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Saturday, May 19, 2018

Pass Go (Do Not Collect $2oo)


Charlie's birthday is coming up, and the fraudulent stain of failure and waste still clings to him and to those who loved him.

The County (well, Regional) Medical Examiner, Dr. Joyce deJong, called his accidental hanging death a suicide, based not on the facts, but on reasons that were completely fabricated in her own brain. We have meticulously documented her deliberate mendacity in our case, and her willful ignorance of the First Rule of Holes - all while demonstrating that this something she has been doing for her entire career.

Because of her own hurtful obstinance, this action between a place called Kalamazoo and its own damned citizens has gone on longer than the Korean War. That should be a career disqualifier for public employment. Nobody who acts like that deserves to serve the public in any manner - she's not fit to pick up dog poop in our County parks.

I proved that.

Y'know what, it's going to be easier to start at the beginning... Go down this rabbit hole I found. I dare you.

pH 5.19.17

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Batter Down



I'm awake - and there is no mistaking the sound of a baseball bat. But we are nowhere near Spring Training, too early even for Grapefruit and Cactus League ball... It's the middle of damn winter.


Out of my bunk, I slide on my feet across the wooden floor to where I can look out through the glass of the front door, and from there I spot him.

I haven't seen him in a long while.

It's Mick the Mechanic. Popping in again from the afterlife, so strong that he remains a part of my Manifold Destiny. And he is heading for my front door, indeed, carrying a baseball bat.

I jerk the door open. "What are you doing? Happy Birthday."

He grumbles, like a bear, not at all whimsically.

Close enough.

"What the hell?" I gesture at the bat in his hands.

Oh, I took out a possum in your hedgerow, there.

I stare at him. Rub my jaw. He looks okay.

"Again? Quit doing that, man. I just got rid of the last one I found in there, and now I know how it keeps happening." I'm not whimsical, either.

Mick laughs at me, a small laugh.

I'm kidding. This is a present I brought for you.

He holds the bat out, with his big paw obscuring the word Louisville, handle pointed skyward. I hesitate for a sec - in part because he never kids, in part because this isn't real - before grabbing it with one hand in the middle.

Mick doesn't let go, though. He suddenly seizes it with his other hand, hard, a lot of power in those mitts. I also grab it with my other hand, expecting to struggle for my life, lest I end up like one of his possums. He lets go with his bottom hand and then grabs it again, above mine, closer to the handle. So do I, and he again, and I again... Until his hand ends up on top. He wins.

We crack up together. He sounds okay.

"So what's with the slugger?" I have to ask.


"I'll bite. It's symbolic of what? The fact that the Tigers are going to be f... fun to watch but not very good this year?"

Mick shakes his head and smiles.

No, man. It's to let you know you went down swingin'.

I look at my old partner in crime, gone two years now, the way a dog looks through a chain link fence.

 I know you wanted to hit a home run. You're a slap-hitter, like Rod Carew. You sprayed shots all over the field, ran a couple of guys into the wall. You got some singles and doubles and you hit a few foul balls into the crowd. You played a good game.


But you struck out, kid.

Ah, he's crossed a line. "I'm older than you, Minnow." (Minnow was his nickname; he said it was Dutch for Mick.) He is unfazed.

Struck out. Game over, man.

I look at the bat in my hands, heft it. It feels okay.

Your sister is in good hands. You don't need to be tied up in a court case with some sicko. That was never your purpose.

"My purpose," I say slowly and clearly and honestly, "as you know, is to win."

Mick shakes his head.

It was to protect your family. You did that for long enough. It's all in the hands of others now. You need to protect yourself.

I go out of my way to look dubious, a look of mine that he knows all too well. I get what he's laying down, all right, but the way it smells... It's not okay.

He does not care.

The stands are emptying out. The lights are turning off. Walk away, champ. You did all you could. You didn't lose. You knew you wouldn't.

"Didn't win, either."

You knew you wouldn't.

I look away.

Get out of there.

I keep looking away. But he didn't come all the way down here to give up, either. Thusly, he and I have ever interacted.

It's like this, man...

(It's like this: Mick always means it when the first three words out of his mouth are, it's like this.)

Suppose you had rabies, like our friend in the hedgerow there...

Mick has the wisdom of the ages - wisdom being different than logic or engineering - that has been handed down to him through generations, stuff like, "If you wish in one hand and shit in the other, which one gets full the fastest?". So I oblige.

You have rabies, dude.

Now I'm looking at him.

"I have rabies."

Yup. If you didn't know it before, you do now, 'cause I just told you.

"So, I'm rabid."


Behind him, I see the snow falling, adding a layer to the white blanket covering the Ford Escort ZX2 in the driveway, which needs brakes. I feel a little sad that he hasn't noticed it.

And you know it. So you have to do the responsible thing.

"I don't know what that is." I smirk.

Well then I'll tell you. If you knew you had rabies, you'd chain yourself to a tree and throw the key out of reach before you started foaming at the mouth. You know why.

His words leave a certain taste in my mouth. I don't like it. "For everyone else's sake."

He leans in close.

And yours, man. Ya gotta let it go. It's okay. It's gonna be okay.

It has been a long time. I put the bat down, leaning it against the wall by the door, as good a place for it as any.

Ya gotta let us go, Heller. Charlie's up here with me. Theresa's down there with you. Neither one of us has any reason to worry.

I nod, look down. It seems like our little talks always ended this way.

Step out of the batter's box. You're done.

I say it. Head still bowed, I kick chalk dust and dirt with the toe of my shoe as I say it, hoping to get some on Mick as a last act of cheap revenge against my messenger, but he is gone, so he doesn't hear me:


pH 2.o6.18


Friday, January 19, 2018

Ode to a Public Servant

Dear Commissioner,

It has been one year now since I first brought my concerns to you, my elected representative, about my nephew's tragic death as it relates to County Medical Examiner Dr. Joyce deJong.

At that time, you may recall, I was urged to back off and keep quiet and let the attorneys work the problem. We did that. Nothing changed, except for the County Corporation Counsel, which gave us a fresh round of empty promises last November... And she even told us that you, Commissioner Hall, were "not at liberty" to discuss this issue with Theresa, my sister, Charlie's mom.

Not at liberty.


Now that you've waited us out, I assume this means you are still not at liberty to discuss it with her, me or anybody else, and this breaks my heart not just as a grieving person, but as a citizen... I'll tell you why, if you have a free moment.

In 1976, in the South Westnedge Elementary School's Bicentennial Parade, I proudly pushed my parents' old lawnmower along, decked out with red, white and blue ribbons. That's also about the time you start learning about George Washington and the cherry tree. And, from there, the American Revolution.

It all clicked for me. Patriotism. I put my hand over my heart and pledged allegiance to the flag. I sang the dusty old songs about our sweet land of liberty. It made perfect sense. I love my Mom. I played baseball. I ate apple pie... Hook, line and sinker: I believed.

This belief carried on throughout my schooling - history, government, political science. I delivered the Kalamazoo Gazette for years, and read it every day. I wrote Letters to the Editor, most of which were published in the paper. My folks would cut them out and magnet them to the refrigerator door, where they fluttered until they were brittle and tan.

If I had never lived anywhere else, this entire horrific experience would lead me to believe that it was all merely another myth designed to make me behave. Liberty... Poof. I might suppose the same thing about Justice, too, since they go together like peanut butter and chocolate, like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

But I didn't stay here, thank God... I went off and lived in Phoenix for 15 years, during which I watched Maricopa County government writhe and squirm in its own soilbed of corruption. Blogged about it in real time. Trust me. I know bad government when I'm looking at it.

Then I came back home, to enjoy my extended family. You know. Before the little ones grew up.

And amid the worst circumstances you can imagine - assuming you are at liberty to do so - through my tears I recognized it in Kalamazoo County: Bad government, whether you were willing to acknowledge it, to stop it, or go along with it because that was the path of least resistance.

As a citizen, I don't have to beg for representation, Tracy. I get to demand it. I live in District Three and you are my elected official. Mine, as John Taylor was before you, and whoever will be after.

As a citizen, I refute what my other public employee, the County Corporation Counsel, said about you. I am the one who gives you that liberty through the Founding Fathers before me, and every soldier who fought and died in between their day and ours.

As a citizen, my will should have superceded any supercilious attempts to strip you of your right to speak freely to us, your constituents. You lost sight of the fact that your responsibility is to the voters, not to some bureaucrat named Amber, who clearly has no understanding of her place in the political food chain.

Let this serve as a reminder.

As you did not uphold that which you have sworn to, please tell me when the County Commission meets in a setting in which the public may address the Commission. As your constituents, I guess we have to represent ourselves.

pH o1.19.18


Sunday, January 14, 2018

To End All Wars

On Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a day that will live in infamy, my Dad, Dr. Charles F. Heller, Jr., had just turned ten years old, growing up in Kansas City, Missouri. He heard an important news bulletin come in over the radio, and he ran out to the backyard to tell his folks what he had heard:

The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.

He didn't know where Pearl Harbor was, didn't know who the Japanese were... But it was bad, he could tell, from the alarming voices coming through the speaker. His parents didn't make a big deal out of it, he said, but the war was on.

By August of 1945, three and a half years later, the Emperor of Japan (thought by his people to be a god) shuffled out onto the deck of the USS Missouri and signed the surrender papers. This forever set the benchmark for American exceptionalism and established the United States as a Superpower.

Three and a half years. By that time, my dad had grown up quite a bit. Boys really do between the age of ten and almost 14 years.

This was my nephew Charlie's last video. My sister found it quite awhile after her son passed away having just barely turned 12 years old.

It shows his state of mind pretty accurately, not much different from other kids at that age. A couple of years older than his Granddad was when he heard about Pearl Harbor, couple years younger than his Granddad was when President Truman (another great Missourian) wrapped things up with those two A-Bombs.

World War II... Huh. Over and done with, all sides of the globe, three and a half years. And not just Japan, but Hitler, too. Quite a bloody feat.

Of course, wars can go on forever, if neither side has an advantage, but both wish to continue fighting. Later on, the historians enjoy the luxury of calling it madness.

Our struggle with Kalamazoo County, and the Medical Examiner (among others), in a spat about nothing like the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, well... It's only been two and a half years now.

And grinding on.

So like the boy at the end of the video says: "Let's get started, shall we? Thank you... And I will see you again soon."

pH o1.14.18


Saturday, December 16, 2017

Kept at Bay

Abuse of power, as we have seen in recent and current events, has a tendency to backfire on those who wield it with the tightest grip. Some call it karma... I call it sweeeeet.

Whether the piggish one was a producer, a star, a journalist, an athlete, a statesman... It doesn't matter. In modern-day America, even the president of the United States faces pressure to step down.

And rightly so. Although today's High Def society has amplified the nature and the knowledge of their bad behavior, bosses going too far is nothing new in human history; there is precious little else to human history. It certainly predates the violent, rupturous birth of our nation.

In fact, it was an employee of the Crown who first explored much of North America. After its discovery, the royal cartographers were even good enough to name a river in Manhattan after him: Henry Hudson.

Actually, Hudson was working for the Dutch on that particular expedition. Great Britain didn't like that. They castigated him for working for a foreign power, and then tasked him with finding the mythical Northwest Passage, a route to the Orient going through the ice packed North Pole.

Hudson tried several times, without success, not knowing that global warming would one day open the route wide, or that he had already seen a New World that would soon enough dwarf the treasures of Asia. Whatever else he was, Henry Hudson wasn't one to look past the horizon.

Hudson's abuse of power, however, ran into its own brand of opposition on June 22nd, 1611. The long, brutal Arctic winter had finally ended, the waters were free of ice and could be navigated again... And his men wanted to go home. Hudson, being Hudson, wanted to press on. He insisted. He scolded. He ordered.

So his crew mutinied. Of course they did. To make their point, they left the great Henry Hudson and his few loyalists out there to freeze to death, adrift in a rowboat, in the icy waters of what is now known as Hudson Bay. For good measure, they threw his young son in the boat with him.

Then they sailed The Discovery back to England, docked it, and scurried on back to their lives. There wasn't much of an inquiry, despite a bit of a bloody mess inside Hudson's ship. Nobody knows what became of the explorer Henry Hudson. There is no grave for anyone to visit. No person was ever charged with any crime over his demise.

Even to the English, so historically indifferent to the suffering of others, Hudson had simply gone too far, too far! Perhaps there was a better understanding then that those who abused power did so at their own peril. If they didn't know it in 1611, the point was certainly emphasized in 1776.

We've obviously come a long way since then. Today, we are free to speak truth to power, to challenge the wrongs perpetrated upon the weak by the strong, be it in government, entertainment, business, wherever.

We don't have to wait so long that the resentment builds to a boiling point, one that might have resulted in bloodshed in earlier times. But, then again, maybe it's the unsharpened edge of civilization that allows it to fester anyway.

There aren't that many ways for it to end. We keep looking for the right one. This country is supposed to be the place where we won't have to repeat that vicious cycle, the cruel lessons taught (and learned) by men like Mister Hudson... The last thing he ever discovered.

pH 12.16.17


Monday, November 20, 2017

Helter Skelter

"Charlie's got a long reach, man."

That's a line from the chilling made-for-TV movie "Helter Skelter", the account of the Manson Family murders and the prosecution of those who carried them out, including Charles Miles Manson, who died today. The person was explaining his reticence to say anything about Manson, even though he was locked up by that time.

As conveyed brilliantly by actor Steve Railsback, who literally took possession of the lead character, Charlie did indeed have a long reach.

Culturally, that has also proven to be true. I first heard that name when I was a little kid, when the older neighbor kid told me all about it. (This is also how I learned about the Vietnam War.) I remember "Barracuda", by Heart, was playing on the radio as he explained all the gory details.

When his death sentence was converted to a life sentence by the Supreme Court, the closure was ripped away for a terrified nation. To put in context the fear and dread that everyone felt, consider that Manson was responsible for more deaths on US soil than was the Soviet Union. The exposure to uncertainty, about a matter which had already been so painfully adjudicated, was just not fair.

By that time, though, America had grown used to just not fair. A president had been murdered, and then his brother, literally wiping out the icons of our last idealistic era. Our disillusionment, the fading of our nation's colors, would go on long after Manson - the war spilled on endlessly, amidst Watergate and inflation and energy crises.

In commuting Manson's capital punishment, essentially undoing the hard work of prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi (played perfectly by George DiCenzo in the movie), the Supreme Court cheated us all. The very system that was supposed to be our final backstop somehow opened up a hole for a ball of evil to roll through. To add insult to injury, taxpayers had to foot the bill to keep Manson alive for five decades.

This, the penalty for a dozen lives, brutal killings that put the whole country in shock. The American people rightly felt like they were the ones who had been sentenced. The last chapter of that penny dreadful has finally been written, but by now, not many people really notice. We are numb.

In 2016, there were 40,200 traffic fatalities in the United States. There were around 64,000 fatal opioid overdoses. And there were more than 10,000 firearm fatalities. 114,000 deaths combined - not the work of a madman on a hippie ranch in sunny Southern California. These are matters that could be managed, regulated, legislated, controlled, but they aren't. Not well enough, obviously.

A maniac in Vegas gunned down a whole concert full of people; we went on with our day. Bodies are falling all around us. We've lost half a million people in the last five years due to just those three categories I mentioned. It's just not fair. And we just don't care.

I have to care. My best friend died of an overdose in 2016. Throw him on the statistical pile if you want to, I can't do that. Now consider how many people die of heart attacks, who die of cancer, who die in accidents. It all changed over time with context, it did, I'm telling you...

Charlie's got a long reach.

pH 11.2o.17


Monday, November 6, 2017


The Time:  Late Spring, 1987.
The Place: Kalamazoo, Michigan

I am 19 years old, and already on my third car. 

The first one was great, "Christine", a 1972 Plymouth Fury III, a gold two-door with a black vinyl roof. It was probably 14 feet long and weighed a couple of tons. It took a tremendous beating from me; the strain was beyond its capacity.

The second car was okay. I thought I was buying a Pioneer car stereo with Clarion door speakers for $125... That's what the ad said. The mint-green '68 Chevy Biscayne sedan just came with it is all. It had a 250 c.i.d. inline 6-cylinder engine,  and worse yet, a 3-speed manual transmission with a column shifter (my first stick-shift). Bigger and slower than Christine, it was still a fun car, until the frame broke six months after I got it.

Then came The Car, the greatest car I've ever owned or will ever own, to my mind. It was a 1974 Pontiac Formula Firebird. Not the "Flaming Chicken" Trans Am, the Formula, with the double hood scoop. Under that hood was a small block 400 V8 with headers. It didn't just sound fast - it was really fast. It came with McPherson struts and sticky Goodyear Eagle GT tires, so it could handle the fast.

Which brings us to late Spring, 1987. I was a college man, yet I still maintained some interest in my little brother, who was just 12 years old then. It was a beautiful day outside when the circumstances found us both bored and at home at the same time.

"Hey," I said with the kind of cool casualness that only Big Brothers can possess. "You wanna drive my car?"


The first Hot Wheels car I got for my nephew Charlie was, I believe, the purple 1971 Dodge Challenger. I picked it up for him while shopping not long after Christmas. Part of an unofficial "caught you being good" campaign that I was running. He was on the computer when I dropped it on the table by his mouse-hand.

"That's for you," I said. Without reaching for it at all, he stared at it for a few seconds, then resumed play. Not unlike Charlie. A couple of days later, while at the store, I got him a second one, a 1969 Dodge Charger, blue and silver.

"That's for you," I said. "You ever gonna open the other one?" As his Mom and I watched, he got the small packages torn open. Charlie carefully turned the Charger around and over in his soft, boneless hands.

"You can tell they're not cheap," he said, studying the tiny replica of such a fearsome, legendary Detroit machine.


Even with the seat pulled all the way forward, my kid brother could barely see over the long, midnight-blue double-barrelled hood of the Formula Firebird.

"Okay," I said. "Start the engine." He hesitated with a slightly uncertain look.

"Turn the key," I said.


I found myself visiting the toy aisle at just about every store I went into. That's the nice thing about Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars. They're small, they're unbreakable, they are in fact cheap, and the retailers love all those qualities about the product as much as the customers do, maybe more.

Hot Wheels in particular is very good about making actual cars that were on the road, as opposed to fanciful dune buggies, stuff like that. So I was able to show Charlie the different evolutions that took place in Michigan's great automotive history. The way the Mustang and the Corvette became what they are today.

Due to the company's licensing agreements with the automakers themselves, you'll find that many of the cars are even coated with factory code sparkle-metallic paint.

So I got pretty excited when I found The Car hanging from a hook at the store. My car. Not the "Flaming Chicken" Trans Am. The Formula Firebird.

"Here," I said as I gave it to Charlie, with the kind of casual coolness that only Uncles can possess. "I actually owned that one."


The Pontiac's fire-breathing engine rumbled to life at the twitch of the boy's fingertips. He had ridden in the car before, knew it was more powerful than other cars - not just because of its menacing looks.

"Poke the gas pedal with your foot," I told him. He pushed earnestly on the brake pedal. "The other pedal. Just jab it once, don't stomp it down." He stomped it. The engine raced up fast, which scared him, and he got off it.

"Okay, good." I said. "That's how it responds. We're just going to the end of the street and bringing it back up. You won't need to hit the gas much."

He nodded... He was never much scared of anything, now that I think about it.

"Put your foot on the brake," I instructed, "and hold it there." He did. As the Thrush glasspacks burbled away, I pushed the button on the console shifter, and clunked the lever into 'D'.


Charlie didn't really play with the Hot Wheels cars in the traditional sense, he never set them up into demolition derbies, or raced them down the tracks that he already had to do that with. He just liked to display them, as if they were tiny models, which I guess they are.

The collection grew to a pretty good size, nearly a hundred cars at the end, and he had them positioned (as if at a miniature car dealership) on a big, tall desk in front of the wall-to-wall windows on the front porch that offered a panoramic view of the front yard.


My plan was to keep my hand on the shifter, which could be slapped into Neutral easily enough. We might get loud, I figured, but we would not go tearing off willy-nilly down the idyllic cul-de-sac where we grew up.

The kid, strangling the leather-wrapped steering wheel with both hands, took his foot off the brake pedal and the Formula immediately began to move.

"Give it a little gas," I said as it gained momentum, "not a lot." Then I bumped it into Neutral just before he mashed on the pedal, like I knew he would. The engine roared up and rapped down. I advised him to barely touch it, and he got the hang of it.

We worked our way through the turn at the end of the cul-de-sac, as my brother's young brain grew new dendrites and created new mapping skills, developed motor functions, everything.

Once we got it pointed due north, and we had some straight away to work with, I made the decision:

"Okay, buddy," I said. "Punch it!"


After my nephew Charlie died, there was a slight rush to get a lot of his things out of the house. The desk, which was blocking the view of the area of the yard where the accident happened, had to go.

And so did the Hot Wheels cars. Charlie had a lot of friends, and the collection was divided up among them. The only two that didn't go were new ones, still in the package, that I had purchased but had not yet given to him. One, a red Ford truck, went to his little sister (his dad's daughter).

The other was another '71 Challenger, just like very first one he ever got, only in Royal maroon and black... Yeah, that one's mine.


"HOW COULD YOU BE SO IRRESPONSIBLE!" My Mom wanted to know. "He could've been killed! You could've been killed! Anybody could've been killed!"

"Nobody got killed," I pointed out in my defense. "All we did was go up and down Robin Lane. No big deal." But it was a big deal to her - she wanted to throw me out the house for it. I think my Dad persuaded her that boys do crazy, stupid shit like that all the time, because she didn't stay mad at either one of us for very long.

And it was a big deal to my little brother. The power and violence of internal combustion. The sulfur stench of burning gasoline. The thick white smoke, the hideous screaming of rubber tearing against asphalt. The blood sinking back in your veins as the leather seat pushes on your head and shoulders. The involuntary trembling that all those horses put you through...

For both of us, it was worth the trouble.


Boys will be boys, that's what they say. And if they are lucky, despite themselves, they grow up to be men. Every childhood is a gauntlet of risk. Nobody knows that better than we, my brother and I.

We knew it pretty well then. We know it a whole lot better now.

pH 11.o6.17

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