A Note about the Author
My family was your typical dysfunctional family of the deep South of the mid-twentieth century. It was one in which the traits of charm, martyrdom, whimsy, and cultural rigidity played themselves out to make us all equally merry and equally miserable.
The great psychotherapists of mid- to late-twentieth century America - - - Milton Erickson, Carl Whitaker, Salvador Minuchin - - - tell us that family systems create a rôle for each member, one that helps to support the muddle. In mine, with seven children, each vied to be heard over the din. One sister was a common scold, another a peacekeeper; another pretended that none of us existed. One brother was the judge, another the executioner. My mother somehow managed to convince Father that he was one of the children, so his job was to sit at the head of the table each evening, puzzled at what he had wrought.
Me? I was the designated family blab. I learned that there was a payoff in being an investigative reporter, so no secret was safe in my hands. If anyone broke the unspoken rules, I would make sure that everyone knew . . . unless blackmailed to do otherwise. I had a field day with outright lies, especially my own, for I found that if I generated enough background noise, I could continue to pretend to be safe.
When I finally grew up (if I ever did), I continued to do my job, only instead of playing out the cold war waged within the family, I began a study of the Cold War politics of the outside world to see how much damage could be done there.
I was working in the pesthouse of commercial broadcasting but was unable to do much with these operations. They were in the business of making money, not hay - - - so I ultimately hit on the expedient of building and operating radio outlets built by me and my friends. This would give us the freedom to offer people some idea of the scale of our new national pastime, mass humanicide.
In those days, radio frequencies were available to all comers. It was merely a matter of penetrating the secret of broadcast station ownership, hidden in plain sight by the lawyers, engineers, magnates, and - - - the ultimate protector of media power - - - the Federal Communications Commission.
We all knew that radio stations could be bought and sold, but the figures given were in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. The fact that one could pick up a permit for free from the FCC was never mentioned.
Nor was it let out that, with an absolute minimal expenditure of cash, one could get a radio or TV station up and running. On our very first attempt, we found that we could get KRAB on the air with a net expenditure of less than $10,000.
I originally applied for a station in Washington, D.C. I figured that if I was going to specialize in disordered family systems (nations can go mad, too: see Russia, Japan or Germany in the 1930s), I might as well go to the wellhead, the place where we bought and paid cold cash for our bombs, found places to store them, and, ultimately, shipped them off to cook people up. Vide: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, 1945.
It was my plan to save the world but there were certain problems with getting a permit do so. I had gone to a college filled with Quakers and peaceniks. I had volunteered at a radio station famous for putting trouble-makers on the air - - - KPFA in Berkeley. At the same time, I made no secret of my opinion that war stinks and the military is in the homicide business; that it was supposed to murder our supposed enemies; but, it just might take the rest of us out too.
Other applications for frequencies were sailing through the FCC in a matter of weeks. But not mine. I figured that something devilish was afoot here in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Through a complicated series of deals that I will not bore you with - - - including my ultimately signing the dreaded "loyalty oath" (I am loyal, I swear to you, judge; I'm just trying to save our nation's ass), I ended up with a permit for a broadcast station in Seattle. I guess they figured that out in the boonies, in that part of the country once known as "The Soviet of Washington," there could be found an appropriately distant signal for cage-rattlers like me.
And I thought, well, why not? Better to have your radio love burbling on the air somewhere rather than nowhere. I would have to content myself with transmitting my don't-murder-us message to the green and lovely forests of the far Northwest.
§ § §
Somewhere around here I guess I'm going to have to tell you a few details about my night-life there in Washington, D. C. while I was busy cooling my heels, dreaming of my dream station. This will be a tale of smoky nights in the steamy back rooms of the Chicken Hut, one of the few gay bars in that city. I want you to see me now as I come rattling in the door, complete with shiny aluminum crutches, elegant long leg braces, a shapely back-support corset. Me and Scarlett O'Hara.
This all takes place, mind you, ten years before Stonewall. You can imagine how I swept them off their feet there in one of the most infamous gay hangouts in the city. Here we are up to our knees in hunky guys looking for other hunky guys to take home and diddle and show off to all their gay friends. But there seemed to be little demand for this notably well-equipped guy over in the corner, the one with a nice smile and terrific personality: a virtual poster boy for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis' annual March of Dimes.
I usually got into a friendly tête-à-tête during the course of the evening, but around midnight, he'd get up, yawn, say he had to be heading home to get his beauty sleep. He'd drift over to the bar, where he'd quickly get chummy with the new guy that'd just came in, the one with the cerulean eyes and the pecs. And the abs. And the glutes. All working in apple-pie order.
I had usually gotten myself up by then, made my way out the door, made it out into the street, made it to my room, where I could leisurely curse the gods. And my fate.
Turns out that my buddy Gallagher was going through the same routine about the same time although he didn't tell me about it until several years later, the bastard. Unlike me - - - smart move - - - Hugh preferred biker bars, guys with tattoos, leather jackets, a few scars if possible, and that in-your-face way he loved so. Strange . . . although I guess you could call Hugh a biker, in a sense, as he did his artful wheelies - - - even danced with his new pals, appearing rather dashing in his new deluxe Everest & Jennings wheelchair.
When he and I finally outed ourselves to each other, I found out he had amassed a sizable community of tough hombres who were genuinely fond of him, that old charmer, and they took care of him during his many visits to the Tool Box, there in a shadier part of the district. He was charismatic, but there was a downside, being the many afternoons in the 1980s and 1990s going to the many funerals of his new and surprisingly gentle friends.
§ § §
Enough of that. It's time for me to tell you about what happened when the powers-that-be tried to kill me. No shit.
It happened in the early fall of 1962. I only had vague intimations of the plot on my life, but on that particular day, in the late afternoon, they tried - - - and tried hard - - - to do me in. And I wasn't alone. I found out later that they were planning to take out most of my friends too.
It happened on on October 27, and was known as the Cuban Missile Crises. Just off Havana, a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine, B-59 Foxtrot, was being mauled repeatedly by depth charges from American destroyers. After an hour or so of this, an order came down from the Kremlin to retaliate by firing nuclear torpedoes at any (or all) of the eleven American vessels that surrounded it.
However, there was some disagreement among the Soviet officers in command. The Russian military had cooked up an elegant fail-safe mechanism to prevent an all-out atomic war. A vote of three naval commanders (with no dissenters) was required to launch a unilateral nuclear strike.
One of the three admirals on the B-59, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, said no. It was a two-to-one vote, but rules said "unanimous," so they desisted.
Forty years later, the American naval historian Thomas Blanton wrote, "Vasili Arkhipov saved the world."1 He had put a temporary stop to the nuclear wipe-out that had been hovering over us for so long, and the rest of us knew we had to put an end to this addiction of our leaders, those terrorists pure and simple: presidents, generals, senators, party secretaries, admirals, chiefs of staff, chiefs of state, working, and working hard, to abort the world. The rest of us figured that, in light of this near-miss, we had to stop the nonsense which could so easily make a fricassée of us all, using whatever tools we had. Like radio.
§ § §
Having barely survived this, you and I have now, thank god, arrived at the end of the line. And just in time, too.
As Douglas and Tracy and Erfert and I were finishing up this book, I had chance to visit Mary D'Ascoyne Mazzini, M. D., my all-time favorite in a life-long stream of doctors.
She is merry . . . and funny, and very tolerant of my vagaries. I always ask her, when we meet, if we can "play doctor." She says, "Of course, but not with you." She's been my partner in the many trips we've made through my ups-and-downs, and had some suspicions about my breathing over the last few months. She had called for tests, and told me, gingerly, and with considerable empathy, that I had developed something called COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Getting COPD in late life is like having a first-class ticket for the maiden voyage of the Titanic, but not being able to get to one of the lifeboats in time.
§ § §
I'm looking for a cool, garlanded place for my ultimate retirement, one filled with the many songs of the many birds, those who have come to send me off - - - me resting jauntily in my knotty loblolly pine box, wrapped in an elegant sky-blue winding sheet (complete with silver and gold pom-poms).
I want you to be sure that someone (like you!) is there to set my obelisk. Remember, it has to have appropriate heft if it is to keep me pinned down. I do tend, when I'm in these situations, to head off to all the wrong places, for all the wrong reasons, at the wrong time - - - like Gallagher with his highly suspect Japanese Wing of the hospital.
We must have the finest fieldstone, set atop me, fat and stolid, with all the appropriate words of godspeed, farewell, and god-be-wi'-you. This rock is to be my weightiest pièce de résistance. Thus, it must be grand - - - even grandiose - - - etched in letters of purest Copperplate, complete with one last mot, the last of the many that may have passed between you and me, on pages like these, over these many years.
It comes from Albert Camus, who, they say, may have turned more kindly towards the end, leaving us a lapidary epigram - - - one which I now offer to you. Consider it well, and, perhaps, let it float gently above our two resting souls:
Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair,
offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity
that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.
§ § §
1Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov was a Soviet Navy officer credited with casting the single vote that prevented a Soviet nuclear strike (and presumably all out nuclear war) during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Such an attack likely would have caused a major global thermonuclear response which could destroy much of the world. As flotilla commander and second-in-command of the nuclear-missile submarine B-59, only Arkhipov refused to authorize the captain's use of nuclear torpedoes against the United States Navy, a decision requiring the agreement of all three senior officers aboard. In 2002 Thomas Blanton, who was then director of the US National Security Archive, said that "Vasili Arkhipov saved the world."- - - Wikipedia