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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

VRROOOMM, VVRRROOOOMMM


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


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Speaking of Sports

First of November, Twenty-Seventeen. Eleven One, ah yes. The cold brings out the competitor in all of us. Just ask the white tail deer as the peak of rut coincides with the transition from archery to firearm hunting seasons. Or the mallards as they fight for the last spot of open water on an icy pond.

The start of this month also marks the perfect confluence of professional sports. The World Series is reaching it's zenith. Football is steaming along, albeit through rolling waters. Basketball has gotten it's feet wet. And, on a binary sports planet somewhere in the universe, it is hockey season.

My nephew, Charlie, would be a 9th grader this year. High school...That's hard to fathom. Even though he would be bigger, like these neighborhood kids have gotten, a freshman is truly a small fry in the world.

But my first year at venerable Loy Norrix High School (Go, Knights!), I thought I was the toughest thing standing upright. That is how the kid would feel now if he could only be among us... It's hard to reconcile, both in the Now and in the Then, the way a 9th grader feels as opposed to what a 9th grader is.

I can't see myself ever having thought about it that way under any better circumstances. But that is how it would be for him, the way it is for everyone else.

By that age, I had played Little League baseball and was in a bowling league. I couldn't ice skate, but we played full contact street hockey in the winter in my neighborhood, every bit as brutal as the tackle football games we engaged in, and way more so than Gorilla Basketball in the driveway.

So we were sporty kids, sure, a whole neighborhood full of us. A generation later, Charlie was no different. He was a participant in hometown hero Derek Jeter's baseball camp in his last two years of life. He, too, had a bowling trophy, and a golf trophy to boot. He played soccer. He was trained in judo. He scored touchdowns.

Many people will tell you that the first twelve years are the best ones, anyway. After that, you have to start dealing with your looks, your clothes, acne, the school dance. Through all of that you have to focus on grades, and exams, so you can get to college. Then it becomes about money - a job, taxes - so you can get a car - insurance, registration - and on you tumble down the road. Until you don't.

Or until one day, you look up, and you're singing Amazing Grace at your 12-year old nephew's funeral. And helping your sister survive an awful despair against which all are powerless when it finally gets to them (then on they tumble, too).

Some things, you can't outscore, or outrun, or hide from in the woods. Some things, even this time of year, you can't fight back.

pH 11.o1.17

***