Saving the Battleship Texas

You may have seen news footage the other day of the big event. Starting before dawn on Wednesday, August 31, the Battleship Texas was towed out of its berth at the San Jacinto Monument near Baytown. A fleet of tugboats pulled the massive old ship backwards out into the Houston Ship Channel, then one got in front of it and began towing her down the channel, past the refineries, and down to the mouth of Galveston Bay. The ship was maneuvered into a giant drydock at a Galveston shipyard, where it will be repaired and restored and made ready for a new home.

The USS Texas, BB-35, was the second US Navy vessel to bear our state’s name. The original Texas was launched in 1892 and was actually the first American naval vessel designated as a “battleship.” That ship served in the Spanish-American War and later was renamed USS San Marcos so the old name could be given to a new ship.

(By the way, there was also a guided-missile cruiser named USS Texas, CGN-39, in service with the Navy from 1977 through 1993. The current Texas, SSN 775, has been on duty since 2006. She is a Virginia-class, nuclear-powered fast attack submarine serving as part of Submarine Force Atlantic. Her motto is, “Don’t mess with Texas!”)

The historic Texas was launched in 1912 and commissioned in 1914 as the second New York-class ship to be built. These vessels were generally known as “dreadnoughts,” a class of enormous ships with larger main guns, steam-power, and other technological advances of the early part of the Twentieth Century. Texas’ main battery consisted of ten 14-inch cannon, which could fire 1,400-pound armor-piercing projectiles up to 13 miles. She was also initially equipped with 21 5-inch guns and four 21-inch torpedo tubes. The Texas also served as a technological “test bed.” She was the first battleship to have anti-aircraft guns mounted onboard, the first US ship to control gunfire with directors and range-keepers, the first US battleship to launch an aircraft, and one of the first US Navy ships to receive production radar.

The ship served faithfully in World War I before being refitted in 1925-26, designated as the “Flagship” of the US Navy, and serving with both the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets. When World War II broke out, she was initially assigned to convoy escort duty before participating in the “Operation Torch” landings at North Africa. Later, the Texas was part of “Operation Overlord” D-Day landings on Normandy. She supported the Rangers scaling the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, where she fired 255 14-inch shells in 35 minutes – a fire rate of 7.5 shells per minute. She then shifted her focus to Omaha Beach and continued firing at enemy positions along the beach and inland. During these operations, the battle cry was, “Come on, Texas!”

A few days later, she was engaged with the enemy near the French city of Cherbourg, when she was hit by German fire and suffered the loss of her helmsman killed and others wounded. She was also hit by a German shell that was a dud; this unexploded projectile is still on display in the ship’s museum. She was reassigned to the Pacific, and in 1945, participated in the heavy bombardment of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. She was decommissioned after the war and in 1948, the ship became the first battleship designated as a permanent floating museum in her namesake state. Today, she’s a survivor: the last of the dreadnought class, and the only remaining capital ship to have served in both World Wars.

She has been refurbished since coming to Texas, but not since 1988-1990. She is currently under the jurisdiction of Texas Parks & Wildlife. Voters in 2007 approved providing state funds for the ship’s maintenance, as well as creating the non-profit Battleship Texas Foundation to raise additional monies, to support preservation and upkeep. The repairs now beginning are expected to take two years and are being funded from a combination of public and private revenue.

What will become of the Texas? Good question. She’s NOT going back to San Jacinto. The BTF is considering several possible new permanent homes, including Galveston, Baytown, and Beaumont. (Personally, I’d vote for Galveston, but it’s not my call.)

The Battleship Texas, being towed past Pelican Island, on her way into a Galveston drydock. She will undergo two years’ worth of repairs before resuming her status as a floating museum.
Photo credit – KPRC-TV.

Wherever she ends up, here’s a salute to this fine old ship. May she continue proudly to bear the name of her state and hold out her valuable lessons about history and service for many more generations.

“Come on, Texas!” And in the words of the old sailor’s blessing, Fair Winds and Following Seas.

My First Cook Book

Probably like many of you, when I was growing up my favorite comic strip was “Peanuts” and following the adventures of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, and the whole gang. So it’s only natural that the first cookbook I ever owned was the Peanuts Cook Book, published in 1969 by United Feature Syndicate. The original version of this book contained 47 recipes in a thin little hardcover book that was about 6” by 6”, with a lime-green cover and hot pink pages. Most of the dishes were named after different characters from the strip and interspersed with the recipes throughout the book were some of their daily comic strips that related to food in one way or another. The cartoons, of course, were by Peanuts creator Charles Schultz; the recipes were by June Dutton.

Also that year, Scholastic Book Services released their first printing of the book in paperback, with a cover price of 60¢. This version only had about half of the recipes in the main edition, but it did include some helpful safety tips for kids, with reminders to be sure and read the recipe all the way through before starting, to be careful around hot stoves and sharp knives, to get your mom to teach you how to light the oven, wash your hands and always wear an apron to protect your clothes, and of course, clean up the kitchen when you’re through cooking.

The Peanuts Cook Book was originally published in 1969 by United Feature Syndicate, Cartoons by Charles Schultz, Recipes by June Dutton. Scholastic Book Services also published this abridged version especially geared for kids.

It was a great little book for kids, and I still have mine somewhere. Some of the recipes included were “Charlie Brown’s Brownies,” “Divine Divinity,” “Beethoven’s Green Beans with Bacon,” “Freida’s French Toast,” “Happiness is a Hot Cheese-Tomato Sandwich,” “Sally’s Scrambled Eggs,” and more. There was even a recipe for “Snoopy’s Steak Tartar,” with the warning that it was “For DOGS only, and maybe cats.”

Looking back, there were lots of things for breakfast, desserts, and side dishes – not very many “main courses.” I guess that’s to be expected in a book aimed at kids. I remember mainly enjoying the comic strips inside the book, more than any of the particular recipes, but I do recall fixing a few of these in particular.

One favorite was always “Security Cinnamon Toast.” The name of this dish relates to the character of Linus, who was known for carrying his security blanket, even into his elementary school years. One of his famous lines was “Security is a thumb and a blanket.” I always loved toast with cinnamon and sugar, so this one was right up my alley!

SECURITY CINNAMON TOAST

8 slices white bread
½ stick butter
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 scant tablespoon cinnamon
Melt butter with sugar and cinnamon. Cook gently while toasting bread on ONE side only in broiler. Spread untoasted side of bread with sugar mixture and place under medium-hot broiler until sugar is crusty and bubbly. The sugar’s hot! Be careful!

Another way Linus does it is to make toast in the toaster, then he spreads it with butter immediately, and shakes a spoonful of cinnamon sugar (2 tablespoons sugar mixed with a teaspoon of cinnamon) over the buttered toast.

Another favorite of mine was Red Baron Root Beer, which called for putting one long-stem Maraschino cherry into each compartment of an ice cube tray, then filling the tray with root beer and freezing it. After it’s frozen, you put a couple of these cubes in a glass and fill it with more root beer – that way, the melting cubes don’t “water down” the taste of the root beer. Yum!

I was easily amused in those days.

Diamonds & Dirt & Heading for Home

In honor of this week’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game, and with your kind permission, I’d like to repeat a column I wrote some time ago about why I enjoy the game. Because, as many others have said before, there is wisdom we can learn from baseball that translates directly into a well-lived life.

For one thing, I love the more-realistic expectations of baseball, especially compared to other sports. The best hitter who ever lived (Ted Williams), in the best season he ever had (1941), had a batting average of .406. That means that six times out of ten when he came up to bat, he FAILED to hit the ball. Can you imagine a successful wide receiver who dropped six passes out of every ten thrown to him, or a basketball player who missed six out of every ten shots he took? Not likely. The truth is, many of us fail more often than we succeed. Success in life is measured, though, not by how many times we fail, but by how many times we get back up and keep trying. Or, as my youngest daughter has been known to say, fall down six times, get up seven.

Another thing about baseball – you have to focus on the situation at hand. You can only play one game at a time. Learn to stay in the moment, and don’t worry too much about the past or the future. When you make an error, shake it off, and be ready for the next ball hit to you.

I love the teamwork of a well-disciplined ball club. I mean, certainly I understand that teamwork is a part of football, basketball, etc. They are, after all, called TEAM sports. And of course I realize that no running back is going to do very well without a good line blocking for him. But to me, there is unmatched beauty and elegance in watching an infield execute a beautiful – even graceful – 5-4-3 double play (the ball is hit to the third baseman, who throws it to second for one out, who then relays it to first for another out). These guys have practiced so long and so effectively together, they make it look easy and effortless. And I assure you, it is not.

Even something seemingly simple like a fielder hitting the cutoff man, who fires to the catcher, to cut down a runner trying to score – such things take mind-numbing hours of work and skill to accomplish.

You have to trust your teammates. A pitcher has to trust the fielders behind him, to provide good defense. Fielders have to trust that pitchers will make quality pitches. So also in life. Surround yourself with Godly companions and support each other.

Baseball is the only sport where the DEFENSE has the ball. It’s up to the offense – the team that is batting – to make something good happen.

Some other principles from baseball that apply to life:

  • Realize that sometimes, the ball just takes a bad hop on you.
  • There’s a time for preparation, and a time for performance.
  • Speaking of time – Baseball has no clock. You play until you’re done. Sometimes, you play extra innings.
  • Even the best players will sometimes have an off day. And even the most average player will sometimes have the game of his life.
  • In a regular season, every team is going to win 54 games; every team is going to lose 54 games. It’s what you do with the other 54 games that counts.
  • Blown calls and bad trades are part of baseball. Deal with it.
  • Sometimes you have to take one for the team.
  • Play with passion. Don’t be afraid to dive for the ball. It’s okay to get dirt on your uniform.
  • There’s a time to bunt, and a time to swing for the fences. Each is valuable in its place.
  • Make the most of the opportunities that you have. Don’t waste good chances; you don’t know how many you’ll get.
  • The bigger the situation, the more you need to relax. Too much tension is never good.
  • You can’t steal first.
  • You win some; you lose some; some get rained out.
  • Above all else – the main thing is always to get safely home.

Now – Play Ball!

Remembering Brother Ronnie

In my days at Dallas Christian College, back in the 1970s, I was blessed to have a number of excellent professors. Some were great thinkers. Some were excellent students of the word. But I never knew a better man of God than Ronnie Hanna.

Brother Ronnie, as we called him, served 18 years at DCC, sometimes as a professor, sometimes also as an administrator. But his real talent was as a man who loved people. He had one of the most amazing memories I have ever seen for remembering names and faces. On more than one occasion, I saw him – without any notes – go around a room of a hundred people or more, from all across Texas, and introduce every one of them, telling something interesting about each person. He genuinely loved people, and more than that, he genuinely loved the Lord’s church. In his time at DCC, he toured extensively throughout Texas and the Southwest on behalf of the college, and I think once he met someone, he never forgot.

And he told the corniest, goofiest dad jokes you have ever heard.

During my four years there, I was blessed to get to travel with him a lot, visiting different churches, so I heard all those jokes many, MANY times. Driving down the road, he would point to a field of fresh-cut grass and say, “Hay!” If there was a period of silence in the van, he would say, “Look! What’s that up there in the road — a head?” He would pull up to a railroad crossing and announce, “I believe a train was just by here.” When some gullible freshman would ask, “How can you tell?”, he would say, “It left behind its tracks.”

Ronnie & Janet Hanna

Sometimes he would say, “Don’t be bitter – reconsider!” I never knew exactly what that meant, but he said it a lot.

By his own admission, Ronnie was sometimes, shall we say, directionally challenged. He generally knew – approximately – in what part of town a given church building was located, and he would get in the right area, but then he’d have to drive around a while to find the exact location. Once we got there, he would just chuckle in his good-natured way, and say that he had known where he was all along, and that he was taking us to our destination via a “scenic tour.”

Brother Ronnie taught “Life of Christ,” which was a freshman-level class. One of the first things he covered was to define for us, exactly what Jesus was talking about when he described the Kingdom of Heaven / Kingdom of God – “The reign and rule of God in the hearts and lives of men and women.” To this day, I’ve never heard a better explanation, and I’ve used it, without exception, every time I have ever taught on the Kingdom. It’s not a place, it’s not just something in the future – God’s Kingdom is here and now, and it’s made up of all those who humble themselves before the living God to let Him rule in their hearts.

The other thing I remember about his Life of Christ class was that he had us read “The Cost of Discipleship” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, with its famous quotation, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Great stuff, life-changing stuff.

I had Ronnie for other classes, and he taught me other things, but if for only those two things, I will always be grateful to have been his student.

After he left Dallas, Ronnie and his beloved wife Janet moved to Colorado, where he ministered for many years. They moved back to the Dallas-area after his retirement. He passed away about ten years ago. But I remember him with genuine fondness and respect. He was a decent, good and gentle man, who loved his God and loved his family. And he loved the Lord’s church and spent his life ministering before the Lord and training others who would do the same.

Thanks for everything, Brother Ronnie. It was an honor to know you. And I bet you didn’t take a “scenic tour” on your way to heaven!

The USS Haskell – A Little-Known Story of World War II

It has been said that there are numerous acts of heroism, bravery, and service during a war that are seldom remembered or celebrated as they should be. In my opinion, one such story is that of the USS Haskell, and the Haskell County sailor who served on her.

USS Haskell, APA 117, was the lead ship of a class of vessels known as “attack transports,” one of 119 ships of that designation, built and launched in 1944 and 45. Designed to carry troops into battle, most of these ships were named for counties across the U.S.

The Haskell was named for counties in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. She was 455 feet long and 62 feet wide, with a maximum speed of 17 knots (about 20 miles per hour). Her crew consisted of 56 officers and 480 enlisted men. Besides being able to carry over 1500 combat troops and their equipment, the ship had 29 landing craft for deploying them on the beach. She was also armed with numerous anti-aircraft weapons and had a complete hospital on board.

The USS Haskell, APA 117, docked at San Francisco Bay, 1945.

The Haskell was launched June 13, 1944, and commissioned September 11. She arrived in San Francisco on October 18 and began loading troops and supplies. She crossed the equator and the International Date Line before participating in the New Guinea offensive.

Throughout 1945, she repeatedly carried troops and supplies to assault enemy-held beaches. She was attacked three times by enemy submarines and survived their torpedo attacks, and came under fire in numerous air attacks. She shot down her first enemy aircraft on January 11. She participated in two hostile landings in the Philippines and another at Okinawa, where she also served as a hospital ship. During her combat, the Haskell suffered one fatality and 28 wounded.

The Haskell was in friendly waters in Seattle on August 12, when “V-J Day” was announced, but her service was not over. The ship began ferrying replacement personnel and occupation forces across the Pacific and bringing home demobilized troops. During one of these missions, the Haskell had to ride out a violent typhoon, with winds of 185 mph. She also brought over 1,400 released Allied POWs to Manila for further medical care before returning to the U.S. The ship made two more trips across the Pacific as part of “Operation Magic Carpet” before being ordered to sail for Norfolk, Virginia, via the Panama Canal. She arrived in Virginia and was decommissioned on May 22, 1946. She became part of the Reserve Fleet but was eventually scrapped on July 30, 1973. During her service, the Haskell sailed over 120,000 miles, crossed the equator four times and the International Date Line ten times. She visited more than 15 foreign countries and transported and/or landed over 14,000 allied military personnel on enemy beaches.

Serving on the Haskell during her entire tenure was a young man from Rochester, Leroy Wreyford, the son of Lawrence and Hattie Mae (Hester) Wreyford. The Wreyfords had a laundry just east of town on the Weinert Highway and were the parents of three sons and a daughter – Alton, Leroy, Donald, and Georgia – and all of the boys served in the war. Lee was born May 7, 1926.

He graduated from Rochester High in 1943 and joined the Navy. Of his service he would later say, “I boarded the USS Haskell, 10 September 1944, as a member of the landing craft crews. I was assigned as one of six to the Beach Control Boat Crew, always landing in the first wave. I remained on the Haskell the entire time she was a commissioned Naval vessel. She covered a lot of miles and did a magnificent job in her short service to her country.”

Seaman 1c Leroy Wreyford, USNR, of Rochester.

For his service on the ship, Seaman First Class Wreyford earned the World War II Victory Medal and the Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon with Bronze Star, given for “outstanding heroism in action against the enemy.” He also earned the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two Bronze Stars, and the Philippines Liberation Medal with Bronze Star. He died on December 26, 2020.

So that’s the story of the USS Haskell, her service to our country, and the Rochester man who served aboard her. Many thanks to all those who helped me research and bring it to you, including Johnny & Teresa Scoggins, Billy Wayne Hester, Linda Short, Jane Short, Susan Turner, John & Mary Rike, and of course, the wonderful ladies at the Haskell County Library.

“…Lest we forget.”

My Most Unforgettable Character: Gordon Baxter

One of the most interesting people I’ve ever known was a pilot, a radio DJ, and a writer for several of the little weekly papers in our corner of East Texas: someone I greatly admired and wanted to be like. His name was Gordon Baxter.

Bax was born in Port Arthur, Texas, on December 25, 1923. He was also an entertainer, singer and emcee for little country bands in that area. I grew up listening to Gordon while I was getting ready for school, mostly on AM radio powerhouse KLVI in Beaumont. He was on every morning beginning at 6:00 am. For the first hour, he would play only gospel songs – he called it “Come to Jesus” music. He featured a lot of Mother Maybelle and the original Carter Family Singers.

He would talk about how beautiful the dawn was. He would tell funny stories about everyday things. One morning he kept playing the same song, over and over, and when someone would call to complain, he told them he was playing different songs – their radio must be stuck. He would play music guaranteed to poke fun at the folks who took themselves too seriously – “Little boxes, on the hillside, little boxes, made of tickey-tackey” was one that I especially remember. And he loved to make his audience consider things that sometimes made them uncomfortable. “Go on, think about it,” he once said during the Civil Rights struggles in the late 1960s. “How would you feel if you were black? How would you want people to treat you?”

He used to say that radio was the most personal of all forms of mass communication. “It’s from my lips to your ears,” he would say. “What’s more personal than that?”

Gordon was good friends with another Beaumont radio personality, J.P. Richardson. Baxter and their other friends mostly knew him as “Jape,” but he was more famously known as “The Big Bopper” for his breakout hit record, “Chantilly Lace.” When Richardson was killed in a plane crash along with Buddy Holly and Richie Valens, Bax wrote a song, “Gold Records in the Snow.” Later, he did an on-the-air, moment-by-moment description of his friend’s funeral procession.

Bax served in the Merchant Marine in the South Pacific during World War II. When his ship was sunk out from under him, he joined the Army Air Corps and became a gunner in B-17s. More than once, I remember, he would fly a little single-engine aircraft into the edge of a hurricane and radio back a live report to his listeners on the Upper Texas coast.

Flying was his real passion. When the editor of Flying magazine visited Beaumont in 1970, Baxter cornered him as he was heading out the door and shoved three of his articles into the man’s hands. He stood there and read them, then asked, “Why aren’t you writing for us?” And so his column, “Bax Seat,” began and continued for more than 25 years. He also wrote for Car and Driver magazine, as well as authoring a dozen different books, most of which are still in print.

When the editorial board at Flying wanted to do a feature about an old-school, “seat-of-his-pants” flyer learning to fly by instruments, they asked Gordon to do it. He said, “Instrument flying is an unnatural act, probably punishable by God.” But he went ahead and did it. I remember hearing him talk about it on his radio show and write about it for the magazine. He went on to earn a number of advanced aviation certifications, but in his heart, he always remained an open cockpit, stick and rudder, “pasture” pilot.

Gordon Baxter – Pilot, Author, DJ

I got to meet Bax on several occasions. Once, for a high school dramatic reading assignment, I read a story he had written about going skydiving and breaking his ankle. “It was worth it,” he wrote. “Any good folly is worth whatever you’re willing to pay for it.” I called Bax later, to tell him about it. He laughed and dedicated the next record to my high school speech teacher – “The Day I Jumped from Uncle Harvey’s Plane,” by Roger Miller.

Gordon died June 11, 2005, leaving behind a wife, nine children and 16 grandchildren. Among other honors, he has been inducted into the Texas Radio Hall of Fame and the Lone Star Flight Museum. His family donated his broadcasting archives – 50 years of recordings – to Lamar University and their campus radio station, KVLU, which still airs his “Best of Bax” program every week.

So thanks, Bax – thanks for keeping us company, for the great songs, the way you made us laugh, and the way you made us think. For the way you loved flying, and the way you made us love it, too. You were definitely one of a kind.

Lessons from Saint Patrick

One of my favorite days of the year, March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day – is almost here. It’s one of my favorites not because I especially love wearing green, but because there really was a man named Patrick who deserves to be remembered.

Patrick was not Irish by birth but was actually born in England or Wales in the late 300s. By his own account, he was NOT a Christian as a young man. At 16, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and taken as a slave to Ireland, where he stayed for six years. He spent much of that time tending sheep, and he also became a believer. Eventually he managed to escape his captors and return to Britain, but after studying for the priesthood, he had a vision of the people of Ireland begging him to return to their island and bring them the gospel.

Ireland at the time was a coarse, pagan land – tribal chieftains competing for power, constant battles, the people worshiping various pagan gods and goddesses, widespread kidnapping and slavery. Patrick brought his faith, and in one generation, Ireland was at peace and slavery had been abolished.

How he brought about such a great social change is too long a story to relate here, but part of it involved Patrick selecting a group of young disciples and pouring himself into them. He would spend about three years, teaching them and showing them how to walk out their faith – then he would send them on their way to put their Christianity into practice. Some of them would become farmers, some shepherds, some craftsmen – and some would become pastors and begin gathering followers of their own. Meanwhile, he would gather up another group of a dozen or so, and start over.

Their influence spread, and it changed the entire culture. For Patrick and his students, Christianity was not a set of doctrines to be studied – it was a way of life to be followed. The message of the gospel wasn’t just about saving people’s souls – it was about making a real difference, improving people’s lives in the here and now. Celtic Christianity wasn’t about going to church to find God – it was about recognizing that God shows Himself in every sunrise and sunset, every blade of grass and mountain stream, and we can see Him through His creation, if we will just look.

This style of cross is known as a “Celtic Cross,” pronounced with a hard “k” sound at the beginning – “KEL-tic.” The circle represents eternity, and the beautifully engraved knotwork symbolizes a bond that cannot be broken. The three steps remind us of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that God is always with us – past, present, and future.

There are many legends about Patrick; one says that he used the three-leafed shamrock (already a sacred plant in Irish life) to teach the people the doctrine of the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If that’s true, it certainly fits with what we know of Patrick’s teaching that we should never worship creation, but that the creation points us to the Creator, and it is the Creator we must worship.

One of my favorite things about Saint Patrick is a prayer attributed to him, known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” and also as “The Cry of the Deer.” It expresses a prayer that is very close to my heart, and says in part –

God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me
.

And another part says,

Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye of everyone who sees me,
Christ in the ear of everyone who hears me.

If you want to learn more about Patrick, I suggest How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. I think it’s one of the most entertaining history books ever written.

So Happy St. Patrick’s Day. And Erin Go Bragh!

Celebrating Lincoln

It’s interesting to me that Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth president, has not been the subject of more well-made movies. But with his birthday coming up this weekend (February 12), I wanted to mention a couple that are worth your time, if you’re a fan of good movies.

The first is Young Mr. Lincoln, a 1939 movie directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda. The two of them would work together on a number of other films going forward, including 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath, but this was their first movie together. Fonda does a great job playing Lincoln as a gangly twenty-something young man, trying to make his way as a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois – short on formal education but long on common sense and simple decency. Among his first clients are two brothers accused of murdering a man. The trial in which he defends the brothers gives Fonda the opportunity to show Lincoln as a great storyteller and observer of the human condition, which he, in fact, was. The story is loosely based on an actual case of Mr. Lincoln’s.

Henry Fonda as “Young Mr. Liincoln,” in John Ford’s 1939 movie of the same name.

According to IMDB.com, Henry Fonda did not want to portray Lincoln and originally turned down the role, saying that he was not worthy to play the great man. John Ford convinced him to do a screen test in full make-up and costume, and it was only after he saw the performance on the screen that Fonda relented and accepted the part.

In addition to Henry Fonda, the film also features a young Ward Bond as one of the eyewitnesses. He became one of Hollywood’s busiest and most versatile character actors, and went on to work with John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Jimmie Stewart, and many others. In addition, in the 1950s, he starred in Wagon Train and other TV productions.

A second and more recent Lincoln movie that I would recommend is 2012’s Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, and directed by Steven Spielberg. But be advised – this is NOT a movie for people who watch a movie for the special effects or like to see stuff blown up. There’s an actual story here. Also, if you don’t like movies where you have to pay attention to dialogue, then this is probably not a film you will enjoy. But if you enjoy history, if you like movies where words matter, if you enjoy seeing incredible actors at the top of their craft, then you owe it to yourself to see this, or maybe watch it again.

Here’s the story: It is January 1865. The American Civil War is in its fourth year, and Lincoln has just been reelected. Two years earlier, he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but now he is seeking to abolish slavery once and for all through the proposed 13th Amendment. The amendment has passed the Senate but does not have the necessary two-thirds majority to pass the evenly divided House.

When his advisers are whining because they’re still two votes down, Lincoln thunders, “The abolition of slavery by Constitutional provisions settles the fate, for all time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come – a measure of such importance that those two votes must be procured. I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those two votes.”

Daniel Day-Lewis in his Oscar-winning performance as “Lincoln,”
Steven Spielberg’s salute to the sixteeenth president.

Daniel Day-Lewis is simply phenomenal to watch in this Oscar-winning role, and he is surrounded by tremendous talent, including Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommie Lee Jones, and the late Hal Holbrook, just to name a few. The private, screaming fight between the President and Mrs. Lincoln is one of the most amazing scenes ever filmed and shows two truly great actors holding nothing back. I also love the way Spielberg structures the storytelling here. The movie opens with remembrances of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and closes with his Second Inaugural.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

I’m telling you, words matter, and they absolutely shine in the hands of this director, this script, and these actors. “Lincoln” is a gem.

The Secret of Christmas

First of all, I want to dedicate this week’s column to my wife’s late dad, Frank Rolens. Frank was a wonderful, gentle, Godly man, a great husband and father, and a World War II veteran. He was originally from Granby, Missouri, where his father was a physician. Granby is a tiny community near Joplin, in the southwest corner of the “Show-Me” state. Kathy’s mom Helen was from Neosho, another town near there, and they were married after he came home from the service.

Frank Rolens (1925-1995) in his World War II uniform.
He served in the European Theatre of Operations and was part of the
Allied Occupation Force that helped “de-nazify” Germany after the war.

Frank was not a pilot, but he LOVED flying, and spent most of his working life in the airline industry – 39 years of it with American Airlines. He told me that when he first started in that industry, he worked as a gate agent at a small airport, taking tickets, loading luggage, and directing pilots on where to park the planes. He did other jobs over the years, of course, and ended up in a department called “Flight Information.”

Back in the days when airlines still cared about, you know, real customer service, if you were having trouble making reservations or connections, your call would get transferred to “Flight Information.” An agent there – Frank or one of his co-workers – would help you navigate all of the different flight options, even putting you on another carrier’s planes, if that was what was needed to get you to your destination.

Frank served as an elder at Kathy’s home church in Bedford, where their family had been charter members of that congregation when it was established. That church’s name has changed over the years, but Kathy’s sister and her husband are still members there.

On top of all that, he was a terrific father-in-law and friend to me. He passed away in 1995. December 16 was his birthday. Frank loved to sing, especially men’s barbershop singing, and he was a big fan of the group known as the “Vocal Majority.” Now, if you’re not familiar with the Vocal Majority, they are a men’s chorus of about 150 guys who sing in classic “Barbershop” harmony. They are based in Dallas and have won numerous international singing competitions.

Back in 1982, radio station KVIL in Dallas released the first of what would become a series of Christmas recordings. This album, and the later CDs, contained some really beautiful Christmas songs – some old favorites, some newer material – and featured artists from the D/FW and North Texas area. One of my favorites was a recording by the Vocal Majority of “The Secret of Christmas.” I had never heard the song before, but it turns out it was written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn for Bing Crosby to sing in the 1959 movie, “Say One for Me.” Besides Der Bingle, the song has been covered by numerous artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, Julie Andrews, and Johnny Mathis, but the VM’s version remains my favorite. If you would like to watch and listen to them perform this song, you can follow this link.

A lot of people talk about finding and holding on to the true “Spirit” of Christmas – qualities such as joy, generosity, hope, and surrounding yourself with loved ones. But the fact is, these are qualities that Christians ought to embody throughout the entire year. That certainly fits with this song.

So, in Frank’s honor, and to brighten your holidays, here are the lyrics for “The Secret of Christmas.”

It's not the glow you feel
  When snow appears,
It's not the Christmas card
  You've sent for years.
-
Not the joyful sound
  When sleigh bells ring,
Or the merry songs
  Children sing.
-
The little gift you send
  On Christmas day
Will not bring back the friend
  You've turned away.
-
So may I suggest, the secret of Christmas
  Is not the things you do at Christmas time –
But the Christmas things you do
  All year through.

Seven Score and 18 Years Ago…

It was on this date 158 years ago – November 19, 1863 – that Abraham Lincoln gave the most important speech in American history. Yes, I know there are plenty of other nominees for that honor, but as important as those speeches were, none have had the lasting impact on our national identity and purpose as the Gettysburg Address.

In this speech, President Lincoln redefined and refocused the reason for the Great Struggle, he provided comfort for a nation reeling from staggering losses; he took what had been a relatively obscure line from the Declaration of Independence and made it a national mantra, and once and for all seized the moral high ground in the war. And the fact that Lincoln did all this using only 272 words is a reminder that when it comes to words, it’s quality, not quantity, that matters.

Like any great historical event, numerous myths surround the speech and its delivery. For one thing, Lincoln did NOT compose it on the back of an envelope on the train ride up from Washington, nor did he scribble down a few thoughts at the boarding house where he stayed the night before the speech. The historical evidence shows that he had already completed at least one or two rough drafts of the speech that he had shown to some of his friends and advisers before he ever left Washington.

This lithograph of Lincoln at Gettysburg was originally published in 1905.

Another enduring myth is that the speech was a flop when it was first delivered, and the crowd was visibly displeased with it. Not so. It’s true that newspaper editorials about the speech differed widely in their reviews of it, but generally broke along party lines – most Republican papers praised and endorsed it, while most Democratic papers dismissed it.

It’s also true that it was short, but it was supposed to be. Dedication of the new cemetery at Gettysburg was primarily a state function, and national involvement was not considered necessary or automatic. The main speaker at the dedication was Sen. Edward Everett of Massachusetts, perhaps the most skilled orator of the time, who spoke for over two hours, reviewing the battle, condemning the Rebels and praising the Union. President Lincoln had been invited only to give a few brief remarks, and nothing more was expected.

It’s hard for us today to appreciate what a different time it was, politically. But if you know our nation’s history, you know that the framers of the republic didn’t know what to do about slavery, and since they couldn’t agree on a solution, they basically just punted that particular ball to a future generation. The Constitution says that a black man counts as 3/5 of a person when it comes to the census. It’s not clear just what the framers originally meant when they wrote, “All men are created equal,” but to one extent or another, they were thinking educated, white, landowning males.

Authors use words to create the reality of other worlds in their books as they write. Good speakers do the same, helping their audience see things “as they could be.” In this speech, Lincoln took the Declaration’s words about equality and breathed new life into them. He redefined a war that had been about political theory, economics, and states’ rights, and turned it into a moral struggle for liberty for all. To this day, we’re still debating some of those issues.

There are five versions of the speech with slight variations. Here is best known version, which the President himself wrote out and signed.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

I would say the President was wrong about one thing: the world has indeed long noted what he said. And rightfully so.