This was a man

May 23, 2014



One of the rewards of research, for me, is so often finding what I wasn’t looking for. For example, I’m viewing Father Robert Barron’s video series, Catholicism, with a group of adults at my parish. One of the episodes in which Father Barron discusses Mary, the mother of Jesus, was filmed in part at the Basilique Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, which is located about fifty miles southwest of Paris. I’m not a student of architecture, but I have read that this church is regarded as the epitome of French Gothic design. There have been several, perhaps as many as five, churches on the site, and the present one was built between 1194 and 1250. There has been no appreciable construction since then. The structure is four hundred thirty feet long, one hundred five feet wide, and one hundred twenty feet high to the roof of the nave. The higher of its two towers is three hundred and seventy-one feet, and that feature of the church led to one of those stories of solitary heroism that characterize war — in this case, World War II.
Chartres - 2

When I was doing research on the basilica, I came across several web sites that explained why that church might be standing today if it hadn’t been for Welborn Griffith Jr., a soldier from Texas. Because Chartres was in harm’s way when the German invasion of France was imminent in 1939, all of the stained glass in the massive structure, including the spectacular rose window, was removed and stored off site. The glass was cleaned and replaced after the war.
When the Germans of the Seventh Armored Division had entered Chartres in August 1944, it seemed logical to assume that they would use the basilica tower for surveillance of the surrounding area, and U.S. forces planned to shell the building. Griffith, a colonel, disagreed with this plan and volunteered to go behind enemy lines, accompanied by a single enlisted man, to determine if the Germans actually were in the church. They were not, and Griffith rang the church bells as a signal that the Americans should hold their fire.

Griffith, who as posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star, was killed in action shortly thereafter. The citation with his Distinguished Service Cross explained:
“Continuing his inspection of outlying positions north of the city, he suddenly encountered about fifteen of the enemy. He fired several shots at them, then proceeded to the nearest outpost of our forces at which point a tank was located. Arming himself with an M-1 rifle and again with complete disregard for his own safety, Colonel Griffith climbed upon the tank directing it to the enemy forces he had located. During the advance of the tank he was exposed to intense enemy machinegun, rifle, and rocket-launcher fire and it was during this action, in the vicinity of Leves, France, that he was killed.”
A story that appeared in The National Review in 2011 reported that until the 199os Griffith’s family was unaware of the part he had played in sparing the basilica. The residents of Leves had memorialized Griffith with a plaque, but had misunderstood his dog tags and transposed his first and last names. A local historian in the French city discovered the error and took the trouble to find his daughter in Florida.

Chartre rose window




We hooked up our new Amazon Fire TV gizmo and got a little giddy with the voice-recognition remote. One of the names we blurted into the device was “Sophia Loren” and that led us to watch Judith a 1965 example of a wasted opportunity.The cast also included Jack Hawkins and Peter Finch.

This project had possibilities. The story is set in Palestine shortly before the British pulled out of what was to become the State of Israel. A ragtag military organization called the Haganah — forerunner of the Jewish Defense Force — is anticipating more than the usual hostility from surrounding Arabs and is particularly concerned about a former German tank commander, Gustav Schiller, who is providing the Arabs with tactical training. In order to find the elusive Schiller, the Haganah leadership recruits the Nazi’s former wife, Judith, a Jew who has her own reasons for wanting to track him down.

At the beginning of the film we watch as Judith is smuggled into a sea port in a large wooden crate along with another woman and a piece of heavy machinery. When the crate is opened we already see the flaw in this movie: one of the women is dead — not a surprising outcome, considering the mode of transport — but Judith is tastefully disheveled but not so much so that she isn’t ravishing in eye makeup and lipstick as befitted a mid-1960s sex goddess.



Judith is hustled off to the kibbutz where an Haganah unit is housed under the supervision of Aaron Stein, played by Finch. The back story is that Schiller and Judith had a son together, but that Schiller ultimately abandoned his wife and took their child. Judith wound up in the Dachau concentration camp and was forced to have sex with German officers.

Judith doesn’t know where Schiller is, but the Haganah leaders figure that she could identify him if they did locate him. Aaron nudges the impatient Judith into approaching the local British Army commander, a Major Lawton (Jack Hawkins) into letting her see the military file on Schiller. Lawton, who is an upright chap, is nevertheless no match for Judith’s charms, and he hands over the file, which indicates that Schiller’s last known address was Damascus.Stein and another Haganah member take Judith to Damascus where they find Schiller. Judith double-crosses Haganah by shooting Schiller, but somehow the men smuggle the wounded man back to Palestine.While the kibbutz is being attached by Arab forces, Schiller tells Judith about the plan of attack, but he is killed by Arab bombs before telling her where their son has gone.



There probably was enough to go on here to make a decent movie. Finch and Hawkins turned in good performances, and the gritty location shots created a credible image of the environment in which such events would have taken place in 1948. But the film is often reduced to absurdity because of the seemingly irresistible opportunity to exploit Sophia Loren’s physical charms.

Bananas - 1
We saw a major production of South Pacific the other night — at least the fifth time we’ve seen it on the stage — and so we heard the Seabees sing once again: “We got mangoes and bananas we can pick right off the tree.” No doubt that was true in that part of the world in the 1940s, but the news lately suggests that bananas may not be nearly that available, if they are available at all.

Aggressive diseases that are immune to pesticides and other control measures are threatening to seriously deplete the world’s banana crop, which provides a staple in the diets of an estimated 420 million people and is an important food source to hundreds of millions of others. The worst menace seems to be a soil fungus known as Panama Disease, which has devastated crops in Southeast Asia and has also been identified in Mozambique and Jordan. Authorities say there is a risk that the fungus will spread to Latin America, where the Cavendish variety of banana most familiar in the United States is grown.

Bananas - 2
As serious as this situation is, I can’t hear about it without thinking of the novelty song, “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” which was written by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn in 1922 for the Broadway revue “Make it Snappy.” Eddie Cantor sang it in that show. Nonsense songs were very popular then and down through the 1950s, and Billy Jones’s recording of this tune was the number-one song in the nation for five weeks in 1923. The origin of the title and first line of the song is uncertain, but the lyrics as a whole may have been inspired by a similar banana blight that originated in Suriname and by the 1920s reached the Caribbean and Central America.As the illustration on the sheet music suggests, this song was part of a genre of entertainment that depended on making fun of immigrants. The lyric tells of a Greek man who owns a fruit store and answers any question in the same fashion: “Yes, we have no bananas.”

Italian translation of the Silver-Cohn tune.

Italian translation of the Silver-Cohn tune.

I was curious about a reference in the lyric to “sparrow grass,” a term I had never heard before. I learned that “sparrow grass” is a corruption, perhaps a derisive one, of “asparagus.” The Oxford English Dictionary includes a statement written in 1791 by natural historian John Walker, presumably writing about the usage in Britain: “Sparrow-grass is so general that asparagus has an air of stiffness and pedantry.”
You can hear Billy Jones’s 1923 recording, in which his put-on accent sounds more Italian than Greek, by clicking HERE.

These are the lyrics:

There’s a fruit store on our street
It’s run by a Greek.
And he keeps good things to eat
But you should hear him speak!

When you ask him anything, he never answers “no”.
He just “yes”es you to death,
And as he takes your dough, he tells you…

“Yes! We have no bananas
We have no bananas today!!
We have string beans and onions, cabBAges and scallions
And all kinds of fruit and say
We have an old fashioned toMAHto
A Long Island poTAHto, but

Yes! We have no bananas
We have no bananas today!”

Business got so good for him that he wrote home today,
“Send me Pete and Nick and Jim; I need help right away.”
When he got them in the store, there was fun, you bet.
Someone asked for “sparrow grass”
and then the whole quartet
All answered:

“Yes, we have no bananas
We have-a no bananas today.
Just try those coconuts
Those wall-nuts and doughnuts
There ain’t many nuts like they.
We’ll sell you two kinds of red herring,
Dark brown, and ball-bearing.
But yes, we have no bananas
We have no bananas today.”


Billy Jones and Ernest Hare gained fame as radio personalities, billing themselves as "The Happiness Boys."

Billy Jones and Ernest Hare gained fame as radio personalities, billing themselves as “The Happiness Boys.”