|Every day you ought to be disabused of something you believed. Just to keep you on your toes. Yesterday I learned that the Lady in Red who gave up Dillinger was actually wearing an orange dress; today, thanks to a book on a famous volcano explosion, I learned that Krakatoa is actually west of Java.
More on that book as I go on – it’s written with great ease and charm, and beyond its dramatic subject matter, it concerns the clash of Muslims and Christians that followed the explosion, as the former blamed the latter for the ruination of the very sky above. Or at least used it as a pretext to avenge the myriad sins of colonialism. Prior to the explosion, it seems that the Muslims of the islands and archipelagos had been reverent, sincere, and utterly disinclined to follow the particular strictures of the faith. Then came Orthodoxy; then came the volcano.
You know, I’m not going down from the bird flu. I won’t. I have a good supply of surgical masks and gloves - oh, laugha while you can, monkey boy! Wait until you go to CVS for a box and find only empty shelves. The day there’s one case in a major North American city I’m pulling the kid out of school and commencing Operation Use the Stockpiles. We’re not helpless, you know. A little hand-washing and not-coughing-in-people’s-faces or rubbing your eyes after turning a public doorknob goes a long way.
I seem to be on a writing tour of Minnesota coffee houses. Today it’s a refurbished farm house done up as a museum, complete with pictures of the family that lived here in the late 1880s. The view from my window has nothing of the modern world; no cars, no streetlights, nothing that suggests this isn’t 1881. Aside from the air conditioning and wifi. The men’s restroom has the farmhouse owner’s citizenship documents under glass across from the commode – not the most auspicious location, but perhaps apt; perhaps he was plagued with wind all his days. There’s a picture of a young man in the family, aged 9. And another from ten years later. According to the dates on the pictures, he lived to be 100. Imagine what you would have done if someone took you aside at the age of 19 and said you had 81 more years left to live. Some would end up dead in as ditch by the end of the month.
The other pictures remind you of the maddening, damnable, inscrutable unfairness of it all – a portrait of sisters, one 18, the other 16. The younger one died shortly after the picture was taken; the other lasted to age 87. Couldn’t they have split the difference?
This may not have been a wise idea, since I’m many many miles from where I pick up Gnat, and I expect traffic to thicken between now and then. But I’ve never been to this part of the exurbs, and if I go to any of the places I usually go, I will go daft, and soon. On the other hand, having now discovered this place, am I forbidden to ever come again, lest I repeat myself?
On the way over I listened to “The Shadow,” one of the most popular and famous radio serials of its time. What a load of ham. What a load of pink, shiny ham. The very premise is preposterous; the Shadow, as you may recall, has the power to cloud men’s minds, some sort of mesmerism he learned in the Orient. He can read minds when the plot requires. His signature dish is invisibility, which he accomplishes with the power of his mind. He confuses people into thinking he is seen by no one, perhaps by whispering that he appears on UPN Friday nights. This works best on radio, as you might imagine; on TV, you’d have to explain how he confuses people before they know he’s there. It’s almost a metaphysical puzzle: if someone doesn’t know you’re in the room, how can you convince them you’re invisible? He also throws his voice to confuse people, a trick that’s never quite explained. And if you don’t know where someone is standing, because he’s invisible, how do you know he’s throwing his voice?
He accomplishes his crime-fighting by making superstitious evildoers let him know he’s watching them, after which he follows them around, invisibly. Of course they’re always surprised when he shows up in the last act. The Shadow! He’s here! No duh, bub. His other skills, I should add, consist of a creepy laugh and a slightly distorted voice, as though the Shadow spoke through a cheap transistor radio. He also had a shortwave radio that he carried around, and when he used it someone in the FX department ran a wind machine.
It’s fun, in a 12-year-old sort of way, what with the spy rings and League of Death and Prince of Terror and King of Hangnails and Loose Organization of Mild Dread and all the other pulp titles; the dialogue from the Shadow’s real-life identity, Lamont Cranston, is laughably portentious, and tossed off with the sort of furrowed-brow remoteness only Orson Welles could manage. Yes, Orson fargin’ Welles. He played the Shadow in 1937, the year I’m listening to now. He was the boy wonder of the theater world, then the boy wonder of radio, then the boy wonder of movies until that came down in flames – takin’ on Hearst right out of the gate! Smart move, kid! Why don’t you stage an all-Negro drag review based on the life of Hoover next? He had chops and pipes; he oozed class and contempt and wit and disinterest. And he was the Shadow, which was about as juvenile as radio heroes got. Why, it’s like Ben Affleck doing Daredevil!
Popular he may have been, but did anyone in the audience really love Orson Welles? I don’t get the feeling he was well-loved at all. The man was a necessary thing you kept around, because that’s where the voice was stored. But I may be wrong. (It’s later, and I’m finishing this at home now, wondering how many angry emails I will get from people who didn't realize I was using the term "Negro" in a late 1930s context. I predict two.) According to John Dunning’s definitive work “The Encyclopedia of Old Time Radio,” Welles was an unknown when he took the job, and the response was ecstatic. Get this: his contract allowed him to skip rehearsals. He just showed up and read the script cold. Puts it all in a different light, perhaps. And just to tie it all to “Kane” and the Mercury Players: the Shadow’s lovely assistant was played by the unlovable Agnes Moorehead, about whom I wrote last week, and the role of Commissioner Weston was played by Ray Collins, known to my generation as the grinning little gargoyle policeman in Perry Mason, Lt. Tragg.
Incidentally, the show was sponsored by “Blue Coal,” which advised listeners to call your local dealer and order a sample ton. A ton! Say what you will about coal – and I’m quite glad I don’t have to rely on the stuff – there’s something satisfying about picking up the phone and ordering a ton of something. Or two.
Off to work – filed two pieces today, so I’m done with words for a while. Sorry about the lack of Screedblogging; everything I wrote seemed more obvious and unhelpful than usual. Perhaps tomorrow. Right now I’m going back to the gazebo to read about Krakatoa. I checked the index to see if there was an entry for “Scream, The” or “Munch,” but no. Alas. Perhaps the author mentions it anyway – it’s the sort of book filled with info-packed footnotes that read like James Burke “Connections” outtakes. Did you know that one of the major outlays of the Roman treasury was for pepper? True.
Unless I find out tomorrow that it wasn’t.