The Greatest

Muhammad Ali died last night, after a long, twilight struggle with the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s Disease.  His death was a reminder of an era that ended long, long ago.

fistAli was my favorite boxer — hell, he was just about everyone’s favorite boxer — but of course his influence transcended mere sport.  Although he was the greatest fighter I ever saw, his words and conduct had a much more profound impact than he could ever make with his fists.  Ali was one of those crucial cultural figures of the ’60s and ’70s who moved the needle and shifted the context.  He did it when he rejected his “slave name,” spoke out against racism in America, adopted Islam, and changed his name to Muhammad Ali to proclaim his freedom from the old ways of the Jim Crow South.  He did it again when he refused to fight in Vietnam after being drafted, saying he had “no quarrel” with the Viet Cong.  His anti-war stance cost him the prime years of his boxing career, but his words captured, in that special Ali way, the growing American unease with the fighting and dying in southeast Asia.

And, of course, Ali changed the national zeitgeist through sheer force of personality.  He was the flamboyant black man who was unabashedly loud and proud, the sports star who wasn’t afraid to bluntly speak his mind on the issues of the day, the quick-thinking, silver-tongued marketing genius who mocked his opponents, traded gibes with Howard Cosell, and built his fights into worldwide phenomena, and the boxing great with the astonishingly quick hands, the dancing, tasseled feet, and the grit and determination to always fight to the end in some of the greatest matches ever staged.  For a time, he was the most famous man on the planet, and his style and entourage and antics changed the world of sports and celebrities forever.

All of this made an indelible impression on me and every other kid, regardless of race, color, or creed, who was growing up in the America of the 1960s and 1970s.  We all wanted to have the same brilliant flash and dash, the same glibness, as Muhammad Ali.  He was as magnetic and mesmerizing as any national figure I can remember — which made the shaky, diminished Ali of later years, ravaged by his disease, so difficult to see.  The days when the world would stop to focus on one man and one battle in a boxing ring are long past, but Muhammad Ali of that era will live on in memory, and in our cultural history.

Advertisements

On That Dallas Day

President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed 50 years ago today.  Fifty years is a long time, but in some ways the Kennedy assassination seems even more distant and remote.  So much has happened since, and so much of it has been bad.  The world is such a different place now, it is almost as if the shooting in Dallas occurred in another reality altogether.

I was a first-grader when it happened.  I remember a scratchy voice coming out of the polished wooden PA system box above the blackboard and announcing that the President had died, and our teacher shocked and sobbing.  But, of course, I was just a little kid, not quite sure who the President was, even, or what this would mean for me or my family.  Everything I know about President Kennedy — the romance of “Camelot,” the inspiring speeches, the successes, the failures, and the details of his personal life — I’ve learned since his death, with the information, always, shaped and colored by the terrible senselessness of his assassination.  The impact of his death on how his legacy was viewed in the years after his death shouldn’t surprise anyone; America lost a vigorous young President and the promise he brought with him, and the country was profoundly shaken.  Even now, half a century later, it is hard to view things with the abstract objectivity of historians.

Students of popular culture tend to put things into neat packages.  For many, the story is of a boring, stodgy America during the 1950s, followed by the short sunburst of the Kennedy years, and then a country that lost its way after bullets rained down on that Dallas motorcade.  That story, I think, is a bit too tidy and, perhaps, confuses a timeline with causation.  The ’50s were not a Norman Rockwell painting, and the Kennedy presidency was not the golden era that it was once depicted to be.  To be sure, the years after the shooting were tumultuous, with race riots, the Vietnam War, anti-war protests, more assassinations, Apollo moon landings, and profound social changes, but did the Kennedy assassination cause, or even contribute significantly, to those events?  We can safely conclude that the Apollo moon landings would not have happened but for the challenge issued by a newly elected President in 1961, and we know from that lesson and others that individual people can alter and shape the future — but how many of the signature events of the ’60s were the inevitable result of historical forces long since set in motion, bound to happen no matter who was President?

Historians will comb the record of the 1000 days of the Kennedy presidency to try to determine whether his assassination should be viewed like that of President Lincoln, whose death clearly affected the course of Reconstruction after the Civil War, or like that of Presidents Garfield and McKinley, whose killings are treated like mere eddies in the onrushing current of history.  For average Americans, the question is much more basic:  If President Kennedy had survived, would our world now be a better place?  Unfortunately, we’ll never know the answer.

Buckeye Basketball On A Carrier Deck

Tonight the Ohio State men’s basketball teams kicks off its season with a game against the Marquette Golden Eagles.  The game should be especially interesting, and not just because the Buckeyes and Marquette are two big-time programs.

The added interest comes from the game’s location.  It will be played outside, on the deck of the USS Yorktown, a decommissioned aircraft carrier.  The players will have to deal with the wind, and the different sight lines, and adjust to playing in a fundamentally different setting than your normal college basketball arena.  It will be a test of the players’ focus:  can they shoot as they normally do, or will they be distracted by the carrier’s bridge superstructure, looming just behind one of the baskets?

The setting is not only novel, but also historic.  The Yorktown is a fabled ship, built in only 16 1/2 months during the heart of World War II to replace a prior Yorktown that was sunk at the Battle of Midway.  The new Yorktown was commissioned in 1943 and fought valiantly during the Pacific offensive that defeated Japan.  The Yorktown went on to serve during the Vietnam War and recovered the Apollo 8 astronauts when they returned to Earth in December 1968.  The ship was decommissioned in 1970 and was towed to Charleston, South Carolina in 1975 to become part of the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum.

I’ll be watching tonight to see how this year’s version of the basketball Buckeyes look — but also to take a gander at the Yorktown and think about the sailors who served on her and did so much for the country.  Fittingly, the proceeds from the game, called the Carrier Classic, will benefit armed forces charities.

Last Stop, Hanoi

Russell’s time in Vietnam (on this trip, at least) is rapidly drawing to a close.  Tomorrow he flies from Hanoi back to the States.

Hanoi conjures up interesting images for people who are in the 50-something age range.  We think of Jane Fonda, the “Hanoi Hilton,” and other Vietnam War images that are decades out of date.  Now, there is an honest-to-God Hanoi Hilton — that is, a hotel operated in Hanoi by the Hilton Corporation.  It is called the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel and boasts of being designated Vietnam’s top hotel for five years running.

The current Hanoi Hilton

The meaning of “Hanoi Hilton” is not the only thing that has changed in the 30-plus years since the pointless Vietnam War drew to a close.  The United States now has an embassy in Vietnam, and the embassy website speaks to how much the relationship has changed since the depressing images of overloaded helicopters taking off from the United States Embassy were seared into the American consciousness.  Today, the United States is Vietnam’s largest export market and third-largest overall trading partner;  in 2009 trade between the two countries exceeded $15 billion.  13,000 Vietnamese citizens study in the United States, and the U.S. recently commemorated 15 years of “normalized” relations with Vietnam.

What does this mean?  I think it means that Russell made a very good choice in his decision to select Vietnam as a place to visit, thanks to the generous Weitzel-Barber grant program.  It is a country in transition, where the “War Remnants Museum” in Ho Chi Minh City stands cheek-by-jowl with beachfront resorts and tailor shops creating handmade suits.  It is a land rapidly emerging from the shadow of a terrible war that will always evoke disturbing images among Vietnamese and Americans of a certain age — but it also is a testament to how time and effort can change strongly rooted perception.  For Russell, who never watched the flickering images of bloody combat on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, Vietnam will always be a place defined, for good or ill, largely by his weeks of travel during the summer of 2010.  He bears an accurate, first-hand perception of this exotic country half a world away; my understanding, on the other hand, is warped by out-of-date perceptions that no more reflect current reality than Laugh-In reflects current television programming.

This is why travel, and having the essential first-hand experiences, is so important.  I am eager to see Russell and hear what he has to say about his weeks of travel in a foreign land.

North To Danang (Or Hoi An)

Russell has left Ho Chi Minh City for the last time and headed north, to Danang.  Danang is located about halfway between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.  It is a major port and industrial city and the largest city in central Vietnam.

China Beach

Danang also is a familiar name to those who grew up during the Vietnam War.  The United States had a major air base there, and the last United States ground combat operations in the Vietnam War happened in the Danang area.  The beach American soldiers called “China Beach” is on the outskirts of Danang and was a popular spot for American troops on leave.  According to a 2003 Time magazine article, the beach was home to aggressive beggars that local officials believed caused the tourist trade to bypass Danang for other nearby Vietnamese cities where the begging was a bit less persistent.  It will be interesting to see whether Russell encounters any well-tanned panhandlers during his stay in Danang.

Edited to add:  Russell has just reported by e-mail that he has stopped in Hoi An, a neighboring city that is smaller and less industrial than Danang, close by China Beach, and known for making “made to measure” clothing.  I’d say its about time for Russell to get a tailor-made suit.

My Tho

Russell is slowly working his way back to Ho Chi Minh City, where he will stay for a day or two and then head north.  One of his recent stops was in My Tho, a Mekong Delta town not far from Ho Chi Minh City.

My Tho played a strategic role in the Vietnam War.  The town was situated at the intersection of Route 4 and the My Tho River and served as the base for several U.S. Navy patrol boat squadrons.  The Navy installations were the target of regular rocket and mortar attacks, and My Tho was the subject of a major assault by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces during the Tet Offensive in 1968.  The town took a pounding during the fighting, and apparently signs of the fighting are still visible.

Now, My Tho is known mostly for its noodle soup, which includes pork, shrimp, quail egg, and noodles and in pork broth.

The Allure Of Vietnam

The Webner family will be learning about Vietnam this year.  Russell has received a Weitzel-Barber grant that will allow him to travel to Vietnam this summer, where he will experience Vietnamese society, visit museums and cultural sites . . . and paint.  His current plans include spending time in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Hue, Hanoi, and locations along the Mekong River.

I don’t know much about Vietnam, but that will change as the summer progresses.  According to the indispensable CIA World Factbook website information on Vietnam, Russell will be there during the hot, rainy season and may encounter a monsoon or typhoon.  Vietnam is a long, narrow country with a lengthy coastline that stretches from the South China Sea in the south, where the Mekong River flows into the ocean, to the Gulf of Tonkin in the north — a body of water that has its own separate meaning for Americans of a certain age.

That will be one of the interesting things about a trip to Vietnam — the extent to which there are still ties to America and reminders of America’s long, costly, and I think ultimately pointless involvement there.  The clash of cultures, the nature of the American experiment in that country, and the reactions of the current generations of Vietnamese to the United States and its citizens are some of the reasons why Russell chose Vietnam for his Weitzel-Barber grant proposal in the first place.  I have a feeling he will find many subjects to paint on his journey.