ALL MY HEROES DIED BROKE, BROKEN, NOT BEATEN
Column by Douglas Herman.
Recently I reread a book that impressed me nearly forty years ago. I wondered if the book, Alexander Dolgun's story: An American in the Gulag, still possessed the same power I felt then. Here was a fellow, a low-level embassy employee in Stalinist Moscow, arrested, tortured and tossed into a slave labor camp for no crime whatsoever. He wrote his book years after his release, sometime after Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote his masterworks, during the 1970s. A survivor in the truest sense of the word, Dolgun noticed graffiti scratched into the prison wall in his first traumatic days.
“Who enters here, do not lose hope,
Who leaves; do not rejoice –
Who has not been, shall be here yet,
Who has been here, shall never forget”
We like to think of ourselves as free men and women, but the reality says otherwise. We live in Uber-1984. We live in a facsimile free world, where none are so hopelessly enslaved, as Goethe observed, as those who falsely believe they are free.
Eric Blair, another hero of mine who died near broke, broken, but not beaten--we know him as George Orwell in our own Orwellian world of today--invented a fictional Alexander Dolgun in Winston Smith. I know it sounds strange, but I see some Winston Smiths in TSA, as they herd the proles through the cancer wards at every airport. Winston Smiths populate all branches of law enforcement, intelligence agencies, even the Pentagon. Indeed they may be, even now, quietly keeping this whole sordid enterprise from a Stalinist horror as described by Dolgun, by their quiet acts of resistance.
Yes, we are all only a few more signing statements, or imperial decrees, away from a totalitarian state. But heroes you never met before, who died broke, broken but not beaten, have resisted in small ways and large. Imagine if we, like James Joyce, could say: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use -- silence, exile, and cunning.”
I read those words in a book called Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. I read the book about the same time I was discharged from the military. About the same time I discovered that Serene Outlaw: Henry David Thoreau.
Those words by James Joyce recalled Muhammad Ali’s words about refusing the draft: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.” Sometimes you wonder why more people, average people who have a helluva lot less to sacrifice than the Ali did then, can’t say the same. No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs…and I will not serve that in which I will no longer believe.
Not sure whether Ali was more of a hero or a cult figure to me. As an artist I painted a lot of my heroes: Thoreau, Van Gogh and Roberto Clemente. I called his portrait, “Heroes Wear Many Hats.” After the 1972 season, Clemente, fading in his career as a Pittsburgh Pirate baseball player, organized planeloads of supplies for earthquake-ravaged Nicaraguans. Meanwhile America was too busy making war in 1972, much like we were in 2005 when New Orleans was ravaged. Now how many celebrities do you know today, or so-called world leaders, who would have gotten onto an overloaded airplane, like Clemente, to personally fly supplies to poor people they never met? Santorum? Soros? Limbaugh? Trump? Give me a f**king break.
Clemente began arranging emergency relief flights, but soon learned that corrupt officials of the Somoza regime had stolen most of the aid packages on the first three flights. The supplies never reached the poorest victims of the quake. So Clemente did what heroes do. He decided to accompany the fourth relief flight to the survivors, confident his presence would get most of the supplies through to the neediest. Clemente chartered an old DC-7 with a history of mechanical problems and jammed more than two tons of supplies over the safe load limit.
The overloaded plane struggled to climb from the Puerto Rico airfield but crashed into the water instead on New Year’s Eve, 1972. Clemente's body was never recovered. Heroes wear many hats; some die broken and others disappear completely but grow larger in our memory.
Some heroes simply run away, refusing to serve the State for whatever reason. I visited Sam Clemens’ old gold mining camp recently. I rode ten miles over a dirt track on my mountain bike to Aurora Nevada to see where it all began for America’s first great novelist, Mark Twain. Call him a coward if you like, or the smartest man of his age, but he ran away from the Civil War. “All war must be just the killing of strangers against whom you feel no personal animosity; strangers whom, in other circumstances, you would help if you found them in trouble, and who would help you if you needed it.” Sam probably pondered that philosophy while the Civil War raged, as he turned shovels full of dirt, hoping for pay dirt.
For all his fame, Sam died broken, having lost the three most precious people in his life before he died: brother, daughter and wife.
As a writer of small stature, I follow closely the fate of other writers who chose to swim against the current. Writers like Gary Webb and James Hatfield. They tilted at windmills, pissed off the powers-that-be, and went to an early, undeserved grave. By contrast, who can admire those popular pundits of the main scheme media who pimp for war, the Max Boots, Charles Krauthammers, scribbling lines while blood flows? Literally gallons of blood flow with every line they write, lobbying for another war. How heroic.
You can watch one hero speak truth to power. Before he died in a suspicious manner, Danny Jowenko said WTC-7 was a controlled demolition, no if, ands or buts. See for yourself and you decide if his remarks are credible. Danny stuck to his professional opinion when offered the Galilean option to recant. But like a hero, Danny declined the easy way out. Not long after, he died in one of those frequent one-car-crashes that whistleblowers often suffer.
The same can be said for Barry Jennings, who said he stepped over bodies in WTC-7, although the professional government flacks said no one died in that strange building collapse. Barry went on record and then he too died suddenly. Few remember his sidekick who recanted. Probably he enjoys a nice safe, well-paying government sinecure.
If you want to see heroes, search firefighter videos of that morning. Watch the young guys gearing up, ready to go into the buildings. How many came out? I’m a certified firefighter and I would have been sucking pure oxygen even before I took the first step forward, bodies lying on the pavement and hysteria in the air. Almost worse are those who live, struggle to live, breathe, with survivor’s guilt and lungs full of toxins.
But bravo for working-class hero William Rodriguez, the last man out of the twin towers. William was invited to the White House and met Bush, and shook his hand. But surrounded by celebs and ceremony, Will Rod never succumbed to powerful persuasion, never changed his story and now draws huge crowds overseas, where an imminent collapse of the economy may make the towers look small by comparison. They are connected, by the way, the collapse of the economy simply the karmic dust settling from the controlled demolition of an epic, unsolved crime scene.
You will notice, perhaps, that the faces of almost every truth teller is handsome, vibrant, attractive, like whistleblowers Sybil Edmonds, Danny Jowenko or William Rodriguez, while the sociopathic liars like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Bush and the Clintons become increasingly twisted due to deceit.
There are thousands of heroes in my mental list, the “great-souled” people Solzhenitsyn and Alexander Dolgun mention in their cautionary yet inspiring books. Like William, like Dolgun, we do not sidestep the fight when we witness that others, who have served us as courageous examples, have fallen.