Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

Donna Reed with servicemen during World War II. She was a popular pinup because so many saw her as a hometown girl.

If you're like me - and who isn't - your recollections of Donna Reed are broken into three segments: the first is as the wife of Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life. The second is brief glimpses of The Donna Reed Show you caught on afternoons when you were home sick as a kid watching UHF stations, back when there were such things. The third and - unfortunately - final image is a God-awful performance of Miss Ellie Ewing on one season of Dallas in the mid-80s. There hasn't been a worse prime-time switch since the braniacs at ESPN put Tony Kornheiser on Monday Night Football.

I say that last image is unfortunate because shortly after being rescued from Dallas, Donna Reed died at the early age of 64 in 1986. [Editor's Note: I remember when Reed died in 1986. At the time, 64 seemed old to me. I can now properly call it 'the early age of 64'] Even though she's been gone for 23 years, Reed still holds a spot in the hearts and minds of most Americans over the age of 40, even if it is only for her performance in It's a Wonderful Life.

On this Memorial Day, however, there is another reason to remember Donna Reed. During World War II, Reed was a young Hollywood actress. She was at once both sensual and motherly - even at the tender age of 22. The United States military had encouraged what became known as the pinup phenomenon [providing servicemen with 'glamour shots' of Hollywood starlets] as a way to maintain the morale of soldiers far from home. Reed was a rare pinup girl to the men in the U.S. armed forces in that she was not just an image of home that allowed them to satisfy their very natural sexual urges [these were, remember, young men]. She was that, but she was more: to many, perhaps because she was closer in age to these men than any of the other pinups [Dorothy Lamour, Rita Hayworth, Ann Sheridan, Hedy Lemarr and - paramount of all - Betty Grable come to mind], they looked upon her as sister/mother/lover all in one.

What makes Reed's role as a pinup girl poignant today on Memorial Day is a discovery that Reed's youngest daughter made late last year. Her daughter, Mary Owen, was an out-of-work 52-year-old Bear Sterns employee. With the newly found - and unwanted - time on her hands, Owen pulled out some old boxes of her mother's that she had kept stored away since her mother's death. It was in one of those boxes that Owens made an amazing discovery: Reed had held on to many of the letters that G.I.s had sent her over 60 years ago.

Owen was stunned. Her mother had always downplayed her fame in general, and of her part in the war effort Reed was particularly silent. None of Reed's other three children have any recollection of Reed mentioning the letters, either. After Owen catalogued the letters, she found that her mother had held onto a total of 341 of them. For Memorial Day 2009, she shared them with the New York Times.

The letters are remarkable. For one thing, you remember that at one time there was a generation of us that could actually write. I don't mean the college-graduate, educated classes, I mean everyone could write, from the high school dropout to the kid just off the farm. Even if the grammar and punctuation weren't always right, these men could communicate their thoughts through the written word in a way that text messaging simply does not allow. The other thing that stands out is how innocent the letters are in terms of sexual tension. Most of the men writing her, of course, never met Donna Reed. It could be expected that they simply wanted an autographed picture to...well, you know. Instead, the men write with a wholesome goodness that one wouldn't believe as authentic if they appeared in one of Reed's Hollywood war films of the 1940s.

But they are authentic ands speak of a real time in our history. The letters were real, and the men who wrote them were real. They wrote to Donna Reed, yes because she was famous and beautiful. But there was something else that kept them writing to her: she corresponded with them. It was not uncommon for Reed to send more than just an autographed picture - there was often a letter accompanying it. It was then subsequently not unusual for a second letter to come to Reed from the same G.I. Thus began a pen-pal relationship between Hollywood starlet and American soldier that seems as if it would be unthinkable in today's age.

“The boys in our outfit,” Sgt. William F. Love wrote on Aug. 18, 1944, from the jungles of New Guinea “think you are a typical American girl, someone who we would like to come home to!!!!!” On March 28, 1944, Sgt. John C. Dale of Tennessee, a tail gunner on a B-17, told Reed that he wanted her “to be the girl back home that I am fighting for.” Cpl. Bob Bowie wrote of how seeing Reed in The Human Comedy made him long to be back home in Los Angeles and wishing, “I could see my Mom.” He added: “I don’t know how it affected the other fellows, we never discuss our feelings with one another.”

Reed seemed to keep letters from those with whom she corresponded more than once, as well as from soldiers who came from her native Iowa. These including correspondence with Gordon Clausen, with whom she grew up. “Sometimes I wish I was back there with the old gang, able to go the usual rounds of the week,” Clausen wrote from the U.S.S. Simpson on April 8, 1945. “Occasionally I will sit on the fantail and look at the moon, wondering how many of our old friends were doing the same.”

Even those letter-writers who survived the war have, for the most part, died. But for those who died during the war, their letters are sobering. In an April 12, 1943 letter [the date on the letter is actually "April 12th (I think)"], Lt. Norman P. Klinker - with whom Reed kept a correspondence - wrote Reed from North Africa:

"Have just received your letter from the eighth of December. And believe me or no, it was the first piece of mail I have received in the past two months. By the sound of your tale, life in the old U.S. is not quite as fine as it used to be. But I honestly feel that it is better than eating the same 3 meals out of the same 3 c-ration cans for a month or three. We have been in action for some time here in North Africa, you see. Quite an interesting and heartless life at one and the same time. One thing I promise you - life on the battlefield is a wee bit different from the "movie" version. Tough and bloody and dirty as it is at times, there is none of that grim and worried feeling so rampant in war pictures. Its a matter-of-fact life we live and talk here. And here for the first time, no one has the 'jitters'. I hear you have done your part and done got [sic] married. Congratulations and good luck! See you in your next 'pic'"."

On Jan. 6, 1944, Klinker was killed in action in Italy during his unit’s seemingly suicidal assault on Mount Porchia, between Naples and Rome. An official history of the battle indicates that his unit was part of a task force “organized at the end of the year for the purpose of taking the ‘suicidal’ objective.” It met with “fanatical resistance” and “artillery and mortar fire of such devastating accuracy that the troops were forced to withdraw.”

The Times was able to locate one surviving letter-writer, who could not believe that Reed had kept his letters. Edward Skvarna, now 84, is retired and living in Covina, California. In 1943 he had just graduated high school in a mill town near Pittsburgh. As was the case with tens of thousands of others that year, Skvarna then enlisted in the Army Air Forces. It was while training in Kansas to be a right gunner on a B-29 that Skvarna actually met Donna Reed, at a U.S.O. canteen. Somehow, he got up the nerve to ask her to dance. “I had never danced with a celebrity before, so I felt delighted, privileged even, to meet her,” Skvarna told the Times. "But I really felt she was like a girl from back home. She was from a smaller community, and we were more or less the same age, so I felt she was the kind of person I could talk to.”

In one correspondence - from May 7, 1945 after being shipped to Asia - Skvarna writes:

"Dear Donna: First, I want to thank you for the swell letter, it was just like I hoped it to be. If you remember, I was in China, at the time but now I am in the Marianas, quite a change in climate. Please forgive me for not writing sooner but, I guess your letter took so long , that I almost gave up hope but, one day during male [sic] call, in India, it came boy! Did I jump with joy. Your letter was written Mar. 19th and I received it the latter part of April, just at the time we were on the move so at last I could answer it now. Conditions out here are much better than in India or China but, that should be expected because of the shorter supply lines. Oh/Yes almost slipped my mind, here are a few shots [Skvarna included in this letter three photographs - shown below - taken while in India] of a Rajah's Palace that I took while visiting it. During our stay in India, we were presented with the opportunity of visiting the Rajah's Palace so these three pictures are just part of the outcome of my visit.

The palace I took this shot from his [sic] main gate as you can see the boys are sure eager to get threw [sic] the second gate.

The fountain shot with yours truly it [sic] is also a fish pond, the nature boy is showing me the different types of fish, he also carried my camera, notice the wall in the background to keep out the uninvited.

The third shot was hard to get after a little bribing with food it came out far enough for us to get him in the sun. I was dropping him food that the boys gave me and another fellow took the picture. One of the native boy's [sic] fell in the pit a few days ago so you can see the little fellow's [sic] are a bit scared and I don't blame them a bit. Now I'd better stop this before I start writing a book. Anyway I hope you enjoyed the shots and, as a very slight favor how about a snapshot of yourself. I don't care how small okay! 'Yes'. I've cut a picture of you out of the papers a while back. I think its a shot of you taken out of the movie 'Dorian Gray'. Well I'll sign off now to get a bit of sleep because tomorrow is a big day. So good nite [sic] and may God bless you always."

Here - for those of you prone to wrenching your hands over the U.S. decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan - it is worth nothing that Skvarna more likely than not would have been one of the 2,000,000 casualties who would have fallen if President Truman had opted to take Japan by invasion. Think of Skvarna the next time you feel guilty about Hiroshima and/or Nagasaki.

Donna Reed died 23 years ago. Thanks to her feelings about the men with whom she corresponded - and her desire to hold onto many of those letters - and to her daughter's efforts once she discovered the letters last year, Donna Reed can remind us - in 2009 - why we aren't working today.

Remember a veteran. It's Memorial Day.

copyright 2009 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Jane Doe

Mary Alice Willey McGregor [above] disappeared some time after August 29, 1971. Here, the young southern California native can be seen wearing a pin that signified her strong belief in the Black Power movement in the early 1970s, in the form of the "black power fist" pin worn on her sweater.

No one knows exactly what happened to Mary Alice Willey McGregor. Until last year, in fact, the question of whether she was dead or alive remained as unanswered as it had been nearly 37 years before, when she disappeared. What made McGregor's disappearance from San Francisco in September 1971 more nuanced than a typical, tragic, young-girl-gone-missing tale all-too-frequently repeated in California - particularly during the period in which McGregor disappeared - was one thing: McGregor was believed to be an accessory to murder. And not just any murder, either. Only the most notorious police killing of the 1970s, the so-called 'Black Liberation Army [BLA]' (a violent offshoot of the Black Panthers) assassination of San Francisco police Sgt. John V. Young on August 29, 1971.

Like McGregor's disappearance immediately after that murder, the crime of Sgt. Young's death remains unpunished - although that may change shortly. While evidence at the time indicated that the killing of Young was in retaliation for the death of BLA activist George Jackson in a San Quentin prison riot on August 21, 1971, charges in the Young killing never went through until 36 years later. Investigators did track some of the suspects to New Orleans and extracted incriminating statements from them, but in 1975 that evidence was thrown out by an apparently delirious judge after it was alleged that New Orleans police used torture to get the information. The one suspect they could not track, though, was Mary Alice Willey McGregor.

The Young murder case languished for decades until 1999, when San Francisco police made one last effort to investigate it. Apparently, a re-examination of a cigarette lighter found at the station [why do killers always do something stupid like leaving something like that behind?] yielded a thumbprint belonging to a member of the BLA. In addition, a BLA member apparently agreed to testify against his former associates. Eight men, all former BLA members, were arrested in 2007. Authorities charged them with murder and conspiracy, but a judge ruled that the statute of limitations had expired on some of the conspiracy charges. On June 8th, seven suspects [one of those arrested had only been charged with the now-dismissed conspiracy charge] will go on trial in San Francisco Superior Court for Young's murder.

Who was Mary Alice Willey McGregor? By all accounts, she was a nondescript typical white southern California girl growing up as an only child with parents significantly older than her peers' mothers and fathers. As such, she became detached from her parents to the point of leaving Anaheim at some time in 1969 for the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco. There, she apparently became enamored of the Black Power movement. She became particularly won over to the cause of the BLA, and its founder George Jackson.

Jackson himself had been the victim of an archaic early 1960s California law that sentenced him to "one-year-to-life" in 1961 for robbing a gas station of $70. Jackson read widely in prison and became a Marxist. By the end of the decade, Jackson was an internationally known militant prison inmate and best-selling author who had become a powerful voice for prison reform and civil rights during his years behind bars at Soledad State Prison in Monterey County.

As Jackson's reputation grew among those on the Left, the Black Panthers - as good at marketing as Madison Avenue - decided to capitalize on his popularity by making him a "field marshal" in their organization. In 1970, Jackson and two other inmates were accused of beating and hurling a white prison guard to his death from a Soledad tier, apparently in retaliation for the exercise yard slayings of three black inmates. Known as the Soledad Brothers, the three were transferred to San Quentin for trial. In October 1970, Jackson published a collection of letters called Soledad Brother, a searing indictment of the prison system. The book turned Jackson into an international celebrity, especially among the new Left.

And he had become an especially strong magnet for McGregor. According to McGregor's second husband - she had married once at 17, divorced, and then married Patrick Warren McDowell in a hastily arranged union designed to allow McGregor to complain about prison conditions in which McDowell was suffering while awaiting trial on an armed robbery charge - McGregor fully believed in Jackson's plan, which involved a violent breakout from San Quentin and then, "the start of the revolution!"

The set of related circumstances that ended in the violent death of Sgt. Young began on August 21, 1971. A young lawyer named Stephen Bingham visited George Jackson at San Quentin. Shortly after that visit, Jackson somehow had a gun in his possession. At the time, authorities said that - inexplicably - Bingham had smuggled the gun into the visiting room and gave it to Jackson, who allegedly hid it under an Afro wig that Bingham had also brought in. [Editor's Note: Bingham fled the country and lived in Europe for 13 years before choosing, in 1984, to return to the United States to stand trial. In 1986, Bingham was acquitted on charges that he smuggled the gun to Jackson. Bingham at the time and to this day believes that guards smuggled the gun to Jackson in exchange for cash and the promise that the planned uprising would not occur during their shifts]. As Jackson was being led back to his cell, a guard noticed the gun. Jackson drew the weapon and, paraphrasing Vietnamese lunatic Ho Chi Minh, declared: "This is it, gentlemen. The dragon has come."

What happened next was the most violent day in California prison history. Inmates freed from their cells murdered three guards and two white inmate trustees. They tried to kill several others. As the prison went to lockdown, Jackson and another inmate ran across the prison yard. A guard in the tower fired twice and - in a literal burst of good taste - Jackson was dead before he hit the ground.

Then, on August 29th, a bomb went off at the Bank of America branch at Stonestown mall, and all but one of the available officers from San Francisco's Ingleside Station rushed to investigate, leaving Sgt. Young and a civilian aide to man Ingleside station during the incident. A short time later, a young white woman entered the station to report a missing purse. After she finished filling out a report, she walked out shining a flashlight toward the street. With that, a car pulled up. Several black men got out and walked into the station. One shoved a shotgun into the voice grate of the station's bulletproof glass and fired. Sgt. Young was hit in the chest and died on the station floor. The civilian aide was wounded, but survived.

Two days afterward, the San Francisco Chronicle received an anonymous letter from a group calling itself the "George L. Jackson Assault Squad of the Black Liberation Army." The note said that Ingleside Station was attacked to retaliate for Jackson's death. Police at the time - through investigation of Jackson's private letters and other clues - believed that Mary Alice Willey McGregor was the woman who had come to the station to report her stolen purse; that she was a lookout connected to the BLA; and that she was there essentially to confirm to the gunmen that most of the police force at Ingleside had not yet returned from the bomb explosion that apparently had been a diversion to draw them away from the station. Young's murder was an assassination in that the BLA wanted to target one San Francisco policeman in response to Jackson's death on the prison grounds of San Quentin a week before.

McGregor's sighting - by witnesses who identified her as the woman who shined the flashlight after leaving the station - was the last time anyone saw her alive. Throughout the next 37 years, as the Young murder investigation would ebb and flow, there was an assumption that McGregor had eluded capture, perhaps fled to Canada, or - like many other radicals of the day - assimilated back into the cultural norm, where she was probably somebody's mother, or a Girl Scout troop leader.

No one, it seems, ever considered the possibility that McGregor hadn't willingly disappeared, but that - as a key witness who could identify Young's killers - she had been brutally murdered herself shortly afterwards. Even after Modesto, California police found an unidentified body floating in a canal on September 11, 1971, and with the biggest manhunt on in California history for Sgt. Young's killers, unbelievably no one in the San Francisco police force was told about the finding of the body. McGregor's body was found wearing only a handmade blouse and an earring when she was pulled from the water. The coroner said she had been dead for 12 to 24 hours.

She had 65 stab wounds, most of them defensive, but at least 10 were considered fatal. One stab wound entered under her left breast and hit her spinal column. One wound penetrated her skull and entered her brain. Her throat was cut. An autopsy indicated that someone - apparently trying to make identification of the body impossible - had tried to cut off her hands and failed. Her killer then tried to cut off a couple of fingers and failed at that, too. One thumb was removed with much hacking. But she had no identification. Investigators couldn't determine who she was. For 37 years, she lay in a grave marked only by a large stone that said "Jane Doe."

As in most instances in these cases, however, there was one investigator at the time who could not put the Jane Doe body out of his mind. Over the years, on his own investigation, he had determined that Jane Doe was Mary Alice Willey McGregor. The problem, though, was that McGregor was not the typical girl-gone-missing: she was a suspect in one of the most notorious murders in California history. If the body was McGregor, she certainly couldn't help police identify Sgt. Young's killers. In that case, not too many police were all that concerned about finding out if Jane Doe was McGregor.

The stereotypical persistent detective - in this case Detective Ken Hedrick of the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department - kept on pushing. Finally, in the spring of 2008, Hedrick convinced authorities to see if new technologies could help identify the woman found dead in the canal back in 1971. He had the body exhumed, a forensic anthropologist made a facial reconstruction, and technicians tried to get a DNA sample for a match. In late summer, a cousin of McGregor's stumbled upon a short newspaper story explaining the detective's interest in solving the case. The cousin, Corey Oisen of Santa Cruz County, called Hedrick, and the two compared notes. Oisen arranged for a DNA test. It was a match. Finally, the body in the canal had a name, and Mary Alice McGregor's story - or the story's ending - was now known. On Oct. 31, 2008, a small ceremony for McGregor was held at the Patterson cemetery. She now has a proper gravestone. In it is carved her real name and the dates of her birth and death.

It can never be known the extent of Mary Alice Willey McGregor's involvement in Sgt. Young's murder. It is always possible that McGregor - who had never before been known to actually participate in violence, although she clearly supported the theory of violence in support of 'black liberation' - had no idea why she was asked by BLA associates to report a missing purse that day. It would seem folly, though, to think she had any doubt that some violence was pending, even if the actual murder plan was unknown to her. Still, if she was a dupe, and had no idea that she was setting up a young police sergeant for his murder, then her own murder takes on an even sadder tone. If - as seems more likely - she at least knew she was assisting in the perpetration of violence, then many reading about her murder will have little to no sympathy for her case. Still, she was someone's daughter. Her parents went to their graves never knowing what happened to their only child; never understanding where they went wrong, or why she abandoned them in a real-life version of The Beatles' She's Leaving Home. An argument can be made that even the most heinous criminals - guilty of far more than McGregor may have been - deserve a proper burial.

Now, Mary Alice Willey McGregor has had hers.

copyright 2011 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Book Review: The Last Campaign

Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
I thought I saw him walkin' up over the hill,
With Abraham, Martin and John.

Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John” is one of at least two songs whose lyrics were altered in-studio due to the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy [D, NY] on June 5, 1968 at 3:16 am Eastern time. As the title suggests, the song was written [by Richard Holler] as a result of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and was a poetic triumvirate tying Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and King together as men who, “freed a lot of people, but it seems the good they die young…” As Dion was laying down vocals, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination led Holler to add the final paragraph [above] to the song. The other song similarly adjusted was the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy with the Devil”. Keith Richards’ and Mick Jagger’s lyric was originally, “I shouted out, ‘Who killed John Kennedy?’, when after all, it was you and me”. As they were laying down the track, RFK was killed, leading Richards to slightly alter the line to have Jagger sing, “I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’, when after all…”

If I was truly conceived exactly nine months prior to my actual birth, then I was conceived the night that Robert Kennedy was murdered. Other than that – and my nephew’s being born exactly 40 years after the event – I have never thought much about Bobby Kennedy’s 82-day campaign for the Presidency in 1968. I knew the basic facts about the assassination in California, and had seen an extended rebroadcast of the event as it aired in the middle of the night on the east coast on June 5, 1968 – including Lyndon Johnson’s simply surreal address of mourning to the Nation. After listening to LBJ, anyone dropping in from Mars would have been clueless as to the visceral hatred both men shared for one another. That LBJ didn’t win an Oscar for that performance was criminal.

Until reading Thurston Clarke’s The Last Campaign, however, the actual campaign that preceded the assassination never captured my interest. I had generally believed that RFK – in 1968 at least – had been an opportunist. That he ran only after Sen. Eugene McCarthy [D, Minn] showed how vulnerable LBJ was by capturing 42% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, and that Kennedy probably would not have been able to wrest the nomination away from Vice President Hubert Humphrey had he not been killed.

While Clarke often slips beyond the impartial into that world of Kennedy-worship that often makes books about them unreadable, his work does make a very strong argument that Robert Kennedy’s run for the Presidency in 1968 was nothing less than a political revolution that held the promise of a universally new way of politics. Clarke’s portrayal of the campaign, of RFK’s own inner-psyche and transformation at the hands of those who nearly tore him to pieces in trying to touch him, really does lead me to question my previous assumptions of the viability of Kennedy’s candidacy.

Those in the love-Kennedy camp often rhapsodize about ‘what might have been’ had President Kennedy lived; had Bobby Kennedy lived, etc. It is romantic and dramatic to draw up ‘might have beens’ and ‘what ifs’ when writing about either Kennedy. Bobby, though in particular, lends himself to this phenomenon because we know how it ends. We know what President Richard Nixon is going to do – not just in Vietnam and Laos but at home – and we know that what followed were some of the darkest political days in our nation’s history. Because we know all of this, it is tempting to think that – had Bobby lived – it all would have been different.

It is very, very hard to stop yourself from doing that kind of dreaming when reading Clarke’s work. For one thing – Clarke never shuts up about it, constantly hammering home his conviction that RFK would have been the greatest president since Lincoln. If you begin this work, though, aware of this tendency, and keep focused on the facts and stories alone, Clarke’s book is truly fascinating.

Because Bobby Kennedy’s campaign was fascinating. Clarke interviewed extensively all of the surviving members of the [very large] press pool that followed Kennedy from Day 1 to Day 82 of his campaign. These recollections are often being told here for the first time by men and women who – as journalists – fell in love with Kennedy and later felt guilty about losing their impartiality. That – combined with the horrific end of the campaign – led many to remain silent for nearly 40 years about what went on behind the scenes of that campaign.

For Clarke, however, they open up and tell an amazing story. For one thing [and this a major theme of the book], there was the almost universal belief among all of the media that Bobby Kennedy was going to be shot. From the first night of the campaign, when a bunch of reporters having drinks after hours took up a pool to see who could guess the exact date on which Kennedy would be shot [and this was in March; even before King had been killed] there was an inevitability among the press that this man was going to die before he could possibly succeed his brother. That he would die at the hand of an assassin and that it would happen while he was campaigning.

Indeed, that sense of inevitability was felt by many Kennedy aides. The candidate himself thought a great deal about it, according to some of the sources for Clarke’s book. These sources – mostly journalists who Kennedy often sought out after-hours to pour out his soul off the record – say Kennedy once said, “There are guns between me and the White House.” When asked what that meant, Kennedy reportedly smiled and said, “These people [the voters] say I’m a hero; well, heroes get shot.” On many occasions during the campaign, a car would backfire, or someone would set off firecrackers, and Kennedy would jolt upright, cover his head with his hands, or otherwise recoil as if it was Dallas 1963 all over again.

In addition to having that sense of inevitability about him, Clarke’s Bobby Kennedy is a man who – by March 1968 – was eager to leave his brother behind. “I’m interested in what can help this country in 1969,” Kennedy said, “not what we did in 1963.” Indeed, Bobby Kennedy by 1968 was far more ‘in-touch’ with the downtrodden, minorities, poor, and disenfranchised than his brother ever was [or would have been had he lived]. Bobby’s sense of empathy and his deep compassion were not characteristics, in fact, that his brother would have even recognized in his Attorney General. Indeed, the Bobby Kennedy of 1968 would have been unrecognizable to John Kennedy – both physically, with his long hair, and philosophically with his deep and passionate concern for African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and poor whites.

And these constituencies loved Bobby Kennedy. One of the great senses of tragedy around Kennedy’s 1968 assassination was the feeling held by many minorities that RFK had been their last best hope. With his death, no politician for the next 25 years would ever hold their esteem the way Bobby Kennedy had. And Kennedy loved these people. Despite his abhorrence of being so much as touched let alone having his shoes, cuff links, ties and other apparel torn violently from his body by adoring mobs, Kennedy insisted on allowing it to happen. Whenever his [private] security detail would object or try to keep crowds away, Kennedy would reprimand them on the spot and insist that he be allowed to freely greet and mingle. In fact, one of the many ironies of RFK’s actual assassination is that almost to a person those who believed he would be killed thought it would happen during these meet-and-greets. No known attempt on his life, however, was ever made during these literally hundreds of gatherings.

His end would come in a hotel kitchen instead. Here, too, Clarke points to another irony: Kennedy always insisted on leaving a speaking engagement by walking through the crowd and out the back to the exit. On the few occasions during the campaign that aides led him through a back way – such as the kitchen entrance of a hotel – he would furiously chastise them, “Never do that again!” It is possible that – after 82 days of tireless and endless campaigning – by June 5th Robert Kennedy was just too tired to go through the crowd one more time. That is the only reason anyone associated with the campaign can explain - 40 years later - why Bobby Kennedy allowed himself to be led through the kitchen where Sirhan Sirhan was waiting to kill him. In fact, some of Kennedy’s security detail that night had started to clear a path in front of the speakers podium, so that he could exit through the crowd, only to have to double back quickly [and, ultimately, futilely] when they realized their candidate had instead ducked back to the hotel kitchen.

For me personally, another of the great revelations in this book is the fact that Robert Kennedy knew he’d been shot. Because he’d been hit in the head, I had always assumed he lost consciousness instantly. He did not. Because there were so many people in the room at the time – one journalist estimated that there were 80 human beings within a 20-foot radius of the candidate with all of their attention focused on him when Sirhan pulled the trigger, Kennedy’s assassination was the most-witnessed political killing ever. While the Zapruder film captures in vivid and gory detail the assassination of John Kennedy, that film came to light only five years after the event. Until that time, very few had witnessed the actual shots and grim results.

Not so with Bobby Kennedy. The proximity between Kennedy and Sirhan was less than a few feet. Five others were wounded. As Kennedy had been led back through the kitchen, he clasped hands with cooks, dishwashers and other well-wishers. As he was leaning across one of the kitchen worktables to shake hands with yet another member of the kitchen staff, Sirhan reached out from the crowd, pointed a revolver at Kennedy’s head and fired. Sirhan used a .22-caliber pistol, not an ‘ideal’ weapon for an assassin. Later, the surgeon who operated on Bobby Kennedy would say that if the fatal bullet had hit Bobby Kennedy just a centimeter further back on his head than it did, Kennedy would have survived and eventually recovered with no brain damage.

Clarke recounts word-for-word the actual moment of the assassination as recorded live by Mutual Radio Network reporter Andrew West. West happened to be lucky enough to get Kennedy’s attention just as he entered the kitchen. The candidate agreed to talk with him, while he greeted the kitchen staff. On the tape, West asks, “Senator, how are you going to counter Mr. Humphrey and his backgrounding [sic] you as far as the delegate votes go?” Kennedy – still shaking hands – responds, “It just goes back to the struggle for it….” The gunshots. At that point, West frantically screams, “Senator Kennedy has been shot – Senator Kennedy has been shot. Is that possible? Is that possible? It is possible, ladies and gentlemen. Is it possible? He has. Not only Senator Kennedy – Oh my God – Senator Kennedy and another man – a Kennedy campaign manager – and possibly shot in the head. I am right here and [Kennedy aide] Rafer Johnson has hold of the man who apparently has fired the shot….HE STILL HAS THE GUN!! The gun is pointed at me this very moment. I hope they can get the gun out of his hand. Be very careful. GET THE GUN! GET THE GUN! Stay away from the gun. Stay away from the gun. His hand is frozen….get his thumb, get his thumb take a hold of his thumb [here West momentarily forgets he is on the air] fucking BREAK it if you have to. Get away from the barrel. Look out for the gun. OK – all right. That’s it, Rafer, get it. Get the gun, Rafer. Ok, no hold on to the gun. Ladies and gentlemen they have the gun away from the man. I can’t see the man. I can’t see who it is. Senator Kennedy right now is on the ground. He has been shot. This is a – this is – wait a minute. Hold him! We don’t’ want another [Lee Harvey] Oswald, Rafer! Hold him. Keep people away from him. This is a – make room, make room, make room, make room. The Senator is on the ground. He’s bleeding profusely…apparently the Senator has been shot from the frontal area, we don’t see exactly where the Senator has been shot.”

At this point, Kennedy was still conscious. His eyes would focus and then go blank and then refocus again. A busboy kneeled at his side with a towel, uncertain where to put it as there was so much blood he couldn’t be sure where Kennedy had been hit. Kennedy looked up at the busboy and said, “Is everybody else all right? Is [aide] Paul [Schrade] okay? Is everybody all right?” As Kennedy’s wife, Ethel – who had been held up at the podium by well-wishers and only entered the kitchen after hearing the shots – reached him, he said to her, “My head!” Another witness said he then said, “Jack, Jack…” and lost consciousness. He regained it, however, when the ambulance attendants were finally able to reach him through the throng. “Don’t!” Kennedy screamed, “Don’t lift me. No, no, no, no!”

As Clarke says, perhaps the most surprising thing about Kennedy’s assassination is that almost literally no one was shocked, not even the victim. Journalist Hays Gorey recounts, “Gazing up from the floor, Robert Kennedy, still lucid, wore a haunting expression that no one who knew him will ever forget. He was fully aware of what had happened.” Another reporter, Peter Hamill – speaking for the first time in 40 years about the event – told Clarke that Kennedy had “a sort of sweet kind of acceptance” on his face as he lay on the floor. Hamill looked in Kennedy’s eyes and “instead of asking ‘What happened?’ they seemed to be saying, ‘So this is it.’”

The depth of the grief expressed by the underprivileged of all colors at Kennedy’s death is telling. Clarke’s account is well-done and thought-provoking. Of course, the answer will never be known – would Kennedy have won? Would he have even been a good president? What Clarke’s work does answer, however, is the question, ‘Why did this man want to be president?’ Whatever ambitions he may have had immediately after his brother’s death, by 1968 he was running for president because he’d found himself. He had found ‘his people’ and he was going to show them that in this country they could have faith in the government because he was going to make sure they were never forgotten.

It is tempting to chalk this up to rhetoric and in-the-heat-of-campaign bullshit. The fact that so many in the press fell in love with Bobby Kennedy during those 82 days, and that they fell in love with him because of what he was saying and doing, however, does tend to give credence to the idea that he really believed what he was saying. That these really were ‘his people’ and that he intended to do things his brother would never have dreamed of doing. We’ll never know, of course, but Clarke’s book brings those 82 days to life and is well worth the read for it.

copyright 2009 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Funniest Show You've Never Seen

Phineas and Ferb stars Perry the Platypus [ fedora], Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz [top, right] and characters Phineas, Ferb and sister Candace.

I write today about the greatest comedy on television today, and one you probably have never either seen nor even heard of. I speak of the twice-Emmy-nominated Phineas & Ferb from Disney Channel. Originally aired in August 2007, the animated series is - without fear of contradiction - the funniest thing on television. Bar none. Rescue Me? Great series. Too serious for a comedy. Big Love? Funny, but it's hard to consider polygamy and child-rape as appropriate fodder for humor. Hannah Montana? Also funny, but that God-awful singing just makes it impossible to laugh enough to call it a comedy.

No, it's P&F. The shows - which run in 15-minute cycles with the occasional 30-minute special - always contain two simultaneous plots. The first involves Phineas and Ferb - two step-brothers - and their never-ending search for something to do during summer vacation ["There's a-hundred-and-four days of summer vacation...." says the title song]. This normally involves creating something impossible, like a portal to Mars, a monster-truck stadium in the back yard, or searching for the feared Lake Nose Monster ["Of all the lakes we could have picked," says Dad en route, "I'm so glad we picked the Nose."]. All the while, addled teenage-sister Candace tries to catch the boys in the act to "bust them" - that is, to show Mom that her little ones are really mad scientist-types and not cute little boys with a "wild imagination".

The second concurrent plot - and, to me, what makes the series pure genius - is between P&F's pet platypus [brilliant named, Perry the Platypus] and the evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz. You see, Perry - a mild-mannered unintelligible pet platypus to the boys - is really a secret agent. As Agent P, Perry works for O.W.C.A ("Organization Without a Cool Acronym"). Apropos of nothing, as the boys are beginning whatever crazy adventure planned for the day, Phineas will turn to someone and say, "Hey, where's Perry?" At which point, Agent P - who, like most platypuses walks on all fours when he's a family pet - sprints upon his two hind legs, dons a fedora, and is catapulted, dropped, flown, or otherwise dispensed to some other locale where he gets his instructions - via video, of course - from a Bond-like handler known as Monogram.

Perry the Platypus' instructions always deal with handling the evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz, played with the appropriate Colonel Klink-like-German accent by series co-creator Dan Povenmire. Dr. Doof isn't really a doctor, as becomes apparent in one episode when his daughter - yes, Dr. D was married but is now divorced from a wife that has to pay him alimony - finds a price tag [$15.00] on his doctoral degree. He is, however, an "evil genius" dedicated to "spreading evil across the tri-state area!"

Povenmire and his collaborator Jeff "Swampy" Marsh met as layout artists on - surprise, surprise - The Simpsons. For much of the next 16 years, they worked on their concept of an animated series, which began with Povenmire's sketch of a boy with a triangle head. After 16 years of pitching, they finally convinced Disney to order a series. P&F just wrapped up its second season, and have produced a total of 36 episodes.

Each one is a gem. Literally. Not a bad one in the bunch. How do I know? Well, my children discovered P&F and haven't stopped watching them, so I've seen each episode about 100 times. Ok, I haven't seen every episode, but I've seen about half of them and they are brilliant. Whether it's the one where Dr. Doofenshmirtz seeks revenge on hot dog vendors [as a young man he was a bratwurst vendor and - after hot dogs took off and became so popular - "I vowed there and then that I would get my revenge!"; or the one where Dr. D tries to suck all of the zinc out of Lake Nose - "There must be some evil use for zinc," Doofenshmirtz says to Agent P at one point. "No, seriously, Perry the Platypus, do you know any evil uses for zinc...'cause I got nothing!"; or the one where Dr. D seeks to destroy the billboard that is obscuring his window view "from where I used to watch the world's miseries (from there, the shot goes into flashback and we see Dr. D sitting in an easy chair, eating popcorn while he looks to his right at a chiropractor's building and we hear a large "CRACK" and the patient yells, "OH MAN!"; Dr. D then looks to his left and we see a Tax office and a woman says, "Ok, sir, you owe $730,000." and a guy says, "OH MAN!", and so on)" - you'll laugh so hard you'll wet yourself. Particularly if you are incontinent.

Of particular genius is the relationship between Perry and Dr. D. Each episode features Perry barging in on Dr. D, to which Doofenshmirtz, reacts in mock horror and surprise, "PERRY THE PLATYPUS????!!!! YOU'RE EARLY. I'm not ready yet..." or some such banter. At one point, Doofenshmirtz even has Perry wait in "my waiting room, while I get ready. There, go read a magazine. I mean, they're all in Spanish. I steal them from my neighbor. Remember, evil never rests." Dr. D then captures Perry in a trap and proceeds to tell him every detail of his evil plot. The insanity of this is captured in one episode when an evil collaborator says to Doofenshmirtz, "Are you sure you want to take HIM [Perry] with us?!" To which Dr. D says, "Who, Perry the Platypus? I HAVE to take him. He's my nemesis. I have to tell him everything." Invariably, Perry saves the day, leaving Dr. Doofenshmirtz screaming, "Curse you, Perry the Platypus"!

Of course, concurrent with all of this is some attempt by Phineas and Ferb to do something impossible, all while their sister Candace tries to get them "busted" by catching them in the act. This story-line is for the kids, while the Dr. D/Perry storyline is for the adults. What's great is, P&F are actually good kids. That, I think, is what makes the show better than all of the other crap cartoons out there, where the animated kids are either dumber than cup of semen or bigger assholes than that guy who thought to send the planes over New York City last week.

Instead, P&F are good-hearted, smart - even somewhat nerdy - but yet COOL kids, with friends and they have impossible adventures. My favorite friend - and here is the only area, perhaps, where the series veers into the realm of distasteful - is their friend Baljeet. He is the stereotypical Indian-American youth who is brilliant, shy and timid, under tremendous pressure from his parents to be a genius, etc. Even here, though, there isn't anything mean spirited about the portrayal of Baljeet, even if he does reinforce a stereotype (in one episode, Baljeet calls on P&F to help him because his science project got him only an A-. After P&F try to help him improve the project but initially fail, Baljeet moans, "I'm calling my parents and telling them to get the curtains of shame ready to hang." To which Phineas says, "Don't worry, it'll work, you'll see." "Not through the curtains of shame, I won't," says Baljeet).

So, do yourself a favor and check out Phineas and Ferb. Be warned, however: you'll never look at a platypus the same again.

copyright 2009 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.