Climate, political and father issues in Albuquerque

Wordpress for FINAL Out to Albuqueruqe
George A. Morrison, circa 1954,  reports the news on KOB-TV. Son Brian Arbenz 60 years later blogs on his patio in Louisville.

I saw my father infrequently growing up – I mean once or twice a decade, so I do not at all identify with Robert Bly’s assertion that males are collectively wounded by the transition to industrial society that resulted in their fathers leaving home for eight hours a day.

These dads came back each evening, right, Mr. Bly?

When I was 20, on the advice of a sibling, I decided to give a father-son relationship another try. So, in 1979, I boarded a plane for Albuquerque to spend a week with George A. Morrison.

I didn’t really have a sense of who he was, and on a brilliant August day, as my plane crossed the sensually tan Sandia Mountains and landed at the Albuquerque Sunport, my lack of familiarity with him set me apart from most of the 400,000 residents of the city. My father, for 10 years in the 1950s and ‘60s, had been New Mexico’s best known television news anchorman, delivering daily 6 and 11 pm newscasts which – for the lack of another TV market in the state during many of those years – were beamed statewide. That’s a territory that would stretch from Louisville to Minnesota.

After my dad earned a law degree, he left the news business, but remained highly recognized while serving as assistant district attorney for Albuquerque, frequently talking on the air about high profile cases.

So, in 1979, instead of my father showing me his home state, I had the inverted experience of being introduced to him by New Mexico.

In the three trips I had made in 15 years to the Land of Enchantment to visit my father, I had learned that governors, senators and the University of New Mexico football coach were cohorts or acquaintances of his. Two of Dad’s close friends were author William Eastlake (Dad and other friends had helped him choose the title of his signature book Castle Keep) and Clarence Birdseye Jr., whose father’s invention of frozen foods still determines the itinerary of your grocery trips.

me-cropped-sandia-crest-aug-1967
The author at age 9 photographed in the summer of 1967 by his KOAT-TV news anchor father in the Sandia Mountains overlooking Albuquerque. 

In a room filled with my dad’s friends from New Mexico, it seems the only one I wouldn’t already know the life story of was the one who had sired me.

I knew he was a Democrat and had from time to time been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor, a quest which could have succeeded before Watergate gave media the mandate to report on personal missteps such as the philandering and heavy drinking my father did until his early 50s.

What kind of Democrat was he? I heard him say good things about civil rights (he had once served as the legal counsel for the Zuni Indian tribe), but overall supportive things about the Vietnam War (he told me of a passionate argument with the very anti-war Eastlake). An English lit degree holder from U of L, Dad was, by any standard, pro-civil liberties and he once oversaw the consumer protection division of Albuquerque’s Bernalillo County — but knowing he came of age in the 1930s and 40s, can you wager a guess about which issue would prompt this otherwise enlightened intellectual to lapse into bigotry at the drop of a hat? Or, more precisely, at a gesture or an enunciation that struck him as effeminate?

I don’t mean my father would ridicule anyone in their presence, but while at his apartment during my 1979 visit, I saw him launch into a tirade of insults while we were watching a brief TV segment featuring an interview with a man he figured was gay. Suddenly, I saw the Male High School football star and World War II submarine warfare veteran my father also had been.

But there was one more famous person for Dad to introduce me to on this trip. I asked if he knew U.S. Sen. Harrison Schmitt, a first-term New Mexico Republican. In keeping with Dad’s Robin Leach-like knack for associating with the rich and famous, yes, he in fact worked down the hall from and occasionally chatted with Schmitt, who went by his nickname Jack. Dad said he would be glad to try to arrange a meeting.

The senator, my father added, was a political wunderkind, winning election in 1976 as a dogmatic conservative counterpoised to unions in such a pro-labor state. Of course, four years before that, the geologist Jack Schmitt had walked on the moon on Apollo 17, the grandest and most successful of the six lunar landing missions.

Extra-terrestrial glory can obscure a clash in political philosophies – or in the case of John Glenn, even ease the effects of being mired in the S and L scandal.

So Schmitt wasn’t that extremist out to break your union. He was a space hero, who had turned moon dust into politically magic dust.

moonpan_apollo17_strip
Future Senator Harrison Schmitt as Apollo 17’s geologist on the moon in 1972.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the ex-senator Jack Schmitt has become a climate change denier, repeatedly condemning the theory of human causes of global warming as fiction by an environmental movement he has described as the place communism essentially migrated to after the opening of the Berlin Wall. (Makes sense; I mean there was no environmentalism here before 1989, was there?)

So, we’re talking quite a chasm to bridge when I shake hands with Senator Schmitt. Could it get tense?

No. My fascination with space would make meeting Jack Schmitt an apolitical thrill. And if memories of his three walks on Taurus-Littrow weren’t enough, Harrison H. “Jack” Schmitt also had been my first same-sex crush. I mean minutes after the Apollo 17 crew returned from the moon, splashing down near Samoa, I saw him without his helmet for the first time and… well, he had just returned, and I was now off TO the moon.

That was the instant I, as a 14-year-old, knew I was bisexual. I never told my father of this, and didn’t care to seven years later during my 1979 visit, but wouldn’t Schmitt’s office have been a bizarre venue for that? Imagine coming out to your father, a senator, an astronaut, a veteran journalist, a Republican, a Democrat and a homophobic district attorney all at once!

I don’t know whether I would have been prosecuted, disinherited, evicted or pepper sprayed. You would have read about me in a news story datelined Albuquerque, that’s for certain.

This explosive moment of familial and political drama never happened, though. Schmitt wasn’t in town during my visit.

That is not surprising. You see, the senator went on to be defeated in 1982 – marking the only time an astronaut has lost a U.S. election in nine races – and the big issue raised by Democrat Jeff Bingaman (and yes, Dad knew him, too) was the fact that the incumbent simply was never in the state, physically or ideologically. Schmitt was constantly touring, speaking about the cause of mining the moon, an issue absolutely irrelevant during a severe recession in 1982 which had focused voters’ attention on the here and now, not on rocks a quarter-million miles away.

Today, his status as a private citizen gives Schmitt the mobility to challenge the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming and on his still passionate cause of building a thriving lunar extraction industry, which almost every other scientist and financer dismisses as pie in the sky.

Oh, and as for my crush – I don’t even remember what I saw in the guy.

This column is from Brian Arbenz’ book “Lost And Found In Louisville.”

Advertisements

Mitch McConnell and 0.3 Penny Opera

By Brian Arbenz

What on Earth could have transformed Mitch McConnell from a baron of subdivision drainage and park maintenance three and one-half decades ago into the bare-knuckled power-wielder for the nation’s elites?
How was a bespectacled, ostensibly nerdy, tentative-voiced suburban county government chief turned into America’s prime arbiter of conservative priorities with the mandate to declare to the pundits which law is the worst of our time?
The man who once politely asked for legendary civil rights activist Lyman Johnson’s endorsement today confidently defends his party’s various state voter ID laws which will keep millions of minorities and the poor home on election day.
Who or what made this once mousey-appearing civil servant roar? Did someone push Mitch’s buttons in a moment of crisis decades ago, setting off a hunger for validation, the kind to which politicians (including those actually in office and those of us who once seriously thought of running) are so vulnerable?
Remember that word “hunger,” as I start to recount a brush with a future Senate Minority Leader in 1978 that, who’s to say, didn’t change the course of history.
Then, as now, I was on the far left, not an easy place for a college student in the era quite accurately deemed the “Me-Generation” on campus.
Today, while Mitch McConnell and other Republicans insist they aren’t for exploiting the 99 (or, as Mitt Romney puts it, 47) percent, one of that group now named Brian Arbenz (nee George Morrison)  collected concrete evidence – actually copper – that could qualify me for a spot on Rachel Maddow to portray Mitch as cheap and arrogant – to Marie Antoinette proportions.
But hold on. Adequate wages must be earned, not guaranteed. Yes, you heard correctly; I’m on the far left, and my encounter with my side’s future nemesis taught me that bit of conservative wisdom. Let me tell you, though, it must have taught the powerful something we leftists always hold true: poverty hurts.
Now unless first-year Jefferson County Judge-Executive Mitch McConnell 35 years ago had an intelligence gathering operation that would make today’s Secretary of Homeland Security blush, he could not have judged the 20-year-old college student bussing tables in a downtown Louisville restaurant he entered at noontime one autumn day as anything more than an inconsequential, pimply kid out to make enough in tips to buy a six-pack.
Well, in defiance of that period’s youth norms, I eschewed the brew and spent my dollars instead on the works of Michael Harrington, Kate Millet and Norman Thomas.
Mitch entered a Main Street row restaurant called the New York Steak Exchange with two other suits, presumably from county government or the business realm.
To everyone’s dismay, this power lunch happened on absolutely our worst day. Even on our best, we were no gastronomical gem. A newspaper review said our various gimmicks – including a real working stock ticker over the bar – couldn’t make up for the mediocrity of the food.
On this day, the service was poor to boot. So crowded were we that my supervisors had me work as a food server while not busing tables. After Mitch’s party had waited an inordinate amount of time for their food, we hauled three plates through the frenetic din to their table, only to be told this was not what the trio had ordered. We apologized and took the plates back and placed them under red lights to await their rightful owners.
More time went by as the judge-executive and his cohorts were just the most recognizable people in this restaurant hungering. Only so much politics and policy can be discussed at a table before, “Where’s our food?” becomes the sole concern.
And the three orphan plates sat there under the red lights until another server was ordered to take them to the McConnell table on the chance that they were theirs. Oh dear.
I gave chase trying to stop her. You see in the restaurant business, there is no mistake worse – more glaringly unprofessional and insulting — than bringing someone the wrong food. At that moment, I realized that there in fact is. That is bringing someone the wrong food twice. And as though the damage to us could have been worse, we were bringing the wrong food – twice – to the head of county government, the government that includes the restaurant inspection division of the health department.
She reached their table, asking: “Is this what you ordered?” Out of breath from running, I watched as Mitch and the other power hitters looked at the food, and looked at each other. Then the nation’s future highest-ranking member of the Republican Party looked at this young woman and said, in his classic McConnell-esque understated way: “Yes.”
Now we weren’t a grand jury, so this one-word lie doesn’t have the scandal potential of Bill Clinton’s “No” in response to an inquiry from Kenneth Star about the president’s involvement with an intern, though if the Democratic Party had the GOP’s chutzpa, learning of this would prompt it to call for McConnell’s resignation tomorrow. But the Democrats, unlike their opponents, tend to know not to make a federal case over an unimportant falsehood which, like Clinton’s, stemmed from a crucial human need — in this case, food.
And Judge-Executive McConnell – as they say in Senatorial debate lingo – ate someone’s lunch, learning in the process to avoid all contact from then on with the New York Steak Exchange, except – who knows — perhaps to send a memo about the restaurant to the health department.
So could it be that the indignity of eating survival rations, instead of what you wanted, soured Mitch McConnell on those of us who can’t afford to start our own Super PAC?
Well, who among us wouldn’t have sympathized at that moment with Mitt Romney’s declaration: “I like being able to fire people?”
Restaurant diners can’t directly do that to those who inflict even the lousiest service imaginable, but Mitch’s trio found an even more revealing way to express their discontent.
No tip? Nope. Lying on the McConnell party’s table, inscribed with that Eisenhower-era legislated monetary notation “In God We Trust,” was a penny – for the three of us who had waited on them somehow to divide among ourselves.
Notice Senator, that the nationwide perception of your party in the crucial year of 2012 – fair or not — is that you have it in for low-wage workers, the left and women.
Whether the ravenousness and disrespect we made you endure three and one-half decades ago lit your still burning fire, or was forgotten the following morning, shouldn’t you find cause to declare peace between the GOP and those constituencies from the knowledge that you once – albeit justifiably by most any standard — tipped a representative of each, literally, one-third of a cent?
If invincibility in politics is possible, Mitch McConnell appeared to have achieved it going into this decade. He won against the 2008 anti-GOP tide, he had in 2002 garnered endorsements from even liberal publications and he was always bathed in corporate money.
However, as a working person, I also am perched on a privileged spot. I got to witness something astounding in 1978. I saw the well-heeled and self-assured Mitch McConnell hungry and frustrated – so desperately that he was reduced to lying. How many people can say that?

Brian Arbenz retired from busing tables in 1979 to become a journalist, researcher and author. His third book, “Lost and Found in Louisville,” includes this recollection, which he wrote in 2012.