Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Edge

Hunter S. Thompson. I don’t recall exactly when I read Hunter’s Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, but it was probably in the early seventies. I know I was very interested in motorcycle tales around the time I first read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which was published in 1974. Maybe I read Hells Angels … before that. Anyway, I found Hunter’s book on his experience with the Hells Angels quite enlightening in many ways.

I appreciated how he captured to a great extent the actual motivations and attitudes of outlaw bikers, as well as debunking some of the silly stories that drew from the old Wild One movie. For one example, Hunter accurately describes the small size and influence of the outlaw bikers in the mid-sixties and the apparent view of law enforcement of these bikers, at least in California. The cops were concerned about a bunch of bikers coming into town to rape and pillage. Mostly they just came into town to get high.

Never mind the public conclusions about bikers from Easy Rider. At least that movie didn’t involve motorcycle gangs.

I was also aware of the AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) negative opinions of “outlaw bikers” in general. They called them the “one percenters” to emphasize that most bikers were “the nicest people” to quote a famous advertising slogan. On the other hand, it was a label the Angels wore with pride, often sporting a patch on their trademark, sleeveless denim jackets.

As Thompson states in that book, he was offered several bikes by the Angels. He was worried that the free bike would have stolen parts. Besides that, he was more a Harley Sportster type of guy, and that wouldn’t work with that bike gang that rode exclusively big Harleys. Thompson said he had owned a few scooters prior to his experiences with the Hells Angels, and he ended up purchasing a 1967 BSA Lightning. He also commented on the Japanese bikes of that time and on the Honda Superhawk.

Anyway, he ended up with a BSA, although his adventures with the Angels was usually with him in a car. The book describes one three-day weekend run he participated in. He ended up on the beer runs because he had a car.

After reading and enjoying his book on the Hells Angels I was drawn to his best selling Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. I had heard a lot about it, and I wanted to read more of his work. Although it was Hunter’s best selling book, I found it very disappointing. To begin with, part of the book was supposedly about the “Mint 400.“

In some circles, the "Mint 400" is a far, far better thing than the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby and the Lower Oakland Roller Derby Finals all rolled into one. This race attracts a very special breed …”

— Hunter S. Thompson

The Mint 400 was a dessert race during the 60’s and 70’s sponsored by the Las Vegas casino, “The Mint.” It was founded as a PR stunt in 1961 — a two-car death race through 600 miles of Nevada hell-fury to promote, of all dissipative American traditions, a deer hunting contest. The brainchild of the owner of the now-crumbled Mint Hotel by the name of Del Webb, the event was inspired by the famed Baja 1000, and its inaugural running’s success led to dozens of racers attending the second running: a 400-mile loop through the Las Vegas desert open to all sorts of vehicles including bikes.

Desert racing attracts a special breed, indeed. The glitz and glamour that surrounds motorsports like Formula 1 is a long way from the crippling heat and desolate conditions of races like the Mint 400. It takes a unique variety of maniac to welcome a venue that so actively discourages the vital necessities of life, but in the heyday of the Mint 400, it was one of the largest motorsports events in the US, boasting a staggering $100,000 purse by 1975. Competitors came from far and wide, with racers like Steve McQueen lining up alongside Joe Average all vying for the win. The race was pandemonium, bikes and dune buggies flying in reckless disregard to the rules of racing, and nature.

So I was very disappointed when I read the book since about all Hunter described was his frequent comment to bystanders that he was part of the Vincent Black Shadow racing team. Rather than sit outside in the dusty old dust of the race, he spent all the time inside at the bar consuming various strong liquors until he couldn’t stand up. Zero about the race. Didn’t even mention the winners.

Without spoiling the book for those who haven’t read it, part of Thompson’s story is about him abusing all sorts of drugs in expensive hotels rather than really attending the race. The second half of the book is about him abusing all sorts of drugs in expensive hotels while attending a D.A. conference on drugs. The story is sort of a distorted autobiography of his time in Vegas, and it was not appealing to me at all. The truth is it was a combined tale of two visits to L.V. sponsored by various publications to write stories about the events. Somehow this turned into this drug addled exposition on his life style. That’s what “gonzo” journalist means. The writer becomes part — if not the central character — in the tale.

I’m no “drug prude,” and you know I've smoked a lot of grass, O' Lord, I've popped a lot of pills, but I’ve never touched nothin’ that my spirit could kill. Yet I never thought about snorting ether (the gas that puts you to sleep)! I suppose Hunter was making some point, but he failed in my case to make it.

Hunter, meanwhile, seemed to have smoked, ate, dropped, snorted, and otherwise consumed about every drug then extant. It really came across as boring and juvenile. I realize he won critical acclaim for this book, and sort of based his career on its success for the rest of his life, but I didn’t think much of it. (I never saw any of the movies either, but don’t feel that is a great loss.)

His Hells Angels book, however, did leave me with a strong impression of his literary skills. It also convinced me he was a bit of an impossible drunk, and I think history pretty much shows that opinion to be valid.

I have not read any of his other books. After being turned off by F&L NV, I didn’t pick up another of his books, although the ones on politics might be useful in today’s environment. He was no lover of Nixon (to understate the facts), but had little regard for LBJ either.

As a journalist, it does seem he was everywhere there was to be during the revolutionary sixties. He was in Haight Ashbury during the summer of love. He was in South America and the Caribbean. He was in Vietnam at the end. (Not sure what ‘copter ferried him out as Saigon fell.) He worked for dozens of different publications from Rolling Stone to the local shopping market weekly news and jokes. His biggest successes were as a sports reporter. Not really gonzo at all.

As I said, I did enjoy greatly his Hells Angels book. He literally lived with the Angels for over a year and reported pretty clearly and accurately their lifestyle and motivations. Best of all, IMHO, was his descriptions of the Angel’s bikes. Their skill both in maintenance and in riding. Although they seemed perpetually drunk, most of the time they rode in tight precision with expert skills splitting lanes and dodging death, although they didn’t always avoid the grim reaper. One chapter of his book describes a Hells Angels funeral.

Of course there were other times when, drunk as skunks and high as mountains, they couldn’t even bring the V-twin beasts to life or, if they could get them to start, rode off in a roar and into a tree … or each other. Yet Hunter exhaustingly describes their personal love affairs and ability with the freedom of two wheels. That’s really the plot of his HA book, the love of freedom.

At one point the Angels meet Ken Kesey (Electric Kool Aid Acid Test and many more … also consumed by this avid reader … your truly) and Allen Ginsberg (I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked). Drug use on a higher plane and anti-war tactics were discussed, but the Angels were much more interested in getting high than exploring the philosophy of conscious expansion. If only the middle class bikers could have connected with the elite class intellectuals of Berkley. Where did H.S.Thompson put his personal view? He didn't say much about that either. Just a journalist telling other's stories.

That part of the tale adds interest to his stories for me. The summer of love (and L.S.D. meets the bar fighting Angels). But then the Angels would have beat the shit out of the intellectuals if nature had taken its normal course. It’s probably best that the Berkley elite and the Bay bad boys ended up going their own separate ways.

But the bottom line … the subtle subplot … the glaring truth of Hunter’s whole book on the outlaw motorcycle gang was about the freedom of their lifestyle and how motorcycles represented, augmented, presented, and made obvious their goal, their desire, their life. It was about freedom.

I was saddened when I learned Hunter had ended his own life, but then, based on what I’d read about him and his personal lifestyle and his books, I’m not surprised he didn’t grow old gracefully.

But I’m not here to bury Hunter, I’m here to praise him. Never visited his “Owl Farm” property during my frequent Aspen sojourns, but I was always aware he had left the California lifestyle described in his earlier works for the Colorado high. Another John Denver crying out from the wilderness on the misdirections of mankind and American life. All we need is love … and drugs … and guns?

Oh, I was impressed with some of his writing, and especially his reporting on motorcycles. He got it. When I first read the following excerpt from near the end of his book, his coda, his summation, his connection. He got it. The reason many (most) ride. Here’s his answer. From the ending of his Hells Angels story is this description of him out for a jaunt on his red BSA.

Months later, when I rarely saw the Angels, I still had the legacy of the big machine — four hundred pounds of chrome and deep red noise to take out on the Coast Highway and cut loose at three in the morning, when all the cops were lurking over on 101. My first crash had wrecked the bike completely and it took several months to have it rebuilt. After that I decided to ride it differently: I would stop pushing my luck on curves, always wear a helmet and try to keep within range of the nearest speed limit … my insurance had already been canceled and my driver’s license was hanging by a thread.

So it was always at night, like a werewolf, that I would take the thing out for an honest run down the coast. I would start in Golden Gate Park, thinking only to run a few long curves to clear my head … but in a matter of minutes I’d be out at the beach with the sound of the engine in my ears, the surf booming up on the sea wall and a fine empty road stretching all the way down to Santa Cruz … not even a gas station in the whole seventy miles; the only public light along the way is an all-night diner down around Rockaway Beach.

There was no helmet on those nights, no speed limit, and no cooling it down on the curves. The momentary freedom of the park was like the one unlucky drink that shoves a wavering alcoholic off the wagon. I would come out of the park near the soccer field and pause for a moment at the stop sign, wondering if I knew anyone parked out there on the midnight humping strip.

Then into first gear, forgetting the cars and letting the beast wind out … thirty-five, forty-five … then into second and wailing through the light at Lincoln Way, not worried about green or red signals, but only some other werewolf loony who might be pulling out, too slowly, to start his own run. Not many of these … and with three lanes on a wide curve, a bike coming hard has plenty of room to get around almost anything … then into third, the boomer gear, pushing seventy-five and the beginning of a wind scream in the ears, a pressure on the eyeballs like diving into water off a high board.

Bent forward, far back on the seat, and a rigid grip on the handlebars as the bike starts jumping and wavering in the wind. Taillights far up ahead coming closer, faster, and suddenly — zaaapppp — going past and leaning down for a curve near the zoo, where the road swings out to sea.

The dunes are flatter here, and on windy days sand blows across the highway, piling up in thick drifts as deadly as any oil-slick … instant loss of control, a crashing, cartwheeling slide and maybe one of those two-inch notices in the paper the next day: “An unidentified motorcyclist was killed last night when he failed to negotiate a turn on Highway 1.”

Indeed … but no sand this time, so the lever goes up into fourth, and now there’s no sound except wind. Screw it all the way over, reach through the handlebars to raise the headlight beam, the needle leans down on a hundred, and wind-burned eyeballs strain to see down the centerline, trying to provide a margin for the reflexes.

But with the throttle screwed on there is only the barest margin, and no room at all for mistakes. It has to be done right … and that’s when the strange music starts, when you stretch your luck so far that fear becomes exhilaration and vibrates along your arms. You can barely see at a hundred; the tears blow back so fast that they vaporize before they get to your ears. The only sounds are wind and a dull roar floating back from the mufflers. You watch the white line and try to lean with it … howling through a turn to the right, then to the left and down the long hill to Pacifica … letting off now, watching for cops, but only until the next dark stretch and another few seconds on the edge … The Edge … There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others — the living — are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between now and Later.

But the edge is still Out there. Or maybe it’s In. The association of motorcycles with LSD is no accident of publicity. They are both a means to an end, to the place of definitions.

— Thompson, Hunter S. Hell's Angels: A Strange and and Terrible Saga. Random House Publishing Group.

Was Hunter S. Thompson a good writer? Well, you can now decide for yourself. My mind is made up.

P.S. Of course, what’s not to love in a writer who mixes "ellipses"(…) and "dashes" (—) in the same paragraph. (Who else does that? Hadn’t you noticed?)

P.P.S. Did I tell you I also have a red BSA Lightning. I don’t ride by the beach. My destinations are mountains and river canyons. And I don’t ride at night. (Old eyes don’t do as well at night.) But I’ve “Bent forward, far back on the seat, and a rigid grip on the handlebars as the bike starts jumping and wavering in the wind.” Oh yes, Hunter got it. Do you?

Tuesday, September 5, 2017



That was the year that was! For me, it was my first year!! But a lot of history had already happened. There had been two world wars, a canal dug in Panama, the airplane was invented, rockets and missiles weren’t far behind, and India won its independence. The propellor would soon be replaced by jet engines and radio was giving way to television. Oh, there was a lot more to happen. Since the turn of the century transportation had gone from the earlier horse to the steam engine to the gasoline engine and transportation, both two-wheel and four-wheel, had evolved and improved. And that’s where we will start the story of this important (at least to me) story.

The fall of 1947 brought the end of the Kuucklehead, Harely-Davidson’s first Overhead Valve (OHV) production engine. Harley’s magazine teased that the new news would be the “biggest motorcycle story of the year” and that the new OHV model would carry The Motor Company into a bright new future.

Yet the change, like much of Harley-Davidson history, was more evolutionary than revolutionary. An updated top end for the popular OHV engine consisting of aluminum cylinder heads, hydraulic valve lifters, redesigned cylinders with internal oil feed and return lines replacing the often leaky external lines, and a chrome plated, stamped steel “pan” cover that completely enclosed the rocker arms and valves of each head. This new “top hat” quickly became the common moniker for what we now affectionately refer to as “Panhead Harleys.”

These updates produced a motor that was smoother, quieter, more oil tight, cooler running, and more maintenance free, yet no lighter or more powerful than its predecessor. (History will repeat with the introduction of another new engine design, now called the Shoveled, some eighteen years later. Again, better and requiring less maintenance than the Panhead, but still heavier and even slower.)

Other than the top end, little else was changed for 1948. Even the styling was almost exactly the same as on the 1947 Knucklehead. Regardless, the new model was an instant success and even more popular than the previous model.

The gradual changes continued in the years that followed with hydraulic forks replacing the old springer front ends in 1949. This new bike, for the first time, was given a name by H-D, rather than just a set of initials; branded as the “Hydro-Glide.” During the next decade things were slowly modernized. The hand shifter was replaced with a foot shift and hand clutch, and, by 1958, the hard tail suspension was replaced with a hydraulic swing-arm yielding another new moniker from Harley, “Duo-Glide.” Ultimately the kick starter would be replaced by the “Electro-Glide” electric starter. The modern era had arrived.

The legacy and designs that these new models were built upon were based on the old Knucklehead design slowly improved since its release in 1936. (Really more like 1937, as it was a slow start for Harley at first). Their major rival, Indian, never did go OHV and slowly disappeared, partly due to the competition of this new technology from Harley.

In 1947 the war was over and the soldiers, sailors, and airmen were returning home. Over one million former servicemen entered college on the G.I. Bill and prepared for a more prosperous future. Business was booming, but prices were going up too. The new Harleys that began rolling off previously part shortage limited production lines jumped over $150 in price from around $450 to $600. It was during this jubilant time that the Motor Company began the design and preparation for the next generation of OHV machines. Although Indian wasn’t much competition for Harley’s more state-of-the-art machines, overseas manufacturers were.

When the Knucklehead was first sold, biplanes were still the main stay of the U.S. Army Air Corps. Now the sleek P-51 Mustang was becoming obsolete through the introduction of jet airplanes. How long could Harley’s rapidly aging design of push rods and air-cooled twins survive. That’s the odd part of the story. They did survive and thrived right up to today’s computerized world. Part of that story is due to nostalgia and the undeniable “style” that Harley continues to exhibit. But it was also the result of continual, albeit rather slow improvement.

Although Harley-Davidson sales were booming, our allies from England and Europe were having even a better time. A flood of sophisticated and lightweight bikes from England, Italy, and even war torn Germany were hitting our post-war shores. The young and reckless who had been the primary marketplace for motorcycles — which in that era included thousands of discharged fliers, sailors, or soldiers who were looking for a new high to replaced the terrifying thrills of combat — were not going to be satisfied with Harley’s old “biplane.”

In the next ten years, British bikes in particular were to completely dominate the American scene. At the same time, Harley was consciously shifting its target audience from thrill seeking, testosterone loaded young men to making motorcycles that would appeal to a broader segment of society. And H-D wanted to make them repeat customers for life.

This was a good long term strategy, but didn’t do well in the short term. While the British alone were selling tens of thousands of motorcycles, Harley hoped their long term plans would come to fruition.

As I said, prices were going up, there was a housing shortage for the millions of returning military who quickly started families, there were several labor strikes and the U.S. entered a cold war with Russia and the communists. Soon we were worried that the commies were in Hollywood and under every bed. In one of the saddest events, the father of the A-bomb which quickly ended the war with Japan was stripped of his security clearance primarily because he disagreed with the current Atomic Energy Commission’s strategy of development of a more powerful H-bomb.

Technology was just beginning its boom. Medial science found cures for diseases, Edwin Land invented the instant camera, and commercial air travel bloomed. Television took its place in the center of post-war homes and shows like Howdy Doody entertained we baby boomers. Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier and Jackie Robinson broke the race barrier. What would come next? Rock and roll and selfies. It would only take time.

This all started at some point in 1947. In March of that year, a first-born boy was delivered at St. Joseph’s hospital in Lewistown, Montana. That boy would grow up in this modern world and end up typing these words to you on a modern Mac.

But what of the Harley Panhead? It would spawn everything from baggers to choppers. From bikes fully equipped with windshields, saddle bags, and ultimately satellite radio and cruise control road bikes to fantastic works of art rendered in steel and chrome. Whether stripped down to duplicate the British style or dressed up for a 1500 mile journey, Harley fit the bill. Harley outlasted the British invasion and the later Japanese invasion. The latter required a little help from Uncle Sam in the form of tariffs on large displacement imported bikes, and ultimately the Japanese motorcycles started to copy the Harley big V-Twin.

The Panhead spawned the Shovelhead, each step an improvement. In 1984 it was the EVO for “Evolution” engine that fulfilled the promise of 1936. This new engine was lightweight and reliable and as maintenance-free as any of the completion. Yet it could be improved further. Largely under the pressure from Uncle’s EPA, major changes were made to improve the emissions and sound output of the venerable big Twin leading ultimately to the modern Twin-Cam Harly engine with electronic fuel injection and a master computer in charge of everything from fuel input to spark timing and exhaust output. There’s even a model that shuts down the back cylinder when idling to keep it from overheating. GPS navigation and anti-lock brakes round out the modern Harley. Yet the sound goes on and on.

Will environmental concerns finally force Harley-Davidson to become water cooled, jacketing the great cylinders and probably toning down the “rump, rump”? Only time will tell. For now I’m just celebrating that magic year of 1947 when the greatest became even greater.

Even though it has been many years of change, 70 of which I’ve born personal witness, and the world today has exceeded the imagination of that young boy growing up in a little town in central Montana, I am able to look back and see how the small changes were made toward perfection. Back then, it was “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” For example, Harley modified the clutch four times on the old Knuckle until reaching a design that was used unchanged until the ‘80s. That’s Harley for you. If it breaks, make it bigger. Pretty soon it quits breaking. Then you have that problem solved. The Knucklehead was version 1. And as all software consumers know, don’t buy version 1. The Panhead was version 2 of the overhead valve designs. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Some 70 years after the Panhead, we are on version 6 of the OHV and, in a sense, Hareley's version 8 of the V-Twin called, quite appropriately, the "Milwaukee Eight."

  1. 1909 First V-Twin
  2. 1929 Flathead
  3. 1936 Knucklehead
  4. 1947 Panhead
  5. 1966 Shovelhead
  6. 1984 Evolution
  7. 1999 Twin Cam
  8. 2016 Milwaukee Eight

Evolution, not revolution. (See where number 6 came from?) Meanwhile Mac is on version 10 and Windows plans to skip 9. So it seems OK for HD to claim “eight.” Maybe we should look for a computer operating system out of Milwaukee. Which would you prefer?

Thursday, February 2, 2017

DKW Motorcycles

It’s time to practice your German — auf Deutsch: Des Knaben Wunsch — "the boy's desire” — a two-stroke engine produced by the German manufacturer that became known as DKW. (You see where that name came from — right?)

The year was 1916 and Danish engineer Jørgen Skafte Rasmussen founded a factory in Zschopau, Saxony, Germany, to produce steam fittings. That year he attempted to produce a steam-driven car he called the DKW. That was followed in 1919 by his first two-stroke gas engine.

He put a slightly modified version of this engine into a motorcycle and called it Das Kleine Wunder — "the little marvel.” This was the beginning of the DKW brand: by the 1930s, DKW was the world's largest motorcycle manufacturer.

They made cars and motorcycles, and in 1932, DKW merged with the brands Audi, Horch, and Wanderer to form Auto Union. The four interlocking rings are not representative of the Olympics, but rather of the four manufacturers that merged. After World War II, Auto Union moved to West Germany. Auto Union came under Daimler-Benz ownership in 1957 and was purchased by the Volkswagen Group in 1964.

The Audi company name is based on the Latin translation of the surname of one founder, August Horch. "Horch," meaning "listen" in German, becomes "audi" in Latin. (That’s also where the english term “audio” comes from.)

Before all this happened, during the late 1920s and early 1930s, DKW was the world's largest motorcycle manufacturer. In 1931, Ing Zoller started building split-singles and this concept made DKW the dominant racing motorcycle in the Lightweight and Junior classes between the wars. This included off road events like the International Six Days Trial (ISDT) where the marque scored some considerable inter-war year successes alongside the Bavarian Motor Works (BMW). At the same time, the company also had some success with super-charged racing motorcycles which because of their light weight were particularly successful in the ISDT.

The split-single ("Doppelkolbenmotor" to its German and Austrian manufacturers), is a variant on the two-stroke engine with two cylinders sharing a single combustion chamber. The split-single system sends the intake fuel-air mixture up one bore to the combustion chamber, sweeping the exhaust gases down the other bore and out of the exposed exhaust port.

The rationale of the split-single two-stroke is that, compared to a standard two-stroke single, it can give better exhaust scavenging while minimizing the loss of unburnt fresh fuel/air charge through the exhaust port. As a consequence, a split-single engine can deliver better economy, and may run better at small throttle openings.

A disadvantage of the split-single or “Twingle” as it was called is that, for only a marginal improvement over a standard two-stroke single, the Twingle has a heavier and costlier engine. Since a manufacturer could produce a standard twin-cylinder two-stroke at an equivalent cost to a Twingle, it was perhaps inevitable that the latter should become extinct.

However, from the 20’s to the 70’s, DKW and the Austrian manufacturer, Puch, had many successes with Twingle engines. Sears marketed considerable numbers of the Puch SGS split-single fitted with both these innovations as the "Allstate 250" or "Twingle" in the US.

Meanwhile, The motorcycle branch of DKW produced famous models such as the RT 125 pre- and post-World War II, and after the war with production at the original factory in GDR becoming MZ it made 175, 250 and 350 models.

As war reparations, the design drawings of the RT125 were given to Harley-Davidson in the US and BSA in the UK. The Harley-Davidson version was known as the “Hummer,” while BSA used them for the “Bantam.” IFA and later MZ models continued in production by DKW until the 1990s, when economics and environmental regulations brought production of the two-stroke to an end.

Other manufacturers copied the DKW design, officially or otherwise. This can be seen in the similarity of many small two-stroke motorcycles from the 1950s, including from Yamaha, Voskhod, Maserati, and Polish WSK.

DKW was once the world’s largest motorcycle company, and a major building block of some of today’s most successful companies. The car branch, Audi, is one of the largest luxury companies in the world. August Horch and Jørgen Skafte Rasmussen and these other early pioneers may not be as famous as Henry Ford or the Dodge brothers, but they are integral to the origin of motor vehicles too. And now you know the rest of the story.

Another storied European Motorcycle brand is NSU. Once called "Neckarsulm Strickmaschinen Union," (Neckarsulm knitting machines … remember Suzuki started as a knitting machine company too!) the company eventually shortened its mouthful of a name to NSU and became one of Germany’s most famous marques along with BMW and DKW. Annual production grew to more than 350,000 units in 1955, making NSU one of the world’s largest manufacturers of two-wheeled vehicles at the time.

But by then, the company was already on its way to losing the distinction. Through the 1950s, NSU became increasingly preoccupied with developing the Wankel rotary engine as well as a line of automobiles. Motorcycle production ceased in 1963, and Volkswagen/Audi swallowed the company by the end of the decade. In 1969 Auto Union GmbH amalgamated with NSU Motorenwerke AG.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Read the Book

Read the book. Always good advice. Books are warm and involving and work in the theater of the mind. However, especially in the case of Science Fiction, I enjoy watching the movie too to find out what was in the mind of the creative folks in Hollywood.

This time of year I get several peeks at one of my favorite movies. That’s A Christmas Story. Ted Turner owns the rights to the film and so it is usually played back-to-back for 24 hours around Christmas on one of his networks. That’s OK. I like the story. I’m crazy about nostalgia, and it does bring back some memories of a time long ago and how magic Christmas can be for a young boy.

As most know, the movie is based on a book, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, written by Jean Shepherd. It isn’t the normal adaptation. Rather it takes parts from the book and even a little from Shepherd’s second book, Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories (and Other Disasters, The Ferrari in the Bedroom, and A Fistful of Fig Newtons), the source of the "hillbilly" neighbor Bumpus and his hounds. Both of his books are made up of independent chapters or short stories, sometimes with an introduction involving some conversation in New York City or the imaginary town of Hohman.

Jean Shepherd was a disc jockey and humorist who performed on radio in the decades after World War II. Beginning in June 1964, he began adapting many of his radio stories for publication in Playboy magazine. He focused primarily on those stories which depicted his childhood in the fictional town of Hohman, Indiana (a stand-in for Shepherd's real home town of Hammond, Indiana).

Playboy regular, author Shel Silverstein, had long encouraged his friend Shepherd to write down his radio stories, but Shepherd was reluctant to do so because he was not a writer. Eventually, Silverstein recorded Shepherd's stories on tape, transcribed them, and then, together with Shepherd, edited and developed them. Fellow WOR AM radio personality Barry Farber said Shepherd came to enjoy writing, as it allowed him to develop themes, and Shepherd began to work on written stories by himself.

In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash was the first book Shepherd wrote, and contained his most popular radio stories taken from early segments that appeared in Playboy. Although they are often described as nostalgic or memoirs, Shepherd rejected these descriptions. He argued instead that they were fictional stories about childhood.

Whether the stories are truth or fiction is not entirely clear. Shepherd denied that he was merely remembering his childhood, and repeatedly asserted in interviews that his stories were entirely fictional. However, at least some elements of the stories draw on the real world. For example, the names of many of the characters in Shepherd's book can be found in his high school yearbook, "Hohman" is the name of a major street in Hammond, Shepherd's younger brother was named Randy, and Hammond has a Cleveland Street and a Warren G. Harding elementary school. Certainly much of the tale is drawn from his boyhood experiences.

Books made into movies often contain much more detail than what can be portrayed on the screen. In this case, I’ve found the answers to several questions, some of which I didn’t even realize needed asking, by comparing the book to the movie. Plus, I find the movie much better than the book and I’ll explain why.

Have you ever wondered why the “leg lamp” was the prize his “Old Man” won? There is an explanation in the book. Ralphie explains that his dad was a big contest player. That made it into the movie in the kitchen scene where he asks the name of the Lone Ranger's nephew's horse. In the book Ralph describes a certain contest sponsored by the Nehi company, purveyor of a particular orange soda drink. (In some of their advertisements they would show a pair of sexy legs. Not sure why. Maybe a play on the name, “knee-high.”)

Ralphie’s dad had entered the Nehi contest that had a sports theme. His dad was not only an expert on all kinds of sports, but he also had an extensive collection of sports books and almanacs. His dad did very well in the early stages of the contest and moved on to higher rounds. As the contest continued, the questions got tougher and tougher. As mentioned in the kitchen, the prize was $50,000, so the Old Man kept on. The final round was very tough with questions about esoteric sports such as water polo. So Ralph's dad finished the contest and sent in the final questions. It is assumed his dad didn’t win first prize, but got a consolation prize.

Most of that detail was skipped in the movie, but there are some clues. Remember when Ralph’s mom asked what it was when his dad read the telegram? He said maybe it’s a bowling alley. But they don’t deliver bowling alleys. It seems that the Old Man was a very good bowler. Recall that he got a bowling ball present for Christmas. If he’d won the $50,000, he would have bought a bowling alley. Instead he got the lamp.

But that didn’t matter to him. It was the greatest present ever: “A Major Award.” You all know the rest. And now you know the rest of the story.

And speaking of presents, in the book you learn that Ralph gave his dad the can of Simonize car polish. Seems his dad was an avid car polisher. The dirigible that his kid brother loved was also a present from Ralphie that he complained about wrapping. He bought his mom a fancy bottle of perfume for Christmas, but that present doesn’t appear in the movie.

In the book, Shepherd is very negative about his home in Northern Indiana. He talks about the steel mills and refineries and how the snow was always covered in dust and dirt from the Bessemer ovens. He goes on and on about how cold it was in the winter with the arctic wind blowing over Lake Michigan at gale force and you see some of that in the movie with the dressing for school. He describes the scarf wrapped around your head until only your eyes show.

In the book he also describes the Indiana summers as hot and humid in his chapters about the stinking mud lake where the old men fished and the bugs and beer. Of course, none of the summer parts are in the winter story. The main premise in the book is he has returned to Home (Hohman / Hammond) from his job in New York, and is at the bar owned by his childhood buddy, Flick. He doesn’t have much good to say about his old home town. But, then again, he doesn’t have much good to say about New York either in his introductions at the automat and coffee shops. In his discussions with Flick he would get into the details that make up the Christmas Story.

You do recognize some of his excellent lines in the movie, although there are subtle changes. For example, in the scene where his mom “accidentally” breaks the lamp while dusting, the dad comes storming out of the bathroom. In the movie he’s in the basement struggling with the furnace. The book does describe the dad as a “fearless furnace fighter” going after clinkers. I suspect the movie deemphasized the bathroom for the sake of the children. (And talk about special effects: check out that black smoke rolling out of the basement when the Old Man opens the door!)

One line I like describes “a blue cloud of obscenities still existing somewhere over Lake Michigan.” In the movie that’s how Ralphie characterizes his dad’s cussing, but in the book that line is from when Ralph fought the bully and swore a blue streak. In both cases, his mom doesn’t tell his dad, much to the relief of both siblings worried that "dad will kill Ralph." Besides, we know his dad "worked in obscenities like other artists worked in paint or clay."

All in all, the movie had a softer tone and represented a more pleasing view of childhood, while the book was very negative on the town and its meteorological and economic conditions. I think that’s why the movie is better. It has a caring, nostalgic tone that resonates better with viewers than the tough — “happy I’m outta there” vibe of the book. Still the book allows the author to more clearly present his views. But I’m glad the movie came out the way it did. Most our childhood memories have softened and even the tough times with your tongue stuck to the flagpole are now fond memories.

Two of my favorite scenes are at the very beginning where the narrator (grown up Ralph) first sees his old home on Cleveland Street. I know that feeling. Your boyhood home is a place of many fond memories. The second is the very ending where the boys are in bed with their favorite presents and mom and dad are together on the couch, arms around each other, watching the snow outside with only the lights of the Christmas tree to illuminate the scene. Now that I'm "mom and dad" I get that too.

Plus I like all the fuse blowing and crazy electrical wiring scenes. That’s just fun. “My Old Man could replace fuses quicker than a jackrabbit on a date.” Think about that line for a moment, and then realize that director Bob Clark’s filmography includes “Porky’s,” well known for sexual innuendo. The movie may have downplayed the adult content and bathroom scenes, but it is fun reading through the book and spotting famous lines from the movie; at least famous now that Christmas Story had entered the nation’s psyche through simple repetition.

Still, after all my study and reading, there are several points of confusion between the two. The book states numerous times that it is in the “middle of the depression,” which would have dated it in the mid 1930s. But the look of the movie is definitely 40s, based at least on the automobiles. Little Orphan Annie is no help since that radio show ran from 1931 to 1941, although that would preclude mid forties for the time frame.

Neither the book nor the movie make it clear what Ralph’s Old Man did for a living, although it did appear he had a job, which was fortunate during the depression. His care with money is demonstrated in the scene with the flat tire where a quick observer will note the spare is bald. Or, as Ralph said, "These were only tires in the academic sense. They were round and made of rubber." But then again he did get the big Christmas tree, although we never heard what it cost, and he got the rope thrown in free.

In any case, it has been useful for me to read the book. I did that after I first saw the movie on TV, and that’s still OK. There are many other movies that I’ve also read the book. 2001, a Space Odyssey is a favorite of mine. It was based on a short story by Arthur C. Clarke written in 1948 called The Sentinel, yet that was only about the monolith, not the voyage or HAL.

There is a book of the movie 2001. It was developed concurrently with Stanley Kubrick's film version and published after the release of the film. Clarke and Kubrick worked on the book together, but eventually only Clarke ended up as the official author. Of course, I’ve read that book too. Since it is based on the movie, there are few differences, but it does explain the final scene where the fetus is seen floating in space above the earth.

The book has an explanation for that final scene, but I’m not going to tell you. You’ll have to “Read the Book.”