March 2007

After 50 years, I finally read the 260-page 1957 bestseller “Bridge to the Sun” (The University of North Carolina Press) by Johnson City native Gwen Terasaki.

In 1961, MGM turned the writer’s memoirs into a movie starring “Baby Doll” actress Carroll Baker as Gwen Terasaki and “Flower Drum Song” actor James Shegeta depicting Hidenari “Terry” Terasaki. August 16 ushered in the world premier of the motion picture at the Majestic Theatre, bringing international attention to the city.

My cousin, the late Lanny Bowman, was chosen to be Baker’s escort during the gala festivities and viewing of the much-anticipated film. Also present were Mrs. Terasaki, Mayor May Ross McDowell and City Manager David Burkhalter. The mayor proclaimed August 16 to be “Gwen Terasaki Day.”

The book’s jacket notes offered this brief synopsis of the literary work: “‘Bridge to the Sun’ is a beautiful, tender and moving love story – the true report of an international and inter-racial marriage of a Japanese diplomat and an American girl from the mountains of Tennessee.”

Gwen Harold met ambassador Terasaki while she was vacationing in Washington DC in 1930. The two soon married against family objections. After the attach on Pearl Harbor, Gwen, Terry and daughter Mariko were sent to Japan in exchange for American diplomats stationed there. Terry’s long-standing antagonism to the war caused him to be placed under the watchful eye of the Japanese secret police. Gwen became torn between allegiance to her native country and affection for her new home.

In the book, Mrs. Terasaki quoted Kipling: “To Terry – Two things greater than all things are, The first is Love, and the second War. And since we know not how War may prove, Heart of my heart, let us talk of Love!”

In spite of concerns related to language and loneliness plus her constant struggles to find food and other critical supplies, Gwen remarkably displayed no bitterness. At the conclusion of the war, Terry served as a liaison between Emperor Hirohito and General MacArthur and was instrumental in re-establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries.

A sampling of reader comments regarding the book shows a postwar public’s fascination with the subject: “Gwen Terasaki is a remarkable woman and her story allows us to experience life as she knew it during some of the most tumultuous times in the recent past.” “As literature, this book is not the best; as a historical first-hand document that recounts a personal, interesting, and very unique story, this is superb.” “Terasaki puts a human face on the Japanese war experience by emphasizing the heroic actions of her husband.” “The book is a rare chronicle of an outsider's experience in Japan during a time when outsiders were most unwelcome.”

The years took a heavy toll on Hidenari; he eventually suffered a series of debilitating strokes causing a significant lifestyle change. At Terry’s insistence, mother and daughter agonizingly left him behind and returned to the states to enroll Mariko in college. Mrs. Terasaki abruptly ends the book with some surprisingly stoic words: “A Western Union boy knocked at the door and handed me a cable gram. Terry was dead.” Gwen passed away in December 1990.

I hope my readers will visit the Johnson City Public Library and engage in this highly absorbing story of a courageous lady’s … “Bridge to the Sun.”  

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Johnson City Comet readers eagerly opened their newspapers on Sunday morning, April 10, 1910 to these attention-grabbing headlines: “Carnegie Hotel Burned Down This Morning – Alarm Sounded at One O’clock – Hotel Totally Destroyed.”

Civil War General J.T. Wilder built and furnished the palatial Carnegie Hotel in 1891 at the southwest corner of Broad Way (Broadway) and Second Avenue (Fairview) for $125,000. R.N. Farr, a man experienced in hotel management, leased it and opened the complex to customers on Sept. 27 of that same year.

The three-story edifice contained 125 rooms with six additional storage rooms along the sloping south end at First Avenue (Millard Street, between hotel and railroad tracks). The best materials were used throughout the structure, the interior finish being antique oak. Immense plate glass windows in all rooms provided abundant daytime lighting, with more shining down through a large opening into the centralized lobby. The interior was endowed with an electric passenger elevator, numerous accessible stairways, spacious hallways and a ventilation system.”

Dining rooms were large and beautifully furnished; parlors and reception rooms were unequaled in finish and furnishings. The Comet further stated: “Its billiard, library, bath and other rooms have the polish of perfection.” The roof, overlaid with pitch and gravel, provided guests with an impressive observatory where “one can see quite a distance up and down the valley and across the mountains miles away.”

On the south side, there were two 100-foot verandas with wrought iron balustrades extending out from the first and second floors of the hotel proper. A large entrance veranda faced Second Avenue. Along its sides were several additional smaller verandas, each extending from the terminus of a hallway. The hotel offered first class water and electric systems including lighting by gas. Rooms were heated by radiation from a furnace below. The floors were laid with very fine carpet. Every room was elegantly furnished.

The Comet offered this précis of the Carnegie: “The auspicious beginning of this magnificent enterprise marks a new and important epoch in our history. It is a proud and enduing moment in far-seeing business genius and for the energy, the hopefulness, and the confidence and courage of capital which have transformed in a few brief years, a struggling unsightly village to a gem city.”

For 17 years, the hotel was a showcase for visitors traveling through the city. The trolley made scheduled visits to the Carnegie. By 1908, the hotel was used almost exclusively by the CC&O Railroad. After that, a number of people rented it for a while and pro rated the maintenance costs. The now declining Carnegie was in the process of being converted to an apartment complex when the massive early morning fire cut short its 19-year reign.

The April 3, 1910 Comet article concluded with these epitaphic words: “As the Comet goes to press at 3 o’clock, the ruddy glare of the flames can be read in the sky for miles. It is impossible to save the building and no effort is being made to do so, but the office building across the street occupied by the CC&O officials will be unharmed.“

With that, one of the finest hotels in East Tennessee history went up in smoke and became a fleeing memory.  

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Mack Houston, “Trail Boss” of The Tennessee Western Film Club, is proud of his group’s recent accomplishment – celebrating its 34thanniversary on Feb. 16, 2007.

Mack said the recent meeting was devoted to deceased members: Howard Ferguson, Carl Oliver, Chester Hand, Richard Arrowood, Ray Hall and Clyde Livingston. “Clyde and Carl were original members of the club. We are appreciative of the efforts of Joe Fair during his presidency. Joe furnished 16mm films for many years from his own collection or borrowed from collectors.”

The meeting featured a lively agenda: 7:00 – Marshal of Reno (Republic, 1944) with Wild Bill Elliott (Red Ryder) and Bobby Blake (Little Beaver), 7:45 – Intermission and snack break, 8:45 – The News Parade of the Year – 1942 and 9:00 – The Ivory-Handled Gun (Universal, 1935) with Buck Jones. The club developed a top ten list of its favorite B-western flicks of all time:

1. The Rider of Death Valley (Tom Mix, 1932), 2. Bells of San Angelo (Roy Rogers, 1947), 3. The Sundown Rider (Buck Jones, 1933), 4. Sante Fe Saddlemates (Sunset Carson, 1945), 5. The Marshall of Mesa City (George O’Brien, 1939), 6. Hop-A-Long Cassidy (William “Hoppy” Boyd, 1935), 7. Overland Mail Robbery (Bill Elliott, 1949), 8. End of the Trail (Tim McCoy, 1932), 9. The Strawberry Roan (Gene Autry, 1948) and 10. My Pal Trigger (Roy Rogers, 1946).

The club was formed in Mack’s Elizabethton home on Feb. 8, 1973. After initially meeting at the Senior Citizen Center and the Emergency Rescue Squad Building, it eventually moved to Mountain Home Theatre in Johnson City. In 1991, Mack invited the group to gather at his Piney Flats residence, where the organization remains to this day. The films have utilized three formats over the years – 16mm, VHS and DVD.

Since its inception, the club has supported B-western film festivals in Memphis, Nashville, Orlando, Atlanta, Knoxville, Asheville and Williamsburg. A large number of B-western stars were regular attendees including: Bob Steele, Charles Starrett, Ray Corrigan, Kirby Grant (Sky King), George O’Brien, Fred Scott, Ray Whitley, Lash LaRue, Sunset Carson, Bob Allen, Rex Allen, Smith Ballew, Don Barry, Rod Cameron, Harry Carey, Jr., Michael Chapin, Buster Crabbe, Eddie Dean, Jimmy Ellison, Dick Foran, Monte Hale, Russell Hayden, John Kimbrough, Robert Livingston, Jock Mahoney, George Montgomery, Max Terhune, Tex Ritter, Reb Russell, Jimmy Wakely and James Warren.

Other special guests were leading ladies, villains and stuntmen. Over time, television western stars began to be attracted to the annual events. Sadly, Monte Hale is the only B-western hero living today. (Update: Hale died on March 29, 2009).

Mack recalled attending four B-western films in Feb. 1936 at Johnson City’s Liberty Theatre: Gallant Defender (Charles Starrett), The Ivory-Handled Gun (Buck Jones), Bulldog Courage (Tim McCoy) and Western Courage (Ken Maynard). The group’s attendance dwindled from 150 members in 1972 to fewer than a dozen in 2007, one explanation being that some fans acquired their own collections.

Mack concluded by saying, “We are not sure how long the club will continue; our members are getting older. Most of our western heroes are long gone, but we still thrill at the sight of seeing them ride across the screen. We travel back to the days of childhood when we attended the local theatres and watched our heroes ride their horses and catch the bad guys. They were the “'good old days.'” 

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During the cold weather months of 1942 to 1950, my family regularly awoke each morning to a clanging sound vastly different from that of an alarm clock. Our small rented Watauga Avenue apartment contained steam heat and the noise was emanating from one or more of the radiators.

Although the racket was a bit bothersome, it was comforting to know that the atmosphere would soon be toasty warm. Steam heat was wonderful. Ernest Green, the apartment custodian, made his early morning excursion into the cold, damp and dimly lit rodent-infested basement long before residents crawled out of their cozy beds. The caretaker’s mission was to get heat flowing from the coal-fired furnace to the large apartment complex. As steam circulated to the building, some radiators began making a “hammering” or “knocking” noise, sometimes being quite loud.

Steam systems generally had one pipe with the dual purpose of supplying the radiator with steam and providing for condensate to return to the boiler. Torpedo shaped vents hissed each time steam pressure was released. Three malfunctions – improperly sloped piping, steam valve not fully open and defective or plugged steam valve – orchestrated these annoying early-morning “radiator recitals.”

Drain piping was supposed to be slanted toward the boiler supply valve to allow condensate to completely drain from the radiator. When steam flowed into a unit, any cool water present would forcefully collide with hot steam, producing the aggravating noise. An age-old trick was to place wooden blocks under the opposite end of the radiator to insure adequate slope for condensate removal. Radiators were generally located under a window where heat loss was the greatest. They were usually about the same width as the window, flush with the windowsill and approximately 2.5” from the wall.

A 1947 booklet titled, “1003 Household Hints and Work Savers,” offers some practical suggestions for saving on heating bills. The publication said to keep radiators clean to insure maximum heat from them. The best way to clean one was to hang a damp cloth behind it and use the discharge end of a vacuum cleaner to blow dust off the fins onto the cloth. Another trick was to “Go over your radiator with an oiled cloth to prevent rusting, save paint and increase heat efficiency.” An added suggestion was to leave the radiator full of water during warmer months: “This water cannot rust the radiator because it is deoxygenated.”

The brochure went on to say that bronze or aluminum paints should not be used because they could reduce heat output by 10%. Instead, dark colored oil based paints were recommended as the best choices. Cast-iron radiators became a common fixture in urban schools during the first half of this century. They were purposely oversized to compensate for classroom windows that were partially left open for ventilation.

I became quite familiar with steam heat since we had radiators at school – West Side, Henry Johnson, Junior High, Science Hill and even my old University of Tennessee dorm, Melrose Hall. Steam systems eventually gave way to hot water ones and then to air units that allowed hot air to flow from a coal fired furnace to individual rooms via floor registers. Many area folks can remember when these were popular.

For the most part, the nostalgic early morning “radiator recitals” have been silenced by technology. 

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