August 30, 2014

The origins of the Cold War term “hot line” and the mythical “red phones”…


Many books and websites note that the famed “hot line” communication link between the Pentagon and the Kremlin was established on August 30, 1963.

Press reports about this new tool, intended to provide a possible way to avoid a nuclear war between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), soon cemented the term hot line into our language.

It also added a new plot device and the image of the red phones into movies and TV shows.

Two of my favorite examples were in movies released not long after the new link was established: Fail-Safe (1964) and Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).

The term hot line (sometimes given as the single word hotline) had actually been used previously in other contexts, but not in the sense of the international hot line established in 1963.

That use is generally credited to Jess Gorkin (1936-1985).

Gorkin was the respected and influential editor of Parade Magazine, the widely-circulated Sunday newspaper insert. 

In the March 20, 1960 issue of Parade, Gorkin published an open letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Soviet Union’s Premier Nikita Khrushchev, titled “RE: ACCIDENTAL WAR.”

In it, he urged them to consider: “the establishment of a direct telephone line between you...to prevent the possibility of an accidental war.”

He ended his letter with the rhetorical question: “Must a world be lost for want of a telephone call?”

Gorkin didn’t use the term hot line in that open letter, but he did use it in a subsequent series editorials in Parade in 1960, promoting the idea to presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

According to language maven William Safire’s great Political Dictionary, Gorkin’s editorial in the October 30, 1960 issue of Parade mentioned an internal “hot line” that the US Strategic Air Command (SAC) maintained for emergency communications.

Gorkin suggested that SAC’s “red telephone” system was a model for the communication link he believed the US and USSR should establish.

After Kennedy was elected President, Gorkin ran more editorials pushing the hot line idea.

And, after the US and USSR came to the brink of nuclear Armageddon in October 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev decided it was indeed a pretty good idea.

On April 23, 1963, Kennedy sent a personal letter of thanks to Gorkin for promoting the concept, calling it “an excellent example of the most constructive aspects of our free press.” 

Gorkin proudly published the letter in Parade.

On June 20, 1963, in Geneva, President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev signed an agreement to create the crisis communication system Gorkin had suggested. The Washington-Kremlin hot line officially went live on August 30, 1963.

However, despite what we’ve seen in movies and TV shows, there never were red phones in the offices of the President of the United States and the Premier of Russia.

The hot line was actually a secure teletype connection between the offices of the Pentagon and the Kremlin. No phones, red or otherwise, were involved.

Sorry, movie fans.

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August 29, 2014

Bring me the head of John the Baptist – and Alfredo Garcia...


Director Sam Peckinpah’s 1974 film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, starring Warren Oates, is one of my favorite movies from the Seventies.

There are no famous quotes in it, but the film’s title is a modern descendant of a famous Biblical quotation associated with the date August 29.

About 2,000 years ago, according to the Bible, a rabble-rousing, hair-shirt-wearing, locust-and-honey-eating preacher known as John the Baptist mightily annoyed King Herod and his family.

Herod had married his own niece and they had a daughter.

Righteous John publicly denounced the marriage as incestuous and against Jewish law.

Herod threw John in prison. Not long after, the king threw himself a birthday party.

The featured entertainer was his daughter.

She’s not named in the Bible, but historical accounts say she was Salome – the one known for the exotic “Dance of the Seven Veils.”

Salome apparently tripped the light fantastic in an especially pleasing way at Herod’s birthday bash.

He told her he wanted to reward her by giving her anything she wanted.

At the suggestion of her mother, Salome replied: “Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger.” 

That’s the original King James Bible version of what she said, in Matthew 14:8. It uses the old English word charger, meaning a large platter or dish.

Later translations and paraphrases of the line generally used platter, giving rise to more commonly heard variations like “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter” (English Standard Bible version) and “Bring me the head of John the Baptist on a platter (the King James 2000 Bible translation).

This led to the English idiom “to bring (or have) someone’s head on a platter,” which is a figurative way of suggesting that someone will be punished severely. 

Of course, in the Bible story (and in the movie Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) it was a literal punishment.

Herod gave Salome her wish, by ordering John’s head to be cut off and brought to her on a platter.

In the centuries since then, August 29 has been the traditional date the Catholic, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox churches have used to commemorate the beheading and martyrdom of John the Baptist.

Alfredo Garcia, the beheaded movie character, is less widely remembered.

But he does have a special place in the hearts of Sam Peckinpah fans like me.

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August 25, 2014

“The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost” become official


The fracturing of the Christian religion into various churches and doctrines with different beliefs started in the early centuries of Christianity.

One source of division was a debate between Christians who believed in Trinitarianism and those who believed in Arianism.

Trinitarianism was based in part on Matthew 28:19, a verse in the Bible which says:

     “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the 
        name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”

In the fourth century A.D., some Christian leaders used this and other Biblical verses to develop the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, or Trinitarianism.

Trinitarianism maintains that, although there is only one God, he has three forms: God the Father, God the Son (Jesus) and God the Holy Ghost, aka “the Holy Spirit.”

Another early Christian leader named Arius disagreed with that view. Arius and his followers, called Arianists, believed Jesus was the Son of God but was himself human, not divine like God.

The Roman Emperor Constantine I, who had converted to Christianity, was annoyed by this doctrinary dispute. So in 325 A.D. he convened a meeting of more than 300 Christian bishops in the Turkish city of Nicaea (now named Iznik) and charged them with clarifying what the official Christian beliefs would be.

The meeting came to be called the First Council of Nicaea.

On August 25, 325, after two months of discussion, the Council issued what is referred to as the original or first Nicene Creed.

It established the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as the official Christian doctrine and Trinitarianism was adopted by the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and several smaller Christian subgroups.

The First Council of Nicaea also condemned Arianism as heretical anathema and ordered all Arianist writings to be burned. Arius himself was banished from the Roman Empire and took refuge in Palestine.

Despite all that, some Christians refused to reject Arius’ teachings. Arianism continued to have its followers and, in one form or another, still does today.

In 336 A.D., Arius was pardoned by Constantine I and invited to come to Constantinople. While traveling there he died unexpectedly under suspicious circumstances.

According to a contemporary account: “his bowels protruded, followed by a copious hemorrhage, and the descent of the smaller intestines: moreover portions of his spleen and liver were brought off in the effusion of blood.”

Some historians theorize that Arius was poisoned by anti-Arianist Christian zealots.

If that’s what happened, I suspect Jesus would have disapproved.

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August 22, 2014

“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”


Like virtually all African Americans who grew up in Mississippi during the first half of the 20th century, Fannie Lou Hamer endured many injustices in her life.

Some went beyond the typical day-to-day discrimination of the Southern “Jim Crow” social system.

In 1961, Hamer was sterilized without her consent or knowledge by a white doctor, as a part of an officially sanctioned plan to reduce the number of poor blacks in the state.

When she tried to register to vote, the white farmer she worked for fired and evicted her.

In 1962, Hamer become an active volunteer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the leading civil rights groups of the era.

In 1963, during a trip to register black voters in Winona, Mississippi, Hamer and four other SNCC volunteers were savagely beaten and arrested by the police. She later recalled that, from her cell, she could hear the sound of continued beatings and a policeman yelling: “Can you say, ‘yes, sir,’ nigger?”

It took Hamer more than a month to recover and she was left partially disabled for the rest of her life.

Undeterred, she went on to help organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

In 1964, the MFDP officially asked the the National Democratic Party to seat their chosen delegates at the party’s upcoming National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

This created a dilemma for the Democrats. At the time, the official Democratic Party delegation from Mississippi was all white. Those members demanded that the Credentials Committee reject the MFDP’s request. They warned that Southern Democrats would abandon President Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election if any black delegates were seated.

The Credentials Committee members were concerned about a white voter backlash in the South. But they were also concerned about appearing to be opposed to the civil rights movement. So, they invited Hamer and her group to make a presentation to them during the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.

Hamer appeared before the committee on August 22, 1964.

She gave an amazingly moving account of the harassment and violence she and other blacks had been subjected to while trying to gain the right to vote in Mississippi.

President Johnson quickly tried to divert attention from Hamer’s appearance and the delegate seating issue by holding an impromptu press conference focusing on other issues. But, to his dismay, Hamer’s speech received widespread coverage in the national press.

Johnson then sent Senator Hubert Humphrey and other Democratic leaders to meet with Hamer and her colleagues. He offered to give the MFDP two non-voting seats at the convention. They refused to accept this crumb or any other token “compromises” the Democrats offered.

When asked why she persisted, Fannie Lou gave an answer she’d used before when asked why she persevered in her civil rights efforts.

“All my life I’ve been sick and tired. Now I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.’”

The last part of Hamer’s response — “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” — became a famous quote forever associated with her.

After failing to get Hamer and the MFDP to accept a compromise, Johnson and the Democrats decided they feared a white Southern backlash in 1964 more than rejection by the black Americans who were able to vote. They refused to seat any MFDP members as voting delegates.

But the public attention generated by the issue and by Hamer’s speech added to the momentum for change.

A year later, the Democratically-controlled Congress passed — and President Johnson signed into law — the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited states from denying voting rights “on account of race.”

For its 1968 national convention, the National Democratic Party adopted a policy requiring African Americans to be fairly represented in state delegations.

One of the voting delegates seated at that 1968 convention was Fannie Lou Hamer.

I wonder what she’d say about the recent sad series of events in Ferguson, Missouri.

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August 15, 2014

“Yonder lies the castle of my fodder.” The famous movie “quote” that Tony Curtis didn’t say…


When actor Tony Curtis died at age 85, in September 2010, many obituaries and tributes mentioned what is widely believed to be one of his most famous movie lines.

In those articles, and in many books of quotations, the line is usually given as either “Yonder lies the castle of my fodder” or “Yonder lies the castle of my faddah.”

Sometimes you’ll find it written as “Yonder lies the castle of my fodda” or “Yonder lies the castle of my fadda.” Sometimes yonder is spelled yonda or yondah. It is also quoted in the more linguistically and politically correct, accent-free variation “Yonder lies the castle of my father.”

Some websites and books claim Curtis said the line in his 1951 film The Prince Who Was a Thief.

Some claim it’s from his 1954 movie The Black Shield of Falworth.

Both of those attributions are wrong. (I have watched those movies. Several times. I can personally confirm the line is not in them.)

Most sources say Curtis uttered the line in yet another of his early adventure flicks, Son of Ali Baba, which was released on August 15, 1952.

That attribution comes closest to being the right one — up to a point.

Curtis does say something that includes the words yonder and father in Son of Ali Baba. But he doesn’t say “Yonder lies the castle of my father.” And, he doesn’t say father with a heavy New York accent that makes it sound like fodder or faddah.

I’ve watched Son of Ali Baba. Several times. (Yes, I love cheesy vintage adventure movies and Tony Curtis.)

If you watch Son of Ali Baba yourself (or just zoom ahead to about 30 minutes in), you can hear the actual words that Curtis speaks to his co-star Piper Laurie. 

What he says is: “This is my father’s palace. And yonder lies the Valley of the Sun.”

The story of how those lines morphed into the much-mocked misquote “Yonder lies the castle of my fodder” was recalled by Curtis in his autobiography American Prince: A Memoir (2008).

Ironically, in that, even Tony misremembered the original lines.

Curtis wrote:

     Son of Ali Baba was the movie where I gave a line that people unjustly made fun of for years afterward. There’s a scene where I’m on horseback and Piper is sitting next to me, and I say to her, “Yonder in the valley of the sun is my father’s castle.” After the film came out, Debbie Reynolds, who would later marry Eddie Fisher, went on television and said, “Did you see the new guy in the movies? They call him Tony Curtis, but that’s not his real name. In his new movie he’s got a hilarious line where he says, ‘Yonder lies the castle of my fodda.’”
     You could chalk her ridicule up to my New York accent, but when she mentioned the issue of my real name on television, I began to wonder if there was something anti-Semitic going on there. I’m probably just hypersensitive on that topic. But either way, she got the line wrong! Unfortunately, her version stuck with the public, and for a while it became popular for people to quote the incorrect line in a ridiculous New York accent.
     Years later, Hugh Hefner came up to me at a party and said, “Yonder lies the castle of my fodda.”
     I looked at him coolly. “Hef. I never said that.”
     “Then don’t tell anybody,” he said. “It makes a great movie story.”

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