Adventures of Snagglepuss: The Movie

Uncle Dave was hands-down the most talented of my relatives. He was also one of the wealthiest, at least when he was young. Taxes and bad investments ate up a lot of his inheritance, and then he blew most of the remainder on some ill-starred animation and chili dog ventures.

That all began in the early 60s. A few years earlier Dave had worked for the Hubleys at UPA, working mostly on TV commercials and mastering the art of “limited animation,” where you rejoice in the two-dimensionality of the frame, often only having a character’s mouth move. Some of the commercials had Mr. Magoo, for whom Dave invented a little wheel with four legs and feet radiating out from the center, something like a swastika. You could hide half of this under Mr. Magoo’s coat, and turn the wheel, take photographs as you turned it, and voila!, Mr. Magoo was walking. The Mr. Magoo Walk-Wheel, they called it.

Later on, Dave freelanced for Joe Barbera and Bill Hanna a while. They had taken simplified animation a step further. They got rid of all the fancy forced-perspective Stuart Davis-type backgrounds that UPA liked, and substituted flat drawings of simple landscapes and interiors. Boring, yes, but it meant Hanna-Barbera could now crank out animated cartoons like nobody’s business. Ruff ‘n’ Reddy. Huckleberry Hound. Quick Draw McGraw. One of the Huckleberry Hound supporting cast was so appealing, they spun him off and gave him his own program (Yogi Bear).

By 1962 they were riding high on the success of The Flintstones, notable because it was supposed to be the first television cartoon designed for adults. First season,1960-61, they were sponsored by Winston Cigarettes. That shocks people today, because people don’t remember that The Flintstones was aimed at grownups. The Flintstones and their neighbors the Rubbles were supposed to be prehistoric “cave people,” of course, but the real inspiration for The Flintstones was The Honeymooners with Jackie Gleason. Fred Flintstone even talked a bit like Jackie Gleason, and his wife Wilma had an Audrey Meadows twang to her voice, and Barney Rubble talked something like Art Carney, though I believe he was actually voiced by Mel Blanc.

And they brought on a strange assortment of live personalities to appear as cartoon versions of themselves. For some reason Hanna-Barbera had a thing for Hoagy Carmichael. And once they did Ann-Margret as Ann Marg-rock. All of this was conceived with adults in mind, since little kids wouldn’t appreciate these adult celebrities. (Who in the 1960s was even thinking about Hoagy Carmichael?) And kids wouldn’t get the appeal of a prime-time cartoon based on The Honeymooners, a sitcom about two childless married couples living in severely under-furnished flats in Brooklyn.

There were so many subsidiary characters in the Hanna-Barbera stable, Dave had the idea of taking one and building a whole feature film around him. I don’t know why Joe and Bill suggested Snagglepuss. Possibly they thought Snagglepuss had limited breakout potential. If you don’t remember Snagglepuss, he was a fey pink puma who talked something like Bert Lahr and was always going “Exit—stage left!” and “Heavens to Murgatroyd” I think he appeared in a back-segment of Quick Draw McGraw, the way Yogi Bear had started out on Huckleberry Hound. But there was no way Hanna-Barbera were going to build a whole show around Snagglepuss. Anyway, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera gave Uncle Dave the go-ahead to make a Snagglepuss feature. Dave got the rights for free, that is, he was licensed to use him for five years, with Bill and Joe sharing in the profits of any film that got made.

I don’t think Dave really knew the Snagglepuss character well. He knew about making animated commercials but didn’t actually watch TV. So he didn’t know how bad a character Snagglepuss was—tiresome enough for seven minutes, unimaginable for seventy-seven. All Dave knew was that Hanna and Barbera knew their business, and a Hanna-Barbera character was money in the bank. Joe and Bill were already storyboarding a feature film for Yogi Bear, and Dave figured a movie based on another Hanna-Barbera character was a guaranteed money-spinner.

After six or eight months Dave brought Joe and Bill the completed storyboards. He’d had the vague impression that he’d get to borrow some of Joe and Bill’s staff for the Snagglepuss movie, but Joe and Bill never agreed to that in writing. Back at his own studio, Dave busied himself with a big new series of beer commercials. After six or eight months he checked back with Hanna-Barbera and found his storyboards just collecting dust. Joe and Bill were apologetic, but said there was just too much work and too few hands. They also said they thought Dave was going to use his own talent. “My people are busy doing Hamm’s commercials. You know, bears drinking beer,” said Dave.

Finally Bill suggested sending Snagglepuss off to a low-cost animation shop in Mexico. Dave did not like that idea at all, because he’d heard bad things about their work. This Mexican shop had done an Amos ‘n’ Andy-style primetime cartoon with animal characters, although with Freeman Godsen and Charles Correll themselves doing the voices. The scripts were easy enough, since they were mostly based on Godsen and Correll’s old radio programs. But even using stripped-down limited animation, with only eyes and mouths moving most of the time, the Mexicans couldn’t keep up to schedule. About ten shows into the season the cupboard was bare, and NBC programming had to start rerunning episodes. They decided to axe the program shortly afterwards.

Nevertheless Dave decided to at least try the Mexicans, and then if they screwed up, he would show the pathetic results to Joe and Bill, and Joe and Bill would maybe put their top studio animators on the Snagglepuss project.

The Mexicans were even worse than Dave expected. They took the money (about $50,000, I believe) and produced nothing. Dave ran up thousands of dollars’ worth of phone calls to Guadelajara, demanding of the one person there who could speak English why the work hadn’t been done, or hadn’t been sent, or whatever had gone wrong. Finally the Mexican shop moved or went out of business. Dave complained to Joe and Bill.

“That’s really awful,” said Joe Barbera. “They came highly recommended.”

By now Dave had almost as little interest in the Snagglepuss movie as Joe and Bill, but he had invested a great deal of his own time and money and wanted something to show for it. Joe and Bill were sympathetic, and suggested Dave use the character to advertise breakfast cereal, doughnuts, children’s vitamins, whatever. Dave wasn’t overjoyed at this payoff, but he took it, figuring that he would resell the rights quickly and get Snagglepuss out of his life.

He leased the character to a chain of southern fast-food drive-ins specializing in chili dogs. For a year or two, travelers from Florida to the Carolinas grew used to seeing a 20-foot pink cat advertising ten-cent chili dogs. Then the chili-dog chain was acquired by one of the Bob’s Big Boy groups, and the Snagglepuss signs were no more. The Big Boy consortium said they weren’t obligated to pay the remainder of the lease.

Meantime Dave had acquired a deep fascination with the chili dog business. Bob’s Big Boy wanted the chili dog chain mainly for its locations, and they didn’t really intend to push this signature product on their Big Boy menu. But Dave had discovered a new way to slice up a hot dog so you could serve it on a hamburger bun. You scored it lengthwise, going about 2/3rds of the way through, then made a series of diagonal cuts across that lengthwise cut. Now, when you cooked it on a grill or in a skillet, the hot dog curled up like a wreath. The “doughnut hole” in the center was ideal for chili or cheese or whatever filling you wanted.

To make the whole process more efficient, Dave invented and patented a hot dog-scoring machine, about the size of a desktop electric pencil sharpener. You fed the hot dog into a hole at one end, and it came out properly scored at the other. With a half-dozen machines like this, you could get a hundred hot dogs ready in an hour, and store them in the fridge. Later on Dave discovered that Jacques Pepin, head chef at the Howard Johnson’s commissary in New York, sometimes used the same technique, but fortunately not for Howard Johnson’s. And Jacques Pepin didn’t have a patented hot dog-scoring machine, either.

Dave found an old storefront near Atlanta that used to be a Toddle House, and set up shop with one of his 20-foot Snagglepuss signs. “Snagglepuss RoundDogs” he called the establishment. Meanwhile, down the road a piece, a Dobbs Tiki House had licensed the Pink Panther character from movies and was calling itself the Pink Panther Tiki House. A huge electronic Pink Panther sign stood on the curved roof of the Tiki House, with white lights blinking around the Panther. The Panther was even bigger than Dave’s Snagglepuss, and where the road was flat and straight you could see it a mile-and-a-half down the road.

“I hear they paid an arm and a leg for the rights to use the Pink Panther character,” said the barkeep at the Shipwreck Lounge, across from the Tiki House.

“Not me,” said Dave. “The cartoon character I’m using I own the rights to, free and clear. At least I sort of own them. When I get my Snagglepuss RoundDog chili-dog eatery open, it’ll be the only one of its kind.”

“So what’s a Snagglepuss, anyway?” asked the barman, and Dave told him and showed him a picture of one of the old chili dog places with the big Snagglepuss sign.

“Seems to me that’s a little obscure ,” said the barman, “I mean if you have to explain it and all. What you should do is, rename it to something people understand. I mean, we got the Pink Panther over here, why can’t you have the Pink Puma?”

So that’s what Dave did. He got one of those 30-foot poles, like the kind some Bob’s Big Boy restaurants stand their character on, and put up a sign for The Pink Puma RoundDog and Chili Dog Station. Driving down from Dunwoody, Georgia, just past the Greasy Spoon Diner, and before you got to the Pink Panther Tiki House, it was a sight to see. You couldn’t miss it, especially at night. People made postcards of it and the Tiki House and occasionally even came into the Pink Puma, just to find out what the hell a RoundDog was.

Dave sent a postcard to Bill and Joe in New York, and  a couple of months later heard back from their lawyer. It seems it was trademark violation to put up a statue of Snagglepuss and call it something else. Ironically, the Dobbs Tiki House people were accusing Dave of copyright infringement, because they thought Snagglepuss was an imitation of the Pink Panther.

“But Snagglepuss is older! Snagglepuss is the original pink cat!,” Dave told the Dobbs people. But they refused to listen.

“What a lousy break,” said the bartender at the Shipwreck Lounge. “Tell you what, though, I’ve got a friend who’s a signmaker. He can paint you the neatest pink mountain lion you ever did see.”

So Dave and the signmaker cut a new sign out of pieces of plywood, with a leaping puma, painted bright pink, and put it up on the pole. It was pretty cheesy, compared to the Snagglepuss character, but at least Dave wouldn’t have to explain to people what a Snagglepuss was anymore. For a while sold souvenir t-shirts with a pink puma, but the Puma sports shoe people made him stop.


| Published in animals, Television

I Was a Girl Guide for the Reds (Part V, Conclusion)

After leaving the American Embassy I noticed an awful lot of policemen about. I saw one, and then there were two walking together, and then up at the end of the street, some more police patrolling in an old pre-war squad car. They drove back and forth and kept playing its siren, on and off.  They have very strange sirens in Bulgaria. Instead of a steadily rising scream—”WooeeeeEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE”—like American sirens, they go: “NYAAH-nah NYAAH-nah.” I tried to look nonchalant as I walked up the steep cobblestoned street, though this was hard because I really wanted to hurry to all the orphanages and find my little brother, and Pugsy, my baby sister.

There by the corner, up the street from the Embassy, was the building where my Montessori school was. I went to it for a week or so before the Communists decided to shut it down. I think the building was still empty because some windows were boarded up, and a white sign on the big wooden double-door said TO LET. Yes, it was in English, not Bulgarian. Maybe Bulgarian doesn’t have a phrase for that, same way we don’t have an English version of “gesundheit” for when people sneeze. So instead we say, “God bless you!” which doesn’t mean the same thing at all.

The sign said TO LET but someone had written an i in the middle, to make it TOiLET, which is almost the same word in Bulgarian. And that’s pretty much what it smelt like. I guess people would see the sign and and come over and try to open the door, they’d do their business, right on the steps there. Drunks mostly, I suppose.

A couple of policemen got out of the automobile at the end of the street and started to address the other two who were walking together. In Bulgarian they were saying something about “a little girl we must find from fascist America.” They carried long rubber truncheons that they waved around as they surveyed the streetscape.

By now I was hiding behind some of the old rubbish bins in the forecourt. It smelled as bad there as on the doorstep. My heart was thumping as the four policemen walked past, two tall ones and two short ones. They seemed to be waking awfully slowly, and kept twisting their heads, looking around, and holding their noses when they passed the foul doorway with the TOiLET sign.

“Embassy!” one of them was saying now, a short and fat one in front, who seemed to be the leader. “She probably go to fascist America Embassy. We wait here till she come out, then we bring her to Premier Khrushchev!”

“Khrushchev! He give her a good talking-to!” laughed another of the men. “I will BURY you!” And they all laughed together, very wickedly.

I had to get away from there quickly. I could see the cops smoking cigarettes and leaning on lamp poles outside the Embassy. A produce van turned into the street and slowly made its way down toward us. For a moment or two it blocked the policemen from view, which meant they couldn’t see me either. This is when I got into the street and shot around the first corner.

The Central Orphanage of Sofia, I knew, was on the other side of the market square. I thought it was a good idea to disguise myself before I walked across town. Sheltering in a doorway, I took off my coat, reached in my school satchel and put on my Junior Pioneers sash, over my uniform blazer. Then I took my blue and red Junior Pioneers kerchief from around my neck and tied it over my head, babushka-style. I stuffed my coat in the satchel, as far as it would go, and headed for the market square.

There as usual was the old peasant woman, selling her trinkets and sweetmeats, and now some flowers too. She had baskets of pansies and violets. Little straw baskets with handles.

“Greetings, little grandmother,” I said. “I am peasant too, I come from far away to see today’s festival!”

“You must come from very far indeed,” said the old crone with a cackle. I don’t think she recognized me. “I can hardly understand your foreign accent. Are you from Gabagaba Novo?”

“Oh no,” I said, “I come from Buffaloonazihk.” I made up the name. “It is a very small village, unfortunately. My! What lovely flowers! We used to sell flowers such as these to raise money for the Peasant Junior Pioneers!”

“Five stotinki a basket!” the crone said sharply, looking away. “No discounts.”

There were one hundred stotinki to the Bulgarian pound. I had enough money for two baskets of flowers. I decided my disguise would be as a peasant flower girl, selling pansies and violets in the streets of Sofia, as I visited the orphanages one-by-one.

The crone was unfriendly today, but I am sure she was grateful for my patronage. I don’t think she’d had another customer that day. When I said I’d buy two flower baskets, she insisted I accept a handful of sweetmeats.

“You are sure they are pleasurable sweetmeats, little grandmother?” I asked. “I have heard of people becoming ill!”

“Those were not sweetmeats, little one! You have heard that story then. Those were sweetbreads sold by gypsies! Rolled in flour and honey and aged and fried in Bulgarian manner! They are heavy enough to kill a large dog! Look! There is gypsy now, selling his poisonous treats!”

Up by the blackened ruins of St. Balkaniko’s Church, which was now a combination flea market and stable, stood the gypsy with his cart. He rolled and fried his sweetbreads all day, frying them in ancient oil so foul you could smell it across the square.

“Somebody come from Central Committee, want to buy my sweetmeats cheap,” the crone went on. “They offer me twenty stotinki for all my sweetmeats! I say no, I want twenty, thirty times that! They say, ‘You old peasanty thief, such is highway robbery!’ They want sweetmeats because Central Commissary wants to make thirteen dozen sugar dumplings, boiled and fried in the Bulgarian manner, for special party. So I say, ‘You go to gypsy over there. Gypsy cheaper and his sweetmeats are made with real meat, and meat by-products. Yes, you go buy from gypsy,’ I say, and I shoo him away!” The ancient harridan opened her toothless mouth wide, and laughed a good long cackle over this clever prank.

The poisonous sweetbreads! I thought. Did any of my classmates eat those, I wondered. And as for Comrade Khrushchev! Even with his enormous tummy, they were certain to make him very ill indeed.

I picked up my flower baskets, and no sweetmeats, and said goodbye to the funny old peasant woman. My idea now was that I was going to present myself at the Central Orphanage, pretending to be a little girl selling flowers. I would go to each classroom, or bedroom, in the orphanage, and see if my brother and sister were there.

“None can enter orphanage,” said the guard at the door. “Orphans are going to assemble along the street the street. Vehicle with Comrade Khrushchev soon passes by. All orphan children in Sofia are to wave at him. See, even now they come!”

And up above us there was a clatter of children’s clogs and shoes. They streamed past us, hundreds of them, and found places to stand along the pavement. I looked up and down the street and saw that the same thing was happening on neighboring blocks. All the orphanages were emptying to say hail or farewell to Premier Khrushchev. It was a very big day in Sofia!

And off in the distance we heard many police sirens, leading the motor parade. As they came close, though, we could see that the police were not escorting a fine big limousine or armored truck. No! It was an ambulance, of old-fashioned make, at least twenty-five or thirty years old. From its many bullet holes i guessed that the vehicle had seen rough service during the war.

People waved and men took their hats off as it drove past. Inside was Khrushchev, laid out on a cot. So I was right about the dumplings!

He would almost certainly die. We had many, many doctors in Bulgaria, but I was told few of them knew anything, while the hospitals had very little medical equipment.

“We must all pray for a swift recovery,” said a tall, skinny woman in a mannish suit, probably one of the leaders of the orphanage. “Only we are Communists and do not pray. Therefore, children, let us all sing the Friendship Song!”

The Friendship Song turned out to be the song I learned in my first weeks in the Communist school they sent me to. We sang it in Russian:

O comrades of Bulgaria
Put faith in glorious Soviet friends
Who give you freedom and factory…

I pretended to sing along, with a mindless, joyous smile on my face, as I scurried down the pavement, waving my baskets of flowers and examining all the faces of the orphan children. I did not have to go far before I found them. My brother and Little Pugsy stood out from the other children, for they had nice clothes, probably the same ones they were wearing three days ago when they were taken away to the orphanage.

They were pleased to see me, of course, and hopped up and down. I didn’t want to tell them that our house was locked and that our parents had been sent to a slave-labor camp up by the Arctic Circle. I told them that we were going home, finally, to our real home, in America, where we could watch television all day. They were most excited to hear this.

But how would we get to the airport? It was many miles away, and I could not understand the streetcar routes, and I had no money for fares away. With a heavy heart I patiently led my brother and Baby Pugsy in the direction of the Embassy. Surely they could arrange transportation to the airport? It was a very long walk, as the police had cordoned off the streets for the Khrushchev motorcade, and Baby Pugsy couldn’t really walk very well, so I carried her most of the way, while my brother carried my satchel and flower baskets.

We passed many policemen, but they didn’t seem suspicious this time. Perhaps Khrushchev’s people were not looking for me anymore. Also, you will remember I was very well disguised in my Junior Pioneers sash and kerchief over my head.

Consuelo, the travel lady, was not at all surprised to see me at the Embassy. She told me she’d arranged a ride to the airport, but I’d run out of the Embassy so fast she couldn’t give me instructions. She agreed to make travel arrangements for my brother and Little Pugsy as well.

And so we three sat on a bench in the hallway near Consuelo’s desk, looking at her pretty travel posters and waiting an hour or two for the ride to arrive. The bench looked and felt like a pew in church. Consuelo was reading a big French magazine, probably Paris-Match.

“Have you had any news about Premier Khrushchev,” I asked, trying to be friendly to Consuelo while I waited there.

“I hear he was feeling poorly,” Consuelo said. “I could say more, but as an Embassy employee I’m forbidden to share political opinions.”

Mister Third Secretary now strode out of his office down the hall and gave us a snooty look. “More children, alas, more’s the pity. Consuelo, have you told them what happened to their parents?”

“Oh no, I forgot. I’ve been so busy making travel arrangements.”

I was afraid to ask what had happened to my parents, especially with my brother and sister sitting there beside me.

“Are our parents here?” my brother asked, eagerly.

“Oh no, ‘fraid not, you won’t be seeing your parents anywhere around here.” And Consuelo laughed merrily. “No, they’ve gone on without you. They’ll meet you in Vienna. We hope.”

“But what happened to them?” I asked. “Were they taken away to the Arctic Circle?”

“You’d have to ask them that,” Consuelo said. “I’m merely a lowly Embassy dogsbody.”

“Dogsbody?” asked my brother.

“Consuelo actually has a dog’s body,” explained the Third Secretary, who had been there all along, sitting on a window seat, puffing on a black cigarette, and glancing out into the Embassy courtyard. “You see, she becomes a lady only in the daytime. It works better that way. Oh look, your car is here. You have plenty of time to get to the airport.”

“Can’t we stay a little longer?” my brother asked. “I want to see Consuelo turn back into a dog.”

But it was not to be. We were led out to the big black limousine, and I’d spend much of the night wondering what my parents would look like when we finally met them. Would they look tortured and covered with frostbite? Would they be hopelessly crippled, like the old peasant woman’s son, the one who fought for the Germans and was sent to prison camp?

And what would we do for clothes? The only ones we had were those we stood up in. I had far too many questions. I fell asleep immediately when they put us on the airplane. When we landed, the last few months were like some horrible dream.

| Published in Obituaries and memoirs

I Was a Girl Guide for the Reds (Part IV)

Premier Khrushchev certainly took a long time getting here! We first had to stand and watch a grand parade of soldiers and sailors in their uniforms, and factory workers wearing Soviet overalls, followed by some clowns and circus acrobats, tumbling over each other and turning cartwheels in the street, while Soviet jet planes roared overhead.

Then some musicians: an army band, then a few violinists from the Bolshoi Ballet, with dancers leaping behind. And then a long line of negroes in bright red bandmaster tunics and shakos, playing accordions and glockenspiels and many banjos. They would play “Oh Dem Golden Slippers” and spin around in the street, just like the Mummers in Philadelphia do, only of course these were actual negroes, not just Pennsylvania Dutch people in blackface.

“Where did they get so many musicians of color?” asked one of my schoolmates.

“They bring them from around world,” Comrade Leader answered. “Give big scholarships to Moscow University so world sees Soviet Union loves people of black skin and fat lips. No race prejudice in Communist lands, unlike fascist Federal Republic of America!”

In Bulgaria, America was always referred to as “fascist Federal Republic.”

Strangely enough, the negro musicians now were playing and singing a religious song. It was about how saints would come marching into Heaven, and the musicians would be playing for them when that happened. The negroes played and sang in single file, breaking into a snake dance that wove this way and that as they paraded up the street.

“They are not atheists,” one of the girls remarked.

“They have different culture,” Comrade Leader replied. “But we Soviet Socialists of Bulgaria welcome this foreign culture of flat noses and kinky hair.”

Premier Khrushchev now arrived on a huge float shaped like the Sputnik satellite, waving to the crowds. What a surprise we had in store for him! We could hardly wait. But it seemed an eternity before he joined us at the entrance of the drill hall. Comrade Principal of the school made a little speech, something like, “Now I know you’re all excited to meet Comrade Khrushchev from our friendly neighbor the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but first we must take him indoors for some delightful refreshments. I’m sure we’re all very hungry!”

“So hungry I could eat horse!” said Khrushchev. “Whole horse pie!” He held out his arms in front of him, in a circle.

We did not have any horse pies to feed him, mainly just borscht and fried sweetmeats wrapped in puffy dumplings. But he did not seem disappointed. I saw him devour at least twenty dumplings in the space of a minute. I hoped there would be enough left for me!

We gave him a tour of the decorations, the banners and pennants, and pictures of tanks, and the Sputnik mobile that hung from the ceiling, made of silver-painted athletic balls and coat-hanger wire. But Comrade Khrushchev was most excited to see our papier-mâché sculpture of his head, there up on the stage of the drill hall. Someone had hung banners from the head to the sides of the stage, saying WELCOME COMRADE K! in Bulgarian.

Mounting the stage, he turned and made a little speech to us. “You do me flatter! This, this is the young Nikita, the tank commander in 1942! Young slim Nikita before he eat so many dumplings!”

“Please to climb inside,” said Comrade Principal, showing him how to enter through the widely grinning mouth.

“Back in Kursk Oblast, we have expression,” said Khrushchev. “We say I want to climb within myself. Do you have that expression?”

“I am not sure,” said Comrade Principal.

“It mean, ‘I am very ashamed. I want to climb within myself.’ Ha ha, and here I am. I am not ashamed!” And so Khrushchev climbed inside the giant papier-mâché head of himself. Comrade Leader sent our class’s head girl to join him and show him the sights. In a minute they were both looking out the eyes of our sculpture.

“I climb within myself!” shouted Khrushchev. “Ha ha! Oh looky here, there is some mysterious writing here!”

I don’t know how he did it, but he tore out my bit of newspaper and brought it out on stage. He squinted and tried to make it out. “It is Eng-lish writing. Who here know Eng-lish?”

“I do, Comrade Premier,” said Comrade Principal, waving. She took the slip and shook her head. “It is nonsense. It is a recipe. How to make holy chrism.”

“Ha ha!” said Khrushchev. “Superstition lives on! It is same back in Kursk Oblast. Old babushkas, they always cross themselves when I come to town!”

But Comrade Principal was not humored. She was angry. “Who in this school writes of such things. Ah, I know. It is little American girl. Where is she?”

“I think she went out,” said Comrade Leader. “I think she went out to the latrine.”

But actually I was hiding behind the wooden bleacher seats at the side of the drill hall.

“You must go find her and bring her to me,” said Khrushchev. “I give her friendly instructions in Scientific Atheism.”

A few girls ran out to fetch me from the latrine. While the door was still open, I dashed out, and ran as fast as I could, across the market square, and down to the cobblestoned street where lay the American Embassy. Policemen looked at me quizzically as I ran past. In a few minutes they’d be coming to get me, if I didn’t make it to the Embassy in time.

At the embassy they showed me to the same fellow I had met the other day. “I knew you’d come back, little girl,” he said. “They always do.”

He called himself Third Secretary and explained there are also a First Secretary and a Second Secretary. However, they were out at a lunch with diplomats from the Soviet Union. “Because Nikita Khrushchev is in town. Maybe you knew that. I expect it will be a very…long lunch.”

I sat down in a hard-backed chair by his desk. “We’ve had word of your parents,” he said. “They’re in a labor camp up by the Arctic Circle. It is very far away. Care for some cheese and crackers?” And he passed a large tray to me. I gobbled down three, for I was even hungrier than Nikita Khrushchev.

“Where are my brother and sister?” I asked.

“In a local orphanage, possibly,” said the Third Secretary. “My, you must be famished. Here, take the whole thing.” And he plopped the tray of cheese and crackers onto my lap.

“I must find my family,” I mumbled, my mouth full. “They are all I have in the world.”

“I wouldn’t recommend that,” the man replied. “You see, this is a Communist country. A few years ago there was this Quaker fellow, a dreamy-eyed do-gooder, who was helping war refugees. And heard that his brother had been arrested and sent to a labor camp in the Soviet Union. So this fellow goes to Prague to make inquiries, and next thing you know, Mister Quaker is put under arrest and taken away to a labor camp. It might have been the same one, I don’t know. Then the man’s wife gets worried, and asks around, and she goes to Prague to find her husband, so she gets arrested and packed off too. Finally their adopted daughter hears of their disappearance, and she’s living in Berlin, and she goes to the Soviet zone to ask what happened to them. And, well, you can see where this is going. Erica, her name was. Up by the Arctic Circle. Near Archangel, I think. Could be the same place they sent your parents!

“No, the best thing for you,” he continued, “is to get on the next airplane out of Sofia. There is one leaving for Vienna tonight. I’ll wire the embassy and have someone meet you.”

“But I want my brother and sister to come with me. How do I find them?”

“I don’t think you do. You see, there are so many orphanages here behind the Iron Curtain. There are thirty-six, thirty-seven in Sofia alone.” He picked up a telephone and spoke into it. “Consuelo! Can we book someone on that Balkan Air flight at seven this evening? It’s a little girl. Not that little, no. Yes, I remember. The twins. What an awful mess. Milk-vomit smell still all over the carpet in the corridor.”

And then he took me over to Consuelo, who sat with two other women in a bank of desks down the hall. Behind them, on the wall, were brightly colored travel posters advertising steamship cruises and airplane flights to Rio de Janiero, Melbourne, Tahiti, and other far-off places. Apparently these were the people who made travel arrangements.

Consuelo spoke to me for a minute or two, something about how to get to the airport and where to put my baggage. I didn’t really hear her. I just wanted to get out of there quickly and investigate all the local orphanages. I said goodbye politely and rushed outside, first pausing at the water fountain for a very large drink of water. Because indeed, I had eaten the entire tray of cheese and crackers.

I remembered seeing an orphanage near the local sports stadium. If my brother and sister weren’t there, then I’d ask for a list of other orphanages. Yes, that’s exactly what I’d do. With any luck, I’d find them in time to get us all to the airport. I had five hours.

I ran past a policeman who gave me a suspicious look. I slowed down to a trot and pulled my hat over my eyes.



| Published in children, Obituaries and memoirs

I Was a Girl Guide for the Reds (Part III)

I was very proud of our Nikita Khrushchev head. When we ran out of papier-mâché and had to scrounge around for extra rubbish to close the hole in Khrushchev’s cranium, I was fortunate to find many scraps of things I had written in my desk at school. I kept the scraps there because there was a paper shortage and we were supposed to use any blank side of our writing paper.

I climbed inside the head next day to admire my handiwork. I noticed you could still read some of my scribbles in the papier-mâché at the top of the inside of Khrushchev’s cranium. For example, there was my essay that was supposed to be about the importance of atheism, though it was really just something I remembered from catechism class at St-Eustache. The people at school wouldn’t have known that because they couldn’t read English, and anyway my handwriting was bad:

Holy chrism is a mixture of olive oil and balm, blessed by the bishop on Holy Thursday. Confirmation is the sacrament in which the Holy Ghost comes to us in a special way, to make us strong and perfect Christians and soldiers of Jesus Christ.

You could only make out a few words from the papier-mâché: “Holy chrism…olive oil…bishop…Holy Ghost…Christians and soldiers…Christ.” But still, this could get me in trouble if anyone found it and translated it. It could be enough to send me off to a labor camp, like my family.

So I decided to cover it up with some more scrap paper and glue, if I could find them. The tub of papier-mâché was dried out and nearly empty, so I couldn’t use that. But while I was still inside Khrushchev’s head the bell rang out, meaning it was time to gather in the courtyard of the old barracks we used as a schoolhouse.

Comrade Teacher was there, banging the pavement with the handles of a sickle and pitchfork, one in each hand.

“Today is school holiday!” she shouted. “Today we we have a little fun! Today we ride hay wagons into the countryside, and help comrade peasants with the spring harvest! You will each of you grab a spade or hoe and climb the wagons!”

There weren’t nearly enough spades or hoes to go around, so I didn’t get one, but I dutifully climbed into the back of the last hay wagon and looked forward to enjoying the countryside.

There were many sights to see. First we had miles and miles of yellow grain, blowing softly in the wind. Then we came across small villages of tumbledown huts. In one a man had been crucified to the side of a stable, for some crime against the State. He had been nailed up a long time ago, and there was little left now but some bones and hair and rags.

Finally we arrived at a grand collective farm about twenty miles out of the city. There were tractors and harvesting machines everywhere. Sad-looking peasants, in crushed-in hats and babushkas, watched us balefully as our wagons drove up. We learned that they were sad because they could not drive their machines. There was no fuel, or sometimes the machines were broken. Anyway, this is why we were there.

It was time for the great springtime harvest of swedes. We had a hundred hectares of swedes to spade and hoe and collect into burlap bags. Swedes are sometimes called rutabagas. They are a strange hybrid of cabbage and turnip, and are grown as fodder for animals. But people can eat them too, if they’re boiled and mashed up. Often enough we were served mashed swedes for lunch. They tasted okay, with salt.

Since the farm equipment was broken down and there was no fuel, we schoolgirls of the Junior Pioneers were volunteering to harvest all the swedes for the poor peasants. I carried a burlap bag and filled it with the round, purple, root vegetables as another girl dug them up. It was hard work, but we were rewarded at lunch with a fine repast of borscht and boiled-and-mashed swedes.

In the afternoon we were all very tired and just wanted to lie down in the field and die. But we were aroused by the mighty sound of a hundred airplanes, some of them jets, flying overhead, and firing rockets that exploded in brilliant colors.

“It is Comrade Khrushchev!” yelled Comrade Teacher. “He come to Sofia tonight and greet our celebration tomorrow!”

I remembered I needed to get back to the drill hall and cover up my writing inside of our papier-mâché Khrushchev head. But there was no way I could walk all the way back to Sofia this evening, so I filled another few burlap sacks with rutabagas and waited for the hay wagons to take us back to town. I fell asleep on the hay, and my clothes were filled with vermin when I arrived.

I wanted to sleep in my family’s house again, but this time I found the police had boarded up and locked all the windows, so I had no entry. I slept in the green by the market square and waited for morning to arrive.

In the morning I was surprised to discover that the drill hall, too, was all locked up! I could not get inside to destroy my incriminating writing. I sat outside and waited for hours, drinking a bottle of powdered milk that fell off a farmer’s dairy cart.

I fell asleep again and was awakened by Comrade Teacher, who pulled my hair and kicked my legs. “Too eager are you!” she said. “Cannot wait for Comrade Khrushchev to arrive! You look like you sleep in hay wagon and park! But I have good news for you, Comrade Student! Premier Khrushchev is arrived!”

| Published in History, Obituaries and memoirs, Uncategorized

How Great-Uncle Harry Rediscovered the Lost Wax Process

Great-Uncle Harry Bonforth was a missionary in the jungles of Peru, where the Amazon rainforests begin. Originally Harry was a Franciscan monk. In those days people joined the Franciscans so they could become missionaries and get free travel and lodging in exotic places, and I believe that was Harry’s deal. It was like being paid to work for National Geographic, except you didn’t just give cigarettes to naked savages, you baptized them too. And you fed the savages a little bit, generally a bowl of tapioca which they’d eat with their fingers, plus a glass of powdered milk and maybe “a piece of bread the size of a cracker,” as an old nun who’d been a friend of Great-Uncle Harry told us once.

Us kids were smartypants and couldn’t refrain from teasing her whenever she said that. “How BIG a cracker, Mother Morgan?” we’d say. “Like a little tiny Wheat Thin, or one of those humongous Zesta crackers [which are like four little saltines attached by a perforation so you could separate them, though they never really separated neatly on those dotted lines, and anyway they were a poor substitute for genuine Nabisco Saltines]?”

Mother Morgan would smile sweetly and chirp a little laugh, but I don’t think she really got the joke.

Many years later we figured that these savages, or their ancestors, had been baptized and converted to Christianity over and over and over again for four hundred years. They’d come and get baptized so they could get free grub, and maybe abduct a missionary, but they were no more susceptible to Christian Doctrine than a giant python. So centuries rolled on and the mission magazines kept telling us about the good work being done in leper colonies and among the jungle cannibals, and there was this endless supply of eager-beaver boys and girls who became Catholic friars and Protestant divines and starry-eyed nuns and stodgy, teetotaling Baptist missionary ladies … ready to convert the heathen over and over and over again, and get an all-expenses-paid exotic trip out of it as well!

Now you’d think these Protestant missionaries, and Catholic clergy and religious, would have figured this out by now: if you can’t save a jungle savage in 400 years, maybe you’d better turn your sights elsewhere. Maybe go after intelligent people, like Japanese or Greeks (yes, I know there are Christian Greeks; I mean the Godless ones). But the temptation was too fierce, all those free trips and exotic locales. Anyway no one was offering missionaries free trips to Kyoto or Mykonos.

But as to Harry. Gradually he went native, and began to believe whatever magic juju the savages believed. Missionaries will do that if they don’t keep strict boundaries between themselves and their wards. They’ll end up mating with the native wenches and having half-breed children who are twice as evil as the average savage, as they have a white man’s brain plus a savage’s cunning.

We don’t know how Harry went down the slippery slope, but I personally believe that what fascinated him at first were the shrunken heads. Most shrunken heads are strictly tourist stuff, made from monkey heads, or maybe other savages that looked like monkeys, as so many of them do. But the good stuff, the stuff that brought in the big money, were made from wayward tourists and National Geographic photographers. If they’d had Peace Corps volunteers in those days I suppose they’d have turned them into shrunken heads too, and I must say I wouldn’t blame them.

Harry was fascinated by primitive technology, which was often highly advanced within its narrow fields. He followed the whole process of head-shrinking with a gimlet eye, and rumor hath it he became quite the journeyman headshrinker himself. He sent my uncle and aunt a shrunken head adorned in bow tie and tiny straw hat, back around 1933, and while they were scared out of their wits, it appears Harry had become a master craftsman. That head now resides, sans tie and boater, in a drawer in a Peabody Museum someplace.

In Kon-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl told a story about how a friend of a friend disappeared in the jungle. Later on his expedition party came across a savage selling a row of shrunken heads. And in amongst them was the head of their friend Tom, or Bill, or whatever his name was. It was perfectly recognizable, a miniature version of the fellow they’d known. After a fair amount of haggling, they bought the little head from the savage (it was expensive, as white people’s shrunken heads are scarce in those parts). Not knowing what else to do with it, they sent it to the guy’s wife as soon as they got back to civilization. So she’d have something to remember him by. Or maybe she could give him a Christian burial. It all sounds frighteningly tactless to me, but it’s the thought that counts, maybe. I’m sorry Heyerdahl didn’t follow up on the outcome of that tale.

After Harry had lived among the savages for a while, he learned that the raw material for shrunken heads was getting scarcer and scarcer. The government of Peru had banned their manufacture and sale, so if you were a savage and got caught with one, you might end up in a dank mountainside prison for ten years. The government posted these notices all over, so white explorers were less and less likely to penetrate the farthest reaches of the jungle because headhunters were everywhere. The immediate reaction of the savages was to create fake ones out of monkey heads. They’d dye the monkeys’ hair blond or red sometimes, but they still looked like monkeys. And the tourists wouldn’t buy them because they were a) ghastly looking and b) supposedly illegal.

But the savages had an alternative “technology,” if that is the word, and that was to manufacture shrunken heads that were completely fake. They mixed up a special kind of waxy clay, using cacao beans and wild-boar tallow, and sculpted their own “shrunken heads.” They often modeled these from pictures torn from old movie magazines. So some heads looked like Donald Barthelmess or a young Clark Gable. They may even have made Clara Bow and Jean Harlow shrunken heads, but generally they didn’t choose female subjects because these were a harder sell in the tourist bazaars of Lima, Peru.

The Peruvian federal police tried to raid these shrunken-head booths and arrest the proprietors. However, it was easily demonstrated that the heads weren’t made from actual human flesh. In fact, if you stuck a greased wick in the top of their skulls, you could use these heads as slow-burning candles. Soon all the artificial heads were made that way, with a strip of twine protruding from the top, so you could either hang up the head as a decorative novelty, or use it to provide subtle light for a romantic candlelit dinner.

A big problem with these sculpted heads is that they took a long time to make, one at a time. A savage sculptor might spend two days carving his creation, then gluing on hair and eyelashes and eyebrows and painting them with native dyes; and after all this he could expect to be paid no more than about fifty cents. Clearly there must be a more efficient way to do this, thought Uncle Harry. And so in a very small way he brought mass-production to the headwaters of the Amazon.

Using plaster-of-paris (or a reasonable substitute) he made molds of the most popular shrunken-head souvenirs. The biggest sellers proved to be likenesses of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, who were known the world over, even in the Amazon jungle. Harry and the savages would press heated, softened clay into the molds, let them harden for a day or two, then remove the two castings (front and back of head) and glue them together, clamshell-style, with the all-important wick growing out of the middle of the scalp. With this method, a single workman could mold and paint 20 or 30 heads a week, and earn as much as $25 each.

The savages were totally in awe of Harry for his ingenuity, both because they could now produce a multitude of heads, but also because they believed he had rediscovered a legendary process known to the Incas 400 years before. When the Spanish Conquistadores invaded Peru and drove the Incas to extinction, a few Inca craftsmen escaped to the distant rainforests and tried to dwell among the savages. There they taught them their secret “wax process,” by which it was possible to make the most intricate type of gold and silver jewelry. I believe they even wrote down instructions for them to follow, but since the savages couldn’t read Inca writing (or anything else) the secret process was soon forgotten, except as a dim memory in the mists of savage legend.

So Harry had apparently rediscovered the secret Inca process of reproducing items through clay and wax, long thought lost. The savages briefly believed him to be a god, or a reincarnation of the noble Inca craftsmen. They gave him the finest hut to live in, and adorned him with palm fronds and preserved python skins.

Relations soon grew sour, however, as the savages discovered that Harry was keeping most of the profits for himself. One night they resolved to kill him. But Harry sensed the unrest. Before dawn, he broke all the molds, packaged up the available inventory, and fled in a bark canoe to the Peruvian lowlands, where he caught a ride into Lima.

As luck would have it, the driver and passenger in the car were Franciscans, missionaries he had known slightly when he first came to Peru.

“Goodness, I do believe it’s Father Harry,” said the driver, looking him over. “Where have you been, Harry? Going native on us?”

“Deep research, boys!” Harry replied. “I have rediscovered the Lost Wax Process. But it is lost no more. Are you Laurel and Hardy fans, perchance?”

When he got to Lima, Harry unloaded the six dozen or so souvenir heads in his sack, and bought a steamship ticket to America. He soon settled in a seaside village in Maine, where for many years he taught summer arts & crafts classes, specializing in the manufacture of novelty items through the Lost Wax Process.




| Published in Obituaries and memoirs, weird people

I Was a Girl Guide for the Reds (Part II)

Our celebrations were to be held in the old drill hall and grain depot near the main railway station in Sofia. Comrade Leader ordered us Junior Pioneers to repaint the wood trim in the doorways and the mighty rafters that held up the roof. We had to stand atop a high wooden platform to reach the rafters, and as the platform was not sturdy, two girls soon fell to their deaths, one landing head-first in the giant vat of red enamel paint, which was the only color available at the Grand Socialist Department Store off the market square. We observed a moment of silence to commemorate their passing, and then got on with our work.

Far more enjoyable was building the main decoration in the hall. This was a papiermâché bust of Premier Khrushchev, over eight feet high, and it took us a week to build. It was so large, it could accommodate as many as a dozen of us inside. You entered through the mouth, which was open in a big smile, and inside was a stepladder on which you could climb to a loft and look out through his eyes.

“Do not idle, Comrade girls!” shouted Comrade Leader when she learned we were lolling about inside Khrushchev’s head. “We must finish head today or there will be no supper!”

There was a paper shortage in Bulgaria just then, and we were barely able to find enough to paper to make the sculpture. We were forced to sacrifice all our schoolbooks, all our Girl Guide and Junior Pioneers handbooks and even archival copies of the Young Bulgar journal, for the good of this cause. Fatigued and famished, we were just completing the massive dome of the Premier’s lofty cranium when we looked into the wastepaper receptacle and found it was empty. After that, it was hurry-hurry to our lavatories and schooldesks, in a mad, furtive search for a last few scraps of paper or cardboard, anything that could be soaked in our tremendous tub of flour-and-water paste mixed with plaster-of-Paris.

And then, voilà, as we say in French, it was done! Comrade Khrushchev’s pate was now healed! All we needed to do was let it dry. Comrade Leader ordered some dinner brought in, and it was delicious: crusty, deep-fried doughnuts and tiny meat pies served up with heaping bowls of borscht.

Afterwards, satiated and refreshed, we repaired to the town square, where as ever the ancient bald peasant woman in a babushka was selling her painted trinkets and tchotchkes. This evening she had an extra cart beside her, full of small cakes and biscuits painted with colored sugar in the Bulgarian manner. “Try my sweetmeats,” she cackled, madly.

“That I cannot do, little grandmother,” I said, haltingly, in Bulgarian. “For the last time I buy sweets in the square and become very ill and the neighbor’s dog she is now dead.”

“Oh you buy sweetbreads, foolish girl!” cackled the crone. “Sweetbreads, fried and aged in Bulgarian manner, will kill even horse. Big draft horse. Sweetmeats here, oh something different!”

But I did not succumb to her enticements, as my parents warned me never to bring home food again from the town square.

When I reached my family’s home that evening I was met with a shock. The door was chained with a big padlock and a sign in Bulgarian, something about “Enemies of the Soviet and Bulgarian States.”

“They take them away,” shouted a little girl riding a homemade wooden scooter in the twilight. “To prison or camp, I know not which.”

My eyes filled with tears, and then I remembered there was a window ajar in the pantry. I worked it open with a broad stick, and in the darkness was able to find my way to my little bed, where I slept soundly, in all my clothes.

Next morning I decided to discover the American Embassy and find what had happened to my parents. A secretary there, it was actually a man, suggested that I take the next flight out of Sofia because the Bulgarians were rounding up Western foreigners. Then he made a joke about how I was very small, and maybe could be shipped out in a diplomatic pouch.

But I could not leave Sofia just now. Premier Khrushchev was coming, and I wanted him to see the papier-mâché head that we built.

| Published in children, school days

Sleepwalking with Destiny

A true-life story of somnambulism is on offer here from Caroline Meeber of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin!

One night I had this terrible nightmare where I was invited to this fabulous party at the Waldorf-Astoria, and everybody was dressed up, and they all stared at me when I came in because I was in my underwear!

To make it worse, I’m a sleepwalker, and while this dream was going on, I went out walking the streets in my flannel Lanz of Salzburg nightgown, and wandered into a grand charity ball that was finishing up on the 24th floor of the Savoy-Plaza Hotel. Suddenly I awoke and there I was, and everyone was staring at me, particularly the waiters.

At least I wasn’t standing there in my underwear. But still, was my face red!

| Published in children

Please Hire Me, Mister Twee!

Dear Mr Twee,

I just saw your request for a Research Assistant. I believe this arrived via someone affiliated with the Manhattan Institute.

I gather you’re looking for a young, feisty, driven person. I do not pass the first qualification. Any academic transcript I’d provide would be from 30+ years ago. So no transcript for now, just acres of experience.

What I bring you is an experienced, indefatigable researcher and pretty decent copy editor, if a rather reluctant writer. I’ll do anything to put off writing a first draft. (I’ve never acquired your knack of the one-paragraph lede to hook the reader.) Fortunately you are looking for background research and memos, not ghost writing.

I’ve written for and/or edited a vast array of publications, including some you have heard of: Punch, The Oldie, The Spectator, The American Bystander, San Diego Reader…San Diego Home Garden & Lifestyles…Travel+Leisure…Food & Wine…Chronicles…Euro-Synergies…The Unz Review (have a piece in there right now).

My professional, as opposed to freelance, experience has generally been on the technical side; the last ten years include stints as front-end web developer for Time Inc. Digital and Penguin Random House.

More pertinent to your needs: Years ago I managed travel and appointments for some top executives, including one who was CEO of a comms company in San Diego, and another who had just become President of American Express TRS, UK & Europe.

I can also book conferences and dinners.

I live a few blocks from the FoxNews/NewsCorp building, if that makes any difference.

We are quite familiar with your work in our household. We not only have hard copies of a couple of your books (in a stack on the floor at my feet, even as I type), but I own at least one on Audible. My husband is a great fan of your writing and online/TV commentary. Myself, I have more of that editor’s technical interest: how does he avoid ambiguity and evasiveness without sounding too strident?

A few years back I was asked to write a review of a Heather Mac Donald book. (Heather Mac and I were in college together, but have little more than a nodding acquaintance now.) My review was most difficult to write, because it was clear that Heather had had to hew to a certain PR message or political stance, yet I nevertheless felt obliged to give a glowing review. My difficult piece went back and forth a couple of times, with intense edits and queries, until finally I just abandoned it. (And the review copy of the book is still nearby on the bookshelf, ever a source of guilt pangs, or an object lesson in being too persnickety.) This has nothing to do with you, it’s merely an illustration of me.

Kind regards,

Penny Pringlebury

| Published in Uncategorized

Elements of Cringe

On the cringe scale, about a 1.2 out of 10.

When I began this site many years ago, I thought it would be a cinch to fill it up with pure cringe. Surely, embarrassing incidents are all over the place, lying on the ground waiting to be picked up?

In theory that might be true. However, embarrassment is usually a private emotion, and very few horrifying memories can be articulated in a way comprehensible to the reader. I suppose it’s terrible to discover as a child that your parents are adulterers, just as it may be a deep-dark secret within your family that your mother has been in and out of the booby bin. But when told years later, these traumas don’t impress adults of any sophistication.

For a really embarrassing anecdote, an incident has to have been risky and humiliating at the time, and still unnerving years later, yet capable of being told clearly and succinctly. Few stories pass that test.

I can think of only two real-life incidents here that score the bullseye. One is my friend Eric’s story, herein entitled “The Manhasset Babysitter.” The other one is the old Jeffrey Bernard anecdote about the boy who got drunk, shat in his drawers, and by mistake bought a V-neck pullover instead of trousers (“Sans-culottes in Sevenoaks”). Even these rattle on a bit, like shaggy-dog stories.

My imaginary staff and I have tried making up other ones, but they’re mainly silly and absurdist.

Alas, the lameness of the genuine anecdotes one picks up off the ground is usually on a par with these pointless old contributions from Calling All Girls.

| Published in Administrative

The Kitty Martyrs


Jocelyn Randolph of Rappahannock, Virginia offers this embarrassing tale of her summer vacation!

Last summer I went to visit my aunt and uncle, who live in an old sugar warehouse in Keesburg. Because there are lots of rats around, my aunt and uncle keep a lot of cats, as well as a sack of rat poison. One day I accidentally put rat poison into the cats’ food dish and they all died. So I took some dead rats and placed one under each dead cat’s head so it looked as though the cats died from eating poisoned rats. My uncle didn’t believe it at all. “We’ll have to find a lighter brand of rat poison,” he laughed good-naturedly, before handing me a spade and telling me to bury the cats. Was my face red!

| Published in animals