June, 2016

Book Review: The Hounds of Heaven

June 27th, 2016 11 Comments

Bodio's dog


Steve Bodio is one of America’s greatly underrated treasures. He writes like an angel about a wide range of fascinating topics; he is one of the most widely-read and well-educated men I have ever come across, a twenty-first century version of an eccentric Victorian polymath; when he writes about topics close to his heart, he has the rare ability to weave emotion and objective scientific observation together; and he knows (or has known—time has thinned the ranks) practically everyone worth knowing, famous and obscure, rich and poor, artist and scientist, from New Mexico (where he lives physically) to Kazakhstan (where he lives spiritually).

We live in a time when polymaths are rarer than honest politicians and, whenever one does float to the surface of public perception, he is regarded with deep suspicion. Everyone and everything has to be quickly and easily pigeonholed in our Age of Single-Minded Experts: if you’re an artist, you can’t possibly be a scientist; if you’re a naturalist, you most certainly cannot write fiction; if you’re a cynologist, what the hell can you be expected to know about paleontology? When obvious exceptions such as Peter Matthiessen do arise, they are explained away as anomalies: Well, after all, how can you expect anything else from someone like Matthiessen when he was really a CIA agent all along? But Steve Bodio is a genuine polymath without being a CIA agent. As far as I know.

So what do you do with a book like Hounds of Heaven? Really now, is it about dogs or is it about falconry? Is it about pigeons or paleontology? Is it about hunting or is it about cultural anthropology or is it about genetics? And if it’s supposed to be a serious work, why is it so funny? Where the hell in the bookstore do we stock the damned thing?

I suspect some or all of those specious and asinine arguments will be voiced.

The fact is, the book is about all those things and more, it is indeed a serious work that will make you laugh out loud, and my recommendation is to stock it everywhere. It’s that good.

On one level Hounds of Heaven is about a quest, a search for an almost mythical beast that takes Bodio from a vodka-soaked apartment in Brooklyn to an unexpected and interrupted life in New Mexico, to that vast, high, central Asian region dismissed by a former presidential candidate as, “all those –stans,” where once Tamerlane and the Scourge of God and Marco Polo roamed, a region still inhabited by fierce and independent men who love deeply their horses, their eagles, and above all their dogs. It may be that Africa was the cradle of man and Mesopotamia the cradle of civilization, but the rugged steppes and mountains of central Asia were probably the cradle of man’s best friend, and very certainly the cradle of that unique variety known as sight-hounds.

And on another level Hounds of Heaven is a love story, for no matter how useful or scientifically intriguing dogs may be, ultimately our relationship with them is based on mutual love, and anyone who has ever shared his life with a dog will admit he has learned at least as much from his faithful friend as his friend ever learned from him.

Finally, several years ago, before Steve ever started this book, I asked him to vet an article I had written for a magazine in which I posited the theory that the only way to save virtually every dog recognized by either the AKC or the UKC was to outcross to related, but genetically different, breeds. In other words, if you want to return the German shepherd, for example, to the healthy, long-lived specimen it once was, open up the gene pool and go back to some of the distantly related breeds that prior to the end of the nineteenth century used to be lumped under the loose category “sheepdog.” Try a Malinois or Groenendael or Tervueren, try a Kuvasz, hell, try an Anatolian. If those don’t work, go farther afield, but for God’s sake stop breeding crippled, short-lived beauties to crippled, short-lived beauties. I’d rather have a German shepherd that looks like the vaguely mutty ones von Stephanitz had, that was capable of living its full twelve or thirteen years free of the more than fifty heritable diseases man has bred into and concentrated in that noble breed.

It turned out Steve had been studying (of course) and thinking about this very issue, and he kindly corrected some of my errors and told me to sic ‘em. Steve goes into this issue in depth, but very readable depth. If you love dogs, or even if you’ve ever loved just a single dog, you will love Hounds of Heaven and its cast of unusual, eccentric, and passionate characters, two-legged as well as four-legged.

Beware of Politicians Bearing Gifts

June 24th, 2016 23 Comments



“I believe when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”

Sir Thomas More in A Man for all Seasons, by Robert Bolt

We all know about the Trojan horse and how the wily Greeks used it to burn the topless towers of Ilium and destroy the Trojan civilization. It’s a lesson worth keeping in mind.

The appalling terrorist attack in Orlando has brought out the usual absurd, extreme reactions on either side. The progressive left claims that repealing the Second Amendment and confiscating all firearms will make America a kinder, gentler, safer place where, according to our Attorney General Loretta Lynch, even terrorists will be defeated by love and compassion, and we’ll all become vegans and behave like a cross between Care Bears and Barney the purple dinosaur. The radical right claims that if every American went armed everywhere we could use ISIS terrorists and random bad guys as pop-up targets and wipe them off the face of the globe, or at least off the face of the fifty states. Both sides, and those who wallow indecisively in the middle, agree something—something—must be done.

And indeed something must be done: every American is rightly calling for a stop to the kind of bloody carnage a single radical Islamic loony-tune was able to perpetrate, and politicians are tripping over themselves in their rush to push their particular vision of a solution into law. But the Trojan horse every American should keep in mind is the unforeseen—or far worse, casually dismissed—effect these proposed laws will have. It’s not just the Second Amendment, but also the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, that are being conveniently overlooked in the political stampede to appear relevant and effective and decisive. And if you want to take the progressive liberal proposals in Congress to their illogical but certainly not impossible extreme, other Amendments jeopardized by current proposals include the First, Fourth, and the Sixth.

Forget your feelings, pro or con, about firearms; instead, think of your right to free speech, or to own your house and/or land, or your right to privacy, or your right to “be secure” from unreasonable search and seizure, or your right to a speedy trial where you have been informed of the charges against you. Think of losing all those things. Think of losing the unwritten principle of innocent until proven guilty. All of those depend to a greater or lesser extent on the due process clause, and due process is what outraged Democrats—and even some Republicans—want to dispense with.

If you are really naïve enough to believe in a perpetually benign and loving government that would never abuse you or your rights, I would remind you that a due process clause was first enumerated as a right in the Magna Carta in 1215, but because Great Britain does not have a Constitution, that clause was cheerfully ignored by kings from Henry III on. Don’t believe me; read your history. It only affected firearms beginning (gradually and “reasonably,” as such things do) in 1920, but it really took effect in 1997 with large-scale confiscation of firearms, blithely by-passing the due process clause first written-up in the Magna Carta almost eight hundred years earlier: “No free man shall be imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions…” Has ignoring due process and confiscating guns had a salutary effect on violent crime in Great Britain? According to Pulitzer Prize nominee Joyce Lee Malcolm it has not, and according to several British news investigations it has not, but that’s beside the point.

Other countries recognize some vague kind of due process as stipulated in international law, but only America and Great Britain spell it out, and only America pays any attention to it, sort of. All of the current schemes being touted on Capitol Hill, couched in the meretricious language of, “no-fly, no buy,” violate our due process clause as clearly spelled out in the Fifth Amendment (“…nor [shall any person] be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…” and in Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment: “…nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…” And without due process, nothing else in our legal system holds water.

In case you should doubt that this is the intent of the various proposed laws being hailed as vital by lawmakers wallowing in righteous outrage, bear in mind that the loss of any right is, and should always be, protected by the due process clause, and to violate that with regard to firearms opens a slippery slope to other rights as well. Free speech is the first one to leap to mind, especially given Hillary’s stated intent to overturn the Citizens United ruling. But property rights also leap to mind: far too many people in this country, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from ranchers to inner-city low-income housing residents, have lost property precisely because of abuses of due process by various levels of government, from municipal to federal. Again, don’t trust me: do your homework. Hell, Tom Brokaw did a special on this very topic about fifteen years ago.

I believe it was Ronald Reagan who once observed that the Constitution was like a crystal bowl; you can’t take one piece out without destroying the whole thing.  Just as Troy once welcomed a specious good that destroyed it, the laws our politicians are promising will make us a safer and gentler country carry within them consequences that will prove disastrous, now or later. We would do well to remember Reagan’s admonition. We would also do well to remember that each age and each country, each sad and guilty age, each sad and guilty country, has, or has had, or will have its Hitler, its Mussolini, its Stalin, its Mao, its Pol Pot. To believe otherwise is to be guilty of dizzying and willful naïveté.

Book Review: The Noise of Time

June 20th, 2016 10 Comments



Somewhere, I now forget where, I stumbled across the following quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Prize-winning author of, among others, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago:

“And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?… The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If…if…We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more—we had no awareness of the real situation…. We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.”

It’s worth keeping that quote, that sentiment, in mind when reading Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time. Barnes’ novel about Dmitri Shostakovich opens with the composer standing by the elevator in his apartment building all night long, with a small overnight bag at his feet, smoking endless cigarettes as he waits for Stalin’s security officers to come take him away. Those who were unlucky enough to drift into Stalin’s vast (seven million or more dead) and frequently merely peripheral web of disfavor were invariably taken away during the night, and Shostakovich’s standing by the elevator is his personal act of courage, his desperate effort to save his wife and children.

I am not knowledgeable or sophisticated enough to appreciate this novel from a musical perspective, but it doesn’t matter because what it really is about is courage, not the great, courageous stroke of the hero, but the small and varying courage it takes to live—to endure—for decades in fear. You cooperate here, resist a little bit there when you dare, bow low and weigh your words carefully this morning, then try to recoup a tiny fraction of self-respect by taking a small stand this afternoon. The subtle stands of resistance—a musical masterpiece like the Fifth Symphony—are offset by the capitulations that breed self-loathing and regret for the opera not written. Courage, under Stalin, had to be used by the teaspoon. Shostakovich recounts the experience of a friend, a violinist who expected to be arrested. Instead, the secret police came, night after night, and each time they arrested someone else in the violinist’s apartment building, gradually working their way up, night by night, apartment by apartment, floor by floor, until at last the entire building was vacant except for the violinist. And that gradual, casual murdering of everyone else, of totally innocent people whose only crime was to have lived in the wrong building, made the violinist completely, utterly compliant. Fear is a powerful weapon, more powerful than death, because after all the dead are immune; nothing more can be done to them.

Barnes has an odd writing style, a detached, cerebral style that in the only other book of his that I’ve read, Flaubert’s Parrot, I disliked. It’s as if he uses his own writing to keep all emotion at arm’s length. (In Flaubert’s Parrot, the narrator is so cold and emotionally detached that the result is there is no one in the novel for the reader to identify and empathize with. I found myself thinking of Herman Melville’s comment in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, discussing the relative value of emotion versus intellect in art: “I stand for the heart. To the dogs with the head!”) Yet here, in The Noise of Time, that same distancing of emotion works, in part because the only way a man can find the courage to stand, night after night, by an elevator, waiting to be arrested, is by distancing himself from emotion. And by showing us a man who will sacrifice himself to save his wife and children, you have automatically presented someone the reader can empathize with, not a hero, not even a consistently brave man, but one who, like most of us, screws his courage to the sticking place when he can, and hates himself when he can’t.

Readers with more musicality than I may get more out of this book, but its universality lies in its harrowing portrayal of what it’s like to live in fear, not for a day or a week or a year, but for decade after decade, and then, at the end, to look back and to think of what one might have done, might have accomplished if only one hadn’t been afraid. If only. If…if.

It’s a lesson to be kept in mind.

Hate and Rage

June 18th, 2016 35 Comments

007 (Small)


Perhaps I read the wrong news sources, but I have come to the conclusion that too many people on the far left have dangerously violent tendencies and fantasies. I moderate a chat room site for gun owners; I frequently visit pro-gun sites; I regularly check up on the latest information available from major pro-gun organizations such as the NRA, The Second Amendment Foundation, California Rifle and Pistol Association, Gun Owners of America; when I read an anti-gun article somewhere, I almost always try to do my due-diligence and read the responses from both those who agree and those who disagree; and, believe it or not, I periodically check out various ultra-liberal, progressive news sources just to see what is being discussed on the left.

What I have found over the years is that when pro-gun types like me write in to protest anti-gun articles, we usually, not always, but usually spend a lot of time trying to be rational, factual, and unemotional. Sometimes pro-gun types write contemptuous or disdainful letters decrying the ignorance of non-gun owners, but that’s about the extent of it.

On the other hand, when anti-gun types write in to support anti-gun articles, or to protest against pro-gun articles, I can readily understand why so many of them are so terrified of guns: their own emotions seem to get the best of them in ways that should indeed preclude them from gun ownership for reasons of instability. I have read emails suggesting (and I’m not making any of this up): all gun owners should die slowly and painfully of cancer; all NRA members should be executed by the government; all NRA members should be shot at random on sight; that anti-gunners should go out in the field during hunting season and kill hunters; and (my favorite and a perfect example of complete lack of logic) anti-gunners should go out and buy guns so they can kill everyone they can find who owns a gun. (Okie dokie, uh, would that include suicide before or after the assault?) I have read many other statements of more or less the same nature, but not as dramatic or as memorable.

Now however, the psychopathic tendencies of the hoplophobic (hoplophobia is a word taken from the Greek and coined by the late Jeff Cooper that means an irrational fear of firearms) have come home to roost. I received a comment I chose not to post that came in response to my open letter to Senator Chris Murphy. I chose not to post it because I do not post gratuitous profanity, especially when it is used as an angry and incoherent substitute for rational thought and civilized debate, but suffice it to say that the fine old Anglo-Saxon word for sexual intercourse was used as a verb, an adjective, an adverb, and as part of a compound noun. I was referred to as an intimate part of the anatomy used for evacuation, a piece of the substance that comes out of that orifice, and (in the few words I will reprint) as sick, sociopathic, ignorant, twisted, and a “2 bit [sic] actor.”

What I find so fascinating about all this is how rage—frequently, as cited above, murderous rage—seems to motivate these people. I have many readers who disagree strongly with me about the Second Amendment and gun ownership in general, but as long as they neither resort to this kind infantile raging nor to reprinting the kinds of lies and misinformation the New York Times and so many other news organizations and politicians seem to delight in, I am happy to debate with them. In some cases, I have been correctly taken to task for not getting my facts right, and I have admitted it.

The responses to other articles and writers I mentioned above, and the one I just received, remind me very much of the hysterical tantrums so widely publicized recently on college campuses such as Yale, Princeton, the University of Missouri, Oberlin, CSULA, and so many others, where children shriek at anyone who disagrees with them and have to be excused from the final exams because someone wore a sombrero, or wrote Trump’s name on the sidewalk, or—in the case of a college in Oklahoma—read an admonishment from the Bible. Heaven forefend!

I have no idea what causes such preposterous and paralyzing delicacy and, frankly, I’m not interested enough to want to know. In fact, the only part of this whole episode that intrigued me was the use of the phrase, “two-bit,” an expression I thought had vanished from common usage. I’m glad to see it is still in vogue. It is, I believe, an exclusively American expression, coming from the one bit coin which was originally a Spanish coin worth one eighth of a Spanish dollar. (Think of Treasure Island: “Pieces of eight!”) Apparently, however, the phrase is still in use, at least as a derogatory term which, correctly spelled, would be, “two-bit” as in, “You’re a two-bit actor.” And I do take offense at that; I think I was worth at least four bits.

An Open Letter to Senator Chris Murphy

June 13th, 2016 37 Comments

Gay pride


This is an open letter to Senator Chris Murphy (D. Conn.)

I am first going to reprint the exact press release about the Orlando shooting that came from Senator Murphy. It is still up on his website, for those of you who might believe I made it up. Mr. Murphy is certainly not the only progressive liberal, either in politics or in the media, to try and deflect the blame for an ISIS terrorist attack onto anything or anyone other than radical Islamic terrorism, but he is certainly the most disgustingly craven and egregious. This is his statement:

“I’m aching for the victims, their loved ones, and the people of Orlando, and I pray that all those injured have a quick and full recovery. I know the pain and sadness that has brought too many communities – Newtown, Oregon, Aurora, San Bernardino, and now Orlando – to their knees, and I can only hope that America’s leaders will do something to prevent another community from being added to the list. This phenomenon of near constant mass shootings happens only in America – nowhere else. Congress has become complicit in these murders by its total, unconscionable deafening silence. This doesn’t have to happen, but this epidemic will continue without end if Congress continues to sit on its hands and do nothing – again.”

Dear Senator Murphy,

Let’s take your statement (reprinted above) apart and look at both the explicit and implicit dishonesty here.

“I know the pain and sadness that has brought too many communities – Newtown, Oregon, Aurora, San Bernardino, and now Orlando – to their knees…”

I doubt very much, Mr. Murphy, that you have a goddamned clue of the “pain and sadness” actually felt by the families of the victims, because if you did, you wouldn’t be so disgustingly dishonest in your statement. Newtown, Oregon, and Aurora were the results of a failed mental health system where in each case the shooters were perfectly standard middleclass Americans with no political or ideological motivation, and for you to lump them together with a murderous bunch of barbarians who have declared war on America is criminally dishonest and disgustingly partisan. Barack Hussein Obama’s ideologically childish and simplistic progressive liberal view of unstoppable enlightenment, based on a Darwinian belief in inevitable progression from the primitive to his rarified level of enlightenment that would allow peaceful negotiations in place of boots on the ground, was an absurd and unrealistic piece of nonsense when it was first espoused by Woodrow Wilson, and the passage of a century has done nothing to make it more rational or believable. Tell me, Mr. Murphy, which of the following has demonstrated to you an enlightened progression toward Reason and Peace since Woodrow Wilson’s day:

The estimated 12-to15-million murdered under Adolph Hitler? The 7-plus-million exterminated by Stalin? The close to 70-million estimated to have been killed by all the Soviet regimes? The 5-million civilians killed under Hideki Tojo’s rule? The 50-70-million Chairman Mao either killed directly or allowed to starve to death? The 1.5-million Armenians killed by the Turks? Pol Pot’s 1.7-to 2-million? Kim Il Sung’s 1.6-million? The paltry 800,000 butchered by machete in Rwanda? Saddam Hussein’s modest 600,000? The many, many millions more exterminated by numerous less ambitious butchers I haven’t listed? Where there do you see proof of progress, of the progressive liberal theory of man and history’s inevitable march forward?

And to be clear, you despicable excuse for a man, not one of the communities you listed was brought to its knees, nor will America ever be. Americans live and die on their feet and the way the entire country has rallied around the LGBTQ community is proof of that.

To deliberately and deceptively ignore the fact that America is at war with radical Islam in all its manifestations, not just ISIS, is contemptible. Just because Barack Hussein Obama can’t bring himself to use the words “radical Islam,” or declare war on the people who have expressed, very clearly and repeatedly, their intention to wipe us and Israel off the face the earth, doesn’t mean we aren’t at war. Yet now you want to disarm law-abiding American citizens and cravenly deflect blame onto Congress for the actions of ISIS. Shame on you. And shame on the people of Connecticut for buying into your lies.

“The phenomenon of near constant mass shootings happens only in America—nowhere else.” Really? Your extraordinary perspicacity might come as something of a surprise to the victims of mass shootings by terrorists in Paris, Brussels, Israel, Peshawar, Norway, Bombay, Algeria, Kenya, the Philippines, the Netherlands, Thailand, Afghanistan, Guinea, Uzbekistan, Beslan, Northern Ireland, Syria, the Ukraine… Do you want me to go on? Do you want me to include bombings, which have killed far, far more people?

“Congress has become complicit in these murders…” You unconscionable little weasel. Congress has at least made an attempt to protect the God-given right of Americans to defend themselves which—given that we are at war with radical Islam, whether you and Obama can bring yourselves to admit it or not—is a damned good idea. I have far more faith in my armed fellow Americans than I do in those who hide behind armed security guards while telling me to trust in their failed leadership.

Sincerely, but not respectfully,

Jameson Parker

Orlando Shooting

June 12th, 2016 21 Comments

Barack Obama


Fifty Americans were murdered in a terrorist attack on a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The attack is now considered the worst mass shooting in US history.

The shooter was identified as Omar Mateen, a US citizen of Afghan descent, and according to both ABC and CBS he called 911 either before or during the attack to pledge his allegiance to ISIS, and made reference to the Boston marathon bombers. According to witnesses on both Fox News and CNN, Mateen yelled “Allah Akbar,” during the attack. Catherine Herridge, Chief Intelligence Correspondent for Fox news, also reported that ISIS had already claimed responsibility for the attack. Multiple news sources stated that Mateen had been “on the radar” of law enforcement, including the FBI, who interviewed him three times between 2013 and 2014, though he was not under formal investigation. Mateen was a licensed security guard with a statewide firearms license; the ATF confirmed that the firearms used in the attack had been legally purchased by Mateen. To become an armed licensed security guard in Florida requires: either forty, or forty plus another twenty-eight, hours of training (it is unclear; different companies have different requirements); additional firearms training; additional handgun and marksmanship training, as well as training in ammunition and firearms care; fingerprinting and an FBI background check; no record of substance abuse; health certificate clearance from a doctor.

Despite all this, President Barack Hussein Obama used his address to the nation following the mass shooting to call for more gun control. He described the shooting as, “an act of terror and an act of hate,” but while he was unable to bring himself to label the attack as Islamic terrorism, he was able to say it was a, “reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon,” and immediately added that the country would have to make a choice about whether to take action through stronger gun control measures.

I would suggest the country must make a choice between continuing to reap the bitter fruit of Barack Hussein Obama’s childishly naïve vision of a utopian world where evil can be mitigated by his refusal to acknowledge America’s war with Islamic terrorism while advocating yet more gun control for American citizens, or picking a candidate this autumn who isn’t a prisoner of his own progressive ideology.

Trumpeting Trump

June 10th, 2016 34 Comments

Donald Trump


I really do not like Donald Trump. I don’t like his style, I don’t like his way of speaking, I don’t like or agree with ninety percent of what he says, I don’t like his vulgarity, I don’t like the few coherent things he has said about what he intends to do, I don’t like his combative attacks on anyone he feels has crossed him, I don’t like the dim glimmerings of policy—foreign or domestic—that he has hinted at, and I especially don’t like the fact that some of what he says he intends to do simply doesn’t make sense at any level (high tariffs on air conditioners made in Mexico aren’t going to help an already struggling middleclass, and a concrete wall across the border would have unimaginably negative effects on various threatened species that have travel corridors across our southern border, including the jaguar that my friend, rancher Warner Glenn, first documented on American soil back in 1996).

But I understand why the Trumpster has resonated with a large number of people, including, in a very few cases, me. His appeal lies in the fact that he speaks about issues the way guys sitting around over a beer or two too many might speak, in politically incorrect terms that are neither especially intelligent nor insightful, but that express the (pick one or all) fear, discontent, anger, sorrow so many of us feel about the way the country is going under Barack Hussein Obama, a man who is so politically correct he can’t even say the words “Islamic terrorism.” Trump’s appeal, in short, is his willingness, as he might put it, to call a spade a fucking shovel.

That willingness to speak bluntly or crudely, the way guys might sitting around over a beer, may be refreshing, but it’s not enough to make me vote for him. Nor would I vote for him simply because he is the lesser of two evils, a loose cannon whose primary appeal is that he is an unknown political outsider running against the ultimate political insider who is all too well known: think of Whitewater; Travelgate; Wall Street speaking fees; the Rose law firm lies; the Marc Rich pardon; dodging bullets at Sarajevo; leaving the White House broke; the disgraceful Benghazi scandal; trashing the victims of her husband’s peccadillos; the ongoing and ever growing email scandal; the quid pro quo of enormous speaking fees to Bill in exchange for her influence on foreign policy decisions as Secretary of State; her contempt for both the first—the first!—and second amendments… The list goes on and on. None of that alone is enough to make me vote for the Trumpster.

There are, however, two things that will make me vote for the Trumpster.

The first is the radical left’s attempt to silence him. Remember your history. Hitler’s rise to power was facilitated by his organization known as the “brown shirts,” the Sturmabteilung, thugs who went around beating up anyone who disagreed with the Hitler. In much the same way, the people who prevent or disrupt the speaking of anyone they disagree with on college campuses (an extraordinary, inconsistent and incoherent list that ranges from rightwing commentators to accomplished military officers to victims of radical Islam, or—apparently—anyone who makes radical left-wing college students actually think) are now using violence to prevent the Trumpster from spouting his weird, vague, and sometimes poorly thought-out ideas about making America great again. But exactly who are those people? In San Jose, some were wearing T-shirts supporting the communist party. Some of those who tore up an American flag (a moronic tactic calculated to undermine whatever validity they might have had) were carrying Mexican flags. Some were carrying professionally made signs with the Service Employees International Union logo, a left-leaning Democratic organization that spent $28 million dollars supporting Barack Hussein Obama in 2008, and $70 million dollars supporting him and other Democrats in 2012. Some protestors were photographed by the Washington Post laying down their Gloria La Riva (socialist party candidate) signs to burn Make America Great hats. And some of the protestors, according to ABC news, simply kept their hands free to flash gang-affiliated hand-signs.

I find that mindless mob willingness to stifle the First Amendment right of free speech far more terrifying than anything the Trumpster has ever said. Hillary has already made clear that she intends to try to curtail the First Amendment when it comes to political expression, specifically in regard to the “Citizens United” ruling. (Her stated objection to the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision is that it allowed “a right-wing organization [to] attack me,” a slightly egocentric point of view.) For the record, the pertinent sentence in the court’s majority decision reads: “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” Hillary has also stated that both the first and second amendments should be subject to “reasonable regulation.” “Reasonable regulation?” Are the Trumpster’s opponents taking a cue from Hillary to enforce their idea of “reasonable regulation?” It would be interesting to know precisely what regulation Hillary finds “reasonable” for the First Amendment beyond people disagreeing with her. She has also stated, to George Stephanopoulos, in regard to the Second Amendment, that, “…if it is a Constitutional right, then it, like every other Constitutional right, is subject to reasonable regulation.” [Emphasis mine.] If that statement doesn’t terrify you, then you would have felt right at home with Hitler’s Sturmabteilung. There are already far too many parallels between Hillary and the radical left protestors for me to want to find out what her idea of “reasonable regulation” is of any of my rights.

The other reason why I will vote for the Trumpster is best expressed by the recent ruling of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which states: “There is no Second Amendment right for members of the general public to carry concealed firearms in public.” Of the eleven judge panel, five were appointed by former president Bill Clinton, one by Lyndon Johnson, and one by Barack Hussein Obama. In other words, I will vote for the Trumpster because—to quote Barack Hussein Obama—“elections have consequences,” and the ability to appoint judges is one of those consequences.

Teaching the Bear to Read

June 6th, 2016 6 Comments

Wallace called and asked me to go duck hunting with him at the legendary Pintail Slough Club. You know Wallace; at least you know his work. He specializes in classic waterfowling scenes: meticulously detailed oils of mallards dropping into mist-shrouded sloughs; panoramas of pintails and widgeon whistling over choppy waters on a stormy northwest wind; portraits of speckle-bellies surveying flooded rice paddies; the sort of oils that sell for five-figures, and whose prints have five-figure runs. I have one of his prints above my desk, complete with a remarque he did of my old black Lab.

Pintail Slough is one of those fat-cat hunting clubs bazillionaires join so they can network with other bazillionaires, the kind of place with original art on the walls and framed photographs of celebrity guests, crystal decanters and glasses filled with the member’s drink of choice and engraved with the member’s name, where men shoot Benellis and Perazzis and occasionally custom-made Purdeys with thirty-inch barrels and talk about deals and tax shelters. Not the kind of place I like, not the kind of people I like, so I told him I couldn’t go.

Wallace shares my resentment of the fat-cats, but he regards them with humorous detachment; after all, they’re his bread and butter, even if half of them can’t tell a Baldpate from a gadwall. “Come on,” he said. “What else are you going to do this weekend?”

“Finish that article for American Hunter.”

“You’ll get it done. Besides, Joe Link is going to be there.”

Remember Joe Link? Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle way back in the sixties, known as Breaker Link because he broke up—take your pick—so many player’s bones or so many plays, depending on who’s talking. The only one who doesn’t talk about it is Joe. He’s a great storyteller, but he’s a fat-cat himself now, with a real estate investment company and holdings all over California and Nevada, and he’d rather talk development than football. He was smart enough to buy up a lot of land in the Palmdale area outside Los Angeles long before the city had forced working stiffs out of the San Fernando Valley and into an hour commute, and he’s in a higher tax bracket than God. But unlike most of the fat-cats, Joe knows what to do with a shotgun, and he knows his birds in the air, not just on the ground. I had met him a couple of times, running my Shorthair for him at the San Andreas Ale and Quail Club, and he’s an okay guy, so I let myself get talked into it. I drove up Friday night and got there before Wallace.

It’s an interesting thing to watch fat-cats in action, like one of those 18th century dances with hierarchical rules and movements. There’s always a herd bull, the richest guy in the club. At Pintail Slough it’s—let’s call him Mr. Motel. He owns a chain of motels that all bear his name and he’s probably the only true multi-billionaire there. There’s Mr. Shanty-Slapper, a real estate developer from the Bay area, who’s second in line. Mr. Asphalt owns the largest private highway construction company in the state, and he’s also in billionaire category. Mr. Dotcom is the youngest by about twenty years; he invented an app that was bought by Google or Samsung or somebody. After him they slide down into tacky, run-of-the-mill multi-millionaires: Mr. Caddy (five Cadillac dealerships in three cities); Mr. Lingerie (a chain of department stores that bear his father’s name); Mr. Wall Street owns a West coast investment firm. There are a few others, some of whom I’ve met over the years—if you write about hunting and run dogs for a living, you get invited to a lot of places—but none of the rest of them were there that weekend.

Mr. Shanty-Slapper and Mr. Wall Street were talking business, and Mr. Dotcom was talking on a cellphone the size of a credit card. Mr. Motel, Mr. Caddy, and Mr. Lingerie were playing poker by a flat screen TV the size of a garage door. They had it tuned to a porno channel, two girls and a very hairy guy doing extremely athletic things on a circular bed, but they didn’t seem to pay it any attention. Mr. Motel asked if I wanted to join the game, but having only recently finished paying off my mortgage I didn’t feel like losing my house. I’m such a lousy poker player I really don’t enjoy the game in any case. The only other person who spoke to me was Mr. Shanty-Slapper who asked me my name and then said, “Oh, yeah. You’re with Wallace.”

After that I nursed my drink and watched.


The hierarchy of the dance changed, as I knew it would, when Joe Link walked in. There’s something about professional athletes, especially football players, that commands the attention of even the richest men in America. The poker game broke up. Mr. Dotcom slipped his phone into his shirt pocket. Mr. Shanty-Slapper and Mr. Wall Street both stood up, and everybody shook hands with Joe. Somebody even turned the damn television off. Joe made a point of shaking hands with me, and pretended he remembered me. And as soon as I mentioned my Shorthair, Gretel, he really did remember me, and I found that kind of endearing. She’s a great dog.

Joe is pushing eighty now, and his back is stiff, so that he’s always canted slightly forward, but he’s fit and still has a handshake you can feel in damp weather for weeks after, and he has a quick, alert quality to him. When he’s hunting, when I ran Gretel for him, he doesn’t talk much, but now he chatted politely with everyone. When Wallace finally got there we all went into the dining room and everybody started pumping Joe about football, the inside stories about the toughest guys in a tough sport from the long-ago days. Dick Butkus. Jim Otto. Jack Youngblood. Larry Csonka. Jack Lambert. Mean Joe Greene. Lawrence Taylor. All the legendary names, the guys who made you want to watch the game. And somehow, in the middle of all this, Joe told us about Sonny Liston.


It was the summer of sixty-one, late summer (Joe said) a miserable damn summer even by Philadelphia standards, start sweating as soon as you get out of the shower. I was living in the same building as Sonny. He and Geraldine lived one floor down. I’d see him every now and then, nod to him, congratulated him after he knocked out Howard King, that sort of thing, but I didn’t really know him or anything.

Then one day I was walking home and came around the corner of my street from the north. The apartment building was down much closer to the southeast corner, and Sonny came around that corner at just the same time. What I saw was a little boy, maybe five, six years old, playing on our stoop, and as I watched, he took a header, ass over teakettle, right down those concrete steps. Sonny and I both began to run, but he was a whole bunch closer and got there first.

This was back when Sonny was the meanest, baddest, most hated man in America, the man vilified in the press as a “jungle beast,” “a gorilla,” “strong as a yoke of oxen and just as dumb,” “the personification of evil.” They actually wrote all that stuff back then. So when I got there, what I saw was the most dangerous and despised man in America, kneeling by a little white boy, wiping the blood off his knees, brushing the tears away with a hand…

That man had the largest hands of any person I’ve ever seen. It was a hand that looked like it could have crushed that boy’s skull, but he was being as tender as a mother, and after the boy stopped crying, Sonny gave him a dollar.

Well, after that I sort of looked at him a little differently, spoke to him a little more when I saw him. Not much. I was in training, and he was training for the Westphal fight, so it wasn’t like we hung out or anything, but we’d say a few words on the steps, that sort of thing.

The Westphal fight was that winter, right there in Philly, at the old Convention Hall, one round, first time Westphal was ever even knocked down, never mind out, and the next morning, not even light yet, there was a knock on my door. It was Sonny.

“I need some help.”

“Sure Sonny, what do you need? Congratulations, by the way.”

He ignored the congratulations and jerked his head toward the staircase. “I need you to help me count my money.”

I had no idea what he was talking about, but I said, “Okay, let me get my clothes on.”

“No. I’m in a hurry. Right now.”

The baddest, meanest man in America, the man they called the Big Bear, actually wasn’t very big at all. I was about five inches taller and fifty pounds heavier, but, well, he was Sonny Liston. So I went with him in my pajamas.

We walked down to his floor and went in his apartment. There was no sign of Geraldine, but there were two brown paper grocery bags on the floor filled with cash, mostly hundred dollar bills and fifties, some twenties and tens, both bags stuffed with bills.

Sonny didn’t say anything about it, but I found out many years later from some of the sports reporters what had happened. Sonny was run by the mob. Everybody knew that. Hell, he had started as a goon, breaking up strikes and striker’s heads for them. And Sonny was illiterate. Everybody knew that too. I don’t mean he had trouble reading and writing or counting. I mean he couldn’t. But there’s a difference between illiterate and stupid, and the mob had made the mistake of thinking Sonny was stupid. He had figured out he was being shorted, so after he knocked out Westphal, I mean that same night, right after the fight, he went over to the mob’s money man with two brown paper bags and told him he wanted his money, right then, right there.

The accountant’s some skinny little middle-aged guy, and he says, “Sonny, you know I can’t do that.” Sonny says he wants his money. The accountant says he can’t let him have it. They go through that routine three times and then Sonny picks up the accountant and turns him upside down and tells him he’s going to bounce him up and down on his head until he gets his money. He got it, and he’d spent most of that night trying to count it.

So. I sat down on a sofa and started arranging the bills by denomination, Sonny sitting right next to me, watching. I got one bag done and I started counting out the bills, starting with the hundreds. All of a sudden, a finger as big and round and hard as a dried pepperoni sausage comes down on a bill, just below Ben Franklin’s picture.

“What’s that say?”

I knew he was illiterate, but it caught me off-guard, and I didn’t want to make him feel bad, so I made out I couldn’t see what he was pointing at.

“What? Which word?”

“That one.”

I’d gotten my wits together and I played it very matter of fact, no big deal. “Oh. That’s Franklin’s name. See that first letter? That’s F. A, B, C, D, E, F. And that’s pretty much how you say it. Ef. And that next letter, that’s an R.” I worked my way through the alphabet to R. “Are. And when you got an R right after an F like that, it sounds like Fur. Fur-anklin. That next letter, that’s an A…” And that’s how we did it. I sat there in my pajamas on Sonny Liston’s sofa teaching him to read the words off bills, Grant, Jackson, Hamilton, letter by letter. The only word he knew on any of them without me telling him was “America.” He pointed at it and said it, and I said, “Yeah, that’s right!” Just like I’d say it to a kid, and just like a kid, he smiled. And then he heard something out on the street and walked over to the window.

“Uh-oh. Trouble.”

I went over to the window and looked out. It was that dreary early morning grey you get back East. There was a limo and guys were getting out. Guys. Big guys. Guys bigger than me.

Sonny started throwing all the money back in the bags. “You got to get out of here. Take this with you.”

“Sonny, if there’s going to be trouble, I’ll stay here and help you.”

That stopped him. He looked up at me. He was only about six feet, maybe a little more, but small to me, and there was something in his eyes… I can’t tell you what it was exactly—he had the most impassive face I’ve ever seen on anyone—but there was something there at that moment I couldn’t put my finger on. Then he said, “You get out. I can handle this, but if Blinky sees you, you’re a dead man.”

By now we could hear footsteps in the stairwell and Sonny led me into a bathroom. There was a little window that went out onto a ledge.

“Go out there,” he said.

“Sonny, I weigh two-hundred and sixty pounds. I can’t get out that little window.”

“You got to.”

And the way he said it, I didn’t argue. I got my head and one shoulder out, and then I got stuck. He picked up my legs and put his shoulder against my ass and shoved so hard I went through the window and damn near right off the ledge. Then he handed the two brown bags out to me and slammed the window.

Everybody’s got something they’re afraid of. With me, it’s heights. But to be honest, I was even more afraid of what was coming in that apartment behind me. So I got up. It was about twenty degrees out and I’d lost one slipper, so I walked along that ledge, three stories up in my pajamas, with one bare foot and two paper bags of the mob’s money until I got to the fire escape and climbed up to my apartment.

I was dating one of the prettiest brunettes you’ve ever seen, and by the grace of God she was awake and heard me tapping on the window. If she hadn’t heard me, I might have frozen to death out there. There was no way in the world I could even begin to explain what the hell was going on, but she was smart enough not to push it too far and we went back to bed.

I put Sonny’s money in my dad’s old green Army duffle bag and took it with me everywhere I went. I didn’t see him or hear from him or hear anything about him for almost a week.

We were out in Hershey, training, getting ready for the last game with Detroit. It had warmed up a lot and we were all in shorts and jerseys, when all of a sudden, here comes Sonny, walking right out onto the field. One of the assistant coaches ran up to him to stop him, saw who it was and stopped in his tracks like he’d run right into a wall. Again, it was an interesting thing to see. He was one of the smallest men on that field, but everyone stepped back, away from him, as he passed. He walked up to me.

“I need my money.”

“Sure, Sonny, but we’re right in the middle of training here. Can you – ”

“No. I need it right now.”

Well, we weren’t getting any training done anyway with him there, so I yelled at the coach that I’d be right back, and we went into the locker room, me slipping and sliding on my cleats. I had the duffle bag in my locker. I spun the combination dial, pulled the bag out and opened it up.

“There you go, Sonny. It’s all there.”

He reached in and grabbed a hundred dollar bill. “One…hundred…dollars,” he said, pointing at the words. He pointed below Ben’s picture. “Franklin.” His finger moved up. “America.”

For a moment we looked at each other. “Yeah,” I said, “that’s right.”

Then he slung the bag over his shoulder and was gone.

I only saw him once after that. He was coming down the steps of our building as I was going up. Geraldine was with him and he was dressed up in a suit and tie with a fedora on his head. He was carrying a little girl. I don’t know if she was his and Geraldine’s or hers from a former marriage or somebody else’s child, but he was brushing her hair back with one hand, one monstrous hand, and he was smiling and talking to the girl. When he saw me he gave me a little nod, one of those upward thrusts of the chin, but kept right on talking to her, something about they were going on an airplane, wasn’t that exciting, just as any father might talk to any daughter. The meanest man in the world.

Well, we beat Detroit, but we lost to them later in the Playoff Bowl, and that September Sonny knocked out Floyd Patterson in one round, the first time in the history in the heavyweight division that a reigning champion lost by first round knockout, and very suddenly, as suddenly as he did everything, Sonny moved to Denver, saying, “I’d rather be a lamppost in Denver than the Mayor of Philadelphia.” I heard later from one of the sportswriters what had happened.

He was the caveman everyone hated. The press wrote about him in ways that would get them run out of business today. They said he was an inferior negro at a time when all negroes were considered inferior. He was less than human. He was the hated ex-con who ought to be locked up again. When his picture appeared in a magazine wearing a Santa Claus hat he was described as the last man America would want to see coming down the chimney. Even the NAACP hated him. But Sonny thought everything was going to change after he won the championship. It was probably the only thing he ever did that really was stupid, believing a championship would change anything. He had a speech all prepared for his triumphant return to Philly the day after the fight. That’s how I know all this, because he asked that same sportswriter to help him with it, give him the right words, polish it up. It’s true. He spent the whole flight home working on the speech he was going to give to the crowds waiting to greet him at the airport in his adopted hometown, telling them how he was going to do things to help his people, how he wanted to build a home for orphan kids, black and white, all kids, how he wanted to make sure every little kid got an education. Sonny Liston.

But when he got off the plane there were no crowds. There were only one or two local sports reporters. That sportswriter, the one who told me all this so many years later, said he’d never seen anything like it and would never forget it, how Sonny, who had been so full of dreams and generosity and goodwill, laughing on the plane, how his face just closed up again like a fist, and he wasn’t Sonny Liston, World Champion heavyweight anymore. He was the Big Bear again, glowering in his corner, waiting to fight the world that hated him.

Everybody knows what happened after that. No one believed Ali had a chance. Sonny sure as hell didn’t believe it. A lot of people claimed he was actually hung-over when he climbed into that ring down in Miami. Sonny always had a drinking problem. Hell, it was the booze that killed him, not heroin. He was making his living the only way he knew how out of the ring, working for the mob, and he started moving drugs for them. But he knew too much, and he was of no use to the mob anymore, so they got him so drunk he passed out. Then they took him home and stuck a needle in his arm and made it look like Sonny was a user who just got a hot needle. That’s why that footstool was broken in the bedroom. They dropped him as they were carrying him in.

Even in death the press got it all wrong about him. They claimed he was thirty-eight. Hell, he was older than that back when he fought Ali. They claimed he was a junkie. They still wrote of him as a “hoodlum,” “a bad negro,” “the last man America wanted to see coming down the chimney.” Think of that.

The only one who got it right was Geraldine. She talked about how he loved kids. She called him a gentle man.


Wallace and I went out together the next morning. We called in two drake mallards and a hen. Not we. Wallace. He is to a duck call what Yo Yo Ma is to a cello. Both drakes came in on my side and I took them with the kind of shooting you wish had an audience for, but the only other person there to witness it was one of the club dogs, a yellow Lab named Cindy. She did a great job of retrieving them.

Joe had already left by the time we got back from the blind. It was a shame. I wanted to show off my two mallards. I may buy my calls at Walmart and I shoot an 870, but at least I know what to do with them. The others were all playing poker and ignoring the porno channel. I told Mr. Motel what a great job Cindy had done. I told him how much I liked her and I joked that I’d be happy to take her off his hands for him. He told me to make an offer and I walked out without bothering to say goodbye to any of them.

Muhammad Ali

June 5th, 2016 12 Comments

Muhammad Ali


I once met Muhammad Ali.

We never had a television when I was growing up, but my father—as mild and peaceable and intellectual a gentleman as ever trod on leather—somehow became a big fan of the great Sugar Ray Robinson, with the result that I have a memory of being taken somewhere (my father’s club, a friend’s house, a bar?) to watch Sugar Ray fight. Who would that opponent have been? Based on the timing, it must have been either Jake LaMotta or Rocky Graziano, but time and many years of watching classic old fights on television have conflated many bouts into that one contest watched with my father so long ago.

It doesn’t matter; the damage was done, and I became a boxing fan. Given the constraints of no television and living in Europe for so much of my childhood, all I was really able to follow was the heavyweight division, but I happily read about Joe Louis, Archie Moore (the Mongoose, a compelling nickname to a small boy in love with Rikki-Tikki-Tavi), Rocky Marciano, Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott, Floyd Patterson, Ingemar Johansson, Sonny Liston…

And then one day a young, handsome Olympic gold medalist burst onto the scene, wild, rebellious, funny, flamboyant, infinitely talented, and like practically everyone else of my generation, I idolized him. I devoured everything I could get my hands on that carried anything about his exploits, primarily the European version of Time, and various newspapers. When we returned to America, I was one of only three boys in my boarding school who listened to the rematch with Sonny Liston, fought up in Lewiston, Maine (Lewiston, Maine?!) and the only one who didn’t chatter mindlessly away during that brief fight.

The thing about Ali was that he fought at a time when there really were giants in the boxing game. If Ali hadn’t ever been born, Sonny Liston, Ernie Shavers, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman, Henry Cooper, Doug Jones… Anyone of those men might have been dubbed the greatest if Ali had never been born, but he was born, and he beat them all.

I was living on the lower East side in New York, trying to start a career as an actor, in my twenties but looking much younger, when Ali fought The Rumble in Jungle against the clearly unbeatable George Foreman. Think about it: Ali had only recently been beaten by Joe Frazier who had lost in two rounds to the towering and immensely hard-hitting George Foreman; how could Ali possibly hope to beat Foreman? But a friend of mine from acting school, talked me into watching the fight live on big screens in Madison Square Garden. We bought our tickets and settled down in our seats, praying for Ali, but knowing we were praying for the impossible. We were the only white people in our section, and when someone tapped me on the shoulder I turned around and found myself looking at one of the biggest and meanest men I had ever seen in my life.

“White boy,” he said, “Ali loses, you gonna die.”

My heart went into my mouth. “Hey,” I protested, “Come on, I want Ali to win! I’m rooting for him!”

“Don’t matter. He loses, you gonna die.”

It put an extra edge into my prayer. It also inspired me to look for a quick way out when the inevitable occurred.

But the inevitable did not occur. What happened in that ring that night was not so much a display of boxing at its finest, as in the case of the three fights with Joe Frazier, but a display of ring generalship, of psychological warfare, of destroying an opponent mentally as much as physically. Whatever. When it was over, the Garden erupted, all of us screaming and shouting, jumping and whooping, total strangers hugging me. One of them was the mean and threatening giant in the seat behind me. He nearly crushed my ribs and broke my scapulas pounding me on my back in his ecstasy. Then very suddenly his face went back to mean and threatening, he grabbed me by both shoulders and pushed me out to arm’s length away.

“White boy,” he said. “You lucky.”

To this day I’m not entirely sure he was joking, but I remain infinitely grateful to Muhammad Ali.

Fast forward ten or twelve years to Los Angeles. We were filming an episode of Simon & Simon in the exclusive and expensive gated enclave called Freemont Place, within the already exclusive and expensive neighborhood of Hancock Park. I happened to be talking to the location manager and he pointed at a house down the street and said, “Muhammad Ali lives there.”

Wow, I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to just see him? But I knew such a thing was unlikely to happen, that he was probably somewhere else, too busy to even appear outside his own house.

I was wrong. Later that day, we were rehearsing a scene right after lunch when someone pointed and yelled, “There’s Ali.”

He was driving a brown convertible Rolls Royce with the top down, with two little girls in the backseat. My normal reaction to the very famous that I greatly admire is to become tongue-tied and awkward, and anything that does make it out of my mouth is vapid and inane, so I have no explanation for what happened next, but without conscious thought or volition I ran across the vast expanse of lawn and down the street after the Rolls, vaguely aware that Mackie was running right behind me.

As the car slowed to turn into the driveway, I yelled, “Hey Champ!”

Immediately the car stopped and Ali got out, looking at me.

“White boy, did you call me ‘tramp’?”

I skidded to a halt.

Fortunately, Mackie was quicker on the uptake than I was. “You don’t see him running do you?”

Ali laughed. He told the little girls to go in the house and turned off the engine of the Rolls, and when he straightened back up he had a fistful of papers in one hand. We shook hands with him and stood chatting as easily and companionably as if the three of us were old friends. What did we talk about? I don’t remember now. I do remember I was stunned at how much bigger he was in person than he looked on television during his boxing career, and I realized his appearance on television was a sort of optical illusion; he was so perfectly proportioned, physically, that many of the men who appeared so much more massive than he were simply just more top-heavy or thick. I remember that at one point he was surprised by some piece of boxing trivia I knew and when I told him I was doing a little boxing myself he immediately squared off as if we were going to spar.

But most of all I remember his niceness. He was funny, he was smart, he charming, he was accessible, but most of all he was just nice. When one of our assistant directors called for us to come back to work, he shifted the papers he held from his right hand to his left, to shake hands with us again and dropped the whole stack. I squatted down to help him gather them up and as we straightened he said, almost apologetically, “These are my girls’ school papers. I save all their school work, save it all in a scrap book.”

And that little comment, spoken with a strange combination of pride and bashfulness, touched me then in ways that I find hard to quantify. It touches me now.

He was the greatest heavyweight at a time when the heavyweight division was filled with greats. He was of course a superlative athlete with matchless speed and reflexes. When Ingmar Johannsen sparred with him while training for the rematch with Floyd Patterson, after one round he told his trainer to get him out of the ring, that he, Johannsen, wanted to spar with someone fast, not with lightening. Ali combined those matchless physical skills with courage, intelligence, and dogged determination, a will to win that sometimes carried him to victory even after his body was spent. Think of the Thriller in Manila.

But what made him so exceptional was that he was able to carry that courage, that intelligence, and that determination outside the ring, to become a hero for so many Americans, black and white, during a troubled period of American history, and later, after his career was over, for so many—in so many ways—suffering from Parkinson’s or poverty.

What made him so exceptional was his niceness.

Book Review: L.A. Noir

June 3rd, 2016 14 Comments

LA Noir


A year or so ago, my lady wife and I stumbled across a series on TNT called Mob City. It was an excellent, stylish tip of the hat to the classic film noir productions of Hollywood’s golden era and to the kind of movies that came out of that era, movies that emphasized a world-weary, cynical view of life, where moral ambiguity reigns and the hero typically loses more than he gains in his Pyrrhic victory over evil. Think of Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum in film adaptations of novels by Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain directed by John Huston or Howard Hawks. I’m over-simplifying terribly, but you get the noir picture.

I was tottering around a bookstore recently with my friend Dan Bronson, a retired screen-writer and former professor of English and American literature, and we stumbled across the book upon which Mob City is based. To my surprise, the book, L.A. Noir, by John Buntin, is a non-fiction account of the Los Angeles Police Department as it grew and developed in response to, and in conjunction with, the growth and spread of organized crime in America.

Let me give you some perspective. The LAPD is considered one of the elite and premier law enforcement agencies in the world, the very best of the best. For many decades they took a sort of cynical pride in the fact that they were the smallest police force relative to the population they served anywhere in the civilized world. I believe that statistic may still be true. Due in part to the small number of officers, versus the large numbers of people in a vast amount of square miles of territory, they made a virtue of necessity and pioneered techniques that allowed them to get the job done, techniques that are now studied and imitated by law enforcement agencies around the world. There is a reason why retired LAPD officer (former SWAT-team member and firearms and tactical instructor for the elite Metro division) Scott Reitz’s International Tactical Training Seminars is the go-to place for training for such entities as Navy Special Warfare Team Six and Army Delta Forces, as well as elite law enforcement agencies from around the world. Men and women who make their livings doing the dangerous things that allow the rest of us to sleep quietly at night train with the best, and that’s Scott Reitz. That’s the LAPD.

To call this book scholarly is an insult. I was still living in Los Angeles back during the Rodney King riots, and because I had and have friends in law enforcement, I was privy to a few details about those riots that were not commonly known. I was a little stunned to see some of those details in the closing pages of L.A. Noir. If Mr. Buntin was that thorough about all the research he did for the entire book, than this is more than merely scholarly; it practically qualifies as obsessively well-researched.

But it is also an insult to call it scholarly because that word—at least to me—carries the implication of dusty and jejune pedantry, and L.A. Noir reads like a Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain thriller. Mr. Buntin has the technique of the best of best investigative reporters, really of all good writers of non-fiction (think of Jared Diamond or the late Marc Reisner), finishing each chapter with a sentence or paragraph that leaves you desperate to find out what happens next.

Having said that, Buntin employs, very logically, the technique of (for the most part) using Chief William Parker and legendary gangster Mickey Cohen to drive his story, alternating back and forth as he follows their respective careers and how they intertwine. But look back at that sentence. “…Chief William Parker and legendary gangster Mickey Cohen…” If L.A. Noir has a weak spot it is due to William Parker. Yes, he was a brilliant, innovative police chief, but in his personal life he was about as exciting as yesterday’s mashed potatoes, and the chapters that focus on him pale in comparison to the chapters that focus on the flamboyant, volatile, unpredictable, and always deadly Mickey Cohen. Think about it: if you’re walking through your backyard and you suddenly see a garter snake on one side of you and a rattlesnake on the other, which one are you going to focus on?

Because Mickey Cohen was the colorful character he was, and because gambling was an important part of their operations, he and Bugsy Siegel both crossed paths, directly or indirectly, and in some cases mingled easily with, a who’s-who of household names from that era: George Raft, Robert Mitchum, Columbia Pictures boss and despicable wannabe gangster Harry Cohn, Sam Goldwyn, Irving Thalberg, Darryl Zanuck, Lana Turner (with her gangster boyfriend Johnny Stompanato, who once made the mistake of pulling his tough guy routine on real-life tough guy Sean Connery and got knocked unconscious for his pains), Kim Novak, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Ben Hecht, evangelist Billy Graham, and many others even as they crossed swords with Robert Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, Mike Wallace…

The list goes on, and I’m not even bothering to mention the forgotten names of the ruthless and bloody gangsters who were the Shorty Guzmans of their day.

The result is that L.A. Noir, while touted as, “a struggle for the soul of America’s most seductive city,” actually becomes a study of the rapine and venality not only of gangsters outside the law, but of the “respectable” gangsters who stayed inside the law and used their lawyers to pervert justice to their own ends. In short, L.A. Noir is a brilliant, fascinating, beautifully-written, and eminently readable portrait of a city and paradigm for an unchanging country.

There is one bad mark against this book, and that goes to the publisher of the paperback version, Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. I’ve taken the time to write out their full name because they should be ashamed of themselves. In an effort to be mingy and pinch the buffalo, they have made the print so preposterously small that it will almost certainly turn off all but the very young (who don’t read books anyway) or fanatically devoted book lovers like me who refuse to succumb to Kindle. I understand the publishing industry is in turmoil, thanks to a combination of mergers, e-books, declining reading habits, printing costs, and probably a bunch of other factors of which I am blissfully unaware, but for God’s sake, if you’re going to commit to publishing an actual printed book, then cowboy up and print a book worth buying, especially if it is as worthy of reading as L.A. Noir.

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