By the time we got to Phoenix


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One

Yes, that’s all I had of this post as I thought ahead after the AAA Texas 500 to What’s Next, the title of an old country-pop song from my late childhood, twisted by time and the moon’s taxes to fit the moment in the 2010 Sprint Cup season when it could all be over for Jimmie Johnson’s crack at fifth consecutive title.

Johnson’s now slipped into second place, some 30 points behind surging Denny Hamlin yet still ahead of also-surging Kevin Harvick: Still well in contention but fading, his car, his team, perhaps himself not as up to the task as his competitors.

Looks that way at least from this next vantage from which I write, dark and cold outside, summer over, winter coming, elections done, a harder, colder crew moving into the positions of power, in an age with is harder and colder, haunted by old songs on the radio.

By the time we get to Phoenix, it will all be almost over …

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Phoenix is the next-to-last stop on the long season’s ride to Homestead. It’s the last chance for Jimmie to break away and a slim chance at best, his love affair with Wynona, NASCAR’s Trailer-Park Goddess of Destiny, playing out, as it has all season, bittersweetly, a love affair that has lost its wings, grown, stale, lifeless, Her attention seeming to turn to the figures racing always now just ahead of him. I choose to imagine Jimmie Johnson as the lover who knows he’s been jilted but races on the durable wires of hopes which he knows no longer exist but cannot let go of.

By the time we get through Phoenix, it may be clearly over: But for now, we can enter the mood of a Glen Campbell hit and its time, in the knowledge that our own face, this moment, will show in the silver mirror of song, sailing in the cold night sky of what surely to come.

And I choose to include in that reverie American troops having a last night with a beloved before deploying, and in the cold mountain ranges of Afghanistan taking sniper fire, and dreaming in the dark wards of Walter Reed Hospital, limbless, sorely wounded in mind and heart of their long, lonely, and too-forgotten enterprise of killing and being killed in the name of a country they hardly recognize any more.

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Two

Frank Sinatra once called “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” “the greatest torch song of all time.” It is one of the most covered songs in history, with thousands of recorded versions by the likes of Ray Price, Dean Martin, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and an 18-minute version by Isaac Hayes which includes an elaborate backstory on the events of the song. A country song with a black soul could elaborate on: that’s clout.

Glen Campbell was playing guitar as a session musician in a recording of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” by Pat Boone when he became so enamored with it that he decided to record it himself, which he did following a tour with the Beach Boys. It turned out to be pure payola of Campbell, with “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” earning him two Grammies in 1967 and launching a solo career which would earn him his own hit TV show and role in the 1969 movie “True Grit.”

Webb was 21 when he wrote the song and living in Los Angeles, though he’d been raised in Elk City, Oklahoma. It’s one of three songs he wrote about a broken-hearted love affair he’d had with a woman named Sue (“MacArthur Park” and “The Worst That Could Happen” were the other two).

In this attempt to frame that painful love affair, a man describes his decision to leave his woman. He drives east, presumably from Los Angeles, imagining what she is experiencing and thinking as he arrives different cities in his long and lonely drive:

By the time I get to Phoenix she’ll be rising
She’ll find the note I left hangin’ on her door
She’ll laugh when she reads the part that says I’m leavin’
‘Cause I’ve left that girl so many times before

By the time I make Albuquerque she’ll be working
She’ll prob’ly stop at lunch and give me a call
But she’ll just hear that phone keep on ringin’
Off the wall that’s all

By the time I make Oklahoma she’ll be sleepin’
She’ll turn softly and call my name out loud
And she’ll cry just to think I’d really leave her
Tho’ time and time I try to tell her so
She just didn’t know I would really go.

A fan once told Webb that the geography of “By the Time I get to Phoenix” was impossible – the time it would take to get to Oklahoma from Albuquerque is too short to go from the woman at lunch to being asleep at night. Webb replied, “It’s a kind of fantasy about something I wish I would have done, and it sort of takes place in a twilight zone of reality.”

Something about the liminal space of that song –- an imagined journey with imagined affect on a woman who keeps doing one wrong – is like dope to the ears and heart of a torch song. Who doesn’t dream of punishing a harsh mistress with the ultimate payback of finally shoving off and letting go, much to her surprise and, hopefully, filling her with hopeless regrets she will never resolve.

A broken heart for a broken heart: paybacks are hell, but in reality they never work when it comes to love, because an unfaithful beloved won’t wait by the phone for the departed jilted one to call – she just doesn’t care.

“By The Time I Get To Phoenix” is pure opium for the wounded heart, traveling long lonely miles through the southwestern desert, it emptiness filled with thoughts of the Beloved who hasn’t yet awakened to the truth that she’s done a man wrong for the last time. Too late for a final reconciliation: he’s gone, disappearing over the eastern horizon.

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The Glen Campbell version of “By the Time I Get To Phoenix” hit the pop charts in 1967 when peace and love was in the air, still deep in the romance of Flower Power, the Summer of Love. (Among its companions on the chart was “To Sir With Love” by Lulu, “Happy Together” by The Turtles, “Windy” by The Association, “Ode To Billie Joe” by Bobby Gentry, “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees, “Light My Fire” by The Doors, “Groovin’” by the Young Rascals, “I Was Made to Love Her” by Stevie Wonder, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” by Frankie Valli and “Never My Love” by the Association.) The time is enthralled – perhaps bewitched – by the belief in the power of love, like a teen in love for the first time.

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Yet those weren’t truths in Vietnam in 1967, as the sorties of B-52 headed out to drop their tonnage of napalm and explosives over North Vietnam and as 16,000 troops set out in Operation Cedar Falls set out to clear Vietcong operations around Saigon, discovering a massive network of Vietcong tunnels they would call The Iron Triangle. American casualties doubled in from 1966 to 1967 (to around 11,000 killed).

Surely a song like “By the Time I Get To Phoenix” making it to camps in the middle of that jungle had the sort of ennui of “White Christmas,” a fantasy not of sweet returns that every soldier dreamt of but rather the homecoming every one feared, to a woman who had moved on his absence. That would be the ultimate irony, to survive the helicopter battles over Tay Ningh or strafing mortar fire on the ground near the Cambodia border, only to come home and find one’s bed occupied by an other, probably some hip anti-war protester with leather fringe and hairy balls. “By the Time I Got To Phoenix” delivered on that fear, and must have made those lonely boys think of what roads lead away from every bad homecoming.

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Three

Jimmie Johnson finished third behind Jeff Gordon and winner Ryan Newman at the spring race in Phoenix, and though he was not leading in the points, many were flush with his possibilities. Monte Dutton had written this just before the Bristol race (which Johnson won) with something close to effusive ebullience:

… He doesn’t win every race, just three out of five so far. At this rate, he will capture a mere 22 of this season’s 36 races. Richard Petty’s all-time record of 27 in a season (1967) will stand, even though in that magical year, Petty won only 56.3 percent of the races and this year Johnson’s hoisting trophies at a rate of 60 percent.

But, seriously, folks, Johnson can’t keep up this pace. One of these days, someone’s going to step out in the street at high noon with an itchy trigger finger. It’s the Curse of the Gunslinger, and so many want to dare the Fastest Gun in the West (as in Western Hemisphere) to draw.

So far, this year and for the four preceding it, the challengers haven’t even gotten to the quick-draw portion of the competition. Before they can even saunter out into Main Street, Johnson’s twirling his pearl-handled revolvers, shooting the gun right out of the challenger’s hands with the right hand and firing at the feet with the other.

The love affair with Johnson’s fifth consecutive championship season was on. If anyone characterized the jilted lover of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” it was at that time probably Jeff Gordon, a 4-time champion who was keeping pace towards the front of the points race but hadn’t won a race since Texas in 2008. He was souring on teammate Jimmie Johnson, the kid he’d taken under his wing at Hendrick Motorsports and then watched zoom off with Wynona into a limelight that must have been galling to a man who surely thought he’d never lose the buzz of that brilliant moonshine. By the time we got to Phoenix in April, Jimmie was on a roll and Jeff was in his shadow.

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But the road from Phoenix in April to Phoenix in November has turned difficult for Johnson as well – true, he won three of the next 26 races, but Denny Hamlin won eight and Kevin Harvick another three. The fabled gunslinger has definitely slowed on the draw, and his Chase mastery is showing tarnish (he’s only won 1 of the 8 Chase races so far, compared to 3 in the same period of 2009, 2 in 2008 and 3 in 2007).

Clearly, Johnson is struggling to hold on to Destiny’s garters. They may have already passed from his grasp. The sense of an age passing is ripe in the air as the haulers make their way now to Phoenix.

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Four

As a follow-up to Campbell’s success with “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” Webb wrote “Wichita Lineman” for the  country crooner from Billstown, Arkansas (Campbell was one of 12 children born to sharecropper parents). The idea for song came to Webb as he was driving along the Kansas-Oklahoma City border and saw a solitary lineman working on up on telephone pole in the middle of nowhere. It struck him as exceedingly sad, making him imagine the lineman as a long-wandered-on lover trying to hear the voice of his lover in the song of the wind working those cables of communication:

I am a lineman for the county
and I drive the main road
Searchin’ in the sun for another overload
I hear you singin’ in the wire
I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

I know I need a small vacation
but it don’t look like rain
And if it snows that stretch down south
won’t ever stand the strain
And I need you more than want you
and I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

Webb recorded his demo of the song accompanying himself on and Hammond organ, and when Campbell went into the studio in 1968 to record the song, the takes seemed lacking to Campbell, missing the feel of Webb’s demo which had so excited him initially. He got that feel down when he added a Hammond organ to the instrumentation. And the chiming at the song’s fade at the end, meant to represent telephone signals the lineman hears in his head—calls he meant to make but didn’t too long ago—were produced by a massive church organ.

The song was another hit for Campbell, taking his album of the same name to #3 on the pop chart, and the song was two weeks in the #1 spot on the country singles chart and six weeks atop the adult contemporary chart. Glen Campbell’s career was assured. He would go on to release some 70 albums, with 27 of them reaching the Top 10 (12 went 4 went platinum and 2 double platinum), selling some 45 million units in all.

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“Wichita Lineman” has been described as the “the first existential cowboy song,” and there’s something undeniably gooey-eerie about it, haunting in a way that made the song seem timeless from the first spin, a song as old as the ache in the heart in every person to have loved and lost.

You can say that “Wichita Lineman” furthers the narrative of “By the Time I Get To Phoenix.” Here the lover who left love behind has settled into a long, lonely existence in Oklahoma, working as a county lineman. Working up there in the wind and cold in the middle of nowhere, he strains to hear the voice of his love up in those wires.

The chorus makes the entire song, layering three lines which pack an infinity of power:

And I need you more than want you, Campbell begins, soft and pained in the plaint of every sorely-wounded lover who can’t stand the exquisite torture of love any more but is powerless to change;

And I want you for all time – Bang, gotcha: no matter how far you flee, the dream of love is just ahead, waiting for you in the next town to remind you how much there is to lost. The wallop of this line comes from its pairing with the first, a doubling which takes you in two directions at once, transversing the entire wilderness of the heart in 14 words;

And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line – This completes the trio of lines with an eerie, lonely, permanent image, the fact of the first two lines characterized by a lineman lost up there in the wind and the cold with the wires of memory pulsing with lost messages from the Beloved who has been forever lost.

The Wichita Lineman is a mythic figure like the Wandering Cowboy or the Ancient Mariner, forever out there in the space between memory and heartbreak, unable to form the words overflowing in his heart, searching for  the lines of communication he will never be able to open himself.

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“Wichita Lineman” is also one of those quintessential fin-de-siecle moments which somehow captured the death of the 60’s, a passing of the Flower Age of just two years previous into the nightmarish realities of death in Vietnam (a Vietcong assault on US bases around Vietnam in February 1969 killed 1,400 American soldiers), the shootings at Kent State, murder during a Rolling Stones performance at Altamonte, mass clubbings by Chicago police outside the Democratic Convention the year before, folk song growing hoarse and loud in the electrified howl of acid rock, the looming nightmare of Charles Manson singing “Helter Skelter” as he carved up the body of pregnant Sharon Tate, the assassination of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, the breakup of The Beatles.

The Summer of Love was over.

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There is a palpable ennui in the culture of 1969, a feeling that the passing of the 1960s was like summer into winter, an intensely bittersweet mood of slow but sure dying. “Wichita Lineman” had many companions in this tenor,  especially in a slough of wry, wistful and bloodily grown-up cowboy movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sunset Kid, The Wild Bunch, Midnight Cowboy,  and True Grit, all of which ended with death -– Glen  Campbell himself taking the fatal bullet in that last movie. A grand, sad, dayglo-to-sepia fadeout to a wild age.

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Paul Newman and Robert Redford go out with guns blazing south of the Sixties in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969)

The same fadeout permeated all of Hollywood. The Sand Dollars was the first American movie where the hero – Steve McQueen – died.  Love Story – heroine dies. The animated short Bambi Meets Godzilla – innocence dies. Easy Rider – the quest of the youth culture dies.

A dying which is like the last whisper of a Beloved who turns around once to smile sadly before walking forever out that door in our hearts …

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“Wichita Lineman” has a vibe which persists to this day, soaked in a sweet oblivion that borders on something on the verge of winter, entering longer darker days as the last warm ray fades from earth.

But I’m also sure that “Wichita Lineman” and all those other songs of the late ‘60s are especially poignant to me because it was the eve of my own coming of age–a very bittersweet time, with my parents separating, my father moving downtown Chicago while the rest of the family relocated to a much smaller, rented house in Wilmette before taking a dive to Florida.

Factor in as well that it was also the season of my first hopeless love. Lauren was an 8th grader like me who was (unlike me) impossibly beautiful. For a short while she deigned to smile at me, probably only because she had wounds greater than mine. (She’d smile at any guy to forget that jagged wreck of a man she called Father with cold hostility).

Lauren smiled at me briefly and then turned away, leaving me to curse my ugly fat face in the mirror, beg my God to deliver her to me (He was silent). I’d lay on my lonely bed listening to “Wichita Lineman” on WLS, wondering if those wires carried news of Lauren, too. But it was only the winter wind beating against my frozen window.

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The frozen Chicago River laps against the Marina Towers; my father moved into a 48th-floor apartment on one of the towers after he moved out of our house in Evanston.

The cowboy reaches were not found in cold Chicago, but other cowboy experiences – loneliness, hard realities, wandering, alcoholism, death—were becoming familiar, were painting the age sepia, like the color fade at the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

My personal favorite movie that year–give me a break, I was 12 — was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. (James Bond is a cowboy of sorts I supposed, with a tuxedo for chaps and machine-gun Astin-Martin convertible for a horse.) It was a movie fraught with losses: Uber-Bond Sean Connery gone; Bond’s polymorphose perverse mojo is lost when he marries Tracy (queen “Avenger” Diana Rigg); and then she gets killed in the end.

The song “We Have All the Time in the World” was composed for the movie by John Barry (the theme song to OHMSS is eerily similar to that of Midnight Cowboy, which Barry also composed. Weird twins, eh?) with lyrics by Hal David (who wrote many songs with Burt Bacharach, including the theme song to Butch Cassidy, “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”

Armstrong’s voice seems sure in his own way – a majestic, old- jazz quaver – as he sings the tune:

We have all, the time, in the world
Time enough or life
To unfold
All the precious things
Love has in store

We have all, the love, in the world
If that’s all we have
You will find
We need nothing more …

But Armstrong was actually sick during the recording, too ill to play the trumpet part (which sounded more like Herb Albert), and would die himself of heart failure a couple of years later.

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Tracy (Diana Rigg) was married — o so briefly — to the Georges Lazenby Bond, who himself wasn’t around long.

The fin-de-siecle irony of the song is drawn out as wide and tall as the Swiss Alps where the movie was filmed when, in the final scene, Bond holds Tracy in his car at the side of a mountain road, his bride dead from a bullet in the forehead shot by his arch-rival Blofeld, a few miles down the road from the church where they had just wed.

“We have all the time in the world,” Bond whispers to the only woman he would marry in the series, looking out at those impassible Alps, nuzzling her cheek with his as John Barry’s elegiac orchestral reprise swells to infinity.

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At the time he spoke those words, Georges Lazenby didn’t know they also applied to his tenure as Bond, as he was replaced by Connery in the next installment, Diamonds are Forever.

I have the soundtrack album and still listen to it from time to time, remembering so sharply that profound, bittersweet time. It’s said that you never forget the music of your puberty, and mine is split between those AM/FM heart-wrenchers of the late 1960s and early 70’s (moving from Glen Campbell to James Taylor and Carole King – all of whom still performing the songs of that age), James Bond movie soundtracks (I collected all of them), and the later erotic-demonic eruption of hard rock bands like Grand Funk Railroad, Santana, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.

One age answers the previous, and my birth, psychologically and emotionally, into adolescence was right at that hinge between the death of the Summer of Love and the Season of the Witch, from hopeless ennui to opiate thrall, still trying to find out whether there’s anyone at the far end of those Witchita lines.

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Five

By the time we come to the next-to-the-last Sprint Cup race of the 2010 season in Phoenix, the air of immanent finality which surrounds this year’s NASACR storylines lends to this race something of the country torch song written 40 years ago.

The jilted lover of “By the Time I Get To Phoenix” comes to that town first in his imagined narrative; for us, it’s nearly the last stop on the road, but we’re still trying to imagine what Wynona’s up to. I suspect Jimmie Johnson already knows what we aren’t sure off yet — that he’s being left in the dust to other championship ambitions. A 9th-place finish at Texas last Sunday put him between Hamlin and Harvick, cut loose and beginning to drift away from destiny.

Oh, it’s not over yet –- Phoenix is one of Jimmie’s tracks –- but something tells us that the fatal shot was fired a race ago into Johnson who, if you may, mythically reenacted Campbell’s “True Grit” character who gets shot before the movie’s end, leaving it up to the unlikely pair of Harvick/Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) and Hamlin/Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) to finish off the quest.

A fade at Phoenix this time — failing to rise to the now-desperate, last-chance occasion – would place Johnson back among the ranks of 2010’s also-rans, Chase faders like Jeff Gordon (who was wrecked, and then fought, Jeff Burton lsat week), Kyle Busch (given the boot from Destiny last week after giving NASCAR the finger) and the other boys, Kenseth and Kurt Bush and Biffle and Edwards and Stewart and Bowyer. Hamstrung by a slow pit crew, the blue No. 48 (blue as those hard-blowing Texas skies) can only think about what might have been as he watches the No. 11 and 29 battle it out for what was once the Queen of Trailer Heaven’s Portion but is now big, big, money.

I imagine Jeff Gordon as the mythic Wichita Lineman, soon dismounting from his crow’s nest up in the power lines along the border of racing oblivion, relinquishing the Lineman’s gear to Jimmie Johnson, the next passed-over champion . . .

Still too early to tell, but the wind seems to be blowing that way …

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Six

Something in the bigger news of the day is closely akin to the late 1960s, the sense that an age is coming to an end. Perhaps that is why the Coen Brothers are releasing a remake of “True Grit” for release on Christmas Day, featuring Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn and newcomer Hailee Seinfeld playing Mattie, the girl who hires Cogburn to find the murderer of her father. Matt Damon is in Cambbell’s former role as La Boeuf, a Texas Ranger who has ulterior motives in hunting down the killer of Mattie’s father.  Josh Brolin will play the killer Tom Chaney, who was played originally by Jeff Corey (who would later play one of the backwoods killers in Deliverance.)

Oh, the threads of irony and fate which give current events an eerily familiar feel are many. The True Grit remake is reported to be a shoe-in for Oscar competition, repeating the original’s success in the Academy Awards. Jeff Bridges, playing the drunken lawman Rooster Cogburn, picks up a piece of the alcoholic country singer he played in Crazy Heart. True Grit is the first film he’s made with Coen Brothers since playing the Dude in The Big Lebowski, a character I brought forth early this season as a metaphor for NASCAR’s 2010 season. The narrator of that film, played by Sam Elliott, is a cowboy known only as “The Stranger,” is a Wichita Lineman-type who comes to check on things back at home in Los Angeles. (Love is not present, but there’s lots of bowling.) One of the Coen Brothers early successes was the comedy Raising Arizona (1987), with Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, a movie rich with the Arizona scenery which will surround this weekend’s race in Phoenix. Love was very much present in that film—it is perhaps Cage’s sweetest performance, ripe with an innocence he stripped himself of when he later became a Major Action Star.

And then the Coen Brothers lost their love, opting  instead to follow the Lineman around the United States to scene after scene of desolate Americana with O Brother, Where Art Thou (Depression-era bluegrass Odyssey), Fargo (wasting the locals in frozen Minnesota) and No Country for Old Men (hardcore Texas border noir). That movie was based on the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy, a writer who is about the most forsaken in all of contemporary literature, whose language is as primal as the desert and blood-soaked as an Arizona sunset, and whose heart is about as forsaken as Russell Pearce, the Mesa Republican who sponsored the nation’s toughest immigration law, albeit in divergent ways. Pearce becomes the next president of the Arizona senate and means to use his iron-clad Republican majority to side-step the state’s crucial financial problems to get a new law on the books challenging automatic U.S. citizenship to children of illegal immigrants.

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Holly Hunter and Nicolas Cage in the Coen Brothers’ “Raising Arizona” (1987): A dream before the nightmares.

All this tucks into the closing refrain of “Wichita Lineman” as the composer / artist / wandering wounded lover fades out by repeating those indelible words,

And I want you more than need you
And I need you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman
Is still on the line …

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Seven

Arizona is no country for old men, even though hard-frozen retirees from the Rust Belt savor its dry, hot weather. Except for the weather, Arizona offers is no escape for dotage; their golden days are just as intruded upon there by what’s upsetting the rest of the country these days – high unemployment, housing market in lead-bottomed doldrums, the economy in arrears, foreign wars dragging on, etc.

What makes Arizona a specially barbed taunt against age -– both old and young — is the unique and special hardness of Arizona’s heart against illegal immigrants.

I can’t be too critical. I don’t live close to a border so soaked in blood on the far side. The mayhem of Mexican drug cartels is approaching the tenor of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridean, perhaps the bloodiest novel about the West ever written.

More than 450,000 illegal immigrants are in the state of Arizona, a fivefold increase since 1990. That’s a very fast change in demographics. And where things change fast, fear holds fast.

One bellweather event was the killing of 58-year old Robert Krentz and his dog in March 2010 on his ranch, some 13 miles from the border. Police failed to name a suspect, but they traced footprints headed south toward the border, leading to speculation that an illegal had committed the murder.

Fear surely played a part in the evolution of Arizona Senate Bill 1070 – The Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act – which was introduced by Republican State Senator Russell Pearce and signed into law by Arizona governor Jan Brewer on April 23 of this year, just two weeks after the spring race in Phoenix.

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Arizona State Senator Russell, sponsor of the state’s tough new immigration law, and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer who signed the act into law last April.

The Arizona law adds to federal law which requires illegal aliens to carry registration documents by making it a state misdemeanor crime for an alien to be in Arizona without carrying the required documents. It also bars state or local officials or agencies from restricting enforcement of federal immigration laws, and cracks down on those sheltering, hiring and transporting illegal aliens.

Since its passage, Arizona has suffered a firestorm of controversy both internally, from the U.S. government (Obama is fighting the law) and from further out (a number of nations have joined the U.S. in a suit to reverse the Arizona law, claiming it is excessively punitive.)

You can read fear in the Arizona’s immigration law, but as it usually turns out, greed may have played the quieter, larger role in its passage. NPR reported in late October that the bill was largely written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) task force, a membership organization of state legislatures as well as corporations and associations which include Reynolds American Inc. (the tobacco company), ExxonMobil, the American Rifle Association – and the billion-dollar Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the country. Pearce, who is a member of that organization, attended a gathering of ALEC last December in Washington where the immigration bill was proposed. NPR examined Corrections Corporation of America reports and found that their executives believed that immigration detention was their next big market.

In the story, Pearce, of course, said the bill was his idea. He says it’s not about prisons, but what’s best for the country.

“Enough is enough,” Pearce said in his office, sitting under a banner reading “Let Freedom Reign.” “People need to focus on the cost of not enforcing our laws and securing our border. It is the Trojan horse destroying our country and a republic cannot survive as a lawless nation.”

Fear and greed are the perfect elixir of Republican majorities, and so it’s not surprising that the midterm elections increased the Republican majority in Arizona. Pearce is now State Senate President and aims to enact a further measure of the bill, denying U.S. citizenship to the children of illegal aliens in the state.

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Many now fear that the Arizona economy -– especially the housing market -– will take a hard hit from the Hispanic relocation out of the state in reaction to the law. And although the state legislature faces a pile of work dealing with the ailing state economy, Pearce’s agenda is wholly set on cementing a wall of prohibitive anti-immigration legislation. You know, for the good of all American-Arizonans.

But what to do with all those bodies piling up in the Arizona desert? Over the past year, 252 corpses have been found there, the remains of migrants who died trying to cross into the U.S. illegally. Authorities speculate that increased scrutiny at the customary crossing-points are forcing smugglers and illegal immigrants to take their chances on isolated trails through the deserts and mountains of southern Arizona, where they must sometimes walk for three or four days before reaching a road.

“As we gain more control, the smugglers are taking people out to even more remote areas,” said Omar Candelaria, the special operations supervisor for the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector. “They have further to walk and they are less prepared for the journey, and they don’t make it.

This was especially true last summer when a heat wave seared the Arizona desert to a crackly crunch. In July alone, 60 withered bodies were found.

Some of these dead have been in the desert a long while – as long as several years. This makes the task of identifying the remains a tougher job. Some 700 bodies going back to 2000 remain unidentified. The Pima County Medical Examiner’s office is ground zero for these dead; when the building’s 200 spaces for corpses became fully occupied, a refrigerated truck had to be rented to store another two dozen of the dead.

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Bodies retrieved from the Arizona desert stack up in the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office.

A lonely place to rot, wouldn’t you say? Especially when you consider that a lt of those dead were people fleeing the violence of their home country, hoping for some form of economic asylum in ours.

Fat chance. Though many border businesses love cheap labor, the will of zealots empowered by greed and fear is strong at this juncture in history, this passing of one age into another.

Arizonans themselves are wildly divided on the issue of immigration. Check out the comments section at the end of a recent Arizona Republic article about Sen. Russell Pearce denial of influence by the private prison lobby, calling the NPR article “a lie.” The arguments for and against the immigration bill are as divided as day and night in the Arizona desert – hot as hell, colder as shit — and are about as dry of solutions as that killing field at any time.

For example, in one exchange “Snaptie” commented,

Funny when you have a Racist organization like NPR with George Soros funded open borders socialistic beliefs society. They have absolutely no minorities as on air personalities. It’s proven the have not one conservative on the air either. Yep i believe them [Sarcasm]

To which “Noonetou” replied,

No, this is called reporting. I know that you are not used to that since you watch Faux News which does no reporting at all. It is not so much that the main stream media is liberal, it is more along the lines that the Right has fallen so far off the cliff that anything that the main stream media reports will seem liberal to you. Want proof? Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater would called liberals in today political climate and would not be welcome in the GOP. By the way Barry and Reagan were, at the time, considered very conservative when they were in office. So what does that say about how far the right the Right has gone? In all honesty I wish the REAL Republican party would come back to life, not this shame that we now call T-baggers and Conservatives!

And on it goes, for hundreds of comments. People in Arizona are obviously raw about the issue, perhaps more so because there’s no middle ground stand on any more.

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Daniel Moynihan once said that while everyone is entitled to their own set of opinions, no one is entitled to their own set of facts. As the journalistic center dissolves and the Internet gets loaded with sites playing fast and loose with the truth, the rancor of the divide grow increasingly fetid because no one knows how to properly call things much less what to know.

A caterwauling mess. I’m sure we aren’t standing in the middle of that squawk in Florida. Oh, wait a minute – Governor-Elect Rick Scott is a big supporter of the Arizona immigration law. Guess there’s no escaping a firestorm, not in Phoenix or Albuquerque or Oklahoma or Florida: Because what you run from inevitably becomes what you run smack into.

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Eight

If I were the Wichita Lineman –- and these days, who doesn’t feel somehow a bit like him? -– I would climb up there and put an ear to the whine of cables in full song.  Swinging in the high cold wilderness of winter, I would ask:

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– I want to know how things are going for the family and friends of Lance Corporal Randy R. Braggs of Sierra Vista, Arizona, who was killed last Saturday during combat operations in Helmand Province in Afghanistan –- about the same time Brad Keselowski was celebrating his Nationwide Series championship after the Texas race). Braggs, 21, is the thirteenth member of his battalion to be killed since October 8. Deployed in late September, Braggs had hardly gotten Over There when he began his travels back toward Phoenix in a flag-draped coffin. Braggs joins fellow Arizonans Army Sergeant Aaron B. Cruttendon of Mesa (age 25) and Marine Lance Corporal Matthew J. Broehm of Flagstaff (age 22) among the month’s dead in Afghanistan:

How does it feel to come home too soon yet forever late, son of Arizona? And will you call the ground you’re to be buried in a place you’d call home?

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Lance Corporal Randy Bragg (right), age 21, who was killed in action in Afghanistan on Nov. 6, 2010.

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– I would ask for the sound of Lauren’s voice, that girl in eighth grade who was the first person I fell for so hard and woundedly and impossibly. She arrived and left almost in the same gesture, standing at a door which she said but a few words from – a hi, a bye – with a smile whose welcome faded faster than the 1960s when they were done. I would ask to  see her face once again, peeled free of composite imagge of all the other women who lingered too short a while in my embrace and moved on, or were left behind as I kept searching for the one face which cannot exist without killing the quest, the desire, the never-fulfilled, at-long-last kiss:

Say hello once again, Love, just once, that once become  forever …

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– I’d would ask to hear  my kid brother’s voice once again,  Timm who died of a heart attack two and a half years ago after an early-evening jog in Salem, Oregon. It was spring and beautiful that night, according to his girlfriend, surprisingly warm and sunny. Not a cloud in the sky. But my brother had been a wanderer for years, leaving behind his family to soothe old wounds with new ones. He was getting better -– some fundamental forgiveness had happened in his heart -– but he still kept like the wind at his back, a smart, lonely guy who took gorgeous pictures of Oregon and cruised dating sites while planning an eventual wedding with his girlfriend and wrote endless resumes stored on this laptop which I inherited from him after his death. He was just like me in physique and in so many interests, even though he was eight years younger and three thousand miles away. I was just beginning to get to know my kid brother when I lost him, and I listen for his voice at night:

Do still you roam the Oregon coast, looking for the last westwarding boat? Or are you near here, standing out in the garden in this depth of night where final pieces of the previous day fall, like silt, from the black sky? Speak … and know you are loved ….

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– I would ask where my stepdaughter is, separated from her now for 15 years after my divorce to my first wife. She was 18 by then and ready enough for the world, but things, I hear, did not go so well for her as she turned to coke and Ecstasy and alternated between good and bad men, having two children which my ex, I hear, is desperately trying to get custody of while her daughter dances in topless bars and hangs with men with lots of drugs. I had never thought to repeat the terrible wounding of my parents’ separation but I did, and in spades, doubling it by losing all contact with my step-daughter, a girl I had cared for as a father since she was nine:

Do you still hear the voice of the sea we once body-surfed in together at Melbourne Beach as I still do, deep in the reaches of your pillow as you sleep, or has the blasting rap and techno as you slither up and down fate’s cold stripper pole all but eliminated that soft uteral sound of love?

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– I would try to dial up on long-distance PFC Glenn Dick Kerns, killed in the battle of Dak To in Vietnam 43 years ago today, November 11, 2010. Kerns was 19 years old and had shipped over the previous August; like Lance Corporal Randy Braggs who died in combat a few days ago, he wasn’t long in the theatre before going home the hard way. His son Staff Sergeant Derick Ray Hunt—who never had a chance to meet his father–survived his tour of Iraq and learned some of his father from Andy Eiland, who served with Kerns and survived the battle of Dak To. Kerns was posthumuously awarded a Purple Heart Medal for his combat related wounds and buried in the cemetery of Deep Branch Baptist Church in his hometown of Lumberton, North Carolina. Not much trace of Glenn Kerns today – you can find his plot in the cemetery at Deep Branch, and his name is engraved on the smooth black marble walls of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, where many have gathered today to stroll and remember:

Letters carved in brass and marble – a name – one grainy picture – so many years silent now: Yet is that you with your ear bent to the radio in the ghostly ruins of Dak To, humming along to “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” imagining an eastward heave far different from the one you made after the gunfire and grenades?

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– I would try to hear that low sexual sigh of the woman I left my wife for a decade ago when I was drinking so bad, during that bad winter of ’00 after George Bush became President and my life became a mad horse in a hurricane. I think of those cold nights we knocked back all those beers together, talking all kinds of shit, making every sort of promise I had no intention of fulfilling, abandoning myself to the booze, the desire, he fury of going at it every which way no matter the cost. Then I think of waking in the hungover gloom of that low-rent apartment and laying there wondering what my wife was doing at that moment in our much-emptier house in the small town we once called home far to the north. Not long after I left that woman, quit the booze and slowly found my way home, made my amends to my wife who made room for me once again in our bed. I never spoke again to that frail, so fuckable, so wrong, damaged woman, herself a mother at age 14 and then losing that son when he was murdered in prison at age 18:

How does the music go late at night in whatever trailer and man you’re now with? Do you remember, or is that too much of a poison to withstand, like the death of your son, like all the jobs you botched and lost, like all the other men’s money you’ve spent satisfying their desire? Do you sigh?

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– I would listen for strangely homeless sound inside this very house I now write in, mostly sweet yet never free of bitter … How is that people who know each other most find what’s truly alien about the Other lies in the mere inches which separates every body,  an unbreachable chasm in the tenderest goodnight kiss just before the lights go out, as if there was no true coming home beyond a certain homecoming of accepting one’s impermeable condition.  All else is imagined and impossible gravy, isn’t it my love, our years together molding our lives’ trunks together like two trees wrapped around each other, become one living entity with two sets of sap rising and falling across a distance measured in inches and yet is infinitely far, as far as the sea, as high as the moon?

Can you hear me singing as you sleep, love? Does my voice reach you like the gentlest touch at first light, or is it only more cold starlight, present yet alien, akin or identical to this lonely walk we call a life?

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– And finally I think of Jimmie Johnson on his way now to Phoenix, with all those championships racked up in a place inside that is somehow paling fast, their grains slipping through the hourglass like so much wind in the wires, this next race demanding everything and more from him, his team and crew chief, just when none of whom quite seem up to the task as much as the No. 11 and 29 teams.  So much else presses in now than when he began to tear up the tracks – marriage, fatherhood, charities, the indulged life of the multi-millionaire, fame’s steady spotlight which nearly shadows the rest of the field. All of that makes Her seem distant, and he knows that the moon is a harsh mistress, and will not tolerate such falterings of devotion, will not tolerate much of anything except Victory and Championship, things which have faded from his eyes:

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Are you still gunning, Jimmie, still in the quest? Are you game enough to go hellbent for a change? Are you willing to give everything of your much larger, richer, wider, happier life to Her in that clinch? Or have you heard the cold wind this dark night, and seen the moon through the window of passage- trailer or car or jet -– the moon with its ghostly semaphor and metaphor of separation, itself wrenched from the sea billions of years ago, the first lonely Wichita Lineman, sailing high over the earth, hauling tides and hearts in its silver wake? Do you see the moon, Jimmie, and know?

Are you singing along right now, not to “By the Time I Get To Phoenix” or “The Wichita Lineman” but that third, perhaps most indelible Jimmie Webb song of all, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” –- the hardest song of all to sing for anyone who has heard Her voice on the wires for so long ….

See her how she flies
Golden sails across the sky
Close enough to touch
But careful if you try
Though she looks as warm as gold
The moon’s a harsh mistress
The moon can be so cold

Once the sun did shine
Lord, it felt so fine
The moon a phantom rose
Through the mountains and the pines
And then the darkness fell
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
It’s so hard to love her well

I fell out of her eyes
I fell out of her heart
I fell down on my face
Yes, I did, and I — I tripped and I missed my star
God, I fell and I fell alone, I fell alone
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
And the sky is made of stone

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What’s it gonna be, Jimmie? Pedal to the metal this one defining time? Or will you at juncture simply drive on, out of the raceway and onto the long road to obscurity, Phoenix to Albuquerque to Oklahoma, driving all night till you come to that stretch of power lines on the freezing, wind-heaved border to winter.

How much colder it is outside your Chevy, Jimmie, standing there in the place where the winds of winter blow forever? Will you call up to the dark figure working above, the one with a big yellow “24” painted on the back of his orange parka: and call him down —  shift change – and when Gordon climbs down, will you know the look in his face because you wear it now, too, knowing at this end of your career that

The moon’s a harsh mistress
She’s hard to call your own.

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