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Catch-22 ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Catch-22 by Joseph Heller ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller was first published in 1961 and is one of the landmark American novels of the twentieth century, ranking number seven on the Modern Library’s list of the hundred best books in the English language of the twentieth century. It is an irreverent account of one man’s experiences in World War II on the fictional island of Pianosa in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Italy.

John Yossarian is a twenty-eight-year-old American bombardier of Assyrian descent who isn’t a hero or a patriot, but is more of an antihero. He seems not to care much about the war or who wins it. He has flown a certain number of bombing missions over Italy to fight the Germans and he believes he has flown enough. He wants nothing more than to survive the war and to be sent home while he is still alive. Anytime he completes the requisite number of missions, an ass of a superior officer raises the number of missions in an effort to bring glory to himself and to impress his superior officers (possibly have an article about himself in the Saturday Evening Post). Yossarian is told he might be relieved of flying more missions if he makes such a request to a senior officer, but the only trouble is that only crazy people can be relieved of flying more missions and anybody who asks to be relieved isn’t really crazy and so can’t be relieved. This is the “catch-22” in the situation. There are many catch-22s throughout the novel.

The army in Catch-22 resembles more a lunatic asylum than a disciplined fighting force. The officers in charge are vain, pompous, petty, self-serving, insecure, vindictive and jealous. (Just like in the real world, these people exist everywhere.) With such as this in charge, how can you go right?

Catch-22 is filled with satire, irony, paradox and dark humor. Besides the maddeningly memorable officers, there are whores (one of whom tries to kill Yossarian because she believes he is responsible for the death of her boyfriend), an insecure chaplain, a young man who is cut to ribbons by the propeller of a plane when he attempts to touch the bottom in a playful gesture (his severed legs lie on the beach and nobody wants to go near them), a mess officer who corners every market including Egyptian cotton, a patient in the hospital who is so encased in bandages that nobody can be sure if there’s anybody inside or not, and a seductive nurse with whom Yossarian has an affair until she decides he’s not the kind of fellow she should be associating with. A memorable cast of characters that you might meet in your bad dreams. If war is hellish idiocy, the people who conduct the war are worse.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Know the Devil by His Name

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Know the Devil by His Name ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

It was a long time ago. I was walking along a deserted country road through hills and farm country. I didn’t know where I was going or why I was going there. I didn’t know where I had been or what I had seen or known. My feet ached and my throat was dry, but I wasn’t bothered by those things. I believed that all I had to do was to keep moving forward and everything would come right with me.

Birds twittered over my head in the trees. A small brown fox came out from behind a tree and watched me pass. I heard a dog barking faintly, a long way off, but I never did see a dog or any living soul the dog might have been attached to.

Until I heard the sound of a wagon coming along behind me on the road. I heard it long before I saw it. When I finally turned around and looked over my shoulder, I saw a man in a devil costume driving a small, neat wagon pulled by one handsome brown horse. I stopped and turned toward him and he pulled up beside me.

“Where you headed?” he asked as though we were old friends.

Not knowing what to say, I just pointed in the direction in which I had been walking.

“You don’t know where you’re going, do you?” he said.

“Is that common in these parts?” I asked.

“I could use some company and I believe you could use a sit-down,” he said. “Why don’t you hop up here and ride with me, at least for a short distance, anyway?”

“Do you have any water?” I asked.

He reached behind him and produced a canteen, which he tossed at me. Liking him already, I smiled and got up beside him on the seat; he jiggled the reins to make the horse start moving again.

I drank and then drank again. “That is the best water I ever tasted,” I said.

He nodded his head and inclined his right horn toward me, which was above his right eye about three-and-a-half inches.

“Are you on your way to a costume party?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

“I didn’t think you were, because it isn’t anywhere near the time of the year for Halloween, is it?”

“Time of the year don’t matter to me,” he said.

“Are you the devil?” I asked.

“I’m not the devil. I’m a devil. There are lots of us. I’ve never even seen the devil, the one we call Beelzebub. I’m not important enough.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“There are angels who do the work of the Lord. Don’t you agree?”

“I suppose so,” I said.

“Well, if there are angels doing the work of the Lord, there’s also the reverse side of the coin. There are devils doing the work of Beelzebub.”

“I think I should probably have you stop the wagon and let me out right here,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

“Anytime I find myself in the company of a devil, it’s probably not a good thing.”

“You could do worse,” the devil said.

“I don’t know how! What’s worse than a devil?”

“You’d better hope you never find out.”

“No, if you’ll stop right here,” I said. “I think I’ll get out and walk the rest of the way.”

“If you do that, you won’t fulfill your destiny,” the devil said.

“And what is my destiny?”

“Just stay with me a little longer. I guarantee you won’t be sorry you did. If we stay on this road, we’ll come to the big city. You’ll love it. There’s everything you want in the city.”

“I don’t want to go to any city, especially with you! It’s nothing personal, but you are the devil.”

“I’m not the devil, I told you. I’m a devil.”

“It’s all the same to me.”

“There’s just one problem about the two of us going to the city,” the devil said. “We’re going to need some money to be able to have a good time there. We’ll need to buy some clothes and get a room in a fine hotel and order lavish meals from room service.”

“I don’t need money to have a good time in the city because I’m not going there!” I said.

Ignoring me, the devil pulled up in a front of a little house set back from the road prettily in a grove of trees.

“What are we stopping here for?” I asked.

“There’s an old lady that lives here,” the devil said. “She always keeps lots of money on hand. All you have to do is hit her in the head and knock her out and take her money. I’ll wait right here.”

“That is the most outrageous thing I ever heard!” I said. “I’m not knocking anybody in the head and taking their money!”

“You don’t have to kill her. Just stun her.”

“I’m not doing any such thing!”

“The devil commands you!”

“You’ll have to find somebody else to command. I won’t do it.”

“If you don’t do it, somebody else will.”

“I suppose I ought to go warn her, then,” I said.

I jumped to the ground and went up to the house and knocked on the door. In a moment a little old lady in lavender and lace came to the door. When she saw me, she smiled and beckoned me to enter.

“It’s that devil again, isn’t it?” she said with a cluck of the tongue.

“He told me to knock you in the head and take your money. I have no intention of doing it, but I wanted to warn you that if I don’t do it somebody else will.”

She surprised me by putting her hand over her mouth and giggling like a schoolgirl. I had the feeling she was laughing at me for believing what a devil would say. She picked up a canvas bag from a desk and opened it; took out a handful of fake stage money and handed it to me.

“Tell the devil that’s all the money he’ll get from me,” she said, “and a fat lot of good it’ll do him!”

“He’s not the devil,” I said. “He’s a devil. Apparently there’s a difference.”

When I went back to the wagon, the devil was examining the backs of his hands in the sunlight as if he had forgotten me. I climbed back up beside him and handed him the fake stage money.

“Humph!” he said. “I see she’s up to her old tricks.”

“You know her?” I asked.

“She’s just another old devil,” he said. “She’s been at it a lot longer than I have.”

“She certainly didn’t look like a devil,” I said. “She looked like somebody’s grandmother.”

“Another lesson learned,” he said. “You can’t always go on the way a person looks. A good-looking person can be a devil and a horrible-looking guttersnipe can be an angel.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Things are not supposed to be too easy for us,” he said. “We’re supposed to figure things out for ourselves. With me it’s different, though. I wear this devil costume so people know as soon as they look at me that I’m a devil but not the devil.”

“Well, I’m glad I didn’t have to hit her in the head, anyway,” I said, “even if she is a devil. I guess if I had had to hit her in the head, though, knowing she was a devil would have made it easier.”

The devil gave me a look as if he was getting tired of me already. “Inescapable logic,” he said.

He looked at the fake stage money in his hand again and tossed it into the back of the wagon.

“Well, I believe I’ll be getting out just about here,” I said. “If you’ll stop the wagon there by that little bridge.”

The devil seemed not to hear me. “We’ll have to put our two heads together and figure out somewheres else to get some money,” he said thoughtfully.  

Copyright 2014 by Allen Kopp

Remembering Gertrude Bines

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Remembering Gertrude Biles

Remembering Gertrude Bines ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

El-Vee had a lucrative beauty parlor on Main Street between a hardware store and a delicatessen. All day long, every day, she stood on her feet, curling, cutting and dyeing hair while listening to an endless stream of blather, innuendo, distasteful personal revelation and catty gossip from her customers. At closing time she was so tired and frazzled, so sick of the sound of the human voice, that she wanted to pull out her own hair, but she looked at all that beautiful cash in the cash drawer and that was what made it all worth the effort.

One Friday afternoon (Friday was always her busiest day), while she was just finishing up on up on Mrs. Coolidge’s hair—a foot-high confection of swirling, pink-tinged white cloud—she heard the roar of a truck outside and loud voices and, looking out the window, saw that a new business was moving in across the street. As she was to learn a few days later, when the place opened for business, it was called Gertrude’s Wig Shop. It boasted in signs in the windows its stock of wigs of all kinds, hairpieces, hats, scarves, turbans, babushkas, and other assorted headwear for women and girls.

At first she wasn’t sure how a wig shop was going to affect her beauty parlor business, or if it would affect it at all. When they put up a huge sign across the front of the wig shop that proclaimed in large red letters You Don’t Need a Beauty Parlor—You Need a Wig!, she was disconcerted, believing it was a direct shot across the bow of her ship. When she saw a full-page ad for the wig shop in the newspaper, she began to be worried. The ad read, in part: Don’t Spend Beaucoup Dollars Getting Your Hair Styled Every Week! Buy a Wig Instead that Stays Styled! Nobody Will Ever Know It’s Not Your Real Hair!

Wondering if such tactics were legal, she consulted a lawyer, a boy she had known since seventh grade named Leroy Follett.

“I can’t see there’s any harm in it,” Leroy said. “Certainly nothing for you to take legal action against. Just think of it as healthy competition.”

“What if it takes away some of my customers?”

“You have the right to do the same to them.”

“How do I do that?”

“When you find out,” Leroy said, “you let me know.”

When she began to see a falling off in her business and hence in her profits, she attributed it to curiosity. Her customers would flirt with the idea of buying a wig but then would return to their old habits of having their twigs twisted every week. Wigs were fakery, no matter how good they looked. There was nothing like one’s natural hair, even if it was brittle, ugly, thinning and unhealthy-looking. To try to lure in new customers—and retain her old ones—she hired a manicure girl and offered free manicures. Then she hired a cosmetologist to give facials and makeup tips. These two extra people ate into her profits, of course, but she believed that hiring them would prove beneficial—in the long term if not in the short term.

After a few weeks, she and her two new employees were doing a lot of sitting around doing nothing in the long gaps—sometimes two hours—between customers. She began to worry about how she was going to meet expenses for the month when she decided to go across the street to the wig shop herself, something she had vehemently avoided doing before, to see what all the excitement was about.

She winced when she saw how busy the store was and how many people were spending money. When a sales clerk came forward and asked her if she needed help, she said she needed to speak to Gertrude herself.

Gertrude was a large, broad-shouldered woman with red hair and lots of makeup. As she approached El-Vee, she wore her fixed, professional smile.  “Help you?” she asked.

“Are you Gertrude?” El-Vee asked.

“Yes. How may I help you?”

“I just want you to know you’re hurting my business.”

“Who the hell are you?”

“My name is El-Vee Persons. I own the beauty parlor across the street. You’re taking away my customers.”

“Oh, boo-hoo! And just what do you want me to do about it?”

“Move to another location.”

“Hah! Now, why would I do that. Because you want me to?”

“I could always bust you in the nose,” El-Vee said.

“I could always have you arrested for assault.”

“My brother is a career criminal with mob ties.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“Not exactly, but it’s something you might want to keep in mind. You can’t destroy another person’s business and expect them to stand idly by and allow you to do it.”

That night, as El-Vee was trying to get to sleep, a thought came to her unbidden from deep in the recesses of her mind. Gertrude was somebody she had known at one time, although she couldn’t remember the last name. She got out of bed and pulled a box from the back of the closet.

She hadn’t looked at her old high school yearbook or even thought about it in a dozen or more years. She turned on the light and sat down on the couch and began thumbing through the pages. Soon she found what she was looking for: seventeen-year-old Gertrude Bines in the eleventh grade—elaborate red hairdo, self-satisfied smile and a “beauty mark” on her cheek.

It all came back to her. She and Gertrude had been rivals in high school. Rivals for homecoming queen, rivals for yearbook editor and rivals for love. (They fought over the school’s star football player who turned out to prefer members of his own gender). They both seemed to be good at the same things. If one of them could bake a lemon cake, the other could make a lemon chiffon cake. If one of them could make a party dress, the other could make an evening gown. El-Vee hated rivalry then and she hated it now. Rivalry only made life more difficult and ruined everything. In a perfect world, she thought, she would always be at the top of the heap and there’d be no such thing as rivalry. With a flick of a switch, she’d make it disappear.

She contacted her brother, Everett Persons (the one of her three brothers who flirted with gangsterhood), and asked him to meet her at a restaurant out on the highway for supper. She was buying, she said, and she had something she wanted to talk over with him.

After she explained the situation to Everett, he said, “I’m afraid she’s got you over a barrel, sis. She’s not doing anything wrong.”

“Yes, I know,” El-Vee said. “It’s just healthy competition.”

“I could have her roughed up a bit for you. Break her legs.”

“No, I don’t like that. How much to kill her?”

“You’d want a professional job. Between five and ten thousand, depending on who you got to do the deed.”

“Any other ideas?”

“We could start a little fire to put her out of business,” Everett said, “but there’s no guarantee she wouldn’t just clean up at the expense of her insurance company and reopen.”

“No, I don’t like a fire, either. It could hurt others besides her.”

“How about a little fear and intimidation? Death threats? A brick through the front window?

“I don’t know if any of that would work.”

“Well, I’ll think about it and talk to a couple of my friends and get back to you. I’d advise you to go slow with this thing. Don’t do anything you can’t undo or that you’re going to be sorry you did.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me!” El-Vee said.

“And if you decide to do the deed yourself, I’m sure I can get some of my associates to dispose of the body for you.”

One morning a few days later when El-Vee was alone in the beauty parlor before her first customer arrived, Gertrude Bines came rushing in.

“I need to speak to you,” she said.

“Sorry,” El-Vee said. “We’re all booked up. You’ll need to call for an appointment.”

“My store was broken into last night,” Gertrude said.

“What do you want me to do about it? Bust our crying?”

“They didn’t steal anything. All they did was break some things and make a mess. I believe it was some kind of warning or intimidation.”

“Did you call the police?”

“They’re there now.”

“Well, good luck with finding out who did it.”

“I think you know who did it,” Gertrude said.

“That’s silly. How would I know?”

“I think you’d do anything to get back at me.”

El-Vee laughed and began washing some brushes. “I’d like to stand here and chat all day,” she said, “but I’ve got lots of work to do. So, if you’ll excuse me?”

“I wondered if you recognized me when you came into my shop the other day,” Gertrude said. “We used to know each other in high school.”

“I didn’t give it a thought,” El-Vee said.

“I was the prettiest and most popular girl in school,” Gertrude said. “You were a distant second. Or maybe third.”

“What a memory you have. Those things don’t matter to me any more.”

“Isn’t it ironic that we should meet again all these years later after we detested each other so much when we were younger?”

“I didn’t go to college,” El-Vee said, “so I don’t know what words like ‘ironic’ mean.”

“I think you know what I’m talking about. I can see it in your body language.”

“Well, I guess I’m just not as smart as you are.”

“Why don’t you admit you’re defeated?” Gertrude said.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“All your former customers are buying wigs from me. They don’t want their natural hair anymore. A wig is easier and is cheaper in the long run, too.”

“Well, to each his own.”

“Why don’t you admit your business is kaput? I have bested you once again, as I did at every turn in high school. I think you’d do better if you moved to another location.”

“I’ve been here for five years,” El-Vee said. “I have no intention of moving.”

“Even after I’ve taken away all your customers?”

El-Vee walked around behind Gertrude and began looking at the back of her hair. “You’re not wearing a wig,” she said. “You need a trim.”

“My hair is perfect,” Gertrude said.

“No, really,” El-Vee said. “You have a few little loose hairs right at the back of the neck. Sit down and I’ll take care of it for you. No charge.”

Gertrude sighed and sat in the chair. El-Vee put the cape around her shoulders and turned the chair around just so.

“You do remember me from high school, don’t you?” Gertrude asked.

“My memory is not as sharp as it should be,” El-Vee said. “When I was in the state mental hospital a few years back, I had electroshock therapy. What they call shock treatments. It removes certain memories from your mind the same as if they never existed at all. I guess you were just one of those bad memories that was just swept away.”

“We needn’t have any bad feelings,” Gertrude said.

“Needn’t we?”

“I’d like to think we were friends.”

“Why would you want to be friends with me?”

“I just don’t like ill will, is all.”

“There’s no ill will here. Anything that happened between us is forgiven and forgotten.”

“Then you do remember me?”

El-Vee snipped at the back of Gertrude’s hair. Her hand was trembling a little so she took off more than she intended. “I remember lots of people,” she said. “It’s all a mixed-up blur.”

“I want to make you a business proposition,” Gertrude said.

“Go ahead and make it,” El-Vee said.

“I’ll buy out your shop and you can come and work for me.”

“Doing what?”

“I haven’t got that far yet. We’d think of something.”

“You’d do that for me?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve never worked for anybody else before.”

“Don’t let pride stand in your way.”

“I don’t think I could stand to work for you,” El-Vee said.

“Why not?”

“I don’t like you. I don’t like your type. I don’t like your looks. I despise everything about you. I detest everything you stand for and represent.”

Gertrude met El-Vee’s eye in the mirror. “You do remember me, then, don’t you?”

“Yes, I remember you.”

El-Vee picked up her longest, sharpest scissors and plunged them into Gertrude’s neck, severing the carotid artery. With blood gushing from her neck, Gertrude fell to the floor and flopped around like a fish out of water. She tried to pull herself up but couldn’t. She burbled blood out of her mouth until she lay still and stopped breathing.

When El-Vee was sure Gertrude was dead, she dragged her body by the ankles across the floor, opened the door to the dank cellar that was never used, and pushed her down the stairs. After cleaning up the blood the best she could, she was ready to receive her first customer of the day.

At nine o’clock that night El-Vee called her brother Everett at home. “There’s a big dead rat in my basement at the beauty parlor,” she said. “I need you to take care of it for me.”

“Tonight?”

“Can you manage it?”

“I don’t know why not.”

“Go in the back way. Nobody will see you.”

The next morning El-Vee was snipping away at an old lady’s hair when she looked up to see three men coming across the street toward her: an older man in a suit, flanked on both sides by young, uniformed police officers. She stood up straight, took a couple of deep breaths to steady herself, and went to the door to meet them. If she was kind to them and cooperative, they would have no reason to suspect she had done anything wrong.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Four-Winged Dinosaur

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Four-Winged Dinosaur ~ 

Fossilized remains of a four-winged dinosaur have been discovered with “hindwings” and long feathers on its tail that assisted it in maneuvering through the air and in landing safely. Named Changyuraptor yangi, it was a nine-pound, four-foot-long, gliding predator that lived in the Cretaceous period 120 to 125 million years ago in what is now Liaoning, China. These ancient creatures offer clues to the origin of flight and the transition between feathered dinosaurs and today’s birds.  

Begin Again ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Begin Again

Begin Again ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

Gretta (Keira Knightley) is an English girl, a singer/songwriter who is going along for the ride with her handsome, successful pop singer boyfriend named Dave Kohl (Adam Levine). Dave has girls crawling all over him and—guess what?—he’s unfaithful to Gretta with an Asian girl named Mim. Gretta slaps the you-know-what out of Dave (he deserves it) and leaves. She is staying with a platonic male friend when she is coerced into singing a composition of her own in a New York club. A frizzy-headed, unkempt, down-on-his-luck recording executive named Dan (Mark Ruffalo) just happens to be present in the club the night Gretta performs. He desperately needs a successful artist that he can promote to his boss and he sees in Gretta the raw talent that nobody else can see or appreciate. The best scene in the movie is when Gretta is singing her song (about being alone in the city) with just a guitar and Dan is visualizing an arrangement with other instruments. He “sees” the piano being played, although there is nobody playing it, along with double base, violin, cello and other instruments.

When Dan meets Gretta, he has just been fired from his job for a five-year run without discovering a successful recording artist. And his personal life is no better than his professional one. He lives in a dark, depressing apartment; he is estranged from his wife (Catherine Keener); his fourteen-year-old daughter goes to school dressed like a whore. He talks Gretta into recording an album of her songs and, since they don’t have the money for a recording studio and musicians, they will record at various locations around New York City with musicians who are willing to work for free.

You might expect a romance to develop between Dan and Gretta, even though he is a lot older than she is, but that isn’t where this story is going. He gives her confidence in her musical talents and she gives his professional career a much-needed boost, but we don’t have to see them smacking their lips together and rolling around together in bed. (Thank goodness!) You have to hand it to the creators of this film for eschewing the customary romantic sparks.

Begin Again is a pleasant, lightweight movie that won’t give you a headache unless you already have one. There’s lots of music in this movie, some of it good and some of it on the annoying side. I like Keira Knightley’s singing voice and screen persona. She has appeared in costume dramas (Anna Karenina and Pride and Prejudice) and more contemporary fare (Never Let Me Go and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World). I hope she never gets her teeth fixed because it’s natural not to have perfect teeth. There are too many unnatural-looking, perfect teeth in the world.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Billie Jo, Betty Jo and Bobbie Jo

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Billie Jo, Betty Jo and Bobbie Jo ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

I always wanted to watch Petticoat Junction on TV and couldn’t. We only had one TV and I never got to choose what was watched, except on the rare occasions when I happened to be at home by myself. Our TV was almost always tuned to westerns, war or police dramas, or, of course, the news. Comedies were unacceptable. Anybody who wanted to watch a situation comedy had severe mental problems, or worse (especially if it had the word “petticoat” in the title). If you were a “normal” person you didn’t want to see a show that you could laugh at and talk about at school the next day. Life was just too serious for that. If you weren’t seeing men on horses shooting guns or men fighting battles with other men, you just weren’t entertained. That’s the way the cards were stacked at our house.

Anyway, Petticoat Junction was so cheery and so far removed from reality that it made you forget your problems for a while. It was set in the country (as opposed to a city or town), presumably somewhere in the United States, but what state or what part of the country it was in was never specified. (The nearest town was called Hooterville, if that helps at all.)

In this country setting was a hotel called the Shady Rest, run by an old woman named Kate. The actress Bea Benadaret played Kate. She also played the part of cousin Pearl Bodine in The Beverly Hillbillies and did the voice for Wilma Flintstone. No matter which side of the fence you are on regarding Miss Benadaret, you have to admit that is quite an impressive track record for any thespian!

So, Kate the country hotel owner didn’t have a husband but had a trio of perky daughters, named, appropriately, Billie Jo, Betty Jo and Bobbie Jo. They were the reason we watched the show in the first place. They were apparently in their teens but, unlike teens in the real world, they were perfectly groomed—never a hair out of place—and were never sullen, angry or angst-ridden. They never seemed to go to school or do much of anything, but they did, however, swim in the water tank beside the train tracks, as evidenced in the show’s opening every week, slinging their petticoats over the side—hence the title Petticoat Junction.

Also part of the Shady Rest family was irascible Uncle Joe. He had a big belly and wore a bow tie and a funny hat; took a lot of naps in the rocking chair on the porch and could be counted on to say funny and inappropriate things, stimulating the laugh track more than anybody else. He was played by the gravelly voiced character actor Edgar Buchanan, who, during his movie career, was in a lot of westerns and played the helpful friend, Applejack, of Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in the tearjerking movie Penny Serenade in 1941.

When Kate needed food for her guests at the hotel, she bought it from Sam Drucker, a skinny, baldheaded man who wore a garter on his sleeve and a long apron. His general store, right out of the nineteenth century, had a potbellied stove, a phone with a crank (just turn the crank and you’ll get Sarah, the telephone operator), a display of brooms for sale, and shelves of canned goods behind the counter. Sam Drucker might have been a love interest for Kate as there seemed so few eligible men around, but, on second thought, he probably wasn’t.

And then there was the train, the Cannonball, which we usually saw or heard about when the action moved outside the hotel. More often than not, the Cannonball brought interesting guests to the hotel, such as a sick child and her overly protective mother, an old beau of Kate’s from her youth, or the mean old miser who wanted to buy the Shady Rest and tear it down. The engineer and the conductor of the train were two old country gents who, like Uncle Joe, could be counted on to elicit laughter. Their names were Smiley Burnett and Rufe Davis. They weren’t very smart but we didn’t care because nobody else was smart, either.

As the sixties wore on, Petticoat Junction changed, and not for the better, either. It went from black and white to color, as did every other show on television. The actresses who played the three gals weren’t always the same. When there was a different Billy Jo, Betty Jo, or Bobbie Jo from what we were used to, I think we weren’t supposed to notice, but we did, and it was disturbing. (One of the gals, we heard later, was the girlfriend of Nat King Cole.) When Bea Benadaret became ill and died, the show tried to continue without her, but her absence was felt too much to retain the feeling it once had.

Given the popularity of Petticoat Junction, it was inevitable that there would be an offshoot. It was called Green Acres and it had the same pastoral setting and even some of the same characters as Petticoat Junction, including Sam Drucker. It was about a sophisticated New York couple who moved to the country and set themselves up on a farm. The best thing about Green Acres was Eva Gabor, the Hungarian-accented Park Avenue socialite who had to adapt herself to being a farm wife. (“Darling, I love you, but give me Park Avenue!”)

Eventually the kind of gentle, unsophisticated rural humor of Petticoat Junction fell out of favor with audiences and was replaced by more caustic, politically conscious offerings like All in the Family. The simple sixties passed away and became something else entirely. Would I want to go back and live the sixties over again? Not if it means I have to repeat the hellish ninth grade.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Jude the Obscure ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Jude the Obscure image 1

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

English writer Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) is known for a handful of novels including Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Return of the Native, Far from the Madding Crowd, and the Mayor of Casterbridge. His novel Jude the Obscure was released in book form in 1895 after appearing in serialized form in a magazine.

Jude the Obscure is a fascinating study of class distinction, conscience, and morality in the Victorian era. Young Jude Fawley is a country lad without family or connections, raised by an elderly aunt who cares little for him. He longs to become an educated man, or even a minister, but, because of who he is and where he lives, he has little chance of ever being more than a stonemason, a trade he has chosen to provide enough money to support himself. He views the college town of Christminster (Oxford), twenty miles away, as a center of learning and all that is fine in life. Jude’s old schoolmaster, Richard Philottson, whom he admires and looks up to, has gone to Christminster. (Mr. Philottson will play a significant role in Jude’s future life, and not in a good way, either.)

While Jude is saving his money to eventually go to Christminster and enroll in school, his way is made more difficult by one Arabella Donn, an unrefined country girl who, because she is has nothing else to do, “sets her cap” for Jude. (He would have been better off if he had never met her.) After he is “intimate” with her, she tells him she is going to have his baby, so he marries her, to discover sometime later that there is no baby; the pregnancy was just a ruse to trap him into marriage.

The marriage is an unhappy one, so Jude and Arabella eventually go their separate ways, although they remain married. When Arabella immigrates to Australia with her family, Jude believes (wrongly, as it turns out) that he has seen the last of her. He eventually makes his way to Christminster, several years later than he intended, and finds that the doors to higher learning are mostly closed to him. He is advised to stick to his trade and not try to rise above his station. (Thanks for the encouragement!)

While in Christminster, Jude finds his old schoolmaster, Mr. Philottson (who doesn’t remember him from all the boys he taught), but, more importantly, he finds his cousin Sue Bridehead and is instantly drawn to her in a way he knows he shouldn’t be. Sue is attractive but, we discover later, emotionally unstable and volatile, with an overly developed sense of right and wrong in the world.

Jude falls in love with Sue Bridehead, in spite of his better judgment. Sue also loves Jude in her strange, on-again, off-again way. Mr. Philottson aids Sue in finding a teaching position and becomes romantically interested in her himself, even though he is eighteen years older than she is. Jude and Mr. Philottson, in effect, become rivals for Sue.

Jude wants to marry Sue (even though they are first cousins) but can’t because he is still married to Arabella, who he believes he will never see again because she has gone to Australia. Sue would marry Jude, but, when he tells her in a moment of candor that he is already married, her sense of morality is outraged and she agrees to marry Mr. Philottson instead, even though she finds him physically repugnant.

As expected, Sue and Mr. Philottson’s marriage is not a happy one. Mr. Philottson knows that Sue really loves Jude, so he agrees to magnanimously “release” her from her marriage vows and grants her a divorce. This act will essentially ruin his teaching career and his standing in the community.

In the meantime, Arabella has turned up again unexpectedly in England. She seeks Jude out and asks him for a divorce because there is someone else she wants to marry. Jude will finally be free, he believes, to marry his one true love, Sue Bridehead.

But, wait a minute! There’s something else. In the final stages of her marriage to Jude, Arabella became pregnant, which she didn’t know about until she had left for Australia. She brings the child back to England and expects Jude to take him off her hands because, she says, he is the boy’s father.

Jude takes the boy (who is called Father Time because he seems old beyond his years), believing that he and Sue will get married and raise the boy as their own. This would have been a happy conclusion to the novel, but, of course, it wasn’t meant to be.

Jude and Sue are both free of their original marriages and are free to marry again, but Sue prevents it. She views marriage as a trap and believes that marriage between her and Jude will spoil their love. They live together as man and wife, giving the outward appearance they are married when in fact they are not. (We know this kind of arrangement will not go over well in Victorian England.) When they are discovered to be “living in sin,” Jude has trouble finding work or a place for them to stay.

They eventually have two children (with a third on the way) that are “bastards” in the eyes of the world. When tragedy strikes the children, Sue believes that she and Jude are “cursed” because of the way they chose to live. She believes the only way she will ever be redeemed in the eyes of God and society is for her to return to her original husband, Richard Philottson (even though her heart tells her otherwise), and for Jude to return to his first wife, Arabella.

Jude Fawley is a flawed, tragic character in that he is never able to find true happiness or fulfillment of his dreams. He is undone, not by one woman, but by two. He is a victim of his own weakness and humanness. He dies believing he should never have been born in the first place.

Sue Bridehead is too flighty and “moral” for this world. She seems uncertain of what she wants out of life. She prates on and on about doing one thing and another, only to end doing nothing. (She doesn’t seem to know how to help herself or anyone around her.) She wants to be Jude’s wife and then she decides against it. She wants to marry Richard Philottson and then she wants out of the marriage, only to return to him in the end. She’s a dizzy dame that any man with any sense should stay away from. (She says toward the end of the book that her attractiveness to men has been her undoing in life.)

The only character who seems to find happiness is the amoral Arabella, who uses people to suit her purposes. She’s the only person who seems unscathed by the tragic events that take place. At the end of the novel, she’s flirting with a doctor. We get the impression that she will be all right no matter what and will not be bothered too much by anything that happens.

Jude the Obscure is highly readable classic of English literature, a nearly perfect novel with plenty of heartbreak. At 320 pages, it moves along at a fairly fast clip. Of course, it contains some language and syntax that seem archaic to us today, but that’s to be expected for the time in which it was written. Reading it does not require a tremendous expenditure of time and effort. A lot of writers of Thomas Hardy’s time said a lot less in a lot more pages.

Copyright 2014 by Allen Kopp 

The Wrath of the Grapes

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The Wrath of the Grapes

The Wrath of the Grapes ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

She wore a soiled white uniform and her duty shoes were worn-down and scuffed the color of dirt. Every time she passed the mirror she stopped and examined herself, tucking her long gray hair behind an ear or checking her teeth. She swatted at the furniture with a rag in an approximation of dusting and emptied the ashtrays into a bag. She threw the loose clothing and towels into the closet and closed the door.

“I’ll put those in the laundry next time,” she said.

“Hmm?” the woman on the chaise longue said. She was dozing and had forgotten for the moment that she wasn’t alone.

“Anything else before I go?”

She opened her eyes and pulled herself partway up. She was haggard, old beyond her years. “I must get up,” she said.

“I wouldn’t get up if I was you, dearie,” the pickup woman said. “You’re wobbly on your feet.”

“Bertha Belvedere is coming to interview me for The Hollywood Beacon. They’re going to do a lavish treatment of my life in advance of my next picture.”

“If you say so.”

“Is Neville still here?”

“I ain’t seen him.”

“If you see him anywhere about, tell him I’m not to be disturbed for the next little bit.”

“I don’t think he’s here, but if I see him I’ll tell him what you said.”

“Thank you for cleaning my room. If I need you again, I’ll call.”

“You owe me fifteen bucks. I ain’t doin’ this for fun, you know.”

“We’ll settle up next time. I’m a little short right now.”

The pickup woman sighed and, with a clink of empty liquor bottles, she was gone.

The woman on the chaise longue was Nema Gerova, the famous film actress. Life hadn’t been very kind to her lately. Her last four pictures had lost money. Her kind of Old World sex appeal was worn out, passé. The public wanted jazz babies with fresh faces, youth and vitality. The studio unceremoniously canceled her contract, informing her in a five-word telegram.

Almost overnight, it seemed, she went from Monotone Studio’s brightest young star—a string of impressive money-making hits to her credit—to a drug-addled, drunken floozy with four ex-husbands and a hundred pounds of unwanted weight. The picture business had built her up to heights she never dreamed possible and then brought her crashing down to the black abyss. What an ugly, cruel world it was! A world all too willing to forget she ever existed.

She looked over to the table and felt some comfort in what she saw there. As if they had been part of the set design of one of her pictures, a nearly-full bottle of gin stood artfully beside a glass. She poured two fingers of the delectable nectar into the glass, drank it down, and poured again. When she was beginning to feel herself going into that fuzzy world of not caring or feeling, she remembered that somebody was coming. Who was it? Oh, yes,  a female journalist to talk to her about her life and her upcoming picture, The Wrath of the Grapes.

She needed to make herself more presentable. She stood up and made her way across the room to the dressing table and looked at herself in the mirror. She hardly recognized the person looking back at her. Her face was pale and puffy, her eyes merely two slits. With shaking hands, she dabbed some rouge on her cheeks and lipstick on her lips. She ran a comb through her hair and, going back to her chaise longue, had another drink, just one, to steady her nerves.

An hour passed and more. She was in the delicious gray area between waking and sleeping when she heard a tiny knock at the door.

Entrez,” she said cheerily, pulling herself upright.

The door opened and in came Bertha Belvedere, a pig-like woman of great dignity. She wore an expensive-looking suit, a fox fur piece and a black hat trimmed with feathers.

“How do you do, dear?” she said in her simpering tones.

“Bertha, darling!” Nema said. “How wonderful to see you! Please forgive me if I don’t get up.”

Bertha squeezed both of Nema’s hands in hers before seating herself on the love seat facing the chaise longue. “I’ve so been looking forward to my interview with you,” she said as she took pen and pad out of her bag.

“As have I,” Nema said. “it’s just been ages since I’ve seen you. You’re looking so well.”

“As are you, my darling!”

“And I was so thrilled when I heard your paper wanted to do an article on me and my next picture, The Wrath of the Grapes. I’m sure it will help to get word out to the dear public about what a splendid picture it is and how much they shouldn’t miss seeing it.”

“Tell me,” Bertha said, grasping the pen in her hoof-like hand, furrowing her brow. “When will the picture be released? I haven’t been able to get any definite answer yet to that question.”

“Well, we haven’t actually started on the picture yet,” Nema said, “but I’m told it will be any day now.”

“What? I understood it was just wrapping up!”

“Well, there were delays, as there usually are with these things, but we’ll get going with it real soon.”

“And do you really believe you’re right for the part of Caroline in the picture, who sacrifices her lover for the greater good?”

“I feel it right down to my bones. I was born to play the part of Lady Caroline.”

“I heard several other actresses were vying for the part.”

“That’s true but I beat out all of them.”

“And who will direct the picture?”

“We don’t actually have a director yet, but my husband, Neville Marks, will produce. He’s in negotiations in with several of the top directors, all of whom want to do the picture. It’s just a matter of ironing out the details.”

“And who will be your leading man?”

“Well, we don’t know that yet, either, but you can bet it’ll be somebody top-notch, with not only the physical presence to carry the part but also the acting experience to convey the deep emotional torment of Captain Witherspoon.”

“Can you tell me who might be in consideration for the role so I can inform my readers?”

“Well, so far as I know, there’s Herman Dare, Dalton Dixon, Matthew Robinette, and a couple of others.”

“Oh, my, but that is an impressive pool to draw from!”

“Yes, we want only the best,” Nema said, placing a cigarette in her holder and lighting it.

“I hesitate to bring up an unpleasant topic,” Bertha said, “but your last few pictures haven’t been as successful as you might have wished. I’ve heard that Monotone Pictures lost money last year and will lose even more this year. Do you believe The Wrath of the Grapes will be successful enough to lift the studio out of its financial doldrums?”

“I have the utmost confidence that The Wrath of the Grapes will be the biggest hit of the year and will restore Monotone Pictures to its rightful place of prominence in the motion picture industry.”

“Not to mention what it will do for your own career.”

“Of course! A motion picture career is a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. Although my last couple of pictures haven’t sold well with the public, I assure you it’s only a temporary aberration and The Wrath of the Grapes will put me right back up there on the top where I belong.”

“And you don’t believe that Monotone will cancel your contract?”

“Of course not! That’s just an ugly rumor being perpetrated by the hordes of people in the industry who are jealous of my success. There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that my contract has been, or ever will be, canceled. Just the other day, Mr. T. T. H. Gottschalk, head of the studio, assured me that my position there is inviolable.”

“How reassuring it must have been to hear that!”

“Yes, yes, yes!”

“Now, getting on to other matters, I wonder if you might tell us something of your early life and of how you got your start in pictures. It’s a well-known story, of course, but I thought it would be fun to hear it from your own lips.”

(The truth was that she was born, out of wedlock, to an alcoholic mother in a tenement slum on New York’s Lower East Side, but that wasn’t the story she liked to tell.)

“I was born in Budapest to an American mother and a Hungarian father. My father was a physician and my mother a magazine illustrator. We moved to New York when I was ten years old. In school I performed in amateur theatricals and eventually enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. When I was seventeen years old, I entered a beauty contest in Atlantic City at the urging of friends and, when I won the contest, was given a screen test in Hollywood. My mother and I went by rail across this huge continent in the middle of July. Can you imagine?

“The screen test turned out well and I was offered the lead in a film they were just then preparing entitled The Call of the Virgin, even though I had no acting experience. The producers took a chance on me based entirely on my looks and my personality. And I had such a wonderful director—Carleton Fiske—that it didn’t matter that I had never acted before. He extracted—there’s no other word for it—the performance from me as if it had always been inside me. I became an overnight sensation and a big, big star and married Carleton Fiske, even though he was thirty-eight years older than me.”

“Bless your heart!” Bertha said.

“He died soon after but I always felt that he was the one person, more than any other, who was responsible for my success in films.

“My first year at Monotone Pictures, I starred in four pictures. My next picture after The Call of the Virgin was Night Wind and it was just as big a hit as the first one. Then came Queen of the Dust Bin and The Lady is Indiscreet, all making vast amounts of money for the studio. And everything had come so easily to me, as if it had always meant to be. You hear about people struggling to achieve success, but I never had to struggle at all. It just seemed to come naturally to me!”

“It happens that way sometimes,” Bertha said in her knowing way, “but it is very, very rare.”

“Yes, very rare.”

“Now, if you will indulge me for a bit, I want to ask you about your domestic life. Our female readers especially love knowing about that side of the lives of our Hollywood luminaries.”

“What side is that?”

“How is your marriage with Neville Marks?”

“It couldn’t be better. He and I are very, very close. Soul mates, you might say. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have his strong shoulders to lean on and his wise counsel guiding me in my career.”

“Is he at home today? I was hoping to get his take on The Wrath of the Grapes and to get a couple of snaps of the two of you together in your happy home.”

“I’m sorry. He’s out scouting locations for our picture.”

“Of course. Well, perhaps next time.”

“Yes. Next time.”

Here she fell into one her dozes and when she awoke she was alone, as she had been alone ever since the pickup woman left. She had another drink and then another, and then she stood up and made her way across the room, the act of walking a delicate balancing act for her.

She went to the window overlooking the back of the house and from it saw the open door of the garage and the empty space in the garage that had recently held the car of her husband, Neville Marks.

He left her three days ago for a much-younger woman, a twenty-one-old ingénue who had recently made a splash in her first picture, just as Nema had made a splash in hers all those years ago. And his leaving her had been the cruelest cut of all, the one thing she could not tolerate and go on living.

She went into the bathroom and, standing at the sink, swallowed an entire bottle of sleeping pills that her doctor had told her to take sparingly because they were very strong and dangerous if not taken according to directions. She washed them down with plenty of cold water and, when she was finished, she went to the bed and lay on her back to await the coming of the blessed blankness, weeping, as she did, for the poignancy of her own passing.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

If Evolution had Taken a Different Turn…

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We might look like this:

Evolution 1

Happy Fourth of July!

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Header ~ Declaration of Independence2

We are indebted to the Founding Fathers (George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, John Hancock, and others) for their wisdom and foresight in establishing a system of government with “checks and balances,” meaning that the United States government is a government of many rather than one. We don’t want—and never did want—a king or a dictator. 

The Declaration of Independence

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only. 
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures. 
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent: 
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. 
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands. 
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

 

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