An Outburst of Pure Irish Passion

There’s a guy in Ireland who bought my book, Be a Street Magician, a few years ago. He gladly paid the extra postage and ordered a couple other tricks, as well, the bill exceeding $100. He was trying to get the nerve to go out on the street and perform magic, which is a kind of dragon that some of us have to slay. But Jack wanted to read up on dragon slaying before he went out to fell the beast.

“After reading your book, I strapped on a set of balls and just did it,” Jack told me.

He didn’t just do it, he’s won awards for it.  It’s gratifying to know that you inspire people to be bold.

Later, when I looked at his YouTube video, I was mightily impressed.

This guy has talent, I thought.

This year, I finally traveled to Ireland, and when I met Jack Wise, I put a face on a reader. He was a muscular fellow with the kind of face women love, but with one Achilles heel: He loves magic. I would’ve hated him if not for that one fatal flaw.

Brian Daly (L) and Jack Wise (R)

Brian Daly (L) and Jack Wise (R) in Murray’s before the lecture.

We were sitting in Murray’s, a traditional Irish pub, having dinner and a pint, and one by one, the Irish magicians wandered in.

Brian Daly, a working pro who is an officer in the Society of Irish Magicians, and who is terribly witty in front of an audience.

Gary Michaels, who had just come from working the streets, where he shocks people for a living.

Gary had the look of someone who doesn’t need to prove himself.

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Gary being Yiked.

Steve Thompson, who is a brilliant inventor of magic tricks, such as Glance.

In fact, Steve invented something astonishing just while we were sitting around chatting.  Steve’s mates were joking about not wanting to hug him when they saw him, and I took the joke a step further.

“I don’t want to hug, but could we just cuddle?” I asked.

It was an excellent joke and everyone laughed heartily, but truth be told, it remained a wall between us for the next hour. It’s a guy thing.

Later, we all crossed over to Cassidy’s Hotel, the lovely Irish establishment where I would be lecturing to the society at 8 pm, and had another pint. They all wanted to see some magic, but nobody wanted to ask. So I just stood up and launched into a trick called Torn and Restored Transposition, a trick that was invented by a wacky Ohio magician named David Williamson. The trick kicks magicians’ asses, not just because the individual sleights are tough, but also because the sleights have a rhythm that is extremely difficult to master.

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Ah, rhythm. When it comes to rhythm, I’ve always had an ear for it, whether it be musical or magical. I love the Irish rhythm of Luke Kelly and Van Morrison and the Chieftains and U2. I was always astonished that someone like Van the Man, who has such a horrific voice, could entrance me with such incredible rhythm, melody, and musicality. The Irish, it seems, are in touch with everything that makes you tap your toe, because sometimes, that’s all the downtrodden have, is some weird beat that the privileged could never imagine because, well, they have everything.

In the case of my magic trick, the rhythm was BAM SWISH RIP BEAT SWISH TURN APPLAUSE SWISH CLENCH OPEN SWISH BAM. It’s a tough one to tap your toe to, I must confess.

After I performed the trick, there was a kind of silence.  Of course, silences mean different things to different audiences. In time, it became clear that this fine Irish silence didn’t mean Meh, but instead, Wow. Later, Jack tried to explain the silence to us, talking about how Irish audiences differ from American audiences. He discovered the difference while performing at busking festivals in Canada, which he does every year.

“You invite an Irishman up onstage and you say hello, and he says hello wit’ his head down, like, ‘Uh….’” Jack said. “But you invite an American or a Canadian up and say hello, and he’s like, ‘Hey, how ya doin’?’ And we Irish t’ink, like ‘What?!’ We can’t understand tat reaction. It’s da result of 800 years of oppression.”

Everybody was laughing about that one, but when the laughing was over, the truth of it remained at the bottom of the glass.

While Claire, my mother, and I were in Ireland, we picked up a boatload of phrases. You tell people that you went into town to see the Irish dancing, and an American would say, Great. But the Irishman takes it one important step further.

Grand, he says.

But it’s not just grand, it’s grawnd, in such a friendly, open accent that makes you feel like a million euro!

Language can unlock a people. For example, whenever they say a word that contains a th, they pronounce it as if the h were a traitor to the Irish cause for freedom, that the h has to be kicked out of the country to connect themselves back to the ancient Celts, which gives rise to such strange sentences as:

Ta ting is, I can’t tank you enough, Teodore, for being so totful wit me tirteen kids.

I had prepared for this trip. Before getting on the plane, I bought a 400-page history of Ireland called The Story of Ireland, the reading of which consumed my evenings and weekends before the trip. One of the tings I learned: By all rights, there should be two-tirds as many people living in Ireland as there are living in England, given the size of the land mass. Strangely, though, Ireland has only 5% as many. The reason, put quite bluntly, is a centuries-long policy of murder and expulsion.

There, I’ve said it.

During the seven years of the potato famine alone (1845 – 1852), approximately 1 million souls died of starvation, which, by the way, is a horrific way to die. Another million emigrated, many of them to America. One may assume that the Irish were responsible for their own famine deaths, but they weren’t. Since the English had centuries earlier made it illegal for the Irish to own land in their own country, or serve in their own legislative bodies, or even benefit from laws outlawing murder, theft, and fraud, there evolved a kind of well-enforced poverty.

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I’m not saying that Americans were any better. We were toying with our own minorities at the time, which included the Africans, the Mexicans, the Chinese, the Jews, the Catholics, the Italians, and yes, the Irish. It was what you did in those days. You slapped weak people around. You shot them. You killed them.  You stomped on their graves.

So when the potato blight arrived (the microscopic fungus that invaded the Emerald Isle and destroyed potato crops wholesale), the poverty-stricken Irish were already on the verge of starving. The Phytophthora infestans simply pushed them over the edge. On top of that, the British government refused to offer adequate help, and crime and other unrest skyrocketed. Carts filled with wheat and oats were looted on their way to market. The Irish countryside descended into chaos. Families huddled in their squalid homes, hungry and desperate, many of them dying there. Starvation ravaged immune systems and a typhus epidemic raged. Villages became ghost towns and every town seemed to have its own mass grave.

The Times of London complained that the Irish were exaggerating, declaring that “it is the old thing, the old malady breaking out. It is the national character, the national thoughtlessness, the national indolence.”

It’s no wonder, then, that the Irish are known for their drinking and brawling. My own Mexican grandfather, who was a mariachi singer in La Ciudad de Los Angeles in the 1930s and ‘40s, could never catch a break from the gavachos who ran the system, and consequently turned to drinking and fighting. His children grew up in domestic chaos, and as a result, I feel the effects of that desperation even now, two generations later.

Mariachi promo pic 1Drinking and fighting. While traveling through Ireland, I took photos of both. The first was outside a pub in Drogheda, a half-hour’s drive north of Dublin, where we caught a staggering, drunken man trying to light a fag.

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The second was in the Dublin Airport, where we were waiting for our flight to Heathrow. There, we saw a man who was trying to blend into the vinyl airport furniture, but who had obviously been in a recent fight.

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I can sympathize with fighters. They refuse to lay down.

God invented whiskey, the saying goes, so that the Irish wouldn’t rule the world.

Finally, at 8 pm, I stood in front of the Society of Irish Magicians and started my lecture. In the room was lots of expensive wood and chandeliers, and the audience was of a healthy size. I was enjoying it, imparting my deep, dark secrets to a group of fellow deceivers, and I could feel them enjoying it, too.

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Then I launched into my climactic piece of magic, The Silence of the Lemons, which involves me raising my voice and haranguing the audience like a Southern preacher.  In their view, I was coming alive, and I could feel them come alive, too. One fine magician named Gary couldn’t stop laughing when I started tearing his 5-euro note, and that expostulation of laughter gave me such joy that I can’t describe. Afterwards, Silence is the trick they couldn’t stop talking about.

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On the left in this photo is Gary, who couldn’t stop laughing when I tore his 5-euro note.

“You can tell that you’ve performed that trick thousands of times,” Jack said. “It’s like you could just turn it on for that trick.”

But I think they were drawn to the trick for other reasons, too. It’s essentially an outburst of pure passion, and the Irish love passion.  It’s what they live for.  The music of Luke Kelly is such an outburst. So is the poetry of James Stephens. So is the drinking of James Joyce, which is the stuff of legend. Many an evening in Dublin, so they say, Joyce ended the night in a passionate embrace of the pub floor.

I may not be terribly religious, but Joyce, now there’s a god to worship. Sacred be his nouns and hallowed be his verbs. Drinking and freedom are intertwined in his pages like vines crawling up the brick walls of Trinity College Dublin. Joyce drank with his countrymen and woke up with the same hangovers. His heart broke when he heard about the deaths at the GPO in 1916 and he mended it in the best way he could. Sometimes, his heart could not be mended. And when Joyce wrote, he remembered it all, he was honest about it all, and it all bled out of that fabulous pen like green Celtic blood.

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“It was cold autumn weather, but in spite of the cold they wandered up and down the roads of the Park for nearly three hours. They agreed to break off their intercourse; every bond, he said, is a bond to sorrow.” (from “A Painful Case,” in Dubliners)

True enough, Messr. Joyce, sorrow is everywhere, it’s general, it’s the human condition.  Still, the only sorrow that I feel from my bond with the Society of Irish Magicians was the sorrow of leaving. They were all such a joy, even the old white-haired mage who challenged one of my sleights for being overcomplex, God bless him, even the skinny 11-year-old who looked so forlorn and friendless that his mother brought him to a magic meeting to connect with some kind of something, God bless him, and especially the tall young master magician named Andy who earnestly promised to get me onto cruise ships, God bless him especially, God bless every single minute of his life, that I cannot adequately put it all into words.

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Therefore, I will end not with a cuddle, nor with a thrown punch, nor with an embrace of the pub floor, but with a fine Irish toast.

May you never lie, steal, cheat or drink.
But if you must lie, lie in each other’s arms.
If you must steal, steal kisses.
If you must cheat, cheat death.
And if you must drink, drink with us, your brothers in magic.

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After the Crash

Throughout the 1920s, Dai Vernon was living high on the hog, as they used to say.  Vernon is now considered the best technical magician of the 20th century, and during those years, he was living in New York City, where there were lots of wealthy people with money to burn.  Booking agents were billing Vernon as a great young magician and clients were virtually throwing money at him.

But the Crash of ’29 changed all that.  People in New York no longer threw parties at the drop of a hat.  Left with little money and a family to support, Vernon had to resort to taking a job cutting silhouettes in a Wichita department store.  Wichita was one of the few cities that was booming, due to the discovery of oil.

In 2008, work for magicians in Los Angeles dropped off precipitously, as well.   And five years after the Crash of ’08, companies still have their belts tightly cinched.  I’m not the best salesman, but this year, my attempts at selling my show have been even less remunerative than normal.

“We’ve cut back this year.”

“We’re just going to all go out for lunch.”

“They haven’t given us a budget, sorry.”

But people need magic.  Especially in tough times, they need to be inspired by the impossible.  So if you or someone you know needs entertainment, consider magic.  We need to perform, and you need to be inspired.

To Kiss a Stranger

The idea of Other is a powerfully frightening one.

Consider the act of kissing someone.  If your significant other kisses you, it makes you smile.  It can lift you to the mountaintop.  Or, if you’ve just been fighting, it can bring you to tears.

Patrice and David kissing NYears Eve 1a smallerBut if a stranger kisses you, the moment might haunt you for years.  It might be considered a crime, either harassment or worse.  Your emotional reaction might be repulsion, panic, or even violence.

In the photo above, my fiancee was kissing me, but there was clearly a subtext.  Perhaps you can see it in my face.  It was New Year’s Eve.  I had decided to break up with her in September, but had forestalled the date because I’m the kind of card player who holds.  On January 4, I would deliver the final news and she would explode, cursing and accusing.  Go ahead, look, you can see that she had already become Other.

Bob Filner, the dethroned mayor of San Diego, has been the Unwanted Other many, many times.

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I’m not saying Bob Filner is excused.  What I’m saying is that it’s no wonder that nations go to war against each other.  Often, it’s just the idea of Other that is offensive.

In my new novel, my main character Cat comes home one night to find a stranger in her apartment holding a gun on her.

Suddenly, he was walking slowly towards her and the calculus began to rapidly shift, and although he was talking, she was not hearing any of it, for his gun was pointed at her now, pinning her to the desk like a straight pin thrust into the thorax of a preserved butterfly.  He took one slow, tiny step after another, until she had recoiled as far back as she could and was leaning back at an extreme angle and she felt the gun barrel against her left ribs and suddenly he was only twelve inches, if that, from her face.  He dropped his cigarette and ground it into the hardwood floor with his toe.

“If you just hadn’t turned your back on the high life, we might’ve made it work.”

His breath smelled of Jack and cigarettes.  His skin was smooth and she was close enough that she could see a spot on his chin that he hadn’t shaved perfectly.  His eyes were languorous and imposing, like dark planets.  The aura that hung about him was of a flooding amorality, like he had kicked down with boots every doorway within him that had stood between him and whatever he wanted, no matter what the thing was that he wanted, and that nothing could stop him now, not the law, not convention, not sentimentality, not anyone else’s will, no matter how strong, not people or protectors, not things or objects or emotion or anything.

“You’re everything bad that’s ever happened to me,” he said in a low, strangely tender tone.

Then, in a moment in which her vision was filled with the blue and black smudge and a smear of bright nighttime headlights and she could actually hear screaming, he leaned over and touched his lips to hers.

Consent.  In the above example, it was clearly not granted.

But in other cases, it’s not so clear.  When I was dating around, one of the most difficult things for me was determining consent.  Of course, it doesn’t do to ask someone.  You have to figure that out for yourself.  In the end, you have to take a risk and just do it.  Every so often, you get a strange reaction.

“You took a big risk there,” Polly told me in January, 1994, when I kissed her in a Mexican restaurant.

Polly had just been put out of her home by the Northridge earthquake and so had I.  She had woken up to the shaking at 4:31 am, and had wanted to run and stand beneath a doorway.  But there was broken glass all over the carpet and she had bare feet.  I had had insomnia that night, and when the building started shaking, I jumped up and stood under a doorway, too.  When I tried to return to the bed, I discovered that the bookcase had fallen onto it.  Had I not jumped up quickly, that bookcase would have fallen onto me.

We had some things in common.  But Polly had a few trap doors, such as a cocaine addiction in her past, or, possibly, she implied, her present.  So it didn’t get far before it ended, and she ultimately became Other to me.

Over the years, I’ve collected in my mind a few offensive acts of Other.  At a strategic moment, I inserted some into my newly published novel, What Happens to Us (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU):

  • “After Dante left, Cat walked downstairs and found a curved oaken semicircle table set against an ancient granite staircase.  She slipped into her spot, a quaint little reading light illuminating her space.  She opened the book at random and read about an incident in 1282 during the time that the Frenchman Charles d’Anjou was ruling Sicily.  On Easter Monday, a French soldier made a lewd comment to an innocent Italian bride during vespers.  Her husband killed the cad, French soldiers retaliated, rioting ensued, and by morning, 2,000 people lay dead.”
  • “In 1712 in New York, a slave named Rose was arrested for speaking to a white woman.  The magistrates gave her 48 lashes at the whipping post and had her tied to a horse cart and dragged around town.  In 1743 in New York, a mob attacked a Jewish funeral, stole the corpse, and gave it a Christian baptism.  In 1689, New York governor Jacob Leisler led an early fight against the English crown, increasing colonist representation in government.  Two years later, soldiers sent by the English crown beheaded him, cut out his heart, and gave it to a woman, who held it aloft and yelled out, “Here is the heart of a traitor!”  Sometimes, it seemed that What Happens to Us was no more than a series of heads on spikes.”

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I should point out, however, that this novel isn’t just a listing of historical events.  It actually has a compelling story.

To download the new novel, What Happens to Us, for only $3.99, click here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU

Adventure on Road X (part 8)

(Continued from a previous post)

When I met Claire, at my own birthday party in 1999, I learned almost immediately that she had grown up on a farm in Kansas.  It left me cold.  I seemed far removed from anything to do with Kansas.  The Midwest was the far-right flyover.

A couple years later, I started exploring my family tree.  Strangely, it seems that my family has had an alarming amount to do with Kansas over the decades.

John H. Groves moved there in 1878 because he couldn’t stand the bigotry in Missouri after the Civil War.

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John H. Groves circa 1880

His son Charles moved to Hutchinson, which was exactly where Claire’s sister Becky lives.  When we flew there in 2006 to visit her family, we stayed only five miles from where my own grandfather grew up.

Charles S. Groves

Charles S. Groves

It was strange.  She could have been from anywhere, but she was from the glittery line that my family snail had left behind 85 years ago.  It’s coincidences like this that make me wonder if maybe there is a What Happens to Us, after all.  (Then something happens like a child dying and I know there isn’t one.)

In my recent genealogical trip to Kansas, I wasn’t just in search of ancestors, but also, in search of Kansas itself.  Reading What’s the Matter with Kansas, Thomas Frank writes that Kansas wasn’t always the apotheosis of averageness and conventionality that it seems to be today.

“A century ago, the favorite stereotype of Kansas was…the freak state,” Frank writes.  “The place crawled with religious fanatics, crackpot demagogues, and alarming hybrids of the two, such as the murderous abolitionist John Brown, who is generally regarded as the state’s patron saint, and the rabid prohibitionist Carry A. Nation, who expressed her distaste for liquor by smashing saloons with a hatchet.

“Kansas was a violent and a radical and maybe even a crazy place both by nature and by the circumstances of its founding.  The state was initially settled by Eastern abolitionists and free-soilers who came there to block Missourians from moving westward–in other words, to contain the ‘slave power’ by armed force….In the thirties, the state almost elected as its governor a beloved radio doctor who claimed to restore virility by transplanting goat testicles into humans.” (p. 31)

Politically, Kansas had a lot of far-left elements.

In the 1880s, when my great-great-grandfather John H. Groves moved from Missouri to Kansas, Kansas’ socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason, had a circulation in the hundreds of thousands.  In 1912, the socialist nominee Eugene Debs actually carried Crawford County, Kansas.  Homegrown radicals like Mary Elizabeth Lease urged farmers to “raise less corn and more hell.”

In the decades since, however, Kansans have flocked to the conservative side.  They haven’t sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1932.  Their radical right is so wacko that one anti-abortion psycho shot abortion doctor George Tiller five times in 1993, and then another finished the job in 2009, shooting him in the head while he was attending his own Lutheran church in Wichita.

Along with this ideology, the right has brought an anti-union, anti-worker philosophy that has caused jobs and money to hemorrhage out of bleeding Kansas.

“…What they are demanding is more power for Wall Street, more privatization, and the end of Progressive Era reforms like the estate tax,” writes Frank.

What Frank is saying, in the end, is that in recent decades, Kansas has begun working against its own self-interest.  And man, that was a trait that I could see that in Kansas at every turn.

Coming back from researching my great-great-grandfather in Reading, Kansas, I made a wrong turn and drove onto I-135 south, which is a toll road.  Within a mile or two, I realized my mistake, that I should have taken Highway 50, and began looking for a turnoff.  But oh no, this was a toll road, run by a private company whose only purpose was to suck as much money out of its customers as possible.  This road, I was astonished to discover, had no exits!  It was as if Franz Kafka had designed a freeway.  I drove and drove, searching for an offramp, but there were none!  I contemplated making a U-turn, but there was a cleverly solid center divider that rose up three feet high.  To veer off on the right, I’d have to drive through pasture.

Somebody in government, I realized, had told the legislature that private companies always do things better than government.

“Privatize the roads,” he surely said.  “It’s the only way to bring competition back into the Kansas economy.”

The I-135 toll road was the result.  I didn’t encounter another exit for 35 more miles, when I reached Cassoday, which proudly calls itself “the prairie chicken capital of the world.”

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Working against their own self-interest was also in evidence in the houses you see throughout the state.  In searching for my great-grandfather Charles Groves’ old house, which he moved into in 1915, I discovered block after block of old historic edifices.  In Los Angeles, you never would have seen such neighborhoods fully intact.  Ninety percent of the old houses would have been torn down to make way for apartment buildings, strip malls, and more modern stucco structures.

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At first, I was puzzled at the profusion of old, dilapidated houses.  Gradually, though, it dawned on me.  They didn’t tear the houses down because they couldn’t afford to.  The money had been steadily draining of this state for decades.  People were taking shit jobs, living out their lives in old houses, dying in them, and selling them to other people who worked shit jobs, lived out their lives in them, and died in them, and on and on ad infinitum.  Nobody had the money to tear the houses down and build an apartment building or even just a bigger, more modern house.

Today, over 14% of Kansans live below the poverty line.  Stated differently, 19% of Kansas children live in poverty.  At the same time, however, Governor Sam Brownback has cut 15,000 people off the welfare rolls, slashed tax credits aimed at the working poor, and cut taxes for the rich and raised them for the poor.  In September, he announced that he will kick 20,000 unemployed Kansans off of food stamps.

Somehow, government officials have been allowed to let corporations such as Boeing, Iowa Beef Packers, Monfort, and others to push their workers around, outsource jobs at will to China, and keep the lid on minimum wage.  They turned Garden City into a giant cattle sewer that slaughters 30,000 cattle a day.  Taxes have been perilously low, so the schools have been poor, and so in turn, there hasn’t been a sufficiently educated workforce to support high-tech corporations or other more lucrative industries.  I mean, can you imagine Apple relocating in Kansas?

“The single most important element…is, as always, the demand for cheap labor,” Frank writes.  “From that simple imperative springs nearly everything that has happened here over the last 25 years.  Beginning in the 1960s, the big thinkers of the meat biz figured out ways to routinize and de-skill their operations from beginning to end.  Not only would this allow them to undercut the skilled, unionized butchers who were then employed by grocery stores, but it would also let them move their plants to the remotest part of the Great Plains, where they could ditch their unionized big-city workers and save on rent….

“…Take a drive through the countryside here, and you will see…trailer-park cities, dilapidated and unpaved and rubbish-strewn, that house a large part of Garden City’s workforce.  Confronted with some of the most advanced union-avoidance strategies ever conceived by the mind of business man, these people receive mediocre wages for doing what is statistically the most dangerous work in industrial America.

“Thanks to the rapid turnover at the slaughterhouses, few of them receive health or retirement benefits.  The ‘social costs’ of supporting them–education, health care, law enforcement–are ‘externalized,’ as the scholarly types put it, pushed off onto the towns themselves, or onto church groups and welfare agencies, or onto the countries from which the workers come….

“One angry [feedlot] worker told me, ‘After ten years, people walk like they’re 60 or 70 years old.'” (pp. 52 – 54)

It’s an old story: the corporation devouring the individual and spitting out the bones.  All over Kansas, people think that workers deserve nothing and corporations can do whatever the hell they want.  It’s been that way for decades.

It happened to my great-grandfather Charles Groves.  In 1910, Charles had a farm in tiny Greenwood County, Kansas.  He wanted his three young sons to help him work the farm, but they rebelled.  By 1923, my 18-year-old grandfather Roy was working at a paper mill that manufactured a type of cardboard made from straw called strawboard.  By 1926, all three sons had fled Kansas. Roy found a job in a Los Angeles paper mill working the graveyard shift, and spent his entire career there.

Good thing, too, because soon afterwards, Kansas’ ecologically destructive farming methods caused the Dirty Thirties, aka the Dust Bowl. By 1931, they must have read the newspapers and thought, “Whew, glad I’m not back there.”

The severe drought forced people to move and look for work.  Over half a million were left homeless.  Millions of farms were foreclosed on by the banks.  Thousands died.  By 1940, 2 1/2 million had left the plains states, hitting the road to try their luck elsewhere.  The Grapes of Wrath summarized their plight poignantly.

Charles Groves and his wife Dora hunkered down in Hutchinson and he eked out a living working as a carpenter.

Thirty years later, my girlfriend grew up on a farm in western Kansas.  It had become the kind of place where she could grow up, earn her Master’s Degree there, and get married there, and still not realize how banks and huge corporations had screwed the farmers.

Last month, while Claire and I were visiting, headlines blared the news of continuing abuse by the big corporations:

Layoffs Leave Wichita with Smaller Workforce

Fewer Are Working or Looking for Work

There are only 2.9 people left in Kansas–only 70% of the population of Los Angeles, where I live, spread out over 160 times as much land.  It’s an absolute null in national politics.  Still, I’m interested in what has happened there, if only to know what my long-ago relatives went through, if only to know what Claire went through, and if only to know what her network of relatives are currently going through.

“You know, in my family, we don’t talk about politics,” Claire told me today.  “It’s considered impolite.”

“Then why did your mother talk to me about Ted Cruz sticking it to Obama when we were preparing to take her to the hospital?” I asked.  “I wasn’t about to argue back.  After all, it looked she was having a stroke and they were preparing to take her to the hospital.  I didn’t want to be blamed for killing her.”

“Except my mother.”

If there’s one idea that has helped me to understand Kansas, really understand it, it’s this: Arguing against their own self-interest is the state sport.

[To be continued]

What He Couldn’t Talk About

As a child, I asked my father about the war.  He never talked about it.

The other day, I found a letter from my uncle Richard, who fought in the Korean War, too.  He was wounded later in the war, and transferred to a hospital.  That wound was his ticket out.  Here’s what he said about that.

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After spending years living with my father, who was the strong and silent type, I learned that what you don’t say can be just as eloquent as what you say, if you’re willing to listen.

Excavating the Thousand-Yard Stare

When I was eight, the boys on the school playground started talking about how big and strong their Dads were.

“My Dad killed 20 people in the war!” one said.

“My Dad killed 30!” another piped up.

It was a kind of contest, and it went on for days.   I wanted to ask my own Dad but I didn’t know how to ask it.  I knew that killing was supposed to be a bad thing, except when you killed people in war, when it was good.  It was confusing.  I knew my father had been in the Korean War, whatever that was.  I knew he must have killed the enemy.  It wasn’t wrong, because they weren’t people, after all, they were the enemy, they were gooks.

So one day I walked into the master bedroom and just asked him outright.

“Dad, how many people did you kill in the war?”

What I remember is a blank stare.  I remember him giving me a look that told me he didn’t know what to answer. He never did answer, and immediately, I knew it was a subject that went beyond words.

Dad passed away in 1989 at the tender age of 59.    Twenty-one years later, I picked up a discount book in a Borders Bookstore called The Coldest Winter.  I thought it was about time that I learned about this war that my father had been in.  At the time, I was nearly three times the age he was when he served in Korea, and nearly the age he was when he died.  I began to read it at bedtime.  That’s when I realized why he’d been silent.  From the very first chapter, I began to realize that The Korean War was one of the bloodiest and most brutal wars of the 20th century, far bloodier than Iraq or Afghanistan.

ImageThat book led to other books (this, this, this, this, this, and this).  In the Chosin Reservoir campaign, in which Dad participated in November and December, 1950, the Chinese threw wave after wave of soldiers at the marines.  The marines mowed them down with machine guns, but still they kept coming.  In two weeks of battle, they killed approximately 60,000 Chinese soldiers, which averages out to approximately 4,000 per day.  During the same period, the Chinese killed 7,000 Americans, which averages out to approximately 500 per day.

What had he gone through.  One soldier recalled the all-pervasive stench of smoldering fires, rotting corpses, and human excrement.   Another soldier told of getting shot beneath the eye, knocking the eyeball out of its socket, then having to find the strength within himself to pop the eye back where it belonged, then continue fighting.   Another passed a fellow soldier in agony by the roadside, on fire from burning phosphorus, screaming for someone to shoot him.   Another told of the fear that rose up within him during night battles, how the Chinese corpses began coming to life like boogeymen—wriggling, rolling over, crawling, sitting up, struggling to their feet, “turning into nightmare monsters.”

Image

Another told of the Chinese throwing so many grenades that they looked like flocks of blackbirds.  Some grenades exploded and killed marines.  On occasion, a soldier was able to quickly sidearm the grenade out of his foxhole.  At other times, a soldier would jump on the grenade to protect his buddies and be killed himself, or he would attempt to sidearm the grenade away and it would blow off his arm or face.   Another soldier told of stacking up Chinese corpses like cordwood.

Another told of sitting on a tree stump to look at a photograph of his family by the light of a burning truck, and only later realizing that he was sitting on a frozen Chinese soldier covered with ice and snow.   Another told of hiding from enemy soldiers by burrowing himself into a pile of dismembered dead American GIs and acting dead.   Another told of the approach of dawn, when the morning revealed all the Chinese they had killed during the night, and how there were so many that they actually changed the contour of the terrain.

The soldiers on both sides fought all through the night and up until dawn.  Instead of sleeping, they then worked most of the day—digging in, calling in for supplies and air cover, leaving little time for sleep.  At night, it would start all over again. To make matters worse, it was an especially severe November in North Korea, and temperatures plummeted to as low as 40 below for days on end.     They would take off their boots, hang up their sweaty socks, and the socks would promptly freeze.  Nearly every American soldier sustained some degree of frostbite, some losing their feet altogether.  Soldiers would work till they dropped, catch a few winks, and freeze to death in their sleep.   There were lots of friendly fire casualties.

When I attended the Frozen Chosin memorial dedication in September, 2010, the veterans all seemed shell-shocked and impaired.  You would start talking to them, and then they would reach a point in the conversation and, inexplicably, stand up and walk away.  They couldn’t function.  Everybody was decimated inside.  And the years hadn’t healed them at all.

As a child, when I asked Dad about killing people in the war, he gave me what marines call “the thousand-yard stare.”  How can you tell a child about what it’s like to kill another person?  How can you tell about the anguish that it creates within you?  How can you tell him how horrible it is?    And what about the land mine that is emotion?  Is it right to talk about the act of killing with no emotion, and thus teach the child that killing is a legitimate, everyday occurrence?  And if you show emotion, how can you stop it when it starts to flow like the Yalu River?

David Groves around 1962 age 7 smaller

“Dad, how many people did you kill in the war?”

It was a question he couldn’t answer.  It was an answer I found only decades later, when I started reading and reading and reading, and my heart began to ache.

For other posts about the Korean War, click here:

The Sigh That Killed Him

I have drawn liberally from history to construct my novels.  History is the blessing and the curse that has been handed down through the ages to novelists such as myself.

It is a blessing because it informs us of all the multitudinous permutations that the human experience can take: wars, love affairs, marriages, deaths, whatever.

It is a curse because there is so much of it to read.

In writing about my 100-year-old Russian emigree Anja, for example, I read five history books on Russia.  My novel is mainly a spiritual journey of one young American woman, but along the way, she meets Anja, and I wanted it to ring true, so I started absorbing the literature.  In choosing books, I focused mostly on Stalin’s Great Terror of the 1930s, which Anja lived through, although just barely.

It was a time when Stalin was consolidating his power by killing his enemies.  Millions were imprisoned and sent to Siberia for slight or nonexistent crimes.  Others were tortured and forced to confess to crimes they never even remotely committed.  It is estimated that Stalin killed over 20 million of his own people, mostly for nonexistent conspiracies.

One anecdote in particular stopped me cold (The Sword and the Shield, p. 77).  It concerned a diplomat in Paris named Albam.  In the Russian Embassy where he worked, his officemates discussed the trial of 16 Russians then going on in Moscow.  All they had done was support Trotsky when he was in power, but now, he was out of power.  During the conversation, Albam retreated into a deep silence.  Later, when Albam read in the newspaper about their execution, he sighed.

That subversive sigh helped to convict Albam and 13 of his colleagues of capital crimes.  His wife ended up denouncing him to the authorities, trying desperately to save her own skin.

I could not let that historical footnote be lost to history, so I expropriated it for my own novel:

“How do I explain?  It was like when I was young and married with child.  Husband living in Oslo under an assumed name.  In the homeland, we were all waiting for a knock at the door.  One day in October, they knocked on thirty doors and took away all the men in the village.  Every one tried and shot.  You could hear the gunshots from outside the prison walls.  They lined them up two deep to save on bullets.  Dropped them in a hole in the ground and covered them with lime.  Prison was on a bluff above a river.  Sixty years later in a big rain, that bluff washed away.  Preserved bodies washed into the river by the hundreds.  Everybody’s father and grandfather.  That’s what a knock on the door is like.”

Cat’s grin had disappeared and her eyes had widened visibly.

“When you get to my age, everything connects to everything else.  Our neighbor was the constable.  He heard about the executions at work.  He didn’t say anything, he just listened quietly.  And then he sighed.”

Cat had tilted her head down, her eyes on Anja’s expensive black leather flats.

“You know they shot him for that sigh?  And 38 of his friends and family, too.”

Anja looked solemnly at Cat, daring her to comprehend it.  After nearly 70 years, she still remembered every detail.

“Was that your husband Aleksi?” Cat asked.

It seemed to Anja as if she were trying to turn the subject back to valentines.

“No, that was the man who sighed.”

To download my new novel, What Happens to Us, click here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU.  Only $3.99.