30 January 2012

The Eighties

Not Obama.

President Obama said some funny things during his State of the Union address this year.  He declared that there will be no handouts or bailouts while he is President (I think he meant any more). He trumpeted the need for Green Energy (but didn't mention the half a billion dollars (handout) that disappeared down the rabbit hole at Solyndra).  I think the most hypocritical moment was when he quoted Abraham Lincoln and said that "Government should do for the people what they cannot do for themselves and no more."  I guess parents deciding what their kids have for lunch is something they cannot do for themselves because the next day the First Lady's lunch initiatives went into effect.  I really, really don't think it's Big Brother's business what kids are eating for lunch, but apparently Obama does.  However, I will give him the benefit of the doubt on this because sometimes it's just easier to do what your wife wants.  My Dad says he discovered two words that made his life after retirement much easier: "Okay" and "Yes."  For example:
               My Mom:  "I think we should get marble counter tops put in."
               My Dad:    "Okay."
               Several weeks and some money later......
               My Mom:  "Don't they look nice?"
               My Dad:    "Yes" (puts on boots and goes out to the shop).

I don't want to be a contrarian and just say that everything Obama does sucks but I disagree with him on principle on just about everything politically and on a personal level on just about everything else. I think the Government should pave the roads and kill the bad guys, not decide what should be on the lunch menus at the local Elementary school.  That is a political difference.  I don't want a President hypocritical enough to say b.s. things like "the Republicans want dirtier water and dirtier air" and then hang his head in frustration because "they won't work with me."  That is a personal difference.  He talks out both sides of his mouth and I don't fully trust what I hear from either one. 

I like to learn as I go along.  I don't want to ignore what happened on Wednesday just so I can believe the same thing on Thursday that I did on Tuesday.  If you have all the same opinions at forty that you did at twenty, then you don't think.  Liberals and Conservatives may not agree politically but bleating that the other side is 100% wrong, 100% of the time, is just depressing.

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The Republican primary debates continued this week.  Republicans keep jockeying for position to claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan when what they should really do is look at the man in the mirror.  Newt Gingrich preached Family Values but served his wife divorce papers while she was going through chemotherapy.   He may be smart but he's also a hypocrite with flexible moral values.  Mitt Romney may have the Right Stuff morally but he's too much like a Republican Jimmy Carter.  If politicians were sold as action figures, Romney and Carter would have to be packaged together, and made out of extra hard plastic to ensure life-like stiffness.  Newt's doll would come with a briefcase full of cash and ready-made divorce papers from LegalZoom, Ron Paul's doll would be at the helm of a U.F.O., and the Rick Santorum figure would only be available with The Complete Will & Grace on DVD.  Will & Grace fans can stick pins in him.

I was young during the Reagan Years although I didn't know it then.  He was my Dad's President and that was fine by me. It made the generational lines a little clearer.  The Sixties revival took place during the Reagan presidency, so there were pseudo-hippies and there were jock-y, Establishment types like the Reaganites (check out Conservative Christian, Right Wing Republican, Straight White American Male by Todd Snider). Me and my friends liked the music of the Sixties but didn't think much about politics. I was anti-Establishment then and I'm even more so now, the difference being that the Establishment then was Reagan policy, and the anti-Establishment now is...Reagan policy.  I believe now what Reagan said then: Government isn't the solution to our problem, Government is the problem.  I had an argument over the summer with a friend of mine when he told me he was smarter than Reagan and I said, “When you do something like win the Cold War then let me know.” He objected on the grounds that there were no winners or losers in the Cold War and I thought it was a purely semantic differentiation. I rephrased and reiterated what I said, that Reagan ended the Cold War on his terms, and if that’s not winning then I don’t know what is. He knocked me for giving Reagan credit and then made a bunch of other b.s. arguments like, “You can’t really prove that Reagan made the world safer. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there are nuclear missiles that are unaccounted for, thereby the world is less safe and because Reagan was responsible then he in turn made the world less safe.” To which I replied, “Really?” and rolled my eyes. We might as well blame the Indians for high property taxes because they didn't stick up for themselves two hundred-thirty-six years ago. Eventually I told him to G-F-Y and hung up on him but the argument made me think more and more about the Reagan Years and how much I missed them.

Al Pacino is Tony Montana in Scarface.  As cut throat as Tony was,
he had nothing on Jon Roberts aka John Riccobono.
The Reagan Years began in 1980, leaving the drab Seventies behind in an explosion of pastel shirts with little alligators on them. There were lots of movies about rich teenagers who looked down their nose at their poorer, more creative classmates.
A disproportionate number of these movies involved skiing and a race down the mountain at the end.  MTV set styles as New Wave invaded the radio charts.  A big part of the Eighties was Miami Vice, money and cocaine, from the junk bond traders that went to prison to John DeLorean getting busted in a drug buy.  Scarface came out in 1983 and everything was glitz and glamour.  It's interesting now to read about events I lived through.  I remember the U.S. hockey team beating the Russians in Lake Placid (I was at my friend Pete Dugovic's house), the Space Shuttle Challenger exploding (I had just come home from school and my Mom and sister were watching it on tv), the Iran-Contra hearings (good tv), and the fall of the Soviet Union (I also watched this on tv).  I recently read Rawhide Down, a book by Del Quentin Wilbur about the day that Reagan was shot by John Hinkley (could've sworn I was in Mr. James' English class but I wasn't).  The following week I watched Cocaine Cowboys, a documentary about drug smuggling in Florida during the Reagan Years.  Two men took two very different paths that made history in the Eighties.  One was Jerry Parr, Secret Service agent, and the other was John Riccobono alias Jon Roberts, who became a drug smuggler and helped to flood Florida with cocaine.

Agent Jerry Parr grabs President Reagan as soon as he hears gunshots and dives into the back of the limousine
to shield him from John Hinkley.  March 30, 1981.

Jerry Parr was born in 1930 in Montgomery, Alabama, and raised poor in Miami, Florida.  His parents, a cash register repairman and a beautician, divorced when he was nine.  After the divorce his mother married, got divorced again, then married again, this time to a man who bragged about killing his first wife and threatened to kill her if she ever tried to leave him.  Young Jerry Parr slept with a knife under his pillow for four years in case his hot-headed stepfather ever attacked. It was not a conventional upbringing by any means.  Parr took a job out of high school working as a lineman for an electric company.  He joined the Air Force, got married and attended and graduated from Vanderbilt University at the age of thirty-one with a degree in English and Philosophy.  As a boy he was entranced by the 1939 film The Code of the Secret Service and dreamed of one day becoming a Secret Service agent.  He joined in 1962 and was the oldest cadet in his class.
Jon Roberts aka John Riccobono is his 1986
mug shot.   He tortured, killed and maimed
and only served three years in prison.
John Riccobono also had an unconventional upbringing.  His father was part of the Gambino crime family and taught his son very early on that Evil is stronger than Good.  As if to prove his point, the elder Riccobono killed a man in front of John in broad daylight (the man had been blocking traffic) with no consequences. John was seven. The Riccobono name was associated with the Gambino family (John's Uncle Joseph was consigliere to Carlo Gambino and was one of the men busted in the Upstate Raid of 1957) long before John was born in 1948. Riccobono's father was deported after the raid and John never saw him again but he did take his father's lesson to heart.  When faced with good or evil, he always made the most evil choice.  He was running with older kids when he was eleven and twelve.  At thirteen he was robbing and extorting classmates (he shot someone on the basketball court when he lost. Like his father and the man on the bridge, John faced no consequences).  Neither his mother or grandfather could control him.  His mother died when he was still a teen and John started doing drugs and robbing the drug dealers.  He would gain the trust of the drug dealer and then kidnap and torture them.  They would call their clients with an unbelievable deal that was only available right now.  When the clients showed up, John would rob them too.  He did this over and over.  Eventually, one of  his victims escaped before John returned and pressed charges against him for kidnapping and attempted murder.  He was given a choice by the judge:  prison or Vietnam.  

Riccobono went to Vietnam where he fell further into darkness (he talks about skinning Vietnamese men and women while they are still alive).   When he came home from Vietnam he was only twenty years old.  He got into the nightclub scene in New York City, backed by his uncles in the Gambino family, and went on to rob, maim and kill people as he exerted his power and influence.  When the heat got to be too much in New York City it was suggested that he leave town.  He relocated to the same town Jerry Parr's family did thirty years earlier:  Miami.  He worked his way up the ladder and by the time that John Hinkley read about Reagan coming to a local hotel, Riccobono, who had changed his name to Roberts, was smuggling millions of dollars of cocaine into the U.S. for the Medellin drug cartel.
I'll never pass up a chance to add a
pic from one of my favorite movies
ever -
Taxi Driver.  John Hinkley became
obsessed with the movie and Jodie Foster.
Here is Travis Bickle right before the Secret
Service runs him off.
John Hinkley was someone without friends going all the way back to high school. He dreamed of being a singer/songwriter and moved to Los Angeles several times without success.  He became obsessed with the film Taxi Driver, in which the protagonist slips into a delusional life of loneliness and isolation.  He followed President Carter around for several weeks.  His mental health faltered and his dream of becoming a famous musician was replaced by a dream about being killed in a hail of bullets by the Secret Service.  He tried to date Jodie Foster, the actress who plays the young runaway in Taxi Driver.  Eventually Hinkley's parents cut him off financially and after one more desperate trip to Los Angeles to sell his music, he gave up and decided to end his life.  He took a bus back to Washington, D.C. and planned to go to Yale one more time and kill himself on campus.  Then, just by chance, Hinkley read the newspaper and saw President Reagan's visit to the Hilton.  Hinkley decided he would rather die by Secret Service than commit suicide.

Jerry Parr was not initially deemed “White House” material, perhaps because of his late start or upbringing, but he nevertheless worked his way up the Vice-Presidential detail in the late Seventies. He became the lead agent in President Carter’s detail in 1979 and when Ronald Reagan was sworn in on January 20, 1981, he left Carter’s side and fell in behind the new President. Parr worked the kill zone, the area in front of the President, where he had to be ready to throw himself in front of a bullet or on top of a bomb. Two months later, wishing to get to know the President better, Jerry Parr assigned himself to follow the President to his speech at the local Hilton.

While the President was walking out the door of the hotel after his speech, Hinkley started firing.  He got off six shots in 1.6 seconds.  Jerry Parr heard the pop pop pop of Hinkley's gun and drove Reagan headfirst into the backseat of the limousine.  Agent Tim McCarthy turned towards Hinkley and spread his body out to act as a human shield.  He was shot in the abdomen.  As Reagan lay in the back of the limo he complained of pains in his chest.  Jerry Parr saw no blood on the President's body but there was blood in Reagan's mouth.  Had he been shot or did he simply bite his tongue? Did Parr break a rib when he launched the President into the limo?  Should he take the President to the White House, where he would be safe, or to the hospital?  What if there were other shooters waiting for the President at the hospital in an attempt to finish him off?  How secure would the hospital be?  Parr quickly decided to go to the hospital.  The President may not have been shot but there was clearly something wrong with him.  When they pulled up to the hospital Reagan insisted on walking in under his own power. One of the EMTs wondered why the heck Reagan wasn't lying flat on a gurney.  He looked gray and ashen. ER attendants hooked up an IV to the President and several doctors examined him.  Finally, one of them noticed a small incision, about the size of a dime turned sideways, under the President's arm. The bullet ricocheted off the limo door and into the President's side, and had been flattened into a disk shape in the process. It was lodged in his chest and the resulting damage shut down the President's left lung. The President continued to lose blood and was in danger of going into shock.  By the time he entered surgery at 3:08, exactly forty-one minutes after he was shot, he had lost thirty-five percent of his blood.  If Agent Jerry Parr had taken Reagan back to the White House, he would have died along the way.  But Reagan may have also played a part in saving his own life.  In the 1939 movie that inspired Jerry Parr to join the Secret Service, The Code of the Secret Service, the always cool-under-fire agent that Jerry hoped one day to be was played by Ronald Reagan.  Oddly enough, it was the only one of his movies that the President found so awful that he refused to watch.

Jon Roberts, aka John Riccobono, continued smuggling cocaine into Florida and eventually became the top American in the Medellin drug cartel.  When the Colombians started doing business in South Florida, it became the Wild West.  A shootout at the Dade County Mall in 1979 brought national attention to Miami and the drug trade.  Jon Roberts ran cocaine for the next seven years and didn't get arrested until September 20, 1986.  He was released on bail, spent five years as a fugitive and after he was captured turned informant for the government.  He was a despicable person, not because he ran drugs, but because he thought nothing of crippling a Hippie girl to teach her friends a lesson, whipping an ex-girlfriend with a belt for hours while she was tied up, telling his mother to f-off, shooting people in the knees, and a thousand other acts.  He did more bad shit in one afternoon when he was a teenager than I've done in my whole life. He died in December 2011 of cancer.  He only did three years in prison.

Jerry Parr and Ronald Reagan were both changed by the events of March 30, 1981.  Reagan felt that he had been saved by God for a purpose greater than himself: to end the Cold War.  The Eighties and the Cold War ended when the Berlin Wall fell in 1990, thanks at least in part to Reagan's defense spending and his support of Mikhail Gorbachev.  Jerry Parr also believed that his life had been directed by God.  He received a Master's degree in pastoral counseling and became the pastor and spiritual director of a Washington, D.C. church.  He also served on the Board of Director's at Joseph's House, an organization for men with AIDS.

I liked the Eighties. Times were simpler then. The Russians were our only enemy, Reagan was our only President, and my only worry was getting back in time for work after visiting my friends in Pennsylvania.  It was the decade in which I passed through all my rites of passage.  But mostly I miss it because I was young and everything was new.

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Taxi Driver was my favorite film for a long, long time.  I often thought it was a good companion piece to Pink Floyd's The Wall.  I saw both movies less than a month apart in 1989/1990.  I felt a lot like Pink, closed off and isolated.  Then I saw Taxi Driver and felt a lot like Travis Bickle.  There is a scene in which he stares into his coffee cup and people are talking to him and he is a million miles away.  That's what I felt like.  I was living in North Tonawanda and it was the dead of Winter.  Across the street was a rusted chain link fence that protected the grounds of a run down factory.  There was trash everywhere and things were bleak and ugly.  An early Spring brought me out of my funk.  I started going for walks along the river and imagined myself as one of the old men that sat on the park benches.  That will be me one day, I'd think to myself.  I watched the Travel channel every day at 10:30.  They were always somewhere else.  My Taxi Driver/Pink Floyd isolation ended one morning when, after standing up too fast, I fainted.  When I awoke I wasn't sure where I was for a few seconds.  I felt like Jack Kerouac, waking up in a hotel one morning when he was hitchhiking across the country and unsure of who or where he was.  A few minutes later D.J. called me and I took it as a sign.  He told me we were going fishing next weekend and he was coming to pick me up.  After that I started making more frequent trips to Edinboro to see my friends, and then to see Genienne, a girl I found unique, sincere, and enigmatic.  The summer that followed was one of the best of my life.  I worked at my Mom's cafe during the day and rode the four-wheeler like a mad man in the late afternoons and evenings.  Genienne came up to see me and she was with me when I bought Blood On the Tracks.  The Eighties were over and the Nineties were just getting started, just like me.

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