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NGO_Vleeptron (aka "Bob from Massachusetts") recently featured LIVE on BBC WORLD SERVICE, heard briefly by Gazillions!!!

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Location: Great Boreal Deciduous Hardwood Forest, New England, United States

old dude, all hair, swell new teeth

13 March 2006

up from the fœtid Comment Sewers beneath Ciudad Vleeptron: Following the Drinking Gourd

doh. V.2. the night sky is black, the stars white.


Abbas Halai said...

heh nice. i'm surprised you picked up this story. not many people have. i didn't think they'd be making a big deal about it down south.

* * * * * * *

In the 1850s, a wandering slave carpenter named Peg Leg Joe taught a little song to the slaves he met in the South, a bit of coded astronomy called "Follow the Drinking Gourd." It has a mournful but very uplifting tune (open in new window). The Old Man is Peg Leg Joe:

Follow the Drinking Gourd
Follow the Drinking Gourd
for the Old Man is a-waiting
to Carry you to Freedom
Follow the Drinking Gourd

When the sun comes back and the first quail calls
Follow the drinking gourd
For the old man is a-waiting
for to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd

The riverbank makes a very good road
The dead trees will show you the way
Left foot, peg foot traveling on
Following the drinking gourd

The river ends between two hills
Follow the drinking gourd
There's another river on the other side
Follow the drinking gourd

Where the great big river meets the little river
Follow the drinking gourd
The old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd

The Gourd is the Big Dipper. Its orientation in the night sky revolves from season to season, but in any season, if you extend the line between the two stars you drink from (the line from Merak to Dubhe), five more times the line's length, the line points to the North Star, Polaris.

The names of all the stars except Polaris are Arabic, from the millennium when Europe had lost all knowledge of or interest in Science, and the Arabs from Spain to India -- with their capital usually Baghdad -- were Eurasia's stewards and geniuses of Astronomy and Mathematics. The Persians were their equals as Astronomers -- that was the poet Omar Khayyám's day job. The Arabic words for most of the naked-eye stars survived Europe's rediscovery of Astronomy, through Arabic texts of ancient Greek originals, in the Rennaissance.

It's a long walk, but eventually, with the assistance of white Quakers, Congregationalists and Methodists in the Free States, a slave could reach Canada, where slavery had been abolished in 1810 and whose government would not return a slave to the United States. One step over the imaginary dotted line, a man or woman ceased being Property, and was instantly transformed into a Human Being, and soon a Citizen. Ontario still has a large community of the descendants of escaped slaves and several museums devoted to their flight. I think the most famous one is near Windsor.

Glued and stapled and welded and handcuffed to one another through Time, the United States and Canada have been strange historical bedfellows. Slavery, our 14 years of alcohol Prohibition, the Vietnam War, and now Iraq.

And if the South Dakota law finds 5 or more friends on a right-leaning US Supreme Court, young Dudes won't be the only ones following the Drinking Gourd. American women of child-bearing years will be fleeing to Canada from the Republic of Gilead. (Librarians also categorize Margaret Atwood as Science Fiction.)

Americans are once again following the Drinking Gourd.

I recommend the bridges around Buffalo and Niagara Falls, during busy hours. I have been extraordinarily lucky in my American life: I have only needed to cross into Canada as a happy visitor and camper and adventurer and theatre-goer, I never had to flee for my fucking life as so many Americans have.

Once, two Canadian Customs guards insisted on looking up my anus, but failing to see anything that interested them, they sped me on my way into the Maritimes. Canada has certified my American anus as uninteresting. It was a particularly humiliating experience because I was wearing lurid tartan-plaid boxer shorts.

But fleeing for one's life or liberty has been a common historical experience across that border. The Plains Indians war chiefs and their tribes who annihilated Custer's 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn in 1876 sought sanctuary from the storm of revenge in Canada, and Ottawa dragged its feet about sending the Northwest Mounted Police to force them back; they were safe in the mountains of western Canada for a few years.

Whether the Canadian people have ever really meant to or wanted to or not, Canada has regularly meant Freedom and Safety, even Life itself, to thousands of Americans. (And whiskey -- a Prohibition joke ran: "I'm going up to Montreal and drink Canada Dry.")

I don't mean to overdo it. Canada hasn't always been a reliable Sanctuary for the world's Oppressed and Fleeing. Its record in accepting fleeing Jews from Hitler's Europe in the 1930s was profoundly and shamefully pathetic. (Roosevelt's USA didn't do much better.)

In that context, perhaps Trudeau's greatest single achievement was to restore a Moral and Humane Dimension to Canadian government and politics, an authentic National Kindness. No Vietnamese man, woman or child ever died at the hands of a Canadian soldier. Canada's soldiers and sailors had fought alongside the US during World War One, World War Two, and the Korean War, but Trudeau outraged the Johnson and Nixon administrations by passing on Vietnam.

Don't Piss Off The Angry Giant on the other side of the imaginary dotted line.

Well, Vleeptron hasn't exactly been shy or mute about los Dos Años de Weirdness de Bob, my drafted enlisted Army service during the Vietnam War.

As Groucho Marx might say, I have Alzheimer's and he has Mine, and one itty-bitty detail from last night that failed to imbed itself in a neuron is precisely which website or e-mail first tipped me off to this CBC story. Fortunately I have my Silicon Friends to back me up on this one, and I guess if I do a History, the culprit may reveal itself.

But you're right, I think. For about six Large & Miserable Reasons, I don't think the USA media will be thrilled with this story.

Where did The Globe and Mail play this story -- which page? Even the best newspapers rarely tell you on their on-line editions on which page in the physical street edition they ran the story. And did The Globe and Mail use their own reporter in-house, or did they just pick up wire services, CBC's coverage, Canadian Press? A small first-day story like this isn't free; my guess is to do your own story costs a newspaper a few $thousand of time, labor and long-distance phone bills. The City Editor has to make a quick decision about how important a story is, how fascinated or bored it will make readers, whether it's less important or more important than a dog who ate a dead migrating duck on an Ontario golf course.

How much time has the CBC, radio and TV, devoted to it? And commercial radio and TV around Toronto? In Canada, is this story "growing legs," or is it generating le Yawn Grande? Is there even a word about it in the French-Canadian media?

Look. Here's the deal. Everyone wants to remember the Dionne Quintuplets, five adorable miracles of childbirth with five identical photogenic prams, five identical snowsuits, etc.

Nobody wants to remember this Turd of History. We got a whole new Asian War Catastrophe going on now, and that sort of occupies the National Limited Attention Span. We got freshly killed flag-draped caskets flying back to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, nobody wants to see images of the old stale flag-draped caskets flying back to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware from Vietnam.

Ya seen one flag-draped coffin, ya seen 'em all.

Our national memory of The Big Fucked Up Turd War that we chose to purchase from France after they surrendered to the Communists at Dien Bien Phu
in 1954 is today largely a fuzzy recollection of a drunken binge from long ago. What most people think they recall -- if they were even born during or before the Vietnam War -- is to a very unpleasant degree actually just Oliver Stone and Rambo movies made decades after the war ended, and ten thousand TV cop show episodes about a psycho Vietnam Veteran. To give Stone a bit of credentials, he actually served as a combat infantryman in Vietnam. (Stallone was of draft age but seems to have dodged the draft bullet, and never served. John Wayne never served in uniform, either, but most Americans are convinced he won World War II both in Europe and the Pacific, single-handedly.)

I grew up far from the border, and paid very little attention to Canada until I came of age during the Vietnam War. But when the local Draft Board started sending me notices, Canada under Trudeau suddenly and very dramatically captured my full attention.

The draft was a lingering holdover of the draft the US instituted a few years before Pearl Harbor. The emergency in Korea rekindled it, and then it remained in force throughout the Cold War -- The Elvis Draft. Elvis did his time in the Army in West Germany (and ground out a movie musical or two about the experience).

And then the Vietnam War started heating up, to Iraq proportions and ghastly characteristics. Utterly no American guys wanted to go. Something that would have been unthinkable during World War Two happened: American guys started looking for ways not to have to serve in the military during an American war.

Tooth braces -- orthodontia -- would have worked. The draft wouldn't take you if you showed up with braces all over your mouth, and quite a few guys chose this belated moment to have their teeth straightened. Braces cost maybe $2000 or $3000, and orthodontists found themselves straightening a lot of 19-year-old smiles.

Bill Clinton pulled all kinds of college-boy shenanigans with the Selective Service System, and never served. His college and Oxford career weren't inconvenienced. Al Gore, on the other hand, the son of a hugely wealthy and politically powerful Tennessee family, showed up for the draft and served as an enlisted Army journalist, did his year in Vietnam, and then returned to be a reporter on a big Tennessee newspaper, where he smoked an enormous cloud of pot. He also appears to have listened to an enormous amount of Zappa, because during the Tipper Gore music censorship Senate hearings, Senator Gore practically stopped the proceedings to ask for Zappa's autograph. I find something very attractive, simple, modest and funny about Gore's Vietnam-era experience. I had his same Army job (71Q), but without the angry bullets.

Kerry's Vietnam Navy service, on the other hand, was really weird, sick and addled. He was an officer on ship duty in the South China Sea, but begged to lead a "swift boat" into ferocious Mekong River combat. I suspect he was already thinking of future ambitions, and as long as he was stuck in some piece-o-shit war, he wanted to emerge with the hero's prestige that had launched John F. Kennedy to political success. This he believed he could accomplish by firing large-caliber machine guns into riverbank foliage -- blasting the crap out of anything that moved. But World War Two and Vietnam were quite different wars; when he finally took the Beloved War Hero test in 2004, he lost to an Air Force National Guard pilot who spent those years protecting our southern border from an invasion from Mexico or Cuba (when he bothered to show up).

John McCain, on the other hand, has successfully recycled his years in a Hanoi POW camp into a launching pad for the 2008 Republican nomination. He was a shot-down Navy fighter pilot. Like Kerry, an officer who kept asking for More More More bullets and bombs, rather than (as any sane guy wanted in those days) Less Less Less and When Can I Go Home?

World War Two, in both the USA and Canada, was Good Magic for every guy who managed to get home relatively in one piece.

Have you read "Slaughterhouse Five"? It was published smack-dab in the middle of the Vietnam War, in 1969. Among other spectacular virtues, it's the first American novel that dared to suggest there might have been a Down Side to the Allied efforts in World War II.

Vonnegut was about 19 when he was captured by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge, and shipped to a POW jail in a disused slaughterhouse in the safe, faraway city of Dresden. Just in time for the Allied firebombing. Such miracles of survival are often described by the religious and spiritual as experiences of Witness -- God allows you to survive in such a place at such a time for no other reason than to observe and remember, and later to tell others who weren't there.

If you find it in the library's Science Fiction shelf, where most of Vonnegut resides, do everybody a favor and move it to the History shelf, or the Very Important Literature shelf. For all its screwy quirks, it happens to be a unique first-person soldier's chronicle of the Dresden Firebombing -- which everyone on the Allied side has ever since been desperately trying to ignore and not talk about.

"Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" is a memoir by a bomber commander looking down on thousands of tiny little enemy ants a mile or two below. "Slaughterhouse Five" is a memoir by a captured American soldier ant on the ground, looking up at his own side's bombers a mile or two above. Firebombing uses phosphorus and magnesium to superheat and burn the oxygen out of the city's atmosphere. If you survive the bombing, there's nothing to breathe for a few days.

It now dimly emerges that the Allies -- no specific general or air marshal was every willing or anxious to take credit -- decided to bomb Dresden, which had no industrial activity that contributed to the German military, in order to spew hundreds of thousands of dazed, injured refugees onto the roads, to impede the German army's response to the advancing Soviet army. It was a British night operation; they bombed Europe every night, and the Americans bombed Europe every day; they time-shared the sky.

I have to fix something in the basement now. Vietnam, Canada, Iraq, Canada, Trudeau, Bush, Johnson, Nixon, Cindy Sheehan, Canada, John Wayne, John Kerry, Oliver Stone, Jimi Hendrix (a veteran of the 101st Airborne Division, dozens and dozens of parachute leaps over Kentucky, though he got out without doing combat time in Vietnam) -- these are profoundly interesting (You in the Back Row -- stop yawning!) and important matters, Vleeptron has much more to say about them soon.


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