Copyright © 2004 by Rich Mussler. Not to be reproduced without permission.
"An odd thought popped into my head, for some unknown reason," my old pal Al said, and tilted his beer back to drain it. He tossed the bottle to the floor beside the other empties, then strummed his guitar slowly. A melancholy chord. E-minor, perhaps.
"What?" I prompted, but didn't need to. Odd thoughts were perfectly acceptable between us, almost expected. Certainly encouraged. I found the chord on my own guitar and without speaking we hammered out a riff together, about 16 bars.
Al stopped suddenly, put his guitar aside, shook his wispy hair from his eyes, and twisted the top off another Heineken. Then he smoked and said to me:
I remember what I told actor C__ E____ one night at the Dog's Breath, that tavern he used to own up in Carmel. I'd shown him how to eject a single cartridge from a .45 and catch it in the cuff of his pants, and he thought he could maybe use that trick in one of his pictures. (This was… oh, I don't know, after his “dirty cop” films but before that monkey-movie crap.) Anyway we got to talking about some of his stuff and I told him I felt his onscreen depiction of human suffering did a good job showing pain’s ability to warp the human spirit, detaching it in a sense, resulting in a cold aloofness. Like that renegade cop character of his, for instance. I told him I thought he was dead-on with that.
He replied by saying that he just played the part as written. Then he launched into a discourse fueled by the brews he’d downed. (Good God you wouldn't guess that a guy who hardly ever strung more than six words together in his films could be so windy!) C__ E____ suggested that people related to that particular character because the renegade cop did things everyone wanted to do, that is, react with vengeance against iniquity, but he himself felt no one actually would do such things even if given the chance.
When I finally got a word in edgewise I said well I beg to differ. I told him about what my buddy Dave did, Dave the college graduate from Ohio, to a VC spy we found in our midst in the summer of '69. One of our fellow soldiers, a lieutenant in the Vietnamese army, a guy we all trusted, who'd got us good dope and always knew where to find booze and women, had betrayed us. One day he passed along our orders to the Viet Cong for cold cash. Like thirty pieces of silver. Subsequently we were ambushed, half the unit went home in body bags, and Dave figured out right away who’d ratted us out. So, to make my point, I detailed for actor C__ E____ precisely what the college graduate from Ohio did to the VC spy in our midst that summer of '69. I guess I was too graphic in my recollection, because I had the unique experience of watching an Oscar-winner double over and blow chunks in his own tavern. Now that was a sight.
Six or seven years later I ran into C__ E____ on the set of one of his westerns and I reminded him of the incident. (I was still working as a stunt double in those days.) He said it wasn't the gory of the story that made him ill that day, but bad shellfish. I thought Yeah right.
Maybe the reason that memory popped into my head just now is because, well, to be truthful, I've been thinking about human suffering quite a bit lately. And remember, Mitch, old friend, I've been kicked in the teeth, sliced with razors, thrown out of moving vehicles, buried to my neck in human waste by those damn pajama-wearers, and worse, hogtied by LA cops, beaten with flashlights and pummeled with fists until I passed out. In my so-called film career I've had forty-seven broken bones and lost a kidney when I drove a motorcycle into a rolling bus. So I think I have some level of expertise on the subject of human suffering. Expertise? Hell, I've got a friggin’ Ph.D. So, when I tell you that the worst form of human suffering has nothing to do with physical pain whatsoever, you can take it to the bank.
See, physical pain you can explain. You can get your arms around it. You can also take drugs to make it go away. You can smoke dope & hope, as we used to say in ’Nam. Or pray, if you’re the sort. Hope and pray that the pain goes away, so as you can heal. (That's the kind of pain, by the way, Mitch, people refer to when they say, "If it don't kill you it will make you stronger," which is also crap.)
No, in terms of human suffering there is something far worse than physical pain. A sort of suffering that always warps the human spirit, or else kills it. Either way, the end result is the same: a coldness, a separateness – an alone-ness, if you will, that belies the old fable that no man is an island. The sea of humanity is full of islands, Mitch. In fact, I am of the mind that every man and every woman is an island. When we humans do things unthinkable, when we are cold, calculating or criminal, and when we are vengeful, we are behaving most naturally.
Let me give you an example.
Back in the early days following World War II there was a young woman, Estelle, a girl, really, the daughter of a high school teacher in Corpus Christi, Texas. You ever been there, Mitch? No? Well, back then it was not much more than a dusty little seaport. It was hot; there were mosquitoes the size of California canaries, and people as a rule always looked forward to the evenings. Because with the sunset the dampness was a little more tolerable and a breeze off the gulf could cool you if you sat real still on your porch. That's what people did back then. They sat real still on porches in the early evenings and talked with one another. And often as they sat they were treated to a lightshow out in the bay, for as you know the Gulf of Mexico produces some spectacular electrical thunderstorms.
A New York Jew named Harvey moved into town to become the owner of Corpus Christi's only radio station, WGUF. “1440 on your AM dial.” He lived on the corner of Main and Sam Houston streets, in a big house at the base of the radio station's massive steel tower. He was deathly afraid of those thunderstorms I mentioned, Mitch, I think for very good and obvious reasons. He used to shake his fist at the sky and call upon God to make them go away, saying with his New York accent, "God in heaven! Send this accursed demon away from me!" He did this so often and so publicly that the people in town used to mockingly do what they called "the Harvey." Whenever they were even mildly frustrated with something they would shake fists, pinch their noses to achieve the appropriate nasal tonality, and say: "God in heaven! Send this accursed demon AWAY from me!" That's what they called "the Harvey.” It started with high school kids using it on cops and math teachers, but spread to just about everyone. It always got a big laugh, to imitate Harvey the Jew-radio-owner.
As evenings progressed people moved from their porches into their living rooms to listen to the radio. They didn't have radios in their cars or at work like we do these days. Radio was something you listened to in your home, and most homes had but one radio. And in those days people would tune in the news and they would listen to music during the day, but what they really wanted most in the evening was entertainment. Vaudeville on the airwaves, they called it. The nightmare of war and economic depression was still a fresh memory. People were developing a taste for escapism even then, Mitch, and radio was the medium.
One day Harvey hired this girl Estelle to answer the phone and do other odd jobs around WGUF. The station consisted of two rooms on the ground floor of Harvey's house at the base of the tower. She came in after school, was a steady worker, and was nice to look at as a bonus. Harvey enjoyed talking, which is why he bought a radio station in the first place, and when he wasn't on the air broadcasting he would use Estelle as a sounding board to test his ideas. She always listened to him with great intensity.
"Our radio listeners are unrefined, unsophisticated, and immature, Estelle (he used to say). Texans are hicks. I give them the New York Philharmonic; they cry for cowboy singers. It's enough to make a man sick."
(This was a common theme for Harvey.)
"I bring them quality programming. I bring to the people of this community artists whose performances uplift the spirit and educate the soul. But, Estelle, this is not to their liking. I broadcast Shakespeare; they want the Lone Ranger. I interview the famous Mr. William Faulkner, America's finest literary genius living today, by telephone all the way from Los Angeles California, and so what? They call and complain that they missed an episode of Amos and Andy. These people! Schmucks! They are burning holes in my stomach! I give them composers from Europe; they seek comedians from Jersey. Hicks! Cowboys! Jalapeno-poppers! They want crude programming. I refuse! I deliver the quintessential; they demand the quiz show. I tell you, Estelle, our listeners are unrefined, unsophisticated, and immature."
One day the white clouds lingering over the gulf darkened again and Harvey went outside into the middle of Main Street and shook his fist at them. "God in heaven!” he shouted. “Take this accursed demon and blow it out to sea!" This was a variation of his customary curse.
Next day, Estelle was horrified to hear her high school classmates adjust "the Harvey" accordingly. They began to call on God to send the vice principal and various other assorted demons out to sea!
Day after day Estelle listened to Harvey and took everything he said very seriously. She was embarrassed for the people of Corpus Christi, her hometown, because they were indeed so very unsophisticated. She could see that they were unrefined and culturally immature, just as Mr. Harvey made them out to be. Her boss had become a dashing figure to her – not that he was particularly good looking. But he was an educated, successful businessman. Plus, he owned a new Pontiac. Very soon, Estelle lost her head and her heart to the transplanted New Yorker.
Harvey, a slight man approaching thirty with thinning hair and rising temples, who had always considered himself unattractive, was surprised to discover his young employee's attraction to him. He was quite naturally drawn to the dark-haired teenager who showed up at work at three every afternoon. But he never suspected that his ranting on about quintessential programming and artistic performances would arouse a deep longing in Estelle's soul for the things he so vociferously praised, for refinement, for sophistication, and for personal maturity. She perceived that Harvey was the man who could give her these things. In her opinion, there was no hope finding it elsewhere in Corpus Christi, Texas, not in 1947.
From Harvey's perspective, Estelle was a sweet, compassionate girl with a large bosom and a slender waist. He had been in love only once before, to an older girl who lived down the street from his home in Brooklyn. He promised to marry her and planned to send for her once he got settled in Texas. But she did not have the curves of this girl, his employee, Estelle. No way.
So they became engaged. Estelle's teacher-father would not hear of her leaving high school. Harvey agreed, so they waited. She had one year to go to graduate. They waited for the legal paperwork but not much else. Estelle was a passionate young woman, with surging hormones, and the nights in Corpus are, as I mentioned before, sultry. She spent every hour not in school with her new fiancé. And when she was with her fiancé, for whatever reason her shirt flew off.