Sunday, June 27, 2010

Next Stop Armageddon

There’s a tombstone in St. Paul’s Cemetery on Fulton Street with a biblical quote reading “The Souls of the Righteous are In God’s Hands.”

It’s pretty hard to miss and whenever I see it, I can’t help but think “and the rest of you losers are in very deep shit.”

I’ve been thinking more about the End of Days these days. I suspect it has something to do with a pamphlet I recently read that predicted the Rapture is coming our way next spring.

I picked up this item while walking through the Grand Central subway station on my way to the shuttle to Times Square.

The passageway is a popular spot for musicians, prophets, and other assorted street performers who save souls or sing songs to the disinterested masses. You’ve got a built-in audience down there, especially during rush hour.

On this particular day I saw a sign taped to a pillar proclaiming “The End of the World is Almost Here! Holy God Will Bring Judgment Day on May 21, 2011!

The world is going to end in less a year? Holy crap! I still haven’t read War & Peace yet. And should I do my taxes next year or tear up my 1040 and let the IRS haul me into the court? The world will be long gone before my case comes up.

A woman was handing out leaflets about this impending cataclysm and I took one to get the lowdown on this cosmic low blow. It was actually three separate pamphlets with extremely small type—front and back, thank you very much--explaining how exactly these people had arrived at this particular date.

“Judgment Day is feared by the world,” the pamphlet says, “and is the day God will destroy the world because of the sins of mankind.”

But I already know this, damn it. I went to Catholic school, which not only prepared you for the end of the world, but made you wish it would happen as soon as possible.

The specific date is a new twist, though. It has something to do with Noah and how May 21, 2011 is exactly 7,000 years after the Great Flood and how God plans “to destroy the entire world forever.” The Almighty is never one to do things half-heartedly.

I'm just so bummed because its going to go down three days short of my birthday. If God could just wait a little longer I’d have one hell of a party. I could blow out the candles on my birthday cake and take out the rest of the world at the same time.

I’ve been trying to read these pamphlets to see how these people are thinking—and I use the word "thinking" very loosely. It’s been tough going, though, since there's so much material and I’m afraid the world will end before I get through it all.

Save the Date

Although the Bible says no man knows the day or the hour, these folks apparently know better.

“We have learned,” the pamphlet said, “that May 21, 1988, was the last day of the church age and was also the first day of the 23—year period of Great Tribulation, during which Satan has been employed by God to officially rule all of the churches as well as the whole world.”

The missive goes on about the significance of the number 5 and something about redemption and “the five shekels,” which sounds like a Yiddish doo-wop band.

What really bothers me though is that while these geniuses have figured out the day the world will end, they don’t know what time it’s going to blow. At least they could ballpark it.

I'd like to know if I'll have time to go the gym and pick up my dry cleaning before the gates of Hell fly off their hinges and ravenous demons fly out of the fiery pits and start gnawing on my entrails.

Think your priest can help you? Sorry, priests, pastors, spiritual leaders are all neck-deep in the apocalypse, too, and “should go begging God for mercy for themselves.” So it’s every sinner for himself.

God is only going to rescue about 3% of the world’s population, or 200 million righteous souls. Those lucky few will get the Rapture treatment straight up to Paradise; they will not pass Go and they won’t need to collect $200.

If you want to catch that wave, you'd better start praying.

I have a vague memory of some psychic predicting the end of the world when I was a child. Being a natural worrier, I wondered aloud if this might actually happen.

I remember being in bed on the morning of the appointed day when my brother leaned over me and made a trumpeting sound meant to simulate Gabriel’s horn. I knew I should've kept my mouth shut.

I don’t suppose the people making this outrageous claim would ever admit they were wrong when all hell doesn’t break loose on this day.

I’m sure they’ll have a million explanations why nothing happened and then promptly pick another incorrect day. Life is breeze when you’re a fanatic.

When I reached the end of the shuttle corridor I saw a guitar player standing near the tracks. He was pretty good, actually, maybe not up to the Five Shekels, perhaps, but I’ve heard worse.

He had a sign, too. It was taped to his guitar case and it said: "It's okay to ignore me. I’m not here and neither are you."

Well, we are for now, buddy. But you may want to hold on to that sign because come next May, you might be right.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Cover Me

I've been searching through my house for Phoenix Prime, a fantasy novel by Ted White that I read when I was in high school.

I'm not particularly interested in re-reading this book and I doubt seriously the story would hold up after all these years.

What I really want to see is the book’s cover.

The cover illustration for Phoenix Prime shows the muscular back and shoulder of man on some distant—and quite hostile-looking--alien terrain. He’s clutching a stone in his right hand as a pack of red-eyed wolves move in on him.

I had been laboring under the mistaken impression that this classic image of man versus beast had been created by James Bama, my favorite book cover artist.

But a quick jog around the Internet revealed that the painting had actually been done by Frank Frazetta, my other favorite book cover artist.

I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy novels and I can only guess how many of these books had cover art by either Bama or Frazetta. Their work helped me and a lot of other teenaged boys get through adolescence.

When reality had nothing to offer by acne and geometry class, Frazetta and Bama provided an escape hatch to fantastic worlds populated by heroic savages, ferocious beasts, and scantily-dressed babes.

I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but come on—look at this stuff for God’s sake. How could you not pick up the book hoping that the inside would be as exciting as the outside?

In this age of CGI and digital everything, it’s important to remember that these artists created their work with just paint, canvas and talent.

Frank Frazetta, who died in May, was a prolific artist who painted movie posters, album jackets—his “The Death Dealer” on Molly Hachet’s 1979 LP reeks with unspeakable menace—and, of course, book covers.

He may be best known as the man who brought Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian to life in a series of fabulous covers for Lancer Books.

If you were a kid looking at Frazetta’s work you could easily imagine yourself as the fearless savage, lopping off the heads of evil wizards, commanding vast armies, and riding off into the sunset with a half-naked hottie…until your mother came into your room and told you to take out the garbage.

He was a native of Brooklyn, like myself, and he had lived in the Poconos--just like yours truly. His family established a museum displaying his work in Marshalls Creek, Pa., but that was after I pulled up stakes.

His paintings were the subject of a nasty family dispute, but I believe that's been settled. At least I hope it has. You can Google for the details if you really need to know.

James Bama created unforgettable images of another hero, Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze, who took on all sorts of evil bastards and gave them what for. Bama’s version of Doc Savage depicted the pulp hero, his muscles rippling beneath his tattered shirt, in a way that displayed both brains and brawn.

Bama did 62 covers for the Doc Savage Bantam Books paperbacks, according to Wikiepedia, often using as a model actor Steve Holland, star of TV's Flash Gordon. He also painted the box cover art for Aurora's monster model kits, including King Kong, Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy. (I think I actually had the Mummy, while my brother had the Dracula model.)

Storm Clouds

One of my favorite Bama covers was the one he did for William Goldman’s novel Soldier in the Rain. The image is just that—an enlisted man standing in the middle of downpour, arms out, head back and shouting toward the heavens, as if daring God to strike him dead.

It is a rendering of the final scene in the novel and if you look at the cover long enough, you’ll hear the wind, sense the rain, and feel the pain.

I should mention that this novel was made into a movie with Steve McQueen as the eponymous soldier. It also starred Jackie Gleason and featured a brutish thug named “Lenahan”—please note the spelling—the “I’s” have it, so this guy and myself are not related.

The film lacks one important item, however, and that’s the scene with a soldier in the rain. I don’t want to give away too much, but Goldman’s gut-kicking finale was toned down considerably in the novel’s journey to celluloid, so there was never a live version of Bama’s painting.

If I had to contrast the work of the two men, I’d say that Frazetta created entire worlds that you could just about enter, while Bama painted characters so vivid they seemed ready to climb off the paperback and come right at you.

Frazetta’s recent death got me thinking about book jacket art and I decided to do a very quick and decidedly unscientific bit of research.

Returning from an assignment in Stamford, I ducked into a book store in Grand Central Terminal and did a brief recon of the paperback book covers.

Photographs seemed to be the dominant form of cover art today. The romance novels appear to be the only books with illustrations, but the ones I saw looked like pages from a kid’s coloring book compared with the work of Bama and Frazetta.

And now with e-books threatening to become popular, the notion of cover art will most likely disappear, since we won’t have any more covers—or books really, just streams of digitalized content.

Doc Savage probably wouldn’t be able to get his vastly superior mind around Kindle and Conan would undoubtedly smash it to bits with his broadsword. And then go looking for the people who invented it.

I still haven’t found that copy of Phoenix Prime, but I’m going to keep looking.

I have this one vague memory of a scene early in the book where the hero, Max Quest, is riding in a taxi and evil beings of some kind decide to punch his ticket by levitating the cab into the stratosphere and leaving Max with the quest of getting to terra firms in one piece.

Stunned at first, Max harnesses his hitherto untapped magical powers, steps out of the high-flying hack and gently floats down to earth, landing “on the tree-lined streets of Bay Ridge,” if memory serves.

It’s a cool scene, showing our hero using abilities he never knew he had. And it’s nice that my neighborhood got a plug.

But part of me sees that episode as a metaphor for life. As children we sail through the stars buoyed by fantasy, but as we get older we gradually come down to earth, get jobs and worry about paying bills.

Frank Frazetta and James Bama took me high and far away and I will be eternally grateful. And while I’ll never reach those heights again, it’s nice to know I have them in my corner when the wolves start closing in.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Cards and Letters

I don’t expect much in the way of surprises anymore when I open my mailbox.

With everything shifting to the Internet, all I usually find in there when I come home at night are bills, junk mail and menus from just about every restaurant in North America.

But last week I learned that conventional mail can still hold a few jolts.

The first one actually came to my family's old house on 86th Street some 66 years ago in the form of a post card from my Uncle Walter to my Aunt Marie.

My uncle was a pilot during World War II and he was writing to my aunt from the air base in Lawrenceville, Ill. There is a photo of Beechcraft Trainers on the front of the card and it is postmarked Feb. 19, 1944.

The card came fluttering off a bookshelf in my bedroom while I was rearranging some paperbacks. I must have put it up there a long time ago for safe-keeping and, as usual, forgot all about it. I certainly don't remember reading it before.

It's just a couple of handwritten lines, but looking back over all these years, they carry so much power and emotion.

Dear Marie,
How are you? I hope you are all right and that everyone else is, too. How is Kerry? Better, I hope. Tell Mom I am all right and tell Glo I’ll write her tonight. Be a good girl and I’ll bring you home some wings when I come home.
Be careful. Love, Walter.”

Let me identify some of the names here. Kerry was the family dog, who died before I was born, but who was the subject of so many glowing stories that he was a living part of my childhood. Mom was my grandmother.

And, Glo, well, that would be Gloria, my mother.

I get a chill every time I read this postcard, as it brings the distant past so vividly to life. The message is so personal, but it is also a piece of history.

It shows another side of my family that I know so little about. I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for my grandmother, aunt and mother as they prayed for Walter's safe return.

It’s funny to read as my uncle, who will turn 90 this year, tells my aunt to be a good girl and promises to get her a pair of wings.

And the words “be careful”—from a man who flew bombing missions over Europe.

This was about the only way people could communicate back then. There was no email, Twitter, IM or cell phones. When people serving in the military wanted to write home, they sat down, picked up a pen and started writing. And their families watched their mailboxes anxiously every day.

I realize how lucky we were that my uncle returned from the war. A lot of soldiers wrote about what they would do when they came home--but they never did. For so many families these cards and letters would be the last thing they ever heard from their loved ones.

You've Got Mail

And it seems fitting that on the same day I found this postcard, I received a letter from a woman in Pennsylvania who had seen me on CNN when I had read my father’s poem about World War II.

Her name is Gertrude. She was born in Germany in 1942 and had come to the United States when she was eight years old.

“After seeing you and listening to you read your father’s poem,” she wrote, “I just need to thank you for sharing it.”

Gertrude explained that Memorial Day for her has always been “a somewhat ambivalent day ever since I came to the U.S. and began to participate in our small town’s Memorial Day parade.”

“It was a…complex situation,” she continued, “to be both grateful and at the same time feel guilt, perhaps more shame, to come from a country that caused so much death and destruction.”

Gertrude’s father was a solider in the German army, driving munitions to the Russian front and returning with refugees trying to escape the oncoming Soviet troops. He was eventually taken prisoner by the British.

She told me about her aunt in Germany, who had two of her sons killed in action in Russia, while a third died at home from meningitis. Gertrude said she used to Internet to locate the places where these young men had died and learn some of the history behind the battles.

“Somehow it helps to know these little pieces of information,” she wrote. “However, what is even more helpful is knowing that there are other soldiers, like your father who can look into the eyes of his enemy and find the compassion to see his fear, ask for his forgiveness and call him his brother.”

Gertrude said there her belief in God “assures me that your father is now in the loving embrace of his creator along with that young German solider.”

When she was 50 years old, Gertrude completed her undergraduate degree and a Masters of Social Work degree and went on to work with Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

“As the mother of three sons,” she wrote, “I have been haunted all of my life, not just about the possibility of more wars, but that my sons would have to fight those wars.”

Gertrude said that she hoped my father had a rich and rewarding life after the war and she ends her letter by thanking me again for sharing his poem.

“It has touched me to the very core of my being,” she wrote, “a true gift at this stage of my life.”

And, Gertrude, your letter was a true gift to me. Thank you so much for writing it.

Monday, June 07, 2010

From Hare to Eternity

Good things really do come in threes.

Over the last few weeks, I have been interviewd by the New York Times and appeared as a guest on CNN.

But these events don’t begin to compare to my latest stroke of good fortune.

I am happy—nay, ecstatic—to report that Lucy, my cousin’s beautiful 10-year-old daughter, has written a children’s story especially for me.

The story is entitled “Rob” and it’s all about a magical rabbit named…Rob.

I'm telling you, this one’s got “bestseller” written all over it. This Rob is no run-of-the-mill carrot-chomping cotton tail. He can speak, change colors, and glow in the dark. He even has pockets in his fur.

I was overjoyed when I saw the story on Lucy’s blog (sorry, invitation only). I’ve never had a character named after me--especially one you can use for a lamp in case of a blackout.

And the timing could not have been better, as I had just gone through a harrowing three-day period filled with nightmares of both the waking and sleeping variety.

This was a shorter week due to the holiday, but apparently Fate always feels the need to cram in an extra helping of grief just to make you sure don’t get too comfortable.

I had to fill in for my boss for a few days, which meant I'd be on the hook if something went wrong. I told myself not to worry, that I would be able to handle anything that came up, but apparently my subconscious wasn’t taking any messages.

So on Monday night I dreamed I was on a train in somewhere in Scandinavia. I was dragging around several large pieces of luggage and when the train pulled into a station, I stepped off to look around the platform.

I left my suitcases on the train because I knew that we wouldn’t be leaving for several minutes. Unfortunately, the engineer and the conductor had different plans.

I heard a soft ding-dong, saw the train’s doors close and watched as the damn thing pulled out of the station…with my luggage.

I stood thinking how could I have been so foolish? God, my books, my papers, my clothes! And, of course, I didn't have labels on any of the suitcases.

Pack It In

The next thing I remember I was speaking with some blond-haired, bearded man in a conductor's uniform who said he would do his best to find my luggage, but he didn't sound too hopeful.

This sounds incredibly obvious, but I wonder if the whole "emotional baggage" schtick is playing out here. I would never be so careless in my waking life, so maybe my subconscious was trying to set me free. Only in the dream I didn’t feel free at all.

And why Scandinavia, for God's sake? I have enough trouble nagivating around Brooklyn.

Wednesday night I hit the sack convinced I had gotten the sleep thing down. I was going to rest up, prepare for a long day and do great things at the office.

And that’s when the zombies showed up.

I remember very little of this dream, which is probably a good thing, because the images I do retain scared the screaming bejeezus out of me.

A gang of cannibal corpses who refused to play dead were right on my butt clanking their teeth like a chorus of rabid castanets.

I snapped awake at 12:30am on the digital clock --no bite marks--and slept on and off--mostly off--for the rest of the night.

Where did the zombies come from? Lately I’ve been watching reruns of Millennium on the Chiller Network and they run a promo for the station featuring scenes from several horror movies, including a remake of Dawn of the Dead, which features hordes of flesh eating zombies.

But I’ve seen that commercial plenty of times and I’ve never had any bad dreams. Perhaps the images combined with the pressure from the office had turned my mind into nightmare central.

Meanwhile, back in reality, my computer crashed just hours before deadline on Thursday and I had to get the tech people to fire up another machine just so we could publish. We made it, but not before I had an epic conniption fit.

By the end of the week I was in need of some good news. So I clicked on to Lucy’s blog and there was the story of Rob the Magical Rabbit.

I have to say that this Rob is cool under pressure. When Melody, the young heroine, is dangled over hungry crocodiles, Rob runs to get help, comes back, chews through the ropes and leads Melody to safety. Beat that, Lassie.

I’m so proud of Lucy and I'm very touched that she named this resourceful character after me. I’ll bet Rob would have put those zombies in their place.

Now maybe he can help me find my luggage.