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An Encyclopedia of Los Angeles Posted - Feb 05, 2018
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husband’s necks. . . .”

The above is from “The Red Wind.” It’s among the most quoted passages by mystery writer Raymond Chandler. Chandler’s novels and short stories have been called “an encyclopedia of Los Angeles.” The City of Angels is more a state of mind than an actual place, as Chandler demonstrates in the following:

“I used to like this town. A long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverly Hills was a country town. Westwood was bare hills and lots offering at eleven-hundred dollars and no takers. Hollywood was a bunch of frame houses on the inter-urban line. Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style. . . . It had the climate they just yap about now. People used to sleep out on porches. Little groups who thought they were intellectual used to call it the Athens of America. It wasn’t that, but it wasn’t a neon-lighted slum either.”

The voice is that of Phillip Marlow, the hard-boiled private detective who inhabits the mean streets of Chandler’s Los Angeles. Marlow’s cynical voice recalls that of actor Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” and “The Big Sleep,” the latter based on the novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler.

“We’ve got the flash restaurants and night clubs . . . the riffraff of a big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup. . . . Real cities have something else, some individual bony structure under the muck. Los Angeles has Hollywood—and hates it. It ought to consider itself damn lucky. Without Hollywood it would be a mail order city. Everything in the catalogue you could get better somewhere else.”

When Raymond Chandler spun his best yarns, from 1933 to 1943, the Los Angeles Basin was a vast, arid, patchwork of farms, oil fields and small towns, connected by a network of two-lane highways. Los Angeles was the center, growing in fits and starts beside a riverbed that was dry ten months out of the year. Hollywood, Santa Monica and the Pacific Ocean were to the west; Long Beach, Wilmington, and Signal Hill with its forest of oil derricks and rotten-egg smells, to the south; Pasadena, San Bernardino, and orange groves as far as the eye could see, to the east; and the rural San Fernando Valley and more orange groves to the north. Chandler connected the whole in his seven novels, and dozens of short stories that appeared in pulp fiction magazines. The following is a night ride along the Santa Monica Bay, from “The Big Sleep.”

“We drove away . . . through a series of little dank beach towns with shack-like houses down on the sand close to the rumble of surf and larger houses built back on the shapes behind. A yellow window shone here and there, but most of the houses were dark. A smell of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog. The tires sang on the moist concrete of the boulevard. The world was a wet vast emptiness. . . .”

Marlow had his office (“my doghouse”) in a rundown Los Angeles office building, as described in “The Little Sister”: “The pebbled glass door panel is lettered in flaked black paint: ‘Phillip Marlow . . . Investigations.’ It is a reasonably shabby door at the end of a reasonably shabby corridor, in the sort of building that was new about the year the all-tile bathroom became the basis of civilization. The door is locked, but next door to it is another door with the same legend which is not locked. Come on in—there’s nobody in here but me and a big bluebottle fly. But not if you’re from Manhattan, Kansas.”

In “The High Window” he describes the world outside his office. “It was getting dark outside now. The rushing sound of the traffic had died a little and the air from the open window, not yet cool from the night, had that tired end-of-the day smell of dust, automobile exhaust, sunlight rising from the hot walls and sidewalks, the remote smell of food in a thousand restaurants and perhaps, drifting down from the residential hills above Hollywood—if you had a nose like a hunting dog—a touch of that peculiar tomcat smell that eucalyptus trees give off in warm weather.”

The following (from “The Little Sister”) is a particular favorite of mine. It’s a road trip out of Hollywood that goes through the San Fernando Valley to Ventura County before swinging south back to L.A. along the coast, a journey of about seventy miles.

“I drove east on Sunset but didn’t go home. At La Brea I turned north and swung over to Highland, out over Cahuenga Pass and down to Ventura Boulevard, past Studio City and Sherman Oaks and Encino. There was nothing lonely about the trip. There never is on that road. Fast boys in stripped down Fords shot in and out of traffic streams, missing fenders by a sixteenth of an inch, but somehow always missing them. Tired men in dusty coupes and sedans winced and tightened their grip on the wheel and sloughed on north and west towards home and dinner, an evening with the sports page, the blatting of the radio, the whining of their spoiled children and the gabble of their silly wives.

“I drove on past the gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colors, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with the chipper hard-eyed car-hops, the brilliant counters, and the sweaty greasy kitchens that would have poisoned a toad. Great double trucks rumbled down over Sepulveda from Wilmington and San Pedro and crossed towards the Ridge Route, starting up in low-low from the traffic lights with a growl of lions in the zoo.

“Behind Encino an occasional light winked from the hills through thick trees. . . . The air got cooler. The highway narrowed. The cars were so few now that the headlights hurt. The grade rose against chalk walls and at the top a breeze, unbroken from the ocean, danced casually across the night. . . .

“I drove on to the Oxnard cut-off and turned back toward the ocean. The big eight-wheelers and sixteen-wheelers were streaming north, all hung over with orange lights. On the right the great fat solid Pacific trudging into shore like a scrubwoman going home. No moon, no fuss, hardly a sound of the surf. No smell. None of the harsh wild smell of the sea. A California night. . . .

“I saw Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled stale and old like a living room that had been closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights. Fifties stories high, solid in marble. There’s a boy who really made something out of nothing.”

Want more? Try one of Chandler’s Big Four: “Farewell, My Lovely, “The Lady in the Lake,” “The Big Sleep” and “The High Window.”

“Chandler stopped the Los Angeles kaleidoscope,” is how one critic described these novels. “He arrested its spinning, so confusing to most writers who have tried to see the city clearly; and then he fixed in prose of poetic intensity the brilliant bits and pieces, until we find in his ‘Big Four’ a glittering mosaic of greater Los Angeles from San Bernardino to the sea.”

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Dan Gurney, an appreciation
Posted - Jan 21, 2018
Grand Prix great Dan Gurney died January 14, 2018. He was age 86.

Three-time world champion Jackie Stewart described him as, “The ultimate racer, the best American driver ever.” A.J. Foyt said, “I never use the word legend, but in the case of Dan, he was a true legend of our sport.” Racing great Stirling Moss once said of him, “A very nice man. He looks exactly what he is, one of the few human beings I know who does.”

Gurney was America’s unofficial goodwill ambassador to Europe. For 10 years, from 1959 to 1968, he competed in Grand Prix events across the continent with class and distinction. He was admired as much for his flawless driving as for his modesty and infectious grin.

His rise to the top was meteoric. Within three years he went from Californian club racer to international driver under contract to Ferrari. In only his second F1 race, he finished second.

His greatest victory was winning Le Mans in 1967. His greatest distinction, however, was his versatility. In an 18-month span, he won races at the highest level of his sport in six different categories: Can-Am, Trans Am, Grand Prix, Sports Car Prototype, Indycar, and NASCAR. It’s a record unlikely to be rivaled, never mind surpassed.

As a driver, Gurney was remarkably gentle with cars. Penske driver Mark Donahue while part of the Ford GT40 racing team made note of this. “Gurney never used up as many brake pads or rotors as anyone else, and nobody could understand how he did it. . . . He never complained—he just got in the car and drove it. . . . Dan was always clearly superior to everyone else.”

As good as he was as a driver, he was even better at making business deals. He brought together Colin Chapman of Lotus Cars and the Ford Motor Company in a joint effort that resulted in the Lotus-Ford that revolutionized Indy racing. His association with Goodyear led the Akron tire maker to bankroll the start-up of his racing team, All-American Racers. AAR fielded the first America F1 car in 40 years to win a Grand Prix.

Cars built in Gurney’s shop dominated Indycar racing for six out of ten years— won at the Speedway three times, and finished second four times. In the 1990s, Gurney’s association with Toyota led to the creation of the Toyota Eagle that so dominated the IMSA series that it folded due to a lack of competition. AAR expanded and became a parts supplier to the aerospace industry. The company is stronger than ever, now under the management of two of his sons.

Gurney retired from driving at the end of 1970, having failed to achieve his two biggest goals—winning the F1 world championship and the Indianapolis 500. With the slightest bit of luck he would have won both at least once. Gurney’s run of bad luck was legendary, so much so that the term “Gurney Luck” is still heard in the racing world to this day— whenever a driver suffers a mechanical breakdown within sight of victory.

I had the privilege of interviewing Gurney for Vintage Racecar Journal in 2003. It was for a story about Gurney’s first F1 victory. The race was Down Under, in Australia, at an obscure airport circle named Ballarat. Such was reporting at the time that little was known about the race other than the fact that Gurney had won. In the interview, Gurney told me his car had been stolen by America G.I.s stationed nearby the night before the race.

When Gurney arrived the following morning, his car was missing. At first Gurney thought it was a prank being played on him by his teammate Graham Hill. When Hill professed innocence, a search was undertaken and Gurney’s car was found on the far side of circuit where the G.I.s had left it—crashed into a row of hay bales. Gurney luck? The car was towed back to the pits where it was hastily repaired. That afternoon, Gurney led from start to finish and won his first F1 race. While his win was overlooked at the time, it meant a great deal to him. “You don’t get that many wins. So if you do get one, why, it’s significant.”

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The Stuff of Dreams
Posted - Jan 07, 2018
Three reviews:


“Superpower: The Making of a Steam Locomotive” (Hardcover)

If you grew up with electric trains and still are a captive of the magic and majesty of the steam locomotive, this book is for you. Not only are the graphics superb, but so is the writing. Kudos to author/illustrator David Weitzman who shares our passion, and has the talent to make it come alive. While few of us know what it’s like to operate a steam locomotive, Mr. Weitzman does the next best thing—he puts us inside the high steel cab of one of these “gentle giants,” in this case the prototype A-1 Berkshire, fresh from the locomotive works in Lima, Ohio. It’s a trial run, a magnificent morning journey on the steel highway, from the industrial heart of Albany, New York, through the rising hill country of western Connecticut, to the North Adams Junction.

We experience the sights and sounds and smells of life at the controls, see the pulsating dials and multitude of levers being operated, feel the big machine hiss, groan, and lurch into motion, build up speed gradually, slow for crossings, charge over bridges, lean into long-bending curves, and behold an ever-changing panorama of farms and forests, small towns, junctions and water towers. That’s chapter one. The balance of the book is dedicated to the design and build of the A-1 locomotive, the first of more than six-hundred such 2-8-4 Berkshires that would revolutionize American railroading prior to the advent of the diesel locomotive. For us young-at-heart railroaders, the stuff of dreams.


“1964 Sheraton Thompson Special” (Hardcover)

I purchased this book in a fit of nostalgia. The day the Sheraton-Thompson Special won the Indianapolis 500, I was anything but a fan of its driver, A.J. Foyt. I was a fan of Scottish sensation Jim Clark. When I awoke the morning of the race, I fully expected Clark and his Lotus-Ford to win easily. Poor tire choice led to severe vibration from tread chunking that caused the suspension to fail and put Clark out of the race. After that the day was Foyt’s. Years later, older and experienced with what it takes to get ahead in this world, I have come to appreciate Foyt’s victory and, indeed, become a fan of SuperTex. This is a man with a lot of heart, impulsive, hot-headed, kind, generous, never petty, never a pessimist, who never gives less than his best. Foyt knows his own mind. He wants to win, no matter the odds, and no excuses. That’s what this car represents: winning. The high-tech Lotus-Fords of Clark, Dan Gurney and Bobby Marshman were quicker, and so was Rodger Wards’ less-tech Watson-Ford. Still, Foyt had a hunch. The Sheraton-Thompson Special was dated but a proven winner, still very fast, and bullet-proof. On Memorial Day, one by one the Lotuses fell by the wayside. Foyt lapped Ward and won going away.

Race cars are never finished but a work in progress. This book is mainly about the 1964 Watson Sheraton-Thompson Special—how it was designed, built and developed over time. A number of people are quoted: designer-builder A.J. Watson, chief mechanic George Bignotti, Foyt himself, and others. Donald Davidson, who is the official historian of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, did a bang-up job researching and writing this book.


“Edsel Ford and E. T. Gregorie: The Remarkable Design Team and Their Classic Fords of the 1930s and 1940s” (Paperback)

Suave, elegant E. T. “Bob” Gregorie was the man behind the flair of the classic Fords of the ’30s and ‘40s. Author Henry Dominguez interviewed Gregorie and others who worked at Ford during this time. The result is a fascinating account of how Edsel Ford managed to pry the Model T from his father’s vice-grip, withstood a heap of abuse, and transitioned the Ford Motor Company into the modern era.

The role played by Gregorie in the real-life psycho-drama between father and son was crucial. Gregory could not fight Edsel’s battles for him, but he was the rock Edsel leaned upon, in a world gone mad, of management bullies, employee harassment, paranoia, and archaic thinking. As important, Gregorie shared Edsel’s vision of cleaned-lined, low-slung automobiles. Together, they constituted a dream team that brought style to the artless Ford line-up. Gregorie’s role (which he freely admits), was to put Edsel’s ideas on paper, see them through to full-scale clay mock-ups, and then finished body designs ready for the tool-and-die makers. Gregorie did his share of original design, certainly—the famed 1940 Continental was his alone—but he couldn’t have done it without his close working relationship with Edsel Ford.

Without Edsel’s influence, it’s likely the Ford Motor Company would have continued making crude Model Ts into the 1930s and the company be snuffed out by the Great Depression, as so many auto makers were. As company president, Edsel spear-headed the transition from the Model T to the Model A, introduced color into the product line, oversaw the acquisition of the Lincoln Automobile Company, expanded the Ford line-up from one to five cars, and created the Ford Styling Department (and put Gregorie in charge).

Sadly, Edsel Ford succumbed to the same ailment as a number of Ford executives, known as “Forditis,” or stomach ulcers. In Edsel’s case, it was fatal. He died May 26, 1943, age 49. Says Gregorie: “The old man (Henry) was always an anchor around Edsel’s neck, as far as the product was concerned. The old man didn’t know a thing about design, but he was an obstruction in the way of design, and he had to be reckoned with. And that was an unfortunate situation. I think that is what ultimately killed Edsel—worrying about how to handle the old man.”

There is more to this book, about the industry, car design, and how design proceeds from simple sketches to finished cars, which is fascinating in itself. Mostly, the book is about the symbiotic, creative working relationship between Edsel Ford and E.T. Gregorie, and the stylish cars that were the result.

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Why Macho Has To Go
Posted - Dec 10, 2017
Can the world know lasting peace without equality between men and women? “Sex and World Peace,” by four acclaimed scholars (Valerie M. Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli, and Chad F. Emmet) makes a compelling case that it cannot. Throughout most of the world, women are viewed as inferior and therefore poorly treated, not just in Asia, India and Africa, but in liberal Western Cultures, including the United States. The question is to what degree.

The book covers the gamut of ill treatment, from the extreme practices of much of the world (sex selective abortions, honor killings, purdah, female genital cutting) to what is commonly accepted in western societies (unequal pay, fewer job opportunities and career advancements, sexual harassment ranging from spousal abuse and date rape, to uninvited and inappropriate touching and kissing). Throughout the world the message is the same: men are superior and therefore entitled to do what they will to women, ranging from the extreme of femicide in Guatemala to sexual harassment in the halls of the United States Congress.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that this behavior is not inbred in the human species, but is learned. According to a number of studies, men and women were equal in hunter-gatherer societies. It wasn’t until agriculture and animal husbandry became mainstays of human food supply, about 10,000 years ago, that generalized male dominance took root in human societies.

In twelfth century northwestern Europe, this began to change. Instead of parents choosing the partner for their sons and daughters to marry, the sons and daughters began to make the decision for themselves. This paved the way for the development of equal rights and individual freedom. In turn, this set the stage for the rise of sustainable democracy in human society. This explains a lot, including why democracy is frowned upon in Islamic nation-states, where the authoritarianism of government reflects the authoritarianism of men over women. This is also true in Russia and China and any number of countries where authoritarianism and tyranny reign supreme. In these countries, women are without rights.

The cost in human lives is overwhelming. According to the authors, more lives are lost through violence against women “from sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, suicide, egregious maternal mortality, and other sex-linked causes than were lost during all the wars and civil strife of the twentieth century.” This includes the nearly one-hundred million women that are missing from the populations of China and India due to similar sex-related violence. “We take this to mean,” say the authors, “that the true clash of civilizations in the future will not be over religious or cultural differences but along the fault lines between civilizations that treat women as equal members of the human species and civilizations that cannot or will not do so.”

Add to this the financial costs of holding women down. According to UNIFEM, the unpaid labor of women, if valued monetarily, would translate into about 40 percent of the world’s gross product. Furthermore, salary analysts in the United States consistently value the unpaid work of wife and mother at between $120,000 and $280,000 per year. In some parts of the world, women are the primary growers of food, especially subsistent crops. In addition, women are the providers of nearly all caring services such as elder care, and care for the ill, which are invariably priced very low in the marketplace. According to one source, women do two-thirds of the world’s work.

Add to this two crucial points: (1) with reproductive freedom, women tend to have fewer children, children that are healthier, better educated, and live longer and lead more productive lives, and, (2) according to an Inter-Parliamentary Union survey of 187 women holding public office in sixty-five countries, women’s presence in politics increases the amount of attention given social welfare, legal protection, and transparency in government and business, and 80 percent of respondents said that women’s participation restores trust in government. Indeed, the old-boy club of alpha males (where women’s input is not valued or welcomed) is more likely to take risks that bring down businesses and lead nations into war. In other words, men need women on the management team to lead businesses and governments more effectively and thereby insure better decisions in both the marketplace and in national and world politics. In order for this to happen, macho has to go.

“Sex and World Peace” is a call to action, and offers a variety of measures than can be taken now, from “Effecting Positive Change Through Top-Down Approaches” (chapter 5) and “Effecting Positive Change Through Bottom-Up Approaches” (chapter 6).

Finally, the politician who has spoken out consistently on men-women equality has been Hillary Clinton, who, ironically, lost the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump. She has said: “Give women equal rights, and entire nations are more stable and secure. Deny women equal rights and the instability of nations is almost certain. . . . The subjugation of women is, therefore, a threat to the common security of our world and to the national security of our country.”

“Sex and World Peace” was published in 2012. It’s well-footnoted, contains charts and graphs and, at 212 pages is not long. The writing is scholarly but relatively easy to read. Dealing with the personal accounts of women who have suffered abuses at the hands of men can be difficult to take, but is necessary to understanding the evils of inequality throughout the world. Five stars.

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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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