Wednesday Nov. 11, 2015

0:00/ 0:00

It’s Not Just Trains

The ticket office was closing
when we arrived and were informed
our train had departed ahead of schedule.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Trains
leave on time, or late, but never early.”
“Such things happen,” the agent replied,

“more often than you would think.”
“Look around,” he added,
“and pay attention. It’s not just trains.”

When I told my family of this unexpected
predicament, I was taken aback
by their lack of surprise. “Let’s wander

a while through this pretty little town,”
my wife proposed, “and see what happens.”
“Or else,” said my son, “let’s head off

into that dark woods beyond the tracks,
each alone and without our baggage,
and try to find our way out

before nightfall.” He smiled, I thought,
at me in particular, as if he’d known
all along that would be the plan.

“It’s Not Just Trains” by Lawrence Raab from Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts. © Tupelo Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is Veterans Day, honoring Americans who have served their country in the armed forces.

November 11 was originally called Armistice Day because it was on this date in 1918 the Allies and Germany signed an armistice agreement to end hostilities on the Western Front of the First World War.

By late summer 1918, the war had become unpopular among the German people, and it was also becoming increasingly clear that the military would not be able to hold out much longer against Allied offensives. In early October, at the urging of his cabinet, Chancellor Max von Baden sent a telegraph to American President Woodrow Wilson. The chancellor requested a cease-fire agreement between Germany and the Allies, based on Wilson's Fourteen Points address from the previous January. But Wilson refused to negotiate with a Germany that was not democratic, and didn't put much stock in von Baden's assurances that he was moving the country in that direction, especially after a German U-boat sank the Leinster, a British mail ship, killing some 520 civilians. Wilson angrily said he would let the European commanders end the war on their own terms, but that they would not negotiate while Kaiser Wilhelm remained in power. Wilhelm abdicated and fled the country on November 10, and the new civilian government quickly said they would sign an armistice agreement on whatever terms the Allies put forward.

Under the terms of the armistice, Germany was forced to evacuate all of its occupied territories on the Western Front and elsewhere within two weeks, and Allied forces occupied the left bank of the Rhine. The German military was essentially gutted of its supplies, equipment, and ammunition. In addition, Germany had to agree to accept all the blame — and pay all the reparations — for the war. German leaders felt humiliated by what they viewed as overly punitive conditions, but the country was in no position to do anything but agree to the terms. France's representatives, however, made it clear they thought that the terms of the armistice and the subsequent Treaty of Versailles were too lenient.

The armistice was signed outside Paris at 6 a.m. in the railway carriage of Allied commander Ferdinand Foch, and the cease-fire took effect five hours later: at "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month."

It's the birthday of comedian Jonathan Winters, born in Bellbrook, Ohio (1925). He dropped out of high school to join the Marines. When he came home, he studied cartooning and married a fellow art student. One day, his wife read about a talent contest offering a new wristwatch as a prize, and she encouraged him to enter — he needed a new watch but they couldn't afford it. He won the contest with impressions of movie stars, and landed a job as a morning DJ on the local radio show. He wasn't very good at getting guests on the show, so instead he made up fake personalities and interviewed himself.

Winters set his sights on New York City. He promised his wife he would move back to Ohio after a year if things weren't working out, and with $56.46 to his name, he headed to Greenwich Village to crash with friends and try to make it as a stand-up comedian. Things were going pretty well, and he was making people laugh with his impressions of celebrities. One night after a show, an old man who was sweeping the floor came up to him and said that there was nothing new or interesting about impersonating famous people. As Winters told the story, the man said: "What's the matter with those characters in Ohio? I'll bet there are some far-out dudes that you grew up with back in Ohio."

Winters took the old man's advice to heart, and two days later he had created one of his most famous characters, an old woman named Maude Frickert who seems like a sweet grandma but has a dirty mind and a weakness for drinking. Winters played her by wearing a Victorian dress and a white wig. He based Maude on several old ladies he knew back in Ohio, including one old aunt who taught him to play poker and drink wine when he was nine years old. He invented other characters based on people he had known growing up — Elwood P. Suggins, the overalls-wearing town hick who used to be fire chief until they realized he was setting all the fires; B.B. Bindlestiff, who claimed he could make money from anything; and Piggy Bladder, the football coach for the State Teachers' Animal Husbandry Institute for the Blind.

Things went well for a few years, but Winters struggled with the strain of constant traveling. In 1959, he suffered a nervous breakdown — he burst into tears onstage at a nightclub in San Francisco, and when police found him climbing the rigging of a sailboat at Fisherman's Wharf, he told them he was from outer space. He spent eight months in a mental hospital, where he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It was something he didn't like to talk about much afterward. He said, "If you make a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year and you're talking to the blue-collar guy who's a farmer 200 miles south of Topeka, he's looking up and saying, 'That bastard makes (all that money) and he's crying about being a manic depressive?'"

Not long after that episode, Winters was hired to play a slow-witted furniture mover in the film It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). He threw himself into improv. He said, "Improvisation is about taking chances, and I was ready to take chances." In 1964, he appeared on The Jack Paar Program; Paar gave the comedian a foot-long stick and told him to do something with it. Winters proceeded to act out a fisherman, violinist, lion tamer, canoeist, diplomat, bullfighter, flutist, psychiatric patient, British headmaster, and Bing Crosby's golf club.

Winters appeared in many TV shows and films, and was an inspiration to an entire generation of comedians, especially Jim Carrey and Robin Williams. He appeared on the final season of Williams' sitcom Mork and Mindy, and Winters' improvisations were so funny that people at Paramount Studios would pack the soundstage to watch him. He died earlier this year.

He said, "I couldn't wait for success, so I went ahead without it."

It's the birthday of a writer who was also a veteran, Kurt Vonnegut (books by this author), born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on this day in 1922. He's the author of Slaughterhouse Five (1969), Cat's Cradle (1963), Breakfast of Champions (1973), and Timequake (1997).

He said that as the youngest child he was always desperate to get some attention at the supper table and so he worked hard to be funny. He'd listen studiously to comedians on the radio, and how they made jokes, and then at family dinner time, he'd try to imitate them. He later said, "That's what my books are, now that I'm a grownup — mosaics of jokes."

All his life he loved slapstick humor. He told an interviewer that one of the funniest things that can happen in a film is "when somebody in a movie would tell everybody off, and then make a grand exit into the coat closet. He had to come out again, of course, all tangled in coat hangers and scarves." When he was on the faculty at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he told his students that they were there learning to play practical jokes. He said, "All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®