Sunday, July 15, 2012

No Common Thread, Except They're Dead

In the 3-4 years since I started labeling posts "Obit Dept.", I'd only done 12 posts prior to this one.  Many of those were to commemorate individuals that I knew and just had to comment (for my own desire, to let my memory of them rest in peace).  As I grow older, though, (to what else can I ascribe it?) I find that I have reason more often to comment on the lives of  recently-departed famous people, even if I don't know them. One of the critical benefits/drawbacks of fame is that the memory of these people lingers beyond their lives, for good or ill. In these obits for celebrities and the like, I will try to balance a little respect with saying That Which Must Be Said, particularly with how these individuals will be remembered (by me, it should go without saying).

Marie Colvin, Extreme War Correspondent -
I did not know Marie, though I believe I met her at some point.  Seeing pictures when she was younger, her features look familiar. She was the friend of one or more of my acquaintances, so that's just one degree of separation (or is that two?)

Marie Colvin's life story is clearly one of the bravest one could ever imagine in these days.  She had a string of having reported from the front lines of most of the worst, ugliest, most chaotic conflicts of the last three decades:  Iran-Iraq, Libya, Tahrir Square, East Timor, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, and the one that got her, finally:  Syria (I'm probably forgetting some.  For a brilliant, heartbreaking accounting of her last days and anecdotes recounted by her friends, see Marie Brenner's article in this month's Vanity Fair.) Most of her career, she was an American reporting for newspapers based in other countries, so she was not as well known here as she might have been.

In Sri Lanka, she was seriously wounded and lost an eye--she wore an eyepatch after that, which surely only added to her legendary bravura.  Those who knew and worked with her insist that she was not without fear, that she was very aware of the danger, but she always went back to the front again.  After the Sri Lanka injury (2001), she showed signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which should have disqualified her from further war reportage, but they (and I'm talking about her employers, the Times of London and other Murdoch rags) could not stop her, so they acquiesced--now, somewhat to their shame.

Marie's mission was to report on the brutality of war, from the point of view of the ground-level participants, particularly of the non-combatants caught in the struggle.  A noble endeavor, but one that requires taking ridiculous risks, getting the story out, then somehow getting oneself back out.

The Syrian adventure was a particularly--excessively--dangerous one, and she and her colleague companions knew it.  She was snuck into a besieged (i.e., surrounded) town through a tunnel--once she arrived, she realized that the Syrian authorities, who had forbidden journalists to go into the town, were monitoring her communications and were more or less continuously shelling targets of opportunity.  She was trapped, and she knew it. 

She stayed overnight, and that was the decision which compounded her initial risk and led to her death, when the building where they were hiding out was hit repeatedly by artillery.  Those who survived (her photographer, who was seriously injured) are certain that the targeting of the journalists (a French journalist was also killed) was deliberate.  They saw her dead, but were unable to remove her body from the quagmire.

What more can be said?  She was clearly of the old school, the Ernest Hemingway/George Orwell/Martha Gellhorn one, and the point is that the danger and bloodshed of war are still as real as ever in this time.  She courted danger one time too many; those who brought her in, and helped her get out of these jams, surely appreciated what she was doing.  I am not sure that we in our easy chairs did.

In the same Vanity Fair issue, they had a short update on Christiane Amanpour, one of my all-time favorite TV reporters.  Amanpour has a long history of war reporting; she gave it up to marry, have kids, and do the ABC Sunday talk show, but clearly it was not her cup of tea.  She's going back to the grindhouse, but she claims she's going to stay out of the line of fire.  Let's hope so.

Ray Bradbury, Sci-Fi Visionary
Bradbury died June 5 at the age of 91.  I had wondered what had happened to him; it turns out he had severe strokes which basically ended his ability to write.  In his prime, in the sixties and seventies, he was very prolific.  His short stories had a great range--some were of the old Twilight Zone style, punchy with a snappy ending that "made you think"; others were more like character studies of individuals, of human nature, in unusual, extreme circumstances.   He stands out from the other greats of sci-fi  for emphasizing the human element, for his efforts to describe his visions, and for the irony or poignancy of the way he told his stories, not for the science of them, or their prophetic nature.  I read them all, and they influenced my thinking quite deeply. 

I don't have the (cheap paperback) volumes any more, but I'll mention a few titles that stick in my memory:  The Martian Chronicles (novella in episodes), "A Sound of Thunder" (the classic short one about tourists going back in time to see dinosaurs; one steps off the path and future history is broken), "The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit" (not sci-fi at all, Latinos sharing the splendor of a fancy suit), and "The One about the Americans in the Third-World Country when the A-Bomb war wipes out their civilization and they know they're on their own in an unfriendly world" (my title).

Thank you, Ray!

Yitzhak Shamir, Prime Minister and Patriot/Terrorist
Shamir's long life story goes well beyond the beginnings of the Israeli state; he came as a youngster with his family to Palestine, then an unruly British protectorate populated overwhelmingly by Arabs.  He was part of the original settler movement, the ones who prepared the ground for the reverse of the Diaspora that came later after the Holocaust.

He became a leader in one of the more radical front groups working for the creation of Israel.  His crew helped move some Palestinians aside, blew up a hotel with some British mucky-mucks (an inspiration to the IRA in the '80's, maybe); then he went "legit" when Israel became a state.

Shamir had some things in common with Menachem Begin:  armed rebellion against the British (they hung with different "gangs"), a founding father of modern-day Israel, Likud party leadership, a stint as Prime Minister.  What he didn't do was make any peace deals, with anyone.

To spell out the obvious moral:  If you can live long enough (don't strap the suicide belt on), it's possible for a young radical to succeed, be recognized and honored, and die in one's bed.  Terrorism can be in the eye of the beholder.

Andy Griffith of Mt. Airy, NC
I probably haven't seen it in 20 years, but I remember "The Andy Griffith Show" from my youth--I was roughly contemporary with Opie (the director Ron Howard).  It was a show that was only kind of funny--Don Knotts as Deputy Barney Fyfe (sp?) was slapstick--he got most of the laugh track response;  Aunt Bee was charming in a down-home, old fashioned way;  Opie was a cute kid, and Andy?  He was just a nice sheriff, friendly, with a sense of humor, but really never said anything that one could consider "funny".  At some point I figured out (looking at a map) that Mayberry, NC was really Mt. Airy, a town with a great name, but I guess they couldn't use it.  Griffith, no doubt, was from some even smaller hamlet nearby.

The idea of the show was to make you feel good about (white, Southern) people, not just evoke a laugh.  If you have a chance to see it, you'll see how much things on TV have changed since then.  For one thing, though Griffith was in the majority of the scenes, the story was not really all about him, but about his community and his place within it--respected, admired. It would be impossibly cornball today, but there's something to be said for "not funny, but makes you feel good" vs. much of our current-day humor which "extracts laughter, but doesn't make you feel good afterward".

Griffith had a long career afterwards, in Andy of Mayberry--the spinoff, with only a few of the same characters (was Gomer Pyle's character perhaps introduced in that one?), and the unremarkable, long-lived cops-and-robbers show Matlock, which no doubt made him definitively wealthy.  I can't begrudge him it, and I'm sure no one else did, either--he was such a nice guy.

Five Really Short Mentions
Ben Davidson--the handlebar-mustachioed, chopper-riding Oakland Raiders defensive end from the '60's.  He was one of the reasons I thought the team was cool back then.  Eventually I was disabused of the notion.
Pedro Borbon--Cincinnati Reds reliever, from the glory days of the Big Red Machine. He was the closer, more or less, in a couple of years. He had a son who made the majors, was a bit wild and crazy himself in a Santeria kind of way.
Teofilo Stevenson--Cuban heavyweight boxer, he destroyed Duane Bobick in the Olympics.  I think he won twice. He could've been Muhammad Ali--he had his style, his skill, his looks--if Ali hadn't gotten there first, and if Stevenson hadn't been a stuffy Cuban Communist lackey who positively refused to defect.
Henry Hill--Like Yitzhak Shamir, another great survivor.  This guy was the reformed mobster/stool pigeon who wrote the story upon which they based the hit movie Goodfellas (based on Hill's life, or so he says).  About Hill, you have to wonder:  first, how he came to survive the mob stories of the movie, like being around "the character played by Joe Pesci" all the time; second, how come they didn't bump him off later when he came out with the story; and third, isn't the Witness Protection Plan forever?
Bob Welch--A member of the original Fleetwood Mac, their early lead guitarist and a succesful songwriter for the group. I actually liked his playing style quite a lot, and his songs were simple but charming (a formula they ditched later), but apparently the bandmates didn't care for him personally; they thought he was "a bummer", and they replaced him with Lindsay Buckingham (of "What Up With That?" fame, for you young SNL-watchers).  I remember seeing Welch hosting a rock variety show later (that would be late '70's/early '80's, I guess); he was coping, but seeming a bit rejected. The report is that he committed suicide last month; I hope he got over it at some point.

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