THE VIEW FROM KEY WEST: NINETY MILES NORTH OF HAVANA AND NINE HUNDRED YEARS ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL … FAREWELL TO THE BOYS ON THE BUS; OR, JOHNNY, I NEVER KNEW YE … ANOTHER RUDE AND WISTFUL TALE FROM THE BOWELS OF THE AMERICAN DREAM, WITH NOTES, NIGHTMARES AND OTHER STRANGE MEMORIES FROM MANCHESTER, BOSTON, MIAMI AND PLAINS, GEORGIA … AND 440 VOLTS FROM CASTRATO, THE DEMON LOVER OF COCONUT GROVE
“A lot of people will tell you that horses get spooked because they’re just naturally nervous and jittery, but that ain’t right. What you have to remember is that a horse sees things maybe six or seven times bigger than we do.”—Billy Herman, a harness-racing trainer at Pompano Park in Miami
This news just came over the radio, followed by a song about “faster horses, younger women, older whiskey and more money …”* and then came a news item about a Polish gentleman who was arrested earlier today for throwing “more than two dozen bowling balls into the sea off a pier in Fort Lauderdale” because, he told arresting officers, “he thought they were nigger eggs.” …
…. We are living in very strange times, and they are likely to get a lot stranger before we bottom out. Which could happen a lot sooner than even Henry Kissinger thinks……. Because this is, after all, another election year, and almost everybody I talk to seems to feel we are headed for strangeness….… of one sort or another. And some people say we are already deep in the midst of it. Which may be true. The evidence points both ways……. But from my perch in this plastic catbird seat out here on the southernmost rim of Key West, the barometer looks to be falling so fast on all fronts that it no longer matters. And now comes this filthy news in the latest Gallup Poll that Hubert Humphrey will be our next president……. Or, failing that, he will foul the national air for the next six months and drive us all to smack with his poison gibberish.
Jesus, no wonder that poor bastard up in Fort Lauderdale ran amok and decided that all bowling balls were actually nigger eggs that would have to be hurled, at once, into shark-infested waters. He was probably a desperate political activist of some kind trying to send a message to Washington.
Last night, on this same radio station, I heard a warning about “a new outbreak of dog mutilations in Coconut Grove.” The disc jockey reading the news sounded angry and agitated. “Three more mongrel dogs were found castrated and barely alive tonight,” he said, “and investigating officers said there was no doubt that all three animals were victims of the same bloodthirsty psychotic – a stocky middle-aged Cuban known as ‘Castrato’ – who has terrorized dog owners in Coconut Grove for the past three months.
“Today’s mutilations, police said, were executed with the same sadistic precision as all the others. According to the owner of one victim, a half-breed chow watchdog named Willie, the dog was ‘minding his own business, just lying out there in the driveway, when all of a sudden I heard him start yelping and I looked out the front door just in time to see this dirty little spic shoot him again with one of those electric flashlight guns. Then the sonofabitch grabbed Willie by the hind legs and threw him into the back of an old red pickup. I yelled at him, but by the time I got hold of my shotgun and ran out on the porch, he was gone. It all happened so fast that I didn’t even get the license number off the truck.'”
The voice on the radio paused for a long moment, then dipped a few octaves and went on with the story: “Several hours later, police said, Willie and two other dogs – both mongrels – were found in a vacant lot near the Dinner Key yacht marina. All three had been expertly castrated….…”
Another long pause, followed by a moaning sound as the radio voice seemed to crack and stutter momentarily……. And then it continued, very slowly: “The nature of the wounds, police said, left no room for doubt that today’s mutilations were the work of the same fiendish hand responsible for all but two of the 49 previous dog castrations in Coconut Grove this year.
“‘This is definitely the work of Castrato,’ said Senior Dog Warden Lionel Olay at a hastily called press conference late this afternoon. ‘Look at the razor work on this mongrel chow,’ Olay told reporters. ‘These cuts are surgically perfect, and so is this cauterization. This man you call “Castrato” is no amateur, gentlemen. This is very artistic surgery – maybe 50 or 55 seconds from start to finish, assuming he works with a whip-steel straight razor and a 220-volt soldering iron.’
“Olay ended the press conference on a humorous note, urging reporters to ‘work like dogs’ until this case is cracked. ‘And if any of you people own mongrels,’ he added, ‘either keep them out of Coconut Grove or have them put to sleep.’
“Meanwhile,” said the newscaster, “South Miami police have warned all dog owners in the area to be on the lookout for a red pickup truck cruising slowly in residential neighborhoods. The driver, a small but muscular Cuban between 40 and 50 years old, is known to be armed with an extremely dangerous, high-voltage electric weapon called a ‘Taser’ and is also criminally insane.”
Jesus Christ! I’m not sure I can handle this kind of news and frantic stimulus at four o’clock in the morning – especially with a head full of speed, booze and Percodan. It is extremely difficult to concentrate on the cheap realities of Campaign ’76 under these circumstances. The idea of covering even the early stages of this cynical and increasingly retrograde campaign has already plunged me into a condition bordering on terminal despair, and if I thought I might have to stay with these people all the way to November I would change my name and seek work as a professional alligator poacher in the swamps around Lake Okeechobee. My frame of mind is not right for another long and maddening year of total involvement in a presidential campaign …… and somewhere in the back of my brain lurks a growing suspicion that this campaign is not right either; but that is not the kind of judgment any journalist should make at this point. At least not in print.
So for the moment I will try to suspend both the despair and the final judgment. Both will be massively justified in the next few months, I think – and until then I can fall back on the firmly held but rarely quoted conviction of most big-time Washington pols that nobody can function at top form on a full-time basis in more than one presidential campaign. This rule of thumb has never been applied to journalists, to my knowledge, but there is ample evidence to suggest it should be. There is no reason to think that even the best and brightest of journalists, as it were, can repeatedly or even more than once crank themselves up to the level of genuinely fanatical energy, commitment and total concentration it takes to live in the speeding vortex of a presidential campaign from start to finish. There is not enough room on that hell-bound train for anybody who wants to relax and act human now and then. It is a gig for ambitious zealots and terminal action-junkies …… and this is especially true of a campaign like this one, which so far lacks any central, overriding issue like the war in Vietnam that brought so many talented and totally dedicated nonpoliticians into the ’68 and ’72 campaigns.
The issues this time are too varied and far too complex for the instant polarization of a Which Side Are You On? crusade. There will not be many ideologues seriously involved in the ’76 campaign; this one is a technicians’ trip, run by and for politicians.…… Which is not really a hell of a lot different from any other campaign, except that this time it is going to be painfully obvious. This time, on the 200th anniversary of what used to be called “The American Dream,” we are going to have our noses rubbed, day after day – on the tube and in the headlines – in this mess we have made for ourselves.
“Today, wherever in this world I meet a man or woman who fought for Spanish liberty, I meet a kindred soul. In those years we lived our best, and what has come after and what there is to come can never carry us to those heights again.”—from The Education of a Correspondent by Herbert Matthews
My problem with this campaign began not quite two years ago, in May of 1974, when I flew down to Georgia with Teddy Kenned