Friday, March 30, 2018

They Call Me Jeeg

A movie doesn't have to be slickly produced to make me happy. And it doesn't have to make an awful lot of sense, and it certainly is not required that it have a big budget and a cast of superstars. All that I need for a good movie experience is an honest effort with a clever script , and fine performances.

Thus, with that in mind, I have to admit that I quite enjoyed the Italian superhero movie, "They Call Me Jeeg" ("Jeeg Robot" upon release in Italy).

Here we have the story of a loser schmuck who ends up getting doused in, apparently, a toxic soup of radioactive chemicals. Initially making him very sick, he eventually discovers that his bath in the concoction has given him two superhuman powers: amazing strength, and the ability to heal at an unbelievably accelerated rate.

Now, there is certainly nothing unique about the method by which the protagonist gets his powers of super-strength and hyper-healing. Chemicals and radioactivity combining to give a person god-like muscles and the ability to heal instantly are routine in comic books. What makes Jeeg different is the hero himself.

Before he becomes known as "Jeeg" he is Enzo Ceccotti (played by Claudio Santamaria) a common thug and purse-snatcher. We first encounter him as he is fleeing from the police on foot (he's far too poor to own either a car or a motorbike) over the theft of a nice wristwatch. The chase leads him to the river where he hides the watch on a barge and avoids the police by jumping into the river and using the hull of the barge to hide. The police leave and he climbs out, but not before puncturing a barrel of the radioactive brew that sickens him and later transforms him into a superman.

There really is not much to recommend the character of Enzo. He's just a big strong-arm thug with some muscles and a good pair of lungs for outrunning the cops. Even his intelligence is not so good and he can't even find a job with the lowest level of the local organized crime. Once he sells his goods to a fence he buys food and retires to his hovel to watch X-rated movies. There seems to be nothing there in the way of heroic substrate.

Eventually, though, after a while he discovers that his bath in the chemicals has given him super-strength so vast that he can punch through concrete and steel, bend metal bars, and that his body can heal from gunshot wounds within a few hours.

But Enzo has no intention of becoming a hero until bad fortune makes him into a reluctant guardian of a mentally deranged woman (Alessia, played by Ilenia Pastorelli) whose father was murdered in Enzo's presence. She thinks Enzo might somehow know what happened to her dad so she keeps at him like the little girl that she emotionally is until he accidentally displays his powers in front of her and she thinks that he is the human incarnation of her favorite cartoon character, Robot Jeeg.

Slowly, methodically, she convinces him to stop using his power to steal money (he initially rips an automatic teller machine out of a brick wall when he figures out that he can do it), and to instead use his power for good.

Into this mix we are introduced to a local low-level crime figure named Fabio Cannizzaro who is a total psychopath with a wealth of annoying personality and a vast streak of violence. Played brilliantly by Luca Marinelli I at first found the character so over the top that he was annoying, but soon realized that he was playing the character just about right for what eventually happens.

Fabio, obsessed with the news of the superman (no one knows who he is) eventually figures out that Jeeg is actually Enzo and he captures Alessia to make him give up the secret of his heightened strength. Without giving too much more away, the situation gets really complicated for both hero, villain, damsel, and everyone else involved with the trio.

Ultimately I found the script just clever enough to keep the project a couple of levels above even the most highly budgeted US superhero movie. The hero remains a big, powerful thug with a heart of gold and fists of steel. The villain ended up reminding me more than a little of Steve Ditko's The Creeper, and this added to the fun.

Another thing that I liked is that while the script does wrap things up in a tidy, logical bundle, it's not all happiness for all involved. In addition, the acting of the three main actors who portray Enzo, Fabio, and Allesia are excellent. The three do a great job and their performances held my attention. Hell---Luca Marinelli could probably make a career in the US, at least playing character roles.

I'd heard this was a good film, and few movies that I hear about this way pan out for me. "They Call Me Jeeg" did meet the hype. might have exceeded it. A great, simple, clever, honestly created low-budget superhero movie.

Enzo, having discovered that he can bend steel with his bare hands.

Fabio, chewing the scenery in villainous style.

Allesia, the deranged, innocent, childlike damsel.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Separate Tables

Carole and I watched a great movie last night: Separate Tables, from 1958.

The film was directed by Delbert Mann and was based on a play by Terrence Rattigan. It stars Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, Rod Taylor, David Niven (who won an Oscar for his role as Major Pollock), Deborah Kerr, and Wendy Hiller in a role that won her an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress as Pat Cooper.

Often I will see a film that is adapted from plays that leaves much to be desired, generally because it's either over-directed with a heavy hand, or sometimes merely lensed in a bland way that mimics a stage (so what's the point?). This production altered the stage play somewhat, combined the two (altered) acts into a traditional screenplay, and delivers a really special movie.

Co-produced by Burt Lancaster, he portrays one of the major characters and delivers the usual performance that one expected of him, with his personality and physical presence pretty much overwhelming most of the scenes in which he appears. His character (John Malcolm) is often scruffy and confused and mildly drunk, and Lancaster seems to do his best to subvert that enormous screen presence that served him well. He obviously respected the script and the play on which it was based.

A mousy, drab woman Sibyl is played by Deborah Kerr who at this time seemed to be doing a series of roles that intentionally depressed her beauty to make her appear plain and subdued. I suppose she made a conscious effort to turn in these performances and choose these characters, because in my youth I had never thought of her as particularly attractive because I'd seen so many of them. Maybe this was the first such role she accepted and she liked being appreciated for her talent and not her striking beauty.

Sibyl is a young woman totally subjugated by her overbearing upper class mother who does not approve of her attraction to an older retired officer, Major Pollock as created for the screen by David Niven. I have always been accustomed to seeing Niven do characters larger than life and almost cartoonish in their British flourish. But here he plays a sad, deceptive man living on a pension who is not only lying about being a major (he retired as a lieutenant), but a bit of a sexual pervert in a mild sort of way. It is the discovery of Pollock's flaws and falsehoods that presents the thrust of the drama for the movie.

There is, of course, a secondary storyline involving a bit of a love triangle between Malcom (Lancaster), Pat Cooper, the owner of the inn where the story unfolds (played by Wendy Hiller), and Malcolm's estranged wife Anne (created by Rita Hayworth). To me, this story was secondary and pedestrian when compared to the one focusing on Colonel Pollock and Sybil, and Niven definitely turned in the finest performance I ever saw from him, and one of the best by any actor from any movie I've watched in a last few years. I was only one year old when the movie was first-run, so I guess I can be excused for only discovering it now.

The film does address some issues that I find are more and more important to me as I get older, especially the issue of class. For one of the levers used to punish Pollock when his secrets are revealed is that he is merely from a working class family when others who reside at the inn are from the UK middle class. He is definitely not one of them when he had posed otherwise. In addition, the entire situation with Niven as accused is a metaphor for the situation of gays in that day and age and not, of course, the crime of which he is accused in the screenplay. This was, of course, 1958.

Hiller is pretty much the glue who holds the entire production together and I have to admit that I mainly watched it because of her presence. When I was a kid I watched the film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion" when I was in my teens and fell in love with her at first sight. What a gorgeous young woman she was, so I decided to watch "Separate Tables" without knowing anything at all about it other than her presence.

Oh. I have to mention Rod Taylor and Audrey Dalton as a young unmarried couple staying at the inn back in the days when cohabitation by unmarried people was forbidden. The pair serve as comic relief and each appearance by them definitely produces a lot of humor. At the time Taylor's star was in ascendance and he only agreed to take the small role because he admired the script and the folk producing the movie.

If you can, catch the movie. Carole and I watched in on streaming video via the Filmstruck channel. I suppose it's available on other venues and DVD.

Wendy Hiller as she appeared in the 1938 film "Pygmalion" and not the 1958 movie I watched tonight. But this is what she looked like the first movie in which I saw her. Yeah, love at first sight for me when I was a teenager.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

There's Something Wrong

“There’s Something Wrong”

At one of my jobs there was a guy who worked mainly nights several times a week. His name was Oliver and he had a hard time of it. I would see him arrive at work walking down the highway sometimes just after I got there, as he either did not drive, or couldn’t afford an automobile even if he could drive.

Oliver was—to me—a completely pitiful fellow. He just was not put together right. That’s the only way I can describe him. And I’m speaking as a person who is himself not put together in perfect symmetry. I have crooked teeth, am blind in one eye, tend to go to fat; and am not, frankly, good-looking. So I’m not picking on Oliver when I say this.

He was very thin--his arms and legs were like elongated sticks. Oliver’s torso, also, seemed strangely stretched, as if formed in a kind of rectangle with no deviation from shoulders to hips, which made the addition of those fragile-looking limbs that much weirder. His face was somewhat effeminate and chinless and he wore a bit of downy beard almost as a challenge to this unfortunate situation concerning gender. There just seemed to be something intrinsically wrong with him.

Even his demeanor was somewhat annoying with a high-pitched voice and a speech impediment that tended to make the ‘sh' sound whenever he tried to form an ‘s’, which would also sometimes trail off into a whistle at the oddest moments. It didn’t help that he occasionally tried to discuss things which were not pertinent to the job at hand and he would now and then try to engage co-workers in conversations about subjects only of interest to Oliver.

His job was as a kind of janitor at the place where I worked and he did a commendable job mainly, except when some real muscle power was required and he always needed help in such situations. Fifteen or twenty pounds seemed to be the limit he could move without help. He was the picture of physical frailty. Of course I wondered if he had gotten the job in some kind of aid program, but I didn’t care about that. He worked and seemed happy to do so.

What did bug me about Oliver were some of the co-workers. It is the common wisdom that bullies vanish when high school is over and people move on into the adult world of jobs and marriage and parenthood (or life as a single person making a living for those of you among the politically correct). But this is not true. The tendency for cruelty in some continues—as near as I can tell—forever. I’m sure that there are notorious bullies in old-folks homes tottering about on their walkers and terrorizing their fellow inmates.

Oliver suffered from bullying. Often I wondered if he was even aware of it the way that I was. He would speak to someone in authority and get a cynical reply. Or he could ask for some help from those whose jobs it was to respond and they would make fun of him and answer with classic snark. For his part, Oliver seemed accustomed to it, or he had learned to let it roll off his back with a smile. I never once saw him get upset or angry or tearful. It is quite possible he didn't even notice it as cruelty.

I, on the other hand, did get angry. Many were the times when I wanted to scream at the assholes and get in their faces and maybe bash some teeth out. Finally, one day I did respond to a fellow in lower management who complained about misfit Oliver.

“I see the way people talk to Oliver,” I told him. “If Oliver ever complains, or if anyone challenges the company on his behalf, I will tell them what I have seen and heard. This place will get the shit sued out of it.”

Almost immediately I noticed that no one bothered Oliver anymore. No one said anything snide to him. No one made fun of him, or even smirked at him when his back was turned. But rather than feel a sense of victory or accomplishment I instead began to worry about him. Maybe I’d done him a disservice. It wouldn’t take any effort at all for someone in higher management to decide to get rid of him. There is no difficulty at all in the USA for a corporation to shed a part-time worker who is already dirt-poor. Especially if the company feels any kind of economic threat from them whatsoever. Perhaps I’d doomed his employment by speaking up. Maybe this was the lull before termination.

Maybe two weeks later I noticed that Oliver had been absent for a few days. He had not appeared in late afternoon to do the cleaning into the evening hours before walking along the highway back to wherever he lived. I asked another laborer and they didn’t know where he was.

Finally, one afternoon I saw him reenter the building, pushing a trash bin with broom and mop. “Hey, Oliver,” I said.

“Hey, Bob!”

I asked him where he’d been. And he proceeded to tell me that he’d had a bad case of the flu and had been in bed for most of a week.

“Well, you look OK now,” I told him.

“My mama always said I was really strong,” he replied. And he raised those poor stick-like arms and made a muscle pose.

And for the first time I thought not of Oliver, but of his mother, which had never occurred to me. What is a poor woman going to do if she has a kid like Oliver? A child who is imperfect physically, and not quite there mentally or socially. No money. No one who really cares or who can help. What she does, I suddenly imagined, is tell that child that he is strong. That mother informs him that he is smart and special and can do whatever he needs to do. She does that because that’s really all she can provide before she is gone and her imperfect baby has to find his own way in a society full of assholes and bullies.

“That’s great, Oliver.” And I had to make a dash for the bathroom to hide.

Later, I heard Oliver talking to someone. “I think there’s something wrong with Bob. He was crying.” 

Not put together just right.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Life of the Working Class

Semi-retired these days, I have a part-time job in a grocery store. As with almost every job before this one it is as a laborer. Similar to my previous such positions I am often placed in situations where I hear people talking, casually discussing their lives. Never in my life would I intentionally eavesdrop, but when you are quietly working and other people are talking nearby you cannot help but hear what they say.

A few days ago I was stocking shelves with produce—fresh vegetables, fruit, salads, and the like, and I heard a young woman talking to her son. The boy was about five or six years old. So his mom must have been very young when she had him because she couldn’t have been older than 23 or so.

The young woman was pushing one of the smaller grocery carts—the kind that’s about one-third the size of a normal cart. She was very carefully picking things out to put in there. I have noticed this is how people shop when they have little money and have to be sure not to put more than they can afford into the buggy. She was doing this. There was not much in it and she was not tossing things in there at random.

The boy had a small container of cut watermelon that his mom had told him he could have. He looked back at the shelf and noticed a larger container of it. He obviously liked watermelon and took down one of the larger plastic boxes. “Nanna gave us $30.00. Do you think I could get the big one?” he asked.

“I’m sorry, honey. But we already spent that money. We can’t afford that one.”

“Okay,” he said, and put it back.

After a little while they were gone, and I filed the experience there in the back of my mind with a million other such things that I would probably never recall.

About fifteen minutes later I was told I needed to go to the front of the store to a specific cash register. I did so, and as I got there I knew that it was to retrieve merchandise that someone had decided not to buy so that I could return it to the shelves. As I looked down at it, I realized that almost everything that young woman had placed into that puny shopping cart was lying on the checkout counter. Even the tiny container of cut watermelon for her little boy.

And every day people ask me why I am so angry. When they say this to me with these expressions of fat, complacent judgement on their stinking faces I want to punch them all in the teeth. This horrible thing that I saw is not rare. This nation is awash in human beings who are nearly homeless, or already so. We have more billionaires living in unimaginable luxury and greed than any nation has ever seen, and over half of our people are the barest step ahead of homelessness and starvation.

The next person who asks me why I am so angry is perhaps going to get their fucking ass kicked.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Pearson's Falls

I have done so much hiking and exploring around Saluda, North Carolina over the years that I've lost count of the number of times I've been in or close to the town. However, for one reason or another I have managed to never see Pearson's Falls located on the edges of the city limits.

Maybe it's because of the $5.00 admission charge and the fact that the property is in private hands and no part of our public lands. I can't recall why I have passed it by to visit other places in the area, but I have.

Today Carole and I visited the Pearsons Botanical Preserve and paid the $5.00 admission fee and it was certainly money well spent. Pearsons Glen is the location of the waterfall and the Garden Club that owns and administers to acreage has done a more than admirable job of providing access and infrastructure for visitors to see the land and the waterfall that is its centerpiece.

The trail that leads to the falls is excellent work worthy of the best of the CCC trails that are in our National Parks and National Forests. It follows the stream which cascades down the rocks and boulders and offers an unending music to those who visit.

And what a great waterfall! Pearson's Falls is said to be 90-feet high and it does seem to be that tall. It is an especially striking a photogenic waterfall. Carole and I hope to go back in the spring with the various wildflowers will be showing their color. I highly recommend a visit!

Hiking the short trail to Pearsons Falls.

A picnic pavilion near the parking areas.

Standing near the base of the falls. No trespassing beyond the chains! (Seriously. Don't. The owners will prosecute.)

Decaying log at the bottom of the falls, alive with moss and new growth.

Carole along the way.

A bridge across the creek.

One of the picnic spots on the way to the falls.

A new blossom on March 17.
Carole and I get a kick out of Saluda. It's a nice and popular village.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Shape of Manipulation

After I first encountered the work of director Guillermo del Toro I was both hypnotized and impressed. Even his commercial efforts such as the second BLADE movie, and HELLBOY were fun to watch and full of playful material. I liked his work so much that I sought out interviews with him and pretty soon decided that he was likely the most intelligent guy making fantasy films.

My favorite of his work is probably PAN'S LABYRINTH which was sparked by the experiences of his politically leftist family during the Spanish Civil War. CRONOS is also another of his movies that I admire. It didn't hurt that in addition to his obvious intelligence, he also just projected a very likable, childlike persona when interviewed. I found myself looking forward to news of any upcoming projects from him.

However, with the second HELLBOY feature film he directed I lost much of my admiration for his style and his efforts. It was the first time that one of his movies lost the blush of imagination for me. That film was all effects and noise and offered pretty much nothing else. That was okay, I figured, assuming that it was a glitch in the program and that he'd get right back to work as usual. (It did, however, completely derail the HELLBOY movie franchise.)

Then came the execrable THE STRAIN television series that he created and produced (but, apparently did not direct). Perhaps one of the single worst genre shows I have ever seen on television. Even comic book physics have to contain some kind of logic; and weird movies about things such as vampiric worms should contain realistic characterizations and decent acting, none of which were evident in this piece of shit. His TV effort lacked anything whatsoever of value and I quickly lost interest in it. His name on a project was beginning to repel rather than attract me.

After that came PACIFIC RIM (about giant robots fighting giant monsters) which managed to make Idris Elba look like a first class ham; and CRIMSON PEAK (supposedly a kind of ghost-imbued romance) with a forgettable cast. Both of these failed to inspire me at any level whatsoever, with the former actually making me rather sick. He'd gone over to trying to impress his audience with CGI and, frankly...that got old some time back.

What the hell was going on with the guy?

So. I kept hearing about his homage to THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and that it was headed for the big screen. I had not yet lost all hope for del Toro's work, so I was going to see this movie and give him one more chance. The film appeared, apparently to tepid fan response, and I kept missing opportunities to see it. Truthfully, after a number of crappy efforts, I wasn't in a hurry to view his latest movie.

Finally, though, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture so my wife actually found herself wanting to see it. As I'd heard, it was a kind of romance so I figured she might enjoy it. We drove to a nearby theater two days after the stupid Academy Awards ceremony and bought our tickets and had our seats in a mostly empty theater.

For her part, my wife adored the movie. She loathes genre films, but this one she loved. As the end credits were rolling she was actually crying at the sweetness of it all. I didn't say anything to break the moment for her.

As for me--that was it. No more Guillermo del Toro films for me. I was pretty much sickened by the spectacle. It was slick--I'll give him that. The monster was cool. Weird enough looking to be a creature from another environment, but not so disgusting that some people couldn't imagine that fucking it would be a hideous rape-y kind of experience.

Yeah, del Toro did his 'Beauty and the Beast' schtick without making any liberals feel creepy about it. In this case the heroine was with the monster by choice and not through force.

And therein lay my disgust with the movie: del Toro went out of his way, pulled out all of the stops, and rigged up every bit of neo-liberal gibberish that he could cram into a movie. How could the Academy not give him the Oscar for it? Well, apparently they couldn't resist. He played them like a fine instrument and won the popularity contest among his little clique of special people.

Here's what he did:

The heroine of the yarn was a woman. Points for that. And what they call, these days, a strong woman. Kudos. She was also not completely normal, not pretty, and had struggled to overcome not just adversity, but a major handicap. Touchdown!

The monster--also a hero--was strong and silent, sensitive and understanding, and loving. All things that, apparently, real heterosexual men are not.

And that's where we get to the true meat of the tale. What were the men like? You know...the men who are human beings and not fishmen from the depths.

They were almost all villains. First of all we had Strickland--played by the very talented character actor Michael Shannon. Boy, did del Toro deliver the liberal goods on this guy. He is everything that the groupthink informs us is horrible about males. First of all, he's white. Ding! Then he's aggressive. Dong! He's also a racist. (Aren't all non-liberals?!) He's self-centered, sadistic, cruel. Check. Check. Check. And as not to leave any doubt regarding his villainy, he's a sexual harasser! Boing!!

At least in movies like PAN'S LABYRINTH the bad guy was courageous and dedicated. No admirable traits with this one. Such Liberal fun!

All of the other guys in the movie (but one) are also evil. Next we have THE RUSSIANS!  (Oooo! The scary Russians!) As you all know, every Russian is evil! Every Russian deserves to be killed. We need to go to war with Russia according to the liberals and boy do the liberals get to have their hate-on with Russia with this one!  Guillermo del Toro gives them this, in spades! Woo HOO! Warmongering liberal wet dream! All the Russians must, die! And they do!

Hell...del Toro even makes the one black man in the entire movie into a villainous, cowardly douchebag. Heavens to Alice Walker! SCORE! Right through the uprights!

In fact, the only decent human male in the movie is Giles, the heroine's next-door-neighbor who is a closeted gay. Yeah, you have to be a gay man to be worthy in this movie. All of the heterosexual males are pernicious. Jackpot, del Toro! You win the lottery! Enjoy yer dildo-shaped statues!

So, I found that this was easily far and away the most calculated bit of propaganda that I have seen in a major motion picture in decades. And it's not as if I can't enjoy a propaganda piece (such as PATTON), but this one was just so obvious in its pungent prostitution that the whole experience sickened me.

And then--that ending. The final scene of glorious transition. Give. Me. A. Break. Ya lost me, Guillermo. The trans bandwagon?! Lost probably forever. I'm pretty sure I've sworn off Guillermo del Toro as a filmmaker. Definitely as an honest creator, at any rate. He can whore off his mind for other people. I think I'm done with him.

Bestiality is fun!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A Stupid Thing to Do

One of my earliest long-distance backpacking trips was in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It began a few days from my 16th birthday and my actual birthday occurred at a trail shelter near the summit of a 6,000-foot mountain called Big Cataloochee. I recall that it got very cold that morning--close to freezing (June 28).

This was back in the early 1970s when the Park still had chain link across the fronts of the trail shelters to protect overnight backpackers from bears. Because in those days most such folk did not practice safe bear-country habits and bears were attracted to the shelters because of the smell of food and actual food items left out where the bears could take them. Back then it was nice to be able to close and secure that chain link door and go to sleep knowing that a bear couldn't get in.

A couple of nights after that we were staying at another shelter called Peck's Corner. It got kind of crowded as this shelter was at the Appalachian Trail and lots of hikers use it. Fortunately, as things turned out, it also had the chain link barrier. Why 'fortunately'? Because one of the backpackers had brought along a can of tuna fish. For lunch he opened the can, walked out in front of the shelter, and drained all of that oil and fish juice on a large flat boulder a few feet from the chain link door. Then he came back in and prepared his meal.

In a few minutes a mother bear and three tiny cubs showed up. I suspect they smelled the tuna fish. But before the mama bear could get to the shelter she pointed her nose to the sky and seemed to be sensing something the rest of us could not. Then she rushed back to the tree where she'd stashed her tiny babies, called them down, and retreated to the deep forest.

Why? We found out.

In short order a very large, very scarred male bear appeared. A few people who'd been outside the shelter rushed in and the chain link door was closed and secured just in time, for he then came right up to it and peered in at all of us humans 'safely' inside.

Then he went to the big boulder where the idiot had drained his can of tuna fish. This boulder had about the same surface size on top as a big dining room table. Let's say four by six feet. But it was also about two feet thick. We're talking a mass amount of stone. Immovable, you might say. Here's what happened.

That big, scarred up bear began to lick the oil from the boulder. He licked it all off the top where the idiot had drained it, and then followed the streamlets of oil down the side of the boulder. Some of the oil had followed the contour of the rock and were now under the weight of it. So the bear stood to the side, hooked his claws under the lip, and lifted that mass so that he could lick the tuna fish oil from underneath the boulder. He hefted it up like it was nothing. They way you might move a dining room chair out of your way.

I kid you, not. (Keep in mind he did this with one arm while standing three-legged to do it.)

When he had gotten all of that smelly, delicious, yummy fish oil he released the boulder and it fell back into place with a thump that I felt through the soles of my boots.

At that point he turned his attention back to the shelter. He walked up to the chain link that was protecting us and he peered inside with those beady, dark, black-bear eyes. There was no humor in those eyes. There was no pity hiding in the depths. He was trying to figure out how to get to the food that he knew was in there with us. His nose was going snuff-snuff.

It was at that moment that he stood up on his back legs. I'd already realized that he was an enormous bruiser, but when you see one stand up like that you realize how big they are. The bear placed his paws on the chain link and he began to push. Yeah. He was trying to use his sheer bulk, and the power of the same muscles that had hefted that massive boulder to shove that damned chain link fence right the heck in. With every push he would give out with this little grunt.

Push! Oof! Push! Unh! Push! Grar!

After a few such efforts he seemed to realize that the steel was stronger than he was and he settled back where he sat and stared at us for a little while, those dark, black eyes smoldering with the frustration of a missed opportunity. If only he'd arrived a second or two sooner, before the door had closed in his face.

A few minutes later he was gone. Poof. Vanished back into the forest. Everyone came out of the shelter. He did not return.

I was reminded of this memory because I heard the story of a guy who backpacked into a remote part of Yellowstone National Park a couple of years ago. On the second day of his journey into the wilderness, thick with Grizzly bears who are far larger and far more aggressive than black bears, this shit-for-brains opened up his backpack to discover that the tuna fish he had brought along with him had leaked out and the liquid inside had permeated his pack and his clothing and everything in it and on it with the pungent scent of tuna fish.

To make a longer story very short, nothing happened to this idiot. No grizzly bear appeared to eat the now tuna-flavored moron. But I was reminded of the incident with the black bear. And it was all part of the lesson that I learned that day at Peck's Corner. And that lesson was never to bring any food item that is so pungent that even humans can smell it from a distance. Especially something like a can or packet of tuna fish that can leak out and turn you into a predator's target.

I mean...don't. Just don't.

See that kid inside the Laurel Gap Shelter? That was me. On June 28, 1973, the day of my 16th birthday. This was back in the days when the National Park Service had chain link on the fronts of the shelters to protect dumbass backpackers from bears. These days the chain link is gone. The Park Service has pretty much trained backpackers to not do stupid shit like get tuna fish all over the shelters, and to be sensisble and hang their food in bags away from the overnight shelters and tents.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

A Couple of Cats My Dad Knew

Now and again I'll look up people on the Internet who my dad knew in his youth, or later during my own youth. Some of these people would come around his bookstores or his house from time to time. Strangely to me, these folk I recall were regionally famous and a few of them even well known nationally.

One guy I never met--but whose poetry I would sometimes read in the personally inscribed volume of his poems that he gave to my father--was Don West. West was the author of the mentioned volume, CLODS OF SOUTHERN EARTH, which had sold something like 200,000 copies in its day. I don't think he made much--if any--money from it, but I suppose it brought cash to his publisher.

West was, like my dad, a leftist in the days of the Great Depression. He continued his leftist ways long after such movements had been quashed and destroyed. I recall that my dad mentioned once that West sought shelter at one of my parents' homes when he was running from both the KKK and the FBI. For good reason, I suppose, because some time later the KKK burned down West's house in Atlanta. Even the publisher of the Atlanta Constitution publicly called for West to be cast out of the city.

One reason my dad moved us to Gilmer County in Georgia (where he had purchased 120 acres where he built us a house) was that West was born and raised there. So my dad assumed that there would be other people like Don West around those mountains, hills, and hollows. Alas, we soon discovered that Gilmer County and Ellijay were inhabited by people even worse than those to which we were accustomed--racism, hatred, and ignorance the likes of which it is almost impossible to believe.

Unlike West, who spent his life in a struggle against racism, the rest of the county's residents were basically monsters, or nearly so. It's no wonder that James Dickey's visits to Gilmer County resulted in his creation of the novel DELIVERANCE which illustrated the area as it was then with complete and utter perfection.

As my dad was coming to the realization that he was not going to find the "good mountain men" he thought were present, he discovered that West had relocated to West Virginia where he was trying to operate a school teaching the history and common skills of the people of Appalachia. My dad planned to ride up to make a surprise visit, but for whatever reason he never did. 

(A bit of information here--Don West's daughter, Hedy West, wrote the universally famous folk song "500 Miles".)

Don West.

Another dude that I recall visiting my dad's store, and even our home, was Bud Foote, a professor at Georgia Tech. I vividly recall him stopping by the shop relatively often to converse with my father. I remember that he was funny in a very cynical way and that I enjoyed listening to him. And  he would stop by our home on Mead Road in Decatur, sometimes in the company of other professors from Tech. It was on one such visit where I first heard of plate tectonics and continental drift which was, at that time, considered heresy and lunacy. I don't recall if it was Foote or one of the other professors, but the guy showed me a Mercator map of the Earth that my dad had on a shelf and indicated how each continent "fit" together.

On a trip to see Foote at his own place closer to downtown Atlanta, he showed me a science-fiction magazine in which he had a story. I don't recall which of them it was, but I remember being impressed, because even as a kid of only nine years of age I knew that I wanted to be a published author some day. After we moved away from Atlanta my dad lost touch with Foote, as the common ground between the Princeton-educated professor and my working class dad had been my father's bookstore, and nothing else.

Bud Foote.

At any rate, I think of some of these characters from time to time and wonder about what happened to them and when they died. Foote seems to have led the good life of an Ivy League graduate who collected many friends and admirers over the years. West, although a graduate of Vanderbilt, led the much harder life of a man who actually acted to fight injustice rather than sitting at his desk and penning mild accusations against the system.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018


Since I left the USPS a couple of years back I get my health insurance through my wife and her employer. This, year, though, the insurance provider made a surprise demand that she present hard evidence that we are actually married. I suppose it's their job to prove that they are everything that is horrid and pernicious about the capitalist system.

So we had to drive all the way to downtown Charlotte to get a copy of our marriage certificate. (We can't find our original since it's boxed up somewhere--who knows where.) We checked with the government website first to find out where we had to go. It turned out we had to drive to a building and office complex that's named after a child molester. No, I'm not joking. It's named after a known child molester who was a long-time elected official in this county. We had to go to the third floor, office #20 we were informed.

Carole and I got there. At least the place had ample free parking. Going in, we went to the listed floor and to office #20 and approached the desk. The clerk there told us that this was no longer the office for that kind of thing even though the website says that it is. She gave us a newly printed card with the address of the building and office where that business is now conducted.

Previous to this I had not been that troubled, but now I was beginning to feel the urge to kick in a door or something like that, but I held it in.

We drove to the building complex indicated on the card, about a mile away from the first place that is named after the child molester. Carole and I had both been to this building before and it had its own parking. When we got to the driveway for the parking we found that it had been blocked off and the building no longer offered parking.

Another two circuits around the block revealed to us that there was a newer parking deck that charged $1.50 for the first half hour. And another sign informed us that if we lost the ticket we'd be issued upon entering that we would have to pay $15.00 to get out of the parking deck. We parked, put the ticket safely in the truck, then walked across the street to the entrance, climbing a bunch of stairs to get to the door.

At the door we realized that there was a metal scanner. And cops. Lots of cops. Did I mention that there are cops crawling all over this part of Charlotte? They're everywhere--like a lice infestation. Carole asked me if I had my pocketknife on me. I have pretty much carried a pocketknife with me since I was eight years old. Without fail. It goes into my pocket without thinking almost every morning.

"Shit," says I. Of course I had a pocketknife in my freaking pocket. So I turned around, descended all of those steps, crossed the street, walked to the spot where I had parked my truck, and put my fucking pocketknife with the fucking parking receipt.

A tiny bit more anger, but, well, nothing like boiling over. That anger had ample time to dissipate while I walked back out of the parking deck, across the street, and up the giant stack of granite stairs. (Thank Jove for Zoloft.)

We went in the building. I handed my wallet, my keys, and my cell phone to a cop holding a plastic basket. Then I walked through the scanner. It still went off. I then I had to stand in the middle of the goddamned hallway with my arms held out like Jesus fucking Christ on the cross at Golgotha while the cop scanned me again with a handheld device. (He didn't stab me in the ribs with it, but I wouldn't have been surprised if he had.) I un-Jesusly wanted to kick him in the balls, but I also didn't want to get arrested and, like I said, thank Jove for Zoloft. The new scan revealed that I had nothing on me that was metal with the exception of my belt buckle.

We then went to the nearest clerk at a big desk in the massive atrium and she told us that this was not the building we needed and that it was two buildings away. (You're laughing now, right? Right?) So we had to leave that place. The clerk told us to leave via a revolving door but when we got to it the door was barred and locked. "Not this revolving door, silly," a female cop told us. "The other revolving door." Which we found about fifty feet away in the atrium.

Yeah. I hate this shit. I hate everyone involved in it. The insurance company. The cops. The clerks. The child-molesting elected officials who make us jump through the fucking hoops. At this point, everyone. I'd have probably hated you if I'd seen your mug right about then.

Outside again we walked two buildings down, went in, walked to the office we'd been told was really, actually, truly, certainly, absolutely the right, correct, definite one that would give us a copy of our marriage certificate. We filled out a form. We gave it back to the nice lady clerk who had, I have to say, a cheerful smiling face and positive demeanor. Ten dollars later we had the certificate. Frankly, it looks exactly like the original and not a copy. We had applied for that certificate on May 21, 1984 and were married less than three weeks later. Carole is still married to my cranky ass. Amazing. Miraculous.

From there we left the building (no scanner), avoided the first building like it was an NRA member waving his AR-15 around, crossed the street, got into the truck, paid our $1.50 parking fee (somehow we'd done all of that in just under thirty minutes) and got the ripping Hell out of Charlotte, NC.

And now I am sitting at home writing this and dreaming of the day when I won't have to do this kind of ridiculous shit anymore. The insurance company has their pound of my frustration and anger, so I hope they're satisified.

People ask me why I am not happy with this country. Mainly I just stare at them when they say such a stupid, goddamned thing. So far I have not punched any of them in their smug, ignorant faces.

That may change.

I'm surprised they didn't name it the William S. Burroughs Building.

Monday, March 05, 2018

"The Loess Hills"

"The Loess Hills"
By James Robert Smith

My son and I were driving back east after two weeks in South Dakota and Montana. We had already ferried my wife to the airport in Sioux Falls so that she could fly back home ahead of us while we pulled the travel trailer across most of the country.

That same day my son and I were on the Interstate cruising along, not necessarily enjoying the scenery in Iowa, but finding it interesting all the same. We were driving through a section called the Loess Hills. As I drove and as my son sat I did what I always do because I have read too much and have a big mouth. I explained to him about the geological origins of those damned hills, so he had to sit there and listen to me explain about continental glaciers and rock flour and vast deserts of soil being tossed aloft and carried hundreds, even thousands of miles by westerly prevailing winds to be deposited in layers two hundred feet thick and now revealed as plateaus and hills made of fertile dirt without a rock in sight.

To our left as we drove relentlessly east was a big verdant green wall, the tremendously rich soil delivered in the wake of the glaciers, fertilized by millennia of colonizing grasslands and enriched by the dung of hundreds of millions of roving bison and extinct giants like mammoths, mastodons, camels, horses, and countless other creatures long since exterminated by the indigenous peoples of North America.

Blah blah blah.

It was getting late and we really needed to find a state or county park where we could pull in, hook up the trailer, and get a good, quiet night’s sleep. The sun was still in the sky, but it never helps to linger over such concerns. We did not want to have to pull into an Interstate rest area for a noisy night adjacent to some rattling semi with its generator running to feed the demands of a freezer. Nor were we attracted to the idea of an evening parked in a shopping center or hospital trying to get a few hours of rest.

The GPS device I was using could detect no county parks. We couldn’t even find a private campground that was not cheek by jowl with the howling Interstate. “Screw it,” said I, and took the next exit, aiming our truck/travel trailer rig for the looming wall of those loess hills of which I had read so much but never seen. We were going to climb to the top of that giant mound of fertility and find a campsite in a nice park and be done with it.

The truck pulled us up--200 vertical feet to the top. It almost felt like we were climbing the foothills of the Appalachians, but not quite. In short order the engine stopped laboring and we were on the summit of this vast, undulating, emerald barrier that stood above the plains below, the big Interstate highway appearing as a beige ribbon on the flatlands. We couldn’t even hear the whine of those tens of thousands of tires.

After climbing those slopes we expected to see it dropping off on the other side. Not so. The loess had been deposited not like a tall set of hills, but rather like a fantastic plateau of richness that stretched on to the horizon. We had merely been introduced to it by way of its leading edge. There we were, atop the sweetest stack of grass-friendly soil on the continent. Wonderful dirt that had birthed vast, almost unending vistas of wheat and alfalfa and maize that had fed and fueled the invading swarms of Europeans since this frontier had been wrested from the native peoples through murder and deprivation.

These were thoughts that tickled along the corridors of my brain but which I decided not to inflict upon my son. Instead, I asked him to see if he had cell phone service and could locate us a park while I drove. He tried, but had no luck.

At the next intersection I hung a hard right, taking us further east, paralleling the big federal highway hidden to us by trees and giant fields of green corn growing as high as that elephant’s eye, as promised to us by Oscar Hammerstein. (Or was he talking about wheat?)

“What are we going to do now?” Andy asked.

“I’m just going to drive until we see a sign for a state park or a county park with camping. Then we’ll pull in and rent a space.” It was a sure thing, a piece of cake, a walk in the park.

We drove on. No parks. We passed by lots of farms. Almost everyone seemed to be growing corn, but we saw other crops, too; all of it ridiculously green in the August sun, those fields bursting with vitality.

“Try your phone again, or ask the GPS if it can locate a park.” Andy did that, but no luck.

We pushed on. Not through the big muddy, but along an idyllic two-lane state road, emerald to our left, gorgeous green to our right.

Soon, it was crowding six o’clock, about the time when most state and county parks were closing their offices and sending everyone home for the night. Occasionally we passed a pickup truck or a big sedan, or they passed us. People, but no parks.

“It might be the rest area for us tonight,” my son finally said, foreseeing defeat.

“Maybe not,” I told him. We had just passed a city limits sign. Another small burg on this interminable hilltop of farms and fields, trees and cornstalks. Maybe they had a park or a private campground.

I slowed down. The town came out of the green to meet us. We saw houses off to the right and left. They were like something out of Ozzie and Harriet. We saw a mom and pop grocery. And a malt shop as we slowed to meet the speed limit of 25 miles per hour. A malt shop. Such as you'd see in an Archie comic book.

“Look at this place,” Andy said.

“Uh huh,” I nodded. The town was small. What we sometimes call a postage stamp town. One street light where we caught the red and had to stop. It was quiet. We saw a group of kids, their blonde hair shaved in similar crew cuts. I swear to Almighty God, they were wearing crew cuts. Flat tops. Three of the kids were riding Stingray bikes. I shit you not. One of them waved to us as they passed. Yeah. Blue eyes and perfect teeth.

The light changed and I pulled forward. There were five teenage girls walking past the local grocery store. They were wearing sun dresses. Fine hair, all of them in pony tails. One of the girls was wearing a ribbon in her hair about the same color as the blue sky in spring after the rains have fallen for the season and the soil is just beginning to give up some of its hoarded wealth to those endless rows of corn.

“Fuck," I said.

“Place looks like it stopped aging in 1958,” Andy told me, enough of those old TV shows under his belt to know what he was talking about.

“You thinking what I’m thinking?” I asked him.

“Yeah. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

So I hung a right at the very next state highway intersection and we were once more moving at 65 miles per hour, the tires on the truck singing that drone as we headed to dark where I knew I would pull into a rest area and snag four hours of sleep, my travel trailer vibrating from the powerful rumble of some generator growling away to power a refrigerator truck.

It seemed better than risking our fading luck in that little bit of blonde, blue-eyed weirdness up on the hill. Because something told us it was not a dream, but the alternative.