Monday, November 28, 2011

My Father Plays Dominos Better Than Yours

In memory of Svetlana Alliuyeva, 1926-2011

The idea behind this ancient joke about playing dominoes was to ridicule the Latin mass: "My father plays dominos better than your father plays dominos."

Get it? You will if you grew up Catholic in the pre-Vatican II era, that is to say, pre-1963, the year in which the liturgy went from Latin to the vernacular.

"Domino," "Domini," etc. Latin words for God.  Yuk-yuk-yuk.

Remember Dr. Strangelove? I sure do.
But for the moment, I'm not thinking about dominos in terms of mocking the Catholic liturgy.

I'm thinking of them in terms of what used to be called "the domino theory."

Now, once again, for anyone reading this who happens to be under 40, (or maybe even over 40) I feel constrained to explain what the "domino theory" was.

The "domino theory" dominated (no pun intended) U.S. foreign policy, particularly in southeast Asia, for more than a generation.

In a news conference in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said,  "Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the 'falling domino' principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences."

The idea was that, the Communists having succeeded by 1949 in taking over China, if somebody (the U.S.) didn't stop them, well, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, India and ultimately, maybe even Australia might follow.

Based largely upon the "falling domino" theory, not to mention George Kennan's famous "Long Telegram" sent to the U.S. State Department from the American embassy in Moscow in February, 1946, (it was originally classified "Secret," but you can Google it -- it was declassified years ago) the United States embarked upon its famous policy of "containment" toward Communism. The idea was "Don't let Communism spread any further than it already has."

This policy had profound consequences for the U.S. and the world. Korea, Vietnam ... United States foreign adventures going all the way up to Grenada in 1983 stemmed from the "domino" theory, which in turn had its roots in the notion of "containment."

Ain't it just too funny for words, the way history sometimes plays tricks on us?

Well, maybe "funny" isn't the right term, seeing as how the years between 1946 and 1991 saw so many thousands and thousands of lives lost in the name of either stopping Communism or promulgating it.

But then again, didn't Josef Stalin himself say "One death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic?"

Why do I say "funny?" Because what ultimately happened was the opposite of what we were all told to lie awake in our beds being afraid of. (That is when we weren't being commanded to dive under our school desks and "take cover" from a "pretend" nuclear attack.)

Would a school desk have saved me when my school, and my city itself, were being vaporized? I never asked and they never explained.

Many years later I discussed these issues with a Russian friend.

She informed me that in her own childhood, Moscow schoolchildren had been subjected to similar rituals, only they didn't involve desks. Chula Vista, California, where I grew up, had no subway system. Most American cities didn't, which was why we were always being told to "Duck and Cover." But Moscow did have a subway system. Hence, rather than being ordered to duck under their desks, Moscow children were herded down into their local Metro stations in "drills" similar to the ones I remember from my childhood.

There, safe in the deep subway tubes, Soviet children would huddle against imaginary American missiles.

We will now pause for laughter all around.

Jokes about nuclear war aside, it slowly became clear, as the Cold War dragged on, that Soviet "hegemonism," as it was referred to a generation ago, contained the seeds of its own destruction.

Empire-building only works until you can no longer maintain the empire, as the Romans, the British and ultimately, the Soviets learned.
Was the principal of my school really
stupid enough to think that making me
stick my butt under my desk was going
to save me from this?

But in 1954, who knew? Historians might have been able to make an educated guess here and there. But amid the hurlyburly of fear, loathing, accusation, counter-accusation, coup, war, riot and all that other fun stuff, who was going to listen to the likes of Thucydides, Edward Gibbon or Arnold Toynbee? (Adlai Stevenson might have, but America seldom elects bald men as presidents. Eisenhower got a "pass" only because he was already a war hero.)

So the nations went at it. A war here, a war there. Under Harry Truman (whom Gore Vidal credits with creating the American National Security State), The Office of Strategic Services, a relic of World War II, morphed into the Central Intelligence Agency, which then mestastasized into every corner of the earth. And then of course you had Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Dien Bien Phu. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. My Lai. The "Paris Peace Talks."

The "Us versus Them" idea was everywhere. Even in 1979, when the Khomeni-ites overthrew the Shah of Iran, some people in America thought the Soviets were behind it.

When Pope John Paul II, the former Polish cardinal Karol Woytija, was shot in 1981, some people thought the Soviets were behind that. (They may indeed have been; it was no secret that Moscow was not happy about a cardinal from an eastern bloc country having been made pope in 1978.)  But the counterintelligence trail in the pope's shooting was such a mess of "spaghetti code," as software engineers call it, that a direct connection to the Kremlin could never be established. In any case, the pope survived that attack. And forgave the shooter, by the way. Visited him in jail. The shooter's name was Mehmet Ali Agca. He was Bulgarian. Bulgaria was a Soviet client state. ???

Beyond that, well, check with the CIA. They probably don't know any more than you do. Or if they do, they're not telling.

Anybody remember Korean Airlines Flight 007?

August 31, 1983: a KAL Boeing 747 shot down, with 269 civilians aboard, and killed, after it accidentally strayed into Soviet air space.

A total, disastrous screwup.

Afterward, embarrassed and unable to come up with a plausible explanation for why they had done such a hideous thing, the Russians lamely tried to claim that this civilian airliner was on a "spy mission."

Yeah, right. With U.S. spy satellites watching the USSR 24/7 from space, and the U.S. Strategic Air Command buzzing the perimeters of that country around the clock, why on earth would a civilian 747 be sent on a "spy mission?"  As the Germans say, Ausgeschlossen.

Americans were sold the reality of a "struggle" that was really just a big, murderous game. And I don't just mean the hoi polloi, either. So-called "intellectuals" among my parents' generation, and even my own, were among the most convinced of the believers (and many of them were of course cheerleading for the "other side.")

Fidel Castro's PR machine, for example, hoodwinked much of America into believing that his "revolution" was the glorious wave of the future, and not the dawn of shitty manufacture, deteriorating infrastructure, political intolerance and third-rate pizza that it really was. The young Bob Dylan, during his "protest" period, admiringly tipped his hat to Castro in Who Killed Davey Moore? A generation of willingly-suckered American hippies volunteered, loudly, to go to Cuba and "help with the sugar-cane harvest."

Oh, gosh, how touching! How Romantic! Jean-Jacques Rousseau must have been masturbating in his grave!

Damn sugar cane, by the way! It ruined the Cuban soil for tobacco. Cuban cigars (cigars being for years the only thing Cuba made better than the rest of the world) turned to shit. As a cigar lover, I really resent that, although as an American, my opportunities to get my hands on Cuban Cohibas have admittedly been few and far between.

Capitalism, we were told in my youth, was in retreat. The triumph of Marxist socialism was as inevitable as the cockeyed "laws of history" that Karl Marx had cooked up in the British Museum a century earlier had said it was. Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, as stupid as he was brilliant, jumped up and down cheering like a fat little girl. Neruda loved Stalin. That's because he never met him.

History has no "laws." History is, as James Joyce had one of his characters say, "the nightmare from which I'm trying to awaken."

Nightmares don't have "laws." Sorry, they just don't.

Still, Anthony Burgess, one of the most gifted English novelists of his generation (and also a talented composer of music, by the way), was among those most thoroughly taken in.  Burgess so fervently believed that the future of the western world was fated to be "Soviet" that in 1962 he published A Clockwork Orange, an appalling vision of what that future, specifically on "Airstrip One," might look like.

("Airstrip One," for those of you who don't read -- and I'm afraid that in 2011 that's most people -- is  the name George Orwell gave "England"  in his equally apocalyptic 1948 "prophecy," 1984.)

The 20th century was so tough on prophets (With one exception, as we shall see.) That's really what this essay is about.

In Burgess' novel, the young street punks of futuristic "London" speak among themselves a patois consisting entirely of words borrowed from Russian. "Nadsat," as it was called. Burgess assumed that Russia was going to dominate the future, linguistically anyhow.

In 1962, Anthony Burgess had the
street thugs in his novel A Clockwork
Orange speaking bastardized Russian. By
2011, just about nobody in the world was
even interested in learning Russian anymore.

Funny, funny. Here I am in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, teaching children to speak English. Why? Because the government of this former Soviet republic wants tomorrow's Georgians to speak either Georgian or English. Preferably both.

But whether they speak Russian or not is a matter of relative indifference to the current Georgian regime. Schools here do still teach Russian, but Russian does not have a high priority. English does. That's why they're flying in teachers to teach it.

Oh, my. Irony is oozing out of the woodwork.

In fairness to Burgess, the publication of  A Clockwork Orange coincided with the zenith of Soviet global power and influence. For a few moments there, it really did look like the Russians were "winning."

1962 was high noon for the Soviets. They did indeed seem to be "on the march" that year. They had established a client state only 90 miles from Florida, they were staging missile parades every May, and the previous year they had put the first man into space. They were building Communism! As the Kremlin's favorite poetaster-toady Yevgeny Yevtushenko put it, "The world marches forward/To Lenin." (Yeah, yeah, yeah. Where are you now, Gene? Dead, maybe?  Hiding in Oklahoma? If you are dead, you ain't buried at the Kremlin. That honor went to, among others, a moronic American journalist named John Reed, who didn't understand that joining the True Believers usually means asking for trouble.)

Ironically enough, two other events of that year, 1962, ultimately spelled the Soviet Union's doom. One was a global crisis, the other, a literary event.

In that year, Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschchev, responding to the placement of American missiles in Turkey, proposed to place Soviet missiles in Cuba.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy said "No, you don't," and for a few tense hours in that autumn of '62, the two superpowers, USA and USSR, seemed to be on the brink of nuclear war.

Then Kruschchev blinked. The Soviet missiles bound for Cuba never got there.

And by the way, that was the end of Kruschchev. Less than two years later, the Soviet politboro, viewing the Cuban missile crisis as a defeat for the USSR, threw Kruschchev out of power and replaced him as premier with the more hard-line Leonid Brezhnev. (Kruschchev more-or-less died in exile, writing his memoirs at his dacha.)

But the same year as the Cuban missile crisis, 1962, a small literary earthquake happened in the USSR. As part of a nationwide campaign to discredit his predecessor Stalin, Kruschchev had permitted the publication of Alexander Isaievich Solzhenitsyn's One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovitch, a brief-but-devastating portrait of the Siberian labor camps which had been established under Vladmir Ilyich Lenin, but had really flourished under Stalin.

When Solzhenitsyn's novella appeared in the prestigious Moscow literary journal Novy Mir, the entire issue sold out in a few hours.

Fine, for the moment.

But once Kruschchev had been removed from power in the wake of the Cuban missile affair, the limited bit of freedom that he had seen fit to allow the Soviet people was gone. For a long time to come.

With the so-called "thaw" of the Kruschchev years suddenly over, and a new crew of hard-liners (read: the KGB) running the show in the Kremlin, thus began what the Soviets themselves would years later call "The Period of Stagnation." Brezhnev presumably still had all of his marbles when he was installed as premier in 1964, but by the time he died in November, 1982, he was so far gone in the head that jokes about him were being whispered in every Soviet kitchen (as long as the radio was on to discourage the KGB from listening in.)

And Brezhnev was the perfect metaphor for his country. An orgy of oil-based military spending had accompanied the Brezhnev years. The USSR had enough missiles, tanks and nuclear submarines to blow up the world 50 times.

What it didn't have were luxuries like bread and toilet paper.

In fairness to the USSR, the United States also had enough missiles, tanks and nuclear submarines to blow up the world 50 times.

What the United States had that the Soviet Union didn't have was plenty of bread and toilet paper. And fruit and vegetables. And meat. And milk. And butter. And cheese. And automobiles. And stereos. And TV sets. And clothing stores. And single-family homes. And on and on and on.

And the rest of the world gradually woke up to this fact:  the Soviets were nothing but a bunch of well-armed losers.

When Soviet power failed to subdue the 1979 uprising of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, people began to wonder whether the mighty Soviet empire was as mighty as it claimed to be.

There were two operative principles involved in Afghanistan. (1) Tanks, the USSR's usual means of enforcing its will, are just about useless in mountainous country, which Afghanistan is, and (2) The mujahideen were being supplied with Stinger missiles, for use against those Soviet tanks, by the CIA.

By the time Brezhnev cooled in the fall of '82, people were already beginning to refer to the USSR as "Burkino Faso with missiles," i.e. the world's most heavily-armed poor country.
Leonid Brezhnev, (1906- 1982)
poster boy for hardened arteries, in more
ways than one.

In the United States, except among the most rock-ribbed members of the political right, this idea had been a commonplace for years. In 1975 the CBS Television Network broadcast (briefly) a "summer replacement" series (as they were called in those days), Ivan The Terrible. Starring the late Lou Jacobi, Ivan The Terrible was a situation comedy about a Soviet family living in a Moscow apartment. Its portrayal of life in the Soviet hell house, warts and all, was so funny and so accurate that the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C. protested and the show was yanked off the air.

And it had been just the previous year, 1974, that the inevitable "showdown" between Brezhnev and Solzhenitsyn, who had been on a collision course for years, finally happened. Solzhenitsyn had been secretly busy for those same years on a monster work of nonfiction, The Gulag Archipelago, which documented the horrors of Stalin's labor camps in three devastating volumes. A copy of Solzhenitsyn's manuscript was leaked to the KGB. The jig, as they used to say, was up. Solzhenitsyn and Brezhnev played their final two chess moves: to cover himself, Solzhenitsyn authorized the publication of The Gulag Archipelago abroad. In response to that, Brezhnev had Solzhenitsyn stripped of his Soviet citizenship and exiled.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, (1918-2008)
Brezhnev's pet headache.

Checkmate? Not quite. Brezhnev knew perfectly well that if he had had Solzhenitsyn killed, he would be buying trouble. Solzhenitsyn had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970. He was "high-profile," and a hero to many dissidents.To have him "disappear" would have created a martyr.

Brezhnev knew that, so he went for the "other" form of retribution familiar to his fellow Tsars: exile. Brezhnev figured if he just kicked Solzhenitsyn out of the country and had his name erased from the history books, that would be the end of that.

Well, it wasn't quite. Solzhenitsyn spent the next 20 years in Cavenish, Vermont, USA, writing, writing, and writing when he wasn't coming out of his cubbyhole every now and then to make a speech somewhere, usually vilifying the west for not being more vigilant against Communism. And Solzhenitsyn outlived Brezhnev, the sweetest form of revenge (just ask my late father.)

In fact Solzhenitsyn outlived Brezhnev by more than a quarter-century. And lived to perform what he saw as his life's mission: overseeing the destruction of that very police state which Brezhnev had been entrusted by the politboro in 1964 to preserve.

By the time of Brezhnev's death in November, 1982, the USSR was in big trouble and it knew it. It couldn't feed itself. It was buying grain from the United States. It continued to spend billions of rubles propping up the network of eastern European puppet states in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Rumania, etc. which Stalin had bullied Roosevelt and Churchill into accepting at Yalta in 1945, but it was becoming increasingly clear that, like the Romans, the Russians could no longer afford to be an empire. The Romans eventually ran out of the gold that kept their empire hale; the Russians, by the early 1980s, were running out of the oil money that kept them mighty.

What to do? Stall, for now. When Brezhnev died, he was replaced with Yuri Andropov, a sclerotic KGB boss whom everyone knew wasn't going to live much longer. He didn't. Andropov promptly died, and was replaced with Konstantin Chernenko, another sclerotic KGB boss who wasn't going to live much longer, and everyone knew it.

And since I began this essay with a reference to the Roman Catholic Church, let me mention here that the politboro, between 1983 and 1985, was doing precisely the same thing that the Church's college of cardinals had done repeatedly down the centuries. When a pope died, and the cardinals couldn't agree on an appropriate successor, they would deliberately choose a cardinal who had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, figuring that by the time he died, they would have found someone they liked better.

Before Pope John Paul II, (who pretty much eclipsed all of his predecessors in the popularity department) one of the 20th Century's most beloved and remembered popes was John XXIII (born Angelo Giuseppi Roncalli.) His papacy ran from 1958 to 1963.

John XXIII was no dummy. Before he became pope, he was perfectly aware of this tradional "wait-'til-he-croaks" practice among his fellow cardinals. When he was picked to succeed Pius XII in 1958, 77-year old Cardinal Roncalli, now Pope John XXIII, famously remarked, "We are at the end of our rope and at the top of the heap."

The politboro borrowed a page from the college of cardinals' playbook. It ran through Andropov and Chernenko, and then decided, two years or so later, on Mikhail Gorbachev, an unknown agricultural bureaucrat from somewhere out in the sticks.

All of us over age 40 remember what happened next. Unlike his geriatric predecessors, Gorbachev knew that a few things had to change. One of them was Moscow's insistence upon central control of everything across 11 time zones.

Uh-uh. Didn't work, and Gorbachev knew it. So he embarked upon a program he called Perestroika, ("Restructuring"), which attempted to spread the decision-making power around a bit wider.

Another ongoing Soviet problem was that everybody was so scared of his or her boss that nobody wanted to blow the whistle on waste, fraud and abuse. Gorby tried to change that, too, with a program called Glasnost ("Openness") which encouraged workers to step up and speak out where they saw problems.

But all of this was window-dressing. The rot went much deeper than that. Gorbachev was like a kitten picking at a ball of yarn. Once it started to unravel, there was no stopping it.

Sooner or later, non-Russian republics in the USSR, which had been coerced by Stalin into joining the Soviet Union in the first place, were going to get the scent in the wind and start agitating for more freedom.

And then, when they got a little freedom, start agitating for independence.

Meanwhile, along came SDI. The Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars" as it was derisively referred to in the news media, was the last nail in the USSR's coffin. President Ronald Reagan aggressively pursued the goal of a computer-based defense system that could "zap" incoming Soviet missiles with lasers.

The Soviets screamed bloody murder -- for 40 years, Mutually Assured Destruction had been the lynchpin of so-called World Peace (through innumerable brushfire wars.)  Now Reagan was threatening to upset that apple cart.

It was poker, pure and simple. SDI may have been, in reality, an unattainable engineering feat, but the Russians didn't know that. Reagan even offered to "share" SDI technology with them -- "Here, we're building this thing, and we'll show you how to build it too." But Reagan and his British counterpart Margaret Thatcher knew exactly what they were up to. They knew that the Russians were every bit as capable (or incapable) of building a missile defense system as were the Americans, the British or anyone else. Nothing wrong with Soviet science and technology; they were among the world's best.

What the Soviets didn't have was the money. Reagan knew that, and he used that leverage to make Gorbachev deal with him.

Then Boris Yeltsin came along, saw an opportunity to get Gorbachev out of the way and scoop up all the chips in Moscow for himself, and he took it. What did Yeltsin care if the death of the Soviet Union was necessary to put him at the "top of the heap" in the Russian Federation? He assumed the role of "hero" when an unsuccesful coup was staged against Gorbachev in 1991, then started playing his own cards. Some say Yeltsin negotiated a secret deal with some of the republics -- don't stand between me and what I want, and you'll get independence. (Google the "Belovezha Accords" if you want to know more about this.)

On Christmas Day, 1991, I was sitting in my living room in Abidjan, the capital of the west African nation of Ivory Coast, DX'ing around on the shortwave radio for some news. I heard on the BBC that the Soviet Union was no more. Gorbachev, after resisting the unraveling of the ball of yarn for several months, had finally faced the fact that he no longer had a country to be the leader of. The USSR was as dead as the dodo bird. With a minimum of ceremony, Gorbachev went on Soviet television, made a farewell speech, wished everyone good luck, and went off to write his memoirs.

No nuclear holocaust, no Clash of the Titans, no WWIII. All those things that had been predicted with such dire hand-wringing when I was growing up had turned out to be...well, nothing more than second-rate television. In 1983 the American media whooped up a massive brouhaha about a made-for-TV movie called The Day After. The subject of this film was the nuclear war which was supposedly inevitable if America didn't stop refusing to appease the Soviets. This TV movie got more press build-up than anything I could remember since the Beatles' first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. (in 1964, the same year Brezhnev came to power in Moscow.)

The media really wanted everyone to watch this film. They were breathless about it. Nuclear war! Coming next! It's five minutes to twelve!

Reviews of The Day After were lukewarm at best.

In the end, it was just another low-budget movie. It sank like a stone and was never watched again. Everyone, including the TV critics, yawned and then channel-surfed away to watch The Love Boat.

Say goodnight, Gracie.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Biggest Lie Ever Told

In my childhood there was a disgustingly lurid comic book in America entitled Crime Does Not Pay.

Some of this "comic's" covers would turn your stomach. Like the one I saw around the time I turned 13, showing a guy blowing another guy's head off. The drawing depicted the very moment the murderer's bullet struck the victim's head. Brains and eyeballs flying every which way.

A churchgoer of my acquaintance complained about the sample cover of Crime Does Not Pay which I originally put in the space below to illustrate what a sickie rag it was.

She claimed that my sample, which featured a scene of sexual torture, (the October, 1970 cover if you want to go and look for it on Google Images) was a bit too sickie-porno. She found it offensive. Well, yeah, but that was the idea. The whole stupid magazine was offensive.

So I've replaced the cover I originally used with one that removes nasty old sex and illustrates only good, clean American fun: a hail of bullets followed by a guy roasting in the electric chair. No churchgoer could ever object to that.

This magazine was pure crap. It did glorify violence and sadistic sex, and it was being sold to kids.

If the original rationale was to scare youngsters away from lives of crime by showing criminals getting their supposed comeuppance, (Yeah, right!)  It didn't work.

In fact, many people feared that the magazine was having the opposite effect: making crime glamorous to kids. Under pressure from parents and clergy, not to mention a congressional subcommittee on what was then called juvenile delinquency, Crime Does Not Pay was forced to cease publication in 1955 after once having had a national readership of about six million. Later someone brought it back. You can't keep a lucrative business down.

But never mind that. Big circulation or no, this rag was, not to put too fine a point on it, a pack of damned lies and balderdash. After the story I'm about to tell, if there remains any notion in your mind that crime does not pay, and that the mounties always get their man, well, let my tale be a dose of what's known these days as "reality check."

For I have a good story on this subject that needs to be told.

Part One

My poor father.

He always boasted of being so tough and savvy. He swaggered around like his hero John Wayne, boring everyone who could not escape from listening with one story after another about how once upon a time he had intimidated somebody with his fists. Big Man. Little fists. (He was five feet eight.)

In short, (no pun intended) my father was in some ways a sad character. And once or twice he was also the biggest chump you could imagine.

I say that not in mockery, but in sorrow.

At the end of the 1960s, the port of entry into the United States between San Ysidro, California and Tijuana, Mexico, run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, was as rotten as an unrefrigerated, week-old persimmon. American immigration and customs officials were taking bribes from narcotics smugglers, what we now would have to call "undocumented-worker" smugglers and smugglers of who knows what all else, (today it might be fissionable material) like kids grabbing chocolate chickies on Easter morning. Or used to. (Do we still have Easter anymore, or has the ACLU gotten it abolished?)

Anyway, as that awful decade was petering out, enter my father, the INS' favorite patsy.

He had been a patsy once before, and it set his career back more than a decade.

In 1954 (so my father told me years later), my father, a Border Patrolman in those days, was stabbed in the back in an affair involving his former INS boss, Harlan Carter, who many years later became president of the National Rifle Association.

(By the way, in 1981 two Associated Press reporters broke the story that then-NRA president Harlan Carter had shot and killed a Mexican in his Texas youth, and had gotten off scot-free. In 1930s Texas, killing a Mexican was no big deal. But the irony was delicious to gun-hating liberals: the president of the NRA had once shot and killed a Mexican! And gotten away with it! Laugh, snicker, guffaw.

When this story broke in the press, I had already heard it. Long before.

I'd heard it from my father.

As a young journalist, I thought I had the biggest scoop of all time. But Dad asked me to hold off publishing the story until he gave me the green light. He was my dad. I agreed.

And then those two AP reporters broke the story before I had a chance to.

Typical of my life: always in the right place at the wrong time.)

But back to '54. Harlan Carter was my father's boss when Dad was in and out of Washington, D.C. as a Border Patrolman in the fifties. (Dad's later D.C. boss, Rex Kelley, was also a good friend -- I'm named after him.)

But according to the story Dad told me, in 1954, when they were both in Miami for some governmental reason, Harlan Carter pitched to my dad the idea that if they got a certain individual drunk, he would spill his guts about someone running an "undocumented worker" ring somewhere in south Florida. (Or as they were called then, "illegal aliens.")

Dad thought the whole thing smelled bad, but Carter was his boss, so he went along with it.

Anyway, when this supposedly blabbermouth-drunk turned blabbermouth to the wrong people, my father skeedaddled back to Washington, only to hear through channels that Carter was claiming at the top of his lungs that the whole thing was my dad's idea, not his. Who was going to take my father's word against that of his boss? Such things do not happen in the ass-kissing halls of government, believe me. Joe Dupuis, Fall Guy, Part I.

On Rex Kelley's advice, Dad decided to make himself scarce in Washington. He put in for a tour of duty in the northeastern sector headquarters in St. Albans, Vermont, where I was born in the fall of 1955.

My late dad claimed that this perfidy on the part of the late Harlan Carter was the reason my dad remained a GS-11 for the next dozen years. He just couldn't get promoted. He had too many enemies. He was blackballed by the bureaucracy.

In 1967 Dad finally got a little break. He put in for the position of Chief Patrol Inspector (the title has since been changed) of the northwestern sector, in Spokane, Washington. He got the job.

In 1968 our family moved to Spokane. But my mother, a native of Chula Vista, California, and by then no big fan of my father's, (another story for another time) hated Spokane. Nothing against Spokane; it's a wonderful city. But the truth is that my mother would have hated any place my father took her that wasn't Chula Vista. She kept the pressure on my father constantly to get himself transferred back to her home turf. It was Mom's mulishness that kept Dad in Spokane by himself for one full year -- she refused to leave southern California. So for a year the family had two homes. But finally Dad put his foot down, bought a house in Spokane and we all moved there. The Chula Vista house was rented out to a young couple.

Thanks to the unending tension between my parents, (Mom wanted to go back to southern California where her "friends" were, and that's ALL she wanted), our tenure in Spokane was fated to be short.

In the fall of 1969 my dad went on a temporary-duty assignment back "down south" to San Ysidro.

While he was there, Satan whispered in his ear, in the form of his friend and former boss Al Gearhart, who by the way had a ranch in Fredericksburg, Texas.

Harlan Carter, Al Gearhart. Texas. Texas keeps popping up in this narrative. Did my father have some karma to burn involving Texas? Who knows? Perhaps in a previous life Dad had been a soldier in General Santa Anna's army -- Santa Anna was the "bad guy" in the Texas version of the Alamo story.

I had known Al Gearhart since I was a baby. He had been my father's boss in the northeastern sector in Vermont when I was born. Later, around the time I was in kindergarten, Al Gearhart was my father's boss again, in San Pedro, California. A year or three later, Al Gearhart was my father's boss yet again, at the Border Patrol sector office in San Ysidro.

In short, my father spent a good many years looking at Al Gearhart's butt on the Border Patrol career ladder. And Dad told me years later that he knew the reason why: once those in INS circles discovered that Al's wife, Rhoda, was the niece of John Nance ("Cactus Jack") Garner,who had been Vice-President of the United States under Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gearhart couldn't get promoted quickly enough. Again and again.

Garner was from Texas. (Yeah, Texas again.)

Now, around the time of my 14th birthday, Al Gearhart reportedly took my dad aside and told him that the job of Officer in Charge at the San Ysidro port of entry was being vacated, and Al recommended that my dad put in for it.

In fact he not only recommended it, but having known my parents for years, and taking advantage of what he knew about their relationship, Gearhart gave my dad a little "incentive:"

"If Sheila (my mother) finds out that this job became vacant," Gearhart reportedly told my dad,  "and you didn't put in for it, she'll make your life even more miserable than she's making it now."

Dad put in for the job. And he got it. And it meant a promotion to GS-13. Hurray. My mother was exultant. She was getting what she wanted, the return to southern California from Spokane. I was less thrilled; I'd been very happy in Spokane and did not want to return to Chula Vista, where I had been very unhappy in junior high school two years earlier.

Every day thousands and thousands of cars pass between
California and Mexico at the port of entry at San Ysidro. When
the FBI launched an investigation of corruption at this facility
in 1971, my father was running it.
What my father didn't know in 1969 was that Gearhart, and certain other people in the INS as well, wanted Dad to get that job.

Why? Because they knew that very soon that job was going to become the focus of a federal investigation. And they wanted my dad to be holding the bag when that investigation broke.

Dad came to this realization 18 months or so later, when, as they say, the fecal matter hit the rotating oscillator.

Joe Dupuis, Fall Guy, Part II was about to begin.  

As Dad was being set up, I was growing up. My family returned to Chula Vista in the summer of 1970, just in time for me to become a sophomore at Chula Vista High School that fall, and for my older sister Carla to become a senior at the same school.

So now we were back in southern California. My father settled into his new job running the port in San Ysidro.

Shortly after that, weird things began happening.

For example, one of my dad's officers sent a pot of stew over to our house that his wife had supposedly made. My whole family (except for me) ate it and got sick.

Then Dad came home one night from a drinking bout with his American and Mexican cronies in Tijuana (Dad spoke fluent Spanish and had friends on both sides of the border) wincing with pain from what was apparently a cracked rib.

The story he told us at the time was that he and his friends had been lounging by a pool somewhere, and Dad had run, slipped on the wet cement and fallen down.

One of Dad's Mexican pals, Rudy Valladolid, (whom I knew well from hunting trips in Mexico with Dad in my childhood) even joked about it: "Joe was drinkin' 'Butterfly Tequila!'" Rudy jibed. "You drink too much of it and you think you're a butterfly!"

That's not what had happened. Dad told me years later that what actually happened was that a longtime Border Patrol crony of my father's named Leonard Gilman, against whom my father had unsuccessfully campaigned a few months earlier for the job of INS regional commissioner in San Pedro, had intentionally gotten my father drunk and then viciously punched him in the ribs.

Dad had known Gilman for many years, and told me much later that Gilman had always been a powerful bar-fighter, with a deadly punch. It was not hard to believe the scenario: Dad had challenged Gilman for the regional commissioner's job, Gilman had beat him out for it, having better political connections, and then one drunken night in Tijuana, resenting my father for having challenged him, Gilman delivered a drunken body-blow to the ribs of my equally-drunken dad.

Not hard to believe at all.

One of my Dad's most trusted and liked officers was Frank Castro. My parents became friendly with Castro and his wife, socialized with them.

I remember only two things about Frank Castro. First, as my father pointed out, Castro bore an uncanny facial resemblance to the famous Mexican bandit Pancho Villa. Second, Castro got my dad and me tickets to accompany him to a closed-circuit television screening at the San Diego International Sports Arena of a boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Jerry Quarry in the fall of 1970.

Ah, yes but there's also a third thing I remember: it was Castro who had sent over that pot of stew that made everyone in my family sick, and months later, both of my parents noticed a "cooling" in their relations with the Castros which neither could really explain.

What was going on? I must confess that I didn't think about it much in those days. I was 15 and busy with my own concerns, which were, basically, school and unrequited love, the only kind of love I ever experienced before I was out of my teens. Work was just a place my father went every day while I went to school. I didn't give it much thought.

Then, the following year, about the time I turned 16, Dad arranged a weekend job for me, pumping gas (something teenagers did for you in those days) in a Shell station at the corner of Broadway Avenue and L Street in Chula Vista. (A 7-Eleven and an Auto Zone occupy that corner now.)  The station's owner, Joe Byrne, was one of my father's immigration inspectors. He ran a Shell station on the side.

"On the side?" The 16 year-old that I was when I was hired (40 years ago this month) wouldn't have noticed this, but there were a few distinctly fishy things about Joe Byrne. In retrospect, I don't know why my father didn't pick up on them right away.

In 2001, a former FBI agent living in Virginia, Robert Hanssen, was caught spying for the Russians and went to prison, where he still is. It was all over the news. Hanssen spied for about 20 years before he got caught. He might have spied for the Russians for another 20 years, but for one thing: the dumb son-of-a-bitch gave himself away.

How? By living far beyond his means.

An FBI agent suddenly moves into a super-expensive house in tony Vienna, VA, and starts spending like a sailor?

They got him.

Lesson: if you're going to do something illegal, at least keep a low profile. Ostentatious spending will get you into trouble every time.  Al Capone flaunted his bootlegging fortune and wound up getting nailed for income-tax invasion. He died in prison.

Joe Byrne, my father's subordinate and  my boss in 1972, was an immigration inspector.

He also ran a Shell gas station.

He also had two Peterbilt trucks and ran his own trucking company.

He also had his own airplane.

How do you manage all of that on an immigration inspector's salary?

Well, uh...

Part Two

I worked at Joe Byrne's Shell station all through my junior year of high school, through the following summer and into the beginning of my senior year.

But more strange things were happening, and finally it all blew up. The government, which usually prefers a more subtle approach than door-bashing, despite what you might have seen in Bruce Willis movies, began moving slowly in. The FBI didn't want to make anybody panic and run -- they went about their investigation of the port of entry, as the French say, peu a peu. Little by little. My dad began getting phone calls and visits at work from the Junior J. Edgars.

What were those strange things that were happening?

Well, at the gas station, especially late on a Saturday night, I started getting weird phone calls. People "looking for Joe." Also odd visits. Guys would come poking around, again usually late in the evening, and they wouldn't buy anything. They were just "looking for Joe." One night a couple of guys wearing suits and ties came in while I was running the place alone (I was "night man" during the summer of '72, running the station by myself from six p.m. to midnight.) Once again they were just "looking for Joe." These two guys sat in the showroom for a while perusing magazines, and when Joe didn't show up, they  quietly said "good night" to me and left.

"Those guys were runners," my dad told me later. "They were looking for Joe, either to pick up or drop off some cash."

A small cast of regulars seemed always to be popping up "looking for Joe." One was a truck driver named Leroy Riddlesburger. He drove one of Joe's trucks I think, so I assumed he had a legitimate reason for his visits. Another was a Mexican named Willie Reyes, a smartass who drove a muscle car ('72 Camaro?), played loud rock music on his car stereo system and enjoyed giving me a good-natured bad time when I came out to pump his gas. A jerk, to the eyeballs.

Both of these guys were in the shit up to their ears, as we would learn later.

And this was not just about "undocumented workers," but also about narcotics. And LOTS of money.

Things were coming out more and more out into the open. By now the investigation was an acknowledged fact.

Everyone sat tight; no one broke and ran for the Bahamas, but everyone knew the feds were sniffing around.

Naturally the Mexicans became interested in all of this; it affected them too. There was a TV talk show on XEWT Channel 12 in Tijuana in those days, Juan Luis Presents. Because my dad was running the show at the border and because his Spanish was very good, Juan Luis interviewed Dad a couple of times. I watched one of these TV interviews. Of course I couldn't understand a word they were saying, but it was a rather eerie experience, seeing my father on television talking in a foreign language. I had heard my father speak Spanish often enough of course, but TV is...well, you know, TV. It creates its own reality.

Not once but twice, my dad was summoned to Washington, D.C. to testify before a federal grand jury.

I'm proud to say that my father, professionally, was as clean as a whistle (if he had possibly been a bit naive in the beginning.) After the second of his two appearances in D.C., the district attorney told the grand jury, "Unless one of you has something you want to accuse Mr. Dupuis of, I don't want to see him again."

And for the rest of his life, my father never again set foot in Washington. In fact, I don't think for the rest of his life he ever left California.

One afternoon in the early fall of 1972, when I was just about to turn 17, I got a strange phone call of my own. From my father.

"Listen," he said, "if you were planning to go down to the station this afternoon, don't go. I'll explain it when I get home."

By the time he got home, Dad had cooked up his story. "You know that Union 76 station across the street from the one you work at? The Border Patrol moved in this afternoon and busted a couple of illegal aliens who were working there. I didn't want them to see you across the street, point their fingers and say 'That's the guy who told on us.'"

Not a very good story. Not plausible at all. But I was on the eve of my 17th birthday, and this was my father talking. I didn't question him for a minute. If that's what he said, that's what he said.

As usual, I went about my business.

But about a week later, Dad walked in with another announcement.

"The FBI closed down the station and Byrne's in jail. You don't have a job anymore."

For some reason that came as a shock to me. After all, I had been working at this gas station for the better part of a year, and was accustomed to the pocket-money it gave me.

My father was ready for that. "Look," he said. "You're in your senior year of high school now. I know you relied on the station for money. But your studies are more important. So, for now, just concentrate on school and I'll give you a few bucks a week, okay? Take a break."

Nice birthday present. Nice Dad, when he wasn't threatening to beat me up.

So, we had all been "cashiered," we Byrne employees. I had to go down to the station that night to pick up my last paycheck.

It was strange, seeing the station locked up at 6 p.m. It was also strange seeing both of Joe's Peterbilt trucks locked in the service bay. The FBI had impounded them.

"Al," Joe's indescribably crotchety father-in-law (he was always screaming about something) was there to cut those final checks.

"I don't understand it," he said when he handed me mine. "I can't believe he's guilty. Joe always talked down drugs. He always said he'd brain any of his kids if he caught them using drugs."

Self-interest trumps rhetoric, one more time. I took my check and went home.

Joe Byrne was sentenced to six years in prison. Frank Castro also went to jail, as did a number of others. As for the higher-ups involved in all of this, including Al Gearhart, they didn't go to prison but some of them, including Gearhart, were forced to retire as an alternative to being prosecuted.

Eventually my father, too, was forced to retire. Not because he was implicated or guilty in any way, but because, as whistle-blowers in the government invariably do, he had once again made powerful enemies. By the fall of 1973, when I was starting college and "Operation Clean Sweep," as it had been called, was over and done with, my father was being threatened by the powers that be with the worst retaliation bureaucracy can inflict on any of its minions: transfer to a job they don't want or some place they don't want to go.

My dad was 59 by then, and had spent most of his career in southern California. He had seen what happened five years earlier when he transplanted the family from Chula Vista to Spokane: my mother declared Cold War. Now he had two kids (my older sister Carla and me) in college. Between Carla's and my college careers, and my mother's demonstrated antipathy for any place but Chula Vista, there was no way my dad was going to accept a transfer to St. Paul, Minnesota.

And his enemies knew it.

Dad retired from the Immigration Service on January 1, 1974, three-and-a-half months shy of his 60th birthday. Over the next three decades he would delight in watching his government enemies drop dead, one by one. Dad lived to be 91, and in his old age one of his proudest boasts was that he had outlived every enemy he ever had.

In fact I remember one in particular. I was living in Washington, D.C. in the spring of 1995, working for the U.S. Department of State. I saw an obituary in the Washington Post for a guy named James Greene. The obit said that Greene had had a long career in the Immigration Service.

I made a phone call to my dad. "Hey, Dad, during your Border Patrol and INS days, did you know a guy named James Greene?"

"Jim Greene? Sure, I knew him," Dad said.

"Was he a friend or an enemy?"

"ENEMY," Dad said without hesitation.

"Well, he's dead. I saw his obituary in the newspaper this morning."

I swear, my father almost chortled.

Al Gearhart, my dad's perpetual boss the whole time I was growing up, also dropped dead in the years following Operation Clean Sweep. Heart attack.

My father expressed no sorrow or regret when Al Gearhart suddenly died, never mind the fact that they had been "friends" for decades, had even played golf together. Gearhart had become an "enemy" during the Clean Sweep debacle. As close as our families had been when I was a child, after Clean Sweep my father never spoke to Gearhart again, and when Gearhart died, Dad responded only with a shrug.

When we left off the saga of Joe Byrne, he had just been sentenced to six years in federal prison for taking bribes from narcotics smugglers.

Fast-forward six years.

It is now 1978. I, down on my luck as usual, am working as a cashier in a little, independent beer-and-wine store in Bonita, California, right over the hill from Chula Vista. (Actually, one could argue that this store was in Sunnyside, a less-"chi-chi' place than Bonita, further out Bonita Road on the way to Spring Valley. But the store's short-lived owner, an overconfident, overloud and overweight insurance salesman and general jerk-off named Ty Williams, insisted on calling the place The Bonita Wine Cellar.)

It was nothing of the sort. It was a 7-Eleven without the goods, and doomed to fail. The place had been a liquor store prior to Ty's " buying" it, but he was too cheap to pay for a liquor license. So he tossed some beer, wine, soft drinks and bread in there, installed me behind the cash register, and then sat back on his big fat, wine-drunken ass and waited for the place to make him rich. But that same summer, a Von's supermarket opened just around the corner and down the street. Their beer and wine was much cheaper than ours, so people bought from them instead of us. And we didn't have much to offer anyone besides overpriced beer, Coke and a few loaves of bread. Von's and its neighbor Big Bear killed us. In those days the big grocery chains in California were not yet allowed to sell hard liquor. That changed later. But even if we had had a liquor license, Von's would eventually have killed us.

And even in 1978, when the big grocery chains did not yet have liquor licenses, the Bonita Wine Cellar was doomed to fail, given the half-hearted, half-ass, penny-pinching way Ty Williams chose to run it.

Still, when the business did fail, he blamed me. I quit.

Six months later he was out of business. Since 1979 that place has been a dry cleaning shop.

One Saturday afternoon I was standing behind the cash register at the "Bonita Wine Cellar," reading a book as usual because as usual there was no business and nothing else to do.

 Joe Byrne walked in.

And I don't mean that in the sense that Thomas Mann meant it in Tonio Kroeger: "Hans Hansen and Ingeborg Holm walked into the room." Mann's italics implied metaphor.

No metaphor for bourgeois normalcy here. It was Joe Byrne, the real article. In the flesh. Out of jail. And happy.

Yes, just as I remembered from my teen years, Joe was grinning, as my father used to say, "like a jackass eating shit in a briar patch."

Joe had always borne that jackass grin. And, after having been sentenced to six years in prison and serving four, he still had it.

He also still had his dirty money.

Yes, here we reach our ultimate point: "Crime Does Not Pay?" Baloney. Crime is the world's most lucrative racket if you don't get caught.

And sometimes even if you do.

Joe was in a fine mood that day, for an ex-con or anyone else. As he explained to me, his trucking company had just landed a lucrative federal contract. They were building Interstate 805, which runs from the Mexican border at Otay Mesa up to a spot near Del Mar, where it merges with Interstate 5. Byrne Trucking was in on the project, to the tune of god-knows how many taxpayer dollars.

Byrne Trucking? Didn't that all end when Joe went to prison? Didn't the FBI impound his two trucks?

Yes, but what the FBI didn't impound, because they never found it, was the money. Joe had stashed it all over his property before he went to jail. In fact I think he admitted at some point that even he had forgotten where he put some of it.

Didn't matter; there was plenty left, and when Joe got out of prison, his ill-gotten gains awaited him with open arms. He went right back into the trucking business, and by 1978 was prospering as never before.

I never saw Joe Byrne again.

But let's fast-forward another 18 years anyway. In the spring of 1996, at a time when my father and I were not speaking to each other, by the way, Dad nevertheless sent me a newspaper clipping.

It was Joe Byrne's obituary. And quite an obituary it was. Joe had been out flying his private plane one night (yes, he got another plane as well) with his younger son Pat, and they crashed into a mountain. End of Joe, end of Pat, end of story. Okay. Well, one might argue until one is blue in the face about the mills of the gods grinding slowly, but if you ask me, that is not justice by anyone's definition. Byrne got to enjoy himself, living high off the proverbial hog, for a full 20 years after giving four years to jail. Crashed plane or no -- and it is too bad he took his son Pat with him --  I think he struck a pretty good bargain with the gods, all in all.

If that's your idea of a bargain.

I guess to some people it is. I guess to Joe it was, because he was smiling from ear to ear when I saw him two years after he got out of jail.

Still, my father outlived Joe Byrne. He had that, and so do I.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Price You Pay For Fame

I don't like to complain. (Well, that's a damned lie. Yes, I do. But I try not to be gratuitous about it.)
This is Varketili, the suburb of Tbilisi, Georgia where I teach
school. I couldn't find a picture of my school, but take my
word for it: most of Varketili looks just like this. I lived there
for a couple of months, then moved uptown. I commute now.

Ever since I started teaching here in Tbilisi earlier this fall, I've been going on and on about how wonderful my pupils are (I began referring to them as "my kids" when I had been teaching them for less than a week) and how much I enjoy teaching.

One of my recent blog postings was in fact entitled I Never Had A Child In My Life; Now I have 300.

True, very true.

I love my kids. So would someone explain to me why I am currently the loneliest guy on Planet Earth?

Because it is true that the children at Public School #117 in Varketili do make me feel like a cross between Santa Claus and Justin Timberlake. They hug me in the hallways. They mob me in the street. They come up to me just to say "Hello" (the only English many of them know) or to introduce themselves, ask my name and ask me questions about myself and about America. And to tell me things about their country, of which they are, justifiably, proud.

"Do you like our country?" I have been asked.

"Yes, I like Georgia very much," I reply. Which is true, and also, usually, gets a smile from my little interlocutor.

The next question is invariably "Do you like our food?"

That one's tougher to answer. I like their food, but I can't pronounce it.

Would that someone, anyone in this country over the age of 14 would treat me that way.

But they don't.

Among the kids of Tbilisi, I'm the greatest thing since Coca-Cola.

Among my so-called "colleagues," I'm the Invisible Man.

Oh, it's not a rule without exceptions. I do have one co-teacher, a woman named Medea, who has been very nice to me. She's about my age, widowed for 20 years, struggling to get by on a teacher's salary, like the rest of us. I can't say we're good friends; we never socialize off-campus, but at least she does talk to me.

And there's another, "Natia," half my age or so, who is very busy with little children at home, but tries to be civil to me when she can spare the time.

Almost all of the rest of my fellow teachers here fall into two categories: (1) The ones who will only talk to me if I learn Russian first, and (2) The ones who won't talk to me at all.

The "teacher room" at PS #117 has become a place I tend to avoid. If I go in there between classes, I had better have my copy of In Search of Lost Time with me, because for me, the choices are either read a book or look out the window.

And believe me, Varketili doesn't have that much to look at. Crumbling old Soviet apartment buildings with laundry hanging outside of their windows isn't exactly a soul-uplifting vista. Especially in November.

Okay, I understand that we have a language barrier, most of my colleagues and me.

That includes, I'm sorry to say, a couple of them who teach English. Their English is good enough to teach fifth graders, but it's not good enough for conversation in the sense that I understand it. Generally the best we manage is Q&A: they ask me for clarification on the meanings of English words, and I ask them for such useful Georgian phrases as "Did you do your homework?" "Why didn't you do your homework?" and "Quiet!"

The Georgian phrase for "Be Quiet" is pronounced Sijoumay -- "See-joo-may" -- and believe me, does it come in handy! Yesterday I momentarily stunned my noisy fifth-graders by barking out "Sijoumay!" They lapsed into silence, stared...and then started tittering.

"You surprised them by saying something in Georgian," my colleague explained.

"So why don't you learn Georgian?" I hear you cry. Because I'm only going to be here seven more months, and that's not enough time to learn a language, particularly a language as difficult as Georgian.

"How difficult can Georgian be?" I hear you cry.

Okay, Mr. or Ms. Smarty-Pants, here are two short sentences in Georgian:

"დილა მშვიდობისა. როგორ ხართ?" were saying?

This language is lovely to hear, beautiful to look at, and difficult to learn. And it's only spoken by four million people on the entire earth. Ninety-eight percent of those people are right here. If I busted my butt for the next 20 weeks trying to learn Georgian, what would I get for it?

Memories of having once studied Georgian; that's about it. I know what I'm talking about, by the way. More than 20 years ago I lived in Brazil, and I studied Portugese very hard. Two years. I had a great teacher. His name was Miguel. He was a grammarian, and a fabulous tutor. I got up to the "intermediate" level in Portuguese with Miguel, the best I've ever done with any language.

I don't speak ten words of Portuguese now. If you don't use a language, you lose it. Where besides Brazil was I going to use Portuguese? Portuguese is not spoken anywhere except Portugal, Brazil and a few small places nobody ever heard of.

But never mind that. What's getting to me is the fact that most of my fellow teachers here won't even make a gesture in my general direction. Not even a smile or a "hello," which is the least I get out of the kids. They come sashaying into the teacher room with a cheerful "Gamarjoba," (the Georgian word for hello) for their colleagues, but not so much as a glance at me. They walk past me like I was a table and plunge right into a spirited session of gossip and professional bitching in Georgian with their fellow old biddies. And young biddies -- which brings up another subject: some of the young teachers here are hot -- unfortunately there are no single women of my age in this country except widows with rotten teeth. The USSR did NOT provide dental care.

Aside from toothless, or nearly toothless, widows of the late communist regime, women in this country fall into ... well, I'm going to have to resort to the "categories" thing again. Three this time: (1) Married. (2) Young enough to be my daughters. (3) Both. And even if that situation did not apply, there's a Georgian "cultural" thing: you can't just walk up to a woman and start talking to her, even if she speaks English as well as Katherine Hepburn. In Georgia, you have to be "introduced" by a "family." Well, that lets me off; I live alone. I don't know any Georgian "families," and am not likely to.

Yes, it might be a cultural thing, this cold shoulder I'm getting, but there's no claiming that Georgians don't like Americans. It's Russians who are unpopular here, and given the way Russia has been invading Georgia for the past 150 years, that can hardly surprise anyone. (Having said that, there are some older Georgians who do admit to a certain nostalgia for Russian language and culture).  But Georgians do like Americans. Would the kids here make me a celebrity if they were hearing a lot of anti-American rhetoric at home? I don't think so. In fact, this will make some of my "leftie" friends back home just gag, (the hope for which is among the reasons I bring it up) but Tbilisi has a "George W. Bush Avenue." I'm not kidding. It's near Varketili, on the way to the airport. There's even a big picture of old GWB waving and smiling.

This is course led me to wonder aloud just what the heck Dubya ever did to get so popular here.

"He came to visit," an American colleague said.

"I didn't know that," I replied. (I never read the news anymore. Ever.)

"And?" I went on.  "Did he promise them anything?"

"Well, no, he just gave 'em the old 'Think of me as your Padron' speech," my friend said. "Naturally that led to some Georgians thinking, 'Oh, good. We'll start a war with Russia and the Americans will come help us."

I'm not holding my breath on that one.

So, whatever the cultural problem might be, anti-Americanism isn't it.

It just might the fact that I'm male. This has occurred to me. Few if any of the kids in my school have seen a male teacher at any time in recent memory. Virtually all of their teachers are women. While this might make me an exotic figure of fascination among the kids, it might "put off" the old biddies for some reason, and maybe the young biddies too. Maybe there's some arcane cultural fillip buried in heart of every Georgian woman that says she isn't supposed to talk to strange men, especially foreigners.

Whatever it is, I certainly would appreciate an adult conversation with another adult, even if it has to be through an interpreter. Or even a smile. I don't get either. If I want to hear English spoken, I have to walk down Rustaveli Avenue (Tbilisi's main drag) to Prospero's Books, a bookstore/cafe where Americans and Brits hang out, I assume for the overpriced English-language books and the (wildly) overpriced cappucino. People from Teach and Learn With Georgia, the government agency that brought us foreign teachers of English over here, often hang out at Prospero's Books, using the Wi-Fi and sucking up the high-end coffee, and now and then I'll see somebody I know there.

Or ... I might bump into somebody I know on the street. It's happened. A couple of weekends ago I was wandering around in the mud over near Station Square (the main train station) where there is a huge shopping bazaar. Suddenly I heard a voice. "Hi, Kelley!"

It was my friend and co-TLG'er, "Hannah," who hails from St. Louis and was walking in the opposite direction.

We went shopping together. Some other TLG friends joined us later. Eventually there were five of us, shopping in lousy weather. I had to break this party up at last. My ex-wife, who is working temporarily at the American embassy here in Tbilisi, had invited me and one other TLG colleague to dinner, so I had to peel off.

But what a refreshing and relieving Saturday! To be among English-speaking adults for a few hours who actually wanted to include me in their conversations! After it was over, I was back to living the way I customarily do here, which is to say I commute to my teaching job, get love from the children and cold shoulders from my Georgian "colleagues," and then return to my one-room studio apartment to spend the evening, the night and usually the weekend alone, reading, listening to classical music on iTunes radio, and wishing that someone, anyone I work with would talk  to me.

Or at least smile.

Or at least say "Gamarjoba." I don't speak Georgian, but I know what that word means. I just never hear it here, (the only place you're ever likely to hear it) unless it's addressed to someone else within my hearing.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Joe Frazier: 1944-2011

Smokin' Joe in his glory days, the 1970s

Joe Frazier, one-half of the last sporting event in history to galvanize and divide America, hasn't been in his grave for 72 hours yet, but the keepers of the 1960s flame are already busy trashing his memory.

The poor bastard. He was a great fighter, but he just wasn't politically correct. Darn.

Joe Frazier died on Monday at age 67, of cancer.

Slate magazine commemorated Frazier's passing with a veritable sneer-fest. Slate's obituary starts off with the statement that Frazier wasn't fit to tie Muhammad Ali's shoe.

From there it turns unpleasant.

Joe Frazier makes life difficult for Muhammad Ali,
knocking him on his butt in the 15th round.
March 8,1971
Maybe Frazier wasn't fit to tie Ali's shoe, but once upon a time he was fit to mess up Ali's face, nearly bust his jaw and and knock him flat on his can. How many men could do that? Probably not Michael Kinsley.

But Ali, after all, was a hero to the anti-Vietnam War crowd back in the late 1960s and early '70s, that crowd which is all sclerotic now, but in its dotage is still nostalgic for Woodstock, tie-dyed T shirts, bong pipes and Fillmore East posters, and still eager to sneer away anyone who didn't follow the orthodoxy of Woodstock Nation, a group which never existed in the first place and is dying off now.

Ah, stuff it, Slate. And by the way, you can also kiss my ass, all of you aging hippies, all of you who still have November 22 marked in red on your Rolling Stone calendars. Stuff your nostalgia for rebel days that never were. Stick your Moby Grape albums in your ears.

Grow up, for chrissakes, my fellow aging Baby Boomers! Peter, Paul and Mary broke up a long time ago. In fact Mary's dead, as are a lot of you. And soon, me.

Yes, I'm a trailing-edge member of that narcissistic "Woodstock" generation. By which I mean I'm too young to have been at Woodstock, but do remember it. (It's been said that if everyone who claims to actually have been at the original Woodstock festival were actually there, Max Yasgur's upstate New York farm, where the big party took place in August, 1969, would have to have been the size of Connecticut.)

And I do remember that epic night when Frazier squared off for the first time against Ali. The day that preceded it as well. Everyone my age does.

Nothing would be seen to resemble this spectacle until the O.J. Simpson trial nearly 25 years later. America chose up sides on Ali-Frazier. And America followed this fight by any means it could.
Earlier in the same fight. Ali was showboating,
as he often did in those days, but you can see that
despite the legerdemain of his footwork, he was
scared of Frazier's deadly left hook.

As mentioned above, the catalyst that made this prizefight such an epic event was the war in Vietnam. In 1967, Muhammad Ali, whose name had once been Cassius Clay and who had won the olympic gold medal in boxing at the Rome Olympics of 1960, refused to be drafted into the armed forces. He refused to fight in Vietnam. His famous quip "I got nothin' against them Congs," echoed from one end of the nation to the other.

Immediately Ali became an icon to opponents of the war, and a villain to that still-large portion of America, which, in 1967, (a mere two years after President Lyndon Baines Johnson had escalated the U.S. war effort in southeast Asia) believed that the war was justified, a necessary and unavoidable part of America's global crusade against Communism.

When Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to be inducted into the Army, many Americans thought the action was right and justified.

In fact, the generation that had fought World War II, still only in its forties and early fifties at that time, was aghast at Ali's recusancy. By refusing to serve his country, many felt that Ali had showed himself to be unpatriotic, anti-American and undeserving.

Many who felt this way would change their minds later, after the war had dragged on in stalemate mode for a few more years and it began to appear that the United States either couldn't win or didn't especially want to.  By 1973, even my father, as loud a jingoist as you could ask for, was beginning to question why the U.S. continued to pour so many lives and so much money into what looked more and more like a black hole.

But that came later. In '71 the country was still pretty much split in two over Vietnam. And as the media would have it, on the evening of Monday, March 8, 1971, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali became single-combat warriors.

Ali was fighting for the left, Frazier for the right, whether they knew it or not.

And everyone cared. At Chula Vista High School, where I was a 15 year-old sophomore that day, the fight was talked about all day long. I asked my teachers what they thought. "Frazier doesn't have a chance," I told Mr. Gary Chapman, my home room teacher and an avid sports fan. "I don't know," Mr. Chapman replied, "Ol, 'Smokin' Joe...'"

That same afternoon my English teacher, Mrs. Rochelle Terry, asked the class after her regular lecture if there were any questions. "Yeah," I said. "Who do you pick in the fight tonight?"

"Muhammad Ali," she smiled. Mrs. Terry was a confirmed sixties gal, leftie to the bone. I even remember the laced-up boots she was wearing that day, kind of a counterculture fashion statement of that era.

Media coverage of what Norman Mailer would call "The Fight" in a book he wrote about this event entitled The Fight (Mailer was rich enough to have a ringside seat -- oh, yes, the celebrities and "beautiful people" were out in force at Madison Square Garden that night, including Mailer, Frank Sinatra, and a phalanx of flamboyantly-dressed black men who called themselves "Ali's Army") was kept very tight. This was YEARS before pay-per-view, and the forces of greed were not giving away anything for free. There was no television coverage, except perhaps closed-circuit, the ancestor of pay-per-view.

Since I brought up closed-circuit and called it "the ancestor of pay-per-view," I'll fill in those of you who were born after the advent of HBO and are too young to remember closed-circuit, how it worked.

In fact I'll tell you, as we dreary old people tend to, from personal experience. 

And that experience, coincidentally, involves Muhammad Ali.

On October 26, 1970, a few months prior to "The Fight," Ali staged his first "comeback" bout after having been stripped of the heavyweight title three years earlier.

He fought Jerry Quarry that night, and dispatched him quickly. I saw this fight, even though television was not allowed. How? Via "closed-circuit:" The Ali-Quarry fight was shown on a big closed-circuit screen at the San Diego International Sports Arena. You had to buy a ticket to come and watch this bout on the big TV. Someone gave my father two tickets, and he took me along to see Quarry vs. Ali, which if you blinked you might have missed it. The bout was stopped after three rounds when a cut over Quarry's eye could not be closed. (You could still smoke in public in those days, and I will never forget the sight of my father, along with his Immigration Service buddies, standing there with a cigar in his mouth, shouting encouragement to the video image of doomed Jerry Quarry.)

Muhammad Ali on the "comeback
trail," 1970. He dispatched Jerry
Quarry in three rounds.
The fight lasted all of nine minutes. And I still had to go home and do my homework. Damn.

Still, seeing Ali-Quarry in October of '70 was a treat, despite the shortness of the fight.

The Ali-Quarry match raised some eyebrows, by the way, over how suddenly it was stopped. I overheard my dad remarking to his INS pals, "The question is, who's in the tank?"

I was writing juvenile poetry by then, and duly wrote a poem entitled The Question Is, Who's In The Tank?: Reflections On The Ali-Quarry Fight. Mercifully, it is long lost.

My dad and I did not get to see "Ali-Frazier I,"  as the fight later came to be called (see "World War I" for marketing references) on closed-circuit TV. Evidently nobody gave my father tickets to this one, although I'm sure The Fight was shown on closed-circuit TV in some venues, for those who could pay. And I'm sure that those who could pay had to pay a lot. My family was poor in those days. We had to make do.

We did. The best we could do, Dad and me, was to follow the 50-word summaries of each round which were allowed to be broadcast on the radio after each round ended. We sat in the kitchen together that night, as I'm sure millions of others all over America did, our ears glued to the radio.

I doubt that a boxing match had attracted this much attention since Billy Conn fought Joe Louis in 1941.

My father and I rooted passionately for "Smokin' Joe." It was 1971, Muhammad Ali was an America-hating traitor, (and probably hated white people as well; after all, he was a Black Muslim, a follower of Elijah Muhammad, the successor of the assassinated Malcolm X, and we had all heard the anti-white rhetoric of Malcolm X), and we wanted Frazier to pound him into dust.

Personally, as I had told Mr. Chapman that morning, I did not think it was going to happen. In fact I didn't think Frazier had a prayer. During the 1960's, on ABC's Wide World of Sports and elsewhere, I had watched Ali destroy one opponent after another.

Ali seemed invincible.

Of course I was just a kid then, and didn't know that Ali, for TV's benefit, had been fighting a series of opponents during the mid-1960s who really didn't deserve to be in the same ring with him.

To cement his reputation as "The Greatest," having won the Olympic gold medal and then beaten such real champs as Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson earlier in the decade, Ali "defended" his title against a list of nobodies which included George Chuvalo, Brian London, Karl Mildenburger, and a fellow named Cleveland "Big Cat" Williams, who, a few months before climbing into the ring with Ali, had been shot by a Texas policeman. Williams was missing one kidney plus ten feet of his small intestine, and had nerve damage in one leg to boot. Ali beat Williams in three rounds. No big surprise there.

In view of  "matchups" such as these, by the time Ali was stripped of his title in 1967, more than one sportswriter was accusing him and his manager, Angelo Dundee, of running a "Bum-of-The-Month" club.

But as a child I was taken in by all the hype. The media wanted us to think Ali was unbeatable, and I believed them.

Goliath. And worse yet, a Goliath who openly hated America, had a big, loud mouth (and probably hated white people.)

We needed a patriotic David to take him down.  But I didn't think such a figure existed.

I had no faith that Frazier, or anyone else, could do the job. I'd seen Ali plow under too many opponents, not realizing that so many of them were handpicked straw men. Jerry Quarry was a fighter of some reputation (good grief, he even made an appearance on I Dream of Jeannie!) but he wasn't in Ali's league.

Surprise: Frazier not only beat Ali that night, but knocked him flat on his ass in the 15th round.

And if Frazier didn't quite break Ali's jaw, (that honor would go to my fellow San Diegan Ken Norton two years later, when Norton defeated Ali for the North American Boxing Federation title), Frazier did give Ali a swollen jaw, which I saw a few nights later on The Dick Cavett Show.

Oh-kay, for you GenX'ers, GenY'ers and GenZero'ers who don't remember The Dick Cavett Show or Dick Cavett, his was a late-night talk show on ABC television in those days.

Cavett often had controversial and/or political figures on his show as guests. The '70s media called him "The Thinking Man's Johnny Carson."

Of course, that last sentence would require that I explain to you under-35's who Johnny Carson was.

Heck with it. Google him.

Anyway, March 8, 1971 was a "moment" which would not be repeated. Ali eventually won the title back from Frazier, and defended it successfully a number of times as the nineteen-seventies went on. 

Not to take anything from Ali; maybe we can blame his manager, but again, it was "Bum-of-the-Month Club" time for while. 

In 1975, for example, Ali fought Chuck Wepner, a Bayonne, Wisconsin liquor store owner who may have been as tough as nails, (he was) but as a fighter he was a journeyman rather than the master Ali was. Wepner was known as "The Bayonne Bleeder" for the ease with which a rival fighter could cut him. Ali-Wepner was a joke.

I actually watched this fight on TV. The late Howard Cosell, a sportscaster who had a somewhat-prickly relationship with Ali, (and also with the rest of the nation) commented that this bout between Wepner and Ali would at best give Wepner a good story he could tell in his Bayonne liquor store years later.

That's all Cosell would give Wepner. But Wepner did earn it. He had no business fighting Muhammad Ali. But he probably did plenty of liquor store business later, based on the fact that he had fought Muhammad Ali, boxing's equivalent of "I once pitched batting practice to Albert Pujols."

Ali, aging by now, lost his title to Leon Spinks in 1978. He won it back from Spinks, as he had won it back from everyone else who ever took it away from him. But after losing a 10-round decision to Trevor Berbick in 1981, Ali retired from the ring.

(I was a 26 year-old reporter in Vacaville, CA when Ali fought Berbick, and although not a member of the sports staff, I wrote a feature story about Ali's career for my newspaper.)

Jumping back to 10 years earlier, I also remember watching Ali's 1971 interview with Dick Cavett, a few nights after his loss to Frazier.

I was impressed that Ali was man enough to admit that Frazier had bested him. Speaking through that swollen jaw, Ali told Cavett, "All that talk you've heard about his left hook? That ain't just talk. When you see me on my backside, you know that punch had something behind it."

Good sport, Ali, despite his earlier reputation as a screechy, self-promoting loudmouth.

March 8, 1971: Round 15. After knocking
Muhammad Ali on his ass, Joe Frazier walks
back to his corner.

The end of the Vietnam War cooled a lot of passions, and by the time Ali's career entered its twilight half-a-dozen years later, many people who had cheered for Frazier to pound the daylights out of him for refusing to serve in the Army had changed their tunes.

One of them was my own father. By 1972, angry (along with a lot of other people) at Richard Nixon, and getting fed up with the way the Vietnam thing just seemed to keep going on and on and on in the nightly news, with no end in sight, my father remarked, "You know, goddammit, I'm starting to understand how the young people in this country feel! This Vietnam bullshit has gone on long enough!"

It should therefore come as no surprise that when Ali fought Earnie Shavers on the night of September 29, 1977, and the pre-fight warm-up included a short clip of Ali, relaxed in his jogging suit, saying softly that he was through with fame and glory and now just wanted to "help people," Dad remarked, "He's a great guy!"

He was a great guy, Ali. And is. I don't know how much of this was PR-driven, but I do recall that when 52 Americans were being held hostage by murderous fanatics at the American Embassy in Tehran in 1980, Ali spoke up. (One of those murderous fanatics, by the way, is now the president of Iran, but that's a discussion for another day.) Ali offered to exchange himself for the 52. "I'm a Muslim," he told the press, "I don't think they'd hurt me."

If true, it's a great story and a tribute to a man with a big heart.

Unfortunately, it seems that Frazier spent his post-ring years shadow-boxing. He maintained over and over that he despised Ali and wanted to fight him one more time. It almost became his trademark. 

And then, more disappointment: Frazier's own son did show some promise as a fighter, but not much. As a colleague of mine who was knowledgeable about boxing said, "He's not Dad." Well, who was?

The terribly sad thing was, what could Frazier do in the shadow of a man with such an aura as Ali had?

Not much. I feel sorry not just for Frazier, but for all fighters who had to fight in Muhammad Ali's charismatic  "aura."

In fact I don't think I feel sorrier for anyone than poor old Larry Holmes, who had the misfortune to inherit the heavyweight title after Ali had retired. Kind of like being Louis XV: who was going to notice the king of France who followed Le roi soleil, Louis XIV? Holmes was a great fighter, but after the flamboyant Muhammad Ali, who was going to remember him?

Me.  And I will also remember Joe Frazier.