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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

To The Red Sox Borne

When I was studying the history of ancient Greece at San Diego State University in the 1970s, we learned about people the citizens of ancient Athens called "perioikoi." That meant "dwellers round about." These were Greeks who did not live within the Athenian polis, or city, were not Athenian citizens, but nevertheless enjoyed certain rights and protections because they lived nearby.

When it comes to the Boston Red Sox, I am something of a perioikos. I have spent only about a day and a half in Boston in my entire adult life. For that matter, I have spent only about two days in Massachusetts in my entire adult life. But I'm a Red Sox fan.

Now, my father was a Massachusetts native, and late in life when we discussed this, he recalled, "When I was growing up, to be a baseball fan meant the Red Sox. That was all there was to it." One of my uncles on my father's side, "Amy," was actually scouted by the Red Sox in the 1930s. He wasn't recruited, but still...even to be scouted by the Red Sox? A hell of an honor for a member of the Dupuis family.

But I don't really have any birthright to the Sox. I was born in New England, yes, but that was something of an accident. My father just happened to be stationed in Vermont as a Border Patrolman when I happened along. I'm New England born, but California raised. California is my home.

Still, I'm a Red Sox fan. I have been for years. Why? Well, aside from my Uncle Amy's having been scouted by them (and something else you'll read about below) there's the most obvious reason: I hate the New York Yankees. With. A. Passion. All right-thinking people do. For decades the Yankees won more championships than anyone else because for decades the Yankees had more money than anyone else. That's not "championship." That's "flaunting it when you got it." And I will remind any loudmouth Yankees fan -- and all Yankee fans are loudmouths -- that for 18 years, between 1978 and 1996, the Yankees got to the World Series exactly once....and lost. (In 1981, to the Dodgers. Go Dodgers.) I say let's bring back that lovely period. 1978-1996. No World Series rings for the damned Yankees.

Neither is it any coincidence that all major media outlets have their headquarters in New York. All my life and before it, America has been constantly told that New York is the only city that matters and the Yankees are the only baseball team that matters. (Except for the 1980s, when the Yankees were perpetually in the toilet. Hence, during that decade we were constantly told that the Mets were the only team that mattered.)

Money, money, money. Under the old reserve clause system, which kept baseball players in serfdom until it was chucked out and replaced with free agency in the 1970s, the Yankees could buy all the best players and then hold them to service for life. And slaves seldom get raises. When the great Joe DiMaggio tried to get a raise in 1941, not only did he not get his raise, but he got publicly humiliated for wanting one. Those truly were the bad old days. Ballplayers were paid peanuts and the Yankees usually won because they spent money on buying ballplayers, not paying them. Two very bad things. It was bad for ballplayers to be underpaid, and it's always bad for the Yankees to win.

And of course I hate the Yankees and their hot-air fans for their nauseating sense of entitlement. They think they should win the World Series because of who they are. Yogi Berra made the famous remark that rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for General Motors. There's one big difference: in its heyday General Motors actually made something useful: automobiles. There's nothing useful about noisy arrogance and hubris, the stock-in-trade of all Yankee fans.

Okay, now you know why I hate the Yankees. Why do I love the Red Sox?

Thereby hangs a tale.

There's just a slight possibility that I might owe my very life to a great Red Sox player.

You heard me right.

In the winter of 1959, no doubt in response to my mother's badgering, my father got himself transferred from Burlington, Vermont to San Pedro, California. My mother's home town was Chula Vista, California and she did not like being taken away from there. San Pedro isn't Chula Vista, but it's closer than Burlington, Vermont.  Dad bought a house in nearby Torrance, and the family packed up and returned to the west coast. I was three. My sister Carla was five, and my sister Lynn was less than two.

The family station wagon, a red-and-white 1953 Ford, had to be gotten west, so my father and my half-brother Garry drove across the United States. My mother had the harder task: flying across the U.S. with three small children.

Why do I say that hers was the harder task? Hey, road trips are fun. I've taken my share. But in those days air travel meant propellors, not jets. Crossing the continent on an airplane was a 14-hour ordeal, not the five-hour hop, skip and jump that it can be now.

And Mom had three small children in tow, one of whom was hyperactive, ADD-afflicted, three-year-old me.

Did he save my ass? 
I don't know, but it would 
be cool if he had. 
This should surprise nobody who has ever known me, but during that flight from Boston to Los Angeles in February of '59, I would not sit still. I don't remember much about the flight; I was only three. I vaguely remember finding another kid my own size and marching over to where he was sitting, probably to see if I engage him in  play. The point is, I was all over the plane. My mother had two other small children to worry about, so she couldn't be watching me every second. 

So, they tell me, while my mother's attention was elsewhere engaged, I wandered over and began to fiddle with the safety catch on the airplane's door. 

That is correct. Three year-old dumb-ass me, at an altitude of probably 15,000 feet, was playing with the safety catch on the airplane door.

I wonder if there's any coincidence between this episode from my early childhood and the fact that throughout my life, falling to my death from a great height has been my greatest fear.

In any case, an alert fellow passenger saw me playing with the safety catch on the door. He got out of his seat, scooped me up and carried me back over to my mother. Her told her what had been going on with me and the door. 

My mother, ever polite, thanked the man and asked him his name.

"I'm Frank Malzone," he said. "I play for the Red Sox."

If not a single other Red Sox-related thing had ever happened in my life, I think this alone would have justified my becoming a lifelong Sox fan. Did Frank Malzone, legendary Sox third baseman (1955-1965) prevent me from popping open that airplane door and falling 15,000 feet to my death? I don't know, but it sure is nice to think about. 

OK. So far we have hating the Yankees, an uncle who was scouted and being picked up by Frank Malzone when I was three. There's more to it. I'm one of those suckers who roots for the underdog. And let's face it, for a long time that's exactly what the Red Sox were, particularly in regard to their longtime rivalry with the neighborhood bully down in the Bronx.

This is the year 2014. It was 100 years ago last spring that my father was born: April 15, 1914. It was also 100 years ago last spring that a pudgy kid from Baltimore named George Herman Ruth came up to pitch for the Boston Red Sox. Babe Ruth, as he came to be called, was in fact a very fine pitcher. 

Had he stayed in Boston and stayed on the mound, he probably would have set some pitching records. But the world knows the rest of this story. In 1920 he was sold to New York's Evil Empire. 1920 was also the year that the "dead" ball was replaced by the "live" ball, wound tighter and able to carry further. The Yankees promptly discovered that Babe Ruth could hit gigantic home runs with the new "live" ball. They moved him from the pitcher's mound to the outfield, built a stadium for him and watched the cash roll in as New Yorkers packed Yankee Stadium to watch Ruth hit all of those homers.

And so...for 86 years, a period starting in 1918, the last year the Red Sox won a World Series, they were in the desert. And of course the legend of "The Curse of the Bambino" got started. As the story went, the Sox were condemned to limbo for pulling the bonehead move of selling Babe Ruth right after World War I.

I never believed in The Curse. But the Red Sox did embark on a remarkably long streak of bad luck. Decades of it.  And I do tend to root for lovable losers, although nothing would ever tempt me to root for the biggest losers in the history of baseball, the Chicago Cubs. They aren't lovable. What I don't understand about the Cubs is their fans. Here's a team that last appeared in a World Series in 1945, hasn't won a Series since 1908 (that's right--106 years in the desert so far) and their fans are every bit as loud and obnoxious as Yankee fans. Go figure the human species.

While born in New England, I grew up in my mother's home town of Chula Vista, which is part of the greater San Diego area. The greatest Red Sock of them all, Ted Williams, hailed from the same neck of the woods as I did. He grew up in San Diego, attended Hoover High, and played two seasons with the Pacific Coast League San Diego Padres (1936-38) before signing with the Red Sox.
This fellow grew up just a few miles from where
I did. 

Amazingly, some people in Boston don't know this. The only time I ever visited Boston as an adult, in the late summer of 2001, I was with a girlfriend who, being Russian, knew nothing about baseball. The Yankees were in town that night, but there was no question of trying to get into Fenway Park. We drove to a Pizzeria Uno in Cambridge, ordered pizza and as we watched some of the game on the big screen, I tried to explain to Tatiana what was going on.

After we had eaten, she wanted to go to a kiosk and buy some magazines. We found one quickly enough, and the two guys inside were classic Boston -- they talked like my late Uncle Louie Dupuis (you know, "pahk the cah?") and of course they had the Red Sox game playing on the radio. I was wearing my San Diego Padres ball cap. One of them noticed it and said, "We don't see many of those around here." I then explained that perhaps they should, because Ted Williams had played for the Padres before he played for the Sox. They were surprised. They hadn't ever heard that.

On September 10, 2004, my younger sister Lynn died. She was 47. We found her dead in her bed that day. The cause of death, as we learned when the toxicology report came back two months later, was an overdose of methadone. My sister did not take heroin, (methadone is often used to help heroin addicts kick) but she was addicted to painkillers. Methadone is sometimes prescribed as a painkiller, and my father had a prescription. She took 15 milligrams of it, went to sleep and never woke up. I was devastated. My little sister, for all of her problems, was my best friend in the world. I plunged into a mourning so deep that I had to seek professional help.

Ultimately the grief counselors did not do much for me.

But the Red Sox did.

October, 2004. My sister had been dead for just a few weeks and I was still in deep mourning. Then one night I missed my "grief counseling" session and came back home. The American League Championship Series was underway, and we had all given up on Boston. The Yankees had won Game #1, Game #2 and Game #3. No one had ever come back from a 0-3 deficit to win the pennant before. And no one expected it to happen now. Since 1918, the Red Sox had come THIS CLOSE plenty of times and then blown it. Everyone remembered the 1986 World Series, when the Red Sox came THIS CLOSE and then the famous "Bill Buckner" moment in Game #5 (not really Buckner's fault, by the way: he was a fine ballplayer and was having pain in his legs, which affected his play that night) ended it all. Again. The consensus was that the Red Sox were, once again, finished. Even I had written in my journal the day before that perhaps baseball had better pack up and leave Boston for good.

Then the Sox exploded. They came off the ropes like Sylvester Stallone in a "Rocky" movie. You remember those moments. Rocky takes 14 rounds of pounding from his opponent, then comes alive and destroys him.

That's what the Sox did over the next few nights. New York was already crowing over its pennant (New York loves to crow.) But Boston won Game #4, Game #5, Game #6 and Game #7. American League champions: Red Sox. American League crybabies: Yankees. New York was sent home to blubber in its beer.

And I was happy. I was still reeling from my beloved sister's death, but the Sox' comeback miracle, humiliating the Evil Empire, put a bounce back in my step.

It was so incredible. After the joyous destruction of the damned Yankees, the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals that year was an afterthought, almost an anticlimax. I've always rather liked the Cardinals, but was pleased to watch the Red Sox plow them under in four games, revenge for the 1967 World Series, in which it had gone the other way.

That was ten years ago. I still mourn my sister, but the pain of that late summer fades as the years go by. Pain always does. Joy, however, stays fresh in recollection. And the joy of watching the 2004 Red Sox miracle will remain with me always. This season the Sox aren't doing so well. As of July 22nd, the American League East stood at Baltimore in first place, the Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays three games out, and the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox tied for last place, both 7.5 games out. But the wonderful thing about baseball is that the season is long: 162 games, not sixteen, as in the NFL. It's only July and there's still hope.

I will always be a Red Sox fan, as long as there is such a thing on this earth as hope. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose

I wrote this in my journal, while living in Germany, on February 1, 1998. Tell me nothing's changed. 

I was blindsided by an item in the newspaper this morning.  An insert in Stars & Stripes (the U.S. Army newspaper) took an in-depth retrospective look at 1968: The Year That Still Haunts Us.
....He's a legend in Washington, D.C., but no one
has ever figured out who "Cool Disco Dan" was.

I suppose that in each decade now, in the year that ends with an "8," we're going to get another retrospective on tumultuous 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive, the "Pueblo" incident, the Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago, the "Black Power" salute at the Olympics, The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Apollo 8 lunar orbiter mission, and oh yes, let's not forget The Beatles' "white album:" that always gets a mention.

This report caught me off guard only because it seems to me like not very long ago that we were reading all of this the last time--in 1988, I distinctly remember reading Newsweek's cover story on the 20th anniversary of tumultuous 1968...10 years ago already since I read that???  I was just getting ready to pack up and leave Frankfurt, newly married and headed for Brazil...Now here I am, full-circle, living a two-hour drive from Frankfurt and getting the 30th anniversary treatment of the same material, which is nothing more than a re-hash of what we were fed a decade ago.

Speaking of journalism and the current scene, I thought Dave Barry's column last week about how shallow, stupid and "showbiz" local TV news shows are was real funny, but bashing TV news for its insipidity seems to be a "hot-button" issue of the moment.  There was a commentary in today's paper, written by a reporter for one of the London dailies, criticizing U.S. television news for how isolationist it's become since the Cold War ended: American network news shows largely ignore foreign news these days, concentrating instead on domestic stories that aren't even necessarily news.  (The author of the column didn't mention this, but my own recent favorite example of this was NBC News actually leading a broadcast with the "story" that NBC's own comedy series Seinfeld was not going to be continued next season.  This is news???) At the same time, the cartoonist who draws "Shoe" had a strip this morning in which The Perfesser is channel-surfing from one news show to the next: "Bacteria in your venetian blinds!  A special team report!"  "Your mouse pad may be making you sick!  Film at 11!" and so on.  Sensitive minds were beginning to notice some time ago that the line between "news" and "entertainment" in America was getting fuzzy, but now things have gotten to the point where some are beginning to think it's a real problem.

More on the "current" scene: Today, in 1998, Young America is making a "nostalgia fad" of the 1970s.  When I was in high school 25 years ago, there was a nostalgia fad for the 1950's, which gave us TV shows like Happy Days. Nostalgia seems to be America's mal du choice. 

Our Marine Security Guard detachment here at the American embassy in Bonn had a "'70s party" just two nights ago, and in a Q&A column in today's paper, somebody wrote in asking about the present spate of interest in the decade, with at least two current movies set during the "disco era."  In line with this, I wrote an e-mail letter to my friend Anya in Moscow just yesterday in which I explained why the '70s are anything but nostalgia to me.  But I'm 42, an "old goat" now.  In answer to the writer's inquiry, the column said that today's youngsters, living as they do in an era of "political correctness" in which just about everything is prohibited or seems to be, are looking nostalgically back at the drugged-out, relatively promiscuous '70's, when AIDS hadn't appeared yet and casual sex had not acquired the stigma that it has now.

All of this seems strange to me because I remember the '70s chiefly as a reaction to the wildly-permissive '60s.  Not that the '70s were the kind of bluenose-puritanical decade that the '90s have been, but repeatedly in the mass media talky-talk of my own youth, we heard about the contrast between "the radical '60s" and "the mellow '70s."  Vietnam dragged on until 1975--all the marches, sit-ins and anti-war protests of the '60s seemed to have changed nothing, and after Kent State, (not to mention Altamont, which threw cold water on Woodstock Nation) Young America threw up its hands and abandoned the idea of bringing Flower Power to the world.  It turned instead to personal growth issues; Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice gave way to Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Tom Wolfe promptly named the '70s the " 'Me' Decade."  It was in 1970 that Stephen Stills quit singing  For What It's Worth and had a hit with  Love The One You're With.    

True, in the 1970s, AIDS had not yet come along to put a damper on recreational sex, but the legacy of the "free love" '60s did lead to a ripple movement during the '70s that called itself "the new celibacy:" fucked-out America, sick and tired of the singles-bar scene and surfeited with one-night stands, decided to experiment with having a little less sex, while at the same time movies like Looking for Mr. Goodbar reminded everyone that the singles-bar scene had its dark and dangerous side. And then there were all the other unglamorous things I remember about the 1970s: Watergate, the ignominious finale of Vietnam, stagflation, the Arab oil embargo and "gas lines," "pet rock," polyester leisure suits, I'm OK, You're OK. Jimmy Carter.

No, I don't remember the 1970s as a wildly fun or permissive decade; I remember them as a throttling-back from the crazy 1960s, when, as my half-sister Madelon once put it, "For seven years, America threw up."  The world of  Saturday Night Fever might look glittery, sexy and dangerous to the current batch of twentysomethings, but I was a twentysomething myself during that era, and to me all that polyester looked decidedly tame when compared with the tie-dyed T-shirts and headbands of a decade earlier.  In fact it looked kitschy, just as it still appears to me now.

            

Monday, June 2, 2014

Chronicles of Wasted Time


I am currently teaching English to Turkish people in Turkey. At the moment I am teaching classes seven days a week. My students range from level 2 (Elementary) to level 6 (Advanced.) We have a lot of fun. Yesterday, during a round of the word game "Hangman," one of my students stumped the entire class with the word "dog." Yep. "Dog." You know "Hangman:" players try to guess what a word is by guessing the letters in it. Someone tossed out the letter "O," so we had "blank-o-blank."  After that everyone was lost. They ran through the entire alphabet and couldn't come up with "dog."

But that was at the end of class. After three hours my students are getting tired and so I usually refrain from bombarding them any further with adjective clauses, split infinitives and the future perfect tense. We back away and just play some word games to wind the class down.

But earlier in that particular class, our topic had been adverbs of sequence, you know, like "first," "then," "after that," "finally," etc. Words you use when you're describing a sequence of events in chronological order.

I asked my students, "Has anyone here ever kept a journal?" There were blank stares and shaking of heads. "You know? A journal? Sometimes called a diary. You write down what you do every day, usually in the sequence that it happened."

More stares.

"I've been keeping a journal since I was fourteen," I said. (I'm fifty-eight now.) When that didn't seem to sink in especially, I turned to the white board and wrote down "1 9 7 0." "I've been keeping a journal since 1970," I said. "That was the year I turned fifteen."

"Lots of secrets," somebody said.

Well, maybe. Yeah, okay, lots of secrets, few of any interest at this late date. But mostly just a lot of detail. Detail that couldn't ever possibly mean anything to anyone, and in fact, as I review the reams of print and electrons that I've churned out in the past 43 years under the heading "Journals" or "Diaries," I find a lot of stuff that doesn't even interest me, and I've been writing about myself all this time.

Many of my journals have been lost. Those I kept in high school and college were mostly destroyed. I did it, deliberately, myself. Romantic idiocy: I was 22, a girl had just broken my heart, and in response I tossed nearly all the journals that I had kept between 1970 (when I started high school)  and 1977 (when I graduated from college) into a metal trash can and set them on fire. I regretted it shortly afterwards. I don't regret it now; I wouldn't want some of that acne-scarred effusion to fall into the hands of family members, let alone anyone else.

Not that my reams of journals haven't had some use. For years I've had a reputation among my friends and acquaintances as a guy with a remarkable memory, the guy who can repeat back to you something you said to him forty years ago, the guy who can remember exactly where he was and what he was doing when the Watergate scandal broke, or when America celebrated its 200th birthday in 1976, or where he was and what he was doing when John Lennon was shot, or Pope John Paul II. Where he was and what he was doing when Ronald Reagan was elected president, or when Matthias Rust landed that private plane in Red Square. Depending on your age, where he was and what he was doing on the day you were born.

Yes, writing things down has a certain mnemonic utility: nothing helps you remember something like writing it down and then going back and reading it later. I have reviewed my own life like a book editor going over the manuscript of some author's novel. Naturally, I've become an expert on the subject of my own past and the past that has flowed along with it, the past of people I've known, places I've been and things I've seen.

I'm not sure that's necessarily a good thing. Oh, it's been useful now and then. When I was writing my book Three Flies Up: My Father, Baseball and Me back in 2007, I mined my own journals, using them as research material for a book about my past relationship with my father and our shared love of baseball. Without my notebooks I would have had a much more difficult time writing Three Flies Up.  Of course I had to do a lot of other research as well, because the ostinato line of my narrative was baseball. For that I had the Internet, plus a shelf full of books about baseball that had been my late father's, many of them gifts from me and my sisters over the years.

My journals have had many guises. When I began keeping diaries, the personal computer was still more than a decade in the future. My first diary was kept in a pocket-sized, wire-bound memo pad from the drug store, the kind people used to use to keep track of their appointments, jot down phone numbers, etc. One of my early journals was just a bunch of pieces of paper, folded over and stapled together, to be scribbled in with a Bic pen. From there I moved on to typing my personal notes, ("typing" -- there's a word that has left the language.)

For you millenials, a "typewriter" was a mechanical device that had a keyboard like a pad or a laptop, but you stuck sheets of paper in it and it actually printed letters on the paper, not on an electronic screen. Yes. It didn't have a "printer" connected to it; it did the actual printing itself. I pounded on a typewriter for years, as a journal-keeper, as a wannabee author of fiction, as a poet and, yes, even as a newspaper reporter at the very dawn of the computer age, circa 1980-81.

This is the way we used to do it, kids. 
My journals, over the years, stacked up as wirebound notebooks, looseleaf binders, paper-and-glue record books from CVS Pharmacy, school "composition books" of the sort children used to use in the classroom and yes, beautiful, hardbound, pale green government-issue record books that I cheerfully stole from the office supplies of this or that American embassy or consulate where I happened to be working over a period of more than a dozen years. Few of these notebooks still survive.

Around 1990 I began keeping my journals on a computer. This enabled me to password them so that my nosy first wife, who had no respect for privacy, (or for me) couldn't invade them without my permission. There have been nostalgic lapses back into paper-and-ink since then, and for a time in the 1990s it was my habit to print out my Word or Wordperfect journals at the end of the year and put the paper sheets in looseleaf binders. But most of my surviving journals since the early 1990s exist as computer files. Even some of these have been lost as I've moved from computer to computer and been remiss about backing up and saving documents along the way. I'm systematic, but I'm also both lazy and sloppy in my habits.

Now I am seriously asking myself why I keep on doing this. The obvious answer is that after 44 years it's hard to break a habit. When I first began keeping a journal, in my teens, my purpose was twofold: first and most obvious, I wanted to be a writer. I had the itch to write. So I started writing things down. On a slightly more neurotic level, though, my journalkeeping stemmed from the same impulse that gets some people on the TV show Hoarders. I just didn't want to let anything get away. Time, even when I was young, seemed a precious and fleeting commodity. Somehow I wanted to grab it, to keep and save memories for future delectation and/or scrutiny. I began keeping a journal as a means of not letting time get away: I was to the passing days of my life what a butterfly collector is to butterflies.

As I have gotten older, this impulse to grab and save moments has waned, for obvious reasons. I'm well past Dante's mezzo del cammino di nostra vita  at this point--the halfway-mark of life--and there isn't much point in trying to preserve moments for future delectation and scrutiny now. There isn't that much future left in which to delight or scrutinize. Or learn. Still, I soldier on. It's too late in the game to give up now. But it all leaves the question open: what, ultimately, am I going to DO with all of this material? My late friend Dick O'Keeffe of Fairfax, VA was a compulsive journal-keeper, and I mean compulsive. I've been known to skip a few days here and there, even a few weeks here and there.

Dick never missed a day. And like all compulsives, he was just as compulsive about his methods and materials as he was about his habit: he always used the same kind of notebook from the same stationery store; he always used the same kind of felt-tipped pen from the same stationery store where he got his notebooks, and he chronicled his days meticulously, in a prose so idiosyncratic (I know because he sometimes shared passages from his journals with his friends) that I can't imagine anyone ever wanting to plow through 100 pages of it, let alone 10,000. But when Dick died he left his journals to the George Mason University Library. I swear. I envision them in the library basement, stacks and stacks of numbered and catalogued notebooks, meticulously indexed (Dick was as compulsive a maker of indexes as he was a journal-keeper; I think he had once been a librarian) and utterly ignored by one and all.

Is this my fate? Probably. I have no conceit about leaving my journals to a university library. If I had been Andre Gide or John Cheever, sure.  But the diaries of a nobody are interesting to nobody. Oh, I can envision Dick's great-great grandchildren, around the year 2075, going and seeking out his journals as a family curiosity. I can't imagine anyone else having any interest in them whatever, including myself, because I was treated to my share of excerpts from them in the early 1980s and found them just about unreadable, meaning, every bit as eccentric as Dick was, and Dick was a character out of Dickens, believe me.

Only half-jokingly, I approached my nephew Ricky Guido last year and told him, "I'm making you my literary executor. After I die, I want you to go through all my computer hard drives and notebooks, gather together my journals and put them into some sort of order. Store and save them. They might be of some interest to someone, someday." Ricky, who is one of the nicest people I know and is as indulgent of his somewhat-dotty uncle as he was of his more-than-somewhat dotty grandfather, readily agreed to do this.

His mother, when she heard about it, guffawed. My sister didn't elaborate, but her very snort said it all: "Who's going to give a damn about your journals?"

Nobody. The only thing that saved Samuel Pepys from oblivion was that, in addition to having a fine prose style, he was also a highly-placed official in the Admiralty in 17th-century London. His diaries are social history; they provide a vivid snapshot of English life in the 1660s, but not only that, of life rather high up in the naval hierarchy of that period when England's navy was just beginning to establish her empire. Historians are interested in Pepys as well as literary buffs. But the Dick O'Keefes and Kelley Dupuis' of this world are not that lucky. Oh, I've been a witness to history once or twice. I was in Moscow in October, 1993 when the Russian government almost fell to a parliamentary coup, and my diary duly recorded all that.

But I'm not sure if the loose-leaf notebook containing that narrative even exists anymore, and even if it did, I was only an embassy support staff employee, not the ambassador.

Ultimately, who cares what I saw and heard?

So tell me why, when I return from teaching class tonight, I'll probably open up the document on my computer entitled "Journals, 2014" and make a few notes about what happened today.

I no longer understand it myself. I'm just doing it because I'm doing it. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

Back on the Bosphorus

I'm back in Istanbul. Returned here just over three weeks ago after a hiatus of about five months.

I was here last fall, teaching English for an outfit called New York Studio (formerly Berlitz.) But they were not pleasant people to work for: duplicitous, micromanaging. I quit and went back to California last December. Looked around for something else to do, bought a motor scooter. But then, in March, another English-teaching center here in Istanbul, English Time, got in touch with me on Skype. They were looking for some teachers. I decided to come back.  I flew from Los Angeles on Air Berlin (an airline I'd never heard of, by the way) on May 6th.

As everyone who has ever traveled to Istanbul knows, the city is divided into two sides, the "Europe" side and the "Asia" side--the continents of Europe and Asia are separated by the Bosphorus, a waterway that flows between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, right through Istanbul. When I was here last year I lived on the Asia side of the water. Now I'm on the Europe side, in a district called Beylikduzu, which is not close to anything. From here to the city center in Taksim is about a two-hour bus ride.

My roommates and I share an apartment on the 14th floor of a residential building in Beylikduzu. The Metrobus, which I take every afternoon to go to teach classes in the district of Barkikoy (45 minutes from here) is about a 20-minute walk. Being on the 14th floor has its advantages; street noise is at a minimum up this high. Also, being way up here, we often get strong breezes off the Sea of Marmara--from the windows, in the distance, I can see the water and the freighters that ply back and forth between the two seas all day and night. Sometimes the wind slams the doors, but it will be welcome, I'm sure, in a few weeks when Turkey's very hot summer arrives in earnest. Despite its proximity to the sea, Istanbul is hot in the summer and often cold in the winter. It does occasionally snow here. But I'm not worried about that right now. It's the end of May and I'm thinking about the heat coming up. This time, I brought along two African dashiki shirts that I bought when I lived in Cote d'Ivoire more than twenty years ago. They're made of very flimsy cotton (I'm surprised I still have them) and are ideal for hot weather.

Being on the 14th floor also has its disadvantages. Last weekend we had an earthquake. Not a big one, but enough to empty out the building for a while. You don't want to be on the 14th floor when your building starts doing the macarena. Also, we occasionally have power outages here, which of course make the elevator quit working for the duration. You also don't want to have to climb 14 flights of stairs during a blackout.

When I was here last fall I was so busy teaching and trying to make ends meet on a very tight budget that I didn't get to do much in the way of sightseeing. I have yet to visit either Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque, two of Istanbul's biggest tourist attractions (the Blue Mosque appears in the photo above.) I hope to rectify that this time. Istanbul is a very large city and there is a lot here to see and do. We are eight hours ahead of New York and eleven hours ahead of Los Angeles, which makes following Major League Baseball on the Internet somewhat difficult, but I try to keep up. I'm currently teaching seven days a week, which doesn't leave a lot of time for much else. But since I haven't been paid yet and don't have any money, that's just as well.

More to come....




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
father.

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 exercised than those of the American 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.