January 29, 2014

Elrod and Me

I have this friend, who talks my head off, when I see him. He is the only one of my friends who does so, since I am usually the one doing most of the talking. But, as time plus experience has moderated some of my more egregious faults, I have learned to listen, by taking a temporary vow of silence, or holding my peace.

What a strange expression, "holding my peace," is. In my case, it should be "holding my war," because I, for one, have been living in a state of war, since December 7, 1941; I was four months old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

He and I each were reading the overpriced NY Times at a restaurant one morning, and commenting wryly and sarcastically on some of the incomplete and misleading "stories," it wrote.  It was a beautiful late-summer day, a Sunday, and we had chosen a quiet restaurant near the meat-packing district, a strange area for both of us to dine, because neither of us is rich. I hadn't seen him for months. We had gone to see Inception together the last time we'd met.

I carry a 3-inch magnifying glass with me usually, especially if I am looking over old books or trying to see faces and other details in the thousands of photos we see in the various Media. I want to see the faces up-close, trying to divine their character, their intent, their motives, age, condition, sex, and which ones might be leaders, or followers, provocateurs, police, and I examine the surrounding terrain. I especially do this in areas of conflict, where people are protesting and getting shot for it. I imagine myself in a military situation, like the one going on now in Yemen over the return of President Saleh, after being driven by an artillery shell from Yemen to a hospital in Africa. If I were the rebel army, I'd be in those mountains just above the city.

Well, they almost got him, Elrod said. That's not my friend's real name, because he doesn't want me to use it if I write about him; not that he's paranoid, but private. He doesn't want his name out there. It's the sensible way to be now, in a society where a name dropped on the internet suddenly is added to thousands of lists.

In a way, we are opposites, but I have known this guy for so long.We were marines together, and sometimes I think he is my only friend. Elrod's politics and opinions differ with mine, and we both are aware of it, but I never let  politics interfere with friendship--I mean unless the guy has become a raving nazi or KKK-er--because friendship is loyalty love and trust, and accepting one another.

For example, Elrod is a pretty tough guy; I wouldn't want him to whack me; but I know that nothing short of my direct violent assault would provoke him to do it. So we feel safe and comfortable together, as perhaps only old friends can, because we are no threat to each other.

Anyway, we were reading the Times and drinking coffee, and eating a fine omlette rather haphazardly--their portions are too big for my little stomach, and I never finish it. Elrod asked for my magnifying glass, and began scrutinizing pictures of the protesters in Yemen. About a hundred of them had died, according to the papers, and a defected military general was backing them, with troops and guns. They had the position, the capital was surrounded, but not the firepower and discipline that kept them from penetrating into the fortified government area.

These guys look fierce, and determined. You can see they are different tribes and all by their different head scarfs. They look lean and vigorous. This is the real thing, baby. These guys are going to win.  And look at those mountains beyond Sala. That must be where the rebel army is based, the high ground around the capital.

"That's the next place we are going to go to war," I said. "I mean, hell, we're already there. CIA and all kinds of skull-duggery and intelligence-gathering is going on. People are being bought and told what to do. If they want a war there, they have to stir things up. I'm sure it's a popular uprising, but all uprisings are directed by somebody, for some purpose. I don't see the military letting Yemen go to what they define as "al Qaida". It probably will start as a proxy war, with Saudi Arabia invading, with our money and backing and cruise missiles, if needed. We'll put boots on the ground, if necessary. It is a very vital point, with Somalia a boatride away, and the pirate thing. The US will put an aircraft carrier between them if it feels the necessity to save gas. But Yemen is a wild country, as wild as Afghanistan. You can't beat these people," I echoed.

This guy standing up on a pedestal has a lot of guts, or he is a government agent, and knows nobody is going to shoot him. If you look at the protesters in this picture, they are of different ages. There are more old men, middle-aged and older,  and younger ones. Here is a young guy in the shadows, doing something on a narrow wall, probably writing graffiti. And in the center of this one is a guy in a wheelchair with a leg gone, holding up two metal crutches like spears pointed directly at the camera. Maybe he lost his leg in a demonstration, and refuses to give up the fight. These guys are putting their lives on the line.

Incidentally, this is verbatim, word-for-word. I was recording our breakfast on my little Sony WMD-6. It is ancient but reliable. I have a lot of recordings of Elrod and me. He got used to it years ago, and isn't self-conscious about it. But in a way, we both know that what we say is on record, so to speak. You can't deny that the knowledge of a tape recorder makes you more careful of words. (Which is why I do it.)

You know what it is about those headdresses that Arabs wear? Well, if you are being followed or pursued, you change your headgear in flight. If you were wearing one of those red and white ones, you'd be easy to follow, and because they all know what the scarves represent, the changing of one could momentarily deceive pursuers.

Elrod has worked in all kinds of professions, but after our days in the Marine Corps five decades ago, he went to work as a printer for the NY Daily News, and after retiring from that, became a carpenter, who did pretty well for himself for awhile. Then his wife left him and took most of the money and the house, and he went nuts for awhile, and gradually got over it and went back to carpentry. He's retired now, because he managed to save enough, but his money is losing value just like everyone else's. I think that he is like me, sort of an armchair revolutionary tactician. He just calls himself a critic though. The difference is that he still goes to demonstrations.

Elrod handed me back the glass, and I examined the photos, as he had done, and saw what he had seen. These were different tribes united in a common purpose, and they looked serious and ready-to-die. "If you are not ready to die," I said," you don't have a chance to win. You're right. Look, here this one guy is wearing a soldier's uniform and a red beret, marching with the protesters."

You can't see any weapons, and there is not one woman in the pictures.

"The women are at home cooking up the food for these guys who are gonna be hungry when they come home. They're taking care of the kids and old folks. What's wrong with that? Women don't have to be on the battlefield to serve a just cause; if it is a just cause."

What if some of them want to be there, but can't, because they are females and considered inferior.

"What about it? That's their culture. It's ours too, if you think about it, though we are changing. Let them change at their own pace and in their own way. If they lived in peace, and had some prosperity and harmony, their relationships will change. It's a male society, like many, and it's the men who started the rebellion, not the women."

What do you mean by, 'if it is a just cause'?

"Well, how the hell do we know, man?  What do we really know for sure? Who are these guys? What are their motives and intentions? Sure it all sounds so altruistic, to rid themselves of tyranny. But how do we know that they won't replace it with a worse tyranny? We're getting this whole picture from the lying Media. They've told so many lies and done so much for the government for so long, that you can't believe your own eyes sometimes. You know that.

Yeah. Well. I think it is a just cause. This guy is a dictator. He is a son-of-a-bitch.

 I applied a well-known quote of State Secretary Cordell Hull to FDR about Somoza in Nicaragua: "Yes sir, he is. But he is our son-of-a-bitch."

That's the problem. We know the game. The Defense Department can't let power change hands in Yemen, if it means popular power, which will end Yemeni complicity in whatever the US has them doing for us.

"For 'us'?

For them, I know, I know. But sometimes you have to say 'we' and 'us' and 'ours', because it is; we own it.

"I don't own it," I said, finishing a cold coffee. "There is not a damned thing I can do about it, either. It is completely out of my control."

You really believe that? Man, you've changed if you...do.

"I accepted reality."

What reality? That the US can do whatever it please there, in order to guard shipping lanes? 

"No. They need a base close to the action. Bombing, troops, CIA, the whole shebang. But if guarding shipping lanes is what is about, good God, between us and Europe, we could put enough ships in the area to blast any number of so-called "pirates" out of the water. The American and British Navies, man? Give me a break. Anyway, I believe in letting it happen, whatever, there's nothing I can do about it here, and I can't afford to go over there, plus I'm too old to fight."

You could demonstrate. You used to.

"Demonstrations don't do much good anymore. They are less and less-effective. You know why? Because nobody is willing to die, that's why. If you're not willing to die for the cause, go home. I'm home. I don't believe in this cause anymore. Human beings are too corrupt. There will have to be a world catyclsm for anything to change, and that will be even worse."

Were you ever willing to die for the cause?

 "What cause?"

Come on man. Civil rights. Human rights. Justice. Peace. Antiwar.

"Right."

[Silence]

"Once," I said finally.

Nicaragua.

"Yeah, for awhile, because there was shooting going on, and I was in love with a communist."

Elrod laughed long and hard. I had to laugh too. Everything looks so ridiculous later.

"Remember when you met me at the bus station at midnight in Lake Charles, after I had come through Mexico on a bus, and I whispered for you to wait at the parking lot next door.

He laughed again. You scared the hell out of me. You didn't want me to be seen with you, because you thought you might be followed.

"A Customs agent destroyed my Brother typewriter after he saw my passport. Tore it apart, supposedly looking for drugs. I was reasonably suspicous that I might have been followed."

Ahh, the good old days, back when you cared.

I didn't reply.

You know what I hate about the NY Times?

"That it costs two dollars?"

That too of course. But what I really hate is that they know as well as we do what is going on, and they only hint at it. They have such an influence on public opinion, especially here, and what they say has a lot to do with what we think about a situation. They don't hve the guts to tell the truth.

"All the truth that's fit to lie about. So what is really going on? Is it that simple, that the people united want this guy out? What do they intend to do one is is gone?

Set up another government, kick the US out, stop the drone strikes, take over their own country. Change things.

"Ha ha," I said. "If they wait awhile and stop the killing, this guy will die a natural death. A general will kill him, or something. These days, there is no having a revolution without the help of the established military, at least a faction of it."

They have that. One general and his troops and weapons.

So, what else is new?

"Nothing much. I'm still living in Brooklyn, getting older. Back problems. Sold my van. Building a workbench. Trying to stop a leak on the roof. Reading a lot. Hey, I just read a pretty good novel  by this guy, oh shit, what's his name? Carlos Zafon. I didn't like it at first, and it was so long, 400 pages. War & Peace for Christ's sake. It's called Shadow of the Wind. But after having it a year, I finally picked it up and read it. It took me five days. It turned out to be a pretty original tale, a first novel, and some memorable characters. You want to read it?"

No thanks.

"Well, what's new with you?"

I'm moving to California in Spring.

At this point, the tape ran out. I didn't have a spare. We talked for a few more minutes. He said he was moving to California because the weather was better. I agreed with him, saying I might do the same. Who needs six months of bloody cold winter, when you're old? When I first met him, he was from Massachusetts and Nevada, growing up both places.

The waiter brought the check and I paid, and we gave him a pretty good tip, because we had occupied his station for so long. I had enough money because I had finally sold my van, and my government check had just hit the bank.

He asked if I wanted to meet him next Sunday. I said I'm not sure. He said he would call during the week. I said okay, and we shook hands. We always shake hands coming and going. He walked south, and I went east to catch the A train at Union Square.

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