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The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Mirage Factory by Gary Krist is “historical narrative,” a fascinating nonfiction book that is as easy to read and as entertaining as good fiction. It is the story of how an improbable city, Los Angeles, came to exist in an improbable place, the parched American Southwest. More significantly, it is the story of how three different people (Amy Semple McPherson, William Mulholland and D. W. Griffith) contributed, in their own unique ways, to the formation, growth, moral fabric, and culture of what would one day be the second-largest city in the United Sates.

In the 1890s, Los Angeles was a small, dusty town in the California desert, where farms and citrus groves were the most prominent feature of the landscape. Nobody at that time envisioned Los Angeles as one day becoming a great American megalopolis. For one thing, there wasn’t enough water. It was, after all, the desert, plenty hot and largely inhospitable to most people’s way of thinking. (And what about those Gila monsters?)

One person, self-taught civil engineer William Mulholland, was largely responsible for bringing Los Angeles the water supply it needed to grow into a major city. People from all parts of the country were drawn to Los Angeles for its “newness” and “cleanness,” its almost perpetual sunshine, its scenic wonders, its proximity to the ocean and its uniquely Anglo-Saxon personality. So what if there wasn’t enough water to sustain a phenomenally growing population? That’s where William Mulholland came onto the scene. He devised and oversaw the building of an elaborate aqueduct system from the Owens River, over two hundred miles from Los Angeles. The project was beset with legal and logistical problems from the first. The residents of the Owens River Valley weren’t too happy about their water supply being commandeered (“stolen”) by distant Los Angeles. The situation erupted into small war.

The movies began as a cheap pastime for the lower classes in the large cities of the eastern United States in the 1890s. For one trifling nickel, a person seeking thrills and excitement could patronize the local “Nickelodeon” and see short films (some of which were only a minute or two long) of mundane scenes, such as an approaching train, a cow nurturing a newborn calf, or a scantily clad woman dancing the hoochie-koochie.

As movies became longer and technically more sophisticated, they gained a wider audience. The making, distribution and exhibition of movies became an industry, settled first around the East coast and then moving to California for its agreeable climate. Soon, movies were a bonafide American artform with the potential of generating obscene amounts of money for its artists. Hollywood and Los Angeles became synonymous.

David Wark Griffith was an early film pioneer. He is known as the “father” of movies, the creator of the movie picture narrative “language.” His vision for making movies was big and bold. His 1915 epic Birth of a Nation was a landmark film that set the standard for movies to follow. It made a tremendous amount of money and emboldened Griffith to make even bigger movies. His Intolerance was also a grand vision and expensive to produce. With its incoherent storyline about man’s inhumanity to man, Intolerance was a critical and commercial failure and a huge career setback for Griffith.

Aimee Semple McPherson was a Canadian Pentecostal evangelist who was instructed by God (she believed) to make Los Angeles her home base. She was a charismatic figure whose message was one of hope and redemption, rather than doom and hellfire. Her sermons were entertaining, uplifting and sometimes theatrical. (She even did “faith healings” on occasion.) She gained a huge and devoted following and established the influential Angelus Temple in Los Angeles. She held coast-to-coast radio services and was soon almost universally known. She became a cultural phenomenon and was arguably the most famous woman in the United States from the 1910s into the Depression era of the 1930s and the war years of the 1940s.

So, what did the Evangelist (Amy Semple McPherson), the Artist (D. W. Griffith), and the Engineer (William Mulholland) have in common? They were all flawed human beings in their own right and each experienced a spectacular fall from grace through pride, overreaching and the taint of early success. Their lives and destinies were inextricably interwoven with Los Angeles during the early days of its phenomenal growth from a small, sleepy desert town to a magnificent city, a megalopolis, that could compete with any other city in the world.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

You Might Have Gone Far

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You Might Have Gone Far ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Laurette stood in the small space between the couch and the wall and ironed the shirts of a stranger. She stole little looks out the window at the street and the houses across the way as she worked. Her mother, Oona Farrington, sat on the couch sipping Coca-Cola out of the king-size bottle through a straw, thumbing through a women’s magazine. Not a care in the world.

“I had such high hopes for you when you were young,” Oona said, starting out on a wheezing high note. “You were the only one of my children with what I would call natural beauty. And here you are taking in other people’s laundry to make a living for yourself and your child.”

“I don’t have to do this, you know.” Laurette said. “I can get a job as a stripper out at the Blue Grotto any time I want.”

“When you were little, people were in awe of your beauty. If you had cultivated your natural talents as a young person, you might have gone far in the entertainment world.”

“Doing what, mother? Twirling a baton? I’m afraid there isn’t much call for that after the age of twelve.”

“It wasn’t just the baton. You played the clarinet and you sang and danced. In the seventh grade, you were in the school play. Everybody said you were the best one, the only one with any real talent.”

“And then I grew up and reality set in.”

“How long has it been since you had an alimony check from that no-good ex-husband of yours?”

“It’s not alimony, mother. It’s child support.”

“How long?”

“Almost three months, I guess.”

“It’s been four!”

“If you know, then why are you asking me?”

“I think you should take that bastard to court and get every penny out of him that you have coming! Have him locked up in jail until he pays what he owes.”

“Being a racecar drive isn’t what it used to be, mother. He only works part-time now.”

“He never was man enough to get a real job!”

“You’ll have to talk to him about that, mother, and leave me out of it.”

“Did you know that pretty young wife of his is going to have a baby? Can you imagine a man like that bringing more children into the world?”

“I don’t care what he does, mother. He can impregnate as many women as he wants and it’s no concern of mine.”

“And what is Ruthie supposed to think? Her own father doesn’t care enough about her to make sure she’s properly taken care of, while he’s out making more babies with women half his age, without a care in the world.”

“I’m sure he cares about her, mother. He’s just…”

“Behind in his alimony payments!”

“It’s not alimony, mother. It’s child support.”

“If he was my husband, I’d shoot the son-of-a-bitch between the legs.”

Laurette laughed and set the iron down. “I’m sure you would, mother, but I don’t think you’d care to go to jail any more than I would. You can’t go around shooting people, between the legs or anyplace else.”

“No jury in the land would convict you!”

“I’m not going to try it and find out.”

“You don’t have any backbone. That’s your problem.”

Laurette counted the shirts she had left. “I’ve been standing here ironing these shirts all day and I have five more to go. Mr. Bartlett sure has a lot of beautiful dress shirts. All different colors and prints.”

“Yes, he’s a successful man, the kind of man you should have married.”

“You don’t even know him!”

“I know of him. I know his cousin.”

“When he comes to pick up his shirts, I’ll tell him I’m a divorcee and I sure would like to marry him because I admire his shirts so much.”

“And why not? You have to go after what you want in life.”

“Is that what you did, mother? You were a housewife your whole life, unhappily married to a man you didn’t love. You had five children and I’m the only one of the five that still speaks to you.”

“I don’t know how you can talk to your own mother that way.”

“Because I dare to speak the truth?”

“I don’t know how you sleep nights.”

The clock chimed four and, as if on cue, Ruthie arrived home from school, breathless and sweaty.

“Did you run all the way home?” Laurette asked.

“No,” Ruthie said. “We were practicing some dance steps outside.”

“Who was?”

“Just some girls I know. I think they’re cousins or something.”

“Do you like dancing?” Oona asked.

“It’s all right,” Ruthie said.

“When I was young, I was quite a good dancer myself. I guess you’re taking after me.”

“I didn’t know you were going to be here today, grandma,” Ruthie said.

“Aren’t you glad to see me?”

“I guess so.”

“Grandma saw the doctor today,” Laurette said. “She had a biopsy and isn’t feeling well. She’s going to spend the night.”

“Does that mean I have to sleep on the couch?” Ruthie asked.

“It’s just one night.”

I can sleep on the couch,” Oona said. “It makes all my bones ache, but I don’t mind. I won’t take your bed.”

“Go ahead and take it!” Ruthie said. “You’ll need to change the sheets, though.”

“How about if you change the sheets?” Laurette said. “Grandma’s a guest.”

“Oh, all right!”

“Just a minute, little girl,” grandma said. “Come over here.”

Ruthie approached reluctantly and Oona took Ruthie’s hands in her own. Ruthie thought she was going to play pattycake, but she just swung Ruthie’s arms back and forth and pursed her lips.

“Did you know you’re going to be having a little brother or sister very soon?” she asked.

“What?”

“I said, did you know there’s going to be a new addition to the family very soon?”

“Mama, is this true?” Ruthie asked.

“Don’t worry,” Laurette said. “It’s not me. It’s your father.”

“Daddy’s going to have a baby?”

“His new wife is.”

“I thought they just got married.”

“They did. Daddy works fast.”

“What do you think about that?” Oona asked. “A baby brother or sister.”

“I don’t think anything,” Ruthie said.

“You’re not the least bit jealous?”

“No. Why should I be? I don’t care what they do.”

“Well, it’s a recipe for disaster if you ask me. You know your father’s a no-good bastard, don’t you?”

“All right, mother!” Laurette said. “That’s enough of that kind of talk! Quit trying to brainwash her.”

“What’s ‘brainwash’?” Ruthie asked.

“It’s nothing. It means it’s time to go change the sheets on the bed. Grandma’s tired and will want to go to bed early.”

After the supper dishes were washed and put away, Oona put on her nightgown and her heavy quilted bathrobe and tied her hair up in her sleep bonnet. After watching her favorite situation comedy on TV, she said good-night and disappeared into Ruthie’s room.

During the nine-o’clock hour, while Laurette and Ruthie were watching a mind-numbing crime drama, Ruthie turned to Laurette and said: “I don’t like grandma very much.”

“Nobody likes her very much,” Laurette said. “She’s not a very likeable person. She never was.”

“How long are we going to have to wait for her to die so we can get her money and her house?”

“Not long, baby doll. Just be patient.”

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

An English Garden

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World War I Australian Soldier

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Dame Olivia Mary de Havilland (1916-2020)

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1940 ~ Delivery by Rail of New Fords

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1904 ~ Delivering Dessert

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Everybody Else Went On Ahead

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Everybody Else Went On Ahead ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

I had known Weston Bicket since the beginning of school. You might say he was my best friend. People mostly didn’t like him because he was different from everybody else and he had a bad leg that made him limp and kept him from playing basketball and other stupid games we were made to play. I sometimes envied him because he wasn’t made to take P.E. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, “P.E.” means “physical education.”) He had an extra study hall while the rest of us were being humiliated in front of the whole class by our lack of athletic ability.

Weston lived in a big house that had seen better days on the edge of town, behind the railroad depot. (The town wasn’t big enough for a “train station,” so we just had a tiny railroad depot that looked unused and haunted.) He had no brothers and sisters; his parents went off and left him on his own a lot. His father ran around with other women (according to the gossip that my own mother was all too willing to spread), and his mother was an unrepentant floozy who spent a lot of time drinking beer and smoking cigarettes in taverns and bowling alleys. (Weston’s parents’ philosophy of parenting seemed to be: “Let the child raise himself. That’s what we did and look at us!”)

Weston didn’t like to talk about his bum leg, but one Friday evening during summer vacation when we were alone at his house, I asked him how it came to be the way it was.

“I was a breached birth,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“I came out feet first.”

“Came out where?”

“You know. You saw the pictures in the biology book.”

“Oh, yeah!” I said. “Disgusting!”

“Yes, it’s disgusting. The whole thing is disgusting.”

“So what happened with your leg?”

“I was stuck in there. The doctor pulled too hard on my leg and broke it and dislocated it.”

“Didn’t that hurt?”

“They thought I might never walk, so I guess I’m lucky to be walking at all.”

“You’re lucky in other ways, too. You don’t have to take P.E.”

“Yes, I am blessed.”

About nine o’clock that night a big thunderstorm blew up out of the southwest, which was where most scary storms came from. Weston’s parents were gone for the weekend and he didn’t know when they’d be back. He asked me if I’d spend the night. I never knew before that he was scared of thunder and lightning.  I thought it would be fun to spend the night in his upstairs bedroom with just the two of us, with plenty of cookies and potato chips, but when I called my mother and asked for permission to spend the night, she told me to shag my cowboy ass home posthaste, storm or no storm. She could always spoil a good time without much effort.

We were thirteen and in the eighth grade. While most of us were growing taller and “filling out,” Weston remained tiny. The eighth grade wasn’t kind to Weston. One day he fell on the stairs going from one class to another and broke his ankle. He had to stay at home for two weeks “recuperating,” and when he came back to school he had a heavy cast on his leg and a pair of crutches. “I was lame-o before!” he said proudly. “Now I’m really lame-o!”

Not long after his cast was removed, Weston and two other boys were caught smoking a cigarette in the boys’ restroom and were suspended for three days. Getting suspended from school was about the worst thing that could happen to you. To be readmitted to school, Weston had to have his mother bring him for a closed-door meeting with the principal in his office. Weston said it was the most humiliating experience of his life.

And that wasn’t all. When we got our once-in-a-lifetime smallpox vaccinations, Weston had a “bad reaction.” His arm swelled up to twice its normal size and he became sick and had to see a doctor. The doctor said it was a “very rare” and “most unusual” side-effect of the smallpox vaccine that occurred in about one in a million people. “Did you ever see anybody so damn lucky?” Weston exclaimed.

Because of his size, Weston was often the target of bullies. One Saturday afternoon when Weston and I were on our way downtown, we met the ugly bully Freddy Lucy face to face.

“Well, look who’s here!” Freddy sneered, showing his miserable teeth. “I thought I smelled turds!”

Our plan was just to ignore Freddy; we were going to go around him, but he blocked our way.

“Just where do you two little bitches thing you’re going?” Freddy said.

“None of your business!” Weston said.

“I’ll bet you’re going to the store to buy some emergency feminine napkins, aren’t you?”

“That’s stupid!” Weston said. “We know you already bought them all!”

“Oh, funny!” Freddy said. “You ought to be on TV!”

“We just met a big gorilla up the street,” Weston said. “She was looking for you. I think she was your mother.”

“You know what happens to little bitches with smart mouths!” Freddy said. “They get their teeth knocked out!”

“I dare you to knock my teeth out!” Weston said. “I’ll call the police and they’ll come and pick you up and drop you off at the monkey house at the zoo with the rest of your family, where you belong!”

“If you don’t shut your mouth, you little creep, and show some respect, I’ll shut it for you!”

“I’d rather be a creep than a psycho, Freddy! That’s what you are! You might as well face it. People are afraid of you!”

Unable to restrain himself any longer, Freddy jumped at Weston and got him in a headlock. Weston struggled but couldn’t get loose.

“You’re hurting me!” Weston said.

“That’s the point, shit-face!” Freddy said.

“Leave him alone, Freddy!” I said.

“Oh, do you want some too, you little mama’s boy?”

He let go of Weston and came toward me and raised his dirt-encrusted knuckles in my face as if to hit me. I didn’t flinch.

“We’re not bothering you!” I said. “Just let us pass.”

“And miss all the fun?”

“No fun here,” I said.

“No?” Freddy asked. “I always think it’s fun beating the shit out of little kids.”

“If you want to beat the shit out of somebody, why don’t you beat the shit out of somebody your own size?”

“Well, that’s just no fun at all!”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you, Freddy,” Weston said. “Just how many years did you spend in third grade?”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Freddy said. “What’s it like to be a cripple?”

“I’m not a cripple,” Weston said.

“You look like a cripple! You walk like a cripple! Yes, I’d definitely say you’re a cripple!”

“You’re a no-good, retarded piece of shit!” Weston shrieked. “Your whole family is shit! You live in a junkyard! You have so many brothers and sisters you don’t know how many there are!”

“You leave my family out of it!” Freddy said.

He hit Weston on the side of the head with his fist. The blow knocked Weston all the way off the sidewalk into the street. I could see right away that his eyes were closed and he wasn’t moving. I thought he was dead.

“Look what you did!” I yelled at Freddy.

“Serves him right! For disrespecting my family!”

Freddy ran off up the street, like the coward he was, but I could tell he was scared.

I couldn’t leave Weston lying there in the street. He really was knocked out. I had never seen anybody knocked out before.

He wasn’t faking it, either. He had a brain concussion and a fractured jaw. He was in the hospital for a few days. I had never seen him look so bad. He couldn’t move around much because he was so dizzy.

“What about that asshole Freddy Lucy?” he asked me when I visited him in his hospital room.

“He’s in plenty of trouble,” I said. “I think he might be expelled from school. They might even send him to reform school.”

“That’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time!” Weston said.

“I told them everything that happened, that we just wanted to pass by on the sidewalk, and Freddy came along and started picking on us.”

“He’ll probably beat the shit out of you for telling on him!

“Let him try! I’m not afraid of him!”

But I was a little afraid of what Freddy would do to me when he got the chance. I thought about some little weapon I might use as a deterrent if he confronted me.

“He’ll end up in the state penitentiary one of these days,” Weston said.

“Surest thing you know!” I said.

“They’ll fry his evil ass in the electric chair, and when they do I’d love to have a front-row seat!”

Weston was out for weeks this time. When he came back to school, they said he was so far behind in his schoolwork he’d have to repeat the eighth grade. We’d no longer have classes together and would no longer be best friends. I hoped, though, that fate would be kinder to him on the next go-round.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Queen Victoria’s Soldiers

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1906 ~ Newport News, Virginia

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