Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Does Celebrity Still Rule?

The 20th century gave us mass media: magazines that featured stories aimed at a national readership; feature films and newsreels distributed coast-to-coast; radio and television networks; the Internet – all of which gave us entertainment and useful information. As a byproduct, the mass media also gave us celebrities. Not just the accomplished people who tend to earn fame, but also the narcissistic self-promoters we're accustomed to seeing, as they parade about trying to create gossip. 

The minting of those early batches of talented and not-so-talented celebrities in the first quarter of the 1900s quickly spawned celebrity-worshipers. I'm told print cartoonists were treated like little kings in Manhattan saloons in the 1920s. (Ah, those were the days.) Anyway, with celebrity-worshipers came baseball cards, movie magazines, fan clubs, celebrity endorsements, etc.  

Since we know lots of people want like hell to be worshiped by legions of groupies the 21st century has given us social media, so wannabe celebrities can beam their make-me-a-celebrity auditions to a potentially unlimited following. Meanwhile, they go on dreaming of being catapulted out of their mundane existence, onto the lofty perch of those who are worshiped. 

That's a whole lot of wannabe-ism. It's a lot of damn worshiping, too. Our sitting president saw both factors and thought he knew a bunch of chumps when he saw it. He was right. Also feeling emboldened by the nasty level of racism he sensed was growing, Trump threw his red MAGA cap into the ring. Then it seemed enough voters didn't want to vote for his opponent to make it possible to elect the celebrity whose star burned brighter.

So far, Trump the Compulsive Tweeter has cashed in on America's addiction to consuming folderol about celebrities better than any other politician. In polls he has seemed to consistently have about a third of voters on his side, no matter what he says or does. In fact, the more loutish he is, the more they seem to like him.

Question: Does his loyal base – the aforementioned chumps – actually agree with him, with all the lying, the cruelty and such?

Answer: Doesn't matter. As the ultimate celebrity, they worship Trump ... so far.

Looking ahead, with 2018 all but done, could celebrity worship have passed its zenith? Have we the people finally seen enough weaselly scamming in the White House to start wising up? Or, in 2020, do the Democrats need to nominate their best celebrity?  

Monday, November 26, 2018

Vann Named A-10 Player of the Week

 From VCU's Chris Kowalczyk:
VCU redshirt junior Issac Vann (Bridgeport, Conn./Maine) has been named Atlantic 10 Conference Player of the Week, the league announced Monday.

A 6-foot-6 guard/forward, Vann averaged 19.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.7 steals, while shooting .514 (19-of-37) from the field in three games for the Rams. VCU finished the week 2-1 after it earned victories over Temple and Hofstra.

Vann scored 11 points in a hard-fought win over Temple on Nov. 19 in the semifinal round of the Legends Classic at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. The following night, he erupted for a career-high 30 points, 11 rebounds and five assists in an overtime loss to St. John’s in the Legends Classic Championship. On Nov. 24, Vann produced 16 points, four rebounds, three assists and four steals to lead VCU past Hofstra in overtime.

Through six games, Vann is averaging a team-best 14.8 points per game, as well as 5.7 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.2 steals.

Vann and VCU return to the court on Wednesday, Nov. 28 when they travel to face rival Old Dominion at the Ted Constant Convocation Center in Norfolk, Va. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. on MASN. 

Thursday, November 22, 2018

What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear

Fiction By F.T. Rea

Jan. 24, 1991: Bright sunlight lit up the thin coating of freezing rain that had painted the city the evening before. In the crisp air, Roscoe Swift, a slender middle-aged man, a freelance artist/writer, walked at a careful but purposeful pace on the tricky sidewalk.

The ice-clad trees along the street were dazzling, as seen through Swift's trusty Ray-Bans. The woolly winter jacket his girlfriend, Sally, had given him for Christmas felt good.

Since the freelancer couldn’t concentrate on his reading of the morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, he left half a mug of black coffee and a dozing cat on his desk to walk to the post office. He hoped the overdue check from a magazine publisher was waiting in his post office box.

Anxiously, Swift opened the box with his key. It was empty. He shrugged. An empty box had its upside, too -- there were no cut-off notices in it. With his last 20 bucks in his pocket, the freelancer hummed a favorite Fats Domino tune, “Ain’t That a Shame,” as he headed home.

By the end of the workday Roscoe's task was to finish an 800-word OpEd piece, with an accompanying illustration, and drop it all off on an editor’s desk in Scott's Addition. With the drum beat for war in the air he wanted to focus on the inevitable unintended consequences of any war. Yet, with the clock ticking on his deadline he was still at a loss for an angle.

The country was still mired in an economic recession. The national debt was skyrocketing. War with Iraq was looming, it seemed all but inevitable. Pondering what demons might be spawned by an all-out war in Iraq -- only to be discovered down the road -- he detoured a couple of blocks, to pick up a Washington Post and a fresh cup of coffee.

Approaching the 7-Eleven store Roscoe noticed a lone panhandler standing off to the left of the front doors. The tall man was thin and frail. He wore a lightweight denim jacket with a hooded sweatshirt underneath. Snot was frozen in his mustache. The whites of his heavy-lidded eyes were an unhealthy shade of pink.

When Roscoe had run the Fan City Cinema, in the '70s, he had determined his policy should be to never in any way encourage panhandlers to hang around on the sidewalk in the neighborhood surrounding the theater. The rigid policy had lingered well after the comfortable job had faded into the mists.

On this cold day it wasn’t easy for Roscoe to avert his eye from the poor soul’s trembling outstretched hand. Not hearing the desperate man’s hoarse plea for food money was impossible. When there are always so many lives to be saved in our midst, Roscoe wondered, why do we have to go to the Middle East to save lives?

Inside the busy store Roscoe poured a large coffee. Fretting profusely, he snapped the cup’s lid in place. It was one of those times when the little Roscoe with horns was standing on one of his shoulders, while his opposite, the one with the halo, was on the other; both were offering counsel.

Roscoe's policy caved in seconds later. Still, he decided to give the freeloader food, rather than hand over cash to perhaps finance a bottle of sweet wine. It might change my luck, he thought as he smiled.

Trying to max out the bang-for-the-buck aspect of his gesture, Roscoe settled on a king-sized hot dog, with plenty of free stuff on it -- mustard, chopped onions, relish, jalapeno peppers, chili and some gooey cheese-like product. Not wanting to push it too far, he passed on the ketchup and mayonnaise.

Outside the store, Roscoe found the starving panhandler had vanished.

So, the crestfallen philanthropist took the meal-on-a-bun with him as he walked, softly singing a Buffalo Springfield song, “For What It’s Worth.” With his strides matching the beat he kept to the sunny street, to avoid the sidewalk in the shade.
There’s somethin’ happening here,
What it is ain’t exactly clear.
There’s a man with a gun over there,
Tellin’ me I gotta beware.
I think it’s time we stop, children, what's that sound,
Everybody look, what's going down.
A line from that song’s last verse -- “paranoia strikes deep” -- suddenly snapped an idea for the OpEd into place, which launched an instant mini-mania. A block closer to home an image for the illustration occurred to him. The freelancer picked up his pace and began whistling a jazzy version of “For What It’s Worth.”

Back in his office/studio space, rather than waste money, he tore into the feast he had prepared for a beggar. The food scared, or perhaps offended the cat, who fled. Between sloppy bites the artist wiped his hands off and sketched furiously to rough out a cartoon of Saddam Hussein as the provocative Tar Baby of the Uncle Remus story, inviting America into a war.

About an hour later the heartburn started. Eventually, it got brutal. Roscoe pressed on. He wrote about the way propaganda always works to sell war -- every war -- as glorious and essential to the everyday people, who risk their lives. That while the wealthy, who rarely take a genuine risk on anything, urge the patriots on and count their profits.

Thinking of the war in Vietnam that thinned his generation out, he wrote:
After the war the veterans were largely ignored, even scorned.
Roscoe lamented the popular culture having gone wrong, so there was no longer a place for anti-war protest songs. He wrote:
Where are today’s non-conformists? Today's questioners of authority?
The freelancer turned in his work at 4:50 p.m.

An hour later his sour and noisy stomach began to calm down during his second happy hour beer at the Bamboo Cafe.

When he recounted the tale of the stuffed frankfurter and the inspiration of the Buffalo Springfield song, Roscoe made it seem funny enough to friends gathered around the elbow of the marble bar. They laughed. Since the bar's owner had agreed to hold his tab for a day or two, Swift bought a round of beers and joked about his empty mailbox.

Sally showed up with a smile. She joined Roscoe's small audience that chuckled and groaned when he finished off with, “Sometimes it's a thin line that separates heartburn and inspiration ... for what it’s worth.”

* * *

All rights reserved by the author. "What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear" along with its accompanying 
illustration are part of a series of stories called Detached.

Too Many Secrets

Camelot at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave lasted 1,036 days. In particular, for the children in school on Nov. 22, 1963, the murder of President John F. Kennedy was stunning in a way nothing has been since.

On Nov. 24, 1963 a live national television audience witnessed the murder of the assassination’s prime suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald. There was no doubt that Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub operator, was the trigger-man. What made him do it is still being questioned.

Shortly after JFK’s death, columnist Mary McGrory expressed her dark feelings to Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “We’ll never laugh again.”

Moynihan, who was an Assistant Secretary of Labor then, famously replied, “Heavens, Mary, we’ll laugh again. It’s just that we’ll never be young again.”

The cynicism spawned by the cloaked-in-secrecy aftermath of the JFK assassination has tinted everything the aforementioned school children have seen since those dark days. Everything.

However, I’m not at all convinced there had to have been a complicated conspiracy to kill the president and cover up the tracks.  Furthermore, after he was dead, just because some people deliberately obscured related information, we don't necessarily know why they did it. In some cases it was probably people trying to cover asses, hither and yon, for a myriad of reasons.

On the other hand, I’m not saying there was no conspiracy that led up to the murder of President Kennedy. So, for now, let's skip past the argument over whether Oswald acted alone. Let's not speculate about whether Oswald was a dupe, or one of the greatest marksman who ever lived. The point of this remembrance is to recognize that the secrecy that rushed in to obscure what happened in November of 1963 poisoned the American culture in a way that is still being felt. 

The President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, known as the Warren Commission, published its report on Sept. 24, 1964: Oswald was found to have been a lone wolf assassin. Which immediately unleashed the questioning of the Commission’s findings. Was its famous “single bullet theory,” which had one projectile traveling circuitously through two victims, or was it great sleuthing?

Or was it an unbelievable reach?

*

In 1965 gunmen murdered Malcolm X in an auditorium in Manhattan. Three years later Martin Luther King was killed on a motel balcony in Memphis by a sniper. Two months after that assassination, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel.

Unfortunately, the official stories on those three shootings were widely disbelieved, too. In the ‘60s more public scrutiny of how those assassination probes were conducted might have led to different conclusions. More importantly, even if more sunlight into those probes failed to produce different outcomes, at least Americans might have felt better about the good faith of the processes.

Instead, it seemed then the authorities generally believed the citizenry didn't really have a right to see the whole truth and nothing-but. Too often it seems to have been decided on high that the public was better off not knowing some things, as if we were all children.

Of course, such secrecy can hide everyday malfeasance, as well. Shielding the citizenry from such information is the sort of thinking that went with world wars, with spies lucking about. In the 1960s the public expected its government to routinely withhold all sorts of secrets.

At long last, it took the rudest of revelations to snap many Americans out of blithely tolerating an over-abundance of secrecy:
  • The My Lai Massacre horrors.
  • The publishing of the Pentagon Papers.
  • The Watergate Scandal hearings.
  • The Iran-Contra Scandal hearings.
  • The bogus justification for invading Iraq. 
As those events paraded by, America steadily morphed into a nation of cynics. Now, those of us who recognize the damage that's been done by official lies know better. We know we were wrong to ever have accepted such skullduggery in the name of keeping America safe.

*

In 1997 Sen. Moynihan’s book, “Secrecy: The American Experience,” was published. In the opening chapter he wrote:
In the United States, secrecy is an institution of the administrative state that developed during the great conflicts of the twentieth century. It is distinctive primarily in that it is all but unexamined. There is a formidable literature on regulation of the public mode, virtually none on secrecy. Rather, there is a considerable literature, but it is mostly secret. Indeed, the modes of secrecy remain for the most part -- well, secret.
On inquiry there are regularities: patterns that fit well enough with what we have learned about other forms of regulation. But there has been so little inquiry that the actors involved seem hardly to know the set roles they play. Most important, they seem never to know the damage they can do. This is something more than inconveniencing to the citizen. At times, in the name of national security, secrecy has put that very security in harm's way.
Fifty-five years after the murder of JFK, it’s high time to stop tolerating unnecessary secrecy in government at all levels. After all, a secret that invites speculation can serve a nefarious agenda just as well as a lie. 

Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote: 
"Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."
Today, to trust official conclusions, we not only need investigations, we need to see into the investigations. That means more public hearings. The scary notion that somehow the Mueller Probe's findings could be shielded from public scrutiny is crazy and too dangerous to allow. Lastly, in the age of Trumpism, for democracy to have a chance of working properly, we citizens surely need to know whose money is behind every politician. Brandeis was totally right about sunlight. 

Taking it home: Single bullet theory, you say?

Great name for a punk era band.

-- 30 --

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Remembering RKO

 

In its heyday RKO (for Radio-Keith-Orpheum) was known as one of the Big Five movie studios of Hollywood's Golden Age. It was also known for its ability to produce well-crafted, sometimes artsy or offbeat features using a smaller budget than the other so-called major studios. Nonetheless, it was almost always in trouble, financially. 

Thus, RKO stopped producing feature films in 1953. In 1955 RKO became the first major studio to cave and sell off the exhibition rights of its library of titles to television. So, like plenty of baby boomers, I grew up watching many of those well-crafted black and white films on TV. It was then I first became a fan of legendary producer Val Lewton's scary films, although I doubt I knew his name then.

Eventually, I also became a devotee of RKO's stylish film noirs with their lean stories and moody chiaroscuro lighting. To this day, I still get a kick out of discovering a good one online that I've never seen. For me, watching one of those precious old films serves as something akin to time travel back to my salad days. Comfort movies. 

In the summer of 1982 I put together a six-week festival offering 12 RKO double features. The Biograph Theatre's Program No. 60 played out in Theatre No. 1, the larger of the two auditoriums. It was an unusual program in that all 24 of the feature films were from one company, RKO, which still operated as a distributor.

The 12 double features in this festival were: Top Hat (1935) and Damsel in Distress (1936); The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and The Informer (1935); King Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949); Suspicion (1941) and The Live By Night (1948); Sylvia Scarlett (1936) and Mister Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948); Murder My Sweet (1945) and Macao (1952); The Mexican Spitfire (1939) and Room Service (1938); Journey Into Fear (1942) and This Land Is Mine (1943); The Thing (1951) and Cat People (1942); The Boy With Green Hair (1948) and Woman on the Beach (1947); Citizen Kane (1941) and Fort Apache (1948); The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945).
 

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Peanut Shells, Fish Bones and Politicos

In 2001 I covered the Shad Planking for Richmond.com. That was my only visit to the annual event, which gradually lost its power to attract a big crowd. It seems to be mostly a thing of the past now. Here's what I wrote about the scene 17 years ago, when it was a bipartisan event that was still going strong. 


*

According to a 53-year-old tradition the Shad Planking, sponsored by the Wakefield Ruritan Club, is held on the third Wednesday of April. The event's roots go back to the early '30s, when only a certain breed of cat was invited. Today it's an open-to-the-public outdoor throwdown featuring ample libation and regional taste treats aplenty. But it is politics, undiluted statewide politics, that draws the crowd each year to the Loblolly pines of Wakefield, Va., the self-proclaimed peanut capital of the world.

Although the scheduled speechmakers are always politicians, 2001 marked a Shad Planking first, in that active gubernatorial candidates were at the top of the speaker's card at the Wakefield Sportsman Club.

Thus, when they weren't perched on the flatbed dais provided for honored guests and speakers between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., Democrat nominee-in-waiting Mark Warner and his two Republican rivals, Lt. Gov. John Hager and Attorney Gen. Mark Earley, worked the rustic soiree with their campaign-sign-holding entourages at their backs every step of the way. Wherever the trio of hopefuls wandered among the many booths and displays, the same strategy was evident: Every potential photographic vignette had to be filled to the edge of the frame with the team colors.
An invisible yet pervasive aspect of the occasion was the unprecedented backdrop of the much-reported budget stalemate that has Gov. Jim Gilmore at odds with legislators of his own party, most notably Sen. John Chichester of Stafford. News of the twists and turnings of the day at the General Assembly session rippled through the crowd of 3,000-plus during the seasonally cool, partially cloudy afternoon.

Sustenance and Sauce

With the price of admission, $14 in advance or $16 at the gate, one could eat and drink to his heart's content. Peanuts in bushel baskets, flavored this way and that, were easy to find. Crab cakes were available at one booth; cups of Jack Daniels were poured from a tailgate setup. Dressed with a squirt of Dr. Nettles' Secret Shad Plank Sauce, the same peppery slather that's brushed onto to the Shad as it's smoked on oak planks, deep-fried shad roe whetted the tongue perfectly for a taste of cold beer.
Open taps on beer trucks were provided by the campaigns of several candidates. For what it's worth, Forbes offered the Coors line, Kilgore made his statement with Miller brands, and Hager, Warner and Diamondstein chose Bud. In a contrast of styles, the Earley booth offered hot coffee.

Candidate Warner, the Northern Virginia venture capitalist, also provided the party with a portion of its musical fare: the Blue Grass Brothers, featuring on vocals former congressman Ben Jones, who may be best known for his television work as Cooter on "The Dukes of Hazzard."

Between tunes, one of which was a semi-rousing campaign song for Warner, Jones japed that he was an "independent Democrat." Then, with the timing of a seasoned pro, the country crooner claimed former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, of Georgia, liked to say "I was as independent as a hog on ice."

About 2:45 p.m., the event's staff, more than 200 volunteers participated in some way, began to dole out plates of smoked shad, fried trout, coleslaw and corn muffins to the long lines of party-goers.

Politics in the Air
 

As he autographed a souvenir Shad Planking baseball cap for an admirer, John Hager mentioned he'd missed only two Shad Plankings in the last 22 years. From my vantage point, of the three men seeking to occupy the Governor's Mansion, Hager seemed the most at ease with the opportunity to chat off-the-cuff in a social setting.

Asked for his opinion on the imbroglio over tax-cut percentage points, Mark Warner was eager to offer some advice, "You don't negotiate with press releases. Everybody's got these intractable positions, and nobody can budge."

On the now-familiar 55 percent vs. 70 percent topic, Mark Earley said, "I think a lot of them [Democrats] don't want a budget because they want an issue for this fall."

However, it was U.S. Sen. George Allen who had the most interesting comment on the subject. As he dealt with my question, "How can the eventual GOP gubernatorial candidate turn the negatives of the car tax phase-out problem into a plus for him in the fall campaign?" Allen seemed to open the door to the notion that the time is nigh for Gilmore to find a way to cut a deal.

"I'm not the one negotiating and drawing lines in the sand, and all of that," Allen said, boot-scooting through the minefield carefully.

"In your mind, could there be a number other than 70 percent?" I pressed.

"There are ways it can be finessed, if people will negotiate in good faith with one another," he replied good-naturedly.

As the Shadows Lengthened

 
By 6 p.m., more than half of the attendees had had their fill and made their way to the parking area. Since I bailed out about that time, I can't say when the last of the diehards left the party.

However, it's not every day that one can have one-on-one conversations with so many active candidates, office-holders and operatives of both major parties. Also at the gathering were U.S. Sen. John Warner, former-Gov. Gerald Baliles, former-U.S. Sen. Paul Trible, Richmond Mayor Tim Kaine, and many other current and former elected officials.

I can't help but think it would be a better world if there were more happenings like the Shad Planking, where politicians of all stripes are so accessible. 


Bottom Line: In spite of the considerable difficulty of negotiating one's way around the countless tiny bones in a shad, I have to give the affair itself an enthusiastic two thumbs up. George Allen will be the speaker for the 54th Shad Planking.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

A Veterans Day Remembrance


In 1916 the fit young volunteers who were members of the Richmond Light Infantry Blues were dispatched to Brownsville, Texas, to watch over the border and chase Mexican bandit/revolutionary Pancho Villa, who had crossed the border to stage a few raids on American soil ... or, so people said.

To do the job the Richmonders were quickly converted into a cavalry unit. My grandfather, Frank W. Owen (1893-1968), seen at the age of 23 in the 1916 photo above, was one of those local boys in that Richmond Blues outfit.

Following that campaign, in 1917 the Blues were sent to Fort McClellan, located in the Alabama foothills, near the town of Anniston, for additional training. Then it was across the pond to France to finish off the Great War -- the war to end all wars.

Frank Owen grew up in South Richmond in what was then called Manchester. Before his active duty he had mostly made his living as a vocalist. The stories I remember him telling from his years as a soldier were all about his singing gigs, playing football and poker, and various other adventures.


Owen is on the right in the photo above. Like other men of his generation, who saw war firsthand, he apparently saw no benefit in talking about the actual horrors he'd seen. At least I never heard such stories. However, he was always quick to point with pride at having been in the Richmond Blues, then seen by many in Richmond as an elite corps.


F. W. Owen depended completely on his own view of life. He passed what he could of that self-reliance on to me. My grandson's middle name is Owen. It's a name he should always wear proudly. A long way from home, almost a century ago, his great-great-grandfather certainly did.

The story below is about my grandfather. A previous version of it was published in SLANT in 1990. This version was published in Style Weekly in 2000.

*
The Cheaters
by F.T. Rea
Having devoted countless hours to competitive sports and games of all sorts, nothing in that realm is quite as galling to this grizzled scribbler as the cheater’s averted eye of denial, or the practiced tones of his shameless spiel.
In the middle of a pick-up basketball game, or a friendly Frisbee-golf round, too often, my barbed outspokenness over what I have perceived as deliberate cheating has ruffled feathers. Alas, it's my nature. I can't help it any more than a watchful blue jay can resist dive-bombing an alley cat.
The reader might wonder about whether I'm overcompensating for dishonest aspects of myself, or if I could be dwelling on memories of feeling cheated out of something dear.
OK, fair enough, I don't deny any of that. Still, truth be told, it mostly goes back to a particular afternoon's mischief gone wrong.


*

A blue-collar architect with the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway for decades, my maternal grandfather, Frank Wingo Owen was a natural entertainer. Blessed with a resonant baritone/bass voice, he began singing professionally in his teens and continued performing, as a soloist and with barbershop quartets, into his mid-60s.
Shortly after his retirement, at 65, the lifelong grip on good health he had enjoyed failed; an infection he picked up during a routine hernia surgery at a VA hospital nearly killed him. It left him with no sense of touch in his extremities.
Once he got some of his strength back, he found comfort in returning to his role as umpire of the baseball games played in his yard by the neighborhood's boys. He couldn't stand up behind home plate, anymore, but he did alright sitting in the shade of the plum tree, some 25 feet away.
This was the summer he taught me, along with a few of my friends, the fundamentals of poker. To learn the game we didn’t play for real money. Each player got so many poker chips. If his chips ran out, he became a spectator.
The poker professor said he’d never let us beat him, claiming he owed it to the game itself to win if he could, which he always did. Woven throughout his lessons on betting strategy were stories about poker hands and football games from his cavalry days, serving with the Richmond Blues during World War I.
As likely as not, the stories he told would end up underlining points he saw as standards: He challenged us to expose the true coward at the heart of every bully. "Punch him in the nose," he'd chuckle, "and even if you get whipped he'll never bother you again." In team sports, the success of the team trumped all else. Moreover, withholding one’s best effort in any game, no matter the score, was beyond the pale.
Such lazy afternoons came and went so easily that summer there was no way then, at 11, I could have appreciated how precious they would seem looking back on them.
On the other hand, there were occasions he would make it tough on me. Especially when he spotted a boy breaking the yard's rules or playing dirty. It was more than a little embarrassing when he would wave his cane and bellow his rulings. For flagrant violations, or protesting his call too much, he barred the guilty boy from the yard for a day or two.
F. W. Owen’s hard-edged opinions about fair play, and looking directly in the eye at whatever comes along, were not particularly modern. Nor were they always easy for know-it-all adolescent boys to swallow.
Predictably, the day came when a plot was hatched. We decided to see if artful subterfuge could beat him at poker just once. The conspirators practiced in secret for hours, passing cards under the table with bare feet and developing signals. It was accepted that we would not get away with it for long, but to pull it off for a few hands would be pure fun.
Following baseball, with the post-game watermelon consumed, I fetched the cards and chips. Then the four card sharks moved in to put the caper in play.
To our amazement, the plan went off smoothly. After hands of what we saw as sly tricks we went blatant, expecting/needing to get caught, so we could gloat over having tricked the great master. Later, as he told the boys' favorite story -- the one about a Spanish women who bit him on the arm at a train station in France -- one-eyed jacks tucked between dirty toes were being passed under the table.
Then the joy began to drain out of the adventure. With semi-secret gestures I called the ruse off. A couple of hands were played with no shenanigans but he ran out of chips, anyway.
Head bowed, he sighed, “Today I can’t win for loosing; you boys are just too good for me.” Utterly dependent on his cane for balance he slowly walked into the shadows toward the back porch. It was agonizing.
The game was over; we were no longer pranksters. We were cheaters.
As he carefully negotiated the steps, my last chance to save the day came and went without a syllable out of me to set the record straight. It was hard to believe that he hadn’t seen what we were doing, but my guilt burned so deeply I didn't wonder enough about that, then.

*

My grandfather didn’t play poker with us again. He went on umpiring, and telling his salty stories afterwards over watermelon. We tried playing poker the same way without him, but it didn’t work; the value the chips had magically represented was gone. The boys had outgrown poker without real money on the line.
Although I thought about that afternoon's shame many times before he died nine years later, neither of us ever mentioned it. For my part, when I tried to bring it up, to clear the air, the words always stuck in my throat.
Eventually, I grew to become as intolerant of petty cheating as F.W. Owen was in his day, maybe even more so. And, as it was for him, the blue jay has always been my favorite bird.

-- 30 --

Friday, November 09, 2018

The Sound

A scan of the campaign handbill
mentioned in this story.

Ed. Note: A longer version of this story was published in 1987 in SLANT. Then, in 2000, it was cut down to this version, which ran in STYLE Weekly as a Back Page.


*

In the spring of 1984, I ran for public office. In case the Rea for City Council campaign doesn’t ring a bell, it was a spontaneous and totally independent undertaking. No doubt, it showed. Predictably, I lost, but I’ve never regretted the snap decision to run, because the education was well worth the price.

In truth, I had been mired in a blue funk for some time prior to my letting a couple of friends, Bill Kitchen and Rocko Yates, talk me into running, as we played a foozball game in Rockitz, Kitchen's nightclub. Although I knew winning such an election was out of my reach, I relished the opportunity to have some fun mocking the system. Besides, at the time, I needed an adventure.

So it began. Walking door to door through Richmond’s 5th District, collecting signatures to qualify to be on the ballot, I talked with hundreds of people. During that process my attitude about the endeavor began to expand. People were patting me on the back and saying they admired my pluck. Of course, what I was not considering was how many people will encourage a fool to do almost anything that breaks the monotony.

By the time I announced my candidacy at a press conference on the steps of the city library, I was thoroughly enjoying my new role. My confidence and enthusiasm were compounding daily.

On a warm April afternoon I was in Gilpin Court stapling handbills, featuring my smiling face, onto utility poles. Prior to the campaign, I had never been in Gilpin Court. I had known it only as “the projects.”

Several small children took to tagging along. Perhaps it was their first view of a semi-manic white guy — working their turf alone — wearing a loosened tie, rolled-up shirtsleeves, and khaki pants.

After their giggling was done, a few of them offered to help out. So, I gave them fliers and they ran off to dish out my propaganda with a spirit only children have.

Later I stopped to watch some older boys playing basketball at the playground. As I was then an unapologetic hoops junkie, it wasn’t long before I felt the urge to join them. I played for about 10 minutes, and amazingly, I held my own.

After hitting four or five jumpers, I banked in a left-handed runner. It was bliss, I was in the zone. But I knew enough to quit fast, before the odds evened out.

Picking up my staple gun and campaign literature, I felt like a Kennedyesque messiah, out in the mean streets with the poor kids. Running for office was a gas; hit a string of jump shots and the world’s bloody grudges and bad luck will simply melt into the hot asphalt.

A half-hour later the glamour of politics had worn thin for my troop of volunteers. Finally, it was down to one boy of about 12 who told me he carried the newspaper on that street. As he passed the fliers out, I continued attaching them to poles.

The two of us went on like that for a good while. As we worked from block to block he had very little to say. It wasn’t that he was sullen; he was purposeful and stoic. As we finished the last section to cover, I asked him a question that had gone over well with children in other parts of town.

“What’s the best thing and the worst thing about your neighborhood?” I said with faux curiosity.

He stopped. He stared right through me. Although I felt uncomfortable about it, I repeated the question.

When he replied, his tone revealed absolutely no emotion. “Ain’t no best thing … the worst thing is the sound.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, already feeling a chill starting between my shoulder blades.

“The sound at night, outside my window. The fights, the gunshots, the screams. I hate it. I try not to listen,” he said, putting his hands over his ears to show me what he meant.

Stunned, I looked away to gather my ricocheting thoughts. Hoping for a clue that would steady me, I asked, “Why are you helping me today?”

He pointed up at one of my handbills on a pole and replied in his monotone. “I never met anybody important before. Maybe if you win, you could change it.”

Words failed me. Yet I was desperate to say anything that might validate his hope. Instead, we both stared silently into the afternoon’s long shadows. Finally, I thanked him for his help. He took extra handbills and rode off on his bike.

As I drove across the bridge over the highway that sequesters his stark neighborhood from through traffic, my eyes burned and my chin quivered like my grandfather’s used to when he watched a sad movie.

Remembering being 12 years old and trying to hide my fear behind a hard-rock expression, I wanted to go back and tell the kid, “Hey, don’t believe in guys passing out handbills. Don’t fall for anybody’s slogans. Watch your back and get out of the ghetto as fast as you can.”

But then I wanted to say, “You’re right! Work hard, be tough, you can change your neighborhood. You can change the world. Never give up!” During the ride home to the Fan District, I swore to myself to do my absolute best to win the election.

A few weeks later, at what was billed as my victory party, I, too, tried to be stoic as the telling election results tumbled in. The incumbent carried six of the district’s seven precincts. I carried one. The total vote wasn’t even close. Although I felt like I’d been in a car wreck, I did my best to act nonchalant.

http://photos1.blogger.com/blogger/6291/212/1600/Rea84z.0.jpg
This shot, taken at Grace Place, shows my reaction to
the news that with half the votes counted I no longer
had any chance to win.
In the course of my travels these days, I sometimes hear Happy Hour wags laughing off Richmond’s routine murder statistics. They scoff when I suggest that maybe there are just too many guns about; I’m told that as long as “we” stay out of “their” neighborhood, there is little to fear.

But remembering that brave Gilpin Court newspaper boy, I know that to him the sound of a drug dealer dying in the street was just as terrifying as the sound of any other human being giving up the ghost.

If he's still alive, that same boy would be older than I was when I met him. The ordeal he endured in his childhood was not unlike what children growing up in any number of the world’s bloody war zones are going through today. Plenty of them must cover their ears at night, too.

For the reader who can’t figure out how this story could eventually come to bear on their own life, then just wait … keep listening.

 -- 30 --

Friday, November 02, 2018

GRFGA baseball caps

For the first time in 20 years the 42-year-old Greater Richmond Frisbee-Golf Association will have a new baseball cap for its members and their friends to wear when such apparel is practical.

The GRFGA logo depicted below will be stitched on the front. For the sake of having a choice two different color hats are available. Both have a stone-washed look. Maybe khaki for daytime and blue-gray for after six.

See the photo of the two hats below and here are more details about them: 

• 100% cotton twill

• Six-panel

• Low-profile

• The hats are top quality.

 • Fabric hideaway closure
with brass buckle and grommet

• Pigment-dyed fabric,
color matched sweatband

• Pre-curved bill, four rows of stitching.


They will cost you $22 each. Get in touch if you want one, two, or a bag full of them.

The deadline (last day to order hats) is Sun., Nov. 18.

ftrea9@yahoo.com



Thursday, November 01, 2018

The Strange Case of Gus the Cat

Note: In an effort to be funny in an off-beat way, I wrote this piece in 2000. The people quoted were told the scenario and given the freedom to write their own lines, in character. It was first published by Richmond.com.  

*

Though cynical people like to say, “All cats are gray in the dark,” the difference between this and that counts with me. Thus, if for no other purpose than to satisfy my own curiosity, I set out to find the truth about Gus, the cat that had long presided over lower Carytown from his plush basket in a bookstore display window facing the street.

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-ohaIkmTZU_0/TYOKL0YuoAI/AAAAAAAAAxw/v5kt5utrTbc/s1600/gusstacywarner.jpg
This photo of Gus was taken by

Stacy Warner for Richmond.com.

The mystery began in the course of a casual conversation about re-makes of old movies. Film aficionado Ted Salins, a regular among the society of conversationalists who gather at the tables on the sidewalk in front of Coffee & Co., tossed out that the cat living next door in Carytown Books is not the “original” Gus.

Since I’ve known Salins, a writer/filmmaker/house-painter, for a long time, I suspected his charge was a setup for a weak joke. To give him room to operate I asked, “So, this Gus is an impostor?”

“Just like Lassie, several cats have played the role of Gus over the years,” Salins said matter-of-factly.

Until that moment it hadn’t occurred to me that Gus, someone else’s cat, had slowly become important to me over the years. In the past I’ve been told that he’s over 15, maybe pushing 20. Who can say what that is in cat years? He still has a few teeth left.

“You see, in ‘91 I had lost my beloved Skinkywinkydinky in a separation,” Salins went on, as if revealing a dark conspiracy. “When I first saw Gus, I took to him because he reminded me of Skinky. That Gus wouldn't let you touch him. But, this Gus…”

“Ted, this is absolutely the most off-the-wall nonsense you’ve come up with yet,” I accused.

“The place has changed hands a few times since then,” Salins smugly offered. “The problem is each owner falls in love with the cat and keeps it. But since Gus has become an institution in Carytown, each set of new owners has to find another cat that looks like Gus. The switch is made at night in order to preserve the secret. I’ve seen it.”

Before I could say “horsefeathers,” another member of the Carytown intelligentsia, who had just walked up, spoke: “Salins, as usual you’re all wet,” said artist Jay Bohannan. “That is not only the same cat, but Gus is, let’s see, yes, he’s nearly 70. That particular cat is probably the oldest cat this side of the island of Lamu.”

I laughed at Bohannan’s crack and excused myself from the table to let them hash it out. The two of them have been arguing good-naturedly since their VCU art school days in the early ‘70s.

Walking toward my car, Ted’s suggestion of a fraud having been perpetrated on the public bothered me. I felt certain that if somebody had actually installed a faux Gus in the bookstore it would have been all over the street the next day. As I tried to imagine people spiriting nearly identical cats in and out of the back door, in the dead of night, the matter wouldn’t rest.

So I turned around and went into Carytown Books. The shop’s manager, Kelly Justice, who has worked there for six years under three editions of ownership, scoffed at Salins’ charge.

“Anyone who knows Ted, knows he’s a nitwit,” said Ms. Justice with a wry smile. “More likely than not, this is an attempt to raise funds for another one of his documentaries.”

When I told her about Bohannan’s equally outrageous suggestion that Gus was almost a septuagenarian, Justice laughed out loud. “Perhaps Jay and Ted are both trying to hitch their wagons to Gus’ star,” she suggested playfully.

Back outside, Salins and Bohannan were both gone. So I walked east on the block to Bygones, the collectable clothing and memorabilia store known for its artful window displays. Since Maynee Cayton, the shop’s proprietor, is an unofficial historian for the neighborhood, I decided to see what she knew about Gus.

Cayton, who has been at that location for 16 years, said she had some pictures of the block from the ’30s and ‘40s, but she didn’t think she had any shots of a bookstore cat. However, she did remember that when she was a child she saw a gray and white cat in the window of what was then the Beacon Bookstore.

“It was in the late ’60s, I think it was 1967,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “And I’d say it was a young cat. Either way, I can’t believe the feline impersonator story, so maybe it was Gus.”

The next day, Bohannan called on the phone to tell me he had something I needed to see right away. He was mysterious about it and wouldn’t explain what he was talking about, except to say that it was proof of his claim about Gus the Cat.

Unable to let it go, I told him I’d stop by his place to see what proof he had.

Bohannan’s apartment, located between Carytown and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, was an escape from the modern world altogether. It’s furnished in a pleasant mix of practical artifacts and curiosities from yesteryear. The heavy black telephone on his desk was almost as old as Jay. Next to the desk was a turn-of-the-century gramophone. Bohannan, himself, dressed like a character who just stepped out of a Depression-era RKO film, reached into a dog-eared manila folder and pulled out a photograph. When I asked him where he had gotten the picture, purportedly from about 1930, he shrugged.

In such a setting, his evidence of Gus’ longevity took on an eerie authenticity. Sitting in one of Bohannan’s ancient oak chairs, surrounded by his own paintings of scenes from Virginia’s past, I thought I could see the cat he claimed was depicted in the storefront’s window. Why, it even looked like Gus.

Jay told me I could keep the photo, it was just a Xerox copy. What a scoop!

Later, when I looked at the grainy picture at home, I could hardly even see a cat. The next day, back in Carytown, I spoke with several people who hang out or work in the neighborhood. A few actually thought Bohannan’s bizarre contention could be true. Others agreed with Salins.

One man, who refused to be quoted with attribution, said he was sure the original Gus was an orange cat. A woman looked up from her crossword puzzle to note that Bohannan's evidence was at least as good as what she'd seen on the Loch Ness Monster.

Then the whole group of chatty know-it-alls went off on the general topic of conspiracy theories and hoaxes. At the next table a woman in a straw hat started sketching the sidewalk scene.

A few days later, I saw Ted Salins holding court in front of the coffee shop. I told him what Kelly had said about his claim and I showed him Jay’s so-called proof that Gus is ancient.

“The next thing you’re going to tell me is Shakespeare actually wrote all those plays," Ted said mockingly. "Look, it’s not the same cat. Live with it. This Gus is a ringer, maybe three years old.”

Turning around, I looked through the storefront’s glass at good old Gus in his usual spot. He looked comfortable with a new electric heater under the blanket in his basket. It dawned on me that there was a time when Gus used to avoid me, as well. Now he seems happy for me to pet him, briefly.

Pulled back into the spell of the mystery, I wondered, had Gus changed or had I? Gus stared back at me and blinked. Like one of his favorite authors, J. D. Salinger, Gus wasn’t talking.

Gus was smiling as only a cat can; a smile that suggests equal parts of wisdom-of-the-ages and dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers. One obvious truth about Gus the Cat was that he had grown quite accustomed to having a public.

*

Note: On June 19, 2001 a cat alleged to have been the authentic Gus the Cat was found dead in Carytown Books; he was estimated by the bookstore's spokesperson to have been about 18 years old.

Monday, October 29, 2018

The Big Stretch

Note: A version of this piece first appeared in STYLE Weekly as a Back Page in 2002.



The prototype was assembled during a lull in seventh grade shop class. After tying some 15 rubber bands together to make a chain, a collaborator held one end of the silly looking contraption as I stepped back to stretch it out for a test. Aiming as best I could, looking along the taut line of connected rubber bands, I let go.

The whole thing gathered itself and shot past the holder. The released tip struck a target, or maybe it was near it, several feet beyond the holder. It worked! While the satisfaction I felt was a rush, the encouragement from the boys who witnessed that launching was glorious.

Through a pleasant sequence of trial-and-error experiments, it wasn't long before I figured out how to best maximize distance and accuracy. Once guys across the schoolroom were getting popped with the bitter end of my brainchild, dubbed the Stretch, the spitballs that routinely flew around such rooms in 1961 at Albert H. Hill Junior High were strictly old news. The next two days of playing with the new sensation of the seventh grade had the effect of transforming me into the leader of a crew, of a sort.

A couple of days later, uncharacteristically, I appeared on the schoolyard an hour before the first bell. Inside a brown paper bag I had was an updated version of my invention. This one was some 60 links long. Of course, it's name was the Big Stretch.

Only my most trusted henchmen had seen it in its test runs. No one else at school had seen it and naturally, I was only too happy to change that. Once the Big Stretch was mind-boggling range had been demonstrated on the schoolyard, boys were soon shoving one another aside just to act as the holder. With this new version, most of the time I did the shooting.

Occasionally, one of the guys from my inner circle was permitted to be the shooter. As the wonder whizzed by it made such a splendid noise that just standing close by the holder was a thrill, too. On the asphalt playground adjacent to the yellow brick school building an enthusiastic throng cheered each flight.

The Big Stretch went on to make an appearance at an afternoon football game, where its operators established to the delight of the audience that cheerleaders on the sideline could be zapped on their bouncing butts from 25 yards away with impunity. After a couple of days of demonstrations around the neighborhood and at Willow Lawn shopping center, again, I significantly lengthened the chain of rubber bands. But the new version, about 100 rubber bands long, proved too heavy for its own good. It was not as accurate or powerful as the previous model. 

A day or so later, came the morning a couple of beefy ninth-grade football players insisted on taking a single turn as shooter and holder of the new Big Stretch. The they demanded a second turn. I said, "No." Surrounded by seventh-grade devotees of the Big Stretch, I stood my ground. But my fair-weather entourage was useless in a pinch.

Faced with no good options, I fled with my claim-to-fame in hand. In short order I was cornered and pounded until the determined thieves got the loot they wanted. They fooled around for a while trying to hit their buddies with it. Eventually, several rubber bands broke and the Big Stretch was literally pulled to pieces and scattered.

By then my nose had stopped bleeding, so I gathered my dignity and shrugged off the whole affair, as best I could. For whatever reasons, I chose not to make another version of the Big Stretch. A couple of other kids copied it, and showed it off, but nobody seemed to care. Just as abruptly as it had gotten underway, the connected-rubber-band craze simply ran out of gas at Hill School.

It was over.

At that same time the slang meaning of “cool” had an underground cachet that has been stretched all out of it shape in 1961. We’re told the concept of cool, and the term itself, seeped out of the early bebop scene in Manhattan in the ‘40s.

Well, that may be so, but to me the same delightful sense of spontaneity and understated defiance seems abundantly evident in forms of expression that predate the Dizzy Gillespie/Thelonious Monk era at Minton’s, on 118th Street.

Wasn’t that Round Table scene at the Algonquin Hotel, back in the ‘20s, something akin to cool? Hey, if Dorothy Parker's writing wasn’t cool, what the hell was? And, in the decades that preceded the advent of bebop jazz, surely modern art -- with its cubism, surrealism, constructivism, and so forth -- was laying down some of the rules for what became known as cool.

Cool’s zenith had probably been passed by 1961, about the time I was becoming enamored with the Beats, via national magazines. Looking back on that time now I have to think that widespread exposure and cool were more or less incompatible. Significantly, cool -- with its ability to be flippant and profound in the same gesture -- rose and fell without the encouragement of the ruling class.

Underdogs invented cool out of thin air. It was a style that was beyond what money could buy. The artful grasping of a moment’s unique truth was cool.

However, just as the one-time-only perfect notes blown in a jam session can’t be duplicated, authentic cool was difficult to harness; even more difficult to mass-produce. By the ‘70s, the mobs of hippies attuned to stadium rock ‘n’ roll shrugged nothing off. Cool was probably too subtle for them to appreciate. The expression subsequently lost its moorings and dissolved into the soup of mainstream vernacular.

Eventually, in targeting self-absorbed baby boomers as a market, Madison Avenue promoted everything under the sun -- including schmaltz, and worse -- as cool. The Disco craze ignored cool. Punk Rockers searched for it in all the wrong places, then caught a buzz and gave up. By the mid-'80s nihilism masqueraded as cool ... then it just stopped mattering. 

Since then, when people say, “ku-wul,” usually it's to express their ordinary approval of routine things. Which underlines the lesson that time usually stretch slang expressions thin as they are assimilated. "Cool" probably had a longer run that most such pop slang. 

The process of becoming cool, then popular, surely pulled the Big Stretch to pieces at Hill School. Once the experimental aspect of it was over it got old, like any worn out joke. Once it began to play as just another showoff gimmick that was something less than cool, even to goofy seventh-graders a long time ago.

Hey, if Dorothy Parker's writing wasn’t 
cool, what the hell was? 

-- Photo of Albert H. Hill Middle School from RVA Schools 
My Dorothy Parker illustration was done in 2013.