Monthly Archives: December 2017

Trumpelstiltskin

The Elephant was morose.  His followers did not love him.  True, they helped him control two of the Great Circus’ three rings, but the grandest ring of all eluded him.  “How I dream of living in the Gilded Palace in the Center Ring!” he said.  The Gilded Palace was the residence of the Circus Master.  The Elephant could live in the Gilded Palace if his followers would place him there, but his followers did not love him and their friends did not trust him.  “I could live in the Gilded Palace if only my followers and their friends loved me,” said the Elephant.

Suddenly, in a cloud of sulfur and expensive cologne, there appeared a strange, impish creature with hair like a haystack, a pricey suit that fit him like burlap stuffed with cotton, and a long, red tie that lapped against his shoes.  “You want your followers to love you, do you?” asked the straw-haired Imp.  “I can make them love you, as well as their friends.  So many will love you that you will live in the Gilded Palace forever!”

“I could live in the Gilded Palace forever?” exclaimed the Elephant.  “But that is the Circus Master’s house and I am only an elephant.”  “I know,” replied the Imp.  “I know what elephants look like.  My sons have been to Africa.  But you will live there, nonetheless.”

“How?” asked the Elephant, nearly knocking the Imp over with a blast of his peanutty breath.  “I will do anything.”  The Imp grinned.  “Anything?”  “Anything,” said the Elephant, rubbing his right tusk with his trunk.  “Tell me,” said the Imp, “Do you have any straw?”  “I’m an elephant,” said the Elephant.  “Point taken,” said the Imp.  “Bring me one quarter of your straw.”  “My straw?” asked the Elephant.  “Why do you need my straw, straw-haired little imp?”

“Bring me one quarter of your straw and I’ll spin it into gold,” said the Imp.  “You can give the gold to your followers and they will love you.”  The mesmerized elephant leaned forward and accidentally stepped on his trunk.  “But I have a request,” said the Imp.  “If I spin your straw into gold, you must invite me to your debates.  Will you grant my wish?”  “Yes,” said the Elephant, rubbing his sore trunk.  “Door bish id by cobbadd.”

The Elephant delivered one quarter of his straw to the Imp, who began to spin.  He spun and he spun and he spun and he spun.  The Elephant had never seen anybody spin like the Imp, who asked him to leave during the final spin.  After a while the Imp emerged from the locked room.  “I have spun your straw into gold,” he told the Elephant.  “I locked it in my personal vault so nobody can steal it from you.”  “Can I see it?” asked the Elephant.  “I need to give it to my followers so they will love me and I can live in the Gilded Palace.”

“You cannot live in the Gilded Palace,” said the Imp.  “Your followers don’t have the numbers to get you there.  You need their friends.  Make their friends love you as well and you will live in the Gilded Palace.”  “How can I make their friends love me?” asked the Elephant.  “Give more gold to your followers and they will share it,” said the Imp.  “Then you can live in the Gilded Palace.  Give me half your remaining straw to spin into gold.  Then you will have gold for your followers and their friends.”  “What else must I give?” asked the Elephant, warily.  “You must invite me to your Great Meeting,” said the Imp.  “You must introduce me to everybody there.”  The Elephant brought the Imp more straw and he took it into the room and began to spin.

When the Great Meeting took place, the Elephant’s friends loved the Imp.  He promised them he, and only he, could make the circus great again.  The Elephant became jealous of the Imp’s popularity and suspicious of his motives.  “Where is the gold?” asked the Elephant.  “How can I live in the Gilded Palace when my followers love you more than me?”  “Don’t worry,” said the Imp.  “Your followers and their friends will never love you enough to award you the Gilded Palace.  But give me the rest of your straw to spin into gold and I will make your followers and their friends wealthy and happy and they will give me the Palace.  Then you will live there as well, even though you’re an Elephant.  It will be beautiful.  Believe me.”  The Elephant gave the Imp the rest of his straw.

When the Imp promised to make the Elephant’s followers and friends rich with gold he spun from straw, they awarded him the Gilded Palace.  The Imp moved into the Gilded Palace and invited all his friends, but the Elephant was not invited.  He confronted the Imp and demanded to live in the Gilded Palace.  “I’m sorry,” said the Imp.  “You can’t.  I gave your room to the Bear.  I’m sure you understand.  But, we made the circus great again, didn’t we?”  The Elephant nodded.  “Can I at least have my gold?”  he asked.  “Where is my gold?”  “Here is the key to the vault,” said the Imp.  The Elephant grabbed the key and headed for the locked vault.  He opened the door and walked in.  There before him was a huge room filled with golden – straw.

The Elephant lashed his trunk against his tusks.  “It’s only straw,” he wailed, “nothing but straw!”  The Imp feared the wrath of the Elephant and his followers.  “I will distract them with my brilliance,” he said.  Whereupon, he walked into the vault, struck a match, and set the straw on fire.

© 2017 by Mike Tully


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The Whiffenpoof Song

(I first wrote this column on December 7, 2003 and have reprised it annually on Pearl Harbor Day to commemorate the Greatest Generation and the late Joe Tully, my Father.  – Mike Tully)

The choir assembled when Hell stormed the Lord’s Day on December 7th, 1941.  It reconvenes every annual remembrance of that first gathering.  Every year the choir grows.  Those who join these days are gray, bent, proud and too frequently forgotten.  But their voices, when mingled with those more ancient, reach the stars.  We raise our glasses to the ones who didn’t make it through on this day, and they silently return our toast.  Silently, that is, but for the echoes of an anthem of the Greatest Generation.

From the tables down at Mory’s, to the place where Louie dwells,
To the dear old Temple bar we love so well.

I hear it on this day, that strange echoing Kipling parody that Dad would break into three Cuba Libres after sunset.  The song had the same resonance as his war stories, his matter of fact admission that caves were sealed on his orders, trapping Japanese combatants in a grave of dwindling oxygen.  Dad said he never pointed a weapon and killed during the war.  He merely gave orders and men died.  The only weapon he brought home was a sword taken from the battlefield that hangs in our library.  He never brought firearms home.  My Dad, who hunted with weapons for sustenance in his childhood and carried weapons in the Pacific Theater, would not have them in the house.

Sang the whiffenpoofs assembled with their glasses raised on high
And the magic of their singing casts its spell.

When I was a boy, I imagined the whiffenpoofs some manner of secret society that met furtively at Mory’s, or the Temple Bar, or wherever Louie dwells.  I didn’t know the song was a spoof of Kipling’s self-indulgent “Gentlemen Rankers.”  All I knew was that Dad must have emptied glasses while belting its verses in some local iteration of the Temple Bar, maybe in dusty old Tucson, maybe in a jungle best forgotten.  Whatever the inspiration, his singing cast a spell.

Yes the magic of their singing,
Of the songs we love so well:
“Shall I Wasting” and “Mavourneen” and the rest!
We will serenade our Louie,
Til health and voices fail,

What a carpe diem statement!   I think that is what grabbed me, young as I was, still unschooled in death and loss.  We will serenade our Louie Til health and voices fail.  Damn!  Of course!  Why not!  Sing it now, sing it loud, sing it proud.  We shall never grow old!

“Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end.”
         – Gene Raskin, recorded by Mary Hopkin, 1970

The choir sings “the songs we love so well” every December 7th and every succeeding choir is louder and stronger than those that sang before.  The Whiffenpoof choir has grown by more than a factor of ten since then and adds members every year.

And we’ll pass and be forgotten with the rest.

There are few of them left now, stragglers on history’s beach, keeping their memories and songs alive until they join the choir.  It is fitting, I think, that they revered “The Whiffenpoof Song” and adopted it in tavern lore throughout the land.  Fitting, because it is common-man self-deprecating, no longer an ode to the glories of soldierhood, but an ode to time spent with those we love, in whatever Temple Bar we love so well.  This is what sanctifies The Greatest Generation:  they celebrate their ordinariness.  When they saved the world, they didn’t come home to raise hell.   They came home to raise kids.  They didn’t think of themselves as heroes.  The heroes were the ones who didn’t make it back.

We are poor little lambs
Who have lost our way,
Baa!  Baa!  Baa!
We are little, black sheep
Who have gone astray!
Baa! Baa! Baa!

 The Kipling parody of 1910 had a very different meaning after the two World Wars of the 20th century.  War had made “black sheep” of the finest of the Whiffenpoof men.  Unlike the regretful supplicants of Kipling’s work, the Whiffenpoof men had not joined military service because they were black sheep.  Quite the contrary.  They joined because they were Americans, and not all of them joined voluntarily.  War made black sheep of all of them.

My Dad sang “The Whiffenpoof Song” and I heard the echoes of regret and mortality in his song.  We were all lost sheep, that is what he meant when he sang, and he sometimes seemed the lostest sheep of all.

Once, during one of my visits to the Memorial of the U.S.S. Arizona in Pearl Harbor, I watched an elderly Japanese lady toss a lei made of orchids onto the oily surface of the waters that barely cover the sad old hulk.  The flowered lei danced and bobbed in the calm Pacific as the oil from the wreck wrote mute rainbows in the waters around it.  I quietly thanked the Japanese lady for sharing her prayer. 

If you have not visited the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor I advise you to do so as soon as you can, because the survivors are dwindling in number.  They will share the visit with you.  They still make the pilgrimage, American, Japanese, and others.

But, the ones who lived it are joining the chorus.  Soon, they will all be gone and with them, the memory of what it was like to save the world.  The sky will be filled with voices every December 7th but the land will be silent.  The Greatest Generation will have passed and been forgotten with the rest.

As long as I have breath I will salute them on this day.

Gentlemen songsters off on a spree
Damned from here to eternity
Lord have mercy on such as we!
Baa! Baa! Baa!

 © 2017 by Mike Tully


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