JT's Blog

Things that interest me, things that happened to me, things that I like, even some things that I don't like...

Flower Drum Song—The Stage Play

Time magazine cover for December 22, 1958, with Miyoshi Umeki and Pat Suzuki from the original cast of Flower Drum Song

After a recent viewing of the movie version of Flower Drum Song revived my interest in the musical, I ordered second-hand copies of the libretto and vocal scores, as I was very curious to see how the original stage play differed from the film version, never having seen a production of it.

I was not surprised to find that they are constructed very differently. To use a crime story metaphor, the stage play, especially the first act, is designed something like a whodunit, with key information (i.e., that Sammy Fong and Linda Low have been lovers for five years) withheld from the audience until the climax. The movie is more like a Columbo episode where the audience is clued in from the start. I prefer the construction of the play, because the songs (with one exception which I'll get to) work better in their original contexts, but I can see why screenwriter Joseph Fields took the approach that he did; it was all part of “opening up” the action to show scenes that couldn't be done as easily on the stage. Also, unlike other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, which might be more accurately characterized as “musical plays”, Flower Drum Song is a true “musical comedy” with some very thinly motivated dance sequences, some of which would not have transferred to film very well (not that the ones that the film-makers came up with were necessarily any better). Fields ended up using most of Hammerstein’s original dialog, chopping and mincing and ricing and dicing it to fit slightly different contexts.

(Yes, I know that the libretto was credited to both Oscar Hammerstein, 2nd and Joseph Fields, but since the movie is credited only to Joseph Fields as based on C. Y. Lee’s novel and makes no mention of the original stage play, I'm not going give the dead Fields any credit for the play just as he gave none to the dead Hammerstein. Apparently Richard Rodgers didn’t take enough interest in the film to insist on a credit for the play.)

I'm not going to give a full synopsis of the play; I'm going to assume that anyone who reads this is familiar either with the movie version or with the Original Broadway Cast album, which included a bare bones synopsis. That synopsis was all that I knew of the play, and there were a lot of gaping holes in my knowledge of the plot and how some of the songs fit into it, and the movie didn't help because its reworking of the material placed many of the songs in very different contexts.

The setting is San Francisco’s Chinatown in the mid-1950’s in the household of Master Wang Chi-Yang, who came to America from China and has not even tried to adapt to his adopted country’s customs. He has two sons, Wang Ta, 21 years old, who is partly Americanized but still feels the pull of his Chinese heritage, and a teenaged son, Wang San, who is thoroughly Americanized. Master Wang’s wife is dead, but his sister-in-law, Madam Liang, whose husband is also dead, helps him with the household. Unlike Master Wang, Madam Liang has been taking an American citizenship course and is about to graduate.

The play opens in Master Wang’s house with Madam Liang speaking on the phone ordering delicacies like octopus, sea horse, and dried snake meat from the Ping Wah Super Market. (Yes, Fields used this dialog in a different scene in the movie.)

Wang Ta, Master Wang’s 21-year-old son, tells his aunt about Linda Low, whom he met on a blind date. She drives a Thunderbird, which seems to impress Ta but not his teenaged brother. Ta has been memorizing a Chinese poem which he hopes will impress Linda. Madam Liang remembers it, and they sing it together, “You Are Beautiful”.

Master Wang enters screaming that he has been robbed. In the film the robber was the only non-Asian character; since the robbery occurs off-stage in the play, there are truly no Caucasians in the play.

Sammy Fong, the owner of the Celestial Bar nightclub and the most thoroughly Americanized character in the play, arrives and offers his picture bride to Master Wang for Wang Ta. He introduces Mei Li and her father Dr. Li and leaves.

Dr. Li reveals that they came into the country illegally; if they had waited for the quotas, it would have taken them another five years, and then Mei Li, who is 19, would have been too old to be married.

“A Hundred Million Miracles”

“A Hundred Million Miracles”

Mei Li sings her flower drum song, “A Hundred Million Miracles”. Master Wang is most impressed by Mei Li. 

Scene 2 finds Linda Low and Wang Ta on a hill overlooking San Francisco Bay, presumably with her Thunderbird just off stage. She tells him about her jealous brother, and she also informs him that “the main thing is for a woman to be successful in her gender.” She says she's getting chilly, and when he goes off stage to get her sweater from her Thunderbird, she lets loose with her anthem: “I Enjoy Being a Girl”.

When the song ends, she begins an encore with new lyrics that aren't on the Original Cast Recording. When she concludes the verse, she exits and a thinly motivated dance number ensues. The dance ends and Linda returns to sing a new refrain.

Pages 35 and 36 of the Flower Drum Song libretto with the encore lyrics to “I Enjoy Being a Girl” and the description of the dance number. Click to enlarge

As I said, this is the truest musical comedy that Rodgers and Hammerstein ever wrote. The film-makers were probably correct to have Linda sing this song to mirror versions of herself; that was a better solution for the movie than the dance number that Hammerstein and Gene Kelly concocted. Oh, and if I ever get my dream revival of this show, I think it would be best to cut Linda's encore lyrics, though the dance number might still be nice to keep. I've included an image of pages 35 and 36 so the reader may judge for her or himself.

Anyway when the song ends, Ta comes back with her sweater and they discuss his conflict between his Chinese and his American sides. Impulsively he asks her to marry him. She says she will need to get the consent of her brother, who has been watching out for her.

Scene 3 takes us back to Master Wang’s house where a banker is counting Wang’s money in anticipation of opening a new bank account, and a tailor is fitting him for a new Western suit. Helen Chao arrives, and the scene plays out pretty much like it does in the movie.

Mei Li meets Wang Ta for the first time, and she decides “I Am Going To Like It Here”.

Scene 4 is in Wang’s bedroom where Mei Li receives a Western dress from Master Wang. The hole that Wang burned in his Western suit is revealed, setting up a key scene later on. Ta comes in carrying a corsage he intends for Linda, but he is trapped into giving it to Mei Li, who is told that here in America we “say it with flowers.”

Left alone with Ta, Mei Li pins a flower on his lapel. “I think I say it with flowers, too.” After they discuss the differences between Chinese and American customs in choosing a wife, she tells Ta a joke she learned from his brother San. Then she asks him how he would ask a girl to marry him. After a a brief hesitation he sings “Like a God”. At its conclusion, he exits, but continues to sing off stage, as Mei Li mouths the words. When she realizes he has stopped singing, she gazes at the door. She is happy, she is walking on air. She sings a refrain of “A Hundred Million Miracles”.

Scene 5 is set in the garden of the Wang house where the commencement exercises for Madam Liang’s American citizenship class are concluding. Play and film are pretty much the same here with the dialog about the American-invented Chinese dish leading into the song “Chop Suey”. The play does not feature the extended production number that the film does (my dream revival will), but it does have some lyrics that didn't make it onto the cast recording.

Weather chilly all through Philly,
Hot and clammy in Miami,
Mississippi River swollen—
Mrs. Astor’s fur is stolen,

No!

Thinks a juvenile delinquent
Knows exactly where her mink went!
Doctor Norman Vincent Peale
Tells you how to feel—

Big deal!

Chop Suey!
Chop Suey!
Rough and tough and brittle and soft and gooey—
Peking duck and Mulligan stew,
Plymouth Rock and Little Rock, too.
Milk and beer and Seven-Up and Drambuie—
Chop Suey
Chop Suey
Chop Suey
Chop Suey
CHOP SUEY!
In rehearsal are Pat Suzuki as Linda Low and Larry Storch who was originally cast as Sammy Fong before the part was given to Larry Blyden

In rehearsal are Pat Suzuki as Linda Low and Larry Storch who was originally cast as Sammy Fong before the part was given to Larry Blyden

Linda arrives with Frankie dressed as a naval officer whom she introduces as her brother. Frankie says he gives his consent to Linda marrying Ta, which takes everyone by surprise.

Into the general confusion, Sammy Fong arrives and is taken aback to hear that Ta is in love with someone other than Mei Li. He explains to Mei Li why he is not good husband material in “Don’t Marry Me”.

Now Linda and Frankie re-enter and see Sammy. From their dialog it’s clear that the three of them know each other well and Frankie is not Linda’s brother.

I had always assumed that “Grant Avenue” was a diegetic number that was performed in Sammy Fong’s Celestial Bar, so I was surprised to learn it is a well-motivated book song. Here’s how it is integrated into the show.

When Sammy Fong exits, a character identified only as “Girl” asks Linda, “Are you going to move to Nob Hill?”

Linda replies, “No, I’m not moving from where I am—marriage or no marriage. I’ve got to be where the action is.”

“Where is that?” the Girl asks.

Linda (singing): “Grant Avenue, San Francisco, California, U.S.A—”

After Linda sings a couple refrains, an ensemble dance follows. Right there in Master Wang’s garden. Where nobody knows her. As I said, this is a musical comedy.

Linda's dressing room at the Celestial Bar is the setting for Scene 6 of Act I. Sammy reveals his plan, which is to invite Master Wang and his family to see Linda perform, to Helen and insists she not give it away. Linda arrives and after Sammy gets her to agree to do one more performance, he leaves.

There is a short dialog between Linda and Helen where Helen reveals that she knows Ta better than Linda does. When Linda leaves, Helen sings one of the best songs in the show, “Love, Look Away”.

Wanting you so, I try too much.
After you go, I cry too much.
Arabella Hong as Helen Chao and Ed Kenny as Wang Ta

Arabella Hong as Helen Chao and Ed Kenny as Wang Ta

Has anyone captured the despair of unrequited love more succinctly than Oscar Hammerstein did in those lines?

The final scene of Act I plays out in Sammy Fong’s Celestial Bar, as a singer belts out “Fan Tan Fanny”. Did you know that Fan-Tan is a gambling game that was once popular among Chinese Americans?

As the song ends, Master Wang, his son Ta, Madam Liang, Dr. Li, and Mei Li enter and are shown to their seats by Sammy.

Frankie enters and is revealed to be the master of ceremonies as he begins his patter but is thrown off when he recognizes Master Wang and his party. He starts his song, “Gliding Through My Memormee”, and tries to stay as far from Wang’s table as he can. The end of his song segues into a reprise of “Grant Avenue” by Linda, which turns into a strip tease number before she realizes who is sitting at the front table.

Wang and his party are horrified and humiliated, and all but Ta leave. Helen sees her chance and lends a sympathetic hand to Ta and leads him away.

Sammy lifts his champagne glass to Linda in a mock toast, which is more than she can take. She picks up an ice bucket and dumps it on his head. “His hair, his face, and his evening coat are very wet indeed, probably cold, too.”

Page 95 of the Flower Drum Song libretto which includes the description of Ta’s dream ballet. Click to enlarge

Act II Scene 1 takes us to Helen Chao’s room shortly after the events of the previous scene. She is giving him Tiger Bone wine. When he has had enough, she puts him to bed and his dream is illustrated by a ballet where Linda and Mei Li become involved with him, only to be frustrated by other dancers. Eventually Helen appears and he carries her off.

The following morning Mei Li arrives with Master Wang’s coat with the burn hole. While Helen is distracted, Mei Li sees the flower that she gave Ta in his coat lapel and takes it. After Mei Li leaves, Helen tries a little too much with Ta, until he leaves, and she sings a reprise of “Love, Look Away”. And that is the last we see or hear of poor Helen Chao.

Scene 2 is in Master Wang’s living room where Madam Liang and Wang lament “The Other Generation”.

Ta enters and begs forgiveness. He is ready to let his father choose his wife for him.

But it is too late. After what she saw at Helen’s place, Mei Li wants nothing to do with Ta. Lamenting the turn of events, Ta sings a reprise of “You Are Beautiful”.

Dr. Li and his daughter leave Master Wang’s house.

Scene 3 takes place in Sammy’s penthouse apartment where a fan tan game is winding up, and although Sammy is winning, he’s unhappy because he’s carrying a torch for Linda. Sammy’s mother arrives, shortly followed by Linda, who has her own key. Sammy claims it’s business and says he’ll meet his mother later

Page 123 of the Flower Drum Song libretto with the reprise of “Don’t Marry Me”

Left to themselves, Sammy proposes, and they imagine what married life will be like in one of my favorite tunes (I can say that about almost every song in this wonderful score) from the show, “Sunday”. After they each sing a refrain, a fairly elaborate dance number ensues, although it is a gentle dance, nothing like the nightmarish production number in the movie.

Scene 4 takes place the the Meeting Hall of the Three Family Association. Dr. Li has pressed his case to honor the original contract, thus forcing Sammy to agree to marry Mei Li. He sings a suitably altered reprise of “Don’t Marry Me” to Mei Li, with one of the key words jettisoned.

Linda arrives and is furious when she hears what happened. Sammy asks her to give him a chance to explain.

“Explain what?” she asks. “Half an hour ago you had to marry me, you couldn't live without me...”

“And nothing’s changed,” he replies.

“Nothing’s changed! You’re going to marry her!”

“That’s the only thing that’s changed,” Sammy fires back.

As the grownups run off in different directions, the kids are left to deliver their lament about “The Other Generation”, thankfully without the irrelevant dance that was added in the movie.

Jack Soo played Frankie in the original production of  Flower Drum Song and later went on to play Sammy Fong, a role he reprised in the movie.

Jack Soo played Frankie in the original production of  Flower Drum Song and later went on to play Sammy Fong, a role he reprised in the movie.

The final scenes play out just like in the movie. Ta and Mei Li realize that they both want to be together and decide to try figure out how to bring that about. Then Mei Li watches a television show where a woman claims to be a wetback. After “The Wedding Procession” Mei Li reveals she has entered the country illegally so the contract is void, leaving the two couples free to pair off as they want. A short reprise of “A Hundred Million Miracles” brings it to a close.

A couple weeks ago when I published my first post about Flower Drum Song, someone on Facebook commented that the song “Don’t Marry Me” works better in its later placement in the movie than in its first act position in the play. I agree. The stakes are much higher, and Sammy is more desperate; the song definitely works better there. I think that’s about the only improvement that Fields brought about in his reworking of the material.

 

Flower Drum Song

Miyoshi Umeki as Mei Li performing the Flower Drum Song of the title

Growing up in the 50s and 60s I got to see all the Rodgers and Hammerstein movie musicals, so when they started appearing on DVD, and later Blu-ray, I collected them all.

All except one, that is.

In part that’s because a few years ago when I re-viewed the 1962 remake of “State Fair”, which I had enjoyed very much as a teenager, I could barely stand to watch the whole thing, it was so filled with cringe-worthy moments, and since “Flower Drum Song” was produced around the same time, I feared it too might suffer from the same problems.

More importantly, over the years “Flower Drum Song” has developed a reputation for being condescending towards its Asian American characters.

But a few nights ago while listening to the Original Cast recording of the show, I was reminded of what a wonderful score lay at its heart, so I decided to order the DVD.

Jack Soo as nightclub operator Sammy Fong. You may remember him from Barney Miller.

How bad could it be?

I quite enjoyed it.

Oh, I could criticize this or that aspect. Yes, some of the musical numbers are over-produced, particularly towards the end, and yes, this is not a great movie by any means, but it is a lot of fun.

Basically, it’s a musical comedy set in 1950s San Francisco Chinatown about the clash between Chinese and American cultures and the older and younger generations. Is it condescending to its characters? Keeping in mind that it is a product of the late 50s, early 60s, and judging it side by side with other works of its time, I do not find it so, although perhaps I’m not the best person to judge, but I can see how a few lines of dialogue here and there might be considered problematic. In any case, I’m certainly not going to argue with anyone about it.

Nancy Kwan as Linda Low revealing a little too much of herself for Master Wang (Benson Fong)

Anyway, here are a few random comments.

It was standard practice to expand the orchestra for musicals, so it’s no surprise that Robert Russell Bennett’s inspired orchestrations for the Broadway show were scrapped in favor of Hollywood Neutral; the new orchestrations aren’t bad, they may even be good once I get used to them, but they don’t have the “elegant simplicity” of Bennett’s originals (as one of my Facebook friends described them).

Nancy Kwan as Linda Low enjoys being a girl

Oscar Hammerstein having died, Joseph Fields received sole screenplay credit, and he rearranged the plot (for example, the key scene in Sammy Fong’s Celestial Bar occurs much nearer to the end of the film rather than the end of the first Act) and reordered and repurposed many of the songs. Some scenes, such as Mei Li and her father’s arrival in this country, which could not very well be done on a stage, are shown, part of the “opening up” of the script.

“The Other Generation”, which in the play is motivated by Wang Chi-yang’s horrified discovery that his son is planning to marry a nightclub stripper, is moved to a much earlier place in the story, well before he makes that discovery, so all the lyrics referring to that discovery are jettisoned, leaving him with but a single chorus to sing before the other generation takes over and sings their version of the song in its entirety.

It is perhaps no surprise that in the song “Don’t Marry Me”, the following lines, which had served as the climax, were excised, Ali Khan having died in a car crash the previous year:

Marry a dope
Innocent and gaga
Marry a Khan
Ali or the Aga
Marry for money
Or marry for free
But Don’t Marry Me!

Juanita Hall as Madam Liang, a far cry from her stint as South Pacific's Bloody Mary

Similarly “You Are Beautiful” is moved to a much later scene so that Wang Ta can sing it directly to Mei Li.

The only song missing from the movie is “Like a God”, but there is a snippet of its lyric in a poetry reading.

What kind of makeup did they put on Juanita Hall? That can’t be her natural skin color. [Update: On second viewing I think it may have been the lighting as it only seemed odd in some of the scenes. Or maybe it was my TV.]

I recall that when I saw the movie as a 12-year-old that I was a bit impatient with the character of Helen Chao, but I now find her to be very sympathetic and I rather wish she had been developed a little bit more. Then again my impatience with her then might have been due to the ballet which probably worked better on the stage than it does in the film.

Regardless of what one thinks of its treatment of the Asian American characters, I think its attitudes towards its female characters are far worse (sample lyric: “The girl who serves you all your food is another tasty dish”; Linda Low makes clear that her only purpose in life is to find a man, any man, to marry). But then again, the show was written in 1958, so it is just a reflection of its times.

I can’t leave without mentioning that one of the key plot points is that two of the main characters have entered this country illegally, in fact, that turns out to be the basis for the resolution of the plot.

One last thought. The play and the film were based upon the book “The Flower Drum Song” by Chinese American author C. Y. Lee. Apparently he was quite pleased with what the old white men did with his novel, and he still defends it to this day. Yes, he’s still alive and will turn 100 in December, and his book is still available on Amazon. I just might have to read it one of these days.

Update: one more thought. The thing that seemed most dated, of course, was the slang employed by the younger son. I suspect some of that seemed dated by the time the movie was released!

Update the second: if you download the sample Kindle file of “The Flower Drum Song” novel, both C. Y. Lee's Author's Note and David Henry Hwang's Introduction provide some interesting details about the creation of the novel and the play/movie, as well as the Asian American community's reaction to it.

Update the third: I’ll try to summarize David Henry Hwang’s main points and hope I don’t distort them too much. He grew up in the 1960s hating the depiction of Asian characters on TV with one exception, that being the movie “Flower Drum Song” which he saw on late night TV. But in the 70s Asian Americans on college campuses began to organize for more authentic portrayals (remember that until 1965 immigration of Asians was suppressed because of quotas), and “Flower Drum Song” was considered “inauthentic” merely because it was written by Caucasians.

Even the original novel by C. Y. Lee was regarded as suspect because it had been a best seller; if the masses liked it, how artistic could it be? So Lee’s works were rejected from the growing canon of “authentic” Asian American works. Even though Hwang and many of his fellow students actually liked “Flower Drum Song”, it served as something to rally against. He recognizes now that their arguments were unsophisticated, and he’s helping to restore the works of C. Y. Lee into the canon of Asian American works.

So it boils down to he doesn’t really have a problem with the original “Flower Drum Song” musical, it was just a casualty of the movement in the 70s to let more Asian American voices be heard.

“Sunday” is such a sweet, intimate moment between Linda and Sammy, but here it gets blown up into a nightmarish production sequence. Was this done in the stage version?

An excerpt from The Ed Sullivan Show with Pat Suzuki and Larry Blyden from the original Broadway cast performing "Sunday" followed by what I presume is a recreation of the dance that was done in that production. Following that, the entire cast appears very briefly.

Afterwards there are appearances by the casts of Destry Rides Again and Bye Bye Birdie.

Wissahickon Wildlife

My latest video is a short collection of photos from my 12 years living in the Wissahickon section of Philadelphia.

The Case of the Errant AirPod

The end table where the charging case was found

As I stripped the bed in preparation for laundry day, I reflected that I had slept pretty well last night, considering. Considering that the one big drawback (well, the bigger one of two) with my new apartment is that the radiators throw off so much heat that I have to keep the windows open to maintain a reasonable temperature. But I digress...

I had been up and about for nearly an hour before I noticed that the AirPod charging case was not plugged into my Mac. But no worries. I turned around and there it was on the end table where I had it last evening. I mainly use the AirPods with my Apple TV, and I usually have the charging case on the end table next to my reclining chair so it's available for a quick charge when I take a break.

The only problem was the AirPods weren't in the case.

The right side AirPod on the floor

I remembered falling asleep while watching TV last evening, and I remembered waking up and grogilly getting into bed. I even remembered taking out my hearing aids and putting them in their case. But I couldn't specifically recall what I did with the AirPods.

Part of the mystery was quickly solved. One of the AirPods, the right side one, was lying on the floor just behind the end table.

But where was the other one?

Thus began the search to end all searches.

I pulled the sub-woofer away from the wall so I could move the filing cabinet. I aimed the iPhone's flashlight here, there, and everywhere. I moved the reclining chair. I groped inside the reclining chair.

And those seemed to be the only places that it might have been. I have a very small apartment. Oh, I made a cursory search of the rest of the place, at least the path from the reclining chair to the bed, but where could it possibly be?

Was the AirPod hiding in my reclining chair?

(Apple is set to unveil a Find My AirPod feature in the next version of iOS, but that doesn't do me any good now.)

Once again suspicion fell on my chair. I figured the AirPod must have fallen off while I dozed and then slipped into the crevices. Another more thorough search was called for.

Which also proved fruitless.

Where the hell could it possibly be?

I decided I needed to put it out of my mind for a while, think about something else and maybe an idea will occur to me. So I went back to doing my chores. Actually, I hadn't neglected them. The towels were now in the dryer, so I went to check to see how dry they were. Still quite wet.

But when I closed the dryer door and restarted it, I heard an odd sound. A clicking, clacking noise of some sort. That didn't sound like towels. Could it be...?

It could. My AirPod was in the dryer.

While I can't say for certain how it got there, I'm assuming that it must have been mixed in with the bed linen. Which means that it went through one complete wash cycle and was in the middle of its third dryer cycle.

Could it possibly still work?

I placed it in its charging case and the yellow charging indicator light came on. That was a good sign.

So I turned on the Apple TV and put the AirPods in my ears.

Un-be-friggin-lievably they still worked!

My Cousin Kimmie

My cousin Kim is one of the warmest, most caring, and compassionate people that I know.

In addition to raising her own children she has also been a foster and adoptive mother, and she has counseled others in times of stress.

Having said that, I need to add that I find her religious and political views abhorrent, and I'm unable to reconcile how such a caring individual can hold such hateful and hate-filled opinions.

Because of the huge difference in our views, I stay clear of any political or religious postings she makes, as I realize there is little chance of either of us persuading the other one. But last evening I saw that she had put up a sisterhood poster. I forget exactly what it said, but it was something along the lines of sisters should support each other, stand up for each other, that sort of thing.

Which reminded me of a Sondheim song, "Old Friends" from Merrily We Roll Along (actually just about everything reminds me of a Sondheim song these days). Anyway I thought about this passage (the lines are sung variously by three characters):

And old friends let you go your own way.
Help you find your own way.
Let you off when you're wrong?
If you're wrong?
When you're wrong?
Right or wrong, the point is:
Old friends shouldn't care if you're wrong.
Should, but not for too long.
What's too long?
If you're wrong?
When you're wrong.

So without really thinking, I posted a comment, something to the effect: “Should they tell you when you're wrong? If you're wrong.”

Now I realized that it was possible Kim might not see that as the whimsical comment that I intended, so as I went to bed I was thinking I should expand on it a bit. Maybe by posting an excerpt from Jerry Herman's song "Bosom Buddies":

Orphan Annie and Sandy
Like Amos and Andy
If I say that your sense of style's
As far off as your youth
It's simply that who else but a bosom buddy
Will sit down and tell you the truth.

Yes, my free associations can take me far and wide.

Anyway, I woke up this morning to find that not only had Kim deleted my comment, but she had unfriended both me and my sister.

I think unfriending someone is one of the mildest and most socially responsible ways that one can register displeasure, so good for her, though why she unfriended my sister as well is a mystery. She and my sister used to be great friends, bosom buddies, if you will.

Oh, and no, we don't call her Kimmie. I just thought that made for a more light-hearted title.

Frank Coccia

The Defense Personnel Support Center

In a year when it seems that way too many people, celebrities and regular folks, were taken from us, I won't be shedding any tears for Mr. Coccia.

It was August 4, 1980, when I began working as an Inventory Management Specialist (or item manager) in the Directorate of Clothing and Textiles (or C&T) at the Defense Personnel Support Center (DPSC) in South Philadelphia. I had a lot to learn, not only how to perform my duties, but also about the corporate structure and internal politics.

My duties were pretty straightforward; our task was to decide when to purchase the various garments and associated textiles used by the five branches of the military services. I was assigned to the Navy section (part of Branch 1), so I managed Navy items, or I did once I had learned the ropes from people like Joe Duca and Hampden Moon.

Those early days are a blur, but I distinctly remember hearing the name Frank Kohsha bandied about, partly in fear and partly in awe, though I wasn't clear on who he was. I also recall seeing a lot of documents and memos that were signed by the Deputy Director, Frank Coccia. Eventually I figured out that they were one and the same person and that the name that was spelled Coccia was pronounced Kohsha.

Mr. Coccia, nearly everyone called him Mr. Coccia, ran a tight ship, and he used fear to keep subordinates in line. Item managers in particular feared his wrath because we were the ones who had to brief him directly whenever it was time to buy items where the contract value was over a certain dollar threshold; we were also the ones to brief him whenever there were problems with an item, regardless of the reason for the problem.

I realized pretty early on that Frank Coccia knew what he was doing. As our Branch Chief, Col. Joe Lavin, put it: “Frank Coccia is probably the most competent man I know.” I also realized he enjoyed his fearsome reputation, as he tended to be toughest on those who radiated fear.

Once I started managing items that required briefing him, I was always prepared, and he practically never gave me a hard time, although he would often toss out a question from left field. Like the time I briefed him on the black Navy shirts, several of which sizes were on backorder, and he asked me about the sizes that weren't on backorder. After that briefing Maggie Rees, our Acting Deputy Branch Chief at the time, couldn't get over that I was able to field those questions.

Anyway I believe it was sometime in 1984 that Coccia got a bug up his ass about one of our contractors, Gulf Apparel. We weren't sure why (the stated reason was that they were behind on another contract, although that was a pretty common occurrence), but Coccia did not want to award the latest contract to Gulf, even though they were the low bidder.

Since it was my item, I had to lead the way in devising a reason for not awarding the contract to Gulf. I recall one of those meetings where someone asked in frustration why we weren't awarding to Gulf, and I replied, “Because Frank doesn't want to.” There was a silence around the table; I'm not sure if it was because I had stated the reason so bluntly or because I, a lowly item manager, had referred to Mr. Coccia as Frank. All eyes turned to Bill Hoban, the most senior person at the table, who nodded and said, “That’s basically it.”

Somehow we managed to find a reason, and we awarded the contract to another company, though I no longer recall the justification or the contractor.

There are a couple other stories that I could tell about Frank Coccia (like the time he overrode John McAndrews’ selection for a promotion and, uh, suggested that he should pick, well, me, instead), and maybe I will someday.

But I did eventually leave C&T in 1986 to take a position involving personal computers in the Directorate of Subsistence.

I was there when the word came out in 1987 that Frank Coccia was one of nine people charged in connection with a kickback scheme involving contracts to supply military clothing. One of the companies involved was, you guessed it, Gulf Apparel.

About a year later Coccia pleaded guilty to taking at least $331,000 in bribes from contractors. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, fined $50,000, and forfeited the $331,000.

I've heard it said, and I think it's true, that competent but corrupt managers are better than incompetent but honest managers. Frank Coccia might provide one data point in support of that thesis.

 

 

Baking Vs. Roasting

This is an actual conversation I had at lunch today, transcribed from memory.

He: I’ve been wondering…do you know what the difference is between baking and roasting?

Me: Ooh, I know I read about that once but I just can’t recall it right now. Here, let me Google it [pulling out the phone]…baking vs. roasting…here it is:  “If you're cooking food that has a solid structure — like any type of meat or vegetables — no matter the temperature of the oven, you'll roast it. If you're cooking food that doesn't already have a solid structure, but will after it's cooked — like muffins, cake, bread, and casseroles — the proper method is baking.”

He: So it’s the same technique, just applied to different things?

Me: Yes, pretty much. You roast things that already have a structure, and you bake things that you want to firm up.

He: Don’t you think it’s odd that one technique should have two different names depending on what you are using it for?

Me: No, not really.

He: Well, what about baked chicken? I’ve heard the term baking applied to chicken.

Me: Googling “Baked Chicken” doesn’t return a definition. Just a bunch of recipes. “Simple Baked Chicken Breasts Recipe”, “Oven-Baked Chicken recipe from Betty Crocker”, “Classic Baked Chicken Recipe”, oh here’s a roasted chicken recipe. The terms seem to be used interchangeably.

He: So people do use the term “Baked Chicken”?

Me: Yes. Ignorant people who don’t know the proper usage.

He: I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.

JT's Famous Burger Buns

This is a simple, can't miss recipe. The buns always turn out delicious enough to eat plain.

time: about 3 hours
yield: 8 buns

ingredients
1 cup water
2 tablespoons olive oil (or melted butter)
1 egg
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup oat bran (if skipping the oat bran, use 3 1/4 cups flour)
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon instant yeast

directions
1. By Bread Machine: Place the ingredients into a bread machine; select the Dough cycle and start it up.
By Food Processor: Place the dry ingredients in the food bowl and process until well mixed. Add the egg and begin processing, adding the oil and water through the feed tube. When the dough cleans the inside of the bowl and forms a ball, process for another 60 seconds. Put the dough in a large bowl, cover with a towel, place it in a warm location (80°F), and let it rise for about an hour.
By Hand: If you don't have a bread machine, knead the dough like you would bread dough. Put the dough in a large bowl, cover with a towel, place it in a warm location (80°F), and let it rise for about an hour.
2. Dump the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Divide into eight pieces. Slap each piece into a bun shape. Place on a greased cookie sheet, cover with a cloth; let rise about 30 to 40 minutes in a warm location.
3. Bake in preheated 375°F oven for 12 to 15 minutes till golden. Cool on wire racks.


I found this recipe in an advertising brochure for King Arthur Flour, and the original recipe used to be found at their web site. I've made a couple changes, like substituting a little oat bran for some of the flour. In my opinion the buns turn out better using olive oil rather than butter. These buns also make great sandwich buns, in fact, many folks enjoy eating them plain. Mold them into other shapes and they can also make worthy hot dog or hoagy buns. Use your imagination.

I've calculated that each bun contains approximately 233.5 calories, most of them coming from the flour.

MacBook Pro Meet LG 4K 21"

As almost anyone who has ordered Apple products knows, Apple tends to under-promise and over-deliver when it comes to shipping dates. So when I ordered my 15" MacBook Pro with Touch Bar at the beginning of November, the promised date was December 15. It arrived 10 days early.

The MacBook Pro and LG monitor. The Mac's display is showing me in the process of composing this blog post.

And when I ordered the 21" LG 4K monitor a few days ago, the promised date was January 23, well over a month away. It arrived yesterday.

Setting up the LG was fun, and I quickly had the Mac's built-in display and the LG's acting as one large virtual display with the LG on top.

But I had a problem with the LG today. When I restarted the MacBook Pro, the monitor didn’t come on. This was annoying, as the LG has no on/off button or LED to indicate whether it's on or off.

The system didn’t even recognize that it was there anymore. But the SSD that I had plugged into one of the monitor's USB-C ports was recognized, so clearly the connection was good.

I called AppleCare, and the friendly tech who answered suggested a few things, things I should have done before calling, actually. Like unplugging the LG from the Mac.

They didn’t work.

(Interestingly, Apple tech support still hasn’t absorbed the fact that the new MacBook Pros don’t have a Power button or startup chime or an LED on the Power Adapter.)


Anyway, she put me on hold to check something, and I tried unplugging the LG again. When I plugged it back in, the LG was recognized.

She came back on and had me restart to make sure. Problem solved.

Except that now the Mac wasn’t recognizing the Seagate 4TB drive that I use for Media (iTunes, Photos, etc.) and that was plugged into the USB 3.0 hub.


A little more experimenting and I decided to plug both external drives back into the USB 3.0 hub. That seems to have fixed the problem. The Mac apparently gets a bit confused if I have a drive in the LG's USB-C port and another in the USB 3.0 hub.


Moral: I think I need to convert to all USB-C ASAP to avoid more problems.