Thursday, December 05, 2013
BOB WILKINS’ SHORT SHORT STORIES
His publicity photograph had his signature look. He would continue to wear the thick black frame glasses that many, including myself, wore in the 1950s (Some call it the “Buddy Holly” look). Thin blond hair and thin lips – to deliver sharp observations – were part of the man whose body seemed delicate, or perhaps it was frail from his recent years in a tuberculosis sanitarium. It seemed a little incongruous to see the small, luminously white hand holding a big black cigar.
I had no television for years and was unaware that my old college friend Bob Wilkins was in the Bay Area until I heard people talking about him; they were both puzzled and entertained by his appearance and strange, dry humor, and I was so sure that I knew who they were talking about that I asked, “Are you talking about someone named Bob Wilkins?” Among other, personal elements in his new life, a large audience loved to watch him host the late night (weekend?) broadcast of old horror films, “Creature Features,” on Channel 2, KTVU, in Oakland.
There was never a reunion after or college days as our lives had separated naturally and were too different later, but, hearing of his death, I wrote some brief memoir of Bob Wilkins on my blog (an entry on 11 January 2009, I think), but I think I failed to include some short short stories Bob wrote (below). I just came across them, and I am not even certain that I ever had a chance to share them with his family.
The Brave Bullfrog
Mary Johnson was a sweet old woman. She was very fat in the legs and was often taken to have had a case of elephantiasis. Mary was a nightwatchman in the city hospital’s eye bank. She was crazy about the job even though its salary was nominal. It gave her a chance to get out of the house once in a while. One hot humid evening in August, Mary set out for work. She carried her massive lunch in her right hand, some twenty-two sandwiches of assorted ingredients, and approximately six pounds of fruit. In her left hand she held her trusty old faded Chinese umbrella. As she neared the hospital she spit on the sidewalk as if she were imitating a truck driver with a mouthful of tobacco. She stopped for a few seconds to watch two dogs mating under a nearby tree. As she entered the hospital old Fay Foltz at the desk handed her a letter. Fay smiled as if she had read it. Mary set down her lunch and umbrella. The letter was from her son, Mac: Dear Ma, please bring back the outboard motor. All is forgiven. Signed Mac at the lighthouse. Mary smiled, Fay giggled. Mary then noticed that her lunch was missing.
Bob and I were drinking buddies for a couple of years at the end of our attending Indiana University. I was in a grim state of mind after the suicide of a favorite uncle and feeling the ever-increasing psychic weight from denying my homosexuality, and so I was a good, gloomy foil for bright, witty Bob.
Wayne was not like the other guys in his block. Wayne had rather large hands and somewhat larger ears. When December 7, 1941, rolled around, Wayne, like many other good Americans, hid in the fruit cellar. Nine years later he came out of hiding. Wayne then joined a travelling circus and was trampled to death by several elephants.
N. Wrigley was a fellow student in Professor Alan Merrill Hollingsworth’s writing group, and Mr. Wrigley shared an apartment with Bob. He and some other friends invited me to come meet Bob in a downtown Bloomington, implying that something about us would make sparks fly and be very entertaining for the others. When I got there, Wrigley introduced me, and then they continued a discussion they were having about why the best choice for Homecoming Queen would not be selected – “because she’s Black.” Bob seemed the most incensed by this injustice. To get the anticipated confrontation out of the way, I provoked with “But why do you care so much?” Bob, having the whitest skin possible, paused, for perfect timing, and said, “Because I’m Black.” Everyone laughed.
It had been a nasty winter in the small town of Strunz, Iowa. Tim Bellson was a night watchman at the Dawson Fertilizer Plant. Old Tim always carried a pint on him. The stove was broken at the plant, and old Tim should have been cold that winter night. But he wasn’t because he had his pint on him. About two in the morning it happened – several loud knocks at the door and then the sound of a speeding car leaving the scene. Tim darted to the door and found a plain note explaining, “Give him a good home.” He pulled back the small blanket and saw a pregnant walrus.
Wrigley was right to sense that Bob and I would achieve some kind of lasting rapport. We spent countless hours, mostly in drinking establishments or, on the road, at taverns elsewhere. We passed the time sharing our opposing views on life and on the human race passing by. Bob, a business major, who secretly wanted to be a professional comedian, could be counted on for an acerbic reaction to people.
The bay was foggy as the old tuna boat came into dock. Red Reed, wearing a black leather overcoat, caught the local bus and got off at Madison and 79th. Red was tired as he entered his dingy one-room apartment. There on his bed was Fay – Fay Martin, his old third grade teacher.
Something about his pale and slight appearance, but also his ability to make anyone laugh with his amusing wit, gave him a unique kind of virility that women found attractive. Memory makes me realize that I also observed the physical man while we bantered; it was fascinating to watch his small, thin fingers, tendril-like, grip his glass of beer or his cigar, or when he gestured in the air.
The Summer Rain
Clyde Simpson sat in the morning sun cutting his toenails. Mrs. Simpson, a greasy creature with massive hips, was milking a goat nearby. A hard driving rain thundered down from the sky but both held their positions as if they were glued to their spots. Then it happened – a yellow cab pulled in the driveway and Clyde knew his country was at war.
One day when I came to writing class, Wrigley had some stories Bob had asked him to pass along to me. Wrigley imitated the sardonic tone Bob wanted to convey, asking for my criticism of his “first book,” these stories. Not bothering to analyze his game, I let him know later that I love the stories, so whimsical and free, and wished he could find a place to publish them. Their Midwestern dry humor was like Dada’s liberating nonsense.
The Golden Milk Bottle
Sam Cartwright peered through the window of a downtown tavern. He spied a sign over the bar that read, “No Albinos Served.” Sam smiled, tightened his old army belt around his waist, and moved down the street. Then all hell broke loose – cars honked their horns, ladies waved and shouted, children pointed to the sky. Above, a plane flew lazily by with a large banner attached proclaiming: GENERAL MacARTHUR HAS SUCCESSFUL HERNIA OPERATION.
Some of the bars in Bloomington, Indiana, were far more educational than the classes. Besides the collegiate gathering spots, including the café where Hoagy Carmichael wrote “Stardust,” a wonderful mixture of students, professors, and stonecutters from the nearby limestone quarries mingled in one bar that drew us in on Friday nights. People from campus productions, dressed for the opera or symphony, were elbow to elbow with unkempt students and stonecutters from the limestone quarries in their work clothes, eager to celebrate the end of the week. The music was a wild and infectious blend of music. Mostly white country musicians played music from the Black community of Nashville – the raw roots of rock before it was popularized, with lyrics gritty and amusingly sexual; every place in the United States must have a blend of whatever musicians bring as they wander the circuit of people’s bars, with a dash of zydeco on the accordion, and led by a wild piano player who sang songs that were already being pasteurized on popular records. The night always ended with a brawl that was like a brawl filmed in slow motion, everyone too drunk to land a solid punch, most of the action taken up with staggering back and forth, with people uncertain who they were fighting sometimes, as the poor elderly waitress, also drunk, bounced this way and that in the action.
The sunlight blinded me as I made my way from the kitchen to the living room. There, sitting on a pile of old Life magazines was Edie. I yelled at her in a belligerent tone, “What in the holy hell are you doing in here?” She laughed and shrugged her massive shoulders. I kicked at her and she darted into the kitchen. It was then, and probably for the first time, that I knew that I would never drive a Greyhound bus again.
In the great stonecutters’ bar and in a variety of other places, bars, Bob and I enjoyed observing and analyzing the nature of the human race, consciously comparing how it looked from a writer’s eye as opposed to how it looked to a comedian. I think we thought that our drinking habits were good training for our vague and incoherent futures. How many moral questions did other people arouse for us, and in what ways did we differ in our reactions?
We found our wisdom in wit, “that quality of speech or writing which consists in the apt association of thought and expression, calculated to surprise and delight by its unexpectedness….:”
Monday, November 25, 2013
While no one was happy that a 150-year-old landmark giant eucalyptus trees fell near the Lake Chalet on Lake Merritt, Oakland, in the fierce winds at the end of November, it did provide community and spontaneous entertainment for a while. When it fell, people a block away said that it sounded like cannon fire.
Sunday, November 17, 2013
Subpoenaed to appear before HUAC (the infamous House Unamerican Activities Committee), Bertolt Brecht appeared on 30 October 1947 (in overalls, and smoking a cigar – Elsa Lancester, after Brecht lived for a time with her and her husband Charles Laughton in Hollywood, complained that she had to clean the curtains to get rid of the smell of his cigars). Richard Nixon was among those who sat in judgment of him.
“I am living at 34 West 73rd Street,” he testified. “I am born at Augsburg, Germany, February 10, 1898.”
The Southern accent of the judged named Stripling made a strange counterpoint to Brecht’s German accent. For a second time, Brecht asked, “May I read my statement?” Stripling replied, “The Court, Mr. Brecht, is trying to identify you.”
Brecht told of fleeing Hitler, going to Denmark, then to Stockholm, then to Finland, fleeing with family by the Siberian Express, and, finally, arriving in the United States from which, fleeing J. Edgar Hoover, he would soon have no choice but to arrive at his final destination, East Germany. He wrote the script for the anti-Nazi film, “The Hangman Also Died,” for United Artists, that shows the Brechtian touch although another writer altered his script and Brecht received no on-screen credit – perhaps because of fear of crediting a Marxist.
“Mr. Brecht, are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” For the fourth time, Brecht said, “May I read my statement?” There was laughter in the court. The statement, which included the following remarks about the Nazification of Germany, was never allowed. “Humanist, even Christian statements were judged un-Deutsch, a term I can hardly remember without hearing Hitler’s wolfish tone of voice…. The great American people would lose much if they gave up the free exchange of ideas…. We may be the last generation of the species man. Do you not think that in such a predicament, every new idea should be examined carefully and freely?”
“Mr. Brecht, is it true that you have written a great many revolutionary poems and plays?” Brecht responded, “I have written a great many poems and plays against Hitler, and, of course, they can be considered revolutionary, for I was for the overthrow of that government.”
“Mr. Brecht seems to be a person of international importance for the Communist Party.” Brecht denied that he has written articles for papers in East European Communist countries. The judges produced an “article.” Brecht noted, “That is not an article; that is a scene out of a play I wrote in 1937 or 1938 in Denmark. The play is called ‘Private Life of the Master Race,’ and the scene is about a Jewish woman in about the year 1937 or 1937.”
His judges asked the meaning of another play he wrote. They wanted to know the meaning of the title. An interpreter suggested to Brecht that it be translated “Steps to Be Taken.” The judge pressed him, “Could it not mean ‘Disciplinary Measures’?” Brecht explained that the play is set in revolutionary China and is based on the form of the Noh plays, and the theme of the play is an Eastern idea – “devotion for an idea until death.”
The judge: “What was that idea, Mr. Brecht?”
Brecht: “A religious idea.”
“But didn’t it have to do with the Communist Party?”
“Yes, yes,” Brecht agreed readily, and he tried to explain the situation in China, but was interrupted.
“Mr. Brecht, would you say this promoted the Communist Party?”
“You see, literature has a right to express the ideas of the time. In this play I tried to explain the feelings and ideas of German workers resisting Hitler.”
The Judge: “It’s about China though, it has nothing to do with Germany. The play is full of references to Lenin. Here, just let me read from the play.” In his Southern accent, in a terribly flat voice missing every ironic meaning, the Judge read on and on from the play, obviously jumping and leaping from selection to selection. “ 'Who is the Party? It is all of us. You and I. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing.' ‘Disciplinary Measures’ – Mr. Brecht, couldn’t you tell us whether one of the characters in this play was murdered by his comrades for the good of the Party?”
Brecht: “No, it is not true. You will find in the ancient Chinese plays that a character, when he has betrayed his idea, was willing to die rather than continue living unable to fulfill his idea. He would ask others to help him stop.”
“I gather from your remarks that he wasn’t murdered, he was just killed.” Laughter in the courtroom.
“No,” said Brecht, “they were just glad to have him disappear.” Laughter.
Asked what he had told Immigration when he landed in the U.S., Brecht said, “I made the usual statement about not overthrowing the United States government. They may have asked whether I was ever a member of the Communist Party, but I would have answered as I did here that I never was.”
A judge read a line from the song, “In Praise of Learning,” from his play, “The Mother,” produced in 1935 in New York City. Brecht interrupted after the Judge read, “You must be ready to take over the leadership.” “That is not the right translation,” said Brecht. Laughter. “That is a bad translation.” With the help of his translator, Brecht urged, “The correct translation would be ‘You must take the lead.’”
The Judge continued, “ ‘ You must be ready to ask questions, comrade’ – Is that in there, Mr. Brecht?”
Brecht: “Why not let the interpreter translate it now, word for word?”
Judge: “Because I can’t understand the interpreter!” More laughter.
Continuing to be asked about party and political affiliations, Brecht re-emphasize that he had always been an artist, that he was independent, and his rebellions were literary. “I never belonged to any party. And all of these words you have been reading were not only written for the Communist Party – They were written for the Catholic workers, the….” and Brecht continued with an expansive view of his audience.
Judge: “I would like to ask Mr. Brecht if he wrote a song, ‘Fallen but not forgotten.’”
Brecht: “I do not recognize the English title perhaps. The title should be perhaps ‘Forward and do not forget.’”
The Judge reads from the song:
“All of the world is our making.
What of it can we call our own?
Just whose City is the City?
We have a world to gain.
“Did you write that poem, Mr. Brecht?”
Brecht: “No, I wrote a German poem. But that you read was VERY different.” Laughter in the courtroom.
Within a few hours Brecht left the United States forever. Later he acquired a recording of the hearings and played it often, puffing his cigar and laughing at the dialogue. Video of some of his testimony before the Committee and other information are on YouTube.
Thursday, November 07, 2013
When "The Urban Shield" vendors with new weapons for the police, turning it into a "civic military," gathered at the Marriott Hotel in Oakland:
It made me uneasy when Obama suggested that returning veterans (who had probably joined the service because they could not find work) could find work as police – fearful and possibly violent work to add to the effect of fearful and violent work? I wonder if anyone has the statistics for how many on U.S. police forces are military veterans who, especially if recently in combat, are apt to bring home the same loose distinction between civilians and combatants condoned by their leader, the president.
In the first place, those attracted to police work or military service tend to be self-righteous moralists with a rigid sense of good and evil, potential “saviors.” Their sense of their moral rectitude dismisses any concern for citizens who happen to be anywhere near citizens involved in criminal behavior, or anyone vaguely suspicious. Behind the bravado are people who may look armored and impervious in their uniforms but who live in a state of fear in civilian life as in war – most, in both cases, probably concerned with proving they have courage. One may empathize with them and the need for psychological support as with other stressful professions.
It seems apparent from reported incidents that they bring the war home so that U.S. citizens may experience what is visited more severely on the citizens in the countries the United States invades and occupies. It is apparent from daily news reports that police, like those in combat, aim to kill, not to incapacitate. They may become themselves, individually, symptoms of a violent society while deluding themselves that they are boys again, playing at pretend violence. Amazed at how seldom the police aim to wound, not to kill, I wrote this poem years ago after reading another of the usual news items:
(based on various incidents)
He was great on the firing range.
He was highly praised.
He shot each human silhouette
right in the head, right in the head.
When the young runaway
climbed the fence, he could have shot
his legs, Too well-trained,
he shot him right in the head
– James McColley Eilers