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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Last Refuge, Part Two

They say that patriotism is the last refuge
To which a scoundrel clings
Steal a little and they throw you in jail,
Steal a lot and they make you king.
There's only one step down from here baby,
It's called the land of permanent bliss.
What's a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?

"Sweetheart Like You," Bob Dylan, 1983


The last of the vehicles in the procession pulled away, and in the emotional void that remained, many in the crowd visibly wondered what to do next. It was hardly a setting for self-congratulation. However, I think most felt a sense of accomplishment for having sacrificed half a Saturday in order to participate. It obviously didn't compare to patrolling the streets of Fallujah, but it wasn't exactly playing Chinese checkers with the elderly. This was made all too clear when we learned that a rider from Mount Clemens had gone down hard on the way to the service. He died from his injuries within a week.

Since this was my first Patriot Guard ride, I probably knew the least of anyone present. My first impulse was to take the flag someone had given me and plant it outside the church. Then I thought it looked abandoned and far too close to the ground, so I took it off its staff, folded it up, and put it in my jacket. I saddled up and headed north.

-----

Within a week, the Pentagon announced that two more soldiers from Michigan had died, and word circulated that the Phelps Gang would be attending both funerals. I chose to go to Morley, a small town situated between the Rapids Grand and the Rapids Big.

Matthew Webber was the fourth member of a five-man Army National Guard crew to die from injuries sustained after a roadside bomb destroyed their HUMVEE in November 2005. He clung to life at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio for five agonizing months.

I travelled solo up M15 North to Otisville and made a pitstop. It was vaguely familiar territory, since I'd once taken the route in the middle of the night. I thanked my stars I had the foresight and lack of stubbornness to pack an additional layer, because my hands were close to falling off and the rest of my extremities weren't far behind. There was a patch of ominous, morale-shattering weather, and for the first time I can recall, I seriously considered turning around. Luckily, it remained a patch.

I commandeered the bathroom for what must have been an eternity to the several people who jiggled the door handle and muttered whatever it is you mutter when you walk away from an occupied bathroom in disgust. Sorry folks. Long Johns, Army socks, extry T-shirts...this is a process, not a wardrobe choice. You live or die by the tuck and the whole enchilada needs to hang together proper-like. It's no picnic disrobing down to bare feet on a tile floor that's -20 degrees and was last cleaned during the Clinton administration. And trying to...errr, find things under 3-4 layers during subsequent pitstops is no walk in the park either.

I wasn't solo for long. I pulled over to join a few PGR riders who were forming a miniature westbound posse. All Harleys, including a trike, with one chase vehicle running rear interference. I was a suckerfish in a school of barracudas, trying to hang with these guys on my torqueless 600cc Honda. I'd say 70 was the average speed, and considerably north of that on highway 127. It was impressive--the cold went away, the sun came out, and time compressed. High rev vibrato alternate reality. Time moves differently on a motorcycle; with this crowd, it just moved fast.

There isn't much to Morley; it's about the size of most towns that compel an 18-year old to join the military. A post office, a sporting goods store, a diner or two. I processed most of it with peripheral vision in about 5 seconds, since the service was held well north of town at Morley-Stanwood High School. You can only drink in so much when safety and survival are at the top of your agenda.

As we approach the school and turned right into the parking lot, I became aware of about a dozen figures off to the right chanting and carrying the telltale dayglo picket signs with the usual messages. I thought of the parody sites that have sprung up on the web--"God Hates Figs" leaped to mind, and I laughed out loud, to the extent one can laugh out loud within the confines of a helmet.

School buses were lined up tip to tail in front of the school as far as the eye could see. They carried no one. They were there to form a barrier between the protesters and the school grounds. We were ushered into the driveway and around to the parking lot by several LE types. It was flawless and highly organized, which is key when you don't want to swap chrome with those around you.

The group I'd latched onto on the way up was nice enough; the trike rider flipped his trunk open and unloaded a cooler with all manner of munchables. I felt no obligation to hang out (or probably didn't want to risk becoming a full-fledged mooch rather than a suspected mooch). I wandered off to survey the scenery. The turnout was massive. By the time I walked over to sign in, they were at the 500 bike mark and counting. A throng seemed to be forming fast near protest central. I dutifully lemminged my way over.

The counter-chanting was half-hearted and thus fully annoying. It lacked imagination, and I lacked the credentials--I can't bear to repeat myself or raise my voice. Bored, I walked over to survey the Phelpsians.

It was then that I had a revelation I'm still coming to terms with. I saw a Phelps disciple--a boy who couldn't have been more than ten. His eyes were cast downward, he fidgeted, and his hands would have probably been in his pockets if it weren't for the idiotic sign he was carrying. He was probably monitoring an anthill. He very clearly wanted to be just about anywhere else. Fishing. Playing kick the can. Doing the inside out eyelid trick. In this regard, we were kindred spirits on opposite sides of the street.

And it was at this moment that the megaphone master of ceremonies yelled out "TURN YOUR BACK TO THESE SCUMBAGS! TO PHOTOGRAPH OR LOOK AT THESE SCUMBAGS IS TO ACKNOWLEDGE THEIR PRESENCE! IT'S AGAINST THE RULES!"

Cue Jon Stewart's patented incredulous stare. WTF? Let me count the ways. Actually, I won't. Just the one I'm passionate about. In my universe, you do not degrade a child. Ever. Especially one who, while in admittedly questionable company, couldn't care less about any of the issues being yapped about. I don't think you honor a dead child by dishonoring a living one. It's that simple. My career as a counter-protester lasted somewhere in the neighborhood of four minutes.

As is usually the case, the PGR participants were outside the service proper, so I spent the bulk of the time listening to GI stories about this or that base, who's drill sergeant was the bigger bastard, etc. Some were riveting, some were just tall tales. It was remarkable that an entire town attended. I later learned that his mother knelt by the grave, quietly sang "You Are My Sunshine," and released two doves. I would not have been able to handle it. I can scarcely write the words without welling up.

--------

A few days later, I wrote a post to the PGR site suggesting that some of the language be toned down. Why not be dignified at all times? Was this not, by and large, a formation of former military personnel? Wouldn't maintaining bearing at all times be the purest form of counter protest?

My logic went like this. People, picture a tattered van wheezing its away across Nebraska at 3 AM. A child is laying in the back, unable to sleep. He is looking up at a star-filled sky, and an idea comes to him. Maybe they're right. Maybe I am being held hostage by a gang of religious psychopaths, and I need to break out of here at the earliest opportunity. Maybe serving my country is an honorable thing to do. Maybe that flag does stand for something.

Such an epiphany cannot occur if the other side of the street looks just as unattractive.

I think the post lasted an hour before it was blown away by the powers that be, which told me all I needed to know.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Movie Notes

I'm not quite sure what compelled me to see the midnight showing of "Pulp Fiction" at the Main last Friday, what with the immediate vicinity looking like a dinosaur dig and the humidity at eleventy hundred. But it ruled, even if I was surrounded by a legion of hipper-than-I Che Guevara worshippers.

Having a roomful of boisterous laughter at Rosanna Arquette's "That was trippy" was a new one. Having the place all but jump up for a standing ovation as Bruce Willis thinks twice at the pawn shop door sure as hell beats director commentary.

---

There is no way that someone who jumps on a motorcycle and travels hundreds of miles to see "A Prairie Home Companion" live could pass up a movie version of the same. Even if I knew it couldn't work. Even if Robert Altman was at the helm. Even if Meryl Streep pulls off Gospel/Americana so flawlessly you begin to think she's a singer-actress rather than the reverse.

It has its moments, but it doesn't make the leap. But I've been listening for 20 years, so it probably never stood a chance.

----

A big ole Dating Game wind-up kiss for Sofia Coppola and her trailer for "Marie Antoinette." No dialogue. No "IN A WORLD." No nipples of Venus jokes.

Just...New Order's "Age Of Consent" over the top of it. Splendiferous.

The Three Greatest Smells In The World

So we get to the rangemaster's podium to sign in, my son and I, and we're greeted by an affable, sunbaked chap with a big mustache and and a bigger smile tucked somewhere underneath it. If he were teleported to Dodge City circa 1885, the locals wouldn't bat an eye.

He turns to my son and asks "How old are you, son?" in that indirect tone people use when they're having a conversation with another adult through their children.

"Eleven."

"Eleven years old, why, I think it's about time you were told about the three greatest smells in the world. Has your father told you what they are?"

"No."

I sense that we've entered turn three way too fast. I roll with it, because hell, I'm dying to find out what they are myself. Besides, the notion of three males having a casual conversation punctuated by frequent soul-shaking bursts of mega caliber gunfire seems so...Apocalypse Now. So I lean down to pick my mind up out of the gutter and listen.

"Well, the first of the three greatest smells is why you're here today. I'm talking about gunpowder. Son, it's gonna put a smile on your face."

"The second one you'd know about if your dad has ever taken you fishing. Has your dad ever taken you fishing?"

"Yeah."

"So you know that the second smell is the oil from an outboard motor when you're headed out to your favorite fishing spot. There is nothing like it in the world."

So far, I'm not all that impressed. It's so folksy it hurts. It's like listening to an Andy Griffith standup routine.

"And the last one--can you tell me what you do when you get back from the range?"

"Take a shower?"

"OK, but after that, what are you supposed to do with your rifle?"

"Clean it?"

"Right, and that leads me to the greatest of the three greatest smells in the world. And that is good old Hoppe's #9."

I hear this last one, and get a rush that can only come from vindication. The sudden realization that no, I am not the only sick bastard in America who believes this concoction contains lethal doses of female pheromones, crack cocaine, gummy bears, and a royale with cheese.

This was going to be a good day.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Change of Assignment: Code Name Scarlett

Born: 10/94, Tokyo Japan
Raised: Mystic, Connecticut
Assigned to Current Agent: September 15, 2003
Miles travelled on this assignment: 13,493
States visited: 4
Great Lakes ferry crossings: 2
1950s-style motels reeking of curry visted: enough + 1
Times the reaper came calling: enough - 1
Successful escapes from a dealership service dept: 1
Months of the year ridden: 12
MDOT cones and/or barrels passed: 65,332
Gears: 5, with a margin of error of +- 1

Regrets: 0

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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Hello Wisconsin!

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I remember granting a fake interview a couple years ago, because the fake interview is the only kind I ever grant. And, oddly enough, the only kind I've ever been asked to grant, so apparently the policy has served me well.

The scenario was a hazing ritual given to all IPM Radio first time visitors. A dozen or so "let's get to know you and please don't take yourself seriously" questions that serve as an intro for those present and whoever's listening. Among the questions was "Name the first LP/CD/Cylinder Recording that you paid actual money for and why."

It was easy. Cheap Trick's 1977 sophomore release "In Color." I added some drunken ramble about the duality of man or self actualization represented by the cover and the makeup of the group itself. Or some horseshit within those general horseshit parameters.

This is a band that has surprised me from the very beginning. They turn up when I'm looking for them least and disappear when I'm looking for them most. I recall an early Toad's Place performance (Hartford, CT) that was cancelled due to poor sales/promotion. Apparently the same firm was responsible for announcing the cancellation, because we found out about it via a piece of magic markered notebook paper taped to the venue door.

And I recall a Beatles-Sullivan moment when flipping through the channels in '77 and finding them manically tearing it up on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert. No warning, no MTV profile of their sneaker closets, just a random unadvertised landing on the late night airwaves. I was transfixed. A guitarist that looked like Huntz Hall kicking heroin. A lead singer that could channel Lennon, McCartney, or both. A chain-smoking drummer nabbed from central accounting.

Everyone has a story about the record that was played until it would play no more, and for me this was it. Maybe it has to do with the cash outlay and being the first. Maybe it was the hours spent trying to replicate Clock Strikes Ten's Big Ben harmonics on the crappiest acoustic guitar in all of North America. Who would ever admit to buying a complete dud that wound up having no influence on their life whatsoever? How could it be anything less than an eye-opening, sea-parting turning point? I wondered: Did this gatefold, this neat split down the middle, signify some real-world rift within the band? Did the handsome guys ever hang out with the older, not-so-handsome guys? Cover to cover scanning of Circus and Creem ensued.

To me they represented a logical step between the AOR FM radio of the day and the burgeoning new wave movement, never quite belonging within either of these contexts. They never belonged anywhere, really. Within a year or so, there was Heaven Tonight and Live at Budokan, the latter playing an odd (cheap?) trick on their career. They were placed in the very Framptonesque position of waiting for a well-received live album to die down while a backlog of follow-ups accumulated. Like Frampton, the stars never quite aligned for them after that, and it's been clubland and county fairs ever since.

I hope that changes, because today they surprised me yet again. I stumbled upon their brand new disc at one of the Marts, which means they've got top shelf distribution this time around, which means someone in charge liked what they heard, which means maybe a gig at something snazzier than the Emerald Ballroom or the Waukesha Chili Cook-off. And I hope they make a comeback under their own steam, not via the name-dropping patronage of some rock star du jour (Billy Corgan, last time around).

It's slick, it's yellow, it's cartoony. It has a remake of an In Color song. It might even be good, I just don't know. You can never wish for lightning to strike twice, but maybe everything works if you let it. Or maybe the kiddies will confuse it with a Gorillaz release and it'll take off.