where goeth the word
Given my status as a writer, & practicing its highest form- poetry- at its highest level, I have often found the bastardization of language to be most troublesome. Worse is when that bastardization entails political ramifications. Such is the case with how the mass media in the 1980s distorted 1 of the ‘epidemics’ that was made to seem so rampant in urban America in that decade. That epidemic was the ‘crack epidemic’, in which almost overnight this variant of cocaine (broiled) was said to be sweeping through America & wiping out its children.
The Reagan administration used this faux epidemic as a tool to craft some of the most unfair & regressive prison laws going- 1s which would later serve as models for the even more Draconian ‘3 Strikes’ anti-drug laws of the 1990s. Several points- my argument with this approach to drugs is not a Libertarian 1, although I do favor legalization of all drugs as long as you don’t operate a vehicle while high, nor is it a legalistic argument, although I think it’s absurd that this ‘epidemic’ was used as an excuse to jail 1000s of low level addicts who had no financial recourse to fight their prosecutions, nor enough information to plea down a sentence; rather, my whole problem with the 1980s ‘crack epidemic’ was that it never existed. 1st, violent crime rates, in most areas of the nation went down in the 1980s even as crack was supposedly unleashing perversions not seen since a similar propaganda wave against ‘marihuana’ was unleashed in the 1930s. 2ndly, crack cocaine was nothing new- in fact, in urban areas it had been around from before my birth. The thing was that no 1 gave a damn when poor ghetto kids (of any shade) wasted their lives on it. For the quarter century that crack- known as ‘pop’ before its 1980s rechristening with the apparently sexier & scarier name- was confined to the ghettoes there was no epidemic. It was only when that was no longer true that the federal government even gave a damn. Which is why 3rdly, the drug problem in general, & led by the overnight pop star known as the ‘crackhead’, only reached ‘epidemic’ proportions when the well-fed white kids of God-fearing, segregation-loving, anti-abortion, reactionary Republican families started searing away their nasal linings.
Then, what had once been a sign of the inferior moral nature of the poor & wrong-colored all of a sudden transmogrified into a Satanic beast stalking ‘our poor defenseless kiddies’. I often thought, during those days, of those poor & wrong-colored folk who lacked moral fiber & usually slowly withered away, or dropped dead suddenly to a potter’s field burial. I wondered of that morality, until I came to a startling, at least to me, conclusion- that morality does not exist. No, I am not a nihilist, although it was cool to claim so in those days; rather I am not a believer in morality. This does not mean I am a debaser of all virtue with my Left Wing moral relativity, although I do believe in the concept- nominally. Instead, I saw that morality is something wholly dependent upon being imposed on a person from the outside. No 1 is born with morality. I do believe that all but the psychopathic have a sense of ethics, but ethics are a different substance than morals. Both are loosely termed as values, but I see ethics as fundamentally stemming from within the psyche of every person. They are general tenets that both the evolution of billions of years & that ineffable thing we label ‘self’ have innately plugged into our systems at birth. These are often overlapping with morals, but not always the same.
Morals are imposed from without by a belief system- usually a religion or a philosophy. But, these are intellectualized things & subject to twisting from person to person & generation to generation. Ethics are not. Both a person’s moral & their ethic may decree that murder is wrong- both immoral & unethical. But, it is a moral that will tell some 1 that fellatio or abortion or sodomy is immoral, not an ethic. This is because ethics are based on a small h hedonistic principle of something being good if it causes no harm & gives pleasure. The 3 mentioned actions are all generally good things, unless some1 were forcing a person to unwillingly commit those acts. Fellatio gives pleasure. Abortions relieve unwanted pregnancies, & all the misery that entails. Sodomy also gives its participants pleasure.
But, many of the religiously based morals decree these ethical acts as being immoral for minutiae of that particular belief systems quirks. The only problem is that most moralists disagree with themselves over the interpretation of their morals because they have misinterpreted, over & again, the intellectual underpinnings behind an act & a moral. Plus, most moralists do not follow their own professed morals. Do as I say, not as I do. Ethics are not so encumbered. These are beliefs that, generally, are immanent in all people- regardless of what culture they hail from. The best illustration of the difference between a moral & an ethic would be that of a gay man who is in the closet. Now, I don’t wanna get sidetracked on the almost pointless argument of homosexual provenance, because it has nothing to do with the point- which is that a closeted gay may work hard, pay his taxes, be polite to neighbors, but be burning away psycho-emotionally inside because he feels guilt over his attraction to other men. By all accounts of an ethical scorecard this person would rate high. Yes, he may goof off a little too much at work, or gossip about his sister too much, but overall his ‘do no harm & enjoy’ ethic is an admirable 1. This same person, however, might be seen as not only immoral by a religiot, but 2bly so for 1st having the attraction, & then acting upon it. Yet, if no harm is being caused, why would he be labeled immoral? Simply because of the Neolithic religious background he came from.
Where this ties in to the faux crack epidemic of the 1980s is that most of the drug addicts I knew were by no means unethical. The worst they would do is occasionally steal for their habit. Yet, this weakness (& I don’t obviate their responsibility for their habit & life’s wreck, merely acknowledge it makes them weak) was excoriated as not only being detrimental to the addicts, but bizarrely tied to the loss of family in suburbia, by people who spent their days contributing nothing to society, save lining their own pockets in rigged economic systems that were handed to them by virtue of no moral strength of their own, save the unspoken 1 of a lighter shade of pale.
Another ‘epidemic’ that seized America nearly a decade & a ½ before ‘crack’ did was that of skyjacking airplanes. Long before some deluded Muslims crashed planes into the Twin Towers in New York their forerunners in the late 1960s & early 1970s had staged the 1st of a series of airplane hijackings which were then dubbed ‘skyjackings’. This apparently was the modus operandi of 2 groups, for the most part: Palestinian terrorists who widened their war against the oppressive Israeli government by staging these media-grabbing events, & disaffected political dissidents from Communist countries who sought escape, or a few who sought entry- mostly to Cuba. It was in this milieu that 1 of the many St. John’s Elementary School field trips would venture. In 1971 or 1972 we were told that our field trip would consist of a trip to JFK International Airport, where we would taxi around the runway in a real airplane. 1 of the boys in my class- Warren Jensen- had a mom who was a stewardess for 1 of the major airlines- I’m Mommy, Fly Me! Warren was a quiet little blond boy who possessed no real traits that could catch notice. In fact, were it not for this anecdote I would probably never even have an iota to attach his name to.
Nonetheless, the day for the trip arrived & we were bused to the airport. Among the parental escorts were my mom & Mrs. Cloris Harte- the mother of Josh Harte- the cute brunet boy all the girls liked & to whom I was often Tonto to his Lone Ranger. Unlike most of the other kids I was well versed in the news of the day. How could I not be when my dad was so obsessed with the war in Vietnam? I had heard about these demonic skyjackers who would steak planes & take hostages. I kept my worries to myself. I was stoic as we boarded the airplane. But my eyes were peeled. As the kids settled in we learned that we would have to wait a bit before we took off. The captain of the plane came out & explained such things as aerodynamic lift- this was how an airplane flew. He also explained about the Wright Brothers, the history of his airline, & how much he liked working with the beautiful stewardesses, such as the blond & pretty younger-than-most-mommies Mrs. Jensen. Most of the kids were glazed by the captain’s soliloquy until the Q&A session came. No 1 seemed to have any real questions so I popped up. I asked him what he would do if our airplane was skyjacked. A bit taken aback the captain asked me where a little boy would have ever heard of such a thing. I snapped back, ‘I watch the news, Mister!’ Discomfited, the captain smiled & headed back to the cockpit. The kids started buzzing & some asked me what if meant to be skyjacked. I explained that this meant that bad men would steal the plane with bombs, take us to another country, & either kill us or make us slaves. I added the last 2 for my penchant for embellishment.
The plane grew very quiet. Some of the kids asked to be let off the plane. My mom was embarrassed that I had caused a buzz. After a wait of a ½ hour or more the plane finally started heading out on the runway. Just then, 2 of the nervous girls who were sitting near the windows- I believe it was blond Mandy Baker & brunet Karen Vendenhorst- spotted some weird looking man approaching the plane as it started to move. They nervously pointed this out to the kids around them. More men moved toward the plane. Some had flashing lights- obviously bombs. By the time these dastards’ approach reached me & I looked out the window of the plane full of nerve-wracked kids, I saw what was happening- we were gonna end up slaves in the cotton fields of Cuba. I did what I had to & calmly handled the situation as any 6 or 7 year old would. I yelled, at the top of my lungs, ‘SKYJACK!’ With that the whole class erupted in tears, screams, & panic. Their seat belts were unbuckled & kids were running up & down the aisles to avoid a life of indenture. I ran straight to the captain’s door & banged on it until he came out. The scene was something out of a Pamplona bull run- terrified children were everywhere & ignoring their elders’ pleas.
The captain was nonplussed, until he decided the only way to stem the panic was to pull the plane back & let us all debark. Our field trip was over after the plane had had taxied no more than 1000 feet & back. The children only regained their composure after getting back inside the airport terminal. While I was in for a stern talking to from mom, the aides, & the teachers, I did revel for a week or 2 in the status of savior of the class from desperate terrorists. Mrs. Jensen’s airline never invited St. John’s out for another field trip.
Years later I would recall aspects of the field trip in this poem:
AMERICAN SONNET 87
Say it no more! Goodbye is no heaven,
and it is no aerie, despite its disguise
and service upon this 707.
The fear in the children lives in the skies.
No taxiing jet, no children’s field trip
can relieve anxieties from what happens
at the nexus of fear, and juvenile slips,
beyond the power of Mrs. Jensen,
the stewardess whose invitation the class
accepted, and the mother of Warren,
or the pilot whose misprision increases
with each fear of a child disproven.
Yet, in our seats, bound tight and immobile
this sleep is scattered for something global.
Yes, strange are the things that happen when the living become mere memories. But strangeness is not limited to the interpretation of the past by the present. When I was young the family would often go out to visit my dad’s best friend & his wife in Valley Stream, out on the Island- Uncle Charley & Aunt June Erhardt. Dad & Charley had been pals for years. They had met back in the Civilian Conservation Corps in Idaho, back during the Great Depression. Dad was a logger & Charley was an electronics whiz- taught by his dad. He was the ham radio operator for the camp. When World War 2 hit dad was rejected as 4F because of the broken ankle he had from childhood which never healed. Charley, however, signed up with the Merchant Marines & saw duty in both theaters. Or so he would tell people. What he really did was always a mystery, for Charley was 1 of those classic New York yarnspinners. He & dad had both grown up in & around the Ridgewood, Queens area but never connected till their meeting in the CCCs. He was a year younger than dad, & died a year before dad, too- in 1982, although of what was never made clear, although it was suspected as cancer. All I recall was that dad was saddened because he could not attend the funeral because he was bedridden with his own cancer at the time.
Unlike mom & dad, whose medical history made conception difficult, Charley & June had had a child not long after the war- Junie, their daughter. I barely recall her as she was in college by the time I recall regular visits to Uncle Charley’s. June, Charlie’s wife, was friendly with mom & about the same age, but not particularly close, even though they had met dad & Charley at a school dance, & married within a year of each other. I recall mom’s dismay when, not long after dad died & June came to his funeral, she announced that she was gonna remarry. She had dated a man for several months & was ready to put her 40+ year marriage behind her quickly. Mom found this behavior odd & never thought of June as fondly after that. To her it was a betrayal of Charley- not the remarriage, but the speed with which it occurred. Mom vowed never even to look at another man after dad died. Consequently, the 2 gradually lost touch, with personal visits dwindling to occasional card giving way to nothing. Where the former June Erhardt is today I do not know, even if she is alive.
But, in the early 1970s, the Schneiders & the Erhardts got together at least every other month, usually at the Erhardt’s home, for there Charley & dad could bullshit around the barbecue grill. I liked going to Uncle Charley’s house- especially his basement & his attic. In the basement Charley had a pool table & I would watch for hours as the 2 old friends tried to 1 up each other, & exchange now-faded tales of their logging years in Idaho. Even though it was the Great Depression, to the boys it was that warmth that all things past give. It was only years later, after dad’s death, when mom & I moved to Minnesota, that the truth about dad’s CCC past was revealed. Now, dad was just another Depression kid reminiscing with a peer. But, I loved Charley’s attic even more, for there he had his old ham radio from the Merchant Marines. Whenever we went to Charley’s he was always eager to show off his ham skills. That & his good natured penchant to tell jokes were what stuck out about him. Unlike many of the Long Island Republican crowd that dad knew, mostly due to his sister’s, Aunt Dotty’s, marital relations, Charley was a working class guy at heart. I forget what he did for a living, but I think it had to do with the electronics of the day. Like dad, his sympathies lay with regular people. While he may not have been as open-minded as dad regarding politics & people who were not from the same class, he was not as openly hostile to things as civil rights as the others were. He was also not particularly religious- due mostly to the war. What secrets he kept inside were his. Although Charley could talk nonstop about anything his wartime experiences were not where his tales grew from. But he was a fun & funny guy.
When we would go up to the attic & tune in to the ham radio network it was like a different reality. In those pre-Internet times a ham radio was about the only way people from different countries could communicate with each other sans government interference. I recall that over the ham radio, on the attic wall, was a big color map of the world. Charley had colored pins sticking in the various locations he had conversed with people in. There were pins on all the continents. Going to Charley’s meant a potluck. We never knew who we would contact. After supper, it was always me, dad, & Charley retiring to the attic for an hour or 2 to relax & converse with new people. Charley was apparently well known on the military frequencies- for he always referred to himself as Lieutenant Erhardt, of the U.S. Merchant Marines.
It seemed that Uncle Charley also enjoyed it when I came over for he said that for some reason whenever I was near the radio he could get better reception & talk to people farther away for longer. Over the years I wonder if it was my strange connection & reactions to electromagnetism which helped boost Charley’s radio. All these years since I do remember some of the more memorable people we spoke to- 1 was a Soviet dissident somewhere in eastern Siberia. Another was a man in New Zealand- I believe he was an RAF officer down under. 1 time we even reached the American station in Antarctica. But, the most memorable ham pals we encountered were a couple of times when we got some weird people whose location Charley could not pinpoint. Even if someone did not give their location there was some way Charley knew how to locate where in the world the signal originated from. Except for these 2 occasions. All that I recall was Charley’s amazement that such strong signals defied pinpointing- literally! The 2 voices were kind of weird. I remember Uncle Charley wondering if they were airborne. The 1st time I think the message faded as quickly as it came- with Charley determined to locate it. He could not, & our ham pal had just spouted some gibberish about Armageddon & the Bible, etc.
The 2nd time we got a ham pal we could not locate was spookier. I recall the voice started decreeing things in a quasi-automatonic way, claimed to be not of this earth, & that he was part of a legion based on the moon, that had observed the Apollo astronauts, etc. We tried to get him to converse normally, but were rebuked with charges of ‘Infidel!’ I remember thinking it was a joke, but my humor soured when Charley seemed to get nervous. Things got even more nervous when the ham pal called out Charley’s full name, address, & phone #. Dad asked how he could know such a thing. Charley had flushed. Apparently Charley was a believer in things paranormal. I recall dad telling me that he had claimed to have seen a Bigfoot back in the CCC days in Idaho.
Dad asked if he really thought Charley might really be talking to a flying saucer. Charley did not answer. Dad thought UFOs all a government hoax. I had heard of UFOs but was not as scared of them as Charley evidently was. I had seen far scarier things in Bushwick & Ridgewood than just some little green men. I remember I started grilling the ham pal. Was he in a flying saucer? Or was he a- Skyjacker?! At the utterance of the word the ham pal seemed to get angry & started berating me, saying he know where I, Danny Schneider, lived. At that dad took control of the speaker & tried to reason with the ham pal, stating it wasn’t right to try to scare a little boy. Charley, also, was jogged out of his cold stupor & said he was signing off.
But he couldn’t. To Charley’s dismay he could not turn off the ham radio. The voice on the other end continued trumpeting his plans for the human race. I thought it was kind of funny, but Charley was evidently scared & freaked-out by the whole thing. He said we should just go downstairs & he would somehow turn the radio off. Dad & I returned to the living room for desert. About 20 minutes later an ashen Uncle Charley shot my dad a look & the 2 men went to a corner of the house to converse. When they came back dad said it was time to go home as Charley was not feeling well. I never learned what it was that so disturbed Uncle Charley about the freaky ham pal that night, what Charley told dad, nor did I learn why we were asked to leave early. It seemed to me that Charley was too superstitious for a man so smart.
By our next trip to the attic sanity had prevailed. While there would be other wacky ham pals, & some who claimed to be from heaven or another world, none ever spooked Charley as much- I think for his lack of control & inability to locate that ham pal that 1 night. To this day I miss Uncle Charley, & to a degree I have a similar, albeit more intellectual, relationship with my best friend, Joe Homrich. The only tangible reminder I have of him is an old sled that he once gave me- it was a beauty of a Flexible Flyer sled from the 1920s. Even though I had a more modern sled it could not compare with the craftsmanship in Charley’s sled. He’d kept it from childhood & never had a son to give it to. I was the recipient of that lack in his life. Here’s how I wrote about it once:
Here it comes, gliding me into a shoosh
further from me than all but yesterday,
the Flexible Flyer- beloved sled-
that occulted enigmas, from my mind,
deeper than any till your love took sway
to scud through ancient icefields of my bed
longing for freedoms I have since resigned
are not an option. I will not forget
yours in the thick pond that, into, I whoosh
again on an instrument- not a toy
from Uncle Charley- which brought me nearer
to you, my heart, formed within the mirror
of the perfect ice reflecting a boy
loving his sled, like you, before we met.
For years I would use that sled well. I grew to love that sled, & my memories of my dad’s best friend. When he died, I remember the profound sorrow that gripped dad. What adventures they shared in Idaho I am not privy to, save for the few anecdotes that slipped out, but it was obvious the 2 men had bonded deeply & their friendship was until death. The word for it is love. Bastardize that!