Saturday, January 20, 2018
by Douglas Messerli
Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (screenplay), Steven Spielberg (director) The Post / 2017
Steven Spielberg’s 2017 film, The Post, had to be made this year, and was an almost inevitable product in a time when our current President is threatening journalists and other sources with erasement of free speech almost daily.
The result of this rather quickly made film (it began shooting on May 30th, and was in the theaters by late December) is a well-made and engaging work, with superior acting across the board, surely a sign of Spielberg’s remarkable artistry, although he’s never been a favorite director of mine. Nor, has anyone who has followed my writing must perceive, is actress Meryl Streep (who I have often criticized for disappearing into her roles) or Tom Hanks (who I feel is often a kind of lumbering giant of good intentions without deep depth); yet both here served wonderfully in their roles, bringing subtlety and true complexity to the figures they portray, Washington Post leader, Kay Graham and the newspaper’s famous editor, Ben Bradlee. I guess I still think Jason Robards, Jr. in All the President’s Men, is more convincing, but then he is the greater actor. Hanks does a more than commendable job, downplaying his do-gooder behavior. And I don’t think anyone could have better captured Kay Graham, known by all in those days, as “Mrs. Graham,” socialite heir from a father and husband who had headed that paper until her husband committed suicide.
The story of this film, on its surface, is about how the Post, undergoing an amazing change from paternalistically private to public financial support, jumped on the Daniel Ellsberg (played here by Matthew Rhys) release of the stolen Pentagon Papers, which detailed from the Truman administration to the present Nixon White House, how our leaders had consistently lied about the reasons we were in Viet Nam and the possibilities of our winning such a war, which cost the nation hundreds of lives. It was The New York Times who actually released the papers and courageously investigated and reported on the large trove of documents. But this version focusses instead on the scrappy little local paper, in those days, who with the help of reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) contacting his old acquaintance Ellsberg to procure a second set of the stolen documents. When The Times is handed a court injunction by the Nixon lawyers, the question becomes whether The Post will rise to the occasion to continue the reporting, a prelude, of course, to their later, very brave covering of the Watergate affair.
But the real story here, fortunately, is not simply that fact that Bradlee and others were able to make that happen, but the gradual awakening of a previously protected and male-dismissed highly intelligent woman, Kay Graham, who over just a few weeks finds that she must not only alter her relationships with life-time friends such as Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) and speak out against her all-male board, but chance the entire reputation of her beloved family heir-loom by speaking openly and freely in a time in which the Nixon administration was determined to protect itself by misusing all of their power.
Howard and I were in Washington, D.C. only a few years after, and I would soon write book reviews for The Post under Pulitzer Prize-winning William McPherson’s editorship; and I too, as critics such as Kenneth Turan have written, experienced that storied newsroom, recreated in this movie to perfection.
So too does Streep manage to somehow recreate the spirit of Kay Graham, showing her literally “coming out,” so to speak, from a somewhat clumsy, highly self-aware woman facing entirely hostile rooms of her male colleagues, to become a savvy and quite fearless woman, suddenly able to tell Bradlee to run the articles when all of her other worthy lawyers and board members warn her just what it might mean, including the destruction of all she loves.
Sarah Paulson plays Bradlee’s proto-feminist wife, who finally helps him to comprehend just how brave Graham has been, and Alison Brie performs her equally proto-feminist daughter, Lally, the latter of whom quietly helps Graham come into her own. But it is Streep’s remarkable acting which gives the role the slow-growing depth of personality, where, as if she were suddenly perceiving her power and perception, Mrs. Graham gets stronger day by day, until we now can imagine her as the strong force who made The Washington Post into a major American newspaper during the last dark days of the Nixon reign. This film is not really about the Ellsberg Papers as much as it is about the awakening of that powerful newspaper publisher, and that’s what makes it so moving and significant as a movie, better, in my thinking, than the much showier and plot-driven All the President’s Men—still a movie I greatly admire.
An excellent highlight of this work the moment Bagdikian delivers up a shopping bag to Ben Bradlee, containing newspapers from across the country that have continued with the Ellsberg coverage, meaning that in order to prosecute The New York Times and The Post authorities would have to close down the entire US newspapers, a shocking possibility. The Supreme Count weighs in, 6-3, that the press has the right to report the truth, something we might remind ourselves in our own dark days.
At moments, the script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, is perhaps a bit too overtly didactic—after all they are retelling a story that most younger Americans no longer remember. And I do wish we might have had a bit more of the actual content of the Ellsberg Pentagon papers to work with, instead of quick headlines. The shocking news they revealed suggested that all politicians lied and lied and lied over the decades, a fact we must face again with the release of the papers by Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden—and god knows what Mueller may eventually reveal about Trump.
But Spielberg’s film quite clearly points to where it’s going, when, at movie’s end we hear Nixon on the phone, outlawing any Washington Post reporters from ever entering the White House—the very same moment a young police detective finds that there has been a break-in to the Watergate office of the Democrat Headquarters.
Los Angeles, January 20, 2018
Thursday, January 18, 2018
Strangers’ funerals are very seldom interesting, so I will spare you the details of the funeral itself, simply mentioning that my nephews Matthew and Ben read short passages from Matthew 5: 3-12 and John 14: 1-6, 27. My nephew Pete reminisced about what a great grandmother Lorna was, and, thank heaven, instead of the old “favorites” such as “In the Garden,” sung at my father’s funeral, the organist played the “Air” by J.S. Bach. Even the minister’s “message” was cogent and personal.
I reminded my aunt and uncle of how horrible the minister had been at my grandmother’s funeral, recounting the great events of the 20th century without a single mention of her personally. I reported that I had come very close to standing up and asking him to stop so that others, who knew her and loved her, might share something with the congregation. Both told me that they truly wish I had, but I was younger in those days, and known as a kind of rabble-rouser, and didn’t want to embarrass my parents.
This minister, Dr. Howard B. Chapman, had actually known my mother and valued her service in the church.
My sister and brother had ordered up the traditional rubber-fried chicken (almost inedible) along with a disgusting potato gratin and the standard Hawaiian dinner rolls, provided by the local HyVee grocery store, for the lunch after in the church basement; once again I ate very little of the meal. There was the usual gathering of the cousins for snapshots, and the required round of the three of us to thank and celebrate the diners. My uncle Don, slightly older than my mother, and now wheel-chair bound ,would clearly be the next to go, and his younger brother Duane, who had recently lost his wife to cancer, went through the gathering speaking in a near incomprehensible voice about how short life was; he has always been among the most sentimental of all of us
And after, a straggling band of about 10 of us took to the icy cold to pray over the soon-to-be buried body. I traveled with my uncle, who surprising, since he lives in Phoenix and Montana, knew his way to the grave site; he admitted that he had returned on different trips to visit my father’s grave. While we sat out a lovely and thankfully short statement from the minister, I nearly froze, even my hardier Iowa family shivering as they sat.
But a return to the hotel brought the blood back into action, and I again repaired to the bar to further fortify myself. I’m still coughing today, four days after.
Fortunately, Mary and Ben soon also found their way down to the bar, and I shared another round of drinks with them, soon followed by the appearance of Bob.
Mary and Ben dared order something from the Longbranch menu, but Bob and I deferred. “I’ll just drink tonight, I think,” I responded. But we all talked, they ribbing each other as only brother and younger sister might, and talking about the old days.
Once, my aunt and uncle trotted off to an early bed, Bob suggested we take in nearby spot which served up “real” onion soup, an idea to which I gladly agreed.
Amazingly during that short restaurant visit we discussed all sorts of things I never thought we might, the death of his son, the breakup of his second marriage (he was now married to a woman who, apparently, was much younger than he), and my being gay, and how my father had negatively reacted to it. Bob even shared the fact that he had discussed the issue with my father, who insisted that, no matter how much he hated the fact of my sexuality, he would never abandon his love for me. I just wish he’d displayed that deep love a little bit more.
Bob and I even discussed transgender sex!! The general may have a true conservative, but he was certainly no moralist prude. And I loved him deeply for those late-night conversations, through which he flirted with all the women customers and waitresses. And it was good soup. I ate almost the entire bowl.
The next morning David took me to the airport and I flew off, without event, to Chicago, just ahead of announced new snowfall. Although the dawdling flight and the wait, after, for luggage almost made me miss my LAX connection. But I made it at the last moment and, seated at a window, enjoyed a sunny trip home. Next to me were two rather burly males, one with a significant tattoo running down his muscled arm. And between them they fondled and fed bottled milk to an infant daughter, evidently of Hispanic birth. Welcome back to Los Angeles, I thought to myself. Here were two obviously gay men who had just adopted a new child.
After they had fed her milk, changed her diaper, and she had gently fallen to sleep, I asked the man next to me what he did. “I’m Assistant Superintendent of Schools for Beverly Hills, he responded. His partner had been previously employed by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions. They had moved west from Chicago, and been back visiting, presumably to share their new daughter with friends and relatives from their hometown.
This is the true US, I pondered, not Trump’s terrible, dark fantasies.
If everything was pleasant on this trip, I arrived in Terminal 5 to find no Howard. Perhaps he had not been able to find parking, I thought to myself, or he had had some other problem en route.
Maybe he had mistaken the time of my arrival—and we were, after all, a bit early.
I thought about simply catching a taxi home, but, then, I realized if I never showed up Howard would be terrified of what might have happened to me. As a matter of fact, he was, presuming, when I didn’t show up at the terminal at which he was waiting, Terminal 4, that I might have had an onboard heart attack. But then, since nobody except short-sleeved and Bermuda-clad travelers showed up, he might have perceived that something was wrong.
After about an hour of waiting, he finally perceived his error, and made the short walk to the next-door space, finding me still await at the previously agreed-upon location. We decided to stop by our formerly beloved drinking spot, Bergins (where over the years I have written many of my fiction and poetry books), and spotting our museum friend, Don Menveg, about to leave, dragged him into the place, where, surely, we must have bored him with Howard’s and my recent adventures, as well as sharing gossip about what was happening at LACMA, where he still works.
After a few rounds (Don abstaining), Howard was drunk, and I drove us home without even having our planned dinner. Too bad, because the very next day, I read that the noted pub, one of the longest running bars in the city, and the model of the famed television bar, Cheers, was finally closing forever. Another funeral, I mused.
Los Angeles, January 18, 2018
Wednesday, January 17, 2018
our mother: a eulogy
Our mother, Lorna Mary Casper Messerli, was born near the beginning of another century, in 1925, the daughter of farmer Tobe Casper and his wife Anna Fahrni. For most of her life—except for a brief period of time when my father, John, was serving in the Air Force in World War II, when she taught in a one-room schoolhouse—our Mother worked, like so many others of her generation, as a housewife, raising her children and, particularly in my mother’s case, endlessly cleaning her house. She was a decent cook and a truly wonderful baker, particularly when it came to pies and cakes, serving up regularly my father and brother’s favorites, apple and cherry, my sister Pat’s favorite, raisin, and, occasionally, my own favorites, chocolate and rhubarb.
When we were all very young, living in Newhall, my parents, and particularly my mother, loved the wild rhubarb that grew in our yard, both of them devastated when the later owners chopped it all down because they thought it was some of kind of weed. Our mother knew plants, and pointed them out to us with their incredible names such as “preacher-in-the-pulpit,” (also known as “Jack-in-the-pulpit”), “lily of the valley,” which she planted, “morning creepers,” and many others.
She loved our father and the three of us, and we grew up, looking back, rather happily, despite the normal family differences that all of us share. In short, one might easily declare that our mother lived a quite ordinary life.
That is not to say that our life, first in the small town of Newhall, later here in Marion, and later still in numerous other towns in the Mid-West, was totally Edenic—although, at times it might have seemed so—or even completely placid.
Despite a completely devoted spouse and three reasonably “good” kids, my mother seemed, underneath her commitment to family and house, somewhat dissatisfied, which she quite often expressed to her entire family. When one of us became sick—my brother Dave suffered severe eczema as a child, with a number of food restrictions (milk, wheat, certain fruits, etc.) and I was prone to bronchitis and terrible, hacking coughs, the former of which occasionally put me into fevers from which I might end up on the bathroom floor—it was our father who came to the rescue. Certainly, our mother helped to nurse us to health; but it was as if she determined that any illness we suffered was a normal thing. She’d take care of it in the morning. Besides, she seemed to know we’d eventually grow out of these childhood infirmities, as we did.
And then, although she guided us beautifully through the moral values she shared with our father, she was not always patient with our minor household deviations, scolding us almost nightly for not properly hanging up our clothes or cleaning up the bathroom sink or….well anything that might have altered her endless attempts for the absolute order she sought. She was a proud spokesman for an orderly life.
I always explained this behavior to myself by realizing that our mother, after the death of her own mother soon after bearing uncle Duane (the death was caused by cancer, not child-birth), had already helped in raising another family, particularly the new boy brother, upon whom she always doted. I remember him briefly living with us in a trailer house even after I was born.
With her sister Carol, Lorna had to take over many of the household duties on the farm. Certainly, my grandfather Tobe temporarily brought in other relatives to help; and some of our mother’s eldest siblings were shipped out to the houses of other aunts to lessen the burden. My uncle Don, for example, lived for a brief period of time with my great-aunt Katie.
Yet, the true caring and cleaning of that farmhouse fell to our mother and her younger sister. That was the way of it back then, in the middle of the Great Depression. Young girls became de facto mothers.
I think that by the time she had birthed her own three children, she was perhaps a little tired, maybe even depressed about the fact that almost her entire life had been devoted to being a “mother,” her childhood basically stolen away.
She didn’t resent us or love us any less, she was simply a bit disappointed by the shape of things, so it seemed. And it didn’t help that, spending most of her days locked away in the house, or shopping for food, or designing the look of each of the rooms, that she had lost some of her social skills. Early on, and continuedly throughout her life, she was very involved in the PEO, church activities (she served as both an elder and a deacon); but later on, I recall a moment, when after years of speaking before church groups, she suddenly panicked and could no longer continue her talk.
My father, first as a coach, later as a Principal of Schools, and finally as a Superintendent of Schools and a regional Educational Administrator, was remarkably social and was required to spend many of his nights attending school-sponsored events. Besides, he loved sports in a way that our mother never really had. She spent many of those evenings alone, since Dave and Pat shared many of his interests, and joined him in his nightly forays.
Not being a sports-lover myself, I spent some of those evenings with her; but I can’t say I was a truly caring son. As the eldest, I had moved on to my own personal interests, literature, theater, writing: things she didn’t quite comprehend. We did watch numerous movies together, dramatic soap-operas such as Bette Davis’ Dark Victory and Now, Voyager. She loved these romantic dramas, and probably, in sharing them, encouraged me, now as an older man, in my incessant writing about film.
Our father preferred TV Westerns, and almost blushed to see any screen actors kiss. When I was young, before the birth of either of my siblings, he and our mother would often take in a drive-in movie.
As a two or three-year-old, I was taken to see Oklahoma! and Carousel, for example, creating in me a love of Broadway and film musicals. But, for the most part, our father could do without movies.
We once drove the fairly long distance from Newhall to Marion, where we would later live, to see White Christmas (another still-beloved musical), and, of course, we saw Davy Crockett, The Ten Commandments, and Ben-Hur, like everyone else in those days, as a family unit.
One morning, our Mother, who’d been out the night before in one rare movie-going evening with my father, recounted to me, frame by frame, every moment of the Rock Hudson and Doris Day comedy, Pillow Talk, skipping over, quite obviously any of the secretly embedded references the writer and director had planted in the plot about Hudson’s gay sexuality. I loved her for that; it was almost as if she were a young girl again, giggling with joy, while so very coherently telling me the story.
And there were other brief moments when our Mother revealed that she had another deeper life within. I can’t say that Dave or Pat might agree with this, but there were moments when my mother, our Mother, particularly with relatives and sometimes with closer friends, was actually brilliantly witty. A bright look would suddenly come into her eyes, and out would pop a quite stunning observation or even a joke, so different, by far, from her later, somewhat absurd conversations. In my old age, I no longer am able, alas, to recall any of these Dorothy Parker moments, except one. When Howard once asked her “should Douglas dye is hair,” she looked over at me and quipped: “Wouldn’t hurt.”
Increasingly in her later life, lived outside of the social community, my mother would presume that every daily experience of her life was shared by others, so that she might interpolate an event she had witnessed on a TV wildlife show, for example, into the middle of normal conversations, believing that others might easily comprehend her sudden comments such as: “You know, a giraffe can kill with his kick you if you get close enough.” Just ask Pat’s husband, Scott!
And then, despite the seeming normality of her life, she and our father didn’t precisely, when it came to their living quarters, live an everyday life. My father used to like to believe that he and our Mother, both half-Swiss, were of Italian-Swiss extraction (after all, he’d served in Naples during the war). We’re not! Both the Messerlis and the Farnis were German-Swiss of the Bern canton. But I might suspect that my parents had a bit of the Roma-Swiss in them, given the almost gypsy-like life our family led. Several times she told me stories of gypsies visiting the Casper farm.
You can understand our Mother’s demand for order a bit better if you recognize that, just since I was born in 1947, we must have lived in at least 13 houses—and as Dave and Pat can tell, there were more to come. Yes, I remember a trailer, but there was also a Ventura (near Clear Lake, Iowa) apartment. Then an apartment across from the park in Newhall, before we moved into a rented house near the town’s dairy (towns had dairies in those days), and finally into a newly-built house (with an oak-lined linen closet) in what, if you stretch your imagination, was the new suburban area of the town of about 500 citizens.
On to Marion, where we rented a house for a short while before moving to a perfectly-defined suburban tract home at 1130 Northview Drive, with a kitchen lined, to my mother’s absolute delight, with St. Charles metal cabinets (they come in beautiful pastels: I think ours were avocado).
Then on we pushed to a new, split-level house nearby built by the same designer Fashion-Par, a lovely edifice where we lived for most of my high-school years, before I went off to Norway and my parents moved to Waukesha, Wisconsin into an even-more commodious split-level, whose basement, where I had determined to reside, was covered with wood-lined walls. I left home that year for the University of Wisconsin; but that didn’t stop my parents, Dave, and Pat from moving on, I believe first to a home in Cedar Rapids, then on to my parents’ birthplace, Monticello, where my father was asked to become Superintendent of Schools, and on again to Faribault, Minnesota, and then, in a complete transformation of living quarters, a motel outside of Minneapolis.
Before I get into the details of that series of events, let me just add that my mother, devoted to her many smaller and larger possessions which she always wrapped up personally into boxes, and watched the furniture with a true hawk-eye being loaded onto trucks to be shipped back to Marion, to another house on the west side of the city before moving yet again to a new house on the east end of the town. Is it any wonder that John, late in his life, moved into real estate?
Besides all of these moves, our mother participated in at least two of Pat’s moves, one from near Los Angeles to Austin, Texas and then from Austin back to Boone, Iowa. And I’ve forgotten the moves my father and she made to two different houses in Marion, when they finally returned “home.” Even if she were the inveterate packer that she had to be, she must have been exhausted by the end of her life, when she determined to move, yet again, into an assisted nursing home.
And then, there was that brief period of time when our Mother and Father determined to run a motel. Overpaying in the first place and signing a contract with outrageous balloon payments, it was doomed from the start. And my father, soon realizing the facts, went into deep depression. Our Mother, on the other hand, ran the hotel like a natural business woman, organizing legions of maids and others to daily clean and help to manage the place. She, herself, helped make beds, clean sinks, and showers. She managed the accounts (as she had almost all her life), and paid the bills on time, to the best of their ability.
But she also recognized something was wrong with our father. As she suddenly rose to the task, becoming a strong businesswoman who, if nothing else, would have ridden their bad investment into the sunset, my father was abandoning his identity, telling perfect strangers how he was slowly losing his mind.
Of course, she called on Dave and Pat, and then, from the far-away Washington, D.C., on me. Would I come and help Dad clean the swimming pool? What experience might I have ever offered for that impossible task?
I arrived to see a man I’d never met before; he even lost his way from airport to the motel.
He was more than depressed. Despite her severe worries, however, she seemed almost triumphal. She had found the self that her housewife duties had never allowed her to be. If she was exhausted, she was, nonetheless, remarkably capable, totally in control, despite her deep worries about her husband. Both of them were under such duress, desperate to tell their tales, that I asked to meet them in separate rooms, trying to determine how to help each of them, but knowing also that our mother’s resurgence into life was surely doomed.
A few months after I left, our mother and father left the motel, returning to Marion, the only thing they could have sanely done, given the situation. A judge later found that, indeed, these lovely innocents had been swindled, and settled in their favor.
Our mother returned to the role which, evidently, she had been destined to play. She lovingly babysat family members. She relaxed to her role as a grandma and, later, a great grand-mother. And, I think she had, at least, glimpsed her potentiality. She became calmer in her daily role, less critical, maybe a little bit less unhappy with her lot in life. She’d come through, recognizing, I believe, her real talents.
Two images of her, one from very late and one from my early childhood haunt me still today, and reveal her amazing gifts as a mother and a lover.
When I had come to care for our father, now irascible and fully aware he was dying, I saw a man angry with the world. More importantly, he was in deep pain, in the very last days of his life. Our mother, was exhausted from caring for him, and I needed to take over. She was relieved, and could now try to imagine where her life might now take her. She talked with friends who visited; for the first time in years she might get a full night’s sleep.
I watched over him, making sure that he got the regular pills (probably opioids) that would relieve his pain—and surely hurry along his death. One night, he was restless, and who wouldn’t be, lying day and night for weeks upon a bed?
Our mother came into bedroom (she had now been sleeping nightly on a reclining chair in the living room) and immediately perceived his discomfort. “You want to sit up for a moment?” she quickly responded. Yes, he wanted to sit up, just for a moment, at the side of the bed. And he smiled in the pleasure of it.
Then, falling back into the bed, he whinnied again in pain. Our mother, in front of me, lay down on the other side of the bed and suggested that they roll, and together they did. “Let’s roll, let’s roll across the bed, okay?” And so they did, from left to right and right to left like the author James Joyce’s loving couple in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom and his sensuous wife Molly. They rolled back and forth across the bed until John fell back to sleep again.
When I was a child of about four or five, I recall being in the yard with our Mother, she hanging clothes upon the line. I was already a problematic child, I suppose, insisting that I was bored. “There’s nothing to do,” I proclaimed.
My mother took a clothespin out of her mouth and suggested, “Why don’t you start collecting shells?”
Even at five I was flabbergasted! “Shells!” I thought to myself, and then opening my words up to mother, “Who can collect shells in a state that has no large lakes, no sea?” You might as well suggest that I begin a collection of African insects.
Gracefully, my mother bent down to the ground, bringing up one of the most beautiful snail shells I’d ever (and in my imagination have still have ever seen).
“Here,” she said. “This is the beginning.”
A few days later, our nice elderly neighbors in Newhall, received a huge shipment of sand, which, they proclaimed they were using for their creating of soap. “Might I wish to come play in the sand,” asked Mrs. Gertson, “before we begin to use it?”
Even as a child, I wondered how sand could become an element in making soap; and, moreover, I was not the kind of child who liked playing in sand. But, I was bored, and took their offer, bringing out a little shovel which I don’t remember previously having, and digging into what they described as river sand.
Suddenly I uncovered glorious seashells, a “Paper Fig,” an “Alphabet Cone,” a “Nutmeg,” a “Branded Tulip” in the midst of this otherwise very ordinary pile of river debris.
Taking my treasures into Mrs. Gertson’s kitchen, I expressed my total wonderment. “No,” I declared, “this can’t be from the river!”
“I can’t believe what I’m seeing,” insisted the kindly neighbor lady, “pinch me!”
I don’t think I took up the offer, but suddenly—or maybe only now—I realize my mother, our mother was behind this. My uncle Bob soon sent shells from the West Coast (after the funeral, Bob told me that he has no memory of ever sending me shells; probably another invention of my mother’s love), and I now had an entire box of these treasures.
Maybe our mother, I now finally recognize, was not such a very ordinary woman. Perhaps she was an incredible figure living inside of the shell of what seemed like such a predictable life.
Los Angeles, October 24, 2017
This was spoken, in a much reduced form, as a eulogy for my mother's funeral on Saturday on January 13, 2018
the second day
After the difficult trip in to the funeral, and now without a car to explore my old hometown, I determined to spend the next day in my hotel room, reading the wonderful John Latouche biography (The Ballad of John Latouche) by Howard Pollack, and just listen to CNN as I do most days, despite the frustrations I often feel while listening to their supposedly “balanced” commentaries, which usually end up in shouting matches instead of coherent conversations, not to speak of their endless Sarah Huckabee press conferences which nearly drive me to total distraction.
But, I finally learned how to turn up the heat, and I was as comfy as you can be in a hotel room, which has all most of the comforts, including a desk, a large chair, including a foot-stool, and a full screen television. Given the cold, cold air outside, it was a kind of paradise. Besides, just downstairs was one of the best bars in the city, so I felt, finally, a bit protected. Who needed a tour of a small American town which had already changed beyond my expectations?
And then….there was Trump, describing all African nations as shithole countries from which we should not accept into our pure white world—he suggested he might prefer Norwegians entering our country—as well as dismissing any Haitians. If Senators Durbin and even Republican Lindsay Graham were shocked by the experience wherein the President, after suggesting just such a bi-partisan agreement would be possible, the entire world was even more startled by his completely racist language, and several foreign governments issued pointed criticisms. Trump seemed to love it; after all he was getting attention again.
Of course, he had been racist for many long years, beginning when he worked for his KKK-member father, whose company, even in the 1950s, had been cited for racist treatment for their tenants, and then, again, over the years, when Trump led the “birther movement,” trying to oust Obama from his presidency. And this goes back to numerous incidents during his campaign and since, including when he failed to disavow the Ku Klux Klan in February of 2017. He later attacked Muslim Gold Star parents, Khizr Kah, describing his wife as forbidden to speak, when Kah expressed the fact that perhaps Trump should read the American Constitution.
Soon after, Trump suggested that because he was of Hispanic ancestry, Gonzalo P. Curiel could not possibly give him a fair hearing with regard to the suits that claimed Trump University was simply a scam. Curiel, born in Indiana, was, in fact, a prosecutor of Mexican drug cartels, making him, as The Huffington Post suggested, a target for assignation by drug lords.
Trump added to the racist rant, that a Muslim judge might also not be fair to him, since he had several times, finally successfully, attempted to keep people from several Muslim countries from entering the US.
When racist white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, he argued that some of them were “very fine people.”
And the list goes on, from the very beginning of his career to the present day, it is clear to any one who has any degree of perception that Trump is a true racist, despite his claim that he “is the least racist person in the world.”—a statement which, in itself, reveals his lack of perception of any racial perception. I would argue that racists always deny what they are, just as virulently as has Trump.
What even made me more angry in the days following is how many of those loyal to the president, including the empty-thinking Tom Cotton, David Perdue, and others such as Home Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, whose own name sounds Scandinavian, but who couldn’t even imagine, under investigation, whether most Norwegians were white, had no real memory of what Trump had really said during the conversations when he spoke of “shithole” countries, making it clear that either these people were utter liars or simply suffered from deep amnesia, and had certainly made deal with the devil. As Senator Durbin, himself, expressed it, this was the nadir of the American political system.
When I was tired and frustrated with the news and from so many hours of reading, I went down to the Longbranch bar, first for lunch, when I tried to eat a pork tenderloin sandwich—a heart-stopping delicacy only available in Iowa—and ordered up several Bombay tonics. I ate along the edges of this terribly over-breaded sandwich, suffering its deep-fried effects.
Simultaneously, the room in which I sat, which featured a buffet filled with the worst of friend chicken wings, and other even more cholesterol-driven delights, was filled with an elderly audience (most of them over even my of 70 years of age) who looked like some sort of wholly mastodons, bellies and butts so large that you couldn’t even have conceived how these people could have allowed themselves to become so clinically fat. Suddenly I felt thin, despite the evidence of what I had seen as my sort of barrel-belly. These people were gigantic, and mean, desperate for the cheap meals that were being offered up.
I had grown attached to the waiters and bartenders, and now saw them having to deal with these not-so-happy monsters, complaining in no uncertain terms because what they had sought out that day was not available in the warming platters available to them.
This is what has happened to an entire generation here, I realized, and I felt sad. Although I didn’t like my own profile in the mirror, I had actually been losing weight over the years, while these mammoths had grown and grown with a kind ravaging hunger.
Not once, in the Longbranch restaurants, despite their attempts to serve up what might have in Cedar Rapids have been considered a rather sophisticated menu, could I even finish a single meal.
Except for my final night of my stay (to come later), I drank without eating.
Back upstairs to more insufferable news (for which I don’t blame CNN, but just the facts), and more wonderful reading. A nap. And, finally, a return to the bar, where my sister said she was meeting me and my favorite uncle and aunt, Bob and Mary, along with her husband Ben.
I put on my sweater and returned to Ben the bartender for what was a most pleasant evening, my sister showing up on time, and my father’s brother and sister arriving soon after. We all had a couple of rounds, for which I paid, and then were joined by other family members, by brother Dave and his wife Jill, my nephew Matt and his wife, with one of their children, along with Dave’s youngest son, Ben and his wife, and one of my sister Pat’s daughters, Jenny and her husband Ryan, about 8 people in all, dining at a table reserved in the Longbranch steakhouse next door to the grungier bar. I hadn’t seen several of these individuals for years, and hadn’t talked to Bob, Mary and her husband Ben for many years.
Bob, who still looked handsome and fit, was 89; we were all stunned. And Mary was in her mid-80s. As I have written elsewhere (see My Year), Mary was still in high school when I was a child and would take me to the movies with her girlfriends, behaving more like an elder sister than an aunt. My father’s brother Bob was a general in the air force, and brought with him, on his visits, a sense of masculinity and male power that I found hard to resist. When I look back now, I must have already been, at that early age, attracted to such males.
In any event, we were now all elderly, and except for the fact that both Bob and Mary, wearing hearing aids, had some trouble in catching the words we spoke, it was a most pleasant evening—the joy and memories shared the way I always imagined family life was supposed to be, and now finally was. Everyone of us had now had some tragedy in our lives, Mary’s daughter Jane had suddenly died of a heart attack, and Bob’s son, Brian, from his second wife, had died of cancer. And now we’d all lost both my father and mother. My brother, Mary, and I had been through knee replacement, and several of us had had serious diseases and cancer. So we shared a sense of the precariousness of life and the joys of loving those around us before they might also disappear. And, in that sense, there was something poignant about this joyful reunion. We were, after all, gathered together to celebrate one of those now lost to us. Yet I felt such joy, and no real sadness. That is why people gather round each other at such times, I thought to myself. Not to share their suffering, but to share each other and to sort of reassert, “I’m still here.”
After describing the events about my trip, everyone loudly laughed, my nephews and nieces claiming that surely I was making it all up! I guess I’m known by the entire family as the one who tells bigger than life stories, with those who live in such quietude and normality not even able to imagine that my remarkable tales represented in my memoir writing as being all utterly true.
We talked a lot and long into the evening. The only thing we didn’t discuss was politics. Mary, a strong Democrat, later commented that she didn’t dare bring up politics, since you never know with the Messerlis. “Mary,” I responded, “the only one at that table who probably voted Republican was Bob. My family, now that our Republican parents are gone, are all Democrats.” And Bob only revealed himself a bit when he snarled at my mention that I had been watching CNN for most of the day.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa, January 12, 2018
Tuesday, January 16, 2018
TRYING TO GET THERE
On January 11, 2018, I determined to attend the funeral of my mother, traveling from Los Angeles (LAX) to Fort Worth-Dallas airport, and on the Cedar Rapids, where the funeral would be held in my nearby hometown of Marion. I’d heard only a few days before of her death, and had immediately made reservations soon after calling the company, and paying $211 more dollars, to make it only a two legged, as opposed to three-pronged trip. “I’m an elderly man,” I proclaimed. “I can’t arrive at 8:00 at night, after three different airports!”
My new flight left early in the morning at 7:00, and as usual, I arrived early for the boarding. I also had determined to leave an extra day between my arrival and the funeral, just in case of any complications, and also, possibly to tour the town in which I had grown up before leaving home, perhaps for the very last time, despite the fact that my beloved brother still lived there, but whom I imagined would surely outlive me. This was, in my mind, probably my last trip to Cedar Rapids and Marion.
Despite the usual problems between the computer and me about offering my boarding tickets—a period in which neither I nor the computer can seem comprehend the various questions asked of the traveler—I finally was awarded the boarding passes, thank heaven with a pre-selected check-in verification, which means that I would not have to take off my shoes, loosen my belt (which generally allows my pants to fall, revealing that I wear no underwear), and that my computer might be stowed away in my suitcase. Things seemed to go swimmingly. And I arrived into the terminal with high expectations.
I stopped by a terminal restaurant that served something very close to the advertised Eggs Benedict, and I then wandered over to the gate, taking up a book I had brought along to pass the time, noting that this gate was directly across from a place I had never visited, “Dunkin’ Donuts,” which plays a small role in our story.
I sat there for what always seems like an interminable time, and then the agent called for the board. If you buy your tickets through an alternative source such as Travelocity, such as I had, you will probably be automatically grouped in Number 7 or even higher, a punishment for your penuriousness. By the time my “Group” was called, we were told there was no longer any overhead space available, and that we needed to check our bags (“for free,” they announced, as if it were a reward to leaving all your belongings—in this case the only copy of my revised eulogy and all of my tattered dress clothing—into the hands of airport authorities), promising not only to take it to Dallas, but to miraculously transfer it to my final small-town destination—despite the fact that on two previous occasions, Howard and I had not properly met up with our luggage. I also left my coat to protect me from Midwestern cold, now in their hands.
But finally, we boarded, and flew off into the Western skies to Catalina before turning back to our Southwestern flight just on time. Well, I thought to myself, at least I’m free of any accoutrements!
So off we finally were, and I would suffer this trip faster and better than I had hoped for, despite being forced into a middle seat between two rather burly male passengers.
Suddenly, even before the noted Catalina turn, I saw a man in the second row of coach class put a scarf around the neck of the man in the front seat just ahead of him, and try to choke him. The man stood up in protest, demanding to know what was going on. After the removal of the offending scarf, he sat down again, when the man behind him brought out a straw and begin spinning spit balls into the back of his neck. I simply couldn’t imagine what was going on, but was very distressed by the observation. Fortunately, a couple of stewardesses came forward, demanding to know what was happening. Quickly, they took the offended man and his companion to seats in the front, presumably to protect them, and the offender moved into their seats.
Just as quickly the man sitting in front of me, a Sky Marshall, I might guess, slipped into a seat just behind the crazy man.
A few moments later, the plane’s Pilot announced that we would be returning back to Los Angeles because of an altercation. I am sure the people in the back of the plane, or even a few rows behind us had no notion of what had occurred. But before long, the overheavy plane, which, after all, had used little of its fuel, heavily bounced down onto the runway, and after what seemed like forever, police arrived and took the attacker away.
My seat mate now explained that this same man had purchased nearly 40 boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts from the terminal stand and refused to pay for them before the flight. The police had been called and investigated him, yet still permitted him to board. And I had seen those numerous boxes of donuts for which the stewardesses had attempted to find room in the overhead bins, which had already been described as “filled to capacity.”
The man attacked also had to temporarily leave the plane to explain what had happened, and it also soon became apparent that given the heavy load of the landing plane, they would need to test the underbelly to see if there had been any damage.
It also became immediately apparent that many people had and soon would lose their plane connections to other locations. Many of them demanded to leave the aircraft, but I now feared, since I had seen such problems in other countries, that if they demanded luggage returned out of the hold, we might all be demanded to leave the plane and asked to identify our luggage before returning to check-in and further possibilities of flight. One late night flight from Brazil to Miami, in which a passenger has demanded to get off, resulted in our all have having to leave and reclaim our luggage and return to check in.
In the process of the mass exit, I was able to move into the exit row, with a much more luxurious possibility of leg room. And I felt, even given the fear we all shared, it was a kind of entertainment that had certainly filled my time between the hours I might previously have suffered in complete boredom. It was clear the man who was taken off the plane was quite mad, and there was little else to be said. At least he appeared not to be a terrorist. But, of course, that didn’t stop many of the passengers from filling the aisles, phoning their families and generally commenting of the fracas of the events.
Fortunately, all of the figures who left the aircraft had their luggage on board, and stormed off quickly, leaving everyone else to wait out the long three hours while the plane was inspected. Everything was cleared, and finally we flew off, belly full, arriving, finally in Dallas at 2:30 or 3:00.
The trouble is, when we finally did take off and flew into the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the winds were so wild, that the flight was rather turbulent. Yet we landed well, and, rather dizzyingly, given all of our tribulations, arrived safely. The wonderful stewardess who had helped to control the situation passed out “flight crew” pins to those of us in the first rows, and the entire plane was treated to free drinks and sandwiches. A couple of my neighboring travelers had texted her praises to American Airlines offices.
Despite all the time lost, I still had a couple of hours, and chose a bar nearby my next destination exit, to have a drink, sitting next to a large black man, eating ribs, which looked rather delicious, but, given the trip I had just encountered, where not something I was ready to experience.
Nonetheless, I talked with him, since he seemed friendly and somewhat interested in conversation, asking him where he was from—Chicago—and sharing with him, as I tend to do, my own experiences (Chicago is a rich center of experience for me). But, more important for him was his trip to Little Rock, where his son, football player Michael Joseph, was just about to receive the Cliff Harris Award, and was being targeted by major football teams for possible roles on their teams. I queried if he had agents, and his father replied, “Of course, we could never afford all the costs it takes to visit the various teams, etc. He’s got several agents.”
I checked it out, and indeed he was a well-known player from the Dubuque University team. I truly enjoyed a few moments with his proud papa, finishing up his ribs. I have always felt that you meet the most interesting people in the world just by speaking with folks you encounter along your travels, and here was another instance. I’ll be looking out for him. But it doesn’t matter, the father had already perceived how remarkable his son was, having to overcome so much to get to the position he was now in. Michael Joseph will never know how touched I was by his father’s deep pride and love.
Increasingly, I have grown to believe that if you talk to everybody who you ever meet you’ll encounter some of the most interesting people in the world—and maybe some of the most boring as well. But the point is, you get to meet the world. If you don’t do that, you won’t know anything. Howard insists I must never travel again, but it is in traveling, no matter what problems I may encounter, that I most truly fall in love with the human race.
Soon after, I flew off in a smaller plane to Cedar Rapids, which given the fact that that city had just encountered a heavy cold spell, which spilled ice storms into the city, the flight was a little bit more than turbulent, with the pilot insisting that there could be no service because of the wind. I don’t think any drinks might have survived the up and down and sideways shifts of the plane’s survival. Miraculously, we did finally arrive, and after a final tow (which took forever) into the final position where the skywalk might meet us, we exited. Before even retrieving my baggage, I visited my car rental spot, suggesting that given my age, my lack of experience of driving on icy streets, and my forgetfulness of the routes, that perhaps I should abandon my car rental. She agreed.
The limousine service next door reported there were no more cars for, at least, an hour. But I might catch a taxi.
In Cedar Rapids there are only two taxis. I looked out into the cold space outside, and realized that one was waiting in a nearby space. Without a coat, I bolted out the door, perhaps freezing myself in the process (coughed for several days after), demanding that the driver “Please wait for me, I just need to retrieve my luggage. I’ll be here in a moment. Don’t go away.” He waited, and a few moments later, picking up the small black rolling bag, and quickly donning my needed coat, I joined him in the car, as we slid over the roads to the hotel that I’d booked. It was, finally, heaven, in a day that had been hell. I even had dinner in the Longbranch dining room, beef tenderloin—although I was the only guest in the room, and the tenderloin, smothered in bleu cheese was nearly inedible. But, even if I could only take a couple of bites, I was delighted to be where I was.