Sunday, October 30, 2011

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Phoo Phees

There are questions a father gets asked by his offspring. How do plants grow? Why are there wars? What are toenails made of? Why did the T-Rex have such short arms?

I’m prepared for such questions. I keep a cheat sheet.

But nothing prepared me for this: “Daddy, why does Grandmom call you Phoo Phee?” ...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

'Death to the Left'

At the very moment on Oct. 3, when Hank Williams Jr. was on “Fox and Friends” comparing President Obama to Hitler, I had just entered through the gate of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration and Extermination Camp — one of Hitler’s masterworks — in the southwestern plains of Poland. Sounds implausible, but it’s true, and I’ve got alibis.

It’s not fair to contaminate the soul-contracting sorrow of an Auschwitz-Birkenau visit with the poison politics delivered in the battlebot baritone of Hank Williams Jr., but with his dopy Monday Night Football theme song now yanked from NFL broadcasts, it stands to reason his martyrdom will raise record sales.

If his music and persona bore at least a hereditary trace to his legendary father, you might be heartened to imagine Hank Williams Jr. would make haste and step up to the microphone to lay down a ballad on the brokenness of humanity staring himself. But whereas his troubled, cowboy-poet father sang with striking sensitivity of fortunes gained and lost in the tumbledown recesses of the American dream, Hank Williams Jr. sings as if he yearns only for all-you-can eat boneless chicken wings. So when you hear his nationally televised Hitler nonsense, you do begin to wonder what Hank Williams Jr. and some of his rowdy friends might be capable of if given the opportunity.

Aside from hugging my family after an eight-day, journalism-related trip to Poland, chastising Hank Williams Jr. is among the few things that have felt good. At my wife's family gathering Sunday, I’m asked about Auschwitz, but what do you say to the aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins sitting around the table? Where do you begin? With details of the grisly medical experiments the Nazis performed on children? Where?

I’m not sure yet. Maybe you just look for any opportunity to redirect conversation to that idiot Hank Williams Jr. or any other idiot of your choosing.

That Monday afternoon, Oct. 3, marked the only free block of time I had in Poland. The train jerks to a stop at the Oswiecim station. From there, you walk through a charmless neighborhood and think, "Really? People still live beside Auschwitz-Birkenau?" You'd figure it'd be set far off from humanity, like Stonehenge, the Mayan pyramids and many other man-man assemblages no amount of pondering can explain.

After you round an arborvitae hedge, the land opens up and you see a tall watchtower in the distance, a menacing presence with eyes in the back of its head. You soon come upon Birkenau’s “Death Gate.” You’ve seen it in photographs. A rail line stabs through its arch and continues as straight as anything you’ve ever seen before. You know where that rail line ends — between two buildings into which more than a million people (mostly Jews) were guided by soldiers who promised a soothing bath and warm meal but who offered nothing of the kind.

You step through the gate. The sky is blue, and — my — the place seems well-maintained, everything in neat rows like the graveyard back home where the kids learn to ride bikes. But, really, that’s baloney. The blue sky is permeable. It’s a peaceful overlay to horror. You’re here at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and all you have to do is close your eyes to hear the barking dogs and the heavy steel wheels and the iron-fastened railcar doors pulled open to expose all those faces who will soon encounter pure evil administered with fearsome efficiency.

You walk along the train tracks till you come to the end of the line between the remains of Crematoriums II and III. There’s a “monument” there. They call it a monument, but it's more of a gathering place to try to sort things out. At the moment, there’s a large group listening to talks. The speakers are trip leaders from a bus tour who speak from a script about how God is “mercy itself," and that “love sets the limit on evil.” Fine, but is this the place for such speeches? To give pat answers to inexplicable questions is to consign Holocaust victims to "extras" with non-speaking roles in a drama written by hacks.

Then a choir sings. Then, all is silent. Then from the crowd you hear a baby screaming, the most eloquent utterance you've heard all day — a scream as if read from notation drawn upon the stave of barbed wire.

After all this, you promise yourself that when you get back home you'll never complain about anything ever again. Ever.

Yesterday I read Hank Williams Jr.’s apology. He’s still a bozo, but his apology sounds sincere. And just as Obama ain’t Hitler, none of Hank Williams Jr.’s thoughtless political pronouncements can compare to the quick, cold calculations drawn at the unloading area inside the Death Gate where for years confused transports — mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, holding hands, desperately tending to one another — were ordered off railcars, separated and summarily subjected to the “selection” process. Those who seemed able-bodied for hard labor were set to one side. Those condemned to immediate death were corralled to the other.

The system was this: "Death to the left; life to the right." You know there are yahoos out there who would love it if Hank Williams Jr. used those words as a song title.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Today's lesson: Don’t be a chicken

Perhaps taking neighborliness beyond its natural habitat, last weekend I helped my neighbor butcher his chickens. Raised in the suburbs, the only things I had ever killed before were my own brain cells. So shoving a reluctant bird headfirst down into a cone of death, taking a knife to its neck, making the cut (svttt), and watching the blood drain from its carotid artery can get a fella thinking.

Ninety years ago, my grandparents fled the countryside, leaving behind the wind-swept traces of generations’ worth of hand-plucked chicken feathers. Fifty years ago, my parents fled the city, stopping just short of the chicken-killing precincts. Ten years ago, I fled the suburbs for the locavore culture of the country, leaving behind memories of bouts of diarrhea from thousands of cheap, industrial-produced, corn-stuffed, antibiotic-injected, chicken-y flavored nugget thingies that my digestive system would frisk and attempt to detain, but they always managed to break loose and bolt. ...

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The cross she bears. The bear he crossed.

At the very height of the Cold War, my oldest brother, Chris, fought a Russian bear. My mother allowed it. She just wanted him to be happy.

This is a coming-of-age story. I think.

The hero is not the bear, who won in a technical knockout in the first round, even though he cheated. The hero is not the owner of the Hanover Mall in Massachusetts, who waved away the namby-pambies and permitted a traveling Russian bear owner to set up a boxing ring by the Orange Julius stand even though the whole undertaking was ludicrous. The hero is not even my brother Chris, the oldest of four, whose gutsy effort to prove his manhood ironically set him back several years.

No, the hero is my mother. On paper, maybe she failed to exercise the care expected of a reasonably prudent parent. But two things to consider. First, remember these were uncertain days — sword-rattling days. This was 1983. As far as we all knew, the Russians were preparing to knock the living tobacco juice out of us. How could my mother possibly discern the future would be in electrical engineering and Internet technology rather than hand-to-hand combat with Russia and her bears? The second thing, her eldest child was 19. It was time for a restructuring of the Carroll family politic — our own little perestroika. It was time to let go.

Wait. No, no, no. It was definitely NOT time to let go. Oh, good Lord, no! Don’t let that thing kill him — that THING … that tall, dark, unshaven thing. What kind of society allows its children to fight foreign bears when they don’t have to?

No, no, no, no.

Yes, as she watched a seven-foot-tall, 650-pound stinky-and-certainly-Soviet-steroid-addled brown bear lift itself up on its haunches and violently lunge at her firstborn to inflict lasting damage, she learned perhaps the most valuable lesson a mother could learn: While there comes a time to let go and allow your children to stand up on their own and make mistakes, there’s also a time when you must realize it’s definitely not time to let go. I wonder if that Russian bear owner was thinking, “What kind of society has mothers who allow their child to sign a Release of Liability, Assumption of Risk and Indemnity Agreement to fight a bear at the local mall?”

Chris announced the Russian bear was coming to town. He announced he was going to fight it. For him, it was simple — a matter of Good vs. Evil. We packed ourselves up in the family sedan to make a day of it. When we got there, a crowd had already gathered around the mall fountain. Big biker guys with leather vests and handlebar mustaches had signed up, wiping their noses with their sleeves, itching for a fight. The line stretched nearly to the perverts crowding into Spencer’s. But the line began moving surprisingly quickly for two reasons:

1. the fights were going very well for the bear; and

2. an inordinate number of tough biker guys had unceremoniously flaked off from the bear-fighting line to queue up at the Orange Julius line. (Men who wouldn’t normally be caught dead sipping hand-squeezed juice from a plastic orange had decided it would be better to not be caught dead under the weight of a very large mammal while yards away shoppers tried on new slacks.)

As Chris got closer to the ring and as more and more fighters were pealed from the canvas, my mother — prone to anxiety attacks — grew unnaturally pale. We all did. Her firstborn wore a pair of elastic sweatpants with gym shorts on the outside. He had on a wrestling T-shirt from his high school even though he never wrestled in high school (he stole the shirt). He had zero muscle mass at the time. A squirrel could have mauled him. Our day at the mall was beginning to look like a bad idea. We had originally imagined a fluffy bear, a couple bear hugs, good fun in the vein of a dunking booth. But Chris had unwittingly volunteered for gladiatorial combat.

“Don’t do this, Chris. Please,” our mother pleaded.

But he had to go through with it. She knew it. The biker cowards knew it. We all knew it.

Yuri Andropov was the Soviet leader at the time. And like the bear in the ring, he seemed neither interested nor disinterested in annihilating America, which made him a scary dude.

Was the fighting bear his idea? See what the Yanks are made of? A sortie into the cancerous heart of capitalism, beside a mall fountain where capitalist children toss pennies and wish for new bicycles rather than for collective ownership of the means of production?

Chris climbed into the ring. They put boxing gloves on him the size of his head and a full-face sparring headgear. The bear waited in his corner, his tongue flickering through his muzzle, tasting the air. The bell rang. Before my mother’s first born could say, “You’re crushing my ribcage, Comrade,” the fight was over. The bear had pummeled him with a left hook and then a right hook that knocked him down. On the canvas, Chris crouched like a baby in utero as the bear proceeded to gnaw at his stomach because the muzzle wasn’t tight enough. The cheat.

Like dragging a half-filled duffle bag, they pulled Chris out of the ring. My mother hugged him and told him he was an idiot, then hugged him some more.