A Little Change in Your Future

When I was in the third grade (yes, a LONG time ago!), I was in Cub Scouts. One of the badges I was working on required me to start and organize some kind of collection. Now it so happened that my dad owned a gas station in those days, and my mom would go to the bank for him a couple of times a week, to make deposits and get change for the station, including some coins. She was opening one of these newly-acquired rolls of nickels one day, when to her great surprise, she discovered that the entire roll was made up of Buffalo Nickels – forty of them, to be exact. She gave me that roll to use for my project, and we got one of those little blue coin folders.

And that was how my interest in coins and coin collecting began.

I tell you that story because I went to the grocery store the other day and got a little change back from my purchase. I didn’t notice it at the time, but that evening, when I was emptying my pockets, I discovered that I had received a Buffalo Nickel back as part of my change. It’s thoroughly worn down, and the date is pretty much unreadable – I think it’s 1930, but I can’t be sure – but that famous Native American profile still stares stoically on the front, and that beautiful, shaggy, American Bison still stands proudly on the back of the coin.

Buffalo Nickels were minted from 1913 to 1938. The design actually began in 1911, as part of the Taft Administration’s efforts to beautify American coinage. Sculptor James E. Fraser received the commission to design the coin, and in spite of some objections, it went into production two years later. Unfortunately, although it was a beautiful design, the coin was subject to premature wear and degradation. After the minimum 25-year circulation period, it was replaced by the Jefferson nickel, which we still use today. However, Fraser’s design is still popular, and it has been used on various commemorative coins and some American gold pieces designed for collectors.

A 1937 “Buffalo Nickel.” The “F” under the date is for the designer, James Fraser, and the “D” under “Five Cents” indicates that it was minted in Denver.

So, who was the Native American whose portrait adorns this coin? Good question. Fraser himself gave several different accounts, but it seems most likely that it was patterned after a combination of two or three men.  Fraser was on record as saying once, “my purpose was not to make a portrait, but a type.” The American Bison on the rear was likely modeled after an animal in one of the zoos in New York City; again, Fraser’s story changed a few times – sometimes he said it was at the Bronx Zoo, sometimes at the Central Park Zoo.

Besides premature wearing, the coin had other problems. For some reason, the dies which were used to strike the blanks wore out at an unusually fast rate. Changes ordered by the mint to try and extend the life of the metal dies just made the problem worse. Even on newly minted coins, the date quickly rubbed off and became illegible; the “Five Cents” and other lettering was gone almost as fast. Nobody objected when the order to replace it was given.

But I just love this coin. When it was first released, it was praised for its bold American themes – the rugged Indian face and that majestic bison, more commonly known as a buffalo. It’s well-known that bison were hunted almost to extinction, and only through the dedicated efforts of ranchers and preservationists were they able to make a comeback, to be saved for future generations. There’s a lesson there, about the true spirit of America and never giving up.

Beyond that, finding that coin in my pocket the other day is a reminder of the little blessings that come our way, if we will take the time to notice and appreciate them. In this case, I received the blessings of recalling a sweet memory and an interesting little story and savoring a little patriotic pride.

Not bad for such a little coin.

Come Before Him with Thanksgiving

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;
Let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before Him with thanksgiving
and extol Him with music and song. - Psalm 95:1, 2

Thanksgiving is one of my very favorite holidays, for a variety of reasons and sweet memories.

Some of my earliest memories of this day go back to my grandparents, Archie & Sallie McMillan. When I was a young child, for some reason, I wouldn’t call her “Grandma.” I heard other people call her, “Sallie,” which I tried to do, but she didn’t like that. I started calling her “Sa-Sa,” and the name stuck. So we would go to Sa-Sa & Pa-Pa’s house.

My grandmother, Sallie McMillan – “Sa-Sa”

I don’t really remember usually having turkey for that meal – I recall that she usually fixed a big hen, and usually in a pressure cooker to make it fall-off-the-bone tender. But what I REALLY remember about Thanksgiving at Sa-Sa’s house was her fruit salad. It had lots of big chunks of apples and bananas and fruit cocktail, along with chopped walnuts and coconut.

Of course, we had lots of other stuff to eat, and plenty of desserts, but I always loved her fruit salad. What was especially great was, if there was any left over, she would freeze it, and we would eat it at Christmas. Pa-Pa died in 1969, and Sa-Sa passed in about 1988, but I still remember them both, especially today. And I’m thankful for her, and for such sweet memories.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your
gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious
about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with
thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God,
which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your
minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:4-7

Thanksgiving also means football, of course; in our family, that meant the Cowboys. The greatest one was Thanksgiving, 1974, when George Allen’s “Over the Hill Gang” laid a vicious 3rd quarter hit on Roger Staubach and knocked him out of the game. The ’Skins were up 16-3 at the time, when an untested rookie from ACU came into the game as the Cowboys’ backup quarterback, Clint Longley. He had earned the nickname of “The Mad Bomber” from his teammates, because of his default tendency to throw deep in practice.

What happened next, Cowboys fans still talk about. And Redskins fans have never gotten over.

This rookie put together what might be the most improbably comeback in team history. After leading the ’Boys to two other touchdowns, with just 35 seconds to play, Longley found a streaking Drew Pearson racing down the sidelines, and he scored. We won 24-23. It’s still one of the greatest wins in Cowboys history.

Four years later, Kathy and I were celebrating our first Thanksgiving as husband and wife. I was a senior at Dallas Christian College, and she and I were in a singing group known as Revelation. Thanksgiving weekend, 1978, we were in the recording studio, cutting a record. (Do I need to explain what “records” were for any of the under 40 crowd?) Since we couldn’t go anywhere for the day, Mom & Dad came to Dallas, and we had Thanksgiving in our tiny apartment.

Fast forward to 2010. My mom had passed away just two months earlier, and we were sharing our first holiday without her. My brother David and his wife Gina hosted the whole wild & woolly bunch of us at their home in Spring. He fried a turkey, my nephew made some amazing cranberry dressing on the stove, and everybody fixed their favorite recipes. I made one of my Jack Daniels Chocolate Pecan Pies. We shared the day and the warmth of shared memories as we surrounded our dad and comforted each other and gave thanks for the legacy we shared and the sweetness of her presence still in our midst.

I am thankful for family, for friends, for sweet memories and for wonderful times together. I am thankful for my job and for all of the blessings we enjoy. I am thankful for Jesus. And I know that the blessings I have received are not mine exclusively to enjoy but have been given so that I can in turn be a blessing to others.

I hope your holiday is filled with everything wonderful, and that whatever the circumstances, you can give thanks with a glad and sincere heart. Happy Thanksgiving!

 Enter His gates with thanksgiving,
 and His courts with praise;
 Give thanks to Him and praise His Name.
 For the Lord is good and His love endures forever;
 His faithfulness continues through all generations.
 Psalm 100:4-5 

My Favorite Season

Autumn leaves frame a railroad track. And no, I didn’t take this picture, but if YOU did, please let me know. I’ll be happy to give you credit, or take down the picture.

I love autumn. It’s absolutely my favorite season of the year, for several reasons.

Autumn means we’ve made it through another long, hot, dry Texas summer. Autumn means crisp mornings and warm afternoons, but with a hint of coolness. It’s the time for campfires and hot chocolate, hayrides, and a good bowl of chili.

The fall means football, the beautiful fall foliage, and of course, anticipating the holidays bringing fun and fellowship with family and friends. And one generation telling the next the stories of what it was like.

Autumn can be a sad time for some people. We think about broken relationships and “what might have been.” We grieve the empty chair around the table, and we remember the ones we’ve lost since the last time we were together as a family. Autumn can be a time for regret, or becoming distracted by unmet goals, but it doesn’t have to be. We can make autumn a wonderful season of refreshment and reminding ourselves of what is best, if we will.

Here are some thoughts on making the most of your autumn –

Explore some new colors. One of the best things about the fall is the bright colors that we see around us –beautiful crimson, the harvest gold, bright yellow, all shades of brown. Autumn is a great time to take up a new hobby, read that book you’ve been meaning to start, take a trip you’ve been dreaming about making. Trying new things can be as invigorating as a cool fall morning, so go for it!

Let go of anything holding you back. Trees are shedding old leaves and dropping their dead stuff. Sometimes we need to do the same. Let go of past regrets, self-condemnation and old grudges. Let bygones be bygones and forgive. We forgive, not because others deserve it, but because WE do. As long as you’re holding onto that pain, you’re giving the offender the power to keep hurting you. When you forgive, their power over you is destroyed. So forgive. And forgive yourself, as well.

Appreciate blessings while they last. Autumn in Texas doesn’t last long; winter will soon be here. We need to appreciate the blessings that God gives us while they last. As C.S. Lewis once observed, “The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and pose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bath or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”

In other words, enjoy the blessings that God gives, but realize they are never permanent.

Here’s wishing you and yours a blessed and happy Autumn!

Reflections on a Fire

It’s been said that fire is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master. The wildfires still burning in California and Colorado certainly prove that. But some of my fondest recollections of childhood involve being around a campfire with my dad and my brothers. It may have been a family camping or hunting trip, a Scouting event, or a church men’s retreat – but it seems like, we ALWAYS had a fire.

“The wonderful smell of burning piñon pine takes me back in my mind…”

Recently Kathy & I added a backyard fireplace, a chiminea, to our back porch, and I am really enjoying it. The wonderful smell of burning piñon pine takes me back in my mind, and the warmth certainly feels good on these cool evenings.

Fire has always held a fascination for people. When the ancient philosophers talked about the “Four Elements,” they were referring to Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. So what is it about fire that attracts so many of us, that makes us stop and stare into the flames?

In part, I think, it’s the attraction of home. Historically, anytime settlers would build a cabin or a cottage, there would always be a fireplace. It provided warmth for the home. It provided a means of cooking, and it provided light for those who lived there. Fire was pretty basic (and essential) to survival. And I think it was Louis L’Amour who once wrote, “No man is so poor that he can’t afford a fire.”

It was at one of the first Boy Scout camping trips I ever went on – I guess was in the fifth or sixth grade – that I remember building my own fire and cooking my own lunch over it. It seemed like quite an accomplishment to me at the time.

Besides cooking, fire was an essential component at blacksmith shops. Being able to heat metal, refine it, work and shape it into various tools and implements – these were needed skills on the frontier. They used to say that the two worst sins that a blacksmith could commit, were to not charge enough for his work, and to let his fire get cold.

But I think that one of the best things about fire is that it creates community. Many of us have had the experience of sitting around a campfire, with family or friends, and enjoying each other’s company. It’s a good time for telling stories (true or not!). More than that, it’s a good time to just be still – to sit and stare into the flames, to think and reflect, and just be.

When I think about good fires, it’s not surprising that God often uses fire as a symbol for Himself. It was in a fire – a “burning bush” – that God revealed Himself to Moses (Exodus 3:1-3). It was in fire, along with other signs, that God descended to the people on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:18). It was with fire that God answered the prophet Elijah against the false prophets (1 Kings 18:38). When God poured out His Holy Spirit on the disciples at the birth of the church, one of the signs that was given was “tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3). And when the Apostle Paul was teaching the Thessalonian church about how to treat one another, he advised them, “Don’t put out the Spirit’s fire” (1 Thess. 5:19).

In our crazy, hyper, noisy world, with social media, cell phones and the Internet all clamoring continuously for our attention, we can all benefit from just slowing down and enjoy the company of loved ones around a nice, warm fire – or just to be there, sit still, and be alone and quiet with God.

No Matter Where It’s Going

I love trains.

I mean, I always have. My mother used to say that, as a child, I could say “choo choo” before I could say “Mama.” I love watching trains, hearing trains off in the distance, reading about trains. And I especially love riding on them.

Trains were a major part of my life growing up. We used to spend a lot of time at my maternal grandparents’ home in Grayburg, Texas, between Houston and Beaumont. It was right on the Missouri Pacific mainline between Houston and New Orleans. There was a long passing siding there, and also a small rail yard where pulpwood logs would be off-loaded from trucks onto flatcars for transit to the paper mills of East Texas. There was also a small passenger station and freight dock. The station was a two-tone beige and brown structure with the typical bay window that jutted out to give a clear view of the tracks in both directions. And of course, on both sides of the station, a large black and wide sign that read “Grayburg,” and the red and white Missouri Pacific “buzzsaw” logo.

MoPac’s famous “Buzzsaw” Logo

When I was in about the 2nd grade, Mom dropped off my dad, my brother Buzzy and me at the train station in Beaumont, and we rode the train the 25 miles or so to Grayburg. It must have been around 1963. (Yes, I know, I’m old.) I remember the green tufted chenille upholstery on the seats, and the cheap black rubber floor mats over linoleum on the floor. I remember feeling really high up off the ground as I watched the train cars in the yard go by at eye level. And I remember the conductor hurrying us off the train when we got to Grayburg. He put the little stepstool on the ground, we stepped off, he waved to the engineer, and they were moving again. We stood there and waited for the train to finish going by before we could cross the tracks and walk the short distance to my grandmother’s house.

The station there was torn down in the late 60s, but I still remember it, inside and out. There were MoPac calendars hanging up inside, a couple of pews along the wall, and a restroom with a sign that said, “Whites Only.” But that’s a story for another day.

Thinking about Grayburg always makes me smile. I’m sure you have some favorite memories from your childhood that do that for you. But I remember hours of watching trains and playing with my brothers. Climbing all over the railcars (in hindsight, unsafe, I know), putting pennies on the track for the train to flatten, and waving to the train crews as they went by. Sweet times.

People have often asked me why I love trains so much. I guess partly it’s the sight of a powerful locomotive laboring to pull a long string of cars, the sounds of horns and steel on steel and brakes squealing, the smells of creosote and hot steel on a Texas summer day. Partly it’s the romance of travel, of passing countryside, of new places and new sights. A lot of it is the sweet memories of those days. I love it all.

I will give the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay the last word, from her poem, “Travel.”

The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.

Meet Archie McMillan

Paw Paw and me, about 1957

Let me tell you about a man I used to know. His name was James Archie McMillan. Most people called him Arch or Archie. I called him Paw Paw. He was my mother’s dad.

Arch was born in 1912 in Hardin County, Texas – that’s deep in the Big Thicket country of Southeast Texas, and he was the youngest of five boys born to James Duncan and Mary McMillan. As a matter of fact, Paw Paw was a Leap Day baby, born February 29, 1912. He married my grandmother, Sallie Walker, in 1934, and they had two children – my mom, Tommie Beth, and my uncle, Duncan.

My Paw Paw described himself as a “jack of all trades, and a master of none.” He was the first guy I ever heard use that phrase. During World War II, he was a machinist and worked at a shipbuilding plant in Beaumont. I still have the Vice-Grip pliers that he carried in the factory with his initials engraved in them. Later, he worked in the oil field as a driller; if you’re not familiar with oil field hierarchy, the driller is sort of like a shift supervisor, in charge of a crew of men working on the rig.

His ethnic heritage was Scots-Irish, except he always called it “Scotch-Irish.” Not a big surprise with family names like Duncan, Archie and McMillan. He was a big baseball fan and loved the Detroit Tigers because their farm club was in Beaumont. And he smoked two packs a day of unfiltered Camel cigarettes.

Paw Paw loved to tease and pick, and I loved to tag along with him. I used to go and spend a week with him and my grandmother during the summer, and I would ride with him to go places when he was home from the oil rig.

He died in January, 1969. He was 56. I was 12 and remember it like it was yesterday.

He had suffered a heart attack about three weeks earlier and was in Baptist Hospital in Beaumont. These days, they would put in a stent or two, maybe do bypass surgery, and he’d be home in a week and back to work in a month. But in those days, they couldn’t do much for him.

I remember going up to his room to see him on a Sunday afternoon. He couldn’t talk – I guess he had on an oxygen mask or something, and he was very weak – but I remember him squeezing my hand and looking deep into my eyes. I can still see those eyes. The next day, he had another heart attack and died. Later, I would learn that his own father – James Duncan McMillan – had also died in his mid-50s, when Paw Paw was only 4 years old.

I bring this up, because I had a birthday a few days ago. Now, I’m not superstitious, nor am I especially morbid about these things, but thinking about this brings up some questions. None of us is guaranteed tomorrow. If I knew this was going to be MY last year to live, what would I change about my life? Ask yourself: if you knew you were going to die within the next 12 months, how would YOU live? What would you do? Where would you go? With whom would you spend some of that precious time?

There’s a hard truth in this. Unless Jesus comes first, one of these days each of us will die. It may be when we are 56, or 66, or even 106, but it will come. So cherish the moments. Love deeply. Laugh often. Treasure each day.

Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” In other words, we need to live with eternity in mind. That seems like good advice, no matter how many birthdays you’ve had.

Thanks, Paw Paw.

When I’m 64

I was still a kid back in the 60s when the Beatles released their album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” One song on that album has recently become very personal to me – Paul McCartney’s “When I’m 64.” Assuming God lets me live a few more days, I will soon be turning 64.

I realize that that age may be in the rear-view mirror for lots of folks, but I’ve never turned 64 before, and in some ways, it’s quite a shock. I was just a kid when I first heard that song, and I couldn’t imagine how it would feel to actually BE that age. Turning 64 seemed so far away back then, and being that age seemed, you know, OLD!

Or so I thought at the time.

Looking back on the 50-plus years since the song’s release, I realize how far we have come as a society, and yet, how many things are still the same.

  • We have landed on the moon but still face numerous problems here at home.
  • We can get on the Internet, but often can’t find the specific information we need.
  • We have lots of “friends” on social media, but few meaningful relationships.
  • Most of us carry cell phones, but we still have a hard time with genuine communication.
  • Medicine has perfected cures for many diseases, but we have been hit hard by new ones.

Still, in spite of these difficulties, I am not discouraged. Nowhere are we promised that life will be easy, or that we will somehow be exempt from difficulties.

The legend about the song is that it was one of the first ones that Paul ever wrote, and that he was only 16 when he first composed it, trying to imagine growing old with someone he loved. That is one thing that I really like about the song: it values personal relationships as being the key to a happy life. Consider these verses –

You’ll be older too,
And if you say the word,
I could stay with you.

I could be handy, mending a fuse,
When your lights have gone.
You can knit a sweater by the fireside –
Sunday mornings go for a ride.
Doing the garden, digging the weeds,
Who could ask for more?

Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four.

Give me your answer, fill in a form,
Mine for evermore

Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four.

God has blessed me with a wonderful wife, and we’ve had many great years together, and raised four terrific kids. He has given me some really great friends and allowed me to be a pastor and to work in several other fulfilling and interesting occupations, including this one. And above all that, He has shown Himself to be faithful at all times.

And so, as I approach my 64th birthday – and however many more God chooses to bless me with – I will say with the psalmist of old, “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good; His love endures forever.”

Missing Mom

Ten years ago today, I lost my mom. But in all the ways that count, she has never left me or our family.

It was a Friday that had started like any other day. Mom and Dad had gone to Beaumont from their home in Orangefield for an eye appointment, then they stopped at one of their favorite restaurants, IHOP, for lunch. As they were heading home, Mom said that she needed to use the bathroom, but she dropped her keys as she was trying to unlock the front door. She had already had the stroke that would claim her life.

Dad called the ambulance, and the EMTs promptly arrived. She ended up at Baptist Memorial in Beaumont. One by one, my brothers and I, along with other family, arrived as soon as we could get there – in my case, about 3:30 Saturday morning. The nurses were great, and the doctor was as gentle as he could be later as he explained that she had suffered a “terminal brain event.”

One of my brothers had been on a mission trip to Guatemala, helping drill a water well for a village that needed a new source of good water. Flights in and out of Central America have a somewhat loose connection to scheduled times, but he was able to get out on time – less than an hour before a Gulf hurricane came ashore and shut everything down for three days. He and his wife set a new record getting from Houston Intercontinental to the hospital in Beaumont.

An hour later, Mom was gone. Personally, I think she was just waiting on all her boys to get there before she left. One by one, we got to say our goodbyes, kiss her, hold her hand, and let her go. It was Saturday, September 25, 2010.

There were so many wonderful friends who supported us, at the hospital, with their cards and visits, and so much sharing of food, of laughs, of tears, of memories. My brothers and I got to preach her funeral, and that was a special time. The funeral procession was over a mile long going out to the cemetery. And even the funeral director felt the need to comment publicly at the graveside about what a remarkable woman she was.

This is one of my favorite snapshots of mom – it’s from Christmas about 2006, with a whole big, rowdy bunch of us crammed into their small kitchen, and her directing traffic and enjoying the chaos and noise of our family. And that’s not even all of us.

I still hear her voice in my head, and desperately wish we could have had more time together, but I’m thankful for many things. And so much of what she taught me, I still hold on to today.

  • I learned to love God’s Word from the countless Bible stories that she read to us every night.
  • I learned to be passionate about worship from hearing her strong, clear alto voice as she boldly sang out.
  • I learned to serve others by watching the way that she volunteered at church and in the community.
  • I learned to respect people who were different by the way she would never let us use hurtful words, even in jokes.
  • I learned to cherish the moments we have with family and friends, to laugh a lot, to forgive from the heart, and to say “I love you,” and always give “just one more hug.”

Because you never know when you won’t be able to anymore.

A Look Back: 19 Years Ago

There are certain days that stand out in one’s memory. In fact, you can often tell a person’s age by the first significant news event that they remember.

For some people, it’s Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941. For some, it’s JFK’s assassination, November 22, 1963. Some folks have January 28, 1986, seared into their memories, as the day the Challenger exploded. They are days where you know that the world has changed. History has been made, right in front of your eyes.

Nineteen years ago today – September 11, 2001 – was such a day.

Terrorists succeeded in hijacking four airliners. Two were deliberately crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, New York; both hi-rises caught on fire and collapsed. One plane crashed into the Pentagon, causing significant damage to the military office complex. Another was also headed for Washington, D.C., perhaps to be dived into the Capitol building or the White House, but some gutsy passengers fought back, and the flight crashed instead into the Pennsylvania countryside. Thousands of our fellow citizens died in the first major attack on American soil made by foreign terrorists.

Much has changed in the years since the attack. The United States has gone to war in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and our nation has paid a costly price to bring about a more secure world. We have learned many lessons as a people, and along the way, discovered things that are now more precious to us than before.

One of the lessons that 9/11 taught us is to appreciate our first responders: our police officers, firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, and others, who are the first to answer our calls for help. I wouldn’t say that they were completely UNappreciated before 9/11, but I believe that the events of that day helped us to see just how special those men and women really are. There were entire battalions of New York City firefighters who were practically wiped out by the tragedy of that day when they went to Ground Zero to help the people there.

These are the people who answer our calls for help, 24/7. These are the folks who run INTO burning buildings; they are the ones who run TOWARDS the gunfire. They are some of the everyday heroes who walk among us. And I believe that the events of 9/11 helped us all to see, perhaps a little more clearly, how special these first responders really are, and how much all of us depend on them.

And so, on this anniversary of the September 11 attack, let us all pause and pray for the families who lost loved ones on that horrible day. Let us pray for our service men and women, and their families. But let us not forget also to offer a prayer of thanksgiving and support for those who serve us as first responders, and for their families. More personally, when you see one of these quiet heroes, be sure to give them a “thank you,” and let them know you appreciate their work

And, God bless America.

Here’s Looking at You, Kid

Today – Wednesday, May 16, 2018 – has been declared “National Classic Movie Day.” In that spirit, I want to tell you about my favorite movie, Casablanca, and why I enjoy it so much.

First of all, the basics. Casablanca is a 1942 production directed by Michael Curtiz, and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henried. It also features Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, and Dooley Wilson. The film is set in the Moroccan city of Casablanca during World War II. The North African city is controlled by the French Vichy government, which means it is ultimately under the rule of the Nazi government.

Bogart plays Rick Blaine, the American owner of a nightclub known as “Rick’s Café Américain.” He is a cynical, world-weary guy with a mysterious past, who says he is determined to look out only for himself – that is, until Ingrid Bergman’s character, Ilsa, shows up. She is married to the Czech Resistance leader Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), but she and Rick once had a torrid love affair – and still care deeply about each other. She and Lazlo are trying to escape Nazi-controlled Europe, so that Lazlo can get to America, to organize Resistance efforts against the Germans.

What will Rick do? Will he help Lazlo and his former love escape? Or will his passion for Ilsa force him to follow his heart and reclaim his lost love?

Casablanca won Academy Awards for Best Picture (1943), to Michael Curtiz as Best Director, and to brothers Julius & Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, for Best Adapted Screenplay.

SPOILER ALERT!!! If you’ve never seen the movie, be aware that the rest of this article will discuss plot points that will give away key aspects of the film.

First – here’s the original trailer for the film.

So, what’s the big deal? Why do I (and so many others) love this movie so much, and consider it among the best ever made? Well, I can’t speak for others, but for myself, here are three things that I appreciate.

The Movie’s Backstory

Casablanca started out as an unproduced play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” by Murray Bennett and Joan Allison. In the process of turning that into a movie script, the writers couldn’t decide on what to do with the characters. Does Rick help Lazlo escape with his wife? Do he and Ilsa get back together, but send Lazlo on his way? Back and forth the arguments went. Just giving them the documents they needed to get away seems so, well, anti-climactic. And just handing someone a piece of paper is not exactly dazzling filmmaking.

The Epstein brothers had been assigned to handle the screenplay, but then they were called away to another project, so Howard Koch took over. The brothers would later return to help complete the work. All of this further added to the confusion about finding a good ending for the film. Somehow, though, it all works. In spite of the back-and-forth (or perhaps because of it), the movie just works.

The movie also benefitted from the war news. The Allies had invaded North Africa in late 1942, and President Roosevelt went to Casablanca in January, 1943, to meet with Winston Churchill, so the film took advantage of that free publicity. Its initial release was in New York in December, 1942, with the general release in early 1943.

Another factor that I and lots of other fans really appreciate is that many of the extras who were “customers” at Rick’s – including several with speaking parts – were actually themselves refugees from Europe. Some of them had even been interred at Nazi concentration camps during the 1930s, before making their way to this country. Their accents – not to mention the passion they brought to this anti-Nazi film – added a layer of authenticity that simply could not be imitated.

Sparkling Dialogue

Another thing that I really appreciate is the crackling, rapid-fire dialogue. This film holds the distinction of being the greatest source of lines of any movie on AFI’s list of the Top 100 best movie quotes. From “Here’s looking at you, kid,” to “We’ll always have Paris,” from “Round up the usual suspects,” to “This is the start of a beautiful friendship,” everyone has a favorite Casablanca quote.

Here’s an example from a conversation between Rick (Bogart) and Claude Rains’ character, Captain Renault –

 Captain Renault: I’ve often speculated why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think you killed a man. It’s the Romantic in me.

Rick: It was a combination of all three.

Captain Renault: What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

Rick: I was misinformed.

Sparkling!

Of course, there’s one line that’s often misquoted. No one in Casablanca ever, EVER, says, “Play it again, Sam.”

Rick’s Redemption

Of all the great things about this movie, my favorite is the redemption of Rick’s character. We learn that he had risked his life fighting fascism during the 1930s, in both Ethiopia and Spain. He was understandably tired of the struggle, tired of seeing good people on the losing end of fighting totalitarian leaders, and especially tired of seeing the evils of fascism being victorious. He wants nothing more to do with it. Let the Nazis do as they want.

Until now. In one transformational moment, he makes the decision to take a stand. In this scene, Rick and Victor Lazlo are talking upstairs in Rick’s office, when the Germans in the café downstairs commandeer the piano, and bully their way into singing one of their anthems. Lazlo immediately heads down the stairs, and tells the house band to play “La Marseillaise” – the French national anthem. The band members look to Rick for his approval – watch for his affirmative nod. As they play, all the people in the club stand and sing together, and together, they overwhelm the Germans in the “battle of the anthems.”

Remember, many of those actors were Europeans; some had been imprisoned by the Nazis, others had been refugees, including the actress Madeleine Lebeau, who shouts “Vive la France! Vive la democratie!”

Remember, too, that when this movie was made, the outcome of the war was still very much up for grabs. But the emotion Miss Lebeau and the crowd exhibit is very real.

I love this movie, and I appreciate this opportunity to share it with you. Thanks for reading.

Now, I think I’ll go make some popcorn, put my feet up, and one more time watch Rick, Ilsa, Victor, and the rest, in the eternal struggle of good vs. evil. I’ll listen again as Sam sings, “As Time Goes By.” And I’ll rejoice as the good guys win again. Because we’ll always have Paris.

And once again, here’s looking at you, kid.