Joey Ramone on my Atari!

When I was thirteen, me and my friends Jeff and Lonnie started a software company. Not Apple, Microsoft… we were Eclipse Software Productions, and we wrote software for Atari personal computers (not the game consoles, the 800, 800XL, ST, etc). We started by creating images for Broderbund Software’s The Print Shop, which let you print greeting cards, flyers, and so on, on your noisy dot matrix printer. By the end we were writing primitive Word Processing and Check Balancing programs for cheap, selling them all on a floppy disk for $10 when the professional versions cost $49.99 each.

We made a few hundred bucks over a year or so, but we didn’t stick with it, and went our separate ways. As I dive into ’80s nostalgia for a book project, this all came back to me, and one of my favorite memories as a computer nerd in that time was when my hero Joey Ramone appeared in K-Power magazine, a rag for Apple, Atari, TRS-80, and Commodore 64 users and programmers. He gave them an unrecorded demo called “S.L.U.G.” and the staff wrote a BASIC program that would play the tune in all its 8-bit glory, while the lyrics blinked in time to the music. I keyed it in and was overjoyed! The Ramones! on my Atari 800XL! Totally awesome! (that’s ’80s speak for “OMG”). The song is hilariously silly, a love song about a slug, in the ’50s doo-wop vein. It would go really well with a viewing of Slither.

Here are the pages from the magazine with an interview with Joey. If you want the programs to try out on an emulator, the whole issue of K-Power is archived here. Click to embiggen:

Listen to the 8-bit version. But what did it sound like, really? When the Ramones released their “All the Stuff, and More” collections in the late ’90s, the original demo of “S.L.U.G.” was included:

And here’s a video of Joey singing it live in 1998, a few years before he died.

Joey was a hero of mine, a gangly goof who became a legendary rock star by being true to himself and singing about what he wanted, not what was expected of him. And he’s buried in the same cemetery as my grandmother:

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The Two Heroes to Whom I Dedicated Blade of Dishonor

butch and jimmy ww2

They are two of my heroes, but I never knew them. Not really. Pictured above are my uncle Jimmy (left) and my uncle Butch (right) before they shipped off to serve in World War II.

I knew them much later, in their fifties. Sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table while they drank black coffee and tore apart doughnuts and crumb cake, and solved the problems of the world. I dedicated my first novel, Blade of Dishonor, to these men.

“Another week shot in the ass,” Butchie is fond of saying. He’s the joker, with a hundred stories up his sleeve. After a mini-stroke, he forgot them all. “I lost the comedy channel,” he said. But they came back, one by one. Uncle Jimmy plays the straight man, but occasionally comes out with a biting comment that makes us all laugh.

Jimmy served in Bastogne. “Patton’s tanks saved our behinds.” His feet still ache from the frostbite he received. He put his boots in the campfire, but it wasn’t enough. He was 24 when he was drafted, with a wife and son at home. For funerals of soldiers, Uncle Butch wears his medals and uniform. He also served in Europe, and if I recall, was en route to the Pacific when the bombs dropped.  That’s all I know, because they don’t talk about the war.

Uncle Butch once admitted that he regrets combat. He saw it as young men sent to war to fight someone else’s battles, killing each other for nothing. You fought for the guy next to you. Uncle Jimmy was more pragmatic. It was just something he did, trying to get home.

Yet I saw how it affected them. Around Veteran’s Day, VJ Day, VE Day. The tears of otherwise stoic old men rock us to our core.

After the war, Butch worked for a builder of construction equipment and collected old cars. He has a Model A with a rumble seat that was used in a Ford commercial, a Chrysler 300H, and until recently boated around town in a white Town Car three blocks long. Uncle Jimmy was a roofer, then bought a service station. When they retired, they joined up to do plumbing and roofing on the side. Uncle Butch will still stop at the curb if he sees a discarded lawnmower, take it home for Jimmy to repair while he’s watching the football game, and offer it up when yours breaks down. They kept busy into their nineties. They survived both their wives, caring for them when they became sick.

They grew up in the Depression, in a big Italian family. Living on fried potato sandwiches wrapped in newspaper, so you could read the headlines off your hoagie roll. Foraging in the woods when they were hungry. Uncle Jimmy became a hunter, with a cabin festooned with deer antlers. He hunted with a scope (and friends to point him at the deer!) after his eyesight failed, and I had a freezer full of venison–he called it “goat”–every season.

Uncle Butchie still goes out dancing, at 92. Uncle Jimmy’s cancer put him in the VA hospital. But his son takes him around, to check on the house, to visit family, and at 94, the disease moves so slowly that it hasn’t kept him down. They taught me that a sense of humor, a good heart, and a helping hand for your family and friends will keep you living well no matter what life throws at you. Tragedy, artillery, failure or success. They stuck together, and they’ve survived their wives, brothers, sisters, young and old.

And they’re still doing it.

butch and jimmy now

The Little Gold Colt – Guns, Fear, and Manhood

My essay “The Little Gold Colt,” about fear, guns, and the struggle for manhood, is up at The Good Men Project today.

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Everyday Sexism and Giant Space-Dicks

I started following @EverydaySexism on Twitter a month or so ago, and it has been an eye-opener. A morning coffee with a cockroach in it, reminding me how ill behaved some men are.(Not that women are saints. At PROTECT they’ll tell you no one knows what a predator looks like, and plenty of women use society’s view of them as natural nurturers as camouflage for predatory behavior.)

I’m also twitter friends with cosplayers, people who dress up at science fiction and comic book conventions. Some are women, and many of them get groped by let’s face it, there’s only one word, assholes who feel entitled to grab a stranger’s ass or feel the need to inform a women they’ve never met what he’d like to do with her.  And this is supposed to be taken in stride, because hey, who wouldn’t like to be called sexy, or beautiful, and isn’t that what it really means?

No, it doesn’t. It means you are there for my enjoyment, and you are less than a person.

To a lesser extent, we’ve seen more of this viewpoint in the recent SFWA debacle where two old dinosaurs waxed poetic about beautiful “lady editors,” and who looked great in a bikini, and then cried censorship when people complained. Then a writer seriously told these women to be “like Barbie,” and “maintain [their] quiet dignity as a woman should.” On what planet is that acceptable? SFWA President John Scalzi is taking the blame, but his brave martyrdom distracts us from men so entitled that they believe they are above criticism. “Lady editor” is the stupidest thing I’ve read in years. When I was a kid, women driving was rare enough that the term “lady driver” was still in use, and jokes about women driving badly were the norm. That was almost forty years ago. “Lady writer” sounds like something the idle rich do, to fritter away their time.
(Before you assume I’m commenting on hearsay, follow the links above, which will get you to the actual pages from the SFWA bulletin)

And the most common response to this vile behavior is to tell men “what if it was your sister/mother/daughter?”

How about some empathy? What if it was you?

You may not believe it, but I’ve had my ass grabbed at a convention. It was by a fellow who mistook me for what is known as a “bear.” I didn’t punch him out, as you might imagine. I was too shocked. I felt like I’d swallowed an ice cube. That initial, unbelievable invasion of my personal space and objectification was something utterly new and alien to me. I stammered some veiled threat and he waved me off and walked away.

There’s a reason the pop-culture male nightmare is to be locked in a cell with a horny guy named Bubba. Because deep down, we men know how it makes women feel. But we say “that’s how it is,” and expect them to tolerate it. 

Do I claim to  how women feel when groped, even if it’s at a Science Fiction convention? No, because that was an isolated incident for me. It has never happened again, not at bars in Chelsea, not at Burning Man as thousands of mostly naked people chanted in the desert around a techno wicker man. I don’t walk around dreading it, expecting it, waiting for it to happen because it happens so damn often.

I didn’t write this for sympathy or whatever. I can remember it, but the only effect it has on me is a desire to catch one of these assholes groping a female friend of mine, so I can find out if he can swallow his own fist.  As for “lady editors,” if science fiction writers can imagine unheard-of future civilizations, they can unshackle their brains from the ’60s when they were cocks of the walk, and start treating women as equals and not “lady writers,” who are so durn cute when they write their widdle stories and try to be like men! She thinks she’s a person, isn’t that adorable?

Really, fuck you guys. The best science fiction I’ve ever read was by women. Octavia Butler, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Alice Sheldon, who wrote under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr.

If you feel threatened by them enough to belittle them and tell them to get you some coffee, you can go eat a giant smelly space dick.

Thank a Teacher Day

Today is National Thank a Teacher Day. A great teacher makes all the difference. I’m going to call out two who made a difference for me.

In 2nd grade, I had a crush on Miss Foote. Periwinkle eyes and long brown hair, I will be honest and say she probably reminded me of Pam Dawber on Mork & Mindy, a show I was obsessed with at the time. I was (and still am) a rather chaotic whirlwind who wants to make the world better through discovery, laughter and silliness. While many of my teachers saw this as challenging their authority, Ms. Betsy Foote found ways to channel my energy into productive endeavors. One of which was my first book.

Komodo & Dragon’s Adventure was an action revenge thriller I wrote in the 2nd grade, after Ms. Foote gave us manila paper to draw the stories on, then sew & bound them into little hardcover picture books. In the story, two Komodo Dragons–cleverly named “Komodo” and “Dragon”–and their iguana, owl and other critter pals learn there is a Poacher on Komodo Island.

So they kill him! I haven’t changed much, have I? They rig an elaborate booby trap to fling him from his Jeep into quicksand. He lands in it headfirst. The reader can only be left with the conclusion that he drowned and his body was never recovered by authorities.

I blame HBO.

Ms. Foote also rolled her eyes at my little idiosyncrasies and daydreams, like when I decided that my new name was BJ, and I would sign all my papers that way. That was inspired by the TV show “BJ and the Bear,” about Sheriff Lobo chasing an outlaw trucker and his pet chimp, and it is immortalized here in Pathetic Geek Stories:

bjbear

School was a bit of a wasteland until college. Teachers such as Mr. Annett, Mr. O’Dell, Mr. Chapman, and Ms. Stolfi were memorable and taught enjoyable classes. But i was off in a world of my own until college, when I took David Hoddeson’s American literature courses. Mr. Hoddeson edited my first short story collection, Avondale, set in a small Italian neighborhood in Nutley, the town I grew up in. He was patient, encouraging, and a gifted editor. A story I wrote for that collection appeared in [PANK] Magazine many years later: “We’re All Guys Here.
The story was going to be published in Pulphouse in 1996, but the magazine folded. Finding venues was a lot more difficult back then. I sent stories off to various journals and never heard back. Eventually I got a story published in Blue Murder, but I didn’t stick with it, and my idea for a novel about a heroin junkie hired to find a runaway girl who fled to New Orleans, never went anywhere.

My wife gave me the kick in the pants that got me writing again, but I never would have put my crazy daydreams to paper at all if it wasn’t for Ms. Foote and Professor Hoddeson.

Who were your favorite teachers? How did they inspire you?

Meat Loaf

I went to see Meat Loaf in concert with my friend Peter last night. The Loaf is 64 years old, and still belting out bombastic teen anthems with a voice full of heart and a belly full of steam.

Bat Out Of Hell is an iconic album of the ’70s, channeling teenage lust, angst and rebellion. We wore the grooves off it. The album art turns the act of teenage escape into Lucifer’s fall in Paradise Lost. I wasn’t a fan of the “sequel” with “I’d Do Anything for Love,” but this album and his other early work like “Dead Ringer for Love” still move me. I know a lot of you cringe when someone selects “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” on the jukebox, pinching their quarter until the eagle grins, but the opening guitar riff transports me the the wonder of childhood when days were spent exploring woods and rust-stained concrete factories on the back of a Huffy and nights with albums like this spinning while we sat around a fire pit on the patio, roasting marshmallows on sticks and potatoes in the coals.

The Ballad of Ira Hayes

“Call him drunken Ira Hayes, he won’t answer any more, not the whiskey-drinking Indian or the Marine who went to war…”

Wars battle on until everyone touched by them is dead.

I remember watching the last American soldiers leave Saigon. On television, of course. And likely years after it occurred, on April 30th 1975. The footage replays in my head. My young mind couldn’t comprehend the images, but with the long-range empathy of the innocent, I could feel its import, sensing the troubled minds of the adults around me. What’s that, Mommy? Viet Nam.

Maybe it was the succession of Vietnam War movies I saw in the ’70s and ’80s, like The Boys in Company C, but it always felt like the war raged on forever, and always had been. When I read Vietnam: A History, by Stanley Karnow, I realized that I was correct. At least from the perspective of the Vietnamese, that war began centuries ago and continued long after those choppers tumbled into the sea.

And it is the same with World War 2. Europe is rebuilt, though monuments and wreckage in the forests and along the shores remain; but the scars of warfare run deep within those who fought, those who suffered, and their families.

Ira Hayes was one of the Marines who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, in the iconic photo. The government whisked those men home for photo ops, and many, including Hayes, suffered survivor’s guilt for leaving their buddies in the fighting. I didn’t think much of the film Flags of Our Fathers, but give it credit for dramatizing the reality behind the manufactured glory of World War 2. As the song states, Hayes died of alcohol poisoning and exposure. A tragic and lonely death for a war hero who served in the company of many forgotten heroes.

My great-uncles fought in the War, some in the Pacific, some in Europe, and one in both. Only two of them are still kicking. Jimmy- who I recently learned is actually my Uncle Vincenzo- and Dominic, who everyone has called Butch, since before I was born. My great-grandparents came over from southern Italy, the seaside city of Bari and the mountaintop village of Acri. (The priests and teachers wouldn’t accept Italian first names, so Dominic and Vincenzo became Butch and Jimmy.)

Like most soldiers, they don’t talk much about the War. Jimmy’s feet froze at the Battle of the Bulge. Patton’s tankers saved their behinds, he says. Butch proudly wears his medals, when a suit is required. Jimmy never has. Both of them are past 90, and are now widowers. They helped each other survive the Depression, and they visited my grandmother every Sunday morning for coffee, until she passed away six or more years ago. We were very close, and I try not to remember losing her. Now uncle Jimmy is deteriorating, and that same sadness wells inside me. So that’s why a depressing song about a war hero dying forgotten and alone is in my head this week. Uncle Jim is a generous, kind, hard-working man. Him & Butch worked as plumbers and roofers- just to keep busy- well into their eighties. He hunted until his eyesight faded, and gave me venison when his freezer overflowed with it. I’m planning to visit him this weekend, and I’m afraid it may be the last time I see my great-uncle, whose sly smile and pencil mustache, whose straight man humor and upright authority made him a giant to me.

The War will smolder on, in dying skirmishes and distant echoes of small arms fire, in my memories of my uncles Jimmy and Butch, and the stories of them that I will tell my own children. Like the unexploded ordnance buried in the woods, or land mines long forgotten, war touches us long after the last soldier is lain to rest.