Pre-Thai Journal

Heading Back to Bangkok

Late February 2000, after Taipei

Oh Really? Is it That Time Again?

Well, I guess it is. But, anytime is the perfect time for a Bangkok getaway. Right? Of course all the major holidays that justify this pounce are in the past ... at least until the next cycle brings them all back again. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, Lunar This-'n-That, Valentine's Day, President's Day ... yes, all of them have disappeared into the flipped-over months of the calendar.

So, is the month of March going to bring us anything for which we can light sparklers, receive presents or offer up prayers ... and otherwise defend putting the car up on blocks? Unfortunately, a quick flip through NEWNES reveals a tidy but mostly weak list of reasons to get away:

Of course, these are just the obligatory events that calendar printers must build onto their otherwise bland and boring sheets of numbers. Oriental HotelThanks be to God that our own Mr. NEWNES has trolled longer and deeper than most in the bowels of history; otherwise we'd all be nodding off right after the moon rose on Mallard Day (an All Souls thing at Oxford ... on Jan. 14th).

So, fear not, dear reader, a day will not pass without you being reminded of the patent date of some obscure invention, the death of a strange artist, the horrors of a remote battle, or the tarnish on an unworthy halo. With NEWNES and Wescott by my side, each day that you spend with me in Bangkok will be illuminated with a miniscule slice of irrelevant history.

Let me now ratchet back the calendar.

We are still in February. Sometime on the 28th or the 29th I am going to leave for Bangkok. Though I won't be "home" at The Oriental until the 1st, this journal will start now.

Friday, February 25, 2000


This Alpine hermit absent-mindedly hung up his coat on a sunbeam, supposing it to be another sort of beam. The sunbeam stayed there all day, and when he dressed to go out again, he hurried after the setting sun.

NEWNES notices that this day in February carried a black number for the royal Elizabeth:

Saturday, February 26, 2000

DIED 420

The virtues for which this man was admired now fail to arouse admiration: he destroyed seven Greek temples, and inflicted such punishments upon himself that his body got into a state of absolute insensibility.

NEWNES waxes literary:

Sunday, February 27, 2000

DIED 596

This great Archbishop of Seville, the son of a Spanish Duke, the King of the Visigoths' brother-in-law, and St. Gregory the Great's friend, was a tireless worker against heretics. The Visigoth rulers were Arians; Leander converted his nephew, who in consequence had his throat cut by his heretic father. The latter, however, repented before he died; and he appointed the archbishop to be the guardian and tutor of his second son, who came to the throne after him.

NEWNES, on a lighter note:

Say, Kids, What Time Is It? Howdy Doody Custody Time!
[from The New York Times, February 27, 2000]

In a splashy ceremony at Rockefeller Center earlier this month, cameras rolled and an adoring throng applauded as a redheaded, freckle-faced puppet was elevated into the television pantheon.

Surviving cast members, writers and producers of "The Howdy Doody Show" -- most in their 80's -- gathered once more to see a bronze star uncovered for the beloved cowboy marionette on NBC-TV's "Walk of Fame," beside those of two flesh-and-blood giants of TV's golden age, Sid Caesar and Milton Berle.

But Howdy wasn't there. He was locked in a trunk in a bank vault in New London, Conn., where he has been for the last year, and it may take a judge's order to get him out.

Yes, boys and girls, it's a lawsuit and custody battle over a puppet. But not just any puppet: the actual Howdy Doody marionette used on the show, which ran for 2,543 episodes from 1947 to 1960. In short, the eBay artifact of all time.

The lawsuit has summoned the cast and characters of "The Howdy Doody Show," people and puppets alike, from the pastures of television nostalgia and into the land of legalese.

The combatants are the family of Rufus Rose, Howdy's puppeteer for most of the show's run, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. The museum, which has one of the country's largest puppet collections, maintains that NBC gave Mr. Rose custody of the puppet with the understanding that he would eventually donate it to the museum. The family of Mr. Rose, who died in 1975, insists that there was no such deal, and they have a contract with Leland's, the Manhattan auction house, to sell the puppet and others from the show.

Last year, in federal court in Hartford, the museum sued the Rose estate for possession of the marionette, identified in legal papers as "Original Howdy," to distinguish it from several copies made as stand-ins but rarely used on the show. (Actually, there was an earlier Howdy, but more about that later.) Tomorrow, both sides are to submit written cases. The judge could rule in weeks, or call a trial.

Episodes of this off-screen drama have been decidedly strange. Lawyers have taken testimony from the show's elderly graduates, even deposing the last Clarabell the Clown -- Lew Anderson, 77, now a band leader who lives in Westchester.

Court records include desperate letters from Buffalo Bob Smith, the host of the show, pleading with the Rose family to let him have Howdy, for financial reasons.

At a reunion of the 53-year-old Howdy with his "Mom," an 86-year-old puppet maker named Velma Dawson, she immediately identified him as her creation, though she had not held him in half a century. There have even been dark hints, disputed by most of those involved in the current court case, that the Howdy in the vault is not the original Howdy.

Since collectors are predicting auction prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the dispute is unlikely to be resolved by Clarabell's squirting Buffalo Bob with seltzer.

For those whose knowledge of cowboy dolls begins and ends with "Toy Story 2," a primer may be needed.

From December 1947 to September 1960, in Studio 3-K in the NBC studio at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, Buffalo Bob would open the show by asking the Peanut Gallery of 40 children, "Say, kids, what time is it?"

"It's Howdy Doody time," they would scream, and then launch into the show's theme song, set to the "Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay" melody. The hourlong afternoon program was first televised at a time when only 20,000 homes in the country had television sets. It was the first network weekday children's show, the first to broadcast more than 1,000 continuous episodes, and, when color came to television, it was NBC's first show in color.

After the show ended, all the puppets, including Original Howdy, stayed with Mr. Rose. While the 1950's was a whirlwind of shows and public appearances for Howdy, in the 1960's he went from Doodyville to Dullsville, tucked away in obscurity along with some of his marionette colleagues -- Phineas T. Bluster, Flub-a-Dub and Dilly Dally -- in the attic of Mr. Rose's home in Waterford, Conn.

Then in 1970, Original Howdy was lured out of retirement by Buffalo Bob Smith, who persuaded Mr. Rose to lend him the original puppet for public appearances at colleges and shopping centers across the country.

But Mr. Smith usually preferred to use a stringless replica he could easily rest on his lap -- often known as Photo Doody -- and Original Howdy has whiled away most of the last two decades in a glass case in Mr. Smith's home in Flat Rock, N.C.

Just before Mr. Smith died in 1998, Original Howdy was returned to the Rose family. When the Detroit Institute sued, the family put him into the bank vault, along with two replicas Mr. Rose had made for the show.

Legal ownership of the puppet, however, is not so straightforward. In 1970, Mr. Rose sent Mr. Smith a letter with the puppet confirming it as the "one and only original Howdy." Mr. Rose also pointed out that NBC had "conveyed ownership" of the show's puppets to him with the provisions "that I not use them in a commercial manner as the characters from 'The Howdy Doody Show' and that Howdy himself eventually be placed in the care of the Detroit Institute of Arts."

In the years after Mr. Rose died, Mr. Smith, claiming financial hardship, asked both the museum and the Rose family whether he could keep the puppet. Both refused.

When Mr. Smith returned the puppet to the family in 1998, he and Christopher Rose of Stonington, Conn., one of the puppeteer's sons and the trustee of his parents' estate, agreed in writing to sell the puppet and split the profits between them. Mr. Smith died a few months later, before Howdy was sold, and the puppet has remained in Connecticut.

Mr. Rose's three sons, James, Rufus and Christopher, insist that their father changed his mind about giving the puppet to the museum. The sons' lawyer, Mark E. Block, said their father "may have had the idea of donating the puppet at the time, but he never carried through on it, never contacted the museum and never put a provision for that in his will."

What could have led the father to change his mind? Perhaps the likelihood of making a fortune.

"The Rose collection is as good as it gets," said Joshua Leland Evans, chairman of Leland's auction house, which sold memorabilia belonging to several of the show's former members for about $350,000 in 1998. Photo Doody sold for $123,000. "It's a monster. It's in the pantheon with Dorothy's red shoes, the piano from 'Casablanca' and Vivien Leigh's Oscar from 'Gone With the Wind.'

"I've seen stuff like this go for $50,000, and others go for a million," Mr. Evans said.

Most of Howdy's adventures involved the innocent do-gooder's being rescued from minor scapes or mishaps in Doodyville. And to many of the show's participants, the legal battle is a discouraging blemish on Howdy Doody's legacy.

"It's sad to see a legal dispute over this kind, loving character," said Robert Rippin, the show's first director and later its producer. "Especially because Howdy was one of the original icons of television before it became the cut-throat, money-making industry it is today."

Already, the search for Howdy's legal guardian has corrected the widely held misconception that Mr. Rose created Original Howdy. He joined the show in 1954, six years after Original Howdy was made.

Actually, the very first Howdy Doody marionette was made by a puppeteer named Frank Paris. But after a contract dispute several months into the show, Mr. Paris left and took with him his cruder puppet, later called Ugly Howdy.

Frantic for a replacement, the show's producers asked Mrs. Dawson, a well-known puppet maker living in Hollywood, to reinvent Howdy. She modeled the puppet's head in Plasticine, made a mold, and then cast the head in Plastic Wood. Her finished puppet was a 27-inch-tall boy with prominent ears. He wore jeans, a bandanna and a checked shirt, and had 48 freckles, one for each state.

It took her two weeks to make, and she was paid $300. After sending the puppet to New York in 1948, she never it him again, until last December. That was when the museum's lawyers arranged for her to come from her home in Palm Desert, Calif., to verify Original Howdy. Three puppets were taken out of the vault and placed on a large boardroom table in an office building in Groton, Conn.

Mrs. Dawson, 86, instantly identified Original Howdy as her creation. For closer inspection, the head was pried off, and she said the base of the neck was exactly the way she had hand-shaped it.

"I'm the real mother of Howdy," Mrs. Dawson said. "I knew him when he was nobody."

But in October, lawyers invited Rhoda Mann Winkler, the show's head puppeteer for the first five years, to come from Key Biscayne, Fla. "It was not the original puppet," said Mrs. Winkler, 72. "Feeling him, touching him, playing with him -- I knew Howdy intimately for five years, every day on the air, and that was not him. I don't think there is an original Howdy anymore."

Most of the show's other participants, however, agreed that the puppet in the lawsuit was the one used for almost every episode.

"Once again Howdy's an innocent bystander," said Burt Dubrow, a television producer who was a longtime friend of Mr. Smith and his tour manager in the early 1970's. "It's keeping right in character: he had nothing to do with it, he did nothing wrong. It's almost as if he's saying, 'I'll stay in here until all this is over and everything works out, like it always does.' "

Monday, February 28, 2000

Villana Battia
Fourteenth Century

This wealthy Florentine merchant's daughter was a fortunate woman. She devoted her youth to fashionable society and the rest of her life to prayer, charity, and other pious exercises. Her attribute in art is a mirror, which must mean that she was handsome; and Desiderio made a tomb for her.

Today NEWNES closes his eyes to such people and their disgusting hair shirts:

Having completed his nod in the direction of the beautiful people, he then pours toward a great siege:

Dear reader, I didn't get around to doing it until this morning: my very pokey and leisurely read of the Sunday New York Times. Actually, it was The New York Times Magazine that I was flipping through while waiting for the Folgers to drip. The cover shot for this Sabbath was sort of "dorky" (a family of "Inward Christian Soldiers"); but, like a snapping rubber band, "SALIENT FACTS: CRASH LANDINGS, page 28" put a pause on my brew. But, there is one shred of comfort in this piece: I'll never again feel guilty about ignoring the flight attendant when she blows into the little tube that inflates the life vest. Read it for yourself ... if your pilot only has water on his landing path you might as well switch on that cell phone and grab a last drink off the cart.

The Way We Live Now: 2-27-00:
Salient Facts: Landing A Plane In Water


By Hope Reeves
[from The New York Times, Sunday, February 27, 2000]


Depends on how it got there. On one end of the spectrum are "inadvertent water contacts," in which a pilot misses a runway and ends up in the drink. Large-scale fatalities are rare. On the other end of the spectrum are flat-out crashes, in which a pilot tries to right the plane until it's too late for anything but a nose dive. In those cases, survivors are rare. Somewhere in between are "ditchings" -- intentional water landings in desperate situations like loss of fuel or engine failure. Aviation experts generally agree that there have been only about a half-dozen attempts to ditch a commercial airplane since the beginning of the jet age in the late 1950's.


The most successful incident was a 1964 flight from Estonia to Moscow. After running out of fuel, the pilot of the Tupolev 124 put his plane down in the Neva River, and it was towed to shore. All 52 occupants survived. Usually, however, ditchings don't have such happy endings. On a 1970 flight from New York to St. Martin, in the midst of bad weather, the pilot missed three approaches to the airport and eventually ditched the plane off St. Croix. The plane stayed afloat for six minutes, allowing for the rescue of 40 of the 63 people on board. Investigators concluded there might have been more survivors if passengers had had time to prepare for landing.


Not at the speeds that airplanes move. On high-speed contact, water is about as soft a landing surface as concrete. It's worse in rough seas. And the nearest rescue team could be miles away. In 1996, when a hijacked Ethiopian Airlines jet ran out of fuel and was ditched off the Comoros Islands, the plane was so close to land that a life guard organized the beachgoers to rescue the passengers and crew: out of 172 on the flight, 50 were pulled out alive. If it wasn't for the rescue effort -- and the tropical water -- it's very likely that no one would have survived.


The computerized flight simulators on which most pilots now train do not include scenarios for intentional water landings. Pilots do learn about ditching through lectures and videotapes (including a tape of the Ethiopian Airlines landing, made by a honeymooning couple sitting on a nearby beach). But it's the sort of material that's hard to teach. "There is an art to it," says Capt. Stephen Luckey of the Air Line Pilots Association. "You learn how to read the sea, to assess the waves and the swells and the wind and figure out the best place to put the plane down so it doesn't break up."


Those were not controlled descents; by the time the planes got close to the water, they were going far too fast for any kind of safe landing. "The pilots may have had thoughts about it at the last minute, but those guys weren't ditching; they were crashing," says John Purvis, an air-safety consultant. "After the Swissair crash, people started reconsidering how we do things," says Darryl Jenkins, an aviation consultant and professor at George Washington University. "Maybe it's safer and easier to get a plane down as rapidly as possible, rather than trouble-shoot."


Little things might make a big difference. For instance, the National Transportation Safety Board has pushed for better flotation devices. Life-jacket pouches have proven so hard to open that some passengers have had to use their teeth. Plus, says Nora Marshall, acting chief of the N.T.S.B.'s survival factors division: "The life vests we have now are the same ones we had in the 1940's. Not the same ones, but the same design." And some planes use floating seat cushions while others use life vests, which can be confusing. In 1982, a plane overshot the runway at Logan Airport in Boston, hit the water and snapped in two. "People were throwing seat cushions to people in the water," says Marshall, "but they weren't flotation devices." Two people died, but it probably wasn't the confusion about life preservers that cost them their lives. The victims made the fatal mistake of unbuckling their seat belts right when the plane touched down.

This evening I'm booked on a BA flight to Heathrow ... leaving Miami at 7:45PM and scheduled to arrive in London at 9:05 tomorrow morning. The flight is about 99% over water.

Just shy of three hours later another 747 (Thai Air International) will non-stop me across central Asia to Bangkok. The flight is about 99% over land.

Mercifully, both flights leap me right over leap day ... on March 1st I'll be in Bangkok.

Looking straight down from 35,000 feet I won't see very much. But, dear reader, there is a satellite hanging over my house that can count the trees in my yard from 435 miles up in space. Such a thing can be useful. Or, will it make me even more paranoid?

Tuesday, February 29, 2000 LEAP YEAR

I like Wescott's treatment of today:

The usual calendars give the names of obscure saints; such as Romanus, the hermit of Jura, and Nestor, Bishop of Perge in Pamphylia, for the extra day in leap-year. The biographical dictionaries assign them to other dates in February. It is hard to decide which is less fitting: that there should be one day without any sublime patron, or one saint remembered only every fourth year.

NEWNES never frets much about saints on leap-year days. But his dig from top to bottom in today's "U" trap of February's colon did flush out a few interesting bits ... chunks that normally pass freely to us only during presidential election years:



Yesterday, in preparation for last night's flight across the Atlantic, I posted a helpful article from Sunday's New York Times Magazine section. The author of the piece made a compelling point: that airline passengers could save time and fuss by ignoring the in-flight safety instructions, at least in so far they related with what to do if their flight ran into serious problems while flying over water. The short of the advice was there was precious little the strapped in customer could do if the pilot needed to settle everything into the ocean. Water LandingAt best a window seat would give 2A or 2K a final glimpse of the up rushing sea; a place on the aisle would allow a last swipe at the drinks cart.

Paul suggested that I distribute copies of this to my fellow travelers. I did. It was not well received on my British Airways flight. The head purser reminded me that IATA regulations discouraged gratuitous safety tips from ill informed meddlers.

As last night's "99% over water" flight was uneventful, nothing came of all this.

Tonight's flight (aboard TG 911) from LHR to BKK only crosses a few little bits of water ... starting with the English Channel. I think the Aral Sea and the Gulf of Something-Or-Other gets thrown in as well. But, it is essentially a trans-Asian sleeper flight with only mountains and sand dunes to worry about.

This morning's The Times (London) has an interesting article.


Children could soon take all their pets on holiday under government plans to extend the pet passport scheme to rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils and mice.

The Ministry of Agriculture confirmed last night that it was drawing up a list of new species, as the first dogs and cats arrived in Britain by ferry and on Eurostar, without having to go into quarantine.

But, if government officials sort out the details, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils and mice could holiday in the sun this summer, with a rabies vaccination and a microchip implanted under their skin. At present, they are subject to the 100-year-old controls on rabies. Many rabies-free countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Cyprus and Malta, are included in the new system for rabies control, which is launched in April next year. Until then, a pilot scheme is operated that is restricted to 22 European countries. However, Baroness Hayman, an Agriculture Minister, signaled yesterday that she wanted to bring many more rabies-free countries into the scheme before its official launch next year.

She also promised that airlines would be licensed to carry pet dogs and cats into Heathrow within a month. Talks are continuing with British Airways, British Midland, Iberia, Lufthansa, Finn Air, and Portugal's TAP. Other ports and airports in Britain are expected to join the scheme, and the Government is to change the law to allow pilot schemes in Jersey and Guernsey.

But ministers made clear that they were not yet ready to extend the scheme to pets arriving from North America.

Budgerigars and other caged birds are not included in the scheme because they are not susceptible to rabies. People can already bring their pet birds into the country with an import certificate if it is from a European Union member state.

Dear reader, let me now bring you back to that article about "Water Wings": the one in which the author basically said that it was a waste of time to read the safety card if your pilot was about to conduct a water dump.

In Flight

About six hours after TG 911 left London I noticed on our little in-flight moving map that we were about to cross the Aral Sea. Now, this sea is pretty small on anyone's yardstick. Even if all four of our engines conked out just as we crossed the shoreline, TG911 could easily glide to the far shore in search of a dirt runway. But, since there WAS a body of water right below us, I took this opportunity to show my Thai purser those dismal words about water ditching. She agreed completely with the author! Her no frills shrug said, "heavy things moving fast hitting anything means lights out for everyone".

Ahhhh ... but, unknown to me there was another danger at work. Y2K, though dormant for the last two months, awoke for a final stab. Fortunately, it was the chemical-extracting machines over at the Thai Defense Ministry's laboratory and not Thai International Airways that crashed. The software that was written for these chemical-extracting machines became confused by this year's Leap Year. You see, every year that is divisible by four is considered a leap year. But those years ending in two zeros are only considered leap years if they are also divisible by 400. Apparently the programmers who wrote the stuff for Thai International Airways knew their dates. The Ministry of Defense people got it wrong. Hmmm ... I wonder where those chemicals went?

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