Saturday, June 12, 2010

Return of the top ten lists

The usual top ten lists. More fun than shooting fish in a barrel (did you ever consider that there would be holes in the barrel if you actually shot into it?) I hope what you get out of this is to ponder for a while why a grown man would spend his time making up lists like this.

Top 10 Wild West gunman.

It seems to me that the honor of getting mentioned in any book about old western gunfighters is often related to whether that man interracted with Wyatt Earp, for better or worse. But, when it comes to much of the history of the gunfighters it is wise to just say - who really knows? There was so much exaggeration and outright lies, and journalism was so bad, that the best we can do is say, I think maybe, possibly this is what happened. Ironically, we can sometimes be more certain of things that happened in ancient times, if we have some evidence, than in the Old West.

1. Wyatt Earp. This quote from Bat Masterson says it all – “Wyatt Earp is one of the few men I personally knew in the West in the early days, whom I regarded as absolutely destitute of physical fear. I have often remarked, and I am not alone in my conclusions, that what goes for courage in a man is generally the fear of what others will think of him . . . Wyatt Earp’s daring and apparent recklessness in time of danger is wholly characteristic; personal fear doesn’t enter into the equation, and when everything is said and done, I believe he values his own opinion of himself more than that of others, and it is his own good report that he seeks to preserve. . . . He never at any time in his career resorted to the pistol excepting in cases where such a course was absolutely necessary. Wyatt could scrap with his fists, and had often taken all the fight out of bad men, as they were called, with no other weapons than those provided by nature.”

Nowadays Earp is primarily considered a benevolent legendary figure but back then he was also a controversial figure. There were even national political implications. It may be strange that a small town cop and gambler, and that's essentially what he was, became so renowned, but that has happened to others too, when lightning struck and some journalist decided you were his meal ticket. But, forgetting right or wrong for the moment, Earp seems like the real deal, and even if all the stories aren't true, they could have been, because he had a special quality about him.  Depending on who you read, he may have been the greatest Western lawman without a stain on his reputation, or, the greatest lawman with lots of stains. I prefer to believe the heroic version, but I recognize my bias and there is at least some evidence to the contrary.

2. Wild Bill Hickok (Hitchcock, Haycock) - Like Earp, he was seemingly fearless. He claimed that the difference between him and other gunfighters was that he would wait an extra fraction of a second to fire to assure his aim, but he was also known to lightning fast and incredibly accurate in a time when guns and gunfighters were so inaccurate armed conflicts often left no one dead or injured. His getting shot in the back playing cards while holding aces and eights (supposedly, this is where we get the notorious “dead man’s hand” - but, that is probably spurious and the phrase may have long existed before then) is still the reason men – including me for a while - don’t like to sit with their back to the door. He was a Civil War era vigilante in Kansas, possibly a union spy, a stage coach driver, a dangerous if erratic lawman, a gambler, a terrible actor and a true gunfighter (unlike many with the reputation). As to how many men he killed, I guestimate it was somewhere killed between 5 and a dozen. His 1865 duel with a man named Tutts may have been the first of the stereotypical "draw" gunfights. Late in his career he accidentally shot and killed another deputy who was running during a battle, which reportedly haunted him the rest of his short life and pretty much brought his law career to a close. His supposed romance with Calamity Jane probably never happened. He slightly preceded and was perhaps a template of sorts for Wyatt Earp. Now, Earp vs. Hickok – that would have been a classic match up.

3. Jesse James’s legend can be difficult to understand. He was a murderous thief who got what he deserved. His young life as a rebel guerrilla, his long career as a bank and train robber (long for that profession, anyway), the way he, his brother and the Younger family hammed up their robberies, the enmity he made of the great detective, Allan Pinkerton, who in turn had James' family’s home burned down (killing Jesse's brother, maiming his mother and creating great sympathy for him) and the way he died at the hands of a gang member all served to make him a western icon despite his profession. At one point the Missouri legislature almost gave him amnesty. But, in the Old West, the line between good guy and bad guy was often blurred, and I am looking at things like the notches on their belt, the reverence in which they were held, even their notoriety - not whether they are going to heaven.

4. John Wesley Hardin – He was perhaps the baddest of the villains, killing many men. How many is not just uncertain but really speculative. But, undoubtedly, it was a lot. It is quite possible that many of his early killings were justified. Eventually it seems he just became nasty. The story that he was friends with Bill Hickok for a time seems legitimate, but it also looks like he blew it by doing a little shooting for fun and had to flee town. He was eventually caught by a Texas Ranger (who really did seem to always get their men) and went to jail for murder, serving 17 years during which time he tried to reform himself. Just a couple of years after he got out, he was, like Hickok, shot from behind while playing a game.

5. Bat Masterson – Did he actually kill anyone? Hard to say. I read one work which went through all the claims one by one and concluded no. Others disagree, but put the tally at far less than ten. However, there is little doubt that he was as fearless as he described Earp (I think in the above quote he may have trying to describe himself too), ready to mix it up with almost anyone, and would pull a gun only when he had no choice. He was a warrior, an effective lawman, a buffalo hunter, a true Earp friend and co-worker. He accompanied Wyatt on many an adventure (like Earp, Masterson also fought alongside his own brothers), a gambler and later on in his life, a sport’s writer with a pretty good reputation. Plus, there used to be a tv show about him, which is immortality.

6. Clay Allison – I have read so many different things about Clay Allison that I don’t know what to believe. It seems he almost fought everybody if you give credit to all the stories. I don’t. But, he was definitely a temperamental so and so who waged war for the South under Nathan Bedford Forrest, followed him into the clan after the war and then became a legendary gunfighter who called himself “a shootist.” The big question is did he really have a showdown with Wyatt Earp in Dodge City. Maybe, maybe not. If it happened, it didn't come to shooting and that may have only been due to the sight of Earp's friend Bat Masterson’s shotgun covering them. I’ve read many versions of that story, and there is both evidence it happened but also that Allison wasn’t even in town at the time it supposedly happened. Whatever the truth is about him, he was never on the side of the angels, but was a widely feared man. I cannot even fathom a guess as to how many men he might have killed.

7. Doc Holliday – The most interesting thing about this hot-tempered tuberculosis ridden dentist with a classical education turned gambler and gunfighter was his friendship with the mild mannered Earp. Earp claimed Doc saved his life in Dodge City when he was about to be assassinated by Cowboys, although he had no reason to stick his neck out. Doc was definately with him at the well documented OK Coral fight and on Earp’s vendetta ride after the Cowboys killed one brother and permanently maimed another. Wyatt later wrote, among other good things about Doc, that he was the speediest, deadliest man with a gun he ever knew. There probably can't be a better testimonial for a gunfighter. Wyatt’s brother Virgil indicated that all Doc’s supposed crimes seemed to be hearsay and he was first to step up to help out when there was trouble. But, he also said that the Earps seemed to be Doc's only friends. The truth is, we all probably like Val Kilmer’s Doc in Tombstone more than we’d have liked the original, who could be pretty ornery.

8. Ben and Billy Thompson – These two bad guys brothers were just trouble and they weren’t even Americans; they were British. But, they came here young and particularly Billy was made for mayhem. Ben was older and probably a lot saner. It is not clear how many men they killed, but I speculate around a dozen or so together based on what I read. The supposed showdown between Wyatt Earp and Ben may also be legend and there is again controversial evidence on both sides, but if anything, Wyatt just volunteered to walk up to him unarmed and talked him into throwing down his gun when Ben was facing off a whole town. Ben was also a lawman for a while, and he befriended Bat Masterson, who allegedly rescued Billy at Ben’s request when he was jailed up north. Ben was jailed for two years when he killed his own brother-in-law. He died in a famous ambush in San Antonio and his reckless younger brother long outlived him.

9. William H. Bonney – Billy the Kid. Talk about speculation. The only thing we can be sure of was that he died young, fought in the Lincoln County War and was shot by Pat Garrett. After that, I can’t find two books or articles that agree on much of anything about him. That’s the only reason he’s so low on this list. Otherwise, he’d be number 3/4 with James.

10. Jim Riley – This one is a bit of a surprise, because we know almost nothing about him except he performed an amazing feat in what is known as the Hyde Park gunfight, or the Newton massacre. Mike McCluskey, a railroad cop and Bill Bailey, a cowboy, were both hired to help keep the peace in town as special officers, but couldn’t stand each other. They got into a fight. McCluskey had the better of it and finally shot Bailey, who died the next day. Bailey’s friends wanted revenge. Riley was a young kid who McCluskey had befriended and he backed him up in a dance hall the next day. At least four if not more Texas cowboys went up against McCluskey (who died quick), another McCluskey friend, Martin, who just tried to keep the peace, and young Riley, only 18 years old and referred to as McCluskey's shadow. Riley had never been in a gunfight while some of the others were very experienced. Nevertheless, guns blazing, Riley shot seven people, killing four of the attackers. Unfortunately, he also accidentally killed Martin, and one of the two bystanders he also hit while he was emptying his guns. Still, destroying the enemy as a tuberculoid teenager with bullets flying all over is pretty impressive, especially since you have to consider that other than the initial McCluskey murder, no one else hit anyone. I think we call those he accidentally shot collateral damage these days. He certainly had promise as a gunfighter. But, he walked out of the dance hall and disappeared forever - the original 15 minutes of fame. It was a big story at the time, but now, you never hear about it unless you really look.

Best animal cartoon characters with sidekicks

Why is this necessary, you ask? Because cartoons are a huge part of our introduction to society as children these days and I don't think you will likely find this list elsewhere. Although I don't believe what we watch on tv makes us killers or even evil, it is where we do a bit of learning about things like friendship, adventure and heroism. All right, I just made all that up (although it is probably somewhat true). I just liked cartoons. And, yes, I am a little koo koo for Hanna-Barbera.

1. Yogi Bear and Boo Boo – Bugs Bunny didn’t have what I’d call a sidekick, so Yogi wins this hands down. Eh, Boo Boo.

2. Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse – I just spent a weekend with friends saying thinks like – “I’ll use my anti-Frog repellant gun, Minute,” in a high pitched voice, paraphrasing this Batman like cat. Minute Mouse was about as effective a sidekick as Barney Fife, but, it was a cartoon, and he had celluloid heart.

3. Peter Potamus and So-So – I never could wait until Peter unleashed his Hurricane Holler and saved the day. So-So was long my favorite sidekick. He was a monkey, not a chimp. That was common in cartoons. Why, you have to wonder, when chimps are so much more like us and much more powerful? I suspect it is the tails.

4. Ricochet Rabbit and Droop-a-Long – Bing, bing, biii-iiiing Richochet Rabbit was as great a hero as the west knew, but his slow moving and talking sidekick Droop-A-Long (“I’m comin’ Mr. Ricochet”) often stole the show (I remember him drawling out - "Coming, Mister Ricochet" so vividly).

5. Quick Draw McGraw and Baba Looey – I particularly liked Quick Draw’s guitar bashing spanish alter ego, El Kabong. Baba Looey was perhaps the greatest of all sidekicks. He referred to his heroic pal as "Qweecksdraw". That would probably be considered racist or at least politically incorrect these days, because real people don't have accents, do they?

6. Touché Turtle and Dum Dum – you noticing a pattern with Boo Boo, So-So, and Dum Dum? Touché Turtle never really caught on big time, but I loved his flashing sword and his dull witted sheepdog friend (who fenced a bit too).

7. Breezly and Sneezly – I can’t even tell you why I liked this stupid cartoon, but I’d watch it over and over even as a teenager. Must have been Mel Blanc's magical voice.   Shhh. And at some innappropriate point, Sneezly would sneeze and . . . ?

8. Yippee, Yappee and Yahooey – “Call out the goofy guard – Yippee, Yappee and Yahoooo-ey.” One of my all time favorites. These lovable mutts' collective job was protecting the king. They reminded me a bit of canine Snap, Crackle and Pop. Put a sword in a cartoon characters hand or paw, and I loved it.

9. Augie Doggie and Doggie Daddy – It must have been tough being a dynamic father and son team like these two and always having to explain to autograph seekers that you weren’t Huckleberry Hound and his stupid nephew. But AD and DD were one of a kind and among the best of their canine cartoon generation.

10. Secret Squirrel and Morocco Mole and Danger Mouse and Penfold – I just through them in because obviously James Bond like rodents with fat little sidekicks were very in at one time. Never watched either much.

Literary, TV and Movie spies

1. Evan Michael Tanner – The creation of mystery writer Lawrence Block before his much bigger successes, Tanner has long been my favorite spy, if little known outside of Block fans. For a while, among my friends, anyway, the answer to “Who is the world’s greatest spy?” was “Evan Michael Tanner.” He was unable to sleep (at all) and learned dozens of languages, crossing borders and traveling the world working for a mysterious intelligence controller, bringing off miracle after miracle. It was as much fun as it was exciting and I highly recommend the The Spy who could not sleep and all the sequels to anyone who likes this stuff.

2. James Bond – Most people would put him number one, and I don’t even need to say anything about him. You already know.

3. Quiller – But I do about this guy. Little known in America, he was James Bond on steroids. Faster, crueler, more devoid of emotion than Bond, he could beat you with a fist or a gun or with his brain; a true super-spy. Sometimes his own organization was as much an enemy. The author, writing as Adam Hall, died a few years ago just after finishing his last book. Someday, I’m going to read them all again. The one Quiller movie I saw with Michael Caine was dreadful.

4. Jason Bourne (born David Cain) – The Bourne Identity, familiar to many just from the excellent movie, is among the greatest spy thrillers ever written. I didn’t like the two sequels and the characters were about as cardboard as you can get. Still, it was an awesome book which I have frequently recommended to those heading for a beach vacation.

5. George Smiley – John Le Carre’s brilliant Smiley trilogy would not be for everyone. They are slow paced, don’t have much in the way of action, and can be confusing. Yet, they are also brilliant and suspenseful and worth the effort. You can get lost in the magical intelligence world he created/borrowed quite easily between the covers. Whereas Ian Fleming and Hall were writing about cartoon like spies, Le Carre was trying to write about real ones. Plotwise, they were about Smiley's contest with his Soviet nemesis, Carlo. But, beneath that they were about the politics of the intelligence world - England versus America, new versus old, and Smiley's rather pathetic personal life (his wife screwed around a bit). There are actually a couple of pre-trilogy Smiley books where he was more like a detective that were quite good. There is no body of work in this genre which is as much respected by those who like literature than Le Carre's work and he remains the most revered figure in all the genre.

6. Sherlock Holmes – Yes, he was occasionally a spy for London and so gets included here, but just not as high as he would if the list were about detectives (where he made and broke the mold forever).

7. Kimball O’Hara – Don’t recognize the name (I had to look it up)? Maybe you’d recognize it if I just called him Kim, Rudyard Kipling’s young British spy playing the “great game” against the Russians in India. Fun stuff.

8. Maxwell Smart – I know, it was slapstick, but he still makes the list. Sorry about that, Chief.

9. Matt Helm – The Dean Martin movies were silly, sort of like satirical James Bond stuff, and really more about looking at gorgeous woman than action, but the books were more serious and pretty good, if not exactly Ian Fleming either. I probably could have put Flint next, but never really liked him.

10. Jack Ryan – Spy? Not a spy? Close enough. And, when you sell as many books as Tom Clancy did with this character, who finally ends up president (how many spies do that), how do you keep him off the list?

Mark Twain quotes

One thing you learn about Mark Twain when you read about him. He didn't say a lot of things he said. He is up there with Shakespeare in having quotes attributed to him. And a lot of the stuff attributed to him wrongly does sound a lot like things he did say.  The following are ones I reasonably believe he actually wrote or said.

1. Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul in this world – and never will. I quote this so often, they ought to put it on my headstone (as if I'm going to have a headstone).

2. Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself. And that pretty much describes my feelings, at least when they put their minds together.

3. A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar. A pretty paradox it's especially important to remember when we deal with politicians, lawyers and salesmen.

4. It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native criminal class except Congress. Okay, pretty close to the other quote about congress, but rules here are sort of lax.

5. The rule is perfect: in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane. Which is why I like to say, partisanship makes everyone a little bit crazy.

6. All you need in life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure. This may just be the cynic in me. One of my sisters would just say I like it because I am so unsuccessful. Maybe she is right. But, I really think the saying isn't so much meant to be technically accurate as to point out that sometimes success is not all about capital, talent or hard work. Sometimes its about marketing, and luck too.

7. We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it— and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again— and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore. A great saying, but probably not all that true. How many times do we do the same stupid things over and over regardless of the result? I'm guessing cats are like that too? It be an interesting Mythbusters episode, but then they'd be attacked by the PETA crowd.

8. When even the brightest mind in our world has been trained up from childhood in a superstition of any kind, it will never be possible for that mind, in its maturity, to examine sincerely, dispassionately, and conscientiously any evidence or any circumstance which shall seem to cast a doubt upon the validity of that superstition. I doubt if I could do it myself. Sure he could. Because he already knew to doubt himself and that his own opinions can change.

9. The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning. Sure, but that takes a lot of work and we aren’t all Mark Twain. I'm just going to continue using the wrong words where they suit me and everyone will figure it out.

10. Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please. See your dictionary under "politicians".

Bonus. If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.  Sad, but often true.

Another bonus. There is no character, howsoever good and fine, but it can be destroyed by ridicule, howsoever poor and witless. So true. If Jesus' opponents had just laughed at him heartily instead of torturing him, we'd never have heard of him. 

Clint Howard roles

Clint is the brother of the more famous Ron Howard (aka Opie and Richie Cunningham). He has been in so many movies and tv shows that when Rob Meyers just had him show his face for a moment in the Austin Power movies, we all knew to laugh. I shouldn’t really make fun of him about his brother because it isn’t really original. Everyone does it. But, it is true, he's had small roles in almost every movie his brother makes. I don't know why he won't give him a bigger one. But, he’s also been in well over a hundred other movies and shows (you can look it up - I'm guessing how many - it's a bunch). Plus, like Ron Howard, he seems like a genuinely nice guy. And, some people think he is actually a very good actor. I have no idea, to tell the truth. But, here are my rankings for him.  The following are either some of his best work or just great stuff he was in.

1. Balok – Star Trek – Remember the little baby-like alien. Yeah, that was him.

2. Cocoon – His brother directed it and he only got to play an orderly. Well, work is work, I guess.

3. Splash – Great movie, but, hmmm, why did he play a wedding guest, again? Oh, his brother directed Splash. I had forgotten.

4. The Rocketeer –  I loved this movie – seen it ten times (back when Jennifer Connelly was still sexy) and can’t remember his character for the life of me. He played someone named Mark. I have to check if his brother directed this (sound of googling). No.

5. Seinfeld – He played Tobias Lehigh Nagy in a classic Seinfeld. Kramer is accused of murder. Jerry and George were in L.A. to visit him and were in the back of a police car next to the real murderer, who also happens to be a good tipper. They accidentally help him escape. Our boy, Clinton, played the killer. Seinfeld fans will rate this one higher.

6. The Andy Griffith Show – Clint actually appeared a few times in the show that made his brother famous as an infant named Leon.

7. Apollo 13 – He plays a flight controller – the quintessential role for him, parodied in Austin Powers. How did he get this role again? His brother directed it? Yup.

8. Gentle Ben – This was his show, not that I really remembered that (or most of this stuff) until I started researching him. Of course, his co-star, a bear, usually upstaged him.

9. Cinderella Man – referee. Good movie. I teared up a bit. Why would they bother putting him in there? Don’t tell me his brother directed this too? No kidding.

10. Austin Powers movies where he played Johnson – like I said above, it was funny just seeing him. 

Honorable mention - The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.  Who of you knew that Mrs. Livingston was a big star in Japan and an Academy award winning actress before she played the wise Mrs. Livingston? And, then, she never acted again. And Clint Howard was in one episode playing a little kid at a party. You have to start somewhere.

That's all folks. Let me know if you disagree. As Touché Turtle would say in leaving - "Touché and away".


  1. Conchis5:58 AM

    David -- Maybe this is another "generational" issue, but the omission of Bullwinkle Moose and Rocky the Flying Squirrel seems undefendable. What greater foils could there be than Moose and Squirrel for the dastardly duo of Boris and Natasha? "The Rocketeer" was directed by Joe Johnston -- apparently related to neither of the brothers Howard. Otherwise, thanks for sharing these great items.

  2. Absolutely. You nailed me with Rocky and Bullwinkle just as you nailed me when I left Maimonides out of my top ten Moses list. How could I forget them? Undefendable is a good word for it. "Insane" may be a better choice. I feel shame because I was just thinking of R & B recently (Natasha was kind of hot in a cartoony kind of way, wasn't she?). Secret Squirrel and Danger Mouse get tossed and R & B are in. The question is where. Certainly near the top. I would have to say 1 or 2, no? So embarrassed. This is worse than the time I accidentally stepped on Mother Theresa's habit when we were getting out of the limo in front of the Vatican, momentarily exposing her. Boy, that old girl could punch when she was mad.

  3. p.s. I said that Ron did not direct Rocketeer. What's the problem?

  4. Of COURSE Tanner is the world's greatest spy.
    I got beaten to the punch on Bullwinkle but we all seem to agree that they belong.
    Godd list of gunfighters. Of course , you are right that with so much legend its hard to list with any accuracy. I've read articles that have speculated that perhaps the greatest gunfighters were mostly unknown. Who knows?

  5. And there is some evidence that Rocky was one of the most skillful of gunfighters although he preferred flying in circles around his enemies. Now, watch me pull this rabbit out of a hat . . .

  6. While your at it pull your head out of your butt.

  7. Don in one sentence proving his mastery of the American idiom and that this blog has the classiest commentators in the world.

    And now here's something we hope you'll really like -

  8. Next you'll be channeling Professor Peabody and Sherman with the Wayback machine. Or Tennessee Tuxedo. Or even Commander McBrag!

  9. Anonymous9:04 PM

    I need to make sure you have a lot more work to do!!


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .