Tag Archives: 1970s

My World War II

My World War II

Geoff Howes

 In May and August of this year, we will observe seventy-five years since VE Day and VJ Day. I was born in November 1955, ten years after the Second World War ended. But WWII lingered on in the culture and defined the world I grew up in. When people said The War, they didn’t mean the more recent Korean or the then-current Vietnam War. They meant the “Big One.”

In the ‘60s, Hollywood kept fighting the war. Sink the Bismarck! (1960), The Guns of Navarone (1961), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), The Longest Day (1962), The Great Escape (1963), PT 109 (1963), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Battle of the Bulge (1965), Battle of Britain (1969). These movies and more came to my young attention between my fifth and fifteenth years. I even saw some of them: The Guns of Navarone at the drive-in with Ricky Cunningham and his dad. The Battle of Britain on TV. It had way too much chatter and not enough flying for an airplane nut like me.

As an airplane nut, I spent my pre-teen years building plastic models of World War II warplanes: P-51 Mustang, P-40 Tomahawk, P-38 Lightning, P-39 Aircobra, F4F Wildcat, SBD Dauntless, Supermarine Spitfire, Hawker Hurricane, B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator, B-26 Marauder, Handley Page Halifax, Messerschmitt Bf-109, Focke Wulf Fw-190, Messerschmitt 110. Two of the first words I learned in German were Luftwaffe and Jagdstaffel(“fighter squadron”).

I loved the beautiful shapes of these machines, and I imagined the thrill of speed and the gallantry of dogfights. I did not imagine the carnage wreaked by flak, 50-caliber bullets, and 500-pound bombs. Shot-down planes and cities 30,000 feet below were magically unpeopled by my childish mind.

My friends and I played War a lot, always World War II, usually Europe. We’d either play “big guys,” toting toy guns, or “little guys,” with small plastic soldiers. I didn’t know a kid who didn’t have at least one set of these figurines, usually army green, but sometimes gray (Germans) or tan (Japanese). These manikins were firing rifles (standing, kneeling, or prone), wielding mine detectors and flamethrowers, and shouldering bazookas. The plastic tanks, half-tracks, and jeeps were usually out of scale with the humans. We emitted war sounds, usually voiceless bilabial plosives followed by velar fricatives, voiceless for rifles and machine guns, voiced for shells and grenades. 

Playing “big guys,” we always had to decide whether to be Americans and their enemies (“Krauts”), or let everyone be American and just imagine our foes. I preferred the latter: there usually weren’t enough of us for two squads, and it eliminated endless arguments over who killed (“got”) who. With everyone on the same team, it was easier to devise adventures.

We modeled these adventures on the TV series Combat!, which ran from 1962 to 1967. The show followed a squad of US Army soldiers through France after D-Day. Once my dad took me out for a birthday dinner at Vanelli’s, a “fancy” restaurant on Woodward Avenue. As we were leaving, I saw the closing credits of Combat! on a TV in the lobby. I felt bad I’d missed it, birthday or no birthday. That’s how much I loved that show.

Recently, I’ve watched a few Combat! episodes on YouTube, and it holds up well. Robert Altman directed half of the first season. The series didn’t glorify war, but portrayed it as hard and tragic. Difficult decisions, not mere heroism, shaped the plots. In retrospect, I think I learned about leadership from Lt. Hanley, played by Rick Jason, and Sgt. Saunders, played by Vic Morrow.

One day I was watching the show in the family room. An American soldier huddling by a house lobbed a hand grenade into the window above him. The explosion sent a German soldier somersaulting out the window. “Cool!” I exclaimed. My usually reserved father had just stepped into the room. Calmly but firmly, he said, “There’s nothing cool about someone getting killed.”

Apparently, twenty years after the war was not too soon for WWII sitcoms. I watched a lot of Hogan’s Heroes (1965-71), set in the fictional German POW camp Stalag 13. (Later I realized the show drew on The Great Escape and Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17.) Colonel Hogan, an American pilot, led a crew of Allied prisoners in resistance and sabotage against the Germans. Every week they outwitted the Kommandant Colonel Klink (played by Werner Klemperer) and the bumbling guard Sgt. Schulz (John Banner).

Whenever haughty General Burkhalter (Leon Askin) inspected the camp, the POWs managed to distract him from Klink’s and Schulz’s failures. Incompetent Nazis were good for their operations. Years later, my father-in-law (a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge) remarked that if the Germans had been that stupid, it wouldn’t have taken so long to win the war. Ironically, Klemperer, Banner, and Askin were all Jewish émigrés from Germany and Austria who had served in the US Army in WWII.

We lived with personal echoes of The War as well. My mother’s brother Jimmy was killed in 1943 when his submarine, the USS Amberjack, was sunk in the South Pacific. My mother never got over it, and absent Uncle Jimmy was a presence in our lives. My father was too young to have served, but his father, in his forties, had worked for the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes.

In the 1970s, learning German in high school and majoring in German studies in college, I fleshed out my rudimentary knowledge of the European war. The first piece of literature I read in German was Wolfgang Borchert’s short story “The Bread,” which depicts hunger after the war. The first novel I read in German was Heinrich Böll’s House without Guardians, about families whose loved ones had fallen.

Studying German in the ‘70s and ‘80s meant studying The War. Böll’s family saga Billiards at Half Past Nine, Günter Grass’s anti-epic The Tin Drum, Siegfried Lenz’s novel of inner immigration The German Lesson, and Borchert’s play The Man Outside, about a traumatized returnee from the Eastern front: these texts and others created a world in my mind of both German culpability and German suffering. Films like The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), The Tin Drum (1979), Germany, Pale Mother (1980), Das Boot (1981), and The White Rose (1982) tried to deal with guilt, destruction, trauma, and crimes against humanity.

The first time I visited Berlin, in 1975, the war had been over for thirty years. Its traces were everywhere, from the ruined Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, to the hulk of Anhalter Station, to the prison memorial at Plötzensee, to pockmarks left in stone. The harsh division of the city, a bizarre by-product of the settlement of the war, was a new form of unsettlement.

The peaceful, shady avenues of Charlottenburg, where my student group was staying in the House of Political Education, made nineteen-year-old me nostalgic for something I never knew: the world that was pulverized by World War II. Now, forty-five years later, with the living memory of The War nearly obliterated by mere time, I feel nostalgic for that nostalgia.

21 April 2020

The Acoustic Jargon Bicentennial Summer Tour 1976

Part 1: The Making of Acoustic Jargon

It was my second day in Snyder Hall, a dorm at Michigan State University. I walked past my R.A.’s room and saw a lanky guy with dark shoulder-length hair and a dark beard sitting on his bed playing a nylon-string guitar. This was Dave Babak. His friendly eyes greeted me. I was a shy kid, not quite eighteen, but I had a calling card just in case my personality wasn’t working: a mandolin.

I mustered my courage and said, “Hey, I play the mandolin. Maybe we could play sometime?”

“Cool. We can get Phil down the hall to play with us. He’s really good.”

Before long I was part of a beery, all-night jam session in Dave’s room. Phil Klum, the really good guitar player, was there, along with Leon Luczak and his sweet little Gibson, and a tall funny guy named Swanee, and probably a couple of other guys.

I remember for sure that we played “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” with Dave singing. We probably played “The Accident” by John Prine, with Leon on vocals. And “Moondance.” It was the night after a kegger, and some of our beer was leftovers in plastic gallon jugs, slightly flat. But who cared? This was college life.

We lived in Precinct 17 of Snyder Hall, which was nicknamed “Stalag 17” after the Billy Wilder POW-camp movie. Eventually this motley collection of pickers and songsters with no name became a motley collection of pickers and songsters with a name: the Stalag 17 Blues Band. Later, Frank Siciliano joined us on percussion, and so did Bob “BC” Cook on flute and saxophone.

We debuted at a coffeehouse in the Snyder-Phillips dorm cafeteria. I had never played for an audience before. Leon and I also peeled off that fall and played at the legendary Brody Hall cafeteria. My eight-string social prop was doing its job.

Swanee noticed that he and I had the same cheap Yamaha guitar and the same shitty little mustache, so we had to form the spinoff duo Crusty Dog. In spite of our important similarities, Swanee was at least 8 inches taller than me. Or maybe I was 8 inches shorter than him. Anyway, the disparity was part of the musical comedy act.

Crusty Dog performed a Swanee original titled “Every Day I Miss You More (or Less),” and an old folk song, “My Sweetheart’s a Mule in the Mines.” I told the audience: “This song goes back to the days of the Pharaohs’ mines. It was passed on in different versions over the centuries, and finally wound up in the Appalachians. We learned it off a John Denver record.”1

The band was a big part of my social life at MSU. I drank lots of beer, but just drinking beer was boring. Playing music gave my uptight little heart a sense of purpose while still allowing me to get debauched. I hung out with musicians more than I hung out with my fellow German majors, and I loved cultivating this ragtag identity while learning about Heinrich von Kleist and Goethe and Brecht. Swanee called me a “derelectual.”

Dave moved on, and we settled into a configuration with two lead singers, Phil and Leon. Phil leaned toward rock and pop featuring the major seventh chords that sounded so rich on his Gibson Hummingbird. America and Stephen Stills were two of his favorites. Leon walked the line between rock and country: Van Morrison, John Prine, Jackson Browne, New Riders of the Purple Sage. Leon was from Saginaw, and the twang in his voice earned him the moniker “The Saginaw Cowboy.”

Phil’s and Leon’s musical interests intersected in songs by the likes of the Allman Brothers and Neil Young, and their voices layered with BC’s, pulling lush three-part harmonies out of the air of that era of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and the Eagles.

On a typical evening we’d play Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me” and “Wild Night,” America’s “Ventura Highway,” Dan Hicks’s “Payday Blues,” the Allmans’ “Whipping Post,” Buffalo Springfield’s “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing,” and a bluegrass-inflected “I’ve Just Seen a Face” (a.k.a. “Fallin’”) with five-part harmonies.

I’d sing an occasional lead — less often than George but more often than Ringo. My favorites were “Seeds and Stems Again” by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen and “Ooh La La” by the Faces. I figured I could sing at least as good as Ronnie Wood. Swanee told me I sounded like a regular guy who could sing.

In January 1975, we got a gig at the Peanut Barrel, a popular bar on Grand River Avenue just off campus. (It’s still there.) This was our chance to announce to the world, or at least to twenty or thirty of its representatives, that we were dropping the name Stalag 17 Blues Band. No one lived in Stalag 17 anymore and we hardly ever played blues. Now we called ourselves Acoustic Jargon.

Left:  "An event." Flyer made by my RA, John LaLonde. 
Right: A note of congratulations from fans. 

Ooh La La - Acoustic Jargon live at the Peanut Barrel

In the summer of 1975 I went to Germany for the first time, spending nine weeks on the MSU study-abroad program in Mayen. I took my mandolin along as a carry-on, and at the farewell party I borrowed a guitar and played “Goodnight Irene” and “Midnight Special” in front of a bunch of Germans. This required some intestinal fortitude (a.k.a. guts) that I owed to Acoustic Jargon.

In November 1975 we made a tape (it really was a tape) to send to Dave Babak, who had moved to Aurora, Colorado. This recording still exists, and in 1998 Phil, who has been a mastering engineer in New York for many years now, mastered it and sent me a CD (it really was a CD).

It’s ragged around the edges, but the bond of playing together for two years is audible. We are reading each other’s musical minds. The harmonies really fit that cliché about harmonies: they are lush. Between the tunes there’s some funny banter and great affection going out to Dave— now poignant since he died of cancer in 2010.

During spring break of 1976 I missed out on some Acoustic Jargon shenanigans because I went out to Massachusetts to visit a young woman I thought might be my girlfriend. At the beginning of the year, she had transferred to Tufts. My advice to romantic young musicians: if given the choice between following your music and following your heart, opt for the music. Your heart may be persuasive, but it’s stupid. And you can always retune a mandolin.2

There was exciting news back in East Lansing: a friend was working with us to organize a summer tour Up North over the Fourth of July. This was 1976, the year of our country’s Bicentennial, and we were bound to celebrate it in style.

 

  1. All totally untrue.
  2. But it will go right out of tune again.

 

Part 2: The Tour  (posted July 4, 2016)

In the summer of ‘76 I was living with my parents in Royal Oak, Michigan, and working at Hagelstein’s machine shop in the next town north, Clawson. My parents’ neighbor Don, known as Neighbor Don, worked there and helped me get the job. I learned to run drill presses and milling machines, and my life was filled with 9-hour workdays, 6-day work weeks, grayish-white lubrication fluid, and metal filings.

In June Neighbor Don was gracious enough to host Acoustic Jargon on his back deck for a rehearsal/performance. (It is a sign of professionalism to distinguish between rehearsal and performance.) My family could hear the band, the band could show off a little bit, and we were having a reunion.

Working so much, I was overly excited to get away for a long Fourth-of-July weekend. The Fourth was on a Sunday in 1976 and Monday was a holiday too. I still can’t figure out how my parents could afford to give me use of the family car all weekend. I have a clear memory of my emotions lifting as the station wagon banked onto the entry ramp from Telegraph Road to I-696.

My first stop was East Lansing, where Acoustic Jargon assembled for a pre-tour party and maybe a little rehearsal. At the party I talked a long time to a young woman I knew from the Snyder-Phillips dorm, Christen Giblin. Thoughts of her accompanied me all weekend and then all summer long.

 

A digression on nicknames. Before I started at MSU, I went to a scholarship competition in East Lansing that involved taking a proficiency test and getting a taste of dorm life. I stayed overnight with some students in McDonel Hall. One of the guys in the suite was nicknamed “Scummy” (his last name was Scully) and another one was “Warthog” (I don’t remember his last name). I was amazed and amused that they actually called each other by those names the whole time.

Little did I suspect that within a year or so I would be part of a group of people who called each other nicknames the whole time. Swanee (Bob Swanson), BC (Bob Cook), and Bo (Mark Seaman) already came with their nicknames. Frank got the least outlandish handle, “Frankie.” Phil was P-Dog (aka Dog Man). Leon (now Leo) was, as already mentioned, the Saginaw Cowboy, which of course morphed into “Saginaw Cowpie,” which sometimes became “Pie Man” or just “Pie.” A guy in Snyder Hall named Howie Fixler started calling me by the French version of my name, “Geoffroi,” which the Saginaw Cowboy pronounced “Geoffwah,” which was reduced to “Wah.” There are still people who call me “Geoffwah,” “the Wah,” “Wah,” “Wah Boy,” or “Wah Man.” In fact, the night that Christen (the girl from the party) and I announced our engagement to her family, she said “The Wah and I have decided to get married.”

Digression on the digression. When I was offered a $50 scholarship on the basis of the test I took, my father stated, “One is tempted to tell them to roll up their 50 dollars and put it where the sun don’t shine.” I’m sure my father thought things like this all the time, but he didn’t usually say them. 

 

I wish I could write a chronological, blow-by-blow account of that long Bicentennial weekend, but forty years later I just have fragments of memories. I’ll try to translate these mind chunks into bits of story, and maybe something will gel.

We caravaned our way Up North, with the five-member band and some friends of the group, Swanee, Claudia, and Bo. We stopped in Saginaw, where Leon and Bo were from, to lay in some provisions. In the Meijer’s parking lot I got out of my folks’ station wagon and joined the others in a van while someone went into the store. We were listening to Gram Parsons, whom I’d never heard before, and I was hooked right away. “In My Hour of Darkness” with Emmylou Harris: wow. Bo looked out the window at his home town and said, “So this is the fuckin’ Naw!”

Our Saturday night gig was at a hotel in Boyne City. We set up to practice in a big empty room, and for the first time I plugged in the instrument pickup I’d borrowed. Hearing my mandolin resounding from the speakers changed my life. Someone, our host I think, had a drum set, and jamming with a drummer changed my life a little too.

That night in the hotel lounge there were about three people besides our retinue listening to us. It was a ski resort in July. Oh well, we needed a rehearsal anyway. I remember trying to play Phil’s cheap Norma bass guitar, with the G string missing. The song was “My Girl,” which I also sang lead on. I don’t know why I thought I was talented enough to sing Motown while playing an instrument I didn’t know how to play.

In my mental image, we’re looking out from the low stage toward the long bar across the room, with empty tables fading to the right and left into brown shadows. One of our Up North benefactors must have arranged this gig, because we were able to stay free that night in the nearly deserted ski hotel.

On Sunday the Fourth we were scheduled to play a community cookout, in Charlevoix, I think. We stood on a big outdoor stage, with a large audience kind of off in the distance. My main memory is the clouds of chicken smoke from the huge grill wafting over and shrouding us on the stage. I have no idea whether anyone listened or how we played. I’m sure we had some fun.

In the evening we played the “Community Cabaret” at the Holiday Inn in Petoskey. We were opening for some clown called Jango Edwards. No, he really is a clown: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jango_Edwards . Kenny Rogers’s cousin Dan’s band, Dan Rogers County Line, was playing an engagement at the Holiday Inn and we got to use their sound system, which made us feel pretty special in a Kevin Bacon sort of way. I remember being crammed onto a shallow stage, playing to a good crowd. In my self-centered recall I’m singing “Ooh La La.” We finish, and someone in the crowd yells, “rock ‘n’ roll!” I still haven’t decided whether that was sarcastic or not.

We must have camped out that night. I remember seeing the Northern Lights, throwing a frisbee the next day on a Lake Michigan beach, and finding a rural roadhouse where the beer was 25 cents a glass.

According to some flyers I’ve kept as mementos, we played the “Community Cabaret” again on Monday, this time in Charlevoix at a place called The Weathervane, which is still there (http://www.staffords.com/weathervane-restaurant/). I don’t have a specific memory of that gig, probably because everything was overlaid by worry about having to leave after a 10:00 pm show to get back to the Detroit area to return the car and make it to work on Tuesday morning.

Claudia needed to get back too, so she rode all night with me in my parents’ station wagon. By the time we reached Oakland County the sun was up and I could barely keep my eyes open. I fell asleep for a second in heavy traffic on I-696. Luckily, I did not kill myself and Claudia, destroy the family car, injure or kill some unsuspecting commuters, and fail to make it in time to punch in at Hagelstein’s.

Actually, I did make it in time, but I realized, probably encouraged by my parents, that the second-stupidest thing I could do on July 6, 1976, would be to go to work, fall asleep on the job, and run my hand under a drill press. I had already done the first-stupidest thing.

Thus ended the Acoustic Jargon Bicentennial Fourth of July Summer Tour of 1976. Even without dying in a fiery crash on I-696, it is my most memorable Fourth of July ever. And forty years later I hope to keep it that way.