Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Fifty Years of Perspective on 1968

Note: Fifty years ago, yesterday, the Tet Offensive was launched in Vietnam. A week before, the USS Pueblo had been captured at sea. It was a hell of a way to start a year. It was 1968.


Jan. 23: The USS Pueblo was seized on the high seas by North Korean forces; at least that’s the story I got. At the time I was in the Navy and I had little doubt we would rescue the Pueblo’s crew, even if it meant another war.

Subsequently, as captives, the Pueblo’s 83 men endured an ordeal that was shocking to an American public that had naively thought its Super Power status meant such things could not happen.

Jan. 30: The Tet Offensive began, as the shadowy Viet Cong flexed its muscles and blurred battle lines with simultaneous assaults in many parts of South Vietnam. Even the American embassy in Saigon was attacked.

Mar. 16: Some 500 Vietnamese villagers -- women, children and old men (animals, too) -- were killed by American soldiers on patrol in what came to be known as the My Lai Massacre. However, it would be another 20 months before investigative journalist Seymour Hersh would break the horrifying story of the covered-up massacre, via the Associated Press wire service.

Mar. 31: Facing the burgeoning antiwar-driven campaigns of Sen. Eugene McCarthy and Sen. Robert Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson suddenly withdrew from the presidential race, declining to run for reelection by saying, “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination...”

Apr. 4: America’s most respected civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots followed in cities coast-to-coast. The bitterness that remained after the dust settled was scary.

In Richmond, it ended an era. Adventurous whites who followed music could no longer go in the black clubs they had once patronized. No more Sahara Club for me.

May 13: The USA and North Vietnam began a series of negotiations to end the war in Vietnam that came to be known as the Paris Peace Talks. Ironically, as a backdrop, France, itself, was in chaos. Workers and students had shut down much of the country with a series of strikes. The trains weren’t running, the airports were closed, as were schools, etc.

May 24: On the same day I was discharged from the Navy, Father Philip Berrigan and Thomas Lewis (of Artists Concerned About Vietnam) got six-year sentences for destroying federal property, stemming from an incident in which duck blood was poured over draft files at Baltimore’s Selective Service headquarters.

June 3: Artist Andy Warhol nearly died from wounds received from a gunshot fired by Valerie Solanis. She was a sometime writer and one of the many off-beat characters who had occasionally hung out at Warhol’s famous studio, The Factory. 

June 5: Having just won the California primary, Robert Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles. The hopes of millions that the Vietnam War would end soon died that night.

It’s hard to imagine that Richard Nixon would have been able to defeat Kennedy in the general election. Kennedy's death meant the gravy train being enjoyed by big corporations supplying the war effort would continue to chug along.

June 8: James Earl Ray was arrested in London. Eventually, he was convicted of murdering Martin Luther King. Yet, questions about that crime and Ray's role linger today.

July 23: After watching “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the Westhampton Theatre, I saw The Who play live on stage at the Mosque (now the Altria Theater). Looking at the long line to get into the concert, I was quite surprised at how many hippies there were in Richmond. This was in the period the band was into smashing up its equipment to finish off shows.

The acid I took that day served me well.

Aug. 20: Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush what had been a season of renaissance. As it had been with the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis, talk of World War III being one button-push away was commonplace.

Aug. 28: In Chicago the Democratic convention that selected Vice President Hubert Humphrey to top its ticket melted down. With tear gas in the air and blood in the streets 178 demonstrators/bystanders were arrested. Many were roughed up on live television. As cops clubbed citizens in the streets on the convention floor CBS reporters Mike Wallace and Dan Rather were punched.

Watching the riots surrounding the Democratic convention on television, I began wondering if those who were saying our society was coming unglued might be right. Consequently, for the first time my political ideas were aired out in a newspaper, when my letter to the editor was published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. That experience began a love affair with seeing my name in print.

Oct. 18: At the Summer Olympics at Mexico City, American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the medal ceremony for the 200 meter race. Smith and Carlos wore black gloves (and other symbolic accouterments) for a protest gesture that was widely seen as a “black power” salute.

Nov. 5: Richard Nixon (depicted above) narrowly defeated Hubert Humphrey. Although Humphrey, himself, was for peace, out of loyalty he refused to denounce Johnson’s failing war policy. That mistake cost Humphrey dearly.

Also elected that day was Shirley Chisholm from Brooklyn. She was the first black female to serve in the House of Representatives.

Dec. 21: The first manned space mission to escape Earth’s gravity and orbit the moon began with the launching of Apollo 8.

Dec. 24: After having its way with them for 11 months, torture and mock executions included, North Korea released all of the members of the Pueblo’s crew but kept the ship. The U.S. Navy seemed to blame the Pueblo’s captain, Commander Lloyd M. "Pete" Bucher, for the entire painful fiasco. Mercifully, the Secretary of the Navy called off any official punishment.

At the time, there was a cumulative, escalating feeling that connected the most earthshaking events of 1968. Each crazy thing that happened seemed to be feeding off of the last crazy thing.

After 1968, the general public’s perception of the antiwar movement’s protests as being unpatriotic kaleidoscoped into something else. In June of 1969 LIFE Magazine published “The Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam: One Week’s Toll.” It was a ten-page story that featured photographs and the names of 242 men who had died in the war in one week.

The effect was dramatic. Looking at all those hopeful young faces was too much to bear, when we knew each coming week was going to claim the lives of another two or three hundred young men.

In 1969 the Hawks' picture of how a victory in Vietnam would look was fading into a blur. With 1968 in the rear-view mirror, the Doves were beginning to prevail in the propaganda struggle. Nonetheless, the bloody war went on for years.

-- My words and art.

-- 30 --

Friday, January 26, 2018

Sign of the Times

One pleasant afternoon in the mid-1970s, I was walking some 20 yards behind a guy heading east on the 800 block of West Grace Street. It was probably summertime. Curiously, he picked up the Organic Food Store’s hand-painted sandwich board style sign from the sidewalk in front of the store and put it under his arm.

Without looking around for any witnesses, he resumed his walk, eastward. I don't remember what I thought, at the time, but to close the distance between us I walked a little faster down the red brick sidewalk.

By the time we had passed the Biograph Theatre, where I worked, was plotting what to do. I was sure he had no honest reason to take the sign. He was a big-haired hippie. I suppose he could have been a student. Or, he might have been a traveling panhandler/opportunist. In those days there were plenty of both in the neighborhood.

Passing by Sally Bell’s Kitchen, in the 700 block, I was within five or six yards of him when I spoke the lines I had written for myself. My tone was resolute: “Hey, I saw you take the sign. Don’t turn around. Just put it down and walk away.”

The thief’s body language announced that he had heard me. He didn’t turn around. Instead he walked faster. I continued following and I said with more force: “Put the sign down. The cops are already on the way. Walk away while you still can.”

Without further ado the wooden sign clattered onto the sidewalk. The sign thief kept just going without looking back. As I gathered my neighbor’s property I watched the fleeing hippie break into a sprint, cross Grace Street and disappear going toward Monroe Park at the next corner.

So I carried the recovered property back to the store. Obviously, I don’t really remember exactly what I said in this incident all those years ago, verbatim, but what you just read was a faithful recounting of the events and the spirit of what I said.

What I had done came in part from my young man’s sense of righteous indignation. That, together with the spirit of camaraderie that existed among some of the neighborhood’s merchants in that time. There were several of us, then in our mid-to-late-20s, who were running businesses on that bohemian strip — bars, retail shops, etc. We were friends and we watched out for one another.

My tough guy performance had lasted less than a minute. Now I’m amazed that I used to do such things. The character I invented was drawn somewhat from Humphrey Bogart, with as much Robert Mitchum as I could muster. Hey, since he bought the act, the thief probably felt lucky to have gotten away. Who knows? Maybe he’s still telling this same story, too, but from another angle.

This much I know — that quirky pop scene on Grace Street in those days was a goldmine of offbeat stories. Chelf’s Drug Store was at the corner of Grace and Shafer. With its antique soda fountain and a few booths, it had been a hangout for magazine-reading, alienated art students for decades. It seemed frozen in time.

The original Village Restaurant, a block west of Chelf’s, was a legendary beatnik watering hole, going back to the 1950s. Writer Tom Robbins and artist William Fletcher “Bill” Jones (1930-‘98) hung out there. In the '60s and '70s the same neighborhood was also home to cartoon-like characters such as the wandering Flashlight Lady and the Grace Street Midget.

By the late-'70s the scene in that neighborhood had evolved. It was meaner and more dangerous. Bars needed bouncers at the door. Hippies were being replaced by punks. Cocaine was replacing pot as the most popular recreational drug.

In 1981, or so, I can also remember a day when an angry, red-bearded street beggar with a missing foot was scaring old ladies coming and going from the then-new Dominion Place apartment building on the 1000 block of Grace. We were about the same age. I said something to him like, "Cut it out and move on."

The surly panhandler laughed like a villain in a slasher movie and threatened to, “Bite a plug” out of me. Wisely, I didn’t press my case any further. Instead, I moved on.

-- 30 --

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

An Epiphany at a Stop Light

Facing east on Monument Avenue I was waiting for the stoplight to change. It was about 35 years ago. The sights were as familiar as could be. Through the windshield I could see the J.E.B. Stuart monument. To the right was the hospital named for that place on the map -- Stuart Circle. I was born in that hospital and so was my daughter.

Suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, a fresh thought struck me. It felt like an epiphany.

Background: Not too long before this moment, in 1984, I had run for a seat on Richmond's City Council. The task of campaigning had exposed me to some neighborhoods in my home town that had been mostly unfamiliar to me before I decided to run for office.

Why I took that plunge, with no chance to win, is another story, for another day. But the reason for mentioning it here is how eye-opening that experience was. For one thing, I don't think I had ever spent any time in Gilpin Court before the campaign trail took me there. It was part of the Fifth District, which also included the part of the Fan District that was behind the equestrian statue before me. As Richmonders know, Virginia Commonwealth University's academic campus was sprawled out in the blocks just beyond the statue.

Looking at that looming depiction of a man on a horse a question exploded in my head: What would I have thought of that statue if I had been born black, instead of white, and I had grown up in a housing project like Gilpin Court?

The thought that followed made me laugh. Answering my own question provided me with a momentary walk-in-the-other-man's-shoes moment, as I said to myself: "By the time I was 16, I probably would have blown that damn thing up." That prompted me to be amazed that it hadn't already happened.

Folks who remember the 16-year-old version of me should be laughing now. At least a few of them know there would have been some chance, indeed, that I would have really done it ... had I been a headstrong black teenager, who, like me, got thrown out of school regularly.

Before that newfound flash of empathy, I don't think I had ever tried to imagine myself as a black Richmonder looking at those statues of Confederate generals, day after day. Ever since then, I've seen those memorials to the Lost Cause in a different light.

Now, in June of 2020, Monument Avenue is being subjected to a transformation at the hands of young people who have seen to it that the spell those damn Confederate memorials have had on Richmond is kaput.

Art and words by F.T. Rea

-- 30 --

Monday, January 15, 2018

Rea's Rams Report No. 5

Senior guard Johnny Williams (photo from VCU)
This edition offers a link to the piece I wrote for STYLE Weekly previewing the 80th match-up of the University of Richmond Spiders and the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams.

The game between the crosstown rivals will be played on Jan. 17 at the Siegel Center. Tip-off is at 7 p.m. Note: It will be televised exclusively in Facebook.

Click here to read the piece.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Rea's Rams Report No. 4

On Saturday afternoon (Dec. 30) at the Siegel Center Virginia Commonwealth University's senior forward, Justin Tillman, turned in his fifth double-double performance of the season – 23 points and 14 rebounds. It did much to help propel VCU to its fourth consecutive victory.

In what was their first Atlantic 10 game of the season the VCU Rams, (9-5, 1-0 in A-10) built up a 22-point lead near the end of the first half, then coasted through the second half. The visiting Rams of Fordham never got closer than an 8-point difference. Final score: VCU 76, Fordham 63.

A capacity crowd of 7,637 (109th consecutive sell-out) saw Tillman hit the game's first shot, a 3-pointer from the top of the key. Sophomore guard De’Riante Jenkins scored 14 points. Sophomore guard Malik Crowfield added 10 points. Sophomore guard/forward Issac Vann played for 26 minutes off the bench, after a month out of action nursing an ankle injury. Vann scored 9 points, grabbed 5 rebounds and dished out 5 assists. His defensive contribution was also noticeable.

VCU's next game is against St. Joseph’s (5-7, 0-1 in A-10) in Philadelphia on Wed., Jan. 3, at 7 p.m. (MASN).

At the end of the calendar year VCU is sitting at No. 97 in the latest RPI. The Rams have played six games against teams with a better RPI, for a 1-5 record. The A-10 is currently seen as the 10th best conference, click on the link to view the current conference standings.

-- 30 --