Sunday, September 27, 2009

Dan Brown and the Hardy Boys

I admit it. I’ve enjoyed reading Dan Brown’s novels. And I’ve read all but one, from Deception Pont to The Da Vinci Code. It’s fashionable to disparage Brown’s writing, and some of the disparagement is merited. A few years ago, I read Angels and Demons, the first Robert Langdon novel (in the movies the order is reversed—The Da Vinci Code comes first). The book mentioned a secret passage from Castel Sant’Angelo to the Vatican. I asked my wife, who majored in art history, if there was any truth to it. She let me know there was nothing secret about it—everybody knew about it. Well, not everybody, as I clearly didn’t. Brown has a knack for turning facts into mysteries and mysteries into facts. And often he’s just dead wrong.

Any art historian will tell you that the figure of St. John in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper is male and that Leonardo intended him to be male. When the New Testament refers to Mary of Magdala as Jesus’ "companion," Brown’s protagonist says it’s a mistranslation: the Greek word should be rendered into English as "wife." But biblical scholar Bart Ehrman says the word means "companion." I trust Ehrman’s scholarship over Brown’s.

Still, Brown can write a page-turner. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief (except for the time in Angels and Demons when Langdon jumps from a helicopter without a parachute, falls over a thousand feet, and lives) and just enjoy the story.

Adam Gopnik writes about Brown in the September 28 issue of The New Yorker (p. 21). And like all intellectual critics of Brown’s he goes after the kind of thing that an intellectual would notice: that neither Harvard, nor any other university, has a department, or even a field of study called "symbolology." As Gopnik points out, Microsoft Word’s spell-check doesn’t recognize the word. The proper term for the study of symbols is "semiotics."

But Gopnik does something most intellectual critics don’t. He explains the appeal of Brown’s style:

Brown’s writing resembles less the adult best-sellers of the past, which popularized high literary forms—"Gone With the Wind" was a kind of kitsch Tolstoy—than the adventure stories that were once the staple of adolescent literature. Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys were always in the midst of compelling conspiracies; there was always a code that had to be cracked, and ancient Asian priests and ancient Asian cults invading their cozy American world.

And that may be the secret of Brown’s appeal: his books are as sweet-tempered as they are secret-minded. Langdon exposes horrible conspiracies, but it turns out that, with the exception of a few homicidal hotheads, who have maybe let the thing run away with them, decent, well-intended guys run even the weirdest cabals...

I didn’t grow up reading the Hardy Boys books, but I read them to all three of my children. And I enjoyed reading them as much as they enjoyed hearing them. They’re fun to read, as are Brown’s works. But instead of Frank and Joe Hardy, who manage to explain mysteries whose solution was beyond the ken of the local police, Brown gives us Professor Robert Langdon, who can outthink the Vatican police and the Police Nationale. And as a bonus, Langdon is usually accompanied by a beautiful dark-haired, dark-eyed woman who’s constantly astounded by Langdon’s insights. Funny thing: the beautiful dark-haired, dark-eyed woman I married can figure out the mysteries a lot faster than Langdon does. Maybe she should have become a "symbolologist."

I really can’t justify spending money on Brown’s latest bestseller, The Lost Symbol. But I’ve got a hold on a library copy. I’m only thirty-fifth in line.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Racer and the Dancer: New entry

I'm still working on my series about the first auto races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I discovered that racer Lewis Strang, who won the 100-mile race on August 20, 1909, was married to the dancer Louise Alexander, who electrified New York audiences with her "Vampire Dance:"
The drawing of Stran's victory kiss is by my wife, Kathleen Crews Wylder.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

From Hometown to Hippie: Evolution of AM Radio

When I moved to Elkhart 20 years ago, the local AM radio station, WTRC, 1340, was strictly hometown. If you wanted to hear the big game between the Elkhart Memorial Crimson Chargers and the Elkhart Central Blue Blazers, you tuned to 1340. You could always get the local weather, news and sports. For a couple of hours a day, there was a program called "Sound Off," where people called in with their opinions. There were the usual fix-it shows. Every morning the announcer would read local birthdays. On February 29, 1992, they even gave ages--based on the number of leap year birthdays. WTRC even covered one of the last meetings of the Ambrose Bierce Cynics' Society meetings, with a special appearance of "Ambrosia," a local Bierce fan who exhorted us all to read "A Horseman in the Sky."

All that changed in the mid-1990s, when WTRC switched to an easy-listening format. My wife, Kathleen, called it "All Barry Manilow All the Time." The format lasted a few years. There was still some local content, though. I'm not sure what the target audience was, but WTRC managed to drive away just about everybody who didn't care for Barry Manilow. But compared to the next incarnation of WTRC, it was a joy to to listen to.

Like way too many stations, it went to a right-wing talk-show format. I don't believe it ever carried Rush Limbaugh, who was the star attraction of WSBT-AM over in South Bend, but it had a guy named Garrison who was almost as obnoxious. One day in the fall of 2002, I was forced to listen to Garrison when I was riding on the the city bus. The driver had the show on full-blast. Garrison was denouncing all Democrats, especially those who dared to question George W. Bush's plans to invade Iraq. One caller said Garrison should make an exception for Georgia Senator Max Cleland, a Vietnam veteran and triple amputee. Garrison, as I recall, wasn't swayed. No exceptions for Democrats. The station had also carried G. Gordon Liddy's radio show, but dropped it--not because of Liddy's neo-fascist views, but because of his vulgar language.

So I was amazed to see an ad in the Elkhart Truth for "Hippie Radio 1340." Kathleen and I listened to it and were pleasantly surprised. It was an oldies station, but it played the likes of Judy Collins, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and The Mamas and the Papas. It had fewer advertisements than the FM oldies station, though that will probably change in time. The "Hippie Radio" format is nationally syndicated, but at least some of the programming is local.

The term "hippie," once carrying all sorts of associations with the drug culture, has long since been rendered harmless. I've been doing a lot of research about the 1968 Democratic Convention for the novel I'm working on, and "hippie" was the Chicago Tribune's term of choice for all of the demonstrators at the convention, from the nonviolent antiwar activists, to the Yippies, to the people who fought against the rampaging police. Nobody would dare start up a "hippie radio" station in Chicago, 1968.

During the 1960s, a lot of the people labeled "hippie" resented the term. In fact, closing event of the 1967 "Summer of Love" in San Francisco was a mock funeral called "Death of Hippie."

Hippie, of course, never died. It's now innocuous, a label for nostalgic baby-boomers, most of whom never adopted the countercultural lifestyle, much less went to San Francisco with flowers in their hair. I guess I'm one of them. I had the long hair, but never embraced Timothy Leary's "Turn on, tune in, drop out" philosophy. Instead, I sold "McCarthy's Million" buttons to my high-school classmates. I was "clean for Gene."

I still love the music on Hippie Radio. But please, people of WTRC--the next time you play "Light My Fire," play the whole song, not the Top 40 truncated version that cuts off Ray Manzarek's organ solo.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Forging ballots and Looking for Love: 1972

In the last post I wrote briefly of my work in 1972 on the Dick Clark senatorial campaign. I was an assistant to Pete Smith, the press secretary. I'm working on a novel I started a long time ago, for the Dickens Challenge. The idea was to write a novel in serialized form, as Dickens did--one chapter a week, with no going back. All but perhaps one of us never completed his or her novel. Rachel Green actually did finish Another Bloody Love Story, though I'm sorry to say it hasn't been published.

The novel I never finished when The Dickens Challenge was active (and which I intend to finish now) includes a chapter that talks about the Clark and McGovern campaigns of 1972. It's based on my experience that year. The narrator, Timothy Rymer, is musing about his true love, Helena McKechnie, on a 2005 train journey from Philadelphia to Chicago. She had disappeared at the end of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, only to reappear four years later:

Chapter 8: “Come Home, America”

The sleeping car attendant came with my meal. I tipped her, closed the door, and peeked through the window. We were at Cumberland, Maryland and about to start the climb into the Alleghenies. I said a blessing before eating the roast chicken I had ordered, and said a prayer for Helena, and for the man I knew only as Benét. After I finished, I called the attendant to make up my bed. Once she had gone, I lay down, though thought came before sleep.

I wondered once more why I was going to Chicago, and how I could change what had happened in 1968, or 1970, or 1978. I didn’t know which year was the key. I didn’t think the key year was 1972. But that was the year Helena came back into my life. I had finished my bachelor’s degree in history in the spring of 1972, and was planning to take a break before beginning graduate school. A friend from my McCarthy days had persuaded me to work in another seemingly quixotic campaign. Dick Clark (no, not the American Bandstand guy) was taking on the seemingly invulnerable Senator Jack Miller of Iowa.

Clark’s campaign office was in downtown Marion, Iowa, in a loft above a restaurant. When I joined the campaign, Clark was just beginning his walk across Iowa. It wouldn’t be a simple walk across the state, but a 1300-mile trek covering virtually all of the 99 counties. I spent my time in the press room, drafting news releases and position papers. But my first job for the campaign was to forge ballots. Nothing illegal--it was for a straw poll at the All-Iowa Fair in nearby Cedar Rapids, but I did have some qualms about it. The campaign manager would walk by the Cedar Rapids Gazette’s booth, pick up a few pads of ballots and bring them back to the headquarters. The ballot had the contests for president: Richard Nixon, George McGovern, and George Wallace (who turned out not to be a candidate in November); for governor: Democrat Paul Franzenburg and Republican Robert Ray; and senator: Clark vs. Miller. Of course, all of our forged ballots were for Clark, but I asked about the other two races.

“Yeah, I mark some for Nixon,” said Pete, the press secretary. “And sometimes I use a really hard mark and vote for Wallace, Clark, and Ray.”

“But,” said Connie, his assistant, “I try to mark as many for McGovern as I can.” I might have fallen in love with Connie, a gorgeous woman with long dark brown hair and brown eyes, if she hadn’t been 32, married, and with four children. Like her, I badly wanted McGovern to win, even though he had virtually no chance.

It seemed that some of McGovern’s supporters were his worst enemies. Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) did a lot to sabotage the Democrats, but they were pikers compared with McGovern’s friends. They were the ones who kicked Chicago's Mayor Richard J. Daley out of the convention. Sure, it was payback for 1968, but it meant that that Illinois and other traditionally Democratic states would go to Nixon. And their endless debating over minor points shoved McGovern’s acceptance speech into the wee hours of the morning. It was a beautiful speech, almost like one of the great litanies of the early Church. Most Americans never heard it. I saw it on a black-and-white TV in the little press room carved out of the big loft:

From secrecy and deception in high places; come home, America.

From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation; come home, America.

From the entrenchment of special privileges in tax favoritism; from the waste of idle lands to the joy of useful labor; from the prejudice based on race and sex; from the loneliness of the aging poor and the despair of the neglected sick -- come home, America.

Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream. Come home to the conviction that we can move our country forward.

Come home to the belief that we can seek a newer world, and let us be joyful in that homecoming, for this “is your land, this land is my land -- from California to New York island, from the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters -- this land was made for you and me.”

Less than a month after his nomination, McGovern’s running mate, Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri admitted he had suffered from depression, and had received electroshock treatments. And after saying he supported Eagleton “1000 percent,” McGovern faced the realities of 1972 and replaced Eagleton with Sargent Shriver. While McGovern’s candidacy was probably doomed from the convention on, I witnessed the final nail driven into his campaign’s coffin on October 26.

It was one of those beautiful fall days that almost makes up for the steaming Midwestern summers and brutal winters. I took the bus down to Iowa City to see McGovern. Clark and the other statewide Democratic candidates wouldn’t be there, as they’d be hurt by association with him.

The McGovern rally was held on the Pentacrest--the center of the University of Iowa campus, named for the domed Old Capitol building and the four great limestone halls that surrounded it. There was a huge crowd, reminiscent of the antiwar rallies of a few years before. People were sitting on the window ledges of Schaeffer and Macbride Halls, their legs dangling into the air. I was in the midst of the crowd, looking around for faces. There was a young couple holding hands--he with red hair like mine and she with luxuriant dark brown hair. I thought of Helena and wondered again what had happened to separate us.

The crowd roared when McGovern came out onto the Old Capitol steps. He said he had some good news. though. Henry Kissinger, who had been negotiating with the North Vietnamese in Paris, had announced that “Peace is at hand.” If this was true, Nixon could claim he had ended the war. Good news for the nation, but it ended even the tiniest hope of a McGovern victory.

McGovern gave his basic stump speech. I had heard it before. Still, I was happy to have experienced it. As the crowd dispersed, I stood there, trying to decide what to do until my bus left, I heard a voice from the past.

“You look dazed and confused.”

“Helena!,” I exclaimed, and we embraced amid the crowd.

P.S. I just worked for Clark through the summer. I went back to the University of Iowa the fall semester, and found love. I met an amazing young woman that fall. She was wearing a McGovern/Shriver button, as was I. We went to that McGovern rally in October--we're the young couple the narrator notices. (Yes, I had red hair once.) We've been married for 36 years now.