I AM KING

Hello. My name is King. I am a police “Sniffer” dog. I see you most mornings, getting off the 7:38. I’m with the guys in the body armor at the entrance between Tracks 28 and 29. You get high most mornings, I can tell. And you’re carrying some pretty good Mendocino, to my nose. The Alexander Valley, unless I miss my guess. Yeah, I’m that good. Or I should say, we’re that good. You see, our canine noses compare to your human noses like the Palomar Observatory’s 200-inch mirror compares to your eyes. Yep, we’re wired for smell.

Don’t give off your “Alarm” hormone. I’m not going to bite you, or, worse, tell on you. So relax.

How is it I’m communicating with you? Well, I can’t really say. But here we are. I should tell you, first off, that I am with you. I agree, this monitoring and searching and suspicion is crazy. It’s really just make-work for creatures like me, dedicating our lives to sniffing out potential wrong-doers with a one-in-a-million likelihoods of success.

Let me tell you, the smell of fear coming off of you people is making all our jobs more difficult. I mean it’s nasty. It’s a regular anxiety bouquet streaming from you people. Every one of you is worried about something or other. With an accuracy oenophiles should truly envy, we can tell by your personal bouquet when you’ve been unfaithful, when you’re drunk or sick, and sick with what. We can smell your weed as I’ve pointed out and even pinpoint its microclimatogical source (which I admit I did show off a bit, back there). I can tell you fired a rifle not too long ago. There’s a residuum of powder on your messenger bag, Mr. Subtle.

Let you in on a secret. If you see us coming, remember that we only respond to commands in German or Czech. That’s the way we were trained. Don’t freak out, Stinky: if you know the day’s password, and use it, we switch to English and leave you alone. You can find the countersign in the first word of the current day’s issue of Mlada Fronta (a Prague online newspaper). Scroll down a little and look below the category Aktuálně and use the first word below it. Today, 1 October 2014, that word is: Týdeník.

That’s all you’ve got to do. If you see us coming, just use the Password of the Day. A lot of us are on your side, if, for no other reason, to give our noses a break.

Good Luck,

King.

PS: In case of a Civil War (I smell things), my code name will be “Rex.”

BACK TO THE SIMPLE LIFE

4pm Sunday

I see Karl August standing beneath the towering oak outside his house on Pilgrim Street, looking thoughtfully at his new door. Turning up the cement approach to his porch, I must admit the new door looks like wood. Old, dry wood. We stand on the portico and Karl tries it a few times. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. Until you hear it open and close, you’ve no idea it’s double half-inch steel. Closing it sounds sort of Bavarian, like the way a BMW door thumps. But heavier.

“Well fitted, Mr Do-It-Yourselfer!” I offer a warm six-pack as a prize.

The iron bars over Karl’s windows are not glaringly aperiodic on his small colonial. I can see he’s pre-rusted them, to go with the shabby-looking door, part of a scheme to make his house seem dilapidated and unoccupied should he decide to “Shelter-In.” If things get hairier.

“Really looks old. Creaky.”

“It took me days to find the inspiration for the right look. I finally found Dorothea Lange’s gloomy photos of the Dust Bowl migrants and voila! The rest was pen-and-ink and shellac.”

He’d actually hand-drawn the old-wood grain. Damn fine job. “So none of it repeats. That would be a giveaway.” Karl’s a designer.

A door to keep locked on the Big Day! The Admiral has promised us to “Reboot the Republic,” now that the Eight-Week War is over. What’s next? Only the Admiral and the Temporary Leadership Council can say.

On the inside, a double-deadbolt you snap shut with a safe-style wheel in the middle, hardening the stress points in the midsection of the door. There’s a reinforced Judas-hole built that’ll fit a twelve-gauge tube with play for a 90-degree side-to-side or up-down sweep. Elegant. In an elongated bucket inside the crook of the door, the upended butt of an M1 carbine can be seen amidst the tangle of umbrella handles. Karl tracks my gaze. He’s retrieved a couple of cigars from somewhere in his modest citadel. We fire the cigars and ponder them a moment.

“It’s a pretty low-energy round,” Karl allows, appraising the gun upended in the bucket. “A precision piece. Good at neighborhood distances. Won’t over-penetrate.”

Rolled blackout blinds brood over the windows flanking the door. The rest of the house’s windows wear similar grim expressions. Barberry bushes beard the ground floor, and stand before the basement windows on the eastern side of the house. Nature’s barbed wire.

He’s right, I agree. I palm the carbine and eject its 30-round clip. Nasty. Karl’s hollowed out the bullets. You’ve got to factor bullet drop and energy. Our houses are like 25 feet apart on Pilgrim Street. That’s why a lot of folks favor pump-actions with light pheasant loads. “Didjyou spring for the Kevlar curtains?”

Karl smiles. “Natch.” Despite the foreboding we feel, there’s still a pre-game excitement to all of this.

Something about the Kevlar shades catches my eye. I draw closer to the dark shades. I can see subtle floral patterns on the small length of fabric hanging beneath the roll. “These are sort of… decorative. Patterned.”

“On the inside. We don’t have to live like animals!” He says this with a Charlton Heston like intensity. It’s goofy. I laugh.

“This is really gonna be something!” I comment, needlessly.

The .30 carbine oughtta do. I keep a full-powered .308 at hand for my personal comfort level. Plenty of follow-through, there. And a little something in a side pocket. A nice little .38. Betty never carries but Karl’s husband, does. I like that a big strong guy like Neil (who’s also a chef!) can chaperone Betty to see what they can scrounge down at the market. Karl also carries a Kimber .45 with a double-stack mag, which, to my thinking, is exactly right. Betty carries a Swiss Army knife. Doesn’t much care for guns.

Karl and I pop open a couple of warm ones and relax on the two plush sofas in the quiet living room. Neil and Betty should be back soon. And Red, their indefatigably barking Irish Setter. The room seems a lot bigger now that Karl and Neil moved out the inert flatscreen TV and magnificent Bang & Olufsen sound system. That’s one thing you miss about regular electricity. Electronic distraction. Leaves you with a lot of time to think. About this mess we’re all in.

But thank God for Karl’s books. He’s fashioned a little fortress-temple of civilization here. I arise and look at some of the titles. Rich veins of Plutarch, Gibbon, Solzhenitsyn, Churchill… Wodehouse. That’s what I need. I pull out Code of the Woosters and begin laughing.

The Admiral is our Churchill. Our Washington.

The hero generous Fortune gave our Republic, just in time.

Karl’s doing a little inventory along with finding pictures of old doors and despairing woman from the Great Depression. His house fairly groans with art books, many of which lie open in front of his densely packed bookshelves. Culture!

The rest of the floor is a maze of what you call stockpile. Crates, cartons, backpacks, tents, tarps. Ropes. Nautical lines, paracord, twine, yarn, miles of sewing thread, floss and even suturing kits. Karl’s got everything. CELOX instant-clotting chest bandages. Fruit-flavored hydrating salts. Gluten-free, freeze-dried survival meals in pouches and several big plastic buckets containing dried fruits, veggies, soy and whey proteins.

Multiples of two of everything. Guns, redundant guns, extra magazines, stacks of maybe 5,000 rounds of ammo, lubricants, bore cleaners, cleaning rods, the works.

And, among a lot of other things, a battery-operated marine-band radio.

You see, most all the regular radio stations went dark and we’ve been getting our regular information on this weird VHF frequency over Karl’s radio. There’s shortwave, of course, but we can’t decide whether the foreign stations are for us or against, us, usually. A wind-up radio plays some Art Tatum on one of two available versions of Voice of America, one Beijing-leaning, the other, we think, favorable to Brussels. Which is really the voice of… well, the Muezzin.

But it is Art Tatum. If you only have time or means for a little music, you could do worse. If the Muezzin can accommodate Tatum in his world, I will accommodate the Muezzin. The jazz we will not trade. From this sound we can recreate a world. Or create a new one.

Music’s solidly American, anyhow. But, this false Voice of America makes us feel like we’re disloyally listening to Tokyo Rose, or Lord Haw-Haw, or Jane Fonda, or something.

The Admiral’s next orders are due to be transmitted at 6pm Eastern. No one else in the neighborhood had one of these funky radios, but Karl had one. And he doesn’t even have a boat. Well, he does, if you count the inflatable rafts and two kayaks. And linens! More stacks of carefully folded high thread-count Egyptian cotton. Nice stuff.

“His and His of everything, I see.”

“Two is one and one is none,” he affirmed, citing the old Prepper’s Creed that had even found its way into what he’d vowed to Neil during their marriage ceremony.

I sit back down and then lean from the comfortable sofa to look at what’s stenciled on some of the nearby cartons. In the late-afternoon orange sunlight, I read “Spanish Olives”. There’s a stack of six boxes.

“Olives?”

“With pimentos, my boy. Who knows what someone might trade for these delicious babies? They’re gold!”

Next to that stack, another of blue SKYY Vodka boxes. Karl is a professor at the Caliyuga School of Design.

“Let me guess. You like the color of the bottle.”

“The whole design, actually. No carbs, either. These are as good as gold. Trade for anything.”

“Uh, huh. Or mix a few end-of-world dirty martinis.”

“Dirty bomb time is dirty martini time! I’ve got a shitload of capers, too.”

“Shrewd. Those’ll come in handy,” I allow.

Last broadcast, Admiral Clayton made it clear that the only way to reset and restore this country on its course is to restore the respect for law. Natural, human, Law. Not the trillion-lined attempt by government to regulate every aspect of our living, breathing, ingesting, excreting lives according to standards forever mutable.

We are returning to the Constitution. And thirteen colonies, again.

The biggest news, immediately after the Eight-Week War was that, after confiscating the fortunes of Congressmen and the financial elite, and paying down what he could of the debt, the Admiral officially repudiated all debts, public and private. His reasoning? The gigantic, unredeemable debts incurred by our law-givers was not the fault of the American people, but of a runaway swindle by a government-corporate nexus, a tyranny as rank as anything Mussolini, Stalin or Hitler offered. The only difference, for the time-being, was the degree of confiscatory violence used by the authorities. We didn’t blame all of the Russian People, or the German People, for the criminal horror their governments became, after all. It was their governments that needed destroying. So it became for us. America had grown too large to be America anymore. It became our clear duty return government by the people to the people. To do that, to stop what our own government was becoming, we chose to return to 13 confederated nations.

I looked down at the weapons, freshly oiled, gleaming in the slanting sunlight. Fortunately, we were not entirely unprepared in this regard. All scores, settled.

All debts. Forgiven. Public and private.

That did it for the dollar. Take a look at one of the old dollars, if you managed to save any. “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.” It was the key to whole scam! You were just paying your debt to somebody with what somebody else owed somebody. Let us just say, the acclaim for the Admiral’s provisions was near-universal, at least here in America. It fucked everybody else.

The other good news was that would be no more purges and mass-arrests, either. “With malice towards none,” Admiral Clayton put it, channeling President Lincoln. Well, some malice, in the extreme, for a necessary few of the richly deserving financial-government elite. Pour les encouragements des autres, as Napoleon said.

The Re-election of Congress and the President will occur in 14 months, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice tribunals currently adjudicating our land will be replaced by justices appointed by the new elected President and Congress. America will be restored to her owners, Us. The People. Once we firehose the Chicomms and the Russkis out of here.

It’s up to us, the citizen militia, to help, because our forces are pinned down in foreign theaters. The troops won’t be coming home, after all.

That was Round One.

Now we’re waiting to hear from the Admiral about Round Two. Rumors are flying, even without the wildfire-igniting power of the Internet. The craziest I’ve heard is that Admiral will announce a general amnesty to go with the debt forgiveness. If the Eight-Weeks War didn’t get your attention, that sure will! Millions of criminals, released on the streets? I doubt he’d go that far, although…

… it would help balance the scales.

Well, he’ll let us know. We’re going to listen to the Admiral’s orders together. As neighbors. It’s all part of good neighborhood-building, you know? Looking out for each other. Far different from the nation of isolated strangers we had been until just eight weeks ago. We were, at best, “Hi, Neighbor” friends, with Neil and Karl, followed by cordially disappearing into our respective dwellings.

Hard to believe all that’s changed in just two months!

Just 61 days ago the President rode at the peak of power, at the head of an army of law-enforcement personnel and a Children’s Crusade of unlettered misfits who viewed their monthly government pittance as a birthright. A dole understood as a right as fundamental as freedom of speech, assembly, or belief. Or the right to keep and to bear arms, for that matter. It insures all the other rights. The missing piece of the totalitarian puzzle was the troops. And the President made ready to bring them home. Fifteen years of unrelenting war and now he was ready to bring the troops home, disarm them, or impress them into new service here within the widening mandate of Homeland Security.

In retrospect, everyone should have known that bringing the troops home would mean domestic occupation, as the soldiers would be either marginalized as potential PTSD mass-murderers, left jobless, or… choose employment (with insurance benefits!) in the boom industry of security. What else to busy the soldiers with during these times of sky-high unemployment and still higher semi- or part-time employment?

If you see something, say something.

The sudden influx of millions of idle, highly trained ex-soldiers, dropped into an economy devoid of jobs market, coupled with monetary printing by the Federal Reserve, and a massive welfare state caste, and we conjured the same yeast that belched Hitler out of a Munich beer hall. America’s new Caesar, the President, chose to ford his Rubicon at the head of his resentful horde of state and private interests, enforcers and the great mass of those whose wretched lives were supported by government subsidy to a tolerable level of misery. Bringing the military home would lock the door to seal the end of the Republic.

Admiral Clayton hit them mid-stream.

Tapped to be the Chairman of the new “United Chiefs of Staff”, US Coast Guard Admiral Reginald Knowles Clayton knew well the territorial waters of the United States, as well as the treacherous shoals of political Washington. A seeming functionary.

Nothing would so demonstratively domesticate our well-trained and practiced soldiers than to place them under control of the forgotten stepchild or our defense establishment, the Coast Guard.

How else to explain the choice of Clayton?

Perhaps the President considered him a pliant tool to effect his own plan for complete control of the United States, if that was the President’s plan. Certainly, it was on the President’s Menu.

The Coast Guard, you see, long the ugly stepsister of the four other branches of the military, was to be the new Queen under which the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security could be united under a single command. A little noticed codicil of our Constitution permits armed Federal troops on our soil and seaways to protect us against enemies foreign and domestic.

Stunning: The Defense Department to be subordinated to the Coast Guard, officially part of the Department of Homeland Security. All branches subordinate to the Coast Guard and its mission. Allowing for armed coast guards on American soil, realigning the military to come under the control of the Coast Guard, became the perfect way for the President to constitutionally change the military’s mission from foreign to his private domestic guard. After all, you couldn’t expect the archipelago of FEMA “Resettlement Camps” to build themselves. Well, maybe you could, if you arrested enough people.

So close! Everyone can understand the Constitutional Guard and the Oathkeepers and… us… fighting back against the Executive Branch.

Our servicemen and -women took an oath to the whole Constitution, after all, not to any one particular branch of the government. Same with the veterans who made up the so-called Oathkeepers. Same with me.

Instead of “Chief Executive,” the president desired to become chief executioner. The drones would be coming home, too. That’s why he had to be dealt with. Along with his internal police, special assassination teams, the Attorney General, Internal Revenue, FEMA, DHS, TSA, all his commissar-czars… and most of Congress and the judicial branch. A big brooming sweep. Had to go. They turned against Americans. America. Us.

Convert the military to a domestic standing army! Coming at a time of unchecked mass-immigration, fear of terroristic infiltration, the world on the brink of natural or man-made catastrophe, and all the other harbingers of doom, the Administration actually tried to spin the unprecedented choice of the Coast Guard as a way to protect our borders. He thought he could present it as an olive leaf to the “Bring ‘Em Home” conservatives! And he almost pulled it off!

As seems to occur most fortunately at the times when Liberty is in greatest peril, the times supplied the man–and the gallant men who followed him–to meet this crisis. Clayton had developed a comprehensive and far-reaching plan for Homeland Security.

Just not the one he sold the President.

The Joint Chiefs would surely protest, and perhaps resign. Upon nomination, Clayton immediately arranged for an audience with the Joint Chiefs and availed them of his actual plan. The result was a nomination that flew through the Senate, surprisingly uncontested by the military. And that would have aroused a self-reflective president’s suspicions. Fortunately, our then-president had no self-reflective surfaces.

Thus the Admiral’s announcement that all national defense and security functions were to be reorganized and redesignated as Constitutional Guards, caught the Administration by complete surprise. As did their immediate arrest for high treason.

So the entire Administration and Homeland Security directorate was arrested!

United States Constitutional Guard! Not only does the Admiral steal a march on the President and his enforcement apparatus, he didn’t even have to change the Coast Guard Seal, or his USCG acronym. Efficient!

He and the Joint Chiefs arrested the Administration! Personally! Citing their oaths to the Constitution, they took them all out, root and branch. Commissar-Czars, department-secretaries, the whole Commie-sounding politburo of these scheming totalitarian bastards!

The last things we saw on our plasma screens, before the power went off, was smoke rising from the Capitol Building and the ongoing firefight with the holed-up Secret Service at the White House and then… the screens went blank and we were back in the 1930s, listening to radios. Did you know the Secret Service is also responsible for prosecuting counterfeiters? Funny, considering that was what the Fed had been doing all this time with “Quantitative Easing”. Diluting the poisons of the base metal of junk debt by flooding the markets with increasingly diluted dollars.

That’s why the Chairman of the Fed got the rope. Radio’s how we heard, with considerable satisfaction, that one of the first inmates at newly constructed FEMA Resettlement Camp Magenta was the former head of FEMA himself! In fact, prior to the “Reboot,” the Feds had built a vast new archipelago of remote “refugee” facilities across the country in case of population upheaval caused by natural or man-engineered catastrophe.

As it turns out, the concentration camp system they’d built for us helped to shelter the sudden influx of newly “downsized” security personnel. As for the Administration itself, well… most of that gang had to be dealt with the hard way. I hear the situation with the former First Lady got a little… weird…

She never seemed very happy to begin with, so…

… and speaking of having to be dealt with…

Admiral Clayton and the Temporary Military Leadership Council treated the executives at the investment banks, the oil companies, multinationals, the biggest law firms and the Fed the same as the Administration and federal enforcers. Well, not quite the same. At least most of them got to keep body and soul together. A few of them, though, like some of the Nazi financiers, got the rope. The Constitutional Guard seized them and their assets as well. “Bonuses” for all our veterans and active-duty servicemen and women, but first and foremost for the war-wounded.

As good as that all was, though, there was nothing pretty about what you saw when the CG police teams made their arrest sweeps. It made you pretty glad you were self-employed or hadn’t smooched your way up to earning an “Executive” embossed on your personal business cards.

You felt sorry for a few of them, dragged from hidden cellars on their vast Reston, Virginia, or Greenwich, Connecticut, or Somers, New York estates. But these were the same people whose “Ends justify the means” thinking had brought us to this pass. The sort of folk who could fatuously suggest at a cocktail gathering that “Eggs need breaking if omelets need making,” or some similar thoughtless quip.

Some of the shootouts between the military and the government and private enforcers were said to be as bad as anything you saw in Iraq. Nasty. All I really remember seeing on TV was a brief tornado of murky blasphemy carried out between equally bald-headed, uniformed combatants, the epic pictures of the Capital Dome emitting smoke like some infernal giant’s hookah. Some nasty scenes. Yes, even some blown up Krispy Kremes franchises. Murder most ironic.

Intense. Especially as the besieged enforcers were using brand-new army hand-me-downs like full-auto weapons, military-grade explosives, riot gases, crowd-control technologies and, of course, all-too-many armored fighting vehicles. A pretty equal fight. For a few minutes.

Few municipalities or can bring air support or eight-inch howitzers. The Constitutional Guard could.

Speaking of armored fighting vehicles, I see Betty and the Good Knight Neil dismounting their bikes. Neil shoulders both bicycles and carries them towards the door.

I walk to the reinforced door, Karl nods his assent, and I play with the ship-style hatch opener. The lock slides open with intricated smoothness and my wife, Red the dog and Neil with the bicycles enter. My eyes detect success in the form of the stocked panniers on either side of the rear wheels of our spouse’s bikes.

“Did Red go all the way with you?” asked Karl.

“He sure did,” responded Betty. She loves Red. “He’s a good boy.” The slightly gray-bearded setter smiled at her, as all dogs are wont to do in her presence. Most people, too. My wife’s a love.

“Well, you’re right on time.”

Betty’s little nose crinkles. “You boys smoking?”

“Guilty. Karl was waving it in my face.”

“A cigar, I hope?”

“Sad, really,” Neil jokes, looking at me. “Still uncomfortable with the inner bisexual trying to escape his man’s body.” I am nonplussed by this remark and decide to watch Karl and Betty unload the baskets. Celery, tomatoes, a cabbage, a loaf of bread, some cheese, a salami! Yogurt! Mustard! An unbelievable score.

“The Hunter-Gatherers!” Karl crows in triumph, mixing his first martini of the evening while I fiddle with the marine-band radio. Got it. Channel 16.

A clear nasal voice is talking. “… ning, Americans. This is Chief Warrant Officer Kenneth Jackson of the United States Constitutional Guard on Armed Forces Radio with your two-minute warning. Admiral Clayton will be addressing the nation at 6:02 Eastern time. Please standby, this frequency.” He repeats the message, and then the voice is replaced by an up-beat rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. God, it’s good to hear the strength of that song.

Neil tears up a bit, at the anthem of the Union. His eyes glisten in the fading light. “That’s always been a personal favorite of mine.” Betty’s practically crying, too. I myself have an unappeasable itch in my throat. I clear it. I signal Karl for a martini. It alights just as the hymn ends and the Admiral begins.

“Good Evening, Americans. This is Admiral Reginald Clayton, speaking on behalf of the Temporary Military Leadership Council. I won’t waste our time, here. The destruction of the ability of the former power-elite to wage unrestricted, terroristic economic war on Americans and America is concluding. Scattered resistance continues, but for the most part, Phase One of our emergency surgery on the Republic is over, and a success. But conditions of injustice remain that, if not treated resolutely and immediately, will prove as deadly fatal to us as the parasites that, We, the People, just expunged.”

We all looked at each other in the dim light. What does it mean? Neil lit one candle. Damn, they teach these officers well at the service academies and war colleges, and such!

“We are therefore embarking on a new mission as a nation. Victory here will be decisive. We must, all of us, to the last citizen, renew our vow to obey the laws upon which the Republic was founded.”

Getting a little apprehensive, now. Somehow my martini got empty.

The Admiral continued “It is not the written law or laws. It is not something that requires years of law school to tease true meaning from. It is the law of the heart, that cries out at injustice. It is the law of the heart that finds in itself the power to forgive. Our great Republic was founded by men who believed in their hearts that all men were created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. We are all to respect those rights. And that’s where the law lesson ends. We have taken care of those who thought they could with impunity wreak economic disaster on us. We have hunted them across the seas and we have liquidated their stolen fortunes.”

“But this is not enough for us, for Americans. We didn’t shed blood of brothers and sisters for revenge, vengeance, eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth! We did it with a great goal in our minds: to save the Republic, and we have, for now. But now we must bind its wounds, and to allow it to emerge from its bandaged state to a state of more perfect union.” Good line.

“We should change our national symbol,” quipped Karl. “Replace the eagle with a particolored butterfly.” We laugh, but stifle it quickly, like misbehaving kids at church.

The Admiral carried on. “For us to be healed and to grow requires the balm of forgiveness. Only forgiveness can heal our scars. Americans always aim for what’s better. Forgiveness is better. The willingness is there, after all our own best intentions are what got us all into this mess. Now it’s time to re-establish the Rule of Law, the Law of the Heart, in our brave, embattled land. We must peel away the restraints of these laws upon our hearts and live by what is just, not what is just legal. Half-measures will avail us nothing. We must advance, with humble, repentant hearts, transported by the greater glory of forgiveness.”

This is all starting to sound very unfashionable. I think that’s why I like it. The Admiral continued.

“Over six million people now inhabit America’s jails. In three days’ time, starting at 6am Eastern on the 24th, all jails, prisons, and other places of involuntary incarceration, at all federal, military, state, county, town and village levels, will begin the process of releasing all of their prisoners.”

Our jaws drop.

“The 24th will be National Amnesty Day.”

Looking around the room, I notice everyone’s hands have suddenly found a weapon. Even me. One of the shotguns. It’s a slide-action and holds seven, with one in the pipe, if you wish. I’ve begun loading it.

“The Temporary Leadership Council and I are asking you to lead the way, by forgiving your own enemies, representing of your own past misdeeds, and pressing ‘Restart’ in your hearts. This is everyone’s chance for a clean break.”

“What the…” Everyone shushes me.

“Everyone gets a fresh start. Even those immoral fleecing sons-of-bitches at the banks and their lawyers.”

We all laugh. That’s the Admiral, for you! Holy cow. This is what it means. They’re letting them all go. Mob Accountants to Zombies.

We’re all Soldiers, now. Always have been. Militia, I guess you might say.

“It’s only fair. Time and again, it’s been proven that supposed ‘evidence’ from DNA, to fingerprinting, to eyewitness testimony to the most intricate financial crimes can be tampered with or wholly fabricated. And new technologies promise whole new areas of evidentiary contamination. The malfeasance built in to this self-sustaining system of legal plunder has made it essential that the slates be sponged clean. Better nine guilty men go free, than one innocent man be unjustly punished.”

And so on. Wow. Thinking about getting home and working on our own preparations.

“Everyone is put on fair warning, whether you are being released from your imprisonment or have never committed a misdemeanor in your life. There is no longer the police apparatus and legal system you were counting on to protect you. It is up to all of us, now, starting with our homes and families, and our neighbors, to get along and to see to the security of what’s belongs to is. You are all therefore strongly cautioned to take all measures to protect yourselves and your properties during this time of redress and potential upheaval.”

“America will rebuild. We will love and help our neighbors as we, together, take on this difficult mission, together. And we’ll approach the world anew, humbled, and humbler. Forgiveness. The greatest love we can show each other.”

Unreal. We’re soldiers. Always have been.

Already, we begin to hear the cracks of celebratory gunfire to the east and down the hill. Not close. But close enough.

Out go the candles.

Karl draws first watch. He clamps a Generation 3 night scope atop the carbine.

WITH LESTER YOUNG… SWING STAYED SWUNG.

ON BECOMING INSTANTLY COOL WITH THE PREZ & BIRD BIRTHDAY BROADCAST ON WKCR

Oh, we are blessed that recording devices existed in these ancient days when these two, Lester Young, a/k/a “Prez,” and the Yardbird himself, Charlie Parker, played and, even better, played together.

And we benefit greatly that WKCR is playing music so good, that I drove an extra eighth of a tank of gas just because I could not bear interrupting “The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever” (History’s words, not mine) recorded at Massey Hall in 1953. I get pretty bad mileage. I drove, windows unrolled, for all to hear. This music is the sound of history.

With such music accompanying, one is automatically, incontestably cool. Unbelievably cool. It’s quite a feeling on a hot August afternoon. And it’s a timeless cool, just so you know. There will never be a time in future history when someone doesn’t find this music utterly delightful.

We’re only halfway through the three-day broadcast dedicated to that space in recorded time we call 27-29 August, a High Holiday of the Jazz Calendar, which we must accord especial status, given that this is the period of time bookended by the births of Lester Young (1909) and Charlie Parker (1920).

This music is wound as tight as mechanically possible, valves and reeds and strings and pipes and skins interlocking with Swiss precision. And rocking. And swinging. It swings, Gate. Like a gate. It leaps alive across the air and snatches control of your feet.

It’s all online, or over the air, via incomparable WKCR FM 89.9 MHz, ably and didactically helmed by the voice of academic jazz himself, Doktor-Professor Phil Schaap, a sonorous, human encyclopedia of jazz, whose electron-precise memory is etched in wax, vinyl, wire recordings, metallic tape, LP, and all the digitalization that’s followed.

Schaap is the best deal in New York City: a graduate-level jazz history and criticism course guised as simply the greatest music, ever. Which it frigging is.

Which brings us back to the near-coincident birthdays of two of the ultra-titans of jazz. Let me ask you this? Why aren’t you listening to it right now?

Good. Now, listen to all the other greats showing up, too. Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Buck Clayton, Max Roach, young Miles Davis.

Thank the Muses and Dr Schaap and the staff of King’s College Radio for such a celebration.

Prez & Bird Live!

RICHARD THE THIRD IN REALTIME: BREAKING BAD

(written the day after the final episode of Breaking Bad; Spoiler Alerts)

Hank is as real to us as our own brother-in-law.

The gaping pain of Marie Schrader is almost unbearable.

We can only pray to God top to deliver Walter Jr from the madness seeming inevitable.

No show has evoked how we feel after the death of someone close to us as Breaking Bad and this elevates it into the highest reaches of Tragedy. Yet, to a degree unprecedented in this observer’s experience, I am witnessing an unfolding of events and personalities that is rivetingly, appallingly inescapable. It is a bit like being a mildly-amusing cousin, a fop conditioned to sitting nine places away from the real Richard of Gloucester at the drinking table. Our King Walter still stands, and he is enacting his bloody doings in front of our hostage eyes.

My beloved and I both awoke with nameless fear this morning, wavering, shivered to the bone. I cannot abide seeing My Dear in fear, since I love her and because her anonymous worry so correctly mirrors my own. Why have we inflicted this on ourselves? It’s a kind-of TV-PTSD, shellshock, battle-fatigue. What have we left ineffaceable in our memories of the series? These are the question these characters, and we, must ask ourselves, now. Like no other experience, Breaking Bad punches through the Fourth Wall and leaves our mouths a bloody mess. We purchased all of Breaking Bad until this point.

I doubt I can summon the money to achieve the complete loss of my moral teeth. But mouth was agape as it concluded. Five seasons, five acts. Pure tragedy, complete with body-count. Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, make room for Gilligan. The master with the bungler’s name!

If you haven’t seen Breaking Bad, remember: you cannot un-see it. Perhaps, then, do not watch the final episode, and keep hope alive to the last. Leave the characters in a place where some unknowable Grace might deliver them from the inferno of suffering they’ve inflicted on themselves. Leave the characters as they are, where they are, I ask you. Leave Grace out of it, if it bothers you, and with cold rationality simply allow these them to exist in the same state as the theoretical cat of Doctor-Professor Schrödinger. Neither alive nor dead.

If you haven’t started to watch, perhaps don’t. For, what have we purchased? And at what deceptive price? Why have we bought into people we care about, as Walter did, and seen so many of them killed or wounded in ways visible and invisible, authors of who-knows-what tragedies to come? Is this what the ancients called Catharsis?

These are the questions Breaking Bad forces us to ask. Right now. This morning.

Don’t buy into this, even if it is the titanic televisionary achievement of our generation. Don’t get involved with Walter and Skyler and Jesse and Hank and Junior and Marie and the Baby.

Just leave these poor people alone.

 

JUST BACK IN TOWN

I wrote this on the plane.

You will know us when you meet us,

just as we know each other when we encounter one another, across countertops, at workplaces, in bar-rooms or churches..

We are the men.

The gentlemen.

Of many races and creeds,

who will pick up whatever’s at hand,

be it broken bottle or bazooka

to defend the cause of freedom.

I scratched out “freedom,” and replaced it with “liberty,” then scribbled over that and wrote, really small (I was using one of those impossibly tiny Moleskine notebooks my mom had got me), Western Civilization.

There, I’d finally said it. Or thought it. Well, at least I wrote it down. It seemed fairly obvious.

The thoughts kept coming.

You will know us.

You will feel us.

And when the time comes,

we will resist you with everything we’ve got.

I tore it out and rolled it into a pill, soaked it in my beer and swallowed it. And the rest of the beer. The attendants made ready for landing.

I get off the plane and it’s like nothing’s changed for these people. I left ‘em on a playoff Saturday, and I return on a playoff Saturday and everybody’s all kind of distracted by the possibility of the Steelers getting in, just like when I left.

Well, it’s changed for me, let me tell you, after what I saw over there.

In fact, let me not tell you.

J.B. and Bill picked me up at the airport, and we headed for home. Bill’d grown a moustache. J.B., like always, never said very much.

“There’s the hero,” Charlie said after the shock of the surprise party wore off and I came back in from outside. Just kidding, I held it together, but seriously, maybe, folks, maybe don’t surprise a returning soldier?

I hate when they call me that. “Hero.” I ain’t no hero. I don’t know what they think I’ve done that could be considered any kind of heroic. Half the shit I can’t even remember I was so scared. That’s kind of why I dispensed with my dress uniform and went with the civvies.

Macy was at the house, and Deena, too, trying to look pretty for me, her soldier-sweetheart. Mom, Mama Rae and my half-sister Lou Ann. It was all decorated up for the holidays, even some of my old hand-drawn Xmas cards I’d made back in elementary school up on the mantle. Good ol’ Charlie Chiswell came by, too, which was great. Hadn’t seen him in a long time. Man was like a second father to me after Dad took off. And he’s a good dad to Lou Ann. No hard feelings for divorcing Mom. She’s a tough one. Lot of wired-in bleakness in her.

I could tell Charlie was kind of disappointed I didn’t show up in uniform, but he’d never let on, just like I didn’t let on how “Surprise” almost put me in a “Don’t let this happen to you” situation for an adult diaper brand.

Charlie’s as proud of me as my real dad would be. Actually, more so, since I never had a real dad.

Charlie and my brother went back to watching the game and I ate a hamburger standing and kind of half-watched the game but I also looked outside, into the slow snow and thought how different it all was from overseas and all the usual clichéd claptrap.

I went to get a drink and maybe to change into something more presentable than the sweats that had become my default garb of late. I went into the kitchen where the ladies had the game on a smaller flat-screen and they’re cutting salami and hard-boiled eggs and veggies to go with the monster roast bubbling in the oven. The kitchen fills the house with what to a carnivore like myself could be described as the odor of promise. Long experience has perfected Mama Rae’s roast. It hits hunger with the precision of a laser-designated JDAM.

Maybe I could sell that line to Hungry Man or something.

My phone vibrates. It’s Percy.

“Yo.” Mom looks inquiringly at me. She’s watching me, Her Johnny Came Marching Home.

“Coming out tonight?”

“Sure, see you tonight. Pick me up?”

“You got it.” I click off.

Mom’s still looking at me. She doesn’t like me going out. Especially not with Percy.

“You’re not going to go out in this weather.” Not a question. She didn’t bother saying, “You just got home.”

“Just for a couple, Ma. Back in a jiffy.”

“But the Cincinnati game…”

“I’ll be home before it’s over.”

We hate the Bengals. Cleveland, too. Paul Brown started both teams. That was a coach.

 

ii

“You want a new job?”

“Not if it’s like my old job.”

“Nothing like that,” said Percy, his dark eyes smiling over a large beer. I palled around with a gin and tonic with lime.

“My ma’s wondering what we’re up to, I can tell.”

“Well, she doesn’t have to worry. Ol’ Perce’ll take care of you.”

 

iii

It’s odd seeing the Colonel, again. He’s sort of my Paul Brown.

He sat just as he had in-theater, half-seated on a folding chair, intentionally recalling the repose of Lord Buddha with a low, wide table in front of him, maps, papers and fat reference books both open and closed, the tensor lamp throwing light in a cone on the table, leaving the rest of the room dim. He wore khakis and a dark sweater, almost what he wore back there.

I’d traveled a long way to see him, but that didn’t matter, the same formalities prevailed. He was my mentor, had been since the Academy. I felt for him in some ways as I felt for Charlie Chiswell, but with a greater, instinctive emotion, for we had seen some shit together.

He let me stand there awhile, and then he aimed the cone of light at me. He was inspecting me.

“You ready?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“You put on a ‘Freshman Fifteen’ since you got out of uniform?”

“I guess you could call it a ‘Civilian Sixteen,’ Sir.”

“Good one. I’ll pour you a scotch. No carbs.”

He poured it; I took it.

“You’re back active.” That was it.

He’s the only guy from over there I would ever work for again.

 

iv

My thinking was to approach Arthur first. I shall not use anyone’s real names, not even Percy’s.

Arthur lived two blocks over from Ma’s house on Sycamore and we’d been teammates on our high school football team, he a linebacker and I a defensive lineman. He made noises like he would join up but he didn’t, and I can’t say I blame him. He dated Lou Ann for a while. He was my best friend.

He’d worked at a healthcare marketing firm until about a year ago and had been working on and off around town, since. This was the first time I’d seen him since returning. He’d put on a bit around the middle. But as the evening wore on and he continued his usual rant, it was clear he hadn’t changed. He was still a crazy fuck, and that’s what’s important.

“Want a job?” And I started to outline it.

 

v

Counter-counter-insurgency’s a tricky game, to put it mildly. It helps to be indigenous, for sure, but watching the watchers is always a sketchy business. You must not be seen observing. Better, you must not be seen. I’d learned the importance of this for myself, back when

I was looking for the rival’s glass, some fuck hidden away as snugly as I, searching for me with just the same unblinking intensity as I sought him.

Just the job for Kirby, my old partner in crime.

 

vi

I hate Caliyuga City. But that’s where Kirby lived with his mom and dad, up on Riverside Drive. So I drove out there and I waited in the Diner on 79th Street for three straight mornings and then he came in.

He spotted me right away. I had on shades and the moustache was new. Didn’t matter. He slipped into the other side of the booth.

I didn’t bother offering him a job. I just told him: We’re active again.

 

vii

The Big Day’s coming closer. People are mad. The demonstration at the State Capitol is supposed to be peaceful.

Jake Barlow and Orestes Garcia will be joining our merry band. Both of them are electronics-signals guys. We’re all going to demonstrate.

We’re all going to demonstrate cohesion, and we will pledge our lives and sacred honor on it.

 

viii

It is a Hollywood cliché, the returning veteran gone mad. And indeed, few of us evidenced any of the variously named mental disfigurements our time abroad may have inflicted. But there is no question that Percy, Barlow, Garcia, Kirby and I possessed a special bond, one that shared no unit number but united us forever in a special kind of nastiness that… well, as I asked before, how about if I don’t tell you about it? It’s just more fuel for vengeance.

Arthur was a different case. I could tell that he envied us the bond of our experience overseas. If he’d known what we’d been through, what we’d seen and couldn’t forget, he’d not have sought so ardently for this honor. But knowing him, I knew he would gladly have shared our burdens, as well as the swelling weight of our memories. He in fact probably would not have come back. His gentle demeanor masked a man of considerable idealist passion, and the one thing he loved was his country, a love he stuck to stubbornly, even in the Ivy League school he attended. He’d have made a good soldier. He, like us, did believe, deep down, Dulce et decorum est pro Patria mori.

Naturally we razzed him about his rank civilianhood, made him do rookie stuff. Joked at the expense of his manhood and love of country. It burned him and embarrassed him, but I think deep down, he appreciated it, really, recognizing it for what it was: initiation. We all knew he was with us, but we wanted to keep him on razor’s edge.

Arthur quit smoking and drinking and started working out. He was rounding into shape by the time of the demonstration.

 

ix

A few days before this all went down, I received in the mail a set of temporary tattoos. They were one-inch-tall decals of a coiled rattlesnake. A kids’ thing, really. Percy, Barlow, Garcia, Kirby and I all applied them to the inside of our right arms, just above the wrist. Once they’d set, we set off to find Arthur.

We invented a ritual. Made it up as we went along. Stood him at attention. Suddenly realized we needed a blindfold, which Percy provided in the form of a not-necessarily Bounce-fresh bandana. Garcia improvised some Latin words which we improvised repeating. Then we each of us started punching Arthur the arms and body for about minute. He had us laughing when he said, “Not the face! Not the face!” We soon stopped hitting him. We didn’t try to kill him, but I assure you, he felt it. And he took it.

Then we made him swear unto death silence for the cause. We told him our secret slogan, “Liberty or Death,” and made him repeat it. Like I say, we made all this stuff up.

We took the blindfold off him then rolled back our sleeves. You are initiated, we told him, save for one detail: the mark of our brotherhood. He gazed at the tattoos with envy.

Well, Arthur drank that night, as did the rest of us, as we ginned up the courage in our civilian comrade to get his own ink at the tattoo shop adjacent the bar. We hang out at swanky places, you can tell.

He sat and gritted it out, his wrist getting all punctured and such.

We returned to the bar and toasted Arthur.

Then we showed our wrists, from which we’d cleaned all traces of our fake tattoos while Arthur was receiving his real engraving. Arthur looked confused as we exploded in laughter, then he started laughing (What else could he do?).

“Rookie!” we jeered.

That’s when we all got up, except Arthur. He looked red-faced and surprised.

“Where are you guys going?”

I smiled at him. Said it real nonchalantly.

“Next door. We all want snake tattoos.”

The look on his face said it all: surprise, gratitude, honor, jubilation, deep emotion.

How happy he truly was as we each squirmed beneath the needled snakes.

He was one of us, now.

 

x

As we’d expected, the trigger-happy police provided the cause for the next great demonstration of rage from the people. An unarmed youth was gunned down by two undercover officers… the kind of thing you always seemed to read about.

The Governor was planning to address the protesters, assembled at the State Capitol, and we were going to go along, in solidarity against the hyper-militarized police and their civilian intelligence programs… and sow a little confusion along the way.

Now, “confusion” can be a loaded word. Let me unload it for you. We meant at no time to do actual harm: We merely wanted to confuse things, a little. But no action of ours would cause harm. We were Hippocratic. Not hypocrites.

We never, ourselves, would raise an actual hand.

 

xi

We wargamed it out-county, way out in the Wetlands, away from any sort of anything: high-frequencies, repeater towers and such. From what we remembered of our old jobs, we knew we’d have be purely off-grid for the detailed practice of this mission. No EM in or out. To reduce visual signature, we drilled in camo (to Arthur’s delight). We slopped through the freezing mud beneath the trees of the wetlands. We froze our asses off and ate shitty backpack food. Arthur excelled.

It was good to get back out in the field, reading maps in soiled map covers, building the dioramas, planning it out. Kirby was totally in his element, just like old times.

It brought us back to when we were kids, playing army. Monte Cassino. Stalingrad. Guadalcanal. The Bulge. Depended on the season. Oh, how we kids loved to play it. Oh, how we still love to play it, even though it isn’t, and never was, “Cool.”

Night came earlier and earlier.

 

xii

The day of celebration was at hand. And we met it very near soberly, except for the six-pack we split that morning.

We all knew what it meant, so there wasn’t much to say. We each saluted each other, shook hands, and went our destined ways.

Only Kirby finished his beer.

 

xiii

Well, they shot Garcia. They’d heard enough out of him. Crazy fuck! He’d climbed the big old copper beach near the podium, I mean, he fucking ran up the tree before security could grab him, and from there he kept heckling and heckling the governor. The cops kept trying to get a bead on him with the taser, but then, even the crowd understood that could kill him, so they turned on the cops, who backed off.

Got to get closer. Next thing, Orestes makes the move, reaching inside his jacket and withdrawing a narrow, cylindrical object, which he brings to his eye and I hear “GUN” from off to the left and almost simultaneous, Orestes jerks back and the glass in his telescope sprays, then I hear the glass breaking and he starts to drop, hitting branches on his way down.

“No!” I roar, and begin to run towards fallen Garcia. I am highly, even suspiciously bundled up. I carry a long black umbrella, using it to shoo the fleeing protestors to the sides as I work against their panicked flow. There lies Garcia. He did not survive.

I have arrived at his resting place first and am now being told to get away from the suspect to keep my hands behind me down on the ground and I decide to whirl on them with my best form, as I used to, breathing just so, the furled umbrella riffling with a touch of left-right crosswind.

“You!” I accuse and then the syllable wheezes off, for I’ve been ventilated. I fall back and my head turns towards the capitol steps, and there’s Arthur! Our Arthur, leading the way up the steps. Kirby gets hit. More shots, but Arthur continues the charge.

He carries the flag.

Our flag.

On, Wisconsin.

I am dying.

THE RAILING

He squeezed the railing tightly, the better to keep from launching himself over it and into the night below.

She had said that thing that couldn’t be unsaid. Described him in a quite novel way, said that she had overlooked it out of love for him, that he was disgusting, a unique pig, a never-to-be-healed sore seeping out of her soul, a blackness from which she could never fully emerge, his memory shadowing a wide swath of her life and consciousness, now.

Her statements were pointed and fresh, for she was very, very intelligent and original, and her descriptions snapped electrically with outrage and scalded hurt.

She drew novel analogies between him and several dysfunctions of the digestive tract, forms of procreation, and some of the many stages, states and even “statements” of bacterial decomposition and discharge that is, and always will be, the inexhaustible source, the compost, really, of all earth’s humor and insult.

She displayed this astonishing descriptive gift during this, their last meeting.

Her metaphors likening him to obscure mycobacteria and to a radiation field of poisoned memory was rather well said, to be honest. It began modestly enough, but soon, the upward-scaling analogies grew so extreme that they evidently required a consequent rise in volume such that was soon loud enough to entertain all the patrons at DaVinci’s.

“Entertain” in the same way people are “entertained” by a circus trick gone terribly wrong, or by an upper-storey apartment fire, or by a multicar accident on a snowy (snowbliterated?) turnpike. Diners open-mouthed, children fallen silent with admiration at this big-people naughtiness, pausing waitstaff–all found something irresistible to look at in the extraordinariness of others, our each and individual penchant for doing something unprecedented. At least in the experience of all concerned, her corsair disparagements presented an irresistible spectacular: a bourbon-bewitched mischief blonde unfolding insults and taunts of astounding intricacy and literacy.

With A Thousand-and-One Belittlements did she him crown and did she the crowd astound!

She indeed had made such a case for her true inconsolability, the ten years of travail and quite often happy times by his side now irretrievable past and sicklied over, now with revelation of his perfidy. She removed articles of jewelry from her appendages, offering them back as suspect, contraband windfalls. These displaced earrings, rings, necklaces, bangles, wristlets now existed for her as reference points as immovable as the Stars, seen through a new telescope allowing her to perceive things in their true infamy.

It was a dark enlightening. She now felt, as much as understood, that she lived in a far wider, crueler universe, torn open by his treachery, an upside-down jeering unfamiliar world she had suspected but had hoped never to actually see.

Any of his previous actions and absences was now subject to scrutiny through this rent in her universe, her new lens to the past, this portal of evil, her awakening to this brutal new calculus of betrayal.

That voice of angry truth had chased him out onto the balcony of the restaurant, where he now gripped the handle to keep himself steady.

Late night traffic whispered on the street below, as though the machines, too, were curious what she might say next. And say, she did, through and onto the balcony, that now the city they visited might know of his perfidies.

Thoughts of their times together came to him. At the Yankees games. Those were great. She was legendary in their section for the quality of her heckling. She could launch family-friendly jests at visiting players that would set those in range of her voice a-laughing with gems like “Buy a vowel, you can afford it” to the Slavic-surnamed players or, to the umpire, “Hey, Blue! That’s home plate, not a dinner plate.” Odd-statured or plain short fielders could receive a, “Hey, So-and-So! Step out of the hole!” Players suffering in the tabloid headlines might expect a, “Oh, he can hit. Just ask his wife!” and that was as PG as she got.

Sometimes, the entire section, and even the target of her jest, would turn laughing to salute her, clapping with the civility of a tennis crowd at her aces.

What a voice! He had a selection of Bulgarian music in his library, choral stuff in weird 7:12 and 5:9 tempos, where the women singers offered the same kind of sound: a corsair or Valkyrie keening designed to enable complaints to be heard between the peaks of Rhodopes.

Her voice worked the same way, and now, freighted with the maximum payload of scornful derision. It fairly blistered his ear canals.

So easy, he thought. What is it? 35 feet? Might not be high enough.

Wasn’t going to happen. He backed into the restaurant.

The conversations in the restaurant had begun to guardedly resume and he returned to find her still there, silent.

They paid the check, and he escorted her to the car. So much they had experienced together. So much he had betrayed.

cropped-img_0870.jpg

’14

“Europe today is a powder keg and the leaders are like men smoking in an arsenal. A single spark will set off an explosion that will consume us all. I cannot tell you when that explosion will occur, but I can tell you where. Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans will set it off.”

– Otto von Bismarck

Is an ascendant Kurdistan acceptable to its neighbors, to the region, to the world? Whose stability would it most threaten? After all, by deftly gobbling up North Ossetia, the Crimea, and backing the Eastern Ukrainian separatists, Russia’s Putin demonstrates anew that ethnic grievance and pretensions are suitable pretexts for redrawing map-lines.

Not that we needed much reminding, given the democidal excesses of the last century or two.

So why not “Make it Official” and put the sanguine cartographers back to work drafting up an Independent Kurdistan from the homelands, farms and mosques of lands predominantly Kurdish? What would one additional flag mean to the 180-or-so outside the United Nations building? Oh, and that new flag for the new Donetsk Republic, as well. And maybe ones for Scotland and Quebec and any other “Breakaway” provinces in the world.

Certainly a Kurdistan would be very meaningful to the region, and the discomfiture occasioned by its declaration of independence would be liberal for the Kurds’ many neighbors in Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Central Asia and even Russia, and gratifying to those who oppose this grubby lot of religious, political and technocratic dictatorships.

So, who among the blood-dimmed host of militaries, hatchetmen and autocrats in and around the region is fit to judge the norms by which peoples should call themselves nations? Who among any of us, actually?

Rather than force ourselves to make a decision better left to the Deity, let’s instead travel back 100 years in time. Let’s compare today’s horrors to the situation in Southern Europe in the decade-or-so before the outbreak of the Great War of 1914.

It was around this time, just last century, that Orthodox Christian Serbia had come unto her own in two Balkan Wars, first ejecting the Turks from the peninsula, then quashing the overstimulated Bulgars in the second.

Not that the Serbs hadn’t been helped, Mother Russia had played her role as well, pruning the Sultan’s realm, at great cost, of Bulgaria, annexing the Crimea and mastering her native Tatars, as well as pacifying the Caucasus with its horde of Hadji Murads, the Chechen brigand-chief whom Tolstoy immortalized.

Russia’s purse and sympathies lay open to the Serbs, close linguistic cousins and co-religionists of the Russian Tsar and the Orthodox Church which he led. The Serbs offered a natural ally and forward outpost of the imperial pretensions of the later Tsars, whose lands bordered those of Austria-Hungary.

Thus would formerly Ottoman Bosnia come into play. When Austria annexed it Bosnia in 1908, the Serbs, Bulgars and Montenegrins united in opposition, along with all the other Great Powers of Europe. But it was a fait accompli, and now, firmly in the Austrian sphere. Serbia’s arrival was also aided by the internal problems that were dissolving the Ottoman Empire as well. The once-potent Sultan and his Janissary guard now governed an empire weakened by its own internal ethnic, linguistic religious divisions, its economic and technological backwardness, and a vitiated military class whose capacity for palace intrigues was more greatly to be feared than its swords.

Turkey had thus earned the sobriquet, allegedly uttered by Russian Tsar Nicholas I, of “The sick man of Europe.”

Russia was no picture of health, to be sure. Her grain exports fed the world, while her own peasants starved. Conditions in the workhouses of St Petersburg, Moscow, Tula and other industrial centers lagged those of Western Europe. Child labor and 12-hour days provoked strikes. Bloody Sunday in 1905 saw a peaceful march of workers and their families mown down by the Tsar’s Cossack guard: at least a thousand died in the shooting and the panicked trample that followed. Eventually, the instigator of the march, Father Georgii Gapon, was discovered to be a double-agent: earning needed cash by informing for the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana.

The Emperor of Austria, Franz Josef, His Heir Apparent, Franz Ferdinand, and the general staff of Austria-Hungary eyed all these signs of imperial dissolution with mounting concern. Austria’s annexation of Bosnia necessarily put the rising power of Serbia at the door of the Hapsburg’s Empire, itself an increasingly unmanageable patchwork of nations, languages and confessions. Emperor Franz Josef knew well the insane pitch to which national and linguistic pretensions could rive his peoples. After bloody clashes, and humiliation at the hands of the Prussians, he had been forced to raise Hungarian to equality with German as national languages of the realm. More than that, Hungarian would be primary in those regions possessing a Hungarian majority.

Thus the Slavs (and Rumanians, and Italians) of the Dual Monarchy were doubly penalized, having long been forced to conduct official business in German. To the non-Magyars born in Hungarian-majority lands fell the requirement to carry out government business in Hungarian, a language as utterly dissimilar from the Slavic or Romance tongues as from the Germanic. Hungarian is a language of legendary impenetrability and flummoxes even the most intelligent adult’s attempts to learn it. Franz Josef’s Bavarian wife, Elizabeth, even tasked herself to learn it, so she could better enjoy life as Queen of Hungary in Budapest, the city whose quiet and beauty she preferred to Vienna. The death of her son, Crown Prince Rudolf, in a murder-suicide with an actress named Maria Vetsera, ineffaceably grieved her. His death had placed Archduke Franz Ferdinand next in line for the Habsburg throne.

But the linguistic issues of the Empire still rankled. Austria-Hungary’s patchwork consisted of many different languages as well as religions: Protestants, Greek Orthodox, Judaism and Islam were all represented. the Naturally, the thought occurred to many of the Slav subjects of Franz Josef, Why shouldn’t there be a third language of empire: a Slavonic one? And these were the milder opinions. Other, more imperative voices were beginning to be heard, as well, new voices that crossed national frontiers, German, Hungarian and others beginning to self-identify as Polish, Croatian, Italian, Albanian, Rumanian, Ruthenian, even Russian. And most important, Serbian.

Picture the Dual Monarchy as a quilt of as many as 36 languages and dialects, uncounted sects, religious affiliations, labor relations, inevitable intermarriages, gap between rich and poor mitigated by a vital and growing middle class, the “bourgeoisie” whom we nowadays find quaint or the subject of mildly pitiful scorn. Weave into the fabric all the colors of the ideological, philosophical, scientific, artistic and literary spectrum of the period, much of it centered around the three Hapsburg capitals of Vienna, Budapest and Prague. This colorful, ornate tapestry is ancient, yet, as of 1914, still incomplete, being woven through annexation, military conquest and all attendant human frailty.

The enduring, regal beauty of this Hapsburg tapestry owed as much to marriage as it did to Mars.

And now this ancient artwork was threatened by Serbia. Or so Vienna believed. But the integrity of this tapestry was compromised well before the arrival of Serbia.

The real threat was within. For the threads of matrimony that had established the Empire as surely as had military conquest were fraying, from above and below. From below, a sense of aggrieved nationhood across the grew among the speakers of the Empire’s disparate tongues, as these minorities, united around language and church began to think of themselves as “Peoples.”

Abetting and itself benefiting from this ferment, Vienna, the capital became the magnet of Europe’s thinkers, prophets, artists and writers: all were there who would figure most prominently in the affairs of the 20th Century, from Freud to Hitler to Lenin to Josip Broz, who would become known as Tito, to Klimt to Schiele to Mucha. Schnitzler to Mann to Musil, as Frederic Morton points out in his marvelous Thunder at Twilight.

A new middle class lived and worked in Vienna enjoying what we ourselves today enjoy but tend now to disparage as “bourgeoisie”: private property, real estate ownership, businesses, manufactories, reliable electricity, plumbing and civic hygiene, and even such novelties as design firms, cinemas and well-lighted, comfortable restaurants and taverns. Along with these comforts came new clothing styles, new sounds, new arts and new letters. Radical ideas welled up and poured into Vienna from East and West, as Morton so eloquently conveys. Other entertainments, abetted by the usual social solvents of liquor, tobacco, gambling, cocaine and opium.

This was the aspirational, motive, creative engine of Vienna.

Restive peoples, polyglot, a bustling intellectual ferment, entangling alliances, the up-thrust of magical science and technological war-making all outpacing the diplomats’ understanding, and then, the fateful rend.

For the fabric of empire was tearing from the top: the putative heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who, being consumptive, had not been expected to survive to inherit old Franz Josef’s crown, had recovered his strength and with it, his own implacable resentments.

First was the resentment he felt for those of the royal family and their retainers who had written him off and forgotten him.

But the Archduke’s most implacable hatred was reserved for those who barred his children from inheriting the throne, for, according to the edicts of the House of Hapsburg, Franz Ferdinand had voided his own inheritors claim to the throne by marrying a too low-born noblewoman, Countess Sophie Chotek, whom he had met while ostensibly courting a royal bride acceptable to the Imperial Family.

A heartbeat from the throne, Franz Ferdinand had married a woman, who, by dint of the insufficiency of her title, could not bear him legal heirs to the Hapsburg Crown.

How cruel, to oppose such a romance! Yet, how essential that the matrimonial cement of this particular empire not be tampered with, particularly at this most restive moment in its history!

Bear this violation of the Hapsburg House rules of matrimony in mind as you consider the run-up to the Great War. No one expected that the 99 years of relative peace arising from the Congress of Vienna after the Napoleonic Wars to end so suddenly. The cultural efflorescence of these years of peace and rapid industrialization had bred in Europe’s thinkers a romanticism and self-awareness that was rapidly dismantling the old cultural norms of Europe, its churches, its monarchies, its ancient laws, replacing these foundations with doubt, ferment, and fantastic new ideas and entertainments for the masses.

As you conjure your own picture of these times, factor in the dynastic falling-outs, the fateful arms race with its souring of intradynastic and intrafamiliar relations between the great houses of Europe, England, Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, all of them cousins at one level or another, through the late Queen Victoria and the octogenarian Franz Josef. View this through the lens of the technological leaps being made at the turn of the century (radio, heavier-than-air flight, the motorcar, the caterpillar tractor, chemistry, physics), and behold: A new world, or what historian Paul Johnson called, in a slightly later context, “A Relativistic World.”

The factors that to us make the denouement of the summer of 1914 seem inevitable were hardly so obvious at the time. Who could tell that the infection of the dying Ottoman Empire and the gravely infirm Russian Empire would afflict the neighboring, Austrian empire as well?

Who but the military elite, of which Franz Ferdinand, as Army Commander, was foremost? This circle viewed the crumbling of Turkey with suspicion and alarm. At worst, Slav nationalism, incited by the success of the Serbs, Bulgars and Russians in liberating the Balkans, Crimea and Caucasus from Ottoman suzerainty, might inspire uprisings among the Austrian’s restive Poles, Ukrainians, Ruthenians, Croats, Serbs, Slovenes, Czech, and Slovaks…

At best, they would demand Slavic linguistic parity with Hungarian, which had been made a co-national language in 1867. Three official languages: more gasoline into the potentially explosive mixture.

The government and military had its problems too. Austria’s intelligence arm had been compromised, thoroughly, by the revelation of a double-agent at the most sensitive level. Colonel Alfred Redl had been blackmailed into treason by the Tsar’s agents, who’d turned him into a traitor using what we now call the “Honey Trap” by photographing his homosexual sadomasochism with several specially recruited young men.

Oberst Redl happened to be the head of the Austrian army counterintelligence section for Russia.

The victim, in a way, of an expensive lifestyle, Redl was paid well for turning over to St Petersburg the latest Austrian plans for war against the Tsar. The revelation of this treachery brought General Conrad to the Colonel’s apartments, where, in short order, Conrad offered the automatic pistol with one bullet to Redl. The disgraced officer of course chose the “honorable” course, and shot himself before he could be questioned as to the extent of his perfidy. This omission, and the fact that Redl committed the mortal sin of suicide and died without benefit of confession or priest, infuriated the Archduke, and a major schism formed between Franz Ferdinand and his army commander, Conrad.

It was not merely the Redl Affair that had come between them.

Their attitudes towards Serbia had begun to diverge. Where the military wanted to make a hard show of force, the Archduke’s line had begun to soften. There are some who argue that the Archduke may have sought parley with the Serbs, instead of war.

And then, the fatal appearance in Sarajevo: the perfectly scripted hit.

Why do I say, “scripted”? Because it feels too perfect. Perfect in the way all the imperfection, peccadilloes, frailties, fears, jealousies, gluttonies, distractions and murderous, fiendishly clever insanities of the time intersected with the Archduke and his car on June the 28th. You’d think a screenwriter wrote it, the way it gets so neatly wrapped up at the end. Take an example: here’s the way the aforementioned theme of “gluttonies” plays out.

“Gluttonies?” you might ask.

Yes, the Archduke was renowned as an expert shot and hunter. In fact, his appetite for carnage was as bottomless as any of today’s players of “Call of Duty” or one of the “Halo” series of super-violent videogame. This was no game, though, but Game, Big, Small and Medium.

Franz Ferdinand was a wholesale slaughterer of flesh on the hoof, wing or paw. Shortly before his death, he boasted of shooting his 3,000th stag. And 500,000 animals. A number beyond the ken of most normal people and certainly beyond the reach or desire of anyone who hunts for sport or sustenance. Such a scientific-notation-scale slaughter prefigured the appalling casualty numbers that forever haunt the places called names like Passchendaele, Verdun, and the Somme.

Franz’s hunting parties would extinct entire royal estates of game and flatten forests in pursuit of the last remaining creature stirring in the woods. The Archduke imbibed himself in death, blood, and the blackening effects of days of shooting “smokeless” cartridges upon his physical features. Much has been written of this addict’s need to pull the trigger. Some see it as unconscious retribution on the world that rejected him and his wife. We will return to Sophie, for she is the key to the matrimonial unraveling.

For now let us return to Sarajevo on that fateful early afternoon in June. A bomb has been thrown at the Archduke’s motorcade, wounding an officer but leaving the Archduke and Consort unharmed. Arriving at Sarajevo city hall, the Archduke throws a small fit.

Allow Dame Rebecca West to set the scene:

“It may be conceived therefore, that… the half million beasts which had fallen to Franz Ferdinand’s gun according to his own calculations were present that day in the reception hall at Sarajevo. One can conceive the space of this room stuffed all the way up to the crimson and gold vaults and stalactites with furred and feathered ghosts, set close, because there were so many of them: stags with the air between their antlers stuffed with woodcock, quail, pheasant, partridge, capercailzie, and the like; boars standing bristling flank to flank, the breadth under their broad bellies packed with layer upon later of hares and rabbits. Their animal eyes, clear and dark as water, would brightly watch the approach of their slayer to an end that exactly resembled their own.”

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

June the 28th was a singularly inept and frankly insulting day to arrive in the Bosnian capital to lead the 15th and 16th Austrian Armies on maneuvers in nearby Ilidzhe.

525 years before, in 1389, at the battle of Kosovo Field, the Sultan defeated the Serbian Tsar and his army. That the Sultan was assassinated by a Serb infiltrator on the night of his victory was small succor to the Christian denizens of the Balkans left in the charge of the Turks. Those Slavs who converted to Islam were welcomed into the apparatus of Ottoman society and could expect advancement. The Christians of Macedonia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Serbia and Bulgaria paid the heavy jizya religious tax and worse, had their young boy children taken away to be converted to Islam and rendered into the Sultan’s elite guard, the Janissaries, “The New Soldiers.”

The news of the planned maneuvers had been publicized well ahead of time, inciting the undying hatred of the Bosnian Serbs, and inciting many a would-be avenger, such as 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, to plan to meet the Archduke in Sarajevo.

June the 28th was the day on which the Serb nation dated both its birth, as well as the beginning of her Turkish bondage. On the anniversary of this day is when the Archduke had arrived, with his wife. Why was Sophie with him? The answer is simple.

For the first time in their marriage, Countess Sophie would be permitted to appear in public with her husband. They were technically free of the Hapsburg imperial protocols that forbade the Countess from being at her high-born husband’s side on any official occasion. Franz Ferdinand would have his revenge on all those pitted against his romantic happiness.

Now let us return to the scene after the first bomb has been thrown, the conspirator captured, and now, at this turn, the screenwriter uses a heavy hand.

On the verge of failure, the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, is offered a Mulligan by the Hand of Fate. In what is perhaps the world’s most fateful multi-point turn, the Imperial Death Car stops directly adjacent the café where Princip has retired after the failed attempt by his collaborator. In the excitement arising from the assassination attempt and in the subsequent decision to visit the wounded man in the hospital, no one bothers to inform the Archduke’s chauffeur of the change in the motorcade’s route… leading to the infamous slow turnaround, the agonizing change of direction, leaving the Archduke unprotected as slow-comprehending Gavrilo emerges from the cafe and begins to address the revolver hidden on his person.

This particularly weapon was offered not by the Hand of Fate but by the Black Hand, the secret nationalist group seeking to unite with the Serbs of Bosnia.

You can still see the graffito, the tattoo, the symbol, scrawled on walls, on the internet, in royal crests and flags and unit markings wherever Serbs tread. The Cross, superimposed on the letter C in each of the four open quadrants of the cross. Τhis acronym (in the Cyrillic alphabet) stands for “Samo Sloga Srbina Spasava”, “Only Unity Saves the Serbs”. But it is can also be perceived as the Cross smashing a Crescent to pieces.

Austria viewed this land as her backyard and took it, and though the Great Powers took notice, they took little other action.

The assassin and his conspirators had been supplied with weaponry, explosives, and suicide pills by agents of the Black Hand in the Serbian Secret Police. These shadowy figures, led by “Colonel Apis,” Dragutin Dimitriević, had been responsible for the hideous murders of King Alexander Karageorgević and his wife Queen Draga, replacing them with the other Serbian dynastic family, Obrenović.

Apis may, or may not, have been operating with the approval of certain segments of the Serbian government and perhaps even of St Petersburg and the Tsar’s Okhrana? Who knows Who-Knew-What at the Foreign Office? Or Who-phoned-Whom from the bureaux of the proto-Gestapo in Berlin? And certainly, Serbia knew something was up. Shortly before the visit to Sarajevo, the Serbian Ambassador to Vienna had warned the Austrian government that the Archduke’s safety could not be assured by the Serbian government.

But nothing would stay the Archduke’s plan to visit Sarajevo on the most sacred day to Serbs, June the 28th, known to the Serbs as Vidovdan, translated, St Vitus’ Day. St Vitus, as you probably know, lends its name to what we now call Sydenham’s chorea, a disorder characterized by rapid jerking movements.

What a shaking fit awaited Europe.

What fit awaits us?

For continued and further study, consider the secret protocols and usually anonymous actions taken by the secret police of Europe in the run-up to World War One. How much of their intelligence was inaccurate, spurious, or altogether fabricated? Besides familial rivalry, why did Wilhelm of Germany choose to challenge his cousin George’s Royal Navy? Who really controlled the events? What were the real alliances that allowed such immense capital projects to roll forward? To whom did their loyalties belong, those who financed the then-greatest atrocity in history, and which led, inevitably, to the cataclysms that followed, beginning with the hideous Russian Civil War, followed immediately by famine, Stock Market Crash, the invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the ascendence of the Nazi Party, the Spanish Civil War…? If you’ve followed me this far, need I prattle on?