Tuesday, October 10, 2017

* My Second Black and White TV Childhood


Column: Did 1950s television plant any seeds?

Updated 5:12 pm, Tuesday, October 10, 2017

     Recently I have been watching re-runs of popular TV shows I grew up with and I’m surprised     to find that little flowers of fairness popped up and flourished in that wasteland of sexism and racism and homophobia that was the black and white popular TV of the 1950s.

Take the black and white TV western Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater. One episode called “The Promise” has a new doctor in town who is mocked for taking care of people who were called the “squatters” or Mexican immigrants who farm land on the outskirts of that town. When the racist mayor of the town asks one immigrant farmer his name, the doctor says, under his breath, “Twenty years, 20 years and you still don’t know how to ask a man his name in his own language.”

Wow. That’s advanced thinking for the late 1950s.

Is this a harbinger of the modern imperative for bi-lingualism? Remember George Bush running for president and giving speeches in Spanish?

A “Death Valley Days” episode called “The Lady Doctor” has a husband who is frustrated because his wife uses her medical knowledge as the daughter of a doctor to heal local town folk.

At one point she treats a local ailing Native American chief for food poisoning, risking her life and her husband’s farm if the chief doesn’t recover.

Her husband demands that she spend more time as a homemaker and less time as a healer, until the day that he turns up with a broken leg himself, which she is able to set properly.

Suddenly, the husband appreciates the value of “the lady doctor” in a very personal way, and the episode ends with her husband cooking supper on one leg ( and burning it) while she runs off to deliver a local farmer’s baby.

Is this the first house husband in no less than the 1950s Death Valley Days?

Another Death Valley Days episode has an Army officer in 1875 shot by the arrow of a Native American for trespassing on land agreed in a treaty that white men will not enter.

He is brought to the Native American camp for a trial by the chief who will decide if he is to live or die. The tribe members who captured him want him killed.

When he enters the chief’s dwelling, the chief stands alone with his back to the camera and the man.

Turning to face the camera, the chief is revealed to have black, not red, skin.

He escaped from slavery in 1857, and knew nothing of the Civil War or the Emancipation Proclamation. To save the Army officer from being killed if he is released on treaty land, the chief offers to escort him back to land protected by the U.S. law, even though he erroneously thinks he risks being captured as an escaped slave himself.

The episode ends, with the wounded Army officer asking the chief what year he escaped from slavery and realizing that the escaped slave-turned-chief did not know he was a free man, thanks to Abraham Lincoln.

The Army soldier asks to shake the hand of the free man saying, “Nobody can take your freedom from you ever again” or similar words.

In retrospect it confronts surprisingly two sad realities in American history: treaty violations in agreements with Native Americans by whites and the plight of people who escaped enslavement.

It is worth noting here, that in another Death Valley Days episode, Sammy Davis Jr. appears as a black Union soldier. This was the 1950s, long before Davis was famous, long before TV tried to make amends for its predominantly white view of American culture by including blacks as central to television plots.

Am I trying to clean up 1950s TV’s wasteland of sexism, racism and homophobia?


I’m just surprised to discover in these re-runs a few flowers blooming that predict the revolution of the flower children of the 1960s and 70s.

Even the comedy “I Love Lucy,” which refused to use the word “pregnant” on camera and insisted that Ricky and Lucy sleep in separate twin beds rather than a single marriage bed, has its moments of liberation.

Don’t ignore the elephant in the Ricardo’s apartment: I Love Lucy was multi-cultural.

Ricky was Cuban. He spoke Spanish, and he was successful. And the dizzy Lucy of TV was Lucille Ball , the brains behind the highly successful Hollywood production company DesiLu, which grew from their “I Love Lucy” TV show.

And there’s an elephant in Dick Powell’s of Zane Grey Theater, a radioactive one.

Powell died of cancer at age 59 and may have contracted that cancer directing the movie “The Conqueror” at St. George, Utah near the U.S. nuclear testing site of the 1950s. Actors John Wayne and Susan Hayworth were also in that movie and also died of cancer.

And let’s not forget the other TV series where racial and sexist inequalities had brief moments in the sun, Death Valley Days.

It had as a narrator a future president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, who appointed the first woman to the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O'Connor, and tried to end nuclear proliferation, surely a danger that threatens all races.

What’s my point?

American TV was trying. It didn’t give birth to the gender and racial revolutions of the 1960s and 70s , but it may have seeded them.

Here and there.



Paul Keane grew up in the Mt. Carmel section of Hamden. He lives in Vermont where he retired after teaching English for 25 years.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Ken Burns/ Lynn Novick Questions: A Century of Stretching the Truth in Wartime

A Century of Stretching the Truth in Wartime
by Paul Keane


The Ken Burns/ Lynn Novick documentary The Viet Nam War begs the questions: What is patriotism? And what is a hero?

I have a 100 year old piece of paper, rolled up and dusty for fifty years, which announces  my grandmother’s brother was a patriot who made “the Supreme Sacrifice for Country and Mankind in the War for Civilization”.

It is a mistake.

It is a certificate given by the State of Connecticut in 1917 to my great grandparents when their 28 year-old-son, John Bristow Nugent, died serving in the Navy on the USS So. Dakota.

He may have been a patriot, but he wasn’t a hero and he didn’t make “the Supreme Sacrifice”.

He died only ten days after enlisting,  but not in battle.  He died of natural causes, “carcinoma” of the stomach

The certificate I had found in my grandmother’s papers was not a symbol of honor.  It was patriotic propaganda put out by the State of Connecticut and sent to its citizens who had lost a loved one in World War I.

I suspect the reason it was rolled up and dusty instead of hanging on a family wall in a gold frame, is that John Bristow Nugent’s relatives realized Connecticut had sent them the certificate in error, or as a gesture of kindness or courtesy at the loss of  a military son.

John Bristow Nugent in 1913,
working for the Attleboro, Mass. Water Company.

Furthermore, he enlisted under an alias, George Leon Young, complicating the mystery of the inappropriately delivered certificate sent to his next of kin, who lived in Connecticut, even though Bristow’s wife and 2 year old son lived in Fitchburg, Massachusetts.

Bristow, using that alias, nevertheless designated his mother by her legal name and address in New Haven, Connecticut as the person to be notified in an emergency.

The emergency turned out to be his untimely death. Here is the Navy report:

“Cause of Death: Carcinoma

Origin: Not in line of duty. Existed prior to enlistment. At about 8:45 A.M. on April 17, 1917 deceased was discovered lying unconscious and in convulsions in a lot in Vallejo, California. Asst. Surgeon H. R. McAllister, U.S.N. attached to the Navy yard, Mare Island, California, saw the deceased at the time and placing him in a motor car rushed him to the U.S. Naval Hospital, Mare Island, California but he died en route.

An autopsy showed all the abdominal viscera infiltrated with carcinoma nodules.

Body shipped by U.S. Naval Hospital, Mare Island, California to next of kin.”

The Ken Burns/Lynn Novick Viet Nam documentary systematically uncovers the years of  lies which the U.S. government told its citizens about our patriotic duty to fight Communism in Viet Nam and the heroes which that war was producing.

My grandmother’s dusty, rolled up certificate of Supreme Sacrifice is not exactly a lie, but  an embarrassing  government promotional ad,  used to soften the blow of losing a relative in war and make it seem somehow worthwhile. 

They had sent it to the wrong family in a moment of bureaucratic misjudgment, or misguided courtesy.

Bristow wasn’t a hero.  He was ill with undiagnosed cancer and died of his illness.

Even his parents knew that and had the  integrity not to ride on the coattails of a mistaken  hero’s supreme sacrifice.

On his tombstone they wrote quite simply:

John Bristow Nugent  
U.S.S. South Dakota
Died in Service at
Vallejo, California

No patriotic claptrap, no false claims of heroism, just the accurate words “Died in Service.”

Viet Nam and the World Wars did have heroes and their deaths were patriotic.

Bristow’s certificate deserved to be rolled up and to collect dust.

It was a governmental goof-up, even if motivated by kindness .

As Bristow’s closest living kin, I asked for and received all 300 pages of  his  military file including decades of insurance claims made by  his widow who received 240 monthly installments of $25 for herself and $40 for support of their son.

She and her son, who never married, are now long dead.

I was surprised to discover a family skeleton in those papers which may explain Bristow’s use of an alias. 

His marriage certificate declares that he was married in 1915 at the age of 26 to a 31 year old Canadian woman and the ceremony was officiated by a “R.C. Priest”, Father Boyle. Inter-religious marriage was frowned upon in those days and Bristow’s father was a “black Protestant” and an outspoken “Pope hater”.

The birth certificate of  Bristow’s son indicates the child was born 6 months after the marriage, suggesting that Bristow’s bride may have been pregnant at the time of the wedding.  In those days, it was a man’s duty to “do the honorable thing” if he got a girl pregnant and marry her so the baby would have a father’s name.

Bristow and my family were in a terrible bind:
Inter-religious marriage vs. dishonor.

Bristow did the honorable thing but two years later he did another honorable thing: He joined the service in wartime 3000 miles from home. A news article says "when the call came for recruits in the Navy the young man enlisted. " Its headline says "Body of Bellingham Hero Arrives for Burial"..Answering the call had apparently earned the title "hero".

The Burns/Novick documentary does not answer the questions: What is patriotism?  What is a hero?

But my great grandparents did answer.

“Died in service” is just what it says, nothing more and nothing less.

 And then the rolled up the certificate wound up in the hands of Bristow’s sister to collect dust  for fifty years.

I framed  that certificate and hung it in my study as a reminder of how difficult it is not to stretch the truth in time of war, a difficulty Ken Burns and Lynn Novick painfully document in their 8 part film on Viet Nam.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

* Rudolph



                  Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer sculpture with the painted red nose, which Paul Keane created from the Hoffman tailor's press.                

 Paul Keane: Beauty is





when we look for it

Published 1:42 pm, Tuesday, August 22, 2017

  The Ugly Duckling, Dumbo, Rudolph  ---- three stories about young'uns who got bullied because of their looks: black feathers, big ears, a red nose.

  Bullying extends to inanimate objects too.

  I have owned  a 500 lb. cast iron Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer for 57 years that has been picked on all all that time as a red-nosed pile of junk.

  I bought this Rudolph when I was 16. And it was then indeed in a junk-heap in front of the feed store next to my church.

  But I saw something in it which nobody else did. I saw a sculpture.

  It was being sold as a machine. It had been a dry cleaning tailor’s press made by the Hoffman Company and it had five pedals that were used to run the machine. Its dry cleaning “pads” were missing.

  Nobody wanted the machine because it was manually operated and in 1960, when I was 16, the rage was for everything to be electric.

  Poor old Hoffman.

  In fact, with its five pedals I called this machine “The Tails of Hoffman” (for the opera The Tales of Hoffman).

  My parents thought I had lost my mind. I’d even paid my entire week’s salary of $15 from Stop and Shop ,where I worked as a bagger after school. That’s how much I wanted that crazy object.

  As I said, my parents thought I was nuts until I painted the Hoffman tailor’s press “deer” tan and white and gave it a big red nose.

  Suddenly my parents saw what I saw: It was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a 500-pound cast iron version, but Rudolph nonetheless.

  Keep in mind, the carol says, “All the other reindeer wouldn’t let poor Rudolph play in any reindeer games.” In other words, he got picked on.

  My parents didn’t pick on him exactly, but they didn’t “see” him till I painted his nose red.

  Others did pick on him.

  He stood in my parents’ yard in Mt. Carmel from 1960 to 1992, when my father died.

  I had Rudolph moved to my Vermont house that year along with my parents’ furniture and he has been here ever since.

  That’s 32 years outdoors in Connecticut weather and 25 years outdoors in Vermont weather for a total of 57 years outside in the elements. The snow has actually reached up to his chin in Vermont.

  I said my Rudolph got picked on. The moving company charged me $75 extra to add him to the moving van. The driver called Rudolph “that thing” and dropped him, breaking one of his “antlers” ( made from a cast iron arm for the dry cleaning “pad”.)

  The real estate agent in Vermont who sold me my house called him “Rudolph the red nosed junk heap” and over the years many passers by have asked me what is that “thing” in your yard?

  Like my parents 57 years ago, the minute I say “Rudolph” they “get it”.

  It’s ironic isn’t it?

  Rudolph in the Christmas story was picked on for having a red nose. My sculpture is picked on until his “red nose” is pointed out and unlocks his identity.

  Like those three children’s stories, The Ugly Duckling, Dumbo, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, my sculpture has been picked on for his looks for his entire existence since I created him.

  And let that be another children’s story with a lesson: If you appreciate art, you will see reindeer when others do not .

Paul Keane grew up in the Mt. Carmel section of Hamden. He lives in Vermont where he retired after teaching English for 25 years.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Thanks Dad.

The Prince and the Power Mower

For the Valley News
Saturday, August 19, 2017
I have had a recurring thought ever since June 2, 1953, when I was 8 years old and saw the coronation of Queen Elizabeth on my black and white TV in my parents’ home in Mt. Carmel, Conn.

When I saw a queen step out of that golden carriage, I realized without having the adult words to say so, that there were two kinds of people in the world: those who are taken care of and those who have to take care of themselves.

This thought about royal people became especially irritating six years later when I was 14 and Queen Elizabeth’s son, Prince Charles, was 10.

That was the year my father took me to the hardware store, bought a Toro lawn mower and told me I had to go out and line up lawns to mow and pay him back the $88 he spent.

I got about 12 lawns and slowly paid him back over the summer. It was so long ago that the lawn mower he bought didn’t even have a retractable pull cord. It was just a rope with a knot on one end and a pull handle on the other.

I hated that work, especially since my father had simply laid it on me like a straightjacket.

It was then that my observation about royals became the first of a lifetime of repeated thoughts: “I’ll bet Prince Charles has never had to push a lawn mower in his life.”

Ever since then, I would notice Prince Charles in the news: as a teenager relaxing on the royal yacht; on a royal beach; when he went off to college; when he married Lady Diana riding in that same golden carriage his mother had used for her coronation; when he became a father; when he divorced; when he remarried; and now, as the Duke of Edinburgh, his 96-year-old father, retires.

Every single time I have seen a photo of Prince Charles over the decades, my teenage thought returned to me: “I’ll bet that guy never had to push a lawn mower in his life.” And by “had to” I meant that if he didn’t, the lawn wouldn’t grow out of control and the world wouldn’t know he was lazy and undependable, as it would about me if my lawn(s) were left to go to seed.

This recurring thought may sound petty and childish, and, yes, obsessive. (Psychiatrists, feel free to weigh in.)

But in my opinion, something else is going on here.

When my father bought me that lawn mower in 1959 and set me up in business, he was creating an adulthood ritual for me to undergo (a kind of capitalistic bar mitzvah) in which I had to prove to him, to the neighbors and myself, that I could be reliable, accomplish adult work and make money to pay debts.

Every time I saw Prince Charles from that point on, I was reminded of that ritual and grudgingly acknowledged my father’s wisdom in making me grow up and take care of myself.

I was reminded too that my father knew there weren’t any princes in America. That in this country, our wonderful democracy where every boy and girl can create a self-made business, I couldn’t grow up to smell the roses, unless I first grew up and mowed the lawn.

Paul Keane lives in Hartford.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

* Oh lost ! And by the wind-grieved ghost, come back again. (Thomas Wolfe)

An Invitation That Opened (Some) Minds


·                            A 1989 photo of British actor and author QuentIn Crisp. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

For the Valley News

Saturday, July 29, 2017

That same year, I entered Yale Divinity School, and during that school year, the most famous transvestite in the world gave a one-man show nearby in New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre. Quentin Crisp, 71, had turned his autobiography The Naked Civil Servant about his life as a cross-dresser in Britain into an hour and a half monologue of the same title.

It ran for weeks at Long Wharf Theater; I attended the production with another divinity student, Carol Brock (who later became a Unitarian minister), and we both were impressed by Crisp’s wit and articulateness.

We invited him to speak about transvestitism at the divinity school and to our surprise, he accepted. I later learned that one of his guiding principles was, “Never turn down an invitation.”

Brock and I put up posters around the school and on the Yale campus in downtown New Haven, and reserved the auditorium at the divinity school, which had at least 200 seats.

We had no idea if anyone would attend, especially since transvestitism wasn’t exactly a household word then.

The day arrived (I believe it was a 2 p.m. event), and about 30 people showed up.

Zero faculty from the divinity school attended, and most of the students were from other departments.

Surprisingly, to Brock and myself, several faculty from the Yale Department of Psychology attended, which made Crisps’ opening remark, spoken with his British accent, all the more notable.

Let me set the scene. Crisp had white hair dyed purple, as was the fashion of older American women at the time — by intention or through bad hair coloring. His fingernails were painted red and he wore lipsstick and makeup. He wore a black velvet fedora hat and spoke in impeccable, elegant sentences. He said he spoke in “Crisperanto.”

(Note: I have created a blog detailing his appearance at the divinity school and listing many of his quotes: http://crisperanto.blogspot.com.)

Here is the first sentence he uttered: “Are we all agreed, then: Psychology was a mistake?”

Like Oscar Wilde before him, he spoke epigrammatically, all the better to imprint his words on others’ minds. Like Wilde, too, he was heretical. When asked questions about God, he said he preferred to refer to him as “You know who,” fostering the impression that no one in truth exactly knows who God is or isn’t, anyway.

This was definitely not what divinity school folk wanted to hear.

Since they had mostly ignored the event and were not in attendance, they got their wish — they did not hear heresy. Their non-attendance was an Ivy-league way of putting their hands over their ears. As religious intellectuals and academics, they were much too polite to protest Crisp’s speech on their campus, but made their feelings clear by their absence.

The faculty from the Psychology Department, on the other hand, did exactly the opposite (despite his opening quip). They made their professional interest in transvestitism clear by their presence at what was certainly a controversial speech.

They were tactful but forthright in asking Crisp questions about what it was like to be a transvestite. They even invited him to participate in future interviews at their department to help them better understand the phenomenon. Adhering to his guiding principle, Crisp accepted their invitation. Forty years later, society is only just beginning to acknowledge the reality of gender fluidity.

Crisp performed his one-man play in New York, where he took up residence in the Hotel Chelsea in one of its famous one-room accommodations, for the next 20 years.

He wrote several books and was a columnist for the Village Voice and other publications. He was still accepting every invitation offered him until he died a month before his 91st birthday in 1999.

I am proud that I had the foresight to invite Crisp to Yale. He told Brock and me that he was surprised by the invitation. He did not think a divinity school would be interested in what he had to say.

It wasn’t.

But maybe psychology wasn’t such a mistake after all.


Paul Keane lives in Hartford.

Friday, June 23, 2017

* Dr. Duct Tape and Digital Colleagues



Paul Keane:

Three generations of digital


Dr. Duct Tape, Dr. Cardiac

and Dr. Neighbor

Paul Keane grew up in Mt. Carmel. He lives in Vermont where he retired after teaching English for 25 years.
Paul Keane grew up in Mt. Carmel. He lives in Vermont where he retired after teaching English for 25 years.

The “healing hand” is a famous ancient symbol associated with the shaman’s “touch”, which heals the sick.
My doctor for the last 15 years is a true healer, and also the author of a well known Vermont book: “Bag Balm and Duct Tape, Tales of a Vermont Doctor” (1989).
It’s the story of a young city-trained doctor who came to Vermont and how his country patients, in a town the author calls “Dumster”, taught him to be the kind of countrified doctor his patients were used to, and wanted to keep around.
His real name is Dr. Beach Conger and he’s about to turn 77. He retired three years ago from a practice in Ascutney, Vermont near my home, but he kept a second practice in Burlington where he lives.

I asked if I could follow him there, even though it’s a 90 minute drive, and he said “yes.”
I didn’t want to lose a doctor who speaks in down-to-earth images. Bag balm and duct tape are just the kind of medicine I understand. But the larger lesson in Beach Conger’s book is that a good doctor in many ways becomes the doctor his patients teach him to be.
Even a 77, Dr. Conger keeps this lesson fresh.
I communicate with him through email between our semi-annual visits, and he has willingly obliged me as a digital doctor, often saving me the drive to Burlington by dashing off an email reassurance or admonition.
He even gave me his personal email address when I told him I was having difficulty getting through to him at his office email address.
In the last five years there have been two other digital doctors in my life.
One is 59 and a cardiologist. He is amazingly responsive to email questions and always answers me within 24 hours, even though he is head honcho of his department, in other words, a big shot.
He, like the semi-fictional doctor in Bag Balm and Duct Tape, is letting his patients teach him what they want in a doctor, and digital interaction is definitely part of the modern patient’s expectations. When I first went to him a dozen years ago, email communication was not part of his repertoire
(Not that I’m a “modern” patient at age 72 , but I am a digital devotee.).
The third digital doctor just got his medical degree two years ago at nearby Dartmouth College. He is definitely a member of the digital generation.
He lives next door to me in Hartford Village, Vermont and even though he has not been my official doctor, he was coincidentally on duty in the emergency room a couple of years ago when I walked in having a heart attack.
He and I already had a digital relationship as neighbors because his dog kept escaping his electric fence and I would text him at the ER that the dog was loose and I was bringing him home.
But back to the heart attack.
The ER folks put me on a gurney with an intravenous drip and hooked me up to electrical patches to monitor my heart.
I was prisoner, tied down electrically in a tiny room behind a curtain at 4 a.m., text messaging a woman friend about my situation.
All of a sudden my neighbor doctor stuck his head through the curtain and asked, “What are you doing here, Paul?.”
“Having a heart attack, I think,” I replied.
Although he wasn’t assigned to my case, we had already established a long text message thread over his dog and he told me, “I’m on duty all day so text me and let me know how you are doing.”
I texted him throughout the day, even when I had a stent inserted surgically in my cardiac artery, and his digital hand-holding cheered me enormously, especially since he was a doctor and knew exactly what was happening to my body.
In three different ways these doctors from three different generations (77, 59, about 28) --- Dr. Bag Balm, Dr. Cardiac, and Dr. Neighbor --- all represent a new kind of medical hand-holding: pressing the flesh through a keyboard --- a 21st century kind of healing hand.

Paul Keane grew up in Mt. Carmel. He lives in Vermont where he retired after teaching English for 25 years.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

* PK Lookalikes (39) There's a Sucker Born Every Minute

1966 Nash AMC

2017 Rolls Royce Wraith