Thursday, May 28, 2009

God Save The Queen From This Nonsense

Queen Elizabeth II drove military trucks for the United Kingdom during World War II. She is the only living monarch who served her country during that war.

But, reports The New York Times, she has not been invited to join commemorations of the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, because of "a thicket of diplomatic missteps, or misunderstandings, depending on whether the account is given in London or Paris."

Reading on, it appears more like cultural snobbery:
The French have said officially that they regard the commemorations in the American sector of the landings as “primarily a Franco-American ceremony,” and that it was up to the British to decide who should represent Britain — in other words, that [Prime Minister Gordon] Brown was at fault for not seeking an invitation for the queen.
In Britain, commentators have suggested that [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy did not want to share the telegenic moment when he hosts [President] Obama. This was all the more so, the British commentators have said, because the queen’s presence might risk turning the occasion into a celebration of the Anglo-American alliance, whose troops carried out the landings, losing about 37,000 men in the battle for Normandy.
What is that saying again -- that a camel is a horse designed by committee?

Memorials are no time to play diplomatic games, and in light of Her Majesty's service, it's absolutely shameful. If only Winston Churchill were still around.

Monday, May 25, 2009

For Five Minutes, Someone Loved Them

During World War II, train after train filled with young servicemen pulled into the town of North Platte, Nebraska for a rest stop, and those soldiers and sailors found an oasis waiting for them: coffee and doughnuts and all sorts of treats handed out by a group of dedicated women who were praying for them. In the middle of nowhere, rail cars full of strangers found an unbelievable, unforgettable love that followed them all the way to the front lines.

Thanks to Jax for the tip on this inspiring video.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Reel To Reel: Angels & Demons

The devil's in the details.

Going Rate: Worth at least a matinee for conspiracy theory buffs and curious Catholics
Starring: Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Violence (some blood, people burning, and few gross dead bodies)

I wonder who holds more secrets: the CIA or the Catholic Church. Novelist Dan Brown's second book adapted into film digs up religious conspiracy theories and long-running grudges interpolated with one long chase scene. It is a two-hour labyrinth of a movie that explains itself as it goes, in bites small enough for us to digest, largely because of director Ron Howard's skill in refreshing us along the way.

Angels & Demons opens with the death of a beloved pope whose brief biographical description reminded me of Pope John Paul I. Those of you who remember him recall he died mere days after his election. As a child I thought, why do they have to chose some sickly old man as a pope? St. Peter's Square is bursting with the faithful, much as it was after the death of Pope John Paul II, and the Cardinals are getting ready to pick a new head of the Church... if they survive the night. Somebody has kidnapped four Cardinals -- the favorites to be the next pope -- and is threatening to kill one an hour until Midnight, at which time that someone will blow all of Vatican City to Kingdom Come using antimatter created in the CERN supercollider in Switzerland.

Because we can't get Mr. Spock to step over from Star Trek playing on the next screen and fix things a la the warp drive in The Wrath Of Khan, the Church turns to Professor Robert Langdon (Hanks, with refreshingly shorter hair). Langdon quickly figures out this whole ordeal is a revenge plot by the Illuminati, a secret centuries-old group persecuted and purged by the Catholic hierarchy because of their scientific research. Langdon isn't shy about sticking it to the Church or the people who protect it:
"Oh geez, you guys don't even read your own history do you? 1668, the church kidnapped four Illuminati scientists and branded each one of them on the chest with the symbol of the cross. To 'purge' them of their sins and they executed them, threw their bodies in the street as a warning to others to stop questioning church ruling on scientific matters. They radicalized them. The Purga created a darker, more violent Illuminati, one bent on... on retribution."
Ah, religious grudges. They last longer than Orbit gum. And nothing says "I hate you" like an explosion using materials generated in the search for a "God particle."

I wonder why the Vatican would call in an expert on religious symbols since the Holy Church could probably find all the answers in its glassed-off, hermetically-sealed, oxygen-controlled archives. Look long enough, and you'll probably also find Colonel Sanders' original recipe along with the formulas of Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Langdon gets into the archives and finds an ancient pamphlet by Galileo, which -- aha! -- contains hidden writing pointing to four churches where supposedly the Cardinals will be killed. Away we go.

The movie runs all over the place uncovering fresh revelations on ancient history and making us wonder once again why movie villains go to such complicated lengths to kill people. Oh, that's right. Radicals don't do anything simple. Mea culpa. Just so Professor Langdon doesn't have to shoulder all the work, he's teamed up with CERN scientist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer). The lives of thousands rest upon her ability to change a battery. I'll remember that the next time I lose a live shot. Camerlengo Patrick McKenna (McGregor) has got Langdon's back as the temporary head of the Church without a pope. I detect some eagerness to lecture the clergy like his Obi-Wan Kenobi character from the Star Wars prequels, but with a nicer robe this time.

Brown's subject matter prevented Howard from getting access to many of the locations he wanted for this film, but you won't notice it. Every ancient cathedral or sacred location is beautifully photographed with spires of light flowing from from above. I must also confess a soft spot for the Swiss Guards, the most colorful protectors on Earth.

Angels & Demons treads into the conflict between religion and science and comes down solidly on the side of detente. "Religion is flawed because man is flawed," says one Cardinal in a diplomatic statement to Langdon. After inquisitions, indulgences, intolerance and other sins, that's the understatement of a millenium.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Push Those Yankees Back!

Another letter has surfaced from Private Christopher of the 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry, one detailing the Battle of New Market in May 1864. This letter appeared in the Williamsburg Star a few weeks later. We note here the soldier did not write expressly for publication, as was his common practice, but for family. His brother, still running the paper in Christopher's absence, no doubt felt compelled to run the letter anyway as was the practice with many letters from both the Union and Confederate forces.

See color daguerreotypes from the battle here.

New Market --
May 17, 1864

My Dearest Family, loyal supporters in our cause,

I write to you with great relief and joy, as our Confederate brethren have once again demonstrated their superiority against the aggressors of the north. The hand of the LORD was surely with us on this day, as the victory was sealed by a group of first-year cadets from our Virginia Military Institute. I am quite aware these young men are labeled rats by their upperclassmen, but I would suggest their superiors find a more germane term.

Our commanders dispatched us to battle upon hearing General Siegel had advanced into the Shenandoah, and he positioned us behind the artillery. Hundreds of men stood shoulder to shoulder in several battalions awaiting the order to advance as we saw a line of Federal skirmishers in the fields of tall green grass below the ridge.

"Now that's a beautiful sight," a compatriot remarked to me as we marveled at the line of cannons pointed towards the enemy. However, it was not as beautiful as the thunderous booms as they fired one at a time along the lines, peppered with rebel yells from the ranks. I do believe we greeted the bluebellies with appropriate hospitality.

In a moment of inspiration, our commander offered a song to rally our company, not the "The Bonnie Blue Flag," but something else. "I'd like to get the Doxology in once," he said.

"Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow!
Praise Him, all creatures here below!
Praise Him above, ye Heavenly Host!
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!"

Our voices sang in perfect unison with not a sour note among us. We sang as bravely as we fought, proclaiming our Ultimate Allegiance, and the troops surrounding us hushed in reverent silence. Tears welled in eyes.

Minutes later the sergeants told us to keep the formation tight as we advanced on the double-quick through the mud of last night's rain to meet them. I am glad we did not trip over one another as we sprinted in our full gear to a skirmish line, yelling all the way. Before any chance to catch our breaths, we heard the orders to load and fire, and we were enveloped in volley after volley amongst the shouting of the officers. Our commanders shouted, "Independent company fire!" and the order echoed down the line for us to fire at will.

The barking of the commands and echoes of the soldiers grew as loud as the firing itself, and I could barely make out the line of Federals in the distance between the calls to load and fire. I stood crowded in lines of staggered files, and I struggled to safely take aim. Captains from the adjoining companies somehow found time to critique my technique.

"Make sure you're coming back to a 'T' so you can get that second band through!" one barked to me, referring to the necessary foot posture for firing over the first rank's shoulder. At that moment, I was not concerned with my feet, or any letter of the alphabet save for one: D, as in death to tyrants.

We advanced towards the Bushong farmhouse, chasing the Yanks bank. We met another line of them across a yard from the barn, on the other side of a picket fence, and our ranks formed up again. The zing of musket balls echoed with terrifying volume from the sides as the building as we exchanged fire once more, loading and firing with building fervor.

Our advances left the formations ragged, and often I would find myself unable to lower my rifle over the right shoulder of the man in front of me, for another rifle barrel was already there. I hesitated on some orders to fire, fearing for the safety of my compatriots in our tight and haphazard lines, although in frustration I chose to take one shot over the left shoulder, clear of obstructions, to the mild rebuke of my captain. Other times we were told to make ready only to advance instead.

The rush caught me half-loaded on occasion between advances, and sometimes half-cocked. Several times, the din of shouting and gunfire faltered my concentration on my given task, in the midst of concern for my brethren and hovering eyes of the captains contradicted one another. I would raise my rifle and squeeze the trigger to find the hammer on my Springfield pulled back only partially. I would make ready again, and again I would find myself foiled by the same mistake.

"Are you all right, Private Christopher?" our captain called.

"Yes!" I reiterated, not giving any hint of distress, determined to carry on in spite of any difficulty.

We kept pushing the Yankees back, watching them appear before us and then duck back without warning, even though their numbers suggested they could weather several of our volleys. I later heard a Federal fife and drummer separated from their company only to fall directly into the sights of our advancing line. They quickly began playing "Dixie" with wide smiles upon their faces, and the attempt at appeasement did not go unappreciated. The aggressors managed to pick off a couple of our company, who crumpled to the ground only to be rousted again to the line by the urging of our captain, if not the fervor of their will.

Having chased the bluebellies out of the farm, their lines fell back into a dip beyond a split rail fence. Here we formed again, ducking behind whatever piece of wood would offer us safety and camouflage. I struggled to find an open spot to crouch and fire.

"Let him through!" a captain shouted. I pushed my way into position and awkwardly loaded from my knees as the Federals fired as us through the tall grass. We needed only a couple of volleys to push them back even more.

By this time, the dozens of shots had nearly depleted my cartridge supply. Six shots remained.

"I'm out, Captain!" a fellow soldier shouted.

My compatriots were down to their last rolls of powder, digging into the boxes of others to resupply themselves or taking ammunition from the fallen. Our commander ordered us to make sure we had enough for one more volley. We would have to make sure every shot counted.

We prepared to push the Yanks back again, but as we loaded once more, we received the order to halt. The Institute cadets, who had marched more than 80 miles to this point and were the last resort of Gen. Breckinridge, took the fight to the retreating enemy.

The victory left us heartened at the righteousness of our cause, and our officers noted our bravery and tenaciousness. "You boys looked damned good today," one told us as we stood in formation after the bluebellies fled.

I continued to marvel at the courage of the cadets, and how they possessed more than I shall ever have in their storehouses of strength, courage, and bravery. I had the honor of meeting two of them the day before this battle, and I am reassured our country's armies will be led by capable and competent hands.

I look towards the day when I shall rejoin you once again in Williamsburg, and in this victory we pray that day might soon arrive.

Your Servant In The Cause,
Pvt. Christopher Francis
1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Battle Of New Market: A Warm-Up

The wedge tents spread out as far I can see, rows upon rows of canvas beige pointing to the sky. Soldiers are lining up for drill or finishing off breakfast. One camp spills into another as I search for any sign of my 1st Virginia compatriots. Confederate uniforms of butternut and gray surround me, but I spot no familiar faces. I walk through camp after camp, expecting somebody to challenge my presence until I hear someone calling to me from an isolated corner of the campground.

"Private Francis!" one greets.

Three of my fellow soldiers are resting underneath a small tent fly. The quarters, I learn, are borrowed. Our people with the tents were not able to make the journey to Virginia this time around. The wedge and fly, however, are enough to sleep three hearty souls with room left over for stashing supplies. When our other soldiers arrive later this morning, we will have about eight people in our company, enough to fall in with another battalion at the afternoon hostilities. A huge grassy slope awaits us on the grounds of the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park.

Sleep weighs on me. Three hours last night is not enough after the marathon plane and road trip. A large breakfast is only partially recharging me. With no drill for a couple of hours, we take some time to catch up. I slip inside the tent and lay down until the sun bursting through the clouds pierces my eyes.

We're doing some things "wrong," says our Corporal, the acting drill sergeant this day, "wrong" as defined by the host battalion. We've got our hands in the wrong place for "parade rest," he tells us. And we're going from columns of twos to fours wrong. We run through the manual of arms and some marching to shake the dust of several inactive weeks.

"This is going to be fun," our Captain remarks as we stand at ease on the edge of the New Market battlefield.

Most of the action so far has amounted to hurry up and wait. Form up, attention, shoulder arms, march, halt, wait. Our commanders on horseback have the monstrous task of maneuvering several hundred Confederates into their assigned starting positions. Mixed in with the other companies, most of whom haven't traveled nearly all the way across the country to be here, we have time for some fraternizing in the shade before being called back to attention.

"You Arizona boys are probably used to this heat," somebody says.

"Not the humidity," I reply. "Hot and sticky." Yet storm clouds are building in the distance. I know the pattern from all my years in Missouri: sticky morning, stormy afternoon.

A support team rolls around with ice. Our Captain scoops some cubes into his hat and passes it among us. "Put a few down your shirt," he advises to all of his men as he does the same.

I slip two cubes underneath my collar and they slide down to my stomach. The cooling power instantly relieves the lethargy of heat stress. The rest of the ice goes to my head, secured under my kepi, pumping cold all the way through my skull.

"I think I froze my brain," I say, removing my hat.

Artillery fire booms across the field to our right. The battle is on, but we are still waiting. A few other units are getting their chance at some early action, crackling off rifle fire almost continuously.

A commander darts back and forth on horseback, surveying the lines and waiting for that moment to push us in. From a distance, I see a long line of bluebellies moving forward, at least a hundred men, unless they're flanking us somewhere. It is hard to tell who is where, but the battle spreads to a nearby barn. I see skirmishers rushing about, firing at will with the cannons backing them up. We are still waiting. It looks like we will get to play reinforcements or flankers.

That's if nature doesn't beat us there. The storm clouds in the distance have matured into thunderheads, flowing out towards our line from behind. The sky behind us is turning dark... dark gray like our uniforms. One can consider it a sign of Providence.

Indeed, before the march to the battlefield, heads bowed and knees bent as the chaplain of the battalion cried out to the LORD to help us show that "the Southern man will not be vanquished!" He called on GOD to send an unmistakable sign to the enemy, to be like a flaming sword to them, turning them back. An outflow from the clouds gusts from behind, stripping leaves from the trees. One could fear a hurricane blowing into the Shenandoah Valley. We, however, shall lead the charge.

"Form up!"

We scurry into our two ranks and await the command.


"Company!" echo the various captains up and down the line along with several privates of other units, trained to repeat it over the din of battle.

"By the right oblique!"

"By the right oblique!"



Rain sprinkles us as we move forward at an angle to engage the line of Federals to our right. Normally we would shoot, advance, and shoot some more, but we're going to skip that and hit them with everything in the cartridge box.

"Fire at will!"

The two lines of soldiers squeeze off shots as fast as they can load them. I reach around in my hip box for a powder cartridge, tear the top off with my teeth, dump it down the barrel of my 1861 Springfield, and dig out a percussion cap from the pouch on my belt. I am not as fast as I would desire, but the time is somewhere in the range of the 20-second load and shoot benchmark considered the standard for the well-trained soldier. Firing from my position in the rear rank requires extra caution. "Coming through!" I yell as I raise the rifle into position and discharge it with orange-flamed bravado.

Musket smoke mingles with the dewy smell of rain as we advance forward and fall back. A round takes out a compatriot in front of me.

"Come up and take his place!"

I rush up to his spot in line as he writhes in the tall grass. Our commander halts our free-form fire and sets up a few volleys.

"Aim high!" a fellow soldier yells as we push closer to the bluebellies. Maybe that's why those Yanks aren't going down. A few more spent cartridges, and we are only a few feet away from them. They are not returning fire, just standing in formation. They have to be surrendering, but this early? Most of their line is still standing.

Whatever is going on, I have no time to sort it out. A line of Federals is moving in on our right. We advance and hastily reform to set up another volley.

"To the left oblique!" our commanders call. I nearly fire at the wrong angle, focusing on the threat to my right up the hill, somehow missing the other, bigger line to my left.

"Left oblique!"

Smoke plumes out of our 1st Virginia rifles. "Well done!" our commander cheers.

My gun barrel radiates scalding heat. Federals are all over the place. Who's flanking whom? Will I have enough cartridges to last through it?

We press towards the new line of Yankees. They aren't going down. We aren't going down. That makes it fair, I gather, although I spot a few fallen soldiers seeming to enjoy the pillow of the grassy hills as they sit up just enough to watch their brothers in arms avenge their deaths.

Down the hill, a cavalry regiment storms in on their horses, letting pistol shots fly. We can't help but smile.

"Cease fire!" calls the battalion commander, and just like that, the action ends. A few buglers on the field play Taps and the battlefield players, Union and Confederate, remove their kepis in tribute to the veterans who fought this battle for real.

Our audience at the foot of the hill applauds as we reorganize ourselves and battalions reclaim the men they've lost. Rain showers pour down on us now. Nobody minds the sogginess. It's the lightning in the area that has halted the hostilities.

"Who won?" a compatriot asks. "I guess it was a draw."

"Mandatory rematch," I jibe. We will have it tomorrow.

Friday, May 15, 2009

From Tucson To Virginia In 20 Hours

4am -- Wake up with mas o menos three hours sleep. Quickly get dressed and hustle off to KOLD with two bags in tow. I will run teleprompter for the AM newscast and get the Noon going before I have to duck out to catch the plane.

4:30am -- Arrive at KOLD. Swig a cup of coffee. Hop on the prompter.

5am -- Morning show begins. We have Late Breaking news on a murder on Tucson's south side, giving our AM producer a lead and taking at least some of the headache out of producing a fresh newscast by herself. Both she and I will remain in this booth for the next two hours.

6am -- One hour down. One to go. The easiest job in the control room is making my right arm numb. Caffeine is starting to kick in.

7am -- Morning show is complete. Hastily put together a news update for our digital subchannel before sliding into the Noon. Coffee effects are now full.

7:30am -- Several stories bubbling. Will the murder be my lead or will something else pop up, like GM telling dealers in Tucson they might lose their franchises?

8am -- Take another cup of coffee and add stories to the Noon. GM story looking more like a lead.

8:30am -- Scrounging around. Tempted to wait for more stories to develop and break.

9am -- I'm going with GM story. Murder... well... it's a murder. Doesn't matter to me when put up against hundreds of car dealers facing possible shutdown. Nothing on any fallout in Tucson yet. Another producer just in to help on the desk starts making some calls while I continue to sniff out stories.

9:30am -- Editorial meeting. Several possibilities on stories to run on right away. Coffee is making my stomach grumpy. It's not acid-neutralized. I remember those commercials for Kava Coffee ("Kava! Kava!") and hope I can stomach it.

9:50am -- Just got a new lead story. Tucson Citizen is shutting down, going online only. Desk gets crew and reporter set on it. I shuffle the rundown and kill out some ballast. The clock is running down. Fully wired on caffeine now.

10:15am -- Most writing is done. Trim some fat out of the newscast. Man, It's a great show and I'm going to have to scoot out before it's newstime, leaving it in the hands of another producer.

10:45am -- All is ready. I'm off to TIA.

11:00am -- Grumble at traffic congestion on I-10.

11:15am -- Find a spot at TIA's economy lot. Hike to the terminal.

11:30am -- Go through security. To my amazement, the metal rods in my arm do NOT set off the detector. But my computer bag warrants a closer search. TSA guy sweeps through it with five or six magic detection patches the size of a gun-cleaning patch. How ironic. All is well. I continue on to the gate.

11:45am -- Grab lunch.

12:00pm -- Wolf down a personal pizza while watching KOLD News 13 LIVE at Noon over the 'net. Nice show.

12:30pm -- Where's the plane? "It will be here in just a few minutes." It is.

12:35pm -- Announcement: this is a small plane, get it? Small. That carry-on will have to be checked.

1:05pm -- On the way to Salt Lake on a full commuter craft. Want to sleep but can't resist the irresistible force of the SkyMall catalog.

4:25pm -- Leg 1 complete. Just lost one hour in the skip across time zones. More losses to come. Sitting in departure area for next leg of the flight to Dulles. Not feeling too sleepy. Lunch effectively neutralized coffee. This flight looks full. But so far, so good.

5:00pm -- Waiting on the runway. Whole buncha flights lined up like a file of 1st Virginia soldiers marching off to battle.

5:05pm -- Is that the Olympic torch burning again over Salt Lake City? No, it's a refinery flame. Think of the money they could've saved with a little creative license.

6:00pm -- Should be sleeping, but enjoying couch potato bliss. Delta squeezed a dozen cable channels and a few CDs into a personal in-seat entertainment center. Daily Show and Cobert Report pass the time along with Fleetwood Mac's Rumours. Primetime TV is a great abnormality for me. Part of myself wants to be producing a newscast.

7:30pm -- Sun setting out the window. Time passing at an accelerated rate. Clouds filling the sky as the light dies down. Air pockets shake us up. Boeing, McDonell, Bombardier, AirBus, etc. have yet to invent the mid-air shock absorber. Memories of this morning's coffee acid return. Kava! Kava!

9:30pm -- Engaged in a tight fight for the lead in the interactive trivia game with somebody up front. I win. Twice.

11pm -- Arrive to a nearly-empty Dulles. Discover the Avis counter is way off terminal. Shuttle bus pulls away from me as I rush up to it only to stop down the terminal road.

11:35am -- Decline offer to upgrade up to something bigger. Get behind wheel of Toyota. Say a prayer for the voyage, which is going to consume at least two more hours and 120 miles.

12:05am -- Sit parked in front of a toll booth on Virginia 28, trying to see if I have exact change. I don't. The basket doesn't accept dollar bills. No attendants are on duty. I get out and approach the car that has pulled in behind me. Without me asking, a kind lady is digging through her purse. She offers two quarters. "Just take it," she smiles, offering me the change as I offer the dollar. I accept the courtesy most graciously and thank God for looking out for me.

12:15am -- Another tollbooth? At least this one has an attendant.

12:20am -- This better be westbound I-66. Ugh, it's not. Get off and flip a U-turn. Finally, I'm on the right road. Where was the exit I was supposed to have taken in the first place? It sure wasn't on the Google directions I printed.

12:45am -- Into the darkness I venture. I would enjoy the beautiful scenery and green of Virginia if I could see it. Hands are wrapped tight around the steering wheel with the radio helping me stay awake. I can do this.

1:20am -- Up on a hill, three crosses are lit by floodlights in the night sky as I approach I-81 southbound. I make the connection with no trouble.

1:45am -- Hang in there. We're getting there.

2am -- At last. Harrisonburg. Check in. Dial home. Crash. Sleep... for only three hours or so.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Lost Scotsman

Curiosity, tumult, perseverance and redemption in ghillies. Inscribe it on my kilt pin: "I survived Scottish Country Dancing!"

Ten minutes before the ball and I worry about my invited guest. Madame Noire has called for directions, navigating through a Tucson that has outgrown her memories. I stand outside the hall and look out over 4th Avenue in hopes of spotting her modern-day carriage. A few students of the dormitory down the street are smiling at my presence, this kilted lad with the puffy shirt, diced hose, and bright red weskit enveloped in Royal Stewart plaid and topped with a Jacobite bonnet. A lace jabot sprouts from my neck in a nod to formality.

Inside an intimate assembly is forming: gentlemen in kilts accompanied by t-shirts or ties or Bonnie Prince Charley jackets, ladies in formal dresses with tartan sashes. I spot neither balmoral nor glengarry. They are modern Scots, save for a lad who strides onto the floor in leather leggings. His kilt, like my 1740's weskit, features pockets rendering a sporran unnecessary. I shun the standard pouch as well, appearing more the Highland nobleman than Highland warrior.

"This is my first time trying Scottish Country Dancing," I say to one of the ladies. "I'm used to English Country Dancing."

Some of that is on the program, she reassures me, but I'm more anticipatory than apprehensive. The thought of attending this soiree has bubbled within me for more than a month. I've seen Scottish Country Dancing, tried a few steps, and satisfied myself that I can handle it... or at least fake it. My chief concern is the "skip change," that elusive skipping step. A lady demonstrated it for me several times at a festival in Phoenix and I still could not master it. I will just skip my way, I decide, my own special English nobleman way.

Without my invited partner, the time of the grand procession arrives. I turn off my modern communications device and revert back to my gentlemanly instincts as a seeker of unaccompanied ladies. Yet before I can even query one, she finds me: a young lady in a modern blue top and dress slacks, who curtsies with vigor even though we have not been introduced. Off we march about the room, in columns of twos and fours and eights, linking arms but omitting the serpentine journeys of marches from the past.

"There she is," I whisper to myself. I spot Madame in the doorway as the procession concludes. She has made it through the tangle of the side streets to enter in her plaid Victorian dress.

My code of honour prohibits me from casting off my present partner for the opening set dance. She warmly accepts me for my first attempt at a Scottish Country Dance, a four-couple set.

We walk through it quickly: the 1 couple half figure-eights around the 2 and the 3 couple, then back up to place. First corners set and turn. Second corners set and turn. Left-hand star, or "wheel," as they call it. Right-hand star. Turn around, start all over again with the second couple. Somewhere in there a progression takes place, I think. Our caller goes through the steps one more time without demonstration, and then our trio of musicians -- piano, bass, fiddle -- begin.

It is obvious from the first note I am a newbie in a room filled with experienced dancers. They show it. They glide through each figure while I'm learning it on the floor. My figure-eight looks like a cast off, and my setting could make somebody wonder if I'm wearing lead ghillies. My partner bounds through it effortlessly, prompting me on occasion, always keeping her toes properly pointed with the limberness of wet leather. I cannot figure out the progression -- is the 2 couple moving up to 1, or is the 2 couple doing the 1 couple's duties from down the line? Our caller -- she isn't calling. I need the direction, but somehow I get through it with a minimum of error, and I am glad Madame has sat this one out. I know it's way above her comfort zone and barely above mine.

The dance ends with a low bow on my part and words of thanks to my partner before I scurry off to meet Madame. However, another gentleman reaches her first in asking for a dance. He sees I am her companion for this evening and offers to back out. Again though, my code of honour will not have it.

"I shall defer, my good man."

I bow to another lady, and we line up for an English dance... an advanced one.

English Country Dance, at least the dances I love and have stepped many times, embody a beautiful symmetry and predictability. A circle to the right is paired with a circle to the left. A right-hand cross follows a left-cross. Stars move around to the left and then to the right. This dance, as we walk through it, begins with a first corner set and turn single. Check. Then the a second-corner turn. Hmm. Then the first corners cross and turn. Then the second corners set and turn.

The symmetry is there, fair enough, but not in the places I expect. Even the more experienced dancers around me walk through it with uncertainty. I whisper in haste to sort out their confusion, but a lady across the set politely shushes me with a finger to her lip: "Only the caller talks." Fortunately, we only have a few more steps before the compulsory cast-off, progression and restart.

The music begins. Bows and curtsies and... where's the call?

We're doing this Colonial style. No caller, no way, no how. In the 1700's, if you didn't know a dance, you found somebody who did, and he or she listed the steps without even a walkthrough. Of course, my tricorned ancestors danced with rigorous regularity. I like to think I inherited their DNA and at least some of their devotion, but a few genes are still recessive. I need that call, at least for the first few iterations. Then the prompting voice can fade off while we prance about. Again, I survive it with a few errors here and there, relieved my dancing companions have such tolerance for a person still refining his skills.

At last I can join Madame for a Scottish four-couple set. Whatever awaits us, we're going through it together.

So together we bumble through this nightmarish jig of crossing to corners and turning and facing diagonals, then turning to other diagonals from the center in a perplexing W formation, then somehow getting back to place and progressing in a way I cannot understand. My fellow dancers, bless them, have enough patience to lead us through it where needed and roll with our mistakes.

"Face this way."

"Now turn."

"You dance with her."

"This way."

A few of them stagger here and there, but it's one mistake to our three. People take lessons to learn Scottish dance. I wonder how long it takes before they have learned a dance like this.

It doesn't last long. Thankfully.

"I destroyed that dance," I apologized. "I'm sorry."

"That was an advanced one," a fellow dancer consoles, brushing aside any need for regrets. "It's one of the two tough dances we'll do tonight." I find my ballroom companions have rehearsed a couple of nights before.

For the next Scottish dance, a experienced lady whom I've met before offers her hand, and I bow in relief as much as admiration. I need to learn from a pro rather than subject Madame to another blind caper. It starts out promising: a circle forward and back.

"It's a Strathspey," my partner explains. "Slow and elegant."

I know slow and elegant... but not with that Strathspey step, that skip that isn't a skip. It's not the dreaded skip change, but I can't seem to make my feet do it right. They want to hop the English way, without regard to rules. Maybe it's the Patriot way, a disdain for conformity and rule of the mother country. A few more turns and cast offs, and then my partner is not shy about maneuvering me into position when we need to promenade, arranging my hands around her in another figure I'm learning on the floor. The dance itself only lasts three iterations, so we perform an encore. I do better this time. A little better.

We have several breaks to partake of punch and shortbreads and introduce ourselves.

"Did you make that dress?" a lady asks Madame.

"Yes!" She describes her sewing experience with vigor. Madame is working up to an 18th Century polonaise gown, a gigantic undertaking for any seamstress, colonial or modern.

A lady takes interest in my Highland attire as well: "Did you make that?"

"The weskit came from eBay," I begin. "The kilt and plaids came from Sportkilt. And the shirt came from Kidder Brothers of Bisbee."

She's amazed. They make Scottish clothing in Arizona! They make Scottish dance lessons, too, ones I cannot attend because they're on the nights I work.

The other advanced dance of the evening is upon us now: Ladies' Fancy.

The first man turns the second woman by right hands. Then he turns the first woman one time around and a half to finish with that woman on his right and the second woman on his left. Then all three lead down and back to original places. So far, a twist, but nothing extraordinarily fancy, despite the title. First and second couples dance hands across and back. Then the first and second couples pousette.

Oh, I know that step. But again, the Scots and the English do it differently. The English couples take both hands and weave around each other in a diamond formation, pushing and pulling. As for the Scots, they throw in a twist.

"It's a square," says my partner, that advanced acquaintance who's rejoined me for another dance on the suggestion of the caller who wants to make sure the newbies are paired with the experienced. "Just let me push you around."

"I'm used to that," I reply.

It doesn't seem like a square, or a diamond, but some weaving oval with that skipping step I can't master but can fake.

"Don't hop around so much," my partner smiles.

Through her help and direction, I survive another one. Survival is the word of the night. Each dance is a glorious test, some sort of challenge to conquer, but I would rather lose myself in a dance than worry about the steps.

The time comes for another English dance, one called Prince William. I did not realize it at the time, but it's the same dance featured in the movie version of Pride & Prejudice, and one I have previously discussed here. If only somebody had warned me we were about to do the dance with the "mirror hey," I would have recalled the organized disaster about to befall us.

"Don't worry," I whispered to my lady.

Never mind the figures or the written instructions or the turns. Just picture two people among six being guided from the sidelines by two ladies talking at once, often over each other, guiding and directing in addition to the caller, pointing us here and there and everywhere to swing that lady and then the next one on that dreadful diagonal and then to the middle. We knew we were in trouble when the caller had us walk through the mirror hey twice. The dance goes on, and I struggle to remember which figure is next or which lady diagonal from me to turn. Usually with me, dances clarify themselves by the third time through from the top. I can't understand. Why am I not learning this?

Inside of me, I'm boiling. These kind ladies are trying to help, I know, but my frustration is leeching away all the fun. This may be old hat for the advanced dancers, but for my partner and I, it's merry torture. I am walking aimlessly when I can't remember who to turn. This is not what I would define as losing oneself in a dance. In other times, in other groups, we'd just substitute simpler steps and dance on. Our coaches from the side, however, are determined and relentless.

An angry thought flashes through me of shouting, "Stop! Stop! Stop! This is not the kind of dance you do at a ball where you've advertised 'No experience necessary!'" An image of taking Madame Noire by the hand and leading her out of this mess crosses my synapses. My eyes are tearing up. I hate burdening these people who know what they are doing, trying to enjoy the dance, and I feel for the ladies who must watch over us. Prince William, you are the Prince of Darkness!

Fortunately, the better angels of my nature prevail. No outbursts, no escapes. I carry forward.

Mentally battered but grateful to the other couples for tolerating us, the last dance of the evening is announced. It's another English Dance in waltz time. The caller describes it, starting with a right- and left- hand star. Ahh, symmetrical. Next, a sashay down the middle. This sounds familiar. Cast off and then step forward and back to your partner, turning her underneath.

"I've done this before," I say to Madame with excited anticipation.

Turn the lady diagonally from you by the right hand, then your partner by the left.

"It's the Duke of Kent's Waltz," our caller says.

"Finally," I say. The opening bars of Etta James' "At Last" float through my head. This is a dance I'm familiar with, one full of elegance and courtliness and opportunity to lose myself the proper way. I savor every moment, knowing the dance well enough not even to need the caller. This is what I live for, the redemption for all my dance sins.

We thank our musicians and our callers. I thank the various ladies around me again for tolerating my unfamiliarity.

"You did fine!" several say. A few encourage me to come to the Thursday night Scottish dance lessons. I would, I tell them, if I didn't have to work nights.

It is both frustrating and heartbreaking for me to know failure and not have a chance to improve or correct all my missteps, especially in my dearest diversion of dance. I know I can do better than this. One should enjoy the evening, not merely weather it. Otherwise, what is the point of the exercise? I thank the LORD for the kindness of these strangers, and they know exactly how I feel.

"I've been dancing for 10 years and I still mess up," a lady answers.

"We were all new once," says another.

"We're not one of those groups where, if you're a newcomer, we tell you to go to that set over there," a man says.

Madame tells me she had a good time. All things considered, I gather I did too, by definition. Any night I can wear a kilt is a good one, and I shall wear it again and again, taking those chances to dance where I can get them.

Another lady invites me to join a local Regency society.

"You can wear that!" she proclaims, admiring my Highland dress.



And hopefully, dance in it.

The Queen Mother Is Summoned

While people were making political jokes about 4am phone calls last year, my Queen Mother actually got one.

Mrs. Francis, Your Majesty, this is Doctor So-And-So in Flagstaff. Your son has been in an accident while he was at a ball. He shattered his right arm. He's in the hospital. He might not be able to turn a doorknob again.

She and the Royal Father hastily arrange zig-zag flights to the mountainous retreat. A short time after I regain consciousness from a difficult night of surgery, she is at my bedside. I am drugged and writing with sadness, but she is here, and she knows exactly what I need. She's been through this with me three times before.

A miscalculated jump over a shrubbery fence as a child brought me down on that same arm.

"Mom, I think I broke my arm," I told her, coming in from outside.

She looked at it. "Oh, honey, I think you did." She picked up the kitchen phone to call the hospital, one hand over her forehead. She'd just been watching an episode of Eight Is Enough, where one of the main characters had just broken his arm as well.

"This should be a new experience for you," she said to me as she took me to the hospital with my kid brother in the back seat, soon to be mildly jealous of the attention.

Both of us would go through the drill two more times.

I crashed on my right arm during my 8th birthday party at a roller-skating rink. I had invited my entire grade-school class to the festivities, and two boys were racing each other when I ended up in the way. Fifteen minutes into the bash I was gone, before the presents or the cake or the song. This time, the Royal Father was at my side, leaving the Queen Mother to worry about me while she supervised the rest of the children. She watched a girl fall and sprout a knot on her head. Her Royal Highness greeted me at the door when I returned home, saying how sorry she was and pointing to the presents from the guests stacked neatly on the dining room table.

Then came the fall from my bike a few years after that. Same arm. Again she endures the worrying, the doctors and the bills. She wonders what the medical staff thinks of her, this mother whose child keeps coming back in. I was too young to comprehend the possible criminal suspicions.

Both of us thought we had grown out of it until that night last August. At 36, I am still her child, her firstborn, the person she agonized about when I told her I was leaving home to take my first TV job more than 1,000 miles away in Texas. She worried when I took those trips to Virginia, Florida, New York City and Washington, D.C. She sought me out and found me on the phone when she needed reassurance.

Now her dreaded scenario was here, but I was alive, and she was there for me. She drove me back to Tucson in my car after two depressing days in the hospital. We went to Walmart together and picked up what I would need to live alone with one hand. She nearly begged me to come back to California with her for a few days. Thanks, Your Majesty, but I really need to recover and get back to work. Mom needed to mother, but I needed to heal.

I know she still worries when I take trips out of town on my own. Nothing can change that. She is still the Queen. She will still issue Royal edicts about being careful and not driving fast and wearing non-skid dancing shoes. I'll try, Your Majesty, I will.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Hills Are Alive With The Sound Of Bagpipes

Laddies and Lassies, I kinnot leave ye for the Tartan Ball without showing ye this clip from Edinburgh, 'nd how a group of merry Scots interpreted The Sound Of Music. No matta what ye think, I kin guarantee this is oneada rare times ye'll see a groupa nuns dancin'!


Reel To Reel: Star Trek

Ahead Mr. Sulu, warp speed.

Going Rate: Worth full price for everybody, not just Trekkers.
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Bana, Bruce Greenwood, Karl Urban
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Violence (low blood), Language (low), Some brief sexuality (Kirk getting romantic with some green shapely alien)

NBC rejected the original pilot for the Star Trek TV series, calling it "too cerebral." Producers submitted a second one with more action and phasers and William Shatner, which began a mediocre run on the network. The show didn't blossom into a hit until re-runs, spawning a film franchise that started out strong but flamed out into a tedious, cerebral series of pictures even Trekkers -- don't call them Trekkies -- disliked.

So Paramount had little to lose by turning the captain's chair over to J.J. Abrams and a young cast who pull off the impossible: making Star Trek cool again.

The introduces us to the classic Trek crew through a series of anecdotal backstories starting with the birth of Captain Kirk (Pine) during a Romulan attack, where his father saves hundreds of lives by going down with the ship. Mr. Spock (Quinto) is a half-breed of human and Vulcan, who as a boy must endure pointy-eared bullies while struggling to reconcile reason with the emotions others in his race lack. Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) is a cantankerous old man as a young body. Mr. Sulu handles a sword quite well, to our surpise. Uhuru (Zoe Saldana) makes a sassy communicator in a short skirt. Checkov (Anton Yelchin) has a gamer's instinct with a Russian accent thick enough to fool voice-recognition systems, and Scotty (Simon Pegg) is that Scottish antimatter gearhead who can tell you exactly what's wrong with the warp drive.

Kirk is an intrepid off-the-cuff skirt chaser when we see him as a teenager in Iowa, not far from Starfleet Academy. Capt. Christopher Pike (Greenwood) finds him after he gets into a barfight with several cadets over a lady. Pike remembers Kirk's father and challenges the son to put his bold DNA to better use. Three years of Academy, and Kirk's craftiness gets him into trouble when he's accused of rigging the dreaded "Kobayashi Maru" simulation, the leadership test designed by Spock to test command abilities during no-win situations. Yes, Trekkers, we know it's the same one Savvik failed at the beginning of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Before the Academy can throw him out, the cadets are summoned to defend Vulcan from a Romulan attack led by Nero, a miner who has bent the time-space continnum through black holes as he seeks revenge for the destruction of his planet, which was supposed to be saved by -- follow me here -- Spock (Leonard Nimoy) of the future. Instead, Old Spock is exiled on an ice planet to watch the destruction of his home, but when he meets up with Kirk, he holds information that could save Earth.

The new Trek's time-travel plot is a bit messy, but you don't have much time to worry about it because the film runs at warp speed, jumping along a convoy of intense action sequences. The plot doesn't climax because it's all climax. It rarely has time to catch its breath, but when it does, it's economical and effective. As a bonus, Nimoy's Spock shows a fascinating emotional depth as he recounts his failed mission, bringing something more to the table than just a peace offering for the Trekkers. Watching him reminded me of the late Desmond Llewelyn as "Q" in the James Bond movies, in that Spock's presence brings a stability and continuity to an ever-changing franchise.

The original Star Trek was a series of morality plays set in space. But director J.J. Abrams is savvy (or is that Savvik?) enough to know that's exactly what weighed it down. Hardcore Trekkers are going to complain this film is too much like Star Wars, whose prequels suffered when they got too heady and wordy. I wonder with Abrams could've done with those pictures had George Lucas turned him loose.

Star Trek is already racking up huge box office business. No doubt Paramount suits want to talk to Abrams about a sequel, and after this re-start, I want to see it.

Friday, May 8, 2009

An Order Of Spite, Super-Sized

Another reason why I'm glad I don't listen to talk radio:

Attack his policies, fine. But attack President Obama for having a burger with dijon mustard?

So let me add this to the list of Conservative Commandments: "Thou shalt only only use real American condiments on thy food."

Hey, Hannity, Ingraham, et al., just admit you hate the president and spare us the silly elitist innuendos.

You Can All Join In

Dearest Laddies and Lassies, I kinda git th' feeling ye find this whole Scottish Dancin' thing a wee bit intimidatin'. So I want ye ta know, ye have much 'n common with a lotta other folk.

Ye probably wish ye could do what these folks did on one weekend in 2006, in Woodstock, Connecticut, as documented in the short film Memories of Balmoral, where the fine lasses 'n' laddies learned te dance onna Friday and held a ball Sarrtuday night.

And if ye ain' longin' to dance after wartchin' this... well... I don' know what te say, laddie?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Blade Runners

My Dearest Lads and Lassies, kin ye feel th' anticipation fer th' Tartan Ball? Is ye heart tarnin' plaid?

Us Highlanders... we fight jus' as well 's we walk, 'n we dance before we fight -- fer example, the Sword Dance.

As you can see, the goal is to dance around the swords without touching them. Legend has it if you do, you will die on the battlefield... or at least leave some nasty cuts on your gillies.

Nobody does the Sword Dance like the Edinburgh Military Tattoo:

What if you crossed the Sword Dance with a Scottish Country Dance? You'd get this:

Anybody can learn the Sword Dance... anybody with balance, patience, and strong feet like Kira Cogswell VanSteenkiste with Michigan Highland Dance:

Aye, me feet will be resentin' me if I ever master it!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

I Don't Know Where Ye Been Me Laddie, But I Guess You Won First Prize

Had time to rest ye weary feet? Adjust ye kilt? Good. Than let us proceed to a command performance of Scottish Country Dancing in preparation for this weekend's Tartan Ball.

Here's Corryvrechan dancing a winning performance at the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society's festival in Newcastle this past August -- and 'tis a shame they aren't lettin' me embed it.

But they let me embed this collection of reels from 2007:

And this, too:

Now, before ye get too afright, note that many of the dances you see are more for entertainin' others than a social caper 'r two. Now here's something a wee bit plainer, and lackin' some Highland flair, but a lark all th' same:

So don't let any lad talk ye out of givin' it a whirl. Why should th' English 'ave all th' fun?

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Pipes They Are A Callin'

Dearest Readers, let's play a little word-association game. I'll mention Scottish dancing to you, and you describe to me the first images you think of.


Did it look something like this, from the 2006 Holiday Folk Fair in Milwaukee?

Or maybe something like this?

Welcome to the Highlands, lassies and laddies! These classic dances you just saw are more akin to the brave warriors in plaid, distinctly different from the social dances you're likely to see at a Highland Ball or a Tartan Day dance. You're more likely to see these performed in competition at a Celtic Fest near you. When you do, count how many ladies you spot in the competition. Then count the number of lads, and notice you only need one hand.

Through the years, the lasses have come to dominate Highland dance. Why? One person told me, "That's just the way it is." Come now, lads! Ye brave 'nuff te put on th' kilt! Take it all th' way, like this charmin' Highlander, who had th' currage t' dance t' "The Lion Sleeps Tonight:"

One additional note: the raised arms over the head signifies the great Highland Stag. I've never seen a stag dance a Fling, but there's a first time for everybody.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Step Lively, Laddie!

The Highland Ball is three months away. However, the Tartan Day Ball is this Saturday in Tucson. Now, ye don' expect me t' wait three months t' put on me kilt an' caper wi' the lassies, now?

So all this week I'll be showing you examples of what I'm about to dip my foot into: Scottish Country Dancing.

We'll begin with a fine example from Corryvrechan Scottish Dance Team, performing "Angus MacLeod," "Saxmundham," and the "Reel of the 51st."

Note some differences from English Country Dancing I know and love so well. First, you see a skipping step, one I have yet to master. Secondly, the figures are lot more intricate and less symmetrical than English dance. And third, well, you just gotta love those kilts.

Putting on the kilt is brave enough. But a lad who twirls in a kilt is a man and a half!

Trying Better Next Time

Republican leaders Gov. Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney are headlining a national listening tour to try to win back people who dumped the GOP last year. Says Gov. Bush in the Washington Times:
"You can't beat something with nothing, and the other side has something. I don't like it, but they have it, and we have to be respectful and mindful of that," Mr. Bush said.
The problem isn't that the GOP has nothing. It's that the something isn't what people want. And when the GOP does have something, we don't know why we should vote for it.

Sen. John McCain lost the presidential race because he wasted time talking about some icky old hippie and some nutcase preacher linked to then-Sen. Barack Obama when people wanted to know how Sen. McCain was going to fix the economy. Worse, he buttressed his campaign with a GOP talking-points machine known as Gov. Sarah Palin. She was good for PR but little else.

So now Gov. Bush, Romney and others want to know what they need to do better. I'll offer a few suggestions from Moderate America, since that's whom they're after:

  • Lose the weight. We know you want a big tent. But you wouldn't allow a skunk in your big tent, would you? It's time to toss your fringe elements, whether they're card-carrying Republicans or not. That means openly and clearly denouncing a few right-wing blowhard talk show hosts (you know who), one particular right-wing author and columnist (you know which), and unfortunately, a few of your own high-profile party members who are ballast on your balloon. Don't campaign for them, and don't fund their runs.

    I know it's painful. I know they energize your base. But look at it this way: even if you do tick off a lot of people in your base, who else will they vote for? They're not going to throw their votes away on a third-party candidate. They certainly won't vote Democrat. You can't be like the Democrats and fear a GOP Ralph Nader. Grow your party and drop your boat anchors. What you pick up will offset what you lose.

  • Give people something to vote for. Remember how you took back the House and Senate in 1992? True, some of that was due to the disastrous miscalculations of the Clinton Administration on health care, but Newt Gingrich and company also gave people the "Contract With America." You don't have to promise you'll pass some legislation, but you do need to show people you're facing the issues.

  • Acknowlege you messed up. Take some lumps. Tell your voters, "We blew it. We didn't win the way we needed to in Iraq. We didn't know how bad you were hurting in this economy. We cared too much about the people who were feeding us campaign contributions. We deserved to lose last year, and we want to make it up to you. We promise we'll look at new ideas. Some things aren't negotiable, mind you, but if something works to benefit this nation, we're on board, even if it comes from somebody outside the party."
Gov. Bush seems to be making that last statement. One out of three is a good start. Two out of three ain't bad. Let's see if this new Republican movement can reach the trifecta.

United We Stand (Unless You're One Of "Dem Lib-rul Report-uhs")

Spotted on YouTube today via Drudge:

Reporters stay seated when President George W. Bush enters the White House Brief Room for a conference, but they rise for President Barack Obama.

Hopefully, one of you out there will be able to provide me with a rational and sensible explanation of this which does not include the words "liberal," "lapdog," "mainstream," "tank," "MSM," or a few other terms which, by practicing my honors, I will not write here.

Take your time. I'll wait.

UPDATE: CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller offers an explanation after checking around, saying reporters didn't want to rise and block the cameras in back of them:
When some reporters stood up for President Obama last Friday, they forgot about the needs of their colleagues in the back of the room as well as the less formal atmosphere of the briefing room. Certainly it was a sign of respect for the president, but not one of disrespect for his predecessor.
Naturally, the commenters didn't buy this explanation... playing the bias card again and, in the process, ironically displaying the same kind of prejudice towards the media they accuse the media of displaying towards Bush.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Reel To Reel: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

The first cut isn't always the deepest.

Going Rate: Worth it for any Hugh Jackman or X-Men movie fan, but lacking for any newcomers to this franchise
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Liev Schrieber, Danny Huston, Will.I.Am
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Violence (low blood), Language (moderate to low), Brief Faraway Nudity (Jackman running wild in the wild with nothing below the belt)

Parts of Wolverine remind me of last year's Iron Man, that comic-book movie surprise which impressed beyond its predicted fan base. I see a smidgen or two of that film in this one. Just a smidgen, and it's mostly in Hugh Jackman's engaging performance which answers that long-nagging question: How'd he get such a great set of knuckle blades?

This prequel to the X-Men films assumes you know about mutants, those freaks of nature gifted or cursed with super powers who live in an uneasy detente with the rest of society. With that out of the way, the picture starts with the young Wolverine-to-be Logan (Jackman) in 1800's Canada making a traumatic discovery and a deadly choice. He and his brother Victor Creed (Schreiber) run away, and then their lives fast-forward through the Civil War, two world wars and Vietnam. Did I remind you mutants are darn near immortal? Guess what happens when Logan and Creed are sentenced to die by firing squad for conduct unbecoming of a soldier.

If you can't kill 'em, recruit 'em. William Stryker (Huston) puts the brothers on a team of mutant soldiers looking for the source of a mysterious metal. We get to watch them efficiently tear up and kill anything they want to in order to find Stryker's gold, but Logan cuts loose after Stryker orders the destruction of an African village that refuses to cooperate with him. Logan heads back to Canada, finds a girlfriend Kayla (Lynn Collins) and lives in this cottage with a postcard view. His killing days are done. He's a lumberjack, and he's okay.

Stryker finds Logan some years later, warning Creed has been killing other mutants and offering Logan a new opportunity. Logan refuses untile Creed offs Kayla. Now it's personal, and Logan agrees to participate in Stryker's new project: having his skeleton hardened with adamantium -- that mystery metal Stryker finally found -- so he can take out his revenge, now as Wolverine, against Creed. The process also sharpens his bony claws into killer blades. Before he's out of the lab, though, Stryker double-crosses him, and Logan makes a break for it again. He seeks out Creed and has not one but three snarling, clawing showdowns. That immortality is such a pain. Wolverine also learns Stryker is trying to create the perfect mutant on some secret island, if he can find it.

Jackman shows nuance as he learns to balance his animal and human natures while trying to control his killer instincts. We see a few moments of warmth as Wolverine spends time with his girlfriend, and later, with an elderly couple who befriends him after his naked escape from Stryker. The movie delivers a few great action scenes aside from its mostly hokey Logan vs. Creed fights. A few other X-Men characters get cameos as we see the foundations of the team later to be schooled by Charles Xavier.

My favorite aspects of X-Men are not Wolverine or its cast of mutants but its social statements on tolerance and segregation, which are sorely missed here. I would've liked to have seen more of Wolverine's childhood and his time in the service. Is there a don't-ask-don't-tell rule for mutants? Are superhuman powers addressed in the Geneva Convention? I'd rather see more of that than Stryker's plastic Dr. Evil character, who I'm sure will remind people of Dick Cheney.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine will do well as a typical summer event film because it has enough testosterone and action to satisfy, but it doesn't have much beyond that save for Jackman's performance which is trapped in a comic-book film. He came to Tempe for the world premiere and loved the crowds who voted for the film's opening city and packed a multiplex to see him, free at last.