THE SOUR MILKMAN

There was that milkman, his cantilever-doored conveyance paused on the hillside, that door still open. This was Boutwell Street, Dorchester. This was long ago. We were children. Who were the other children with me? Forgotten. I think there were three of us. I wonder if they remember this incident as I am remembering it? I wonder if they are still alive?

We always asked the milkmen, when we saw them, if we could have some ice. They always had ice packed around their bottles of milk in their wooden crates, keeping them cool before delivery. Refrigerated trucks certainly existed. But for these neighborhood deliveries, there persisted these rattling, quaint, squared-off wagons, probably cheaper to operate.

The milkmen, genial fellows, would reach in back and give us smooth, dripping chunks of ice. It would be a hot day. We would happily suck on the big ice chunks, our hands cold and wet, and we would be summertime-content in our idle childhood, following in the icy tradition of kids who’d gone before us, observing the tradition of asking the milkman for ice.

Then came that day — under the trees on the slope of Boutwell Street, right about in front of the Trabucco’s house. Our encounter with the “sour” milkman.

“Hey, can we have some ice?” we sang out, as usual

This milkman , poised to let up the brake and to pull away after a delivery, startled us by glowering at us. His age? Not young, not old. But to us kids, every adult was “old.” (The milkmen usually worked, if I recall, for Hood or Borden or perhaps other more local dairies. And those trucks — do they still exist anywhere other than in automotive museums? )

“‘Can I have some ice,” he said, snidely, mockingly. “Can I have some ice,'” That’s all I hear. Did you kids ever think maybe the people who do this job have better things to do than to be handing out ice? We need that ice, can’t you see that? Or are you just too selfish, thinking of yourselves? Isn’t it time you grew up? That ice is what keeps the milk cold. I’m not the ice cream man. You act like you’ve got some right to this ice. Some privilege. Didn’t your parents ever teach you about manners? About respecting working people? Do I hear ‘please?’ Do I hear common courtesy? Just, ‘can I have some ice, can I have some ice’, day in and day out.”

At this point, we children were shriveling into ourselves like blossoms withering in sunlight. Never before had we heard — nor would we ever hear again– stern words from any other member of that benign breed known as The Milkmen. Never before had our simple childish solicitation been defined as sheer effrontery and greeted as a towering imposition.

After this chastisement, if memory serves me, there ensued a moment of stunned silence in which the scolding Milkman allowed his message to sink in and in which we wretches of children were expected to bow in shame. But in truth, we somehow understood, for the first time in our lives, that this tormented soul belonged to a common class of adult outliers who, though once children themselves, resisted the notion that we, the immature, the new-to-this-world, should be indulged our innocent but no less self-centered predilections.

We would have a lifetime to remember this poor sour Milkman and speculate at his anguish — was there a shrewish wife? A wayward offspring? A divorce? Depression? Anger issues, as yet undiagnosed? Was he childless? Loveless? Underpaid? working for a tyrannical boss? Had he fought in the Pacific or in Korea or some other hellish battle zone and was he now suffering from PTSD?

Or was he just a jerk? We’ll never know.

He did, ultimately, give us the ice. There was a pathos about that concession, too. He truly did not wish to deny us, or be seen as a mean man, unloved. He could have just up and driven off. No, he put those ice chunks in our chastened hands. And we, still a bit stunned, commenced to walk off.

“Yeah, just as I thought,” he said, “No ‘thank you’.”

So, we had culminated our heedless ingratitude with a final insult, a crowning failure, a bold period.

“Thank you,” we sang tardily, and truly ashamed.

Then the Sour Milkman drove off — and out of our lives, but not, obviously, out of my memory. And for us kids, cold lumps dripping in our thankless hands, The Iceman had Commeth. A childhood idyll had been chilled, a street corner tradition curdled.

I don’t recall ever again asking another milkman for ice.

OF SOUTHIE (AND DORCHESTER) NICKNAMES

South Boston writer and all-around good guy Brian Wallace recently made a Facebook post about the nicknames on characters that, over the course of his baby-boomer life span, populated Southie’s streets. The Irish are famous for their nicknames. In Dorchester, among us Irish-American Bostonians, we had “Pickles”, “Tarps”, “Sniffles” — the list goes on. Of Southie nicknames, Brian wrote….

You know you are from Southie when you know the last names of Injun, Emo, Tuffy, Snuffy, Snoopy, Weed, Peaches. Mocha, Tumac, Wacko, Libby, Ace, Bunzo, Hun Bun, Mucka Ducka Doo,Satch, Killer, Lep, Scoop, Wacky Jacky, Juggie, Puffy, Chicken Head, Chinky, Shoo Shoo, Shoes, Boob, Dada, Doodie, Todda,, Maury, Fingers, Hokey, Dudso, Hooker, Tiny, Brother, Champ, Burger, Pecker, Dodo, Porka, Bulky, Bull,Tinker, Yaka, Rardy, Bunka, Noonie, Duba, Jabber, Sleepy, Dukie Part 2 tomorrow.

I’m waiting for Part 2 — but I reminded Brian about a nicknamed soul I met during my initial year at Gate of Heaven High School on East 4th Street, back around ’61-’62. He was “Scratch” Scarcella. Yes, Italian rather than Irish. As it happens, I couldn’t tell you his real first name — not to this day. And I met him only once, when “Gatey” freshmen played “Gatey” 8th-graders in football. (Yeah, schools always have nicknames, too.) Scratch, a very tough kid and great athelete showing great promise early on, came crashing through the line and I, playing defense at that moment, grabbed him around the hips and proceeded to be dragged about ten yards. It probably took a couple of other guys to stop him. But beyond his early physical and athletic prowess, Scratch was notable for his quiet, humble decency. You saw that in him even when he was so young. He went on to have a high school career as a football player and boxer. He was not a bully at a time when Southie and Gatie were full of bullies. That’s what made a welcomed impression on me. The genuine tough guys are never bullies.

Brian, as it happens, said he did a story on Scratch recently for some publication. I hope to get a link. Scratch is still with us. He doesn’t know me from Adam but I’m happy to pay tribute to him here.

TAMPA’S LOST GRAVES

The Tampa Bay Times — formerly the St. Petersburg Times —  has lately been doing a great service for regional Florida history –and for humanity. It is joined in this effort by the Hillsborough County School District and, unfailingly, all of official Tampa Bay as it learns of the project.

I’ll repeat the lead paragraph of a story in the November 25th edition by Times staff writer Paul Guzzo:

The Hillsborough County School District on Wednesday announced that 145 graves had been found beneath largely vacant land on a corner of the King High School campus. Continue reading “TAMPA’S LOST GRAVES”

QUID PRO QUO

Quid Pro Quo: Something for something.

QUID PRO QUO!

QUID PRO QUO!

GIVE ME THAT BANANA

AND I’LL GIVE YOU SOME DOUGH!

Read this midnight ramble, or I’ll sulk in my tent. That’s my quid pro quo.

There was rain at sunset, heavy rain. a spasmodic Florida rain as the nation freezes. Someone — some creatures — have been digging these recent overnights in my little backyard.  Possums, perhaps? Raccoons, perhaps?

Or, Little Green Men, perhaps?

Many believe we’re due for a visit from them. Little Green Men, bulb-headed E.T.s, surreptitiously digging in the dead of night for clues to the nature of this Blue Planet, choosing my grubby little back yard for their excavation, thinking we might have something better than what they’ve got back home.  I’ll bet they’d be very “green”, these Little Green Men. Martians with trowels, scooping up and examining clumps of  this Earth and my yard’s green bahia grass and dog poop before being beamed back up to The Red Planet with their specimens.

It’s November 12th for a few more minutes, the birthdays of Grace Kelly and Charles Manson.  Light, perhaps false lights and images, collide with the darkest of realities at every waking hour in our world.  “Stars” and fiends are born, neither, perhaps, exactly what they seem. They dissemble “reality” long enough to entertain, beguile or kill us. Do any of us know who they are? Do we know who we are? Do we pray every moment to be spared The Dragon?

THE DRAGON IS BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD , WATCHING THOSE WHO PASS. BEWARE LEST HE DEVOUR YOU. WE GO TO THE FATHER OF SOULS, BUT IT IS NECESSARY TO PASS BY THE DRAGON.  – St. Cyril of Jerusalem

Could that be who is digging in my backyard? The Dragon?

The day has drawn to a close. It is dark. There is too much darkness lately. On the brighter side, it is the eve, perhaps, of YOUR birthday. It is, as I write, the eve of many birthdays, of many deaths, of many things.

On the darkest side of our planet, it is the eve of the day many rodents will begin nibbling at the poisoned biscuit of Impeachment. Can you hear them? Nibbling?  It’s on the air, on the internet, in the papers, for those of us still reading papers. It’s news. News is noise.

Are we no greater than the noise we make?” wrote Edward Arlington Robinson in ” Man Against the Sky”

For the record, by November 8, 2021, I’d come to loath Donald Trump for his horrible, rampantly egoistic de-railing of our political norms and his lingering impact likely to make persons such as me more vulnerable, i.e., nearly naked, to our ideological/political enemies. But, still….

I’ll trade you a Latin biscuit of Quid Pro Quo for a French cruller of Que Sera Sera.

*    *   *   *   *

It will be the 13th or well after by the time you read this. ( At the time I am re-reading it and re-writing this, it is the eve of the date, i.e., November 9th, that has so many resonances that I have written of it here in this block. And and the time I originally wrote this rumination — and now,  the world is still raging like a crazed soul on a doorstep….raging, raging, raging.

The Dragon will be prowling. And most likely, you won’t read this, quid pro quo or no quid pro quo.  So, Que Sera Sera. 

Feel free to surprise me, as I ramble at 10:11 p.m.

Listen: and here commences the first installment of the occasional saga of an obscure (and entirely fanciful) edge-of-Boston watering hole….

Two guys are the last patrons of a Revere, Massachusetts bar called The Last Mile. They are talking.

They are talking about bricks.

“You ever been to Europe?” asks Jackie the Crow of Stickie Sammartino. Jackie is a brick-layer. “Back in the day, they started making bricks and then making things out of bricks. I guess they ran out of drywall, huh, Stickie?”

Stickie chuckles. They are side by side at the bar. Noise from the street has faded. There’s a juke box, but it’s broken. Joe Barron won’t fix it. Joe owns this joint. Fix it for what? Joe would say. It’s a nice antique, just sitting there in the corner. All glass and tin and plastic. All silent. Bless Joe. He likes silence.  Who’ll use it? A jukebox. That’s his argument. No one wants it, none of the regulars. They forgot about music. They sing sometimes and they drink and they talk. Or they play Kino and dream of getting rich.

Joe Barron is in Florida. Some people say he’s rich. I don’t doubt it.

Yes, it’s last call, Tuesday night at The Last Mile and it’s just Stickie and The Crow. Presently, they both sip their drinks, first from the highball, then the beer chaser. They are, as noted, alone, save for Dean, the bartender, who is cleaning up.

“I’m talking way back, ” Jackie the Crow says. “After Jesus and before they came up with the bricks for Fenway Park.”

“You’re funny, Crow,” says Stickie.

“They ran out  of stone,” Jackie says. “I’m talking along the Baltic. You been to Europe, Stickie?”

Stickie head-shakes a no. “I stay away from the airport,” he says.

“The Baltic’s my roots, Stickie. Me and the ex took a tour. I  ever tell you that?”

“Stickie head-shakes a yes. “You and her still talk?”

Jackie sips first his ball, then his beer. “Christmas Eve, Fourth of July, maybe Easter, we talk. Thanksgiving’s coming up. We’ll talk.”

“Nice.”

“Her and my people are from Poland, you know.”

“I know,” says Stickie. “You get any good food on that tour?”

“Tons,” Jackie says. “But the bricks were the best part. They  took us around in a bus, showed us churches and stuff, all brick. It was interesting.”

“You sure you didn’t dream this?” Stickie says.

“Positive,” Jackie says. Even he doesn’t know when everybody started calling him The Crow. Or why.

“I told them I was a brick-layer soon as the bus pulled up and we’re getting back inside the hotel. They says them bricks got put down by guys like me, way back in the day.”

Jackie’s in the brick-layer’s union. Plans to lay bricks until he drops. Stickie Sammartino was a carpenter. Now he’s retired, sick of driving nails. They’ll  finish their beers and balls and go home. Guys they used to meet here or on the benches under the pavilion at the beach have already gone home, one funeral at a time.

“Some of them brick churches went down when the Nazis come through,” Jackie says. Just like that, Jackie the Crow is, all of a sudden, talking about The Dragon. They’ve both seen the dragon, many times.

Sticky’s thinking of his grandfather, back in 1919 at the famous molasses explosion in Boston. Piles of bricks. Downed people and horses. Everything sticky and smelling of molasses. Somebody had built something wrong, and knew it. So, molasses everywhere. You could smell it for years, like sweet death. Everything sticky, or so they said.

Sticky’s grandfather told Sticky and everybody else that story a million times. After the millionth telling, they started calling his grandfather “Sticky”. About the millionth time Sticky told the story, they started calling him “Sticky”, too. His given name is Sal, just like his grandfather. But at The Last Mile and on Revere Beach, he’s Sticky.

It’s near closing time, but Dean the bartender will let the regulars stay for a while, finish their beers and balls and their stories. It was raining out before. Now, it’s actually snowing a little. Snow in November. The big freeze is pushing east, making history. Sticky and The Crow walked here, for God sake. They live in this rooming house Joe Barron owns. It’s a good little walk in the snow or rain.

“All goddamn Europe got broomed in the war, ” Jackie says.

Sticky sees Europe, like one long street, deep in molasses.

“You know how you talk about the molasses?” Jackie says to Stickie, like he was reading Sticky’s thoughts.  “You sure you’re not dreaming that?”

Sometimes, Sticky isn’t sure. So he doesn’t answer. Silence is better. But then he says, ” it was in all the papers.”

Tomorrow Jackie the Crow will be laying bricks for a new sewage treatment sub-station in Lynn. He can hardly bend, but he likes picking up that trowel and spreading a  nice, smooth layer of cement and laying down those bricks, one at a time. Plus he gets paid for it. He’s trusting that the sub-station walls that he and his fellow brick-layers rise up tomorrow will survive wars, fires, broken pipes, explosion of molasses —  and all the depredations of time, as long as there are people around to take a crap.

In the November night, I see Stickie Sammartino and Jackie the Crow on their bar stools, chasing daylight.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Let us pause, as we leave The Last Mile, head out the door into the chill of the outer world, and consider the holy mystics who first came looking to save souls on our continent — before any white man laid a single brick. Before everybody had a warm indoor place to take a crap.

(I know. This is all crazy. Yes, I am sober. No, I can’t stop.)

I dreamed of a very beautiful place. Here there was a man garbed in white, wrote Blessed Marie of the Incarnation,  surveying the harsh lands and savage souls all around her in 17th Century North America. She had a mystic vision, grand enough to overcome this wild darkness —  which, she wrote, aroused as much compassion as fear…

She had vision of Christ.

I said to him: You understand, Oh Love, You understand.

Then, words failed me completely and I remained in this silence. 

Let us, God, remain in silence, not noise. And let us save souls.

I think I will rise in the silence of the dead of night to see what or who is digging those holes in my back yard. Little Green Men, I must confess, I don’t believe in.

So it must be possums. Or maybe raccoons. Or maybe The Dragon. I believe in The Dragon who prowls about the world, seeking souls to devour.

Back at The Last Mile, Sticky and Jackie have left their bar stool. Protect them and all of us from the Dragon, O Lord. They shall be walking these dark streets where I am walking just ahead of them.

I won’t pay attention to politics tomorrow, just as, two years ago, I didn’t pay attention to the Impeachment Hearings.  Here in November, the Trump despisers are consumed by another date, January 6th. So be it. On and on it goes.

I don’t know what I’ll be doing tomorrow, actually. Maybe I’ll see if a neurologist can tell me why I can’t shake this — shake, meaning what is defined as “an essential tremor.”  And I’ve been a little dizzy lately. But then, who isn’t dizzy these days?

LONE SURVIVOR

I’m a proud U.S. Army veteran. Today, I’m going to try to make a Veteran’s Day call to Cary Durham in Moonville, South Carolina. I’ve taken to making the call every year. Sometimes I reach him, sometimes not.

I’ll tell you Cary’s military story — his Veteran’s Day story — and why I hope to talk with him today.

His given name is Cary Julius Durham. He’s 72-years-old now, an affable Southerner, widower and father of two grown sons, currently living alone, battling a few health problems, some of them service-related.  I did a television story about him when I discovered, through a little research, that he was in the same Army infantry unit as Edward “Buddy” Scahill, a kid with whom I’d grown up in Boston’s Dorchester section.

That unit – Cary and Buddy’s unit — fought a desperate jungle battle on Thanksgiving Week, 1966 in the early stages of the Vietnam War. I did a television story about it. It aired on the 35th anniversary of that battle, November 21, 2002. It was a battle that brought Cary, Buddy and about twenty other young Americans together. I located Cary through a little library research. Buddy Scahill and I were far from close friends, but we happened to have been born the very same day in the same Boston hospital. For a kid, that’s kind of a special bond. Our families – Buddy’s many sisters and younger brother — were Catholics and fellow parishioners at St. Ann’s Church. We lived about a half mile apart. Our fathers were friends through the Knights of Columbus. Each November 27th, our birthday, we exchanged greetings in the school corridor, or in the classroom, if we happened to be assigned to the same home room.  “Happy birthday, Greg,” Buddy would say to me. I’d return the greeting. We spent some time together in those early years, talked about many things, misbehaved together in Sister Innocentia’s class.

I envied Buddy’s athleticism, daring male youthful brio, toughness and antic sense of humor. Cary Durham says he didn’t know him well, since Buddy came to his platoon months after him. But he smiles at the mention of Buddy’s name, recalling him as a blond “cut-up” and “prankster.”   From time to time growing up, Buddy protected me from his mean-spirited companions who plainly didn’t like me, no matter how much I wanted to be liked and accepted by them. We’d all gone to the St. Ann’s School, played at the same playground and in time, visited the same teenage haunts. Buddy was prominent in that wilder cohort that gradually settled down to the point where Buddy was inviting me to join the Knights of Columbus along with him and some of those other guys.

After high school, Buddy had no college plans and – according to his sisters – couldn’t get work because he hadn’t fulfilled his military obligation. All males of a certain age had a military obligation in those days of the Selective Service draft. I went off to college, barely getting in and cherished my 2-S deferment until being draft and inducted into the Army in the fall of 1969. I’m proud of my service, but admit the prospect of landing in Vietnam was unwelcome. I wound up in Korea, a quiet war zone.

I believe Buddy enlisted – and, from all accounts, wound up loving the Army. He even went to paratrooper school down in Georgia. Meanwhile, Cary Durham had worked in South Carolina textile mills before enlisting and winding up, first in Germany, then in Vietnam. He loved it enough to stay on to become a staff sergeant.

At the end of October, 1966, Buddy and Cary were in the 2nd Brigade, 5th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division of the U.S. Army. (If you ever see the image of an Army patch or veteran’s decal with a yellow shield crossed with a black slash and an image of a horse, you’re seeing the automobile or house of a 1st Cav veteran. From the time of the Civil War and Indian Wars, the 1st Cav has been a distinguished fighting unit. From horseback, it had evolved to traveling in quick-strike helicopters and in Viet Nam was called the 1st Cavalary/ Air Mobile.) Buddy and Cary, arriving in country, as noted, months apart and were assigned to the 1st Cav pretty much by the luck of the draw once they got off the plane in Pleiku. Buddy, based on his letters home, had expected to be assigned to the 173rd Airborne, not a “leg unit.”

.

The objective for all four of the 1st Cav’s Paul Revere missions was an extensive “search and destroy” operation against Viet Cong Communist guerrilla forces in the areas of Chu Pong and the Ia Drang Valley, in and around the Central Highlands, up against the Cambodian border. The Vietnam War was still young and hopes of victory were still high.

Barely a year before all this, in November, 1965 ( when Cary, Buddy and all their fellow soldiers were far from that battle zone), Army General William Westmorland had dispatched thousands of troops to pursue and fight the Viet Cong enemy across some 2500 square miles of jungle. A week before the campaign ended, the vastly outnumbered elements of the 7th Cavalry, under Col. Hal Moore, was set upon and encircled by a battalion of the North Vietnamese Army’s 66th Regiment. The close-quarter fighting was savage and terrible. It became known as The Battle of the Ia Drang and was the subject of  a book by Colonel Moore and Mel Gibson’s movie, We Were Soldiers. It was the U.S.’s first big victory against the odds, a proud but bloody moment for the 1st Cav and was taken as a sign that total victory might not be far off. It wasn’t. We all know that now. But we should also remember veterans of that terrible battle today. Many are still among us.

It was a year later in the same region, and the 1st Cav, along with Cary Durham and Buddy Scahill, was still fighting in the jungles of Ia Drang Valley, setting out on missions from their base camp farther south at An Khe. Buddy’s letters home give strong hints that he’d been in danger. In a letter to his mother, he wrote, “I could almost cry when I think I’m going to be here another ten months.” Buddy wasn’t the crying type.

A military record of this period notes rather dismissively that, during the course of Operation Paul Revere IV, “only light contact with the enemy was achieved.”

This is what “light contact” felt like, as both Buddy and Cary experienced it:

In the mid-morning of November 21, 1966, Company “C”, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry “was searching south of Duc Co along the (Cambodian)  border. This was Buddy and Cary’s unit. The record reads, “suddenly, 2nd Platoon began trading fire with an NVA force of significant size.”

“Significant size indeed. They’d encountered, and would soon be surrounded by a battalion of the 10 NVA Division that had crossed over from Cambodia and was obviously been lying in wait for them.

The military record says 3rd Platoon, hearing a radio distress call, gathered itself up to the aid of 2nd Platoon which was a considerable distance off.  “I bet we hadn’t move ten yards when they attacked us,” Cary told me. 3rd Platoon’s radio man was quickly cut down. That loss and the dense jungle foliage prevented effective artillery or any air support from helicopter gunships. They were completely cut off. While all this was happening, 2nd Platoon, which had made the initial contact with the enemy, was suffering 50 per cent casualties and was saved only by the arrival of of the 1st Platoon and a flight of Skyraider jets. The dwindling group of boys in the 3rd Platoon fought desperately in isolation but soon everybody was either wounded or dead from automatic weapon fire and hand grenades.

“We did pretty well for the situation,” Cary told me, his voice tightening, recalling it all.  But they were very soon overrun. Buddy Scahill, according to his family, was shot six times and at this point probably lay dead or bleeding to death. Cary says a soldier close to him named Smythe spoke his last words to him, saying, “I’m hit real bad, Sarge.” Cary was bloodied from a gunshot to his arm. The fire power had slowly gone silent all around him and the NVA soldiers were moving among them, collecting guns, ammo and web gear and executing the wounded. “You’d hear a guy scream and then you’d hear, bang!” Cary says.  There were only about 20 to 25 in 3rd Platoon — well under full strength due to months of combat attrition.  Cary says he felt he had no choice but to play dead where he lay in the grass– and soon an NVA soldier was standing over his prone figure. He grabbed Cary’s M-14 rifle, kicked off his steel pot helmet and put the barrel of his AK-47 to the back of Cary’s head. Cary held his breath, tried not to move — but in that eternity of seconds, assumed he was about to have his brains blown out.

“Then, he just walked away,” Cary says of the NVA soldier, either assuming he was dead or not wishing to carry out the execution. Either way, Cary was the lone survivor of 3rd Platoon at that point and would lay in the grass for a long time, waiting for help that ultimately came.

The record says “A” Company located the ambush site of 3rd Platoon and medevaced the one survivor. That was Cary Durham. The jungle foliage was too think to cut a landing zone. It is chilling to read that the dead of 3rd Platoons, including Buddy Scahill “were placed in a cargo net and lifted out by a Chinook helicopter.” He was waked toward the end of November at Mulry’s Funeral Home on Neponset Avenue, had a funeral mass at St. Ann’s and was buried with full military honors. His sisters and his friends – who, though a little mean and wild in youth, all grew up to be generous and respected family men, some of them also veterans. They told me Buddy’s mother never recovered from that death.

Cary Durham received the Army’s second highest honor, the Silver Star, pinned on  him personally by General Westmoreland, for his leadership and combat behavior under horrible circumstances that day. He spend time in a Japanese military hospital, then was transferred to the DMZ in Korea, staying in the service until the early 70s, then going to work in his wife’s family’s grocery business.

He had his share of nightmares. “Time heals a lot of things,” he says. “But you never forget. You never forget.”

So let’s remember him today, and remember Buddy Scahill.

Now it’s time for me to make that phone call.

OF MAGIC LANTERNS…

A man who climbs a mountain to see the sunrise sees something quite different from that which is shown in a magic lantern to a man sitting in an arm-chair.  — G.K. Chesterton.

Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton was offering up a luminous metaphor when he wrote those words. Believe it or not, he was writing about broadcasting.  Chesterton died in 1936, during the adolescence of radio and long before television. But in this case he seems obviously to be writing about the emerging capability of broadcasters to reproduce visual images on a universal scale, hence the reference to a magic lantern.

Chesterton’s life bridged Victorian and modern times. In his experience, a “magic lantern” was an image projector that — and I did not know this — dated all the way back to the 17th Century as a source of entertainment. It originally projected hand-painted slides through a light source, probably a candle. Ultimately, as time went on, it could project photographic images with the help of an electric light source. That could include things like, well….sunsets. (Chesterton’s contemporary Oscar Wilde said we did not value sunsets because we cannot pay for them. Check your cable bill this month and see how much you’re paying  for sports, news, entertainment — and maybe a few sunsets.)

Grand as were Chesterton’s many paradoxical insights on many subject, he seemed, for the duration of this short essay —  and the duration of his relatively brief 62-year life — to be casting a  cold eye on this new broadcast technology, seeing it as an unworthy and potentially duplicitous substitute for the real world. He feared it would make us lazy; inclined to settle for the mock reality over reality itself — among other evils. To his mind, that would probably include the mass propagation of audal and visual dross, trivia, lies, and other garbage on line, and on big and small screens. Chesterton, Catholic apologist and Victorian curmudgeon, was foretelling our wired future.

Paradoxically, Chesterton seems elsewhere in the course of the same short and obscure essay to acknowledge the undeniable mass social function of the coming mass media. I sense, however, that he might have wanted that function limited to letting us know when we’re about to have a bomb dropped on our heads. In the years after his death, many bombs would be dropped on many heads, or be planted in backpacks. I was two blocks from the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and I definitely heard the bombs with my own unaided ears. But only my colleagues the videographers made it possible for me and millions, after the fact, to see and hear the explosions and their horrible aftermath by means of the prostheses known as cameras, microphones and TV. We may not have wanted to see or hear them.

Beyond sunrises and sunsets, we would all, in our lifetimes, be seeing “movie pictures” of things we were not certain we wanted to see, the World Trade Center attacks, for instance. But there’s no turning back the clock — or turning off the camera. Feel free to turn off the TV. But if you’re sitting in a Fifth Avenue bar/restaurant, you may find yourself encircled with flat screens instantly replaying, in living color and sometimes with sound,  things that very recently happened everywhere, from Afghanistan to Gillette Stadium. I guarantee on nightly news, you’ll see lots of cellphone video of the undesirable. Cell phones — now we all have the entire virtual world in the palm of our hands — good, bad, ugly.

Speaking of Fifth Avenue, I’ll always remember the time walking down  “America’s Street” sometime back in the 70s and seeing a guy sitting under an inverted cardboard box with the equivalent of a TV screen cut out of the front of it. His face was in “the screen” and he was talking to passersby on the busy sidewalk, as if he were on TV. Wonderfully crazy people, God bless them, stand on sidewalks and chatter all the time to people, especially in a place like New York City.  This guy must have figured he’d command more attention if he looked like one of those corporate oracles known as “broadcasters” — especially “news” broadcasters —  than if he were merely standing there in his ragged street clothes holding forth on matters he deemed important. Call it, thinking inside the box. ( An added anecdote to this anecdote is that, immediately after taking note of this boxed broadcaster, I looked up to see, about five paces away,  Tom Wolfe approaching from the other direction, gently easing into a refined but appreciative smile at the sight of this bit of performance art. (And how did I know it was Tom Wolfe? Well, I’d seen him in many a “magic lantern” — unmistakable in a double-breasted, yellow pinstriped suit and distinctive hoary coiffure. The modern media have made it possible for us to recognize and even believe we know people we may never see or really know. But I know I saw Tom Wolfe, and I’ll bet the “boxed man” was glad to see him, in all his trademark sartorial splendor, perhaps hoping he had Wolfe’s consequential attention.

As for Chesterton and broadcasting: In 1931, The BBC invited him to give a series of radio talks. It’s been noted that he accepted “tentatively,” but, beginning in 1932, gave forty talks a year. Some scratchy recordings have been preserved by the mass technological means Chesterton foretold and may be heard somewhere on that trash barge of the internet.

I think, had he been born at another time, old G.K. could not have resisted the allure and undeniable power of the coming “magic lantern” that is television.

LOT 46, LATE OCTOBER

I am living in a pink place. It’s made of tin and vinyl. The palms out front have nasty little needles under the graceful tropical postcard billow of drooping fronds. There are minuscule ants in the bathroom. Could larger ones, perhaps enormous ones, be far away?

I am startled when I see that Nikolai Gogol, a ghost, and a thin man have wandered in through the Florida room to console me, knowing I am disoriented by the 94-degree October heat and feeling lost.  Last time I met Gogol, I was reading “The Overcoat.” Too bad I never finished it. (Hell, it’s short! What’s my problem? )For a moment I’m thinking I’m having a dream, or that Gogol is  a pop-up and I need to delete him. I laugh when I tell him that and I apologize. He just laughs, too, one of those Russian laughs.  His ghost has an enormous moustache but doesn’t have much to say.

“Come away with us,” Gogol say to me in Russian and I find out the thin man is his interpreter. He translates for me. He has a nice voice. “We’re heading towards the Obukhov Bridge,” Gogol says through the thin man.

“Stay a while, please,” I say. “You and the ghost and you, too,” I say, pointing to the interpreter. (He is so very thin, and so pale. I’m hope he’s using sunscreen.  I’m thinking to myself: I don’t like it here and maybe I should go away with these folks. But it’s almost Halloween, I’m new in this mobile home park and there will be kids coming Trick-or-Treating and I don’t want to disappoint them. I could have the ghost hand them their little Snickers bars. (I don’t know if the ghost speaks English. The interpreter could handle that, in case the kids want to chat. I mean, how often to they get to see a real ghost with a huge moustache?  The moms and dads would be impressed, too. They’d say, ‘there’s a really neat guy in Lot 46 who’s got a Russian ghost staying with him. With a big moustache, no less.’)

While I’m thinking all this, there’s a knock at the back door to the little back yard. I open it and it’s Scott Fitzgerald, looking very hot in a very nice gaberdine jacket.  He’s loosened his tie a bit. I’m wondering, did he jump the fence? Is he pulling some kind of Gatsby on me? If so, that’s fine, that’s totally okay and very amusing. He sits down in the parlor next to Gogol and the ghost. I get the sense they’ve met before, somewhere. Maybe in some library, I’m thinking. Gogol introduces Scott to the ghost.  Scott extends his hand, then everybody laughs, including me. Ever shake hands with a ghost? (This may be that day for me.)

Scott is fanning himself, though I’ve turned the overhead fan on. “So we beat on,” he says with a sigh, sort of out of nowhere, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

I appreciate him saying that. What a nice thought! The day is hot. A torrid, sultry fall day that in another colder clime tilting toward winter would be called Indian Summer. That’s where I want to be — sort of like where these folks are from, or where Scott is from — Minnesota. Or New England, where I’m from. Cold country, though not as cold as Russia. Here, it’s just another day in Paradise Island or Island in the Sun or whatever they call this place. And it’s a hot one, too. I like the idea of going to Obukov Bridge, or of being in a boat with Scott,  both of us just deciding not to  row against the current; just letting ourselves go backwards — into the past. And I’m thinking I’m going to like the past much better than the present.

So, I’m happy with this little assemblage that’s come to see me and cheer me up after my terrible afternoon in traffic, searching for a Publix Supermarket and wheeling up and down the aisles looking for bread crumbs and grated cheese.

“I hope you’ll all stay for dinner,” I say. “I’m having fried chicken. Then, if you like, we can go down to the pool. The women are playing pinochle later on. Any of you play pinochle?”  (I hope they can’t tell I’m losing my mind. It may already be gone. )

With that, they all politely declined, and say they’ve got to be going. I shake every hand, including the ghost’s and the four of them depart through the Florida room, past the palms and out to the rows of tin houses, probably headed for Obukhov Bridge. I want to be polite and shout out if any of them needs the bathroom — until I remember the ants. I think I saw a roach in there, too.

I want to go with them, actually. I’m just not a Florida person after all.  It’s blindingly sunny out there from a bright sub-tropical sun and there are mountainous Florida clouds overhead. But I watch as the Gogol/Fitzgerald party is abruptly swallowed up in a sudden darkness when they’re barely twenty yards down Caribbean Way. Poof!

So, I say to myself, I guess I’ll shore this fragment against my ruins. That’s a little something I learned to do reading “The Waste Land.” Shore little bits and pieces — old fragments — against my broken up old ruins. And I’m realizing why April IS the cruelest month — and here I am where it’s always April, except when it’s July, like today.

Then, feeling pretty alone without Gogol and Scott and the gang, I just decide to be grateful and recite a little Shakespeare to myself and pretend it came  from my just-departed guests:

Your gentle hands lend us, and take our hearts. 

That’s from All’s Well That Ends Well. Yet another fragment to shore against my ruins.

Shantith. Shantith. Shantith

How’s that for ending well?

Exeunt omnes

FINIS

ON BEING OURSELVES

Best be yourself, imperial, plain, and true. — Robert Browning.

Really? Robert Browning, whom I admire, would likely have rued the day he helped spawn the current age of the Imperial Self.

Leaving aside the poet for the moment, I stand at this hour on the conjoined shoulders of two delightful contemporary writers, Heather Wilhelm and Derek Thompson, neither of whom are particularly well-known. Heather, in this case, was writing recently in The National Review, Derek in The Atlantic. Each in their turn set out to skewer the “Be Yourself” culture being propagated on coffee mugs, t-shirts and bumper stickers.

Let me, at the outset, ask this question: would any of us have encouraged Jeffrey Epstein to “be himself”? It appears, in the end, even Jeffrey was glad to take leave of himself.  Or, touching lightly on theology here, it seems Jeffrey, alone in his jail cell, feared the consequences of actions committed by the “Jeffrey” he had become which, I submit, was very different from the Jeffrey God intended him to be. And my Baltimore Catechism tells me there’s ultimately no escaping the consequence of bad deeds freely done by ourselves, be it our good self or our bad self. Of course, divine mercy may work differently than the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. But in the sweet by-and-by, I suspect no lawyer can help the perversely self-ish.

You might be a determinist or some rigid iteration of Calvinist and believe we are doomed by a capricious deity to be either wretched or blessed “selves”. I can see the Army drill sergeant standing over the recalcitrant basic training trainee he – or she — is about to send to the stockade for conduct unbecoming a soldier. “Our slogan, trainee, is ‘be all that you can be”, whereupon the trainee answers, “this is all I can be, sergeant, take it or leave it.”

Heather Wilhelm was moved to her meditation on the culture of “self” (that’s the name of a magazine, too, right?) by the “dictum-spouting screen” at her New Age dentist’s office, “relentlessly instructing me to be myself, no matter what.” Why? Well, as best Heather can figure out, because “everyone else is doing it, too.” Who’d have thought Emerson’s 19th Century celebration of self-reliance would devolve into the modern plague of Groupthink?

Derek Thompson, meanwhile, writing on The Atlantic’s website, was examining the cultural implications of online dating in which “anybody who feels obligated to select the ingredients of a perfect life from an infinite menu of options may feel lost in the infinitude.” (I’d be tempted to begin my online dating appeal by quoting that Emily Dickenson poem: “I’m nobody, who are you? Are you nobody, too?”)

“Gone are the days,” writes Thompson, “when young generations inherited religions and occupations and life paths from their parents as if they were unalterable strands of DNA.”

Well, I hope they’re not gone, even though, in our relativistic culture, we are apparently all free to invent our own “truths”  and our own “selves.” Herein, of course, lies the big problem. Was Jeff Epstein following his own truth? Just being himself? DNA: Do Not Ask.

Ms. Wilhelm, meanwhile, has helpfully catalogued some “be yourself” exhortations from the lips, blogs and tweets of our pop culture favorites. Lady Gaga, for instance, tells us, “don’t you ever let a soul in the world tell you that you can’t be exactly who you are.”  Or Taylor Swift: “If they don’t like you being yourself, be yourself even more.” (As they used to say of the mechanical rabbit at the Wonderland dog track, “there goes Swiftie…”)

Oscar Wilde’s dictum is Heather’s favorite. Mine, too: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” She also likes the t-shirt that says, “Always be yourself. Unless you’re a jerk. Then, be someone else.”

I’ll buy that.

REFLECTIONS ON 8/6/45

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Gembaku Dome, Hiroshima. Photo Credit: File:HiroshimaGembakuDome6747.jpg

 

It happened — according to internet calculations — 74 years, sixteen hours, four minutes and seventeen seconds ago. The seconds and minutes will mount as I write this.

But time seemed to stop when it happened. The world hasn’t been the same since.

There is a park and memorial museum at the heart of Hiroshima, Japan. I visited it in September, 1970 during a break from Army duty in Korea. Somewhere in the archives I assume they’ve saved the generations of guest books left out for museum visitors to leave their comments. My comment, prosaic and probably identical to thousands of others, reads, simply, NEVER AGAIN.

Did we have to drop that thing? The debate never ends.

It seems almost coldly inappropriate to factor out, retrospectively, the pre-Hiroshima and Nagasaki options facing allied military planners who found themselves at the end of a long, bloody and calamitous world war with no endgame in sight. One is almost tempted to say – there was no “magic bullet”. Alas, it seems there was, and we discovered it and fired it, twice.

Among the many exhibits in glass cases at the Hiroshima Peace Museum – and you have to embrace that name — are objects gleaned from the city’s radioactive ruins after August 6, 1945. Most disturbingly memorable to me were the manikins depicting adults and children survivors as they appeared after the fiery detonation. The manikins display the victim’s terrible burns and their burned and tattered clothing. It’s almost like looking into a macabre department store front window in the course of a terrible nightmare. You see the dark uniforms of female school children; you see how their white blouses repelled the nuclear flash while their dark jumpers absorbed it with terrible consequences for the wearer. Also memorable in a ghastly way, among the scattering of smaller preserved objects, is a jagged metallic lump the shape of large chunk of coal. This had been some male victim’s pocket change – all melted together.

So what was the alternative to this horror, coming at the end of five years of horrors, including fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden, Germany, grinding island-to-island Pacific warfare and deaths and casualties mounting into the millions?

It was called Operation Downfall, the invasion of the Japanese mainland. It was a two-pronged assault: Operation Olympic was scheduled for November, 1945, aimed at Kyushu, followed by Operation Coronet in March, 1946, which called for landing troops on Hokkaido, targeting Tokyo and the Emperor. The Eleventh Air Force, including our B-25s, would move to Okinawa and would have abundant targets. The Japanese were fierce defensive fighters (ask any of the few surviving American veterans of the Pacific theater). They would surely defend their home islands savagely, foot by blood-soaked foot.

The Pentagon estimated the invasion would result in half a million American casualties, a million and a half Japanese. Those estimates may have been low. Many of us Americans would not be here: our fathers would have died in the prolonged fighting.

An estimated 125,000 died in minutes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.   Knowledge that we had the bomb probably kept the Soviets at bay until their empire could collapse generations later. But of course, they built their own bombs. Then you have Pakistan, North Korea – and the wobbly balance of terror lingering into the 21st Century.

Everybody should visit that Peace Museum. And that, sad to say, is the only “bottom line” I can come up with here.

A Continental Summer

I. The Attic Window

GregPassport2Op

One day, an early summer’s day, I set out across the sea — on a Norwegian freighter, no less, bound for Europe. This fulfilled a youthful yearning born of a view out an attic window.

It was a small window in our small house, gray and modest, sitting on a small fenced-off rise above our neighbors below on Salina Road. The view was of the sea — though just a small blue wedge, barely visible over the McIntyre’s green two-story house and the three-decker that, over time, had been home to people like Mrs. Baylion and Jimmy Kinally and Freddie Ferguson. It was mostly a harbor view and bay view: Boston Harbor and Dorchester Bay. Small waters in the grand scheme of things. But that was sea water out there, no less enticing to the embryonic imagination of a would-be Balboa; the blue threshold to the deep ocean of legend — of vast ships and fabulous creatures. A boy of eight or nine would see it that way. I was that boy. Continue reading “A Continental Summer”