Thursday, March 17, 2011


            Back toward the end of last year, I posted two blogs about bullying. One of them contained mostly my personal thoughts, the other was a review of an important book on the subject—HEART TRANSPLANT, by Andrew Vachss, Zak Mucha, and Frank Caruso.

            In the interim, unfortunately, not much has changed.
            In the past week, however, two incidents regarding the subject received considerable media attention and prompted me to write what you are now in the midst of reading.
            Incident number one was President Obama giving a strong federal push to anti-bullying measures. For all the good that will do, in my humble opinion … well, let's just say I won't waste any more space on it.
            The second incident took place at a middle school down in Australia. It was captured on video and went viral on YouTube. It involved a pudgy kid named Casey being harassed by a cocky little punk named Richard. The incident captured was, by all reports, not the first time Casey had to endure this kind of taunting, which included often being shoved and hit. This day, however, Casey reached a point where he'd had enough. After being punched in the face twice and jabbed in the stomach twice (to the jeers and cheers of onlookers), Casey grabbed his tormentor, twisted him off his feet, and slammed him to the sidewalk. Watching the news clip of the video for the first time, my reaction was to want to stand and cheer. After watching it a few more times on YouTube, my feelings haven't changed.
            As a result of the altercation, both kids were suspended for four days and subsequently—surprise, surprise—the parents of the punk who got dumped on his ass have come forth with a lawsuit. And Casey's father can only lament that his son is "not a violent kid … He's always been taught not to hit."
            Yeah, and right there is the start of the problem. In the first place, Casey ought to get a freakin' medal. In the second place, what Obama and others who insist on thinking they can fix the bullying problem simply with more legislature and more anti-bullying "policies" (how's that been working out so far, with about a gazillion such policies already in place and bullying practices only continuing to increase?) ought to do is promote Casey as the Anti-bullying Spokesman and send him on a tour showing his video and presenting it as Basic Step One in a real anti-bullying campaign. And, finally, parents like Casey's dad need to understand that, yes, it is fine to teach your kids "not to hit"—but it damn well is acceptable to hit back.

            Yes, I realize my perspective may seem primitive and simplistic. But, damn it, at its core there is a truth that can't be denied.
            I also realize there is a need for rules and policies. But they can only be affective up to a point because they always rely on someone in authority seeing the infraction. Otherwise it becomes just another case of "he said – she said" and there follows stern lectures and cautions handed out all around and then things go on as before … and the bullying victim is once again left to feel that, despite all the talk and all the hype, there really is no help or hope and, just maybe, he or she must deserve the shit sandwiches they are being fed.
           Only when bullies—and everyone else—become convinced that continuing their ways will come at a cost - each and every time will the tide start to turn. Casey showed us a way to start making that turn; I hope enough people are paying attention to the message.

            For another take on this same theme I refer you once again to a powerful, insightful article by Zak Mucha that can be found at .

Persevere — WD


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

MY NEBRASKA: The Sioux Army Depot

            When I was writing my 2007 novel The Day After Yesterday, I wanted the big climactic scene—in which an exchange of ransom payment for a kidnap victim takes place—to occur in a remote, unique, somewhat ominous setting. And I wanted it to be an actual place. I toyed with several different locales and had about settled on a crumbling old abandoned sugar beet factory with vacant, broken-windowed buildings, tall towers, and a network of sagging conveyor tracks … until one day a co-worker (this was back before I retired from my full-time job in manufacturing) happened to mention something about the old "storage igloos" out in Cheyenne County. When I questioned him further, I first began to learn about the Sioux Army Depot …

            In March of 1942, as part of our country's buildup for World War II, the Sioux Army Depot was established in Cheyenne County near the lower edge of Nebraska's panhandle, about six miles northwest of the town of Sidney. It would go on to become the only U.S. Army Ammunition Depot functioning in Nebraska through WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
            The Sioux Depot was initially under the command of the U.S. Army Ordnance Department and later the U.S. Army Material Command. Its mission throughout its history was the receipt, storage, and issue of all types of ammunition from small arms to 10,000 bombs, all types of general supplies from small automobile parts to jeeps, and various strategic and critical materials. Near the end of its existence it briefly stored a small number of ICBM missiles.
            At its peak, the depot occupied 19,771 acres and included 801 ammunition storage igloos, 22 general supply warehouses, 392 support buildings, 225 family living quarters, 51 miles of railroad track, and 203 miles of roads. As many as 2,100 civilian workers were employed in the day to day activities, along with 40 to 60 military personnel.
            The depot was de-activated in June of 1967, during the Vietnam war.

            All of this may seem like just a lot of dry historical data and details, especially for anyone reading this who lives outside Nebraska and/or is located in a more urban or more densely populated area. To get the full impact of what I'm trying to convey—what the Sioux Army Depot was and what it meant to the area—you must take into consideration the stark high plains landscape in which it was located. The Nebraska panhandle, except for the Pine Ridge area to the north, is a treeless expanse of grassy, rolling hills with widely scattered small towns. Cheyenne County is 1300 square miles in size with a population of just under 10,000, found mostly in four small towns each with a population of under 400 plus the county seat, Sidney, boasting about 6300. You can imagine what the army depot meant to the area when it existed and how economically devastating it was when it closed down. (It is an ironic aside that the community of Sidney saw its first big boom in the 1870s when it was a "wide open" town serving nearby Fort Sidney and then almost a century later boomed again—albeit in a much tamer way—from its proximity to another military facility.)
            To visit the remains of the Sioux Army Depot today, the first thing you are struck by is leftover ammunition "igloos" standing in rows upon rows, almost as far as the eye can see, across a wide, flat expanse now overgrown with high grass and brush. I first visited there in the late afternoon, with dusk descending, and as I topped a low hill and the rows of shadowy igloos first came into sight it was like something out of a 1950s science fiction movie. Visualize something akin to scores of giant egg cartons turned upside down and strewn side by side all the way to the near horizon and you get a rough  mental picture.  (Hey, I'm a writer – I have an imagination.) These igloos are concrete domes with massively thick walls and tall steel-latch doors, standing about twenty feet high at the peak and fifty feet in diameter. They are (and always have been) grass-covered so that, from the air, they would blend into the rolling, grassy landscape and be virtually invisible. The gridwork of streets that served truck traffic between these structures is still mostly in place, though rough and broken and choked with weeds. If you stand in the middle of all this on a sunny day and (again) use your imagination just a little bit you can almost feel the pulse of the bygone activity and energy that ran through here.
            These days the igloos are used by area farmers for grain and equipment storage. Some of the doorways are boarded over, to hold in the grain. Others are secured with heavy padlocks. Several, however, are wide open and you can walk inside.
            The railroad tracks are long gone. The administration buildings located to the south of the igloo field are mostly still standing, some of them with their purpose still evident via faded signs that read Commissary, Hospital, etc. A row of badly dilapidated corrugated buildings where they must have loaded and unloaded freight trains are still standing and the massive crane framework and giant dangling hook still straddle a remaining short section of track.
            As I spend time roaming the grounds, I can't help but feel a kind of sadness, a sense of loneliness and unfinished business hanging over the place. Almost like walking the streets of a ghost town … Maybe some ghosts are watching and walking there with me.
            The igloo field served the scene in my book well.
            But, as I trust you can tell from the foregoing, the Sioux Army Depot and its history made an impact on me well beyond just that.

Persevere — WD

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


            In 1962, when this film came out, I was fourteen years old. I remember going to the theater to see it with my parents. That was before the Hollywood rating system but this movie was nevertheless widely advertised as containing content most suitable for adults. I don't remember exactly why I was allowed to attend, other than I generally acted in a mature, sensible way and was always treated accordingly by my parents. By then I'd proven responsible at doing a wide range of farm work with my father and sometimes for neighboring farmers (driving tractors, trucks, baling hay, milking cows, etc.) and was also a trusted babysitter for my three sisters, two of whom were still in diapers. Add to that the fact my mother was always an avid movie fan, up to and including being a regular reader of the old-fashioned movie mags like Photoplay and others. So, since Walk On The Wild Side had been getting a lot of hype (mainly for its "shocking" content and also largely due to solid ol' Hank Fonda's daughter playing what was reported to be a very racy part in only her second movie), Ma was keen to see it. Me, I was keen to go to the movies whenever I got the chance. As for Dad, I'm not sure why he allowed himself to get dragged along … he mostly held out for good ol' shoot-'em-up Westerns. (I'm just guessing, but maybe it had something to do with all that "racy" hype.)
            So anyway, we all went to see it and my recollection was that we came away neither particularly shocked nor impressed. It was okay, I remember thinking, but nothing special and not particularly titillating, even to a fourteen-year-old. Ma and Dad seemed most shocked by Barbara Stanwyck playing a lesbian. Me, I wasn't even sure what a "lesbian" was at that point and would have never even made the rather vague connection as portrayed in the film if I hadn't read about it in advance in one of Ma's movie magazines. Afterwards, the two things I remembered most about the movie were the scenes where Laurence Harvey got the snot beat out of him by some very nasty thugs, and the scenes where Jane Fonda was slinking around the "Doll House" wearing a skintight dress and smoking a cigarette in a long holder. (Hey, I might have been a "good kid", but I was in my teens, after all, and my hormones sort of forced me to take notice of such things.)
            Recently, I sat down to re-watch Walk On The Side for the first time in many years to see how it held up from a considerably more mature (well, in years, anyway) perspective.
            All and all, it's not a terrible movie. I've seen a lot better, I've sat through a helluva lot worse. By today's standards it is by no means shocking or racy. You see more graphic presentations on prime time TV any night of the week. Yet there is a certain grittiness to it, largely due to the excellent black-and-white photography and the moody, memorable song growled over the opening and closing credits by the gravel-voiced Brook Benton ("One day of praying, six nights of fun … The odds against going to Heaven, 6 to 1"). And the scene where Harvey gets beat up (which includes the involvement of a legless man who pulls himself along on roller-cart using said cart to ram against Harvey's ankles while two other thugs hold him) is still powerful. Also, Fonda still comes across as very sassy/sexy (far more so than Capucine, who is supposed to be the super-alluring focal point of everything) and as far as I'm concerned basically steals the whole show. (Spare me any anti-Fonda rants, please—I loathe most of the political stances she has taken over the years, but I grudgingly give her credit for having the courage of her convictions and  I admit to appreciating her performances in several films over the years.)
            The story is set in the early 1930s. It is based upon, but does not follow very faithfully, the Nelson Algren novel of the same name. It has to do with Dove Linkhorn (Harvey) hoboing across the country from Texas to New Orleans in search of his lost love Hallie (Capucine), an artist who has somehow ended up in a brothel (coyly called "the Dollhouse" throughout the movie) run by Jo (Stan-wyck) who gives Hallie special status and clearly wants to keep her to herself rather than making her available to the customers. Before reaching the city, Linkhorn encounters Kitty Twist (Fonda) who shows him the ropes as far as riding the rails and surviving the hobo life; but they quickly part ways when Dove catches her stealing from a café owner who has shown them some kindness. Through a newspaper ad, Dove traces Hallie to the Doll House and almost lures her away with him. But threats and physical interference from Jo's thugs get in the way. After Dove has been beaten up, Kitty—who, surprise!, has shown up again as a Doll House worker—creates a diversion that allows Hallie to get away and take the injured Dove with her. They return to the café where Dove and Kitty got solace earlier. Unfortunately, Jo and her thugs follow them there and in the struggle and shoot-out that ensues Hallie inadvertently stops a bullet and is killed. A very downbeat ending … somewhat salvaged by a tacked-on ending that shows newspaper headlines (as the closing credits roll and the Benton song plays again) heralding that the "Doll House Gang" has been convicted and brought to justice due to the testimony of "star witness" Kitty Twist.
            Critics at the time generally panned the film. The only things that seemed to get any praise were the song (Oscar-nominated); the striking, luminous-eyed black cat who roamed through murky dark alleys in accompaniment to said song during each set of credits (and promptly ran away, never to be seen again, as soon as filming was complete); and the acting of Ann Baxter.  The somewhat curious casting—Harvey (an Englishman) and Capucine (French) as a pair of Texans, and Baxter, playing a Mexican—got a lot of attention. Although Baxter, as mentioned above, drew accolades, both Harvey and Capucine got shredded. For my money, Harvey's Texas drawl (which he would use again some years later playing William Barrett Travis in John Wayne's The Alamo) was every bit as good as Baxter's Spanish. As far as Capucine … well, she spoke her lines and looked pretty good doing it; I'll leave it at that. Stanwyck chewed up the scenery with the relish of an old pro. But, like I said before, Fonda stole every shot she was in (especially when given wry lines like "I run the candy concession" when Dove encounters her in the Doll House and stupidly asks what she's doing there).
            All in all, this plays sort of like homage to old Warner Bros. movies of the 30s. Not all of them were classics, but they were mostly entertaining and at the very least worth an hour and a half of your time. I'd put this film toward the top of that category.

Persevere — WD