Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Johnny Yen's Chicago Stories: A Tale of Two Robbers

One of the best books I've read in a long time is Bryan Burroughs' "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34." Not only was it, as Time Magazine said, "Ludicrously entertaining," it was fascinating, particularly since so many of the events depicted took place in and around Chicago.

In 1933, John Dillinger was living in an apartment at 4310 North Clarendon, about two blocks from where my nursing school is. Dillinger did not know that one of his acquiantences, Art McGinnis, was a paid snitch. When Dillinger developed a scalp problem (either "barber's itch," an inflammation of the hair follicles, or ringworm, a fungal infection of the skin), he sought medical help. McGinnis arranged for Dillinger to visit a doctor on Keeler Avenue, just south of Irving Park Road, this intersection, which is now right by where the Kennedy Expressway crosses Irving Park Road.

Indiana State Police detective Matt Leach was informed. Since Dillinger's escape from an Indiana jail cell, Leach was hot to capture (or kill) Dillinger. Private Detective Forrest Huntington, who worked for one of the banks that Dillinger and his gang had robbed wanted to wait and try to get Dillinger's whole gang. Indiana State Police detective Matt Leach had driven in from Indianapolis, also wanted Dillinger captured or dead that day. Refereeing this all was Chicago Police Lieutenant John Howe, head of the Chicago Police Department's Secret Squad.

He argued that Dillinger should pay for the death of Lima, Ohio Sheriff Jess Sarber. Dillinger had engineered a mass escape at a prison in Michigan City, Indiana in order to spring a prison friend, Pete Pierpoint, who had been his mentor in the finer points of bank robbing during the nine-year stint he served for for the ill-conceived grocery store robbery that had imprisoned him to begin with. With the new knowledge he'd gained in prison, he'd started robbing banks, but was fingered for the robbery of a bank in Blufton, Ohio, near Lima. To return the favor for springing him, Pierpoint sprang Dillinger from the Lima jail, murdering Sheriff Sarber in cold blood in the process.

Finally, the "kill or capture" Dillinger contingent won out after a Lima, Ohio officer walked into Lt. Howe's office and pursuaded them that Sheriff Sarber's murder needed to be avenged.

The group, accompanied by three cars of Chicago cops, staked out the offices of Dr. Charles Eye for several hours. At 7:25 PM, Dillinger drove up and parked on Irving Park Road, with his girlfriend Billie Frechette in the car. Dillinger walked into the doctor's office, leaving Frechette in the car. A while later, Dillinger walked out of the physician's office and apparently noticed that several of the cars were parked the wrong way. Sensing danger, Dillinger slipped quickly into the car and warned Frechette to hang on. He floored the car, backing directly into traffic on Irving.

Several of the various police cars gave chase as Dillinger yelled to Frechette to get down and gunned the car eastbound down Irving Park Road. With Chicago detective John Artery behind the wheel, Indianapolis State Police officer Art Keller started firing wildly, emptying his .38 revolver.

Dillinger swung south, to the right, at this intersection onto Elston Avenue with Artery continuing to pursue and Keller continuing to fire.

The melee continued down Elston until Dillinger pulled into a dead-end street. Artery followed him, but Dillinger rocketed the car in reverse past him and escaped. He and Frechette abandoned the car on the north side of Chicago and took a cab to another gang member's apartment, where an impromptou party was taking place. Dillinger would live to continue his crime spree until his death the next year, on Sunday, July 22, when he was shot to death in front of the Biograph Theater, which still stands today on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago.

Unlike John Dillinger, who avoided killing if at all possible, Lester Gillis, aka "Baby Face Nelson" loved killing. He killed a number of policemen, bank employees, civilians and people who just happened to get in his way. Yet, he was, oddly, a family man, a devoted husband and loving father.

Dillinger worked for a short while with Nelson, but was horrified at Nelson's stupid violence; Nelson would shoot up banks and streets for no reason. The two robbers parted ways.

On April 22, 1934, Nelson gunned down FBI Special Agent W.Carter Baum near Spider Lake, Wisconsin. Despite a massive manhunt, Nelson escaped.

Nelson hid out in Iowa and then California. He was in California when he heard of Dillinger's demise. The psychotic Nelson had always resented that Dillinger was Public Enemy #1 and had a higher bounty on his head, despite the fact that he was much less violent.

In November of that year, the FBI received a tip that Nelson and his wife were scouting out a place near the Illinois-Wisconsin border for a place to hole up for the winter, The FBI prepared to hunt down Nelson in the area. The first two agents two arrive in the area were veteran agent Bill Ryan and rookie Tom McDade. The head of Chicago's FBI office, Samuel Cowley grabbed agent Ed Hollis and also set out for Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

As they drove toward the Wisconsin border, agents Ryan and McDade had a tip that Nelson was driving a car with Illinois license plate 639578. As they passed through the town Fox River Grove, they passed a black Ford that was barrelling in the other direction. The agents realized it had the plate they were looking for.

As the FBI agents turned their car around, Nelson, also turned his car around. After a series of maneuvers, Nelson's car was pursuing the FBI agents' car!

A wild running gunfight ensued. Nelson's car began losing speed; an FBI shot had hit the engine of his car.

Just then, Sam Cowley and Ed Hollis, in a Hudson sedan, passed by the gunfight. Hollis, driving, did a U-turn. In the meantime, Ryan and McDade had lost Nelson's car. They pulled their car off into a field and lay down, waiting to ambush Nelson.

Seeing Cowley and Hollis approaching, Nelson pulled his dying car off the road and ordered everybody (Nelson's accomplice John Chase and Nelson's wife Helen) out of the car.

Cowley and Hollis did not see Nelson's car until they were almost on top of it. Hollis slammed on the brakes about 150 feet away from where Nelson and Chase were waiting in ambush with rifles.

Nelson and Chase began firing their rifles. Nelson's rifle jammed, and he threw it to Chase, yelling at him to reload it. Nelson grabbed a powerful Thompson submachine gun and began firing it at the two agents. Cowley returned fire with his own Thompson, hitting Nelson in the stomach and chest, shredding his intestines.

Nelson, in pain, but fired up with adrenline, continued firing, hitting Cowley twice, once in the chest, once in the stomach. Hollis jumped out of the car firing a shotgun, hitting Nelson in both legs. Nelson staggered forward, firing at Hollis, who tried to get cover behind a telephone pole. Hollis emptied his shotgun, and then retreated firing his pistol. Nelson fired a volley from his Thompson; one shot hit Hollis in the forehead.

As onlookers from two nearby gas stations looked on in astonishment, Nelson, who it was later discovered was hit 17 times, staggered over to the FBI agents' Hudson and drove it over to his now-dead car. Tossing all the guns he could grab into the Hudson, Nelson let Chase take over the driving.

The first policeman on the scene, Illinois state policeman William Gallagher found Agent Cowley still alive. Hollis insisted that Gallagher help Hollis first. Hollis died before he reached the hospital.

Agent Cowley was picked up by an ambulance shortly thereafter. He was taken to Elgin Hospital, where he was able to report what happened to Agent Melvin Purvis. He died the next day. He is the most senior FBI agent to die in the line of duty.

Chase drove Nelson, who was clearly dying, to the tony northern suburb of Wilmette, Illinois, and took him to the home of a friend of a friend. He died shortly after, in the arms of his wife.

Chase and Helen Nelson undressed Nelson's body and wrapped it in a blanket, later explaining that Nelson was always complaining about being cold. They dumped the body near here, the gate of St. Peter's Cemetery, in what is now Skokie, Illinois. It was certainly the only gate of St. Peter that the homicidal sociopath was going to get near after his death.

Richard Lindberg's "Return to the Scene of the Crime: A Guide to Infamous Places in Chicago" was also a valuble resource in writing this post.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Johnny Yen's One-Hit Wonders: Albert Hammond, "It Never Rains In Southern California"

Up until the early sixties, most hit songs were written by writers and sung by singers. In the early sixties, that changed-- the day of the singer/songwriter arrived. Dylan, Donovan, Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs and others paved the way.

As the sixties rolled into the seventies, the political stridency of the music began to wane, but new group of singer/songwriters emerged. Don Maclean had a huge hit with his musical history of rock and roll, "American Pie," Carly Simon had hits with "You're So Vain" and "Anticipation," and her soon-to-be husband James Taylor had a bunch of hits.

From this army of singer/songwriters emerged Albert Hammond. Hammond was born in London, England, where his parents, natives of Gilbraltar, the British-held island off of Spain in the Straits of Gilbraltar, had evacuated to for the duration of World War II. Hammond returned with his family shortly after the war. He began playing in bands, including The Diamond Boys, a band that never had any hits, but played a role in bringing rock music to Spain as the Franco dictatorship began to wane and Spain modernized. With the group The Family Dogg, he had a top ten hit in Britain with "A Way of Life" in 1969.

His biggest hit came in 1972 with the folk-tinged "It Never Rains In Southern California." The song tells the story of a guy who makes his way to Southern California trying to make it (presumably) as an actor. He runs into a friend of his family, who sees that he's down and out, and he begs them not to tell his family, and to lie to them, to tell them he's "got offers but don't know which one to take."

The song is apparently partly autobiographical, though it took place in Spain, not Southern California. In Hammond's words:

"It never rains... was written in London, before we (Albert and Michael Hazelwood, the song's co-author) came to Los Angeles, and we knew we were coming, and I've been telling Mike the story of me in Spain when I started and how I was asking for money outside of the train stations because I had no money to eat and I didn't want to tell my parents. My cousin was on honeymoon then, and he came out of the train station and saw me, and I didn't even know it was him... I just asked him for some money, too. And he said "you should be ashamed, I'm gonna tell your father," and I said "please, don't tell him, he'll go crazy and and stop me doing this!" And then he took me back into the hotel, I had a bath, he gave me some clean clothes and some money. I moved on, but he did tell my father, you know. All these things like "will you tell the folks back home I nearly made it" and all that stuff came from that era of my life when I was struggling, trying to make it, trying to get from Morocco to Spain, from Spain to England, from England to America... That struggle you go through, that's It never rains in Southern California, the story of my life."

"It Never Rains In Southern California" reached #5 on the US Billboard charts, and was a worldwide smash. Hammond never reached those heights again himself, but wrote other big hits, all with Mike Hazelwood, who died in 2001. The Pipkins had a hit with "Gimme Dat Ding" in 1970 and the Hollies had their final hit in 1974 with "The Air That Breath." He co-wrote the Starship's #1 1987 hit "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now," Chicago's 1988 hit "I Don't Wanna Live Without Your Love" with Diane Warren, and wrote the 1984 Willie Nelson/Julio Iglesias hit "To All The Girls I Loved Before," as well as the theme song for the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, which was performed by Whitney Houston. He's had a number of top ten hits performed by other artists-- ironic for a guy who rode the crest of the singer/songwriter wave.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Full Moon Week Friday Random Ten

I'm not a big believer in the whole thing about craziness during full moon-- statistics have shown that there are no more births, arrests, etc. on the average when there's a full moon than other weeks. However, I've been tempted to attribute the general craziness of this week to the full moon.

As I've mention, we lost two young family members this week, my son's cousin Jason and my wife's cousin Peyton. Today, I got an email from my mother that one of her beloved Tibetan terriers, Sophie, died after a two month fight with thyroid cancer.

On top of this, we're waiting for news of my wife's Uncle Paulie, who is a delightful guy. His body has stopped producing blood cells and the doctors have run out of tricks. And I'm waiting to hear from my friend Julie, whose husband has inoperable cancer in his salivary glands, tongue and throat; though he quit smoking over twenty years ago, it's apparently caught up to him. Julie was the person who got me my interview for my teaching job in Cicero back in 2002, and might possibly be the nicest person I've ever known.

The icing on the crazy cake was on Wednesday, when a regular who's always been pretty odd, erupted screaming at me when he felt his meal had taken too long. After he called me "the worst waiter ever," "an awful person" and "despicable" (as his wife cringed, mortified), my boss finally had to throw him out.

I guess the amusing thing about it all is that I started my nursing clinicals yesterday-- at one of the biggest long-term mental health care facilities in the state of Illinois.

Tonight, we're having our good friend Robin, and looking forward to the end of this week.

1. Sweet Seasons- Carole King
2. Victim of Love- The Eagles
3. Sweet Thing- Van Morrison
4. I Wouldn't Want To Be Like You- Alan Parsons Project
5. Dancing Machine- The Jackson 5
6. Pretty Ballerina- The Left Banke
7. John, I'm Only Dancing- David Bowie
8. Morning Girl - Neon Philharmonic
9. Don't All The Girls Get Prettier At Closing Time- Mickey Gilley
10. Don't Fence Me In- Willie Nelson and Leon Russell

1. Thought to d/l this old favorite while reading "Girls Like Us," which was about Ms. King, Carly Simon and Joni Mitchell.
2. Hotel California was one of the first albums I ever bought.
3. From the great "Astral Weeks" album. The Waterboys did a nice cover of this one on "Fisherman's Blues."
4. Alan Parsons was a recording engineer who recorded some great albums, including Pink Floyd's masterpiece "Dark Side of the Moon." Most of his hits were in the eighties; this was from the late seventies.
5. Hard to remember in all the craziness of Michael Jackson's life that he was an immensely talented musician.
6. The Left Banke were one-hit-wonders with their love "Walk Away Renee," but this was a beauty too.
7. Bowie shares a birthday with Elvis Presley
8. A psychedelic one-hit-wonder from 1969
9. A country hit from the late seventies.
10. Cole Porter, as interpreted by Willie and Leon

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Home Stretch, A Week In

Today, I had my clinical orientation for my Psych rotation, at a major public mental health facitlity, finishing a really good week, very welcome in a week that held some bad family news.

On Monday, the entire sophomore class met in a huge auditorium. It was truly joyous to see people I'd become close to over the last year. The class met the new Nursing Department head-- we'd gone our whole freshman year without a department head-- and met some of our instructors for the year.

I noticed some people who were gone-- Eric, Nancy and Joe. I remembered the picture I took in my first nursing clinical, and was once again reminded of the picture in the movie "The Untouchables," when Kevin Costner's Elliot Ness looks mourningly at the picture, having lost two of the friends in the picture.

Later, Monday night, I ran out to get some things-- I still needed a notebook and also needed a new watch for clinical (we have to have a watch with a second hand so we can take heart rates), and ran out to a couple of stores. At Target, I ran into Eric, who had dropped out at the end of the year last year. I told him that we missed him, and then got the happy news: he had re-entered the program, as a freshman. I was very happy about this.

The next day I heard that Nancy and Joe had done the same thing. More happiness.

More good news was that since we were all now officially full-time, with 12 semester hours, we were all now eligible for a "U-Pass," a free public transit pass that we can use any time. I picked mine up after class Tuesday.

Tuesday was the longest, coldest day of my life. My class met in the same big lecture hall, and the air conditioning was set unbelievably low-- it had to be under 60 degrees. It had been pretty cool the day before, so most of us wore long pants, despite it being a nice Chicago day. Some had even worn sweat jackets. And we still froze our asses off. Fortunately, our instructor, Mrs. Corbett, made a call down to physical services and was able to get them to fix the temperature. By the end of the six hour class (we had a long class, rather than a clinical that day), they managed to get the temperature up to a tolerable one.

My initial impressions of Mrs. Corbett were good. She's got a good balance of rigor and humor. In our regular class yesterday, she mentioned having been a Peace Corps volunteer when she was younger. She's taught at the school for nearly 40 years, and seems to have a wealth of good stories.

As I mentioned, we had our first clinical today. We're at a state run mental health facility. I got a good vibe from our instructor, Dr. Donarad, who had come out of retirement to teach the class when the original instructor broke her hip in a fall. She seems calm and fair-- far different from my clinical instructor last semester, who was unclear with directions and hostile. Talking to another member of my group, I discovered that I wasn't the only one who had these issues with last semester's instructor. I'm looking forward to a better experience. My great school week was in contrast to the bad news we got at home. In addition to the unexpected death of my son's 28-year-old cousin, who, we discovered, died of a massive coronary on Saturday, my wife's four-year-old second cousin Peyton passed away yesterday evening of cancer, which was first diagnosed when she was only six months old. It was remarkable to see this little girl fight her illness with incredible spirit and humor, and I'm relieved that she's found some peace.

Last night at work, I was talking to a friend about it all. It was hard to believe that I started this journey three years ago, when I took a prerequisite Biology class. It's hard to believe that I'm only nine months from the end of this journey, and the start of a new one as a nurse. I can't wait.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Book Review: "Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon-- and the Journey of a Generation"

One of my summer reads, another Kindle book, was Sheila Weller's "Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon-- and the Journey of a Generation." It had sparked my interest since I read the reviews upon its release a couple of years ago. All three women have written and performed songs I love dearly.

Weller's chief accomplishments in writing this book were two-fold. First, she kept a rather complicated narrative comprehensible-- the women's lives, and loves, overlapped and diverged, and Weller does a terrific job keeping the three sometimes intertwining stories clear. Secondly, she does an admirable job relating the three women's personal stories to their art and vice versa.

Along the way, there are fascinating little tidbits. I won't give too many spoilers, but I loved discovering that one of my favorite Joni Mitchell songs, "Coyote," was about playwright/actor Sam Shepard. I also had never known that Ms. Mitchell paired off with Leonard Cohen and Jackson Browne at different times in the sixties, or that she had dated James Taylor, attending one of Carly Simon's first solo shows with him.

Ms. Weller discusses Carly Simon's song "You're So Vain" at length, and who it could be about. Amusingly, Warren Beatty, who Simon had had a fling with (as had Joni Mitchell), was actually so vain that he did think the song was about him. Recent speculation is that the song is about music mogul David Geffen, who reportedly ignored Ms. Simon at a show in favor of Ms. Mitchell. Mitchell did write a song about Geffen-- it's public knowledge that "Free Man In Paris" is about him.

Carole King's journey is fascinating and sometimes painful to read about. King starts out young in the game with her husband and song-writing partner Gerry Coffin, producing a breath-taking list of songs that are considered rock and roll classics, and of course her own amazing "Tapestry" album. In her personal life, she endured Coffin's mental illness and brazen infidelity-- he had an affair with and fathered a child with Cookies singer Jeanie McCrea at a time when interracial relationships were very uncommon-- and some disastrous relationships and marriages. Eventually, though, King out came up on top, continuing to produce great music and even collaborating with her ex-husband.

"Girls Like Us" worked for me on every level-- as a music lover, a lover of history and a plain old gossip-hound. I suspect the book really was written for other women, but as a guy, particularly a guy who adores the music produced by these three women, I loved it too. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Loss

Years ago, when my son was very young, he came to me and told me that he'd made a very important decision: that he had decided he wanted a brother. An older brother.

I had a good chuckle, and figured he'd eventually figure out that space-time continuum stuff, and why he couldn't have an older brother.

I eventually realized that he actually kind of had a big brother. His cousin Jason, who was 12 years older than he, filled that role admirably. I didn't have much contact with Adam's mother's family after I split with her, but I knew that Jason spent a lot of time with Adam, taking him fishing, playing football with him, all kinds of things.

Yesterday, right after I got to work, I got a call from Adam's mother. She was hysterical. Jason, she told me, was dead. All she knew was that he had been taken to an Emergency Room and was not alive. She asked if I could go back to my house and be with her when she told our son what had happened. I told her I would meet her. Fortunately, my boss was good with it-- he's always been great in letting his employees deal with family issues-- and a co-worker agreed to skip a break in between double shifts and take the handful of tables I had.

I got home and waited for my ex. Adam was curious as to why I was home and his mother had called earlier. She arrived, we all sat down at the dining room table, and she told him, in between sobs, what she knew.

Adam was, of course, stunned. He had thought she was going to tell him news about her mother, who just had cancer surgery. She and I had decided to let him go with her so that he could see Jason and have some closure.

I went back to work, and later Adam called and told me what he knew. Jason and an old friend of his had been having an enjoyable Saturday at a local race track, and that Jason had suddenly felt very hot. He drank water, but collapsed suddenly. Paramedics arrived almost immediately, but were not able to revive him.

There are a lot of possible causes-- an aneurysm, potassium depletion, many things. They will hopefully find out in the autopsy.

I feel a sense of loss-- Jason was a great, great person. But the big loss if for my son. I can tell him a little about what to expect, having lost a close friend a few years ago suddenly, what to expect-- that you lose the person without realizing that the last conversation you had with them was going to be the last conversation you'd ever have with them. That you'll wake up some mornings thinking that you dreamt that they had died, and that everything was going to be okay. Anger, sadness-- a whole bunch of things. It'll be a long road for him.

For my part, I have one regret: that I never got a chance to thank Jason for being so good to my son, for being what amounted to being his big brother. I wish I could have let him know that.

Friday, August 20, 2010

"A Summer Song" Friday Random Ten

I really meant to post a bunch this week-- I'm working on a post about two infamous gangsters and their Chicago connections. But time slips away-- not only am I getting ready to go back to school Monday, but my mother-in-law is staying with us while my father-in-law recuperates from his knee-replacement surgery. And on top of it, we're having a big "end of summer" bash tonight. And guess who's doing all the cooking...

In the meantime, while I prepare the coleslaw and tomato/broccoli/feta salad, I still have time to do my Friday Random Ten.

1. Girl From the North Country- Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash
2. Angie- The Rolling Stones
3. Mercy, Mercy, Mercy- The Buckinghams
4. We're All Alone- Boz Scaggs
5. Million Dollar Bash- Bob Dylan
6. Lonely Is (As Lonely Does)
7. Blue Moon- The Marcels
8. Memo To My Son- Randy Newman
9. It's All Right- Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions
10. Summer Days- Bob Dylan

1. A lovely duet from the "Nashville Skyline" album.
2. Supposedly about Angela Bowie, David Bowie's now-ex-wife.
3. Chicago treasures The Buckinghams with their version of a great Cannonball Adderley hit.
4. The closing track to "Silk Degrees," one of my desert island albums. Anne Murray had a hit with this one.
5. I have this one on the great "Biograph" set.
6. From "Like This," one of the great records of the eighties.
7. One of many hit versions of this song.
8. Randy Newman's homage to the joys of parenting a toddler.
9. From the late, great Curtis Mayfield and Jerry "The Iceman" Butler, who is a Cook County Commissioner these days.
10. Perfect ending to my last random ten of the summer-- Bob Dylan singing about summer. From the "Love and Theft" album.

Friday, August 13, 2010

All Summer Long Friday Random Ten

As a relaxing and productive summer comes to an end and I get ready to go back to school, I feel like Merle Haggard's "If We Make It Through December." The recession greatly affected both Kim and I, and we are busy putting out financial fires. This will be the case for a while to come.

In the meantime, this next year will almost certainly be the busiest of my life. The second year of nursing school is even more intense than the first. I also may work a second job. What the hell-- I can sleep when I'm done with nursing school.

Today's big task is to wait for the delivery of the oxygen equipment for my mother-in-law, whom my wife and I are taking care of for three weeks while my father-in-law has surgery and recuperates.

1. I'm Going To Say It Now- Phil Ochs
2. Holding Back The Tears- Simply Red
3. You're Gonna Miss Me- Roky Erikson
4. More Than This- Roxy Music
5. Sky High- Jigsaw
6. Neighborhood Bully- Bob Dylan
7. Hong Kong Garden- Siouxie and the Banshees
8. Shake Your Hips- The Rolling Stones
9. Miss You- The Rolling Stones
10. Funk #49- The James Gang

1. Phil Ochs' homage to the Berkeley Free Speech Movement.
2. One of those songs that brings me back to the place I heard it-- a downtown Chicago restaurant I worked at right when I got out of college in the mid eighties.
3. Learned to play this one in a guitar class at the Old Town School of Folk Music. I now associate it with the movie "High Fidelity;" it's the song at the beginning of that movie.
4. Another song I now associate with a movie-- this is the song Bill Murray karoakes to in "Lost In Translation."
5. A seventies one-hit wonder
6. Dylan's ironic take on Mideast politics, from the terrific "Infidels" album.
7. A seventies hit for Siouxie and crew.
8. From "Exile On Main Street," the greatest rock and roll record ever produced.
9. One good Stones song deserves another. This song brings me right back to the summer of 1978, which I'm trying not to think was 32 years ago.
10. The James Gang formed at Kent State University (yes, that Kent State University) in the late sixties. Its most famous alumnus is Joe Walsh.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Book Review: "Rads: The 1970 Bombing of the Army Math Research Center at the University of Wisconsin and Its Aftermath," by Tom Bates

Earlier this summer, the New York Times had an obit for Dwight Armstrong, one of the culprits in the Fall, 1970 bombing of the building at the University of Wisconsin's Sterling Hall, which contained a U.S. Army math research facility-- and, unfortunately, several other unrelated labs. I discovered that the only book that had ever been published on the incident has Mr. Bates' book-- a book I'd purchased in the early nineties when it was published. I dug it out of the basement and took advantage of my more relaxed schedule to read it and reflect on it.

Those of us who are in our late forties will probably be the last people alive eventually who remember the supercharged atmosphere of the United States in the late sixties and early seventies. The Vietnam War, which was supposed to be a short skirmish, was now nearing the end of a decade. Many thought that the United States would start disengaging after the early 1968 Tet Offensive, which while being a huge military defeat for the Viet Cong (the communist rebels within South Vietnam), it was a public relations blow to the war effort-- much of the US public, even those in the middle, were losing their will to commit to the loss of life and treasure that the war was creating. And the regular North Vietnamese Army had taken up the slack created by the near-annihilation of the Viet Cong, turning the war, ironically, into more of the set-piece conventional war the United States had been able to fight in the first place.

In the meantime, Nixon and Kissinger were secretly (at first) expanding the war into Cambodia and Laos, in 1970. The uproar was enormous. There were riots at nearly every campus in the United States. At Jackson State in Mississippi and Kent State in Ohio, students were shot dead.

It was in this cauldron that four men, brothers Karl and Dwight Armstrong, along with U of W students Leo Burt and David Fine hatched a scheme to bomb the Army Math Research Center in Sterling Hall.

The men had committed other attempted acts of political violence, all of them pretty much "Keystone Radical" in execution. In one bombing, the men got the address wrong and instead bombed a animal research facility. In another incident, Dwight Armstrong, who had had a few flight lessons, stole an airplane while his brother Karl dropped a bomb on the nearby (and now-defunct) Baraboo Munitions Works, which was producing a great deal of the ordinance that was being dropped and launched onto Vietnam. The bomb failed to explode, and later authorities mused that it was miraculous the the perpetrators hadn't gotten themselves killed, flying in a snowstorm, and missing electrical wires during their landing by inches.

The local radical press had taken note of the "gang," their utter failures not-withstanding, and had dubbed them the "New Year's Gang." Karl Armstrong, who was unable to hold down a job or relationship, seemed to be the center of it all. He comes across as a pathetic figure, having to borrow his mother's car for his purported blows against the war. Dwight was even more pathetic than Karl, impressing even hippies with his ability to do absolutely nothing but lay around and smoke dope.

After a period of spending time with a ne'er-do-well criminal uncle in St. Paul, Minneapolis, the brothers returned to pull of one more big job. Somehow, they mustered up the resources to gather up the materials to create an enormous truck bomb-- the same kind of bomb, a fertilizer and fuel oil bomb, that Tim McVeigh would use 25 years later to slaughter 168 people in the Murrah Federal building.

The scheme was hare-brained from the start. They did some cursory casing of Sterling Hall for patterns of use-- they did not want to kill anybody. Yet, they failed to discover that maintenance people were there at all hours-- as were physicists using the super-cooling facilities. This would include Robert Fassnacht, a thirty-three year old post-doctoral researcher working on super conduction, which held out the possibilities of creating future transportation systems that would be virtually pollution-free. He was married, with three young children-- and against the Vietnam War.

Loading a stolen van with over a thousand pounds of fertilizer/fuel bomb-- and a five minute fuse, the team set up their bomb near Sterling Hall, and called the police. A campus police officer raced across campus, and was about a block away when the bomb went off, lifting his squad car off the ground. He later realized that if he actually had been able to get to Sterling Hall a minute or two quicker, he would have died there.

The bomb went off, demolishing the physics lab. The Army Math Research Center, several stories up, was virtually untouched. Dr. Robert Fassnacht was killed instantly and several others injured.

The repercussions were fast and furious. The Madison Police began to come down hard on the students. The FBI was brought in to the case, and immediately began a cartoon-like battle with the local police over the case. Bates points out the odd similarity to the 1963 murders of civil rights activists Schwerner, Cheney and Goodman, where local authorities and the FBI were at loggerheads.

As incompetent as the police and FBI investigation was at times, the perpetrators proved to be even more incompetent, leaving a trail of evidence and witnesses that allowed authorities to quickly start tracking them.

Bates' accounts of the pursuit, capture and subsequent trials is fascinating, rivalling the best detective tales. The trial of Karl Armstrong, who was defended, among others, by William Kuenstler, turned into a circus. Karl and Dwight Armstrong, as well as David Fine served prison sentences.

Leo Burt was never apprehended, and he continues to issue missives defending his participation in the bombing.

Karl Armstrong eventually apologized for his role in the bombing and the death of Robert Fassnacht.

I think that before anybody has a discussion about the morality and efficacy of political violence, they need to read this book.

I discovered that "Rads" was the only book Tom Bates, who was a journalist, ever wrote. He had been motivated to write it by the fact that he'd been a grad student in Madison at the time, and the fact that nobody had ever written a book about the bombing. Mr. Bates died in 1999 of cancer, and the book has gone out of print, unfortunately; I believe it's a key piece of the puzzle to understanding the sixties and early seventies. I hope that somebody eventually republishes it. In the meantime, there are plenty of used copies out there to be purchased, and I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

That Celebrated Summer

Tonight will be my first night off in eight days. I'm looking forward to hanging out on my back porch and getting some reading, and perhaps a little blogging done.

Truth be told, I was glad I was able to work so much; the four extra shifts I picked up made up for the three shifts I missed in order to take a family trip to celebrate my parents' 50th wedding anniversary. As my summer draws to a close, and I get ready to go back for my last year of nursing school (for my RN degree, at least), I reflected on a summer and an odd symmetry of 17 years ago.

I think that in anybody's life, there are dates that stand out forever. One of the big ones in mine is July 4, 1993-- the day I found out I was going to be a father.

I'd had plans for that summer. I'd been working as a substitute teacher full time AND as a waiter; a friend of mine had opened a restaurant, a barbecue place in what was then a fairly rough neighborhood. Despite the diceiness of the neighborhood, the place turned out to be a gold mine, especially after getting a couple of great reviews in a magazine and a newspaper. In between working two full-time jobs, I was keeping up a very busy social life.

The summer of 1993, I'd planned to just work the waitering job, relax and figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I remember the last day of school, in late June, walking out of the school I'd been working at, covering for months for a seventh grade teacher who'd gotten promoted to assistant principal of another school. I remember walking down to the Jewel-Osco store to buy a deck chair I'd seen in an advertisement. I purchased it and brought it home on the Lincoln bus.

A couple of weeks later, when I got that call on July 4th from a woman I'd split up with at the beginning of the summer, I thought my plans were trashed. I had just short of 9 months to think about it all.

In less than 2 years, the child whose arrival upended my plans will be 18. I don't think it's any secret that he was the best thing to ever happen to me. My plans to finish the teaching certification I'd started in 1989 happened. I worked as a teacher, then left to start a new career. If everything goes well, in about 9 months, ironically, I'll become a nurse. Less than a year after that, I'm done dealing with an ex-girlfriend who has made things as difficult as she could, when my son turns 18.

This summer, I could have gone to summer school. I'm glad I didn't. The fellow students who did go felt it was a waste of time. Instead, I got some time to read some books I'd wanted to read for a long time-- reviews to follow-- and to do something I hadn't been able to do in ages. Relax, and prepare mentally for the future that is rushing up on me. The summer of 1993 I'd planned finally happened 17 years later.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Jimmy Webb

This last weekend, Kim and I travelled to Tennessee with our kids, Adam and Mel, to celebrate two events: my parents' 50th wedding anniversary and my mother's birthday.

One of the things that I've come to love over the last few years is Sirius Radio (since merged with the other big satellite radio company, XM and now known as Sirius/XM Radio). Satellite radio is wonderful; it has just about every type of station you can think of-- different eras and genres of music, talk radio, sports, etc.

Usually, I've got "Little Steven's Underground Garage" playing (as I do now). It covers the spectrum of rock and roll music. Right now The Beatles' "We Can Work It Out" is playing. In the next hour I might hear Howlin' Wolf, Joan Jett, the Ramones, the Cocktails Slippers, Alejandro Escovedo, the Hollies-- their range is remarkable.

While we were driving back from Tennessee, Kim and Adam both dozed off (we'd gotten up at 4 am Chicago time) and so it was me driving and Mel listening to her Ipod. Kim isn't as hep on the Underground Garage as I am, so I set the satellite radio to the sixties station, which I figured would please everybody in the car. At some point, Richard Harris' "Macarthur Park" came on, and I point out to Mel, who is a huge fan of the Harry Potter books and movies that the late Mr. Harris played the "Dumbledore" character in the first few Harry Potter movies. I was also reminded that I wanted to do a post on Jimmy Webb, the guy who wrote the song, when I got back from our trip.

"Macarthur Park" was a hit for Harris in 1968. Long for a hit single-- it was over seven minutes long-- it brought about a lot of discussion about the meaning of the imagery-- notably the lyric "someone's left the cake out in the rain." I've always thought it was a straightforward image about love-- that a beautiful thing, put together with a lot of work can be ruined by simply neglecting it. The songwriter, Jimmy Webb, who was born in Oklahoma in 1946, has said in interviews that he used to spend a lot of time with his girlfriend of the time in Macarthur Park, in Los Angeles.

Mr. Webb had first offered the song to The Association, who rejected it. Harris, who was better-known as an actor, had a huge hit with the song (his only hit, as it turned out). In the 1970's, the disco singer Donna Summer would have a huge hit with it. Country singer Waylon Jennings also had a hit with it in 1969.

Jimmy Webb was to write many hit songs. The Fifth Dimension had a hit with "Up, Up and Away," but it was to be Glen Campbell who benefitted the most from Webb's songwriting craft, having top ten hits with the Webb-penned songs "Witchita Lineman," "Where's the Playground Susie," "By the Time I Get To Phoenix," and one of my personal favorites, "Galveston."

Webb's string of hits ended in the seventies, but he has continued writing, and even performing his songs to this day, including music for the television show ER.

Back To Johnny Yen

In April, for various reasons, I decided to take a break from this blog. About a week ago, I felt like I should resume it. And then on cue, two people in one week told me that they missed my posts. That did it for me.

It's been a good and productive summer-- post on that to follow. Thanks to Margaret and Mags for prodding me to resume "Johnny Yen." And thanks to those of you who return.