I'm currently engaged in a quixotic project, an idiosyncratic history of jazz in the 1950s and 60s through the prism of indie jazz label Prestige Records. Quixotic because it will cover several volumes before I'm through. You can find it ongoing at my blog, opusforty.blogspot.com. My most recent novel is Nick and Jake (Arcade Publishing). Recent work in anthologies includes Villanelles (Pocket Poets) and In Like Company (MadHat Press). I also contributed examples of several verse forms, including at least one of my own invention, to Lewis Turco's The Book of Forms. I am artistic director of Opus 40 in Saugerties, NY.
What if my father were like John Wayne?
What if I knew what possessed him?
—To drive nine thousand cattle
Across the Red River
And north to Missouri,
Fight off hostile Indians
And border raiders
Back to back, guns always
Half clear of our holsters.
What if I knew what his dreams were?
What if they were as clear
As the face of John Wayne
Or the map of America?
Then there'd be no women
To stand between us
And the building of empire.
And if he faltered
And I had to challenge him,
Loving, but faster
On the draw by an eyelash,
And that much more clear‑sighted;
There we'd stand,
Me with the drop on him,
Me and John Wayne,
Me and my father.
And I'd say, Move 'em out!
I'm taking the herd
North to the railroad,
I'm taking your dream,
The job you can't finish
And I'll do it for you.
Don't try to stop me.
MY FATHER HAS LUNCH WITH CHOU EN-LAI
In 1939, just before I was born —
after my father had met my mother in Manila,
after he had courted her in letters from India,
where he played polo and once hunted tigers,
after they had gotten married in Rome,
after he had taken a stateside assignment in Washington,
after she had become pregnant with me,
my father shared an office in the State Department
with Donald Hiss, who was the brother of Alger Hiss.
None of these lasted. The war started. My father
was posted to China, where Chou En-Lai’s Communists
shared an uneasy truce with the Kuomintang,
as the U.S. did with Russia. He had lunch with Chou En-Lai,
and was later invited to Chou En-Lai’s home.
Chou was indisposed, but another Communist general
was there, and Mrs. Chou served them a nice lunch.
My mother moved to Woodstock, where she fell in love
with a sculptor, and they were married.
After the war, my father returned, like MacArthur,
to the Philippines, and my brother and I
went with him. We fought with slingshots
against Filipino street gangs — at seven and
five, I’d guess we were overmatched — and
my father married again, to a woman from Boston.
When Chou En-Lai took power in a hostile Communist China,
with Chiang Kai-Shek in retreat to a feckless Formosa,
and Whittaker Chambers led the FBI
to that pumpkin field in Winchester, Maryland,
we were on our way to Australia;
when Alger Hiss, branded a Communist spy
by Richard Nixon, had begun his term at Leavenworth,
I was back in Woodstock with my mother and her sculptor husband,
and my father was in Lisbon, Portugal, which had been a haven from the Nazis,
and my brother was with him, because by that time,
it was considered necessary to get him away from my influence.
So I was the subversive? I didn’t feel like one.
I felt scared, most of the time. I was at boarding school
in Millbrook, New York, later to be known
as where Timothy Leary did his famous experiments,
but not then. Then we gathered, on fall mornings,
to watch the headmaster ride to the hounds.
That didn’t last long either.
I was thrown out of Millbrook. I went to live with my father
in Washington, Connecticut — that wasn’t to last either —
a town whose village green had white spires
on one side, a boy’s prep school on the other, and retired
foreign service officers nestled in the hills, where they read
the New York Herald Tribune and the Foreign Service Journal.
At this time my sculptor stepfather was in India,
and Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, but he never got to China.
He had been invited by the Peoples’ Commissar of Culture,
but our government wouldn’t let him go.
For that he was investigated by the FBI;
HUAC knew about him, but he was never called in
to testify, to name names, he was never blacklisted.
As it turned out, I was the one who was blacklisted.
When it came my turn to dodge the slings,
the U.S. was in Cambodia, fighting a secret war
which spilled over into American colleges.
I was overmatched on that front,
but only careers were lost there.
In China, Chou En-Lai was still alive, but this was
the Cultural Revolution, so
I don’t know about that commissar: good chance he wasn’t.
My father still lived in Washington, Connecticut, where
he opposed the Vietnam War, but voted for Nixon anyway,
and Ford, but he drew the line at Reagan, during whose second term
he died, within a month of my mother.
My sculptor stepfather had died ten years before — in the same
year as Chou En-Lai, as it happened. I live in his house now,
the house he and my mother built, beside the sculpture
that grew to 6 1/2 acres, encompassed hundreds
of thousands of tons of stone, and took 37 years of his life,
excepting only the two years he spent
with my mother in Italy, and the half year traveling
in India and Cambodia. I have gray hair now, and grandchildren.
© 2018 Tad Richards
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