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Universal Pictures’ Frankenstein Monster, an appreciation Posted - Oct 14, 2017

Thanks for the many responses to “The Metaphysical Club.” Some blogs go out that I think will generate a lot of responses, and I hear nothing back. I was worried about “The Metaphysical Club” because it was more of a think piece. So I was gratified with hearing from so many of you. What follows is hardly a think piece, but rather a bit of fluff fit for the Halloween season now upon us.


There’s Frankenstein and there’s Frankenstein. There is a difference. There’s the classic Frankenstein movies of Universal Pictures, made between 1931 and 1948, and there’s all the rest. The classic Frankenstein monster, as played by Boris Karloff—with flattop head and electrodes protruding from the neck—is instantly recognizable. The Monster’s image has become so ingrained in the American consciousness that Universal Pictures had it copyrighted. Which means that should another studio decide to make a Frankenstein movie, like the series filmed by London’s Hammer Studios in the ‘50s and‘60s, the monster can’t look anything like Universal Pictures’ famed Monster. As a result, the Frankenstein Monsters of rival studios look like, well, monsters—grotesque, repulsive, forgettable.

The Universal Pictures’ Frankenstein Monster, on the other hand, was anything but. Much to Universal’s dismay—and delight—movie goers identified with their Monster. They viewed him as a kind of scary but very cool friend. In the movie, the Monster threatened superstitious villagers and wary constables while children saw past the scary image to the child within the awkward presence. To them, he was not a monster but a playmate and friend. In the minds of movie-goers, the Monster was merely someone who was misunderstood. In fact, the Monster was arguably Hollywood’s first antihero—frustrated and angry with society’s demand for conformity and scorn for anything that dares to be different. However unpredictable and dangerous, the Frankenstein Monster merely wanted to be loved, something everyone could understand.

Once Universal Pictures realized what they had, they began making monster movies with regularity—The Bride of Frankenstein, The Son of Frankenstein, The Ghost of Frankenstein, etc., until 1948. By then, the poor Monster had become a parody of himself, hapless and utterly non-threatening. The final movie in the series, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, was a comedy. After that, Universal Pictures had nothing left in the tank. The series expired not with cries of anguish but with peals of laughter. Still, Universal was taking no chances. Before closing the books on what had been a most profitable franchise, they copyrighted the Monster’s image. It amounted to a curse on all future efforts by rival studies. Scores of Frankenstein movies have been made since but none have stirred the public’s imagination in quite the same way. In the 1990s, the face of Universal’s iconic monster appeared on postage stamps issued by the United States Postal Service. One memorable Halloween season McDonald’s offered a Frankenstein action figure with their Happy Meals. Yes, Universal’s famed Monster has become as familiar as Coca Cola and as American as apple pie.

As Halloween day approaches and these movies make their annual showing on cable TV once again, a few pointers are warranted. The best Frankenstein movies produced by Universal Pictures are the first three, all starring Boris Karloff as the legendary monster. These are the movies with the best scripts, the best directors, and the best cast. The other five are decidedly B-movies that have their grisly charm. The following is a review of the series:

FRANKENSTEIN (1931) — The story is age old. Acting out the role of God, man creates a man that he cannot control and ultimately must destroy. Mary Shelley wrote the novel, and Universal Pictures ran with it, creating a gothic castle filled with a shocking array of electronic gadgets that crackled and sparked and gave life to a hulking being stitched together from body parts exhumed from the local graveyard—unwittingly fitted with the brain of a criminal. All credit to director James Whale who despite a shoestring budget saw the possibilities and let his imagination run wild, and to the ingenious makeup artist who modeled the monster’s head after a robot’s. Another inspired decision was casting Colin Clive as the urbane and tormented scientist, Doctor Heinrich Frankenstein, and Boris Karloff as the equally tormented Monster. Four stars (ratings by movie critic Leonard Martin).

THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) — With success came a bigger budget, and lovely-quirky Elsa Lanchester as both author Mary Shelley and as the monster’s made-to-order bride—with electro-shock hair. Returning director James Whale scuttled the original script and produced a movie that exceeded the original and has since been hailed as among Hollywood’s finest movies ever made. Colin Clive returns as the tormented scientist, Boris Karloff as the tormented Monster, and Ernest Thesiger as bizarre Doctor Septimus Pretorius, Heinrich Frankenstein’s former teacher and mentor, who pressures the beleaguered scientist into creating a mate for the Monster. The boys in the special effects department had a field day, creating an even more elaborate laboratory with a dazzling array of electronic gizmos to delight the deranged, including the "Cosmic Ray Diffuser" and the “Nebularium.” The special effects lightning storm that feeds electricity into the laboratory became a stock feature of horror films to come. Four stars.

THE SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) — Director James Whale had moved on but Boris Karloff was back as the Monster, with dapper Basil Rathbone as the late Doctor’s son, Wolf Frankenstein. He returns from school in America to clear the family name by making the Monster “good.” Bela Lugosi of Dracula fame shows up as the crazed shepherd, Ygor, the Monster’s keeper. Lionel Atwill, who will appear in four more Frankenstein movies, is memorable as Inspector Krogh, with an artificial arm in place of the limb the Monster ripped from his shoulder years before. The movie builds to a suitably climatic scene but lacks the suspense of the earlier films. This was Boris Karloff’s last appearance as the Monster. Basil Rathbone is heroic as the misguided son with much to learn about monsters and angry villagers and crazed shepherds named Ygor. His next starring role would be as Sherlock Holmes in “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Three stars.

THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942) — The first of the B-movies, with Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Monster and Bela Lugosi reprising his role as Ygor. This time Sir Cedric Hardwick plays the misguided scientist, Ludvig Frankenstein, Wolf’s brother. And like his brother, he wants to make the Monster “good”—by way of a brain transplant. Won’t those Frankensteins ever learn? Lionel Atwill returns, this time as Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant, Dr. Theodore Bohmer. One thing leads to another, and Ygor’s tortured brain gets mistakenly transplanted into the Monster’s skull, with predictable results. Hardwick doubles as the ghost of Heinrich Frankenstein, the Monster’s deceased creator, who appears with words of wisdom that—surprise, surprise—aren’t so wise. Two and a half stars.

FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN (1943) — The best of the Frankenstein B-movies. Bela Lugosi is back once again, this time as the Monster; Lon Chaney, Jr. is back, too, as the Wolfman; and Lionel Atwill, too, surely wondering who at Universal he had ticked off to be cast in yet another episode of the Frankenstein series, this time as the village mayor. The Frankenstein clan is represented by a woman, Ludvig’s lovely blonde daughter, Elsa Frankenstein, played by Ilona Massey. She’s the sensible one in the family. She knows where Ludvig’s diary is kept, the one containing the secrets of creating life, but she’s not telling—until coerced. The diary ends up in the hands of a yet another misguided scientist who thinks he can make the monster “good.” The climatic scene features a light show of electronic machinery gone awry, torch-carrying villagers seeking revenge, and a knock-down-drag-out fight between the Monster and the Wolfman. Three stars.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) — Boris Karloff returns, not as the Monster but as demented Dr. Gustav Nieman. And poor Lionel Atwill is back, too, as Inspector Arnz. Cowboy star Glenn Strange plays the Monster. Lon Chaney, Jr. reprises his role as the Wolfman. And John Carradine plays an elegant and charming Count Dracula. Too bad he doesn’t survive the first act. As in the previous two pictures, Lon Chaney, Jr., as Larry Talbot, is trying to find a doctor who can cure him of the regrettable habit of turning into a werewolf every full moon. He finds the cure—a silver bullet through the heart that kills him—not quite what he had in mind. The Monster’s strength is revived in the laboratory with an infusion of electricity, the villagers arrive bearing torches, and the movie ends with the Monster dragging Karloff into the woods where both perish in a quicksand grave. Two and a half stars.

HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945) — Those Universal Monsters just won’t stay dead. Lon Chaney, Jr., Glenn Strange, and John Carradine are back, reprising their roles as the Wolfman, the Frankenstein Monster, and the Vampire. Lionel Atwill is back too, this time as Inspector Holtz. The plot revolves around yet another misguided scientist, Dr. Franz Edelman (Onslow Stevens) who is called upon to cure both Lawrence Talbot (the Wolfman) and Count Dracula (the Vampire). He succeeds with Talbot, but goes mad from a blood transfusion with the Vampire. The Vampire is killed from exposure to sunlight. The Monster is found in the cave beneath the Doctor’s castle. He’s brought up to the laboratory, strapped to a gurney, and revived with a surge of electricity. He breaks free for the climatic confrontation with the mad Doctor. As the villagers arrive bearing torches, the pair are destroyed in a cataclysmic fire. Two and a half stars.

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) — Yet one last gathering of Universal’s famed Monsters. Bela Lugosi reprises his role as Count Dracula, and Lon Chaney, Jr. and Glenn Strange are back as the Wolfman and the Frankenstein Monster. The movie works mainly because the monsters play it straight, leaving the comedy to Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. The film naturally concludes in a climatic laboratory scene in which the three monsters perish and Abbott and Costello escape only to encounter yet another mad Universal character, the invisible man. Three and a half stars.

Happy Halloween!

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The Metaphysical Club
Posted - Oct 01, 2017

I read the “The Metaphysical Club” some time after it was published. I turned to it again recently and found its message relevant to the toxic atmosphere that pervades Washington politics. The book was a gift from my wife. The following is the review I posted on


The Civil War changed Oliver Wendell Holmes, as it had to so many of his generation. Holmes had grown up in a highly cultivated, homogeneous world, a world of which he was, in many ways, the embodiment: idealistic, artistic, and socially committed. As a soldier, he had watched that world bleed to death on the killing fields of Fredericksburg and Antietam, in a war that learning and brilliance had failed to prevent and was powerless to stop. When he returned to his home in Boston, New England had changed, and so had American life. He would go on to become one of the most influential justices ever to sit on the bench of the Supreme Court, but he never forgot what was lost. “He told me,” said a friend, “that after the Civil War the world never seemed quite right again.”

After the war, Holmes thought about trying to make a career as a writer of philosophy, like his family friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. He decided it was not for him, and enrolled at Harvard Law School. After graduation he took up the practice of law and for about a year met informally with a group of high-brow friends who referred to themselves as “The Metaphysical Club.”

The name was something of a joke, as the group was anything but about metaphysics. Indeed, their discussions led to the creation of a branch of philosophy known as pragmatism. The most noted members, besides Holmes, were Charles Sanders Pierce (a prodigy in math, science and philosophy) and William James, three years out of medical school. “They wrangle grimly and stick to the question,” James' brother Henry wrote to a friend. “It gives me a headache merely to know of it.” The club existed only for a year (Jan. 1872 to Dec. 1872), but over the remainder of the century and into the next, Holmes, James, Pierce and their intellectual heir John Dewey wrangled with the philosophical questions that defined modern American life.

The Metaphysical Club is the subject of the 2002 Pulizer-Prize winning book “The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America,” by Louis Menand. The book covers American history in the years between the Civil War and the end of the First World War, and provides informative and compelling profiles of four giants of American thought: Holmes, James, Pierce and Dewey. The book is fascinating but often I felt awash in a world of ideas that were sometimes ponderous and tedious. My ignorance, I’m sure. But with Holmes as my guiding light (of whom I was most familiar) I pushed on to finish an enlightening book.

Menand defines pragmatism as “an account of the way people think—they come up with ideas, form beliefs and reach decisions” in a world “shot through with contingency,” a world in which Darwinian chance rather than providential design determines outcomes. “The challenge, if there is no higher ‘truth’ or ‘good’ out there waiting to be discovered, is to determine how people can distinguish right from wrong, decide how to act or choose what to believe.”

The lesson Holmes took from the war—and that of his New England friends—can be summed up in one sentence. It is that certitude leads to violence. “This is a proposition that has an easy application and a difficult one,” writes the author. The easy application is to ideologues, dogmatists, and bullies. These are the people who believe they are right and anyone who opposes them is not only wrong but probably evil. Writes the author: “If the condition of rightness is powerful enough, resistance to it will be met, sooner or later by force. There are people like this in every sphere of life, and it is natural to feel that the world would be a better place without them.”

Holmes, however, did not believe that the world would be better off without them, because he thought that everyone was like this, including himself, and “this is the difficult part of his belief about certitude and violence,” writes Menand. “It is easy to condemn unwarranted certainty in others; we are always confident that people we disagree with would be improved by a little self-doubt. We even remind ourselves, in our better moments, to be skeptical of our own convictions. In the end, though, there just are some things that we are certain about. We have beliefs we cannot help feeling are valid.” In Holmes’ youth, it was the abolition movement that made him want to take up arms in the name of what he thought was right. “When that day came, nothing could save him from the resort to violence, not even the knowledge that what he was fighting, in the end, was a preference,” writes the author.

The only solution to such personal convictions was tolerance. And this is the core belief of Holmes, James, Pierce and Dewey. “Though we may believe unreservedly in a certain set of truths, there is always the possibility that some other set of truths might be the case,” writes Menard in summing up the thinking of the Metaphysical Club. “In the end, we have to act on what we believe; we cannot wait for confirmation from the universe. But the moral justification for actions comes from the tolerance we have shown to other ways of being in the world, other ways of considering the case. The alternative is force. Pragmatism was designed to make it harder for people to be driven to violence by their beliefs.”

For Holmes, in one of his greatest Supreme Court opinions, this meant allowing the widest possible latitude of free speech, even speech we strongly disagree with. This was one of the lessons the Civil War had taught him and the others. Democracy isn’t just about letting the right people have their say; it’s also about letting the wrong people have their say. “It’s about giving space to minority and dissenting opinions that, at the end of the day, the interests of the majority may prevail. Indeed, the idea is not to stop the dialogue among competing factions, but to keep it going. Democracy means that everyone is equally in the game, but it also means that no one can opt out. In modern American thought—the thought associated with Holmes, James, Pierce, and Dewey—tolerance is the saving grace.

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John Marshall, on his birthday
Posted - Sep 17, 2017

September 24 is John Marshall’s birthday. By nearly all accounts, John Marshal is our greatest Supreme Court Chief Justice. A goodly number of his words issued from the bench have been chiseled in stone, but he was anything but a marble man, as the following will attest. It’s a letter to his to wife written while riding circuit in South Carolina:

Raleigh Jany 2nd 1803

“My dearest Polly

“You will laugh at my vexation when you hear the various calamities that have befallen me. In the first plan when I came to review my funds, I had the mortification to discover that I had lost 15 silver dollars out my waist coat pocket. They had worn through the various mendings they had sustained & sought their liberty in the sands of Carolina.

“I determined not to vex myself with what could not be remedied & ordered (our son) Peter to take out my clothes that I might dress for court when to my astonishment & grief after fumbling several minutes in the portmanteau, staring at vacancy & sweating most profusely he turned to me with the doleful tidings that I had no pair of breeches. You may be sure this piece of intelligence was not very graciously received; however, after a little scolding I determined to make the best of my situation & immediately set out to get a pair made.

“I thought I would be sans culotte only one day . . . but not a tailor in town could be prevailed on to work for me. . . . I have the extreme mortification to pass the whole time without the important article of dress I have mentioned. I have no alleviation of this misfortune but the hope that I shall be enabled in four or five days to commence my journey homeward & that I shall have the pleasure of seeing you & our dear children in eight or nine days after this reaches.

“In the meantime I flatter myself that you are well & happy.

“Adieu my dearest Polly

I am your ever affectionate

J. Marshall”

John Marshall was born in a log cabin on the Virginia frontier in 1755, and never left home until he joined Washington's army. He was home-schooled by his strong-willed father, who rose to prominence in local and state politics. There was a copy of Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism” in the little cabin, and Marshall all but memorized it. Later on he got a few months’ legal lectures at the College of William and Mary—that was all. He married, settled permanently in Richmond, and by character and brilliance rose to prominence in the bar. He served briefly as secretary of state under John Adams; Adams then appointed him chief justice of the Supreme Court. Years later, Adams wrote: ”My gift of John Marshall to the people of the United States was the proudest act of my life.”

At the time of Marshall’s appointment (1801), the Supreme Court was supreme in name only. It met in a dank, cramped 24-by-30-foot committee room in the basement of the Capitol building. The nation’s highest court had little power, and was despised by President Thomas Jefferson. How did Marshall make the Judicial Branch of government the equal of the Executive and Legislative Branches? By picking a Constitutional issue so trivial as to seem ridiculous, and decided it in a way that gave Jefferson a "victory" while asserting the court's own right to overthrow acts of Congress that conflicted with the United States Constitution. This was Marbury v. Madison (1803), the landmark case that established the precedent of Judicial Review.


There followed a series of decisions that cemented the rule of law, the sanctity of property, the corporation clothed like an individual, the rights of expanding U.S. capitalism, and the supremacy of the federal government. Politically motivated decisions? Jefferson thought so. He appointed judges of different persuasion to the court, only to have the charismatic Marshall make converts of them all. Marshall made their living arrangements in the backwoods capital a kind of cozy bachelor's club, where the judges lived, ate, and studied court cases together. The pleasant atmosphere coupled with Marshall's humor and congeniality discouraged bitter disagreement. As new judges replaced old, Marshall won them all over, confounding the presidents who appointed them.

For 35 years, and five presidential administrations, John Marshall’s was the voice of the Supreme Court. Marshall rarely cited cases. He launched his opinions as though they were inevitable deductions from self-evident propositions. When a legal precedent was called for, he would ask Justice Joseph Story—a renowned legal scholar—to find the appropriate citations. “There, Story; that is the law in this case; now go and find the authorities.”

“By a few opinions—a mere handful—he gave institutional direction to the inert ideas of a paper scheme of government. . . . His opinions had the persuasiveness of compelling simplicity.” — Justice Felix Frankforter

“There fell to Marshall perhaps the greatest place that was ever filled by a judge.” — Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes

“He exercised a magnetic force on his Court contemporaries and on his time. All greatness has a historical reference, a context. The question is what a man does with it. It is hard to envisage any other judge doing as much as Marshall did, and with his unmistakable flourish of grandeur.” — Max Lerner, professor, syndicated columnist, and author


“We must never forget that it is a Constitution we are expounding.”

“This provision is made in a Constitution, intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.”

“It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is . . . If two laws conflict with each other, the courts must decide on the operation of each. . . . This is the very essence of judicial duty.”

“Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the Constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the Constitution, are constitutional.”

“The very essence of civil liberty certainly consists in the right of every individual to claim the protection of the laws, whenever he receives an injury. One of the first duties of government is to afford that protection.”

“The government of the United States has been emphatically termed a government of laws, and not of men. It will certainly cease to deserve this high appellation, if the laws furnish no remedy for the violation of a vested legal right.”

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A Movement Led By Ministers
Posted - Sep 04, 2017

Anyone who knows John Lewis, or is familiar with his role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, is aware that this is no ordinary person. Lewis is a man of undeniable integrity and inner strength, who triumphed over unspeakable brutality. He was beaten many times, and arrested and jailed 40 times for no other reason than standing up for his rights as an American citizen. What makes him unusual—as with many who partook in the Movement—is that he forgave his attackers–not partially, but completely and whole-heartedly. “We were consciously aware that unity was our ultimate goal, and if that was truly our aim, we had come to grips with the fact that after all the warring was done, reconciliation, love, and forgiveness would have the final say.” Lewis is living testament that love triumphs over hate.

Lewis’s book, ACROSS THAT BRIDGE (2012), discusses what it was like to be brought up in the Deep South in the days of Jim Crow, of being the son of a poor share cropper, of barely getting by, living on hand-me-downs, attending second-rate schools, seeing his father whom he loved and respected being referred to as “boy” and ordered around whenever he set foot in town. Living such an existence was more than degrading, it was dehumanizing. It tried to rob people of their self-worth, their self-respect, and their dignity as human beings. The people Lewis grew up with were impoverished, yet “these people were actually rich,” he says, “rich in character and rich in faith. They may have been denied the most basic material resources, but they did not lack the drive.”

Hearing a speech on the radio by Martin Luther King Jr., encouraged Lewis to join the Civil Rights Movement. “(King) was preaching about the responsibility of Christians to respond to the injustices of segregation,” remembers Lewis. “He was delivering the message I had prayed to hear.” Further on, Lewis writes: “It was no accident that the movement was led primarily by ministers—not politicians, presidents, or even community activists—but ministers first, who believed they were called to the work of civil rights as an expression of their faith.” King and others, including Lewis, studied the power of nonviolent resistance as practiced by Mohandas Gandhi and adopted into their faith.

“We not only had grown together as we discovered the transformative power of nonviolent resistance, but we had risked our lives to see its truth manifested before our eyes.” Protest marches, sit-ins, freedom rides drew the rage of Southern whites who attacked with billy clubs, lead pipes, rocks, bricks, and attack dogs, to no avail. “After the initial fear, each protest became an exercise in freedom instead of a cause for alarm.”

Among the many marches that drew the nation’s attention, the most significant was the march from Selma to Montgomery. The focal point, as it turned out, was the horrific violence reigned down on the marchers as they attempted to cross Edmund Petus Bridge. “We were silent,” says Lewis. “Just six-hundred of us walking in quiet persistence. To me, it felt like a holy march. . . . I had made peace with the understanding that if I died on that bridge, I would have offered my life in contribution to an effort that was larger than myself.” They didn’t make it across the bridge that day, but would a few weeks later. The 600 peaceful protestors would grow to 10,000 by the time they reached their destination, Montgomery, the capital of Alabama.

Among the chapters in the book is one entitled “Patience.” Among the subjects is The National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. From its inception until the time of its creation, exactly 100 years elapsed. The setbacks were many, and the project was thought dead many times, but persistence and patience—lots of patience—and at last the museum opened its doors in 2015. As fate would have it, Lewis, elected to Congress in 1986, played a significant role in seeing the project be restarted, properly funded, designed and built. “Patience is a guiding light in all the work of change,” says Lewis.

The following are a few quotes that struck me as significant while reading this book:

“Faith, to me, is knowing in the solid core of your soul that the work is already done, even as an idea is being conceived in your mind.”

“We had nothing to prove. Our worth had already been established before we were born. Our protests are an affirmation of this faith, and our belief that we could never be separated from the truth.”

“We in the movement decided to actualize our belief that the hatred we experienced was not based on any truth, but was actually an illusion in the minds of those who hated us.”

“Our approach was not passive, as some believed; it was uncompromising.”

“(E)very change in the world starts within. It begins with one individual who envisions his or her micro-universe the way it can be, and settles for nothing less.”

“Being willing to withstand their rage, to serve as a reflection in which they could see themselves, was actually an act of compassion and love that helped release millions of white Southerners from the burdens inherent in the work of hate.”

“Darkness cannot overcome darkness, only light can do that. Violence can never overcome violence, only peace can do that. Hate can never overcome hate, only love can do that.”

This is a beautiful book. It’s proof positive that there is an active moral force in the universe guiding the hearts of those willing to listen—and willing to act.

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Work of My Sons

Morning Softly - Water Echoes Movement
-Released in 2014. Bill made guitar riffs and synth tracks at home, got Lya Finston to write some lyrics and sing, and got Scott to provide some bass.

Morning Softly - Early Eerie Feeling
-Recorded in 2014. Songs written by Bill, at home. Synthesizers were added later. Some drumming done by Brendan Lenihan.

Scott Nisley - Brick City Skies
-Released in 2014. With his piano melodies and vocals, Scott entrusted the production of his album to several studio musicians.

The 45's - Roof-Hopping
-Recorded in 2010. A collaborative effort between Scott and Bill Nisley, Adam Sherman, and Zach Belka.

Oh, Yeah...

Richard Nisley's Brothers in Cars
Thanksgiving Day, 1967. From L to R: my brothers David, Charles, and Rob. Photo by John Nisley.
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