Sunday, December 27, 2009

Valedico Decadis Horribilis

To paraphrase Queen Elizabeth II, we're about to bid farewell to a decadis horribilis. To be sure, there have been rotten decades before, but there were always redemptive events to counter-balance the daily drumbeat of doom and despair. The fifties gave us McCarthyism, the Red Scare, and "Duck and Cover," but also Elvis, Chuck Berry and Jonas Salk. Anyone nostalgic for the sixties was obviously not someone in the line of fire. But amid war, assassinations, generational conflict, the draft, and the daily televised body count, we had the Beatles within a flowering garden of popular music, and a self-created counter-culture with unprecedented expressions of artistic freedom.

The seventies brought inflation, oil embargoes, gas lines, hostage crises, a cocaine epidemic among young professionals, and Disco. But on the bright side, we had the Bicentennial and Quaaludes. Reaganism ruled the eighties, with his theory of "trickle-down economics" sewing the seeds for the most recent orgy of fiscal de-regulation and near economic meltdown. Military budgets ballooned and social programs were cut adrift while the Christian right muscled a seat at the table and an age of rah-rah, jingoism returned to America. Iranian revolutionaries who had humiliated the U.S. were rewarded with illegal weapons sales and once empty CIA planes returning from money drops to Contras in Nicaragua, now came home loaded with something new for the Pepsi Generation; crack cocaine. On the positive side, we beat the Russians in hockey.

The nineties were the uproariously entertaining Clinton years, where grown-ups were forced to explain the meaning of oral sex to their children. For what more could we have asked? Scandals, investigations, wiretaps, blue dresses, cigars, impeachment; the Clintons delivered it all, and more. Hillary's heartaches and what "is" is, live on in our common psyche. But, in the words of James Carville, "What didn't you like; the peace or the prosperity?" Bubba coulda' been a contenda' if he had just holstered his weapon once in a while. Everyone eventually grew weary of the whole circus, but they took it out on Al Gore.

The laughter ended in 2000 when a politicized Supreme Court actually stopped a vote count in progress and awarded the presidency to the intellectually challenged George W. Bush, a decision that ranks up there in wisdom with Dred Scott. Thus, the prophesy made by humorist H.L. Mencken in 1920, was fulfilled; that, "On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." The Great Stem-Cell Compromise of 2001 was so exhausting, the whole Bush gang went on vacation, and, of course, we know what happened then. We were all behind Bush that awful day and, without exception, wanted our president to succeed. Something redemptive might have arisen from that terrible tragedy, but Bush began following a playbook from an earlier age. A dark time of imperial arrogance and deceit descended upon this nation, and if you disagree with that statement, you may be part of the problem.

In another time, during another war, when things were going badly and people were marching in the streets, a president demonized dissenters as "bums" and "traitors," and energized his base to rise up against these scruffy protesters. Violence and riots followed. Richard Nixon, during a volatile time of social upheaval, unnecessarily polarized society between young and old, black and white, and rich and poor for personal political gain. Only resignation saved him from being booted from office for abuse of power. The next such divisive president, casting aspersions of disloyalty and treason toward those who would oppose him and fraying the nation's societal fabric in the process, was old GeeDubya "Bring 'Em On" Bush. And who was the common link connecting the political philosophies of the Nixon and Bush governments? Dick Cheney, Master of Disaster.

The decade's nadir came exactly midway with Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The country was shocked to see such an unrelenting tragedy compounded by the government's ineptitude; the same government that plunged us into two wars and an economic catastrophe unmatched since the "Roaring Twenties." But Bush was such a one-man, walking disaster that he made it possible for the first African-American to be elected president. So, just here, at this miserable decade's twilight, comes the glimmer of hope of what's possible in the next; affordable health care, resolution to wars of choice, government infrastructure projects and the accompanying jobs that follow, high-speed rail to finally compete with the airlines, quality public education and reasonable college costs. Positive things can happen when people finally decide to work together. Of course, I believed John Kerry was going to be elected president too.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

I Jammed With Bat Masterson

The recent death of the actor Gene Barry brought a wash of memories over me about the occasion he visited Memphis. At the time, Barry was starring in the lead role of the hit TV western, "Bat Masterson," the legendary Dodge City lawman, and was to be the featured attraction at the Mid-South Fair's annual rodeo. Cowboy stars like Roy Rogers and Lash LaRue had appeared in years before him, but Barry's series was among TV's top rated shows when he was booked for the fair appearance, guaranteeing a large segment of the audience would be his young fans. I'm certain Barry thought his Memphis stop would be a breeze, but then he never expected to encounter Sputnik Monroe.

The evil professional wrestler with the skunk-like white streak in his hair was already the second best known face in Memphis, after Elvis, when he decided to seek even more public outrage by going to the fairgrounds to stalk Gene Barry. Robert Gordon, in his vastly entertaining book "It Came From Memphis," got the scoop years later from Sputnik himself. Monroe explained calmly, "I read in the paper where Gene Barry was coming to the Mid-South Fair and I went out there to hit him in the nose for copying the way I dress. I was born and raised in Dodge City, Kansas, which is the cowboy town of the world. Gene Barry was the star on 'Bat Masterson' and dressed like I dressed, with a homburg and a vest. I figured if I jerked him off a horse and hit him in the nose for dressing Dodge City-style, I'd get a national reputation." In Sputnik's world, such were the just desserts for impersonating a cowboy. The police kept Sputnik at bay and Bat/Barry's appearance went smoothly, but the Hollywood cowpoke probably never appreciated his near miss with meeting mayhem in Memphis. As it was, Sputnik picked a fight with a rodeo cowboy and made the morning paper's front page. The authentic clipping was sent to me by Sputnik's arch ring enemy, the great Billy Wicks. (Click on clip to enlarge).

The following morning, as we did every Sunday, my sister, Susan, and I attended Temple Israel Sunday School, but returned home to see a sleek town car in the driveway. My mother told us we had a visitor and when we walked into the living room, my jaw dropped. There was Gene Barry himself, sitting at the dining room table having a Sunday brunch. When my father asked if I knew who this was, I replied, "Sure, it's Bat Masterson." The New York bred actor, born Eugene Klass, was the brother-in-law of one of my father's business associates in California. When he found he was coming to Memphis for the weekend, his kinfolks called my mother to ask if there was a good place for a nice, Jewish TV star to get some lox and bagels without being mobbed by fans. "For that," Mom replied, "he'll probably have to come to my house." So there I stood, at age eleven, trying to process the sight of Bat Masterson sitting with my parents, spreading cream cheese on a toasted bagel.

Barry was gracious in the extreme and offered rodeo tickets to my sister and me. When he heard I was an aspiring guitarist, he insisted that I play for him. I had gotten through, "Don't Be Cruel," and "The Battle of New Orleans," when Barry enthusiastically said that he wanted to play along. So, I fetched a pair of bongo drums which I had acquired resulting from my admiration of Maynard G. Krebbs. With bongos firmly clamped between his knees, Gene Barry and I set off into the strangest, rollicking medley of nearly every folk and rock song that I knew. After a laugh-filled jam session, the handsome actor cheerfully suggested that we take the show on the road. Barry withdrew a publicity photo from an attache case and signed it; "To my pal Rand, from his pal Bat," then after expressing his gratitude to my parents and bidding his farewells, Barry opened the front door to find a half-dozen neighborhood kids who had somehow found out about the visit. He was generous to the last child before taking the wheel and heading off to some glamorous hotel suite.

I was still in the thrall of Bat's visit when I spread the morning paper on the floor and saw the article about Sputnik Monroe. I was enraged that this vile man would try to attack such a hero of TV westerns, and I was glad to see Sputnik wrapped in bandages after his fight with the itinerant cowboy. Had someone told me then that I would one day come to revere the man and take his name as a nom de plume, I would surely have asserted that they were insane. I kept up with Gene Barry as a secret pal, but when "Bat Masterson" was finally cancelled, my interest waned, and I never did like the show "Burke's Law" so much. Not so with Sputnik Monroe, who continued to wreck havoc in and out of the ring for another decade and cemented his legend in Memphis history, while personally defending my young ass in the process. But that's another story.

Gene Barry continued his successful career in movies and television and was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in the original "La Cage aux Folles" on Broadway. His death at the Motion Picture Home in California at age 90 reminded me how quickly life passes. Although I am older now than he was then, I still vividly recall a rugged-looking man with a big laugh asking my father to please pass the lox, and an actor completely at ease in the company of my family, playing the bongos with abandon and a smile while I wailed away on the guitar. The genial Mr. Barry never realized how close he had come to a Memphis-style ass-kicking the previous night. I liked Gene Barry a great deal, and I'm grateful for the afternoon we spent together. My single regret is that if I had only kept in personal touch with him for a few more years, I could have introduced him to Sputnik Monroe, and they might have reminisced about their respective days in old Dodge City.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Obama's War

After Vietnam, I measure a war's nobility of purpose by asking two simple questions: Would I give my life for it, or ask my daughter or son to give theirs? The answer concerning the war in Afghanistan on both counts is "no." I don't understand the logic of committing 30,000 more troops to a guerrilla war that can't be fought with a standing army. The British have already tried that, not only in Afghanistan, but in another tussle known as the American Revolution, with similar results. I don't believe that the President, as a student of history, will repeat the mistakes of Vietnam, yet here we are again, facing an enemy that could be a merchant by day and an insurgent by night, defending a corrupt government that lacks popular support, and an enthusiastic general requesting more troops to "complete the job," only his name is McChrystal instead of Westmoreland.

While the real enemy, Al Qaeda, has an estimated presence in Afghanistan small enough to be defeated by the Tennessee National Guard, their legions have purportedly crossed into Pakistan, as Sec. Clinton so bluntly pointed out to their prime minister. So, it's hard to know who the enemy is in Afghanistan. The Taliban are a nasty bunch, as attested by the news footage of them whipping women in the streets, or blowing up ancient Buddhist statues, long before we invaded. But the purpose for their removal was for harboring bin Laden and friends, not for being religious extremists. I realize that the U.S. must present force in the region to prevent the murderous conspirators who attacked us from regaining a foothold to plot new atrocities. But history and the Mossad have proven that terrorists are better fought with special forces trained for that purpose. If U.S. personnel cross borders to pursue the assassins, I don't necessarily want to know how the sausage is made.

It's not that I don't trust the president's judgement by listening to the military's eternal call of "more troops," or General McChrystal's veracity, although he was involved in the cover-up regarding the death of Pat Tillman; It's Sec. of Defense Robert Gates that I believe. This is a man deserving of one of those Medals of Freedom that Bush used to hand out like prizes from a box of Cracker Jacks. Gates is serving his third president during wartime, having been retrieved from academia to rectify the worldwide chaos wrought by Donald Rumsfeld. Having previously served as head of the CIA, he could have comfortably remained president of Texas A&M, but chose to serve the country again by re-directing the strategy in Iraq, and staying on as secretary under Obama to focus on the indecipherable dilemma that is Afghanistan. Through it all, Gates' primary concern has been for the troops, both in the field and after returning home. If this genuine patriot and public servant believes that more troops now will bring this war to a faster conclusion, then I'm prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Several major differences exist between today's wars and Vietnam. For starters, today's soldiers are volunteers, while the Vietnam War was fed with draftees who were forced to go fight in an alien land or face jail. The war in Indochina was expanded by LBJ primarily over the issue of the size of his balls. He famously said, "I'm not gonna' be the first American president to lose a war." Nixon and Kissinger had the same missile-headed reflexes and cost millions of more lives. Afghanistan, however, was the staging ground for the attacks against us and deserving of retaliation. Now, Obama has the delicate task of extracting us from this morass. No one can accuse him of bait-and-switch on this issue. He campaigned on the promise to bring the focus of our national security back to the region that still endangers us. If the Gates-McCrystal strategy succeeds, I suggest we never again commit troops to any country with a "stan" in its name.

It's too bad the Obama haters won't be listening to his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Oslo out of general, misguided principle. But they would only still despise him anyway. Had they listened, they would have heard a Chief of State describe the use of arms against an unprincipled enemy as "just," in defense of the citizens he is sworn to protect. He also reminded the "effete" Europeans that the conservatives are so eager to loathe, that their freedoms over the last century have been purchased with large doses of American blood. Obama stated something even Dubya could love; "There is evil in the world that must be confronted." This sober, thoughtful, and historic speech should forever put to rest the wing-nuts' insistence that Obama is somehow un-American, or acting on behalf of dubious forces beyond our borders; but it won't. They have become so engulfed by hatred and misguided outrage, orchestrated by right-wing, self-serving, on-air, borderline seditionists, that they can't see the man standing before them has become the legitimate Commander in Chief of the United States. And no one is blinder than he who won't see.