Monday, June 05, 2006

Let Us Praise Unfamous Men

"For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters and musicians and strange animals from the conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes, his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning that all glory is fleeting."
-- George C. Scott as Gen. George S. Patton in the movie "Patton."

Four years ago, I displayed an American Civil Liberties Union poster in my history department office. On the top left was a picture of Martin Luther, King, Jr., civil rights martyr. On the top right was a picture of Charles Manson, infamous serial killer. Underneath the pictures in bold type, the poster declared in all capital letters, "The man on the left is 75 times more likely to stopped by the police while driving than the man on the right."

My students, mostly college freshmen and sophomore, when they came for visits almost always leaned forward to read the poster. To my relief, everyone knew who Martin Luther King was and recognized his picture. Undoubtedly, this is because public schools do a pretty good job of observing the King holiday, even if many students and teachers don't get the day off and in spite of the fact that the beautiful, powerful "I Have A Dream" speech has been as thoroughly trivialized as the National Anthem at ball games.

What I did not expect was the number of students of this age group, born in the early 1980s, who did not recognize Charles Manson's picture and who, in many cases, had never heard of him. Manson had been the Baby Boomer bogeyman, a convenient, homicidal tool once used by the right-wing to invalidate the entire 1960s counterculture, even though Manson -- a racist Southern cracker who loved Adolf Hitler -- had as much to do with the 1960s experience as Frank Sinatra.

In spite of some puffery in the 1980s and 1990s by another dumb cracker, Axyl Rose of the late and unlamented Gun's 'N' Roses (Rose used to prance around on stage in a Manson t-shirt and snuck a Manson-written song "What's Your Game Girl?" on the lame 1993 album "The Spaghetti Incident?"), both Manson and his number one fan have slipped to the ranks of the once-famous, kept alive in the public memory only by Boomer narcissists who believe American pop culture and radical politics were born and will die with them.

The other night I sank into alpha state during 'Entertainment Tonight" when I saw Charles Manson's face once again. Even though Manson never really got his dreamed-of career as a rock star off the ground (though he apparently auditioned for a part on "The Monkees" ) Manson was being featured for the umpteenth time on what is ostensibly an entertainment program. The lame reason provided this appearance was that a 40th anniversary DVD was soon to be released of that horrible movie (based on a horrible book) "The Valley of the Dolls." That movie didn't star Manson, but featured instead Sharon Tate, the usually mediocre actress (who gave a respectable performance in one genuinely great movie, "The Fearless Vampire Killers," directed by her once-famous husband Roman Polanski.) Tate, also once famous, tragically became Manson's victim when the drugged-out guru's followers stabbed her to death along with other wealthy Angelinos (including Folger's Coffee would-be heiress Abigail Folger and hairstylist Jay Sebing, who at best were marginally famous) in the summer of 1969.

It would have been nice if ET had used this DVD release to, for once, do a story about Sharon Tate that did not center on Charles Manson. Instead, we were treated to 20 year old footage of the incompetent murderer (caught and arrested for almost every crime he has committed in his miserable, violent life) with a bad haircut and a swastika carved in his forehead. ET proclaimed this as "lost" Manson footage. (They really like that phrase on that show. "Lost" means they haven't run the footage in the last ten minutes.) That segment leads me to believe that the Entertainment Tonight audience is between the ages of 45 and death. Kids today don't have time to be frightened by Manson, who was scary one summer a long, long time ago. There's no room for Manson while white kids' minds are filled with modern monsters with clout like Osama Bin Ladin.

Manson apparently loved the Beatles. Now John Lennon is the only Beatle most of my students can name, and that is because he had the PR savvy to be shot to death. I try to tell my students that fame is a fatuous, slippery goal and that very few people will know who Britney Spears was 10 years from now. I tell them that when they died, hardly anyone knew who Henry David Thoreau or Walt Whitman were and that they only became genuinely famous post-death when counter-culture types re-discovered them in the 1950s and 1960s.

The slippery nature of fame came to mind because of the recent, unnoted death of Luther "Luke" Johnson, a man who played a key role in my newspaper career, a first-rate character who somehow shuffled quietly off this mortal coil. It was the first time Luke had ever been quiet about anything.

Luke spent much of his life in the Pleasant Grove neighborhood of Dallas. He hired me to work for the Mesquite News when I was toiling at the journalistic gulag called the Cleburne Times-Review in 1983. Cleburne is a small town south of Dallas and Fort Worth, where people had accents indecipherable even to this North Texas city boy. One story I covered in Cleburne involved a woman emptied her rifle into a husband she claimed was abusive. After running out of bullets, the woman left the man, who was desperately trying to crawl into a his truck as he bled to death. The woman returned with her re-loaded rifle and again began target practice with her former beloved. Abused women rarely got much attention or sympathy in Texas in the early 1980s, but I guess the sight of a cowgirl filling her loutish husband with more lead than a rap star was irresistible. The grand jury no-billed her, deeming the multiple shooting "self defense."

I actually liked working in Cleburne and loved the staff, but my enthusiasm dimmed when I found out that after six months of work I might be considered for a pay raise from $200 a week to $206 (not much money then, but still higher than today's minimum wage. ) Luke Johnson, an assistant editor for the Mesquite News, earlier had co-interviewed me for a job. I blew the interview when the editor, a guy named Rick, asked me about my politics and I offered that I didn't think Reagan was a particularly good president. (Don't believe what you hear about the so-called "liberal media." Most editors and publishers I worked for were dyed-in-the-wool Republicans.)

When Luke followed Rick as editor, he offered me a job. This alone made me admire him. Here was a working class Vietnam-era veteran of the Air Force who had just received his associate's degree at Eastfield College in Mesquite, Texas who had been surrounded by George Wallace-supporting, Ronald Reagan-loving good ol' boys all his life. In his forties, this man bravely began to asses the impact of conservative politics on his friends and his neighborhood and had enough of a conscience to change his mind. Most people see their politics set in concrete during their childhood. Luke's mind was a work in progress and he was willing to give a chance to an underpaid, self-proclaimed liberal to work at a newspaper in a Dallas suburb where co-ed city swimming pools remained controversial in the 1970s and where the city council almost denied a building permit to a Chucky Cheese restaurant in the 1980s because the owners wanted a liquor permit.

Luke had his enormous faults. He was an older version of the conspiracy theory buff in the classic movie "Slackers." Luke knew in his heart that not only had a conspiracy worked to kill JFK, MLK and RFK, but that Ronald Reagan had completely faked the 1981 attempt on his life in order to gain sympathy from a voting public turning against him. Luke served as an encyclopedia of assassination lore and, talking to him, I sometimes felt he believed that no tragedy, controversy or mishap unfolded in this country until it had been thoroughly hashed out in some hidden board room.

Luke's favorite topic was himself. He littered virtually every conversation with sentences beginning "Back when I was a reporter at . . . " Luke always portrayed himself as the lone journalistic crusader held back by a confederacy of editorial dunces. Luke's need to be the center of things translated into a controversial career as a baseball umpire. Luke was hated by many Little League managers. On game day, he turned from an affable fellow into the Ann Coulter of officiating. Luke ejected players and managers at the drop of a flyball and i think he relished the venom he inspired. He became quite a power in his little diamond-shaped realm.

The hidden, demonic Luke never surfaced at work. There, Luke told jokes, some threadbare, some dirty, some hilarious, and some all three. Luke also proved fiercely and dependably loyal to his employees. Luke stood by me when I wrote a series of stories on local "puppy mills," where poorly-cared for dogs were mass bred and raised in filthy conditions. These disease-ridden pups would be sold later at local flea markets or grocery store parking lots. Several readers complained that the stories were gross. Luke, however, saw these reports as emblematic of the aggressive, reform-oriented type of journalism he wanted for his newspaper . Luke consistently risked his own hide if the publisher, a misguided reader, or some other nitwit put his reporters' jobs in peril.

Management forced Luke Johnson to resign as editor of the Mesquite News. He had the temerity to write a column one football season about how interminably long half-time shows were at high school football games. This was a touchy issue for Luke because he, like the rest of us, made a pretty decent bundle covering games not only for our own papers, but phoning in stories we sold on the side to every other publication in the region.

Stringers like Luke lived a competitive, vicious, first-come, first served existence. Listening to the Mesquite High Band play "Disco Inferno" for the 5th time that season not only strained his ears but his patience. The marching bands frittered away his potential for extra income as deadlines loomed. He waxed bitter about his fate for a few paragraphs in one of his columns.. The parents of the high school urchins were not amused. Our brave publisher told Luke to not write anymore opinion pieces. Luke quit. The rest of the staff loved Luke and didn't want to work without him and we all quit at the same time. The paper never really recovered, content-wise, and became a loser financially, going out of business a few years latter.

Several of us ended up working at the Arlington Citizen-Journal shortly thereafter, but Luke never knew Arlington the way he knew Mesquite and he was out of his element. He took a job reviewing automobiles for a chain of Georgia newspapers. I saw him compete on "Wheel of Fortune" once when he tried to buy a vowel that had already been used in the puzzle. Luke had frequent unlucky lapses like that and he swung at empty air more often than he made contact with the ball. Of course, that was also true of Babe Ruth, who is still undeniably famous.

That was the last I knew of Luke until a couple of weeks ago when a mutual friend, John, told me that Luke had died of complications from Alzheimer's disease. I had trouble picturing Luke not remembering the stories about himself he had told everyone to the point of exhaustion. I googled and charted the internet and could not find a single word written in his memory.. "That completely blew my theory that if you get nothing else of value out of a career in newspapers, at least you'll get a good write-up when you go," my friend John noted. That's fitting, I guess, because Luke was his own most passionate and critical biographer.

Attention, however must be paid. Good-bye, my friend, and may you find a captive audience in heaven.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

1 comment:

John said...

Thanks for proving me right. Luke just got a hell of a write-up. Well done.