Monday, January 31, 2005

Squeaking Truth to Power

Lance Mannion's recollection of the Marine DI father of an old girlfriend has triggered a memory, long repressed, that has festered in the Jingo breast for 25 years. It is time to take arms against this particular sea of whatnots and by opposing, dum-de-dum. You know the thing.

Cast your mind back, O best belovéd, to that turbulent period in our nation's history that we have come to know as Young Master Neddie's Sophomore Year in College. You know what they say about that time: If you remember the late Seventies and you haven't blown your own head off in a fit of existential despair, you're probably not remembering quite hard enough. Young Master N. was a product of the fashion wars of the time: Although he listened avidly to the Clash, the Talking Heads, XTC, and many fine shorthaired bands besides, he had himself not yet taken the Haircut Plunge that many of his friends were making -- they feebly owned the act was Punk, but Neddie knew that cutting off your freak-flag was simply the first step to slurping Satan's Executive Bell-End.

(What? Do the scars still show?)

So your Neddie sported a mise-en-garderobe that hinted both forward and backward in time: Crater-faced Charlie Manson from the shoulders up, dimestore Joey Ramone from the neck down. (Today, of course, having seen the fashion light, I've reversed the formula: Dead from the neck up while my ass does life in Vacaville.) I was not invited to many garden fetes, which suited me fine.

The international situation at the time was desperate as usual, and in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the Then-Current Bonehead in the White House decided some saber-rattling was in order, and reinstated draft registration for men between 18 and 26. This gave an entire grateful generation of wannabe campus radicals the chance they'd been looking forward to since their moms wouldn't let them go to The Mobe in '69 owing to the incompletion of their math homework. Teach-ins, sit-ins, be-ins, Free Speech Movements -- the campus of Kenyon College covered the Sixties gamut from the Port Huron Statement to the Weathermen in about a week and a half. On Chinese Night the school cafeteria menu set off a screaming match: a particularly dim Beta Theta Pi took umbrage at the chicken entrée, believing it to be a mortal insult to the Viet Minh ("General Tso" being phonetically so nearly indistinguishable from "General Giap"). Oh, we were a fun bunch of poseurs.

Into this seething cauldron of playground radicalism the Kenyon Debating Society dropped a live potato-masher grenade (borrowed, no doubt, from that fellow-traveler cafeteria): They invited Gen. William Westmoreland and Ramsey Clark to debate the draft issue at Ross Hall. A frisson raced through the spine of the Radical Community (all fifteen of us): He's coming here! General Waste-More-Land! (I guess Ramsey Clark didn't set off any alarm bells, which, in rueful retrospect, maybe he should have, but we can't have Mulligans on everything.)

The bold course of action we plotted was to hold an anti-draft rally outside Ross Hall while the debate went on. That will do the trick! Twenty slogan-chanting undergrads, with candles-n-everything, singing "Imagine" to an audience of exactly none -- that's gonna show that darned old draft-registration-reinstatement who's boss!

Which is how it came to be that your Neddie was standing outside the Alumni House the day of the Big Showdown, leafletting passersby and saving the world. I hadn't planned to be standing there. I honestly had no intentions of causing a stir, I was just gettin' the word out. You know.

A school van pulled up beside the entry to the Alum House. The front door opened and a student driver jumped out and opened the sliding door. Out unfolds General William H. Particular Westmoreland Himself. Bushy eyebrows, eyes sunk deep in his head, prizefighter nose lookin' for trouble. He was wearing an unprepossessing trench coat, no hat. Of course he caught sight of me. Of course he caught sight of old Helter-Skelter-Gabba-Gabba-Hey. I don't know if he thought I was a welcoming committee, but he made a beeline right for me as his student flunky wrestled with his bags.

I imagine they've probably got a secret course of study they give the fast-track kids at West Point, "Intimidation for Fun and Profit." Westmoreland knew all the tricks. Stood too close, used height advantage, invaded my personal space, got his face right into mine, forced eye contact, all that Full Metal Jacket shit.

"My, you're a fine specimen," he said quietly, taking in my Goodwill suit-pants, black Converse high-tops and baggy brown sweater. "What's your thing?

Now, let me try to impress on you the scourging depth of the contempt that this man...thought...he was expressing with this question. His lip curled mockingly as he delivered the word "thing," as if its utterance was a devastating assault on my self-confidence, a daisy-cutter blast on this effete college-boy punk-ass before him. He plainly expected me to wilt under the humiliation of the realization that he considered me inane.

Only one little problem with the logic: "What's your thing?" was a stupid, outdated, swingin'-Sixties phrase -- something a broke-down, hack-ass Borscht-Belt Buddy Hackett clone would have used to try to get into Goldie Hawn's pants between takes on the set of "Laugh-In" 12 years before. The correct phrase for the General to have employed in his ludicrous attempt at sarcasm would have been, in 1979, "What are you into?"

You expect your human-incarnations-of-evil to be a little hipper, I guess. We had to destroy the village to save it, and by the way -- what's your thing, Snickelfritz?

But that didn't mean I didn't owe the man an answer. I couldn't just giggle and walk away; that would have been chicken (I'm not chicken; General Giap's chicken, ho ho). Plus, he did still have me in that Full Metal Jacket DI posture. I was his little Private Pyle, trying desperately not to smirk at the left-field stupidness of "What's your thing?", believing that if I did succumb to the parlous ridiculousness of this situation I'd wind up in some boot-camp head somewhere, sucking on the barrel of my own M-16.

So I needed to come up with a rational answer to his question. Is he asking about my hobbies? Does he want to know what turns me on? How I get my crazy kicks, Daddy-o? Or does he expect me to just cut to the chase and start shrieking slogans at him?

I decided I'd give him the benefit of the doubt, and the polite answer.

"I play the guitar," I said slightly idiotically, taking the hobbies route.

I guess he was disappointed that I hadn't taken his bait because he became impatient. "What do you want?"

Well, it seemed to me that he'd interrupted my day (I really hadn't planned to be there, honest!), but I cut him some slack, decided to try to make some hay while the sun shone. "I have an invitation for you."

"What kind of an invitation?" Narrowed eyes, suspicious glare.

"There's an anti-draft rally tonight." Proffering a xeroxed flyer, just suggesting it here, really, no obligation...

Contempt returns. "You don't really think I'm going to come to that, do you?

"Just thought I'd ask."

With a military-butch "Tschah!" he turned on his heel and stalked away toward the Alumni House, trailing history and blood in his wake.

I turned and saw the student lackey, his loathing of me glowing like a napalm burst as he swayed under the weight of Westmoreland's bags. He toddled along, following the General to his repose. I hope he's a sixth-level political appointee at HUD today. Unfortunately, I bet he's a Vulcan.

This is exactly what he looked like:
No body, just a floating disembodied head
made of lumpy shit. Woo, scary.


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