This is Not News

This is not news.  It was once News. Documented. There are photographs.

December 1979, the Soviet leadership of Russia intervened  in an insurgency over their border. Russia has big borders. The Islamic Revolution was on their border in Iran. The Revolution needed to stay in Iran. They acted.

Jimmy Carter reacted. In many ways.  He brought back the Selective Service registration – preamble to conscription, the Draft, suspended after Viet Nam.

Any young man 18-25 born after January 1960 was required to register or face penalties.

Born prior to that date, I was exempt and went down to the Post Office to protest, leaflet, persuade young men against registering until properly counseled, consider options. With all the reaction to the Soviet “invasion”  I could react within boundary.

USPO

Some young men came to register while a steady stream of citizens wished to ignore me. Courteous but, it seemed my conscientiousness was less important than a Federal education grant or other financial aid to these young men.

A man walking with a cane asked, “can I hang out with you awhile?” He said, he was crippled in Viet Nam. Quietly he sat on the wall saying, he wished someone was there when he registered. He watched as I couldn’t close appeals, dejectedly closing “then sign ‘under duress of penalty’.”

After he left, a late model Lincoln Continental stretched to the curb. I offered a leaflet to this middle-aged housewife as she walked inside. When she returned, she berated me about World War II. As she retreated she spat at me. There was name-calling all day.

Later a paraplegic veteran lent support. He too drafted, a single enemy round sentencing him to a wheelchair. Yet they continued to register.

As a young man this was action. I wanted more.

The coming morning, of all people in a small dusty central California cowboy town, a Hungarian immigrant approached, veins erupting on forehead, in neck. He dove nose-to-nose, yelling about Russians; how, when he was a child, they drove tanks into Budapest. People died and disappeared.

Intellectually, I stuck to the Peace narrative; that, a new multi-polar world required new reactions to old Cold War narratives. Emotionally I feared we were coming to blows. (I had heard over night likeminded locals were showered by yellow paint cans at a Post Office.)

Surviving that interaction, a young Episcopalian priest joined me in the afternoon.  His collar defused reactionary aggression.

Another middle-aged woman with a familiar accent approached. She told how her two sons, who were not citizens had been required to register and were drafted to Vietnam.

I asked if she was German. She was. As her light blue eyes watered highlighted her withdrawn face, she explained they were killed in action; that she regretted not saving them by leaving.

I thought of her a moment ago when I saw on social media the story of a Guatemalan mother.  Her sons enlisted and killed in Iraq. She is now being deported because, like her dead sons, she’s undocumented. I thought of these mothers. Of many mothers. The thread of motherly pain.

As an older man I feel pain acutely. Now my protest, how I wish I’d never returned to that post office.  Human struggle is difficult to bear, especially up close. The weight of these people’s pain, unnecessary, unbearable, I was injected with it.

It’s difficult enough to carry one’s own weight through life. But after all these years, these stories, this is not news.

Extra Time with Jutta

Howard

“Have you followed the World Cup, Sister?” I asked.

My sister, Jutta and I have floundered to find words and ways to describe nearly five decades of separation. Since she discovered my posts seven years ago, we’ve struggled to connect; that is, to essentially, effectively convey who we are; what has made us the people we are before suddenly thrust upon each other as strangers.

I know she’s struggled to understand a brother for whom our mother never mentioned. At least I had always known of sisters; twins. They were out there. Somewhere. Nameless. But I held hope.

In that first year, we shared experiences but not much commonality. Superficially she was familiar since I had been raised by a similarly committed Christian. Like my mother, in my view her religiosity was yankee conventional, dogmatic. I struggle with it. In turn I can’t articulate my being. My Cliff Notes even read like hieroglyphics to her.

This World Cup USA Team though was a perfect opportunity to reach out, provide insight, broach barriers and define what has made, or at least, motivated me and to further understand her.

“Did you know there are four players on Team USA who are like me, like us?” I asked; “born in Deutschland of Deutsch Mütter” and (along with a fifth player, whose mother moved him back to Deutschland when a toddler) their fathers were American soldiers of the Occupation.”

Here they’re wearing the USA shield and “they’re performing splendidly”, I said. Naturally unlike me these young men “were kept by their mothers, raised in Deutschland” as Deutschen.

“I suppose these young men are more like you, Jutta. Our mother raised you and Evi” in our hometown; that is, until another G.I. Joe swept her and you away (which I found multiplied my sisters’ trauma).

I hold no animus. It was simply the order of our birth. After them I was the next born in an untenable situation. As Jutti has reminded “there was no food, Max”. At our grandmother’s insistence, I was made eligible for “transfer”, as they say in football. I’m forever grateful, yet it doesn’t sooth deeper pain.

Nearly 30 years later, these players were born in a different Deutschland; born in a more inclusive, integrated world thankfully since they had the added layer of interracial creation. The shared ironies are remarkable for all our lives.

We have many layers, painful layers to peel away from what we inherited with birth for which we had no control. As we struggle to understand each and every layer, we attempt to heal, move forward. This match, life provides no added time for childish regret, frivolous apologies.

“Jutti, I share with these kids a competitive life”, even if at inferior levels and different athletics. I understand them. “I found solace in competition, identity in competition.” I fought through adulterated scars, our heritage’s scars, the taunting and the bullies by competing athletically.

The clock is always running. Intuitively I react without thought.

Now, I realize how terribly Jutta must miss her twin sister, Evi. She was the only one who understood her. “You must have relied on one another” to survive the life handed us.

Our mother was born in a joyless, laborious life. She was a victim of war and youth. She was a child when she had both of you. Then to fall statutory prey again with me, it’s understandable she was unable to deal with compounding betrayals. I’m certain though you brought her joy, pride. I’m so sorry you and Evi had to go through so much pain, as she sought reclamation.

Fortunately I had a forgiving man who became my father. And as with these footballers, though not my blood, I had the compassion and honesty of a sturdy mother to subdue a child’s pain. They didn’t understand the depth of my turmoil yet their unconditional love got me through adolescence, even if without modern coping tools.

With this, sister, I realize we share inner strength. I realize after Evi died your strength derived from the Biblical father you know, as mine from the father figures I knew.

And here, as I watch another World Cup I feel reality slap my face. I share my awkward abandonment with you, sister, and perhaps now with new partners – these youngsters.

Still with much to work out, I’m reminded survival’s in our blood and as I’ve reassured you, “wir sind blut”.

It is our determination and courage that wills us through the trajectory of our life and times, as we try to absolve ourselves while making better lives for our children.

My Mardi Gras

laissez les bons temps rouler

Nawlins Street Tunes

My Mardi Gras ends now, I thought as I stood outside the Omni Hotel. Fat Tuesday was here; the end of Carneval – the final feasting before the fasting of Lent. I had to try it one time. Now I was hailing a cab to leave New Orleans before sundown.

I’ve lived in the West and the Northeast. Seldom have I heard a person speak of the holiday unless, of course, they were from New Orleans.

Even though America’s a “Christian” nation, to a majority of America’s Christians, Mardi Gras is some pagan debauched orgy. Well they’re right but that’s just the city. Mardi Gras is New Orleans on a bender.

I expected it would be loud but what I experienced was exceptionally vociferous. It wasn’t just the University of Georgia Bulldog fellas barking in the elevator; confronted in the lobby by the “CAAAANE swish, swish, wish” of Miami Hurricane frat boys, who were targeted by “SOOEY” pig-calling Arkansas visitors as we all hit the street. No. It was more than pumped up, drunken Greek geeks and jocks, it was the full throat viciousness of war, more so a victory party brewing before The Gulf War saw a single shot half a world away.

It was a week to rally ‘round the flag floats, boys.  Floats glided down Poydras Street with menacing, sneering, satanic  Saddam Hussein caricatures juxtaposed by a kindly, fatherly – hey, doesn’t that look more like Teddy Roosevelt – George (H.W) Bush big-head floats. One float even had a shirtless Bush flexing. I never knew he had such a physique; replete with a six-pack of abs. Extraordinary artistic license, the patriotism on parade was unlike any I had seen at my father’s military reviews.

Yet, I did see a Robert E. Lee big head float drive under a column topped with a statue of Abe Lincoln. I mean although that War was six score and six years ago, it seemed relevant; militaristic, but in symmetry with tradition and  The South.

But after four days of Bacchanalia, beignets, brass bands, beads, and tap dancing panhandlers, who seemed to know where I got “those shoes”, my friend, Karen and I felt captive to the French Quarter.

It had become claustrophobic, cornered by the Mississippi River, surrounded by the drab, dated metropolis spiking toward the sky.  We needed a quiet escape outside The Quarter. Suddenly, Easy Rider came to mind; that cemetery. We spend quiet afternoons at cemeteries and parks back home in L.A.

I wasn’t’ purposely coy with the cab driver. However when I told him, “turn right off Canal” and mentioned Saint Louis Cemetery, he lit into me. “Ah you ain’t goin’ta Sain Louis, are ya’ll? You should have told me. As he took a premature right turn, he continued “I wouldn’t brought ya’ll here”,

As he took the fare, he reminded, “if anything happens to ya’ll, I didn’t bring ya’ll”, and he sped off, leaving us standing on Rampart Street. We walked a block to the corner, where we spied the whitewash walls of the cemetery.

There stood four black police officers. Their dark uniforms artistically contrasted against that pristine whitewashed wall. It  was plainly visible that one officer on a knee was inserting a small-caliber hand gun into a sock holster, while another, who had his foot on a fire hydrant, stuffed a dagger or switch blade in his sock. The other two stood fiddling with their jackets and pant belts, as they silently secured extra weapons.

As we approached, one police officer shaking his head said aloud, “Ya’ll ain’t going in there.” I replied, “We want to check it out”. He shook his head faster as another said, “Ya’ll know what’s in there, boy?” Before I could reply, he added, “There’s people in there waiting to rob and hurt you”. He steered my gaze back from where we had walked.  “Ya’ll see those? Theys Projects. See them on the balconies watching us? They can see ya’ll down in there. They send boys down to rob you, could stab you.”

Feeling their sincerity and witnessing their patrol preparation, we acted as if heeding their advice, but you know me… Once I saw them leave toward The Quarter, I said, “Let’s turn around.”  I won’t pretend. We were hesitant. At the threshold of the cemetery gate, we tiptoed inside. From a balcony outside the wall, an old woman in her rocker cackled a loud laugh. It startled us.

stLouis Cemt2

I went down the first row of tombs along the inside wall; that is, until I came upon a pair of legs poking out from behind a tomb. It could be a drunk sleeping but it also could be a victim, vagrant or some trap. I retreated.

As I walked up to Karen at the gate behind her a middle-aged black man appeared. He stood there quietly looking at us. He was nearly six feet tall with a modest, old school afro. He had calm eyes as he stood there in his black slacks with a worn tan sport coat, an old  mustard stain shining from the belly of his dress white shirt. He asked if we were looking for anyone in particular. “No. No one”, I said.

He said, “I know where a lotta folk are” and offered to guide us. As he took us into the maze of tombs, like a Civics lesson, he began talking about historic New Orleans: the peculiar geographic setting – lying between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain under sea level. They can’t bury the dead. They place the dead in these above ground tombs, sealing them, so as they act like ovens. Bodies putrefy.  Through cracks, we sneaked peaks at disintegrated bones.

He definitely knew his local history, centuries of slave trade and immigration patterns. He was proud to show the tomb of the first Postmaster General of New Orleans; then, the first black mayor who began a political dynasty – the Morial Family tomb. We strolled past by favorite pirate – Jean Lafitte’s tomb.

We asked where was the voodoo queen, Marie Laveau’s tomb? There was a lot of graffiti, candles and presents. He coached us through a process – three knocks, three twirls in place followed by more knocks, a present, more knocks and twirls, as we tried contacting her to grant a wish.

There were colossal tombs that he explained were made by the first Italian emigrants, who created “Benevolent Societies” – the original American gangsters. They sold protection or as he called it “insurance”. If you paid them, your family was treated well and it guaranteed burial inside these mausoleum type tombs. He added some people who didn’t pay might make it as well; that, they may not have been dead when they were entombed. “People say they heard screaming awhile in the night. After a week or so it went quiet”.

He didn’t laugh or ever change expression throughout the tour.  We sat on a tomb to take in the graveyard framed by the skyline. I broached the subject of this Mardi Gras with its war theme. I asked if it was unusual. He dropped his head. He hadn’t seen it like this.  He likewise didn’t quite understand why the various Krewes had made such floats but he knew the mentality.

stLouis Cemt3

He had fought in Vietnam, lost family in Vietnam. Mardi Gras had never been the same when he returned. The “live and let live” spirit of his ancestry dampened, if not lost, as he quietly hoped it would be different for a son, who was now in Kuwait awaiting a new war. As we stood to walk out of the maze, his concern was etched on his face.

As we got near the entrance, I turned to Karen, mumbling that we should give him some money. When I turned back, he was gone. As quickly as he appeared, he had vanished.

I looked down both ends of the street. We didn’t get to say thank you. Perplexed, we began to consider if he had even been real; was he a ghost, an angel, our guardian angel perhaps. Was he some validation of our last four days here? Was he a hallucination, as if we just had a parallel Easy Rider scene?

He was so calm, unfettered about his and this City’s past yet weary. I was still thinking of him the next day, as the cab drove us to the airport.  I considered that he was “killed-in-action”, if not in body in spirit. When we got back to L.A. we wondered if we had captured his image in of our photographs but he had kept removed, always a distance back for whatever reason.

We found one but he was split in half. I thought it fitting that he was only partially there in body. He had a divine, near Jesus-like spirit and although I was leaving Mardi Gras, he would never leave me.

stLouis Cemt