Monday, January 23, 2017

Learning to Breathe, Part II

Read Part I here.

April 1939, Cheyenne, Wyoming. In Part II, anti-fascists and their Hailie Selassie automaton prepare to confront fascists arriving on the afternoon train.

The door groaned as Doherty pushed it open. He stepped out and walked to the rear of the truck. The statue was tied securely to the bed. Six feet tall, about his height, although that was taking some liberties with the subject who reportedly topped the five-foot mark only when wearing thick-heeled boots. Still, the ruler of a mighty kingdom. Doherty had to hand it to Weaver –- the man had done a fine job sculpting Hailie Selassie out of the metal from expended Italian artillery shells that he found in piles across Ethiopia. The serene face, the mustache and beard, eyes that seemed to come alive.  
Doherty walked to the driver’s side. In the cab, the driver was toking on a spliff. “Jeez, Weaver,” the white man said. He knocked on the window.
The black man rolled it down. “What is it, Irish?”
“You have to smoke that now?”
“Calms me, man. And it’s part of my religion.”
“I know. But now? You are a black man in a city that’s 110 percent white. We are waiting at the train station to do a number on a hero of the white race. Is this the right time to be doing your drug?”
“No problem, Jim.” The black man held the spliff like a cigarette. “How they going to see my ganja cloud when the sky is brown with dust already?”
“They can smell it.”
“Smells like burning weeds.”
The train whistle blew.
“That’s our train,” Doherty said.
Weaver inhaled one more batch of smoke and tamped out the spliff on the truck floor. Doherty didn’t understand Weaver’s so-called religion. He worshipped Selassie, a.k.a. Ras Tafari, as the second coming of Christ. Smoked leaves of a weed like Doherty smoked cigarettes. But when Doherty wanted to dull life’s pain, he turned to whiskey. Calmed him down. That’s what Weaver said ganja did for him. When they camped out at night, Weaver lit up and the stuff smelled a bit like the sage he and his father burned for cooking fires while hunting in the Red Desert. A bit sweeter – not unpleasant. When Weaver was not driving and smoked, Doherty could swear that the smoke got to him. He felt mildly elated, even imagined shapes crossing in front of him on the road. At Weaver’s urging, he’d smoked it a few times but felt it made him lazy. A guy couldn’t afford dreaminess when fighting fascists.
Weaver opened the door and stepped out of the truck. He was a few inches shorter than six-foot-tall Doherty. He wore Army boots, denim trousers and a blue work shirt. He had the hands of a workman, calloused and cut-up, a blue-black bruise on the knuckles of his right hand, souvenirs of a bar brawl in Omaha. Doherty’s left hand still hurt from that same fight. This Rastafari religion might profess a love of peace, but he’d never seen anyone fight like Weaver when the chips were down.
Doherty inspected the truck. Statue was OK. The banner wrapped around the outside walls of the truck bed read: “It is us today. It will be you tomorrow.” That’s what Selassie had said in a warning to the rest of the world.
Nobody seemed to be listening.
Doherty and Weaver met on the New York docks. Longshoremen refused to unload the Bremen, a German cargo ship that flew the Nazi flag. A riot erupted and the two men ended up taking shelter in the same waterfront bar. After a few drinks, Weaver invited Doherty to a warehouse in Brooklyn to see the Salassie statue. Doherty was impressed. Weaver, an art school grad from Detroit, built the statue. He went overseas to fight for the world’s only black monarch. He stayed for the art.
The two met in January. In March, they loaded Ras Tafari onto Doherty’s beat-up truck and they were off.
 “Think he’ll come out the front door?” said Weaver, eyes on the depot.
“Where else?”
The train depot was built of stone with a large clock tower. They could see the train’s passenger cars as they eased to a stop in back of the station. Their target was in one of those cars. They planned a surprise attack on their fascist opponent. But, there were limits to violence. One often got better results with theatre. He had seen enough of human behavior to know that drama was a handy form of persuasion. He had seen the National Socialists of Germany at work. He had watched the Spaniards and Italians. They all loved the movement of large casts of actors against decorative landscapes, whether that was the mountains of northern Spain or the deserts of Eritrea.
“Maybe he’s just going to talk inside the depot and then get back on the train?”
Doherty thought about it. “Can you maneuver your statue into the station?”
Weaver smiled. “It could be done, depending on the size of the doors.”
Doherty saw the glint in Weaver’s eyes and knew his friend was conjuring. The man was good at improvising. Good with his hands, too, whether it was fighting or sculpting statues from old artillery shells.   
People were arriving at the station. First thing they did when getting out of their cars was look at the two strange men and the big statue in the back of the truck. None came over, at least not at first. Two young couples got out of a sporty yellow coupe and walked over to the truck.
“What’s this?” asked a pretty girl whose brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She stared at Weaver. “Are you the artist?”
Weaver nodded.
“Who is the statue of?” the girl asked,
“Haile Selassie, Lion of Judah,” Weaver said.
“Must have taken a long time to make,” said the girl.
“I know who Haile Selassie is,” said the boy next to ponytail. “Ethiopia, right?”
“Right,” said Weaver.
“Did he say that?” said the other girl, a long-haired blonde. “On the banner?”
“Yes,” said Doherty. “He said it in a speech to the League of Nations.”
“Oh,” said the girl. “They’re a bunch of communists aren’t they? That’s what my dad says.”
“The U.S. is in the League of Nations,” said Doherty.
“Commies,” said the boy with the blonde. “C’mon, guys, we got to see the speech for Mr. Lain’s class.”
The ponytail girl took one more look at Weaver before being pulled away by her boyfriend. Doherty and Weaver watched them go.
“She liked the cut of your jib,” said Doherty.
Weaver shook his head. “Kids,” he said. “Those are the boys America will send off to fight. Think there’s any hope?”
“Those two guys don’t look very promising,” Doherty said. “But ponytail? I could see her with a carbine. She’s feisty like those Spanish Republican women. Some were damn good shots.”
Weaver looked at Doherty. “You still writing that Spanish woman, what’s her name?”
“Anna – she’s Basque.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out sheets of folded paper. “Took this letter a month to find me. She’s safe in France now.”
“How’s she doing?”
“Fine. It surprises me. She was a tiger.”
“In bed?”
Doherty chuckled. “You kill me, Weaver. Yes, in bed and on the field. Her husband and brother were both killed in Guernica. She took no prisoners.”
“Except you?”
He slapped Weaver on the back. “I went willingly, chum. Like a lamb to the slaughter.”

To be continued...

Tune in to this same channel on Jan. 25 for Learning to Breathe, Part III.

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