JFK, Marlene Dietrich, and the problem of the aging Lothario

Eleanor Herman’s Sex with Presidents: The Ins and Outs of Love and Lust in the White House, is well worth reading both for its historical content, as well as its human interest angle.

In this book, you’ll learn about the honey trap in which Alexander Hamilton was ensnared in 1797. Women and sex, it turns out, were among Hamilton’s principal weaknesses.

There are the requisite chapters about Warren G. Harding and the Nan Britton affair. Also Eisenhower’s unconsummated sexual liaisons with his wartime driver, Kay Summersby. (Apparently, Ike was impotent by the time he became involved with the much younger, statuesque Summersby.)

Needless to say, the chapter on John F. Kennedy is among the most lurid. There are the expected entries about Marilyn Monroe, and the two White House secretaries nicknamed Fiddle and Faddle. But there are also some surprises.

According to this book, JFK was into partner-swapping mini-orgies involving other men, too (Note: not with any male-male contact, though). And of course, threesomes with two women. (What man isn’t, after all?)

While most of JFK’s conquests were on the younger side, not all of them were. When German actress Marlene Dietrich visited the White House shortly before JFK’s death, Kennedy decided that he had to have her, too.

Dietrich, born in 1901, was sixteen years older than Kennedy. She was then already in her sixties. Dietrich quickly decided, though, that she would not turn down a chance to romp with America’s youthful, charismatic commander-in-chief.

But there was one caveat: “I was an old woman by then,” she later recounted, “and damn if I was going to be on top.”

Dietrich also reported that the encounter did not last long. JFK was fast out of the gate. That assessment conformed to other reports about our 35th president.

Marlene Dietrich
JFK

Speaking of age: JFK died at 46, when he was still in his prime. He is frozen in amber as a youngish, good-looking man.

For as long as he lived, JFK was largely attractive to women. But even during his lifetime, he showed signs of what would now be called predatory behavior. He often manipulated women into sex, and occasionally plied them with alcohol and drugs.

And speaking of age again: Some of his partners were far too young for a grown man in a position of power, even by the standards of that era.

What if JFK had not been martyred at the age of 46? What if he had served out a presumable second term and died of old age? A normal lifespan would have placed Kennedy’s death sometime in the 1990s or the early years of the twentieth century. (He would have turned 100 in 2017.)

We can assume that at a certain point—probably not far into the 1970s— the women would no longer have been quite so willing, and JFK would have met with more resistance. For JFK, sex was more than a mere biological drive. He was clearly compulsive about his conquests, and regarded sex as an extension of his power.

It is therefore not difficult to imagine JFK, had he lived, being embroiled in a sordid late-life sexual harassment scandal, not unlike those that befell both Trump and Biden. (Joe Biden was accused of sexual harassment, too, both by Senate staffer Tara Reade, and seven other women. But the mainstream media chose not to dwell on these accusations. Make of that what you will.)

Like many Americans who are too young to remember JFK in office (he died five years before I was born), I grew up thinking of Kennedy as a mythic figure. I attended Catholic schools, and a portrait of JFK hung in at least two of my K-12 classrooms, right beside portraits of the Pope and several of the saints.

But keep in mind: had he not been martyred in 1963, JFK would have been just another former president in his golden years.

I might also note that Donald Trump had no shortage of willing female partners in his 30s and 40s. In those days, Trump was not a controversial septuagenarian politician, but a glamorous tabloid billionaire. Many women wanted to be with him.

Time and age are the enemies of sex appeal. The difference between a celebrated ladies’ man and a reviled lecher is often a matter of a few years and a few wrong presumptions. Just ask Donald Trump.

-ET

**View SEX WITH PRESIDENTS on Amazon**

Flexible hygiene standards and the GenX childhood

Suburban parents nowadays worry obsessively about their kids catching something. Some parents even carry around little packages of sanitary wipes, so that they can sterilize surfaces in advance of their progeny. As if an American kid is going to catch Ebola at a birthday party.

This obsession with a germ-free childhood is a recent invention. GenXers grew up in an environment in which germ theory was understood, but not always given much consideration.

It was not uncommon in the 1970s to see kids passing around and drinking from the same bottle of soda. Maybe someone wiped the mouth of the bottle clean before they handed it to you…but probably not. Nor could you easily object. To express too much fastidiousness about the casual exchange of bodily fluids would have been regarded as fussy, especially among boys.

The childhood tradition of becoming “blood brothers” was mostly obsolete by the 1970s, but it happened. In that era before AIDS, no one worried about mixing blood, either.

We were sometimes told to “wash our hands”, but that carried its own dangers. School restrooms were unhygienic by today’s standards. They were often equipped with creaky cloth towel cabinets, in which the same towel roll was recycled again and again. (Twenty-first-century versions of the cloth roll towel cabinet are reasonably sanitary, I am told. But the ones you would typically find in a public school restroom in 1978? Not so much.)

Was this lax approach to juvenile hygiene a good thing, or a bad thing? Arguably the proof is in the pudding. The majority of us made it to adulthood without expiring from any communicable diseases. I am now in my mid-50s, and I rarely get a cold. So I suppose there is something to be said for naturally acquired immunity. 

-ET

Gordon Lightfoot (1938 – 2023), his music, and me

When I was a kid in the mid-1970s, my dad used to sing this song from the radio. The refrain went:

“Sundown, you’d better take care

If I find you’ve been creepin’ round my back stair.”

This was Gordon Lightfoot’s hit song, “Sundown”, of course. In the year the song climbed the charts, 1974, I was but six years old. I therefore didn’t grasp its meaning. But the song still brings back memories of that time.

And now that I’m old enough to understand “Sundown”, I find it an unusual take on the familiar romantic love triangle: that of the cuckolded male.

Fast-forward to 1986. My high school English teacher, wanting to demonstrate how stories could be told in poems and song lyrics, played “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” for us on one of the AV department’s record players. Yet another of Gordon Lightfoot’s songs.

I immediately connected with this song, even though I was unaware of the historical reference behind it. My teacher told our class about the November 1975 shipwreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior. That gave the song even more weight. It was a work of imagination and art…but also something real.

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was released in 1976, to commemorate the shipwreck of the previous year. It remains one of my favorite songs from a musical era that I was too young to appreciate as it was taking place.

Last November marked the 47th anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. This got me thinking about the song, and about Gordon Lightfoot. According to Google, Lightfoot was still touring in his eighties.

But all tours, and all lives, must come to an end. Gordon Lightfoot passed away on May 1, of natural causes.

While Lightfoot and his music were a little before my time, I always appreciated his work. There are few songs quite as haunting and memorable as “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”. And whenever I hear “Sundown”, I always hear my dad singing along with the radio in the mid-1970s.

A brilliant musician, and an artistic life well-lived. Gordon Lightfoot, 84, RIP.

-ET

**View Gordon Lightfoot’s music (CDs and vinyl) on Amazon**

 

When Jerry Springer spoke at my high school

Former politician and talk show host Jerry Springer has died.

Most people know Springer for his gonzo talk show work on national television. Decades before that, he was a well-known figure in Cincinnati politics and local broadcasting.

Springer spoke at my Cincinnati-area high school in 1985. At this time, the biggest skeleton in Springer’s closet was a 1974 scandal in which Springer, then a Cincinnati City Council member, paid a sex worker with a personal check. Springer resigned from city council in a certain degree of disgrace.

Several of my male classmates couldn’t resist calling out, “Where’s the check”? while Springer was speaking at our school in 1985. Springer, a good sport, laughed off their taunts and moved on.

Jerry Springer was never one to be impeded by other people’s opinions of him. I recognized that in 1985.

After the Jerry Springer talk show debuted in 1991, I tuned in a few times. In all honesty, the show was never for me. But I didn’t watch much network television of any kind during the early 1990s. I was too busy, and my life too disjointed.

I’ll always remember the local, Cincinnati version of Jerry Springer, anyway. The speaker at my high school who wasn’t about to be deterred by an embarrassing incident from his past, or others’ ungracious insistence on calling attention to it.

Perhaps there is a lesson for all of us here. One can go far, despite being hampered by very human flaws and a less than perfect track record. The trick is to shrug off the crowd’s disdain, and keep moving forward.

Jerry Springer, 79, R.I.P.

A visit to historic Madison, Indiana

Today I scratched another town off my Indiana bucket list: Madison, located in the southernmost portion of the Hoosier State, along the Ohio River in Jefferson County.

Madison is located less than two hours from the east side of Cincinnati, so the drive was not arduous. I went with my dad, who is a native Hoosier from southern Indiana. He had many anecdotes about how much the area had changed since the 1960s. Since I was not born until 1968 myself, I will have to take his word for it.

The charm of Madison, though, is that much of the town’s original 19th century architecture has been preserved. Throughout Madison’s central historic district, you’ll find baroque Victorian mansions and narrow brick row houses that will make you think you’ve just dropped back into the 1800s.

The firehouse was built before the Civil War.

And speaking of the Civil War, there is a Civil War monument near the courthouse that includes a cannonball that was fired into Vicksburg, Mississippi by Union troops in 1863.

While there are many of the usual chain restaurants in the strip outside (and above) the town, Madison residents seem to be doing their best to preserve and patronize locally own businesses.

I didn’t see a Starbucks, but I did see an independently owned coffee shop with a healthy crowd inside, for example. I also saw an independently owned shoe store on Main Street, as well as a musical instruments store. Amazon hasn’t killed all independent retail, it seems.

Overall, Madison is a pleasant enough town, but I’m not sure if I could live there. It’s at least an hour’s drive from any of the surrounding major cities (Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis). I’m a product of urban sprawl, I suppose, and I’m rather dependent on the amenities that such sprawl provides. There was not much urban sprawl in Madison.

Once again, though, a nice place place to visit. As always, I hope you enjoy the photos.

-ET

And finally, if you’re in the mood to read some fiction set in Indiana, I’ll take this opportunity to point you toward my crime novel, VENETIAN SPRINGS, and my historical supernatural fiction series, THE ROCKLAND HORROR. Both of these stories are set in (slightly altered) versions of southern Indiana.

The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps

The period between the two world wars was the golden age of the pulp fiction magazines. This was a time before television, or (of course) the Internet. Entertainment options were limited. (Heck, they barely had radio in those days.) Many people therefore turned to magazines that specialized in quickly written and fast-paced stories of romance, western adventure, crime, science fiction, or horror.

What happened to pulp fiction? The pulp magazines weren’t the victims of television, as is commonly thought. They were the casualties, rather, of the cheaply printed paperback. Modern paperback books were first introduced in 1935, but they really caught on during and shortly after World War II. The paperback completely changed the publishing and bookselling landscape, much as Amazon would about sixty years later.

Some of the original pulp content is still with us, of course. Horror fans who adore H.P. Lovecraft may not know that favorites like “At the Mountains of Madness”, “Dagon” —and most other Lovecraft stories—were originally published in Weird Tales, a pulp magazine founded in 1922. (Note: Weird Tales technically still exists, though its format has undergone some modifications; the magazine has a site on the Internet.)

I’ve read and reread Lovecraft’s oeuvre  as much as I care to. So when I was recently in a mood to do some reading off the beaten path, I decided to indulge in a bit of vintage pulp crime fiction.

Or actually, quite a lot of vintage pulp crime fiction. The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps contains forty-seven stories and two complete novels. Writers represented in this collection include well-known names like Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) and Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961). There are also plenty of stories by writers who are long forgotten.

Why read pulp fiction? Well, you probably already watch pulp television.

I’m a longtime fan of pulp TV, in fact. During the 1980s, I regularly tuned in to action television shows like The A-Team, Knight Rider, Airwolf, and the original MacGyver. These shows were all escapist television, with plots that roared out of the gate like a 1981 DeLorean or a 1987 Toyota Supra.

My favorite was The A-Team. An episode of The A-Team kept you on the edge of your seat. Each episode ended with a blazing gunfight, in which no one was usually killed or seriously injured. The A-Team made absolutely no attempt to provide any sort of messaging on social, political, or philosophical issues. The other aforementioned 80s-era pulp TV shows were done in a similar vein.

Most of these shows did not age well. For nostalgia’s sake, I recently tuned in to a few old episodes of The A-Team and the original MacGyver. In the MacGyver episode, the eponymous hero found himself in the Soviet Union, where everyone conveniently spoke English. The Russians even spoke English with each other. I managed to sit through about twenty minutes of this. Life is too short.

The same might be said of the stories in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps. You can detect the literary and storytelling skills at work; but you can also tell that you’re reading fiction produced in a different era, when expectations were very different. My 1980s pulp TV shows did not have to compete with Netflix. The writers whose work is collected in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps did not have to compete with Michael Connelly or Lee Child.

The stories in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps are interesting as artifacts of the pulp era, in the same way that a Ford Model T is an interesting artifact of automobile technology in the 1920s. But as entertainment for present-day audiences? Keep in mind that some of these stories are more than eighty years old. You had might as well ask me if I would like to use a Model T for my daily commuting needs.

I suspect that this massive tome (more than one thousand pages in print) is so massive for a reason. The editors knew that the phrase “your mileage may vary” would be very applicable here.

What about their usefulness for writers? Those of us who write fiction are always thinking of a story in market analysis terms, after all. 

I wouldn’t recommend that any twenty-first century writer try to imitate the style of these stories, exactly. At least a quarter of these tales contain plot holes that you could drive a Model T through; and almost all of them contain hackneyed dialogue. (“He’s on the square!” “The place looked swell.”)

And oh, the eyebrows that will be raised among the finger-wagging social justice crowd. While these stories aren’t intentionally sexist, they are the product of a different time, when ideas about men and women were different. They overflow with gendered terminology that would make any writer the target of an online pitchfork mob today (“honey,” “doll”, “sugar”, “dame”, etc.).

The female characters in these crime stories are mostly props. But then, so are most of the men. These stories are all about plot, plot, plot.

And that is where this book may be instructive for writers who have found themselves too immersed in navel-gazing literary fiction. The writer who suspects he is spending too much time on flowery descriptions and internal monologue may learn something valuable here: how to get to the point, or to the plot. The pulp-era writers were certainly good at that, despite their other shortcomings.

-ET

**View ‘The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps: The Best Crime Stories from the Pulps During Their Golden Age–The ’20s, ’30s & ’40s’ on Amazon**

 

Unoriginal place names in Indiana

A few more pics from my recent trip to Columbus, Indiana.

Once again, I enjoyed my time in this city to the south of Indianapolis, and I like Indiana in general.

My only problem with the Hoosier State is that Indiana is absolutely unoriginal when it comes to place names.

Columbus, to cite the most pertinent example, is the name of the state capital of neighboring Ohio.

Other geographic plagiarisms in Indiana include Milan, Versailles, Nashville, and Edinburgh.

There is even a Cincinnati, Indiana. For those of you not from the Midwest, Cincinnati is a city in Ohio, on the Ohio-Indiana border.

-ET

While almost slipping into the Flatrock

I made a trip to Columbus, Indiana last week. Columbus is a nice town to the south of Indianapolis.

Indiana is seldom exciting, but it’s a friendly place with some captivating scenery (by Midwestern standards, at least). And there is some very nice scenery, indeed, in Columbus.

Below is the Robert N. Stewart Bridge, on 2nd street. I took the photo below from the bank of the Flatrock River.

And here’s a view of the Flatrock River itself, facing away from the bridge.

I almost slipped on the concrete boat ramp while taking these shots, which would have placed me in the Flatrock River, and not just beside it. So I hope you enjoy the photos.

-ET

The Bengals’ defeat, and those curious expressions of fan loyalty

As some of you may know, the Cincinnati Bengals lost the AFC championship game to the Kansas City Chiefs last night.

This morning, my personal Facebook feed, heavy with Cincinnati residents, was filled with professions of fan loyalty, like the one above: “Still my Bengals.”

Others were professing their “fan loyalty” in more abstract terms. Some declared that they would stick with the Bengals no matter what.

And here is one of the places where I can’t connect with the rabid spectator sports fan: this concept of team loyalty.

If you find spectator sports enthralling, that’s one thing. The fact that I don’t find them particularly entertaining is a mere matter of preference.

Similarly, we all enjoy different television shows and movies, different kinds of music. I don’t happen to be a fan of country music. This doesn’t leave me shaking my head at the preferences of country music fans.

But then, most country music fans aren’t making public declarations of fan loyalty when their favorite artist fails to win a CMA award. Only spectator sports fans do things like that.

A professional sports team—the Cincinnati Bengals, the Kansas City Chiefs, whatever—is a corporation that sells an entertainment product. No different from Sony Pictures or Netflix. Fans of entertainment companies are more accurately called consumers.

If you enjoy an entertainment company’s product, so be it. But it’s important to remember where you stand, in the big scheme of things, before getting too invested in this fan loyalty concept.

Take Joe Burrow, the Cincinnati Bengals’ 26-year-old quarterback. Joe Burrow has a 4-year contract worth over $36 million. And—of course—a beautiful girlfriend with a widely subscribed Instagram account. Rich young celebrity athletes with beautiful girlfriends are nothing new, of course.

More power to Joe Burrow. I’m sure he’s talented and that he’s worked hard. But it’s somewhat self-deluding—if not foolish—to think that this man needs your expressions of loyalty after he loses a game.

And he certainly isn’t reading your Facebook feed.

But of course, these public expressions of fan loyalty aren’t really about the team. Otherwise, they would be sent to the team, instead of directed toward one’s friends, acquaintances, and neighbors. (Consider the sports team flags on your neighbor’s pickup truck. Who are those intended for?)

These expressions of fan loyalty seem to be more about the need for group affiliation, than any genuine devotion to unknowing, millionaire celebrity athletes. And this need (among some people, at least) goes all the way back to the Byzantine Empire. In Byzantine times, different factions of chariot racing fans actually evolved into the equivalent of paramilitary organizations. All based around spectator sports.

While I can somewhat understand this impulse—especially in light of its historical roots—I just don’t get it, at a visceral level. Why? What’s the point?

But hey, that’s just me.

If you’re an ardent Bengals fan, my condolences on last nights defeat. But Joe Burrow, I’m quite sure, will be just fine without my sympathy, let alone my expressions of fan loyalty.

-ET

Challenger disaster +37 years

I was a senior in high school on January 28, 1986. The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger occurred that day at 11:39 a.m., EST.

The explosion took place just 73 seconds into the shuttle’s flight, and killed all seven crew members. Among the dead was Christa McAuliffe, a Massachusetts teacher who had been a guest astronaut.

That year I had a part-time job in my school’s cafeteria. I was operating a soda machine in the lunch line when the students began filing in, talking about what had happened. This was one of those national tragedies that was announced in classrooms, rather like the assassination of JFK, when my parents were in high school.

The Reagan Administration had been hoping to revive interest in the U.S. space program, as well as to inject some life into math and science education. (Even then, there were concerns that American students were falling behind their global counterparts in math and science.) The presence of teacher Christa McAuliffe on the mission was a key part of that effort. McAuliffe’s inclusion would have been a good idea, perhaps, if not for what happened.

I’m not going to exaggerate, and say that the Challenger disaster depressed me for a month, or anything like that. I was sorry for the loss of life, of course. But in 1986 I was a self-absorbed teenager, and this was a faraway event.

The disaster did have a sobering effect on me, though. At my present age (I’ll let you do the math), I am acutely aware that life is fragile, and that bad things happen to good people. I wasn’t as aware of this in 1986.

The Challenger crash dominated the news for weeks afterward. A case can be made that Christa McAullife received a lion’s share of the media attention. This was probably inevitable, given that she was a civilian volunteer and a teacher. McAuliffe was about the same age as my mother, I remember noting.

The investigations and Congressional hearings surrounding the disaster lasted for several years. In 2004, President George W. Bush conferred posthumous Congressional Space Medals of Honor on all the Challenger crew members. 

On the night of the disaster, President Reagan delivered this televised speech to the country. One of his more moving oratory moments, in my opinion.

A sad moment for the country, and one that I still remember, almost four decades later.

-ET

A right (and wrong) reader for every book

I’m slogging my way through Holiday in Death, by J.D. Robb. I purchased the audiobook for this title at a steep discount on Chirp.

I now know that J.D. Robb is a pen name for Nora Roberts. I wish I had known this in advance, as Nora Roberts has never pleased me in the past.

I know: blasphemy to some of you. Nora Roberts is, after all, a bestselling author who has delighted millions of readers over the years. I don’t dispute that.

But she’s also a writer of various flavors of romance, and every book she writes tends to be at least one-half romance novel.

Holiday in Death is no exception. It’s ostensibly a police procedural set in the near future (2058). Like other Nora Roberts titles, the premise of this one intrigued me, but I was underwhelmed by the execution.

Why? Maybe it’s because I’m a heterosexual male. I can only read so many paragraphs about the “beauty” of a male character before I gag, or at least grow bored, and start wanting to skip ahead. But female romance readers eat those details up.

Holiday in Death, sure enough, has all the characteristics of a romance novel. There is more sex than shooting, and the female detectives in the book spend as much time checking out hot guys as they do investigating the serial murderer who is the villain of the story.

The novel’s protagonist is NYPD Lieutenant Eve Dallas. She’s tough and snarky, and I’m fine with that. But far too much space is devoted to her storybook relationship with her unlikely husband, the Irishman named Roarke.

And here we descend into full-blown romance novel territory. Like most romance novel male characters, Roarke is less a human male than a personification of female fantasy. He’s tall, broad-shouldered, and (of course) he’s a self-made business mogul.

Roarke is tanned and well-muscled. (Despite being married and running a business empire, he still finds time to spend hours each day in the gym, one supposes.) And—of course, once again—he has long, Fabio-like hair. (Male pattern baldness does not exist in the universe of women’s romance fiction.)

Holiday in Death presently has a 4.7-star average on Amazon, with 3,885 ratings. Most of Roberts’ books have high ratings. Nora Roberts is not only a bestseller, but a multi-decade bestseller. Her first novel, Irish Thoroughbred, was published in 1981, more than forty years ago. I was barely in junior high then.

My intention here is not to knock Nora Roberts (once again, Nora Roberts is doing just fine.) My objective, rather, is to illustrate a point that many reader-reviewers (and many review-hungry indie writers) often overlook: a reader can simply be a mismatch for a basically good book.

Holiday in Death is a good match for many readers (most of whom are devotees of romance fiction, one imagines). Otherwise, it would not have so many 5-star reviews.

But Holiday in Death is a bad match for a mystery/police procedural reader who is a fan of Michael Connelly, C.J. Box, and John Sandford.

The book is probably a bad match for any heterosexual male. I was definitely ready to quit when I heard the paragraph about how the gorgeous, long-haired Roarke “emptied himself” into Eve Dallas at the climax of some acrobatic lovemaking. Sorry, but I don’t need to read about other dudes ejaculating. And if I did want that much detail about the sex act, I’d go to Pornhub.

For reader-reviewers, the lesson here is: don’t pan a book simply because it doesn’t match your tastes. (I won’t be rating or reviewing Holiday in Death on Amazon or Goodreads, as this is such a clear case of book-reader mismatch.)

For authors, the lesson is: don’t market your book to everyone. Your book is almost certainly not for everyone. Few books, after all, are for everyone. Not even books written by the esteemed Nora Roberts.

-ET

**View Nora Roberts’s novels on Amazon**

My last Halloween (the true story)

How egg-throwing teenage boys ruined my last trick-or-treat

My novel 12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN is a supernatural coming-of-age tale about three young friends who endure the trials of a 12-hour curse on Halloween night, 1980. To survive the night, they must battle vampires, animated trees, and the horrific creature known as the “head collector”.

12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN is one of the most autobiographical novels I’ve ever written. Like the characters in the novel, I was 12 years old in October 1980. The suburban Cincinnati, Ohio setting is very similar to the one in which I spent my formative years.

That said, the main character of the story, Jeff Schaeffer, doesn’t have much in common with me, or with the boy I was more than 40 years ago. And while I had a group of friends, neither Leah nor Bobby is an exact representation of anyone I knew back then.

Oh, and I never did battle with any of the supernatural creatures that appear in the book.

Here is another point of fabrication: I went on my last trick-or-treat in 1979, not in 1980.

I set 12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN in 1980 because some of the themes I wanted to explore required an adolescent perspective; and I was twelve in 1980, not in 1979.

But like the characters in the novel, I was somewhat torn (as were the adults around me) about the appropriate age for giving up the trick-or-treat ritual.

In the culture of those times, you were generally okay for trick-or-treating up to age ten or eleven. But once you reached junior high, well, people would give you funny looks if you showed up at their door on October 31st, asking for candy. And once you reached high school, you were definitely too old.

***

In 1979, therefore, my friend Ken and I decided to go out for “one last Halloween”, kind of like the characters in the novel. (Ken, being a year older than me, actually did turn twelve that year.)

I wore a prefabbed costume from Kmart. I don’t even remember what it was. (I seem to recall a green skeleton, but I can’t be sure.) Ken, however, had one of the coolest Halloween costumes I’ve ever seen—before or since.

This was the early Star Wars era, and every kid was a fan. Ken was no exception. His mother made for him a very elaborate imperial stormtrooper costume. This was not something store-bought. She made the whole thing from scratch. It was amazing.

Halloween 1979 in the Cincinnati area provided a clear, pleasantly cool autumn night. We set out a little after 6 p.m., and everything went fine…at first. Then we crossed paths with a group of teenage boys, a hot rod, and some eggs.

***

One thing I’ve noticed about the 21st-century: suburban teenagers are less mischievous than they used to be.

This could be because of helicopter parenting. How much trouble can you get into when your parents are tracking your movements on a smart phone app? Kids today are also very absorbed in virtual worlds of different kinds.

In the late 1970s, however, adolescent entertainment consisted of whatever was on network television (cable TV didn’t become common until about 1982), books, and other young people.

And since there were no parental tracking apps, your parents typically had only a vague sense of your whereabouts at any given moment.

In this atmosphere of fewer ready-made distractions and much less supervision, there were more motives and opportunities for getting into trouble. And plenty of teenage boys jumped at the chance.

***

This particular group of teenage boys, riding around on Halloween night 1979, had decided that it would be fun to throw eggs at the kids who were still young enough to go trick-or-treating.

They were obviously selecting their victims at random. I will retroactively blame Ken for our being singled out. His solid white stormtrooper outfit really did make him a target.

The car—it must have been a Dodge Charger or a Trans Am—slowed down as it approached. Ken and I had no time to assess the situation, let alone take evasive action. Then someone in the passenger seat threw some white objects at us via their rolled-down window.

The car roared away before we realized what had happened: they had pelted us with eggs.

Ken had been walking closest to the road, and he was a mess. The stormtrooper outfit his mother had so painstakingly crafted was now smeared with dripping yellow egg yolk.

Some of the eggs had splattered on me, too…though not very much.

After that, we decided to call it an early night. Neither one of us wanted to walk around dressed like an omelette.

At least the boys didn’t throw rotten eggs at us, I would think later.

***

My guess is that the egg-throwing foray was a spur-of-the-moment thing for the boys.

Speaking of the teenage boys: I never learned their identities. Whoever they were, though, they would all be pushing sixty in 2021.

***

So that was how my last Halloween went, in 1979 and not in 1980. By Halloween 1980, I decided for myself that I had had enough of Halloween and trick-or-treat. It was time to let that childhood ritual go.

Halloween, nevertheless, retains a strong grip on my imagination. 12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN was therefore a very fun book to write as an adult.

***View 12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN on Amazon***

‘Dark Places’, and the heavy metal controversies of the 1980s

I’m a fan of Gillian Flynn’s novels, and I enjoyed the film adaptation of Gone Girl (2014). So I thought: why not give Dark Places (2015) a try? Although I had read the 2009 novel, enough years had passed that much of the plot had seeped out of my mind. (That happens more and more often, the older I get.)

First, the acting. The two female leads in this movie (Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz) were perfect choices. Charlize Theron has proven herself willing to downplay her physical beauty for the sake of a dramatically challenging antihero role. (See her performance as Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003).) And the lead role of Libby Day, the tragic but unlikable protagonist of Dark Places, forced her to make the most of these skills.

Chloë Grace Moretz, meanwhile, played the teenage femme fatale, Diondra Wertzner, in the backstory scenes (which comprise a significant portion of the movie). Moretz provided just the right blend of sex appeal and darkness that this character required, more or less what I imagined while reading the novel.

I’ve been following Moretz’s career since her breakout role as a child vampire in Let Me In (2010). Now in her twenties, Moretz seems almost typecast as a dark/horror movie actress; but she always manages to pull off the perfect creepy female character. (Note: Be sure to watch Let Me In if you haven’t seen it yet.)

Dark Places kept me glued to the screen. As I was watching the film, the plot of the book came back to me. Dark Places remained faithful to its literary source material, but in a way that moved the plot along more smoothly than the novel did. (This might be one of those rare cases in which the movie is actually a little better than the novel, which—despite being good—drags in places.)

As alluded to above, Dark Places is primarily set in the twenty-first century, with a significant portion concerning flashback events of 1985, when the adult characters were children or teenagers.

I was 17 in 1985, and I remember that era well. Much of this part of the story revolves around rumors of teenage “devil worship”, and the influence of “satanic” heavy metal: Dio, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne. This is an old controversy that I hadn’t thought about much in decades. Dark Places brought some of those long-ago debates back to me.

I listened to plenty of heavy metal back in the 1980s. (I still do). The heavy metal of Ronnie James Dio, Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne and Iron Maiden does not encourage satanism, any more than films like The Exorcist encourage satanism. But like The Exorcist, some ‘80s heavy metal does dwell excessively on dark themes. And here is where the source of the confusion lies.

I never had the urge to draw a pentagram on my bedroom wall or sacrifice goats while listening to Blizzard of Oz or Piece of Mind. Nor did I detect any dark exhortations in the lyrics, whether overt or subliminal.

Since the 1980s, Ozzy Osbourne has become a reality TV star. Iron Maiden’s lead singer, Bruce Dickinson, has emerged as a polymath who writes books and flies commercial airliners when not on tour.

Ozzy strikes me as one of the most gentle people you might ever meet. Dickinson, meanwhile, is a conservative (in the British context of that political label) and a eurosceptic. Neither man fits the profile of the devil-worshipping maniac.

I will admit, though, that some 80s metal music became a bit cumbersome to listen to on a regular basis. I eventually moved on to more light-hearted, commercial rock like Def Leppard. I still listen to a lot more Def Leppard than Ozzy Osbourne or Iron Maiden. But I digress.

The 1980s fear-mongering over heavy metal turned out to be just that: fear-mongering. Although I’m sure there were isolated real-life horror stories, I didn’t know a single kid in the 1980s who was into satanism. The teenage satanists of the 1980s existed almost entirely within the fevered imaginations of a few evangelical preachers and their followers.

Back to Dark Places. The problem (with both the book and the movie) is that it is a fundamentally depressing story, without any characters that the reader/viewer can wholeheartedly root for. While there is a reasonable conclusion, there is nothing approaching a happy ending, or even a satisfying ending. That is a central flaw that no acting or directing talent can rectify.

This doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t worth watching. It is. But make sure you schedule a feel-good comedy film shortly thereafter. You’ll need it. And don’t watch Dark Places if you’re already feeling gloomy or depressed.

-ET

Participation trophies and organic chemistry

Maitland Jones Jr., an award-winning professor at NYU, was fired after a group of his students signed a petition alleging that his organic chemistry course was “too hard”.

I should begin with the usual disclaimer: I don’t know Maitland Jones, or the students who signed the petition. I never took his organic chemistry course. But that doesn’t mean I’m completely unfamiliar with the broader questions here.

In the academic year of 1987 to 1988, I took three semesters of organic chemistry at the University of Cincinnati. The reader might reasonably ask why I did this to myself.

During the previous summer, I had taken an intensive Biology 101 course, comprised of three parts: botany, zoology, and genetics.

I got A’s in all three sections of Biology 101. Botany and zoology were easy for me because I have always been good at memorizing large amounts of information that has no logical connections. (I’m good at foreign languages, for much the same reason.) I struggled a bit with the genetics portion of Biology 101, which requires more math-like problem-solving skills. But I still managed to pull off an A.

I was 19 years old at the time. With the typical logic of a 19-year-old, I concluded that I should go to medical school. I changed my undergrad major to premed, and began taking the math and science courses that comprised that academic track.

That’s how I crossed paths with organic chemistry. Organic chemistry was nothing like the Biology 101 course I had taken over the summer session. Biology 101 was aimed at more or less the entire student body. (I initially took it to satisfy my general studies science course requirement.) Organic chemistry was aimed at future heart surgeons and chemical engineers. Organic chemistry was the most difficult academic course I have ever taken, or attempted to take.

Organic chemistry is difficult because it requires the ability to memorize lots of information, as well as the ability to apply that information in the solution of complex problems. Organic chemistry is, in short, the ideal weed-out course for future heart surgeons and chemical engineers.

How did I do in organic chemistry? Not very well. I managed two gentlemanly Cs, and I dropped out the third semester.

My dropping out would have been no surprise to my professor. Nor was I alone. Plenty of other students dropped out, too.

Early in the course, I remember the professor saying, “Not everyone is cut out to be a doctor or a chemist. Organic chemistry is a course that lets you know if you’re capable of being a doctor or a chemist.”

That was 1987, long before the participation trophy, and back when a snowflake was nothing but a meteorological phenomenon. My experience with organic chemistry was harrowing, so far as “harrowing” can be used to describe the life of a college student. But in those days, disappointments, setbacks, and the occasional outright failure were considered to be ordinary aspects of the growing up experience. My organic chemistry professor did not care about my feelings or my self-esteem. He only cared if I could master the intricacies of stereochemistry, alkenes, and resonance.

The good news is that I was able to quickly identify a career that I would probably not be good at. Even more importantly, you, the reader, will never look up from an operating table, to see me standing over you with a scalpel.

If we have now reached the point where students can vote their professor out of a job because a course is too hard, then we’ve passed yet another Rubicon of surrender to the cult of feel-good political correctness.

A decade ago, many of us laughed at the concept of the participation trophy. But at the same time, many of us said: “What’s the big deal?”

The big deal is that small gestures, small surrenders, have larger downstream consequences. A participation trophy is “no big deal” on an elementary school soccer field. At medical school, participation trophies can endanger lives, by enabling the less competent to attain degrees and certifications which they would never have acquired in saner times.

Are you planning on getting heart surgery down the road? You might want to get it now, before the present generation of premeds and medical students becomes the next generation of doctors.

-ET

Loretta Lynn and the American dream

I won’t lie: I barely know Tim McGraw from Buck Owens. Country music has never been my cup of tea.

But who can’t relate to the song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter”?

Whatever your musical tastes, it’s inspiring to think that a girl born in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky at the height of the Great Depression could grow up to become instantly recognizable, even to those of us who don’t listen to much country music.

She also brought joy to millions of people with her music for more than six decades. You might not be a rabid Loretta Lynn fan, but you probably know someone who is. Here in southern Ohio, I know plenty of them.

Loretta Lynn, 90, RIP.

-ET