Monthly Archives: September 2010

“The Town” – A Review

I was born and raised in the town of Weymouth. By car or public transit, it was a short trip into the city of Boston. So when I was growing up I spent a lot of time there. During my summers between semesters of college I’d come back home and hang out in the bars and neighborhoods of the city I still love. We’d drive all over Boston from Southie to Chinatown, and from Copley to Harvard Square. But one place we almost never went was the one square mile of cobblestone and brick called Charlestown. We kept our distance.

Charlestown, often ignored and left off maps of Boston and with a chip on it’s shoulder because of it, was the location of the Battle of Bunker Hill and also where “Old Ironsides,” the U.S. Navy’s battleship, Constitution, is docked. And even though it looks pretty in pictures, Charlestown was nothing but trouble. The guys our age were tough and liked to fight and the chances of going into a Charlestown bar and not coming out without a bloody or broken nose weren’t great. Plus, the people who call Charlestown their home town don’t exactly have a fondness for outsiders. Either you were a “townie” or you were not. And if you were not you’d be better off not crossing that bridge. It’s a small provincial, clannish neighborhood and the residents like it that way.

Besides being an historic part of Greater Boston, that little piece of land also has the seemly distinction of producing more bank and armored car robbers than any other place in the U.S. It’s something that folks there are actually proud of though you’d never hear anybody mention it. That’s because of Charlestown’s famous “code of silence” where nobody “evah knows ‘nuthin'”. Nevah. Evah.

Ben Affleck’s new film project, “The Town” takes you to the places where my friend Tommy and I never went; straight into the bars, street corners and triple-Decker’s where the townies live and breath. Affleck directed, produced, co-wrote and stars in this tense, taught thriller. And he absolutely nails every second of this film, as he follows one such gang of thugs, which he happens to also be a member of. Affleck, who of course hails from this neck of the woods, gets every last detail right. The hard to imitate Boston accents, the look of the city at sunrise and in the evening, and especially the bad attitudes. But most importantly, Affleck’s “The Town” captures the terrible trap of crime and dead-end lives that most these young people find themselves caught up in.

I’ve seen plenty of films about Boston, including the admirable, “The Departed,” which netted an Oscar for master filmmaker Martin Scorsese. But I’ve never seen the places and the people so perfectly depicted and mimicked. Every frame of this film, from the opening bank heist to the film’s climax, where the foursome try to knock over the cash room at the “cathedral of Boston”, Fenway Park, is pitch perfect and packed with white knuckle tension. And it’s Affleck’s eye for the details that transcends this film from just another okay cops-and-robbers saga to a brilliant movie about the tragedy of lost lives.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that Affleck has such a great cast to paint his canvass with. Jeremy Renner, who we last saw in the Academy-award winning, “The Hurt Locker,” once again shows his incredible range both in the robbery scenes and when he’s faced with a partner in Affleck who wants out.

Another real standout performance comes from Affleck’s character’s incarcerated father, played with even-tempered steel eyed guilt and regret by the astonishing actor Chris Cooper. Even newcomer Claire Keesey shows a dangerous vulnerability as the bank manager taken hostage and later stalked by the thugs who think she might be their undoing. When Keesey’s character, a preppy newcomer to Charlestown’s condos Rebecca Hall is followed and subsequently unknowingly falls in love with Affleck’s, Doug MacRay, the plot thickens and the trap closes tighter.

On the other side of the law, Affleck gets a stellar performance from Jon Hamm, fresh from the set of “Mad Men,” who plays an FBI agent determined to bring this crew down. In one remarkable scene, Hamm’s FBI agent on a mission goes mano y mano with Affleck in an interrogation room, but fails to intimidate his bird of prey.

Affleck uses an unusual amount of extreme close-ups which bring you even deeper into the drama and seem to implicate you as an accomplice. And whether the location is a park bench in Harvard Square or the inside of a Charlestown skating rink, Affleck seems right at home.

All things considered, “The Town” is nothing short of a masterpiece. The film’s quite, haunting score moves it along like a train chugging along through the night. In the end the there are no easy answers. Instead the viewer is left to find his or her own sad conclusions.

And unlike the getaways that help Charlestown’s artful dodgers live to rob another day, they’ll be no getaway after viewing this movie. It’s a complex film that will stay in your consciousness for a very long time.

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Filed under Boston, Films, movies, My Stories

Riding Shotgun Down The Avalanche

Tuesday morning, 9/7/10, Detroit – An early morning alarm and then it was out into the bright Detroit light as my fiancee Janet and I began the 12 hundred plus mile journey to North Carolina to visit Janet’s brother Chuck, who is battling brain cancer with great heroism. Just a very light breakfast as we tried to get on the road as early as possible. Though we’d been looking forward to seeing Chuck and spending time with him at his home in Charlotte, we both understood that this wasn’t going to be easy. Visiting a sick relative or friend never is. But sometimes you just have to do it. And so we did.

Hands firmly on the wheel and eyes sharply on the road, we set off for the southland. We tried not to think about what awaited us. We just drove.

Here are the plain and simple facts. 48 year old Chuck Graham is a brilliant engineer who owns a multi-million dollar engineering firm in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is married and has two daughters, one in high school and one in college. Diagnosed with cancer several years ago, Chuck has been battling it ever since. He’s been through it all, many times over. Chemotherapy. Radiation. Surgery on tumors on his face and neck. More chemo. More radiation. Months of disabling side effects. Blinding, pounding headaches. Awful pain. On and on.

Beginning a few months ago, Chuck began having difficulty swallowing, making it very painful and impossible to eat. Because of this, Chuck’s lost a huge amount of weight, more than 70 pounds. He’s also recovering from a serious bout with pneumonia that landed him in the hospital. He’s now getting nutrition via a feeding tube. He’s in near constant pain, but gets some relief from morphine which his wife, Julie, administers as needed. Julie has taken a sabbatical to care for Chuck. He is home, but still must visit the hospital each day for more radiation, as the doctors continue to try to shrink his remaining tumors. Those are the hard cold facts.

Then there are also many questions, some which can be answered and some which cannot. And sometimes it’s hard to get through all the information and get answers to some of those questions. As we pressed on further south, Janet and I wondered what we might find when we reached our destination. I hoped and prayed for strength, primarily for Janet but also for myself. Janet is very strong, stronger perhaps than she thinks, but has never been through a family situation like this. As Janet drove her mighty mule of a car, we tried not to think or talk too much about what we mostly already knew.

We were listening much of the way to Pandora Radio. The music was soothing to both of us and as the day progressed and we continued on, some of the earlier anxiety seemed to ease. We were bound for the hills of West Virginia, a place I’d never seen before. Still in Ohio, the sun was shining brightly. Great traveling weather. And it was quite serendipitous when John Denver’s classic song, “Country Road” came on Pandora Radio, quite some distance from the West Virginia line:

“Almost heaven, West Virginia,
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River….
Country roads, take me home,
To the place I belong….”

The landscape began to change from mainly flat countryside to low hills. It’s a pretty country, I said to Janet and she agreed. Being on the road gives you a chance to open your mind as you see how huge and wide this country really is. There are just long stretches where you see nothing at all other than nature. The clutter begins to clear in your head and we began to relax a little. Sometimes it’s good just to be traveling on. We concentrated on making sure we were taking all the right exits and following all the correct routes and roads.

Although Janet has traveled through much of this country in her days as a sports reporter, my travel has been more limited. But I enjoy seeing new places. We entered West Virginia and crossed a few rivers. Quickly those hills become mountains and the roads curved around the mountains like ribbons. The roads began to get very steep and treacherous and Janet had to really concentrate. We had a quick lunch in the car and kept going. I looked at my watch and noticed we’ve been on the road for nine hours. Where did all that time go? The scenery, at times, was breathtaking.

Dusk carried us further along and soon we entered North Carolina. We would not be seeing Chuck that night. We’d made arrangements to spend the night at a friend’s house. When we arrived at our destination we realized we’d been driving for 13 hours, and once we got settled it wasn’t hard, despite our anxiety regarding the next day, to fall asleep. Our heads hit the pillows and it was time to visit the Land of Nod.

Wednesday morning, 9/8/10, Charlotte, N.C. – Chuck asked us to wait until late morning to visit, so that allowed us to sleep in an extra hour or two. We got ready and headed over to Chuck’s house about five miles away. And as we pulled into his driveway we saw several people standing in the front yard discussing something or other. (Turns out they were workers looking to do some tree-trimming.) Standing right in the middle of the group was Chuck, looking much as I expected. As we got out of our car and walked toward him, it was easy to see the toll this battle has taken. He appeared haggard and very thin, and greeted us with a look of supreme sadness. Just a shadow of the man we saw at Christmas, I thought of how remarkable it was that he was standing outside his house taking care of business. What incredible courage! What a true fighter he is!

After we all embraced, we went inside to Chuck’s sunny day room, a large room he added on to his house several years ago. It’s a beautiful and well-appointed room and it’s many windows allow the sun to brighten up the house. Chuck has two dogs, a young, muscular and slightly aggressive hound named Hayden and an older, more mellow golden retriever named Rigby and they seem to bring a nice energy into the house. I believe animals are essential for people who are sick and trying to get better. I believe they have an intuitive knowledge of what’s happening and provide necessary love and companionship to the sick. I’m glad Chuck has Hayden and Rigby by his side, whenever he needs them.

Janet and I had plenty of questions to ask about how Chuck was feeling. We also tried to keep things light, offering up stories and anecdotes about our own lives and some of the funny people we’ve encountered. Chuck was happy not to have to answer too many question, and equally curious to hear our stories. Soon it was time for Janet’s brother to make his own trip to the hospital for more radiation. We left and came back in the late afternoon and sat and chatted with him some more. That night we watched an emotionally uplifting, good natured film, “The Blind Side.”

It was a good film with a happy ending and it seemed to put Chuck in a positive frame of mind. Needless to say he gets sleepy fairly early every night, so we left after the movie, telling Chuck and his wife we’d be back again the next day.

Thursday, 9/9/10, Charlotte, N.C. – Thursday ended up being pretty much a carbon copy of the day before with our arrival at Chuck’s in the late morning and the break for radiation. However, instead of leaving, we stayed at Chuck’s house and read while he was at the hospital. I also observed that there seemed to be a considerable improvement in Chuck’s mood. His face just looked less sad and he laughed and talked more often. Thinking that laughter is often the best remedy, I borrowed a copy of the classic knee slapper, “My Cousin Vinny” from Chuck’s friend Jim. Around 5:00 p.m. we sat down and watched that movie and all laughed quite a bit at good old Joe Pesci and friends.

As I said Chuck’s spirit’s seemed to have lifted since the day before. In fact, he was feeling so good on Thursday that all day he kept talking about taking a trip in the evening to a candy store called Kilwin’s. In fact, Chuck pretty much insisted that we all pile into a car and go for a ride across town to a trendy area with a group of shops where Kilwin’s was located.

Inside the smell of fudge, chocolate and ice cream filled our senses and soon filled our stomachs as well. And despite the fact that Chuck couldn’t eat or drink anything, it didn’t matter. He truly seemed to delight in the sight of seeing us having fun, selecting our favorite flavor of ice cream or enjoying a slice of freshly made chocolate fudge. He just looked on and smiled now and then.

We walked back to our car, stopping to look in shop windows on this gorgeous southern September night. It was great to see Chuck and Julie walking hand in hand. And as I noticed Chuck watching us enjoy ourselves, I realized that this was why everyone loves Chuck so much. It’s because Chuck simply cares so much about making sure his friends and family are having a great time.

I remembered how on past visits he would always be pointing out places of interest along the road in North Carolina, making sure I was comfortable and part of the conversation. Last Christmas, as a gift to his family, Chuck rented out a very luxurious and expensive beach house in Charleston, South Carolina. Once again, another example of Chuck’s generosity. Chuck is one of a kind, an incredibly loving and generous man who loves to give of himself. And how can you not love that.

And I guess that’s the true tragedy of his illness. The world needs more guys like Chuck and it’s just plain wrong to see such wonderful people suffer. Chuck embodies so much the opposite of what I see in most of the other people I encounter in the world. During an age of endless greed, narcissism, and selfishness, Chuck is exceedingly generous, loving and kind. It’s just a crying shame that he’s had to endure this ordeal. It’s just wrong.

We got home and since we were going to leave early Friday, we said our goodbyes then and there, with a promise to visit again sometime soon. Chuck was careful to make sure we knew the best way to Dayton, where we were going to stop overnight on the way home to cut the trip in half. It was an emotional experience and I could tell you that there were no tears shed, but I’d be lying.

Friday, 9/10/10, Charlotte, N.C. – We were up and on the road by 10:00 or 11:00 a.m., thanking Chuck’s friend Jim for his hospitality before we drove off. We had another long journey ahead of us, but this time instead of going straight back to Detroit, we decided to take a different route and visit with Janet’s parents in Dayton to spend time with them and tell them what we had seen and learned about Chuck. We were saddened to leave, but feeling positive about the time we spent with Chuck and Julie and cautiously optimistic about Chuck’s future. It seemed to take longer to go a shorter distance (the road home always feels longer, doesn’t it?), but Chuck’s parents were delighted to see us Friday night and we all went out to dinner at our favorite restaurant in little olde Centerville, Ohio.

Chuck’s daughter Kelli, who attends the University of Dayton, joined us for dinner and was happy to hear that her Dad was doing okay. Chuck’s mother and father had lots of questions and we did our best to answer them. They, like Chuck, are deeply religious, and Janet and I are always happy and heartened to see how their faith in God is helping them through this most trying time. Finally, exhausted from the road, we retired for the night, everyone feeling a little more relieved and hopeful that Chuck can still beat this despicable scourge of a disease.

Saturday, 9/11/2010, Dayton, OH – We had already traveled more than one thousand miles, but we still had another couple hundred ahead of us as we made our way back to the Motor City on Saturday. It’s a good thing that Janet is a better traveler than me, because I was starting to feel the strain of the road, and she was still going strong. As we drove into our condo complex we felt such a mixture and combination of emotions.

It had been one heck of an journey with plenty of highs and lows and ups and downs. For Janet, I knew it was a trip she had to make, to see the brother that she loves with all her heart and to just be with him for awhile during this struggle. For me, it was also something I needed to do, because although I like to think that I’m providing strength for Janet, I’m also trying to come to grips and deal with Chuck and the battle he’s fighting.

One of the lessons that my own father taught me was that we can never give up in this life. No matter how difficult the fight is, or how bad the odds might be, you have to stay in the ring and keep on swinging. And you can never, ever give up. I told Chuck this and I know he’s probably heard it before. And the good news is that I don’t think he ever will give up. He will keep on fighting the good fight. I also have come to experience things in my own life that allow me to believe in miracles and I am praying as hard and fervently as I can that Chuck can fully recover and get to live to a fine old age.

Nobody deserves it more than Chuck.

Postscript: I’d like to, on behalf of Janet and her entire family, appeal to you for your prayers and good thoughts for Chuck Graham of Charlotte, North Carolina. I thank you very much and I’ll keep you up to date.

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“The Wake Of Forgiveness” – Bruce Machart

Read, read, read, read, read.

That’s what one college professor urged my classmates to do on the final day of our meeting. And I have tried my best to follow his sage advice. All my life I have been a book worm, in love with the written word and the cosmic connection and conversation that takes place between an author and his reader. I look to reading as a shelter from the rat race; a place to withdraw and travel sometimes not far and sometimes to foreign lands, a sanctuary from the electronic distractions that seem to grow in number and intensity each day. Ah, but they are so tempting. Those so-called “social media sites” where on some days there seems to be such little amount of socializing that takes place, other than communication in sentence fragments.

Even as I type this it seems “they” are trying to take away our books, tempting us to use the iPad, or a dozen different types of electronic machines “where you can download all your favorite books in minutes.” Ah, but will you read them?

I don’t spend nearly enough time blogging about my great love of reading literature. I say literature, that’s what I try to read, avoiding if at all possible the glut of pulp novels, memoirs, and other works of non-fiction that are today’s bestsellers. You know the author’s I’m talking about. The ones that seem to have a new book every year and who leave you unfulfilled, malnourished and lacking in any kind of cathartic satisfaction.

I have a few favorites. Cormac McCarthy tops the list, but it extends to others like Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, the dearly departed David Foster Wallace and a new writer named Wells Tower, who I think is fantastic. Also Tom Franklin, Dave Eggers and dozens more. And I’m always on the lookout for young, new talent. The New Yorker recently ran a series called something like “The Top 20 Under 40 Writers,” and while I may be out of that demographic, I can still enjoy it, just like I can enjoy the music or acting of those ten or twenty years younger than me.

But today, rather than reviewing a book, I’d like to preview one that I just heard of. It is titled “The Wake of Forgiveness” (gosh, I love that title), by an extremely promising young writer named Bruce Machart. The book was excerpted in the Wall Street Journal, and I’m sure neither they nor the author would mind if I offered it here for your eyes. Machart is already being talked about in the same sentences as Cormac McCarthy and Charles Frazier, which in both cases, are pretty large shoes to fill. But the following excerpt reads so deliciously that I had to share it with you.

So find a quiet place, turn off those vulgar distractions, ignore the telephone for a few moments, take a few deep breaths and enjoy.

Happy Labor Day 2010.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704206804575467761836138680.html

A Winter Harvest – February 1895

The blood had come hard from her, so much of it that, when Vaclav Skala awoke in wet bed linens to find her curled up against him on her side, moaning and glazed with sweat, rosary beads twisted around her clenched fingers, he smiled at the thought that she’d finally broken her water. He pulled back the quilt, a wedding gift sent six years before from his mother in the old country, and kissed Klara on the forehead before climbing from bed to light the lamp. He struck a match, and there it was, streaked down his legs and matted in the coarse hair on his thighs – dark and half-dried smears of his wife’s blood.

.And it kept coming. He saddled his horse and rode shivering under a cloudless midnight sky to the Janek farm to fetch Edna, the midwife. By the time they made it back, Klara’s eyes were open but glazed in such a way that they knew she wasn’t seeing through them anymore. Her pale lips moved without giving voice to her final prayer, which entreated the child to come or her own spirit to stay, either one.

When the baby arrived, their fourth boy, blood slicked and clot flecked, he appeared to have been as much ripped from flesh as born of it. Klara was lost, and Edna tended to what had been saved, pinching the little thing’s toe to get the breathing started, cleaning him with a rag dipped in warm milk and water, wrapping him in a blanket.

Vaclav Skala stood at the foot of the bed, grinding his back teeth slowly against a stringy mash of tobacco he’d chewed flavorless half an hour before. He watched Edna, a slight young woman with narrow hips and long hair as black as her eyes. She bunched pillows beneath the dead woman’s shoulder blades and behind her head before resting the baby on his mother’s stomach. Taking one of Klara’s breasts between her thumb and finger, she puckered the nipple so the baby could get hold of it. The little thing threw his hands up about his face and worked his legs beneath the blanket, and Edna held him unremittingly to the breast until he hollowed his cheeks and found it with his mouth. “It’s no hind milk in her yet,” she said, “but he might get some of the yellow mother’s milk. We’ll be needing a wet nurse. It’s several up county who might do it.”

Vaclav stepped back into the doorway and looked down the dark hallway toward the room where his other three boys were sleeping. “We’ll be needing a hell of a lot more than that,” he said. “Let him get what’s left of her if he can. He’s done taken the rest.”

Just before dawn, after Edna had washed the body and wrapped it in clean bedding, Vaclav carried it out and up into the loft of the barn so the boys wouldn’t find her when they woke. Then he dragged the drenched mattress from the house and out through the young pear grove to the hard-caked plot of earth where he planned one day to build his stable. There, beneath the wash kettle, he kindled a fire with last year’s fallen mesquite branches. The mattress was soaked through and heavier than Klara’s body had been, and Vaclav found himself cursing its weight even while he recalled how Klara had stitched the ticking and stuffed it with goose feathers before their wedding night; how, when he lay pressed for the first time between her tender skin and the soft warmth of the bed she’d made for him, he’d startled his bride, so loud was his laugh.

Now, as the horizon gave way to the pink glow of another south Texas dawn and the mockingbirds came to life in the pear grove, Vaclav worked his knife along the mattress seam, undoing his wife’s work, as he would find himself doing for years. With several inches of the stitching cut away, he reached in and pulled out the feathers, one bloody handful after another, and fed them to the fire, which spat and sizzled before blazing into yellow flames and thick white billows of smoke.

In the near pasture, the cattle stood lowing against the fence, and had Vaclav been paying attention the way he usually did, he would have puzzled at their behavior, wondering what it was that kept them clustered against the fenceline instead of in the center of the parcel near the three square bales of hay he’d set out for them the day before. Instead, he stood staring into the fire, adding the steady fuel of feathers, looking into the flames so he wouldn’t have cause to look at his hands, which were chapped and creased deeply with calluses and stained with the blood of the only woman he’d ever been fond of.

The townsfolk would assume, from this day forward, that Klara’s death had turned a gentle man bitter and hard, but the truth, Vaclav knew, was that her absence only rendered him, again, the man he’d been before he’d met her, one only her proximity had ever softened. He’d known land in his life that, before a few seasons of regular rainfall, had been hard enough to crack a plow point, and he knew that if, by stubbornness or circumstance, that earth became yours to farm, you’d do well to live with the constant understanding that, in time, absent the work of swollen clouds and providence, your boots would fall loudly, giving rise to dust, when you walked your fields.

With the sun breaking clear of the horizon and the ticking gutted of its down, Vaclav whittled his knife against a brick of lye soap and added a handful of shavings to the boiling kettle water. He squinted against the sharp fumes of Klara’s strong soap, and when he got the bloodstained ticking into the kettle, the water roiled and frothed red like so much sick stew.

Softly, a cool wind came up from the north and swirled the smoke around the kettle and out into the newly lit morning. Across the pasture, hidden in the far hedgerow near the creekside stand of trees, three half-starved coyotes raised their twitching snouts to catch a breeze laced of a sudden with the hot, iron-rich scent of blood. Their mouths flooded with anticipation as they hunkered their bellies low and inched forward, shifting their feet beneath them and waiting, their reticence born more of caution than patience. In the pasture, the cows went to lowing again, pressing themselves together against the fencewires.

With a twisted mesquite branch, Vaclav moved the ticking around in the boiling liquid and then threw that wood, too, on the fire. When he turned toward the house and weaved his way through the grove, he found the back door swung open, his three young boys standing just inside wearing nightclothes and wet cheeks. The oldest, Stanislav, was only five, but he held on to his brothers’ shoulders the way a father would. The wind gusted enough to ripple -Vaclav’s shirt, and when it calmed he heard the baby crying inside. Standing in the bare yard, he took his plug of tobacco from his shirt pocket and tore off a portion with his teeth. Edna appeared behind the boys and turned them away from the door. “Their breakfast’s gone cold on the table,” she said. “They’re asking after her.”

He nodded and spit tobacco juice into the hard earth near the porch, and then, without washing his hands or taking off his boots, he stepped into the house where, for all but one wailing newborn, as in the pasture and the hedgerows, even hunger had been plowed under by fear.

If you’d like more information on this book or the author, his official website is: http://brucemachart.com/ and the novel will be released late next month.

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“Factory 1978” – Bruce Springsteen


In honor of Labor Day weekend 2010 and the forthcoming Darkness Box Set, here’s Bruce Springsteen at the Capitol Center in Landover, Maryland in 1978 during the Darkness On The Edge Of Town Tour.
(It’ll take a few seconds for Bruce to appear on this video, but it’s from the line feed to the monitors inside the arena, so the quality is pretty good.)
Here’s to a healthy, happy and safe holiday weekend.
With love,
John

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“The Motorcycle Diaries” – Not Just Another Road Movie

For the last six years I’ve heard nothing but raves about the on-the-road, buddy film, political manifesto “The Motorcycles Diaries,” but for some reason or other I never got around to watching it. Until the other night, and I am here to add to that chorus and raves and recommend it as one of the great films of the past 25 years.

The truth is, after viewing it, I can’t get this film out of my head; from the gorgeous images that showcase the intense beauty of South America, the passionate camaraderie and love between a 23 year old Che Guevara and his hilarious, sidekick, best friend Alberto Granado, to the gradual political and social transformation of Ernesto “Che” Guevara as he encounters the poor, indigenous people who populate his home in the southern hemisphere. I recommend it not because the cinematography is gorgeous (it is) or because the actors are tremendous (they are) or because it’s a really fun road trip that will make you want to hit the road yourself (it will). I recommend it because like all great art, it will change you, or at least the way you see this part of the world.

“The Motorcycle Diaries” is set in 1952 and is based on the actual diaries kept by Che Guevara, who was then a medical student one semester away from graduating when he decided to go on a long journey up and down that long continent of South America with his friend, biochemist Alberto Granada. Before they go, the two amigos trace out an outline of their journey which they plan to mount atop Alberto’s outdated Norton 500 motorcycle, nicknamed by Alberto “The Mighty One.”

The two men, their bodies, sacks and packs of food and other provisions, are perched like a tremendous behemoth upon this tiny motor bike. And even though their eventual destination is a leper colony in Peru, where they hope to help the sick and dying, these are two young men looking to discover new places and the fun and adventure that is sure to greet them along their intended 8,000 kilometer (5,000 mile route).

They hop aboard “The Mighty One” and head out from Buenos Aires, Argentina across the flatland and up into the Andes and through its snow covered mountains, down the coast of Chile and across the Atacama Desert, where eventually “The Mighty One” breaks down and is sold as scrap. You want to give God a laugh, it is said, tell him your plans.

The tone of the film shifts slowly from one of rambunctious hilarity to something different with serious sociopolitical implications. In their travels, Che and Alberto encounter a group of traveling migrants on the road to Venezuela, and Che (or “Fuser”, as Alberto has earlier nicknamed him) begins to get to know the peasants and downtrodden people of South America. Listening to their stories at night alongside a campfire and under moonlit skies, we see the slow metamorphosis that is happening within Che, as he hears these sad stories of lives lived under the terrible hardship of poverty. One couple tells of how their lives were uprooted and ruined because of their communist beliefs, as many of the others nod in political solidarity.

Finally, when Che and Alberto visit a copper mine, Guevara’s frustration and anger come to a boiling point as he sees with his own eyes the terrible treatment of the men who are merely trying to seek out enough money to feed their families. All this time, Che feverishly documents in a diary consisting of numerous notebooks exactly what he is witnessing and does not want to forget.

For most of the film, Alberto serves as somewhat of a foil, a source of comic relief versus the more serious and gentlemanly young Che. Alberto wants to sing, dance, drink wine and make love. Che seems more interested in learning as much as he can about a world he never knew existed. But both men are moved tremendously and muse both politically and philosophically when they reach the most breathtaking stop on their already transformative journey, the Peruvian ruins of Machu Picchu.

As Che and Alberto both observe with disgust the contrast between this centuries old ruin of Machu Picchu with the the ugly, polluted city of Lima to the south, they find themselves wondering aloud how such beauty and majesty can be so devastatingly destroyed into the waste and greed and avarice they see far below them.

Che speaks of dreams of revolution against rampant capitalism, but is warned by the more practical Alberto who answers, “A revolution without guns? It will never work.” Prophetic words indeed. In the end, the two weary travelers reach their final destination, the leper colony where Che cares for those in dire need of medical attention, refusing the custom of wearing medical gloves, and instead bravely, nobly choosing instead to meet the lepers with his bare hands.

As the film comes to a close, Ernesto “Che” Guevara makes a birthday toast, his first real political statement, in which he confirms how he has been so radically changed and hints at what those changes will mean for his future. In an attempt to put words into action of one day bridging the widening gap between the “haves” of the world and “have-nots,” Che plunges into the dangerous Amazon river and swims from the safe side where the caretakers live and eat over to the sick side, where the lepers are dying. He emerges from the water, a man newly baptized by the water and ready to begin a new, more radical life.

This is a film which will have a powerful effect on you. It will change you in many ways, not the least of which might be the way you think of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a true man of the people.

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Filed under History, movies, Profiles

Who’s In Charge Of The Damn Band?

My final year of high school I was trying to decide which college to attend. My father had attended Boston College and was a B.C. Eagle heart and soul. But I had designs on being a writer and I had heard Syracuse University had a tremendous school of communications. So I set my sights on Syracuse.

One weekend my Dad and I drove the 6 hours from Boston to Syracuse to check out the University and, as long as we were making the trip, attend a Boston College vs. Syracuse University football game in an old concrete cathedral called Archbold Stadium.

My Dad, being the devoted Boston College alum he was, seemed to know just about everybody who taught or worked there, including the conductor of the B.C. Marching Band Peter Saragusa. And Mr. Saragusa was nice enough to get us tickets and arrange a place for us to stay in Syracuse. Nice guy, huh?

So we made the drive out along the Mass Turnpike and onto the New York Thruway, past Albany and all those little villages in upstate New York. Soon we were within Syracuse city limits and I grew excited to be able to see for the very first time the spectacular University high upon a hill overlooking the city.

Unfortunately we were staying some distance from the University in a Holiday Inn at Carrier Circle. Lots of things seemed to be named after the Carrier Company, which would in just a few short years provide the money to build the massive Carrier Dome, right on campus.

We arrived on a Friday morning and had a good, long look at the S.U. campus, including a tour of the S. I. Newhouse School of Communications, which by itself pretty much sold me on the school. I didn’t need to see much more. But it was a very pleasant Autumn day so we walked around campus and observed the students coming and going from class to class. It looked like a great place to go to college. The afternoon grew late, so it was back to Carrier Circle and our hotel. After dinner and my Dad’s customary Giant Manhattan, we retired back to our room. It had been an exciting day and we had to be up early for the football game. So, it was lights out.

We couldn’t have been sleeping long before I woke up to the sounds of all hell breaking loose outside the door, in the form of a some very drunk members of the Boston College Marching Band. Silly us. Neither my father nor I was familiar with the age-old tradition of marching band members getting stinking drunk and making as much noise as humanly possible in their hotel the night before a game. The party had quickly spilled out of their rooms and into the hall. In fact, the majority of noise makers had positioned themselves, or so it sounded to our ears, directly outside our room. They were playing their fifes and horns and banging their drums. They were singing the B.C. fight song and any other song they could thing of. In short, they were making enough noise to wake the dead.

My Dad and I tried to ignore it for a while, but the noise level seemed to be increasing with each passing minute. Eventually, my Dad came up with a brilliant plan to simply go out into the hall and ask these screaming Eagles to move their party. Bad move. It just made them worse. There was no way in hell we were going to be able to sleep.

Oh, sweet Jesus! Please save us from this growing bacchanalia.

Finally, my Dad decided the only thing left to do would be to ask for help from somebody at the front desk of the hotel. He put on all his clothes and left me behind to enjoy by myself this rapturous racket.

When my father got down to the front desk he calmly described what was going on. “The B.C. marching band is making an incredibly ruckus, partying and pounding on our door,” he told the attendant. “Is there anything you can do.” Or maybe he wasn’t quite so civil and simply shouted, “Who the hell is in charge of the damn band?”. The front desk clerk inquired as to my father’s name and room number and disappeared for a moment.

When he reappeared, the night clerk seemed quite perplexed. “I’ve just checked the records” he told my father, “and they indicate that you are actually supposed to be in charge of the band. So I’d advise you to get them under control.”

No, no, no, no, no, no, no! This can’t be happening my father must have thought.

But then it all must have become clear. His good friend, the marching band conductor Peter Saragusa, had booked my father and I a room under the pretense that we were the band’s chaperone’s. A neat trick for a free room had backfired big time. And now we were doomed. We couldn’t even get a different room. This was our spot.

I’m certain that neither of us, my father nor I, got more than an hour sleep that night. And to add insult to injury, once we were inside Archbold Stadium for the game it started to blizzard. In October. To the point where you couldn’t see the players on the field.

I vividly remember my father, with a somewhat pathetic look on his face, looking at me and saying with his eyes, “Are you sure you want to go to college here?” And then we probably left and found a new hotel.

But I did end up going to Syracuse. And in no time, I grew used to it all; the parties, the blizzards, and the endless snow.

So here’s a tip. The next time you’re watching college football on T.V. and they show you the marching band, keep in mind that chances are those young people were probably up all night partying and banging on doors.

And make damn sure you’re never in charge of them.

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Filed under Humor, My Stories