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Thursday, December 01, 2005

Why I Love Golf

I love golf. The setting sun over the mountains. The cool November L.A. afternoon air. Oh, I admit that it is not really Nature. The courses at Griffith Park are Nature-lite, a manicured, sculpted, tamed, ersatz amusement park form of Nature. But it is wild enough to permit life lessons. Strangers at the first tee become pals by the 18th, like plane crash survivors on the brink of returning to civilization. This guy who joined us is Korean, and by the 18th tee we’re friends of a kind. We have commiserated in our mutual adversity, lost balls, sore feet. The shared experience has bonded us.
In the Asian way, he seeks advice from an elder. Me. “May I ask a stupid question?" he questions. “If you don’t mind a stupid answer,” I answer. The joke crashes the language barrier.
Here’s his question: “Do most men of your age prefer wives or girlfriends?”
A profound question cannot be answered lightly. BC has a different view. “What about both?”
“I have both,” the guy says. “That’s the problem. I read ‘Men are Mars, Women Jupiter.’ I don’t understand it.”
Obviously, but I gently correct him. “‘Women are from Venus.’ It means women care about Love, men about War.”
BC adds, “Men aren’t meant to be monogamous, women are. There’s the problem, right there.”
“Oh,” the guy says. “That’s why my girlfriend makes trouble. She was happy, but lately she makes trouble for me.”
So I am forced to lecture. “Instability is the rule.” I quote Woody, translating into Kor-lish: “Relationship like shark, must keep moving or die. One of your sharks is doomed. Maybe both.”
“But she was so happy. My wife, too.”
I add the corollary: “Dying sharks are the most dangerous.”
The guy is now alarmed. I can’t resist. I embellish: “Men share, women are selfish. A woman always wants the man to herself. Sharing is not an option — not for long.”
The guy slices his drive into the woods.

Walking to the cars, BC says, “He asked me if you were a doctor.”
“What’d you tell him?”
“That you were a plumber.”
In the gathering chilly gloom, we walk in silence for a while. Our clubs clank in our bags in rhythm to our strides. As I reach my car, I shout, “Experience is the father of wisdom.”
It takes BC a while to think of an appropriate comeback, “And you’re the father of bullshit.”
You can learn a lot from golf.

Friday, October 14, 2005

"W" In Prayer Meetin'

Overheard in the oval office:

GWB: Hi, Karl, what’s cookin,’ dude?
KR: Mr. President, there’s some folks here who are mighty het up.
GWB: No kiddin? Who all?
KR: Oh, Jimmy Dobson, Pat Buchanan, Billy Kristol, guys like that.
GWB: Really? They want another prayer meetin’?
KR: No, Georgie. Don’t think that’s gonna do it this time.
GWB: Well, that’s too bad, K. What do I do?
KR: Bring ‘em in and turn on your famous boyish charm, I’d say.
GWB: Oh, sure. Anythin’ y’all say.
[There’s a pause, some background noise, and a round of “Hi, Y’alls” and “God blesses.”]
KR: Why don’t we get down to it, folks? Just tell W what’s itchin’ your shorts, so to speak.
[There is a moment of silence, apparently not a silent prayer, but hesitation. Finally, Kristol speaks up.]
WK: Mr. President, it’s this nomination of Harriet Miers. We’re a bit upset, to tell the truth.
GWB: Really? No kiddin’? I thought Karl gave y’all the wink on that one. Y’all can trust me.”
JD: He sure did, W. But, the thing is, I started in a-prayin’ on it, and I began to doubt my faith.
GWB: Doubt? Lose faith? You?
PB: With all respect, Mr. President —
GWB: Hey now, in here I’m just old W, okay?
PB: Okay, er, W, we all are nervous because we been a-waitin’ all our lives for this moment.
WK: That’s right, got control of the Congress, and now, praise the Lord, we finally get another seat on that — pardon my blasphemizin’ — dad-blamed golldarned Su-preme Court.
GWB: Well, wasn’t my chief justice Rogers [Rove whispers in W’s ear] — er, Roberts, good enough?
WK: No, no, he’s fine. A fine choice. Smart man.
KR: Okay then.
PB: Well, it’s just that this, er, woman —
GWB: Is that what’s troublin’ y’all? She’s really not a woman woman, if y’all get my drift.
JD: Well, darn it. That’s just the point. Never been married, what’s that all about?
GWB: Now, now. I been a-knowin’ Harriet for years. Prayed with her don’t know how often. She’s a reliable warrior for the right, that is, the righteous. I’d bet my soul on it.
JD: Here’s the nub of the point, W. I prayed on it, been searchin’ scriptures and my worry is that this woman, who is without a strong man in her life —
KR: Jesus.
JD: Okay, except for Him. Well, she may have all the good will we would want now, but once she’s on the court she’ll be exposed to all sorts of temptations.
GWB: Temptation?
PB: Yup. All sorts, from those devils on that Court.
JD: The Godless Left and the Faithless Middle.
KR: But, Harriet’s strong, for a woman. Beats me in arm wrestling.
WK: That don’t say much. Janet Reno beat Clinton all the time.
JD: That’s the problem. What if she’s alone with that other temptress, Ruth Bader Ginsburger? If that she-devil works her wiles, there’s no tellin’ what kind of evil might follow?
PB: And her name, W, that’s a tad troublin’ too.
JD: Miers? Harriet Miers? I knew a Harriet Finkelstein and a Mendel Myers. None of ‘em were what I’d call people of faith, if you git me.
WK: I heard she might be related to that woman who ran Israel a while back. Golda Meirs?
GWB: No, no. Harriet is born again, I can assure y’all.
PB: Aha. But what if she gets born again again once she’s on the Court?
GWB: Ain’t gonna happen. I know what’s in her heart, fellas. Y’all got to trust me on this.
JD: Sorry. We just can’t risk it. What if her heart is of the bleedin’ kind? Or a cheatin’ heart?
GWB: Can’t believe that of Harriet. Sure, she’s compassionate, just like me. But she’s a woman who’ll stand by her man.
[There is another silence, heavy sighs. Finally, a deep voice trembles.]
PB: Y’all might be in for a fight on this one, W. After all, you’re just a dead duck.
KR: That’s a lame duck.
WK: Whatever.
KR: Well, y’all gotta do what y’gotta do.
GWB: Let’s pray.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Just another day of problem solving

First Problem:
The bailiff’s name is Estevez, says everything as if it’s a joke set-up. “Mort, the judge wants to see you guys in chambers.” “About instructions?” “No, something else.” “What’s up?” “A juror overheard something in the hall.”

Groans all around. BC mumbles, “We were doing too well, something had to happen.”

I’ve got a bond with the judge. He was a DA I opposed in a murder case years ago. I won, now he’s not happy again. We’re almost done with this misdemeanor trial and this comes up. Some cases just have a cloud over them.

He brings the juror in. She is #1, the plus size gal in the back row. My post-it reads: “Ms. S---, Encino, works at home, husband a ‘director,’ two children, no prior jury service.”

She was in the hall after the noon hour. My client was standing nearby with a man. She heard him say, ‘So I just say I don’t know her.’ “I didn’t think too much about it but then I saw him testify and when he was asked if he knew the other defendant, he said ‘I don’t know her.’ And so ...”

So she inferred that he’d been told to lie about it. She insists she didn’t tell any of the other jurors. The judge smiles weakly and asks her to wait outside.

The witness was my client’s husband. I had put him on to corroborate a small part of her defense. He’d been nervous but okay for a defense witness. The few relevant points had been made. The jury might disbelieve him because he loves the defendant, but then again they might not.

Whether he knew the other girl charged was not really that material. Just a minor point. Why’d they have to lie about it? Borenstein’s Law is the only answer. No matter how well you do, the client will find a way to screw it up.

The judge looks to the prosecutor. He’s a City Attorney, looks about my son’s age. He wants to win. He wasn’t, now he’s perky. “Well, I think this juror is now a witness. Replace her with the alternate and I’ll call her in rebuttal.”

The judge’s look is priceless. I’m in stitches. I can see the juror taking the stand before her former fellow jurors. A new “I-thought-I’ve-seen-it-all-in-thirty-four years” story.

The judge speaks with temperate understatement for the record. “I think that would be inappropriate, counsel.”

The City Attorney is flustered, wants to ask his boss what to do. Can’t piss without approval.

Judge to me: “Mort, it’s your call. I’ll declare a mistrial, but if they want to re-try and they call the former juror as a witness, you’re cooked. If she pleads now, I won’t hurt her, but if she goes down, I’ll have to punish for the apparent perjury.”

We chew over my ethics. Won't put on knowingly false testimony, but it isn’t perjury if it isn’t “material.” Maybe they can explain it, maybe not. But it would hurt bad either way.

We go round and round, eventually the client takes the deal, gets a fine, 10 days CALTRANS, probation. Risks immigration consequences. But her marriage survives. She apologizes to me in bad English: "Sorry, you gave me good chance, but I lost it."

I walk out feeling empty.

Next Problem:
“Plead it or try it, Counsel. Simple as that.” The DA’s made a “final” offer. Strike a Strike, plead to one count. The judge is like the closer in the car dealership. “It’s a good deal, counsel. Gotta decide now, before I call in a panel. And, if you lose ...” He shrugs volumes, or at least years.

Real simple? Not really. Fine choice: pleading guilty is a rock that sticks in the throat ... or go to trial and end up in a hard place. My guy asks for advice. “What are my chances in trial?”

Also not simple. I launch into speech 14.2.1. “You could win or you could lose, you know? It’s a crap shoot. Twelve strangers make the call. Do they understand life on the street? You tell me. It’s the cop’s word against yours.”

“But what do you think? Can you beat it?”

I’m fighting the Cochran Effect. “Look, I’m good. I think I’m good, but I can’t do miracles. You could walk, and you could go down. I’ve seen it go both ways.”

He examines my eyes for sainthood or at least genius. “I don’t know, man. I can’t do life.”

My head remembers grandpa’s old gag: “But judge, I’m 60 years old, I can’t do 20 years.” Judge: “It’s okay. Do as many as you can.” I say, “It’s got to be your call. I’m not doing the time. If I lose, I go home. You don’t.”

We go around like this. At one point, he might ask, “What would you do?”

What a stupid question. Makes me feel nasty, superior. I indulge myself, say, “I take the deal if I’m guilty. But if I’m not, I fight it.” I watch his face, then add the tester. “Even if I did life, I’d know I went down fighting.” Cheap trick. He nods, but avoids my eyes. It was a low blow right in the gonads. Couldn’t help myself.

I still don’t expect him to make the “right” call. He wouldn’t be my client if he did that. But I won’t make the decision for him. I could do it, though, either way. I could tip him over into a plea or a trial with a few words. Some do, think it’s their province. Some for selfish reasons, ego, don’t care much if they lose. Others fear trial. I’ve tried it both ways – took too much out of me. What is the “right call” anyway?

If you force it, where’s the satisfaction? Either way you’ll be blamed. Not the system, not the facts, not the cops or DA or judge. You failed him. Gives him something to share with his cellies over the years, that’s nice for him.

There’s hundreds of decisions. I’ll make mine, you make yours. We’ll each live with the consequences. Yours may be an 8' by 8' consequence. My hell may be smaller. Inside my head festering with all the other regrets.

Last Problem:
More than once she asked, “Why don’t you tell me about your day?” She talked plenty about her problems, subtle choices, social politics, little dilemmas. But not problems for me to solve. I learned that lesson long ago. The mantra echoes: “Don’t solve it, just listen to me, okay?”

So all day long I’m in the problem solving business, but when I come home, I drop it.

“My day? Baby, don’t ask.” But she does ask. The trouble is, I don’t want to re-live the day. Left it on the freeway, near Pico, and now there’s the cats and a warm bed, music, maybe even sex if I can stay awake.

There have been times when I took it home, still seething, or bursting to share a laugh. But how to get her to get it? “... This DA, well you gotta know this guy, he argues this motion to the judge? Well, she’s weird, too, you know? She tried the Whatsis case with Adelson when that thing happened? Anyway, she’d denied the 995 motion and now the DA wants her to grant the 1538.5. I didn’t really expect any crumbs, but was setting it up for a 402.”

“Uh, yeah?”
“Don’t you see the irony? It’s hysterical.”
“It is?”
“All the guys in the office thought so.”
“Okay. What’s a 995, again?”

It’s really quite hopeless. Usually, I tried to hide the horrors from her. I’d come in, frayed at the edges but tightly wired at the heart, efforting loudly to divert, to conceal, nimble in the dodge.

Over time, I realized that she didn’t ever have to ask. She figured me out anyway. How? I have a theory, but it is sort of sexist, though I mean to say Iwas in awe. She had a vocabulary of emotions that made the OED seem like a comic book. She understood how everything related to feelings. How you walked, dressed, spoke, combed your hair, drove, held your fork, made love. Every word, phrase, tone, tic, scratch went into her data bank.

And in the end, she knew. It might take time, she might reach some premature conclusions. Might even force you to admit it before she could articulate it. But she would get there, and take you with her.

You couldn’t hide anything from her.

Her friends knew it before I did. They used her like a witch. They’d call, talk for hours, and they’d feel better. She collected dysfunctional pals the way some girls collect dolls.

When she got really sick, they’d call her - ostensibly to make her feel better - and end up talking about themselves so she could comfort them. Right up to the end.

I never solved her problems either.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Journal / Greece: 20 Oct. to 30 Oct. 1974

20 October Sunday Athens to Aegina
Today we began what was supposed to be a three day weekend trip a day late. Jon had business to attend to on Saturday, so we had to wait and shorten our sights a bit. Last night was the usual late one and we got our usual late start with a big “brunch” of pancakes at Dorothea’s. We arrived at the Piraeus pier at 4 o'clock and waited for the ferry.

We were almost alone on the ferry. Jon’s VW bus was the only vehicle on board. Aegina is one hour or so from Piraeus, thus a busy weekend spot for Athenian tourists. The sky was moody and the air cool without the hidden sun. We strolled along the thoroughfare lined with cafés, restaurants and souvenir shops facing a small marina. We ate some octopus and shrimp with ouzo and found a small hotel for Bijou and myself.

After a walk up winding streets, ogling the old white washed houses with their fascinating styles of shutters and eaves and clean lines, we drove out of the town and found a small taverna open. We had dinner and a couple of liters of retsina and were in a talkative mood. Dorothea warmed up considerably and we ended the evening giggling and joking while talking to one of the owners – feeling far superior to mere tourists.

21 October Monday Aegina
Our hotel (where the woman spoke good English after 10 years in Australia) was on a back street but our rooms on the third floor had a lovely view of the marina and the large church across the street with a quaint steeple with a very loud bell that gonged every half hour. We were awakened by the sound of hammering above our heads at 8 a.m.

Finally we went exploring the island – up a hill to a small church and a view of Athens – even to seeing the Acropolis in the distance and the sea (where the Athenians defeated the Persian fleet ... before we arrived) – then to the ruins of the local temple. We all got along well and had a splendid day.

Back in the town, the wind had whipped up tremendously and the little sailboats and even larger ones were bobbing at their moorings, halyards clanking against swaying masts. We discovered that no car ferry could cross in these heavy seas, so Jon & Dorothea & Meg took the people ferry back. Bijou and I bought food and parked the bus in the most sheltered spot we could find, ate, played scrabble by the light of the lamp post and snuggled to bed by 8 p.m. The wind whipped trees and whistled and rocked the bus, we made love to the rhythm, slept in our arms like infants.

22 October Tuesday Aegina to Athens
We awoke at 8, to find a line of trucks waiting for the ferry. It came on time and we were the last on – after the ride back – the first off. We made our way from Piraeus to Athens and crawled in the traffic making our way back by our simple (printed) map, unreadable street signs and looking at the Acropolis as a landmark (the Parthenon faces exactly East / West).

Somehow we made it back to Jon's flat in Aghia Paraskevi, bought some food and ate it, and spent the rest of the afternoon washing clothes and listening to the wind as it blew our clothes off the roof top wash line.

Jon & Dorothea finally arrived and we went out to yet another new taverna, the Rocky Mountain Oyster Taverna. The Americans living here have not mastered Greek names, so streets and restaurants are known by their characteristics: The Flukes Taverna on Aegina is decorated by fish fins; Pepsi Road is a main drag which has a Pepsi billboard. Democritus Road I did not catch why. As Dorothea said, it is somewhat shameful they have not bothered to learn the language, living in Greece for two years and not learning more than a few phrases; all the Americans here denigrate the locals for their laziness, the silly bureaucratic regulations, their “un-American-ness.”

23 October Wednesday Athens to Korinth to Mikini to Napflion
Freedom at last. We picked up our rental car last night, a Bug, and after a false start and detour to obtain our (forged) student cards we were on our way. We made it through Athens along the coast of the Aegean on the other side of Piraeus, ugly with oil refineries and junk yards and beautiful with glistening blue water and winding road through olive orchards. We wound through small towns and over the Korinth Canal – just a very deep ditch – and into ancient Korinth with its lively ruins of the ancient city.

After moaning over the high prices of a few tourist shops, we drove again, through green country to Mikini (Mycenae) and up to magnificent, darkly primitive ruins of the Mycenaean civilization that flourished 800 years before the Parthenon was built. The entire Argolis valley lay below. We continued on to Napflion and ended at a youth hostel which is new, modern, with fine facilities --- and empty. As is the town – more so because there is a football (soccer, of course) game which many locals watch in the tavernas around the town. Summertime the place swings, I’m sure, but now it is like a ghost town, eerily still.

Seems like throughout our trip we either hit big crowds or empty towns. Somewhere there must be a happy medium.

24 October Thursday Napflion to Epidavrus to Napflion to Tiryns to Argos to Olymbia
It has been a perfect day, filled with wondrous surprises. First, we went to the theater of Epidavrus and picnicked in its stadium. We then visited ancient ruins at Tiryns, as old as the Mycenaean, marveling again at what they had accomplished. On to Argos, still more amazing ruins – Roman on top of Greek and a theater even bigger than the first one. From Argos it was a long upward climb through the Arcadian mountains with the fertile green farmland below. Finally a brief stop in Tripolis and then a tortuous, but breathtakingly beautiful three hour drive to Olymbia.

The images came fast and dazzling: sun over pine mountains, terraced farms on the mountainside, deep gorges between mountain ridges, all green and autumn orange and yellow. Villages set in steep slopes, its people apparently mountain goat nimble. White washed houses with red tile roofs, churches, bridges, a herdsman, or boy or woman with sheep or goats, horses, mules, donkeys, dogs all rushing or sauntering alongside the road, chickens trying to get to the other side; the sun behind the mountains, the sky darkening blue, the mountains green becoming gray, a river in dusky outline. The road then black and winding, through one-road towns and finally to Olympia, where it was said man’s form was the most perfect and beautiful.

Bijou caught a snapshot of my perfect form as I entered the arena, waving to the adoring crowds, and took my mark on the track and ran The Olympic Track. I won, of course.

25 October Friday Olympia to Patras to Arta & 26 October Saturday Arta to Ionnanina to Metsovon
... A land of contrasts ... picturesque ... breathtaking ... verdant ... West meets East... Travel brochure lingo with which we have been drenched. Clichés to be sure but so often accurate. The superlatives seem to be true and as we bend away from the latest mountain zig, leaving us only able to gush “beautiful ... incredible ... fantastic...” Bijou scarily terrified at my constant “Look at that” while I steer past the incredible, fantastic and beautiful scenery, the verdant mountain slope with the picturesque quaint village houses clinging at breathless angles above the ... verdant farmland ... etc. as our rented VW Bug ticks around the next zag ...

As for the land of contrasts, how about this: as I am writing this we are in Metsovon, a picturesque town (of course—there aren’t any other kind in this travel land) 5000 feet up in the Pindus Mountains in Central Greece. The wind whips around the side of the mountain on which slope our room in a private house clings at a breathtaking angle and we can’t wear enough layers of clothing to keep warm—we have some sweaters and light coats and wear all of them and are still cold. Two days ago we sweated our way across the archeological ruins of the sun drenched Peloponnese.

On Friday we left Olympia and drove to Patras, then cross on the ferry to Arta, stopping only for food, gas and a misadventure over textiles in a small swampy coast town, Etolikan. Arta was up in the hills, reached by coursing more scenic, if not breathtaking (as was the road to Olympia truly b/t) country. Another cold water shave and we hopped to Ionnanina, in the hills, but warm at midday, a bustling city, modern in a provincial way.

We toured a cavern at Perama, picnicked overlooking a lake and continued through mountains on a rocky, winding road, climbing steeply past verdant valley after picturesque village. Finally a last squirmy climb and we were here in Metsovon where the ski season is one month away, where women wear Swiss or German costumes, men wear alpine gear; where Oriental Turkish and Venetian style architecture and Byzantine churches can be found—that’s right, East meets West— and where every hotel in town is full up, and where we lie huddled in a picturesque non-insulated room, our breath taken, incredible-ly cold, our noses a beautiful shade of red.

27 October Sunday Metsovon to Meteora to Trikkala to Lamia
Our weather, which held firm, sunny, even as we climbed to the frigid air of Metsovon, broke. We shivered as we dressed in all our warmest clothes and left our room to greet a cold, rainy morning.

We climbed the slippery rock steps to our car and drove through the village, stopping only to buy a piping hot fresh bread and salami. We carefully threaded through the streets filled with church goers. The road wound back through the mountain still rising snakily through the morning fog. The rain became sleet and coated the windshield of our heaterless car. We munched on the moist hot bread which Bijou kept on her lap for its warmth.

In an hour the road twisted down into another valley and soon the rain eased, though the day continued gray and cold. The view maintined its beauty, though, the fall colors startlingly vivid, saturated under the gray light. We went on and by midday were crossing the plain to the Meteora Rocks. The monastery clings to the tops of the towering pillars arrogantly and independently.

On to Trikkala on a sleepy Sunday afternoon where we bought a long haired wool Flakati rug, which has yet to be made for us—trust and trepidation. Across a flat plain we headed south to Lamia. The town was jumping and we joined the strollers and watched a movie.

28 October Monday “Oxi Day” Lamia to Delfi
It is “Oxi Day” (x pronounced “ch” as in “la chaim”), a national Greek holiday, celebrating the 1825 war of independence against Turkey in which a Greek general when asked to give up said “Oxi, No.” Sort of like the WWII American general, McAulifffe, who answered a German surrender demand during the Battle of the Bulge: “Nuts.”

All during our trip, flags have been draped and signs of celebration appeared. This morning I awoke to sounds of band music from the square. When we got there it was jammed with people around the statue of a soldier. Officials, dignitaries and their wives, a priest and soldiers held a prayer and laid a wreath. A parade began.

The sun once again was warming and we started on our way to Delfi. On the way through mountains we wended through the Pass of Thermopylae and crossed the Plains of Thessaly and onto the Sacred Plain, olive groves stretching across its broad valley between the mountains.

Again, for the umpteenth time the road began to twist upward into mountains, lush green slopes. Finally we crossed into the town of Delfi. We found a room and walked to the museum, crowded with Oxi Day weekend tourists. Its gem, The Charioteer, impressed us as Olympia’s Hermes / Dionysus had not. We coursed the ruins of the treasuries and temples again marveling at the complex richness of what was. We asked the Oracle about our future and kissed to seal a promise of what will be.

29 October Tuesday Delphi to Athens
We awoke to another dreary rainy morning, the type of chilled to the bone days we had better get used to this winter.

We returned to Athens and Jon’s house as if it were our own, anxious to wash ourselves and our clothes. I was also desirous of reading a newspaper. Though not reliant on my daily dose of news and sports, I do find I miss living without some news. Tonight Jon and I buried ourselves in the last few days’ Stars and Stripes for an hour while Bijou played with Nike, Dorothea's cat.

Picking up political and sports news as rumors or as follow up news stories is somewhat disconcerting. You pick up a Tribune and an article headlined “Former President Nixon Recovering After Surgery” stares at you. This can be quite a shock if you hadn’t heard about his resignation or blood clot. On the sports page you see “Ali May Forestall Retirement To Defend His Championship.” If I hadn’t been lucky enough to conquer the static for a few minutes and get Armed Forces Radio, that would have been indecipherable. It has been three months. But I guess some things do change.

Did they ever find Patty Hearst?

30 October Wednesday Through 6 November Wednesday Athens 30 October: There was a full moon tonight at exactly 2100 hours Athens time.

For the two weeks we have been in Greece I have carefully studied the phases of the moon, my heart quickening as it showed first a sliver, then a crescent, a quarter, a half, then gibbous. Last night watching it rise, almost full fledged and I knew tonight would be the night.

Today while chore-ing in Athens: returning the rental car, changing money— I dropped in at the National Tourist Office and confirmed what I knew: the full moon was tonight and so the Acropolis would be open to allow visitors the monthly pleasure, if cloudless, to trod the stones in the full moon light.

So we gobbled 3 pizzas and drove downtown. We climbed the hill and arrived at 8 p.m., long after dark, the moon a perfect round silver plate above the sacred hill which the Gods aimed down so its light would bathe the white marble and cast long shadows of the Parthenon’s columns. As we reached the top, we found the entrance gate inexplicably closed. The others shot accusing glances toward me—it was my information relayed from the Ministry of Tourism relied upon.

Dumbfounded I merely pointed up to the moon, which seemed to be grinning mischievously. We scrambled toward the side entrance, still further up the hill. Its light was on, a guard inside. I heaved a sigh. But as we neared, we saw the gate was locked. Dorothea conversed in Greek and came away shaking her head. “He says the full moon is not until 9 p.m.!”

We stared upward, disbelieving but resigned to wait an hour after this latest example of bureaucratic brilliance. When finally let in, it was worth it and quite indescribable.

Meg cavorted over the stones, cartwheeling in the moonlight in the long shadows of the Parthenon. I wonder whether she will remember this distinction later in her life.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

A Day In My LIfe ... Or ... Why I Kvetch ...

I drive for an hour (listening to the Roberts confirmation hearing) to get to the law office where my client is waiting. When I get there, BC is wearing a bilious face like someone going nowhere on a wobbly carousel.

He sums for me. Our clients have a new version of their story. They were still going to do "massages," but crucial details have been altered. The wits they had promised aren’t there. No phone numbers, no last names.

I hop onto the carousel for a while, but get queasy in a hurry, so I try a little cross-exam, which is another kind of ride, what with the need for interpreters. Like a Jerry Lewis skit, I ask a five word question, and the interpreter rants for ten minutes, then the client answers for another ten and the interpreter translates: “She says, ‘No.’”

In the end, I sum up the defense, speaking slowly for translation. “So you were wearing sleep clothes? ... waiting for your boyfriend? ... You got a call from a guy you didn’t know? ... who sent a taxi to pick you up? ... to take you someplace to meet a man? ... to get money for a massage? ... and you didn’t change? ... and two condoms were in your pocket? ... and K-Y jelly?

Even the interpreter laughs. She translates the client’s answer: “Would it be better if I said something else?”

BC lectures on ethics and the role of defense lawyers, sounding like Judge Roberts explaining stare decisis to senators from Kansas. He goes on for about ten minutes before telling the interpreters to translate.

This time I laugh. Trial is supposed to start on Monday.

BC and I go out for dim sum and remind each other of nightmares --- hearing client’s testifying to completely new stories on the witness stand. When it happened to me the first time, I had looked down at my notes, found nothing there to help me. So I had done what DA’s always did with their witnesses, “What happened next?” I kept asking, trying to sound as if I knew the answers, ignoring the sweat dribbling down my spine.

I drive to the jail, hand in two request slips. AV comes first. He’s pro per, facing the death penalty and I’ve been appointed as advisory counsel. I don’t like the role - my name on the docket that judges can point to as an excuse to affirm the sentence. I see my real job as trying to persuade him to go back to his previous lawyers. He fired them because their advice was daunting.

He’s worked a week on a motion to continue that a lawyer would do in a half hour. I ask him if he’s read the discovery material I copied for him. He nods.
“Have you thought about your defense?”
“Yes,” with a very serious face. “I didn’t do it.” Then an embarrassed smile.
“How are you going to explain your DNA at the scene?”
“I’m working on that.”
“And your taped confession?”
“Are you on my team?”

I explain that I’m there to advise him, not make him feel good.
“I heard you say that I’m sticking a needle in my arm.”
“Yeah, I told your sister that in my opinion anyone defending himself on a capital case might as well stick the lethal injection in his own arm, because he’s committing suicide.”

“I need somebody on my team.”
“Not if your team is gonna be executed.”

He smiles as if nothing more needs be said. But it does. “If you want to ask the judge for a different advisory counsel, that’s okay with me,” I say.

He’s sullen now. “Maybe I will. I’ll call you.”
“Make it collect.”

I give him more discovery he won’t understand and go on to the next client who is sitting in another row.

The client called me so I can put more money on his books. I’ve been doing that each month for about a year. He's worried; one of the three psych experts I’ve retained got him scared by asking what his defense is.

“We’ve talked about this a lot,” I remind him. “You confessed to both murders - on tape. On each, you began by denying the crimes, but eventually admitted when you were confronted with the evidence by the cops.”
“I didn’t know they were taping. They tricked me.”
“Did you tell them the truth?”
“So they tricked you into telling the truth?”

Mercy is what I need now, and finally it comes - a stay of execution. The desk deputy calls out, “Lock down is now in effect. The attorney room will be cleared.”

The client understands. I’ll go and put the money on his books and we’ll talk the next time. It’s an amicable parting, my first of the day.

I walk across the street to the twin towers and up the stairs to the property area. I curse because there is a long line of mostly women carrying babies there to deposit money for their jailed loved ones. I stand in the back of the line and peer to the front. All three windows are dark.
“Where’s the lady who takes the money?”
“Computers are down.”

I can go home now and prepare for the trial set to begin tomorrow. In the car, I listen to Judge Roberts explain how lawyers can advocate without believing as their clients do.

My cell phone rings. The court clerk. The trial now in progress is going long, my case will be delayed. Another stay of execution. I can sleep tonight - if I don’t think about today.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Gulf Wars

Q: What is the president's position on Roe v. Wade?

A: He really doesn't care how people get out of New Orleans.

Blogging about current events is not necessarily my goal. But this is too much. My tendencies to pun and to find connections among disparate events flood beyond my control in times like these.

I can’t avoid seeing deep meaning in the “Gulfs” which are in the headlines. I see too many of them. We have been at war in The Persian Gulf for more than a decade. Now nature dumped The Gulf of Mexico into the Mississippi Delta, exposing more gulfs — like the chasm between middle class Americans and the permanent underclass of African Americans, Hispanics and other poor; and the ever widening gulf between our government leaders and the people. We are losing all the Gulf Wars. Maybe it foretells a sea change in American politics.

David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist, sounded Friday night like an alarmist Socialist on PBS’s “Jim Lehrer Report::”

“...What you get is meteorological storms and then political storms because in moments of extremis people see who's up and who's down, who's at fault and who is suffering. So, for example in 1897 there was the famous Johnstown Flood, a pond owned by millionaires including Andrew Carnegie flooded the town of Johnstown. The public anger over that helped spawn the Progressive Movement.

“Then in 1927 you had the great Mississippi Flood, which flooded New Orleans. And there you have first of all, great demand for the government to get involved in disaster relief which had not happened much before then. And that helped lead the way to the New Deal. The town fathers flooded some of the poorer and middle class areas to relieve some of the pressure on the rest of the city and then reneged on their promises for compensation for the people who had their homes destroyed. The anger over that helped lead to the rise of Huey Long, the populist governor.

“So in moments of extremis, people see the power inequalities, the poor suffering, the rich benefitting and then they react. And so you get these political reactions.

“... I think it is a huge reaction we are about to see. I mean, first of all, they violated the social fabric, the moments of crisis you take care of the poor first. That didn't happen; it's like leaving wounded on the battlefield.

“In 9/11 you had a great surge of public confidence. Now I think we are going to see a great decline in public confidence in our institutions....”

In his NY Times column, Sept. 1, 2005, titled “The Storm After The Storm,” Brooks concluded:

“What's happening in New Orleans and Mississippi today is a human tragedy. But take a close look at the people you see wandering, devastated, around New Orleans: they are predominantly black and poor. The political disturbances are still to come.”

When I look I see President Bush offering prayer and private charity as the solutions to the stench. No doubt our President, a man of deep religious faith, will call the event an “act of God,” another Biblical Flood, perhaps even privately think it retribution for sins - not his sins, of course.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

What's It All About?

The boy looks the same, hasn’t changed at all since I first saw him — what was it, 17, 18 years ago — walking toward me in the same attorney room at the county jail.

Back then I had the usual creeping sensation up my neck, the familiar shock to be suppressed when meeting a new client who had killed and who might well be condemned to die on my watch.

He was barely 18 when I first introduced myself to him as his public defender. He was just a skinny, shy, Chinese kid with glasses, who looked about 14. His face was hairless and already jailhouse waxy. His grasp of English was so elemental that he seemed younger still. At the arraignment, the hard-nosed head deputy D.A., Dino Fulgoni, had cracked, “Jeez, it’s gonna take a real S.O.B. to put this kid in the gas chamber.” They tried their best to do it, too.

He smiles as he sees me and walks toward my stall. I move out of the room onto a row stool so I won’t have glass between us. He’s doing okay, and I tell him so am I. He says I haven’t changed, but I correct him. I know my own face, my gray hair, I feel my age. I’m 62, he’s 37 years old now. A man, but he still looks like a kid. There is no hardness to his face, nor in his eyes. His English isn’t much different than it was back then, and his manner is just as respectful, diffident, polite.

He’d cooperated, confessed 4 times. After he’d shot the two men, after the car chase, after the car and he’d been shot full of holes, after his companions had been killed. He’d been taken to the e.r., gave a “dying declaration” before surgery. Confessed again to a faulty micro recorder and then again to help out the embarrassed interrogator, who was so grateful that he felt sorry for the kid who’d killed two cops. A couple of days later he confessed again to an F.B.I. agent, who didn’t feel sorry for him and did his best to finish him off.

The scars are still there, on his forearm, his neck, and his jaw where the bullet went through his face. He’s been to Pelican Bay, The Shoe for 10 months, Calipatria, Corcoran, Susanville - High Desert. He’s worked in the kitchen, then as a barber. He’s learned how to avoid trouble, but its hard in Level 4 institutions. “There’s a lot of trouble going on,” he says with his characteristic understatement, a little half-smile, mostly keeping the joke to himself, a bit embarrassed that he made one.

For his first 18 years, he’d known his grandpa’s home in Taiwan, a restaurant kitchen in Kansas City, his stepdad’s home in Monterey Park. He was used to keeping a low profile, keeping his eyes averted. He’d spent his childhood that way, the family’s forgotten kid, who never asked for anything.

He tells me his grandfather - the one who’d raised him after his father and mother had left him (and each other) for the U.S. - died. That was hard. He hears from his sister, his mom, his dad. His dad, whose been very ill, came to visit him now in county. They get along better now, but don’t say much to each other. Everyone asks if he needs anything, but he tells them he doesn’t, thinks “they ask to be polite.”

I tell him, “Hey, let them help you. It’ll help them more to know they can do a little.” He nods, but I don’t think he will. I ask him the big question, the reason I’m there after so many years. “Was it worth it? Are you glad I saved your life so you could spend the rest of it behind bars?”

He hesitates, been thinking about it, too, I think, maybe a lot more than I have. “I don’t want to depress you,” he says, ever the considerate kid. “But I think maybe I wish not.”

I try to say something profound and uplifting about hope and the future. He sees the look on my face, lets me off the hook. “Maybe I’m depressed. Here, I see my family and it makes me sad and ashamed.” There’s a bit of feeling in his eyes behind his glasses. We’re both embarrassed and I didn’t come to make him feel sad.

We talk about other things, how maybe I can help a little now. My neck and back are hurting after an hour. I stand up, extend my hand. He shakes it with a little smile. He thanks me “for everything.”

Monday, August 29, 2005

What goes around ... keeps going around ...

I don’t believe in Kharma. Coincidence, sure. And notions about evil houses - that's for Stephen King. But then again, listen to this one.

It’s around 1983 and we’re ready to sign the escrow papers to the new house, our 3rd in around 10 years after we “settled down.” We’re living in Stu City, a rare LA / Valley walking ‘hood - S. of the B’vard, almost not even TheValley. Then the baby comes and so do cars, screeching ‘round the corner and, like comets once a year or so end up in our front yard. Two fences later, we look to move. It’s okay, Bijou’s done what she can with the place: she’s like a mad nomad decorator - takes about 4 years to finish. Then its time for the next move, next project.

So we look-y-loo with brokers, and after seeing every house listed on the west coast, find a kid friendly place: pool, bigger back yard, most of all quiet, no traffic. Bijou’s excited, sees “possibilities” despite the painted peacock, stone planter with plastic flowers, red carpets. Mostly, I see no cars careening onto the lawn, imagine my kid on a bike, and playing catch in the road.

So here we are. Inspections done, loans approved. Ready to sign and move in asap. “Uh, there is one little item,” the broker mumbles. “A small disclosure.” “Oh? What, like earthquake damage?” “Not exactly. See, there was a murder in the house.” Silence.

Okay, I’m a public defender at the time - always taking my work home with me, but this is ridiculous. I pack up. Bijou huddles, "at least check it out. It might not be so bad." Okay, I “investigate,” make calls. Here’s what I find.

The lady’s bloody body is found near the planter by her adopted son, who’s arrested for it. Police don’t believe he found her that way - he’s 17, druggie, needs cash. I talk to the I/O, the DA, the defense lawyer. He’s going down for at least a 2nd, I’m told. Maybe a 1st, there’s money missing.

So I’m thinking, so much for the quiet street theory. Drunk drivers on the lawn beat dope fiends in the bedroom any night. But Bijou really really likes the place. We’re doing everything over anyway. The crime’s solved, right?

Slow fade to about 17 years later and I’m sitting in my office and I get a call from a PI. He’s working on a habeas for the son, who’s been in all this time. He has one question: “Did you ever tell the I/O that money was found in the attic?”

This is the first time I’ve heard this question, but not the last. A couple of years later I get a call from LAPD, Internal Affairs. A couple more years and the LA Times want to know. Then I get a visit from a different IA guy and a call from the DA who tried the case. They all have a lot of questions about the issue, and they don’t tell me everything they know — see, for once, I’m not the advocate, only a “witness” and they don’t tell witnesses what they know.

I tell them all the same thing. Over the years, we had a lot of work done in the house, including the roof. Bijou died in April, ‘92, after sixteen agonizing and terrifying months of illness. I moved away in ‘95. I don’t remember ever finding any money in the attic, or being told by Bijou that workmen found any, or telling the I/O that any money was found. Considering my experience I think I would remember if any of that happened. So I don’t think it did.

My interrogators don’t tell me all they know, but over time I piece together some details. The motive of the killing was money, and some money was “missing” from the lady’s purse. Around $150. The son denied stealing it, and it wasn’t found on him when the cops came. He was convicted, sentenced to 15 to life and when he came up for parole, the I/O sent letters to the Board. In one letter, he said that he was told by the new owners of the house that workmen had found the money in the attic, which is where he believed the son had hidden it before calling. More evidence, he points out, to counter continuing protestations of innocence.

Now, I begin to wonder. Still don’t remember such a conversation and still can’t imagine I would forget that. Except for one thing. If all this happened while Bijou was going through her hell. There’s lots of things I can’t remember during that nightmare period, whole days went by in a blur, and events are jumbled in my memory. It was a dark time when we were spiraling into an abyss.

And wouldn’t the cop’s memory be better than mine? I can’t call him a liar, just that I don’t remember it. Still ...

So now the LA Times article appears. And there’s plenty of details I didn’t know. The time sequence of the I/O’s letters to the Board suggest that the supposed “conversation” about the money happened between late in ‘91 and April, ‘92. I don’t think Bijou was in any condition at that time to have been casually conversing with neighbors and I don’t remember having any work done at that time.

Then they report a shocker. A notation of an inventory of the contents of the purse found near the body ... it includes around $150 in cash.

And there’s more. There was another suspect, a friend of the son. A phone number was dialed from within the house that might have connected this other guy, and a second person’s shoeprint was found, now connected by DNA to a second person. And an I/A investigator apparently had his own doubts. So does the DA who got the conviction. The I/O has now “retired,” if not under fire, at least amid mounting doubts by many concerned with the case that the right person was convicted.

And now, apparently, the judge hearing the habeas petition has questions. So do I. Two women died tragically in that house, and the mysteries continue.

Monday, August 22, 2005

"How can you defend those people?"

I am a criminal defense lawyer. I have been asked that question for thirty-four years. Each time I answered it, I had to think about it. Now, I am going to give the definitive answer.

For my first twenty years of lawyering, I was a public defender in L.A. When I entered private criminal defense practice, fewer people asked the question, and there is a subtly different tone to those who still do. Obviously, some people now give their own answer before they ask it:

"For the money."

Their perspective is revealed by a knowing and cynical leer. For these questioners, I sometimes wink back, rather than launch into the muddy waters of self-justification.

Others accompany the question with an unstated corollary:

"... when you could make more money with less aggravation in civil law?"

This form of the question is most often asked by civil lawyers, their wives, or doctors. It was often asked by my relatives, after talking with civil lawyers or their wives. For these questioners (including my relatives), my answer is:

"I enjoy the excitement and the money is enough for me."

Or sometimes I wisecrack:

"Which people?"

You see, I defend petty thieves, prostitutes, drug users, kids in trouble, and forgers. No one ever wants to know how I can defend these people. I also defend rapists, child molesters, drunk driver/killers, multiple murderers. These are the people everyone is curious about.

That leads me to answer that the more serious crimes provide the greater degree of excitement and challenge.

If that does not satisfy, I drag out the first of my "doctor analogies:"

A doctor's greatest aspiration should be to treat the most seriously ill patient: the greater the risk to life, the greater the skill required, the greater the challenge and the greater the satisfaction when you do your job right.

If you're serious about your profession -- and if I were ill, I would want the doctor who is most serious -- you should aspire to the greatest challenge. If I were a doctor, I would want to be a brain surgeon rather than a dermatologist.

When I defend in a capital case, I am like a doctor whose patient has a life-threatening illness. If I save the life, I am doing the greatest good my profession has to offer -- even if that life I save is one which many may say is not worth saving.

The analogy also works with the corollary common questions:

"How can you defend someone who you know is guilty?"

My answer:

If I were a doctor with a terminally ill patient, I would not make judgments on the worthiness of the life I was trying to save.

Next question:

"How can you sleep with the heavy responsibility of a capital case?"

Same analogy, same answer:

A doctor learns to detach himself from the weight of his life and death duty; he relies on his preparation, his skill, his conscientiousness. If the patient dies, he wants to be sure he did everything in his power to prevent or forestall it; if he has, he sleeps -- perhaps fitfully at first, but he sleeps and awakes to the next case.

The answer, I admit, is not wholly satisfactory to me. The analogy is not exact. The law deals with moral guilt as its subject matter; medicine does not. But the answer satisfies most people. Once a doctor caught the problem.

For him, I had a question:

"Suppose you were asked to treat a death row inmate, a mass murderer who was scheduled to die; would you use your best efforts to save him?"

The doctor smiled and said, "I wouldn't recommend long-term treatment."

I have not always answered the question so straightforwardly. At first, in the flush of righteous belief that I was fighting The Good Fight for The Constitution and The Bill of Rights, I was offended.

I answered:

"How can I not defend these people?"

In the Sixties, when I began, this answer made me something of a hero in my circle.

Later, while my back was turned, my circle dissolved. My acquaintances -- who had been quickly "radicalized" in the Sixties -- just as quickly became "centralized" in the Seventies and "neutralized" in the Eighties. They became horrified by crimes -- first, by rape when their feminist consciences were raised; then by child molestation; then by "mass murderers" and "serial killers"; now by drug dealers -- forgetting their Sixties poses, a result I presume of all the dope they smoked back then.

When I seemed not to have moved from "the Sixties mentality," the renewed question, now became more strident:

"How can you still defend those people?"

I see now that my seeming unreconstructed liberalism made my old friends squirm. Sensing that, my answers became defensive.

I joked about it, mumbled about keeping the system honest, focused on my distaste for `hustling for a buck' in private practice, and later on, talked vaguely about the security of my county paycheck and eventual early retirement. These were acceptable answers.

But not true. In truth, I had moved a long way from the righteousness of my youth, into a new righteousness of middle age. As a public defender, I began to see the dangers of false liberalism. I had seen liberal judges pay lip service to the law, find my clients guilty on less than convincing evidence and then "not hurt them" in sentencing.

I became a true “conservative.”

The liberal trusts in the benign power of government to restrain the individual for the common good. He deals in big numbers. If a few individuals must be sacrificed for the good of the many, so be it.

The true conservative is skeptical of governmental power over the individual and seeks to restrain its use. The most power a government wields, short of the ability to wage war, is the police power to incarcerate and execute individuals. I fight for the rights of the individual against the power of the government. That makes me a conservative.

In the 70's, when feminists and their fellow travelers, reading accounts of rape trials and TV "docudramas", attacked rape laws which, in their view made it too difficult to convict rapists, they were uneasy when I reminded them about the lesson of history, as reflected in such “right-thinking” morality tales as "To Kill a Mockingbird". Their response: "That was about a Black guy in the South." My liberal friends forgot that such laws so easily led to abuse.

I still believe that it is better to acquit many guilty people than to wrongly convict one innocent person. No one else believes this anymore.

When an increasing crime rate brought cries for longer sentences, reinstatement of the death penalty, elimination of "technicalities" such as constitutional rights and defenses, no one wanted to hear my answer:

It is dangerous to urge both more harsh sentences and easier convictions. The more severe the sentence, the more certain should be the system of proving guilt. If you are going to put someone in jail and throw away the key, it should not be done on the uncorroborated claim of one witness, which history has shown us is unreliable.

Don't get me wrong. I feel the victim's rage. I have been a father, a husband, a homeowner. I worry about rape, child molestation, burglary. I would kill to defend my home.

I believe that some people deserve to die for their crimes.

But when asked about the death penalty, I cannot answer glibly. Most people don't like my answer; it is not what they want to hear. It is not simple. They expect me to say I am opposed to it. I am, but not for the reasons they think; not for abstract reasons.

I repeat: I believe that some people deserve to die for their crimes.

But I have seen the way the system works and conclude that it is fatally flawed. I have watched it, studied it, participated in it for more than twenty years. The defect is basic:

It does not rationally distinguish between people who deserve to die from those who do not.

While my erstwhile liberal acquaintances, like everyone else, are untroubled by this, I can't live with it. I find that people do not care about that answer. It disturbs them. They want their issues chopped with a butcher knife, not carved with a scalpel. They are angry and anger compels stupidity.

Monday, August 15, 2005

My Uncle Sammy

I guess every family has its mysteries. We had a big one. I mean a big family. And to a kid there were a lot of mysteries. For example, my father’s dad was called “Harry” (who lived with “Aunt Ida”); and so was my mom’s brother Harry (whose wife was “Aunt Hanna”), and her father, “Harry” lived with “Aunt Laura,” but she also had a Papa Hymie who lived with “Aunt Ethel.” We had an “Aunt Ida” who sometimes lived with us.

It was complicated. But a kid picks up clues during family gatherings where stories are re-told. Hints about dramas and comedies emerge. Some names you hear whispered with different emotions that a kid has a harder time with, a choked tear. "Sammy" was one of those. He was never at the family gatherings, not one of the pinchers of cheeks. My mother, who was the keeper of family lore, talked most about him, her brother-in-law who “died in the war.”

This phrase stuck with me, a kid raised on TV war movies. We had some snapshots and some “effects” that were all there was of “Sammy.” A Purple Heart, silver wings pin, lieutenant’s bar shoulder pin. A kid’s curiosity about war led to questions and I pieced together a story.

He was the fourth of six kids. Alex (in the suit), Edna (the ballet dancer), Milton and Sam. Two more came later (Alvin and Fran). Milt and Sam wanted to be doctors, "experimented" on unfortunate stray cats in their basement "lab" which included a chemistry kit, with which they also stunk up the neighborhood.

Sam graduated college but World War II interrupted his plans for medical school. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He wanted to be a flyer, but was declared too short. With his chemistry degree, he was assigned to the quartermaster corps, the cushiest duty possible. So, of course, when the height limit was lowered because of the increasing need for flyers, he asked to be transferred to flight school.

Lieutenant Samuel Borenstein became a navigator / bombadier on B-24's. He came home on leave and spent time with his girlfriend, Gerry. He took my brother, then 8 or 9, on the parachute jump in Coney Island, near where we lived. And then he went “overseas” and, in the specific words I remember, “was shot down over the Bay Of Biscay” and was reported “missing in action and presumed dead.” Gerry remained close to our family for several years but eventually drifted away into her own life.

And that was all I knew.

Fifty years later, I found the old photos in a box and got the idea to try the internet. Sent a message in a bottle with the few facts I had from stories and notes on snapshots “Idaho” “Bay of Biscay.” It didn’t take long. A guy named Don Olds, a veteran who was keeper of the flame about such things, answered me with far more than I could have dreamed.

“Received your email pertaining to your uncle Samuel Borenstein. I do have some material covering his last flight 27 Mar 44. I have the MACR (Missing Air Crew Report) from the aircraft he was aboard when shot down. I may have some other papers as well. He was in the 733rd Squadron of the 453rd Bomb Group stationed at Old Buckingham, Norfolk County, England. The 453rd did their early training at Gower Field in Idaho. So I’m sure we’re talking about the same man.

“Your uncle was a member of a B-24 named “Cabin In The Sky” which was piloted by Lt. Alvin Lien. On this particular mission the 733rd Sq. Commanding Officer Major Curtis Cofield was the Command Pilot and the plane was hit by flak and broke into flames and went into the Bay of Biscay. Unfortunately there were no survivors.

"The 433rd had four squadrons, 732nd, 733rd, 734th, 735th. Your uncle was designated as Command Navigator for this mission. The plane and crew were from the 735th, and apparently your uncle was assigned to this mission as a ‘one time thing.’ Being this plane was the Lead Plane in the entire group formation of four squadrons speaks well of the confidence Group Headquarters had in his ability to lead.

“... I have a good picture of ‘Cabin In The Sky’ in flight on the day it was shot down. It is unusual to have such a view of a plane with the waist gunner clearly visible in the window that would soon be blown out of the sky killing eleven men.”

I was amazed and immediately answered back, requesting copies of the photos. Mr. Olds not only sent me the photos, but also many documents, which shocked me. The “MACR” contains eyewitness statements from other crews. Some saw “eight or nine chutes” open after the plane was hit. Might Sam have escaped? Other reports showed that the Army Air Corps tried to trace the fate of the crew.

On 28 March 1945, the chief of “Casualty Branch” filed a report stating that “... nine parachutes were seen to open ... five, who landed in the water, were picked up immediately, presumably by enemy surface craft. Five other crew members have been reported as KIA.” None of the crew had turned up in POW files.

Then, in 1947, a report from “Headquarters, American Graves Registration Command.” Sam and four others are listed as the “missing” subjects.

“SYNOPSIS OF CASE: The above were part of a crew of 11 men A/C #42-6744, which, on 27 March 1944 participated in a bombing mission to Pau, France. At a point over the Bay of Biscay at coordinates 46° 3' N/01° 29'E the subject plane received extensive flak damage and crashed in flames into the sea approximately five miles from shore. Several parachutes were seen. The enemy recovered remains of S/Sgt. Clinton W. CALDWELL, but after all papers were recovered from his clothes, the remains were interred at sea. The remains of crew members LIEN, WATSON, COFIELD, WARD, KAPLAN and LAYSER washed ashore at places adjacent to La Rochelle, France, and are now interred in the USMC Champigneul. A field investigation conducted for the recovery of the remains of the unaccounted for crew members proved negative. In view of the above and the time that has elapsed since the missing flyers have neither been seen or heard from, it can be concluded that they were lost at sea.”

I received another, final note from Mr. Olds. “I remembered the American Cemetary at Cambridge, England and the fact that your Uncle Samuel is indeed honored there. Enclosed is a list of 453rd men who are buried there. Also, there is a ten foot wall running the length of the cemetery with a small chapel at the end of the wall. Into this wall the names of those whose bodies were never recovered are carved. It is called “Wall Of Missing.” On this list the grave location or WOM notation. Didn’t know if you knew this existed. It is a beautiful place and very serene.”

I showed the results at a family gathering. My mom was tearful, and Aunt Fran was touched. He was the first of her now dead four brothers to have gone away.

Links: American Cemetery Cambridge
453rd Bomb Group (H)

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Bijou at 60

When a person is murdered, the victim’s family is luckier than those whose deaths can’t be blamed on anyone. In a capital trial, the “impact” of the murder on loved ones can be used to support a death sentence for the culprit. In other than capital killings, victims get to speak their hearts at sentencing. Even in civil trials, deaths caused by negligence can be vindicated by money judgments.

Any sort of vengeance can be satisfying, I suppose, and provide a form of “closure,” which is one of the buzzwords of our society, more sought after than “love.”

If the person who died caused her own death by self-destructiveness or negligence or unnecessary risk taking, there is some explanation for the event and therefore some symmetry. And when someone dies in old age after a completed life there is acceptance.

All of that is denied when there is no one to blame for a “premature” death caused, say, by an insidious incurable illness.

When someone dies that way, there is nothing to do but feel lousy. Family and friends, mostly out of guilt because they are alive, promise never to forget.

We “celebrate” the lost life, the good times, the silly youthful girl, the wife, mom, friend, daughter, sister, the soulmate.

We remember hr laughter, her capacity to make us laugh ... and ... feel loved. We remember her courage in the face of misery, joke about her love for food, her joie de vivre,
and the way she had of fun at her own cost, and we miss her dreadfully because of the huge hole in our lives that her absence leaves.

For a while we keep our promise, but life is such that we eventually do forget, at least most of the time. We keep the pictures around the house, but don't look at them often anymore. They are part of the furnishings, taken for granted. That each was a moment, a precious instant now gone forever is too painful a thought to dwell on.

I guess it is “healthy” and necessary not to dwell on that kind of pain.

Over time, we think about her less and less. The reality of her existence begins to fade, and remains out of our thoughts for long chunks of time. We forget the way her voice sounded when she laughed or cried, how she looked in the morning or the fragrance of her hair.

We find other ways to laugh, and others who might help us forget. Eventually, the time may come when we find that if someone reminds us of her, it is slightly embarrassing, makes us feel faintly uneasy. And one day she may cease to exist, even in memory, unless strenuous conscious efforts are made to recall the fact that she did live and affected our lives.

The cruel fact is that fame insures immortality for only a few, while most lives are forgotten, even those lives who touched many other lives. The dead live only sporadically in the memories of people who loved them, but when these few die, will it be as if they never lived at all?

Religions tease us with the myth that the dying person’s ‘spirit’ lives on — in heaven, or returning in another form, as part of the "earth" or even in a new living being.

Recurring wisps of movies offer wish fulfillment: ghosts ... dreams ... fantasies of lovers returning to help the living. But you have to be soft headed and hopelessly sentimental to believe such things.
And, really, none of it really helps very much.

She used to tell her students that life isn't fair.

She was right. It goes by so fast.

She was a seven year old refugee lost in l'ecole ... and then an adored teacher.

A lonely "displaced person" became an awkward, lonely girl ... moving from Russia, then to France, and then to L.A., each time feeling different from the others and not understanding enough, not feeling smart enough or pretty enough or good enough ...
feeliing too tall, too Jewish, too Polish, or was it French, or Russian?

She once wrote to me: "I have always felt an outsider. All my life I have searched to fit in..."

But when she began to travel on her own, she began to find what she was looking for: freedom ... a sense of excitement in discovering ... what? ... her power .... taking risks ... seeking adventure ...
... and her independent spirit ... and some found her ... and that was ... well, exciting, too.

She wrote: "... Traveling alone has taught me —first and most obvious—that I can rely on myself—a fact I suspected but was not sure of ..."

She made her mistakes without regret ... chose her life ... then saved mine by taking me along . She took me to places I never dreamed of ... showed me a world I would never have dared to risk alone. We traveled together and she held my hand and pushed me toward life against my timid judgment

... and then she was gone...

She was born into this world on this date sixty years ago and has been out of it for thirteen.

... how can that be?

Je t'aime toujours, Bijou.

These and other memories of Bijou will be posted on flickr.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Adventures In Crime / Cuddle Or Die

More proof that unprotected sex is dangerous business ... even after marriage.

LA Times, Friday, Aug. 5, 2005:

"A man who got angry with his wife because she wanted to cuddle after sex when what he really wanted to do was watch sports on television was sentenced to death in Panama City for killing her with a claw hammer.

"[The judge said that] the brutality of the crime outweighed any mental problems [the defendant] may have had. '[He] had struck his wife approximately 70 individual blows after spending a happy interlude with her,' the judge said. 'Her desire to cuddle did not justify the extremely violent, brutal response by the defendant.'"

Oops! Award: 8 eyewits proved wrong. Innocent man freed after 26 years. So sorry!

L.A. Times Friday, Aug. 5, 2005, p.A-16, reported that Luis Diaz, described in the story as "a Cuban born fry cook," who had been convicted in 1980 of 7 rapes has now been released based on a combination of recanted identifications by victims and DNA evidence pursued by Barry Scheck and The Innocence Project.

In the Miami area between 1977 and 1979, there were 25 rapes by the so-called "Bird Road Rapist." A spokesman for the state attorney's office stated that "it was fruitless to second guess the processes that had put Diaz behind bars since his arrest in 1979. 'Eyewitnesses at the time gave strong tesimony,' [he] said. 'The jury convicted based on evidence.'"

Scheck said, "This case had 8 mistaken eyewitnesses." The previous high [his Project uncovered] was 5. "There are a million ways where, unintentionally or not so unintentionally, you indicate to people who you want them to identify."

The State Attorney thought it was proper to free Diaz because "...there is no time limit to justice." Former Miami Police Chief Kenneth Harms said, "I know from time to time the wrong person is put in jail. That's simply the way the system functions."

NOTE: Florida, along with Texas, has been at the vanguard of demands for speedier executions.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Reality Show Pitch: "The Execution"

Although this idea is worth millions, I air it as a public service. Hear me, Oh, Fox! An idea whose time has come. The current reality cycle is running its course and needs new, uh, blood.

Televising executions could be great drama, qualifies as news, and the buzz around the water coolers of the nation would be deafening.

Incidentally, both advocates and opponents of capital punishment would benefit from the show. It would test the assumptions of both The Right and The Left.

Pro deathists have three arguments supporting capital punishment. First, the families of murder victims are entitled to certain, final and rapid justice; second, respect for law and order requires the same; and third, the first step to solving the "crime problem" is the deterrent effect of the death penalty.

Televising executions would provide a test for all three assumptions. Would the execution finally provide peace of mind to the families of murder victims? Would it encourage respect for the law? Would executions result in fewer murders?

It might work. Criminals do not read newspapers, but do watch television. The impact of seeing the retribution society exacts for the worst crimes would be worth a thousand words in a newspaper article. In fact, in some states, executions are so ho-hum that the the events are relegated to inside pages.

But there is reason to believe that none of the assumptions are correct. When executions were conducted in the town square -- as for most of human history -- pickpockets and cutpurses worked the crowds, even when a thief was being hanged. Statistics show that murders increase after executions. Why, because they somehow lessen respect for law? Do they stir up the blood lust too much?

Would murder rates go down in the states which execute the most? Texas, Florida and Georgia have "terminated" dozens of murderers. Are murder rates in those states "better" than in other states? If not, Why?

Victims Rights Organizations have opposed televising executions. They fear that sympathy for the person executed would replace sympathy for the victim.

Hardly likely, especially in the reality world of T.V. journalism. The segment showing the execution would surely be preceded by dramatized details of the crime, including all the lurid violence that stirs the urge for vengeance which execution theoretically satisfies. Watch Bill Kurtis' "American Justice" for clues.

What better "closure" could there be? What better trigger for public debate? What better entertainment?

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Adventures In Crime / T-Ball Hitman

The human capacity to find new modes of criminality always thrills me. This from L.A. Times, July 16, 2005, p. A-8:
"Pittsburgh - A T-ball coach allegedly paid one of his players $25 to hurt an 8 year-old mentally disabled teammate so he wouldn't have to put the boy in the game, police said Friday.
... The boy was hit on the head and the groin with a baseball just before the game, and did not play... 'The coach was very competitive,' [an officer] said. 'He wanted to win.'"
Memo to secretary: if this guy calls to hire me to defend him, I'll be on vacation.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Journal / Letter to home / 14 November '74

14 November Luxor

Dear Ron and Laura,

I give you warning that this letter is likely to ramble quite a bit, tending to sound dreamy and disconnected. The explanation is that my mind right now is exactly that way. It is now 7:30 a.m. and we are in our comfortable, though pleasantly seedy hotel room in Luxor, the site of ancient Thebes which is in Upper Egypt—which is really South of Cairo and ancient Memphis, the sites of Lower Egypt. I told you this would be disconnected and about as rational as anything else here.

..I am obtaining an education I never received: in art, architecture, history, religion, politics, philosophy.

We have stood in the place where The Buddha stood; walked the path Christ walked to the Cross; touched the rock upon which Abraham is said to have been ordered by God to sacrifice Isaac and from which Mohamed is said to have risen to heaven.

We’ve stood on the hill where Orestes was tried and acquitted for matricide and Socrates drank his hemlock and where St. Paul preached his first sermon to the Athenians.

We’ve stood on the stage of the theater where the Greek tragedies were first performed. I have hiked in the hills to seek the birthplace of Theseus.

I’ve run the track in the stadium at Olympia and we've driven through the Pass of Thermopylae and the crossroads where Oedipus gouged his eyes out in despair.

We’ve sought guidance from the Oracle in Delphi.

We‘ve seen the hair of Mohamed, the skull of John the Baptist, touched the “tomb” of Christ.

Somehow, doing all that gives me a thrill of vicarious participation in history and, if not a grasp, at least a “feel” for what the events must have been like.

In the Egypt Museum we viewed the mummies of Rameses and other pharaohs, their gaunt blackened skin and dusty hair still on their skulls., puny and human, telling more truth than the giant monuments they dedicated to their glory, the pyramids and colossal statues, pretentions to Godliness.

Yet standing under the pyramids or riding past them as we did on swaying camels, I could sense some of the awe people over the ages have felt in these achievements.

One can be cynical about many of the ancient monuments and much of its art from a modern perspective. Almost all the “wonders” were built by slaves, ordered by the few incredibly wealthy while the many suffered unrecorded deprivation. The Art was created mostly to promote belief and worship of deities and rulers and therefore to encourage the superstition and subjugation of the masses.

One can also be callous to the structures themselves: next to New York’s skyscrapers, the pyramids are mere bungalows. The Temples to Apollo or Amun-Ra, the sun-gods of Greek and Egyptian, seem silly next to our conquest of the moon.

I have heard other tourists speaking in very blasé terms while looking at the Taj Mahal or Parthenon. I have expressed the cynicism myself in my moments of reflective depression.

You cannot avoid feeling the ironic paradox of the remnants of glorious civilizations amidst the squalor of the present; or viewing the striving for perfection and rationality of the Ancient Greeks while also experiencing the crudeness of contemporary people.

But there is more. Ancient Egypt was one of the earliest attempts to grope for something civilized. Not long before in Man’s history was the stone age—prehistoric Man little more than animal. But something stirred his mind, his imagination, daring that he could try to solve the riddles of the universe.

Reading all that over, I see that I have expressed it very poorly; it sounds like a lot of pretentious drivel, full of hackneyed phrases and muddled ideas. But it is some distance from my first words uttered when seeing these things: “fantastic” “incredible” or merely “wow.”

Maybe some day I will be able to communicate more interestingly. I am still too close to the experience to express it any other way and my emotions stand in the way of my ideas. I am sure that my “insights” are far from unique—my intellect inadequate to say something new or “important.” All I can say is that it has been a revelation to me and I suppose nothing is known unless you know it yourself.

Of course—and again I doubt that this is an original thought—even if I was totally ignorant of all of history, I would still be its product and participant in its continuum. All the experiences have given me is the awareness of that fact and some tiny inkling of my place in it.

That is only one level of my thoughts on this trip. There are others. There are observations of the ways of life in other places and there is the personal search for my own.

It has been hard to learn how people live in Japan or India or Turkey during our brief visits, as tourists, not speaking the languages, or knowing anybody who lives there. My views must be from scanning the surface, developing an intuition from endless walks on the streets of the cities, talks with merchants and others we contact, riding the ferries, boats, buses, eating in the restaurants, going to the movies.

Other places we have gotten to know better: talking to and living with people who reside there, staying a longer time, seeing more than just the centers of big cities. I feel I got to know Israel and Israelis pretty well—enough to form some judgments—enough to want to come to see Egypt.

Today, at the temples of Karnak, we saw a huge wall filled with bas-relief depictions of (what most scholars believe is) the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem and the submission of the Hebrews—the beginning of my heritage?

After a month in Greece, viewing its physical beauty and variety of life styles, from Athens’ city bustle to Metsovon’s peaceful pace to Idra’s careless community of artists, I have come to imagine what it might be like to live there.

But we have a lot more to see and we have only tickled Europe.

There is another—maybe the most important— aspect to this trip: the wondrous development of my relationship with Bijou. Together every moment of every day, coping with one another and the outside world, arguing, looking at things from our individual viewpoints, we have grown together in subtle ways, learned some patience, better consideration of one another.

Despite some trying times of ill temper and occasional sniping that break out into full scale war, we have decided—at least at this point—that we do love each enough, that is completely—and more amazingly, we like and respect each other.

But, as I say, we have eight grueling months to go. ...

Love, Mort & Bijou.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Journal / Calcutta 24 August 1974

This morning we awoke very early to take a tour of the city. I am letting my mustache and beard grow, poor though that growth is, because I want to look as grubby as possible to cut down on molestation. I won’t shine my shoes or wash my jeans until I leave India.

Bijou, as expected, has trouble with the heat. I do, too, but my skin, so awful in other respects, protects me with its greasiness.

Bijou: “You look swarthy.” Her kind way of saying “oily and ugly.”

She has a bit of the Trots and a congestive cold so is understandably cranky. As our bus bounced around the sweltering streets, she paled and felt faint a few times. The air does not willingly go into the lungs: you must make a conscious effort to breathe.

Our bus wended through sections of slum shanties, the “Bustees,” registered slums. We saw the old section with its government buildings, also in decay, on narrow streets with iron-railed balconies reminiscent of New Orleans. But the tumultuous life in the streets told a greater truth.

Bijou found a way of dealing with beggars. As we stopped at each temple, young children appeared with big sad eyes and little hands outstretched. I have begun to notice that most seem well-fed though clearly poor beyond western imagination. To one such group, Bijou made her blowfish face by pursing her lips, puffing cheeks and widening her eyes. At once, the surprised grins broke out on their faces and they laughed freely in the way only children can. Soon they were begging, not for “pais” but for more laughs. Time and again the trick made them squeal in glee. They called others who joined in the show. They were children after all.

[On that day we went to the Calcutta Zoo to see the rare white tigers. We stood close to the fence surrounding the enclosure and were watching until I became aware that there was a crowd behind us, watching us rather than the tigers.

That alarmed me because I wondered if we were in a forbidden area or something. Then I noticed that they were looking more at Bijou than me. A small boy near her was standing very close and looking up at her. He looked like he might have Down’s Syndrome or some other condition that gave him a very strange manner. When he stared at her arm, I realized why she had attracted all the attention.

Bijou’s hair was very light reddish brown, her skin very pale with brown freckles. She wore a pink scoop neck short sleeve t-shirt like top. It was not exactly revealing by our standards, but compared to the Indian women there who were very dark and wore saris that covered their bodies completely except for a thin band of skin around the midriff, she must have looked quite exotic to the Indians and much more of a rare attraction than the tigers. 20 June 2002]

Tonight we spoke to Andre Amchin, a French seafood merchant in India to buy shrimp and frog legs. He is a large man, a youthful and manly forty, with a full beard and a twinkle in his eyes when he smiles. He is rakishly cynical about India. They are hopeless; in business lazy, in culture and religion un-Christian and foolish.

“They have a temple for rats!” Arms upraised in Gallic shrug, as if that says it all. In cuisine the worst insult: they are un-French.

His conversation is confrontational: America was foolish to destroy Nixon; Watergate was nothing.

He tells us ---rather, tells Bijou in French, who translates --- that Indian women are lousy lovers. “They lie there like death.” Turkish women are better. But the best, of course, i s his French mistress — in Villeparisis (!)

Dr. David Thomas joined us midway through the conversation.

He is in the final week of a 3 month project with World Health Organization of the UN., advising on smallpox prevention. He had previously spent time in India and two years in Lahore.

He is young, grey, serious faced but friendly and possesses a dry wit. He has firm, sound opinions asserted in a doctorly way but without dogmatic certainty.

I ask him what he thought could possibly be done for Calcutta short of blowing it up and starting from scratch.

He describes the small steps that are being taken: water supply, sewage, housing. But he admits that these things are rudimentary and minimal. The chaos is so large, the impediments so many.

He discourses on "the Asian or Indian mind" which rejects planning.

He relates a story. In a rural village, he found rampant vitamin deficiencies causing illnesses long banished from the west: scurvy, rickets, and the like. He left bottles of vitamins, with instructions on dosages. When he returned a month later, he found the villagers had abandoned the vitamins after one day --- they had not been cured by the first day's dose, so they stopped.

He blames the self-satisfied, obstructive bureaucracy for many of the country's ills. They keep statistics of Smallpox outbreaks, but don't follow up with the required innoculations.

All of India is bad, he says, but Calcutta is, by far, the worst; maybe the worst in the world, perilously brinking on hopelessness.

The conversation between the doctor and the Frenchman is hostile. Andre called David a foolish idealist; David calls the Frenchman "a reactionary."

I mediate but I am not impartial. I am annoyed at the authoritarian certainty of the Frenchman. And, I admit, even more annoyed by his attention and outpouring of charm on Bijou. She is vulnerable to Gallic charm no matter how transparent, anxious to use her own.

But he did give us some restaurants in Paris.