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Posted by on Oct 23, 2014 in Blog, Essays | 5 comments

Next Stop….”The Twilight Zone” (The Dozen Best Episodes)

 

rod-serling

 

It’s hard to believe The Twilight Zone, perhaps the greatest television series in history, went off the air 50 years ago. [SEE FOOTNOTE 1]

The weekly series on CBS lasted just five years.  That’s a relatively short time for a television show which still enjoys quite an enduring legacy to this day.  Aside from the outdated fashions of the early 1960s, any episode plucked from vast The Twilight Zone treasury could air on modern television today and would be just as interesting to many viewers.  Perhaps that’s why this iconic series continues to run in syndication and has become such a popular on-demand option more than five decades after the final program was filmed.

Indeed, the cross-generational success of the show was sustained by the brilliant writing and shocking plot twists.  No other television writer aside from the great Paddy Chayefsky penned more memorable stories that made audiences think than the show’s creator, director, and star — Rod Serling.  Remarkably, he fought constantly with the network, censors, and even corporate sponsors while working on the show, finally surrendering to the typical frustrations which burden all great artists forced to compromise their vision for superficial commercial appeal.

Serling was a dogmatic a three-pack-a-day chain smoker who in 1959 came up with a novel idea for a new television show.  After being rejected elsewhere, he pitched a television series to CBS that would examine controversial issues and would even become a vehicle for social criticism.  Serling’s grand vision was to address the major events of the day, disguised as broadcast entertainment through the medium of science fiction.  [SEE FOOTNOTE 2]

The Twilight Zone was born.

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Posted by on May 20, 2014 in Blog, Book Reviews, World Series of Poker | 15 comments

The Nine Lives of Herbert “The Cat” Noble

 

herbert-noble

 

For a very long time, Herbert Noble beat the odds.

Not many did, back then.  Marked men with a pretty price on their heads weren’t destined to survive.  Almost always, their bodies ended up riddled with machine gun bullets, filled with 12-gauge buckshot, or blown to smithereens in an “accidental” explosion.

But time after time after time, Noble somehow managed to defy the odds and survived.  He withstood no less than eight assassination attempts before his luck finally ran out in the worst possible way when he naively stuck his right hand into a wired mailbox triggering a blast that sent limbs and body parts flying and tumbling to the ground as far as half a football field away.

Noble’s nine lives earned him a most appropriate nickname.  “The cat,” he was called.

This is the story of The Cat and his nine lives.

__________

 

Noble had enemies — including some powerful and dangerous enemies.  But none was more powerful and dangerous than a rival gambler and racketeer of about the same age with a similar background as he who competed with Noble and others for the lucrative dice and numbers game action centered around the east end of sprawling downtown Dallas.  We’ll get to Noble’s nemesis a bit later.

Dallas was a wide-open city back in the 1930’s.  All forms of vice — including gambling, drugs, and prostitution — weren’t merely tolerated.  They were openly permitted in certain areas of town, primarily around what’s known today as Deep Ellum.  Here’s a first-hand account of Deep Ellem from that period:

At the time, you could find gun and locksmith shops, clothing stores, the Cotton Club, tattoo studios, barber-shops, pawn shops, drugstores, tea rooms, loan offices, domino halls, pool halls, and walk-up hotels.  On its sidewalks, you could find pigeon droppers, reefer men, craps shooters, card sharps, and sellers of cocaine and marijuana.  Sometime around World War I, Lead Belly and Blind Lemon Jefferson got together and began composing folk tunes, with (Deep Ellum) often in the lyrics.  LINK HERE

The vice trade was frighteningly dangerous.  Rival operators targeted each other and killed off the competition.  Hundreds of grifters and gamblers, hardly innocent of serious crimes themselves, met a murderous end.  Even the Mafia, mostly centered in the American Northeast, which had grand designs on western expansion into fast-growing cities such as Dallas which were stoked with lots of money and new opportunities, determined that engaging in a takeover fight wasn’t worth the trouble of starting a crime war.  The vice rackets in Dallas were just too wild and dangerous.

That’s the risky business Noble entered and eventually came to thrive in as a rising star within the Dallas underworld.

__________

 

Noble had humble roots.  He grew up a few blocks away from the same skid-row squalor of West Dallas, which is the same neighborhood that spawned notorious bank robbers, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.  Noble tried his best to go straight for a while.  But each time, the lure of big-time gambling presented a temptation that became impossible to resist, and eventually too strong a grip to leave behind.

The world may have been at war during the early 1940s, but Dallas had its own wars and they were fought in the streets and back alleys with guns and bullets, ultimately settling who would control the rackets.

By this time, Noble had become the proprietor of one of the city’s most profitable backrooms, a joint called The Airmen’s Club, known by just about everyone in town who was inclined towards that sort of thing.  Known for its honest games and reputation as a place where the occasional winner would actually get paid, The Airmen’s Club did well.  Really well.  Some even thought they were doing too well.

The gambling traffic in rival joins began getting lighter.  Noble’s main nemesis, that powerful man referred to earlier, took notice.  He demanded a greater share of the take.

According to documents uncovered by writers and researchers, Noble’s nemesis wanted to increase his cut of the illegal gambling action from 25 percent up to 40 percent.  Aside from his own gambling joints, this nemesis was already pulling in a steady income from The Airmen’s Club.  Still, he wanted more.

When Noble refused to pay the percentage hike, that’s when the trouble started.

__________

 

Noble must have known what he was getting into.  He must have been aware that his fateful decision to reject forking over an increasing percentage of the weekly grift would have serious, perhaps even dire consequences.  Noble’s chief nemesis had a well-deserved reputation for violence.  Deep Ellem was littered with bodies of those who refused to play along.

The intimidation began slowly.  First, the Dallas Police Department mysteriously showed up one afternoon and tried to shut the club down, while ignoring every other gambling joint in town.  When that scare tactic didn’t work, Noble eventually opened back up again and one night in 1946 he found himself trying to outrace a black Cadillac with sawed-off shotguns pointing out the windows.

That incident set off a five-year run of Vaudevillian-style dog-and-cat chases where Noble always somehow managed to miraculously escape.  But the hired assassins came close to their getting mark several times.  “The Cat” was hit with gunfire so often he even acquired a few alternative nicknames, including “The Clay Pigeon.  He reportedly had so many holes in his body, he was called “The Sieve.”

Tragically, while Noble continued to outfox the hired killers and sometimes just got lucky, his wife Mildred wasn’t as fortunate.  She met a frightfully bloody death ending in complete dismemberment one cool November morning when she extraneously planned to drive her husband’s car and ended up blown into a thousand pieces across the street.  The would-be assassins had loaded Noble’s car with a nitro gelatin compound, which ended up killing his beloved wife entirely by accident, turning her into biological confetti.  [See Footnote 1]

If the previous attempts at murder and mayhem had made his life stressful, the senseless death of Noble’s dear wife unhinged the 41-year-old outlaw-businessman past the breaking point.  It rendered his remaining years a zombie-like purgatory of constant fear and paranoia.  Everyone around him became a suspected assassin.  Casual strolls down sidewalks or drives down city streets became a dreaded daily routine.  Common tasks became dicey exercises, performed at Noble’s own peril.

Noble’s hair turned prematurely white.  He began to drink heavily.  He lost 45 pounds.  Noble had become a walking dead man.

__________

 

In all, there were nine attempts on Noble’s life which were carried out by contract killers.  Plus two other failed pursuits that were thwarted when stray witnesses saw unidentified men planting explosive devices beneath Noble’s car.  Eleven in all.  All were presumably hired by the same person, Noble’s chief nemesis.

Although the rival was eventually forced out of Dallas and moved elsewhere late to begin a new life, he retained his percentages of what was left behind in the underground clubs, forwarded on to the hungry pocket of the man who behind Noble constantly living in fear.  [See Footnote 2]

Noble was shot at and hit on at least three occasions.  Part of his right ear was blown off.  Eight times he survived these bombs and blasts.  That is, until the blistering hot morning of August 7, 1951, when the odds finally caught up with Noble and he ended up crapping out on a dusty dirt road in Denton County, northwest of Dallas.

Checking one’s own mail isn’t generally thought of as a deadly decision.  But when Noble casually reached into his mailbox just outside his ranch, that act would be his last on the earth.

Noble most certainly didn’t feel much.  His entire torso was instantly vaporized in a violent chemical blast that sprayed blood and body parts like wild mushrooms blooming over the Texas prairie.  The only identifiable limb belonging to Noble was blown over a giant oak tree.  There were no witnesses.  The crime was never solved.  The murderers got away.  No one was even so much as charged with a crime.

A short time later, the word of Noble’s savage murder reached the interiors of 128 Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas, at a new place that had just opened up called Binion’s Horseshoe.

When told of what happened some 1,300 miles away back in Texas, the man who would later be celebrated as the gambler’s true friend, a casino patriarch, a city father, and the creator of the World Series of Poker, was quoted to have said, “I’m glad he’s dead.”  [See Footnote 3]  

“The Cat” had finally spent his final life and Herbert Noble was now extinct.

 

Writer’s Note:  I wrote this after reading a new biography by Doug J. Swanson, an investigative reporter for The Dallas Morning News.  His forthcoming book, “Blood Aces:  The Wild Ride of Benny Binion” is scheduled to be released in August 2014.  I read an advance copy and will post a review once the book becomes available to the public.  Swanson’s biography goes into far greater detail about the lives of Noble and Binion.

 

Footnote 1:  According to multiple sources, one of the alleged assassins was the infamous R.D. Matthews, a lifelong friend of the Binion Family.  R.D. Matthews became noted for several bizarre instances during his lifetime, including once when he was in his 80’s and punched out the late casino mogul Bob Stupak at Piero’s, a popular Las Vegas restaurant.  As for the crime of killing Noble’s wife, R.D. Matthews told police, ” I didn’t have a goddamned thing to do with it.”

Footnote 2:  At one point, Noble became so fed with living his life as a target that he tried to kill Binion.  That plan which is told in greater detail in Swanson’s forthcoming book (see above) proved unsuccessful.

Footnote 3:  Although he was never charged nor convicted, not much doubt remains that Benny Binion was behind the many assassination attempts and eventual death of Herbert Noble.  This allegation has been made in several books and articles, without any denial from relatives or survivors.

__________

 

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Posted by on Feb 18, 2014 in Blog, Politics | 14 comments

Ranking the Presidents (1900 to Present)

 

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Today is Presidents Day.

Put another way, it’s an excuse to take the work day off.

Before we head off to the beach, or clean out the garage, or down that six pack, let’s use this day as it was intended, which is to remember the people who have resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

What follows is a ranking of the presidents since 1900.  The start of the 20th Century up to the present era is the perfect time frame for comparison since that span includes the sum total of 20 presidents — all in the post-industrial age and when America took an active role in world affairs.

What measure did I use for my rankings?  Well, there’s certainly a Liberal bias to the grading.  But Liberal versus Conservative isn’t the primary criteria.  Some Conservative presidents fare quite well in my rankings, while Liberals are graded poorly.  Instead, I tried to look at the overall status of the nation, the role of the federal government during the term (and aftermath), and the state of the executive branch in particular when the President departed office, contrasted with the date of inauguration.  In other words, did the President make the nation and the office better or worse?  How did the country fare from start to finish?  Most important — how did the President handle the events of the day, including wars, economic problems, scandals, and so forth?

Let’s find out.  I expect some raised eyebrows.  I’m convinced history has graded a few presidents wrongly, and I’ll explain why.  Each President is also graded based on what I believe history will ultimately decide.  Judgement certainly takes time, decades perhaps, in order to reflect back on the term and assess the full impact of a presidency.  That makes the more recent Presidents particularly difficult to judge.

Here now are the presidents ranked 1 through 20 during the period 1900 to 2014:

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Posted by on Feb 16, 2014 in Blog, Essays, Politics | 7 comments

“The light has gone out of my life”

 

Alice_Hathaway_Roosevelt

 

One hundred and thirty years ago on this day, an ambitious young man stepped down from the front stoop of his home in Oyster Bay as a proud new father.  A joyous occasion, indeed.

This February 14, 1884 was expected to be a Valentines Day to remember.  And it was.  But not for reasons anyone, least of all the bright young attorney, could possibly have envisioned.

The young man, then 25, lived and worked in New York City.  He had a promising political career.  He was well off, even prosperous by standards of the day.  Married happily for four years and now father to a newborn daughter, future possibilities seemed to know no bounds.

But this day wouldn’t be remembered as a joyous occasion.  Early that morning, the man was shaken to learn his mother died from typhoid fever.  This crushing news was almost too much to bear, instantly transforming emotions of joyous fulfillment to utter despair.

The nightmare was only beginnning.  Only hours after hearing of his mother’s passing, the man’s wife who had just given birth lost all conciousness.  She slipped into a coma.  Then unexpectedly to everyone’s horror, she took her last breath.  Turned out, the pregnancy had concealed a serious disease within her body, and she died from kidney failure.

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Posted by on Feb 10, 2014 in Blog, Music and Concert Reviews, Personal | 1 comment

Yesterday and Today: The Beatles at Washington Coliseum

washington-coliseum-beatles

There are places I remember,

all my life though some have changed.

Some forever not for better,

some have gone and some remain.

 

This is the story not so much of a band, as a building.  A building with memories.

Take a ride on Amtrak’s Metroliner from New York City to Washington, D.C.  After about a three-and-a-half hour journey you’ll pull into Union Station, a ten-minute walk from the U.S. Capitol Building.

Just as the train begins to slow down and coasts into the depot, an ugly rust-colored structure barely comes into view.  It seems hardly worth noticing, except for the arches.  Now blanketed in graffiti, it’s what we call an eyesore.

That shell of an old building along the eastern wall of the Washington rail yard deserves a better fate than it’s been given.  Instead, it’s a victim of urban blight and gross neglect, forgotten a long time ago by just about everyone.  Now it’s an empty tomb, barren except for the ghostly memories of what happened inside fifty years ago on the night of February 11, 1964.

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