Tuesday, January 22, 2019

About that southern border

We lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico for nine years, not far from the Mexican border. Go into many commercial establishments and you'll find people who speak both Spanish and English, sometimes switching back and forth between the languages in the same sentence. The kid at the McDonald's counter takes one look at you and knows to greet you in English, then greets the next customer in Spanish. Signs in storefronts read "Se habla español." Hungry folks who visit Delicias around noontime will find the restaurant packed with Spanish- and English-speaking workers sitting at brightly colored tables and chairs. A few years ago, a mariachi band occasionally came in and serenaded the customers. Perhaps they still do.

Many laborers make a daily round trip from Ciudad Juárez to do much of the work Americans want done but won't do themselves. A landscaping crew might have one man who speaks sufficient English to talk to the customer. They work in the hot sun, wearing long sleeves, jeans and boots, hats with a cloth in the back to cover their necks. Offer them agua, and they gratefully respond with sí, gracias and a smile. At least in the moment that's enough Spanish for a gringo to know. Of course, many Mexicans work here for a time before recrossing the border to home and family. Some live on this side of the border.

In El Paso, a woman told me she is from Mexico and is annoyed when her compatriots come to the U.S. and do not speak English when they're here. On that side of the border, you speak Spanish. On this side, English. I told her New Mexico has two official languages, English and Spanish. She didn't like that. Me, I don't mind at all.

The border, la frontera, is artificial anyway. A huge swath of the Southwest was occupied by nomadic Indian tribes, colonized by Spain, and became Mexico. Then the United States took a lot, bought some, and drew a line.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Revisiting Frankenstein

Not long ago, a TV ad for The Frankenstein Chronicles prompted me to download Mary Shelley's 1818 classic, Frankenstein, and read it on my iPad. We all know the story, or some version of it. Doctor Frankenstein builds a creature in his laboratory, and it turns out to be a monster that goes on killing rampages.

What an imagination Shelley had! Victor Frankenstein has an idyllic childhood in Switzerland--perfect parents, no misfortunes, and a lovely cousin and playmate named Elizabeth who is expected one day to be his perfect bride.

As an adult, the highly intelligent and happy scientist Doctor Frankenstein labors in his lab to create a man. But why, when he could marry Elizabeth and create fellow humans in the easy, traditional way? He wants to advance the well-being of the human race. Of course, he discovers too late that his handiwork is hideous. How it's possible for the good Doctor to be so clueless must simply be put down to literary license.

The misfortunes that follow aren't the monster's fault. He wants love and acceptance, yet his creator hates and rejects him, purely on his looks. At night he gathers firewood as a favor to the local cottage dwellers, hoping that they will appreciate him when he finally shows his face. But when the townsfolk see him, they run away in terror. The only person not to fear him is a blind man. Only after being roundly abused does the monster despair and begin his path of destruction and vengeance.

Shelley accomplishes a lot without describing the monster in detail, though we do know he is eight feet tall. The terror comes from people's reactions. Artists' renditions often depict him with a bolt through his neck, but that didn't come from the story.

The prose is florid, overblown and awash in emotion, but it's 18th-century fiction. I love how no matter where Dr. Frankenstein goes to find peace, his monster shows up.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018


A real event with fictional details.


The man sat next to me in the maternity ward, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world. He was burly, with calloused hands, oil-stained jeans, flannel shirt and a Patriots cap, and I pegged him for an auto mechanic interrupted in the middle of an oil change. After a while, he hailed a passing nurse.

He asked, “Why is my wife taking so long? She’s done this six times already.”

“The baby will be born when it’s ready, Mister Stanley. Please have a seat. We’ll let you know as soon as there’s news.”

“It’s gotta be a boy this time, right? I’m goddamn sick of her having girls.”

“Sir, please sit down and relax. She won’t be much longer.” The nurse walked away, and he returned to his chair.

I was nervous too. Yesterday I’d held my wife’s hand as she lay on a gurney and screamed bloody murder. She had been in labor for over 24 hours, going on forever.

“It’s our first,” I told the man. “We’ve waited eight years.”

“Our seventh,” he said. “Six girls! She goddamn well better give me a boy this time.”

“It’s the father who – ” I stopped myself.

He let out an exasperated sigh. “I’m surrounded by them at home! Everything’s dolls and pink ribbons. There’s nobody for me to play ball with, nobody to teach about being a man. God, I want a son. Don’t you want a son?”

“I just want a healthy baby.” I yawned and looked at my watch. “And for this to be over with.”

“I’ll name him Arthur Stanley, Junior.”

Time stretched out like taffy. An eon later, someone paged me on the loudspeaker. I hurried down the hallway, where a doctor handed me a clipboard and said something like “your wife can’t give a vaginal birth and she and the baby will die if she doesn’t have an immediate Caesarean section and it requires your approval and you have no choice so sign here NOW.”

So I did. And my exhausted brain fought my fears to make room for – for a family.

A nurse approached Arthur Stanley. “Your wife had a beautiful, healthy girl,” she said. Stanley flung his hat against the wall and stomped away.

A few minutes later, she beckoned me. “Your wife is resting and your son is beautiful,” she said. “Want to see him?”

I did.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Six Million Stamps

Six Million Stamps

By Bob Sanchez

The stamp shows off its ochre engraving under the magnifying glass. Three black lines slash the Austrian prince: canceled, dead. In 1856, someone had paid a kreuzer for it—maybe for a wife’s letter to her husband, wishing him godspeed for safe return from war with the Prussians. Light sinks into the stamp’s surface, only a dull glory reflecting from it, harkening to dusty battalions of conscripts long since in their graves.

Did the woman ever see him again? I cry for her. A voice tells me that no one ever came to her village to express condolence, only to claim her sons of fighting age.

Portraits with perforated edges lie in a jumble on my desk: Tamerlane, Frederick, Ceausescu. Downstairs a door slams, and Thomas stomps up to the attic. He doesn’t bother to brush the snow from his scarf; he never stays. Heat rises from downstairs and passes through the rafters, barely enough to melt the frost in my son’s voice. But that truly does not matter, as a visit from Thomas means mail, and more friends.

Thomas drops the manila envelope on my desk and sends a flurry of stamps flying. A million-mark Hitler overprint lands face up in front of me. “You’re obsessed, Father,” he says, which merits no reply. He turns a chair around and straddles it, staring at me. “Well? Open it!” he says. Eagerly I pry open the clasp and dump out the contents.

Hitler is my favorite. It’s a crazy thought, but I wish I could have six million stamps with his picture. As it is, I’ve owned over five thousand of them, and he and I always have the same conversation. I hold the border of each stamp with a pair of tweezers. Under the magnifying glass, the whorls on my fingertips look like those of a giant. That is how I feel: the strongest man in the world, the acme of the human race. Even Hitler averts his eyes.

“There is nothing to fear,” I tell him. “A shower. A simple de-lousing.”

I dip der Führer into the solution in the glass dish. His face contorts in terror and pain. Over the rage of the wind outside, over the rage of my pounding heart, I hear his screams as droplet by droplet the ink lifts from the stamp.

Monday, November 14, 2016

I've been thinking

I've been thinking:

  • Donald Trump has not improved with experience, nor does he intend to.
  • Colin Kaepernick should kneel if he wants to.
  • Freedom to stand for the National Anthem also means freedom not to stand for it, or it's not freedom.
  • I've been told I'm useless, a liar, and a hypocrite only once this year.
  • We are so lucky to have missed Hurricane Irma's worst.
  • Jim Comey's statements hurt Hillary Clinton, but her private server hurt her more.
  • I recently submitted my 200th book review to a firm that does not want to be identified.
  • I am still happily married to my best friend after 52 years.
  • Black lives matter.
  • The Internet Review of Books will be 10 years old on October 1, the same day I turn 74.
  • New Mexico is far more beautiful than Florida, but Florida has the vibrant community we need.
  • This winter we may visit Belize, the country of my father's birth.
  • Trump will be re-elected if the Democrats aren't careful.
  • Trump, Putin and Kim all deserve each other.
  • A few of us post the American flag in 90 neighbors' yards three times a year, and they love it.
  • Never, ever send me jokes that belittle President Obama.
  • I am not religious, but if you wish me merry Christmas or a blessed day, I will thank you and wish you the same.
  • Treat others the way you want to be treated.

So Donald Trump won

So Donald Trump is President-elect. For all the usual reasons, that is an election outcome I fervently hoped would not come to pass. During the campaign I didn't even want to mention his name, but I can't keep that up for four years.

Now protesters are exercising their right of free speech and assembly, but if their gatherings are mere expressions of hatred and bursts of vandalism, they will become isolated. Democrats should resist President Trump where he is wrong and support him where he is right. For the sake of national sanity, we must look for common ground. Trump has taken a number of conservative stands, but he seems not to have an ideology. And he touts his deal-making skills, offering hope that that he will not give the right everything they want. Yes, he will probably make them happy with his next Supreme Court pick, but justices are independent--for example, President Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren and later said it was the worst mistake he'd ever made. Whether a Trump appointee will one day overturn Roe v. Wade is a distinct possibility, and Democrats should fight hard to block such a person. But we shouldn't do what Mitch McConnell did, blocking any nominee no matter the qualifications.

By the way, my voting record hasn't been all that successful since my first vote for LBJ back in 1964: six wins and eight losses, which break down thus:

64 W     80 L     96 W     12 W
68 L      84 L     00 L       16 L
72 L      88 L     04 L
76 W     92 W   08 W

Friday, September 16, 2016

Tiger! Excerpted from the Vietnam memoir Just Like Sunday on the Farm

This great story is an excerpt from Bill Crawford's Vietnam memoir, Just Like Sunday on the Farm: Crawdaddy Remembers the Nam and After. (Kindle version available soon.)

By Spec. 4 Bill Crawford
Information Specialist
For the infantryman, a tour in the Republic of Vietnam means a year of mental and physical agony. The dangers and discomforts are real, but the devices of the human mind magnify the worst of them. Sometimes reality surpasses the horror that is manufactured by the human mind.
Spec. 4 Kurt Montanye was serving as a rifleman with the 4th Inf. Div. in the central highlands of Vietnam, in the vicinity of Landing Zone Penny. At dusk last Aug. 31, Montanye and three other infantrymen moved down a ridgeline leading from the LZ to the jungle floor of the valley which surrounds the base. The four-man element was to be one of several listening posts (LP) which were placed around LZ Penny.
The LP is one of the most dreaded tasks of the foot soldier in Vietnam. A small element – alone outside the safety of the defensive perimeter – with only a radio and the darkness. Enemy soldiers lurk in the murky jungle – the enemy or something worse!
“It was my turn to stand guard,” relates Montanye. “It must have been about 1 a.m. when I heard a faint sound behind me, and I whirled around.”
A tiger! Even in the darkness there was no doubt. The cat sprang forward and began to tear with his razor-sharp teeth at his arm. A scream pierced the stillness of the jungle. The beast began to drag him into the dense foliage.
“He dragged me almost 2,000 meters in all,” continued Montanye. “Then he dropped me and went to work on my head. I could feel my skull splinter as he ground away on it. I had been screaming for help since the tiger first grabbed hold of me.”
Spec. 4 Roger Ranker answered his comrade’s plea for help. “It took quite a guy to come rushing out into the jungle like that without knowing what was going on,” said Montanye.
Undated clipping from
The Armored Sentinel, Fort Hood, Texas
Ranker immediately fired his M16 into the air in an attempt to frighten the great cat away. The tiger ignored Ranker’s efforts, and it became apparent the tiger would have to be killed to save Montanye’s life.
Montanye was struggling violently for survival. Although weakened by the loss of blood, the young soldier was still battling to extract his head from the cat’s deadly jaws.
“Ranker did the only thing he could,” continued Montanye. “He stepped right into the middle of the fracas and placed the muzzle of his M16 against the tiger’s thrashing head. I heard his skull shatter with the first shot. The impact of the round nearly knocked me out!”
“The tiger only sank his fangs in deeper, but the second round finished him, and Ranker worked my head out from between his jaws.”
“I can remember screaming for a medevac chopper,” recalled Montanye. “It was only then that I lapsed into semi-consciousness.”
Enemy contact in an adjacent area had all available medevac helicopters tied up, so his buddies helped Montanye back up the ridgeline to the LZ. The bleeding man then finally went into shock as he was placed about a waiting helicopter.
Today, Montanye is assigned to Hq. and Hq. Co., 2nd Bn., 52nd Inf., 1st Armored Div. He joked lightly about his terrifying struggle against the jungle beast. “Everyone in the barracks calls me ‘Tiger Man’.”
The terrifying memories still linger, however. “I dream the cat is on top of me, and I wake up screaming and thrashing around in a cold sweat. The nightmares are getting less frequent now.”
Still present is the memory of the hospital following his jungle ordeal. “I was half-conscious, and I can remember the doctors talking about amputating my arm because it was so badly mangled. I told them I would rather have my own useless arm than the best artificial arm that could be made.”
Today Montanye’s right arm has all but recovered, and he staunchly defends his choice of a few months ago. He is unable to wear a steel helmet, however. “The helmet puts too much pressure on the old wound, and the pain is pretty bad,” declared the youth. Montanye has a scar which runs from ear to ear – across the top of his head – as a grim reminder of his jungle confrontation.

Montanye grins and jokes with the men in his barracks when they call him “Tiger Man.” The former infantryman faces life with a friendly smile and a sharp sense of humor. He readily tells a visitor that “I am lucky to be alive.”

Friday, August 19, 2016

The 18 Minute Rule Throws Jimmy Pro for a Loop in Gotham City

Photographer and Vietnam veteran Bill  Crawdaddy ” Crawford presents an excerpt from his upcoming memoir Just Like Sunday on the Farm: Crawdaddy Remembers the Nam and After.

The 18 Minute Rule Throws Jimmy Pro for a Loop in Gotham City
By Bill Crawford

Jimmy Pro hit the subway turnstile at full tilt. We stopped for an impromptu bathroom break on the way to Chelsea’s Milk Gallery. Draining your lizard is a priority at over 70, especially when you are jammed tightly in a car of a lurching train.

We thought that we could just slide in and out of the station long enough to find a restroom. We were hauling some serious ass to hear a presentation by the big time New Yorker photographer, Platon, who was delivering a serious rap about some of his recent work.

Jimmy and I meet up a couple of times a year to work on our emerging photographic technique, Forensic Foraging. It focuses on plodding, throwback techniques that are mostly now eschewed by younger, techno-driven shooters.

We thrive on photographing the mundane using simple techniques highlighted years ago by Kodak in their Brownie Hawkeye Camera Owner’s Manual. Our credo trumpets “straight out of the camera” with little computer manipulation.

Jimmy is seriously addicted to the New Yorker. He devours it weekly in his Sydney, North Beach haunts. As he swills his java, he especially venerates the tony writing and the 20-page features on contemporary issues. He gravitates immediately to Platon’s photographs which differ immensely from ours even as his often flirt with instant immortality.

Platon has a big rep in the New York photog world while we labor in near obscurity being only ex US Army photojournalists with a near 50-year friendship going. Platon’s stark images are so arresting that even hardened minimalists like us are drawn into his flame. We hoped to hear the great man in person if we could only speed through the rush hour underground to the famous Milk Gallery.

Negotiating the trains on the fly is a Gotham City survival skill of the first order. You have to pace yourself and not let multiple flights of stairs burn you out. Zig-zagging through the crowds is behavior usually restricted to water bugs. But the deft Metro Card swipe can make or break you. Getting through the turnstile on the first try is imperative. It requires soft hands and riveted concentration akin to that of an NFL wideout.

Jimmy, being an ex-Ivy League D-back, had the card swipe down to an art form. He raked his Metro Card through the slot in a single, smooth, steady movement. Then he rolled his thick body into the unlocked turnstile in a quick, flowing motion. I, on the other hand, often swiped my card only to encounter an immobile turnstile. My card swipe was herky-jerky and half-assed. I am from North Carolina, and big city finesse is way above my pay grade.

On this busy evening, the Platon lecture was at the top of our agenda. As writers, we were accustomed to rejection, but that night offered up full-force rejection. Jimmy unleashed his usual slick card swipe, but as he glided into his infamous turnstile roll things turned to shit in a hurry.

The silver gate was unyielding. Jimmy hit the barrier like the proverbial ton of bricks. His body went vertical in a flailing downward jackknife. His head went over the turnstile and straight down to the pavement. On their way up, his heels missed my nose by a hair, as I trailed him closely anticipating another snappy subway entry. People behind me accordianed into my rumpus as I ground to a dead halt.

Jimmy’s painful landing was caused by the MTA’s legendary 18 Minute Rule. Enterprising New Yorkers often passed their Metro Cards back over the turnstiles to give friends and family free rides. Moreover, professional hustlers bought multiple Metro Cards to constantly be able to sell rides at deep discounts. The fraudulent entrepreneurs cost the MTA millions.

Our bathroom break in Bryant Park outside of the 42nd St. Station set the 18 minute, no reentry rule in motion. Our Metro Cards were disabled and Jimmy hit the gate with a dead card paralyzed by the MTA bureaucracy. The blessed relief that we enjoyed as we emptied out in the public restroom was quickly eclipsed by Jimmy’s spectacular header as he rushed back to the platform.

A subway cop witnessed the melee that Jimmy caused at the gate. Nobody else was hurt, although several commuters behind me sprawled out on the pavement. The officer offered to call an ambulance, but Jimmy demurred as somebody handed him a cup with ice to press against his throbbing forehead. A street musician muttered something about the “damned 18 minute rule,” and we looked at each other in stunned amazement. By now, more than 18 minutes had passed, and our thoughts somehow turned back to Platon.

Jimmy was still very shaky, but we got on the train and we finally made our way to Chelsea. We eased into the crowded Milk Gallery, and we found Platon holding forth before a throng of photography devotees. We were pretty late, and he was winding down by chronicling the background about his “Service” exhibition which was showing there now.
All of the images are quite well known. They offer stark insights into the aftermath of the Iraq War. One of the most famous pics shows a grieving mother draped around her son’s tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery. He was an Islamic American GI killed in combat. The Quran and other Muslim artifacts are visible at the gravesite.

Platon vividly described his meeting with the mother to discuss his planned shot. In his clipped English accent, he related the poignant story of how the dead soldier’s personal effects had arrived at the family home in a prim box. The mother eventually opened it to find that her dead son’s clothing had been washed and neatly folded. Her most fervent wish to smell his body scent one last time was dashed by blind military efficiency. People in the Gallery openly wept at the pathos of this revelation.
I was shell-shocked by Platon’s story and our earlier subway drama. As I reeled, Jimmy moaned and swayed precariously. He was obviously concussed and in need of medical attention. Moreover, Platon’s anecdote triggered my memory to retreat back to a dreaded place.

It was December 1968, and my infantry unit was pinned down in Antenna Valley south of Da Nang by crack North Vietnamese regulars. I hadn’t flashed back in years, but Platon’s chilling images and tender commentary proved to be a catalyst deep in my cerebral core.

I spent every moment in the Army up to that long ago day with a young carpenter from Cincinnati, Mike Bach. We were drafted together at Fort Bragg, and we stayed in the same training units all the way to Alpha Company, the Nam, and combat. We then were placed in different platoons of the same rifle company. He was tall and strong, so he landed a job humping the field radio for his platoon leader. The long radio antenna made RTOs (radio telephone operators) inviting targets for enemy snipers. Mike took a lethal round that day as we walked headlong into an NVA unit on the move off of Nui Chom Mountain.

I later visited the Vietnam Memorial in DC to pay my respects to the dead carpenter. When he died, I penned a heartfelt description of the printable details of his death to mail to his family. Now, the Islamic mother’s gut-wrenching lament for her dead son’s body scent triggered long suppressed torment deep inside of me.

I could picture Mike’s young, smiling face vividly, but I could not remember a single iota about his voice. No audio replayed in my mind. Once again, the Jungle War engulfed me when I least expected it.

Jimmy was concussed, and I lapsed into a disbelieving funk. For us, things screeched to a halt. I headed to the hospital with my head down to hide my tear-stained cheeks.
Jimmy finally got checked out, and I eventually drank a couple of beers in search of sleep. The next day we gingerly continued shooting the city utilizing our throwback technique, Forensic Foraging. We captured every scene along the way in a funky, minimalist style. Maybe some photography mag might profile us before we hang it up? The odds are against anachronisms like us. Photo mags aim their advertising to young techno-driven photogs. Not much chance they will give us any play.

We hope to shoot again together soon. Jimmy always carefully lays out sensational venues for us to forage. I don’t yet know where we will wind up, but the odds are extremely high that we won’t see many shiny turnstiles.

I may well sleep again in Jimmy’s favorite road haunt, the Motel 6. We might even experience escapades that will surpass the drama of the subway and the Milk Gallery. But if I awake with a start in the wee hours of the night, I hope to hear a missing voice from the Jungle War. The familiar video in my old, fading mind could really use a final audio track. Then maybe I could say a proper goodbye to a young carpenter I knew long ago.

William C. Crawford is a writer and photographer living in Winston Salem, North Carolina. He was a grunt and later a combat photojournalist in Vietnam. Jim Provencher is a teacher, poet, and lensman in Sydney, Australia. They met at Fort Hood, Texas in 1970 where they were Army photojournalists.