Memorial Day Reflection: Was the Greatest Generation Beat?

From my article “Was the Greatest Generation’beat’?” published in the Sunday, May 27, 2012  Commentary Section of the Champaign News-Gazette.

The movie version of Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road” debuted last week. As is sometimes the case when adapting a book, the movie is a disappointment. In part, from what I have culled from reviews, because it focuses on the Beats hard partying, jazz loving, sexually open ways. But being “beat” was not simply a lifestyle. It was a perspective. As the movie synopsis puts it, a generational search for “It.”

The original Beats, like Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg, William Burroughs and John Clellon Holmes, were born in the 1920’s, grew up during the Great Depression and came of age with WWII. So did my late parents, Jim and Betty Pemberton, a middle class couple who settled in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois and raised five children. Despite the different ways of life, my folks and the Beats were part of what Tom Brokaw hailed as the “Greatest Generation.”  While Brokaw’s label reflects their accomplishments, it does not capture their soul.

For me, that soul was “Beat.”

In two essays John Clellon Holmes identified common threads he believed ran through his contemporaries. While admitting that “any attempt to label an entire generation is unrewarding” Holmes nevertheless believes these Americans seem “to possess a uniform, general quality which demands an adjective.”  The term “beat” Holmes says “implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw” of being “undramatically pushed up against the wall of oneself” someone who “goes for broke and wagers the sum of his resources on a single number; and the young generation has done that continually from early youth.”

For this generation, Holmes states “how to live seems to them much more crucial than why.”

Reasonable, considering the Beat Generation was the first in American history to face a combination of three sobering facts. They grew up in a world where an inexplicable “crash” of a market in New York destroyed economic well-being. They matured when a seemingly insulated America was attacked from overseas. Then faced the realization the world could be eviscerated by a single bomb, the way of life they saved destroyed by their own inventiveness.

It resulted, says Holmes, in the “stirrings of a quest” for the “hipster” on the left and the “young Republican” on the right, each of whom “have had enough of homelessness, valuelessness, faithlessness.”

The search for “It.”

It was this alienation that produced the Beats. While much is made of the bohemian aspects of the Beats, if they were so outside the mainstream what to make of the popularity of Kerouac’s On the Road, Ginsberg’s Howl, and Burroughs Naked Lunch?  Their success illustrates the link between the “hipster” and the “young Republican.”

Like their fellow Beats, my mother and father searched for the “how” of living.  My father was a fair-haired boy who lived on the family farm with his maternal grandmother while his widowed mother, Alta, earned a degree as a nurse. They moved from this relative security to Bloomington-Normal where Alta found work and “Jimmy” went through high school with two front teeth missing. He enlisted in the Army at eighteen.

“At least the Army fixed my teeth,” Dad said.  “That and the GI Bill were about the only good thing they did for me.”

He was shipped overseas after D-Day, survived the Battle of the Bulge (of his platoon of forty men, seven walked away), charged across Europe with Patton, liberated a concentration camp and survived the European campaign only to be informed he was headed to the Pacific. In August of 1945, Dad read in the papers that the dropping of two “atom” bombs and the threat of a Russian invasion convinced the Japanese to accept unconditional surrender.

“We were thrilled; thousands of GI’s would’ve been killed invading Japan.”

Months later he stepped off the train in Blomington greeted by silence, unable to notify his mother of his return. It is safe to say twenty-one year old Staff Sergeant James Roland Pemberton was “beat.”

“After the war,” he said, “I never had any urge to live anywhere but Bloomington-Normal.  Never thought twice about it.  I swore I’d never be cold or wet or hungry again.  I just wanted to live my life.  After everything that happened, I figured it was all gravy.”

My mother, Betty, lived with her parents, three sisters, aunt and grandmother along with borders, in a rambling house. She remembered her mother, Dorothy, scurrying to the kitchen while her grandmother visited with gypsies on the front porch. The gypsies pitched knick-knacks while their children sneaked around back to steal. But the kids were met by a broom-swinging Dorothy, shooing them away.

Mom suffered from any number of childhood illnesses, brown eyes encased in fragile wire-rimmed glasses. Yet she earned a full-ride music scholarship to Illinois Wesleyan, graduating despite her old-world father’s skepticism. She met and married my father, survived polio, mothered five children, and stayed at home.

“Not because I had to, but because I wanted to.  It was a joy to have my own home, just my husband, my children, and me.”

My parents longing for security was shared. As Kerouac writes in his first novel, The Town and the City, young people were in a state of flux which “no one could see…yet everyone was in it…grown fantastic and homeless in war, and strangely haunted now.” For some, life became a search for “kicks…wandering ‘beat’…in search of some other job or benefactor or ‘loot’ or ‘gold’.”

The search for “It.”

It is this dislocation, weary and bitter even in victory, which is often overlooked when people think of post-WWII America. Of how each soldier was affected by the war, how their death or return impacted family, lovers, friends and society. The reality of the homecoming did not match the “we’re all in this together” motif many associate with WWII America. For most, like my father, there were no parades or kisses on Times Square. The return of several million men proved as problematical to the many Americans who never left as it did for those coming home.

In his book Citizen Soldiers historian Stephen Ambrose quotes my father recalling a moment at the end of the war. It reflects the relief millions must have felt:

“The night of May 8, 1945 I was looking down from our cabin on the mountain at the Inn River Valley in Austria.  It was black.  And then the lights inInnsbruckwent on.  If you have not lived in darkness for months, shielding even a match light deep in a foxhole, you can’t imagine the feeling.”

My father was twenty.

I think the perspectives of Kerouac and my parents spoke for many young people who, having weathered the Depression and the war, were just glad to be alive. They arrived at this conclusion not at middle age, when the realization we have lived the better part of our days hits home, but in their twenties. Imagine being that young and feeling grateful to be alive and free, a circumstance most generations of twenty-something’s in this country take for granted.  Yet these young people were emotionally and physically spent. Some, like my father and mother, searched for “It” by attempting to create a safe, orderly existence of predictable days where they might “never be cold or wet or hungry again,” content to “have my own home.” Even those like Kerouac, who sought the “how” of life outside the safety of hearth and home, ached for a sense of security.

As Holmes noted:

“Everyone who has lived through a war, any sort of war, knows that beat means not so much weariness, as rawness of nerves; not so much being “filled up to here,” as being emptied out.  It describes a state of mind from which all unessentials have been stripped, leaving it receptive to everything around it, but impatient with trivial obstructions. To be beat is to be at the bottom of your personality, to be looking up…”

Kerouac, the “hipster,” and my father, the “young Republican,” and the millions in between, embarked on their individual journeys because they realized that escaping economic catastrophe and the absence of war was not enough.

But the question of what to do next, “how” to move forward and make the most of the gift bestowed upon them – life – was still to be answered. Connected by a confluence of historical events, they began a “quest” for “It.” Some went on the road, others never ventured far from home. As a whole they were the “Greatest.”

But that is so because a part of each of them was “Beat.”  

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Filed under Allan Ginsburg, Citizen Soldiers, Family, Greatest Generation, Howl, Institutions, John Burroughs, John Clellon Holmes, Kerouac, May 2012, Naked Lunch, On the Road, Road Trips, Stephen Ambrose, The Beats, The Movies, The Town and the City, World War II, WWII America

Brothers

“Mom, Mom,” my nephew Ethan wailed as he raced into my in-laws house in Texas, “Seth’s pickin’ on me…”

“She’s not here, Ethan,” I said, setting down the newspaper and motioning him my way. “What’s the problem?”

Ethan, six at the time, rubbed teary eyes and sat next to me on the couch.

“Seth won’t let me shoot baskets,” he said between sobs. “Keeps takin’ the ball away and laughin’.”

“He hasn’t passed you the ball at all?”

“Only to bounce it off my head!”

“You know, Ethan,” I said, putting an arm around him as I suppressed a smile, “I had two big brothers who did stuff like that. I’d get so mad I couldn’t see straight. Scott was wrestling with me one time and jammed my head into the wall…I had to get six stitches. Tim and I shared a room and he made me sign a contract that I couldn’t cross the floor without his permission. Dad tore that up when he found out…But guess what? They didn’t pick on me forever. They stopped.”

“What happened?” Ethan said, no longer crying, brown eyes wide with concern. “Did they die?”

I am happy to report that Scott, ten years my senior, and Tim, five, are alive and well. Furthermore, as unbelievable as it may be for Ethan to believe, they do not pick on me, at least not on a basketball court. I am six-two and they are five-ten (in their dreams.)

Though separated by time and miles, I think of my brothers often, particularly when other brothers are in the news. Most recently on the national scene it was the Manning brothers, Cooper, Peyton and Eli.

“I’m proud of Peyton,” Eli, the youngest, said before the Super Bowl in February where his New York Giants were playing the New England Patriots. He had been asked for the one-hundredth time about the hubbub surrounding Peyton’s contract with the Indianapolis Colts.

“I’ve talked to him this week,” Eli continued. “None of that comes up…he does a great job of trying to keep me relaxed. We talk a little football and talk about New England some. He’s supported me… I know he’s just working hard trying to get healthy and I’m supporting him on that.”

Eli went on to lead the Giants to their second championship in four years while garnering MVP honors. In so doing, he surpassed the future Hall of Famer Peyton in Super Bowl wins and stepped out from his big brother’s long shadow.

While the win certainly altered people’s opinions about Eli’s career, I doubt whether the Giants winning or losing would have changed his relationship with Peyton. They are brothers, close brothers, and career success or failure, does not factor into the equation.

Their older brother, Cooper, who could not play college football because of spinal stenosis, was once asked if he harbored any repressed jealousy for his two younger brothers’ athletic accomplishments. “No, zero of that.”

I believe him.  Brothers can be hard on one another, but they celebrate successes as if they were their own. They also close ranks quickly when support is needed. Scott invited me to live with him in Chicago when I was twenty and struggling to figure out what to do with myself, helping me find a job at a bank while encouraging me to return to college. Years later he unexpectedly toasted me at Christmas dinner at the end of my first year as a business owner, congratulating me on its success.

Tim and I lived together after I graduated from college and I began my career with State Farm Insurance in Dallas. It is rumored that Tim has the first dollar he ever made tucked into a safe deposit box in an undisclosed location, but he paid the rent and gave me spending money until my paychecks started.  Recently he called me on a Sunday morning to offer congratulations on my novel and inform me he “read it straight through…it really is good, Mike.”

About a year after my conversation with Ethan, my wife, Yolanda, and I were back in Texas. I had just finished playing basketball with Ethan, Seth and their neighborhood buddies. As I sat down in the living room with a cold glass of water a door slammed behind me.

“Mom, Mom,” Ethan wailed. “Seth’s pickin’ on me…”

I settled into the couch, smiled and thought of my big brothers.

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Filed under 21st Century America, April 2012, Brothers, Family, Football, NFL, Super Bowl, Transcendental Basketball Blues

Take It to the Limit

Take It to the Limit  (excerpt from Transcendental Basketball Blues.) This is a repost. I needed a shot of  70’s style high school basketball and a reminder to live in the moment. 

“BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT!” the Hilltopper’s student section chanted.

“No way that was a charge, Jack,” Jenkins shouted as he jerked Jack up from the floor. “Keep takin’ it to the hole.”

“BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT!” the students yelled as the referee signaled four and four with his hands, Jack’s uniform number, to the scorer’s table.

It was the rematch against the Black Hills Miners, midway through the fourth quarter of the suspended boys’ first game back, and Jack’s dunk over J.J. “Davy” Crockett would have given St. Jude its first lead of the game. Instead they remained a point down, and Jack picked up his fourth foul.

“BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT!”

The St. Jude crowd, stinging from the treatment at Black Hills, had been rowdy at the start, screaming like banshees during a tight first half. They hushed when Black Hills opened up a thirteen-point lead in the third, but revved up when St. Jude closed the gap in the fourth. Coach Collins took full advantage of the experienced gained by Tompkins, McElroy, and Pitman during the suspension, and rotated eleven players in and out of the game. Like a prizefighter saving a reserve of energy for the final round, when the fourth quarter rolled around Collins unleashed his rested starters along with the two-two-one full-court press. Not as deep as St. Jude, the Miners felt the squeeze, turning the ball over and letting the Hilltoppers back into the game.

As he ran up court after the foul, Jack glanced to the sidelines and saw Black Hill’s coach Stan “The General” Patton striding in front of the visitors bench, forever in his white shirt and black and red striped tie, hands clapping, grinning face a contorted scarlet, violet neck veins bulging. Patton was thrilled with the call, Jack thought, hopeful it might stem the Topper tide.

“Let ’em holler, Crockett,” Patton shouted. “That was a helluva play, boy. Way to sacrifice yourself. Good hustle, good goddamn hustle. Now let’s get two.”

Jack passed the half court line and the scorer’s table and looked to the Hilltoppers bench, expecting to see Collins shouting similar encouragement. Instead, Collins stood with his hands on his hips, staring into the howling student section, while Scooter shouted at the ref.

“You owe us one,” Scooter yelled, hoping to plant a seed for the next close call. “No way Crockett had position. No way.”

“BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT!” echoed through the Wreck.

Collins turned and marched to the scorer’s table and snatched the PA announcer’s microphone. “Not here, not here,” he said into the mic, looking toward the student section.

The bullshit chant slowed, but did not stop.

“I said, not here!” Collins shouted and pointed at the students. “Not at St. Jude. We’re better than that.”

The chant faded then died, leaving a muffled murmur that rolled like an ocean swell around the gym. Collins handed the mic to the announcer, signaled for timeout and strode toward the bench.

As he did so the subdued swell transformed into a growing wave of cheers and a building crescendo of applause. The students began a different chant.

“We are HILLTOPPERS…We are HILLTOPPERS…WeAREHILLTOPPERS…WEAREHILLTOPPERS!” The noise ricocheting off the concrete block walls as the entire crowd joined in.

Patton stared at Collins like a father caught in a lie by his son. The blood drained from his face, grin turning to a glare, as he stopped marching and called his players to the bench.

“What the hell does he mean ‘we’re better?’” Patton yelled at the Miner’s team physician, Dr. Keck. “Uppity—”

“C’mon, Stan,” Keck said, grabbing Patton by the arm and turning him to the bench.

Collins did not hear Patton or chose to ignore him. He unbuttoned the top button of his blue Brooks Brothers suit jacket and knelt on one knee in front of the St. Jude bench, head down. The five starters sat facing him, drinking water and wiping sweat off with white cotton towels.

Collins waved away the clipboard Scooter offered.

“You want to sub for Jack?” Lane asked. “That was his fourth, and we’ve got three-plus minutes to play.”

“Nope, we’ll keep him in,” Collins said, lifting his head. “Need his offense.”

Collins’s brown eyes roved from Jenkins to Gudy to Brewster to Connolly to Jack. He pointed to his head then thumped his chest with his fist. “That’s what it comes down to!” he shouted. “Keep up the full court pressure. Run the offense. Trust yourself and your teammates. Remember the ‘Law of the Jungle.’ Now let’s win this thing. I’m sick and tired of losing to Patton and the damn Miners.”

Collins stood and extended a steady right hand forward. Scooter, Lane, and the five starters covered it. The boys standing behind Collins closed in tight.

“We are,” the team shouted in unison with the surging crowd, “HILLTOPPERS…WEAREHILLTOPPERS… WEAREHILLTOPPERS!”

Because of the foul the Miners had to take the ball the length of the court, allowing the Toppers to set up their press. To make it more difficult, the Black Hills basket was on the side of the court away from their bench, making it impossible for his players to hear Patton.

“Jack, Gudy, Brew,” Collins shouted as the huddle broke, “because of Jack’s fouls he’s going to play safety on the press. Brew you take Gudy’s spot at right middle. Gudy you go to left middle. All right, let’s go!”

“This ain’t the NBA,” Patton shouted in the huddle. “No shot clock. So be patient. Get a good shot or make ’em foul. We have a one-point lead. We’re in the bonus. Foul puts you at the line. Remember, as long as we have the lead, the pressure’s on them to get the ball and score.”

Crockett inbounded the ball to the Miners point guard, a five-foot seven, one-hundred thirty pound watermelon-seed-slick kid named Freddy “Mercury” Morrissey. Jack did not know if the nickname paid homage to Queen’s smooth-sounding lead singer or the Miami Dolphins running back, Mercury Morris. Or if Mercury was what every fast kid was called by his buddies or by ground-down veteran sportswriters tired of trying to dub jocks with fresh handles. Regardless, the soot-freckled Mercury Morrissey gave opposing teams fits.

The full-court press on, Jenkins and Connolly, tried to trap Mercury in the corner, but he squirted free and hit Crockett in full stride with a looping pass at the top of the key.  Gudy and Brewster tried to close, but neither possessed Jack’s athleticism and Crockett crossed half court, avoiding a ten count.

Jack hung back in Brewster’s safety position, knowing he might have picked the pass off.  It was on such a play he drew his fourth foul. He leapt high, snatched the ball and drove to the hole. But Crockett, as swift as Jack, slipped in front of him and picked up the charge, forcing Collins to adjust the boys’ places in the press to protect Jack. But Jack reminded himself to not be too aggressive. He was the safety now, the last line of defense. With Gudy trailing the ball, Jack kept Crockett and the Miner’s center, Kurt Svenson, in front of him as the rest of the Toppers raced to pick up their man. Crockett waited for Morrissey than passed him the ball.

Then the cat and mouse game began.

Crockett and the three other Miners ran to the separate corners of the half court, leaving the point guard inside the half-court circle with Jenkins guarding him.

“Four-corners,” Collins shouted. “They’re running the four-corners offense. Stay with your man. Deny the ball. Force the five-second call. Don’t foul unless I tell you to. Jack, stay with Svenson. Gudy take Crockett. Brew pick up the other forward.”

The four-corners offense was designed to protect leads at the end of games and score, to move the ball within the square, the players in the corner cutting across the middle to free a man for an easy path to the basket or a backdoor pass for a lay up. It ate up clock, wore down the defense, and resulted in easy baskets or fatigue fouls and trips to the line. It required a strong point guard like Morrissey who could make free throws, but his teammates needed to be good ball-handlers and shooters as well. Morrissey could not dribble the ball for three-plus minutes.

The St. Jude crowd, recognizing the four-corners, booed.

“Play ball, Patton,” the students yelled. “You gutless wonder!”

But Jack knew Patton made the right call. The Toppers had momentum, closing the Miners thirteen point lead to one. Out of timeouts, the only way Patton could hope to get a measure of control was to slow the game down. On his haunches at the far end of the Black Hills bench, leathery palms cupped around his mouth, shouting instructions his players could not hear, Patton knew the issue could not be forced, this game one the Miners must survive, not go out and win. Patton reveled in the catcalls, as the fans grew restless watching the Toppers chase Morrissey and the Miners around. Better to hear boos than cheers when the Toppers stole the ball off the press and Jack or Gudy slammed home dunks.

The old warhorse knew how to win a basketball game.

It surprised Jack, however, that Patton would keep Svenson in the game, the lumbering Swede easy for Jack to guard and avoid a fifth foul. At six foot nine, two hundred and fifty pounds Svenson was a man among boys. Clogging the lane with his bulk, he forced high-fliers like Jack and Gudy to adjust their drives, while his shoving and leaning took a toll on Brewster. But he could not dribble, shoot the ball, or rebound reliably.  Svenson was a basketball player only because Patton said he was.

At first, the four-corners worked to perfection. Morrissey zipped in and out, dribbling, cutting, faking drives to the hole and then reversing, a gasping Jenkins focused on keeping the slippery guard from slithering past for an easy layup. After fifteen to twenty seconds, Morrissey gave up the ball to Crockett, or any teammate besides Svenson, who passed or dribbled for five to ten seconds before returning the ball to Morrissey. A minute fell off the game clock like a raindrop from heaven, and the frenzied St. Jude fans howled in frustration.

“Deny the pass,” Collins shouted at Gudy, Brewster, and Lane the next time Morrissey had the ball in the middle. “Jack, Jenkins. Trap the ball. Trap the ball!”

Patton, hearing Collins, jumped up and whistled and waved like a traffic cop, desperate to signal his players. But Morrissey, back to the Black Hills bench, could not see Patton, and the coach’s whistling was lost in the hooting and hollering of the Toppers fans. Morrissey dribbled hard to the hoop on the right side of the court where Jack stood keeping his body between Svenson and the ball. Jenkins denied Morrissey a path to the basket, the little man stopped short of the baseline, spun to his right and shifted the ball to his left, expecting to see Jack with Svenson and squirt between them and Jenkins toward the half court line.

But as Morrissey spun, Jack abandoned Svenson, planted his right foot on the base line and spread his left leg wide. Jenkins closed fast also and within a split second they bottled the slick Mercury on the baseline.

“One…two… three…” the ref counted, right hand holding a silver whistle in pursed lips, ready to blow, left arm marking the count with hatchet-like chops. If he reached five, the Toppers took possession. Morrissey’s eyes searched for an open cutter between Jack and Jenkins’s arms and elbows, but Gudy, Connolly, and Brewster stayed on their men, cutting off all hope.

In the corner stood the statue-like, blond-haired Svenson, arms extended, eyes wide, hands trembling.

“Mercury, Mercury, Mercury,” he dry-mouthed, not wanting the ball but compelled by a sense of duty to call for it.

“Four…” the ref roared, left arm slashing.

Morrissey kept his pivot foot in place, ball faked toward half court then jab stepped to the baseline extending his short arms toward the crowd behind the basket and wrapped a short bounce pass around Jack’s right leg to Svenson. The big man bent low, caught the ball and held it above his head looking, like Morrissey had, for an open man. But Gudy, Connolly, and Brewster had their men covered, Jenkins stayed with Morrissey, and Jack turned and closed fast on Svenson. Jack planted his left leg on the baseline, keeping his body between the center and the basket. Svenson would have to find an open player or dribble the ball up the sideline toward center court, a perilous trip even for an expert dribbler.

“One…two…” the ref began again.

Jack thrust his arms to the sky and edged as close to Svenson as he dared without fouling. The Swede’s blue eyes bulged, sweat rolled down his flushed face. No man open, no timeouts left. The massive Miner had one path to freedom.

“Three…” the ref yelled.

Svenson pivoted away from Jack, brought the ball to his waist and laid it with a solid THUMP against the hardwood, shuffling up the sideline, white, size fourteen, Converse high tops skimming the floor, eyes on the ball, big body creeping like a man lost in the dark.

THUMP went the ball again, and Svenson slid down the line, Jack pressing him on every step.

The St. Jude fans screamed. The few Black Hills fans in attendance and the entire bench, including Patton, stood frozen, never having seen the senior center dribble more than a few times in succession during the course of his three-year varsity career.

THUMP, THUMP…Svenson dribbled twice in succession and took a full step forward, confidence growing.

“Sven!” a sprinting Morrissey shouted, freed from Jenkins by a pick from Crockett .

Svenson, releasing the ball for another dribble, lifted his head and turned a few degrees to see Mercury streak by, arms waving, and as the big man’s head rose, his huge foot followed. He dropped his hands to catch the ball and whip it to Mercury, but instead of one last reassuring THUMP against the hardwood there was a muffled THUD as the leather ball landed on the toe of the Swede’s big sneaker and bounced out of bounds.

An ecstatic St. Jude student wearing dark glasses and a Blues Brothers fedora caught the ball as the ref shouted, “Toppers ball!” and pointed toward the St. Jude basket.

Svenson clutched his head as he ran down the court. Crockett patted him on the back. Patton kicked the floor, cursing not Svenson but himself for not pulling the big man during the timeout.

“Run the offense!” Collins pointed to Jenkins as he took the inbounds pass from Connolly.

Unlike a lot of coaches, Collins did not call timeout to set up a play at the end of a game. He believed this was where good coaching and practice paid dividends. No need to diagram a play and allow the rattled Miners to set up an inbounds defense. The Toppers either executed the motion offense as taught or not. “Practices are class, games are tests,” he said many times. “And the end of a close game is like a final exam. Let’s see how you do when the pressure’s on.” He could not play the game for them. He would not play the game for them.

Jenkins dribbled the ball toward center court, Mercury Morrissey picking him up at the half court line.

Jack and the boys waited for Connolly to join them, each player taking his position, readying themselves for the action to come, hearts revving like the Indy 500 field waiting for the green flag. Jenkins picked up his dribble at the top of the key and fired a pass to Jack on the right wing. Jack held it strong in triple-threat position, two hands on the ball in shooting position, ready to sink the jumper or pass or dribble penetrate. Crockett was in his face, bouncing, waving his arms, a bundle of nervous energy, determined to block Jack’s shot from the wing or stop his drive to the hole.

“Make somebody else beat us,” Patton hollered.

Jack jab-stepped and head faked, but Crockett did not bite and stayed on him like cling wrap. Brewster and Gudy flashed off screens, but neither could get open or in a good position to do anything with the ball but pass it back. The idea of slashing past the overeager Crockett passed through Jack’s mind, his streetball, man-on-man instincts ready for the challenge. He glanced at the game clock. 1:20 left. Too soon. Jack saw the hulking Svenson lurking in the lane, threw a ball fake at Crockett and whipped the ball to Jenkins at the top of the key who fired it around the horn to Connolly on the opposite wing. Jack raced into the lane and set a pick for Gudy. Jenkins cut toward the hoop on the right as Brewster set a screen.

And with that, the Toppers cranked up the motion offense, the ball not touching the ground as the players flashed and dashed across and up and down the lane. Jack and Gudy popped out on the wings, Connolly and Jenkins rotated through and back up to the point. Brewster crisscrossed the court, setting picks, pivoting, back to the basket, the big man taking the occasional interior pass, looking for a cutter, throwing a fake at Svenson to keep him honest, set him up for the next play, then firing the ball to the wing or the key.

A low murmur of ooohs and aaahs spread across the bleachers, the standing crowd appreciative of the contradictory notion of the motion offense; its precision and free-flowing grace playing off each other, the ball be-bopping between the boys like pinball with a purpose. The mesmerized fans, like cool-cat-customers in a jazz club, let loose no prolonged cheers or screams. Everyone in the gym, including the Black Hills folks, was in the moment, marveling at the cuts, picks, passes and brief solos of the Toppers. Brewster’s work in the lane, Jack’s head and shoulder fakes on the wing, Jenkins taking two quick dribbles into the lane, then popping out, testing, poking, prodding, looking for a crack in the Miners defense. And the Miners countered, lunging, scrambling, Crockett face-up on Jack, Svenson leaning on Brewster, Morrissey scatting around Jenkins. Their defense flexed but did not crack, as the crowd admired the simple beauty of a well-played game, the ten boys dancing an unscripted basketball ballet, the finale approaching with every tick of the scoreboard clock.

Patton paced and shouted.

Scooter chewed his nails and prayed the rosary.

Lane, decked out in a pearl shaded leisure suit and wide-collar blue shirt, perched on the edge of the bench, fingertips tingling, ready to take the last shot. Always the gunner, confident he would drain it, astonished whenever the ball failed to fall but, with a true shooter’s self-assurance, certain the next one would.

Elbows on his knees, game program in his left hand, gold cross stuck to his sweating palm, brown eyes darting as the ball zoomed around the court, Collins leaned forward on the bench, fighting the urge to shout, not wanting to interrupt his players’ rhythm, break their concentration.

“Let ’em play,” he told himself. “Let ’em play.”

As the clock ticked down below twenty-five seconds, Jack weaved his way through the lane one more time, taking a pass from Connolly in the right corner. Crockett fought through Brewster’s screen, a step late getting to Jack, but managed to stay close enough to stop Jack from firing. Jack glanced at Crockett’s eyes.

“He’s gassed,” Jack thought and nodded toward the far corner as he tossed the ball to Connolly on the wing, faked Crockett to the left, and sprinted toward the hoop, crossing out of bounds over the baseline as Brewster slid toward Jack from the lower block and set a crushing screen on the trailing Crockett. As Crockett sprawled on the floor, the slow-footed Svenson tried to reverse course and stay with Jack.

In full stride, Jack peeled around Brewster, sweaty shoulders sliding white on black, black on white, hopped back in bounds and raced toward the left corner, free of all defenders. Connolly, who held the ball for a beat after Jack’s nod, ball-faked his man to buy Jack time, then cleared it with a blur to Jenkins at the top of the key who zipped it to Gudy on the left wing who fired a fastball back to the corner where Jack caught it with his right hand and jerked to a halt with the shriek of rubber-on-wood. He did not hear the crowd or coaches, nor did he think of his mother vanishing for days at a time, his father drinking himself to sleep, he felt no worries about what people thought, had no cares about winning or losing the game. The sound and fury of life, all the bullshit and the noise, floated like flotsam and jetsam in his wake as Jack propelled forward on his singular, simple mission, soul lost and found in the flash of an instant.

Pivoting toward the hoop on his left foot, he squared his shoulders to the basket; legs bent at the knees, his body strong from Collins’s constant conditioning, and pulled the ball in, left hand resting on its side, right hand in shooting position. Although slow as an overloaded grain truck creeping uphill, the desperate Svenson took one last labored stride, shot his arms in the air and lunged toward a jumping Jack.

At the height of his leap, Jack felt the dimples of the leather ball as it rolled off his fingertips. He watched it arc toward the hoop, spinning like a satellite in the weightlessness of space, reaching its apex, then tumbling down toward the welcoming white net, landing with a cuuuuuush.

He knew it was good the moment the ball left his hand, knew it without thinking, knew it the way a loved baby knows his mother will comfort him when he cries, instinctual, unspoken, understood.

He struck the pose for a split-second, right arm extended, Svenson stumbling past him and collapsing in a mismatched heap of alabaster knees, chest, hands, and body, smacking the beige floor boards with a shuddering thump, while all eyes in the building watched the ball slide through the net.

The Wreck exploded. The St. Jude fans jumped and shouted, the Black Hills faithful groaned.

And with that, like an alarm awaking him from a deep sleep, Jack returned to the world. Conscious now of the crowd, the players, and the scoreboard clock ticking down, the game still on.

“Get the ball, get the ball,” Patton shrieked.

“Set up the press,” Jenkins yelled.

Morrissey snatched the ball as Svenson and Crockett scrambled to their feet.

The Toppers’ scrambled to their defensive positions, no one slapping hands or smiling

Jack drifted to the left middle then remembered he was the safety as Crockett streaked down the opposite side of the court.

“Get back, Jack, get back!” Scooter shouted.

The game clock raced toward ten seconds as the ref started the five-count on the inbounds pass. Morrissey slid to the left side of the basket to keep his pass away from the backboard, set his stubby legs, and fired the ball over Connolly like a quarterback leading a wide receiver.

Crockett caught the ball over his right shoulder at the half court line and dribbled toward the left side of the hoop.

Jack, four steps behind and across the court, took an angle that would intercept Crockett in front of the hoop, if he could beat the fleet Miner to the spot.

But Crockett throttled down on his way to the basket, Svenson’s turnover fresh in his mind, not wanting to take any chances with the ball careening out of bounds.

Jack sprinted, fast-closing footsteps now thundering above the din of the crowd, Crockett glanced back and saw him, dribbled faster, passed the foul line, and went airborne six feet from the basket, the ball in his left hand, left leg raised, rim between Jack and the ball.

Jack took one last bounding stride and leapt towards the hoop, right arm shooting to the sky. Crockett, who decided midflight to lay the ball off the glass, not certain he could dunk with his weaker left hand, released the ball below the rim with a flick of his wrist, floating it up toward the glass. Jack soared, right elbow even with the basket and tipped the ball before it brushed the board. The ball bounced off the glass, dinged the rim, and fell to the court. Gudy, following the play, grabbed it before it went out of bounds and dribbled, playing keep away from lunging Miners as the buzzer sounded.

Collins, Scooter, and Lane turned to each other and slapped hands. Jack, Gudy, and the rest of the starters hopped, hugged, and high-fived.

Crockett and Svenson shook Jack’s and the rest of the Topper’s hands, as did Dr. Keck with Collins. But Patton and his assistants turned and double-timed with the rest of the Miners to the locker room. The St. Jude students, vengeance theirs, poured onto the court.

As the student body bounced and skipped like children playing in the rain, Jack scanned the stands for his family, relieved to see Mary Lou clapping and cheering. He smiled, a wave of satisfaction washing over him with exhilaration, surprise, and calm. Katy popped out from the throng and Jack swept her up in a hug. They turned and waved at his family then whooped and dove into the mob of screaming kids.

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Filed under 1970's, Family, High School, HIgh School Basketball, In the moment, March 2012, Small town America, Transcendental Basketball Blues

Paint it Black

Excerpt from Transcendental Basketball Blues

“Really a classic case, she is…uh—”

“Mary Lou, Doc…”

Sam and Mary Lou were sitting in Dr. Thaddeus Musselman’s office two years earlier when the beefy, red faced psychiatrist diagnosed her paranoid schizophrenic.

“Yes, of course, Mary Lou,” Musselman said from a cushioned leather chair perched behind a polished oak desk, “quite fascinating, from a clinical point-of-view, if you know what I mean.”

“Sure, we get it, but can you help?” Sam said, sucking a Lucky.

“Well, there are drugs, like Haldol, the one we have her on now, and individual therapy sessions…”

“You’re going to drug her, then talk to her? That works?”

“Well, Mr. Henderson, not exactly like that. It’s more complicated. Cognitive behavioral therapy…uh, uh… than drugging and talking, as you put it…you see…”

Sam and Mary Lou stared across the shiny divide, in straight back hardwood chairs. Sam, legs crossed, squinting through the smoke, nodding. Mary Lou, hands in gray skirted lap, knees together, eyes darting from Sam to the doctor. Not speaking. Feeling like people who described near death experiences, soul hovering above, seeing all, but unable to engage in the human activity below as Dr. Musselman explained the progression of the “disease.”

Mary Lou recalled the intent look on Sam’s face as he tried to follow the doctor’s lead, to get what he believed to be the best treatment. She empathized with Sam’s struggle to reconcile the rational to the emotional, to accept her missing-in-action status, to not “take the illness, personally, Sam,” as Dr. Musselman put it.

“I’m not taking the illness personally, Doc,” Sam said, leaning forward, eyes meeting Musselman’s. “No more than I did Kraut bullets. But the holes they tore into my buddies, I took that personal. I don’t blame the illness, Doc.  But I sure as hell blame it for what it’s doin’ to my wife, to our marriage, to our family. I damn sure take that personal.  Let’s cut the clinical point of view crap, Doc.  Can you help Mary Lou or not?”

Musselman, face pale, nodded.  “Yeah, Mr. Henderson, I think I can.”

“Here’s your tea, dear.”

Grandma Henderson touched Mary Lou’s shoulder.

Mary Lou flinched and the oak rocker creaked to a halt.

She had been home a week and began every morning with a hot cup of tea laced with honey and cream, settling into the padded rocker in front of the crackling fireplace, hair in a bun, face bereft of makeup.

“Thank you, Etta,” she said, taking the steaming cup in trembling hands.

Mary Lou gazed out the front window where a November blanket of snow and ice made the dormant grass crunch under foot, the entire land frigid, the temperature never edging above freezing. A pang of guilt struck her at the sight of the lumps and bumps of dead flowers in her garden. She had neglected it the last few years, doing less and less each spring and summer until the wildflowers and weeds overwhelmed the colorful carpet of perennials, the sole nursery plants left, three bare rose bushes, their stakes like crucifixes.

“Farmer’s Almanac says we’re in for a long, cold winter,” Etta said, tucking in the quilt that covered Mary Lou’s legs.

Muted by the Haldol, but mind clearer than it had been in weeks, Mary Lou snuggled deep into the quilt, alternately drumming her fingers and sipping the tea, her emotions as flat as the Midwestern landscape.

Mary Lou stared into the flames, thinking of her father, Wally.  There was a man who built a good fire. Always kept one going in the pot belly stove of his general store.

 

“Tell me about Wally. Wally Weller, right?” Musselman had said at a session, yellow legal pad propped in his lap.

“Yes…what do you want to know?” Mary Lou said, stretched out on a cushy leather couch, Musselman within her peripheral vision.

“Let’s start with how you remember him? What’s he look like in your mind?”

“Well, I guess when I think of him it’s as a younger man.  Black hair, clean shaven, cigarette dangling from his lip.”

“What was he like?”

“Busy.  Daddy was always busy.  Always at the store.  Owned a general mercantile a few blocks from our home. Seemed like he lived there.  Have to girls. Not really selllin’ merchandise as much as I’m sellin’ myself.  No Wally, no sales.”

“Hard worker, then?”

“I suppose.”

Musselman shifted in his seat.

“A religious man?”

“Daddy?” Mary Lou said with a laugh. “Not any you’d recognize.  He did believe in God, but more for practical reasons than from any kind of faith.  Sure as hell can’t hurt, he’d crack.”

“Any one memory stand out?”

“I remember I always hugged him,” Mary Lou said, folding and unfolding her hands. “I don’t remember him ever hugging me or Momma or Sara. We always had to hug him.”

Musselman’s pen scratched the pad.

“Anything else? Any specific memories.”

“Gosh, I don’t know. It’s been so many years.”

“Try.”

“Well, I guess the spring concert my senior year of high school.  I was featured on piano.  I remember stepping into the spotlight. The house lights were down, so I could not make anyone out, just heard the applause.  I played exceptionally well.  A Mozart waltz.  When I finished and stood to take a bow, the lights came up.  There, in the front row, clapping like crazy were Momma, Sara and my Aunt Thelma, Momma’s sister. But no Daddy.  He didn’t make it.”

“Why?”

“At the store.  No Wally, no sales.

Musselman cleared his throat.

“Any other memories?”

“I remember when he was dying,” Mary Lou said, squirming on the couch. “He wasn’t old, fifty-five.  Just at the end of the war. I thought it odd, someone as busy as Daddy, dying just as the world was experiencing a rebirth. It was the cigarettes. Emphysema. The lack of oxygen affected his memory.”

“Did you talk before he died?”

“Not really. I know he worried about me. Momma told me.  He never understood my need to play music. Didn’t understand what purpose it served.  He only let me go to college because I received a scholarship.  He wouldn’t have paid for it…saw no reason.”

“Anything else?”

“Yes,” Mary Lou said, wiping a tear.  “I remember one of the last times I saw him.  He was sitting with Momma.  I gave him a hug and a kiss and scampered away, off somewhere… But I remember as I reached the door hearing him say to Momma: Who is that girl?

“How old were you when your father died?”

“Nineteen.  Momma died six years later. Polio. Shriveled away in an iron lung.”

 

“Mary Lou, it’s noon. Why don’t you have lunch in here with me?” Etta called from the kitchen.

The two women sat facing each other across the forest green table, Etta posture perfect, Mary Lou slumped. They ate grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup with Saltines and drank cold milk in silence. The Paul Harvey Show crackled from the AM radio on top of the fridge. The commodities report followed with that day’s prices of corn and beans.

“Bumper crop,” Etta said. “Low prices. What’s a farmer to do?”

“Not farm,” Mary Lou said.

Etta laughed. Mary Lou straightened up and loosed a weak grin.

“Amen, to that, Mary Lou.  Amen, to that.”

Finished, Etta cleared the table and Mary Lou, exhausted, retreated to the rocker and fell asleep.

 

A whoosh of cold air, the slam-bam of the back door, and the high-pitched voices of Becky and Maggie, home from school, rang through the house. The seven hours of their school day had slipped by like a single breath. The girls’ cheeks were rosy and chilled as they kissed her. Their fresh auburn hair, their skin soothing to the touch, their inexplicable, naïve, and infectious happiness pulled Mary Lou out of the chair and into the kitchen.

“C’mon, Mom, let’s bake with Grandma.”

Maggie scaled the side of a long-legged stool and took charge.

“Chocolate chip, Mom. That’s what I was thinking of all day in school. Warm, chocolate chip cookies right out of the oven.”

“Hmph,” Becky said. “That explains why you spend so much time in the corner of Mrs. Harper’s room. Thinkin’ ‘bout cookies instead of your work.”

“Tattletale. Miss Becky the goody-two-shoes of Washington Street School. You—”

“Maggie,” Mary Lou said, “you’ve never been in trouble at school. Goodness gracious, what’s gotten into you?”

Maggie bent her head to the floor, wringing her hands as Becky gaped at Mary Lou then Etta.

Etta knelt, opened a cupboard door, and hauled out two mixing bowls.

“Maggie, you and your mother can discuss your behavior when your Dad comes home. Becky, you take care of yourself and let your parents take care of Maggie.”

“But they’re not. They’re not taking care of any—”

“That’s enough now, Becky,” Etta said, eyes lowered as she lifted an electric mixer from a cabinet. “Let’s bake cookies.”

Becky stomped on the floor, walked to the avocado green refrigerator, and got eggs, milk, and butter. Her sister’s back turned, Maggie put her thumbs in her ears, waggled her fingers, and stuck out her tongue .

“Maggie,” Etta said, “get down off your throne and get the wooden spoons out of the drawer.”

Mary Lou wheeled around on the white linoleum, lost in her own kitchen.

“Here, dear,” Etta said as she touched Mary Lou’s elbow, handed over a bag of chocolate chips, and guided her to the counter. “You make these better than I do. I’ll preheat the oven. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll have a cup of coffee and let you and the girls make cookies. Is that OK?”

“I’m not sure I remember…”

“You will, Mary Lou. All the batches of chocolate chip cookies you’ve baked? You could do it in your sleep.”

“I feel as if I am. I don’t know…”

“C’mon, Mom,” Maggie said and tugged her away from Etta, who twisted a black knob on the oven to 350 degrees, poured a cup of coffee, and sat at the kitchen table with a Good Housekeeping magazine.

Butter, eggs, vanilla, flour, salt, brown sugar, sugar, and baking powder were arrayed on the tiled countertop. Mary Lou stared at the assortment, hands trembling as she reached for the stick of butter, picking at the edges of the wrapper, struggling to loosen the corners.

“Let me crack the eggs,” Maggie said, scooting the stool up to the edge of the counter, balancing on skinny knees next to Mary Lou, tiny freckled hands steady, as she snatched an egg from the cardboard carton and rapped it on the beveled edge of the mixing bowl.

Mary Lou twitched at the sharp click.

“Look, Mom, clean break,” Maggie said, eyes shining.

“Yes,” Mary Lou said, forcing a smile, letting Maggie crack another egg while she added butter, brown sugar, white sugar and vanilla, then beat the mixture with a wooden spoon, gauging the increments more from instinct than memory. She looked across the counter where Becky poured the flour, salt, and baking powder, measuring before dumping them in a smaller bowl, sifting them together.

“Can I use the electric beaters to mix everything, Mom?” Becky asked.

“No, me, me!” Maggie shouted.

Mary Lou beat the eggs, butter, and vanilla, trying to remember how she had determined the portions a moment before, then, seeing the sugar and flour, her mind returned to her father’s store and the shelves with kitchen staples. Wally used a long wooden stick with a short hook to retrieve items from the top—“Can a corn”—he hollered, five pound bags of flour and sugar toppling into his big, soft hands like a pop fly in baseball settling into an infielder’s glove.

“Mom?” Becky said.

Mary Lou kept mixing.

“Maggie, you cracked the eggs,” Etta said as she rose from the table and walked to the counter. “Let Becky mix, you can dump in the chocolate chips.”

Mary Lou felt her father’s touch on her elbow.

“See, you remember. I knew you would.”

“Yes, of course, I remember,” she said, pleased because her father never touched her.  She turned to smile and welcome his approval, but Etta stood by her, not Wally. Mary Lou stopped mixing and gazed down at the bowl, lips pursed, eyes vacant.

“I think I’d like to go back… to the fire,” she said.

“OK, Mommy,” Maggie said. Still crouched on her knees, Maggie hugged Mary Lou about the neck and kissed her cheek, then busied herself with opening the chocolate chip bag. “We’ll bring you cookies when they’re baked.”

Becky shook her head, seized the bowl from Mary Lou, dumped the contents into her own, plugged in the electric mixer and punched the button. “Yeah, thanks Mom,” she shouted, beaters whirring.

Mary Lou averted Becky’s gaze, stumbled back a step, and wiped her hands on a towel.

“Just for awhile, girls, just for awhile…I’ll be back,” Mary Lou said, then turned and scurried to the rocker, swirled the quilt over her shoulders, hands and legs shaking as she drummed her fingers on its solid oak arms, the twilight shadows of November creeping across the snow-covered lawn, the fire popping and snapping, thoughts once again drifting to the past, to her father—

“Hi, Mom.”

 

Mary Lou jerked up to see Jack.

“Looks like your fire needs help.” He snatched a couple of logs from the wood bin and set them on the smoldering embers.

“Oh my. I drifted off. What time is it?”

“’Round six o’clock. I just got home from basketball practice.”

“Is your father home?”

“In the kitchen. He said I could come in and wake you. It’s almost supper time.”

“Where are the girls? Have they finished the cookies?”

“Yep, I grabbed a couple when I came in. Don’t tell them, but they’re good. Grandma must’ve helped.”

“Actually, I did,” Mary Lou said, straightening up. “Don’t spoil your supper.”

“You must be feeling better. You sound like a mom again.”

“Again? I didn’t realize I had stopped being a mom, Jack.”

Jack frowned as he turned his back to Mary Lou, grabbed an iron poker and jabbed at the logs, poking and prodding them until flames flickered along the base of the stack then leapt to the top. He grabbed a few smaller pieces of kindling and propped them on end across the bigger logs. The hearth glowed.

Mary Lou stared at her son kneeling on the red brick. Taller than Wally, just as lean, hair not black but brown and just as thick and unruly. The muscles in his straight, broad back undulated beneath a red and black flannel shirt as he stirred the embers, the heat in the room rising as the flames brightened.

“I’m sorry, Jack.”

“It’s not your fault,” Jack said into the fire. “You can’t apologize for something you can’t control. It just pisses me off, you know…the way things are.”

Jack rose, placed the poker in its holder and sat down on the floor to the right of Mary Lou, his legs bent, forearms resting on bony knees, long, lean fingers dangling.

“Not bad, if I say so myself,” he said examining the fire. “Better, huh?”

Mary Lou reached out, hand no longer trembling, and stroked her son’s hair. The giggling voices of Maggie and Becky floated down from upstairs. She could hear Sam and Etta talking, Sam telling a story that made his mother laugh.

“Much better. You build a good fire, Jack. You build a good fire.”

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Filed under 1970's, Family, February 2012, Greatest Generation, In the moment, Mental Illness, Rolling Stones, Schizophrenia, Small town America, Transcendental Basketball Blues

Life During Wartime

Excerpt from “Transcendental Basketball Blues”  

          Jack opened the back door, wiped the gray, slushy snow off his shoes, patted Basker, and hung up his coat. It was 6:30 a.m. the morning of the Super Sectional. Sam sat slumped at the knife-scarred kitchen table, cigarette smoke drifting up from Jack’s grade school clay ashtray, a pile of bills on the left, checkbook in front of him, stack of envelopes to the right. Jack watched his father’s familiar routine as he examined a bill, took a drag from the Lucky, and, if he could pay it, wrote out a check and slipped it in an envelope. If he did not have the money, he slid the bill to the side and scratched a note to call the company or person he owed to tell them he would pay them next month.

Jack knew medical insurance did not cover mental illness, but at seventeen did not understand the ramifications. His father not telling him about the second mortgage on the house to keep the cash flow steady, and even then, not able to keep up with the bills. Many of the people the Hendersons owed were local, which in one way was a blessing. They knew Sam and worked with him on payments. But it was humiliating for Sam to have to ask, and small town gossip hurt.

“Hear about Sam Henderson? Judy down at the electric company told me he was late on the bill…again,” leaving Sam to wonder who knew what about his finances.

They had dropped their membership at the country club the previous year, attending the New Year’s party as guests. He did not have time for golf anymore, Sam told his friends. He had not bought a new suit or sport coat in three years, nor had he purchased anything for Mary Lou, reserving the money exclusively for the kids’ clothes. The Caprice needed tires, the house a new roof, and Becky braces. But after paying the mortgage, utilities, and buying food, it seemed all the cash went to doctors, the hospital, or the pharmacy, with nothing left at the end of the month but more unpaid bills and mounting debts.

Seeing Jack, Sam glanced at one more bill, this one to Musselman, and thinking about the doctor’s latest advice and the catastrophe in the kitchen a few hours earlier, he scribbled a note and tossed it to the side.

Musselman could wait a month.

Jack shuffled in and sat across from Sam who, like Jack, wore the same clothes he had on the night before. Sam took a sip from a cold cup of black coffee.

“How’s Mom?” Jack said, looking at the stack of bills.

Sam set down the coffee cup, slipped off his bifocals and rubbed his eyes with both hands, the right one wrapped in white gauze.

“Not good. They’ve got her drugged and in restraints. But she’s safe. Not a danger to herself or anyone else.”

“Sorry I left the house last night, Dad. I should’ve stayed with Grandma and the girls.”

“Yeah, probably,” Sam said, sliding his glasses on. “But I can’t blame you for wanting to get the hell out of here. I’m sorry you and the girls had to go through that. And you told Grandma where you were. How’s Luke? Don’t see him once college starts.”

“He’s good. Wrestling season’s about over.”

“You guys drink some beers?”

“Yeah, more than I should’ve. Didn’t sleep much.”

“Did the boys come over?”

“No,” Jack said, thinking of how he and Luke sat in silence watching TV, taking turns grabbing Old Milwaukee long necks from the fridge. “Luke was gonna call ’em, but I told him not to. Not like there’s anything new to tell ’em. Mom’s in the mental hospital. They know why. Might as well let the guys get their rest. Jones and his buddies kicked our asses last summer in the Y-league after we’d been partyin’ the night before. No need to repeat that.”

Sam drank his coffee, lifting it with his left hand.

“How’s your hand?”

“Ah, its fine. Got nicked when I grabbed the knife.”

“Dad,” Jack said, leaning forward, “how’d you know?”

“Know what?”

“How’d you know she was gonna stab you? Wrappin’ your hand in the towel like that. How’d you know?”

“Didn’t. Just thought I better be prepared if she did.”

“I’ve never seen her so crazy. Never thought she’d try to hurt any of us. I mean, I knew it was possible…but I didn’t think she’d actually…”

“Don’t beat yourself up, Jack. Why should you think your mother’d try to stab me?”

“You did.”

Sam set the coffee down and stared into its blackness.

“Well, it isn’t because I’m smarter than you, Jack. And I’m not proud of the fact that I sometimes think the worst of people. It’s just that I’ve seen things most folks haven’t…because of the war…I know what people are capable of when they’ve been pushed too far. Seen how quick civilized people turn into animals when they’ve seen enough horror. Seen people kill for a few bucks… for food… for water.”

Sam slipped the Lucky from the ashtray and took a drag.

“Hell, one night me and Ollie were waiting for a transport train in a small town in France. We’d dropped off a POW at a detention center nearby. Had to point our rifles at a dozen Frenchmen—people we GI’s liberated from the goddamn Nazi’s for chrissakes—who surrounded us at the station ‘cause they were starving. They were gonna steal the K-rations from our packs. Kill us if they had to. For the food. They’d been through too much, Jack. Been pushed too far. You could see it in their eyes…I saw that same look in your mom last night. The illness has pushed her too far. She’s been through too much…just like those folks in France during the war.”

“But, this thing with Mom, I mean, well, hell, Dad…at least the war ended.”

“The war ended.” Sam nodded, bloodshot eyes gazing into the coffee. “The war ended.”

He tamped the Lucky out and picked up a bill with his bandaged hand. This one he would pay.

“Better go shower and get ready for school, son,” he said, looking up and cracking a small smile. “Somebody said something about a big game tonight. Onward and upward, buddy.” He opened the checkbook and clicked his pen. “Onward and upward.”

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Filed under 1970's, Family, February 2012, Greatest Generation, High School, HIgh School Basketball, Mental Illness, Schizophrenia, Small town America, Talking Heads, World War II

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

All the best to everyone. Hope you enjoy the holiday season. See you in 2012.

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Blago and the Need to be “Somebody”

“What is it kid? You’re not saying much?”

“Just got the jumps.”

“Take it easy. We’re not going to lose him now. We had him ten years ago when he decided to be somebody.”

Some of you may recognize this scene from “The Sting,” a great movie which I watched the other night on one of the “retro” movie channels. For better or worse, they are the ones I frequent more than not these days. But my settling into “curmudgeondom” I will leave to another column. For those eager to wield that charge (Exhibit A, our daughter Anissa mockingly referring to her cardigan sporting dad as a real “hipster”) please note that my wife, Yolanda, and I go to many live performances of music, drama and trek to a nearby “Arts” theater each month to see independent movies produced outside the Hollywood sausage grinder. So back off youngsters. In fact, you might be well-served to look, listen or read something produced more than ten years ago. Open minds search in all directions.

Wow, I do sound like a curmudgeon. Sorry. But I feel better.

Back to “The Sting.”

For those who’ve not seen the movie Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) is the “kid,” Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) the seasoned con man. They are close to completing the hustle they are running on crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) and Hooker is “jumpy,” concerned Lonnegan will wiggle free.

I can imagine the FBI agents who arrested Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich a few years ago having the same conversation the night before they slapped handcuffs on him. In Blago’s case, they “had him” years earlier when he decided to run for public office. And for those who have any doubt as to why Blago decided to become a public “servant,” it’s time to get real.

FBI interviews, observations and wiretaps all point to a man who could not wait to sink his pudgy jowls into the public trough. Deals were cut as he was being sworn in for his first term as governor. This after he ran a campaign as a “reformer” who was going to Springfield to drain the swamp. One early red flag as to his commitment should have been his refusal to move his family to the state capital. Look, I lived in Chicago and love the place. I understand why Springfield may be less attractive to some, but did Blago understand that’s where the job was? That’s why they have a mansion for the family? That in politics and government, face to face meetings, hands on management, is still the best way to get things done?

Of course he knew this. He just didn’t care. Because he didn’t run for public office to accomplish anything for others, just himself. He saw it as an opportunity to make a fortune and enjoy the notoriety that comes with being governor. Which brings me to my perspective regarding Blago.

To me he’s just another example of someone who wants to be famous for no other reason than to be famous. Not because he’s accomplished anything worthwhile for society, like being a conscientious public servant who, regardless of whether we agree with their viewpoint, have honorable intentions. With that as a basis, we can then debate in good faith the who, what, when, how and why’s of public policy.

No such “good faith” foundation exists with an attention getter like Blago because they don’t care about anything but themselves and their public persona.  There is no “there” there, only narcissism.

When Blago was sentenced he professed to the court his regret, admitting he’d made mistakes, but still claiming he did not think he was breaking the law. Like the self-centered coward he is, Blago sought refuge in his children, his lawyers pleading to the judge that it was not fair to take their father away.  Jeopardizing his children’s future and his responsiblity to raise them was apparently not a concern while Blago pillaged the state, trampled public trust, and lest we forget, put the squeeze on a children’s hospital for a campaign contribution. The judge bought the mea culpa to a degree, knocking a couple of years off Blago’s sentence, but for the most part he was unsympathetic.

Of course, Blago’s plea for mercy was expected. No surprise.

Neither, in my mind anyway, was what happened next. After being sentenced Blago said a few words to the press, emphasizing his priority was to get home to his daughters. But as he walked toward a waiting car, he worked the crowd, shaking hands, waving, acting as if he was on a red carpet at an award show.  A few minutes later the scene was played out again at his home. Blago, unable to resist being the center of attention, even in disgrace. Kissing and hugging people, leaning over the railing of his porch as if he was his hero, Elvis Presley, shaking hands from the stage, before his wife, who had disappeared from view to enter the house, reappears and motions him inside.

Your daughters, Blago. Remember? The ones who need their father?

“Congratulations, pal,” I can hear Paul Newman say. “You’re somebody.”

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Filed under 21st Century America, Corrupt Politicians, Crime, December 2011, Elvis Presley, Institutions, Paul Newman, Robert Redford