What a Glorious Mess.
There will be spoilers from this point on, of course. Don’t read any further if you don’t want spoilers. I mean it.
If you are reading this sentence I am assuming you know that Leia is dead, Rey is a Skywalker, the Emperor is dead again, Rey is the Emperor’s granddaughter, Kylo Ren is redeemed, Lando is back, Wedge is back, Porkins Jr dies like his father, the Sith are destroyed, Chewie dies but didn’t, 3PO dies but didn’t, the First/Final Order is destroyed, and Porg sales, if there ever were any, have been replaced by kids demanding Styrofoam cups on oversized Lego wheels.
First, let’s address the Bantha in the room: The Rise of Skywalker needed to be two movies. The first one to unscrew everything The Last Jedi messed up and the next one to end the series. As The Rise of Skywalker stands right now, both of those movies are jammed into 141 minutes of classic Star Warsy goodness. But it’s a mess, a hot delicious gooey mess like eating half-baked but piping hot chocolate chip cookies that you can’t handle nor keep in your mouth lest you burn yourself.
My biggest complaint is that the movie is rushed. It had to be. There’s was too much space to cover, and it’s tough to process the moments. Moreover, there’s gotta be six inches deep of film lying on the cutting room floor. This movie needed to be, and probably was at one point over three hours. The Rise of Skywalker probably needs over four hours to tie up all the threads properly and to fully enjoy what Abrams was trying to say. Hopefully we’ll get that with an extended edition like we did with the Lord of the Rings’ movies or Kingdom of Heaven, none of which I’ll watch the standard edition again.
That’s my big complaint about this movie – There’s so much going on, not concurrently, but subsequently. The film hits you with important plot points, emotional moments, or Johnson fixes so fast, you don’t have time to process them before the next. A small example is Lando’s trade mark swashbuckling “Haha!” In the original trilogy, that moment was set up, then when you heard Lando there was a cut to someone agreeing, Nien Nub in the Falcon’s cockpit most famously, and then a quick shot of the reason for the “Haha!”, such as the Falcon diving for the Death Star. These quick cuts, no more than four or five seconds total, gave the audience time to process and revel in the badassery of the galaxy’s most famous buckler of swashes. Abrams however went for efficiency, and cut out the last two parts, immediately jumping into the next small set piece. We still got the “Haha!” but we had no time to appreciate it, as the scene was already moving on. It’s the same but on a larger scale with the deaths of Chewie and the memory wipe of C3PO. Their return happened so fast after their “deaths” that there has to be more to it on the editing room floor. The plot went from MacGuffin to MacGuffin, or main character to main character, especially at the end so fast it was tough to keep up.
As sad as this makes me, I have to admit the frantic pace of the story was most obvious during final space battle, or the lack there of. The Rise of Skywalker had the potential to have the most epic space battle in the franchise, but the focus on the final battle between Rey and Ren and the Emperor took precedence, so we only got snippets. We saw most of the space battle in the trailers.
There are three kinds of Star Wars fans: Light Saber fans, Blaster fans, and Turbo Laser fans. I am a turbo laser guy. I love Star Wars’ space battles. Star Wars Armada is by far my favorite franchise game. The supercut of the Return of the Jedi featuring only the space battle is my favorite part of the trilogy. The Rise of Skywalker’s final space battle was overshadowed by the lightsaber battle and given much less onscreen time. Even worse, there was no tension because we knew the reinforcements were going to arrive: their arrival with Lando in the van was the coolest part of the trailer. As desperate as Poe’s situation was, you knew it couldn’t last because the trailer said so. The lack of a coherent and tense space battle between the organized militaries of the good guys and bad, a staple of the Star Wars movies up to this point, was heartbreaking.
I want to hear crosstalk. I want to hear final radio checks. I loved it as a kid, and even more so as an adult. As a veteran that’s the stuff that speaks to me. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the final radio checks before crossing the line of departure were always my favorite moments in the 24 years I was in the Army. There’s nothing more beautiful than a Stand To, except maybe the final radio check prior to crossing the LD. It’s the perfect moment: The unit is about to move out. The training is done. The painful planning and preparation is over. And you can’t change anything, nor should you try because you’ll just second and third guess yourself. You and the boys and girls will never be more ready than you are in that very moment. It’s the time when you actually get to know people, how they react under pressure. The endless waiting is over and you’re actually doing something. It’s invigorating. I always loved the start of an approach march or the move from SP to LD. My favorite part of the army. Everything before it sucks, and everything after it sucks, but right then: golden.
“Red Leader: All wings report in.
Red Ten standing by.
Red Seven standing by.
Red Three standing by.
Red Six standing by.
Red Nine standing by.
Red Two standing by.
Red Eleven standing by.
Red Five standing by.
Red Leader: Lock S-foils in attack position.”
You know the exact moment associated with these quotes. These are the people fighting the empire and you know more about them now with those four words, their bodily reactions, and the tones and inflections of their voices than you could with any amount of exposition. On the set of the original trilogy and the prequels there were World War II and Vietnam veterans who knew what this stuff sounded like, and it gave the script an authenticity that fantastical space battles by star fighters and space wizards shouldn’t have, and don’t anymore. George Lucas and his era of directors, such as Steven Spielberg, grew up with actual film footage from bombers and fighters. That sort of authenticity isn’t in today’s films, Star Wars in particular. They had it in Rogue One, but only because they used recycled 35 year old footage from A New Hope. It might seem like wasted dialogue but it perfectly presages the imminent ramping up of action. That calm final radio check is like priming the adrenalin pump. In the immortal words of Martin, “Shit’s about to get real”. I guess there were no GWOT veterans on set, or even in Hollywood anymore, to say, “Hey, Poe and all the fighters aren’t doing anything together. There’s no coordination. There’s no crosstalk. Do they even know each other? Why are they acting so stupidly?” When I see stuff like this, I sometimes wonder if the civil-military divide in America is even larger than it appears.
Contrary to what Ken Burns, Oliver Stone, and certain political figures will tell you, the military requires a bit more brain power than the average bear. There’s a reason the three classic professions are lawyer, doctor, and soldier. They directly affect peoples’ lives and screwing up can quickly end a career, or even worse fail the mission, or get people killed. So when I see our heroes land on a star destroyer, shoot their way on and then are left to their own devices to explore said star destroyer, it kind of irks me. What was it, Epstein’s Hanger? Star destroyers have no space control tower? How do they not ram into each other? Why did no one hit the alarm klaxon? Whaa Whaa Whaa! Intruder alert Intruder alert! Why didn’t the whole ship’s company descend upon that landing bay weapons drawn? I get it that they’re the Empire, First Order whatever, but they’re not stupid. That we assume they’re stupid takes away from the heroes’ accomplishment. Yes, Luke and Han did it on the Death Star in the Star Wars, but they snuck on, with a plan specifically designed not to cause alarm. Honestly, the two stromtroopers not giving a shit gave that scene a believability that we simply can’t replicate anymore. Universal truth: Joe gonna be Joe, even in the Empire. There was none of that in The Rise of Skywalker even with the prevalence of military scenes. Merry in this movie took the role that John Ratzenburger (Cliff from Cheers) had in Empire Strikes Back, that of the competent lower to mid-level staff officer making observations and making things happen that were below the notice of the Heroes. Merry just didn’t pull it off like Cliff did, even with three times the dialogue. He was Ok, but he acted more like a drone in a cubicle than a battle captain in an operation center. I guess Dale Dye (the captain in Platoon who was Hollywood’s military technical advisor for damn near every movie from 1986-2010 that had military organization in it) had a monopoly of military film advising and no one stepped in the void once he retired. George Lucas spent more time on ground guides moving snow speeders and X-wings out of the hanger than JJ Abrams spent on major emotional moments. Which one will stand the test of time? For military organizations that have been fighting a war for years, the Rebelistance and the Empire/First Order sure don’t act like it. They both act more like gangs instead. Is that what Hollywood thinks of the military? I don’t think so, at least in the Rise of Skywalker. I think it has more to do with the movie’s time constraints due to having to fit two movies in one theatrical release.
This quest for extreme time efficiency affected several story arcs. In order to introduce new characters so they could sell more toys, several older characters had very little to do in the movie. Rose, one of my favorite characters from The Last Jedi even though she was wasted in an entire act of virtue signaling, did almost nothing in the Rise of Skywalker. She was an extra. Bencio Del Toro’s DJ didn’t even return, further evidence that The Last Jedi poisoned the Star Wars well. BB-8, the hero of The Last Jedi, did nothing this movie, nor did R2-D2. They were replaced with Dio \m/ 😛, a Styrofoam cup on a wheel. Meh.
Speaking of droids, Leia threw out a line “Always trust a droid.” I don’t know what kind of Skynet shit that is, but they must have reached the limit of Carrie Fisher’s prerecorded dialogue. There’s a reason they didn’t use it before, because it sucks and Carrie Fisher passing away doesn’t make it any better. Deep fake it if you have to. Hire a professional voice mimicker. Several pieces of dialogue were a bit cringe worthy because they were obviously writing around what Carrie Fisher recorded before she died. The conversation with Porkins Jr stands out, even though it did get some laughs in the theater.
All that being said, The Rise of Skywalker was still a great movie. Screw what all the correct thinking reviewers said and the zealous fan boys who want to bring down the franchise because “Disney is evil”.
Now for the good.
I’m pretty sure I liked this movie as much as I did because I watched the Last Jedi just before I went to the theater. Rise of Skywalker can’t be understood outside of the context of The Last Jedi. JJ Abrams ditched Rian Johnson’s virtue signaling and brought plot and character back while simultaneously making Johnson’s changes (semi-)coherent within the Star Wars’ cinematic universe. Abrams’ fixes, and subtle jabs, might not play well in the ivory towers of Manhattan and San Francisco, but they’ll work for us Neanderthals who grew up playing Star Wars in our back yards and want to see the franchises’ universal themes of friendship, standing up against tyranny, rising to the occasion, and consequential individual choices, passed on to a new generation. The problem is that The Last Jedi painted JJ Abrams into a corner regarding plot and character, and Rian Johnson’s decisions drive much of Rise of Skywalker’s screenplay. That JJ Abrams did so without violating the rules of fiction writing, i.e. Fiction Writing 101: Consistency within your universe’s self-imposed rules is key, is reason enough to appreciate JJ Abram’s accomplishment.
One can only wistfully sigh at the thought of what this trilogy could have been had JJ Abrams been able to do all three films. Oh well, spilt blue milk and all that.
But you know what he did do? With The Rise of Skywalker, he made The Last Jedi a better movie.
It’s clear now, if it wasn’t already, that there wasn’t an overarching trilogy outline written prior to The Force Awakens to guide script writers and present a coherent story over three movies. That might’ve worked when George Lucas helmed the franchise, he was the continuity, but it can’t be when you have radically differing visions of the Star Wars universe between Kathleen Kennedy and Rian Johnson, and JJ Abrams and the Star Wars fans. JJ Abrams learned his lesson when he nearly destroyed the Star Trek franchise with “Into Darkness”: you can’t f**k with the rules of the universe and get away with it.
JJ Abrams didn’t fix Admiral Toxic McYumminess’ universe breaking light speed kamikaze, but nothing can, so he just ignored it. Which is what I’m doing with the whole light speed skip chase, because it breaks the universe too. I guess the Force just changed the universe’s light speed rules and we are just going to have to accept it for the sake of the franchise. I guess that’s Abrams way of limiting the damage Johnson did to the franchise’s universal logic, like isolating a cancer so it doesn’t spread. I originally thought that JJ Abrams was setting up The Rise of Skywalker to completely retcon the Last Jedi so that you could watch The Force Awakens and skip directly to The Rise of Skywalker, but that is not the case. Unlike what Rian Johnson did to the Force Awakens, JJ Abrams built on the best parts of his predecessor’s script. He didn’t burn it all down in a petulant and condescending attempt to jab the eye of Star War’s fans like Johnson did with the revelations about Snoke and Rey’s parents. Abrams’ obviously more of an adult than Johnson, and built upon his predecessor’s successes, as feeble a foundation as that was. Did it deny us the ending and trilogy we’ve been hoping for since 1983? Yes. But did it give a satisfying and relatively coherent ending that won’t end the franchise in ignoble shame? Also yes.
(Franchises die after two consecutive stinkers no matter how much money they make, see Terminator, Ghostbusters, the Force Awakens, Die Hard, Transformers, Alien etc. The studio will always play it safe after a failed franchise movie. Disagree? Then please explain why haven’t we seen a new Star Trek movie despite the best cast since TNG?)
Anyway, Abrams fixed The Last Jedi. Like I said before, he couldn’t fix everything, but he made it so Johnson’s issues could be ignored enough to deliver a satisfying ending to the Skywalker Saga. He walked back Luke’s completely out of character behavior in The Last Jedi, which it turned out was a prerequisite by Mark Hamill to even appear in The Rise of Skywalker. One of my big issues with the Last Jedi was the new found Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Information, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, Logistics, and Force (“C4I2RLF” you heard it here first) architecture that made Jedi omnipotent and able to pass information and objects to each other through the Force. It’s a deus ex machina that Johnson relied on because he couldn’t figure out how to connect his characters in a logical way. Abrams limited Johnson’s world breaking laziness to a bond between Ren and Mary Sue, and turned that hitherto cringe-worthy farce into the driver of the whole third act of the Rise of Skywalker. Rey, for two movies the quintessential example of a Mary Sue trope, finally got some training from Leia and it was retconned into the lore, so her powers made sense in The Last Jedi. She also got a change of clothes, though not a change of style. I guess her Jaku outfit was Force Bleached. Let’s add another force power, what does it matter at this point.
Anyway, Rey’s bond with Ren was based on her being Emperor Palpatine’s granddaughter and Palpatine training Ren through Snoke who was just a clone used to control Ren by the Emperor. I’m sure the Emperor implied Rey was Sith and that was why she was a Mary Sue. Though convoluted and verging on a fan-fic conspiracy theory, it is probably the best way to explain away all of the plot holes left by The Last Jedi and still make a coherent end to the series. It’s not elegant but it works and sets up some of the best light saber scenes in the movie. Abrams could have just ignored the plot holes and explained them away with one liners. However, like a professional, he ran with what he had in the interest of continuity and consistency and elevated The Last Jedi in the process. The trilogy is better for it. I loved Kylo Ren’s redemption and transformation to Ben Solo/Skywalker.
I was on Team Poe in the “who’s going to end up with Rey” love quadrangle and I never thought Team Ren would win. Though I was on Team Poe, I really hoped Team Finn would win, because I thought it was the only way to redeem his character after the way Johnson treated him, one of the only main characters of color in the franchise, in The Last Jedi. Hate crime investigations have been launched for less. But Finn is back, baby, and force sensitive to boot. I loved the new characters, though I wish the film was longer so their screen time didn’t take away from the main characters. Zorii and Babu Frik stole every scene they were in and I love the seedy side of the Star Wars universe. The shady parts of Star Wars story always screamed, “It’s not who you are or were, but what you do that defines you.” It’s an amazing message that the Star Wars universe reinforces repeatedly. Also, it was nice seeing the band back together, Finn, Poe, Rey, Chewie and 3PO. I think they finally got the banter down, but not to Fast and Furious levels though. I’d love to see Solo/Fast and Furious-like heist movie with Poe, Zorri, Babu Frik, Lando, DJ, and BB-8.
One of the themes that emerged in the franchise, at least to me, was one of family, more specifically that blood doesn’t define family, and when it does, bad things happen. I’m glad the franchise finally got away from the Jedi eugenics epitomized by the “midichlorians” idiocy in the prequels. The Rise of Skywalker was at the end a repudiation of blood determination. One of the best moments of the franchise is at the very end of the Rise of Skywalker when the random old lady asked Rey what her family name was and she replied “Skywalker” and legacy of her friends, instead of the technically correct Palpatine. That Abrams planned it to be one of the best moments of the franchise I have no doubt, because the whole movie set it up. I even mouthed Skywalker just before she said it. I damn near cheered. Some of my fellow theater-goers actually did.
Ok, to wrap this up, I also appreciated a couple of world building moments. At the end when they showed the star destroyers falling out the sky from the various planets, I’m glad they implied the people rising up against the First Order without the help of the Jedi. In the same vein, I’m glad the thousands of Sith loyalists in the chamber went out the way they did. Though centralization has its merits, it also has its vulnerabilities. I’m glad Abrams retconned Hux’s death if only to show that First Order’s factionalism was instrumental in its downfall. I like how they explained the First Order had to capture and brainwash young people from a young age to fill its ranks. And that there’s hope they’ll eventually figure out the tyranny of the system they support, as exemplified by Finn and the new character Janna. I was going to write that I thought it was a bit creepy that Lando picked up Janna at the end of the movie, but I guess she’s supposed to be his daughter. I’m not sure where we find that out in the movie, so I guess it ended up on the cutting room floor.
I can go on, and I’m sure I’ll add to this before I put it on the blog for posterity, but this is obviously long enough. I want to keep this shorter than my history posts.
In the end, I really enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker, and I clapped along with everyone in the theater. But I’m really hoping for an extended version to fix the problems I had with it. All of the issues I had with this film involved its rapid pace and the lack of footage that I am positive ended up on the editing room floor. I wanted more – more space battle, more Knights of Ren, more Lando, Luke, Finn, Poe, Merry, BB-8, Zorii, Babu Frik, the A-Wing pilot… more, more, more. It wasn’t as good as it could have been, but there was nothing that broke franchise. After The Last Jedi, that’s what I was hoping for. JJ Abrams did the impossible, he took a turd and polished it. In the process he elevated the trilogy and provided a satisfying ending, if not what we were expecting.
On 3 November 1954, the first and greatest of all Godzilla movies, “Gojira!”, was released in Japan and launched the “Kaiju” or great monster genre in movies. (Stop! I know! But that’s a good enough translation for a silly FB post.) “Gojira” is the combination of two Japanese words: “gorira”, which means gorilla and “kujira”, whale.
Unlike its 29 sequels, Gojira! didn’t focus on the monster fighting another monster, or Gojira stomping on Tokyo. Gojira! was a much darker and more serious movie than its successors. It is actually one of the few Kaiju movies where Gojira was the bad guy, and for good reason.
In the movie, Gojira was released from the depths of the ocean due to American atomic weapons testing and the monster is an obvious metaphor for atomic weapons. In 1954, the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the non-atomic destruction of nearly every other Japanese city during World War Two, were fresh in Japanese minds. Also, in early 1954, the Japanese fishing trawler “Lucky Dragon #5” had then recently strayed too close to an American atomic test in the Pacific and most of the crew died horribly from radiation poisoning. This event is a direct parallel to Gojira destroying the fishing trawler in the opening minutes of the movie. So unlike most of its sequels, the film had a story that took precedence over the monster stomping on the city, and it is much better for it. The Japanese flocked to see Gojira!, and it was an instant critical and financial success.
Two years later, Gojira! was released in the United States as “Godzilla, King of the Monsters”, but it was heavily edited. It starred Raymond Burr as a reporter in Tokyo and his bits were spliced into Gojira!. This forced some of the Japanese story to be edited out in favor of the monster stomping on Tokyo. Finally, because Gojira! was such a success in Japan, every effort was made to get it right in America. For example, the English voice overs in GKoM were done with care, something that wasn’t carried forward in the next decades.
If you can find a copy of the Criterion Collection Gojira! with English subtitles (far superior than any other version, and there are many) it’s worth a bowl of popcorn and a bottle of sake.
When America is serious, she sends tanks.
So let’s talk about tanks, on this most auspicious of weeks. Unlike our little brother the infantry, who usually gets into trouble and has to be rescued; or our big brother the artillery, who is overly dramatic and throws tantrums; armor is the middle brother, you know the competent one who actually gets things done. And armor does it the way it is supposed to be done: with fire, maneuver, and shock effect.
“Wonk, wonk, wonk”, like Charlie Brown’s frickin teacher, but history backs me up:
Whose advances were measured in kilometers in a war where for years the advances were measured in meters? Tanks.
What so terrified Wehrmacht soldiers that they called upon their Luftwaffe brothers to make horizontal their feared 88mm anti-aircraft guns? Tanks.
What broke the Marines off of the beach at Tarawa? Tanks.
What were both the measures of performance and measures of effectiveness for the Germans and Soviets as they tore across Eastern Europe for three years? Tanks.
What did US Army infantry divisions routinely have more of than German panzer divisions in 1944 and 1945? Tanks.
What nearly drove the US out of Korea? Tanks.
What did the most effective units in Vietnam use? Tanks.
What held the line outnumbered in the Golan and Sinai in 67 and 73? Tanks.
What did the North Vietnamese conquer South Vietnam with? Tanks
Why did the Soviets not invade West Germany in 1983? Tanks.
What led the charge across Kuwait in Desert Storm? Tanks.
What did the Rangers wish they had in Mogadishu? Tanks.
What crossed the Sava into Bosnia in 1996? Tanks.
What took Baghdad in 2003? Tanks.
Falluja in 2004? Tanks.
The Surge? Tanks.
What is heard out of every infantry leader’s mouth immediately after he says, “Follow Me!”?
That’s right, it’s “We need tanks.”
Armor is the Combat Arm of Decision.
“So why all the tank stuff, Ski”?
Because I like the smell of diesel exhaust, and I’m routinely late to work on Mondays because I take the long way to my cubicle just to get a whiff. Because I genuinely enjoy building an engagement area, and nothing warms the very deepest cockles of my little bitty black heart than the sight of a bulldozer to go along with it. Because nothing brings a group of individuals closer than living together in a steel box or aluminum beer can for weeks on end, and knowing that you are all going to die together from cancer caused by FRH or GMD. Because after that when I go to heaven, St. Peter’s going to tell me, “Come on in Ski, you actually shot all of your long range movers without cheating”. Because I once deceived my wing man’s driver into chalking white X’s all over his Bradley after his BC f#@ked with the wrong new platoon leader. Because I got to tear ass around the German countryside Reforger-style in the four greatest days of my life. Because the most beautiful moment in history is always stand-to. Because “Above The Law”, “Ghostrider” “Can Can”, and “Conan” are names near and dear to my heart, and I’ve been to the desert on a “Horse with No Name”. Because there is nothing more intimidating on the planet than the front slopes of four fire belching Iron Behemoths in a wedge rolling like the Juggernaut taking on all comers.
And however beautiful the above might be, they’re not the only reasons why I’ve been posting like I have been. It’s really because we armoured vehicle crewmembers might actually get our own movie this week.
Fury is coming out tonight and I’m damn excited.
Every other branch and service has their signature movies: The Infantry has The Big Red One, Platoon, and The Dirty Dozen. Rangers have Darby, Blackhawk Down and Saving Private Ryan. The Air Assault guys have We Were Soldiers and Apocalypse Now. Marines have Full Metal Jacket and Sands of Iwo Jima. The Airborne have Band of Brothers. EOD has The Hurt Locker. JAGs have A Few Good Men. Acquisition has The Pentagon Wars. Navy pilots have Top Gun. The Medics have MASH. The Special Forces have The Green Berets. Snipers have too many to mention. The Seals have Act of War, Lone Survivor, OOoo! Navy Seals! and a few others I’m forgetting. Intelligence has Battle of Algiers…
Hell even the Civil Affairs have The Monuments Men and AFN has Good Morning Vietnam.
What do we armoured vehicle crewmen have? Nothin, that’s what. Tank? Not a war movie. Battle of the Bulge, Patton? I can’t get past the tanks, and besides they were about campaigns and leaders, not the men. 1941? Hilarious, but it doesn’t focus very long on that most unique of on screen tank sightings, the M3 Grant. The Beast? Burn in Hell, commies. Kelly’s Heroes? Only a keen ear for the subtleties of dialogue would allow you to glean that Big Joe was the platoon sergeant of a mounted reconnaissance platoon. And Oddball was comic relief. Though great, Kelly’s Heroes is not a tanker’s movie. A tanker’s wet dream maybe, but not a tanker’s movie.
That just might change tonight when Fury is released. It’s a Brad Pitt vehicle about the crew of an Easy 8 Sherman named “Fury” in the final days of World War Two. Will it suck? Will it be cheesy? Probably, but I don’t care. I just want to see someone break track on the big screen. If I’m honest, I’m really only going to see it because of the comm’s check in the trailer. It gave me the goose pimples. I might stand behind a tank today and then not shower so everyone around me can get some Smell o’ Vision tonight.
Support your local tanker. Go see Fury. Maybe if it makes enough money we’ll get John Milius to do Team Yankee.
Fire, Fire HEAT.
On the Way.
EDIT: We got our movie.”
In early 1964, the British Invasion of the American music scene was still strictly a Beatles affair. The amazing British soul singer Dusty Springfield broke into the Billboard Top 40 in July, but didn’t reach the Top Ten. That changed in the summer of 1964, when Newcastle garage rock band The Animals, fresh off of a tour of the United Kingdom with Chuck Berry, came to America to capitalize on Beatle Mania.
The Animals, particularly lead singer Eric Burdon, played a decidedly different version of Rock and Roll than the Beatles. Their gritty take on rhythm and blues started the “Anti Beatles” movement within the British Invasion. Their first No1 hit in the UK, “Baby Let Me Take You Home” takes a very different path than the similar Beatles song “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. The Rolling Stones popularized and built a 50 year career on what The Animals started.
The Animals’ distinct take on Rock and Roll is nowhere more evident than in their signature song “The House of the Rising Sun”. It’s a bluesy soulful song about a man who lost himself in the whorehouses and dive bars of New Orleans. Eric Burdon’s deep howling voice, Alan Price’s haunting organ riffs, and Hilton Valentine’s indomitably classic and instantly recognizable Les Paul guitar riff swept America and sunk everything on the Beatles “Hard Day’s Night” album, then ruling the charts. On 6 September 1964, it hit No 1 on the US charts, the first non-Beatles British song to do so.
The Rental is an older tale from the life of Ski. It is a tale of woe and deprivation, courage and cowardice, glorious ups and crushing downs, life’s bitter lessons learned, thoughtless preparation and ingenious improvisation, but ultimately, it is a tale of hijinks and tomfoolery.
The tale of The Rental was a series of events culminating on one weekend in the summer in the mid nineties. That year, I was a 19 year old soldier stationed in Germany, full of piss and vinegar and I was determined to make my presence felt in Europe. I was assigned to A Troop, 1st Squadron, 1st Regiment of Dragoons, otherwise known as the Alphaholics of 1-1 CAV. Only the leadership referred to us as Apache Troop, to the soldiers we were the Alphaholics and we were always “On the Warpath.”
You must understand that this was the early nineties and the days of the New Hollow Army of the early Clinton Years. Training, due to lack of funds, was an ad hoc affair of bullet counting, (we were only issued 87 5.56 rounds that year to qualify on our M16s) fuel limits (just enough to get to gunnery and back, so we could say we were “qualified”) and lots of studying (I can still recite the tasks, conditions and standards of every soldier skill level one task….backwards). The only issues we had to worry about army-wise were sexual harassment witch hunts (both kinds, remember these were the days of Tailhook and Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell), whether the section sergeant was going to give you some “wall to wall counseling”, (no such thing as “physically abusing” a private in those days) and making sure someone in your group brought some ketchup to the chow hall (They always ran out two days into the month. To this day, I occasionally enjoy a hot dog with Thousand Island dressing on it).
Our post back then, Armstrong Kaserne, consisted of just our unit and a chemical company and could easily fit inside the parking lot of a high school football stadium. But that just meant that the big brass was 50 kms away and they were generally too lazy to make the trip to bother us. I can only remember the general visiting twice in in three years. Armstrong Kaserne was located next to the sleepy little town of Buedingen Germany. “Swingen Boo-dingen” was a one horse burg with a neat castle, a couple of bars, and unfortunately, a train station where the trains didn’t stop on the weekend. If you wanted to go somewhere on a train you had to catch the last train out of town on Friday at 1700 (5 p.m.) and the first train back on Monday morning at 0500 (5 a.m.) It wasn’t very conducive to the wanderlust of a 19 year old.
Now I wasn’t much of a looker back then, but I was in shape and what I lacked in comeliness I more than made for with perseverance and determination, combined with the courage that can only be brought on by copious amounts of hefeweissen. Every blue moon I’d pull off what amounted to coup d’etat on some unsuspecting European girl. One such coup occurred during the Nimegan Marches.
The Nimegan Marches is a yearly event in which militaries all over the world send any soldiers stupid enough to want to participate in the pain. It was a race that consisted of four days of ruck marching 25 miles a day through the Dutch countryside. For the mathematically challenged, that’s 100 miles. And at the end of those four days you got a medal, bragging rights, and all the beer you could drink at a party that lasted a whole weekend. It takes place in Nimegan, Netherlands (hence the name) of A Bridge Too Far fame. (Sorry, I am a history major)
Anyway, at the Marches, I managed to connive my way into the good graces of Dutch girl named Wilhelmina, while dancing my booty off at a random techno club downtown. It was fun while it lasted but definitely more than I bargained for. Back then, THE DUTCH LOVED AMERICANS. Willy, as she was fondly known, and her hot friend Uterus, would have bore our children had we so wished. By the end of the weekend, I had met Willy’s entire extended family, her whole street, had the keys to her parent’s house and could use them anytime I or any of my friends wanted. We ate the fridge clean and drank her dad’s bar dry and he thanked us for it. Then he restocked them for when we returned.
Now I don’t want anyone to think I was taking advantage of young Willy or her countrymen’s generosity. The feeling was mutual: I LOVED THE DUTCH. And I knew I was going to come back and the next weekend I did. (The weekend of my 19th birthday, coincidentally) Now you must be asking, “How did you get there? You bored us before with train schedules…..Ah, the title, you rented a car…” Wrong! I say!
Making just $600 dollars a month, there was no way any of us could afford a rental on a regular basis, so we did what soldiers in Germany have been doing for forty years: we bought a beater. It wasn’t just any ordinary beater, it was our beater. I still to this day consider it my first car just because I pitched in 50 bucks with 4 other guys to help pay for it. It was a beaut too, a master work of German engineering. It was a 1981 smurf blue Opel Astra, with 150,000 miles, 40 previous owners and didn’t have a muffler or a starter. What we lacked in essential parts we made up for with manpower. Ergo, we had to push start the “Smurfmobile” everywhere we went. This pretty much mandated that at least three people were in the car when it went anywhere. One to steer, one to push, and one to make sure the beer bottles didn’t spill. And as everyone knows, three constitutes a party. The Smurfmobile was four wheels of traveling fun. (For the record we were crazy careful about drinking and driving, we just never did it, it was the quickest way of getting kicked out of the army next to offending someone and for all the training we didn’t do, the army was still the best deal most of us had.) In Germany back then, drinking and driving wasn’t illegal, drinking and steering was illegal – the passengers could do shooters in the back seat just the driver had to be sober.
So after the second weekend of Willy, her family and all of her friends’ generosity, the word began to get around the barracks that Ski had a pretty good racket going on in the Land of Tulips and Windmills. It also got out that Willy was planning a party for us this coming weekend. It was going to be a super special weekend in the ways only the Dutch could think up. So like the good soldiers we were, we spent the week planning our next excursion.
We quickly deduced we had a problem: there’s no way we were going to get ten of us in the Smurfmobile, 7 max. It was a long three hours to Tulipland and we needed room in the trunk for ‘provisions’, specifically beer and bologna sandwiches. In one of his rare moments of intelligence, Mad Dog Mike D, a fellow Pittsburgher by the way, originally came up with the idea of renting a car. Under normal circumstances this would be dismissed handily, it was too expensive. But we figured the money we were going to save by ravaging the Willy family household for foodstuffs and nourishment would easily outweigh the expense of the car. So we fired up the Smurfmobile and trekked to Hanau to reserve a car at the Budget joint next to the big PX. Most summer weekends they quickly ran out of cars but our decisiveness and forethought paid off. We managed to secure a burgundy Ford Escort. We were in business.
All week, you could feel the excitement. Ricky Bell, our perceptive and mildly sadistic section sergeant, knew we were planning something big because we were extra good all week so we wouldn’t pull IC detail that weekend. (“IC Detail” was punishment for minor stuff that required more than push-ups or an ass beating but less than an Article 15. IC Detail involved showing up on Saturday morning with the First Sergeant so he can walk around going “I see cigarette butts, pick them up.” “I see that the wall needs painted.” “I see the grass needs cut”….you get the point.) We were so good that week that he couldn’t find anything wrong or if he did, it was so minor he knew we’d call bullshit and mutiny. The best he could do was threatening us with piss tests when we got back. Which didn’t bother us, we had piss tests all the time and we weren’t stupid enough to do drugs anyway.
The final Friday formation came and it seemed as if The Space Cowboy’s (Our troop commander) safety brief lasted forever. Don’t do drugs, wrap that rascal, don’t beat your wife blah blah blah, we heard it a thousand times before. He must have known we’ve been spending a lot of time in the Netherlands lately (he did) because he said wrap it and don’t do drugs at least four times. By the time the 1SG finished saying ‘fall out’ we were halfway up to our rooms to grab our stuff.
Five in the Smurfmobile and five in the Escort, (We picked it up during lunch) we divided up and we rolled dice for the unenviable position of driver. “One Slice” Soma from Oklahoma, was the driver of the Escort and I was the navigator. (Not that we needed one, we made this drive three times already and we were cavalry scouts for Christ’s sake) The other Escort passengers were my roommate Kingsley (a cow farming, basketball playing, Golden Gophers fanatic), Maddog Mike D, (Fellow Steelers fan) and Nascar Owen (Red Man, Budweiser, Nascar and big frickin hats was a pretty good description of Owen.) I was the proverbial Ski, if you haven’t figured it out yet. Stertz, Rathbun aka “The Axe”, Pope, Madcap Johnny F and Sal Sally would follow in the Smurfmobile.
We took account of our supply situation: Toothbrush, towel (very useful), 20 pack, and extra t-shirt per man, a full five gallon water can, two loaves of bread, 2 packs of bologna and 3 cases of Bud Dry. (Remember that experiment? It was $3 a case at the PX, we had truckloads of it stacked in our rooms that year) Deeming ourselves sufficiently prepared we took off, burnin’ up Autobahn 3 toward Tulipland and what we were sure was an orgy involving Willy and the Nimegan women’s soccer team. (We could dream couldn’t we?) There would be no stopping for the obligatory beer and photos at the border. We were on a mission. We lost the Smurfmobile relatively quickly in our accelerator induced frenzy to the Netherlands. It didn’t matter though, we would meet them there.
Now we might have been a hollow army, but we were still damn proud to be soldiers and even more proud of being AMERICAN soldiers. We just won the Cold War, kicked the livin’ shit out of Iraq, Somalia hadn’t happened yet, and the liberal guilt complex of the nineties was still in the future. Combine this with being young and indestructible and that made us just a wee bit obnoxious. Obnoxious enough that flying a full sized American Flag on a broomstick out the back window of the car was standard practice on road trips. So as we were toolin’ down the road in the left lane at 100mph, a big ass American flag hanging out the side, Mike D, Kingsley and Owen (riding bitch) enjoying a warm one, listening to Metallica’s Black Album on our sexy car stereo cassette player, we knew this was going to be one for the books. (The Necronomicron perhaps)
About halfway there, a car load of Gunters pulled up to the right of us. They were flying a German Flag! How dare they infer Germany was greater than America!?!?!? We beat the piss outta them in, not one, but two wars! We wouldn’t stand for it. The speed duel began. It was Ford vs. BMW. The New World vs. The Old. Then the insults began, quickly followed by beer spray on each other’s car, which in turn lead to throwing garbage at each other, and eventually empty beer cans. All at 100mph, it was a great time.
Now there was no way we were going to let them beat us but we were coaxing about as much out of the Escort as that Detroit Piece of Shit could muster. Nascar Owen, being the consummate back seat driver, and since he was stuck in the bitch position couldn’t do anything anyway, kept telling Soma how to drive. “Drop it into 4th, get the rpm’s up, then jam it into 5th and we’ll smoke them bastards!” he cried. We knew the Germans were screwing with us; the Beamer could leave us in the dust anytime they wanted. But it was a matter of pride and we were out of empty beer cans and trash so we got desperate. Soma, to his everlasting shame, implemented Owen’s plan.
Whether or not it would have worked was a topic of great debate, because unfortunately we will never know. Soma, in the excitement of the moment didn’t drop it into 4th gear, he dropped it into 2nd. A hideous and horrible sound emanated from under the hood, a mechanical sound so revolting that all future hideous and horrible mechanical sounds would be judged by it. (Two years later it was still, “That sounded bad, very Escort-esque.”) Soma immediately announced that he could not accelerate anymore and eventually we coasted to the side of the autobahn choking on the dust and laughter generated from the Beamer.
We got out, opened the hood and stared at the engine. And that’s about the limit of what we could do. I could take a Bradley apart with a Leatherman, but I didn’t know dick about cars. Eventually even Owen had accepted that we needed professional assistance. Remember this was ’93, there were no cell phones for the common man. Before we could do anything though, we spied the distinctive coloration of the Smurfmobile chugging up the autobahn at 65mph. We welcomed the big mufflerless lawnmower sound of our beloved Opel and heartily believed that they would tow us the rest of the way. (Yea, right) Once they stopped laughing, the Smurfmobileers said they would call ADAC (German AAA) for us. (Yea right) Just before they rolled off, Pope stuck his head out the window and said “We’ll take care of Willy for ya and tell her you said Hi.”
The idea of trusting our fellow adventurers to actually call ADAC proved to be very naïve. After an hour we went looking for one of those orange roadside assistance phones you see on the autobahn. We found one, yelled “kaput!” into it and waited for the cavalry to arrive. Another hour later a yellow ADAC station wagon pulled up and an old Gunter mechanic got out who smelled like he used schnapps for deodorant. You gotta love that sickly sweet old world smell. He spent all of 30 seconds looking at the car, pointed at it, and said “Kaput!” He then made the motions that he was going to tow us somewhere.
We all piled back in the car, assuming that he was going to tow us to the ADAC car hospital and in twenty minutes we would be back on the road. Unfortunately this turned out not to be the case, maybe they don’t work on Fords? Anyway, he dragged us to the next ausfahrt (exit) and stopped in a castle parking lot on the outskirts of the town of Kervenheim. Everyone got out, assuming he needed to piss or something but all he did was stow his tow cable, point at the Escort and say, ”Kaputt!” then he waved and left.
Then, as if God was mocking us, it began to rain.
But we were used to adversity, we were Americans dogonit. We were gonna figure a way out of this and make our rendezvous with the women’s soccer team. So we put our brains together to come up with a plan: Unfortunately all we came up with was we’d call someone for help. But on the positive side if it worked we would be on our way and there by midnight, besides the real partying didn’t start until then anyway. There was still time. It wasn’t a great plan, but it was the best we had. But this plan had several prerequisites:
- We needed a phone. 2. We needed someone to call. 3. We needed change for the call. 4. We needed Soma to not start drinking.
We had none of these.
Once it started raining Soma started a Bud Dry I.V. He, being the Okkie that he was, already felt bad enough about messing up the trip but now he thought he was going to have to buy a new car for Budget. It was a situation that wasn’t conducive to sobriety. On top of that we only had guilders (Dutch money before the euro) and no marks (German money before the euro) for the phone. Speaking of phones, we couldn’t see any, anywhere near at least, especially through the rain and now fogged up windows. And finally, we had no one to call: ADAC already made their position very clear; Pope was probably shoulder deep in Willy by this time, and we damn sure weren’t going to call back to Buedingen for help. It’s bad enough the Smurfmobileers saw us. So we did what anyone would do in our situation:
We got drunk.
Once we had finished a few, the cramped conditions in the car became worse than the thunderstorm so we got out and had a regular par-te complete with wet T-shirt contest right there in the parking lot. The rain didn’t bother us much and eventually someone said lets go look for a bar. Hopefully, hope being a method in this case, the Burghermeister Meisterburgher bartender could tell us where an ATM was. Being optimists, we believed the good people of Kervenheim would take us in or at least their daughters would. But first we had to find a bar and it was getting dark fast.
It was immediately apparent that this wasn’t your Bavarian dorf which reeked of Teutonic beer laden merriment. Kervenheim was a dark and dismal place where the thunder felt at home and the lightning gave brief glimpses of the horrors not seen in the daylight. As we walked down the streets we could see and hear the Kervenheimers closing their shutters and locking their doors. “You can smell the fear, they must have werewolves here, or worse,” someone muttered. The aimless and ultimately fruitless wandering eventually brought us back to the castle:
Like it was calling to us.
The “Palace” at Kervenheim was a large late baroque mansion, but in the darkness, silhouetted by the lightning it could easily pass off in our blurred vision as Dracula’s Castle. Boredom, liquid courage, the natural aggressiveness of the U.S. Cavalryman, and not too mention a possible dry sleeping area, overcame any fears we had so we set off to explore the grounds of The Haunted Mansion of Kervenheim.
Dun Dun Daaaa!
Our exploration had an ominous beginning, almost immediately we met our first denizen of the mansion. A “man” walked down the steps towards us and as he passed, Mike D stopped dead in his tracks and whispered, “He had no face” then louder, “Holy Shit, he had no face!” I thought it was just a bald guy who was looking down at his keys on his way to his car, but the more I thought about it, Mike was right: He had no face. If he was messing with his keys, where was his car? There was nothing but emptiness between us and the houses beyond. We were the only car in the parking lot! The next strike of lightning sealed it. But we weren’t too freaked out yet, besides fear is natural and even welcome. If we saw another faceless demonic mansion dweller, we would confront it and send it back to Hell.
Our travels took us to a fork in the path; actually it was more like a chicken foot. Straight ahead went to the mansion grounds where we sure there were more faceless demonic mansion dwellers; left and right were winding forested paths that took us parallel to the moat-like stream that surrounded the mansion. We dared not go straight, hey diddle diddle right up the middle was for tankers and grunts, we were scouts. We needed to circuit our way around the evil place in order to get a good read on our opposition. Stealthy and Ninja like.
So we went left, (Cold War logic: right=east, the bad guys are always to the east and we were trying to avoid the bad guys, for now.) but now we were in the menacing shadow of The Haunted Mansion of Kervenheim: the source of the evilness. In addition, we were all soaked, it was pitch black, and we were sure we were being stalked by more faceless demonic mansion dwellers when alas, we came upon a small shrine. God had not forsaken us; it was like something out of Diablo. It was one of the small places of worship so common in the German countryside, just a statue or a cross with a trash can and bench. It was a place for lovers to snuggle, away from the crowds of the European streets. Except in the rain and shadow of the malevolent castle, this one didn’t look well kept. Was the cross upside down? It was tough to tell but evil reeked of the place, it was best to move on.
At this point Owen pulled out his buck knife, I grabbed a big stick and a couple small ones in case I needed to put it thru some hearts, Mike pulled out his Gerber, Soma his Leatherman, and Kingsley would only move forward in some weird Karate fighting stance.
That’s when we came to The Bridge. It wasn’t large, but it was wooden, it creaked, and crossed to the other side of the moat. The Other Side of the Moat was cloaked in darkness and it looked like it lead away from the castle. But it was either that way or back toward the evil place where they were sure to be cooking babies and sacrificing virgins. So we crossed.
Training took over, this was a danger area. In order to diversify our weaponry, Owen and I took far side security; the others took near side security and overwatch. A few tense moments later Owen and I were across. Under ideal conditions we would have been a bit more cautious but They were behind us, so speed, but not haste, was essential.
The others followed with Mike coming up last. Then it happened – The Splash Underneath the Bridge. Under normal circumstances, I would have dismissed it as a water rat (very common in Germany) diving into the stream to do whatever water rats do. But Mike, in a moment of terrifying clarity, yelled at the top of his lungs, “IT’S A FUCKING TROLL! A REAL UNDERNEATH THE FUCKING BRIDGE MOTHERFUCKING TROLL!” And we took off.
I’m not sure to this day how far we ran, but our “tactical displacement” took us to that most unfortunate of places for a scout to find himself: in the middle of a field. There was nowhere to hide, neither cover nor concealment. We were dead smack in the middle of The Fiery Plains of Gehenna. We heard something barking to our back left and surely it was pack of Hellhounds hot on our trail. As we moved through the blackness in what was hopefully the direction of the parking lot, we heard a mighty “Neeeeyyyy,” from what could only be Death’s Pale Steed.
Once back at the parking lot and the busted Escort, we prepared to defend ourselves….but ended up passing out.
The next morning, the sun peaked out over the horizon in one of the most beautiful sunrises we’d ever seen. We were happy to be alive and no one talked about the hellish events of the past evening….ever. However we had to keep our strength up for when the wolves came, so that we might die, not of hunger, but in combat. Bologna sandwiches all around. Soma, being a bit older and a bit more frugal, knew we had no clue how long we would be here. He knew we had to husband our resources. “Damn you all, just one slice. I don’t care what you assholes want, in Okmogee, you only get one slice of bologna per sandwich. One slice!” he said with a trembling index finger in the air. Soma was known as “One Slice” from then on.
Rested, pickled, and fed we set off to find money and a phone. Kervenheim was much easier to navigate in the daylight and we found a nice little guesthouse where we had a beer and relaxed a bit. Then in what drunks call “a moment of clarity”, we phoned Budget Rent a Car from the bar.
That afternoon they sent someone to look at the car. I’d come to the conclusion all German mechanics are old, stink, and don’t speak any English. When he finally asked through sign language and broken English “Why the auto was kaput?”, we did what any good private would do when in a situation where telling the truth could get you more work, more explaining, or more trouble.
We shrugged our shoulders.
Well, after his autopsy, he hauled the Escort away and left us standing there on the curb, like Alice with all our worldly possessions at our feet. We felt abandoned and even contemplated calling Buedingen. So we did what anyone would do in our situation: We got drunk.
Except One Slice, formerly known as Soma, he was so relieved he didn’t have to buy a new car, that his simplistic Midwest optimism took over and he and Kingsley went back to the guesthouse to get a good meal and call Budget to see what was up. We’d make the date with our soccer team yet. In the interim, we pondered our future over a nice warm Bud Dry.
About an hour later, One Slice and Kingsley came running back yelling, “They’re bringing a car! They’re bringing a car!” And not ten seconds later the most beautiful black BMW I’ve ever laid eyes on pulled into the parking lot. That car was gorgeous, a brand new black BMW 318i with all leather interior. It had to be the rental guy’s car. A green Opel pulled in with it and we assumed that was our new rental. But alas we were mistaken: The BMW was our new car and we could return it in Hanau. The Budget guy apologized for our inconvenience, that we were valued customers and “please accept this alternative in compensation for your trying ordeal”. Thirty seconds later we were on the autobahn doing 270 kms per hour. I never had gone that fast on a highway before or since.
We finally made it to Nimegan but the racket ended the night before when one of those jokers pulled an Ugly American and ruined it for everyone. The details aren’t important but needless to say we weren’t welcome in the Willy household anymore. Oh, they didn’t blame the Kirvenheimers, but something was just….different. It was all for the best though, we had a brand new Beamer and two days to show it off. (Three day weekend) And parking lot parties became our thing for a while.
Life went on.
Eventually Willy got married to some English guy and the entire group never got together again unless it was a special occasion. But we were much the wiser, and a bond was formed in a way only shared horrors can create. The lessons learned were enlightening, the experience unduplicated, the bond was for a lifetime, but it was the unspoken rule between those of us who survived Kervenheim that truly became the guiding light that represented everything that was good in our lives. It……………………well, it’s unspoken.
On 7 May, 1824 Ludvig Van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Opus 125 was performed for the first time in Vienna, Austria. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was his last full symphony and is the first example of a symphony that uses a chorus and vocalists. The Symphony used Frederich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy” as the basis for the vocal and choral presentations in the final movement. Beethoven’s Ninth was popularized for modern audiences as a Christmas song in America (by its inclusion as the basis of the score for the Greatest Christmas Movie of All Time, Die Hard?) and was coopted by the European Union for its anthem.
In the spring of 1999, NATO began the first combat operations since its formation in 1949 by conducting an air campaign against Serbian militias and Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) troops in Kosovo in order to try and stop the ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Albanians there. After weeks of fruitless bombing in uncontested air space, the Milosevic regime refused to come to the negotiating table, and even accelerated their program of ethnic cleansing.
Despite being another historical example of air power failing to win a war by itself, NATO doubled down on failure and expanded their air campaign to include targets inside Serbia and Montenegro. On 7 May 1999, while attacking infrastructure targets in Belgrade, NATO accidently bombed the Chinese Embassy, killing three Chinese diplomatic workers, wounding 30 more, and created a massive international incident. In June, only the threat of NATO land power brought the Slobodan Milosevic and the FRY govt to the negotiating table after his Russian backers offered no counter. In June, the UN authorized peacekeepers to the region, to include Russian and NATO troops, to stop the ethnic cleansing and allow the return of refugees.
Since 1988, two former Soviet Republics, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought over the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the Lesser Caucuses Mountains after the Armenian population voted to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia. The Nagorno-Karabakh War was fought through the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. On 5 May 1994, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a cease fire agreement in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, temporarily halting their destructive war. The agreement left the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh as the defacto ruling government of the area as neither Armenia could annex the region nor Azerbaijan control it.
In the 2 May 1944 morning edition of London’s Daily Telegraph, the British Secret Service, MI5, saw “Utah” in the answers for the daily crossword puzzle. This was only days after the disaster at Slapton Sands, and troops killed there were slated for “Utah”, the secret code name for their landing zone on the Cotentin Peninsula in Normandy. In April, other secret landing zone code names, “sword”, “gold”, and “juno” (the British and Canadian beaches), had also appeared in Daily Telegraph crossword puzzles, but they were common puzzle words and deemed coincidences. But the word “utah”, coming so close after the Slapton Sands incident, surely could not be a coincidence. MI5 immediately placed Leonard Dawe, the paper’s crossword puzzle creator under surveillance. Dawe was headmaster at a prestigious English public (read: private) school. He did the puzzles for the paper on the side as an intellectual exercise for himself and his students, and then gave the puzzles to the Telegraph. MI5 considered bringing him in but decided to wait.
During the war, MI5 had an extraordinary amount of success in finding, capturing, and turning German agents in Great Britain. Virtually all the information the Abwehr, the German intelligence agency, was receiving from the British Isles was planted by MI5. They planned to continue this with Dawe.
But for the next month, they could find nothing sinister about Dawe. This was despite more secret code words appearing in the puzzles: On 22 May, “omaha” appeared, the beach on which the US 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions were supposed to land. On 27 May, “overlord” appeared, the code name for the invasion of France. On 30 May, it was “mulberry “, the code name for the artificial harbors that were developed in great secrecy to supply the Allied armies over the beaches. And on 1 June, 15 down “god of the sea (7)” was “neptune”, the naval operations in support of Overlord. In spite of constant surveillance, MI5 had no idea how Dawe was receiving his information. With the invasion scheduled for 5 June, a mere four days away, they decided to dispense with the subtleties.
MI5 arrested Dawe, and ransacked his home and office. They found nothing incriminating. Needing evidence, they then forcefully interrogated him, and still the headmaster kept professing his innocence. MI5 still didn’t believe him but he refused to change his story. As a precaution, MI5 kept him in isolation until well after the invasion began even with the school wondering where he went.
Eventually Dawe was deemed innocent and released, and only years later, were the reasons discovered for the coincidences. In creating the crossword puzzles, Dawe only came up with half of each puzzle. He asked his students to come up with words to fit the rest. Once he had the words complete, he would then write the clues and submit it to the paper. The code words were appearing because the children frequently interacted with the soldiers and listened in on their conversations while they were on leave in London. Although the specific location and timings of the landings were not common knowledge among the soldiers and sailors, the code names themselves were. The students heard the soldiers talk about “Sword”, “Gold”, or “Omaha”, and if they fit, incorporated those fascinating words into Dawe’s puzzles.
On 25 April 1916, the first anniversary of the Battle of Gallipoli, the British Commonwealth commemorated the Australian and New Zealand troops that fought and died on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey during the First World War. The original commemoration set the format that we still follow today: the day’s activities started off with a dawn parade (to signify the traditional time of the landing) and sunrise mass, followed by a boozie coffee breakfast, a mid morning non-denominational service with a two minute moment of silence, with sports, a bit of gambling, and a march in the afternoon.