Posts Tagged ‘Montana’

John Buchanan taking on the funeral industry

A friend wrote the other day to ask if my dad had been on the Blacklist.

My friend had been reading about America’s waltz with fascism during the 50s when demagogic politicians and rightwing zealots attempted to ruin the lives of show folk, teachers and other public figures — sometimes with great success– for being a little too free in the Land of the Free. Dad was a professor and locally high-profile lefty political organizer/activist, and my friend figured my father had at some point endured the wrath of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Sen. Joe McCarthy’s merry band of commie hunters. He hadn’t. Dad did have problems with cops and feds later on, but in the 50s he was still in his pre-activism stage, just settling into his new job teaching at Pacoima Junior High in the San Fernando Valley, going to grad school and helping mom raise my sister and me.  The activism that would become central to his life was still a few years off. My buddy’s email got me thinking about my father’s life choice, though. What changed? What inspired this mild-mannered, soft-spoken, Mr. Chips-type academic to become a full-throated crusader for peace and social justice?

The Bandleader and the Bastard

Though dad and I never talked much about his political awakening period, I’m pretty sure it began during the civil rights era. I was about six years old when I began hearing dad talk about the plight of Negroes. Even at my tender age I noticed that TV images of Dixie cops and clan types beating up dark-skinned people would send my father into a funk. He would get very quiet. Then he’d talk to my sister and me about how immoral it was to mistreat people because of their skin color. He told us that we should always stand up to bullies of all kinds, whether they were attacking us or others. To illustrate his point he would often tell us about the time during World War II when he and mom went to see the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in mom’s hometown, Great Falls, Montana. While the band was playing, someone in the audience yelled “nigger” at Dorsey’s only black musician. Dorsey stopped the orchestra mid-song and the crowd went silent. He called out into the microphone, “You! Hey you. Yeah, you in the yellow tie.” The heckler was trying to scamper away into the crowd but couldn’t get around the throng in front of the bandstand. He finally looked up at Dorsey, who was shaking with anger and pointing down at him like a vengeful god with a trombone. Unfortunately for the yellow-tied bigot, the black trumpeter happened to be a good friend of Dorsey’s and had just returned from duty in the Pacific, where he’d been wounded. According to dad, Dorsey went crazy, yelling into the microphone about his friend’s heroism, then verbally filleting the bigot, whom he called a stupid, un-American bastard. At the end of his rant, Dorsey ordered the guy out of the dance hall and refused to continue the show until he left. Whether for noble cause or the fact that the crowd was ready to jitterbug and had shelled out good money to see Dorsey’s whole show, many in the audience sided with Dorsey, booing and hissing the guy out of the dance hall. The show went on.

Though the full meaning of the tale was over my 6-year-old head, I never got tired of it. I loved hearing dad do the Tommy Dorsey parts. “Yeah, you with the yellow tie,” dad’s baritone rumbled, as he pointed at some imaginary racist in the living room. I also got a bang out of hearing dad say the word “bastard,” a word rarely heard in our house–a word I probably assumed meant bad man in a yellow tie. For my sister Pam and me, the story was a great example of someone using his position to stand up to a bully. For dad, who knows? Tommy Dorsey’s wrath might have been an important inspiration. After all, it was the kind of thing dad would soon be doing full time, only on a larger, relentless scale, against bullies ranging from Richard Nixon to the funeral industry. Inspiration or not, by the time the 60s started, dad was taking on the bullies of the world with a vengeance.

The Art of Activism

The first piece of dad’s activism I remember–helping a black family move into our whites-only neighborhood–was relatively small-scale and personal. For months after the Holmes moved in, it was dad’s job to protect the house from vandals when the family was away. There wasn’t much he could do about the rocks thrown through the Holmes’ front room window during the night, or the cross burned on their lawn one very early morning. But during dad’s watch, just the sight of him sitting on the Holmes’ front porch, grading his students’ papers, was all it took to keep the Bubba brigade off the property. I don’t know how long dad had been at it before I realized that threatening phone calls in the middle of the night and flat tires from tacks and nails scattered on our driveway weren’t part of everyone’s hearth and home, but I gradually came to understand that dad’s dedication to fairness was not shared by everyone. As for the 3 AM phone calls, we discovered that the cardboard stick from a Sugar Daddy sucker made a terrific telephone bell dampener when jammed through the proper hole in the phone’s access plate. My contribution to the struggle, of course, was to eat the Sugar Daddy. Ah, the sacrifices of activism.

Sometimes dad’s protests verged on street theater. During his quixotic run for the California Assembly in the mid-60s he delivered a campaign speech at a local shopping center while stomping a bathtub full of grapes. This might have been a fine way to draw attention to the farm workers’ strike and grape boycott raging at the time, but the sight of dad in the tub, wearing his trademark Petrocelli business suit with the pant legs rolled up for the fruit-stomp, did not sit well with my teenaged notion that parents should always strive to be invisible. For weeks after, I was known to my rotten buddies as “Grape.” To dad’s supporters, though, it was a beautiful sight to behold–and it worked. Lots of people gathered to see the lunatic in a bathtub, and wound up learning why they should support Cesar Chavez’ United Farm Workers and stop eating grapes. Dad lost the Assembly race in a rout, of course, but his son’s embarrassment over his father’s unusual forms of activism soon morphed into pride and admiration. His low-key protest of the Vietnam War at L.A. Valley College, where he spent the rest of his teaching career, was particularly memorable. Every day during his lunch hour, he would set up a card table full of anti-war literature next to the . For that hour he stood silently next to the flagpole wearing an armband featuring the number of GIs killed that week. He did this for two years.

Dad’s Final Years

Dad started in the 60s and never let up. He was still active in the Memorial Society — a consumer activist group — well into his 80s, fighting the good fight against the predatory practices of the funeral industry. A 1992 L.A. Times interview about the Memorial Society found dad in top form.

“You have to look at death as part of life,” Buchanan said. “‘If people looked at it that way, they wouldn’t need the limousines, the caskets and the tons of flowers, the embalming and all the other barbarities that go on at a so-called traditional funeral.’ ‘The hoopla is undignified,’ he said. ‘The other indignity is putting so much emphasis on the body, which is not a person.’ Buchanan has not made the trip to his mother’s gravesite in Spokane, Wash., in years, he said. ‘That grave site does not mean anything,’ he said. ‘What does mean something is that the dead still live in our minds,’ he added.”

“The hoopla is undignified” and “…all the other barbarities…” Dad had a way with words.

*

I’ll never know whether a big band leader’s outburst in the 40s inspired dad to help save the world. But damn, it was inspiring to hear him tell that story. Actually, there wasn’t a lot about John Buchanan that wasn’t inspiring. Though less active, dad still followed the news during his final years. I wish he had been spared America’s rightward drift during the 90s and new millennium and all the intentional unfairness it has thus far meted out. Mercifully, he wasn’t around to see the bully renaissance in full flower. If he were still alive, news of such bad-guy victories as the passage of voter suppression laws and the Citizens United ruling would have put him in a funk. He would have gotten very quiet…for a while.

Click the “Sign me up” button on the left for email alerts of Buchanan’s latest screeds

Advertisements

Dear Max,

I know it’s been a while since we last spoke, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about you.  In fact, I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately.

Max, I’m gonna get straight to the point.  Lately, there’s been a lot of ugly talk connecting your attempt to torpedo the public option with the millions of dollars you’ve gotten from health insurance honchos.

People see conspiracy in everything these days; have they never heard of coincidence?

But, you’ve got to admit; to those who don’t know the honorable Max Baucus, as I do, your position does emit a certain aroma.  Frankly, it makes you look a lot like one of those corporate poodles we used to point and laugh at in the congressional cafeteria.  Now, I know you called a “moratorium” on any further health sector donations to the Max Baucus campaign, and that was good – but a wee bit late, I’m afraid.  People recognize four million over five years can buy a shitload of influence, and your recent attitude toward the public option and health care reform in general is scorching many a nostril.

As you know, Montanans are among the least health insurance-covered folks in the country.  Hell, out of sheer desperation, Republicans in your state are calling for the public option.  So I’m sure you’re aware that your high profile and adamant objection to it could make life very difficult for you during your next campaign, no matter how much TV time your health industry money buys.

The national scene is even worse. Your party’s leadership and an overwhelming majority of Democratic voters are ape-wild for this option.  Unless you count the remedial class on the other side of the aisle, you and the Blue Doggerels sit alone like lepers at a fashion show.  And now with Obama’s pledge to keep his plan deficit neutral, the rug has been pulled out from the only almost-credible reason you had for objecting to the public option in the first place.

In fact, I was hoping you might have used Obama’s speech as an aha moment – an opportunity to publicly change your mind.  Instead, a few days later you released your committee’s counter proposal, which if enacted would not only put the public option out to pasture and squeeze the middle class like an empty tube of toothpaste, but would also do for private health insurers what HIV did for the latex industry.

Hell, I’m even starting to think something’s up, Max- ha ha.

All quid pro quo aside, guy, you and I both know a government-run health insurance option is the only way to get your pals at Aetna and United to stop the wholesale ripping-off and selective killing and maiming of our countrymen.  The Max I know, cares about stuff like this.  And though you benefit mightily from their dollars, your innate decency must be wreaking havoc on your sleep and that ulcer of yours.

But, don’t despair, my friend; I’ve got a plan.

Remember back in 2002 when you rented your support to the financial sector, and helped make filing personal bankruptcy for Americans more difficult than getting gold at the Olympics?  Or when you voted to lift what was left of those pesky regulations on Wall Street?

How much were you paid for your “help?”  Four million over ten years.  Ten years, Max!  You gave them the green light to own people for life, and greased the way for the investment boys to reap a windfall while destroying our economy in the bargain.  And all you got was a crummy four hundred thousand a year!

You were severely chumped, my friend, and you know it.

And, how about the NRA?  You vote to give Americans their constitutionally guaranteed right to shoot armor-piercing rounds at deer and Kevlar-wearing javelinas, and what do you get in return?  A lousy fifteen grand.  This is madness, kiddo.  These guys are worth zillions!

As the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, there are plenty of industries champing at the bit to develop a “stronger relationship” with you.  Energy, telecommunications, defense, transportation, your old pals in finance – the list is endless.  Sure, some of your votes on your new clients’ behalf may stir up a little controversy from time to time, but nothing like this public option landmine your health “friends” have placed neatly in your path.

You’ve given them enough already.  It’s time to scrape them off of your wingtips, and open yourself up to some real dough.

As your folks used to say, “You can have your cake and eat it too.”

Just call a press conference and say something like, “Upon further study, I now believe an efficient, government-run health insurance choice (don’t say “public option”) can be cost-effective, and is in the best interest of Americans.”

With those few words, Mercenary Max becomes a statesman.  You might even get Olympia Snow to go along with you, who knows?

Sure, there will be many nasty calls from health care lobbyists, but what do you care?  You don’t need them. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, you’re alpha-poodle.

Anyhow, I hope I didn’t come on too strong with this thing.  And I’m sure you know that I’m only looking out for your welfare, old chum.  By the way, I know you’re a busy boy of late, but if you’re not doing anything tonight, stop by the house. We’re having a little get-together with some friends from Exxon.  I’m sure they’d be happy to see you.

Take care,

Russ Buchanan