Friday, April 22, 2011

Happy 75th Birthday Dad!

Strange how such a giant man in my life could have been born so small.

Firollo Laguardia was the mayor of New York City when dad was born at Doctor's Hospital. The physician who delivered him also delivered my sister and me.

He was named after his mother's brother, Courty Barnes then stationed in the State Department's Far East Division.

Dad was one of the geat nappers even at a young age.

The engraved pewter cup is a time honored tradition. I suppose they're even safe to drink from.
Photos courtesy of Lansing

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Inheritance That Barks

Whippets are strange looking dogs. They look like some kind of genetic experiment combining dogs and deer. They're dogalopes.

When we first met the two whippets Mom adopted from rescue shelters, my wife and I thought they were kind of creepy.Gryffor and Pippi took over the couches and beds. They napped all day. They were far too skinny. What's there to love except bones covered in thin hairs?

And yet Mom did love them. Maybe not more than all of her grandchildren. But ranked together, they would come somewhere in the middle of a personal poll.

Every time I visited Mom, we'd take these eerily quiet dogs out for walks. They had their own way of communicating with each other. They'd weave back and forth, tangling the leashes. I kept my eyes open for squirrels so I'd be ready for them to leap out of my clutches. They knocked down Mom a few times chasing squirrels. Another reason I wasn't much of a fan.

But Mom loved their sweet disposition. She was heartbroken when Pippi died, and she needed to make sure Gryffor would have a home if things didn't pan out for her. So, after checking with my sisters, I told Mom we'd take Gryffor. In Mom's final days, Gryffor seemed to sense what was going on. I thought this photo spoke for all of us.

After Mom passed away I drove home with Gryffor. Two boys silently riding home with heavy hearts. When we got home, I walked Gryffor straight through our house to the backyard. He nearly chased down one of our cats. There would be an adjustment period.

And during that period I learned whippets are really quite wonderful dogs. During the day, they want to be near the action--near the family--but they don't need to be in the middle of the action. At night they are hot water bottles... leaping into any bed they can find to snuggle up against anybody. Gryffor seemed to be happy to be part of this young family.

We'd take him for walks. Just picking up the leash makes him do a happy dance to the door. We'd watch him get his "whippet" out by dashing at full speed from one end of the backyard to the other. And we'd catch him sitting under the kitchen table waiting for scraps to fall. Every time I'd get home from work, Gryffor would be there, tail wagging at a furious pace.

Now, after a wet and cold winter, Gryffor isn't doing so well. He's twelve years old after all. That's somewhere near life expectancy for a whippet. His back legs tremble all the time. It's such a common sight among old whippets, dog people refer to it as "the back end going". We've added medicine to his diet and that seems to help. We've laid down rugs so his back legs aren't skating along the wood floors. We still take him for walks but they are shorter and more patient.

There's yet another sad day in the forecast. A day when, once again, we will have to say goodbye

For more on Mom:

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Family Firm 1958

Dad was a Cadet 1st Lieutenant enrolled in the R.O.T.C. program at Yale University when he filled out his application to work at the CIA. He was hoping to edit or interpret written data "in a field pertaining to Army matters". His previous job experience included the 1955 summer he spent as a roustabout with Barnum and Bailey Circus and two summers as a handyman at the Block S dude ranch in Elk, Wyoming. Still Dad had reason to hope he'd get the job because both his uncle and father had worked at The Agency.

His uncle was Tracy Barnes, a former war hero who four years earlier managed the covert overthrow of the democratically elected president of Guatamala. In 1961 he was still the "golden boy" of the CIA when he helped plan and oversee the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, an attempt to oust Fidel Castro.

My grandfather ran the Psychological Warfare Workshop at the agency. He hired a bright group, but as Evan Thomas writes in his book The Very Best Men "he seems to have recruited from the Princeton Tiger, his college humor magazine." He brought on board the writer Finis Farr and the legendary practical joker Hugh Troy. One propaganda stunt they come up with was to drop extra large condoms --labeled "medium" in English--on the Soviet Union.

The psywar staff did carry out one memorable propaganda stunt, funding the animated version of George Orwell's Animal Farm (1954). They managed to change the ending of the story to give it a distinctly anti-pig ( and therefore anti Communist) ending. My grandfather helped the CIA buy the rights to Animal Farm by introducing Orwell's widow to Clark Gable.

But if Dad thought he'd have an easy time getting accepted into the family firm, he was sadly mistaken. In P.S. Wilkinson his alter ego takes a lie detector test and "fails" questions about his sexuality. It ends with a physical by a lisping physician.

"You look very young. How old are you?"

P.S. felt the hair rising on the back of his neck. There was something horrible about the man's voice. It's tone. "Twenty-four," P.S. said.

You don't look that old."

A shiver ran through him, and P.S. started to sit down.

No, no!" the doctor protested. "Don't sit down yet. Let me look at you."

P.S. remained standing where he was. His skin felt cold and damp.

"My, you're tall?" the doctor said. "Are you long all over?"

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Day John Denver Visited December, 1968

I managed to sloppily edit this footage from John Denver's visit to our Iowa farmhouse in December of 1968. It's only a few week's before Denver's 25th birthday. Dad brought out the movie camera and tape recorder. This is all the footage. Denver also played "Mr Bojangles", his own "Circus" and Leonard Cohen's "Sisters of Mercy" that afternoon.

This cover version of The Beatles "When I'm 64" would appear on his 1969 album Rhymes and Reasons. which also featured a song called "Leaving on a Jet Plane". Peter Paul and Mary had already recorded the song in 1967 for Album 1700 but didn't release "Jet Plane" as a single until late 1969.It would hit #1.

Denver spent 1969 performing on the college circuit all over the Midwest. He'd put up his own posters and show up at radio stations, guitar in hand, ready to do interviews. His home base was an apartment he shared with his newlywed wife Annie in Edina, Minnesota.

For more on John Denver read last November's entry, The Famous Family Friend.