Saturday, May 12, 2012

Plants I'm Growing: First Blooms--Penstemon Heterophylla

This iridescent blue penstemon is one of my favorites. I've seen it growing wild in inland areas of northernmost California and in southern Oregon. It's tough and needs little water. First blooms of 2012 in our garden yesterday, May 11.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Miscellaneous: Obituary--Stuart Talcroft

(August 15, 1926 - February 7, 2012)

Playing chess with his father, circa 1934
Stuart Talcroft, last residing at 6433 Pine Valley Rd., in Santa Rosa, California’s Oakmont community, died on February 7, 2012, at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, at 8:10AM, following an extended battle with colorectal cancer. He was 85 years old. He is survived by his wife of more than 40 years, Nancy A. Talcroft, and two sons, Ian M. Talcroft and Colin M. Talcroft, children by his previous wife, Barbara L. Talcroft. Stuart was born August 15, 1926, in Buffalo, New York, to Alfred Charles Talcroft, originally of London, England, and Marguerite Ethel Smale, their only child. Stuart grew up mainly in Kansas City, Missouri, attending elementary school and Westport High School in that city, near the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art (today known as the Nelson-Atkins Museum), about which he always spoke fondly. 

Hugging a B.O.A.C. aircraft model, circa 1959
After his initial retirement, he worked for several years for Malm Luggage in San Francisco and Corte Madera, California, but the bulk of his business career was with British Airways, having started in 1958 on the New York reservations desk when that airline was still British Overseas Airways Corporation (B.O.A.C.). By 1965 he had become a Senior Sales Representative. He was named US Salesman of the Year in fiscal 1966/67, according to a résumé dating to the mid-1980s. In 1968, he became Deputy Sales Manager for British Airways, stationed in San Francisco. In 1970, he became a District Sales Manager, working in a number of regions of the US, with postings in Minneapolis, Hartford, Rochester, Atlanta, Cleveland, and Detroit. He retired from British Airways in 1985.

"First post-War car," a Pontiac convertible, circa 1947
Before starting a career in the travel industry, Stuart worked as an actor, associated with the ABC, NBC, and CBS broadcasting networks, with the Theater Guild, with Mutual Radio Broadcast Network, and Paramount Pictures. It was theater and film that truly interested him. His encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the cinema was well known among friends and family. A résumé from his acting days shows that he worked in radio (playing in episodes of Gunsmoke, Night Beat, Johnny Dollar, Line Up, Mr. President, Defense Attorney, Sky King, The Cisco Kid, and Red Ryder); in TV (appearing in Racket Squad and in Fireside Theater productions on film and making live appearances on Hawkins Falls, Hollywood Opening Night, Space Patrol, Hall of Fame, The Colgate Comedy Hour, and Hollywood Career); and on the stage (appearing opposite Agnes Moorehead in Come of Age, directed by Byron Kelley, in Jane Cowl’s touring production of Elizabeth the Queen, directed by Bievans Davis, and in summer and winter stock performances in La Jolla, Phoenix, Santa Monica, and at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he played 14 leads between 1948 and 1951. In summer and winter stock, he worked with performers including Vincent Price, Marsha Hunt, Victor Jory, Kurt Kasznar, Aldo Ray, and Teresa Wright. He worked as an actor during the 1955 summer stock season at the Chase Barn Playhouse, in Whitefield, NH, and was director there during the 1956 season).

Stuart served in the US Marines as a hospital corpsman in the Pacific Theater of WWII between 1944 and 1946, and was called for service with the fleet marine force during the Korean War. During both conflicts, he also worked as an entertainer on the Armed Forces Radio Service and in Special Services. Immediately after WWII, he spent a year working as a stage manager for the Martha Graham Dance Company. Between acting and his career with B.O.A.C./British Airways, Stuart worked briefly for Angel Records, today part of E.M.I.

Publicity photo, circa 1955
Stuart used to tell stories about his days as an entertainer, occasionally involving famous people—about a pleasant day spent with sculptor Isamu Noguchi moving sets for the Martha Graham Company, about Leonard Nimoy and Charles Bronson at the Pasadena Playhouse (he admired Nimoy's diligence and didn't think much of Bronson's talents), and one about riding around Hollywood with Victor Mature who had put a large phone in his car and pretended he was talking on it while driving—but mostly when watching films Stuart would point out largely unknown actors and actresses he had worked with. Watching old movies with him could be a lesson in the lesser-known personages of Hollywood.

Stuart was in many respects a self-taught man, but he was educated at Kansas City Junior College, in Kansas City, Missouri, and held an Associate Degree in Theater Arts from the Pasadena Playhouse (1950).

He had always said “Play Mahler at my funeral,” and he loved sailing. Although he was never able to indulge to his satisfaction the latter interest, the large library of books on sailing and the hand-built ship models he left behind are a testament to the depth of that interest. Stuart was cremated, according to his wishes. On March 18, his ashes were spread from a sailboat (The Hasty Heart) in San Francisco Bay, near Keil Cove, a recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 playing in the background.

Stuart Talcroft, 2009

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Plants I'm Growing: First Blooms--Scabiosa Farinosa, Salvia Sonomensis (May 8, 2012)

First blooms yesterday, May 8, on two plants in the garden, Scabiosa farinosa (pictured), and Salvia sonomensis. The scabiosa is a mounding plant with unusually thick, leathery leaves for a scabiosa. It does well in our hot summers with comparatively little supplementary water. The salvia is one native to this area--as the name suggests. The scabiosa bloomed on May 4 in 2009, April 20 in 2010, and on May 2 in 2011, calculating years of 351 days, 377 days, and 371 days, averaging to just over 366 days, or close to an actual year.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Books I'm Reading: Flowering of the Bamboo--A Bizarre Story of Murder and Cover-up in Post-War Tokyo (May 8, 2012)

It's well known that bamboos--the cicadas of the plant world--bloom only at long intervals and then die. Biologists believe this strategy works because such long periods precede production of seed that no animals evolve to rely on the seed as a regular food source. It was at first unclear to me why author William Triplett chose his title. Among the documents reproduced at the back of the book there is a secret memo that refers to an expected bamboo flowering in WWII China that might cause an acute temporary shortage of local building materials, but the memo is presented without comment and seems to have no direct relation to the case. I've come to see that the bizarre January 1948 Tokyo mass murder today known as the Teigin Jiken (or the Teikoku Bank Incident)--the subject of this engrossing book--is simply being likened to the rare event of a flowering of bamboo plants, but the  cryptic title, a single typo in the book's 240-some pages, and a rather amateurish jacket design that gives no indication of what the book is about, are minor complaints. I read Flowering of the Bamboo from cover to cover in a single afternoon, virtually without putting it down.

I have an advantage over most readers in this instance. Having lived in Tokyo for about a third of my life, I was already familiar with the Teigin Jiken. I knew that a man posing as a doctor had appeared at a Tokyo bank branch in the early years of the post-WWII US occupation of Japan just before closing time and told the 16 people he found there to drink "medicine" he dispensed from an eyedropper (purportedly a prophylactic against dysentery, which was rife at the time) and had them wash it down with tea in their dutifully assembled tea cups and that the medicine turned out to be a preparation of hydrogen cyanide (or Prussic acid, so called because it was first isolated from the pigment known as Prussian blue). I knew that it had killed 12 of the victims, more or less instantly. All had unquestioningly complied with the mysterious man's directions (the survivors explained that the man had worn an armband identifying him as from the Metropolitan Office of the City Hall of Tokyo, that he had presented a card declaring him to be a doctor affiliated with the Welfare Ministry, and that he had said he'd been sent by the US occupation forces). I knew that the man and some money disappeared from the scene and that he was never positively identified, but I didn't know the details of the case, nor had I heard much about it in many years.

It's the sort of case that will never die, until it's solved (which now seems unlikely), a story much like that of D. B. Cooper, the man who hijacked a Northwest Airlines jet on November 24, 1971 between Oregon and Seattle, extorted $200,000 from the airline and, on a second, later flight, strapped to the money and the parachutes he had demanded, stepped into the sky, never to be seen again. Cooper--or whatever his name really was--killed no one, but the two tales live on in much the same way. They are stories half-forgotten, but dormant and alive nevertheless, lurking in anthologies of famous unsolved crimes for some new reader to stumble upon, or waiting to be mentioned in brief news articles on important anniversaries.

Triplett had learned of the Tokyo incident when he read just such an article in the Columbus Dispatch in 1978, 30 years after the murders. That an article about the death row wait of the man probably wrongly arrested for the crime appeared in the May 8, 1985 edition of The New York Times and that today is May 8, 2012 is entirely coincidental (see "For Man on Death Row, Time is Hangman" by Clyde Haberman, New York Times, May 8, 1985, Late City Final Edition, Section A, Page 2, Column 3). Intrigued, Triplett began to investigate, eventually spending seven years working on the story and writing his book. The research took him to Japan and to Washington D.C., where he turned up new details about the incident through Freedom of Information Act requests at the National Archives.

It goes without saying that the Teigin Jiken was far more sinister than the D. B. Cooper hijacking, and the investigation that followed it and its consequences were rather different as well. While it's still unclear what happened to Cooper and no one was arrested in the hijacking case, an artist named Sadamichi Hirasawa was held in connection with the Teigin Jiken poisonings. Later convicted of them, he was sentenced to death by hanging in 1950, a verdict appealed but upheld in 1955. When Triplett's book appeared in 1985, 93-year-old Arisawa was still awaiting execution. He died in prison two years later, in 1987, at the age of 95, after 32 years of incarceration on death row, having been the longest-serving death row inmate anywhere in the world. The execution was never carried out--a strange thing, as Japan is unsentimental about capital punishment. Executions usually are swift, little publicized, and infrequently questioned, but even the authorities in this case were so unsure of the condemned man's guilt that no one would ever sign the final papers required to actually kill him.

Triplett's detective work led him to information buttressing the view that Hirasawa was framed for the murders, that he became a scapegoat for an Occupation police system badly in need of a face-saving conviction in a case that absorbed the attention of the entire country and became notorious worldwide. He suggests that Japan's media contributed by jumping to conclusions, by publishing sensational articles based on hearsay, and that blame for the murders had to lie with someone trained to use the tricky poison that killed the 12 victims in the bank on that cold January day in 1948. There appears to be much evidence supporting the view that the murderer was associated during the war with the notorious Unit 731, headed by one Shiro Ishii, a Lieutenant General--the same unit that is at the center of Shusaku Endo's well-known novel Umi to Dokuyaku [The Sea and Poison], the first book I ever read cover to cover in Japanese. Endo, a Christian, once spoke at the church in Tokyo where I (not a Christian) was married. I had him sign my copy. I told him that it was the first book I had ever read in Japanese in its entirety. He seemed impressed, but must have thought it a strange choice--although my choice was virtually meaningless; it was simply a novel of a length that I thought I could handle before I started into it. After the war, the US gave Ishii and all of the men that had worked in Unit 731 doing ghastly experiments on live prisoners complete immunity from war crimes prosecution in exchange for details of the work they had done. To publicly tie the Teigin Jiken murders to Unit 731 would have been an embarrassment for all involved. It was assiduously avoided. Hirasawa's existence was convenient for many people, although he had been linked to the crime by highly circumstantial evidence.

Triplett's argument is convincing. His supporting evidence seems to corroborate what many have suspected all along, but it leaves one question unanswered. Why? What was the motive of whoever it was that poisoned 16 people in a Tokyo bank one day, seemingly for no reason? While the bank was robbed, the killer left twice the amount of money he took sitting on tables, laid out for counting. Was the theater of that day designed, as some argue, simply to show contempt for mindless obedience to authority? All possible answers seem to have the same fault: none seems to truly explain such a coolly calculated and seemingly random act. We'll probably never know why the bamboo flowered that day.

Tidbits: RIP--Maurice Sendak (May 8, 2012)

Writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak died today. He was 83. He is gone, now, but I suspect books like In the Night Kitchen, Where the Wild Things Are and the little stories in the Nutshell Library will live forever. RIP.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Wines I'm Making: First Sulfur Spraying (2012)

Sprayed the grape vines with sulfur yesterday to prevent mold, the first spray of the 2012 season. So far, everything looks good. The longest shoots are already about 18 inches long. No rain is in the forecast, so I probably won't have to spray again until the shoots have grown another foot or so. It's time to do some shoot thinning as well.
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