Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Viet Nam-era Antigone now available free for download and performance


A New York march against the draft in the 1970s

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

-Robert Frost, "Mending Wall"


The one act play"Something There Is” , takes its title from Robert Frost’s poem on the futility of walls and those who build them, and seems once again to be relevant many decades after its only  production.








Originally staged in 1975 at the Elder Avenue Playhouse in the Bronx is now being made available as a free PDF.  The play is published under a Creative Commons ShareAlike license and may be performed by any non-commercial organization or group.

The entire tragedy takes place on a summer morning in 1968 in the kitchen of an upstate New York farm house, where a  backyard fence marks the border with Canada. A middle-aged immigration agent lords it over his small family of a daughter and two sons. His eldest boy is about to take his first solo flight from the nearby Plattsburgh Air Force base, and promises to fly directly over the farmhouse. His second son openly mocks his father and threatens to join the draft evaders who keep passing through the back yard on their way to Canada. Andrea, still in high school, has been dominated by her overbearing father until the morning of the play.

As the drama opens, Andrea and her aunt are watching draft evaders pass through a hole in the fence that keeps reappearing no matter how many times her father patches it.





an excerpt from "Something There Is"

A middle-aged woman and a teenage girl are standing by the kitchen window, looking into the back yard.


SUZETTE: There goes another one.

ANDREA: That makes three today.

SUZETTE: Really? I thought this was only the second one.

ANDREA: No, I saw one very early when you were still in bed.

SUZETTE: You didn’t go out into the yard, did you? You know what he said.

ANDREA: Yeah, yeah, I know what he said. First there was no talking on the phone on school nights. Then there was no dating until I was eighteen. And now this new rule about not going in the back yard is even crazier.

SUZETTE: I can’t blame him.

ANDREA: You never do!

SUZETTE: He afraid those hippies will bother you.

ANDREA: That’s not it.

SUZETTE: What is it then?

ANDREA: Here’s a clue, Tante Suzette. There is a big hole in the fence. Those hippies are heading for that hole.

SUZETTE: Which fence?

ANDREA: The one that our United States government put up years ago to show where the border is between the U.S. of A. and Canada.

SUZETTE: There is a hole in the border fence? That’s not right. Why doesn’t somebody do something about it?

ANDREA: My father has been patching up the holes with chicken wire but somebody keeps cutting new ones. Who do you think would do that? Do you think maybe my father has been cutting and patching up those holes himself?


Border Crossings, Then and Now

Ever since the American Revolution, the contradictions and shortcomings of our republic have been reflected in those who fled across the northern borders of our state to find freedom in Canada. It began with the freed slaves of New York City who left for Canada with their Loyalist allies. Then came the runaway slaves of the Underground Railroad. In the Civil War, one of my own distant ancestors, Mike Clark, went back to Canada, leading his middle aged father Patrick to enlist in the NY 16th Volunteer Infantry in his place. In the Viet Nam era, thousands of draft evaders and deserters passed through our northern border, although  not quite as depicted in this play.





Bill and Christine King were among
the many thousands who fled to Canada
decades ago 




Most recently, the ones fleeing to a better life in Canada have been immigrants who once dreamt of a new life in the United States, only to find themselves targeted by the current administration in Washington.





Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Mr. Dolge’s Money and other titles now available in paperback on Amazon




Mr. Dolge's Money inspired by the final days of a visionary German-American industrialist best known as a forerunner of Social Security, is now in paperback  at Amazon as well as in the original ebook format.


Following the collapse of his utopian dreams in Dolgeville, NY in 1898, Alfred Dolge went on to build a new fortune and a new Dolgeville in California. The central character of the novel is Rudolf’s son, Jose or Joseph Dolge, who travels from Venezuela to California in the closing days of World War I in search of his grandparents.

After getting to know his grandson, Dolge dispatches the young man to Europe by the only route then open, across the Pacific to Vladivostok. The boy’s mission is to gain access to millions of dollars hidden away from his grandfather’s creditors and to direct that money into the hands of the German socialists struggling to wrest control of their devastated nation.

With the old monarchies in collapse, violent new forces of the Left and Right are provoking chaos in Russia and Germany. Joseph barely survives a rail journey across Russia, fleeing the Bolshevik terror into Ukraine and coming to Berlin just as outright war breaks out between the Spartacists and the Friekorps. Beset by treachery on every side, he sees Rosa Luxembourg murdered and is held prisoner by a crazed band of anti-Semites who will become the leaders of the Nazi party. And then, Alfred and Anna Dolge make their last trip to the old country with the goal of saving their beloved grandson.








Each of the five stories or novelas collected in this volume have been sold as e-book singles at 99 cents and remain available in that format. The stories, sharing a common link to New York history, are set in the twentieth century except for “You Don’t Need a Weatherman which imagines a near future in which climate change has drastically changed our local landscape. The retired couple at the center of the story live in a time when climate change denial persists even after the sea has covered New York City.

The Wobbly and The Witch Girl” is set in the immediate aftermath of World War I when repressive forces targeted radicals and misfits of every sort. Fleeing the draft to New York City, Tom Ryan is befriended by the anarchist leaders Carlo Tresca and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. They send him north to organize the workers of the Julliard factory in Stottville, NY and from there he flees the law into the isolated hill country of Columbia County where he discovers a people who have lived part from the outer world for a century. Here Tom falls in love with a girl who has inherited strange powers from her distant Puritan ancestress.

The Real Twentieth Hijacker” is inspired by my teaching at Laguardia Community College at the time of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. The main character is a young Muslim immigrant who is drawn into the 9-11 conspiracy only to break away from the other plotters when he falls in love with an American girl.

Her Name Was Margarita” is loosely based on my experiences with a Fordham University project in Mexico in 1966. Beginning with marches against the war in Viet Nam, the scene then shifts to the province of Vera Cruz where the title character encounters a force or power that her faith cannot explain.

A Good Catholic Girl” is based on the murder of a parochial school girl by a deranged young man she barely knew. In my version of this tragedy, set in the Irish Catholic neighborhood of the North Bronx, she manages to turn the tables on her stalker.









Previously available on Kindle, this is one of only two non-fiction works I have written and describes educational philosophy and practice at a small public school in the South Bronx, Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, from 2003 to 2009. The innovative portfolio assessment and interdisciplinary curriculum at Fannie Lou was based on the philosophy of the Coalition of Essential Schools and offers a valuable alternative to the standardized data-driven models now in favor in New York state and the nation. In a genuine tragedy for public education, the Coalition for Essential Schools was compelled to cease operations in March, 2017. This has made it even more important to preserve and publicize the truly student-centered learning environment as CES schools like Fannie Lou. As part of that effort, this book will also be available as a free PDF at Lulu.com.

The work at Fannie Lou and other small public high schools was supported by the National Academy for Excellent Teaching at Columbia University Teachers College. NAFET was unfortunately dependent on foundation funds invested with the Madoff ponzi scheme and ceased operations in 2009.


Art and Humanities class at Fannie Lou



Monday, January 30, 2017

Emmet Till's Father and a Guy from Auburn NY

    
    Emmet Till

This week of “alternative facts” emanating from Donald Trump has coincided with the admission – sixty years too late – of a lie that condemned a young black boy named Emmet Till to a horrible death. The racism and hatred which our new president is calling up from the depths of our history has never been more than occasionally dormant,  but we need to believe that truth in the end will always overcome even the most vicious and destructive of lies. 
     As to the amazingly trivial lies that pour forth from new chief executive about the weather, the size of crowds and what he said five minutes earlier, those may defy expectation but they do serve to create a climate in which the big lies about Mexico, Muslims, and Black people are more readily believed - even in some corners of our usually rational upstate New York.
    Of course, people can hold to a lie for a long time, a lifetime even. But at long last the woman whose lies cost young Emmet Till his life in 1955 has finally come clean. Historian Timothy B. Tyson told The Associated Press on Saturday that Carolyn Donham broke her long public silence in an interview with him in 2008. According to the professor, he spoke to the 83 year old Donham for several hours and she admitted inventing the attempted rape story about Emmet, although she did not offer any explanation for her actions. Her husband and his brother were charged with the 14 year old boy’s murder and she testified in their defense during the trial, claiming that Emmet had grabbed her and “in profane terms, bragged about his history with white women. An all-white jury predictably acquitted them although Donham’s husband Roy Bryant later admitted, or bragged, about his guilt to Look Magazine.



    Carolyn Bryant Donham

  Shocking as Carolyn Donham’s sixty-two year silence is, I find it even more remarkable that after her admission, she evidently resumed her silence and made no effort to reach out to the Till family or to tell anyone else what she had done. Professor Tyson’s only defense for not revealing this information when he first heard it nine years ago is that “historians think in different terms than do journalists. I'm more interested in what speaks to the ages than in what is the latest media thing.”  Professor Tyson’s privileging of history “over the latest media thing” suggests that writers and historians owe nothing to the moral crises of their own time, but the corroding issue of racism is not something that can be put on a shelf for later study. In every era of American history, the racists will always say they must murder or abuse black or brown men to save us (white) people from some dark and evil threat. And the bizarre immigrant rape fantasies spewed by Breitbart and similar Trumpist sites are direct echoes of the lies told by Carolyn Dunham so long ago.

    Louis Till

By coincidence this week also brought attention to the great African American novelist John Edgar Wideman’s  Writing to Save a Life about the life and execution of Emmet’s father, Louis TillLouis has long interested me, in part because he was jailed with the poet and fascist collaborator Ezra Pound near the end of the second world war. He makes an appearance in my short novel, inspired by the war stories of an old friend, John Schillace (Squillace in the novel) of Auburn, NY.  

USO Dance at Auburn NY around the time when 
John Schillace was drafted (from the Fingerlakes Blog)

Here is an excerpt: In The Forest of Tombolo:

    There weren't any cots and only a few blankets. I looked around and saw thirty or forty colored guys staring at my face, probably ready to blame me for everything every white man had ever done to them. Washington tried to tell them I was okay but that only got him some shit. Both of us were slapped around a little bit before one of them said they should lay off.       “This white boy can't be too bad if they threw him in here with us.”
   “I'm Louie Till,” he said when the rest of them went back to whatever it was they were doing before we interrupted their fun. “You a poet?”
    “A poet?”
    “Yeah, the other white guy here says he's a famous poet. Crazy as a bedbug.”
    “Naw,” explained Washington. “We been runnin' a black market game.”
    “You're shittin' me. They don't put y'all here for black market. This here tent's for the worst of the worst. They gonna hang me as soon as they get round to it.”
    “For what?” I asked.
    “Rapin' and murderin' an Italian girl. Only I never done it. White boys did it but I'm the one they gonna hang for it.”
    “You mean they gonna hang everybody here?” Washington winced, pretty banged up from the beatings he took.“We deserters but we never killed nobody.”
    “Maybe they hang you and give this white boy life. But I think they hang white boys too. Everybody says they gonna hang the poet on account of he was workin' for Mussolini.”
    I was plenty scared, thinking they would charge us with joining the enemy. That had to be a hanging offense. “You said the poet guy was crazy. They won't hang crazy people, will they?”
    “You thinkin' of doin' a crazy act, huh? Don't think you could do it like old Ezra. I was handcuffed to him all the way from Genoa and I guarantee you never gonna talk as crazy as that old man. He sayin' President Truman gonna fly him straight over to Tokyo on account of how he can talk Chink and Jap. Him and this Chink named Confucius gonna work out the whole thing so Japan surrenders nice n' peaceful. He says he gonna do some deals with old Joe Stalin too, 'cause he talk Russki like a champ. Can you match that kinda crazy talk?”
    “I guess not.”
    Louie Till was a very decent guy, and as I got to know him, I could see he wasn't taking the prospect of hanging as easy as he put on. He had a baby son and when he talked about never seeing his boy, he got real sad. You probably heard about the son, Emmet Till. He grew up without a father after Louie got hung, and it was all over the news when the KKK down in Alabama lynched him just for whistling at a white woman.
    Every day it seemed they took out another colored fella to be hung, and I was scared shitless. I knew there had to be a court martial first, but those were always fixed deals, and you only had a few hours before they put the rope around your neck. I was awake all night dreaming up totally impossible ways to escape. Besides the two lines of barbed wire and the dogs, the klieg lights were on all night and the MP's had two machine guns trained on the barracks. Like Louie said, they considered us the worst of the worst and weren't about to let any of us go climbing over the fence and strolling away.
    I thought my number was up on the day that Sergeant Sessions and his pal came into the tent and pointed a long bony finger in my direction. “Wa'al, you a whi'man, huh? Git ov'here.” His southern accent was so bad I hardly understood a word he was saying. When I didn't move, he just yoked his arm across my throat and dragged me out of there. Washington must have tried to stop them because the last I saw, the other GI had beaten him to the floor and was kicking him in the head.
    When we were outside the wire, they dumped me on the ground. “What' a you, a fuckin' nigger-lovin' queer or a whi'man? Stand y'self up at attention when I'm talkin' t'you.”
    I got to my feet and did my best to stand steady while the sergeant walked around me, poking at my ribs with his billy club. “Tha's better. Now folla me and try'n act like a whi'man.”
When we reached a bunch of tents that weren't surrounded by barbed wire, Sergeant Sessions told me I was a fucking disgrace to my race. “But ya ain't no nigger, are you? You kinda dark. You half-nigger? You tell me the truth or I beat you to death here'n'now.”
    I told him my parents were Italian but I was born in New York state. “You a yankee Eye-talian? Tha's almos' bein' a nigger in my book.” He thought he was pretty funny and began to laugh himself silly. “Na, you ain't no nigger. Sorry 'scuse for a whi'man but a whi'man all the same. I got a job for ya.”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “Ya can call me sarge, that's good enough. Sergeant First Class Lucius B. Sessions from Shit Creek, Alabama. Here, have some coffee.”
    Sergeant Sessions handed me some clean fatigues, and outlined his plan for me. “Get you a shave'n'shower and you'll pass for a soljer. No reason why you can't stand guard for a sixteen hour stretch, is there?”
   “No sarge, I'll do whatever I'm told to do.”
   “Sure as shit you will. Just keep your eyes open for brass and don't never fall asleep, and we'll be the best a'friends. The thing is we got us another whi'man here, but I can't do nothin' for him. He's a traitor and your job is jus' make sure he don't kill himself before he gets hung.”
   “The poet?”
   “You know'im?”
   “No, I just heard there was a crazy poet here. Or writer or something.”
  "Asshole buddies with old Benito is what Mr. Ezra Pound was. A genuine traitor who I woulda had shot the day we got'im but the brasshats are stallin'. Meantime we gotta stand guard and I am sick of staying up all night long watchin' the fuckin' traitor snore away like he dint have not a care in the'world. And that's where you come in. You gonna watch him sleep, only you best not fall asleep y'self or I beat you to death, you get it?”
    And that's how I ended up meeting Ezra Pound. Of course, I'd never heard of him, being a high school dropout like I was, but I knew I had fallen into a pretty sweet deal. Sergeant Session was the worst bigot I ever met but lucky for me I was white, and one thing he could not abide was seeing a white man thrown in with a bunch of coloreds. Seemed too much like race-mixing to him, I guess, so he killed two birds with one stone. He and his cousin Lamar got out of having to guard Pound every night and he stood by a fellow white man. I didn't know it at the time but he covered his tracks by ripping up all the paperwork on my crimes. As far as the official Army records went, I had never deserted, never ran a black market game, never fraternized with Nazis and Fascists, never been arrested during the raid at Tombolo.

   
    John Edgar Wideman
  

Wideman’s book, of course, is not focused on an unknown upstate guy assigned to guard a crazy poet, but on a black man who was hanged for rape and murder and whose son would be lynched ten years later. As Thomas Chatterton Williams (New York Times 1/29/2017) puts it, “(Wideman's) disposition is to bypass blunt polemic and make his case through description and story, which is by necessity inventive, conditional and ambiguous. Simplicity sells, but the truth is seldom simple.” Williams goes on to say:

    He (Louis Till)  is not Rosa Parks by any stretch and Wideman makes no attempt to sanctify his character. Yet there is undeniably something in him that the author not only relates to but also admires, and it has to do with the fact that Till does not ever beg or plead but keeps quiet, even stoic, in the face of a system that “provides agents ample, perhaps irresistible, opportunities for abuse.”
    What unsettles Wideman about the Till case is not only that it was flagrantly flawed but that everything had the veneer of propriety about it. “Every T crossed, every I dotted,” he writes. “But seamless, careful, by-the-book performance provides no evidence of what the spider’s thinking about the fly enmeshed in its web.” Even participants in an unjust system can be blind to the ways they sustain it. It’s a jarring idea when taken to its logical conclusion, that, independent of any willful bigotry, the person on the jury or in the voting booth may not even know why she decided the way that she did. For Wideman, this means that transcendent racial harmony may permanently lie on the horizon, just beyond our reach. Which is also why, in his view, storytelling takes on the dimensions of a battle royal, a “never-ending struggle” to make sense of the world, which implies a kind of “ultimate democracy” but also “a kind of chaos.”

The reality, the facts, are
always there, but it is a "never-ending struggle" to find them in the sea of lies and delusions surrounding race, resentment and fear in America - and never has that been more true than today.



On Amazon