Protesters in Baltimore calling for revolution bring to mind my late friend Saul David, the movie producer whose credits included Our Man Flint, Von Ryan’s Express, and Fantastic Voyage. We met in the 1980s when I was researching my Rod Serling biography and trying to interview as many of his friends as possible, Saul among them. At the time, he had already been forced into retirement, essentially run out of Hollywood, he freely admitted, “by my own big mouth.”

What sparked our friendship, I think, was the story I told him about the elderly woman behind me at Grauman’s Chinese Theater during a showing of Fantastic Voyage, his movie about miniaturized scientists traveling in a miniaturized submarine through a human’s bloodstream. “Honey,” she whispered too loudly, “when do they get to the ocean?”

Saul may have been the smartest man I’ve ever gotten to know well, and not just because he was learned, though he was that, too. Until his death in 1996, he remained an acute and unsentimental observer of human nature whose predictions about the world and its inhabitants were invariably proven correct by subsequent events.

No wonder. All romanticism about the human race had been stripped out of him by his rough childhood during the Depression, six years fighting in World War II (he joined Canada’s forces when Hitler invaded Poland, then reenlisted here after Pearl Harbor), his stint covering the Israeli war of independence as a newspaper correspondent, and the effort to make his mark first as a book editor (becoming editor-in-chief of Bantam Books) and then as a movie producer—two professions in which fish are eaten by small sharks that are in turn devoured by bigger ones.

One story he passed on was about shooting Logan’s Run in Jamaica, where the studio had hired a local man to serve as his factotum/assistant. Every day at least once, Saul said, the guy would mutter, “When the revolution come, mon…”

Not till the last day of shooting did Saul bother to ask what followed the ellipsis. He said to the man, “I know I’m going to regret this, but what is going to happen after the revolution?”

“When the revolution come, mon,” the man said, “I be sitting there”—meaning Saul’s producer’s chair—“and you be sitting here.”

I laughed, as did Saul, remembering the moment. But he’d passed along the story not for what it said about Jamaica or Jamaicans but because it illustrated the gulf separating what people want to believe from what’s true.

Not so many years before, Saul’s father had fled Russia to ply his trade as a tailor in this country, walking from town to town in the Northeast with a heavy sewing machine on his back while never feeling less than grateful for the opportunity. So Saul knew a little something about the difference between liberty and tyranny, and the distinction between the right to pursue happiness and the impossibility of guaranteeing it.

Revolutions are like weddings. Even the most glorious of them doesn’t necessarily produce a happy marriage.

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I picked up an interesting book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, by Seth Rosenfeld, who says in the prologue that the book is based on hundreds of thousands of documents that took him years, and ongoing lawsuits, to obtain through FOIA.

So far I’ve been most fascinated by the portrait of Mario Savio and Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement that he found himself leading in 1964. A few months before the incident that sparked the movement, he took part in the Freedom Summer project–young whites converging on Mississippi to go door-to-door in an effort to convince blacks to register to vote, something most of them had never even attempted to do.

Two things in particular got my attention. First:

Savio worked hard to convince people to register. As he recalled, “We’d go in teams of two, and I talked oftentimes,” he recalled [sic]. “Knock, knock–person comes to the door: ‘What do you want, sir?’ It’s always “sir.’ So, ‘May I speak to the head of the family?’ And there always was one, it was always either the father or the grandfather

Second was the fear that everyone felt, knowing that racist whites, if not Klansmen themselves, might show up. Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney had already been murdered, and Savio himself had seen a friend brutally beaten on the street.

One night a strange car approached the Freedom House without giving the proper signal, and the volunteers ran through the dark woods, hearts pounding, to the homes of friendly neighbors. “We subsequently discovered that all the farms around us are armed to the teeth,” he wrote. “Holmes County–as comparatively safe as it may appear–is the peaceful exterior of a dangerously live volcano. If it were not so very well known that the Negro farmers are not non-violent, I seriously doubt that a non-violent student movement would be possible in Holmes.”

And then there’s this, a finger in the eye of today’s Orwellian speech codes that have turned “tolerance” into enforced conformity:

The Free Speech Movement set up an executive committee representing all the student groups involved in the movement, from the Young Socialists to the Young Republicans. Members of any political group were welcome to join so long as they supported the movement’s main cause.

It seems safe to say that Mario Savio was (a) an absolute advocate of the the First Amendment, and (b) aware that his enjoyment of the First Amendment was protected by the Second Amendment. All modern “activists” who fool themselves into thinking they’re his ideological heirs need to realize that they’re standing on the wrong side of the lines he drew.

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Today would have been the 90th birthday of the creator of The Twilight Zone (and a colossal amount of other excellent television).

Rod Serling was born Christmas day 1924.

Twenty years to the day later he found himself engaged in ferocious combat with his fellow paratroopers on the island of Leyte, in the Philippines, and described the day itself in a 1963 magazine article:

A long line of men rested along the sides of a jungle trail—gray jump suits blending with gray-covered beard; tired inward-looking eyes reflecting nothing. A nineteen-year-old second looie got to his feet and spoke. “All right—on your feet. Let’s move out.”

We rose—the packs, the ammo belts, the weapons, all fused to us like extensions of our bodies—and plodded through the ankle-deep mud—a long line of dirty, bearded samenesses.

And then somebody far up the line stopped dead. A whispered message started down the ranks. Each man froze and held his breath because any whisper from up front might mean a machine gun or a pocket of Japanese or mines or any one of a dozen other reminders that there was a war here. But this particular message was an incredible jar to memory—a reminder of a different sort. The man in front of me whispered, “It’s Christmas.”

I continued to lift my feet one after the other, and suddenly I wasn’t aware of the cold rain or the mud. I gave no thought to the sickening ache deep inside the gut that had been with me for so many days. Someone had just transformed the world. Those two words reminded me that people still lived and that we did, too.

Then a scratchy, discordant, monotone voice way up front started to sing, O Come, All Ye Faithful. Somebody else picked it up and then we all sang. We sang as we walked through the mud. We sang as we led the wounded by the hand and carried the litters and looked back on the row of handmade crosses left behind. We sang, O Come, All Ye Faithful. It had come—the Holy Day. The day of all days. It was Christmas.

As it happened, Christmas came mere days after the terribly ironic accident that would spark in Serling’s mind the idea for The Twilight Zone.

It’s taken me a number of years to get back the rights to my biography of him that was first published in 1989. I added a new introduction and changed the title, affixing the one–LAST STOP, THE TWILIGHT ZONE–I would have used if CBS hadn’t hinted that I might be sued. As of today, it’s available for Kindle, and will soon be in other formats.

Fascinating guy, Serling. I wish he were here now, still writing.

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Reindeer reconsidered

December 25, 2014

You ever listen to Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and pay attention to the lyrics?

All of the other reindeer
used to laugh and call him names
They never let poor Rudolph
play in any reindeer games.

Then one foggy Christmas eve
Santa came to say:
“Rudolph with your nose so bright,
won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”

Then all the reindeer loved him
as they shouted out with glee,
Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,
you’ll go down in history!

The reindeer were total bigots. Because Rudolph had a red nose, they shunned him like he had leprosy.

Oh, and Santa–he never intervened to teach them about tolerance and loving their fellow reindeer. Not until “one foggy Christmas eve” does Santa get religion, but only because he was worried about being late on his rounds. Suddenly he realizes he can put Rudolph’s disability to good use.

So of course now that Rudolph is a rock star, all the reindeer who’d pissed on him before turn into star f–kers.

I’ll never look at reindeer the same again.

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Ode to a pickle

December 24, 2014

Humans have come a long way over the millennia, thanks to our infinite ingenuity. A list of jaw-dropping discoveries would itself be infinitely long, going all the way back to the wheel and fire.

But when you think about it, the wheel and fire are kind of obvious. You can’t, though, say the same about the pickle. Especially dill pickles.

Consider: Someone, somewhere, at some point took an ordinary cucumber and left it in brining solution, then added dill. The result is a food so perfect, it never fails to brighten a dark mood.

Dill pickles’ very existence is why I pay no attention to the catastrophic warnings of climate change. I figure that if human beings can invent and perfect pickles, they can solve any consequent problems from rising oceans. Besides, sea water is brine.

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Race relations appear to be at a longtime low.

A majority of Americans now say that race relations in the United States are bad, according to the latest NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll, which showed the most pessimistic assessment of racial issues in almost two decades.

Today, two New York City cops—one Hispanic, one Asian—were shot by a disgruntled black man who believed he was avenging the death of a black man who’d been placed in a modified choke hold by New York cops.

More than ever I think of my late friend Ezell Ware Jr., about (and for) whom I wrote a book. If I’ve ever known a better man in my life, using the connotation of better by which we’d all like to be judged, I can’t think of one.

This is saying something, too, given what Ezell endured in his life. Born in 1941 in Magee, 40 miles south of Jackson, the heart of KKK-Jim Crow Mississippi, he was raised by his sharecropping grandparents in a cabin without electricity or water, enduring the kind of racism that is, thank God, just a distant memory—racism that NO ONE (sorry for shouting and for repeating: NO ONE) endures in this country anymore.

Despite having no reason to believe the world would be friendly to his dreams, he grew up with two of them. One was to be a pilot and the other was to be a general. At the time and in the place, for a young black to have those dreams was equivalent, in today’s world, to a young white whose ambition is to ride a unicorn in the Kentucky Derby.

Yet Ezell accomplished both of those goals (how he did is described in the book, which these days is best found on eBay). He did it by attitude and will: “I don’t care how many obstacles you put in my way,” he said. “I’m going to go over, under, around, or through them to get what I want, because I only have one life, and I’m either going to get what I want or I’m going to die trying.”

I am delighted to say that he got what he wanted before he died, though he died way too soon, at age 68, about five and a half years ago. Doctors said his lung cancer was caused by the Agent Orange to which he was exposed both as a helicopter gunship pilot during his two tours of duty in Vietnam, and his three weeks in the jungle trying to evade the Viet Cong and NVA with his white racist captain after being shot down on a secret mission.

He used to say that every day you don’t improve yourself is a day you got worse. He used to say that no matter how humble your surroundings are, you clean them every day. He used to say that you can complain all you want only if you’re doing something to change your situation, but if you’re really doing something to change it, you probably don’t have time to complain. He used to say a lot of wise and wonderful things, all of them learned by experience.

The world is a sadder, poorer place without him—as is proven every day. Especially days like today.

R.I.P., Ezell.

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