Condemned to Repeat

Didn’t vote for him in ’72,
thought everything about him C.R.E.E.P.y.
Bet you’d cast yours for Humphrey, wouldn’t you?
Especially with Agnew as VP.

But Dick got his Milhous caught in a door,
starting with the botched Watergate break-in.
The dirtiest of dirty tricks galore,
Step One in a demise of his own makin’.

I love it when pols go around thinking
they’re the smartest boy in any room they enter.
In this case it left ol’ Dick a’drinking,
his paranoia pushed front and center.

They say that Pride goeth before the fall
as slaves warned winning generals Roman.
Dick thought his powers were greatest of all,
’til Congress and the Courts left him moanin’.

Now I’m not one to be pointing fingers,
since I can’t cast even the thousandth stone,
but them what think their stink don’t lingers
may soon look around and find they’re alone.

Again, I’m not casting any aspersions,
but I believe I can tell wrong from right.
Seen my share of political excursions
to the dark side, where people lose sight.

Someone said something about history
and how not knowing it you could repeat it.
But that’s really not any mystery,
unless you’re too self-absorbed to heed it.

I guess there’s a moral somewhere in here,
about crooks and hubris not mixin’.
But if the shoe fits, I hope that it’s clear
history shows you could end up like Nixon.

This bit of rhyme was prompted by a call for a “name” poem. This was the second name to come to mind. Too many people still have not heeded George Santayana’s advice, I fear. And yes, you probably had to be there in ’72 (or seen/read “All the President’s Men”) to know what C.R.E.E.P. was. But for the rest of this piece? Nahhhh…

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Shills Like White Elephants

Two more stouts down here, honey? Thanks, love. So this is how it works, youngster. The pols will argue over when life begins, at conception or at birth. What the hell, the subject of their alleged debate could just as easily be Creationism versus Evolution. It’s the same churned-up, wormy loam that’s sustained the political phonies for more than a century. It’s what they hoe when tangentially preaching to the party-affiliated converted. We scribes would sit back and take notes, mainly gauging relative volume, totals of Biblical citations versus Scientific references and numbers of finger points. Though many now use their thumbs as pointers since the birth of Darwinian political exemplar Bill Clinton’s index finger-stabbing, definition-of-IS-is, white-lie, bad-optics hair-splitting during his own multi-hyphened product-of-a-sexual-encounter Dance of the Seven Berets. Oh, and we collected, crunched and consumed salty quotes like pretzels in our after hours bars. We were paid to fill open column inches or air-minutes between advertisements, with the implicit promise our bosses made to the advertisers of bringing X-number eyeballs to their come-ons for pharmaceuticals, automobiles or insurance. Judging which side is right or wrong rose above our pay grade, best left to the former reporters who soared or crawled over the broken egos of their colleagues to editorial or columnist positions either by hard work or something just shy of befriending (maybe just the journalistic equivalent of caddying for) publishers. Though some made it by outliving them. We ink-stained wretches are a cyclical lot who learned to somewhat compartmentalize our feelings as best we could without losing our edge, becoming totally numb. See, it’s not so much who’s right and who’s wrong on a specific argument as it is who those aforementioned editors and publishers choose to make right. We’d rather leave it out there in some artful, judgement-free, make-your-own-sundae bit of prose, like Hemingway did in Hills Like White Elephants. Hell, not once did he ever mention the word “abortion.” No one’s ever going to actually “win” these debates, combining science, culture, politics and religion in a danse macabre where Defeat/Death inevitably collects the dramatis personae and Victory/Life is merely Intermission, one last chance to pick up some Sno-Caps, Raisinets and nuclear containment vessel-sized containers of Coke and popcorn before the house lights go down for the final act.

I was asked if I could contribute a piece for the next edition of THE BARDO GROUP/BEGUINE AGAIN’s Be-ZINE related to Science in Culture, Religion and Politics. I can’t cop to any of those subjects truly being in my wheelhouse. Nevertheless, I sat down and imagined a one-sided conversation by someone who looks a lot like me and has seen and chronicled the bloody confluence of those subjects–a retired news reporter. My career on that side of the news business was not so long as the friends I made during my reporter years, but I readily admit it quickly grew a husk around me and opened a vein of acid-tinged cynicism and indifference that I fight to this day. I took no stand about these subjects (well, maybe politics) in this piece, but thought it might be interesting to dive back into the deep end of my primordial news ooze to see if it still makes me smell of sulphur. It does.

The Flicker of Better Angels

fahrenheit-451-burning-books

Needless to say, they didn’t knock.

“Stay where you are. On your knees with your hands on your head,” the biggest one said.

“This is my home. What are you doing? What do you want?” I said as two more pushed me to the floor.

“You know exactly what we’re after, man. Where are they?” the big one said towering over me, his knee bumping my left eye.

“Where are who? Why are you doing this?” I said, wincing as his two partners wrenched my shoulders. I knew who they were and what they were after.

“The books, man. Where are the goddamn books? Our informant ID’d you as a subversive and told us you had a fucking library here. Hundreds, she said. Now where are they?”

It came to this as I’d predicted after He Who Shall Not Be Named was elected our leader and then turned everything over, spilling our constitutional rights onto the floor and, in essence, burning them. We no longer could peacefully gather to discuss, let alone debate, the state of affairs in which our land now found itself. Besides, you never knew who of the people you talked with might be one of their informants.

Within just a few months of taking power, HWSNBN ordered all news organizations to cease operations except for his sycophantic bootlicks at the renamed Supreme Network. He also shuttered all newspapers, except for The Truth and Our Democracy, now our two national newspapers. He had his cyber-cops monitoring all online interaction, again causing fear, anger and doubt among the half of the citizenry who voted for the other side. The First Amendment—-marketed by the government as The Worst Amendment, a true threat to national security—was stricken from the Constitution by well-armed executive order. And everyone just watched.

Next came book banning, kowtowing to the conservative religious zealots instrumental in getting the Supreme Commander elected. That part was easy, just emptying Libraries, bookstores and even schools of everything from Huckleberry Finn to To Kill a Mockingbird, Dr. Seuss to, of course, Fahrenheit 451.

With the precedent set, the government decided to remove other sources of education, entertainment and enlightenment from the public. Anything not given an imprimatur by HWSNBN was taken from the owner and destroyed.

I was a teacher, a writer of children’s books teaching youngsters to respect one another, always keep an open mind about someone and not base our opinions on the way they look, speak or pray. Yeah, I was one of their subversives.
“One more time, man. Where are you hiding the books?” the big one hissed in my ear, spritzing it with spit when he pronounced the evil word. The click of his pistol hammer cocking into place may have been the loudest sound I ever heard.

“They’re gone, all gone,” I said.

“You lyin’ son of a bitch. I’m counting to three and you better come clean or I’ll blow your faggot brains all over your nice baby blue carpet. Guys, who in their right mind would have a baby blue carpet in their place?” He laughed the laugh of someone who knew not of freedoms other than his now-inalienable rights to bully, beat and burn.

“I gave some away and destroyed the rest,” I said, half-expecting the next sound I heard, a blast, to be my last.

“Search this place, Lou. Who’d you give ‘em to, author?” He stretched that last word out like it was a vile taffy.

“The school libraries in Beekmantown and Green Island. They had so little to offer their kids and…”

He swung the barrel of his pistol against my cheek, I saw a flash and down I went. But I was till alive.

“You want any more of that, you’ll stop bullshitting us and tell us where they are. The next time I pull the trigger.”

“I’m telling you the truth. Then other books, my collection of histories and classics, I destroyed them with the dignity they deserved. Instead of the brutish methods you…”

The pistol swung again, but a roar accompanied the flash this time. But again I was still alive. I reeled in pain and disorientation from the discharge by my ear as the bullet destroyed the glass door in the empty bookcase across the room my wife gave me on our last anniversary.

“Last chance, asshole. Next time, right in your ear,” the big one said, and I was fairly sure he meant it. I could see that from the barely contained manic anger in his piglike eyes peering from above the black mask covering the lower half of his face.

“There’s nothing in the basement, attic or shed out back,” the one called Lou said as he reentered what was until a fortnight before my study.
“I’m not lying,” I said above the pounding ring in my right ear. They’re all gone.”

“Computer. Where’s your goddamn computer, faggot,” the big one shouted into my left ear.

“One of your colleagues visited me last week and confiscated it at the behest of your informant across the street. The one who used to spend her days listening to talk radio and watching me from behind her curtains,” I said, preparing for the next blow.

“Is that so… You got any other devices you can use to spread your subversive lies with, writer boy?” the one called Lou asked.

“No, your people are quite…thorough.” I had five manuscripts on that computer and another two on my old iPad, which now were chewed up bits of plastic, glass and magnetic inspiration in some government scrap pile.

The one holding me down released his grip and I once again fell to the floor.

“All right, Andrews, we’ll be leaving now. But recognize this is only a warning. We’re keeping you under surveillance on the regular. If you so much as shit we’ll know what color. You get me? I shoulda taken that shot when I had the chance. You elites sicken me,” the big one said, giving me one more punch in the head.

And then they were gone.

That night, after cleaning up the mess as best I could, the blood would always be a reminder of that day, I went to the basement and made sure the curtains were shut tightly. With my penlight, I found the drain in the floor and unscrewed its cover.

Reaching into the pipe, I snagged the hook in the wire from which I’d suspended the plastic bag and pulled it up into the tiny circle of light. My Kindle hadn’t been dislodged in the search. I removed it from the bag and carried up into my darkened study, where I had digitized my library and transferred all my books to this glorious instrument.

I thumbed through the virtual pages and found the volume I was searching. I tapped it open and selected the words from March, 1861 and read them as I had many nights since the election and division of our nation. They gave me hope, as they will so many of us, even those who merely watched while all this happened. Your words once again inspired me:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

The next morning the big guy broke in again, kicked open my bedroom door and saw my Kindle on the nightstand. You don’t really hear the shot, do you, Mr. Lincoln?

Some people don’t have better angels. Some maybe don’t have angels at all.

This story was inspired by the quote from Mary Oliver. It all came in a rush and I can’t say it’s my usual theme (if I even have one it would never be politics), but here it came and here it is.

We Drink to the Old Fox

horse-back

The old man shivered as he sat upon his white horse. He sat as tall as he did in the old days, when he led armies into battle, even though the effort to do so was excruciating.

In some ways this feeling reminded him of the debacle from that winter so many years ago. The enemy commander a martinet who considered anathema the celebration of The Lord’s birth with song and libation. To him, it was just another day in the field for Prince and some other country. They were ready for the General’s force and cut it to ribbons.

The army he led this day was even less organized, untrained and most certainly less disciplined than that one. But that was a different fight, for a different overall goal, even if the reason these two armies faced one another across this western Pennsylvania field was one of the causes of the war that enabled them to be here in the first place. Taxes.

The old general stared across the field and could see His Excellency, once again at the head of his troops. He shook his head. That man’s courage and stupidity are exceeded only by his disregard for his own casualties and his amazing luck. He should have been killed or injured in ‘77, but for being thrown from his horse and landing upon a pile of his own dead, he thought.

The General estimated the opposing force as something more than 10,000 men, which was not a surprise, since His Excellency wanted to make a show of his power and station no matter where he sat, be it in the executive mansion or on the back of a black horse while he wore the Cornwallis’ surrendered saber.

“What are your orders, Gen’rul,” a Scots-Irish militia captain from hill country the other side of the Cumberland Gap said, his broad-brimmed hat in one hand, a dazzling curly maple piece of some Pennsylvania gunsmith’s art in the other.

The General, knowing his army of farmers and moonshiners would matter-of-factly drop the reins of their plow horses, pick up their long rifles and fight off seemingly overwhelming numbers of Shawnee at the first whoop, squinted with his diminished vision at the opposing army and said, “We wait. If His Excellency wishes another revolution, let him start it here.”

But the old man, his arthritis grating, his jaw throbbing and his once-buoyant ego now raised solely by its location upon this bluff and a 15-hand white gelding, began to think his hoped for rebellion against the unfair tax on individual distillers was doomed before it began. His show of force and resolve paled to the force and resolve of His Excellency, the President. These weren’t tax collectors and marshals they faced, but a standing army and organized militias.

He turned to his second-in-command, Nat Greene, who also suffered the wrath of Congress after December ‘76.

“I would say, General, that we have once again been overwhelmed by a superior force, not that our men don’t have principle and courage on their side. Does fighting Hamilton’s accursed tax merit the loss of life that we will no doubt suffer here?” the old soldier said.

“We’ve been on the losing end of too many of these scrapes, I fear, Sir. Would one more make that much of a difference in our already tarnished legacies?” Greene said, still the doleful devil’s advocate.

The blue-clad General weighed the odds and what capitulation would mean to his men, as well as himself as the proprietor the largest distillery in all the states. Better to give up some profit in whisky tax to that traitorous Hamilton then to lose all in a bloodbath here in western Pennsylvania.

Memory of his first defeat came back to him. His surrender to French and Indian forces out here in western Pennsylvania nagged at him his whole adult life. The retreats during the war for independence were one thing, but surrendering to a smug opposing leader was another.

The old General turned to Greene and his other lieutenants and said, “I think this has gone far enough. Bring me a white flag and tell the over-mountain men to return quickly to their farmsteads. I’ll take care of this. It’s men like me they really want their pound of flesh from. Besides, the revenue agents have to find our Kentuckians before they can collect from them. I’d say they stand a better chance of being killed by Shawnee, Chickamauga and Mingo than getting a patch of skin off our westerners.”

“You’re surrendering, General?” Greene asked, a look of disbelief and disappointment crossing his face.

“In a way. I’m surrendering so our neighbors won’t have to. I know His Excellency for what he is, courageous but foolhardy, hot-blooded and given to polishing his medals. I believe I shall bring along a piece of white cloth with which to help him,” the old General said.

Greene smiled and nodded.

“Yes, sir. I believe in a way you shall defeat him here without firing a shot.”

The General, Greene and some of his whisky-making colleagues from Virginia rode slowly out into the would-be field of combat under their white flag. Almost without hesitation, His Excellency spurred his black toward them, waving his lieutenants to follow him, as always, at the gallop.

Reining up, he smiled his smug smile as his men slowed to a trot behind him.

“Good day to you, Your Excellency,” the old General said, his jaw clenched, but in pain, not embarrassment.

“And to you, General. You look well, sir. I see the infirmities of rustic camp life have not diminished your old vigour,” His Excellency said. He stared intently into the old General’s eyes, judging what he deemed jealousy simmering in their rheumy condition.

“General, violence will not solve this dispute. It is the law of the nation, established by your very own erstwhile adjutant. You and your ‘army’ stand no chance against the assembled arms you see behind me. In fact, I see scores of your rebels already melting back into the countryside from which they came,” he said.

The old Genral turned in his saddle and hid a painful grin.

“I must agree with you, Your Excellency. Such a battle would leave this field littered with our dead. And while it would be a tragedy for independent men who turn the bounty of their crops into a public necessity, such bloodshed would leave your government bereft of individuals from whom to bleed your tax, something you and I fought a war to free our people from,” the General said.

“So, General, will you retire from the field and send your people back to their loving families and bountiful farmsteads?” His Excellency said.

“Aye, sir. You have bested me once again with a reputation built upon the bones of your enemies. You may send your tax collectors where you may to bleed us dry so the nation may drink to your honour,” the General said, and wheeled his white horse without another word.

“And to yours, good sir, and to your continued good health,” His Excellency replied.

As His Excellency returned to his cheering army, he couldn’t help but feel the swell of pride in his latest victory. This one not as a mere soldier anymore. No, this one, over the man Congress had once picked for leadership of colonial forces. This victory now as President of the United States.

With the huzzahs of his men ringing in his ears, President Benedict Arnold never heard the laughter of his opponent and his party at the pomposity and puffed up gullibility the Old Man had just leveraged to save his men from bloody defeat or capture.

Congress never appreciated these skills, he recalled; but that was politics, something he never wanted to play back in 1777 or now. The old fox was happy to return home to his farm and distillery on the Potomac and live out his remaining days as gentleman farmer George Washington.

Trying to catch up with my Story a Day challenge. I’m sure I win’s beat the calendar this time, but I’ll still try to get as many written as possible. Today’s story was supposed to be a third-person version——a changed point of view——from my first-person story in Week One, Another Victory for His Excellency. Had a little trouble figuring out how I’d accomplish it, but it came to me this afternoon. Two hours later, here’s your (a touch too long for flash fiction) first draft of how old General George, in his own way, outfoxed President Benedict.

House Rules

Three_Card_Monte

They say history’s written by the victors
and justice is blind. But sometimes
the laurel-wreathed John Milton’s
who chronicle our times and decide
our fates just might be more
sneak-peeking carny clairvoyants
than the mighty marble men who stand
muscularly aloof as they look
“out there”
or down upon us with their colorless eyes.

They set the rules for this game
long before we were born,
sometimes tipping off a crony or
sonny boy to which of the three
flippity-flopped cards says
”We Win!” or “Get Out Of Jail Free.”
The groundlings and rubes of us
usually pick incorrectly, backing
the wrong side, choosing the wrong card.

Maybe we might get taken down for gambling,
or pulling a hand of aces and eights,
when all we did was answer the come-on
to invest our time and a penny
in their game of skill built more
upon their skill in The Game.
Prime Rule of playing The Game?
No matter who’s dealing, it’s
The House always wins.

Dead_man's_hand

The studiously apolitical writer goes mildly political. I hope you know your street-corner card scams and Old West history. Understand, in my notebook-toting, cynical life, I’ve observed the political sausage made from both sides of the capitol walls and I’ve watched badges tarnish or shine even brighter in the flinching blink of a Jack’s eye.

Poli & Sci: An Exercise in Futility

In my life, for every push up
I counted, there always appeared
a more than equal,
and quite opposite, push down.
One that choked me face-down
into the dust to dust. Despite
this Sisyphian way-of-the-world,
I never envied those guys
who always managed to “fail up.”

I hoped the physics, meta- or vanilla,
would catch up to them before they
crested their gift-wrapped Olympus.
I finally realized fighting
their anti-gravitational serendipity,
waiting for that margin call on
their karma banks, I’d end up waiting
until my next push up was face-up
and six feet under.

As far as I know, shoving two meters
of cemetery up up and away’s
a feat never quite scientifically proven.
But to disprove the anecdotal
during these days of political science,
where never the twain shall meet,
would prove an exercise so futile
even Houdini’d throw up his
steel-cuffed hands and admit defeat.
Forget any recount.

A poor pass at Poem #25’s prompt for a piece concerning exercise. I gave up on understanding or respecting politics (both Capital and lower case P) a long time ago. Working in journalism and government will do that to you. Working in a slaughterhouse has more truth, humanity and cleanliness. Toss religion into the volatile mix (as seems to be part of the recipe these days) and you have an inedible sausage force-fed and over-served you for breakfast, lunch and TV dinner. Relax, I just ground down my bully pulpit tree stump and will now return to my quiet window seat.