Archive for December, 2012

  • Blog
  • December 21st, 2012

What Now?

By Joel M. Vance

            Like everyone with emotions I’ve been numbed by the awful Connecticut elementary school shootings.  I’ve been around and used guns my entire life but it is gut-wrenching to think of them being used to slaughter children whose only thought that terrible day was the imminence of Christmas.

            It doesn’t say much for a God who allows such things to happen and it’s tempting to blame Him, since the shooter had the niggling decency to blow his warped brain out, leaving no one on earth to punish.  Supposedly vengeance is up to God, but it would be some solace had the killer stayed around long enough to have been shot to shreds by police.  The aftermath of such unthinkable tragedies is always is like the aftermath of stirring up a hornet’s nest, an untidy buzz of ridiculous theories, swirling blame, a fury of possible (but mostly improbable solutions and occasionally some rational thought.

            That we will have tightened gun control is almost a given.  There is too much pressure on the pols not to get something done. The National Rifle Association even is muttering about conciliation, something that never has happened before.  This time gun control legislation will come in spite of the extreme right wing whose intransigent opposition to any hint of gun control encourages the vast majority of uncommitted citizens to swing into the gun control camp  This ultra conservative mindset often borders on outright lunacy.  Case in point: A nut job named Joel Gilbert suggests that President Obama was behind the massacre shooting at a theater in Colorado to strengthen his perceived campaign to ban guns.

            Gilbert’s conspiracy assertion is so patently insane that most will snicker and turn to the comic strips, but it’s an uncomfortably common mindset among the far right.  Every time there is a mass shooting, the right looks for a liberal conspiracy, usually claiming the left will use it as an excuse to ban guns.  The old bumper sticker “I’ll give up my guns when they pry them from my cold, dead hands” is the mantra of these folks and there even is a program on, of all places, the National Geographic Channel, about survivalists who believe deeply that they’ll go down in a hail of government-fired bullets and who prepare for that day with their own arsenal of assault weapons and cop killer bullets.

             I’m a gun owner with two deer rifles, a couple of muzzleloaders, a .22 and a bunch of shotguns.  I’ve been a hunter almost since I was big enough to squeeze the trigger.  I am strongly opposed to gun regulations that interfere with hunting and even with target shooting.   But there have been restrictions on gun ownership and use for decades.  You can’t own a fully-automatic weapon without complying with many regulations.  You are restricted on caliber and ammo for many hunting uses (steel shot, three shells only, etc.).  You can’t have a sawed-off shotgun.

            Even before the first sad funeral scam artists were trying to extort money by claiming they would use the money to help pay funeral expenses.  And gun shops were overrun by those buying assault weapons before the expected ban.  Perhaps we could encourage all those newbie shootists to kill all those reprehensible scam artists.  That I could go for.

            Chances are that this time the radical right will not prevail.  Too many folks are too upset.  There will be gun control in some form.  The same old arguments will appear.  Gun owners will say that that “when guns are banned only criminals will have guns”   and argue that only arming the citizenry will prevent future slaughters. 

Those on the other side will argue that only a complete ban will work forgetting that Prohibition certainly didn’t stop folks from drinking up, and drug users today have no problem finding something to snort.  Those who want guns, especially for nefarious purposes, will get them.  Do you create a society where paranoia is the prevalent emotion and every other person is an informer or an enforcement type?  Who pays for the army of psychological cops and how do you weed out dubious tips and accusations actually motivated by revenge? 

            The President has made no move for four years to ban guns and probably would not have, but now his hand has been forced and public opinion will be solidly on his side.  You can shoot adults in numbers, even teenagers, and it’s yesterday’s headline, but shoot 20 first graders and the hornets swarm.

            Be honest—those who wrote the second amendment to the Constitution have been dead for 200 years and never saw anything more advanced than a flintlock rifle or pistol.  Chances are if the Founding Fathers were writing their Constitution today, the second amendment would look different.  If someone wants to kill multiple people it doesn’t necessarily involve a gun—remember Timothy McVey and Oklahoma City.  A truckload of fertilizer works more effectively than an assault rifle. 

            I could support a ban on assault weapons.  Who needs a 30-round magazine to shoot a deer?  The same industry that makes guns also opposes any restriction on lead in ammunition and lead is among the most insidious poisons known to man.  It is banned in paint and gasoline but not in bullets or fishing sinkers.  That’s politics, folks, not science and not good conscience.  I would support a ban on lead in ammunition and one on so-called cop killer bullets whose intent is not to drop a deer but someone wearing a “bulletproof” vest.

Since Charles Whitman used the University of Texas bell tower as a sniper’s nest in 1966 and killed 16 people, wounded 30 more, we have had Columbine (12 students and a teacher) and Aurora (12 dead, 58 wounded) and the Virginia Tech rampage that saw 32 dead, 17 wounded.  That incident sparked new calls for strict gun laws and President George W. Bush signed a bill strengthening the federal gun laws.  The gun lobby argued that had teachers and presumably every student been armed they would have cut Seung-Hui Cho down before he killed anyone. 

That argument is why we have concealed carry laws in 41states, including mine, and why we have Florida’s infamous Stand Your Ground law which has resulted in two white guys shooting two unarmed black teenagers in the past few months. At least a dozen lawmakers in Missouri have indicated they’ll introduce armed teacher legislation.  Is that the kind of school we want for our kids—every adult a potential gunslinger?  Even the wildest of the Wild West wasn’t that nuts.  Teachers are just as likely to go irrational as anyone else.

 Gun advocates argue that such laws have lessened gun-related crime but the evidence is murky.  However such laws have not increased gun crime either, so take your pick.  If anything the issue demonstrates the peril of enacting rigid gun laws without solid evidence to back them up.  (However the NRA offers insurance against legal action if you shoot someone in self-defense.  Nice to know.)

There will be more gun massacres as long as there are mentally deranged people who have access to guns.  The fact that in Connecticut the guns used apparently were legally bought dramatically illustrates the problem—that regulation is no guarantee against the unthinkable.  In fact, there are other ways to get guns—from unregulated gun shows, from states with lax laws and from mail order.  Or just steal them.

Norway has some of the strictest gun laws anywhere, but Anders Breivik bought $550 worth of 30-round ammunition clips from an American gun supplier for the rifle he used to kill 69 Norwegian kids at a summer camp. Thanks to American laws, it was a legal online purchase.

            And what’s to prevent a deranged legal gun owner (military or police) from opening fire?  Remember Nadal Malik, an Army major who killed 13 and wounded 29 in a shooting spree at Ft. Hood?   He was, of all things, a psychiatrist.  And if you are tempted to say, “Yeah, but he’s Muslim,” that plays into another set of prejudices.  The very next day after the Connecticut shooting, a certified security guard, who was trustworthy enough to have gotten a registered gun 10 years before shot up a mall without hitting anyone. 

            I hate to say that mass shootings are a reflection of the times, but there is plenty of evidence that the climate of contentiousness in the country, the frenetic pace of modern life and the proliferation of media outlets which glorify bloodshed all play a part in stirring up latent hatred in addled brains. It is the addled brain that needs identifying sooner rather than later, not the availability of a gun.  But how that’s done will take wiser heads than mine and if there is a scarcity of anything today it’s not guns, it’s wiser heads.

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  • Blog
  • December 13th, 2012

Maybe I Need a Nap?

By Joel M. Vance      

            You know what?  I’m tired and I’m angry.  I’m tired of whuppin’ the same ol’ mule with no visible results.  That mule being environmental concern in this country.  Angry because the mule won’t pull its weight.

            And we’re all that mule—we give lip service to solving the problems of the outdoors, but we don’t put one hoof in front of the other and pull.  Every poll says 70 percent or so of Americans believe in a clean outdoors.

            So why is it so crapped up?  We’re dominated by megacorporations that pretty much don’t care whether we live or die from contamination of air and water and wildlife habitat, just as long as the bottom line stays satisfactorily in the black.

            Maybe that black is from soot, not from the economic betterment of mankind.  Oil is called black gold.  Many oil companies aren’t even owned by Americans—think Shell (Dutch) or BP (British Petroleum, which had a station on the corner a mile from us and a spewing well in the Gulf of Mexico).  Do you think their corporate powers care whether they turn America the Beautiful into America the Ugly?

            It was Exxon that fouled Alaska with contamination that still lingers. The Exxon spill happened in 1989.  Now our government Big Oil lackeys want to open a National Wildlife Refuge—refuge, mind you, where critters are supposed to be protected—to the same type of folks who brought you Prince William Sound. 

            Big Oil wants to plunk the oozing sore of exploration right in the middle of the only calving ground that the Porcupine caribou herd has.  If you believe that they can do it without harming that herd or the Alaskan landscape, then I have some bridges for sale to you in Midtown Manhattan.

            Prudhoe Bay, only 60 miles away, has about 1,000 square miles of contaminated and befouled landscape thanks to the Alaska pipeline project, which Big Oil assured us wouldn’t harm the Alaskan environment either.  

            If you want to get as angry as me, read Caribou Rising by Rick Bass (Sierra Club Books, $19.95).  Bass is a fine outdoor writer, but he also is a trained geologist who used to work for oil companies exploring for new oil sources.  Bass’s book talks about the probable effects of the exploration not only on the caribou, but on the Gwich-‘in people who live there and depend on the caribou for life itself.

            Don’t we ever get tired of shooting ourselves in the foot?  Are we so selfish and complacent that we figure, “Well, hell, I won’t be around when the bill has to be paid.”  But our kids will or their kids.  Somewhere down the line your offspring will suffer and you will be safely wherever you go…but doesn’t that make you feel guilty.

            It sure does me. 

            Are there solutions?  Of course there are—but they require sacrifice and sacrifice is not something we’re good at.  We could switch to fuel efficient hybrid cars.  We could car pool more.  We could develop mass transit and revive our moribund rail system to relieve the pressure on the highways from big trucks (don’t you just love driving an Interstate crammed with trucks?).  We could recycle more.

            We could practice sustainable agriculture.  Subsistence farming is a concept not often practiced in America, save by aging hippies and a few others.  Living with the land appears economically unpleasant for a generation raised on material goods.  The generation before the baby boomers didn’t crave a big screen television because such didn’t exist.  The SUV of the times was a rusty pickup that doubled as the family car.  The average farm was 360 acres for the land-wealthy; fewer for many.

            Given a choice between supermarket beef and vegetables and those commodities home-raised, many of today’s farmers will opt for a shopping trip to town.  Home canning?  A root cellar?  A smokehouse?  No time for that.  And yet the practice of self-sustaining agriculture and lifestyle is so basic to reversing a probable dour future that government should be encouraging it (and subsidizing it as lavishly as it now subsidizes exploitation in all forms). 

            I once visited the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont for a week each early summer.  This is a land settled since the dawn of the country, but it remains today largely undeveloped, mostly because of an often harsh climate and poor soil.  There aren’t many people in the Northeast Kingdom and those few have learned to live with the land.

            You won’t find corporate farms, or large-scale logging operations.  Everyone hunts and fishes and grows a garden.  One fellow made and repaired fine canoes.  Another makes exquisite landing nets and hand-turned wooden bowls.  They don’t generate much money but those folks don’t want much–they only want enough to make do.  This is as it was when I was a kid on the farm in Missouri.  Everyone was poor, but no one knew it.  Everyone had plenty to eat, everyone helped everyone else.  No one suffered from want.  That was sustainable agriculture before the term was coined.

            So far the greedy creep of development has spared most of that part of Vermont.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation has put the entire state on its list of endangered places…but there already are several Wal-Mart super centers in the state, with more planned.  Corporate creep is a direct result of too many people wanting too much.

            Government agencies, like the Natural Resources Conservation Service (the former Soil Conservation Service), and the state Extension agencies should (or could) shift from emphasizing clean farming and maximum production to sustainable agriculture, with diversity a goal, not an option. 

            A dentist friend owned land that was tenant-farmed.  He was appalled when the tenant planted sunflowers.  “Spent my whole life trying to get rid of the damn things and he’s planting them!” he grumbled.  But that tenant was experimenting with alternative crops.  Agricultural diversification holds great promise for both economic return and land health.  Rather than cowing or corning or beaning the ground to death, why not explore sunflowers or flax or other land uses.  Another friend raises llamas which he and his wife sell for big bucks.  They take little pastureland and provide finances, fiber and fun.

            A farm near me has been turned into a series of vegetable gardens.  People without access to their own garden pay a fee and, depending on the program they choose, can harvest a certain amount of fresh vegetables each week.  A retired wildlife biologist friend has turned a rocky, clay hillside into a veritable Hanging Garden of Babylon, terracing it and importing topsoil.  He uses a gravity feed irrigation system, raises a variety of vegetables which he sells to local supermarkets.  He even raises flowers for florists and edible flowers for fancy restaurants.  He grosses at least $20,000 a year.

            Beyond what people do with developed land, there is the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt, the public land trust. Where I see government having a duty to protect our last wild lands from our rapacious lust, too many see that public trust as something to be exploited, including too many in government who stay there thanks to money from exploiters.

            Opening any remaining wild areas with roads is tantamount these days to ruining them.  That’s why President Bill Clinton’s Roadless Areas Initiative was so important.  His proposal to exclude 40-60 million acres of National Forest from additional road building was akin to what Theodore Roosevelt did when he created more than 50 National Wildlife Refuges by executive order.  Both presidents circumvented a Congress disinclined to protect public land from exploitation.  Both were widely criticized by the development community.

            Both were right in what they did.  It doesn’t matter if you hate Bill Clinton with absolute passion—it’s the message, not the messenger.  It’s the act, not the actor.  I’m no fan of Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson…but the former presided over the fine environmental laws that today’s paid for pols are trying to gut and the latter ramrodded civil rights legislation a couple centuries overdue. 

            So, I’m angry and I’m tired of fighting the same old fights.  The same air and water polluters still pollute the air and water. The same people get what amounts to a free pass to overgraze public land and let their cows trample down the banks of trout streams and crap in the water.

            We all still are an SUV society, even as gasoline prices rise to record levels and even as our vehicles contribute to global warming, which the United States officially refuses to admit is a problem.  In 1973 the Middle East oil states squeezed our precious oil pipeline nearly shut and gas was in short supply and prices rose…but not nearly as high as they are now.  Are we so incredibly stupid that we don’t see the escalating cycle of exploiting not just our natural resources, but us?  We’re getting screwed, folks, royally and with a cavalier disregard for the consequences that is right out of the Middle Ages.

            I wrote an article about the root problem of all other environmental problems for the Izaak Walton League—that problem being too damn many people—and immediately I was attacked by a religious zealot who demanded to know my stand on abortion, claiming that by criticizing overpopulation I was endorsing the killing of babies.  It seems to be the popular response to environmental activism today: to attack the messenger rather than address the message. 

            You know what?  Aside from wanting to whomp that guy upside the head until some sense leaks in, I will continue to write about too damn many people because that’s the festering sore underneath the scab

            As one example the impact of people on native grassland has been staggering.  In Missouri tallgrass prairie once covered a third of the state.  Now more than 99 percent of the native prairie has vanished, along with nearly 100 percent of once-numerous prairie chickens.  What was 15 million acres of tallgrass prairie now is a few thousand, the rest given way either to rowcrops or to fescue pasture. 
            Fescue, a persistent grass, has low nutritive value and is inimical to wildlife…but it’s as tough as a gang of bikers in a fern bar and it’s cheap pasture.  A study done long ago found that Missouri’s pastures mostly were legume—clover, lespedeza and others, all good for wildlife.  But by the late 1960s more than 90 percent of Missouri grassland was fescue.

            People caused this.  They plowed and cowed and altered the landscape and the result was a nearly-vanished prairie chicken and a decline in many other species.   Neotropical birds get it on both ends.  The native grasslands they depend on at the northern end of their migration are declining and the tropical rainforests in Central and South America that they depend on at the other end of migration also are vanishing under the chain saw and the relentless full court press of development.

            It’s people, people.  It’s me and you and the guy next door.  More than that, it’s our inability or indifference that makes too many people too much.  When there were only a few million on earth wreaking havoc the earth could absorb the body blows and heal up.  But when the earth is like a mugging victim attacked by a mob wielding bicycle chains and rubber hoses, it’s a fullblown and maybe fatal assault.

            Finally—and this comes from a fellow who fathered five children—we could quit having so damn many children.


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  • Blog
  • December 4th, 2012

Summer and Opera

By Joel M. Vance

It’s always a long, hot summer in Alabama and I was living in the only upstairs room, a bleak one, in a rooming house, run by a no-nonsense woman who seemed convinced I was up to nonsense.
I was working for the Montgomery Alabama Journal for a summer before getting married and going into the Army, in that quick order. I was 800 miles from home and my fiancée. We wrote each other achingly lonesome letters. If no letter came I was as blue as the whistle of a midnight train at a rural crossing.
A co-worker, Archie McKay, red-haired, freckle-faced and as jittery as a squirrel in the oak woods, befriended me when it would have been just as easy to categorize me as a dumb kid with the savoir faire of a feedlot shoat and a Yankee to boot.
Maybe Archie considered me a work in progress even if I had the sophistication of Li’l Abner. He and Ed Mohr, the copy desk editor, were ardent opera fans. I knew nothing of opera—the only tenor I knew anything about was Bill Monroe on the Grand Ol’ Opry.
Ed was saturnine, impeccably dressed in pastel brushed cotton and silk clothing, cool even on the hottest days. He looked more like a cross between an Esquire Magazine men’s fashion ad and a benign Beelzebub. Ed presided over the copy desk for exactly eight hours. “Presided” is the right word—Ed treated the slot as a judge treats his bench. It was a seat of power from which he shaped the day’s newspaper. God could not have deterred him from this schedule, for Ed was God when he ruled the slot (the “slot” is the inside of the horseshoe-shaped copy desk and the “rim” is the outside, where the copy readers sit).
Ed lived with an elderly doctor named McCongaghy in a lovely home that evoked images of the Old South. The lighting was dim; everything was muted, dark, quiet and cool. You talked in hushed tones because anything else would have been shouting in a cathedral. Dr. McConaghhy had delivered Nell Rankin, later a reigning diva at the Metropolitan Opera. He had heard Enrico Caruso sing…in person.
Conversely, Archie bubbled with irreverence. Unintentionally funny headlines were entertainment for newspapermen…unless they were responsible for them. “142 Boys and Girls Enter Fat Stock Show,” was one we savored because we didn’t write it.
Archie involved me in translating opera names and arias. “Das Rhinegold” was “Good Beer.” From La Boheme came the aria “Ci lascieremo alla stagion fiorita” which Archie translated as “The lascivious stallion is on a fling.” It was sophomoric humor, but it helped pass slow days when Montgomery’s oppressive heat stifled the newsroom and there was no news to deal with.
“Why don’t you come over Friday and we’ll listen to some opera?” Archie asked, after I’d been at the paper for several weeks. “Have some dinner and a beer.” That sounded not only good but like Salvation. I had a tinny radio in my room, no money for beer and barely enough for dinner. Local radio stations offered a surfeit of country music and more gospel than I cared to endure. I figured I could put up with opera if it meant a free meal and a couple of bottles of beer.
Archie and Lu lived in a small rancher. I took a cab to their place—in those days you could ride across town for a half-dollar. I knocked on the screen door (the inside door was open) and jumped back in fright as a large, menacing dog appeared and rumbled a snarl that promised mayhem. “It’s okay, Lady,” said Archie, appearing behind the dog, and she relaxed and her stubby tail wagged.
Lady, a boxer, was a Seeing Eye dog. Lu was her universe and everything was a threat to that universe until proved otherwise. You didn’t cross the McKay threshold without permission unless you were willing to lose vital body parts.
But once Archie or Lu gave the password, Lady was a big, happy puppy, a vortex of boundless affection.
Archie was an opera fan the way Milanese peasants are, those who buy peanuts and sit in the balcony and hoot at the villain, cheer for the hero and boo the bad singer. He and Lu loved opera the way that Appalachian hill folk love the Grand Ol’ Opry. It was fun.
For Ed Mohr, opera was a refined passion. Where Ed would listen to Lucia di Lammermoor with a martini at hand in the muted elegance of his home, Archie would suck on a Jax beer and hum with the music, occasionally breaking into fractured Italian. But Ed’s and Archie’s shared enthusiasm for opera brought them together.
It’s a long haul from where I grew up, Dalton, Missouri, to grand opera. There were 250 Daltonians, no paved streets, nor street lights. Dalton was six miles from the nearest real town and at least that many light years from the Metropolitan Opera or any other opera house.
I don’t remember ever hearing opera before I graduated from college. I never knew anyone who confessed to listening to opera. It was as alien as music from a flying saucer, a popular fantasy of the 1950s. I surreptitiously listened to the Grand Ol’ Opry because my high school farmer classmates sneered at country music and thought anyone who enjoyed it was hick stupid. They revered Frank Sinatra.
Ed and Archie had three months to convert me to opera, just as term missionaries have but a short time to score points with ignorant savages before rotating home. It was impossible to avoid the lessons. Opera always was there. Ed and Archie discussed and debated opera during lulls on the copy desk. Deskmen on other Alabama newspapers worshipped Bear Bryant the exalted coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide football team. Archie and Ed worshipped Giuseppe Verdi (or “Joe Green” as Archie persisted in calling him).
Archie and Lu’s home was small where Ed’s was grand. Their hi-fi was the heart of it. It was in a tiny second bedroom they called the “music room.” The furnishings were Spartan, a couple of chairs and a rickety couch. The record player rested on a crate.
I listened to scratchy 78 r.p.m. recordings by Caruso and John McCormack and Tito Schipa and Amelita Galli-Curci. Their voices, thinly recorded by primitive equipment, only suggested their talent. The first time I heard “Va, pensiero,” the incomparable chorus from Verdi’s Nabucco I found tears running down my face and was glad that Lu couldn’t see them. Archie had his eyes closed and I surreptitiously wiped my face dry, but understood those captive expatriates. I was a long way from my loved ones, too.
Archie and Lu recognized how lonesome I was and our dinners became regular, maybe once a week, and the music began to draw me into it. I looked forward to the simple food and a couple of beers while Jussi Bjoerling practiced vocal magic with his keen tenor. Bjoerling quickly became my favorite singer. His voice was tempered Swedish steel, the blade of it hissing on Victor Red Label “New Orthophonic” recordings.
Archie was partial to John McCormack and played “The Last Rose of Summer” and “M’appari” which always brought a lump to my throat because the opera heroine, Martha, had the same name as my fiancée.
I heard them all on Archie and Lou’s rickety hi-fi. Once I let the tone arm get away from me and it ripped across a brand new long-playing record with a horrible sound and Lu snapped at me and I still feel guilty, more than 50 years later.
Lady drowsed, but raised her head if anyone moved. Just checking. Always on guard. Lady would have given her life to prevent anything happening to Lu. As much as Lady loved Lu it was no more than Archie did. He openly adored his blind wife and doted on her, not because she was blind, but because she was his life.
Lu once, after a concert, had felt the medals on the massive chest of the famed heldentenor Lauritz Melchior. No telling what Melchior thought of this lovely blind Alabaman caressing his beefy bosom, but he probably preened like a huge bull.
I visited the Montgomery library and asked if they had any way to listen to opera records. “I think we got some up in the attic,” the librarian said. “There’s an old Victrola you can play them on.” I found some old 78 rpm albums in the dusty, deserted attic. There were creaking folding chairs and a portable record player and nothing else. I sat in the bare room, dust motes dancing in the sunlight that came through the murky windows, and listened to the few opera recordings.
No one came up there, not even a cleaning lady. The selection was skimpy, but there was a complete recording of Rigoletto with Lina Pagliughi. I think the tenor was the slight-voiced Ferruccio Tagliavini. But Ms. Pagliughi shook dust from the rafters with her clear coloratura. It was stiflingly hot under the eaves of the library and sweat dripped off me as I tried to follow the libretto, but often the flow of the music seduced me and I lost my place. The words didn’t matter. It’s a smarmy plot anyway “Days of Our Lives” is more complex.
I’m no opera buff. I don’t often follow librettos and seldom listen to a complete opera. Wagner still weighs on me like too much Weiner schnitzel. I lack the sophistication to appreciate Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff as more sophisticated than Traviata or Pagliacci. Maybe I’m still not that removed from Roy Acuff. I have a weird videotape of Placido Domingo in one of his fat phases, singing Cavalleria Rusticana with an all-Japanese cast and it’s more like Gulliver’s Travels than a Sicilian brawl. The little Orientals circle around the massive tenor like chickens following the farmer with a bucket of grain. Archie would have appreciated the slapstick aspect of it.
We listened through the sultry summer nights to Bjoerling as Turrido sobbing goodbye to his mother as he faced death from Alfio’s knife, or Gigli as poor Mario Cavaradossi looking at the stars through the bars of Baron Scarpia’s jail cell the night before his execution.
Lu ran her hands over her cherished records with the tactile delicacy of the blind, but mostly with love for what they contained. Archie bounced from records to playing machine with the giddy zest of a kid at his first movie. And the hot nights ended too soon.
We moved on. I returned to Missouri, married Marty, and Archie and Lou moved to Mobile where Archie became the Sunday Lifestyles editor of the Mobile Register. And then 14 years later I read in a media magazine that Arch McKay had been murdered on Oct. 2, 1973 in his car in the parking lot across the street from the Register. I called Lu and this blind lady said in her soft Southern voice, “The light has gone out of my life.”
Death haunted the operas and we appreciated the stark beauty of it. Death was an operatic device, passionately rendered by Gigli and Milanov and Bori and Tucker and Bjoerling. Death was life to them. But opera is theater, and no matter how many characters die onstage it is not real.
There is nobility in opera. There is no nobility in everyday murder. Archie was no Turrido. Opera doesn’t step off the dusty stage to the other side of the footlights where real people live.
And die.

A postscript: After 39 years, Archie’s murder remains unsolved, although a comprehensive research story by Kevin Lee, a Mobile investigative reporter, ties it to a mob hit and a likely suspect.
Lee’s story unravels an almost incredible tangle of people and events reaching into just about every Mobile power base—political and business. It sounds as if my carefree friend became an insider wannabe and got sucked into a sleazy vortex at the end of which was his slaughter.
The Archie McKay I knew almost certainly became a darker figure after he left Montgomery. He ballooned to 287 pounds and became a man-about-town, who bragged about his contacts (which apparently included mobsters) and inside knowledge (which also apparently included embarrassing facts about the mobsters), and who owned a big boat and memberships in two yacht clubs and a country club—something not credible on the $16,000 salary the paper paid him.
Archie told people that he had gotten into something that frightened him and that he couldn’t get out of. Lee’s story paints a convoluted and dark picture of the southern crime scene, the so-called Dixie Mafia, including a mob family from New Orleans and even ties to Jack Ruby, the Dallas killer of Lee Harvey Oswald.
Was this a classic case of a good man slowly corrupted by temptation? It sounds operatic and from that standpoint, given Archie’s love of opera, you have to appreciate the irony if not the tragic result.
The Archie McKay I knew was light years from the Arch McKay who intercepted a close-range charge of Double-Ought buckshot in a Mobile parking lot. It may make opera seria sense to go with the dark side, but I prefer to remember the effervescent freckle-faced opera buffa kid with the orange crate stereo and the beautiful blind wife.
Lu died more than 30 years after she lost the light of her life.

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