous classes of Cobras.)

A Sideways Detour From Main Narrative: I should mention right now that at the time I had gotten into the habit of wearing a cheap imitation Army jacket which I'd bought that summer at the old Jet Army-Navy Store on Bird Road and 97th Avenue. It wasn't a genuine surplus jacket - the fabric was too light, the buttons came off too easily and had to be constantly reattached, and it had no military labeling like real Army-issue gear has - but it was olive drab and a friend of mine had sewn on a "US ARMY" tag above the left breast pocket and the Americal Division patch on the right shoulder. I also had two brass-colored captain's bars on the collar rank tabs.

And Now, Back to Our Tale:

Anyway, there I was, walking into the cafeteria for the first time, still feeling confused, isolated and a bit angry, when a very dapper man with white hair, a n equally-white handlebar mustache, a Motorola walkie-talkie and a very friendly smile said, "Hello, Captain!"

"Hello, sir," I replied.

"I'm Dr. Burchell, son. I'm the principal. Are you a new student?"

"Uh, yes, sir."

He could tell that I was sort of nervous in his presence, so he put his hand on my shoulder in a fatherly fashion and said, "Welcome to South Miami. Glad to have you aboard, Captain."

Of course, this first meeting between Dr. Burchell and I didn't totally dispel my bleak outlook about being at South Miami High, but looking back on it now, it was one of the experiences I had during my first week in high school that helped me accept my new circumstances and my "identity" as a Cobra.

© 2011-2012 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Things I Remember: In the 1970s and Around 1980 (List)

Blogger's Note: I really wanted to write something a bit more substantial today, but my Muse has apparently taken the day off; it must be the heat and humidity in subtropical South Florida. In lieu of a "proper" blog entry, I offer a not-very-comprehensive list of songs that I listened to as a "tween" and very young teenager.

A List of Songs I Really Liked Back Then:

1. Yellow Submarine
2. Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree
3. Song Sung Blue
4. Ben
5. My Life
6. Rosalinda’s Eyes
7. Feels So Good
8. First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
9. Yesterday
10. Hey Jude
11. Nowhere Man
12. Theme from “SWAT”
13. The Night Chicago Died
14. You Are the Sunshine of My Life
15. Sing
16. Time in a Bottle
17. The Most Beautiful Girl in the World
18. September Morn
19. I Write the Songs
20. Mandy
21. At the Copa (Copacabana)
22. You Don’t Bring Me Flowers
23. The Shadow of Your Smile
24. If
25. Hopelessly Devoted to You

Monday, August 1, 2011

Things I Remember: In the 1970s (Cont’d)

1. Wacky Packages: Topps, the trading card company which also published Star Wars trading cards and stickers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, introduced these graphic spoofs of well-known consumer products and brands, e.g. Spam = Cram. The cards and stickers – which we kids called “Wacky Packies” – were drawn by professional comic book artists and often featured violent, gross and scary images in a sardonic, almost gallows humor that, like the later Garbage Pail Kids cards, appealed to tweens’ often quirky sensibilities.

Between 1973 and 1976, I used to go to the Seven-Eleven store close to the Tamiami Trail and SW 97th Avenue every Saturday and buy five packs for a quarter, which back then seemed to be a lot of money for a kid. I was such a big fan of “Wacky Packies” that I saved up $5.00 of my allowance and bought an unopened box. Unfortunately, I lost my entire collection when we moved to our present house; apparently, the movers “lost” some of our boxes during the four-month interval that passed between the sale of our old home and our arrival in the new one.

2. My first girlfriend, circa November 1972: Her name was Cheryl Thigpen, and she was in my third grade class at Coral Park Elementary (Mrs. Turtletaub, Room E-13). At the time, I didn’t speak very much English, having returned Stateside from living in Colombia for nearly half a decade, but I did know a pretty girl when I saw one, and for the two months of my stay at Coral Park I couldn’t help but notice Cheryl, a willowy red-head with pale skin and lots of freckles. Because of the language barrier and my shyness, I had to ask one of my few friends in class how to write “I love you” in English; one day in mid-November I finally got up the nerve to jot “To Cheryl, I love you, Alex” on a piece of notebook paper and “sent” it to her surreptitiously with the help of other kids in class.

Surprisingly, Cheryl – who sat a couple of rows away from me – looked in my direction, blushed a little bit and smiled shyly. Later, I received a hand-written reply; “Alex, I love you, too. Cheryl.” And for the rest of that school day, I considered myself the happiest boy on Earth.

Unfortunately, that same afternoon I was told that I was being transferred to Tropical Elementary School, which meant that I’d not be seeing Cheryl on a daily basis again. If I’d spoken more English at the time and actually been able to speak to her and understand her replies, I’m sure she’d have told me we could hang out on weekends or after school. Sadly, though, my vocabulary was still rudimentary, so communicating was very hard to do.

The last memory I have of her is that on a cold November afternoon she and I were standing in front of the school entrance, me shivering because I had left my jacket at home, and Cheryl generously taking off her pink wool sweater so I would be warm. We never kissed or engaged in any PDAs besides hug and hold hands for a bit, but I have never forgotten her act of kindness.

Regrettably, even though she gave me her phone number – she wrote it on an envelope – I never did get a chance to call her. I somehow inadvertently misplaced the envelope and, though I looked for it all over the house, never found it.