07 February 2016

Recalling a One-of-a-Kind Friend, Ed Burns (Not the Famous One) Who Embodied Many Types in One Fascinating Persona

He was called an inside out oreo cookie -- pasty white on the outside but culturally African American on the inside. He was also a Chicano who spoke fluent Spanish. He was a cowboy who loved country and western music and wore a cowboy hat. He was politically a radical. He was an ex Marine who when I last saw him had re-enlisted. He read poetry and literary fiction. He drank beer copiously. He was soccer goalie on his college team. He had one testicle. He didn’t just march to the beat of a different drummer, he followed an entire percussion section. His name was just plain old Ed Burns and he was one of the most unique characters I’ve ever known and one of the best friends I ever had.

I knew Ed vaguely before college. We played for a short time on the same soccer team. He looked like a pretty square dude and your first impression of him would be that he was an ordinary joe who was more likely to be pumping gas and fixing trucks than anything else. I can still hear his voice. It was uninflected and fairly flat, a little high pitched. I’d have guessed he was from Oklahoma. Ed was a likable sort but seemingly dull as dishwater. He was anything but.

A few years later he came to Chico State where I was variously matriculating and partying, he was the backup goalkeeper on the soccer team. It was then I got to know him. Ed was good time waiting to happen. Every party he showed up at was more fun for his presence. Every bar he walked into got a little livelier and more interesting. Every conversation he had could go into any number of directions. He would extoll the Black Panthers and discuss soul music. He would then talk baseball. Then Latino heroes. Then the US Marine Corps. Then he’d just laugh. Ed loved to laugh. His was a delightful cackle, more like a child’s laugh. Ed was the least boring person I ever met.

We once hitchhiked all the way from Chico to Orange Country to attend a wedding. It’s an entire story in and of itself. I wouldn’t have thumbed such a long way with anyone else. We actually got dropped off by a truck driver in the heart of Compton. We called our friends and asked them to pick us up there. It was a long haul for them and so we sat, at night, at a bus stop, the only white people around. Ed had a greater sense of the possible dangers than I did and was clearly nervous. Several suspicious cars offered us rides that we politely turned down. When our friends arrived after nearly an hour, they begged us to get in the car quickly because they wanted to get the hell out of there.

Ed was a party animal and an intellectual who could hold opposing political views in his mind at the same time and understand both. He was not dogmatic or an ideologue. Most of all Ed was an enthusiast who pursued life with vigor. But he was also troubled. Ed was of so many types, so rich in character that he could never settle into life. He lacked direction and focus. Thus he was unable to settle on a major in college. He wanted to learn about and do everything so the notion of a single field of study, a single pursuit, was totally unappealing. For all that Ed did and thought and cared about he was also sad. I don’t remember what his home life had been. I just knew that he’d grown up fairly poor in Richmond in an unstable home. Ed had to fend for himself at an early age. He could never manage a long term successful romantic relationship. For all Ed’s vitality he was shy around women and clearly had some insecurities.

It took me years to understand why he went back to the Marines before finishing college. Ed had always spoken of the Corps as an awful experience. This despite his appreciation for the Marines which came despite his predominantly left wing political views. I finally realized that Ed needed the structure of the marines. Outside the service he couldn’t function effectively. There was too much freedom and he had too many directions to go. He needed stability and structure and the marines gave him that. Perhaps his second tour gave Ed time to find himself, to settle on one overriding passion. Maybe he just hid out there. I don't know. Life is like that. There's a lot we don't ever get to know.

Ed was in some ways a creature of his times. He grew up in the Sixties and was heavily influenced by political and social movements and the ethnic groups he was surrounded by. He was a potpourri, adopting what he liked of this and what he liked of that and what he liked of those things over there and these things here. Mostly he appreciated people and absorbed what they knew and listened to their perspectives. Ed Burns thought for himself but he partied with everyone.

It’s been over 35 years since I last heard from or of Ed and I haven’t the foggiest notion what became of him. I’ve tried to google him but with such a common name, and one shared with a famous actor at that, it is next to impossible to dig up anything that is conclusively about him, not everyone leaves a cyber trail like I do. I’m ridiculously easy to find. there is currently no one on the planet who shares my name and I have a blog with my email address on it. I couldn’t be easier to track down. I look forward to continuing to hear from you long lost friends and associates and co-workers and classmates and teammates, especially you, Ed.

I hope that Ed used has used his intellect and found a focus in life. He would have made a good partner for someone and been a good father. I’m pretty sure that he needed counseling and I hope he got it.  I hope he is happy and still making others around him happy. The world needs more Eds. But not too many, we wouldn't his type to be common place.

For my part I wish that I could have stayed in touch with Ed. He was special. To quote Jack Kerouac: “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” That was Ed to a tee.

04 February 2016

This Time in College When I Met a Vietnam Vet who was Selling Weed and How Strange it all was

Junior year at Chico State, this is in the mid 1970s, I go with this friend of mine, Gary to some guy’s house. Gary is going to buy some weed. The two of us had been sitting on his front porch drinking beer for the last hour and needed to do something. It was too early in the day to get roaring drunk.

So we go to this guy’s house. It’s pretty nice, at least compared to what I’m used to as a college student. Gary raps on the door and I hear this voice yell, “who is it?” like he’s half mad and half annoyed. Gary hollers his name and looks down intently at his feet. I’m kind of looking around at the yard and the trees and noticing the well groomed lawn. I’m seeing everything through a late afternoon beer buzz which makes the world a little duller but a little nicer.

Finally we hear footsteps and the door swings open. “Hey Corbyn,” Gary says real friendly, which is the way Gary is with everybody.  Corbyn kind of mutters a hello and says for us to come in. I’m introduced and Corbyn acts like he couldn’t give a shit about meeting me. He doesn’t look like my image of a guy who — as Gary told me before — sells a lot of weed. He’s got short hair, a mustache, and glasses and wears a plaid shirt and brand new jeans and shuffles along in real fancy looking slippers like your rich uncle would wear. He’s got tawny skin like he spends a lot of time in the sun. In fact looking at Corbyn you think he's an accountant on his day off, a well-to-do accountant who jets to Bermuda all the time.

Corbyn sit and indicates we should do the same. He finally bothers to look at me and its like he sees right through my bullshit right away. There’s something about this guy like you can’t fool him and he’s smarter than everybody else and there’s no way in hell you could win an argument from him. I look at Corybn and think: “would it kill this motherfucker to smile once?” He really does look like he hates everything and anything he has to do — especially for someone else — is just a royal pain in the ass.

“So what’s your deal, man?” he says to me. I’m thinking, what the fuck? I mean who ever says that to anybody especially someone you just met. “Me?” I finally say which I know is not exactly brilliant, because of course he’s obviously talking to me, but like I said I got a pretty good beer buzz going.

“Yeah, man. You.” He says the “you” like he’s spitting some shit out of his mouth.

“I’m just a friend of Gary’s come along for the ride, so to speak.” I’m thinking there’s no way that answer can’t satisfy him but there's no way any answer could satisfy him.

“What’s the deal here, Corbyn?” Gary wants to know, still grinning like he always does.

“I don’t know that I feel all that comfortable with him here,” he says eyeballing me.

I’m offended by this but there’s also something about this dude that makes me think maybe I shouldn’t be here, maybe I need to figure out what the hell is wrong with me. If he doesn't like me maybe it's a reflection on me.

“He’s cool,” Gary insists.

Corbyn looks at me like he’s studying a suspicious package. Then he shakes out a Winston from a pack he’s got on this wooden coffee table we’re sitting around. Finally he turns his attention 100% to Gary and it’s now like I’m not there. What a mind fuck.

The two of them talk for awhile then Corbyn goes to another room for a minute and comes back with the marijuana. “Mendocino Red,” he says and drops in on the table. Gary gets a wad of cash out of his wallet and hands it to Corbyn who doesn’t bother counting it. I guess people know not to try to fuck over the guy and I guess people who buy from him know that whatever he’s selling his quality shit.

I’ve been sitting there getting bored and feeling the buzz dissipate. “Let’s go back to my place and fire some of this shit up,” Gary says, breaking into an even bigger smile than usual which hardly seems possible.

As we get up to leave I look at Corbyn like we’re gonna shake hands or at least say goodbye but he’s just studying his cigarette. Meanwhile I still have this feeling that he sees right through me. How can anyone have any secrets from this guy? I wonder. Fucking be impossible, I respond.

So Corbyn mutters a goodbye and Gary and I step outside and there’s this kid looking up at us. He’s like about six years old and has a snot bubble coming out of one nostril. “Hey Lonny,” Gary says, but the kid just stares at us with this goofy expression like he’s nuts or something. When we get into his car Gary tells me that Lonny is Corbyn’s kid and that Corbyn is the dude’s last name and his first name is Virgil but he prefers everyone call him Corbyn. He also says that the guy did a bunch of tours in Vietnam and saw a lot of combat and a had lot of buddies get killed and saw some real horrible other shit, which I suppose to be guys getting their nuts blown off or their legs or whatever by stepping on land mines. He also says that Lonny is a little bit retarded and that his mom isn’t married to Corbyn but they live together and she’s a nurse. I ask why Corbyn was so rude to me and Gary says he figures that having been in Nam will mess with anyone and sometimes he's just like that with people he's never met before. But, Gary adds, the guy sells primo weed and doesn't jack up the price.

By the time we get back to Gary’s my buzz is pretty much gone, plus I’m suddenly starving and just basically feel like shit. Having an afternoon high die off will do that to you. Gary’s pretty much feeling the same so we fire up a doobie, have a beer and go to Taco Bell where we order and eat like half the menu.

After that I’m feeling pretty good again and so too is Gary so we head over to a party a friend of ours is having. It’s kind of a bummer because there aren’t a lot of chicks there. Still Gary hooks up with this girl he dated once and I end up drinking tequila shots with some frat boys.

It’s sometime after midnight and I’m totally wasted and dancing with this skinny chick who’s looking nicer and nicer by the minute when the door swings open and there’s Corbyn. Gary has just come up from the basement where I guess he’s made it with the girl he was. He immediately asks Corbyn what’s up as does this guy who lives in the house who doesn’t know Corbyn and isn’t crazy about some uninvited stranger suddenly appearing so late in the evening. Corbyn says nothing but pulls out this big ass gun and points it straight ahead and then slowly moves it to one side and then the next like he’s showing he’s got us all covered.

“What the fuck, Corbyn?” Gary says and for once he’s not grinning.

Then Corbyn takes the gun and sticks it into his mouth and pulls the trigger. But there’s just a click. Half the room probably just about shit their pants. Corbyn laughs like a total lunatic and then turns and leaves. That gave us all something to talk about and wonder about for the rest of the party which we did. Much to my chagrin the skinny chick took off right after Corbyn's bizzaro visit.

Gary and this girl he’s with drop me at my place around 3:00. On the way Gary’s talking about how weird the whole scene with Corbyn was and that obviously the guy has mental problems. By this time I'm sick of the whole topic and I feel like I really hate Corbyn and wish I’d never seen the asshole. More and more I'm remembering how rude he was to me and how shitty he made me feel and I really could give a crap he was in Vietnam that's not an excuse for being a dick.

It was three weeks later when I go into this bar after my class and see Gary nursing a beer looking real somber. I ask him what’s up and he tells me he just heard that Corbyn was taken to a mental hospital after pointing his gun at Lonny and laughing. Lonny’s mom loved Corbyn and all but evidently she wasn’t having any of that shit, now way.

“That’s a real bummer,” I say. And I genuinely mean it even though I hated Corbyn. It totally blows that anyone has to go to the loony bin and that the little kid and his mom had to deal with that. So I repeat, "that's a real bummer."

“Yeah,” says Gary. “Now I don’t know where I’m gonna get such good dope.”


02 February 2016

An Appreciation of the Younger Female Generation at Work Leads to a Rare Positive Insight About the US

YesterdatyI rode the usual bus from work at the usual time through the usual streets to catch my usual train to my usual stop from which I’d walk my usual route home. This time a young woman from our student services office boarded and sat next to me. She’s one of those happy people in her very early 20s who is enjoying early adulthood and has myriad possibilities for the future, all of which are quite interesting and exciting. She has in fact already traveled a lot and has a university degree. She is very pretty, smart and fun to be around. If I were a young single man I’d be smitten. As it is it’s decades since I’ve been either and I have daughters her age and older. So I just enjoy her company.

There are a lot of young women about her age who work at the school. It makes me happy to be around them (for that matter many of our students are females in that age group). They are attractive and bright and wonderfully free of the type of cynicism that a lot of people let seep into their pores as they get older. They’ve got a good enough job and have endless possibilities ahead of them. Some have already found love and the others will have no trouble doing so.

I gravitate to these women because of their optimism. They take work seriously but not themselves. They still know the importance of having a jolly good time whenever life allows. They like people and trust them and are ever hopeful. They appreciate me because I’m “nice” and funny and I suppose, fatherly. In my salad days I was much the same though with a tendency to over indulge in the good times and possessing a precocious world weariness and premature cynicism. In many respects I was damaged goods, scarred by a difficult childhood and starting to be beset by various mental and emotional maladies that I struggle with — though thankfully to a far lesser extent — to this day. But generally men are much less carefree, less trusting and more likely to be burdened by ego.

Many people, as they age, yield easily to bitterness, regret and pessimism. The world is full of middle aged people who, to quote Oscar Wilde, “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Behind every bright cloud they see dark ones looming. Anything, they suppose, that can go wrong likely will. Many such people have been victims of love gone wrong. The one true one left them or never showed up.  More commonly they have not attained fame and fortune as seemed their predestination not so many years ago. Having to settle can be an awful lot. Life has many ways of knocking the hope from a person. It takes a strong character to absorb those blows and carry on with a smile and faith.

My dad managed that after mom went bonkers. It was a horribly cruel blow but he persevered and in so doing provided me a life lesson for the ages. I myself have gone through various incarnations and while badly bloodied and a bit bowed, know to forge ahead. My sense of humor has been invaluable. Family has also proven an immeasurable blessing. The absence of a happy one leaves one vulnerable and sometimes bitter.

Some of the middle aged people I work with cope by not embracing anything. Love and devotion leave a person exposed. Being cynical and mocking sentimentality are ways of forming a hard shell to protect oneself. It's like preventing romantic heartbreak by never dating.

There are other factors besides dashed dreams that can scar a life. Addiction, disease, illness, accident, loss and the blood brother of all those, bad luck. It’s remarkable to see anyone get past 30  without being afflicted by some horrible misfortune or other.

I work with older people (though not as old as me) as well and for the most part enjoy their company.  There’s one bloke who makes my skin crawl. He is — to me, at least — 100% affect. I don’t believe him. I don’t mean what he says, it’s likely his words tell the truth. It’s more his being which to me seems totally put on, straining credulity. Of course this is merely my take and I note that he gets on well with others. Be that is it may I have some appreciation or even affection and respect for the older set at work. But it is those “kids” who I enjoy being around. It’s not at all, as one of my daughters supposed, that they make me feel young. Indeed if anything they make me wistful for my youth. It is their genuine bright-eyed bushy tailedness that I seek. Of course this is coupled with their outspoken admiration and appreciation for me and my hijinks. Call it a mutual admiration society. I also make a point of checking in with those hard working souls in the office. Just a daily, "how's it going?" can mean a lot.

It seems also there is something very American about these women (even though, or maybe partially because, they hail from a wide spectrum of backgrounds). I am just about the last person on Earth to praise anything for being American, especially when it is personified in a person. So it surprises even me to acknowledge that their unfiltered joie de vivre coupled with a belief in positive outcomes, is a uniquely American trait. There is a lovely sort of naiveté to it all too. I guess this is something I can say for the US, there is a fundamental belief in the soul of this still young country that the pursuit of happiness is not just a phrase in the Declaration of Independence and that anything that needs to be done can and will be done. These women embody it. I like that about them.

It’s just darn nice to be around happy people.

31 January 2016

When I Worked in an Office

I used to work in an office. One of those nine to five kind of places where people connived to get corner offices and there was gossip and office politics and the men wore bland suits and the women uninteresting skirts and blouses. It was Coopers & Lybrand, one of the top five or six accounting firms in the country (it has since merged with one of the others) and I was a copyeditor and proofreader. This was in the early/mid ‘80s when my alcohol intake was at its zenith. Drinking heavily seemed to go quite well with working in a daily office grind with a cross bay commute.

There were two other copyeditors and a part timer. We had a supervisor and in an adjacent room were four people called word processors who would type. When I started I was working with two women. We were all in our mid to late twenties. One woman was from New York, very brassy, very loud, an addict who was in recovery but still using so she really wasn't in recovery. Her name was Joanne and she may rank as the single most self absorbed person I’ve ever met. We got along well enough although she could be pretty obnoxious. The other woman couldn’t have been more different. Her name as Melissa. She was a devout Christian, married with a baby at home and a husband who liked to pee sitting down (what, you think I’d make something like that up?). One day right after work hours we were all taken to a bar, it was Melinda’s first time in a saloon. Talk about straight-laced. Joanne dressed like a call girl and Melissa dressed like your grandmother. They both got along well enough with me, but not so much with each other.

The part timer was a very, very cute woman from the South named Julie. The first time she came in after I started she intentionally leaned forward and displayed a great deal of cleavage, actually it was more a view of virtually all of her breasts. She had planned this with Joanne to see if I’d peak (I did) so that they could determine whether I was gay or straight. The two men who worked in the typing department were both gay. One was very open and talked about sex a lot, his name was Michael and he was in an out of AA. The other was much more discreet. There were also two women in that office one was twice our age and the other was also in her 20s and had a massive crush on me. I’d have preferred Julie to have had the crush but such is life.

Our supervisor whose name was also was Julie and she was about the best boss I’ve ever had. She was a sweet middle aged woman married to a much much older man who was a raging bigot. I never got that relationship at all.

We were all pretty close and despite the tedium of our duties and the occasional Melissa-Joanne friction, it was a nice place to work, at least in our office, which was called the Report Department. Of course accountants would forever be sauntering in. Some were fresh faced lads just out of college desperate to make a good impression on higher ups. Others were middle aged middle track men hoping to hang in long enough to get promoted to the top rung or land a bigger job somewhere else. And occasionally we’d see one of the old fossils who’d already made a bundle of money and advanced as far as one could go at the firm. They were variously the mellowest gents, content with life and not needing to ruffle feathers, or they were salty, grumps still bossing people around never satisfied with anyone or anybody.

Mostly the accountants were white men. There were few women and virtually no one of color. It should come as no surprise that all the receptionists, secretaries and office mangers were women. The receptionists were usually just out of high school or college, often cute and wonderfully excited about life, sure that there futures were elsewhere. I dated one of them, but like most people who worked there in any capacity, she was not anywhere near being the type of person I would want to spend time with unless inebriated or well on the way to that condition.

Somehow gossip always made its way to us — usually via a receptionist or friendly secretary. Many of the accountants were cheating on their wives either on a regular basis with a paramour or in one  one night stands. Their partners for such assignations generally came from the secretarial pool. The less satisfying the job the greater the need for gossip, juicy tidbits to fill the day, give titillation. Thus the high premium on gossip.

Most of the accountants were decent enough sorts although some clearly looked at us as "the help" and thus lesser beings. A very few couldn't have been nicer. Two of them took me to lunch and many many drinks on my last day. Besides gossip there was an inordinate amount of time spent talking about personalities. It filled the time but was akin to the sports talk you hear on the radio, really just a lot of noise with no value. I never worked in a job in which clock watching an obsession with countdowns to weekends and holidays and vacations was so pronounced. To think that this is so typical of so many jobs is depressing indeed.

The offices were in a high rise right in the smack of San Francisco’s financial district. We were many floors up and could soak in nice views during lax times. When it wasn’t busy I could be counted on to orchestrate silly shenanigans, especially in the afternoons after I’d drank lunch. There were bars and restaurants aplenty around and I got acquainted with many of them either during lunch or after work. Sometimes there’d be celebrations that the brass would take us too and we’d feast on sumptuous meals and down the best kind of cocktail of all: ones on the house. Most of the accountants were eager drinkers and the younger ones — so we heard — were not above snorting a line or six during off hours or to help them through tax season.

It was while working there that I decided to enter the teaching profession. No doubt a deciding factor was realizing how much I hated so much about working in an office among suits whose profession revolved around the almighty dollar. I knew there had to be one helluva lot more meaningful ways to live. I’d previously been a journalist and a good one at that but dropped the profession as if it was a girlfriend I loved dearly and was well suited for but felt unworthy of. Teaching seemed a profession that had the same nobility as newspaper work so I pursued first a masters in history and then a credential.

There was nothing formative about my time at Coopers & Lybrand, at least so far as the work was concerned. I gained nothing from the job itself except perhaps that it started me on the road to being obsessive about grammar and spelling (except, oddly, my own which I still hate to proof read, edit and correct, as readers of this blog can testify). I made no lasting relationships there either. The two women I initially worked beside eventually moved on and their replacements were too hopelessly banal people who’s name I can’t even recall. I did get some insight into the way people work and the prison of the 9-5 Monday through Friday two to four weeks of vacations existence. It grinds people to dust. So many of the people who work in such places are terribly unhappy and unfulfilled during most of their waking hours. They are, as Thoreau put it, leading “lives of quiet desperation.” They scratch and claw for raises, more vacations, sick leave, better accommodations, promotions. Their professional lives are all about the end product because the process is prosaic and dreary. It is only through their bank accounts and possessions and time away from work that they find joy.

Working there aided and abetted my drinking and using. Indeed it gave fuller meaning to it. I carried on as I went back to school and then started my teaching career, but that was more the function of my addiction than it was a need to counteract the dulling effects of an office job. An office job. My god I had one once. Once for nearly three years was enough, more than.

28 January 2016

JFK and I - The Death and the Assassination

The most exciting things going on in America today are movements to change America.
- Mario Savio

It is impossible to overstate the impact the assassination of President John F. Kennedy had on millions of individuals. Myself included. I was nine years old. I remember Kennedy’s election but I have no clear memory of Eisenhower as president. Kennedy was really my first president. He was not some wrinkled, bespectacled old man who droned on and on like all other political leaders seemed to do. JFK came off as young, handsome, athletic and yet, for us kids, fatherly. He was my ideal of a president and leader. Even as a mere lad I could tell he was articulate and intelligent and suave.

My elementary school was a block and half from my grandmother’s house so I would go there everyday for lunch. I would sit down in the living room, turn on the TV and grandma would bring me a meal. One particular late November Friday afternoon I turned the set on expecting to watch the Donna Reed Show. Instead there were men in suits talking gravely about the president being shot and killed. Grandma and I watched in stunned silence. Then I returned to school and told all my chums that our president had been killed. Not a one of them believed me. It seemed too fantastic.

At the sound of the bell we returned to our classroom. Our teacher, Miss Phillips, was late entering the room. She finally came in fighting back tears. She told us of the events in Dallas and that we were dismissed for the day. Students all about whispered to me that I was right. What an awful vindication.

I was a nine year old boy and no world event, no matter how earth shattering, was going to bring me to tears or even worry me very much. I went home and like most Americans sat in front of the TV, but I also took time go outside and play as was my wont to do in those days. The shattering impact of Kennedy’s murder was slow to sink in, but over time the impact was profound. Not only was my ideal of a president gone, but Kennedy’s successor was Lyndon Johnson, just the type of wrinkled, bespectacled old man who to me epitomized the boring politician that predominated American politics. Worse still within a short time Johnson had escalated America’s immoral and costly participation in the Vietnam war. So in addition to not being Kennedy, he was a bad guy. (Whether Kennedy would have pulled troops out any sooner or disillusioned us by staying the course is a topic for another time.)

Of course the main issue was that my fragile trust in the United States was forever shattered. Patriotism seemed sadly passé, especially in light of the culture revolution that was ushered in within months of the Kennedy assassination by the arrival on American shores of The Beatles. Soon I had causes and beliefs and attitudes and hopes and they all centered around the new, the hip, the uber cool and the questioning of authority. The Beatles were just the biggest wave in tsunami of changes to the American psyche. The war became unpopular and protests were not just something guaranteed by the constitution but a veritable right of passage. The Civil Rights Movement, which preceded even Kennedy’s presidency, was still ascendent in the mid ‘60s.  Protest was individual as well as mass symbolized, in mine and many cases, by growing long hair (and thus coming into conflict with Dad).

Now other voices demanded to be heard. Women’s liberation, gay rights, Native American groups, created a wonderful cacophony of demands, questions, and grievances. All of it was in the name of a more equitable society that recognized past wrongs and would promise a fairer future. The raising of group conscienceless was accompanied by desires for individual explorations and expansions of the mind, the spirt and the body. The times were very much changing.

Kennedy was a martyr to an America that seemed no longer to exist, the one in which, as in World War II, Americans were the good guys. But there was hope that a new America in that mold could emerge when in 1968 JFK's dynamic and equally charismatic (to me, anyway) brother Robert, ran for the presidency. There was hope for our government yet if RFK could get elected. If John was a father figure, Robert was the cool uncle and he was in striking contrast to the other stodgy old men who were also seeking the presidency.

Then he was assassinated too. And this on the heels of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Now truly there was no hope, no chance, no way we could count our government to lead us. Anyone we could believe in would be killed. The world of politics was hopeless, it was no avenue for change. The government was an impenetrable monolith reserved for the elites and those elites were the old, wealthy and conservative. When instead of RFK, the next president was the impossibly square and inherently evil Richard Nixon, I was resigned. It was time for revolution.

Things only got worse as the war in Vietnam continued through Nixon’s first term and the beginning of his second. Indeed it was expanded into Cambodia and more bombs were dropped on our “enemies” in Southeast Asia than had been dropped by the U.S. in all of World War II. It was all so sad, so ludicrous and so emblematic of a cruel and unjust government. The entire Watergate affair merely confirmed what many of us suspected about the government, the real surprise was that it could be exposed. At least journalism was alive and well.

But any hopes for real change were dashed with the resounding electoral victories of Ronald Reagan. Some of us had had to endure him as California’s governor for eight years and now this conservative old man who unabashedly put the interests of rich, white, straight, men ahead of all else was president. Count me out. From the hope of Kennedy to the bleakness of Reagan was a tremendous fall.

Throughout all this there was another disturbing aspect of the Kennedy assassination that somehow managed to come to light despite efforts to suppress and obscure it. For me it was during those early dark years of the Reagan presidency that I first became aware of the fact that the official government account of the JFK assassination — that a lone kook named Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole assassin — was utter nonsense. I started devouring books about the assassination, many of which were far fetched, but no more so than the pronouncement of the Warren Commission that Oswald acted alone. It was all quite shocking. Not only had my president been struck down in his prime, but there were shadowy figures responsible, at least some of whom were linked to the US government.

Over the years there have been many bizarre theories about the assassin put forth to try to convince people that Oswald was the assassin. The magic bullet is one of those. Another has been aired more recently. A respected documentarian, Errol Morris made a short film explaining away the infamous Umbrella Man. There is irrefutable photographic evidence that during the assassin a man standing within view of Kennedy’s motorcade opened and closed an umbrella at about the time the shots were fired then strolled away. It looked for all the world like he was giving a signal, perhaps that the target had been hit. This was pretty difficult to explain, especially since no one could find the Umbrella Man. Morris’ film claims that someone belatedly came forward, many years after the fact, claiming to be the Umbrella Man. He explained that the opening of the umbrella was meant as a protest against Kennedy’s father’s appeasement policies before World War II while serving as US ambassador to England.

Of course.

Almost 20 years after the war was over people were still protesting against Kennedy’s father’s actions in such an obscure way? Even if JFK saw the umbrella man, is it logical to assume that he'd make the connection? It's perfectly logical to those who are desperate grasping at straws in an effort to prop up the lone assessing theory.  Why the umbrella man calmly walked away as or immediately after bullets were fired in the area he was standing has not been explained.

Even sans umbrella man, everything about the Warren Report was suspicious. Investigators put forth the "magic bullet" theory with a straight face, trying to convince us that this one bullet went one way then another way and yet another, causing multiple wounds to both Kennedy and Governor Connolly, finally coming out in almost pristine condition.

Here's are a few tidbits from a paper by the late Carl Oglesby, written in 1992, called Who Killed JFK, listing some items he felt created serious doubt about the Warren Report:

* Oswald's description was broadcast over police radio within fifteen minutes of the assassination. No one knows how this description was obtained.
* No interrogation records were kept for those arrested at Dealey Plaza, or for Oswald.
* The pictures of Oswald holding a gun appear to be faked.
* JFK's body was removed from Dallas before an autopsy could be performed there.
* JFK's corpse left Dallas wrapped in a sheet inside an ornamental bronze casket. It arrived at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington in a body bag inside a plain casket.
* The autopsy photographs of JFK's wounds differed radically from the descriptions of the doctors at Parkland Hospital.
* A whole tray of evidence, including what was left of the president's brain, remains missing from the National Archives.
* The pristine condition of "the magic bullet" found on JFK's stretcher suggests it was planted. Why? Because it is impossible for this to happen. It is not just suspicious, it is incriminating. This projectile was planted, period. Where and how would anyone get a pristine bullet that had been fired from that very rifle? It takes the work of a ballistics expert and possession of the barrel from the rifle itself, if not the intact rifle.
* Numerous films made by witnesses to the event were confiscated.
* Many more witnesses have died than would normally be expected, many in mysterious circumstances.
* Both the FBI and the CIA concealed important evidence from the Warren Commission.
* Oswald never, ever practiced against a moving target. He never in his life practiced bolt-action rapid fire shooting. The 6.5 mm Carcano is the best possible rifle to use if you want to make it tracable to a fired bullet that is used as evidence.

One of the more bizarre notions put forward by lone gunman kooks is that people -- presumably such as myself -- find more comfort in the idea of conspiracy to kill the president rather than the idea of one twisted individual. Seriously. Yes a still unmasked conspiracy probably involving the CIA is a real comfort. The contortions that supporters of the Warren Commission go through in defense of their contentions beggars belief.

It seems a virtual certainty that the CIA was involved in some level of the assassination, perhaps in cahoots with the Mafia (a group with whom they were having dealings at the time) and perhaps at the behest of the military or right wing extremists. It is impossible over 50 years after the event to say with certainty, so thorough has the cover up been. (By the way, should anyone ask the question you why hasn't anyone talked or confessed, the answer is many have, including the infamous Howard Hunt who made a death bed confession.). My further understanding of the John Kennedy assassination (there exists many questions too about Bobby Kennedy's slaying) has only added to the life long trauma stemming from his death. Once faith is shattered repairing it is virtually impossible.

I cannot pretend to fully understand exactly how the assassination has effected me. It suffices to realize that it both changed the world I lived in and changed me as an individual most deeply. It certainly started me on a life long path of mistrusting and questioning the US government. It also helped inure me to the horrendous sort of public tragedies that seemed to be daily occurrences in the tumultuous Sixties. But I never gave way to cynicism, the Sixties also taught me about the strength of solidarity, the power of the people and that hope springs eternal where there is love and faith and will.
"There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction." - John F. Kennedy

23 January 2016

Confession of a Murderer

I killed a man once. His name was Amon Kissenbee. He always wore an old corduroy jacket, a plain light blue shirt and khakis. Amon always had the sniffles but never blew his nose and that was just one of his irritating habits. He did this thing where he look right at you while he was talking to you, I mean right in the eyes, but when you spoke he’d look away. He’d also scratch behind an ear all the time and scrunch his face up while he did it.

Amon was a terrible athlete, a very bad singer, couldn’t write a decent sentence and had superficial knowledge of but few topics. But he constantly spoke of his athletic prowess, his nice singing voice, his writing talents and his towering intellect. Amon had no friends but always hung around with us. To an outsider it would appear he was part of the group. I suppose he was, but an uninvited one. Whenever we’d go on outings he’d be there, whenever there was a party he’d be there, whenever we were hanging out at the local bar, he’d be there. Amon always seemed to know where we were and when we’d be there. He'd be there talking your ear off and most of what he said was negative or self aggrandizing. Aside from me I don’t think anyone hated Amon. But I can say for sure that, including me, no one liked the bastard.

Somehow Amon always seemed to have a girl. No one could figure this out. After all he had the charm of a wharf rat and was hardly any better looking. Yet girls would go out with him. Once. Maybe a second time. It wouldn’t take long for a woman to suss Amon out for the jerk that he was.

Amon worked at a shipping firm but none of us knew exactly what he did there, not that anyone cared. I’m sure he told us all in great detail what he did and how damn important he was but we got so that we didn’t listen to the bum. All of us had all gone to college together and most of us had been flatmates at one time or another, except of course for Amon who had lived alone. No one could quite recall how Amon leeched onto us but all of us were sure none of us had ever encouraged his friendship or invited him to anything.

But like I said at the beginning I killed the guy. I’m not proud of ending a man’s life but neither am I particularly broken up about it either. It’s not like anyone would miss him. One thing we did gleam from Amon’s ramblings was that he was estranged from his family. Apparently his dad — who was in the money — essentially bought him off, giving him a big chunk of money to stay the hell away from the rest of the family for good and all. Of course when Amon told it he twisted it around in such a way that it seemed like his idea and that his family was all a bunch of kooks especially his dad and that he was well rid of them and that they were jealous of him and what not. That last one was a real scream. Jealous of what? What a crummy guy he was? How poorly he dressed? How talentless he was? How self absorbed he was?

So you’re probably wondering why the hell I’m writing this, confessing to a murder that I’ve gotten away with, a killing that did the world more good than harm and that hasn’t caused me a second of guilt. Well if you’re reading this it means I’m dead myself. I’ve left it as part of my will for this to be opened and read upon my passing. I hope it’s many years in the future and that I’ve had a good life. As I write this things look promising. I’ve embarked on a career in journalism, I’ve met a girl who may be my future wife and my health is excellent (I pause now to knock on wood — no use tempting fate).

It’s been a year since I murdered Amon Kissenbee and life has just been grand for all us. No one gets buttonholed by him anymore. We no longer have to endure his rants or half baked theories. Now when we get together it’s just people who like and respect and get along with one each other. There isn’t this massive ego in the room. There was, of course, an investigation into Amon’s death and his family came out but not for long and they clearly weren’t all that broken up about it. His father had told someone that they never thought they’d been seeing Amon again. The whole thing died down pretty quickly. The only thing that surprised anyone — and I don’t know why it should have — was that his company discovered he’d been skimming money off them, just a bit at a time in such a way that he wouldn’t have been caught for a long time, if ever. This tells you a lot about Amon Kissenbee, embezzling small amounts of dough when he’s already got a plenty in the bank. He was doing it just to do it.

So what happened was this. One Saturday afternoon we went for a  hike. Needless to say Amon found out and was of the seven of us who made the two hour drive to the mountains. We’d been on the trail for several hours enjoying the sights on a cool early spring day. Everyone was ready to head back. There was a bar and restaurant near where we parked and the plan was to have a few drinks and dinner before heading back. But there was a spot I knew of not far off and I wanted to go there before ending the hike. I decided to go it alone and meet everyone a half hour later. Amon had left his binoculars at a spot we’d just been at and went back to get it. So while five of our gang made for the restaurant, and Amon retrieved his binocs, I went for one last view.

It’s a great spot and I had a spectacular view.  I’d just gotten there and was soaking it all in when what should hear but that dumb jerk Amon Kissenbee calling my name. “I’ve come to check out this view you made such a big deal about,” Amon hollered as he approached me.

My heart sank. Of all the dirty rotten things. Here I was alone, lost in the moment, feeling on top of the world when this guy I hate crashes into the scene. It really exemplified his presence in my life. I was crestfallen and steaming mad at the same time.

Now a little background. In my backpack I had a pistol which I only ever used when hiking as protection against rattlesnakes. I’d found this pistol a few years before in an alley outside a bar. I theorized that someone had dumped it there after committing a crime. It still had four bullets in it.

As Amon neared me I thought of the gun and what a simple matter it would be to shoot him right here and now and do the world a big favor. I immediately dismissed the thought though because I’d never so much as punched a guy let alone shot one. But he was in rare form on this day. Yak, yak, yak without a pause between words. He wasn’t even looking at the view just babbling at me and to top it off complaining about the hike and how overrated this area was and on and on and how he’d have picked a better spot. It was too much. Amon had spoiled my afternoon just by showing up and he was making it worse now. Plus I faced the prospect of walking back with him. I simply could not take it.

When Amon started in on his hiking superior knowledge of local geography I’d had enough. I reached into my backpack, pulled out the gun and shot the bastard in the forehead. I had about one second of “oh my god what have I done?” before feeling an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Then I looked around. Not a soul. There’d been someone standing about where I was just before I arrived. His tracks led in the other direction. I tossed the gun (after wiping the prints) in that direction and headed back.

I didn’t tell anyone anything. I acted surprised that Amon hadn’t come back. We waited around and hour after eating then reported to a park ranger that “our friend” was missing. We drove back with no one seeming to be the least bit worried. The next day Amon’s body was discovered. The police never came up with a suspect, let alone a motive. We were all questioned (me especially only because I was the last to leave the area) but it never seemed any of us was under suspicion. To this date the case remains unsolved, a cold case.

So that’s it. My confession. I suppose that to many of you I’m a murderer, in addition to whatever else I can be defined as. Like I said I’ve never felt any regret but I also thought it right to pen this confession. There you have it. Judge me as you will.

Clement Q. Chance
April 12, 1956

Postscript. Clement Chance worked as a journalist for a few years then went into publishing where he became respected and wealthy. He married Doris Ledbetter in August 1958 and they had three children. Doris died in 2002 of complications during heart surgery. In addition to his three children, Mr. Chance is survived by four grandchildren. He died on January 1, 2016 at the age of 85. Unbeknownest to Mr. Chance, he'd been a prime suspect in the death of Amon Kissenbee, but the murder weapon was never found and there was no motive and not enough evidence for an indictment. 

17 January 2016

All We Are Saying, is Give Guns a Chance

"I'm a strong supporter of the second amendment. I have a right to protect my family if someone were to come after us," Rubio said. "In fact, if ISIS were to visit us, or our communities, at any moment, the last line of defense between ISIS and my family is the ability that I have to protect my family from them, or from a criminal, or anyone else who seeks to do us harm. Millions of Americans feel that way.” - Marco Rubio, Republican candidate for president.

I’m intrigued by this comment. Evidently Rubio feels that ISIS might pay a call to his Florida neighborhood. Frankly I didn't think that ISIS was in the habit of visiting anyplace in the United States but I could be wrong about that. If they have been visitors in this country surely they’ve been, if not welcome guests, peaceful ones. Because surely if they’d caused any mayhem the media would have been all over the story.

I wonder if Rubio is similarly worried about others paying a call. Does he imagine Al-Qaeda ringing his doorbell? Hamas? How about Nazis? Or a Mexican drug lord? Could he envision Boko Haram popping over? Does he worry about the Sicilian Mafia dropping by? Just what kind of visitors does the Senator actually get that make him worry so much about who'll be next?

I must say that Rubio is not much of a host. Visitors come, perhaps tourists, and he greets them with guns at the ready? What if they coming bearing gift baskets? Flowers or a nice fruit arrangement? Is he going to open the door with a .45 in his hand? Any paperboy coming to collect the monthly bill better hope he doesn’t bear any resemblance to terrorists or he might be staring at an uzi.

Rubio also said that he purchased a new gun on Christmas Eve. I’ll grant you, the guy knows how to get in the spirit of the season. Nothing says yuletide joy or peace on earth quite like a firearm. Sarah Palin, who you may recall was once the republican candidate for vice president (oh how he laughed!) mentioned in a book she wrote (wait, she really wrote a book? That means she’s written more of the things than she’s read) that in response to the backlash against guns after the Sandy Hook massacre, she bought her hubby a gun for Christmas. “As an act of civil disobedience.” That pretty much explains the term “gun nuts.” Yeah, when you legally buy a Christmas gift for your spouse you are carrying on the great tradition of Henry David Thoreau. When you buy one to show up people who want stricter gun laws in the aftermath of two dozen small children being slaughtered by a lunatic, you’re carrying on the great tradition of…of, uh, well gee its hard to think who the stupidest most insensitive lout in history is. Maybe she was carrying on her own tradition!

Rubio and Palin and other lovers of phallic symbols are convinced that President Obama and other people who abhor wanton gun violence, are trying to “take away” their guns. Personally, I’m of the opinion that there one helluva lot of people who need their guns taken away. And their bullets too.  But I’ve seen no proposals that even suggest taking away anyone’s gun. I have hear tell of suggested laws that would make it a teensy bit more difficult for crazy idiots to buy guns and maybe restricting who gets to buy those rifles that can mow down a roomful of people in less time than it takes to say: second amendment. But god forbid you take away the right to buy a bazooka or impose a 12 hour waiting period before you can purchase a flame thrower.

In Texas you get to carry your guns out in the open. It’s called open carry. Is that so people can show off and compare? Mine’s bigger than yours! Yeah well you should see mine when its erect! Mine is circumcised! Of course there are practical reasons for open carry laws. With your cock, I mean glock, where people can see it, those ISIS people who are visiting will think twice before blowing you up. Plus, if you suddenly have the need or the urge to open fire it’s probably easier to get to your gun. Here’s a tip: leave the safety off! Saves time.

I also understand that many gun owners want to keep their weapons so that they can ward off government agents who try to take those guns away or further infringe on their basic rights as an American. But I don’t think they’re going far enough. After all, the government has tanks, fighter jets, drones and nukes. Let’s make sure our citizenry is similarly armed. You know, a well-regulated militia is just not well-regulated enough with that the very latest in top of the line instruments of death.

I applaud Rubio and all the other mentally defective weapon lovers. Their ever increasing capacity to kill and maim their fellow man is making the country a safer place. Statistics, facts and the truth be damned!

15 January 2016

A Brief Telling of the Life and Times of Aimo Hourula on the 100th Anniversary of his Birth

Last night the television was on the Turner Classics Movie channel. They were airing a brief featurette on a long dead actor, his daughter was doing the narration. They air a lot of these, often with a descendant — usually a child — rhapsodizing about dad or mom.  As I heard this woman go on and on about her father I couldn’t help but think what I always do in such situations: “yeah, well my father was better.” Growing up I always thought I had the best father in the world. I still do.

My Dad would have turned 100 on Saturday and it seems a dirty rotten gyp that he’s not around for it. My Old Man was a tough SOB who fought for life up until his last second. His premature ending came about because, a few months after his 91st birthday, he’d gone on a salmon fishing trip in the Pacific Ocean (he caught the biggest fish of the day on the boat) while getting off the boat he slipped and hit his head on concrete. Dad hung in there for over ten months before succumbing. That fall was a fluke and if it hadn’t happened he’d be here yet.

His name was Aimo Johannes Hourula. He was born in Nivala, Finland, a small town in the north of the country. He was the first of seven children to Otto and Saimi Hourula. Many of my and previous generations grew up hearing from parents about having had to make long treks in the snow to get to school. In my case the speaker was not exaggerating. His was not an easy childhood, particularly in comparison to what he provided his own children, but basic needs were provided and Aimo never went to bed hungry. As a teenager my dad had to leave school and work in the mill, this was interrupted by a brief stint in the Air Force. Meanwhile he dreamed of seeing the world by way of the seas. Those dreams were put on hold when the Soviet Union invaded Finalnd in the winter of 1939. There was no hesitation, Aimo enlisted.

Finland won the hearts of the world with their brave stand against the Russians as their army killed almost five Soviets for ever Finn killed. But the Soviet Union's vast superiority in numbers could not be overcome and after three months of fighting a treaty was signed in which Finland was forced to cede some of their land. My dad never forgave the enemy and never used the word Soviet Union. “It’s Russia,” he would spit out whenever he heard the term USSR or Soviet Union spoken, even if on TV.

A few months after the war my dad stopped dreaming about seeing the world and just went out and saw it. He joined the merchant marines and spent much of World War II in dangerous seas. Twice he was on planes strafed by German planes and he was at the helm of a ship in the Arabian Sea that was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine. All hands survived and were soon picked up by a friendly tanker and brought to Iran.

Of course all this was the stuff of legends and is one reason why my father was a genuine hero to my older brother and I. He had stories to tell and he made a point not to embellish. One of my dad’s shipmates, on the ship that was sunk, Emil,  remained friends with my dad for years, but it always bothered my father that Emil would exaggerate the story of the attack claiming the loss of lives. My father’s stories were consistent (a sign of truth) and did not sound rehearsed (another sign).

As I grew older my father told me the adult version of his adventures. The reason he stayed in Buenos Aires for six months? He shacked up with a woman. An extended stay in Australia? Same thing, in that case he hightailed it out of the country when his flame’s parents started making noises about marriage. My father claimed to have bedded women in six continents. If only he'd made it to Antarctica.

My father’s favorite city was New York where he settled and met his future wife, my mother. Mom was born of Finnish parents in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dad and Gertrude Kurki had a whirlwind romance and married in December of 1945. By this time Aimo was in the US army, an opportunity he couldn’t pass up as it provided him US citizenship, a status he coveted.

Within a year the young couple moved to Berkeley and my father quickly became established as one of many successful Finnish born carpenters in the Bay Area. My dad was a carpenter for over 35 years and a very proud union member. He was also a very proud member of the Democratic party, unshakeable in his belief that a political party should protect the interests of the working man over those of corporations.

My big brother, Robert was born in 1947 and I arrived seven years later. Aimo was living the immigrant’s dream. He had a nuclear family, steady work, two cars, a house, was surrounded by friends and family and enjoyed vacations in Lake Tahoe as well as regular fishing and hunting trips and frequent visits to all manner of sports events. His health was always good and his marriage happy. Then the goddamned bottom fell out.

The single most important lesson I learned from my father was one he taught by example — whatever happens keep going. Do the next thing in front of you and don’t complain. If you’re supposed to get up and go to work you do it. If you have an appointment, go to it. Family obligations? Take care of them. A chore awaits you? Deal with it. Whenever life knocks you on your ass just get the hell up.

When the shitstorm hit, my father was devastated. He couldn’t make sense of it — not at all. But he took care of business just the same.

My mother suffered from what was likely bipolar disorder. She managed to keep her aberrant behavior under wraps — with I the the lone witness — for many years. Then it all came out. The paranoid ramblings, the angry screaming, the disassociation from family and the mad spending sprees. She moved out of the master bedroom and took to drinking which further fueled her madness.  My father’s dream American home was suddenly a nightmare.

But dad had an indefatigable spirit. He loved life and unconditionally loved his sons and — particularly in the case of me as younger and more vulnerable — was very protective. Laziness and irresponsibility were twin bete noires to Aimo Hourula. While unsuccessfully struggling with how to help his wife, his ineluctable spirit did not flag, he continued to be a parent, a worker, a friend, a brother and anything else that was required. This was a man bowed but not broken.

My father would come home from a long day at work and before having a beer or a shower or a bite to eat might shoot some hoops with me or toss the football or take me to the local field and hit me some fly balls. When I started my soccer career he came, not only to all my games, but to all my practices as well. As a player, coach and parent I've seen nothing to rival my Dad's dedication to watching and supporting me play. His love of sports had proved infectious to me and he delighted in taking me to baseball, basketball, football, soccer, ice hockey, track and field and boxing. We loved going to games together. Or anyplace else for that matter. He was a respected parent and a good and loyal friend.

We also talked a lot and no subject was taboo. After my mother’s growing insanity was far too obvious a problem to ignore, he consulted with the family doctor and took me along. When the doctor offered that this was perhaps not a topic for my young ears my father waved the suggestion off and said, “that’s okay.” It is difficult to describe how that made me feel and what an influence it has had in my life. I was trusted — at 12 years old, mind you — to hear the truth. There would be no pretending, no matter how ugly reality was, it had to be faced. You trust yourself and your progeny with the truth, to do anything else is wrong. My father wrapped in love and truth.

There’s a moment in the film Bull Durham in which the young phenom pitcher admits to nervousness because his father is in the stands. The wise old catcher tells him, “He's just your father, man - he's as full of shit as anybody.”  It's a line that always makes me think fondly of my father who was as full of crap as the next guy. Indeed Aimo Hourula would eschew idolatry. He was proud but modest and felt a certain discomfort in being praised. As one who knew him so well I can attest to the fact that the man had his share of flaws. He loved life and people and activity but there was a seemingly endless string of little things that bugged the hell out of him and he’d let anyone in hearing distance know it. Dad was a good driver and never got a ticket but to sit in the passenger seat next to him was to hear non stop critiques of seemingly everyone else on the road, often laced with profanity. Watching TV, especially sports, with him was also a trial. Again he made with a stream of vitriol directed in all directions at people, places, things and ideas of which he disapproved. While he was a loyal man he was also a chauvinistic one and the architecture of his brain walled off the notion that any other place to live was better than the Bay Area or any other team was better than the one he supported and viewpoints other than his own on any topic he held dear had no merit. He was not one to yield a point, as I learned during my rebellious teen years. Later in life he was prone to unintentionally hurtful remarks, some of which sting me to this day. Still I cherish his foibles as the recognition of them just adds to the man’s humanity.

Aimo was a man who loved good food and drink and while parsimonious in some areas, spent freely at restaurants leaving bounteous tips that would endear waiters to him. Plus he would talk to people. He made friends easily and was totally democratic in social relations. He considered no one either his superior or inferior nor would he so much as brook such notions. As he grew older my father loved to talk and happily told and re-told stories. But he could not abide idle chatter. Aimo was well mannered gracious and while faithful to both his wives (the caveat here being that once his marriage with Mom was in name only all bets were off and I for one could not blame him) he always admired women. He spoke fondly of sex but was never crass. I learned from my father that while it was perfectly okay to discreetly peak at a comely figure, women were to be treated with respect. The sexism of his generation had no grip on Dad.

When it came to women he made but one error and that was his hasty second marriage. I reckon him to have been happy in it but not to the extent he could have been and should have been had he been more patient before taking the plunge again. The less said about my step mother the better.

Dad was a force of nature and reveled in putting in a hard day's work even while grumbling about his labors. Retirement did not sit well with my father but he was not one to wallow in self pitying dormancy. There was too much to do like gardening, fishing, working for the Democratic party and fawning over his grandchildren (he had six). My father was unabashed in his love for my brother and I and spoke of us (as I was told again and again) with great pride. The only people he loved as much as his children were our children. My father was probably as great a grandfather as he was a father, which is saying a lot. Then again he was a very good big brother to his six siblings one of whom followed Dad to the Bay Area as did a cousin and several others from Finland. Aimo took great pride in having inspired other Finns to take advantage of California's bounty. One thing my father could not abide was those Finns who migrated to the US and didn't learn the language and I mean proficiently. Despite his lack of formal education my father became fluent. His pronunciation of many words was abysmal, though easily understood. I remember well once as a child commenting to my father about his accent. It was one of those rare occasions when he barked at me, "I don't have an accent," he growled. (Ironically today I am an ESL teacher and in addition to general english classes I teach pronunciation.)

My father listened. He was my greatest confidant. I could rattle on about day's events or discuss matters of the heart and he would acknowledge me and offer advise as needed. There were no topics off limits. He was especially helpful during my late teens and early twenties when I shared stories or asked for consul about the women I was dating. I've come to understand that very few children have similarly benefitted from a parent's dating advice.

Aimo was afforded great respect in the Bay Area's surprisingly large Finnish community. At large gatherings it was not unusual for some old Finn to sidle up to me with assurances he had known my father for many years and they were close friends. They were proud to know him as most people were. He was a proud but humble man with energy to burn. He once was asked to give advice at the end of a short film that was made about him. He advocated one thing above all else: kindness. Well that was Dad.

I occasionally have the privilege at family gatherings of regaling the younger generation with stories about my father (my brother shuffled off this mortal coil a few years ago well before his time, something I can't help but think my father would have disapproved of). I never tire of sharing remembrances nor will I ever. As a daily habit I often, and usually unthinkingly, repeat phrases my father would customarily say, often rendering him in his accent. Wife and daughters are well used to these. I'm sure many more will come to mind on Saturday when there will be an assemblage honoring the 100th anniversary of Aimo Hourula's birth. No one who was invited had any hesitation about coming and some in other parts of the globe are sorry indeed not to be able to join us. Here is the testament to a man's life, to still be so loved nearly eight years after passing. To still be quoted, to still be talked about, to still be admired, to still be a presence.

A baby born on a cold Winter day while the Great War rages, a Tsar is in Russia and a Kaiser in Germany
A little boy helping mother look after baby sister
A young man leaping out of the hot sauna into the snow laughing, loving life
A soldier walking through deep snow, wary, knowing the enemy is near, not recognizing his own fear
A sailor marveling at the wide expanse of an ocean, breathing in the salty air, feeling fully free
An immigrant confused but determined, wondrous at the skyscrapers, excited to see more
A father holding one son in his lap listening to the older boy recount his day, content
A carpenter momentarily admiring his work before moving on to the next task, so much to do
A fan leaping to the air celebrating a touchdown reveling in the perfect moment on a perfect Autumn day
A relation, a friend, eating barbecued salmon and quaffing beers, sharing a story, sharing laughs
A heart broken man, fighting tears, bewildered, fearing, incredibly sad
A grandfather surrounded by six grandchildren, his heart swelling with pride and amazement
A dying man not going gently, fighting to sit up, wanting all of life that he can get
A memory swirling and dancing and flitting about as if a living creature warming our hearts nourishing our minds living on and on

12 January 2016

Fun Presidential Fact to Know and Tell 2

Welcome to the second installment of what will no doubt be a sporadic series in which I spread light on the former presidents of this great republic. Part One edified and entertained tens of millions throughout the galaxy. I hope you will enjoy the facts I have unearthed about these presidents, I promise never to unearth the presidents.

Thomas Jefferson was an avid bowler who installed bowling alleys in both the White House and Monticello. Jefferson would often take breaks to bowl while writing the Declaration of Independence, much to the annoyance of the other founding fathers. Jefferson and John Adams may have been famous political rivals, but they were on the same bowling team, and in 1800 won the Tri State Area Bowling Championship. Late in life, when asked what his greatest accomplishment had been, Jefferson did not mention helping found the US or his presidency or the establishment of the University of Virginia. Instead he said: “my prowess as a bowler, in my time I was kick ass at the game and have the trophies to prove it."

James K. Polk was an accomplished ventriloquist. Indeed the 11th president almost eschewed a political career to tour with his dummy who he affectionally called Hick, a tribute to Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson. Visitors to the White House were in for a treat when President Polk was talked into performing with Hick (apparently all it required for the president to perform was an audience). Polk had planned to visit the capitals of Europe with Hick upon retiring but died as he was planning the journey and rehearsing. President Polk was buried with his beloved Hick, who, it has been reported, kept talking during the funeral.

Chester Alan Arthur was a transvestite who would often greet foreign dignities in his wife’s frock. Arthur was said to be particularly fond of wearing women’s underwear and could be found prancing around the White House grounds late at night in nothing but Mrs. Arthur’s undies and a large ladies’ hat. On occasion the president could be cajoled into performing a song or two in women’s attire (he could affect a lovely falsetto) but only if plied with laudanum.

William Howard Taft may have been our most corpulent president (weighing in at a robust 335 pounds) but the future Supreme Court judge cut a dashing figure on ice skates. Taft was an enthusiastic figure skater who would hire John Phillips Sousa and his band to play while he performed. Taft was also an ice hockey player whose semi pro team — Taft’s Tubby Titans — once reached the quarter finals of their ten team  league’s playoffs.

Jimmy Carter was at best a mediocre president but he may well be the greatest ex-president in US history. Carter has worked diligently for Habitat for Humanity. He has worked to help eradicate Guinea worm disease an effort so successful that instances of the disease have gone down by 99%. Carter has also worked for various human right’s causes including those centered on economic rights and equality for women. He has also been critical of presidents whose policies have violated human rights (such as the use of torture) and visited war upon innocents. At the age of 91 Carter licked the cancer that had spread from his liver.

George W. Bush was an idiot whose greatest blunder (and there were many) was the invasion of Iraq in 2003 on false pretenses. Remarkably he has not been brought to justice for war crimes. The war has cost tens of thousands of lives, destabilized a country and surrounding region and spawned terrorist organizations such as ISIS. Bush also destroyed a robust economy through a tax plan that favored the rich and devastated the middle class, not to mention the poor. His efforts to de-regulate corporation succeeded in leading to the 2008 economic meltdown. His No Child Left Behind Act set the cause of public education in the US backwards. Today Bush spends much of his time painting bad pictures.