Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Travels With My Dad (and famous people, too)

For Catherine Skoor
Trips are boring. No one wants to hear about your trips.

Only this one wasn't boring. Not for me, anyway. I was a kid. Nothing is boring to a kid except homework and listening to adults complain about the weather. This was my first big trip, at least the first that I could, and can remember.

It was 1967. I was eleven years old, and this was the greatest adventure of my life up to that time: a long bus ride with my dad, a lazy hot summer in the State of Washington, (the end of the earth to my eleven year-old self) and at the end of it, a brief encounter with....celebrities.

It was during the vaunted "Summer of Love," when the hippies of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district were the talk of the media and everyone was listening to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band that my father took me on my first road trip.

You never forget your first road trip. Especially if it pre-dates your twelfth birthday.
In the summer of 1967 my dad took me on a great adventure:
a Greyhound bus trip from San Diego, CA to Spokane, WA.

My family was split in two in the summer of 1967, both geographically and otherwise. My grandmother had just died and we had moved into her house in Chula Vista, CA. But a few months earlier my father had been transferred from the Border Patrol sector in San Ysidro to the regional office in Spokane, WA. He took the job because it meant a long-overdue promotion.

But there was a problem: my parents didn't get along, and my mother, a Chula Vista native, most decidedly did not want to move to Spokane. Since we had just occupied -- and partially remodeled -- my late grandmother's house, Mom used that as leverage to dig her heels in and refuse to move. So my father was living in Spokane by himself while the rest of us remained behind in Chula Vista. In the following year he would put his foot down and insist that the entire family join him in Spokane. But in 1967 it was stalemate. 

My dad came home for a visit that summer, and it was decided that when he returned to Spokane in a week or two, I would accompany him. It was summer vacation, after all, and I suppose the idea was for us to share what the next generation would call father-and-son "quality time." 

When I was young my family was poor. We kids didn't know that of course; kids never know that they're poor. We had enough to eat, clothes to wear, a roof over our heads and presents at birthdays and Christmases. We went to school. We had friends. How were we to know that we were poor? Small details such as lawn furniture in the living room would not be noticed until years later when we saw them in family photo albums. But my mother, who never worked outside the home except for gigs as a church organist, was trying to raise three children on the salary of a GS-11 border patrolman. We were poor.

Want proof? Well, when my dad came home from Spokane for a visit that summer, he traveled not by air, but by Greyhound bus. And when he took me back to Spokane with him, we went the same way. 

I'm so glad we did.

I was between the sixth grade at Kellogg Elementary School in Chula Vista, and the  seventh grade at Chula Vista Junior High School. As I say, I was eleven that summer and had not been out of Chula Vista since arriving there at age six. Five years is nothing to an adult, but to a child it's half a lifetime. This was my first big trip, anywhere.

We boarded the Greyhound in San Diego on a Saturday morning. By lunchtime we were at the old bus depot in downtown Los Angeles, with its wooden benches and shoe-shine stands. Downtown L.A. looked like the Land of Oz to an eleven year-old who had never been anywhere before except school camp. We had several hours' wait between buses. We had lunch and strolled around downtown L.A. in the July sunshine. I gaped at the tall buildings. "ONE WILSHIRE." One-derment.
Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles, 1960s. This is how it looked
when my dad and I walked along it one summer day, waiting
for the bus that would take us further on our journey.

Then the long haul began. We got on the bus for Spokane late that afternoon and began the trek on Interstate 5 over the Grapevine and into the central valley. Dad read a book; I looked at the landscape. I kept asking him what time it was. Finally he got so tired of my asking that he took off his Timex and gave it to me. Another thrill: I'd never owned a watch before.

By sunset we were in Bakersfield, which might be the armpit of California but was terra incognita to me. A quick rest stop there and we were on the road again. Our next stop was Fresno, where we had supper in the bus station.

Now the real adventure began. It was getting dark. And I was more than 300 miles away from my mother, who always insisted upon early bedtime. Mom's rules were now suspended; I could stay awake as late as I wanted. I read my own book for awhile (believe it or not, it was Robin Moore's The Green Berets, something you might not expect an eleven year-old to be reading, but I was precocious in my reading, anyway) and then later, as Dad dozed off in his seat, I got up and went to the front of the bus, where I stood for a long time watching the white line race beneath us in the dark as we continued northward.

We crossed the state line into Oregon before dawn, had breakfast in Klamath Falls and then continued on to Eugene and Portland.

In Portland more adventure awaited. It was once again late afternoon when we arrived there, and Dad promptly discovered that the next bus to Spokane wasn't leaving for another five hours. Rather than wait around, Dad decided that we would get a hotel room, spend the night in Portland and catch the bus for Spokane the next day.

I'd never spent the night in a hotel in my life. I have forgotten which hotel was ours, but it was one of downtown Portland's older places. We had dinner in the hotel dining room, at which I was allowed to order anything I wanted. So I had shrimp louie, and Dad let me have a sip of his beer. This left us with the rest of the evening to kill. Dad proposed that we go to a movie. I lobbied for the new James Bond film, You Only Live Twice, chiefly because my mother had forbidden me to see James Bond films; all that sex, you know. Not appropriate for children. But Mom was 1,000 miles away now.

Downtown Portland, Oregon, 1960s. Dad and I stayed
overnight here, and he took me to the movies.

Dad overruled me. Not because he shared my mother's prudery, but because there was another film playing in Portland that he wanted to see: The Sand Pebbles. "I read the book," was his explanation. So off we went to the old Fox Theater in downtown Portland to see Robert Wise's epic, just released the previous year, about American gunboat sailors in 1920s China, starring Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough and Richard Crenna. I must confess that this film was a bit much for an eleven year-old kid of that era. The graphic scene in which Po-Han, played by the veteran Chinese-American actor Mako, gets torn apart by an angry Chinese mob so horrified me that I sank down in my seat and pulled my baseball cap over my eyes. Dad didn't notice.

We arrived in Spokane on Monday afternoon. Thus began several weeks of enchantment, more adventure...and boredom. Spokane in the summer was like nothing I'd ever seen. I was a southern California boy used to looking at dry lawns and brown mountains. Spokane, "The Lilac City," was in full summer bloom. The lush, green lawns, pine trees and deep blue sky were intoxicating to me. But my father had to go to work. I was left alone in the house all day. When we arrived at the little two-bedroom bungalow on East Courtland Street that he was renting that summer, Dad had no TV, only a Sears Silvertone table radio. He went out and rented a small black-and-white TV so I'd have something to watch in the daytime. The rent for the set was ten dollars a month. Later Dad told me that after I'd returned to California that summer, he went to return the TV and found that the place that had rented it to him had gone out of business. Ever scrupulous, Dad contacted the local Better Business Bureau, which merely shrugged and told him, "Looks like you got yourself a TV set for thirty bucks, mister." He kept the set.

One Saturday during my stay, Dad's landlord and landlady invited us to come out with them to their cabin at Twin Lakes, Idaho, near the town of Cascade in the Idaho panhandle. The state line between Washington and Idaho is only about a twenty-minute drive from Spokane. Crossing state lines was another new thing for me: just short of the state line I asked Dad to stop the pickup truck so I could walk into Idaho. I'd never walked across a state line before. How cool was that?

And it was a perfect afternoon at the lake. I have a photo from that day. We had been out on the lake riding around in our host's speedboat. In the picture my Dad is standing on the dock, arms crossed, smiling, and behind him is my eleven-year-old skinny self, in the surfing-style swim trunks known as "jams" which were fashionable that summer, sitting on the bow of the boat. I wanted to post that photo in this blog essay but it kept coming out sideways so I couldn't use it. Here instead is what Twin Lakes looks like from the air, probably not much different from the way it looked that summer day long ago:

Twin Lakes, Idaho as I remember it that summer day.
It was truly a summer idyll in many ways. Far away from Mom, I was allowed to indulge in such treats as the sugary breakfast cereals she wouldn't allow us to have. And not only that, but I did get to see You Only Live Twice. As mentioned, my mother would not allow me to see these films, which in those pre-rating code days she referred to as "nasty," meaning they had sex scenes, no matter how tame by today's standards. The fait accompli was a cinch: I simply called my dad at his office and asked if he would take me to see the new James Bond movie. He had no objection, and that evening off we went in Dad's pickup truck to the North Cedar drive-in to watch Sean Connery as 007, battling the baddies and bedding the beauties in Japan. I don't recall that it had any corrupting effect on my developing libido, either. Heck, I'd been surreptitiously reading Ian Fleming's Bond novels for nearly a year by then.

Then it came time for me to go home. It was August, and school would be starting in a few weeks. Obviously Dad wasn't going to send an eleven year-old boy on a 1,200-mile bus trip by himself, so he got me a ticket on a United Airlines flight from Spokane to Los Angeles, where I would switch to now-defunct Pacific Southwest Airlines for the final leg of the journey back to San Diego. One of his officers at the Border Patrol station was making the same trip that day, at least as far as L.A., and Dad arranged for this officer to babysit me on the trip -- we sat next to each other on the plane and played cards.

You're probably wondering when the celebrities are going to enter this tale. Well, now. The morning I left to return home, Dad took me to the Spokane airport. We had breakfast in the airport lounge. As we were having our eggs and coffee, Dad called my attention to one of the other tables. "You see that fellow sitting at that table over there? That's the movie actor Jimmy Stewart."

I looked. Nah. Couldn't be. That old, gray-haired guy? "Couldn't be him," I said. "Must be his father."

My dad laughed about this for years to come.

Because it was, in fact, Jimmy Stewart. What was he doing in Spokane? The answer turned out to be simple. It was a well-known fact about James Stewart that he had been in the Boy Scouts himself, and remained throughout his life a supporter of that organization. And it just so happened that that same summer the Boy Scouts had held their 12th World Scout Jamboree at Farragut State Park in Idaho. Scouts from all over the world were there, and Jimmy Stewart came as well. He just happened to be flying back to L.A. on the same day as me...and on the same plane.

My fellow airline passenger as he appeared a few years
before we met. No wonder I thought he was his own

Of course Jimmy Stewart and I didn't sit anywhere near each other on the plane. he was in first-class and I was in coach. Hard to believe that in those days a United Airlines 727 jet would make a stop between Spokane and Los Angeles, but our flight did. The plane made a stop in Portland. I got off to go use the restroom...and I met Jimmy Stewart. Yep. He was coming out of the men's room as I was going in. He appeared to be about seven feet tall. I looked up at him as he passed and said, "Hi."

"Hi. How are you?" he replied without looking down at me.

I met Jimmy Stewart! Wow!

But the excitement was only beginning. Back on the plane, I watched out the window as a small, private plane came in for a landing and stopped. Some men began unloading from that plane what looked like band equipment. Drum and guitar cases.

Now, nobody younger than 55 is going to remember the flash-in-the-pan 1960s rock band Dino, Desi and Billy. The only reason anyone noticed them at all, and probably the only reason they ever got a recording contract (they were no Beatles, believe me, although they did have a handful of toe-tapping radio hits) was because two of the band's members were the sons of celebrity musicians themselves. Dino was Dean Martin Jr.; Desi was of course Desi Arnaz Jr. and the third member of the band was their school chum Billy Hinsche.  As I say, they had a number of hits between 1965 and 1967 including I'm A Fool and Not The Lovin' Kind. I probably wouldn't have known any of this except I had an older sister who kept the radio on all the time.

In any case, now I had four celebrities on the plane with me: James Stewart and Dino, Desi and Billy. My babysitter didn't recognize the teen idols at all; in fact when I pointed them out to him, he made a comment to the effect that they were small fry after having James Stewart aboard.
...And more fellow passengers.

There isn't much left to the story. We reached Los Angeles, and, being an eleven year-old and very much caught up in the excitement of being around these famous people, I wanted to see if I could get close to Dino, Desi and Billy in addition to James Stewart, and I pretty much got up and bolted from my seat as soon as the hatch door was open, leaving my father's officer wondering where I'd gone. He caught up with me later and assisted me to my connecting flight (with some tut-tutting for my running off like that.)

But I did not get to talk with the rock stars. I got close to Dino for a moment as he was retrieving his overhead luggage, but I didn't have the nerve to say anything to him. All I remember is that he was wearing sunglasses and I overheard him ask a question of his manager that would ONLY have been heard from a Beverly Hills kid: "Where's my cars?" Not "Where's my car?" but "Where's my cars?" Oh, well.

Back at home, I got caught up in the fear and excitement of preparing to start the seventh grade in a few weeks. Summer was just about over. But it had been a tremendous summer in its own way, bigger than any summer I'd had up until then, and with a truly socko finish. To this day I can't see a James Stewart movie without remembering our soul-encounter at the door of the Portland Airport men's room, and when a classic rock station plays any song by Dino, Desi and Billy, I'm propelled in my memory back to that August day when Dean Martin Jr. wondered out loud where his cars were.

So...How'd you spend your twelfth summer? Top that one if you can.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Chasing the Train

I saw a link on one of the news websites a couple of days ago which led to a story entitled, "The End of Email?"

So email, which changed the world as dramatically within the last generation as the invention of the telephone did a century earlier, is already obsolete?

I read the first part of this article and quickly had a "not-so-fast" moment. The article was concerned specifically with email's use in the workplace. Anyone who uses email in the office (and that's just about everyone) knows the complaints about it as a business tool. You sit down in the morning and you have to plow through 150 messages in your inbox, flagging the important stuff and deleting the junk. In all of this flagging and deleting, there is always the possibility that you might toss out something important without meaning to. And then there's the familiar office complaint, "Didn't you get my email?" Someone asked you to do something or wanted information, sent you an email and it somehow got lost in the shuffle.

Not long ago the Sunday funny-papers comic strip "Fox Trot" focused on the confusion arising from the smorgasbord of wired choices now available to one and all: "Megan tweets but doesn't do Facebook. Ashley's on Twitter but doesn't email. Is there still a post office?"

I've gotten caught up in this myself lately. Some of you may have noticed that I have not posted a blog essay in this space since November. That's coming up on three months that I have not blogged.

Why? How many guesses do you want? Facebook, of course. I didn't even join Facebook until 2011, but now I find myself using it a lot more than I thought I would. If you're into shooting off your mouth like I am, FB offers instant gratification: you can get feedback in seconds. A blog posting might hang in digital limbo for days or weeks before anyone bothers looking at it. Facebook vs. blogging: it's like the difference between a cigarette and a cigar. A cigarette is puffed quickly for its nicotine value and then crushed out. A good Havana is to be sniffed, savored, carefully lit and then enjoyed slowly. I don't smoke cigarettes, but I do love a good stogie now and then.

But lately I've been puffing instead of savoring. Posting one-paragraph grumps and comments on FB rather than sitting down and developing my thoughts in a careful, considered, essaylike manner.

Shame on me.

Now, I don't have a Smartphone, and I refuse to go anywhere near Twitter. (the very word "tweet" offends my sensibilities--since when is human discourse defined on the paradigm of birds making noises in the trees?) But I, too, have seen good old-fashioned (!) email bumped to the caboose of my daily train of activity. In my case there's a good reason: when I returned from Turkey in December, I had to face the necessity of finding a job and I posted my information and resume on several of the Internet's job-search websites. Now each morning when I check my email, I find my box filled with "job leads," most of them either totally bogus, totally unsuited to my qualifications or worse, thinly-disguised advertisements for vocational training schools and colleges.

Facebook also contributes to the confusion, as every time a FB friend posts on my "wall," an email is also generated which goes into my Hotmail inbox. So my email box is filled, every day, with mostly-worthless job leads generated by bots, and Facebook comments that I've already seen.

Very seldom, these days, does a friend in a foreign land, or even right here in town, sit down and fire off a friendly email to me, a personal email. In fact I receive almost no personal email any more, and going to my Hotmail inbox each morning just to clean it out is more of a chore than anything else.

Now and then I see people dropping out of Facebook, complaining that it's taking over their lives. Will these folks go back to using email? Anyone my age can't help but notice how lightning-quick the successive communications "revolutions" of the past generation have been. Now people are opting out of FB. I remember a friend I had during the Clinton years. Her name was Tammy. She was one of the first of my "cyber-friends," years before there was any such thing as Facebook. This was in the fall of 1995, right after I got online for the first time. Tammy had a list of friends, of which I was one, with whom she communicated daily by email. We thought this was all great. But then Tammy announced one evening that she was going to shut down and stop doing all of this emailing, because it was consuming too much of her time and emotional energy. I never heard from her again.

It's the same thing some people are saying now about Facebook.

With such clear evidence of saturation and overload in the area of personal communications, I have to wonder about this new wave everybody is getting all panty-hotty about: "wearables." If you notice people opting out of Facebook because of privacy concerns or fears that it's taking over their lives, you really have to ask if anyone really needs Google glass, or a Dick Tracy-style wrist device which allows you to check your email and your phone messages the way you used to check the time.

Really, does anybody NEED to be so thoroughly, pervasively, intrusively, one might even say ominously, wired? It's bad enough that I see people wandering across the street paying no heed to the oncoming traffic because they're too deeply absorbed in texting. I came up to an intersection on my bicycle not long ago. I had the green light and could have crossed, but there was a woman sitting there waiting to make a right turn at the red light... and there she sat behind the wheel, texting her little heart out. Or maybe she was just reading email. In either case I didn't dare pass in front of her car. She might have gone ahead and made the right turn without looking up from her iPhone, and run right over me.

Society is already having problems with traffic accidents caused by distracted drivers. Some cities and states have made texting-while-driving illegal, but only for those 18 and younger. Why is distracted driving safer for a 35 year-old than for a teenager? I can't figure that one out. But in the end it probably doesn't matter very much, because the police, who seem to have no hesitation about enforcing a seatbelt law, keep insisting that laws against texting and handheld-cellphone chatter behind the wheel would be impossible to enforce. Yeah, right. If they can enforce a seatbelt law, they can enforce a cellphone law. (The police themselves are scofflaws when it comes to cellphone restrictions. Washington, D.C. has an ordinance against handheld cellphone use while driving. When I lived in D.C., I once saw a cop chattering away while driving his patrol car. I fired off a letter-to-the-editor about it, as you can imagine.)

But I have to wonder how safe this new age of "wearables" is going to be. If everyone is checking their mail, talking with their friends and watching video on their Dick Tracy wrist TVs in the middle of rush hour...Well, I don't even want to think about it.

One of the most commonplace observations we hear, looking back at the Twentieth Century with all of its genocide and mass destruction, is the one that says "our weapons outstripped our wisdom." To one who remembers the time when PC-based email was a brand-new gadget, and was involved in teaching people how to use it, today's world which appears to be running amok with getting itself "wired" in every way possible, calls for a deep breath. I'm no damn luddite; I'm not saying people shouldn't have all the cool toys they want. But even now, in the 45th anniversary year of man's first landing on the moon, some people are still asking why we bothered to go. Was that trip really necessary? I happen to think it was, if only because it had to happen sooner or later; a mountain-climber climbs a mountain because it's there. We went to the moon because it's there. But the exciting innovation of today is often the yawn, or the problem, of tomorrow.

So email, not to mention the compact disc, another great innovation of the late Twentieth Century, got itself superseded (so soon!) by ever-neater stuff. Once upon a time we all got along fine without email. Then for a few years none of us could live without it. Now, like Puff The Magic Dragon, it apparently has to "make way for other toys."  That's been the natural order of things since the Industrial Revolution put the original Luddites out of work. But I'm going to think long and hard before I even consider ponying up for an iPhone, let alone some gadget that lets me watch movies on the inside lenses of my drugstore glasses, or send a message to my friends by wiggling my nose.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Long, Long View

Memory is not history. In his memoirs, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones goes so far as to call memory "fiction."

In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne, the personification of memory, may have been Clio's mother, but Clio is the Greek muse of history; her mother Mnemosyne is not.

And the Greeks wisely made Clio mute.

The late comedian Mort Sahl called November 22, 1963 "The Day The Music Died."

Sahl co-opted songwriter Don McLean when he said that, because McLean's 1971 song American Pie did NOT refer to November 22, 1963 when it mentioned "the day the music died." McLean's threnody for the good old days was about February 3, 1959, the day that rock n' roll legend Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash in Mason City, Iowa.

Today, November 22, 2013, is the fiftieth anniversary of that day in Dallas, Texas that none of us over the age of 58 (my current age) will ever forget, the day President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in broad daylight, in front of a large crowd that had turned out to watch him ride past in an open limousine.

For a month now, everybody my age has been sharing those where-were-you-when-you-heard-about-it stories. I won't bother you with that. Suffice it to say that I was eight years old and it was a Friday afternoon. So I was in school.

The fiftieth anniversary also falls on a Friday. I'm living in Turkey at the moment. Six degrees of historic separation: it was his administration's plan to put nuclear warheads in Turkey that laid the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 at Kennedy's feet. The Soviets didn't like the idea of the U.S. having missiles in Turkey, where they could reach Moscow in minutes, so Nikita Kruschchev, who was running the show in the Kremlin in those days, announced that he was going to stick Soviet nuclear warheads in Cuba, from which Washington could be vaporized in minutes.

Kennedy and Kruschchev went eyeball-to-eyeball over this issue. Kruschchev sent the missiles across the sea. Kennedy ordered a naval blockade so the warheads couldn't reach Cuba. For a couple of days the world stood on the brink of nuclear war.

Then Kruschchev blinked. The Soviet missiles were withdrawn.

Thirteen months later, Kennedy was killed by a woolly-brained Marxist named Lee Harvey Oswald, who thought he was striking a blow for the revolution of his hero, Fidel Castro.

And....less than a year after that, (a detail often overlooked) Nikita Kruschchev was ousted in a coup in Moscow and replaced with Leonid Brezhnev. The Soviet Politboro was not happy with Kruschchev for having knuckled under to Kennedy, so it replaced him with someone more hard-line.
A cold, sad day in the America of my childhood.

No question about it to anyone who remembers. November 22, 1963 was a sad and tragic day for America. The Second World War had been over for less than 20 years. America had emerged from that war triumphant, more powerful and richer than she had ever been. 1945 began what some were calling "The American Century." America was the leader of the free world. The sky was the limit.

And then her movie-star handsome, charismatic president was shot dead, in cold blood and in broad daylight.

We are so politically polarized these days, so utterly partisan, that if such a thing were to happen today, or if such a thing had happened six years ago, the president's supporters would mourn and the president's haters would cheer. Not in 1963. The killing of Kennedy was such an unthinkable event that his supporters and his critics were equally shocked. My parents did not like Kennedy especially. They didn't vote for him in 1960. But when I came home from school that afternoon, they were subdued. Quiet. Had little to say. I've heard this over and over again for the past 50 years. It was less important to the nation at that moment which political party the president belonged to than it was that such a thing could happen, to us. And that meant all of us. Democrats, Republicans, all of us. America had not yet become the "cafeteria republic" that it is today, in which we are Americans second and members of ethnic, racial or special interest groups first. In 2013 there are only "hyphenated" Americans. In 1963 there were truly none.  We still believed in the idea of "E pluribus Unum." We no longer do.

There are many among us who, for whatever reason, whether it's shameless romanticism or simple mistrust of government, want to believe that Oswald could not possibly have done this, or at least, not by himself. There had to be a conspiracy. Even before the blood from her husband's wounds had dried on her dress, first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy expressed dismay over the apparent evidence that her husband had been murdered "by some silly little communist," and not by some reactionary hater of Kennedy's "New Frontier." The death of such a luminary simply could not be the result of some tawdry "lone nut" scenario. There had to be a conspiracy. Emotions demanded it.

And no one's emotions were more exorcised than those of the American political left, which in the years after his death made Kennedy the object of hagiography. He was one of their saints, and therefore he simply could not have been killed by a Marxist kook. That notion did not jive with the left's wide-eyed worship of its fallen hero. (Not to mention the soft spot the left has in its collective heart for Marxism.)

So the conspiracy theories began. Some wanted to believe that Texas right-wingers were behind JFK's murder. To gently nudge this absurd idea into the public's consciousness, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo churned out the script for an extremely meretricious low-budget 1973 film called Executive Action. The film disingenuously hid its real agenda by stating at the outset that it meant to show only how such a conspiracy could have existed. (For the record, Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, but he was, in fact, a card-carrying Communist for years.) Some wanted to think oil interests were behind it. Or the CIA. Or the mafia. And on and on and on.

I've read the books. I read Anthony Summers' Conspiracy  more than 30 years ago. More recently I've read Gerald Posner's Case Closed and Vincent Bugliosi's Reclaiming History.

In between, I went to see Norman Mailer in person.

In April, 1995, Mailer had just published his own entry in the JFK sweepstakes, Oswald's Tale. It was not a conspiracy book, nor was it an anti-conspiracy book. It was simply a study of Oswald's life and character. Mailer came to Olsson's Books in Washington, D.C. that spring on a book tour, to give a reading and have a Q&A. I was in the audience.

"After doing the research and interviewing the principals for this book," Mailer said, "I'm prepared to believe that Oswald did it." Then he added, "but I also believe that if I had been Oswald's attorney, I might have been able to get him off, this case has so many holes in it."

Fair enough. But there's also something called Ockham's Razor. Philosopher William of Ockham (1287-1347) formulated the famous principle of logic which states that among any group of explanations for a given phenomenon, the one which involves the fewest assumptions is probably the right one.

Or, as it is often mis-stated, the simplest solution is probably the right one.

One theory recently re-floated in a book (I've heard it before) is that Lyndon Baines Johnson, Kennedy's vice-president, was involved in a plot against JFK. The logic goes like this: Johnson wanted to be president. Johnson was from Texas. Johnson had connections in Texas. Kennedy was thinking of dumping Johnson in 1964 and going with another VP candidate. Therefore...LBJ was involved in a plot to kill Kennedy.

The problem is, this theory is based on the highly questionable whisperings-at-parties of a woman who claimed to be LBJ's mistress. Toss it.

Other theories also involve bushel-baskets of assumptions. Oswald couldn't have gotten off three shots in the time allotted. (Never mind the fact that he had been in the Marine Corps and knew how to handle a rifle.) The "magic bullet" theory is impossible because a bullet couldn't pass through one man's body and hit another's. (Oh, yeah? High-powered rifles can do amazing things at short range.)

Other theories, involving everything from a shadow someone glimpsed on the grassy knoll to a group of tramps who were detained near the railroad tracks sometime later, have fed the public's imagination, and the imagination of a political left unwilling to face the simple facts about the death of its saint, to the point where you could implicate almost anybody in this 50 year-old murder that you chose to, from Texaco to the Book-of-the-Month Club.

I find it incredible that there are still people who get emotional over this, who will not admit the simple fact that Lee Harvey Oswald was probably the model for the character Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese's 1976 film Taxi Driver: a Dostoevskian "nobody who wanted to be a somebody." These are people whose rose-colored glasses have such telescopic sights that they still, after half a century, want to think that Kennedy was not the pragmatic politician that he really was, and want to think of him as a martyred saint of the Civil Rights movement.

This notion is romantic hogwash, nothing more than the Woodstock Generation getting all soppy for its childhood. If you look at the record, Kennedy was as hard-nosed a cold warrior as his contemporary Richard Nixon (the Cuban Missile Crisis clearly illustrates that.) He was an anti-communist, and his "support" for the civil rights movement was mostly lip-service. The truth is that, despite his charisma and charm, Kennedy did not get along very well with Congress. It was ironically left to his successor as president, Lyndon Johnson, a graceless, unattractive boor who nevertheless knew how to read people and how to twist nuts, to get Kennedy's vaunted civil rights legislation passed.

There was no "Camelot." Kennedy's Thousand Days were not a Golden Age. But in America you can get very far if you're good-looking. After all, we are the nation that invented the "movie star." JFK and his wife Jackie were both as good-looking as movie stars, and for that reason alone were venerated in our nation of besotted moviegoers. We were still in the midst of our postwar innocence and optimism in 1963, and these beautiful youngsters seemed to be the very embodiment of that. Therein was born the legend of Camelot, and of course JFK made the brilliant marketing move of getting killed at age 46. As it was once said of Franz Schubert, "He died young, and so, for us, he will never get old."

For decades, each November 22 there has been a memorial gathering in Arlington Cemetery, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., where Kennedy is buried. As the years have gone by, the crowds at this memorial gathering have thinned and thinned. My guess would be that today's gathering will be well-attended, if only because we are so fond of round numbers, and "50," after all, is half a hundred.

But I'd be willing to bet that the swollen crowd at today's vigil will feature many bald heads, stooped backs, wrinkles, dewlaps and a lot of arthritis. The generation (mine) that made a folk hero of Kennedy is beginning to die off. As long ago as 1995, when the 33rd anniversary of the tragedy loomed, WETA radio in Washington mentioned that less than half of the current U.S. population had even been born yet on November 22, 1963. Despite the efforts of Oliver Stone and his fellow mythologizers to keep the romance of conspiracy burning, for the majority of currently-living Americans, the Kennedy years are as remote as the administration of Woodrow Wilson.

Yes, yes. We love round numbers, so today in Arlington Cemetery there will no doubt be a teary and sentimental, if somewhat geriatric party. But my guess would be that next year, when we mark Anniversary 51, the crowd will be smaller than ever before.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Night Thoughts In The Morning Rain

The current edition of Night Thoughts at Noon just passed the 10,500 page-view mark.

So how come I'm not famous?

Night Thoughts at Noon is in its second incarnation. I started blogging under this title in 2005. The original Night Thoughts at Noon appeared at I took it down in 2010, then a few months later started over here, at (It's still there, by the way. If you go to, you will see everything I posted between 2005 and 2010. Only the CIA can get things removed from the Internet; the rest of us can't.)

Oh, I sometimes wonder how I failed to be famous. Lord knows I tried. I've been writing, painting and raising all kinds of hell since I was in my teens. I turned 58 last Saturday, and I'm still penniless, which I don't mind so much, but I'm also still obscure, and for some reason that bugs me more than being penniless.

I never wanted to be rich. I never wanted to be powerful. But oh, boy, when I was young, did I want to be famous! Most of the friends to whom I confided my teenage dream, "to be the next Hemingway," are dead now.

I will be dead soon enough. The end is closer now than the beginning. And I never got to be the next Hemingway. Damn. (Well, frankly, in this TiVo world, there isn't going to be another Hemingway. The age of the "celebrity author" is over and gone.) Still, it's not that I didn't try. It's not that I haven't written a lot. I've written tons of stuff. Fiction, poetry, journalism....I just never published anything, outside of journalism, except what I was able to pony up for and publish myself.

No shame there, right? Walt Whitman and William Blake published themselves. Hell, Whitman peddled Leaves of Grass door-to-door.

I have self-published five books since 2000: Tower-102, (published under my legal name "Alexander Dupuis") Losing Philadelphia, Three Flies Up, The Vespers of 1610 and The Key. I don't know how many people have read them. Not many. Suffice it to say I'm not the late Tom Clancy.

But he died last week. He died rich and famous, but he's still dead. CNN carried the news of his death. It won't carry the news of mine. I'm poor and unknown, but, for the time being, still alive.

What am I doing all this for? I teach English in Istanbul, Turkey. I get paid maybe ten bucks an hour, live with two other guys, and have to count my coins before I go down the street for a beer. I have no wife, no children, no nothing. And yet I keep on keeping on. I'm sitting here typing this in an empty apartment during a rainstorm. My two roommates are both out of the country this week.

But you know what? I live as I chose to live. I blame nobody for my fate but myself. I was once a U.S. federal government employee. I could easily have ridden that gig out to a cushy retirement, but I decided not to. I didn't want to look back and see nothing behind me but 30 years of busywork leading to a pension. That's what my father did. I kicked that over and left. I bought into hard times. I did it deliberately. It's nobody's fault but mine.

So this essay is not about self-pity. I don't feel sorry for myself at all. Times are hard, but I made them that way. Nobody's ever read my books, but they can't say that I didn't write them. I wrote them, all right. I published them too. I'm proud of that.

I've been married and divorced twice. A guy like me, who rejects the harness, is not meant to be married. I haven't even had a girlfriend in more than three years. Nobody's fault. I live alone (except for two male roommates who both have Turkish girlfriends and go their own way) and I have no real complaints about it. Loneliness has its compensations. It's peaceful and it's cheap.

So, I guess I will go paint another watercolor now. I have a pile of them somewhere. And more to come. Until the last heartbeat, there will always be more to come.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Prettiest Girl On Luzon

I'm loading this picture on my my blog because Facebook will not load it. I've been trying for 24 hours to get FB to upload this picture, and it just keeps staring at me and doing nothing. (Facebook, that is. Not the picture.)

This is Ms. Mary Grace Herrera. I have never been to the Philippines, but should she turn out to be the prettiest young woman on all of those islands, I would not be the slightest bit surprised.

Neither will you be surprised when I tell you that half the guys on Facebook are in hot pursuit of this pretty face. And, believe it or not, she doesn't think she's pretty!

I don't know but I would suspect that Mary just might be the prettiest girl I ever saw, anywhere. And she describes herself as "ugly." Is that something? The entire male population of Facebook is drooling over her, guys are sending her indecent proposals and God-knows what all else, but she keeps insisting that she's "ugly."

Do you think this girl is "ugly?" I don't.

I think this is the prettiest girl on the island of Luzon. And I've never even been there.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

This Is Asia. That's Europe Over There.

On the road again. What a place is Istanbul--history
everywhere you look.
I am in Istanbul. That is correct. Istanbul, Turkey. I have come to teach English, with my teaching duties scheduled to begin tomorrow. Today is Sunday. The mosques are closed, but I think just about everything else is open. For everyone and everything in Istanbul except the mosques, Sunday is just another work day. I have today off, but my two roommates, also teachers, are both giving classes as I sit writing this and waiting for a hard-boiled egg on the kitchen stove.

I flew from Los Angeles on Sunday, September 8th, arriving the next night local time. L.A. to Istanbul is 11 hours if you're flying nonstop, as I did two years ago when I flew from L.A. to Tbilisi, Georgia on Turkish Airlines. I assumed I would be flying Turkish Airlines again, since Istanbul was my final destination this time and not a stopping-off spot.  But I didn't make my flight reservation until the last possible moment, and by then Aeroflot was cheaper than Turkish Air, so I went through Moscow. Kind of too bad, not only because Turkish Airlines would have been direct, but also (not to knock Aeroflot's in-flight meals, they're okay) Turkish Airlines has the best airplane food I've ever experienced this side of Air France.

There is always at least one crisis involved whenever I travel anywhere, and this trip was no exception. I'd been using my bank debit card all summer instead of cash, and continued to do so on this overseas journey -- I arrived in Istanbul with only my Mission Federal Credit Union Mastercard in my wallet. No cash. At passport control they told me I had to go to the visa office for a $20 tourist visa to get me out of the airport. When I tried to use my MFCU debit card to pay for the visa, it was rejected. They sent me to the transit desk, where a Turkish airport guy took me upstairs to the HSBC bank to try their ATM. No dice; the ATM rejected my card.

I was in a panic. Stuck in Istanbul, with no money and no way of getting any? I sat, paced, fumed while the Turks tried to figure out what to do with me. There was some rumbling about sending me back to Moscow. "How would I pay for that?" I countered.

Just as I was about to ask someone to call the American consulate, I remembered something. Last year, when I flew to China and tried to get some cash in Beijing, the moment Mission Federal's central computer saw a transaction being attempted on my card in a foreign country, it shut my account down. The computer assumed that my card had been stolen.

One of the Turkish guys at the transit desk let me borrow his cellphone (mine was dead) and I called my credit union. Sure enough, that was what had happened. MCFU's computer had seen a transaction coming from a foreign country and had shut down my account. We got it straightened out over the phone, but it took me two hours to get out of the airport. Happily, the young man whom my new employers had sent to meet me had not quite yet given up on me: he was still standing beyond customs, holding up a card with my name on it (misspelled, but close enough.) By midnight I had been escorted to the apartment I am now sharing with two other teachers. After 17 hours on the road, I collapsed right into bed, having landed "on my feet" one more terrifying time.

Istanbul has history woven into its bones, and for obvious reasons.

Istanbul divides Europe from Asia, standing as it does athwart the Bosporus, a narrow body of water that connects the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea. There has been a city here since forever. In ancient times it was called Byzantium. In A.D. 330 the Romans came in and named the city Constantinople, after the Emperor Constantine. The descendants of the Romans ran the show here until 1453, when the Ottoman Turks took over. The city was renamed Istanbul. The Ottoman Turks ran the show until after World War I, then a certain Kemal Mustafa Attaturk (Turkey's version of George Washington, father of his country) got rid of them and founded the modern Turkish republic in 1923.

With the Bosporus as a neighborhood landmark, Istanbul is divided into two halves: "Asia" and "Europe." I, and the language center for which I will be teaching, are located on the "Asia" side of the water. But the "Europe" side is only about forty minutes away by bus. That's not because the distance is so great, but because the traffic is so horrible. In the photo above you will see the suspension bridge that connects Europe with Asia, and you can traverse the water that way by bus or car, but they tell me that the ferry is a much more pleasant way to travel from one continent to the other.

We spent last week in training at New York Studio, which used to be Berlitz and is one of many language-teaching centers here. This is where we'll be teaching, when we aren't on-site at any number of businesses around the city. The school uses the same methodology as Berlitz, and we had three days to learn it. There were five of us in my training group, myself, three young women from the UK, and another lady, Turkish, who already teaches in Istanbul but is coming to work for NY Studio and had to learn its methods. Our instructor, a woman named Demet, took us through our paces. It was a lot of information to absorb in three days. I took a lot of notes but my head is still swimming with it. My first class is tomorrow evening. I will be teaching business English to a group of advanced students. I haven't taught adults since I was in training for my TEFL certificate more than ten years ago, and I'm more than a little nervous about it. All the teaching I've done for the past two years has been with children.

Istanbul is a city of 20 million people. The Turks are mostly very friendly; when I go into a store to make a purchase, I usually get a nice smile and a "thank you." Same at the outdoor market they have on Fridays between our apartment and the school. Some of us stopped there last Friday after class and bought some fruits and vegetables. The vendors want you to buy their stuff of course, so they hand you free samples. One guy handed me a couple of figs. Figs aren't my favorite fruit, but I ate them to be polite, and found that these figs, anyway, were delicious. We're all on tight budgets of course, and Kirsten, one of my fellow trainees, said she intends to do most of her food shopping at the outdoor market because everything is very cheap there, and some of the stores are quite expensive. She got a big bag of tomatoes, potatoes and onions for four Turkish lira, about two bucks.

Yesterday was Saturday. We went to the center in the morning to observe other teachers conducting their classes. Then in the afternoon, Kirsten and I, along with Lizzie, another new teacher, took the bus across the Bosporus to Taksim, Istanbul's old city center over on the European side of the water. It was hot all week, but it's been cooler this weekend, although it's supposed to get hot again tomorrow. Taksim was jampacked with tourists and shoppers. There is a pedestrian street right in the middle of the old city, and people were literally crammed in there elbow-to-elbow, milling around, shopping. Some sort of political demonstration was cooking up, apparently. I'm not sure what it was about, but the police were taking no chances -- cops in riot gear outnumbered the demonstrators at least 100 to one. There were platoons of police all over the place, wearing helmets and body armor and carrying riot shields, rifles and machine guns. But there was no trouble that I heard of and of course the cops ignored us. And just about everyone except the demonstrators -- a man I asked on the street said they represented the Kurdish political party -- ignored the cops, as many of them as there were. We shopped, dropped in at NY Studios' Taksim center, met with another friend, shopped some more, ate and drank, sweated and got jostled a lot. All in a day's tourism.

Finally, about 8 p.m., we piled into a Dolmus, (the kind of seven-passenger van/taxi that the Russians call a marshutka) and made the trip back over the bridge and across the water to the tip of Asia, where we live. The trip back took more than an hour. I simply cannot describe Istanbul's traffic. Just think "constipation" and put it in terms of headlights, taillights, brake lights, lurch-and-stop, peristaltic lane changes and lots of honking. It was after nine p.m. by the time I got back to my apartment. The van dropped us near our school and then I had to hike down the hill toward my new home. As I struck out on foot, my feet aching and my backpack whacking my spine, behind me one of the local mosques began droning out the call to evening prayers.

You can set your watch by the mosques in this part of the world. In fact I find that I don't need an alarm clock here. Quite promptly, around 5:40 a.m. each morning in mid-September, I'm greeted by the early-morning call to prayers from a mosque around the corner from our apartment, on a boulevard which it shares with everything else you might expect: grocery stores, restaurants, shoe outlets, women's clothing shops, plumbing supply places and Domino's pizza. Also Papa John's. About the same time the mosque sends me my wake-up call, I also hear from the seagulls. We're a short walk from the Sea of Marmara here, although I'm told the beach is too dirty for swimming. The Black Sea is about forty-five minutes in the other direction. Doesn't matter whether we can swim or not; as a native Californian, the sound of seagulls is the sound of home to me. Just as the smell of the sea was the smell of home to the Greeks in Xenophon's March of the Ten Thousand.

Which happened somewhere in this part of the world, as I recall. Seagulls and history. Never mind that I can't read the billboards. If you have a sense of your own cultural heritage, there's a homey feel to this place.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Educating Me

I went to college a long, long time ago, and I did manage to get a four-year degree. For the record, my B.A. is in History and Journalism (I double-majored at San Diego State, the only time I ever even attempted to be an "overachiever.")

But, for the most part, I have been an autodidact throughout my life, with all the pleasures and pitfalls that entails.

Welcome home, old friends from my childhood.
Autodidacts pick up a lot of information, but since they do most of their studying without professional guidance, they often wander astray into weird areas, you know, like astrology, or worse, the strange, dark world of conspiracy theories.

One of my favorite authors, Henry Miller, was mostly self-taught, and he read hugely. But he never managed to divorce himself from some pretty odd stuff, including the aforementioned astrology. (Miller also took Oswald Spengler seriously, something no discriminating student of either philosophy or history would ever do.) Then you have Bobby Fischer, chessmaster genius, school dropout and total kook.

But these guys were geniuses, with all of the dangers that lie that way. I'm just an average guy who, like my hero Miller, has read a lot and continues to. (Why not? Reading and sleeping are two of the cheapest activities I know.)

For a few short years when I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronomer. Honestly, I did. Outer space fascinated me,  and besides, I was growing up in the 1960s, when the race to the moon was in the headlines. Many boys of my generation dreamed of becoming astronauts, and I did too, for a while. But it was a short-lived dream. By the time I was 12 or 13 I had realized that I didn't have The Right Stuff. Somebody else was going to have to take that trip to the moon for me.

But that didn't mean I couldn't gaze at the stars and dream. I read every book on astronomy I could get my hands on, and between the ages of 11 and 14, went through three telescopes.

That dream died about the time I was starting high school. You see, I'm hopeless at mathematics, and the modern astronomer is a mathematician who works mostly at night. I flunked basic algebra in the 11th grade. So much for my becoming any kind of scientist.

But one discipline connects to another, and my boyhood interest in astronomy led to a concomitant interest in the science of physics. Einstein and Niels Bohr were among my childhood heroes. Now, I was never, ever going to become competent at physics. Not with my complete incompetence at math. In fact my experience of failure in high school algebra was related to my interest in physics: you had to pass algebra before you could take physics. My plan was to take algebra during my junior year, then take physics my senior year. Well, having flunked algebra, there would be no physics class for me. I took humanities and sang in the school choir instead.

But when I was still in junior high school, at the tail end of the 1960s, I bought a three-volume set of paperback books, Understanding Physics by Isaac Asimov (New York: Signet Books. 1966.) These little books were so cool-looking. Their covers featured colorful, sixties-style "op art." The three volumes were subtitled, respectively, Motion, Sound and Heat; Light, Magnetism and Electricity; and The Electron, Proton and Neutron. Had I any aptitude for this stuff at all, I might have become a classic nerd.

But I had none. And although I possessed these books for many years, I never managed to read them. Poets seldom make scientists, despite the occasional exception like Loren Eiseley.  My acquaintance with the world of science remained largely a question of reading biographies of guys like Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer. The science was lost on me because the math was lost on me.

On the other hand, there are examples in history of people with a childhood or youthful interest in science or engineering who go on to become creative artists. Poet W.H. Auden thought he wanted to be a mining engineer until a friend suggested to him one day that he should write poetry. Norman Mailer majored in engineering at Harvard, many years before he wrote his breakout novel The Naked and The Dead  in 1949. Many years after that, Mailer's training in the field of engineering would stand him in good stead when he wrote Of A Fire On The Moon, a book about the U.S. space program.

My childhood interest in astronomy and physics, hopeless though it might have been, has influenced my own poetry since I began to write poetry just about the same time my dream of becoming an astronomer was waning. And so, at age 57, I am now force-feeding myself those very three books by Isaac Asimov that I purchased as a teenager but could never get myself to read, chiefly because their plenitude of mathematical equations, even on casual glance, would send me into a confused slumber.

My strategy is simple: concentrate on the narrative and skim over the math, which is going to be lost on me anyway. I have already finished the second volume of the trilogy, Light, Magnetism and Electricity and have now backed up to volume one, Motion, Sound and Heat. Yes, yes, I know that these books were published nearly 50 years ago and are no doubt quite dated (they mention things like typewriters, film cameras and record players, which we don't have any more) but it doesn't matter. They're basic, and they reinforce a lot of stuff that I picked up as a child but have long since stopped thinking about.

I am hoping to avoid my father's fate, you see. In his final years, my father made so little use of his brain that it turned to mush. I was his caregiver as he sank into dementia, uninterested in much of anything beyond large-print westerns and John Wayne movies. I don't want to go that way, although I still might; after all I'm up against some powerful genes. I've always been told that if you keep your mind busy, your mind will remain clear. At least up to a point. So, as I approach 60, I am reading through those very books on science which I relished (but did not read) as a boy. It's edifying. It's a jog down memory lane.

And maybe, just maybe, it might help me hang on to my memory.