As my mom tells the story, she was doing light chores at her mom’s house shortly before I was born.
When her sister Gayle, a registered nurse, asked how far apart her contractions were she said, “five minutes.”
Gayle, whose temperament was mercurial in the laziest of times, went apeshit. “GET, TO THE HOSPITAL, NOW ”
This was a second pregnancy, and my mom who had had a long delivery with her first didn’t realize that second pregnancies are a whole different animal. Express delivery.
But there was no car. My dad was out buying a surprise (washing machine, two in diapers.) So the only thing to do was to get a lift from the neighbor, Mr. Toohey.
By trade he was an undertaker. His car, a hearse.
I was ferried into this world in a shiny new hearse.
It was my birthday. Friday the thirteenth.
I was reminded of this juxtaposition when, on my fiftieth birthday, I heard the news that Tim Russert had died at 58. Another Friday the thirteenth.
To tell the truth, I was never much of a Russert fan: too centrist for my taste, too obsequious to power. If you want to see the world from a viewpoint of about six inches distance from a politician’s ass, he’s your political genius. But if that’s an aroma and an ambience that fail to entice you, Russert holds little charm.
Nonetheless, I think his demise pinched a nerve in the body politic, a sense of the ubiquitous proximity and unpredictability of death. How you can go out even when you’re at the top of your game.
In the final analysis, I could easily have forgotten the whole incident had I not chanced across the follow-up report on his funeral on the evening news, where John McCain and Barack Obama were forced to sit side by side, shoulder to shoulder, at his funeral. Two men vying for what soon will seem an inevitability, the title of the most powerful man on the globe, forced to submit largely in silence, by the power of the grave.
As they rolled the credits on the NBC Nightly News, they played a clip from the funeral: it was Bruce Springsteen by satellite hook-up performing “Thunder Road.” The payoff for a lifetime of political butt-aroma: Springsteen performing at your funeral, and the most powerful men in the world pretending to be friends, or at least behaving civilly.
It’s been a long time since I’ve listened to Springsteen, and I got the idea of checking out “Born to Run” from the local library. But they didn’t have it when I went, and so I made due with what they did have: “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”
From the first incredibly poignant wail on the harmonica, steel wool tumbleweed with spangles of silver, he had me. And the echoes of Steinbeck’s original...
“Now Tom said Mom, wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries...
Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you'll see me.
... I was just enthralled. And I started wondering, why hadn’t I thought about Tom Joad in such a long time? “The Grapes of Wrath” was such a wonderful book, why has it been almost completely forgotten?
And I was reminded that despite a couple of decades of Steinbeck’s being surveilled by the FBI for possible communist sympathies, he ended his life as a prominent supporter of Lyndon Baines Johnson, and the Vietnam War. He actually wrote dispatches for the Long Island newspaper Newsday from Vietnam, and provided intellectual cover for Johnson at a time when intellectual cover for the war was sorely lacking. The creator of Tom Joad as cheerleader for the napalming of millions of Vietnamese Okies.
The switchbacks of history are truly myriad.
Which brings me back to the National Cathedral with John McCain, and Barack Obama, how McCain the war hero and POW would not be who he is but for America’s invasion of Vietnam, how he was, at least to some small degree, the product of Steinbeck’s political cover.
How Obama had the foresight to try and head off another Vietnam, George Bush’s Vietnam, by opposing the invasion of Iraq.
And I ask myself, when I look in their eyes, do I see Tom Joad?
Nothing of the sort.
These ideas have been rambling around in my head for months now, but just a little short of complete, as if the jigsaw was missing just one piece. And then this past week, it hit.
After 80 years, the specter of the Great Depression has risen from the rubble-pile of history lessons and paraded onto the theater marquis of front page headlines, and evening newscasts. As the sons of Vietnam’s Steinbeck vie for the presidency in Tim Russert’s lee, Tom Joad, the son of Oklahoma’s Steinbeck, stirs from his stock-market-crash grave.
Who will foreclose on the Joad family farm? Who will bail out the billionaire bank-sters?
Of course, in the end, it wasn’t “The Ghost of Tom Joad” that Springsteen was singing, but “Thunder Road,” a different Springsteen altogether : “it’s a town full of losers, I’m pullin’ outta here to win.”
Perhaps, in a hearse.