Monday, April 16, 2012

The Great Escape

An adult soccer game in Central Park. Photo: JH.
Monday, April 16, 2012. Very warm Sunday in New York with some mugginess in the air and temperatures in the upper 70s. Much warmer weather is predicted for today and tomorrow.
The kid's game.
This photograph below is a part of the promenade that you never see from me. Farther up the walk which runs right by the FDR. That's 91st Street running west. That round roof is the Asphalt Green where kids play ball and where many New Yorkers can go for a swim.
Thirty years ago, this was mainly old tenement walk-ups but those buildings you see surrounding are all "luxury" style. It's right around here that some genius wants to build an enormous garbage dump, a destination for trash. I don't know the whole story yet but some neighbors have founded a Steering Committee for Residents for Sane Trash Solutions.
Please don't pick the tulips! The "Rules" posted at the north Promenade entrance to Carl Schurz Park. Many believe the No Smoking (outdoors!) is an ironic "rule" considering what they want to put in across the street where the Asphalt Green is. Irony flourishes, however, just like the tulips.
That is the walk bridge the goes over to Randall's Island, which has become a destination for people and schoolchildren in the neighborhoods to the left, to the north and to the south.
The Triborough Bridge (now The Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) Bridge). The red structure behind it is the railroad bridge that comes from the north, goes into Queens and then the tunnel under the river to Penn Station on 7th Avenue and West 31st Street. Amazing New York.
Gracie Mansion -- just north of the northernmost entrance to the Promenade.
This girl and her father were getting a kite aloft. It worked. At its height it probably reached 40 feet in the air. Very exciting.
The Paddle Wheel Queen moving down channel approaches a 21st-century sailboat heading north.
These tankers (that's Roosevelt Island in the background), pushed by a special tug (with the raised steering cabin) are frequent and daily travelers in the channel. I took a picture of its side against the building just a couple of hundred feet away, to show the length and the size. When they return from whence they come, they are empty and they are 30 or 40 feet taller.
My zoom lens on my Nikon is pretty good. This is a closeup of the lighthouse at the northern tip of Roosevelt Island, with Queens on the other side of the second channel.
The reign in Spain. Spain is rife these days with economic and labor problems. This is not easy for anyone; and there are massive demonstrations across the country. The pressure on both the government and the people is very great. For King Juan Carlos it must have seemed like a perfect time for a little getaway to Botswana. For? Hunting elephant. On a very expensive safari.

Said to be one of the most intelligent creatures in the animal kingdom, already an endangered specie, the elephant remain a challenge for this royal hunter. Besides, kings are, come to think of it, endangered too. 200 years ago the world was loaded with them. Today there are maybe a dozen.

His Majesty got what he went for, as you can see by the photograph. He brought down a big one. Such a guy. Lucky for the king he wasn’t a poacher; otherwise he cudda been arrested. Lucky for the elephant too, no? Now he doesn’t have to deal with trigger happy kings looking to de-stress for their countries’ woes.
Spain's King Juan Carlos poses in front of a dead elephant on a hunting trip. This photo was taken six years ago, so the victim was not his first. Ironically the king belongs to an animal conservation organization.Photograph: Target Press/Barcroft Media.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t a happy ending for old Juan Carlos. The following evening, he got up in the middle of the night to hit the sani-flush, and woe, lo, on his way, he fell down and broke his crown.

I’m joking. He didn’t break his crown, he broke his right hip in three places. He had to be flown back to Spain by private jet immediately for surgery. Back in Spain more bad news awaited. The Spanish people were not aware that their monarch had left town for a “secret” very expensive trip to shoot pachyderm. This they found annoying, to put it gently.

Victor Mallet, writing from Madrid for the FT, pointed out over the weekend that the Spanish found Juan Carlos’ macho moment ironic — spending all that money on pleasure after commiserating with the poor workers who were striking for higher wages so they could pay their mortgage. Will the real Juan Carlos please stand? (Later, when the hip mends.) What’s more Spain is in a real estate bubble that makes Bernie Madoff look like a panhandler, and has wrecked even more lives, maybe even some close to the king and queen.

King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia.The Queen visited the King on his third day in hospital and stayed for 30 minutes.
Is it karma or is it the moon? As you may have read here a couple of weeks ago, things have not been going well for the Spanish Royal Family. The source of their problems are, admittedly, the source of everybody’s problems — the economy of the world. There are also financial scandals of the king’s son-in-law which have even touched the Infanta. Someone with a title could maybe end up in jail.

And then, as if that weren’t enough, last week  the king’s 13-year-old grandson (son of the the Infanta Elena) shot himself. In the foot. Not in Botswana hunting elephant, thank God.

Guns and King Juan Carlos are historically an uneasy combination. When he was 18, he accidentally shot his 14-year-old brother while in Portugal where the family was living in exile. The brother died a few minutes later. This has never been officially stated. The story was first reported as a self-inflicted wound. Then rumors went flying that Juan Carlos had the gun and had pointed it at his brother, not knowing it was loaded. (Duh?) Then it was said that Juan Carlos pulled the trigger accidentally. That part is credible. Or Shakespeare. This was followed by several stories of how  he accidentally shot his brother.

Whatever the truth, Juan Carlos never lost his fondness for guns. In 2004 it was reported that he killed nine bears including a pregnant female in Romania. Two years later it was alleged that he shot a drunken tame bear during a private hunting trip to Russia. This was officially denied.

Now the king is in hospital in Madrid. Queen Sofia won’t have to worry about where her husband is for awhile. The people of Spain won’t have to worry about their king running off on expensive, secret pleasure trips for awhile. The king? King’s always have worries; that’s part of the job. The hard part.
Last week’s Telegraph of London carried an obituary of a simple man, no king he, who played a crucial part in one of the most famously publicized incidents of the Second World War. The Incident was later made into a movie, The Great Escape starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson and Donald Pleasence, who played the character based on the man in this obituary.

If you’ve never seen the film, rent it. You’ll be on the edge of your seat.

Over the years, I’ve read some extraordinary obituaries (histories) of the amazing stories of men and women who served with the Allies. The London newspapers produce great obituaries. The Telegraph is one of the best.
Theatrical Trailer for The Great Escape.
Many who fought bravely and courageously were recognized for their valor with ribbons and medals, but went on to lead quiet and uncelebrated lives, often returning to their roots.  Alex Cassie is a perfect example. When you read about him you’ll be struck by the other side of humanity which provokes gratitude and faith in one’s fellow man. Cassie had it.

From the Telegraph of London.

Alex Cassie, who has died aged 95, played a key role in producing forged documents and papers for the mass break out from Stalag Luft III in 1944, which was immortalised in the film The Great Escape.

As Cassie arrived at Sagan, a number of inveterate escapers were establishing a new escape committee, X-Organisation. One of the new sections was a forgery department, named “Dean & Dawson” after the London travel agency.

A portrait of Alex Cassie by Robert Murray from 1942, just before Cassie was captured.
Forgery was at the core of the escape operation and was run by Flight Lieutenant “Tim” Walenn, one of Cassie’s room-mates. They soon struck up a friendship and Cassie, a very accomplished artist, was recruited to join the team.

Forging was a painstaking job requiring complete accuracy if false identity cards and other essential documents were to withstand close inspection. Bribing guards resulted in the acquisition of a typewriter and camera as well as soldiers’ pay books and passes, which were copied.

Innovation was crucial. Cassie and his colleagues made rubber stamps carved from wellington boots; quality paper was ripped from library books provided by the Red Cross and stained the correct color with cold tea and paints. Cassie manufactured ink from lampblack diluted with oil. To give each escaper a convincing back-story once free, love letters from “wives” and “sweethearts” were created, and typed notes on business letterheads confirmed “appointments” that did not, in fact, exist.

During one period of intense activity in Dean & Dawson a guard was seen approaching. In The Great Escape, the actor Donald Pleasence, playing the part of a forger, gives a lecture on bird watching to cover the clandestine work. In reality, it was Cassie and the subject was psychology.

Cassie visited the escape tunnel “Harry” but suffered claustrophobia and decided not to join the escape party for fear of impeding the getaway. All his friends from Dean and Dawson did join, however, and left letters for their families with Cassie. All but three of the 76 escapers were recaptured and 50 were shot on the orders of Hitler. When the list of those killed was published, all but one of Cassie’s forging colleagues were on it.
Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, James Garner, and Gordon Jackson in The Great Escape. © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Before escaping, Walenn had given Cassie his gold watch, a 21st-birthday present from his parents. After the war, Cassie fulfilled a promise he had made to his friend and returned it to them.

In the tragic aftermath of the break out, escape activities were reduced, but X-Organisation continued to operate and Cassie took over the running of Dean & Dawson. In the event, no further attempts to escape were made. In September, after the Nazis posted an order declaring that “escape from prison camps is no longer a sport”, PoWs were informed via underground contacts with MI9 that escapes should not be risked.

James Garner and Donald Pleasence in The Great Escape.
With the Soviet Army advancing from the east, the Germans emptied the PoW camps in Poland in late January 1945, and Cassie and fellow prisoners were forced to march westwards in what later became known as “The Long March”. They were eventually liberated by the British Army in April.

The son of Scottish parents who emigrated to South Africa, Alexander “Sandy” Cassie was born on December 22 1916 in Cape Province and educated there at Queenstown School.

He returned to Scotland to study at Aberdeen University, where he graduated in 1938 with a degree in Psychology. For a year he worked in Peterhead on a time and motion study in a personnel department before joining the RAF to train as a pilot.

Cassie joined No 77, Squadron which was equipped with the ageing Whitley bomber.

He flew operations over France and Germany but, with the Battle of the Atlantic intensifying, a number of Bomber Command squadrons were loaned to Coastal Command. These included No 77, which deployed in May 1942 to Chivenor in Devon for patrols over the Bay of Biscay.
James Garner and Donald Pleasence in The Great Escape.
During the early hours of September 2 1942, Cassie took off for a strike operation against enemy shipping. He discovered the German submarine U-256 on the surface and attacked at very low level, dropping his armor-piercing bombs just astern and damaging the vessel. However, the Whitley had been hit by return anti-aircraft fire, disabling one of its engines. Unable to maintain altitude, Cassie had to ditch. A Cornish airfield had picked up a faint SOS but it soon faded and the crew were posted as missing.

Cassie and his four colleagues were quickly picked up by a French fishing boat which landed them at Concarneau in southern Brittany – where the Germans were waiting. A few weeks later, Cassie arrived at Stalag Luft III.

After his release from the RAF as a flight lieutenant at the end of the war, Cassie joined the Civil Service as a psychologist. For many years he worked in the Air Ministry developing psychometric tests for potential aircrew who attended the RAF’s officer and aircrew selection centre. Following numerous promotions, he moved to the Army Personnel Research Establishment in Farnborough, developing and overseeing exercises and tasks for potential candidates attending the Army’s Regular Commissions Board at Westbury. He retired in 1976 as a senior principal psychologist. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Psychological Society.
Donald Pleasence and James Garner in The Great Escape.
Cassie’s passion for art remained with him and he painted in various mediums until a few years before his death. He won several awards for his animated films, and triumphed at an annual competition sponsored by the magazine Amateur Movie Maker. One of his successful exhibits was an animation based on Picasso’s Three Musicians.

Alexander Cassie married Jean Stone in December 1949. She died in 2005 and he is survived by their son and daughter.

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