Death of a Cold Warrior

BY

               Kent Ballard                

 For years, Stewart Alsop wrote the full back-page socio-political column for Newsweek magazine. In those days there wasn’t a bulier pulpit to be had. I started reading him while still a teenager and got hooked for some unknown reason. He was a great writer, one of the very first guys I ever saw who could shoot thunder and lightning from a page. He didn’t do it every week but he did it when he wanted to. Sometimes you would come to the end of his column and simply sit and stare at the page because you did not know what to think. I thought he was a Commie one week and a Nazi the next, but most of that might have been the mirror he held up to America in the last years of the 1960’s and the first few years of the 1970’s.

The guy had everything going for him. Vast audience, great writing, dinners with the President, luncheon meetings with Congressional leaders. Smart politicians courted him and smarter ones never crossed him. He was often a guest on Sunday afternoon TV political talk shows. He wasn’t handsome, kind of a plain-looking man. He knew this. He was bald and was the first one to point it out on panel shows and then laugh about it. No one laughed until he laughed. Then everyone laughed at once and stopped at once and watching their actions gave you the understanding this was a powerful man.

By then I had the habit–like many others–of reading Newsweek backwards. You opened the back cover of the magazine first to see what Alsop had to say about the previous week’s glory/horror/tragedy/amazement/bewilderment. Imagine a guy like that coming to his full power in the 1960’s. There were endless new things a columnist could write about but one week he wrote of surgeons and doctors and bad luck and closed his column by telling his readers that he had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer and was given six months to live. He said he would stay at his typewriter as long as he possibly could.

And then the world gathered around to watch him die in inches, a little each week.

Sometimes he’d fool them. He’d go for three or four weeks, hammering and railing about this or that and we all wondered if he had forgotten he was supposed to be a dying man. Then he would write a column that haunted your soul and told you precisely what it felt like to be in his shoes and it was not a pleasant feeling. If memory serves, he said one surprising thing that bothered him were ticking clocks. He could wrap himself in his work and usually stay busy enough to distract himself. But…ticking clocks. They were another thing that came out of nowhere to trouble him. He wrote about how silly that was. He joked that he’d watched Alfred Hitchcock too often and followed that with what Hitchcock said to him just the other day about the matter. And why he suddenly felt sorry for Hitchcock. And then how everything hit him at once like a locomotive. He’d made a sad and terrible mistake. Hitchcock was not dying. He was. He said moments like that we becoming more frequent and harder to shake.

We all stepped inside his hospital room. He said he’d made his peace with God and was as prepared as he could make himself. But now the cancer had advanced to the point he had to schedule his writing around medication times. And he described how badly it hurt and we all felt the pain in his words as if we were there.

And that’s when he wrote the column, one of his last, that said something unexpected from an old Cold Warrior.

He was dying in a time of ignorance, he said. Only morphine–or better yet–heroin could ease this level of pain. No amount of synthetic painkillers could touch it. He’d already had the conversations with his doctor and attending pharmacologist. He knew this time would come. But knowing that and bracing himself against it had done no good. He had hoped and prayed they were wrong, like all terminal patients do, but they were not.

President Nixon had been wrong too, Alsop wrote. He’d been wrong on one count with his new declaration of war on drugs. The new-found DEA had been set loose with the wrong sense of direction. They should have been tasked to beat away the terrible man-made street drugs, to wipe America clean from them indeed. But not opiates. Not heroin. You could almost hear the man struggling to breathe at this point.

No, he said, not them. They should be reclassified. They should never have been classed with other street drugs that were dangerous and highly addictive because they were more than that. They held the final glimmer of peace in this world for the dying, the freedom from pain. They alone were all that man had at the very end. Alsop said Nixon had done well when he rightfully championed billions of dollars into research and challenged America to find the illusive cure for his other highly publicized war, the one on cancer. But it would never come in time for Alsop or millions of other Americans every year and it has not arrived yet. Alsop pretty much called Nixon and Congress out of the saloon for one last showdown to rectify their mistake, but he would not live to reach for his pistol. I think this was his next-to-last or third from last column. They said he was lucid to the end but in unimaginable agony.

There remains to this day a controversy whether Alsop was provided heroin at the final stage of his life. Even under a doctor’s care that would have been illegal, both then and now. But he seemed to rally at the end, writing with his same power and grace. We may never know and, in my book, it’s best not to question such things. What is left for us all to question is how we will exit this world, and if the federal government will hound us to our very graves claiming that it is correct.

Today many doctors refuse to prescribe pain killers powerful enough to be worthy of the name. Others will not prescribe any. The curse of addiction and all its attendant evils needs to be fought, no question of it. It’s easy for an innocent person to become addicted to painkillers and narcotics prescribed for a variety of reasons. It would be easy for you, too, unless you are a superior life form which will never break a bone or succumb to a painful illness. But you might take a few moments to ponder, as Stewart Alsop did when faced with his eventual death, the risks and benefits of powerful drugs for those who will not live long enough to become a problem to society yet have nowhere else to turn.

A SELF DIVIDED

BY

ZACHARY KLEIN

I’ve written about the Showtime program Homeland a number of times with my last comment (I think) a couple of years ago. A new season has begun and, as most of the show’s other seasons, it’s high quality and anxiety producing. Although I’ve only seen the first three episodes, the series is once again a plot driven spy versus spy versus double agents drama. And once again it has raised questions for me. In our present era when every Muslim is often seen as a potential enemy and threat, it’s complicated to look forward every week to a terrific TV series that is built around a world view I detest.

Well, I just doubled down on that conundrum. Prisoners of War (original Hebrew title being Hatufim, (which translates to “Abductees”) is the threadbare low budget Israeli show upon which Homeland is based. In fact, after Hatufim won Israel’s Academy Award For A Television Series was sold to 20th Century Fox, some of the program’s creators and cast have been directly involved with the US show. We brought the dvds home from the library and have barreled through most of Season One. Gotta say, so far it’s a much better series, focusing intently upon the two ex-prisoners of war and the effects their release after seventeen years has upon themselves, their families, and everyone in close contact. Especially the Israeli intelligence community.

No surprise I’d find Prisoners the better show. People who have read any of my Matt Jacob novels or even my Just sayin’ series Interviews With The Dead (King Richard lll, Truman Capote, Martin Luther King, Norman Mailer and more to come) know my writing is character driven. Although I’m sure there will be more spy versus spy as Prisoners progresses, fact is, the characters are already more fleshed out and complicated than those in Homeland. The truthfulness of the relationships between each of the characters and the situations in which they find themselves feels true to the bone. And more. This is a particularly smart show where the unexpected occurs at exactly the right moment with writing and acting I just love.

But here’s the rub. Prisoners of War has raised even more misgivings inside than Homeland. Anyone who knows me knows my feelings about the overwhelming abuse and injustice the Israeli government exacts upon the Palestinian people. And while Prisoners has yet to identify the kidnappers, it doesn’t take a weatherman to imagine who they were.

So here I am, once again, praising a show whose politics sicken me.

Pablo Picasso was a misogynist his entire life—using women then kicking them to the side once he was done with them. Yet it’s impossible to ignore that he was arguably the greatest artist of the twentieth century who created Guernica, the most important anti-war painting many of us have ever seen. Even Diego Rivera, whose murals closely reflect my own political point of view, was often questionable when it came to his personal life. And, of course, there’s always the Ezra Pound dilemma.

Music, theater, and literature are also overloaded with artists who created great work but I wouldn’t invite to dinner. (Actually, there are some on my list who disgust me as people, but I’d love to engage in conversation.)

Firesign Theater’s album title, How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All, only half describes my plight. I am somewhere. Stuck between my values about humanity and art I enjoy or even love, at the same time made by people who make my skin crawl. Hell, it’s hard enough to bridge the contradiction about individual artists, but when two television shows I consider art (ok TV haters, take your shots) present attitudes and behavior I abhor, that interior contradiction becomes even more difficult to transcend.

But in for a dime bag, in for a pound. Throughout my own artistic life I’ve maintained that it’s essential to separate people’s creations from the individuals themselves. I’ve always believed to not do so would lose too many important, thought-provoking, often beautiful experiences.

For all the agita these two series raise, that’s my belief and I’m sticking to it. If a creation merits consideration as art, then I’m going to view it as such—despite its content or creator. To be otherwise would undercut my convictions about freedom of speech. And just as I won’t judge a person simply by their politics or beliefs, neither will I judge creative expression only by the person who created it or the content it presents.

So how to recommend a television series that triggers serious internal conflicts? For those who don’t share my ideas about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it’s easy. Rent or borrow Prisoners of War and enjoy great television.

For those that do share my Middle East politics, I’d say grit your teeth and, for this series, allow art to trump.

“What is life without incompatible realities?” ~ Ursula K. Le Guin

THE GRAND OPENING

by Kent Ballard

Author’s note: Every word of this is true.

One of the drawbacks to rural life is the lack of big name entertainment. When I was seven years old, in 1960, I realized it was pretty unlikely that Soupy Sales or Steve Allen would ever make a public appearance in a corn field near me. Live entertainment usually consisted of playing baseball with my dog or riding Old Mary, our Holstein, around in the barn lot.

One day while watching the afternoon cartoons on our ancient Philco, I was astonished when the host announced that he was going to make a public appearance at a new furniture store opening in the little town near our farm. There would be sing-alongs, magic tricks, and a free treat for every boy and girl in attendance.

The host was a nice man named Happy Harry, and he was immensely popular with all of the local children. He reported for duty every afternoon in a crisp white sailor’s suit and cap, played passable guitar, and best of all, ran lots of cartoons. He opened his show with a warm smile and a cheerful song, and he closed it with the admonition for all of us “good little sailors” to mind our moms and dads and say our prayers at night.

Being a farm kid, I had never seen a real celebrity before, and this would be my first. I knew Happy Harry was a star because I had seen him on TV. That was what I kept telling my mother as she loaded me into our ’58 Ford on the big day. I was going to see my hero. And get a prize!

He was to appear at noon. We got there twenty minutes early and found about a hundred other kids and their mothers packed tightly around a rickety-looking platform. My Mom wanted to make sure I had a good view so she started trying to cram me forward. She succeeded only in wedging me in between other mothers who were trying to cram their kids ahead. It was a hot day and they smelled funny.

Noon came. Noon went. No Happy Harry.

By 12:30, the crowd was making its displeasure pretty vocal. The store manager made a few lame excuses, reassured everybody that there would be prizes and fun galore, then hastily departed the stage.

A little after 1:00, the crowd was soaked in sweat and openly hostile when Happy Harry lurched onto the platform. He had about three days’ growth of beard. His sailor suit—so spotless and creased on TV—was rumpled and stained. His hair was sticking out at odd angles from under a greasy swabbie’s cap planted far back on his head, and he was drunker than any human being I would see for the next fifteen years.

He mumbled something about being late, swayed to and fro silently for a moment, then launched into a rambling and largely unintelligible story about Popeye, who he referred to as his “ol’ drinkin’ buddy.” He paused in mid-sentence a couple of times to leer wickedly at some of the younger mothers and mutter under his breath.

Bear in mind that this was a very conservative rural community, and that this took place in 1960. Some of the mothers, shocked, dragged their protesting children away and swore to write Harry’s sponsors. Others marched into the store for a confrontation with the manager. But most of us, parents and children alike, stood in open-mouthed amazement as Happy Harry picked up his guitar and invented a new set of lyrics to his theme song, which he howled loudly while twisting and gyrating like Elvis.

Happy Harry then picked up a box of magic tricks, stared at it curiously for a moment, and sat it back down without a word. He was looking pretty bad by then; pale, sweating profusely, and unable to focus his eyes.

As kids often do when they find someone in a predicament, we turned utterly vicious and began taunting him and booing. My strongest memory of the day is of an older kid yelling, “Hey, Harry! What’s your REAL name? Tell us your REAL name, Harry!”

Happy Harry’s face turned purple with fury and his bloodshot eyes actually frightened me. “Happy Harry IS my real name!” He bellowed maniacally, “My first name’s ‘Happy’ and my last name’s ‘Harry’!” This was received with catcalls and squeals of derisive laughter. I have no idea why this is so vivid in my memory after fifty-four years. I guess it never occurred to me that Happy Harry may have, in fact, had another name. I was to learn much that day.

He attempted to regain control by slurring, “Hey kids, who wants a prize?” This quieted us for a moment until he held up a small bag of balloons. Obviously, he had balloons enough for only a fraction of the children present. There was a rush for the stage and the little kids in front were being mashed in the process. Happy Harry panicked and threw the balloons towards the rear of the crowd, a grave tactical error. The crush of children tried to reverse direction instantly and there was a stampede. Many children—including yours truly—were knocked down and trampled. While kids were crying and mothers were screaming, Happy Harry, wild-eyed and literally drooling, picked up a thick stack of publicity photos and threw them at everybody, cursing humanity in general and children in particular as he did so. The hapless store manager and a couple of burly employees rushed up onto the stage and grappled with Harry, giving him the bum’s rush down the steps and into the back door of the new store.

To the best of my knowledge, there were no lawsuits filed. (This was 1960, remember.) Happy Harry’s show remarkably continued for another year or so, then he was replaced by another, less memorable host. The local gossips in our community kept the telephone lines busy with lurid details about the grand opening, and the new store eventually went bankrupt.

For some time afterward, I was a major celebrity among my friends in the second grade who didn’t go to the store opening. They listened with rapt attention over and over as I described the “riot,” and within two weeks the story contained squad cars full of state troopers who, in desperation, turned police dogs and fire hoses onto the mob in order to quell the disturbance while Happy Harry fired a pistol wildly into the air…

Television has changed since those days, and not all for the better. Live TV is almost unheard of, and children’s shows rarely acknowledge the delight a child enjoys when watching an adult caught making outrageous mistakes. Kids do that all the time. Seeing grownups in a less than perfect light often has a reassuring effect. Perhaps, the kid will think, maybe I’m not so bad after all…

And that might be the best lesson we could teach them.

Looking back, that was one of the happiest afternoons of my life, even if I didn’t get a balloon. If I could meet Happy Harry now, I’d shake his hand and thank him.

But I damn sure wouldn’t by him a drink.

OLD DOG, FRESH EARS

by

Zachary Klein

So it’s mid-afternoon and I’m tired. As much as I hate it, the recliner is still the most comfortable seat for my post-op arm. Down I go and on goes the television. The opening credits of a documentary called Springsteen & I hit the screen. I wasn’t thrilled with the movie, but there was enough of his music to keep my attention. And to keep it long after the movie ended and had me on my knees rummaging through cds trying find anything Springsteen.

You lived on another planet to be unaware of Bruce Springsteen during the past forty plus years, but my only real connection with him was an album called The Rising. I played that sucker over and over until everyone in the house screamed whenever I got near the player. Inexplicably my love of that album didn’t push me into his other music. I’m a jazz guy who left rock and roll right around the time Led Zeppelin blew up the charts.

Maybe it was Springsteen’s “fast” songs whose words I couldn’t decipher and was reluctant to google the lyrics. Or perhaps I’d caught the musical elitism that jazz can generate. And though I knew he “brought it” to every single performance, so did the Rolling Stones. Basically I considered Springsteen just another back-beat rock and roller with an energetic band.

Well, after two weeks burying my days in his music, watching documentaries about the making of his albums (Born To Run, Darkness At The Edge Of Town, The Seeger Sessions) and concert films, I’m here to tell you I’ve been a cement head. What I heard is a musical poet who uses rock to frame most of his work. And, many times, a songwriting novelist.

There’s really nothing new about narrative songwriting. I’d guess it’s been around since people penned words to music. But to believe—as I did—Springsteen simply wrote songs that tell a superficial straightforward story was to miss the depth of his art.

Racing In The Street, a track from Darkness At The Edge Of Town, is a six-minute novel. Beginning, middle, conclusion, character arcs, movement—with lines of major league poetry within. This song-novel is special in its multiple levels of meaning. A rippling effect that goes beyond the song itself. The ability to touch people who never even imagined owning a car with a hemi still walk away moved by the song’s effect.

Moreover, the song has the ability to shade meanings in the way it’s played. On the original album the overwhelming emotion is poignancy. But, his 1999 Oakland E-Street Band concert, as he finishes singing, the band virtually replays the entire song, only a driving piano leads the rest of the group to create a sense of hope and optimism underneath that poignancy. By the end, your foot is tapping rather than your eyes watering.

I don’t have to stop with Racing In The Street. Damn near every Springsteen album creates a mood in which one or more of its songs transcend the song’s surface story. A discussion in one of the movies revolved around Springsteen’s desire to create different moods with each album, which, after careful listening, he actually does. (I was told by a Bruce mavin that he also wants his albums to leave the listener wanting more; an invitation, so to speak, to attend his concerts.)

It’s interesting. Springsteen and I are just about the same age. It’s easy to see how a Dylan, Elton John, or Paul Simon can keep on keeping on the way they perform, but how do you keep a firecracker lit and exploding concert after concert? There’s no sleepwalking through this rocker’s greatest hits. I’m beginning to believe the Springsteens and Jaggers will just keep rocking until they keel over. Definitely worse ways to go.

So much has been written about Springsteen’s connection to the working class and his politics over the years, there’s no need to rehash. So I’ll stick with his art. One of the learning experiences that really impressed during my Bruce Fest is the breadth of his work, the different styles in which he chooses to work, his constant growth without losing his history or roots. That willingness and sensibility to stay ‘now’ and look back simultaneously demanded that I eyeball the limits of my own thinking and openness. Springsteen has the ability to stretch his mind and vision along with a commitment to pay homage to those who came before (The Seeger Sessions: We Shall Overcome) and turn those old-time songs into modern, breathing, living music. Special is, indeed, special.

Then there’s the undercurrent to much of his work. He brings a genuine belief in the American Dream, all the while seeing damn near everything that stands in its way. Our wars, our racism, our alienation, our despair that anything can turn this country around makes Springsteen’s unyielding, often unspoken belief, a breath of fresh air. A present day echo of “keep hope alive.”

But most of all I’ve come to respect the humanity that rides shotgun with his art. And that humanity has been there since Greetings From Asbury Park (1973) right though High Hopes (2014).

All of this just goes to show you that:

”Some guys just give up living and start dying little by little, piece by piece. Some guys come home from work and wash up, and go racing in the street.”~ Bruce Springsteen

A very special note of gratitude to Andrei Joseph who took hours of his time to school me in the ways of Bruce and provided virtually all my listening and watching material. Learning something new is like racing in that street. Thank you, Chico.

PLEASE ALLOW ME TO INTRODUCE MYSELF…

by Kent Ballard

No, I’m not a man of wealth and taste, nor did I hold a general’s rank when the Blitzkrieg raged. That title may have confused me with someone else. But you won’t confuse me with Zach.

When Zach first approached me with the idea of a joint blog, him taking it one week, me taking it the other, I naturally assumed, “Jeeze, he’s far more desperate than I thought…” Then I remembered his recent shoulder surgery and figured he tires easily while hanging upside down like a bat to type. That was understandable enough. If the eyebolts in his ceiling ever work loose, he’d crash face-first into his computer and that would be the tragic loss of a good laptop.

So after some emailing and yakking over the phone, I’ve agreed to take over Just Sayin’ every other week for six months. When that time is up, we’ll figure out if we want to continue this odd marriage or if we want a divorce. (I’m going to hold out for the house and the furniture if it comes to that.)

I’ve known Zach for thirty years. I only met him face to face once, and then for only seven hours at another writer’s house. I remember the food being good and the liquor flowing freely. I quit drinking in 1999, and was amazed to see his photo when he started Just Sayin’ because I always thought he was the Chinese guy at the party. Turns out I’d been wrong all these years. This explains the strange looks I got from the Chinese gentleman when I began a tirade against him and the city of Boston over the Big Dig.

I agree with Zachary on many things. With everything else, I am right and he is wrong. That’s the American Way on the Internet, and I’m a proud supporter of my own beliefs. Years ago, on another forum, I pointed out that he was to the left of Vladimir Lenin. He unkindly reminded me that I had once called for a nuclear first strike on Massachusetts to rid the nation of socialists and ne’er-do-wells. I had in fact made that statement, but of course was simply joking. Multiple hydrogen bombs landing on Boston would only cause the Department of Homeland Security to take away yet more of our civil rights. Hey, if they can do it with a kettle bomb powered by charcoal…

Mr. Klein and I live not only in different worlds, but in different centuries. He lives the easy city life, where you can flip open your cell phone and get a pizza or chop suey dinner delivered to your front door. The city plows the snow off his streets. He has limitless luxuries like a four-minute police response should he call them, a fire department, hell, even paved streets. I used to have such things myself, for I lived in Indianapolis for twenty-three years. I hated it.

I was born and raised on a small farm one county east of Indy. I got a job in Indianapolis, met a girl, got married, and soon was tripping over kids toys in my yard. Turns out I had married the wrong girl so a divorce followed ten years later. I kept the house, the major appliances, and got joint custody of the kids. I am one of the very few men you will ever meet who actually won a divorce. (The judge thought she was awful too. He was right.) I then set out on a quest to get to know the rest of the ladies in Indianapolis in the Biblical sense, and was about halfway through the project when I found a quiet, meek, shy beauty and fell head over heels in love. Twenty-eight years later we are still together, and living with me has had its effect on her. She can cuss, clean fish, shoot her 9mm with deadly accuracy, and fears no living thing.

When our kids were grown and gone, it was during our peak earning years. I wanted out of the city, and she was happy to follow me. It took three solid years of searching, but we found our new home.

I can’t tell you which town I live in, because the nearest thing that would pass for a town is fourteen miles away. My home is in far west-central Indiana, in the middle of what is known as a “geologic anomaly.” The great mile-high sheets of frozen ocean paused here during the last Ice Age and carved out some extremely weird topography. Then it covered itself with forest. I own 71 acres of that land, my home being in the middle of it. My driveway is a half-mile long, going back into what appears to be the Black Forest. Beyond that is my dead-end road. Beyond that, and you have the most wretched mud-and-dust roads imaginable to the nearest blacktop. A very peculiar location, as I have the telephone number of one county, the mailing address of a second, and my home is actually in a third.

It keeps the riff-raff away. I value my privacy. We supposedly have a sheriff’s department around here somewhere, but they’re never seen this far into the boonies. My insurance company charges me the maximum rate for fire insurance, because in the event of a fire—as my agent explained—there will be nothing left except for the basement. The deep forest starts twenty yards to my south and east, about twelve yards to my north, and all the storms, lightning and snow come from the west. You could literally become hopelessly lost and never set foot off my property. I know. I did that for a couple of years.

We love it here. This is the kind of land you see in picture books and winter holiday greeting cards. It will also probably kill me someday when I grow too old to care for the land properly. When I want to hunt, I go out the back door. When I want to fish, I go out the front. I couldn’t do that in any city.

I’m the Police Chief, Fire Marshal, Mayor, and Chief Engineer here. I can pee off my front porch and shoot out my back door. We skinny-dip in our largest pond. The only loud sounds here are the ones I make. It’s very different from Boston. There is no pizza delivery, no Chinese delivery, no sirens, no door-to-door unconstitutional searches by paramilitary SWAT teams. Indiana is the only state in the Union which has a law on the books allowing you to shoot a uniformed police officer if he breaks into your home. (And a very strange court case behind that.) In the winter when the power goes out we simply step back 150 years and carry on. Our ancestors made out pretty well with kerosene lamps and wood burning stoves. We can too. And I defy anyone on the planet to show me a more serene, peaceful, and meditative spot than my little four-inch deep creek that bubbles through the forest at my extreme northern boundary. If I could bottle that sound, Prozac would go bankrupt.

I registered to vote during the first year 18 year-olds got suffrage, 1971. I was and am a registered Independent, though very few Independents run for anything nowadays. I consider myself a Libertarian and often wonder why Zach and I have not strangled each other over these many years. It’s because he’s a great guy and I’m not too bad a soul either. We are both well educated, stay well informed, both listen carefully to other points of view, and both see in shades of gray—not black and white. And when he comes away with some ridiculous, half-wit idea of how this world should work, it ain’t my fault.

I hope you’ll find me acceptable for this while. At one time or another I have argued with everyone I know and yet if I have an enemy, I’m not aware of it. All I ask of you is a chance. You may grow to like me too if you’re not careful.