Mystery

I remember being in Beverly Hills Junior High School and going to Seller’s Memorial Library for the first time.  Seller’s is the main branch of the Upper Darby Township Library System and is one third an old Victorian type house and the rest a modern building attached to the house.  It’s a pretty cool piece of architecture.

Beverly Hills Junior High School was only a short walk to and from the library.  My house was nowhere near the main branch, and I wanted to go because I was on a quest.  So, after school one day I walked to the library in search of mystery.

The year was 1974 and Murder on the Orient Express had made a huge impact as a film starring Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot and a host of other A-list stars including Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman.  I saw the film and fell in love with it.  I was already an enthusiastic reader and wanted anything and everything by Agatha Christie.

I started with my school library at first, but I don’t remember finding very much there.  Junior High School English had already introduced me to Sherlock Holmes, but I wasn’t ready to commit fully to Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective yet, I would in the years to come.  I wanted Mrs. Christie.

So, one late afternoon in 1974 I found myself fully engaged in the mystery section of my hometown’s biggest library.  I was combing my way through the stacks looking at title after title when an older gentleman approached me and asked what I was doing in that section.  I was a little bewildered.  It’s not like I was in some sort of X-rated area of the library so I stammered out some kind of answer and he replied that this section was for older people, and I should look for books somewhere else.  To quote Hermione Granger of Harry Potter fame, “What an idiot.”

Needless to say, I didn’t listen to him and went on with my search much to his annoyance.  I don’t know what I went home with that day, but my guess is it was And Then There Were None, probably the most famous of all Mrs. Christie’s works.  When I opened up that book, I opened up a whole new world of mystery one that I still live in.

Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None were my first two trips into adult mystery, but my love of mystery goes back to my grade school days when I was reading Encyclopedia Brown and The Hardy Boys.  For those of you who are unfamiliar, Encyclopedia Brown was a series of short stories where all the clues were laid out in a pretty obvious way.  The reader was challenged to solve the mystery themselves before looking at how the hero, Encyclopedia Brown, solved it.  The books were fun but, in many ways, they were a one-time only read because after the mystery was solved there was no point in going back. 

The Hardy Boys were a different story, they were probably another level up.  The adventures of Frank and Joe Hardy solving mysteries in their hometown or in exotic locations were the stuff of fifth and sixth grade fantasies and doing it with your brother made it even better.  I’ve mentioned my cousin Steve before.  It was his library, that he left at home, that also introduced me to The Hardy Boys.  The first book I read was called While the Clock Ticked.  My aunt made me give this one back too, but I started my own collection after that and read several of the books in the next few years.

I stayed with Miss Christie for a long time, as if she were the only mystery writer worth paying attention to.  There was reason for this.  She wrote so many novels that you just don’t know when to stop and enjoy other authors.  Mrs. Christie had a whole stable of detectives that she created, and they were all worth reading.  Besides Hercule Poirot there is Miss Jane Marple and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford to name her most famous.  There were also her standalone books such as The Pale Horse and Endless Night all totaled Mrs. Christie wrote 82 detective Novels.  I have no idea how many short stories and several plays.  She was and is the queen of mystery.

Other author’s and movies would come along as I got older.  Soon I began to notice other detectives in novels and movies.  In 1934 Dashiell Hammett published his novel The Thin Man with the crime solving detectives Nick and Nora Charles.  This was not the first husband and wife detective team.  Agatha Christie was first with Tommy and Tuppence Beresford.  Tommy and Tuppence were middle class when pitted up against Nick and Nora.

The Thin Man was soon scooped up by MGM and immediately and made into a popular film starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora.  Though filmed in black and white the film showed the opulence of upper-class New York because Nick and Nora Charles were very wealthy.  This was the exact opposite of what most Americans were living like at the time. And because of the opulence and the devil may care attitude of the leading players The Thin Man became very popular and a series of films, totaling six, was produced from 1934 to 1947.

Mysteries were popular on both sides of the Atlantic and though we started with Agatha Christie we must now go back in time the great Victorian era.  London was gaslights and fog.  The English countryside was speckled with large estates nestles against mysterious moors.  And one man walked through those mysteries into international fame, the great Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes first appeared in The Strand Magazine in 1887 in a story titled A Study in Scarlett.  He was creation of Arthur Conan Doyle.  The story goes that Doyle, who was a doctor, did not have a very busy practice so to pass the time he created Sherlock, Doctor Watson.  It is said that there are three characters every child knows, Mickey Mouse, Superman and Sherlock Holmes.

In the Sherlock Holmes canon, there are 4 novels and 56 short stories that Doyle originally wrote.  After Doyle came many who tried to emulate Doyle’s style, and some came close.  There is The Seven Percent Solution by Nicholas Mayer and most recently a whole series of Holmes books which are surprisingly good, written by Kareem Abdul Jabaar.  But there are probably 100s of other authors who have taken up the pen to write further stories of the great detective.

After the popularity of the Holmes stories Doyle himself got a little tired of writing about his detective and had him killed in a story called The Final Problem.  The public outcry was so great and the national mourning so sincere for a fictional character, that Doyle brought him back first in The Hound of the Baskervilles which took place before his death and then he resurrected Holmes in a story titled The Empty House.  Holmes had never actually been dead but had faked his death to make himself scarce to those who still wanted to kill him.  Sherlock Holmes is now part of our great arts culture.  He will continue to be loved and to be enjoyed for generations to come.

One of my favorite detectives that I have discovered in the last couple of decades is the wonderful Nero Wolfe.  Wolfe aided by his handsome, man about town assistant Archie Goodwin was created in 1934 by Rex Stout.  He would go on and publish about a book a year until 1975.  There are 33 novels and 41 novellas and short stories in the Nero Wolfe canon.  I have read about thirty percent of the novels and have enjoyed each of them.

Nero Wolfe lives in an NYC brownstone house in the heart of metropolis.  He weighs a quarter of a ton and rarely leaves his home unless under extreme compunction to do so.  He solves his mysteries in a great desk chair built especially for him and has all the leg work dome for him by Archie Goodwin.  The Wolfe stories are told in first person from Archie’s point of view.  Wolfe, in today’s language would be called a foodie and takes great delight in being involved in the preparation and the consumption of his meals. He has chef/butler that lives with him as well as a gardener who manages his large collection of Orchids that are kept at the top of the house in the plant rooms.  Some of his greatest stories are centered around the office, the plant rooms, or his meals.  For those who desire to eat like Nero Wolfe there was even A Nero Wolfe Cookbook that was published many years ago and is still available today.

Nero Wolfe was not left off of film. There is one movie I know of and two TV series.  The best television series was done in the early 2000s and starred Maury Chaykin as Nero Wolfe and Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin.  These shows kept very close to the source material and are fun to watch.  The producers decided to hire a company of actors that worked across all the shows playing different parts.  In some of the shows the performances are so good you don’t realize you had seen the performer in a different role the week before.  These shows can be found on YouTube to watch for free.

To delve into humorous mystery, we are going to make one stop.  The Polly Pepper Mysteries.  There are four books in The Polly Pepper series.  Remains to be Scene, Final Curtain, A Talent for Murder and Set Sail for Murder all written by Richard Tyler Jordan.  Mr. Jordan worked in Hollywood for a long time and his books are riddled with caricatures of famous celebrities.  Half the fun of reading his books is trying to guess who the real people are behind the characters.  The Polly Pepper book have been described as a cross between Carol Burnett and Murder She Wrote.  Polly Pepper herself is an out of work actress who once had her own wildly popular variety show.  She knows and schmooses with the best of Hollywood but when a murder gets committed leave it to Polly to solve the crime with the help of her openly and well-loved gay son and an outspoken maid.  The books are a hoot and should be on the shelf of every mystery loving fan.  Here’s to hoping Mr. Jordan decides to take up the pen and give us more Polly adventures.

Most of the detectives I’ve written about went from page to screen but there is one that took the opposite route and went from screen to page.  That would be Jessica Fletcher and the television show Murder She Wrote.  Murder She Wrote starred Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher a retired schoolteacher and widow living in the fictional town of Cabot Cove Maine.  We are introduced to Jessica as her nephew has secretly submitted her murder mystery book to a publisher.  The book is excepted and becomes a best seller.  Jessica is pinned in the spotlight and whisked off to New York City to meet her publisher and to solve her first murder.  Murder She Wrote gave the audience the chance to solve the mystery and entertained television viewers for twelve seasons.  It had many celebrity guest stars including Florence Henderson, Shirley Jones, Van Johnson, and June Allison. 

Not long after the show started a series of books began to be published supposedly written by Jessica herself.  These are told in the first person as if Jessica is speaking to us.  The books are very good and keep the flavor and the pace of the TV show.  Murder She Wrote had stopped new TV episodes several years ago.  New books come out regularly.

Charlotte and Thomas Pitt are the creation of Ann Perry and began their adventures in 1979 in the book The Cater Street Hangman.  The stories take place in Victorian London where Thomas is a police detective.  Charlotte, his wife always finds a way or stumbles into his investigations. 

These books aren’t just telling mysteries.  Miss Perry has all her characters grow.  There is a regular cast of recurring supporting characters that you begin to care about as much as Charlotte and Thomas.  In the first book Thomas meets Charlotte in the second they are married as the series continues; they have children.  These books don’t just tell of the solving of a good case but also are the story of a family.

In recent years there have been several new detectives that come at solving crime through cooking up delicious food.  These books are three quarters story and maybe one quarter or less cookbook.  The best of these are The Hannah Swensen series by Joanna Fluke.

Hannah is a caterer in Aspen Colorado when meet her in The Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder.  She is divorced but is doing quite well on her own serving up meals to the Aspen elite.  In this series the characters also grow as Hannah meets new people falls in love and starts a new family. All of this takes place over several delectable tales.  The latest is the series is The Triple Chocolate Cheesecake Murder.  The recipes in these books are usually easy to follow and fun to try.

Mystery!  Why do we love these stories of who dun it?  It is kind of odd that we take delight in murder.  Or is it possible that we don’t delight in the murder as much as we delight in the solving of the puzzle?  All murder mysteries are puzzles and the pieces are all laid out before you to find if they seem obscure.  These mysteries may be a metaphor for life.  After all we start asking questions and trying to solve the mystery of our existence almost as soon as we can talk.  What parent doesn’t cringe a little when their three-year-old asks, “Where did I come from?”  No parent is going to give a technical answer regarding sex so other answers are given that a child can appreciate, but the question remains.  Where did I come from?  It soon turns into why am I here?  Is there a God what does that mean for me?

We all ask these questions.  And we spend our lives trying to find out the answer.  I think mysteries are there to tell us that the answers are there if me choose to seek for them.  There is a meaning and a purpose for every person born on this planet.  The hard part is that no one can tell you the answers to your questions at least not the most basic ones.  You must seek those answers out on your own.  I think mysteries tell us that there are answers to all questions.  I think mysteries give us hope.

Children’s Literature

I read recently that classic children’s literature is being removed from schools and school curriculum.  Books like The Odyssey, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are now considered unsuitable for a child to read or to be taught.  I take exception to this.  There is great Children’s Literature out there and to be honest I don’t think that the books that claim to be written for children these days are not anything more than feel good shlock made for the child to feel ok about his or her own self as opposed to becoming self-aware that we all can always be improving.  It has been said that once you stop changing you start dying.  I think this is true.  We are people that have been put on this planet to grow first outwardly and then inwardly.  We start out being constantly in need and when we have grown old enough, we begin meeting the needs of others and this should never change.

There are some books that we should come across early in life that celebrate just letting a child be a child.  Winnie The Pooh, Peter Pan and Tom Sawyer are three of these.  Let’s take a look at these three classics.

Winnie The Pooh is heading toward his one hundredth birthday.  He is 95 this year.  AA Milne released the “silly old bear” on the world in 1926.  I doubt there are very many children in the world who don’t know of this lovable bear.  The reason, of course is the star treatment this character has gotten from The Walt Disney Studio since the 1960s.  Disney, as much as I admire the work of Walt Disney did a bit of disservice to Pooh Bear.  The book of his adventures is charming because they are not adventures at all.  Winnie The Pooh never gets his honey as is depicted in the film Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day.  He really never accomplishes anything in the books, and he is perfectly content with that.  His world is the world of the very young pre-school child who also plays at all kinds of imaginary games but never goes much further than his back yard.

Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, is an adventure for all the characters.  Peter defeats Captain Hook and saves Wendy, John, and Michael.  Here we see character development in Wendy, John, and Michael as they leave Neverland knowing they will grow up.  In the book Peter’s lost boys go with Wendy and her brothers and are adapted by Wendy’s parents.  Peter however stays the same.  In the book and in the original play Peter comes back for Wendy and in a heart-breaking scene finds that she has grown up with a child of her own named Jane.  Being heartless Peter takes Jane to Neverland and we are led to believe this will go on thru time.

Tom Sawyer is probably the most read of Mark Twain’s novels by younger people.  But younger people were not his only target audience in his Preface he wrote: ‘Although this book is intended mainly for boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and how they felt and thought and talked and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.  – Hartford 1876

Mark Twain was not only writing for children but for adults too.  Any children’s book worth its salt should be able to engage the adult as well as the child.  In other words, it might be easy to read but the words and stories have depth to them that you have to look for in order to find them.

Tom Sawyer is like that.  Here is a boy longing to hold on to his childhood but being slowly drawn into adulthood.  He is a hero and an antihero at the same time.  His friends Becky Thatcher and Huckleberry Finn are names etched into our collective memory and it would be tragic if any of these names became forgotten.

As we grow older the world of children’s literature grows with us.  We begin to have complex thoughts so Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with its charm and wit appeals to us.  We make friends, some of which will be life long and so The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham makes sense to us as there are no better friends in literature then Mole Rat Toad and Badger.  Our minds begin to solve problems and we begin to learn more complex math and language skills.  Even at this stage there is a book, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

Most of the books mentioned in the last paragraph, in fact I think all of the books in this Blog have been made into movies, but they weren’t good movies.  The screen writers took liberties with all the books and cut out some of the best parts.  There is a stop motion animation version of The Wind in the Willows that is well worth seeing.  And the 1970s adaptation of Tom Sawyer with Johnny Whittaker is also worth watching.  Still parts are left out and there is nothing like the book.

One book that captured my imagination in the fifth grad was My Side of the Mountain by Jean George.  Sam Gribley, a city born boy, learns to live on the land his grandfather bought in the Catskill Mountains.  That book was mostly novel, but it also taught you how to fish and other practical camping secrets.  I am no great outdoorsman, but I love a good adventure and Sam striking out on his own, building a house inside a tree and taming a falcon to help him hunt food had everything a boy could want.

There are other books that I wish I had read when I was younger but was glad, I discovered them as an adult.  Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is a great American novel.  I don’t really see it as a book for children alone.  It is about four sisters growing up and sharing hard times as well as fighting and making up.  It’s really about the idea that if real love exists in a family, you can conquer the worst of times.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is another book that teaches fundamentals of life.  Those lessons are that hard work, and healthy habits are what you need to lead a good life.  It helps that it is set in an old castle on the desolate Yorkshire moors with strange secrets.

Robert Lewis Stevenson gave us the greatest high seas adventure of all time when he wrote Treasure Island.  Treasure maps, pirates, tall ships, men with one eye or leg and black spots thrill the imagination.  There is a very good film version of this book starring Christian Bale and Charlton Heston.  I still believe it is more fun to read the book first and see the film afterward.

Now we come to the father of modern fantasy the great JRR Tolkien.  While professor Tolkien was grading papers, or so the story goes, he wrote on the back of one of the exam books, “Once in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…”  And the world would never be the same.

The Hobbit was published on September 21, 1937.  It became a popular book for children and Professor Tolkien found that he had very strong base of enthusiasts for his book.  The story of Bilbo Baggins and his quest to aid the 13 dwarves to get their gold back from the dragon Smaug took the reader into a new land of Middle Earth and they didn’t want to leave. 

I first came upon the book when I spent the night at my Aunt Mary’s house.  It was sometimes in the 70s and I can’t remember why I was there.  I was put in my cousin Steve’s old room. Steve is ten years older than me, and he was already married.  I was rummaging through the bookshelf and found The Hobbit.  I started it but of course couldn’t finish it all in one night and asked if I could have it.  Steve had left it behind and as anyone knows treasure that is left behind is free for whom ever finds it.  My Aunt Mary said “no”, but I could borrow it.  So, I did and was transported myself to the best of the fantasy worlds.

I remember the first time I read the book of having a dream where the dwarves came to me and in one way or another invited me to go with them.  I remember pickaxes and ropes and climbing but that’s about all.  The Hobbit had a hold of my sub-conscious mind as well as my conscious mind.

If you look at the title of Walt Disney’s first animated feature, you’ll find that it is called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  Tolkien, who was, to put simply, a professor of languages, decided that that was not the way to spell Dwarfs and changed it in his book to dwarves.  It has remained that way ever since.

Tolkien got letter after letter asking for information about hobbits and Middle Earth.  It would take him almost 20 years to publish The Lord of the Rings the first book of the sequel, The Fellowship of the Ring appeared in July of 1954.  The other two books in the trilogy would follow, The Two Towers in November of 1954 and The Return of the King October of 1955.  These books probably surprised his readers.  The light touch of The Hobbit was slowly pulled away and a darker scarier world was revealed.  Tolkien had gone form writing books for children to writing books for both children and adults.

With the publication at the subsequent popularity of The Lord of the Rings books of fantasy were no longer just in the realm of children’s literature but squarely in the world of books for adults too.  And those adults who cherished the memory of going to Wonderland with Alice now would have books that led them into strange new worlds of adventure and excitement.

I would be remiss in not mentioning here CS Lewis and his Chronicles of Narnia.  Lewis was a friend of Tolkien and an atheist.  The story goes that one day the two friends took a walk.  They both loved the old myths and legends of ancient times and Tolkien explained to Lewis that Christianity and Jesus redemptive work on the cross was the one true myth.  This argument convinced Lewis that Jesus was all that he said he was and that the Gospel’s were true.  He became an ardent follower of Jesus and wrote many books for adults on Christianity.  Mere Christianity is Lewis’s explanation of The Christian Faith.  The Four Loves is an explanation of the four Greek words for love and how they interact with Christianity.  Surprised by Joy is his memoir.  All these books are great for adults but his work for children may well out last anything else he wrote.

CS Lewis once said “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now That I am 50, I read them openly.  When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”  He also said, “Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”  In Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, he gave us, in seven books, the history of Narnia from its creation to its end.  He also gave us many characters to know and love.  First the children who find their way from our world into Narnia and then the inhabitants of Narnia itself, Prince Caspian, Reepicheep, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and Father Christmas himself.

The Narnia books are more than fantasies.  They are in many ways allegorical to the Christian faith.  Many people come away from reading these books with their faith strengthened and commitment to Christ renewed.  Others who read them see no connection at all between Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia and in that I believe you see the genius of CS Lewis.

There are so many other books that in children’s Literature that I could mention but if I did, we would be here for weeks on end.  The Harry Potter books that grew up with the readers as they originally were published.  Aesop’s Fables which seem to have disappeared in these days but when I was child held valuable lessons and still do if they are sought out.  Then there are the books of legends, The Greek God’s and Heroes and The Norse Gods and Goddesses.  Then there is The Matter of Britain better known as The Story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table and we cannot leave off this list The Adventures of Robin Hood.  The there are the fairy tales those collected by The Brothers Grimm and those written by Hans Christian Anderson these are some of the tales that Lewis was speaking of when he said there would be a time when we are old enough to read fairy tales again.

One last thought somewhere in the late 1800’s L Frank Baum decided that American children had no fairy tales of their own.  Oh, we had our legends, Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, and The Headless Horseman to name a few but no magical fairy stories.  In 1900 Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and gave America it’s first fantasy.  Baum would go on to write 15 Oz books all truly delightful tales and all for American children, though, of course, the books would go on to delight children around the world.

I started this as a call to arms not to allow classic children’s literature to disappear from our schools and libraries.  Our kids shouldn’t be deprived of the lessons these books teach and adults should be at the forefront of the fight reading these books again and digesting the simple yet profound messages almost every one of these books teach.

The Sound of Music and Me

It was 1965, I was four years old so I don’t expect that I saw The Sound of Music when the movie was released on April first. But the movie would begin to have it’s effects on me at that early age and would continue to the present day.

First, as I stated before, mom loved musicals and I can bet she bought that album as soon as it came out. The music from that movie would permeate our house frequently.  I remember in kindergarten one of the kids brought in an album that told the story of The Sound of Music along with the songs and I think that was my first introduction to what the movie was about.  In those day movies ran for year and I know at one point I was taken to see the film.  I, of course loved it.

Sometime in early part of the 1960’s 20th Century Fox Studios was about to close its doors.  It had begun producing movies in 1935.  20th Century Fox was responsible for such films as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Miracle on 34th Street, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Robe, and The Rodger’s and Hammerstein films, Oklahoma, Carousel, and The King and I.  Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote the only musical they ever wrote specifically for film for 20th Century Fox which was State Fair.  Hard times had come on the studio, but they had one card left to play The Sound of Music.

Sound of Music was hit with people if not with critics on it’s 1965 release.  Christopher Plummer it’s male lead would call it The Sound of Mucus and for the studio it was The Sound of Money.  Starring Julie Andrews, The Sound of Music would win Best Picture at The Academy Awards and Best Actress at The Golden Globes award.  It also took the Oscar for Best Original Score.  The Sound of Music saved 20th Century Fox and helped keep them going for many years.  Unfortunately, the studio would eventually get into financial difficulty again and would be sold to The Disney Studio in 2019.

As a boy I remember being delighted by the story of the nun that becomes governess to 7 motherless children.  You couldn’t help but wonder at romping thru Salzburg, it’s mountain and meadows while singing.  The movie was a delight to both the ear and the eyes despite what age you are.

I don’t remember when I found out that Maria, Captain Von Trapp, and the children were actual people.  Actual living people.  It may have been when Julie Andrews had her own variety show on television and she had as a guest Maria Von Trapp.  I remember the interview vaguely I know you can see some of it on YouTube.  One thing I remember is Maria saying she caused much more trouble in the abbey than the movie portrayed.

This made me curious and I found in one of frequent trips to the bookstore the book that The Sound of Music was based on…The Story of The Trapp Family Singers.

The Story of the Trapp Family Singers was first published in 1949.  It is a memoir of the Von Trapp family from Maria’s point of view and is told in the first person.  Maria, I think was surprised at herself for writing this book.  At least that’s the feeling you get if your read the introduction.

The book itself is different in many ways from what would become The Sound of Music.  For instance, though Maria did upset the abbey quite a bit as a postulant that was not the reason she was sent to The Trapp’s.  She had been suffering from severe headaches and it was thought that fresh air and regular exercise would be of help to her.  When the need for a teacher for The Captain’s youngest daughter, who was also named Maria, reached Mother Superior, she felt this a good opportunity for Maria to get her health back before permanently entering the abbey.

So Maria was sent to the Von Trapp’s

It was Maria’s personality that won the other children to her.  Their were other governesses and staff in the house but the children liked Maria and yes eventually because Maria loved to sing especially folk music she taught the children how to sing together and in harmony.

The Captain too was not the ogre he is presented as in the film.  He is a man that grieved for his wife and so ran a strict household, but the children didn’t want for anything that they knew of and he loved them, frequently coming home with gifts after his absences.

The family had all become recent converts to Catholicism.  Maria opened whole new worlds of worship of God for the family.  Two chapters in the book An Austrian Christmas and Feasts in a Family go into great detail about this.  I read these two chapters each year one at Christmas and one at Easter because Feasts in a Family goes deeply in to how Easter was celebrated prior to Vatican II, the Christmas chapter in advent is self explanatory.

The first half the book  in many ways resembles The Sound of Music.  The Captain is engaged to an Austrian Noble Woman and he does break it off when he realizes he is in love with Maria.  Many things happen between his marriage and his ultimate decision to flee Austria.  Many things and many years pass.  The couple married in 1927 and left Austria in 1938.

In the years between the marriage and the departure The Captain’s children grew up.  Rupert, the oldest son was a practicing physician and was also offered a place in The Third Reich along with his father.  The Captain also lost almost his entire fortune.  He had the money in a bank but that bank went under.  The Family still had the estate but they began renting rooms out in order to secure more income.

It was during this time that they were heard singing by Lotte Lenya a popular vocalist at the time.  It was She who encouraged them to go professional and they did and were a huge success.  The Captain did not sing with his family.  He found the whole thing very painful to endure.  He would eventually get used to it as he had no choice  And ultimately because they had some international contracts being offered to them to sing outside Austria they were able to flee the country when both father and son were offered place’s in Hitler’s regime.

Before leaving Austria Maria would have two children of her own Eleanor and Rosemarie.  She would have a third in The United States as she was pregnant with her youngest Johannes when they left.

The second half of the book is about their adventures in America.  Settling first outside Philadelphia, where Johannes was born and their early concert tours.  Ultimately they found a place in Vermont that reminded them of the Austria they left behind and they settled in Stowe before the America got involved in WWII.

First they farmed the land and made their own branded maple syrup.  Eventually they would buy an army barracks that was abandoned and they ran family music camps so that families could learn to sing together.  

When the war started the two Von Trapp boys, now young men, served in the U.S. military.  The family was successful in The United States and they gave back.  Thankfully both boys came home.

The Captain died in 1947 at the age of 67.  Maria was 22 when she married him and 42 when he passed away.  In 1949 her book was published and it gained the interest of a German film maker who made dramatic film called The Story Of The Trapp Family Singers.  Maria sold the rights to her book for 200 dollars.  They were the complete rights and so it was the German film company who owned the rights when Rodgers and Hammerstein wanted to make a stage musical about the family. Maria and the family made very little money from the Sound of Music.  I think signing her rights away for 200 dollars was one of her biggest regrets.  She was given a certain amount from the film and even had a few seconds of a scene In the movie.  Ultimately that scene was cut, but you can glimpse Maria crossing the square during the Do Re Me Montage.  But you must look very carefully.

The Sound of Music opened on Broadway in November 1959.  It starred Mary Martin as Maria and Theodore Bikel as Georg Von Trapp.  It would run for four years on Broadway closing in 1963 and would be perennially done by schools, touring companies, community theaters, and Broadway revivals.  It would star many well known actresses such as Florence Henderson who took over for Mary Martin, Shirley Jones, Maria Osmond, Debbie Boone and the list could go on.  There are some lovely pictures online of the real Maria posing with the actresses who portrayed her.

But Maria’s work and her story do not end with The Sound of Music.  It was my first year of college, probably the spring of 1980, I was walking through the stores in downtown Mansfield PA when I spotted a book by Maria Von Trapp called Yesterday Today and Forever.  I bought it and devoured it.  The book was a sort of Life of Christ from a family’s point of view.  It was also a guide on how to bring Jesus into your own life.  Several years later I would find that book as a hard cover at our local library book sale.  I got it for a dime and opened it to find Maria’s signature.

Maria would go on and write a separate book about Our Lord titled When King was Carpenter.  This book was about the hidden years of Jesus, between his being found in the Temple at age 12 and his baptism by John. The book gives the details of how people lived in Judea at the time of Jesus.  Both books are marvelous treasures for a Christian and I recommend you reading them.  You feel as though Maria and her family really loved The Lord and it comes out in these books.  If you are lucky you may come across a book titled Let Me Tell You About My Savior this book is Yesterday Today and Forever and When King Was Carpenter in one volume.

Maria would write another book on her family called A Family on Wheels.  This book is about their adventures giving concerts across the United States.  It’s a fun book.  A lighthearted look at artists on the road.

In 1972 Maria would publish her last book, Maria My Own Story.  This book is a much more intimate look at the woman separate from her family.  It is her faith journey from a family of non-believers to becoming a novice in a convent.  There are many surprises in the book as well.  Maria felt in 1927 that she was more marrying the children than their father.  The fact is she brought the marriage proposal to Mother Superior and the nuns met and decided for Maria that she would accept.  Maria wasn’t expecting the marriage to be intimate.  She loved the children when she married the father but she grew to love the father as well.

Maria’s story has become part of my own faith story.  I and my housemate do an advent wreath and Advent devotionals during the time leading up to Christmas because of her books.  Maria made Jesus accessible to me.  Especially in the book Yesterday Today and Forever.  She helped me realize that Jesus can be an intimate part of my life if I choose to get to know him better.  And these books help you get to know the real Jesus not the untouchable Christ that some churches portray him as being.

The songs in The Sound of Music give me great strength to do what I need to do.  Climb Every Mountain is a hymn in some churches.  And My Favorite Things brings Paul’s Letter to The Philippians Chapter 4 verse 8 to life.  You can look that up on your own and then compare the instruction to the lyrics.  It is my go-to song when I am feeling very low.

Maria’s life, and her faith have brought much encouragement to me.  She passed away in 1987 at the age of 82.  I felt that passing.  It was like a good friend had died.  But she left a legacy for us all to find if we dare look for it and listen for the sound of music.

DISNEY

It was December 1966.  I was 5 years old, and my mother told me Walt Disney had died.  I remember going out to our side yard and wandering around feeling a little lost.  I know I didn’t really understand what death was at that age, but I knew something precious had been lost never to be found again.

Of course, I didn’t know Walt Disney and yet he had been a part of my life every Sunday night for as far back as I can remember.  He hosted what I remember, being called, The Wonderful World of Color.  We didn’t have a color TV set yet, but those shows were wonderful.  Walt led us into the deepest parts of our imaginations and taught us the about the natural world on those Sunday nights.  He was woven into my generations DNA, and I believe I am the better for it.

Walt Disney, his television shows, his movies, his music his cartoons, his toys and his theme parks have played a huge part in my life.  They are part of what makes me who I am, and they help sustain me in the tough times.

It has been 55 years since Walt Disney died and yet his philosophy and his work lives on.  It has been in danger of being lost and sometimes the quality of what was produced was not always great.  The 1980s were a tough time for The Disney Studio but somehow it always comes back.  Disney always finds a way to fly again.

I think my first Disney film that I was taken to Was Mary Poppins.  Now I’m not sure I saw the original release as I was three when the movie debuted.  But back in the 1960s a movie could play at theaters for a couple of years or make the rounds to different theaters.  The Sound of Music was running well into the 1970s from its initial 1966 release.  Movies don’t do that today.  I believe I was probably about 5 years old when I was taken to Mary Poppins, and I fell in love with a wonderful Nanny that could fly with a umbrella and walk up the smoke that came out of chimneys.  Oh, and lest I forget, cleaning out your room with a snap of your fingers was awesome too.  One thing I disliked doing was cleaning my room.

Fun fact:  Julie Andrews was given a song in Mary Poppins that she didn’t much care for.  The Sherman brothers, Richard, and Robert, decided to write a new song for her to take its place.  When, I believe it was Richard, got home from work that day his daughter came in from school and he asked her about her day.  She told him that they had received the polio vaccine on a small sugar cube.  That was all he needed.  He got in touch with his brother and soon A Spoonful of Sugar was written.  It didn’t become a radio standard but it’s part of what we like to refer as The Great American Songbook.

In reflection it’s a little funny to me that back then children and adults took a vaccine without question.  Everyone knew what polio could do and they were eager to remain healthy.  Now today I don’t think a child could be given a vaccine at school and some parents don’t allow their children to get the childhood vaccines that are necessary.  Then there is the resistance of people to take the vaccine that could save their lives right now as we face a worldwide pandemic.  With the last important vaccine, we got a song.  What will get from what we have now?

Another fun fact about Mary Poppins.  Richard and Robert Sherman were the only composer and lyricist ever to be given offices at The Walt Disney Studio.  After Mary Poppins was released when Walt was feeling down, he would call the brothers in to play Feed the Birds, another iconic song from the film.  Mary Poppins had some stiff competition at The Academy Awards that year.  It was competing against My Fair Lady.  And though My Fair Lady would win for best picture.  Mary Poppins took best actress, Julie Andrews, and best song which was Chim Chim Cheree.  I always thought that was kind of funny as in my opinion that was the weakest song in the film.

Disney continued to delight, entertain, and educate me as the years went by.  Films like The Jungle Book would follow and Bed knobs and Broomsticks, with the great Angela Lansbury, The Love Bug and The Winnie the Pooh shorts.

When Disney first acquired the rights to do Winnie the Pooh it was originally thought of as a full-length film.  When the film was completed, Walt insisted that the movie be cut into shorts and would be shown before a full-length Disney feature.  The film was broken down into Winnie the Pooh and The Honey Tree and Winnie the Pooh and The Blustery day. I know I saw both on the big screen when they came out.  But I only remember that I saw Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day with my mother before seeing The Love Bug.  In 1977 Disney released the full film The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Putting those shorts back together.

That’s something else that needs explaining.  Back in the 60s and into the 70s when you went to the movies you didn’t go to see just one thing like today.  There was always a cartoon or a short documentary first.  With most movies it was a Bugs Bunny Cartoon, but with a Disney Film you could never know what you might get but it was always good.  They even had double features where you would see two movies for the price of one.  I remember going to see a double feature Of Yours Mine and Ours and The Yellow Submarine with my family at a Drive In.  I was asleep before The Yellow Submarine got under way.

The Disney Studio had a policy with its animated movies to release them every seven years.  I was nine when Peter Pan was released again.  The film made its debut in 1953 and was magical from the start.  Of course, Tinker Bell became a Disney Icon opening all his television shows, I knew her well, but not so much Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up.

Peter Pan changed me somehow.  It awoke in me a spirit of adventure that I never really knew I had before.  I went from playing cops and robbers and Cowboys and Indians to playing Peter Pan and the lost boys and I was Peter.  We had a creek across the street from the house I grew up in and at places the creek had banks that were four or five feet high.  That was good enough to become my home underground, like Peter’s.  A little way up the street there was a tree that was easy to climb and where you couldn’t be seen in the leaves that was my place to fly to.  When things got bad for me in one way or another, I would wish fervently that Peter would come and take me to Neverland. 

In The Bible we read Jesus saying that “Unless you become like little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”  I think that’s the great lesson of Peter Pan.  We don’t have to grow up completely we can keep the child inside of us alive and be filled with living in the present moment, finding joy in the sound water makes in a creek or stream, or being happy with simple things.  I remember when a refrigerator box gave me more pleasure than the most expensive toys.  The toy could only be one thing.  That box could be anything.  Maybe we surround ourselves with all of our adult to toys because we are lookiing for an empty box.

It was about this time that my cousin Maryann and her husband Chuck were moving to California, eventually settling in San Jose.  (yes, I am proud to say my cousin can answer the age old question, “Do you know the way to San Jose?)   The important thing was they were moving to the state that had Disneyland.

Disneyland was my big hope back in those days.  But there were six of us in the family and a trip across the country was out of the question.  We went on vacations.  We had great times down the shore in Wildwood NJ and twice to Canada.  We were even taken To Dutch Wonderland in Lancaster, but it was no Disneyland.  The reason I bring this up is because Maryanne had a younger sister, Diane, in the year that Maryann and Chuck lived in California My Aunt Mary and Uncle Steve along with Diane went to visit.

A trip by plane anywhere in those days was a big deal in our family and all of us went to the airport to see them off.  And all of us was a lot.  My grandmother my parents, myself and my brother and sisters and my other aunts, uncles, and cousins.  I knew that they were going to Disneyland and asked my cousin, more like pleaded with her, to get me Peter Pan’s autograph.  I knew he was there I saw him there on TV.  They came back and my cousin had no autograph for me.  She told me that Peter was played by a woman in the park, and she didn’t think I would want it.  I was terribly disappointed.  To this day on my trips to Disney World, where I know for a fact Peter is a boy I still hope for an autograph or at the very least a picture with my hero, but it has yet to happen.

This was the early 70s and Disney magic still filled our lives.  Angela Lansbury would play her first part for Disney in the wonderful Bed knobs and Broomsticks.  I spent many nights dreaming that I had a magic bed that could take me anywhere I wanted to go, and where did I go on those imaginary flights?  Disney World, of course.

!971 brought us Disney World.  This was a project that Walt himself had started before he passed away.  He secretly acquired the land in Florida and then made promotional films.  He unfortunately never saw Disney World completed, but he walked the grounds and imagined where everything would be.  Those dreams were kept alive by Walt’s brother Roy who put off his retirement until Disney World could be completed.

It was the summer after my sixth-grade year, 1973, that my mom, dad and my sister Susan and I went to Disney World.  12 years old is the perfect time to be in Magic Kingdom.  You are old enough to appreciate it and not old enough to become cynical like most teenagers do.  I enjoyed every minute of that trip.  The first time I saw Cinderella Castle I knew I had found my special place in some ways I had come home.

My friend Brad, who is a pastor, told me long ago that we all have sacred places.  Those places are unique to us and the to the way God had made us.  For some people it is great churches and cathedrals.  For other people that sacredness is found high in the mountains or the ocean shore.  Though I have felt the sacredness by the ocean I feel very close to God standing outside Cinderella Castle and looking up at the towering spires.  Maybe it’s because as a Christian I know I am part of The Kingdom or God and I’m sure that His Kingdom is filled with such fairy tale palaces.  Or maybe its’s because in that spot reality and fantasy bend and become one, and one day I believe that my faith in the things I cannot see and the reality that I live in now will also become one.  I will see and know God and His son Jesus and The Holy Spirit as they really are.  In my own head that all comes together in Disney World.

The 70s turned into the 80s and part of me did grow up and part of me got a little cynical.  We went back to Disney World in 1976 and I still thoroughly loved that trip, but something had changed.  I wasn’t going to many Disney movies now.  I put most of the childhood stuff away and had to get through junior and senior high school.  Those years were hard for me.  They are for most of us, and I had a hard time figuring out who I was.  I fell in love with other things during that time.  Movie musicals and stage shows as well as other activities.  My interest in Disney waned until 1991.

In 1991 Disney released the second of it’s renaissance movies Beauty and the Beast.  The first of these films was The Little Mermaid.  I hadn’t seen that.  In fact, I avoided it.  Disney’s animated films of the 1980s were lack luster and I figured The Little Mermaid would just be more of the same.  I was completely mistaken, of course, and found that out when I watched the film for the first time at my friend’s Manny’s house.  I was living with him and his family at the time in Syracuse NY which is where I would also see Beauty and the Beast.

In the animated film the character of Mrs. Potts was played by Angela Lansbury.  Sometime, before the film was released, in a Disney special on TV, as the finale, Miss Lansbury appeared in a beautiful gown, with a full orchestra and sang the title song.  Disney magic was 100% back in that song.

I remember seeing the film for the first time and being blown away by the incredible animation that was being played out before my eyes.  This film rivaled anything that Broadway or MGM ever produced.  Every member of the voice cast was perfect and well suited to the roles.  The scene of the dance in the dining hall took your breath away as much as when the king sweeps Anna up in his arms to dance in The King and I.  It would be years later in 2020 after Disney World restructured Fantasyland that I would I have a chance to eat in that dining hall in the Be Our Guest restaurant.  That was magical too.  Sitting there with my good friend and Disney Buddy, Pam, enjoying an amazing meal in place that looked exactly the animated film.  Disney had made magic come to life.

After Beauty and The Beast almost every Disney movie was a treat.  I’m not die hard, I didn’t like all of them but most of them yes, absolutely.  Aladdin, Tarzan, Toy Story, James and the Gian Peach, and more recently, the live action remake of Cinderella, Mary Poppins Returns and the live action Beauty and the Beast which opened on my birthday in 2017 all continued to bring magic to my life.

I am very lucky and blessed in my friend Pam who lives in Florida.  I would be blessed to know her wherever she lived but we are both fans of Disney and the last time I was in Disney World she spent much time with me making my trip extra special.  She also allowed me to talk and dream and she allowed me to be me and that is the greatest gift anyone can give another person. That was February of 2020 after I returned form that trip Covid 19 struck and paralyzed the world.  Disney World shut down and the movie theaters shut down, but Disney helped rescue us during this time with their new streaming service Disney+, that not only gave us a great portion of the Disney Movie and TV show catalogue but also gave us Broadway’s Hamilton to watch in our homes with the original cast.

I would be remiss in not mentioning my niece Melissa, her husband Chris and their kids Caitlyn, Dominic and Joseph.  They are a whole family of Disney fans and do many Disney things together.  We swap stories, pictures and recipes, especially for the famous Disney Parks Dole Whip and the Strawberry Soup at the Grand Floridian Resort on the Disney World property.  Disney is in my DNA and that gene got passed down.

In the 1980s my boss Barb had us watch the film version of a book called In Search of Excellence.  Part of the film focused on the Disney company and their philosophy for work.  No one in the parks is an employee.  They are all cast members expected to play a part as long as they are at work.  Once they start their jobs they are on stage and must play the character they are assigned whether it be a hostess or a dishwasher as if they are in front of an audience.  No attitude, a constant smile, no guest in a Disney owned business is ever to see a cast member in any thing but a good mood.  I was a dialysis technician at the time and decided it would be a good idea to adapt this philosophy as my own. I’m an amateur actor, so developing a work character for myself was a joy.  I’m not saying I was perfect at this.  I had bad days and messed up more than once, but I think over all I became better at my job because I believed that my patients were better served by a happy smiling me than a grumpy me.  I tried to keep that work philosophy wherever I worked, and it has served me well.

There is so much more I could say about Disney.  We got our first dog, Lightning, a dalmatian, after my seeing 101 Dalmatians.  There were other trips to Disney World, and I left out adventures in Epcot and Animal Kingdom.  There are wonderful movies that I didn’t mention like The Happiest Millionaire and The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh both of which I hope you take the time to find and watch.  There is The Disney Channel that appeared on cable networks in the 80s but also imported a wonderful stop action animated television show from England, The Wind in the Willows, that show gave me hours of entertainment and also introduced to the breat children’s classic book by Kenneth Graham.  There is the fact that Disney now owns both Marvel Comics and The Star Wars franchise and has given us all so many new adventures over the last dozen years, and lastly Disney magic brought to New York City where they bought and refurbished many run-down theaters that were close to 100 years old so they could bring Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid and Mary Poppins to the stage.  Disney Magic in a whole new medium.

Walt Disney is quoted as saying “All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them”.  I am now 60 years old and find myself reinventing me.  I’m doing this blog which is new, I’m working on a book and I’m working on some other surprises for the near future.  At 60 I feel like a 30-year-old with a lot of experience.  I have something left to give to this world and as long as I live, I hope I have the opportunity to give it.  I believe that’s what Walt would do.