It’s 1962 and Morris Krieger’s dire warning is ringing in my ears.
“World War III is coming.”
I’m taking my Army physical with several hundred other kids in Selective Service Headquarters off Wall Street in downtown Manhattan. A red faced Sergeant, crewcut bristling, hash marks covering his khaki sleeve, sharply creased blue trousers with a red stripe strides along our line, shouting:
“Strip to your shorts and shoes. Guard your belongings. If you lose your pants you will go home to your mothers bareass naked…”
Krieger, the last anarchist orator of Union Square, greeted JFK’s election with a prediction:
“Camelot will have its war…”
I kept myself awake all night smoking Gauloises to increase my heart rate; chugging Coke to turn my urine brown. Now I’m lightheaded. I stumble into the kid in front of me. He turns with a snarl: “What the fuck’s the matter with you?”
After the Bay of Pigs, Krieger became more strident.
“No one will remember the poor fools left to die on the beach…Millions more will be led to their death…”
I’ve been in high school locker rooms, but have never seen such a grotesque profusion of male flesh. Fat and woebegone, buff and arrogant, slight and timid…Red pustules on white flab, acne clusters, pimples, sores, weird Rorschach bruises. Gray jockeys, bulky boxers with stripes and flowers. The undersized sneak covert looks. The muscled strut and sneer…I try to place myself along this continuum. I am tall, but slouched and narrow-shouldered. I always made the team, but was never a star. I can do sit ups and push ups, but strain at pullups and chins. I’ve fought to defend myself, but have never attacked anyone in anger…
The Russians move their missiles out of Cuba. Krieger scoffs at claims of victory.
“Russians don’t blink. They merely look for another battlefield.“
They give us a form to fill out.
“Print clearly,” an older man in a doctor’s white coat says in a German accent. “If we can’t read it you’ll do it again.”
I curse my good health. There’s an endless column of diseases, but I’ve never had one.
The mental disorders are more promising. Bed-wetting, problems in school, visits to a psychiatrist, arrests, convictions, feelings of persecution, sudden eruptions of rage, homosexual attraction…
I’ve been advised I’ll arouse suspicion if I check them all. Just pick one aberration I can defend.
I check “use alcohol and illegal drugs…”
” Word War II was just a sideshow,” Krieger says. “The Tsar and the Robber Baron tried so hard to get Adolph on their side. Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, Mosley, Chamberlain, Joe Kennedy, JFK’s dad. If only he wouldn’t be so stubborn about the Jews. Even Uncle Joe Stalin wanted to make a deal. From one mass murderer to another. You keep your camps I’ll keep mine. But Adolph wouldn’t share. So they formed an uneasy alliance to silence his Wagnerian oompah band. And when it was over they couldn’t wait to return to the eternal debate on what is the best way to control a subject population–Communist regimentation or Capitalist exploitation…”
We form a single line and shuffle into a large room, the size of a gymnasium where doctors in white coats are waiting. They are elderly, probably retired, and bored. Stethoscopes are pressed to our chests. “Deep breath…Breathe out.” Lights are shined in our eyes, noses and ears…A tongue depressor is thrust so deep in our mouths we gag. “Say Ahhh…”
Some kids are taken out of the line and sent to smaller examination rooms. They’re the lucky ones, but they walk with heads down as if they’ve been found wanting.
A doctor with a hammer gestures impatiently to a chair. “Well, sit down…” He taps our knees lightly. The kid ahead of me shudders and his knee shoots up. Mine hardly moves. “You waiting for the second feature?” he snaps. “Get up.”
Krieger spots me carrying Camus and Hesse.
“Alienation and mysticism,” he thunders. “The cheap thrills of the bourgeois state. Meant to distract the intelligentsia from its oppression.”
It’s pointless to explain that I use the books to start conversations with girls in coffee shops.
“Drop your drawers,” a doctor shouts. A kid walks up to him. He thrusts his hand under his right testicle and orders:
Then moves the left.
And does this a hundred times.
At the end of the room a doctor commands:
“Lean over and press the wall with both hands. Now reach back and spread the cheeks of your ass…Spread ‘em!”
He walks up and down the line looking up every one’s ass.
“Did he lose somethin’?” some kid whispers and we all get hysterical laughing.
We walk into a room with rusty sinks, faucets sputtering, along all four walls. A man in a white coat hands out plastic vials.
“Piss in the vial and bring it to the desk,” he orders.
Another moment of truth as we check out the line of pissing penises. Dark ropes, purple veined monstrosities, fragile pink wands; it’s amazing that they are all the same organ. I am abashed by the larger ones, but not encouraged by the smaller.
After all that Coke my urine rust brown.
The man at the desk hands me a tiny dipstick.
“Stick it in your specimen,” he says. “Show it to me.” He hardly looks. “Dump it in the sink…”
We’re done. Our journey through the rooms has taken us back to the entry hall. A man in a white shirt covered with medals checks my form. Suddenly, I am sorry that I checked off drug use.
“Down the hall to the left,” he says.
A line of kids is waiting outside four offices. We hear snatches of conversation.
“How many times a week?”
“Was there a police report?”
“Don’t give me the letter. Send it to the Draft Board.”
I am steered into an office. An old man with two brown moles, each sprouting a hair, on his bald head looks down at my form.
“Drugs?” he asks.
” Heroin? Opium? Hashish?”
“Marijuana,” I say.
He writes in a blank space on my form.
“Sweet wine, dry wine? Beaujolais, Chablis?”
“Italian Swiss Colony,” I say. “Whiskey, too?”
“Rye, vodka, gin…?”
“Scotch,” I blurt.
I panic. Try to remember the weird-shaped bottle in the sideboard that my father sneaks shots out of while my mother is in the kitchen.
“Haig and Haig…”
He looks up with a smile. “Haig and Haig. Can’t afford that on a private’s salary…”
JFK is sending 16 thousand “advisors” to help the South Vietnamese repel the Communist invaders from the north.
“The Tsar cannot take his army away from oppressing his own people,” Krieger says. “He will use the Vietnamese as proxies. The Robber Baron will send his own young men to keep them from making trouble in the Civil Rights movement and Organized Labor…”
Krieger’s wife comes to keep him company. A wiry old lady with sun-leathered skin, she knits while he rants. Unwraps salami sandwiches and pours coffee from a thermos.
“Were you in the Army?” I ask.
“It was important to defeat the Nazis,” he says. “But I did not support the oppressive military system…”
“He was a good soldier,” his wife says, placidly knitting.
Krieger twitches in irritation.
“I was not,” he says.
Three weeks later I get a letter from the Selective Service System. I have been classified “1Y”, which means I am deferred for a year.
It’s what I wanted. Still, I feel rejected and vaguely ashamed.
NEXT: A VERY SHORT REPRIEVE
Tag Archive for 'capitalism'
NORTH HOLLYWOOD, Ca, March 5…At the age of 102, blacklisted screenwriter Art Ostrovsky says he is witnessing something he never thought he would live to see–the overthrow of Capitalism.
His rheumy eyes brighten, his crabbed fingers tremble around a glass of vodka. “I waited 80 years for the Revolution to come to America,” he says. “Now I can feel it in the wind…”
In this rundown garden apartment complex off Magnolia Boulevard in North Hollywood, Ostrovsky is a puzzle to his neighbors, mostly new arrivals from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. They call him “el viejito” in humorous reference to a popular brand of Tequila and know him as the skeletal old man teetering on his walker in a daily promenade around the courtyard, with a stoic West Indian home care worker in attendance. They occasionally look in on him in the cluttered apartment where along with floating dust devils, spider webs and the resident mouse scurrying in the crawl space he has lived for sixty-two years, among fading photos of the authors, politicians, actors and directors he knew in the “Movement.”
Ostrovsky is convinced that the economic crisis and the new administration of President Obama provide an opportunity to change the world. He urges his neighbors to participate in “bourgeois” politics. “Marx said that capital is reckless to the health and length of life of the laborer unless under compulsion from society,” he says. “I warn them not to let the bosses pit them against each other the way the studios did to us.” He fishes a bent Marlboro out of a crumpled box…”The old ones smile behind their hands, but the young ones hear me. They will carry the torch.”
Ostrovsky may be the last surviving founder of the Screenwriter’s Guild. No one knows…
“In the movie business sentiment is reserved for the successful,” he says. “Lawson, Cole and Ornitz were the stars because they wrote the major features. I was just a laborer in the vineyards. I licked the envelopes and ran the mimeograph…”
Blacklisted in 1953 for his refusal to testify about his Communist affiliations he has stayed faithful to the Marxist view of history.
“Marx predicted that the capitalists would be the agents of their own destruction,” he says with a triumphant gleam. “Now the financiers are pleading for the nationalization of the banks and major industries as the only way to save their personal wealth. The parasite is begging the host to keep it alive.”
Born in Harlem in New York City in 1907, Ostrovsky was raised in an orthodox Communist family. His father was a founder of the Fur and Leather Worker’s Union. His mother was a leader of a historic 1909 strike against the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, which won union representation for seamstresses.
“When I was nine years old a little boy named Serge was brought home to play with me,” Ostrovsky says. “He was very serious and said his father was going to make a big revolution in Russia and chase out the Czar. I laughed at him, but my mother pulled my ear until I cried and said his father was Trotsky, a great man..
“That serious little boy became an engineer and returned to help rebuild Russia,” Ostrovsky says. “He was arrested and shot during Stalin’s purges of the ’30′s.”
On September 16, 1920, a horse cart loaded with 100 pounds of dynamite and 500 pounds of cast-iron slugs exploded across from the J.P. Morgan headquarters on Wall St., killing 30.
In the crackdown on Communists and Anarchists that followed Ostrovsky’s parents were deported to Russia and he was sent to live with an aunt in Coney Island.
“My parents became political commissars in charge of collecting grain from collective farms,” Ostrovsky says. “During the Great Famine of the 1933, they were killed by a mob of starving Ukrainians.”
Ostrovsky grew up to become a loyal member of the Communist Party.
“We believed in the words of Nicola Sacco that every human life is connected to every other life through threads that you cannot see,” he said. “We fought for the rights of the workers against the bosses and their gangster goons,” he said. “For the martyrs who were framed by the corrupt judicial servants of the exploiters.”
In 1931, Ostrovsky rode the rails to Scottsboro, Alabama to support the defense of a group of black teenagers who were accused of gang raping two white women.
“When everyone else abandoned them the Communist party came to their defense,” Ostrovsky says.
During the 1932 presidential campaign he traveled to Los Angeles with the Communist candidate William Z. Foster. They were arrested on charges of “criminal syndicalism.”
“I tell the young people that Obama is not the first black man to run in a presidential election,” he says. “In 1932, the Communist Party nominated James W. Ford for as Foster’s running mate. The Party came in fourth with 102,000 votes that year.”
When they were released, Ostrovsky was instructed by cultural Commissar V.J. Jerome to stay in Hollywood. “Movies were seen as a tremendous vehicle for propaganda,” he says. ” A comrade got me a job writing comedy shorts for Vitagraph. My job was to try to portray the class struggle, the nobility of the workers and the essential shallowness of the bourgeoisie.”
Ostrovsky remembers the short unit as the purest expression of collective unity.
“Writers, actors, directors, technicians all worked together in solidarity,” he says. “We were the proletarians of the studio system and were united against a common enemy–the bosses.”
His proudest achievement was a short in which a young Glenda Farrell, playing a shopgirl, is promised a promotion by her lecherous boss, Guy Kibbee, but fights him off and returns to her poor but honest carpenter boyfriend, Dick Foran.
“We were positive that the Depression would raise the collective consciousness of the working class and lead to world revolution,” Ostrovsky says. “But FDR and his band of left meliorists kept the people in check.”
The Party viewed the Spanish Civil War as a proxy battle between the Soviet Union and the Fascist powers.. Ostrovsky was working on a serial in which the hero had to capture a dangerous secret weapon. The Cultural Commissar instructed him to make all his villains Germans or Italians. But Warner Brothers wanted to sell movies abroad and was loath to offend such good customers.
“We compromised and made our villains American neo-fascist plutocrats,” Ostrovsky says. “My bad guys were modeled on Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller. Our subliminal message reached millions of kids in Saturday matinees…”
During the war he worked in an Army Air Corps film unit commanded by Lieutenant Ronald Reagan. “We made morale boosting films for the troops,” he says. “I managed to slip in some pro-Soviet messages…Ronnie never caught on.”
After the war Ostrovsky says “the bourgeois democracies were confronted by the sudden emergence of the Revolution, spreading from Eastern Europe and Asia toward the West.”
“The reaction set in,” Osotrovsky says. “Communists were demonized. At the same time a suffocating blanket of prosperous conformity settled over the land.”
Ostrovsky refused to testify against his comrades and was blacklisted. “The famous writers, the Hollywood Ten, all worked under pseudonyms,” he says. “But the B-writers were finished.”
In the late ’50′s he was given a few pseudonymous scripts on the TV series Robin Hood. “I enjoyed writing stories about a defender of the oppressed. But the series didn’t last.”
After that, Ostrovsky never worked again. His fourth wife supported him with her earnings as an official of the Los Angeles teacher’s union. Now he lives on her small pension and Social Security. He admits he despaired of ever seeing the Revolution. “In the ’60′s they stifled collective action with drugs and false philosophies of self-realization,” he says. “For the last twenty years they deadened the oppressed with easy credit. Now it’s over.” He turns with grim satisfaction to the photos of Paul Robeson, Jules Dassin, Dalton Trumbo, Zero Mostel and The Weavers. “Our time has come..”
After a restorative gulp of vodka Ostrovsky grips his walker and pushes open his screen door. In the courtyard some kids are kicking around a soccer ball. Closing his eyes and harking back to a time when he addressed public meetings Ostrovsky calls to them with sudden strength.
“You must grab the moment,” he shouts. “Capital has exhausted the consumer market it created. In a last gasp it commodified itself. It created a world wide market in which capital was the only product. But now the house of cards has collapsed. Capital is like an animal, gnawing at its limbs to extricate itself from a trap that it set for others…
“Obama’s humane democracy will change the economic relations between people. It will open the door for a socialism of equality and eventually for a classless society….”
Steadying himself with one hand, Ostrovsky raises his fist.
“I believe in the ultimate victory of the Fourth International,” he cries
The kids stop their game and applaud.
“Bravo Art,” they shout. “Ole…”
GREENPOINT, Bklyn, Nov.7…Toasts and cheers resounded at Golubchik’s tavern last night as Obama euphoria kept the party floating two days after the historic election.
“To change,” people shouted, raising their glasses.
This was too much for Ivan Yopsvoyomatsky, recent immigrant from Pinsk and senior scholar at the Greezhnizihd Think Tank.
Rising quickly from a stool he had occupied for two days, blood rushing to an unfamiliar location–his head–he faced the crowd with fine Slavic disdain.
“You pathetic puppets of Capitalism,” he sputtered. “Peace is when the ruling class has its foot on your neck and its hand in your pocket. Twenty-eight years with Reagan, Bush the Father, your precious Clinton and Bush, the Simple Son was peace…The Russians got rich, the Chinese richer with American corporate help and against the interests of American workers and consumers…Now that Obama has been elected get ready for total war.”
A waitress pushed a plate of piroshki across the bar. “Eat something Ivan…”
Yopsvoyomatsky sent it flying. “I haven’t finished my salad yet,” he said, dipping a cucumber in a glass of Popov vodka.
There was muttering in the cowed crowd. Finally, they pushed a young blonde in Uggies and a tight leather skirt forward for a timid challenge.
“But the world has welcomed Obama,” she said, cringing.
Yopsvoyomatsky leered and beckoned. “My dear you are victim of noble blowjob… I mean global snowjob. World leaders are quaking in their boots…”
“Bloggers in China went crazy,” someone hollered from in back. “One guy said this proved that America was a great Democracy and China was a one party oppressive dictatorship.”
“Doorak,” Yopsvoyomasky boomed. “How do you think Hu Jintao felt when he read that? With China wheezing from pollution, puking from poisoned food, factories closing from financial crisis, people oppressed from internet crackdown, does he need proof that America is closest thing to real proletarian power?” He stroked the blonde under her chin. “I promise you, dooshenkya in party meetings they are talking about one thing only: how can we defeat this upstart Obama?
“But they are a great economic power, aren’t they?” the blonde asked, gaining confidence.
Yopsvoyomatsky smiled indulgently. “From slave labor, my dear. They make your underwear cheaper. Later we will see if your panties were made in Guangdong. But now you must understand that when Obama calls for tougher environmental and labor regulations they see their costs going up and their competitiveness coming down. When he promises to award tax breaks to companies that keep jobs in the US they say the dirty word: protectionism. They know that US market powers their economies. Without help from Bush and American financial interests to keep their yen low and their labor costs lower they will go broke…”
” Obama restored the American image in Europe,” a young man with a German accent said.
“You mean old, decadent, zero population growth Europe?” Yopsvoyomatsky sneered. “How many black faces in English House of Commons? Mostly flushed, overfed, flatulent whites enjoying their squeals of indignation while country’s business is done by MI6…French don’t allow headscarves in public schools…Turks are second-class citizens in Germany, even after three generations in residence. Do you think they want mixed race underclass to embrace electoral politics…?”
Several people finished their drinks and slipped out onto the rainy streets.
“Bush brought us to the brink with Russia,” a voice piped up. “They must be happy to see Obama…”
“Melancholic is closest Russians come to happy,” Yopsvoyomatsky said. “Russians follow Stalinist doctrine of probe with bayonet. Medvedev, latest in long line of metrically challenged rulers, climbs up on two Moscow phone books so he can see over lectern and makes hollow threat to put Iskander missiles in Kalingrad to counter US missile defense. Iskanders have range of 175 miles when they are working. They might land in a barnyard in Poland and kill a few chickens…”
“Russia must be dealt with,” a pale man young man said in a quavering voice said and ducked behind a pillar as Yopsvoyomatsky loomed over him.
“Russia is a gas station with a broken pump,” he roared. “A tavern with drunks snoring through frozen snot. Their market has lost 50% in value. The oligarchs, who grease their corrupt machine are broke. They have to kill a journalist a week just to stay in power…”
Sighing heavily, more people shrugged into their coats and left.
“Obama will bring peace to the Middle East,” a swarthy young man shouted angrily.
“Peace can only be made by people who are fighting each other,” Yopsvoyomatsky countered.
“People in the Middle-East have great hope for Obama.”
“Not Iranian daily Jamhou-ye Eslami,” Yopsvoyomatsky said. “They say: The most that black man can do is replace staff and change ceremony…He will never change capitalist, Zionist, racist structure of American regime.
Saudi daily Al Wotan says: There is no difference between McCain and Obama. Both mean to achieve America’s chief goal which is to rule for a hundred years…”
“But Bush favored Israel and that got us nowhere.”
“Nowhere is obviously where they want to be,” Yopsvoyomatsky said. “Jordan and Egypt do not want Palestinian theocracy funded by Iran on their borders. Lebanese do not want more power to Hezbollah allies. Anyway, Obama will be busy with economic crisis. Israelis and Palestinians will have to sit on back burner for years. They might do something sensational like a war of a terror attack to refocus the world’s attention…”
Most of the revelers had slunk away, leaving a few brooding in their cups. One man paused at the door.
“So there is no hope,” he said
“When does hope last more than a day?” Yopsvoyomatsky said. “The power of the status quo will be arrayed against Obama…Maybe he will prevail…”
He looked around the empty room with satisfaction. “Looks like the party is over,” he said to the blonde. “Want a cucumber?”