Saturday, January 28, 2017

Learning to Breathe, Part IV

Read Part III here.

In Part IV, our concluding episode, the Hailie Salassie automaton comes to life and chases down some fascists. 

“Here he comes.” Bobby the cowboy pointed the front doors of the depot. They opened, and an entourage stepped out. Several photographers, three uniformed policemen and, finally, the lanky and lucky Mr. Lindbergh. He blinked when the sun hit his eyes. He was dressed in a gray suit. He didn’t look like a famous aviator. He didn’t look like a guy whose baby had been kidnapped and killed. He didn’t look like a guy who was Hitler’s buddy.
“Let’s go boys,” said Doherty.
He stepped forward and others followed.
Weaver had rigged the truck’s tailgate to serve as a lift. He and Doherty rolled the Lion of Judah to the tailgate, Weaver hit a lever on the side of the truck and Ras Tafari dropped slowly to the ground. They rolled the statue off of the tailgate onto the pavement.
Weaver always referred to his creation as Halie Selassie, Lion of Judah. He had tried and failed to get his statue to walk. But he did figure out how to make him move. Doherty didn’t understand it all. A coal-fired boiler turned some gears that turned other gears that powered wheels on the bottom of the statue. Smoke escaped out of an exhaust pipe at the back, which added an ominous fire-and-brimstone element to the scene. Weaver had also rigged a phonograph which played a recorded version of Selassie’s League of Nations’ speech from speakers on the truck cab roof. Not a bad set-up, and effective as long as the automaton didn’t get too far ahead of the truck. He and Weaver had even used their sound system to play music at hobo jungles and tent camps. One night Weaver tried to get Ras Tafari to spin with the music. He played with the gears but the best he could do was get Ras Tafari to stop and go in four-four time. That was at an encampment near Des Moines. They had a fine time that night with the dancing and the moonshine. And Weaver had his reefer.
Weaver walked next to his contraption, making sure it kept on course. Ras Tafari had his eyes on the fascist Lindbergh. Doherty stood in the open door of the truck. He waited for Weaver’s signal. Their goal was to drown out Lindy’s speech. And to cause a commotion. Lindy now stood behind a microphone in front of the depot. He and his entourage had certainly by now seen the coal-powered Selassie coming their way. The automaton’s exhaust added to the day’s haze caused by dust from farmers’ fields hundreds of miles away. A fire burned in Cheyenne. It joined thousands of other fires burning all over the world. And this was just the beginning.
Lindbergh stepped up to the microphone. “Good afternoon,” he said. “I’m Charles Lindbergh.” A smattering of applause. Two men held up signs that read “Defend America First” in big black letters. A group of women dressed in old-fashioned black mourning attire huddled by the microphone. One held up a sign that read “Mothers Against War.”
Weaver turned, grinned and smartly saluted Doherty. That was the sign. Doherty dropped the phonograph's arm on the record. Scratching noises erupted from the truck-top speakers. Lindbergh paused. Some in the welcoming crowd turned to see the truck. Their gazes alighted on Ras Tafari chugging toward them. Doherty thought he heard a gasp.
“It’s OK, ladies and gentlemen,” said Lindbergh. “Just a stunt. Communists try to interrupt me all of the time. They fear my message.”
Hailie Selassie addressed the League of Nations in Geneva on June 20, 1936. He told them that “God and history shall remember your judgment,” just as his automaton told the crowd in Cheyenne three years later.
Doherty now could hear only Selassie – the distant emperor was doing a terrific job of drowning out the words of America’s heroic aviator.
“What answer shall I take back to my people?” Selassie said.
Lindbergh talked on. Some in his entourage glanced nervously at the mobile and articulate Ras Tafari. A man in a suit walked over to a policeman and had some words with him. The policeman nodded. He gathered two of his officers and walked toward Weaver and Ras Tafari. Doherty had seen this happen before in other towns. Officials become alarmed and attempt to stop Ras Tafari as he delivers his message. Smarter ones go to the truck and tried to interrupt the broadcast by confiscating the equipment or smashing the record. After this happened twice, Weaver and Doherty got wise. Doherty now locked himself inside the truck cab. The cops would stand outside and stare, not knowing what to do. One enterprising cop in Grand Island, Nebraska, ripped the speakers off of the top of the truck. They got wise to that and, next time someone tried that, Doherty sent a jolt of electricity along the wires. The cop screamed and went flying off the truck, landing on his keister on the asphalt street. He then took out his billy and broke the truck window and then the phonograph. They got arrested that time.
But here in Cheyenne? The cops walked over to Ras Tafari. The burly police chief barked orders at his minions. They stood in front of Ras Tafari. They put up their hands and yelled, “Halt.” Ras Tafari must not have understood because he kept on rolling. It’s tough to tell the Lion of Judah to halt. The automaton reached the cops’ hands but kept right on going. The cops tried to lean on Selassie, but were finally pushed back and then parted, each moving to the side of the automaton. The one closest to Weaver grabbed him and his compatriot came over and grabbed Weaver’s other arm. Weaver didn’t resist – he knew better. One of the officers said something to Weaver. He shrugged, pointing over at Selassie and shaking his head no. The police chief came over. He barked at Weaver who shook his head again and probably said, “There’s nothing I can do Mr. Police Chief sir.” Meanwhile, by the depot, Lindbergh continued to speak and here at the truck, Doherty chuckled.
Then, the unexpected. Ras Tafari, obviously impatient to meet Lindbergh, sped up. Lindbergh didn’t seem to notice but his entourage did. They began to drift away. One man in a dark suit walked up behind Lindbergh. The man whispered something to Lindy, who looked up to see the automaton closing on him fast, not at running speed exactly, more like a brisk walk. Lindy shook his head and returned to his remarks. The crowd made a path for Ras Tafari. The police chief now walked over to the truck. He banged on the closed driver’s side window with his fist. Doherty had taken all precautions. Windows up, doors locked.
“Come out of there now,” the police chief said, “or you will be arrested.”
Doherty did what he always did. He put his hand to his ear and said, “I can’t hear you.”
“Turn it off,” yelled the police chief, pointing at the photograph.
“What?” yelled Doherty?
The police chief had a decision to make. He looked at Doherty and then over at the automaton. He saw that America’s hero was in danger of being run over by the emperor. Doherty knew that the man would love to smash the window and then smash his face. But he also knew that police chief’s don’t let Lindbergh get killed in their town. It wouldn’t look good and it wasn’t the right move as far as job security. Fuming, the police chief took one final look and yelled, “I’ll get you” and then sped off toward the depot.
The two photographers on the scene were having a field day. They were lined up and ready to snap the moment when Lindy got run over by the Lion of Judah. This would be big news and they’d get paid well for their shots.
But Lindy was wise to the situation. He let Selassie get to within two feet and backed away from the microphone. Ras Tafari was still moving and closing fast. Lindy shook his fist at the automaton. The automaton kept coming. Weaver looked over at Doherty and smiled. This was the best yet. Lindy backed up. The automaton advanced. The photographers were getting their shots. The crowd murmured. The police chief came to Lindy’s aid. He inserted himself between the aviator and the emperor. He and Lindy both gave way. The police chief wore a determined look. He wasn’t sure about the look on Lindy’s face. It wasn’t anger. More of a bland acceptance. He just backed slowly while Selassie chugged. The police chief barked at Lindy. He took one more look at the automaton, turned and walked quickly for the depot doors. He disappeared inside. Now it was just the cop and the statue.
“It is us today, it will be you tomorrow.” Selassie ended his speech and applause rang out from the august body sitting on their asses in Geneva. They would do nothing, of course. They would congratulate the dark-skinned emperor on his fine speech and then adjourn for lunch. Selassie would return to the safety of England. Italians would continue to gas illiterate tribesmen. Franco killed Basques in Spain. Japanese raped and killed women in Nanking. Hitler put Jews and communists in concentration camps.
The automaton collided with the depot wall, tilted slightly and then changed direction. It was hard to say how far he would go. The fire would go out, eventually, the smoke would dissipate. Selassie would once again be a big mute mass of metal. He and Weaver would spend at least one night in jail. He’d call one of his old union buddies to bail them out.
Lindbergh, meanwhile, would be on his way to Laramie and Rock Springs and Ogden. Maybe they’d catch up with him, there. Maybe not. But they would, somewhere along the line. He had his mission, they had theirs.
Doherty unlocked the truck and stepped outside. The cops had cuffed Weaver and marched him toward the truck.
“I’ll go peacefully,” Doherty said.
The cowboy returned. “Can I take care of the statue while you boys are being detained?”
"Sure,” said Weaver. “How do we get in touch?”
The cowboy’s grizzled face beamed. “I’ll know where you are.”
“OK,” said Weaver.
The cop urged Doherty forward. “You’re in trouble, boy,” he said.
“No, you are,” said Doherty. “You just don’t know it yet.”

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On Monday, Jan. 30, the author talks about the roots of this story. 

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