HURRICANES (Memory Lane: 1985, 2017)

When Hurricane Elena struck the Florida Panhandle in the fall of 1985, my parents were the region’s appointed Home Missionaries for the Southern Baptist Convention. Since their appointment in 1979 (at the ages of 59 and 60 respectively), my mother’s health had declined to the point where she was nearly bed-ridden (she would pass away twenty months later, in the Spring of ’87).

When it came to handling things like hurricane relief, it probably didn’t matter. That was my father’s gig in any case.

For those who don’t know, one of a home missionary’s primary jobs is to make sure the people who need help in the wake of a disaster get it.

From wherever it’s available.

Over two million people were evacuated in the face (and wake) of Elena, more than half of them in Florida. The Panhandle was the hardest hit area of the state and, though the population base is small, the evacuations along the Gulf of Mexico were almost ubiquitous. Small population base, sure, but that only meant a small support base as well.

In that environment, my Dad, the ex-carny, was in his element.

Give him a problem to solve–in this case, how to get needed supplies, mostly blankets and canned goods, from a mix of willing and somewhat reluctant suppliers, to the shelters (mostly churches and high school gyms) in the small towns twenty and thirty miles inland (just off the floodplain of the Apalachicola Bay)–and he would make it happen.

Of course, there had been some long and short-term preparation. We were living in Florida, after all. Hurricanes come with the scenery.

But the scale of Elena, lingering and lingering, constantly changing directions, losing force before it retreated into the Gulf and gathered for another push, made it a tough challenge.

Let’s just say many went without.

Those who got help, mostly got it from my father. I didn’t hear that from him. I heard it from all the people in Baptist circles who, when I was introduced as his son, asked me to personally thank him for what he had done, in one small town after another. I heard it a dozen times in church settings (all the more remarkable because I had stopped going to church except for special occasions like the Thanksgiving Dinners my friend Lillian Isaacs, the person who started the first faith-based Literacy and Citizenship programs in the United States, used to invite me to at First Baptist of Tallahassee–she invited me not least because I was my father’s son), some of them literally two decades after the fact.

Always the same:

“If it hadn’t been for him…”

My dad never spoke much about it except to shake his head whenever he remembered the reprimand.

The reprimand came from the Florida Baptist Convention a few weeks after the shelters had been emptied and people returned to their homes. (Dad had caused many of the shelters to be opened in the first place because, as the home missionary in a region where, in those days at least, Southern Baptists probably outnumbered all other faiths and denominations combined, he was best positioned to provide information to pastors and church boards who otherwise would have had little idea of the scale of the immediate need, not to mention assure them that blankets and food would be delivered, even if he didn’t yet know from where, no matter how many refugees they took in–there are times when being an ex-con man comes in handy, even in the service of the Lord).

The leadership of the Florida Baptist Convention took a dim view of missionaries who used their discretionary funds to do things like purchase blankets for people turned out of their homes. They weren’t really fond of doing it for church members. And they were especially not fond of doing it for just anybody who needed it.

It was all part of a new attitude inside the hierarchy of a church body that, like most Protestant denominations, had been famously non-hierarchical for most of its existence. (Just as an example, the church I was raised in, in another part of the state, split four times before I was thirteen, always over matters of hair-split doctrine–such arguments are the Protestant’s version of “Don’t Tread on Me.”)

The new hierarchy was going to do what all hierarchies do and restore order. In this case to things like disaster relief and prison ministries. Henceforth, my dad was told, before any money was spent, funds would be doled out through proper channels only, with all appropriate forms signed in triplicate.

Meaning henceforth, all aid would be distributed to the “right” people, through the “right” channels.

My dad was enough of an old Carny to know that meant after the right palms were greased.

Sort of like the Midway.

Or your average friendly government bureaucracy.

It was a small incident. Everything was smoothed out at the national office in Atlanta, where Dad still had friends. He was allowed to work past my mother’s death and serve the ten years that provided a small pension and cheap medical insurance (which he paid for another twenty years, until he cancelled it nine months before he had a stroke. the implications of which are still with me).

But it was redolent of larger issues, roiling under the surface of the times.

The state convention’s view was already the prevailing one. By the time Dad retired in 1989, it was unchallenged. It was all part and parcel of a new “Conservative” takeover of the church, the formal part of which Dad had witnessed at a National Convention–in Houston, as it happened, at the old Astrodome–which, among other things, would lead to being hog-tied to the Republican Party from 1980 onward (contributing to the humiliating defeat of one of our own and a dark turn from which the country has not recovered, which is another story for another day) and a marked de-emphasis on prison ministries.

My dad had an opinion about that, too. He told it to anyone who would listen.

“If we’re not there, someone else will be.”

Maybe something worth thinking about the next time you hear about a terrorist who converted to radical Islam–or Marxism–in an American prison.

So he had to settle for winning the Battle of Hurricane Elena….and not being forgotten by those who told me, all those years later, “If it hadn’t been for him….”

But every time there’s a major hurricane, and the inevitable petty politicization swirls all around, I always think about Dad and send up a prayer for whoever is fighting the good fight now–irrespective of their faith or lack thereof–and dare to hope that maybe this time, we’ll get it right.

Thinking of Houston, then, and knowing where Dad would be, tonight, if he could…

 

MORE NOTES FROM THE STORY THAT NEVER ENDS (Allison Anders Talks About the Shangri-Las….Among Other Things)

Allison Anders directed Ileana Douglas in Grace of My Heart, one of the best rock and roll films ever made (which I wrote about at length here)…Just found an interview she gave on Douglas’ new podcast (which has many worthwhile items….just search I Blame Dennis Hopper on YouTube). The whole thing is worthwhile, but if you don’t have the time, Anders’ description of how her life was impacted by two particular voices–Paul McCartney and Mary Weiss–begins around the 23:00 minute mark…

 

INTERESTING TIMES…

No really. Here’s the latest column from Alfred McCoy, author of The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, the definitive book on CIA involvement in drug smuggling across the years and the miles. (I recommend the original edition: the update, titled The Politics of Heroin, is padded with many newer details which merely restate the thesis and provide ample proof of the axiom that less is more….I do look forward to his new book which is plugged at the link.)

Please note that, in other recent columns, McCoy has seemed to express support for the Security State in its incarnation as the support structure for Barack Obama’s bid to become the third American Grand Master (after Elihu Root and Zbigniew Brzezenski) of the Great Game and its subsequent appeal as the one force capable of keeping Donald Trump from abandoning the Empire Obama (in McCoy’s estimation) so skillfully preserved.

People are strange, but his current piece is still well worth reading–back to basics so to speak.

After you’ve had a chance to read it, be sure to check back

I promise Gene will still be here….

So will Eddie…

THANK GOD WE’RE ALL RATIONAL HERE….

….And confining all efforts directed at statue removal and defacement to those Confederates, like the ones found on Mount Rushmore…

And in amongst George Washington’s officer corps….

…In hotbeds of Reactionary Secession like South Dakota and Ohio.

Must say I’m really relieved. I thought for a minute there things might get out of hand!

Take it Gene….

and, since YouTube keeps insisting, take it Eddie…

MY FAVORITE MUSICAL (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Gigi (1958)
D. Vincente Minelli

Gigi has had a curious critical life. Upon release, it gained wide acclaim, including nine Oscars (though there were no acting nominations–Maurice Chevalier did win a special Oscar for lifetime achievement in the same year).

It’s reputation remained safe for a generation or so, then it began to slip down the charts. When the American Film Institute named its Top 100 films in 1997 and, again in 2007, Gigi was nowhere to be found. Same story when AFI named its 25 Greatest Movie Musicals in 2006.

A more typical modern take might be represented by TV Guide‘s 3.5 out of 5 stars (whilst accusing the French stars of a French writer’s story set and filmed in Paris of being….too French–I don’t make this stuff up folks).

David Thomson’s “It makes me sick,” is a little on the harsh side but, were you to accuse him of being the Donald Trump of the crit-illuminati, he and his supporters would probably just claim he’s only saying what others are thinking but afraid to say out loud.

Well, TV Guide is middle-brow mush and no one familiar with David Thomson’s writing has ever been surprised to learn there’s such a thing as a crackhead.

The earlier consensus that Gigi was Hollywood’s last great classical musical, and perhaps the peak of the form, was spot on. There was no need to revise it.

What struck me on my most recent viewing (I’ve probably seen it a dozen times, but it had been a while), was how not one of its special qualities could be replicated today–or for many years past.

I know I beat a dead horse when I write of lost culture, but to watch Gigi in 2017 is to be grateful for its power to transport. Because if one got stuck on the distance we’ve traveled from the century-gone world it depicts, or the half-century-gone world in which it was made, something–either the film or your life–would be unbearable.

Which is all the stranger for it being the story of a prostitute in training.

Okay, a courtesan in training. A classy prostitute.

But still….

It isn’t where you’d think to find echoes of a Lost Civilization.

They are there, though.

Leslie Caron–26 and a new mother when it filmed–got no love from anyone but the public for embodying the edge between sixteen and womanhood. She was famously hypercritical of herself, and there were no major awards and no Oscar nomination. But, in 1958, only Shirley MacLaine in Some Came Running (Minelli’s other big picture of the year) matched her (she didn’t win anything either, though at least she scored an Oscar Nom). Even with her singing voice dubbed–the film’s one mistake–and Minelli disappointed that he couldn’t get Audrey Hepburn (who had starred in the part on Broadway years earlier), Caron brought the magic.

There are people who don’t get it. Crackheads mostly.

In the fifties, Caron lit up everything she was in and never shone brighter than here. From that, everything else flowed.

The cast–the non-Oscar cast–was perfect even in their own time and it’s unimaginable now, that anyone living and age appropriate could play a single role as well.

The sets and costumes, perhaps the most lavish and detailed in Hollywood’s glorious history of paying almost absurdist level attention to such things, fill the eye in shot after shot.

That’s shot after shot directed by Vincente Minelli, who has no near modern equivalent. (Gigi and Some Came Running in the same year? Please.)

No one living could write appropriate music for this or any story. And, if they used the old songs, there would be no one to sing them, dubbed or otherwise. In a theater perhaps….but not under the merciless eye and ear of the camera and the sound stage.

And, if, by chance, any–or even all–of that happened, there would be no audience to sell it to.

Judging by how far Gigi has fallen from favor, TV Guide and David Thomson assisting (though hardly alone), it may not be much longer that it holds it public appeal. As time passes, these things fall more and more into the hands of the few. And if they are not there to recommend quality….

Well, we know how that goes.

I’ve always been a big fan of musicals, but I hardly watch them anymore. In a world where even rock and roll is on the verge of vanishing behind a wall of indifference (or perhaps I should say a pose of indifference, since the walling off of all common culture is much desired by people who would rather die than admit that’s a trowel in their hand), they are a step too far.

Two hours of forcing my attention to remain on the moment, when all it wants to do is wonder where the world that could produce this went, is too strenuous, even painful, to sustain the kind of pure enjoyment musicals once delivered.

Everything, even Gigi, has become a bit Wiemar-ish.

Hard to laugh–or even breathe–when they’re fighting in the streets boys.

But it’s not yet impossible to smile.

And that’s not nothing.

MY CIVIL WAR (1968, 1974, 2017)

My first instruction in the history of the Civil War was from the Soviet Agent who wrote the book pictured at the right.

His name was Charles Flato and you can read all about him on the internet now if you wish. But in 1968, when seven-year-old me received this as a present (not even my birthday!) from my father, whose inscription (my name and the date 4/22/68) is still on the fly-leaf, one could have been forgiven for thinking his credentials impeccable. The Golden Book of the Civil War was “Adapted for Young Readers from the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War” and came with an introduction by Bruce Catton, the sober Yankee professor–Michigan born and bred–and founding editor of American Heritage, who was then (along with Allan Nevins, of Illinois) the reigning popular authority on the subject in question (a position now shared by the New Yorker Ken Burns and the North Dakotan James McPherson).

Flato himself was a “freelance” writer, working for magazines like American Heritage no doubt, when he penned the book for publication in 1960. The book was widely distributed  to say the least. I don’t know how many copies were published or sold, but it was probably north of a million. If I wanted to sell my Eighth Edition from 1968, on Amazon or AbeBooks–which I would do some time after I let go my left arm–it would fetch something like four dollars.

I knew nothing about the backgrounds of the men who controlled the Civil War Narrative for “young readers” when I devoured the book in my youth, or when I referred to its battle maps (still the best I’ve seen in the lifetime of interest they spurred in that subject) in later years to give myself a clear set of referential aids to the mind’s eye before my actual eyeballs encountered the battlefields at Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Gettysburg, Murfreesboro (I regretted not refreshing my memory before still later visits to Vicksburg and Shiloh–I’ll not make that mistake in the future when I finally make it to Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Antietam.)

Had I known, I doubt it would have made any difference to my appreciation of the book in question, or the later books I read or documentaries I watched, virtually all written or directed by Yanks.

One thing I understood about history–was given to understand both by my own instinct and my imminently practical parents–was that its always written by the winners.

I grew up then, in the deep South, with a very distinct view of the Civil War.

The view went for my Democrat father, who had attended a Tennessee college founded by an Abolitionist. It went for my rock-rib North Carolina Republican mother, who knew Democrats, up close and personal, as the people Franklin Roosevelt cut deals with to keep Jim Crow in place in return for the Solid South’s White Supremacist electoral votes.

Be proud of your heritage, your family, etc., then…..

And thank God the Yankees won.

Also, thank God it’s over!

In the sixties and seventies, that was as typical a Southern upbringing as any other.

And it was the only view I knew until I was coming on fourteen and we moved from Central Florida to North Florida.

That’s where I soon discovered that the Civil War was not over and was further surprised to learn that anyone born south of Gainesville was…a Yankee!

When I say surprised, I mean as in so surprised I forgot to laugh.

I really regret that missed opportunity, because laughing doesn’t seem to be an option anymore.

Too bad, because rooting around on Wikipedia this morning, trying to find out who Charles Flato was, I discovered that, besides being a Soviet agent in WWII (and likely afterward–the Soviets weren’t known for letting their agents just walk), and the author of a book designed to perpetuate a vision of the Civil War in line with Bruce Catton’s or Ken Burns’s (that is was worth it….and over….and worth it because it was over), was that he was a good enough friend of Suze Rotolo to will her his car when he died.

What Suze Rotolo was famous for–besides staunch leftiness–was the way she let herself be forever defined by her clinging devotion to a freewheelin’ young man, who had recently begun calling himself Bob Dylan, on the cover of his second album…and would drop her the minute Joan Baez came calling.

Now that’s really the sort of thing that should make you laugh out loud. And if there wasn’t all this talk about how we’re headed for a second Civil War, I’m sure I would have.

As it lay, I had to settle for a rueful smile.

I say all this to remind everyone–yet again–that I am not opposed to removing Confederate statues.

Nor am I opposed to leaving them standing.

Couldn’t care less.

I do care about what’s coming next–about seeing what’s behind the sudden fervor that has mobs of educated white people assaulting Bad Monuments to prove they themselves are not Bad People, even though everyone who ever fought to assure their Monument Assaulting Privilege was Very Bad Indeed.

And what I see is the same old, same old. The angry face of the mob.

I see it growing and growling in the heart of an Empire–not a nation–that is poised to go the way of the Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Hohenzollern Empires at the end of the Great War. I see it coming because I see there is already nothing to hold us together when the wind blows–and nothing will have to become less than nothing before it becomes more than nothing again.

Or, as the freewheelin’ young prophet had it….

If you see something different–something other than the waters of oblivion–peace be upon you.

I hope you’re right. Really I do.

For now, just remember that History does not have Wrong or Right sides.

It has Winning and Losing sides.

I know the modern American has been thoroughly brainwashed into believing otherwise, that Right will make Might.

But even when I was seven–soaking up Yankee and Soviet versions of my own region’s history and thinking no more of it then than I do now–I knew the winners get to decide about the whole Right and Wrong thing. That the only real Lesson of History is always the same.

Don’t lose.

So it is as we watch Lee and Jackson fade into our History.

So it will be when it’s Jefferson and Washington–and Lincoln’s–turn.

The only question now, for the people who think the old Liberal/Conservative divide that sustained the Enlightenment and the first two hundred years of the American Experiment still holds, and that they’ll get to opt out of the Future, is what you’ll do when it’s not Robert E. Lee’s statue the Neo-Nazi Fascists and Antifa Marxists are fighting over but the Jefferson Memorial, like it’s Weimar all over again.

Whose side will you be on then? Whose side will you be on when “Liberal” and “Conservative” are no longer an option?

Better decide now, because the people who will be coming for whatever your cherished version of History is have one thing in common.

They aren’t going to let you sit that one out.

And they aren’t going to give you a whole lot of time to think.

Take it Gene….

 

THE NIGHT CYNDI LAUPER TRIED TO SAVE ROCK AND ROLL (Memory Lane….1989)

I must have been channel surfing. I usually preferred somebody jabbing at my eyeballs with red-hot needles to watching David Letterman define a-holery. Once in a while, though, there was a decent musical guest. There weren’t enough of them for me to check the listings or anything, but if I tuned in at just the right moment, I might linger.

That night I lingered. Cyndi Lauper was on.

It had been two years since her last sizable hit–and that had been a cover of “What’s Going On” that nobody seemed to like but me (and plenty of people thought was sacreligious). I had heard and liked her new one, which would turn out to be her last sizable hit ever, a few times on the radio.

It’s hard now, to describe just how bleak the musical landscape felt then, when, unlike now, a glorious past was still so near that it seemed impossible it could be gone.

Still, the possibility was real: Whitney Houston had defined the new ballad style and it owed more to Kate Smith than Bessie Smith. The seventies’ era artists who had defined the eighties–Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Prince–had all gone a bit stale for everyone but their most devoted fans (of which I wasn’t one, though I liked them all). Any chance that the old New Wave might change the world had gone a-wasting because the big talents–Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, Chrissie Hynde–either didn’t care about being stars (their excuse) or were afraid of the burden (the stronger likelihood).

Cyndi herself had clearly lost the fake battle the media staged between her and Madonna.

It was the eighties. Selling twenty-five million albums was chump change.

Of course, I wanted her to defy the odds and go on and on–for this one to spark a massive comeback.

So I wouldn’t have changed that dial, no matter what.

But the thing that had me holding my breath was waiting for the answer to the really big question.

Could she hold….that note?

I don’t remember what I thought while I waited. In memory, for years after, she stood still for the whole performance. When I finally thought to pull it up on YouTube a few years back, I guess I was surprised–maybe even shocked–that she bopped around for most of the song. I say I guess I was surprised because, in the memory I had built since, she was still standing in one spot.

So when I pulled it up again today, I was surprised all over.

I imagine if I wait a few more years, I’ll be surprised again.

I don’t think I really saw her the first time even though I had my eyes open. Maybe that’s why I can’t remember how, or even if, she moves.

Because whenever I watch it, then or now, the question is still the same.

Can she really, on live television, sans production tricks, hold that note?

I mean, she can…

But can she really?

I know she can. I know she’ll do it every time, but it still sends a tingle down my spine. Not just because it was her last big hit, and I somehow knew it would be as I watched her that night. But because, even as I imagined her standing still as a stone, I felt like I was watching somebody fight to keep the last ember lit, in the vain hope that it could reignite the fire.

Fight, you know, with every breath. Including the last one.

 

PLAY IT AGAIN….(Segue of the Day: 8/21/17)

Well, I was gonna get back to normal today, but they just won’t let me…Maybe tomorrow.

First this…

..which was a VERY popular tweet item on the left side of the spectrum this weekend. It’s the statue of George Tecumseh Sherman that has resided at New York City’s Central Park since 1903. It’s Twitter popularity was supposed to serve as a reassurance that Good Generals will not have their statues torn down!

Fine for now.

Wait until Antifa finds out what an eager and effective Indian killer Sherman was–right down to vocal advocacy for buffalo slaughter to starve them out and backing his subordinate Phil “The Only Good Indian is a Dead Indian” Sheridan to the hilt.

Then we’ll see how safe his statutes are.

Then this:

Meanwhile, that old favorite, Christopher Columbus, whose Indian policies were slightly more humane than Sherman’s, is back in the news. This one’s from Baltimore, today. (You can find a video of a black-masked Antifa vandal narrating his own movie of the event on YouTube. I’d link but I’m just too tired. Anyway, he’s an eerily normal sounding sort of fellow.)

But, really, everything’s fine.

Play it Gene….You’re the poet of the moment now:

(NOTE: Be careful of the YouTube thread….at present it’s rolling straight on to “It’s Too Late to Turn Back Now”…I ain’t here to make ya’ll slit your wrists!)

THE DAY THE LAUGHTER DIED (Dick Gregory and Jerry Lewis, R.I.P.)

I’m a fan of both men, but I don’t know enough about either to add anything to the deserved encomiums that will doubtless pour forth on the occasion of their passing within twenty-four hours of each other.

I can speak to what their deaths–like those of so many other icons of their generation–represent, which is the continuing drip-by-drip erosion of the common culture. No comedian working today, not even Jerry Seinfeld, will create a similar sense of loss if he/she passes thirty years from now, decades on from the height of their fame.

I can also say that this is related to why neither man would make it today.

Our current Paradise controls public thought so rigidly that Gregory’s sharp edges (“A southern liberal is one who hangs you from a low tree”) would be sanded away as the price of the ticket.

And, paradoxically, the degree of physical license we’ve granted ourselves in the place of thought would render Lewis’ style of anarchy simply confusing. Hell, it was pretty confusing even when there were limits for him to push against.

It matters not that neither man had commanded much of the public space for years and years. The blazing glory of their youth will live on as part of what the future remembers about us.

The good part.