Monday, July 20, 2015

The Dragon Lady is Back!

I am reposting below a River Vices blog on the Dragon Lady from September 2010. Has the manager-council form of government introduced a new era in Portsmouth politics, as City Manager Derek "Dreck" Allen repeatedly claims? I think not, and to illustrate my point I will cite the latest bit of evidence. The Dragon Lady is back. Former City Solicitor Jo Ann Aeh is going to be the next Ward Two councilwoman. Because of the foolish four-year terms for council members and the power of the city council to appoint replacements for those members who often do not complete their terms for one reason or another, there is a long tradition of the city council appointing corrupt cronies, such as the shyster lawyer-pimp-drug dealer Mike Mearan, to a vacated seat. But Aeh is too shrewd, knows too many legal loopholes,  to let herself get on the city council in that time dishonored way. Instead, the Dragon Lady has arranged it so that she will be the unchallenged candidate for the seat in the primary election and therefore the unchallenged candidate in the general election.  As Aeh told the Portsmouth Daily Times, even if only two people vote for her, she will win. But  wouldn't it take only one voter for her  to win? Since she will be voting, that's presumably all it would take. She will elect herself. That's democracy at work, Portsmouth style. And if Aeh at her advanced age does not complete her term, as is quite possible, the council will appoint her replacement, and so the sham democracy will continue and having a city manager, and particularly our current city manager, will not make a damn bit of difference. For those who may have forgotten some of the disgraceful details of the political career of the Dragon lady, including her connections to David Duke, the Grand Dragon of Ku Klux Klan as well as the rebuke she received from the Ohio Supreme Court (see below). The SOGP is dead and buried but the Dragon Lady lives on. 

* * *

   Concerned Citizens Group president Jerry Conkle and CCG member Jim Wilson have told me that it is their clear recollection that on Wednesday, July 28, 2010,  Portsmouth City Clerk Jo Ann Aeh told  them, in her office in the Municipal Building, that  the deadline for them to return the  petitions to recall Ward Three councilman Nicholas Basham was August 20. It is possible there was a misunderstanding and that Conkle and Wilson misinterpreted what Aeh said, or that she was confused rather than  attempting to mislead them. It is possible, but in light of Aeh’s track record in regard to recall petitions and of her long standing, obstructionist  role in city government,  it is  more likely, in my opinion, that she deliberately  mislead Conkle and Wilson, and through them the other members of the CCG, by making them think they had a week less than they actually had to collect the required number of  signatures to put the recall of Nicholas Basham before Ward Three voters. The City Charter stipulates they should have had thirty days from the time they took out the petitions, which would have meant that she should have told them they had  until August 27 to return the petitions. For the aging and physically challenged members of the CCG, the lost week was a handicap they were not able to  overcome and they suspended their efforts shortly before what they believed was the August 20  deadline. In spite of being handicapped and having to walk with a cane, Jerry Conkle collected almost fifty signatures in the record heat wave. Jim Wilson, as a result of working many years installing and repairing heating and air conditioning  systems, has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, which requires him to always carry an oxygen supply, but he  did his best in the limited time Aeh led him to believe he had to collect signatures. 

What motivation would Aeh  have for  impeding the recall effort by Conkle, Wilson, and other members of the Concerned Citizens Group? As City Clerk, Aeh serves at the pleasure of the city council, which can fire her whenever it chooses. A city clerk's employment depends directly upon the support  of members of city council, which puts anyone who occupies the office in a potential conflict of interest in handling petitions to recall council members. Aeh and every city clerk who succeeds her will continue to be in a potential conflict of interest until the charter is changed to insulate them from pressure from members of city council and other elected officials who are subject to recall efforts. In the past, Aeh did her best to bend the rules in favor of  council members Jim Kalb, Ann Sydnor, and David Malone, her political allies, when they faced recall. Aeh did for Kalb, Sydnor, and Malone, what she may recently have tried to do for Nicholas Basham: trying to protect his hide to save her own. As long as she is beholden to the city council for her livelihood,  such situations will likely occur. As Teresa Mollette wrote on, “The city charter needs to be revised to take the power of approving petitions out of the hands of the city clerk. This is a job for the county Board of Elections.” 

Judging by the website of the Dickens Pub, Jo Ann Aeh has become a frequenter, if not a  habitué, of the pub, which Basham owns. Basham  offers reduced prices for drinks to those customers who can prove they are city employees by producing  their health insurance cards.  The irony of that little detail about health insurance is that Mayor Jane Murray has raised the hackles of city employees by calling attention to the high costs of their generous health benefits, which should serve as a reminder of the generous health insurance benefits the city council voted themselves back in 1990 (Ord. 1990-106), which caused one of the most bitter recall campaigns in the history of Portsmouth. If the term of office for council members was two years instead of four, there would be much less need of  costly and bitter recall campaigns. If  the term of office for the city clerk was not an open-ended, possibly life-time appointment, as it has been for Aeh,  but was rather fixed and not dependent on the city council’s approval,  then perhaps there would not have been so many shenanigans  over the  long period of time Aeh has been city clerk. There is a sign on the wall of Aehs office that reads, “Lord, Help me hang in there,”  but  some people might  feel  that  she has not so much been hanging in as hanging on and that among the calls she got urging her to run, the Devil may have been one of them.

   Section 7 of the Portsmouth City Charter briefly states the ostensibly limited duties of the city clerk:  “The Clerk shall attend the Council as its secretary, shall keep its journal and other records, and make an annual report, giving a summary of its proceedings and shall perform such other duties as are given him by this Charter or which may be prescribed by ordinance.” Doesn't sound like much, does it? But the “other duties” assigned by the Charter include those related to recalls, which are stipulated in Sections 151-153 of the Charter. Those duties" give the city  clerk a lot of opportunity for mischief, which Aeh has made the most of. It may be those duties" that have enabled her to hold her job longer than any other city employee. Through manipulation, if not  malfeasance, she has, in my opinion, helped keep corrupt political officials in office by obstructing citizens’ attempts to remove them by means of the recall. Would she have been collecting a paycheck  for a quarter of a century without conducting a kind of protection racket for corrupt cronies, and especially for those members of the city council, without whose good will she would long ago have been replaced? The political life of  most public office holders in Portsmouth, especially with all the recalls, has been as short as a fruit flys, but  for Aeh it has been as long as a turtles.   

AehIllegal Removal of  Names from Recall Petitions 

   Aeh’s abuse of the office of city clerk was evident in 1996, when she illegally removed names from petitions whose purpose was to recall First Ward council woman Ann Sydnor and Fourth Ward councilman Jim Kalb. In a decision handed down on  September 11, 1997, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that “Aeh had clear legal duty under Sections 151 and 152 of the Portsmouth Charter to certify as sufficient the recall petitions relating to the First and Fourth Ward council members. The petitions had the requisite number of signatures to be sufficient. Aeh was not entitled to remove signatures from the petitions after filing. In addition, relators have established a clear legal right to this certification, and they have no adequate remedy in the ordinary course of law. Based on the foregoing, we grant a writ of mandamus compelling Aeh to certify the recall petitions seeking the removal of First and Fourth Ward Council Members Sydnor and Kalb as sufficient and to notify these council members pursuant to Section 152 of the Portsmouth Charter. In addition, we grant relators’ request for attorney fees and order relators’ counsel to submit a bill and documentation in support of the request for attorney fees, in accordance with the guidelines set forth in DR 2-106” [italics added]. Aeh was caught in the act and the city  had to pay for it. 

   More recently, it was  not just the recall of Basham  that Aeh may have helped sabotage by supplying misinformation to Conkle and Wilson. She has also either deliberately or, perhaps as a consequence of her advancing years, inadvertently made a mess of  the public records she has the responsibility for creating, keeping track of, and  preserving. Legal action soon may be initiated against her and other city officials for their failure to produce public records requested by citizens. The fines mandated by state law for failing to produce each public record can really add up, so the cost to the city for Aeh’s failure to create, preserve, and produce public records requests  could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. The Columbus Dispatch carried a story recently about huge financial penalties being imposed on public officials in northern Ohio who failed to comply with requests for public records. With all its other financial problems, Portsmouth may be furthered burdened with having to pay large penalties for the failure of Aeh and other officials to comply with requests for public documents. Possibly, some  records cannot be produced  because they have been destroyed, in violation of state law.
      On August 30, Corey Columbo, an attorney from the Columbus-based  McTigue Law Group,  representing Mayor Murray, filed a challenge to the petitions that have been filed with Aeh for the recall of the mayor. McTigue himself  represented Damon Fite and  the Concerned Citizens who successfully challenged the legality of Aeh’s removal of signatures from recall petitions back in 1996. Just as Aeh can abuse the powers of her office to frustrate those seeking to recall  her political cronies, she can abuse those same powers to abet petitioners who are trying to recall a political enemy from office, in this case Mayor Murray.  Whether or not she shortchanged Concerned Citizens a week, she extended the time the Recall Murray Campaign had to collect signatures, as she is allowed to do by the Charter.  Columbo has compiled fifteen objections to the petitions for the recall of Murray, most of which appear to put Aeh right at ground zero of the legal mess that is unfolding over the recall of Murray. Columbo explained that the McTigue Group deals almost exclusively with election disputes, and it was evident at the Election Board meeting on August 30 that the recall of Murray looks very shaky legally. In spite of bluster from the Election Board chairman Rodney Barnett, the rest of the Board seemed chastened by Columbos’ remarks to the board, and Sayre, the attorney from the Country Prosecutor’s office, admitted he was unfamiliar with protested recalls and would need to do a quick study of the subject, which, given the time frame he has to operate within, will have to be really quick.  All the confusion is not surprising given the twelfth-hour timing of the Recall Murray Campaign, which began when former indicted City Auditor Tom Bihl threw his hat in the ring, or rather, more accurately, put  his head  in the wringer when no one else had been brave or foolish enough to do so. Because of the half-assed, half-gassed way in which the Recall Murray Campaign has proceeded, with the Dickens Pub serving as unofficial campaign headquarters, it is not surprising that there are at least fifteen reasons why the State Board of Elections may rule the recall petitions invalid. I have seen McTigue perform before the Ohio Board of Elections, and I would not want to be in Aeh’s shoes, or Tom Bihl’s either, if and when they testify  before the board. 

Where Southern Hostility Begins

The snarling Aeh at a City Council meeting
Aeh became involved in city politics back in the early 1980s, when the city was in turmoil over the recall of three members of city council who were vilified and demonized because they were allegedly against a shopping mall, just as Mayor Murray is being vilified and demonized now because she is allegedly against just about everything she can be accused of being against. The hatred being whipped up in the campaign to recall her is reminiscent of the hatred stirred up in the South and Midwest against Negroes by the Ku Klux Klan. As recently as the late 1970s, the Klan had a presence in Portsmouth, and some first-hand observers thought the movement to recall the three councilmen in 1980 had the characteristics of a KKK rally. Marchers did not carry a burning cross but they did carry  a casket with the picture of one of the councilmen, Harald Daub, as I wrote about previously in “The Mauling of Harald Daub.” Daub is still the target of hate mongers. His house and automobile were pelted by eggs late one night not long ago, perhaps by those who had been drinking firewater earlier at a Happy Hour at the unofficial headquarters of the Recall Murray Campaign. I refer to Basham's Dickens Pub.

   Jo Ann Aeh’s husband Roy was reportedly active in the Klan in the late 1970s, and was said to be recruiting for the KKK among the employees at the state prison in Lucasville. In a letter dated April 29, 1978, the authenticity of which has not to my knowledge been disproved,  the so-called Grand Dragon of the KKK, David Duke, welcomed Roy Aeh as a new member and invited him and his wife  to a KKK national convention in Jackson, Mississippi, where there would be seminars on “how to stop the rising tide of the forces that mean to end White Supremacy.” The Grand Dragon concluded the letter to Aeh by writing, “You and your wife JoAnn are cordially invited to be with us in this great crusade.” The letter specifies who the great crusade was against:  “Niggers, Jews, Catholics, and Puerto Ricans.”   I am not suggesting Jo Ann Aeh was a member of the KKK or that she championed White Supremacy. But of her political activities since 1980 it can be said, on the basis of the available evidence, that she is a supporter of the Southern Ohio Growth Partnership, the SOGP, which has had,  under several names, a stranglehold on the economic and political life of Portsmouth for the last thirty years. It is not the KKK we need to worry about: it is the SOGP, a so-called Community Improvement Corporation, and it is no secret who the “Grand Dragon” of the SOGP is. Portsmouth: Where Southern Hospitality Begins,” one of the citys slogans, perhaps should be changed to, Portsmouth: Where Southern Hostility Begins.” 

   The hatred being generated in Portsmouth today is not against “Niggers, Jews, Catholics, and Puerto Ricans.” The hatred today is against domestic terrorists” and CAVE People, that is, against the community activists who serve as the watchdogs of local government; but the hatred is directed above all against Mayor Murray who has challenged the corrupt status quo as perhaps nobody has in the history of Portsmouth, with the possible exception of  the three councilmen of  thirty years ago. That was when  Aeh, not coincidentally,  began her political career, a career she continues to carry on, having been  transmogrified into something of a snarling, fire-breathing Grand Dragoness who not only illegally alters recall petitions but  who has become increasingly unwilling or unable to carry out her record keeping responsibilities as required by the City Charter. She has reportedly become irate when asked for minutes of various public meetings and contemptuous of the principle of open public records, or at least of those who approach her with public records requests. It remains to be seen how much snarling and fire breathing she will do before the Ohio Board of Elections, if and when she has to testify about the recall petitions. It remains to be seen also whether northerners will get a better idea of what it’s  like to live in the Deep South of the Grand Realm of Ohio. (What follows is a letter from the Grand Dragon inviting Aeh and her husband to a KKK Convention.)

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Grandview Geysers

The Grandview area before the Dreck Geyser spouted

[Residents of the Grandview area reported that during the recent
torrential rains, sewers spouted like geysers.]

As sewage erupted from the sewers,
Like sepia geysers in the air,
Chief among the wrongdoers
Was "Dreck,"* our city manager.

One of the high risers,
Filled to the odiferous brim,
One of the Grandview Geysers, 
Should be named after him.

Let's call one the Shyster Geyser,
After the notorious Mike Mearan.
Let's call another the Kevin W. Geyser,
After the officious First Ward con man.

But let's name the biggest of all,
The geyser with the brownest luster,
The geyser with the most offal,
After our septic shitty manager.

Yes, let's call it the Dreck Geyser
Because it's so full of shit.
Let's call it the Dreck Geyser
Just for the hell of it.
               Robert Forrey, 2015

*Dreck (pronounced der-reck) is a Yiddish word
that is synonymous with the English word shit.

No, those are not Grandview residents watching the Dreck Geyser.
Those are tourists at Yellowstone National Park viewing the
most famous of all geysers, Old Faithful.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

ICMA: Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, or Worse?

One of the curious things about  the campaign in Portsmouth in 2011 to change back to the manager-council form of government was the role played  by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), which, though I did not know of its existence at the time,  I now view as a somewhat stealthy and deceptive organization, a wolf in sheep's clothing, if not worse.

In the last one hundred years, 1915-2015, which coincides with the existence of the ICMA,  the United States has been strongly influenced in its international relations by the doctrine of American exceptionalism, which is the quasi religious belief that America is unique in the history of the world, being  the most  favored nation of, if not of  God,  then at least of  History. From the perspective of American exceptionalism, America is the home of true  freedom and democracy, which gives  it not only the right but the obligation to spread that  precious birthright around the globe. America promotes its exceptionalist view of freedom and democracy internationally in any number of ways and places, including Afghanistan, and through any number of organizations, including most notably and controversially the CIA. Where does ICMA get the money to operate its domestic and international operations? Domestically it has conservative corporate sponsors, which could foot the bill. Where the ICMA gets the money to finance its international operations it doesn’t say, but who else could it be if it is not an agency of the U.S. government?

Portsmouth is one of the American cities to which the ICMA provided financial and logistical assistance to electorally replace the mayoral-council form of government. But was the election fair? In  2011, the ICMA helped city councilman Kevin W. Johnson and the Committee for Better Government get a charter amendment passed  in the November election that returned Portsmouth to the manager-council form of government. The Portsmouth Daily Times  reported that the "ICMA and the Ohio City/County Management Association assisted the council-manager advocacy group Committee for Better Government Management by providing educational materials and guidance on the development of the charter amendment text. ICMA also contributed financial support to [the] Committee from the Fund for Professional Management to aid the group in mailing 4,000 educational postcards." But not many people read that squib in the PDT or knew the ICMA existed let alone that it had been instrumental in Portsmouth’s return to the city manager form of government. The margin of victory in that election was very small—just sixty votes—or a little over one percent of the votes cast.  I very much doubt the charter amendment would have passed if the ICMA had not interceded on the side of manager-council supporters. 

I first learned of the ICMA and its intervention in the 2011 election only recently  when I  read the minutes of  the 8 August  2011 meeting of the Portsmouth City Council, which you can read by clicking here.  That meeting took place only three months before the November election, but at least several people at the council meeting were surprised to learn about the charter amendment and even more surprised to learn  about the role of the ICMA. They learned of ICMA’s involvement because a member of that organization, who was the city manager of Loveland, Ohio, was at the August 2011 council meeting. He was present but he claimed he was present only in an educational capacity. This is what the ICMA consistently claims, that it is not taking sides in the manager-council versus the mayor-council form of government struggle, that it is just playing an impartial, educational  role, but that is a canard. The ICMA does everything it can to spread the manager-council gospel and to disparage the mayor-council form of government, all the while claiming to be impartial. ICMA claims to have a strict code of ethics that all its members, including city managers,  must follow. The ICMA may not have a dog in the fight, but it  has a wolf, a wolf  in sheep's clothing, and the wolf unethically carries on in its sheep's clothing not only before a city switches to a city manager but also afterwards, providing  its allegedly non-partisan assistance in the city's search for a city manager. ICMA can be so brazenly hypocritical at times that a shark may be a more appropriate metaphor than a wolf in sheep's clothing.  Derek Allen, who was chosen as city manager,  was judged to have lied under oath as a public official and received a suspended jail sentence. Is he the ICMA's idea of a highly ethical city manager? 

I have checked with the Scioto County Board of Elections to see if the ICMA or any of its many corporate sponsors filed any report on its financial involvement in the 2011 election as is required by county regulations. The Board of Elections could find no filing by the ICMA, which presumably considers itself, as a self-proclaimed impartial organization, above such requirements. It may have gotten away with such high handedness in Afghanistan, but can it also in the United States? Perhaps the Scioto County prosecutor can answer that question.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The New City Seal: Stars and Fleurs-de-Lis Forever

Portsmouth's New City Seal

If there’s one thing Portsmouth should not want to commemorate with a new city seal it’s the new U.S. Grant Bridge, which took longer to build than the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The businesses in downtown Portsmouth threatened to sue the Ohio Department of Transportation for 8 million dollars for the profits they claimed were lost because of the inordinate time it took to build the bungled Grant Bridge. The Golden Gate  Bridge took four years to build; the Grant Bridge took six, even though the Grant is half as long and doesn’t contain any pedestrian or bike paths, and is two-lane rather than six. And not long after the Grant was built there were "oops" occasions when the bridge had to be closed for inspections and repairs, on the Kentucky side. It was as if the points on the Ohio and Kentucky shores, which the bridge was supposed to connect with, were not perfectly coordinated.
      Wikipedia reports, “ It should be noted that the bridge was critically under-designed and not constructible until C.J. Mahan stopped construction and awaited a near complete redesign by the design consultant.” Mahan was suspected of having more political connections than business acumen. He was not much better when it came to barges than he was with bridges. At one point a barge sank that was carrying a large crane that was to be used to construct the center of the bridge. This was the cause of one of many delays. It was as if the bridge was being built not on the Ohio but on the Amazon River, in the jungles of South America, or on the Khwai River, in Thailand. The hungry and abused prisoners of war who built a railroad bridge in the Oscar winning 1957 movie The Bridge on the River Kwai were efficiency experts compared to those who built the new Grant Bridge. 
      Its embarrassing history notwithstanding, there at the heart of the new city seal is the Grant Bridge, wrapped in the American flag no less, which brings to mind Samuel Johnson’s remark that “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Who is the scoundrel  responsible for making the Grant Bridge the center of the city seal? Who dared to besmirch the American flag by having it wrapped around the boondoggled Grant Bridge? Without claiming I am  sure of  the answer to that question, I will call your attention to a seemingly insignificant detail in the new city seal. I refer to the tiny fleurs-de-lis, if I am not mistaken,  alternating with stars, in  the outermost circle of the seal. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Manager-Council Government: Less Democracy, More Hypocrisy

     I see that our officious First Ward council member Kevin W. Johnson is at it again, once more donning his Mussolini hat to modernize government the way the Italian dictator did, which was by undermining democracy. As if he had not done enough harm when he engineered the change back to the less democratic manager-council form of government, Johnson is proposing five more amendments to the city charter. For someone who is telling people as he makes his political rounds that he will be moving from Portsmouth as soon as conveniently possible, wouldn't you think he would stay around to live with consequences of these charter amendments he so freely and underhandedly proposes?
      What  apparently motivated Johnson to go on his latest amendment binge was the recent election in the Sixth Ward primary in which the incumbent Jeff Kleha finished third in the voting, disqualifying him from being a candidate in the general election. What Johnson and City Manager Derek Allen claimed to be disturbed by was that Sixth Ward voters were allowed to vote for two instead of just one of the three candidates. That is unusual. Usually voters vote for only one candidate. It may be unusual to vote for two in a primary in which there are three candidates, but that is not an infringement of democracy nor a  violation of the city charter or state law, which doesn’t specify how many candidates an elector can vote for in a primary. I think that what  really upset Johnson and especially Allen was not the irregularity of voting for two candidates, or the allegedly bad precedent the Sixth Ward set that Allen claims may haunt us for fifty years. That is not the bottom line in all this.
     What really upset Allen was the defeat of Kleha,  whom the city manager  was counting on for continued support on city council. If Kleha had not lost,  I doubt Johnson or Allen would have been the least upset. If Allen was acting on principle and not on selfish political motives, why did he wait until after the election, after Kleha’s loss, before making a public issue of the primary by writing a letter of protest to the Scioto County Prosecutor Mark Kuhn? As Kuhn pointed out in his ruling on the Sixth Ward primary, no one, including Allen, had objected in a timely manner to the unusual voting arrangement. And what was the city manager doing involving himself in the issue in the first place? Wasn't that as Kuhn pointed out the responsibility of the Portsmouth City Solicitor John Haas, the city's chief legal officer?
      What Allen found most  disturbing, if truth be told,  was  that the top vote getters in the primary, Tom Lowe and Shawn Stratton, have been critical of Allen’s performance as city manager, Stratton vehemently so. Since Allen could be terminated if the required number of the city council decide he has to go, he cannot afford to have even one member of the council who thinks he's not up to the job. If there was one council member against him, there might be more, and it would only take four to be a majority against him, and what then of Allen's job security? When  Allen told the Daily Times “he has no opinion regarding the outcome of the election or on the ruling of the Board of Election,” I believe he was not telling the truth, as I think is obvious in other things he said about the primary election. As city manager he knows he is supposed to be above politics, to be impartial. Was he lying when he claimed he had no opinion? Do you think a city official who would lie under oath as a public official in his hometown, as Allen had in Piqua, would such an official hesitate, in a city in which he is a commuting city manager,  hesitate to lie to a local newspaper reporter? If Kevin Johnson is something of a Mussolini, Allen is something of a Machiavelli. I don’t mean to imply that either of them is a fascist, but they both have a fine Italian hand, showing a contempt for the democratic process and for the intelligence of the electorate, which may be why they are so underhanded. 
     Speaking of undemocratic tactics I will have something alarming  to reveal about the undemocratic tactics that supporters of  the  manager-council form of city government resorted to in 2011 to get the change-in-government amendment passed. All I will mention at this point is an acronym. No, I don't mean SOGP, which blessedly is no longer with us, but ICMA, which unfortunately is.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Dreamland: What's in a Name?

      Sam Quinones’ Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Addiction (2015), has been rightfully acclaimed for detailing and regaling how America became hooked on opiates. Quinones shows how the venal pharmaceutical industry with the assistance of the medical establishment sold the country on the fatally mistaken notion that opiates when properly prescribed and managed were not addictive and dangerous. Free Market Fundamentalism, which is an article of faith with rightwing Republicans, is not a religion Quinones subscribes to. One of the valuable lessons to be learned from his book is that the profit motive, rather than being a  panacea, is at best a necessary evil.
      But Quinones does not stop there, for in an apparent attempt to provide a happy ending to Dreamland, he claims that the tide of opiate addiction in America has been turned around and that we are on our way to controlling if not eliminating what he calls frequently, with his fondness for alliterative phrases, “the morphine molecule.” That part of his book, the happy ending part, I find unpersuasive. It is a tall tale. And in particular I find the dreamland theme, enshrined in the book’s alliterative title, when it is not puzzling and confusing, to be wishful thinking if not a marketing gimmick. One  of the perennial  schemes in American marketing is using the American Dream, or one of its many variations, such as  “dreamland,”  to sell almost anything, even, in this case a  book on the subject of opiate addiction.  
      Quinones apparently felt his  narrative about opiate addiction needed the  dreamland ending to provide the uplift that American readers, with their incorrigible faith in the future,  appreciate and to some extent expect. Both in their own lives and in their narratives, Americans require  uplifting, Horatio Alger endings, unaware that Alger’s life was anything but happy and successful, marred as it was by the long shadow of his father’s bankruptcy and by his own hushed sexual molestation of boys.

Portsmouth as Dreamland

      Quinones’ very questionable claim is that  the turnaround of the opiate epidemic began and is continuing in Portsmouth, Ohio, our rustbelt river city  that in the last quarter century has gained the reputation  of being, per capita, the most drugged, the most addicted, the most  OxyContined  city in Ohio, if not America. That the putative  turnaround of the opiate epidemic is  taking place in Portsmouth is  all the more surprising to me because I have lived in  Portsmouth for the last quarter century, and I have found it to be, as I have been pointing out in my blog River Vices since July 2004, not a dreamland—whatever that may mean—but the most vice-ridden and drug-ridden city I have ever lived in, and I’ve lived in my share of American cities. I only wish that Quinones’ dreamland claim was true, for if the opiate tide is being turned around in  Portsmouth, then it probably could be turned around anywhere. 
      Unfortunately, a turnaround  isn’t what’s happening in Portsmouth, especially in my historic Boneyfiddle neighborhood, close to the Counseling Center. If OxyContin is no longer easy to obtain and if the neighborhood pill mills are no longer flourishing in Portsmouth, the old-fashioned meth labs and heroin have taken up some of the slack caused by the lack of OxyContin. As I wrote about in a River Vices post titled “From Pill Mills to Counseling Centers,” the counseling centers with their sub-Oxycontin Suboxone solution have taken up some of the slack created by the departure of the pill mills (click here). 
      Portsmouth isn’t a nightmare; there are good people and positive things happening here, but it is light years away from being a dreamland, whatever Quinones may mean by that term. The crooked ruling clique and  the addicts, many of whom were attracted and even lured to Portsmouth, are still here as are the people, like Ed Hughes of the Counseling Center, who got in on the ground floor of the business of  luring and exploiting addicts. Though the Counseling Center has not been raided yet, Hughes’ local rival in the drug rehabilitation racket, Paul Vernier, had  his operations in Portsmouth raided by local and state police and Vernier himself  was indicted for cooking the books of his operation (click here). 

Once a Dreamland, Always a Dreamland

      As evidence that Portsmouth is now a dreamland, Quinone claims it previously had been one at least once in the not too distant past. He quotes  former residents (who sound as if they might have been coaxed)  who say the city was a dreamland when they were growing up there about forty years ago. Why do  they remember it as a dreamland? At least partly  because there was a swimming pool back then that they loved that was named Dreamland. But the former residents who told Quinones  they loved this Dreamland were all white. Dreamland was a  private segregated pool that excluded blacks. White kids may have loved Dreamland, but black kids didn’t. How could they love it when they couldn’t get in? One black kid who was excluded from Dreamland drowned swimming in an unsafe stretch of the Scioto River. When a new, public, integrated pool was later opened, it was named McKinley, after the drowned boy. Quinones knows all this, but he downplays racism in Portsmouth because it tends to undermine his claim that the city once was, and is becoming again, a virtual dreamland. “Virtual dreamland” is an oxymoron. An oxymoron is a contradiction in terms, such as “deafening silence,” “definitely maybe,” or to go no further than the title of Quinones’ book, a “True Tale.” A dreamland by definition is unreal, a never-never land, a contradiction that exists only in someone’s imagination. Just what Quinones  thinks the word dreamland means he never makes clear. Does the dreamland in Dreamland exist only in his imagination?
      In 2013, in River Vices, I wrote a brief history of the Dreamland  pool and of the tradition of coverup in Portsmouth when it comes to racism (click here). One of the most infamous incidents in Portsmouth’s history, the expulsion of all blacks from the city in January 1830, on what was called Black Friday, was soon forgotten, as if it had never happened. The same denial and coverup occurred about drugs until Portsmouth became so notorious not only in Ohio but across the nation, that it could no longer  be ignored. A pill mill doctor, the daughter of one of Portsmouth’s prominent medical families, tried to dismiss and ridicule the uproar about opiates by treating it as hysteria, but that did not stop her and her father from being indicted for illegally prescribing an astronomical number of OxyContin pills. 

The Roots of Dreamland

      Quinones’ history of opiate addiction, at least in regard to Portsmouth, is a little—and I emphasize little—like Alex Haley’s novel Roots, published in 1976, which became a phenomenally successful book and television mini-series. It would not surprise me if Dreamland was turned into a movie, but it not likely would have been without its intriguing packaging as Dreamland. What's in a name? Everything. Haley insisted his novel was based exclusively on history, on facts, on roots, but that turned out to be untrue. He used his imagination rather extensively and he plagiarized from The African, a novel published in 1967. He also talked to Africans who answered his questions by telling him not the truth but what they believed he wanted to hear. The Wikipedia entry on Haley says subsequent researchers “cast doubt on whether Haley tracked his ancestry to a specific village and individual, or was being told what he wanted to hear by people who lived there.” To some extent that may be what Quinones was told when he was asking questions of carefully selected Portsmouth residents, known as "Portsmouth boys," and at least one Portsmouth girl, in the carefully selected city of Portsmouth. He was being told what he wanted to hear, which was that Portsmouth was a dreamland city.
      In tracing the history of the opiate epidemic, and tracing in particular the idea of Portsmouth as a dreamland, Quinones at times appears to be more a novelist than a historian. A dreamland is indispensable  to the plot of DreamlandQuinones went back not to Africa but to Ohio, a half dozen times. To resort to  an old cliché, if Portsmouth the dreamland had not existed, Quinones, the  novelist,  would have had to invent it. He needed Portsmouth as the cure to America’s opiate epidemic on which to end his “True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.” “True Tale”—isn’t that another oxymoron? He needed “dreamland” and the “Portsmouth boys,” which is a term of endearment in endogamous Portsmouth, to balance the heroin dealing “Xalisco boys” of Mexico, who Quinones, characteristically, claims were not so bad after all. 


      Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Addiction: Thinking about  Quinones' book in retrospect and especially its peculiar, alliterative  title, with those hypnotic t's and lulling l's and that oxymoronic "True Tale,"  set me to wondering whether there weren't Freudian slips of alliteration as there are Freudian slips of the tongue, and whether the title of the book alone unconsciously tells the true tale about the tall tale, which is that it is fundamentally, when taken literally, not true. Whoever came up with that title was unconsciously linguistically spilling the beans about opiate addiction and about Portsmouth. Opiates are far more insidious and Portsmouth far more corrupt than Quinones is prepared to admit. If Quinones is not prepared to admit it, the title of his tall tale apparently is. To rework another cliché, "Trust the title, not the teller.''

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Remembering My Brother on Memorial Day

Forrey family, fall of 1942. I am at extreme left, Ed in uniform, back row

     While doing chores on Memorial Day morning, 2015, I was listening with one ear to the Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio. She was interviewing the author of the recently published The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War. The focus of the interview, and The Invisible Front, was on the effect  of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, on American military personnel in the series of endless wars the US has been  involved in during the last half century or so. The subject was of interest to me because  my oldest brother Ed  suffered from an undiagnosed case of PTSD,  not as the result of his brief service during the Second World War  in  the Coast Guard, but  just months earlier, in May 1942, when he was a nineteen-year-old member of a crew  on a fishing  trawler off the coast of Newfoundland that was sunk by a German submarine, called a U-Boat.
     The U-Boat didn’t waste a torpedo on the trawler. It  had surfaced about a mile from the trawler, I learned from old newspapers, and as the submarine churned steadily forward a German  manning the deck gun  began firing at the trawler. The 21 or 22 (there was a discrepancy in the number) members of the crew of the trawler began scrambling for the one lifeboat and the one life raft as the U-Boat bore down on them. The 59-year-old captain of the trawler and most of the rest of the crew got into a lowered lifeboat and rowed away from the trawler as fast as they could. My brother and two others, a Scandinavian and a Greek, judging by their names,  didn’t make it into the lifeboat but got into a decrepit  life raft instead where  both of the old oars promptly broke. So the three of them just sat there helplessly in the life raft as the U-Boat, with its deck gun firing constantly, approached. They must have feared for their lives; my brother in particular, only nineteen years old, may have felt terrified, judging by the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder he developed as a result of what he experienced then and in the next  forty-six hours. An estimated sixty or seventy shells in all were fired from the deck gun, but only about half hit the trawler. There was another crew member trying to swim to the raft, but he never made it because one of the shells landed in the water five feet from him. “After that,” my brother told reporters later, “all that was left was an empty lifejacket.”
     The life raft remained next to  the trawler just below the shells that were being fired at the trawler, just below the direct line of fire. The sixteen or seventeen men in the lifeboat, including the captain by this time, was almost out of sight. Their oars did not break. As the U-Boat got very close,  firing at point blank range at the trawler, it passed the life raft, and, surrealistically, crew members of the U-Boat were on deck taking snapshots of my brother and the other two men in the  life raft, perhaps as souvenirs that ended up in scrapbooks back in Germany.  In contrast to the way Jews, homosexuals, communists and others would be treated in concentration camps in Germany and Poland later in the war, the goal of the Germans in the  U-Boat obviously was not to kill the fishermen but to sink the trawler. If Americans were killed, that was incidental.  The goal of the Germans  was to ratchet up the war and show that even smaller American vessels, with no military involvement with the war, such as a rusty  22-ton trawler, were not immune from attack. The trawler was the first non-military American vessel to be sunk in the war, which occasioned widespread coverage of the incident in American newspapers. (My source was the Associated Press report in the May 17 Gettysburg Gazette.)

     My brother and the two others in the life raft witnessed the sinking of the trawler and the hasty submergence of the U-Boat. The survivors in the lifeboat rowed vigorously through the afternoon and long night, for 29 hours, toward Newfoundland, which was 85 miles away. They reached the lightship off Halifax  in the afternoon of the next day. My brother and his two older mates on the raft drifted helplessly for about 46 hours, for two days and two nights,  before being rescued by a Canadian naval ship. If instead of the middle of May  the incident  had taken place in the middle of the freezing winter, when the weather in  the North Atlantic was notoriously bad, my brother and the two others probably would not have survived. 
     I recall reading a few days after the crew members were rescued   a front page story of the sinking of the trawler and a photo in a Boston newspaper of my brother and his older raft  mates, in a posed post-rescue photo,  lighting their cigarettes on a single match, reenacting  what they apparently had done during their ordeal in the life raft. Like the majority of adults in the western world, they were addicted to nicotine. Even if they were at death's door, nicotine addicts have to smoke that last cigarette. Three men lighting cigarettes on a single match was superstitiously believed by soldiers and sailors to bring bad luck. I suppose the posed photo was meant to suggest that these hardy Americans had defied the superstition and lived to joke about it. But my brother had such a long stretch of bad luck after violating the superstition that he may have wished he hadn’t been one of three smokers on one match.

Short-lived Celebrity

     However, he appeared to get a lucky break immediately after he was rescued, becoming briefly the short blond nineteen-year-old who had survived both the U-Boat and forty-six hours adrift in the North Atlantic.  It was perhaps his short-lived celebrity status that enabled him to join the Coast Guard several months later, in spite of his having, like my father,  gotten no further than grade school and having no more work history to point to than serving in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression and as a fisherman on a trawler during the first year of war.  His celebrity status not only may have got him into the Coast Guard, it probably also got him a plum assignment as a member of the crew of the Sea Cloud, formerly one of the most beautiful and luxurious private yachts in the world. Built in Germany, of all places, in 1931, the Sea Cloud  was owned by an American heiress who donated it to the Navy after the beginning of the Second World War. President F.D. Roosevelt, a former Secretary of the Navy, was so fond of the Sea Cloud that he objected to its being employed by the Navy, fearing it might be damaged. The Navy did not want the responsibility for such a prized yacht, which may explain why the Coast Guard ended up with the Sea Cloud, which it refitted to serve as a weather ship, which entailed few risks. Though my brother,  a fifty dollar a month messman, was low man on the Sea Cloud’s totem pole,  he was proud as a peacock in his smart uniform, in which he looked like an officer. Unfortunately, his undiagnosed and untreated PTSD combined with his precocious alcoholism spelled trouble for both him and the Coast Guard. The official records show that after several  AWOL incidents, he was discharged from the Coast Guard  after only five months. But as  befitted a former celebrity,  he was not dishonorably discharged for being AWOL. Instead, he was given a  Good Service Button. But the unflattering official reason given for his discharge, as revealed in official records that I obtained,  was that he was “inept for military service.”

Sea Cloud, built in 1931, as it looked in 2008

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

     Because he was seldom home in the 1930s I did not get to know my brother until I was in my early teens, when he was already emotionally unstable and showed all the characteristics of what would later be called PTSD. I don't know what he was like prior to his traumatic experience in the North Atlantic. The experience that had temporarily made him a celebrity and something of a hero, had also rendered him not only unfit, or "inept," for  military service but also for life. Following his quasi-honorable discharge from the Coast Guard, he was able to join the U.S. Merchant Marine, a private service that provided seamen for the so-called Liberty Ships that were crossing  the Atlantic during the war, when U-Boats preyed on them like sharks. I never knew my brother to sleep without having nightmares, which probably plagued him during his service as a Merchant Seaman. But at least he could not go  AWOL in the middle of the Atlantic, and he became a dedicated reader of books on politics and economics during those transatlantic crossings. In the Merchant Marine, he became a member of the National Maritime Union, which was charged by the government after the war as a Communist dominated organization. Communist Russia had been our ally during the war, but after the war the Soviet Union soon resumed being America’s Number One Enemy.  After he  joined the Communist Party, not only was my brother plagued by PTSD demons during his sleeping hours, he was also harassed  by FBI agents in his waking hours. Because of the shame my brother was bringing on the family, my conservative Democrat father, who had served a term in jail for bootlegging,  told my brother to stay away from our home.  But to prove we were a patriotic American family called for an American flag. The first flag he tried to fly would have better suited a battleship  and it was hot. One of the longshoremen who frequented his waterfront tavern in East Boston had stolen it and given it to my father, who might have paid him off in free booze. Because the flag was much too big for our little flagpole, my father donated it to the junior high school near our house. In the ceremonious first raising at the school, one of my older sisters, who was a student at the school, participated in the  first flag raising. It was the hypocrisy such as the flag business that led my older brother to tell me our father epitomized the evils of capitalism. 
     Much later in life, when he had mellowed considerably,  my father told my youngest sister that my oldest brother  was never the same after the U-Boat attack, implying he had been much more stable in his teens. My youngest sister also told me  that when Ed first visited her in her home near Logan International Airport, he had been warned beforehand about the noise of the low flying passenger jets. But  the first time one flew over her house, during dinner, he dove under the kitchen table like a cowering dog in a thunderstorm.

Identified with the Underdog

     I don’t know if it might have been somehow related to his PTSD, but my brother had  a passionate commitment to the underdog. That was one of the reasons he became a communist, but even after he left the Communist Party—I suspect he was expelled because of his instability—he continued to crusade for those he felt were being treated unfairly, whether because they were too short (he was only five-six), or too fat, or were discriminated against because they were black, or Jewish, or homosexual, or something else. Once he brought an attractive New York woman with him back to Boston. She may have been a communist. I think he may have introduced her to me as his wife, but if he did I don’t think she really was. He was just providing cover for her among his conservative Irish-Catholic relatives. But  some years later, after his  emotional life had worsened, I  visited him  in a nightmarish situation in Manhattan  where he was living with  a somewhat troubled, unattractive  Jewish woman and her schizophrenic son. Another time  I ran into him in Greenwich Village where he and a buddy of his from his Merchant Marine days had opened a kind of knot museum or gallery on MacDougal Street, if I have my streets straight. I don’t think there was any charge for admission, though there may have been a contribution jar. But on the whitewashed walls were all kinds of complicated knots, as they may have looked on a nineteenth-century schooner. I doubt my brother was an expert on knots. I figured it must have been the hobby if not the obsession of his buddy. But the knot museum or gallery was bizarre, even for Greenwich Village. And I now wonder whether a narrative poem I wrote called “The Village” (click here) involving the wrought iron frame of a butterfly chair, which was mistaken for a piece of sculpture,  might have been inspired by those Greenwich Village knots. 
     But when it came to being tied up in knots, no one was more torturously complicated  than my brother. How much did his tortured life have to do with PTSD? Although I didn’t think so when I was younger, I now think, as our clinical understanding of the disorder has deepened, that it had a lot to do with the disturbed person he became. Whether suffering from PTSD had anything to do with it or not, my brother at the same time he became more disturbed also became more compassionate. He cared deeply for and became identified with the oppressed, with those who were discriminated against and exploited. These feelings were what led him to join the American Communist Party sometime in the mid-1940s.

Birmingham, Alabama: 1948

     In 1948, my brother was in Alabama trying to recruit blacks at the Southern Negro Youth Congress, urging them to join the Communist Party, but he was arrested by  the notorious “Bull” Connor, along with several much more prominent people, including Idaho’s U.S. Senator Glen H. Taylor, who was the running mate of former US Vice President Henry Wallace on the Progressive Party ticket in the imminent presidential election. "There's not enough room in town,” Connor said at the time, “for Bull and the Commies." In Connor’s view, anyone who was against segregation was a communist. If it had been the early 1960s, and not the late 1940s, my  brother, whose nickname was Whitey because of his blond hair, might have been lynched as Goodman and Schwerner were in 1964.  Instead of becoming a  communist martyr,  my brother  became an embarrassment to the  Communist Party, which apparently expelled him because of his disturbed behavior, which was the result, I now believe, of his undiagnosed PTSD. It would not surprise me if he had gone to Birmingham to recruit blacks on his own, without clearance from higher ups in the Party. He was probably as “inept” in the Communist Party as he had been in the Coast Guard, and as he would have been in any organization or party he was part of. His desire to bond with oppressed Southern blacks would have overridden any commitment he might have had to Party discipline.
     As he aged, my brother continued to fight for the underdog on his own, if in a somewhat pathetic and even ludicrous ways. One of the last campaigns of his life was trying to stop the demolition of a rollercoaster on Mission Beach in San Diego. Why a rollercoaster? Was it  because he had been on a roller coaster ever since the U-Boat attack on  the trawler  on May 17, 1942? He apparently became addicted late in life to some painkiller, which may have been the final straw.  Like a number of others who suffered from PTSD, he committed suicide, in 1991. What would his life have been like if he didn’t suffer from PTSD? I’ll never know, but I can’t help wishing he hadn’t had it, or at least that if he had to have it, that it had been in a more enlightened age, when its existence was acknowledged and its treatment became a priority.  Unlike the physical wars, which had been fought on real fronts, the war against PTSD was fought endlessly on an “invisible front,”  which was everywhere and nowhere. As long as there has been war, from ancient times to the present, there presumably has been PTSD, though it hadn’t yet been diagnosed and named until relatively recently. Because not every combatant is afflicted with it, that does not mean that those who are afflicted are cowards or malingerers, or just crazy, which is how many of them were viewed.
     The author of The Invisible Front made the point on the Diane Rehm Show, on Memorial Day, that PTSD, rather than being an illness,  is a natural human reaction to the horrors of war. It is those desensitized combatants who are not traumatized by the horrors of war, who do not have PTSD,  who are reacting to war somewhat unnaturally and inhumanly. Whether or not that is the case, de-stigmatizing PTSD may be the first step in ameliorating if not curing it. I wish  my brother had not lived in the dark ages where PTSD was concerned.  Just as he had lived in an age when there was a massive conspiracy to hide the carcinogenic effect of smoking, so he lived in an age when there was denial, if not a denunciation, where PTSD was concerned. Whether it was one or three on a single match,  cigarettes are killers, and so is war. Avoiding war, like avoiding  cigarettes, is  a sane and healthy life style. If my brother should be remembered for anything on this Memorial Day,  let it be as a reminder that war is not only an unhealthy but also an insane life style, which, when it doesn’t lead to death, too often leads to PTSD. 

My older brother Ed and me, c. 1935