Wednesday, July 27, 2016

FIRST STRIKE


Doing some historical research on organized labor the other day, I suddenly recalled, in very vivid detail, when I first heard the word “strike”. I can’t remember the political details involved, but I assume it was during a prolonged strike (156 days) by electrical workers at Westinghouse plants all over the United States that took place in 1955-56. I would have been about six years old at the time.  
My pristine little home town of Wapakoneta, Ohio, is located—as I’ve mentioned here before—about 20 minutes south of the once thriving industrial city of Lima (pronounced “lie-mah” not “lee-mah”, although it was indeed named after the Peruvian capital). Or, better said, perhaps, Lima is located 20 minutes north of Wapakoneta—since the founding of our town pre-dates that of Lima by a couple of decades—and lies about halfway between Cincinnati and Toledo on Interstate 75. The land where both towns were built all originally formed part of the Hog Creek Reservation, the traditional tribal homeland of the Shawnee Nation, wrested from their hands through a series of broken promises, ignored treaties and forced relocation operations, in which these noble natives were “invited” to make a new life for themselves in Kansas on the distant opposite side of the Midwestern region.  
It still says Standard Oil but now it's an art center.
Back in its day, Lima was best known for its oil industry—boasting, as of the early 20th century, one of the largest oilfields in the United States and one of the country’s largest oil pumping operations (the Buckeye Pipeline), as well as a major refining and petrochemical operation (which continues to function today, 125 years after its founding).  Such was the Lima oil boom that John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, headquartered at the time in Cleveland, decided to set up refining operations there and to open a major office on the town square. The building is still there, and still has gold letters on the façade reading “Standard Oil”, but today houses a cultural center.
But oil wasn’t all that Lima was about. It was home to one of the country’s most important locomotive builders, its most important builder of school buses, a major steel foundry, one of the country’s most important military tank and amphibious vehicle construction plants, and the Westinghouse Small Motors manufacturing division, among other industries. This last business, Westinghouse, as I mentioned before, was where I first learned the word “strike”.
Back when I was a little boy, I-75 was still being built and the only way to drive into Downtown Lima from Wapakoneta—unless you wanted to come in from the west and cross the entire West Side—was either on the North Dixie Highway or on what we called “the back way” along country roads. But both of these routes took you through the grimy, industrial area known as the South End. There, the highway ran past endless fields of enormous oil storage tanks and industrial plant gates. The air was usually thick with the sulfurous stench of sour crude and ammonia from the refinery and by night was eerily lit by the sullied orange flames of the operation’s venting towers.
The South End was also home to some rough neighborhoods and some even rougher slums. Although when I was growing up there never appeared to me to be a lot of surface racial tension between blacks and whites in Lima, the city had a bad reputation for racism dating back to when my father, Whitie, was a kid. That was when Lima was a major center for an infamously violent branch of the Ku Klux Klan that was known—ironically enough—as the “Black Legion”. It was, regrettably, a homegrown Ohio racist organization that originated as the “Black Guard”, the armed band of black-hooded thugs whose original job it was to protect KKK officers and their families. In a city with an estimated population of around 50,000 at the time, the KKK openly held a parade in the center of Lima in 1923, a year after my dad was born, that drew a crowd of 100,000.
Members of the Black Legion in their ridiculous regalia
Against this background, Whitie grew up in a mostly white enclave of the South End during the hard times of the 1920s and ‘30s—an era in which the natural grit of both he and his older brother Red got well-honed living there. Neither of them were guys you wanted to mess with, even before they went off to train and fight during World War II.
But Red and Whitie were educated in a bi-racial atmosphere and while they weren’t exactly chummy with the African American kids they went to school with, neither were they hostile. Living daily, blacks and whites together, they weren’t imbued with many of the prejudices and irrational fears of the majority of the people in our all-white town. For Whitie, the South End was home and we always felt fairly at ease when we traveled through it with him.
That was not the case with our mother, Reba Mae, who had grown up in the all-white conservative rural community in and surrounding our town. She had nothing against blacks, inheriting her mother’s tolerance for all rather than her father’s open and virulent racism. But she was indeed permeated from childhood with the fear-mongering that was common in many carefully preserved white communities back then. And if we kids accompanied her on a shopping trip to Lima, we knew that when we passed through the last “friendly territory”, crossed an old concrete abutted bridge and started entering the South End, she would invariably begin to almost literally prick up her ears, sitting forward, tense in her seat, gripping the steering wheel hard at ten and two and murmuring, “Are your doors locked, kids? Answer me. Are your doors locked? Roll up your windows. Danny! Lock you door!”     
So there was always a certain apprehension when we drove through the smoky, steely South End of Lima. But on this particular day there was something new. I think Whitie was driving us all to downtown Lima for a dinner of hamburgers, fries and frosted malts at the Kewpee sandwich shop—a kind of busman’s holiday for Dad, since he was, at the time, part-owner of the Teddy Bear Restaurant, back then, the go-to place for hamburgers, fries and malts in Wapakoneta. I was, as usual, on my knees on the backseat of Whitie’s ’49 Ford, my nose pressed to the window, because I always liked to be watching once we passed the Westinghouse plant and the car climbed the tall bridge over the railway-yard below, to take in that gritty, grimy industrial view—which today promised to be more wintry, grey and thrilling than ever—and especially to observe the long rows of air ducts on the roof of the massive locomotive works building, looking for all the world like so many large rusty tin hens come to roost in a row on the soaring heights of the structure far beneath the bridge.
Today, however, something else caught my attention first. Directly across the street from the Westinghouse plant, the sidewalk outside of the factory parking lot and the tarmac on the other side of a tall fence, within the lot, were lined end to end with scores of men. Conspicuous by their absence were women and children. The men inside and the ones outside were grimly facing one another. It wasn’t hard for me to tune into the mood that was very apparently unpleasant and hostile. I noticed that my mother and father were purposely looking straight ahead as we drove by very slowly, directed by traffic cops around the part of the crowd outside the fence that had spilled off the sidewalk onto the pavement, but I gawked unabashed at the scene.
A number of the men on the outside of the fence were uniformed police officers, most holding long clubs at port arms with both hands—one gripping the butt, the other palming the tip. A few of them were carrying riot guns instead. Others on the outside of the fence were men in plain clothes. They mostly wore overcoats against the day’s dank chill, the brims of their felt hats pulled low over their eyes, so much so that their colorless grey clothing also resembled uniforms. And some of them, too, were carrying clubs.
On the inside of the parking lot fence, men stood pretty much shoulder to shoulder as well, but in less uniform style. They came and went and milled about and spelled each other at the fence. Some warmed their hands at a few metal drums from which yellow-orange flames sometimes leaped, others shared steaming coffee from metal Thermos flasks, and still others stood with their fingers laced through the diamond-shaped wires of the chain-link fence, staring down the men outside, their faces challenging and angry. Some of the men inside also wore overcoats and hats pulled low. But others were wearing bomber jackets or denim and sported billed caps with ear tabs, ball-caps or snap-billed tweed cloth caps. There were men carrying hand-lettered, poster-board signs nailed to two-by-fours. A few, I recall, had their heads bandaged in gauze underneath their hats.
As we advanced past the scene, I heard my mother mutter to my father, “I wonder when this is going to be over so people can get back to work.” Whitie said hard telling, but probably whenever the damned union got its way...or when the company’d had enough and run that bunch of goldbrickers out of there. I leaned over the seat between them and asked what was going on.
“It’s a strike,” my father said.
“What’s a strike?” I asked.
And that question got me my first abbreviated and editorialized lesson on labor relations. My parents’ view was pretty much the norm among conservative business owners, small and large, in our area of the country. Indeed, Whitie identified with a factory-owner in our town who, when threatened once by his workers with unionization, told them that he was a wealthy man. He didn’t need a job. They did. He treated them fairly, he claimed, and said that if they wanted to unionize, to be his guests, that he would simply shut the place down, put a for-sale sign on the door and send them home. Result: The workers practically lynched the union activists who had tried to organize them, and sent them packing.  
In short, from what I gathered, the guys on the outside of the fence who were defending corporate interests were the  the "good guys", and the ones on the inside of the fence defending their livelihoods and their families’ lifestyles were the "bad guys". They were anti-American, socialists who wanted to undermine the American economy. I remember feeling afraid of the strikers, being glad they were being contained behind the fence, inside the parking lot, by the “good guys” with the clubs on the sidewalk outside.
It would take me years to figure out that this wasn't always—hardly ever, in fact—the way things actually worked. And it wasn’t until, as a professional musician, I became a union member myself, that I really began to think about the anti-union prejudices I’d been brought up with and to realize that, whatever certain big-labor unions had morphed into, the idea behind unions had started out, and often continued to be a good one: people standing together, without discrimination, to defend themselves and others against helplessness and exploitation. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

THE MIRACULOUS VIRGIN


This is an excerpt from my as yet unpublished novel, the working title of which is “Life and Death”. In this passage, the protagonist, Chaz Dickson, a newsman who lives in Argentina, has received a religious medal (the Miraculous Virgin) from his wife Mo’s mother, Doña María. A former Protestant cum agnostic, Chaz accepts the medal and wears it, as he might a rabbit’s foot, for good luck. But Doña María, a fervent Catholic who boasts personal relationships with her favorite saints, is bent on convincing him that it is so much more...
It wasn't until some time after doña María had made a miraculous recovery from her heart attack and was practically back to normal that I had what I can only describe—and believe me, I writhe a little at the use of the term—as a religious experience. The only person, other than doña María, whom I ever told about it was Mo. As a newsman, and one who had gained a fair amount of success at a rather young age, I had worked hard on my image as a cynic, and admitting that I had witnessed something like this would have been tantamount to "getting religion", which would surely have cost me my credibility as an "objective", hard-nosed, believe-it-when-I-see-it, ultra-critical, poison-pen editorialist. But hey, something happened.
It wasn't the wines of the Eucharist, because in Catholicism only the priest gets to sample the Blood, although, who knows, maybe it was an allergic reaction to the incense. I admit, I'd been to a get-together beforehand and had a few drinks, which could have had an influence, but to this day, somehow, I don't think so.
It happened when doña María was still on a lot of medication after her near-fatal heart-attack, but feeling fine enough that it was hard to keep her from overdoing. A friend, Aurelia, was celebrating her seventy-fifth birthday and doña María said she wouldn't miss it for the world. In her own circle, doña María was a very sociable person. Frugal to a fault in daily life, she knew how to cut loose at parties. She relished the free-flowing wine and rich food and she loved to chat and joke and dance all night long in the company of a select crowd. Her friend Aurelia was what is known in Argentina as a "Peronist of the first hour"—an undying admirer of the controversial political strongman, General Juan Domingo Perón, an old-guard follower who now, in the post-coup 1970s pined for the days when Peronism was more like a monarchy than a tacky democracy and an outlawed, discredited, has-been popular movement.
Because of her untiring political activism at a neighborhood, grass-roots level, Aurelia had literally hundreds of friends—a handful of intimate ones, like María (who, oddly enough, was not only not a Peronist, but had also been an active anti-Peronist back in the fifties just before the Revolución Libertadora overthrew General Perón in a bloody coup), and then scores of political "friends", people who owed Aurelia something, were currently seeking some favor, or to whom she herself was somehow indebted. María and Aurelia never talked politics, except at the most superficial level, because María respected Aurelia for her dedication to a cause and Aurelia respected the fact that María had other political leanings. Doña María was a bit of political snob, a conservative, who thought the populist tendencies of Peronism distasteful, but who found the social cream at the top of the movement fascinating. Aurelia was fun-loving, bright and generous, and loved a good party even more than María did.
Mo and I were worried when doña María made known her decision to attend the party. We were concerned about how her health would stand up to the excitement, rich food and abundant drink, all of which, we were sure, she would have trouble resisting. We told her we didn't think it a good idea for her to go partying so soon after her brush with death—to which she laughed, said, "Nonsense!" and told us to mind our own business.
When our protests continued, however, she said that if we were so worried about her, why didn't we accompany her? We said we didn't know anybody, and she said that if we never went anyplace, how could we expect to get to know anybody ever? The party coincided with my night off at the paper, so in the end, we agreed to go.
Aurelia lived in a big old house with a wrought-iron gate and a little inner garden beyond the doorstep, where María's friend cultivated spectacular red, yellow and white roses. The house was on Calle Bahía Blanca, fronting Plaza Vélez Sarsfield and just a few doors down from the Church of the Candelaria, the parish around which doña María's neighborhood had grown up. When we arrived, something of a crush of arriving invitees had formed at the door of Aurelia's house, and even many of the uninvited faithful making their way up the street to evening Mass at the Candelaria stopped to offer Aurelia their best wishes from the garden gate, as she stood at the door welcoming her friends and greeting her neighbors.
Once inside the house, I was impressed to see the level of Aurelia's influence. Despite being a rather minor former neighborhood party official, she obviously had friends in much higher places. I counted at least five faces of former Peronist officials whom I recognized from the photo files at the paper. There were also several Federal Police officials and field grade Army officers, who were no doubt breaking specific High Command orders by being present at what could be construed as a "political meeting", all forms of which had been outlawed by the governing junta under the terms of the State of Siege Decree. There were also a couple of recognizable stage and screen actors, a Catholic monsignor, two independent political columnists whom I vaguely knew from press conferences we had all attended, and a former contender for the world middleweight boxing title.
Originally having gone along reluctantly for the sole purpose of making sure doña María behaved herself, I now forgot my appointed duty entirely and began to mingle, taking advantage of the windfall of journalistic material at my disposal. It was already past midnight when I remembered María and Mo and began searching the rooms of the rambling old house to find them. When I did, they were at the center of attention, accompanying Aurelia in the patio, and surrounded by a covey of attentive older gentlemen—a former classmate of María's who was now a successful TV scriptwriter of considerable fame, a former Peronist culture secretary, a former district court judge and a silver-haired retired colonel on whom, Mo later confided, her mother had always had a crush. Mo was a little peeved at me for having gone off to do interviews instead of staying with her and her mother, but doña María was delighted that I had been mixing.
"Success," she said, "is in who you know," and then she embarrassed me by introducing me to the illustrious men in their circle at the party as "one of the directors" of the newspaper. "They'll never know the difference," she murmured when I whispered a protest, "and if they think you're in a position of power in the press, they might very well be of help to you in reaching your future goals. Just remember, Carlitos, the riffraff come and go, but the gente bien remain afloat no matter who's in power."
Doña María toed the line extraordinarily well, just enjoying being alive, out and circulating again, high on the social event and with no apparent need to shatter the limits of her convalescence. She sipped no more than two glasses of champagne all evening, ate only two or three canapés and celebrated her friend's seventy-fifth year with no more than one thin slice of sugary birthday cake. She topped off her reencounter with society by dancing a discreet but not unenergetic tango with the silver-haired colonel and returned to her seat slightly flushed with excitement, smiling coyly as Aurelia clucked her tongue and said, "Watch out for the colonel, María. They say he's an incorrigible mujeriego, a womanizer to be sure."
"What do I care?" doña María laughed. "I'm not looking for a faithful, boring husband, just a little interesting male company."
I laughed and Mo cried "Mother!" To which María said "Oh grow up, nena. You only live once and I'm already on borrowed time."
After the tango, Mo kept observing her mother, worried that the excitement and exertion might bring on another heart attack. I was just buzzed enough that the world seemed a harmless beautiful place and I urged Mo to loosen up and quit sheltering her mother. Maybe a little romance was just what she needed to make her feel healthy, to make her feel like a woman again instead of a disease. She said if I wanted to kill my own mother it was up to me but that she knew what was best for hers.
Doña María overheard our terse whispers and said, "You listen to Carlitos, nena. You have a wise husband."
"And you've had too much champagne, Mamá," Mo said condescendingly.
The colonel stood from his seat beside Aurelia and asked doña María for another dance. Mo refused for her mother, telling the colonel that she wouldn't permit it because as the lady's daughter, she would be the one who would have to sit in the emergency room crying if doña María were to have a heart attack.
Doña María looked embarrassed and pinched Mo's arm.
But the colonel, unperturbed, counterattacked, saying, "Well then, maybe we can just chat for a while and get to know each other better." He gestured for Mo to make room and she went and occupied his seat by Aurelia, while the colonel sat down beside doña María and boldly took her hand in his as he said, "Did I ever tell you, señora, about the time when I commanded a scientific expedition in the Argentine sector of Antarctica?"
It was well past midnight when the party started winding down and we were finally able to tear doña María away from her friends. The colonel walked us to the door after we had kissed Aurelia good-night and wished her well. The colonel offered to drive us home. Doña María thanked him but refused, saying that we only lived a few blocks away and the walk would do her good. He promised to call her to have dinner soon. She seemed charmed, and moved with a girlish gait down Aurelia's garden path to the street.
It was a week-night and the street in front of the plaza was quiet. The only lights in the houses along the block were those burning brightly in Aurelia's place from which the sound of canned music and the loud talk of boozy, late-night hangers-on still emanated.

Our house was the opposite way from the Candelaria, but doña María said, "Let's walk past the church before we go home."
"Mother," Mo complained, "it's late and I have to get up early tomorrow."
"That's all right, nena. You go on home. You must be tired. Carlitos will walk with me, won't you?"
"Sure," I said and Mo looked daggers at me in the light of the street-lamp. "I'll bring her right home," I said reassuringly.
"You'd better," Mo warned.
"Oh, stop fretting," doña María snapped. "A walk around the block before bed will be good for me."
Mo shrugged resignedly, kissed us both on the cheek and headed for home. Doña María looped her arm through mine and we made our way to the Candelaria. It was a beautiful, clear, moonlit night, unseasonably cool. I offered doña María my blazer to put around her shoulders and she accepted it.
To my surprise, when we reached the steps of the church, she said, "Let's stop in a minute."
As usual, I froze at the thought of entering a church. There was something about Catholic sanctuaries and their multiple plaster images and imposing altars that simultaneously fascinated and spooked me. I didn't mind dropping in on one of the countless churches of Buenos Aires in the light of day, accompanied by Mo, and in a detached, touristy mood, pretending to, say, study the architecture, record the history of the place in my pocket journal, try to place the artist who had painted the ceilings, observe the comings and goings of the faithful as they bustled in off the workaday-busy streets for a moment of meditation and prayer. But we did it seldom and I always secretly did so whistling low in the back of my mind and silently repeating again and again, "There ain't no ghosts, there ain't no ghosts," like Stymie and Buckwheat in the Our Gang movies that WDTN Channel 5 ran on weekday afternoons when I was a kid back home. I wasn't altogether comfortable in the Protestant churches where I'd been brought up. But their Puritan lines and stripped-down architecture made them somehow more innocuous and insipid. They had fewer shadows and candles and statues and paintings. Their crosses were empty and hygienic, there was no blood and gore splashing walls and windows and ceilings, no stain-glass Saint Steven with a score of arrows bristling from his body, no severed head of John the Baptist, no Christ in agony, hanging from the brutal spikes in his hands and feet. True, Protestant churches were somehow unnatural and creepy with their smell of mothballs, talc and mildewed hymnals — places where you lowered your voice even when no one else was there. But Catholic churches were mysterious, haunting, soaked in a long and bloody history of torture, war and intrigue, festooned with power symbols, saintly images and scenes devoted to the glorification of Christian martyrdom. They made me nervous even when I pretended to be a casual tourist. But the thought of entering a closed church in the middle of the night in the company of a woman who was spiritually strong enough to think nothing of maintaining practically first-name relationships with long-dead saints and departed loved ones suddenly turned my blood to ice-water.
"Come on, Carlitos," she said again. "Be a sport. Let's go in."    
"It must be closed at this hour," I said.
"Nonsense. The sacristán always leaves a side door open so early worshippers can get in before work without bothering him, because he hates getting up early."
When I didn't respond, she said, "Please, Carlitos. For me. Por favor, un minutito. I want to show you the Milagrosa."
"Okay," I said reluctantly, "just for a moment."
It was dim and dank inside the sanctuary. The side door into the nave squawked on rusty hinges as it closed behind us and our heels echoed on the dew-slick marble floor. I peered into the semi-darkness as doña María tugged at my elbow, urging me forward into the church. There was a single light on over the front altar. Another dim bulb burned far at the back of the church near the main doors. We had entered the sanctuary in approximately the mid-section, where the gloom seemed forbidding. I felt like an intruder in the sepulchral silence and froze for a moment, wanting to turn back, but doña María continued to shepherd me further into the nave, where, it was obvious, she felt completely at ease.
"It's only a moment," she said, sensing my reluctance.
Doña María was as familiar with the sanctuary as with her own home. She found a light switch on a column a few meters in and flicked it on. A feeble bank of overhead lights turned total darkness to a diffuse, dusky twilight. We stepped out of the penumbra of the side aisle and walked down the middle of the church toward the main altar. Near the front row of pews, doña María pulled her arm free of mine, crossed herself, nimbly genuflected, then stood and crossed herself again, kissing the knuckle of her forefinger and the nail of her thumb. Christ hung in torment from the cross above the pulpit, eyes rolled heavenward, mouth slightly agape, His bright red life's-blood running in rivulets down His forehead and one side of His face from the cruel crown of thorns, arms stretched to the fullest and knees bent against the agonizing pain of the terrible spikes driven through His palms and feet, a gash in His side spilling blood onto His otherwise impeccably white loincloth. Although I had seen many a crucifix since moving to South America, this image seemed particularly vivid and chilling in the somber light and desolate late-night silence of the Candelaria.
Near the front of the nave, in the wide horizontal passage where the faithful gathered at the culmination of each Mass to receive the Host from the supple white fingers of the officiating priest, we turned abruptly to the right, away from the altar. Doña María was girlish and bright-eyed, suddenly an excited youngster, despite her advancing years and now chronic ill-health.
"Come, come," she whispered in a conspiratorial tone as if we were two children crashing the gates of the graveyard by night, "I want you to meet the Milagrosa." I followed her along the south side of the church, past a cluttered row of plaster saints of all shapes and sizes, every one painted in the garish greens, reds, blues and golds preferred by the Italian founders of the parish. The saints stood in their niches, silent and gaudy in their colorful robes, some with wilted floral offerings at their feet, others with the yellow-gray spatterings of spent candles littering their pedestals.
Doña María stopped about a quarter of the way back from the front of the temple and did a neat left-face in front of a tall, almost elegant figure. She stepped back a pace and pushed me forward, centering me in front of the image by placing her hands on both my elbows from behind. Then she asked me for a coin. I unquestioningly reached into my trouser pocket and produced one. I heard her drop it with a dull clunk into a wooden box. Then I heard her strike a match before she returned to where I stood. She was carrying a lighted candle, which she ceremoniously placed in a small jar at the statue's feet. She crossed herself and again stepped back, leaving me alone before the effigy.
"This," I heard doña María say, as if from far off somewhere, "is la Virgen Milagrosa. She is your protector."
I could say nothing and immediately began to tremble, my hands sweating, my teeth gritted to keep them from chattering.
"Isn't she beautiful?" I heard María say somewhere behind me, and still I couldn't respond. "I'll leave you with her for a few moments," my mother-in-law said and suddenly I found myself alone with the Virgin and riveted to my spot.
Something like fear and awe rose up in me and a kind of joy mixed with anguish welled up in my chest. I vaguely and vainly sought to quell the powerful emotion by seeing the statue for what my logic told me it was—a plaster image. But try as I might I could not control my illogical feelings. The Virgin's blue shawl flowed in soft folds from the crown of her head to beyond her waist and the heavy pleats of her white robe caressed the tops of her delicate-boned feet. Her benign, tallow-pale face was more tender and radiant than the flesh of any classic human beauty. Her lips formed an almost sensuous bow that might well have just kissed the gentle brow of a newborn babe. Her hands, palms out with arms open to her sides, begged an embrace. Her deeply compassionate eyes locked on mine and refused to let me go. As I looked into them, everything else around me seemed to recede and an inexplicable luminescence suddenly emanated from her and engulfed me, so that nothing but her beauty existed.

I had been brought up, back in the American Midwest, to believe that tough guys don't cry, and had been able to successfully restrain my tears completely from adolescence on. But now, against my will, against all reason, my emotions welled up and spilled over the rims of my eyes. Tears slid down my cheeks and an involuntary sob choked me. Joy, awe and incomprehension filled me and then melted together in concentric waves of warmth and security that seemed connected to the glow that the Virgin was apparently generating.
With a monumental effort, I tore my eyes from hers and shut them, and the feeling abruptly stopped. But as soon as I glanced at her once more, the emotion again caught my spiritual core in its grasp and brought new tears to my eyes. It wasn't until doña María laid her hand on my shoulder and whispered, "Isn't she beautiful, Carlitos?" that I was able to turn away from the Miraculous Virgin. As I did, I could distinctly feel the oval of medal dangling from the chain around my neck lying warm as an only half-cooled rivet against my breast.
I brushed my cheeks with the backs of my hands and tried to speak, but had to clear my throat before I could say, "Yes, more beautiful than anything else I've ever known."
That was the sum total of our conversation about what had happened between la Milagrosa and me. I never again had this type of dramatic religious experience in waking life. And during the three years that followed until doña María's death, not once did we talk about the incident. Nor did we repeat the unique nocturnal visit to the sanctuary. I occasionally walked my mother-in-law to Mass, but I would invariably sit in the plaza reading until she came out, never again, in those three years, entering the Candelaria—although doña María never failed to invite me to come inside with her.
Doña María died while reading in her bed. (It was her custom to read long into the night when she couldn't sleep). She passed away in the company of two great works: open, face-down on her night-table, lay Paradiso from Dante's La Divina Commedia, the book she had re-learned Italian to read. Open on her lap was The Confessions of St. Augustine. In her right hand, when my brother-in-law found her body the next morning, she was clutching the Miraculous Virgin Medal. According to Alfonso, his mother appeared to have died in complete peace. And why not? When she crossed over, she was surely among friends.
The night of the day of her funeral, the chain on my own Milagrosa medal broke while I was sleeping. Mo found the medal and its necklace in the bedding the next morning. I had become so used to the medal's presence that I wasn't even aware I had lost it. When Mo told me she had found it, I felt a sudden chill, a kind of terrible anxiety at the thought that I had gone through the night unprotected. Suddenly, the Milagrosa was a lot more to me than a surrogate rabbit's foot.
I painstakingly repaired the clasp on the medallion's chain and replaced it around my neck. That same day, I went alone to the Candelaria, pushed through its tall doors into the nave and strode directly to the niche of the Miraculous Virgin to try to re-establish spiritual contact with her and with my mother-in-law, for whom I was grieving more than I could ever have imagined I would grieve for any human being. I stared long and hard into the eyes of the Virgin, but it was no go. Nothing happened. I felt nothing but disgust and disillusionment. She was just another plaster image, a chipped, frozen-faced statue, with staring, painted eyes, a too-deliberately-sweet painted bow of a mouth and gaudy blue and gold-glitter shawl which, I now noticed, could have stood a good dusting. The only light that radiated from the plaster saint was that which glinted off the ridiculous gold-foil pseudo-rays that fanned out behind the idol's head.
When I came out of the church and crossed the street to sit alone in the plaza for a while, I felt something cool against my belly and, reaching inside my shirt, found my medal resting against the waistband of my trousers, the chain once again broken, but this time in the middle instead of at the clasp. My hands began to shake as I stuffed the broken chain and the medal into my shirt pocket. I sat down, exhausted, on a bench in the plaza and wept for a time in grief and desolation. 
Later that day I said to Mo, "My chain broke again."
"Maybe you'll have to have a new clasp put on it," she said.
"This time it broke in a different place."
"Don't worry, darling," she said soothingly, sensing my despair and talking to me as if I were a child afraid of the dark, "we'll get you a new chain."
She was so gentle and attentive despite her own grief, that I put my arms around her and began to weep against her shoulder.
"It won't do any good," I said. "With your mother gone, the Milagrosa has abandoned me."
At this, Mo held me away from her and looked sternly at me through tears of her own.
"Don't you believe that, Chaz! Not even for a minute. The Virgin hasn't abandoned you. She's just telling you that you no longer need her. You now have a protector of your own on the other side."
I bought a new chain for my medal, a stronger, heavier one. But it was no use. It broke again and fell to the floor when I undressed to bathe the evening of the same day that I attempted once again to wear it. Broken chain and Virgin now lie in state in a box in my dresser drawer, little more than a slightly tarnished reminder of doña María's love.


Monday, June 27, 2016

EXCERPT 7 FROM ‘VOICES IN THE STORM’ — COURTING THE HERALD


The following is an excerpt from Chapter Three of the autobiographical book I’m currently writing, entitled Voices in the Storm: A Journalist’s Memoir, about my early days in Buenos Aires.
Inexperienced, under-confident, if well-traveled twenty-four-year-old that I was at the time, I don’t know, to this day, how I plucked up the courage and audacity to unmercifully pester an editor and writer of the international standing of Robert J. Cox for months on end until he gave me a job, but somehow, I managed it. Maybe it was just the brashness of youth and the fact that I had a personal vision of my future as a writer laid out neatly in my mind. That, and the fact that back then, in 1974, the only show in town for an English-language 'wannabe' writer with a hankering for some experience in the trenches was the Buenos Aires Herald.
Cox looking very much as he did when I
met him, in a portrait on the cover of
son David's 2009 memoir, "Dirty Secrets,
Dirty War".
Born and reared in England, Cox had started working in provincial newspapers while still in his teens. By the time he was recruited to the ranks of the Buenos Aires Herald in 1959, he was already a street-tested twenty-six year old reporter for the Hull Daily Mail. He was brought into the Herald on a three-year contract and was promised that after his first three years in Buenos Aires, he would be granted three months of vacation and passage on a steamer to return home to England for a visit. He was hired as a copy-editor, but it wasn’t long before his writing ability and news sense moved him up the ladder to general news editor.
Founded in 1876, the Herald was one of Argentina's three oldest surviving newspapers out of about a dozen dailies that the city boasted. Originally created as a single-sheet maritime shipping paper, but later having grown into a full-fledged news daily, at a time of all but sovereign British power over Argentina's trade and transport interests, the Herald had since entered into a state of gradual decay, following the days of rekindled nationalist fervor that emerged in the 1940s and '50s, with the rise to power of autocratic popular nationalist leader General Juan Domingo Perón. Despite the best efforts of its latest two editors—both respected international newsmen—it had settled into being a rather pokey little daily that served the interests of what was left of an aging and shrinking English-language community. But its editorial and international pages belied that destiny, reflecting the professionalism and higher interests of Bob’s predecessor, Norman Ingrey, and then of Cox himself.
In Buenos Aires, Cox would meet and marry Maud Daverio, a young lady of considerable connections in Buenos Aires society, with whom he would have five Argentine children while rising to the post of Editor-in-Chief and, eventually, Chairman of the Board at the Herald. Such strong ties to Argentina had already made the English-language daily his most viable source of full-time news work. He would, however, also gain international prestige as an honored stringer for such renowned news organizations as Newsweek, the BBC, The Washington Post and The New York Times, among others.  So it was that, by the time Ingrey retired in 1970, Cox was pretty much ensconced as a credible, savvy, foreign observer of political and social life in Argentina. His professional presence, in turn, was what kept the Herald from sinking further and further into oblivion and dying what could only have been considered a natural death. As natural, surely, as the one the 'old school tie' Anglo-Argentine community was dying as its youth decided that they were less Anglo than Argentine and began wanting to “mingle with the natives” in what clearly seemed to be shaping up as a post-colonialist age.
Bob Cox with wife Maud Daverio. (Photo published in Perfil.com)
Cox was aided in this task by the fact that, at around this same time, the Charleston Evening Post Publishing Company (Charleston, South Carolina) acquired a controlling share of the Herald, which, since the 1920s, had been an (Anglo) Argentine family-owned concern. There must surely have been some speculation at the time as to why on earth the Charleston group would want a foreign white elephant like the Herald, but if so, it was only among observers who had never met Peter Manigault, then President of that expanding media group and son of the wealthy family that controlled it. A true Southern gentleman and former naval officer of urbane tastes and education, Manigault was also a bit whimsical and off-beat. Add that to the fact that he dabbled in Spanish-language studies and loved South America, and this was enough to provide him with all of the justification he needed to purchase a quaint, colonial-style 'gem' like the Herald, even if cynics must surely have asked themselves if it wasn't, perhaps, a tax write-off.
Although when Bob first heard about the sale he worried that he might be fired and replaced by someone Charleston would choose as editor,  when Manigault and Cox met, they hit it off almost immediately—since if Manigault was an truly uncommon businessman, Cox was genuinely iconic in the world of old-school journalism. And he would very shortly evolve into the stuff movie-hero journalists are made of: the editor of a small paper fighting major battles in defense of authentic justice, human rights and the rule of law. And the bond between him and Manigault would clearly come in handy in the future when his authority was called into question by one of the local owners of the other forty percent interest.
When I first met him in early 1974, Cox was the clearly over-extended managing editor of a paper with plummeting advertising revenues and a shrinking readership. It could barely afford its skeletal staff and the third floor offices it rented in a shabby building (that also housed the down-at-heel English Club) in what was then, as I mentioned earlier, the red-light district near the old port. As such, Cox could ill-afford the time or money to make any major changes in the paper itself. The result was a rather quirky, provincial, outdated, ill-proofed little twelve to sixteen-page tabloid with an international wire-copy front page and translated local-wire news page, a sports section that featured international cricket and soccer—as well as rugby, bowling on the green, equestrian sports and field hockey—a few really good columns and stories provided by good-willed, ill-paid contributors and staffers, and an extraordinarily high-quality editorial page that made the rest of the paper look like a mere frame in which to publish it. And that, in fact, was what it was fast becoming.
Not that Cox wouldn't have liked to have professionalized the Herald. He tried as often as he could to impress on his tiny staff the importance of dedication to objectivity and professional care, but he was obviously overworked and just as obviously much more of a writer and investigator than a hands-on editor, so he dedicated more and more time to chronicling the nightmare that was unfolding in Argentina on his editorial page and less and less to trying to extricate the rest of the paper from the malaise of routine mediocrity into which it had slumped and now wallowed.
After struggling with myself for some time regarding how to go about getting an introduction to Cox, I one day simply decided to call the Herald and ask for an interview and, somewhat to my surprise, was given one for the following evening. When I arrived at 6 p.m., the advertising and administrative employees were bidding each other good night and leaving, as the editorial staffers were just arriving. There was no waiting room to speak of, just a worn green leather armchair wedged in at the end of the classified ads counter partially blocking the door to the editor's office and just a few feet from two big metal and translucent glass swinging doors that bore lettering reading Editorial Department. I was asked to take a seat and wait. When the last of the clerks and advertising staff had said good night and taken the elevator, a very prim, very English-looking middle-aged woman with whom I had spoken on my arrival shut off all of the lights except for one just over my head and said, “I’ve let him know you’re here. He'll be with you in a moment.” And then she added, “Good night,” and followed her fellow workers down on the elevator.
I sat there alone for quite a long time with just the buzzing drone of the neon light to keep me company. Eventually, however, the double doors to the editorial department swung open and a pleasant-faced, rotund woman bustled through on her way to the restroom at the end of the hall past the elevators. When she saw me, she stopped and said, “Hello, I'm Maggie,” and extended her hand. I stood, shook it and said, “Hi, I'm Dan Newland.”
“Are you waiting for Bob?” she asked. I nodded. “Does he know you're here?”
“I think so,” I said a little dubiously. “He's been told.”
“Have you been here long?”
I checked my watch. “About half an hour,” I said.
She said, “Just a minute,” and went back the way she had come, through the editorial department. I could hear the teletypes and manual typewriters chattering away in her wake, before the heavy doors swung shut again behind her and wanted nothing more than to be in there already doing a job I just knew I was made for.
I sat back down to wait, but within an instant after Maggie had gone, the editor's door burst open and through it rushed a man with an almost wild look about him. His brow was furrowed in an expression of genuine worry, His quality white dress shirt was wrinkled and perspired. He wore brown loafers that were in dire need of a shine and one was split along a seam so that you could see a glimpse of bright red stocking through it, in sharp contrast to his pricey conservative pinstriped trousers. He was slender and tallish and his thinning dark-brown hair swirled in erratic tentacles around his head as if he were in the habit of running his fingers through it repeatedly—or had just been in a gale-force wind. All in all, it was a look that combined an aristocratic air with the devil-may-care nonchalance of a talent too busy to be concerned with outward appearances. 
Cox at his desk in the Herald. (Photo published in Perfil.com)
“So sorry, so sorry...must be Dan...Dan, isn't it? Yes...lost track of time, please come in...Terribly sorry.” he muttered almost under his breath as we shook hands.
His uneasiness was somewhat contagious and I nervously launched into my pitch as soon as we were seated, telling him my life story in five minutes or less: former professional musician, just out of the Army, three years with the US Army bands, a little over one in Europe, married to an Argentine, always been a writer, what I want to do with my life, need a chance in journalism, fast learner, hard worker, etc., etc.
My uneasiness was hardly quelled by the surroundings. Cox's office was a truly extraordinary, but almost horrifying place. The room was cramped, hardly executive dimensions, perhaps twelve feet by seven feet, if that. The only light came from the bluish neon ceiling tubes, one of which had a bad starter and hummed nerve-rackingly. Every square inch of counter, desk and table space was trembling under mountains of books, papers, magazines, wire copy, radio-photos and files. Stacks of them, piles of them, heaps of them, in no apparent order, almost as if a dump truck had simply avalanched it all into the room. There were heaps of papers on the floor against the wall, a stack on the chair in front of his desk that he had cleared away for me to sit down, a mound on top of the radiator by the Venetian-blinded window, a veritable landslide on the overstuffed green leather couch along one wall, which, I noted, was the other part of the suit the armchair I’d just been sitting in outside belonged to. These lopsided heaps that leaned against one another for support dominated the tiny office and made Cox, at his desk behind chin-high bales of paperwork, look rather as if he had been bulldozed into a corner along with a load of wastepaper. The office bore no personal touches, no mementos, no hint of residence or proprietorship, except for the predominant influence of paper of just about every kind. En lieu of wall decorations, too, there was paper: rough drafts, printed articles, syndicated columns, notes, messages, invitation cards, scribbled reminders, underscored phone numbers and names, all scotch-taped to the plaster and all obviously pieces of information that were somehow more important to the editor than the general mounds of miscellany that were heaped all over the rest of the room, and thus deserved a place of privilege on the wall, where he was sure to see them and perhaps recall whatever action it was that they merited.
Finally, there was his “workstation”—a weighty, battered Olivetti Lexicon manual typewriter. Parts of the machine's housing had been stripped away, obviously so that the user could tinker with it and make it work whenever it decided to pack up on him. It sat atop a ramshackle wooden typing table on wheels that had probably once been a fine piece of office furniture but that now listed in two directions, slightly west and dangerously north, so that it had to be propped against the only tiny piece of empty wall in the room in order to prevent it from simply keeling over and dying, taking the moribund Olivetti with it. 
Cox had a polite and humble manner, not at all the kind of hard-nosed, disdainful cynic I had rather expected to meet. He listened patiently to my plea for a chance to “come in on the ground level” and “learn the trade”. I added that he wouldn't be sorry, that I wanted to be a writer more than anything on earth and that I would be as dedicated as a monk. But while he was cordial and sympathetic, I noticed that sweat was beading on his brow, that he was almost compulsively scratching both of his forearms beneath the rolled cuffs of his shirt. He kept glancing furtively over at the piece of letter-size, yellowed newsprint rolled into the Lexicon, where he had obviously been working on something when I arrived. It was calling him even now and he had to get back to it.
“Okay,” I said, at last, “I've taken enough of your time. Please, just tell me you'll give me a chance and I’ll be on my way.”
“Perhaps you could contribute...” he tried.
“No, Mr. Cox...”
“Bob, call me Bob.”
“Or rather, yes, I will contribute, Bob, but what I want is a full-time job. I want to be a newsman. I want to write for a living.”
He looked a little pained, shook his head and said, “Look, Dan, this is a slave job. Nothing like what you'd expect. We do a little of everything here. And we all have to do other things outside the Herald to survive. We write for papers abroad to make ends meet. This is very hard...a lot of sacrifice, and frankly, I simply don't have anything for you—for anyone—right now.”
“Can I stop by now and then to see if something has opened up?”
He looked doubtful but said, “Yes, of course. Perhaps next time we can have a coffee at the bar around the corner. I'm just a little, uh, busy at the moment and um...”
Back then the Herald was a ramshackle frame for Cox's
extraordinary investigations and editorials and was upheld by his 
growing international reputation. Here Cox (center) talks with 
then-US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Argentine political 
commentator Mariano Grondona.  (Photo published in Perfil.com)
That was enough for me. I had his permission to come back. And come back I did—once every week or ten days for several months. Even though he sometimes had trouble restraining his irritation at my simply showing up unannounced, he seemed to admire my persistence. I would camp outside his office door for as long as it took. Sometimes he would stick his head out and say, “Sorry Dan, but I'm just too busy today,” and I would smile and say, “No problem, see you in a few days,” and leave, only to return as promised. It seemed to make him feel guilty when he rejected me and the next time he would be extra polite and we would nip out for a cup espresso at one of the bars nearby and talk for a while about journalism and what was going on in Buenos Aires, how Perón's return was affecting the country and about our favorite authors, among other varied topics. I told him that it was reading Hemingway and reading about Hemingway’s life that had made me want to be a newsman as well as a fiction writer, since Hemingway claimed he had learned everything he knew about succinct writing and economy of words when he was a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star. At this, Cox lit up and said, “Back when I first started, we all wanted to write like Hemingway: ‘He sat by the window. The light streamed in.’ Wonderful stuff!”
Suddenly, I felt we were kindred spirits.  
I eventually contributed a couple of very lightweight vignettes to a weekend editorial page section called Saturday Sidelight, where just about anything went—although that was also where Bob, under the guise of light weekend reading, often got in some of his meatiest investigative work. Despite the frivolity of my first contributions, Cox liked them, liked the writing and tone, and assigned me a research article on the quagmire of identity documents, work visas and travel permits—government-invented bureaucratic stumbling blocks to foreigners, about which I was accumulating abundant personal experience. Still, alas, no fulltime job.
This went on for about five or six months, and although I felt that, to a certain degree, he and I had become friends, I eventually lost all hope that Robert Cox was ever going to give me a job. So I quit going to visit him at the Herald, simply resigned myself to having to continue to issue car rental contracts for Avis Rent-a-Car while working on my writing, contributing where and what I could, and hoping for a future break.
It wasn't three weeks after I quit visiting Cox, however, before the phone rang one evening at my mother-in-law’s home, where we were staying until we could afford a place of our own.  My wife answered, and told me with no little excitement in her voice that it was Robert Cox on the line.
“Hello, Bob,” I said when I picked up the receiver. “What a surprise!”
“Yes, uh, Dan, um, just calling to see if you're all right.”
“Well, of course I'm all right. Why wouldn't I be?”
“Yes, well, bad times and all, so dangerous for foreigners, you know, and you haven't been by lately, I thought perhaps something...” he trailed off.
“Listen, Bob,” I said. “I really like visiting you but, pleasant though it was for me, I wasn’t just dropping by for coffee and a chat every week?”
“Yes, of course, Dan, I uh....understand, but um...”
“I want a job in your newspaper,” I interrupted. “I want to be a journalist.”
There was a pause. I could almost hear him thinking, deciding. I held my breath.
“Uh, yes, well,” he said finally, “Pop by next Monday, then...may have something for you. Cheers.”
And there I stood still holding the receiver and thinking, “Hey! Was this a dream, or did I just land a newspaper job?”