February 27, 2021

The story behind “Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer”


The idiomatic expression “on a wing and a prayer” is a now widely used to describe doing something under extremely difficult or disadvantageous circumstances and hoping that sheer luck, determination and/or God will allow its success.

During World War II, when the phrase first became part of the English language, it had a literal application.

It referred to Allied airmen flying back to their base in damaged planes, hoping and praying that they’d make it.

In his Dictionary of Catch Phrases (first published in 1977), the great language maven Eric Partridge speculated that “a wing and a prayer” was originally associated with the British Royal Air Force.

He thought it might have been used by RAF pilots as early as 1940.

That’s possible. But there are no newspapers or other sources I could find online that used the phrase prior to 1943, which is when it was made famous by an American song inspired by news stories about an American bomber crew.

On February 26, 1943, a B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber piloted by Hugh G. Ashcraft, Jr. of Charlotte, North Carolina was limping back from a bombing mission in Germany to an American base in England.

The plane, dubbed The Southern Comfort by its crew, had been riddled by flak and was damaged severely, “with a hole four feet square in the rudder, the nose shattered and the Number 3 engine spewing oil and flames.”

As they approached the shores of Britain, Ashcraft told his men over the radio: “Those who want to, please pray.”

Miraculously, Ashcraft got the The Southern Comfort to its home base and landed it safely, generating news in his home state of North Carolina and elsewhere about the pilot and crew that “prayed” their plane back.

The incident made Ashcraft a local celebrity. After the war, he became the first president of the Harris Teeter chain of supermarkets, which was first established in North Carolina and grew to have 243 stores in seven states.

The stories about Ashcraft’s cool-headed bravery and his suggestion to pray inspired the songwriting team Harold Adamson and Jimmy McHugh to write a new patriotic song.

The catchy phrase that popped into the mind of Adamson, the lyricist, was “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer.”

He used it as the title of the song and in the chorus, which goes:

“Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer.
Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer.
Though there’s one motor gone, we can still carry on,
Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer.”

The first popular version of the song, recorded by The Song Spinners, was released in June 1943.

Their version quickly became a hit. Soon, the song was being recorded and performed live by a long list of other singers, groups and bands, making it one of the biggest hits of the year.

One of the hippest versions recorded in 1943 was by a black vocal group from Missouri called The Four Vagabonds. (If you haven’t heard it, get hip by clicking this link to listen to it.)

I also personally love the far more recent cover of the song by Ry Cooder, on his 1972 album Boomer's Story.

If you’re a World War II history buff, you may know that the song also inspired the title of the 1944 movie Wing and a Prayer (a.k.a. A Wing and a Prayer: The Story of Carrier X).

That classic film, starring Dana Andrews and Don Ameche, is about American aircraft crews. However, it’s set in 1942 in the Pacific theater and is not about The Southern Comfort or B-17s.

If you’re highly-knowledgeable about aviation history, like my late friend writer Robert F. Dorr, you may know the aircraft primarily featured in the film are Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers, Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters and Curtiss SB2C Helldiver dive bombers. You’d have to be a serious expert on planes, like Bob, or a student of anachronisms in movies, to know those planes weren’t actually used on U.S. Navy carriers until 1943.

Anyway, the fame of Adamson and McHugh’s hit song of 1943, which lent its title to a popular film the following year, firmly embedded “a wing and a prayer” in our language.

It’s a phrase that’s still familiar to most people, even if they’ve never heard the song or the story behind it.

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Related reading, listening and viewing…

February 02, 2021

“Only God can make a tree.” But Joyce Kilmer’s poem inspired many people to plant and preserve them…


On a chilly winter afternoon in 1913, at his home in New Jersey, poet Joyce Kilmer jotted down the first two lines of a new poem in his notebook, along with the date — February 2, 1913.

Those two lines went on to become among the most famous, most inspiring and most mocked bits of American verse in history:

       “I think that I shall never see
        A poem lovely as a tree.”

The rest of Kilmer’s well-known poem “Trees” was written on a following page of the notebook.

It was first published in the August 1913 issue Poetry Magazine. In 1914, it was included and featured in his second book of poetry, Trees and Other Poems.

Kilmer was already a successful poet, journalist and lecturer in 1914. But it was “Trees” that gave him broad and lasting fame.

Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see just how famous and impactful the poem would become.

When America entered World War I in 1917, Kilmer enlisted. On July 20, 1918, he was killed at age 31 by a German sniper during the Second Battle of the Marne on the Western Front.

In the decades since Kilmer’s death, “Trees” has been reprinted in countless collections of poetry. It became one of the standard poems taught to and recited by American school children.

In 1922, composer Oscar Rasbach turned it into a song that has been recorded by many popular singers and musicians, including Nelson Eddy, Robert Merrill, Paul Robeson, Mario Lanza and Julian Lloyd Webber.

More importantly, the poem helped inspire tree planting programs and forest preservation efforts in the U.S.

It has long been one of the primary pieces of literature that the Arbor Day Foundation uses to promote National Arbor Day, which is celebrated each year on the last Friday in April. (Many states observe Arbor Day on different dates depending on best tree planting times in their area.)

Each year on Arbor Day, the Foundation honors people who make notable efforts to plant and protect trees by giving them a “Joyce Kilmer Award.”

Kilmer was a devout Catholic and his spiritual nature is reflected in the last two lines of “Trees,” which are nearly as famous as the first two lines:

       “Poems are made by fools like me,
        But only God can make a tree.”

Scholars have noted that Kilmer may have unconsciously or knowingly plagiarized those final lines.

In 1908 and 1909, before becoming an established poet, Kilmer was a school teacher.

It’s likely that he had read or heard about a popular book about children published in 1907, Labour and Childhood, written by the pioneering British children’s health advocate Margaret McMillan.

McMillan encouraged outdoor activities for children. In her 1907 book, using the current British term for indoor school equipment, apparatus, she wrote: “Apparatus can be made by fools, but only God can make a tree.”

Of course, many critics have also lambasted “Trees” and Kilmer’s other poems for being simplistic, stylistically outdated, syrupy, sentimental and (punningly) sappy.

Since 1986, The Philolexian Society of Columbia University, a college literary society of which Kilmer was once vice president, has held an annual “Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest.”

Yet it’s hard to deny that the simple, but poignant and memorable, lines in Kilmer’s poem “Trees” have inspired millions of people to adopt a more reverent attitude toward trees and nature and helped encourage the planting and protection of millions of trees.

That’s not a bad legacy.

So, to Kilmer’s critics I say: What have YOU ever written that will be remembered, inspire millions of people and benefit the environment decades later?

Some links worth exploring:

• The complete text of Kilmer’s book Trees and Other Poems.

RisingDove.com, the website about Joyce Kilmer and his family, maintained by his granddaughter.

• The book A Cave of Candles: The Story Behind Notre Dame's Grotto by Dorothy V. Corson. In her research for the book, Corson tracked down the date when “Trees” was written and other interesting background facts about the poem by talking to Kilmer’s oldest son Kenton. (That excerpt is online here.)

• The Kilmer House website

• The more than 100 videos on YouTube inspired by Kilmer’s poem “Trees”

• Web page about the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in North Carolina, a 17,000 acre tract of forest land preserved in Kilmer's memory in 1936.

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More related reading…

January 17, 2021

“The business of America is business” – a famously unfair misquote…


When President Warren G. Harding died from a heart-related problem in 1923, Vice President Calvin Coolidge became the 30th President of the United States.

The following year, with his popularity buoyed by a strong economy of the “Roaring Twenties”, Coolidge handily won the 1924 presidential election, using the campaign slogan “Keep Cool With Coolidge.”

Unlike some presidents, “Silent Cal” Coolidge wasn’t known for making memorable statements.

The most famous quote associated with him is a line about business being the business of America.

That line is often given as “The business of America is business” or “The business of the American people is business.”

In fact, both of those versions are misquotes.

They aren’t radically different from what he actually said, which was “the chief business of the American people is business.”

However, when this short quote or the misquote versions are cited alone, out of context, they tend to give the inaccurate impression that Coolidge was a totally one-dimensional, pro-business cheerleader.

President Coolidge made his famous remark in an address to the Society of American Newspaper Editors on January 17, 1925 in Washington, D.C.

The speech he gave that day was titled “The Press Under a Free Government.” It focused on the role of the press in free market democracies, like America.

Coolidge noted that the press was far more likely to publish propaganda in autocratic or Socialist countries.

He acknowledged concerns about whether business considerations could affect editorial positions and news reporting in a society like the US. But he pointed out the flip side, saying:

“There does not seem to be cause for alarm in the dual relationship of the press to the public, whereby it is on one side a purveyor of information and opinion and on the other side a purely business enterprise. Rather, it is probable that a press which maintains an intimate touch with the business currents of the nation, is likely to be more reliable than it would be if it were a stranger to these influences.”

Then Coolidge added his famous quote:

“After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of people will always find these the moving impulses of our life.”

It’s hard to dispute the notion that most Americans are concerned about the economy and personal prosperity. And, Coolidge made it clear that he didn't simply mean “greed is good.”

“Of course, the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence,” he said. “But we are compelled to recognize it as a means to well-nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it...But it calls for additional effort to avoid even the appearance of the evil of selfishness. In every worthy profession, of course, there will always be a minority who will appeal to the baser instinct. There always have been, probably always will be, some who will feel that their own temporary interest may be furthered by betraying the interest of others.”

It’s true that Coolidge was generally a pro-business, small-government type politician; sort of a Ronald Reagan without charisma.

But, in my opinion, the spin that is often put on his famous quote about the business of America is clearly overly simplistic and unfair.

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Related reading…

January 14, 2021

“V for Victory!”


Almost everyone is familiar with the phrase “V for Victory” and the two-fingered V-for-victory hand gesture popularized by
Winston Churchill during World War II.

But few people today are aware of their origin.

The use of “V” as a symbolic message of defiant resistance to tyranny was first proposed by Victor de Laveleye, a member of the Belgian Parliament who went into exile in England after the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940.

De Laveleye worked for the BBC during the war, broadcasting regular shortwave radio announcements to his countrymen in Belgium.

In his broadcast on January 14, 1941, de Laveleye proposed what became the “V campaign.”

“I am proposing to you as a rallying emblem the letter V,” he said, “because V is the first letter of the words ‘Victoire’ in French, and ‘Vrijheid’ in Flemish [the two major languages of people in Belgium]...the Victory which will give us back our freedom, the Victory of our good friends the English. Their word for Victory also begins with V. As you see, things fit all round.”

Shortly after de Laveleye’s broadcast, Belgians began surreptitiously chalking and painting V’s on the walls of buildings in Belgium.

Soon, the V symbol began appearing as defiant graffiti in other Nazi-occupied countries.  

In a radio speech on July 19, 1941, British Prime Minister Churchill announced an effort to actively promote the V campaign throughout Europe.

“The V sign is the symbol of the unconquerable will of the occupied territories and a portent of the fate awaiting Nazi tyranny,” Churchill said. “So long as the peoples continue to refuse all collaboration with the invader it is sure that his cause will perish and that Europe will be liberated.”

The V campaign was heavily publicized by the BBC and soon became highly popular throughout Europe.

As the hand gesture and “V” graffiti spread in German-occupied countries, it annoyed the Nazis enough for them to try to undercut its symbolic value.

Nazi propaganda started claiming that V stood for the German word viktoria and that the use of V’s by civilians was a sign of their support for victory by Germany.

But, as most people knew, that was just another example of a “big lie” by the Nazis.

 

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Related reading…

January 10, 2021

10 famous quotes and phrases linked to the date January 10


1. and 2. “The die is cast.” and “cross the Rubicon”


“The die is cast” was
Julius Caesar’s famous remark on January 10, 49 B.C. as he led his troops across the Rubicon River to start a civil war for control of the Roman Empire. This event also led to the idiom “to cross the Rubicon.” Both phrases are now commonly used as way of saying “pass the point of no return.”
3. “Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops.”
                                


Famous line spoken by the character Mortimer in the play
Arsenic and Old Lace, which premiered on Broadway on January 10, 1941. (Cary Grant played Mortimer in the in the 1944 movie version.)
4. “Doom and gloom, gloom and doom.”


Line said repeatedly by the Og the pessimistic leprechaun in the musical
Finian’s Rainbow, which opened on Broadway on January 10, 1947. Though the words “doom and gloom” may have been used together previously, it was their use in this hit play that popularized them as a modern phrase.
5. “45 RPM”


The term for the record format
introduced by RCA on January 10, 1949. This soon became the standard format used for vinyl “singles” for several decades. (RPM stands for “revolutions per minute.”)
6. “Well since my baby left me, 
      I found a new place to dwell.
      It’s down at the end of lonely street
      At Heartbreak Hotel.”


Lyrics from the song “Heartbreak Hotel,”
recorded by Elvis Presley on January 10, 1956, in his first great recording session for RCA. It became his first No. 1 single and his first million selling record (a 45 RPM). 
7. “That Was the Week That Was.”


Title of the satirical Sixties TV show
that first aired in America on January 10, 1964 and popularized the idiom “that was the [week/month/year/etc.] that was” in the U.S. The show was based on the earlier BBC version that began airing in the UK in 1962.
8. “Uh, Breaker One-Nine, this here’s the Rubber Duck...
      Mercy sakes alive, looks like we got us a convoy.”


Spoken words from the single record
“Convoy,” by C.W. McCall, which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on January 10, 1976. The recording helped popularize a number of CB (“Citizens’ Band”) radio slang phrases, including “breaker 1-9,” the CB slang phrase that a truck driver used used to tell other CB users he was ready to start talking.
9. “Excedrin headache”


Phrase created for Excedrin ads and registered as a trademark by Bristol-Myers Company on January 10, 1978. In the ads, various headaches caused by different things were given numbers, such as “
Excedrin headache number 24.”

10. “We’ll leave the light on for you.”



Advertising slogan for Motel 6, originally ad-libbed by spokesman Tom Bodett
in his first recording session for the company in 1986. It was later registered as a trademark by Motel 6 on January 10, 1989.

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Book recommendations for “this day in history” buffs…

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