RICHARD BEN SAPIR – THE FAR ARENA

The Far Arena by Richard Ben Sapir

FarArena

I recently bought a used copy of this long out-of-print book. I first read it when it was released in 1978. I was working at Doubleday and it fell to me to do the write-up for it in the monthly publication that was sent to book club members.

A large part of my job was reading books. Talk about great jobs, that was the best. I’m not sure I ever fully recovered from my Doubleday years. Not merely was I paid to read and write about books, but I received (as did all the editors and graphic artists in the department) new copies of every book we worked on. We all had huge personal libraries. We also had 2 hour lunches and wonderful co-workers. I looked forward to work the way most folks anticipate the weekend. It was that good. I realize this is a digression, but I wanted to put this in context. Maybe brag a little.

The Far Arena is classified as science fiction. It is, but not in the traditional sense. It doesn’t fall into any genre except perhaps speculative fiction, a catch-all term for odd books. Time travel? Sort of. But without the machinery.

gladiators2The story in brief: A Roman gladiator is flash frozen in the arctic ice. He is accidentally discovered by a team drilling for oil and subsequently defrosted and brought back to life. What follows is his story as a Roman married to a Hebrew slave, and his perceptions of the modern world from the point of view of a man whose world disappeared 1600 years ago. His observations on modern society are priceless.

For example, while in the hospital, he asks about the slaves who serve him. He is referring to the to nurses and other workers who attend to his needs. His new friends explain that they aren’t slaves, that they work for wages and are free to leave, or be dismissed by their employers. He thinks this is a fantastic idea.

“You mean they do everything you tell them to do, but when they get old and can no longer work, you don’t have to take care of them? What a great idea! Slaves without responsibility.”

“They aren’t slaves,” insist his modern friends.

“They are treated like slaves, they act like slaves. They are slaves,” he responds. Who would argue the point? Not me.

That is paraphrasing, of course, but it’s the spirit of the dialogue. I have never looked at the world quite the same way since I read this book. Modern workers have all the freedom of slaves, but no assurance that anyone will care for them when they are no longer able to work. That’s a pretty good deal from the owners’ … I mean employers’ … point-of-view.

This is a brilliant, unique book. It stands apart from all the books I’ve read over the years. All other time travel stories are about modern people visiting the past. This is the only book I can think of where a man from the past offers a view of the modern world and it’s not pretty.

Richard Ben Sapir wrote other books that are unusual and worth reading. I especially liked The Body. But The Far Arena stands head and shoulders above the rest. He only wrote a few novels. His world was really comic books, or what are now called “graphic novels.” Finding copies of Ben Sapir’s books is challenging. If you can buy or borrow one, it’s a must-read, even if science fiction is not normally your favorite genre.

It would make a great movie. I can see it all in my mind’s eye. I recommend you read it if you can. You can find copies around occasionally and although he was not a prolific writer, he wrote a few other novels, all of which are very good and have unique stories.

Did I mention that it’s exceptionally well written? Highly literate? Well-researched? Convincing? All those things and a great, gripping story too.

Happy hunting and hopefully, happy reading!

POSTSCRIPT: THE JONESTOWN MASSACRE

There has been an upsurge of interest in this subject in the past few months, coinciding with the discovery of the remains of some previously unidentified victims at a funeral home in Delaware. So here’s a rerun of those weird, horrible events that took place almost 36 years ago, a piece of American history of which no one is proud.

It is rarely mentioned anymore. Everyone would like to forget it.

I think it would be better to not forget so quickly. Forgetting is an invitation for a recurrence. At a time when too many people are busy waving flags and stirring up hatred, the Jonestown Massacre is a stark and terrifying cautionary tale for our time.

It’s not just about free speech, you know. It really is life and death.


If you are my age or near it, you remember the Jonestown Massacre. Even if you are younger, if in 1978 you were old enough to watch TV news, you could hardly forget it. Now that fundamentalism is enjoying a rebirth with well-known political and religious leaders (who ought to know better) urging others to murder or mayhem, it’s probably a good time to remind everyone where this kind of thing can lead.

There is nothing remotely amusing about this story. It was horrible when it happened and time has not made it less awful.

The Road to Jonestown

The phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” has become common parlance in American business and politics. Roughly translated, it means “to blindly follow.” It usually carries a negative connotation. The “Kool Aid” references go all the back to the 1950s when it was the typical drink for children on suburban summer afternoons. The origin of the saying is something else — darker, and different. It has become the kind of bland rhetoric about which we don’t give a thought, but its roots lie in horror.

Before we talk about Kool-Aid, let’s take a brief trip down memory lane to that particularly awful episode of American history.

Jim Jones, cult leader and mass murderer, was a complex madman. A communist and occasional Methodist minister, he founded his pseudo-church in the late 1950s. He called it the “Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church,” known in short as the “Peoples Temple.”

The lack of a possessive apostrophe was intentional. The name was supposed to be a reference to “the people of the world.” While Jones called it a church, it was closer to a warped version of a Marxist commune. Initially, it combined a hodgepodge of Christian references that Jones used in his diatribes … supposedly sermons.

It was never a real church. The Peoples Temple was a straight-up cult. It required a level of commitment and financial support from members plus a degree of obedience that’s the defining quality of a cult.

Jones was the cult’s leader — and a homicidal maniac. But he had positive attributes. Jones and his wife Marceline were in favor of racial integration. They adopted a bunch of kids from varying backgrounds and were the first white family in Indiana to adopt an African-American boy. Other adopted children included three Korean Americans, a Native American, and a handful of white kids. They also had a child of their own.

Jones called his adopted kids the “Rainbow Family.” He made a name for himself desegregating institutions in Indiana. Before you get all dewy-eyed about this, note this story ultimately climaxes in the murder of all the Jones children by their parents.

The Peoples Temple continued to expand through the 1960s. Jones gradually abandoned his Marxism. His preaching began to increasingly focus on impending nuclear apocalypse. He even specified a date — July 15, 1967 — and suggested afterwards, a socialist paradise would exist on Earth. Where would the new Eden be?

Jones decided on Redwood Valley, California and before the expected apocalypse, he moved the Temple and its peoples there. When the end-of-the-world deadline passed without a holocaust, Jones quit pretending to be a Christian and revealed himself as an atheist who used religion to give his own opinions legitimacy. Jones announced that “Those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion must be brought to enlightenment — socialism.” Prophetic words since Jones was a drug addict who preferred literal to metaphorical opiates.

As media attention increased, Jones worried the Peoples Temple’s tax-exempt religious status was in danger. He was paranoid about the U.S. intelligence community — probably with justification.

jonestown massacre anniversary

Jim Jones, cult leader

In 1977, Jones moved the Temple and its people to a different site that Jones had been working on since 1974. It was located in Guyana and he modestly named it “Jonestown.” It was a bleak, inhospitable place. Built on 4000 acres with limited access to water, it was much too small and seriously overcrowded. Temple members had to work long hours just to keep from starving.

Nonetheless, Jones decided his people would farm the land of his utopia. He had put together several million dollars before getting to Jonestown (he confiscated all his followers’ money), but wealth was not distributed. He barely used any of the money for himself and lived in a tiny, bare-bones shared house.

All Hell Breaks Loose

U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown in November of 1978. Rumors of peculiar goings-on were leaking out of Jonestown. Ryan decided to investigate rumors of abuses in Jonestown. Ryan didn’t travel alone. He took a contingent of media people including NBC News correspondent Don Harris and other reporters, plus relatives of Jonestown residents. He assumed that this would protect him — a major miscalculation.

During his visit to Jonestown, Congressman Ryan talked to more than a dozen Temple members, all of whom said they wanted to leave. Several of them passed a note saying: “Please help us get out of Jonestown” to news anchor Harris.

If the number of defectors seems low considering the more than 900 residents of Jonestown, remember they had not been allowed to talk to most of the “fellowship.” The number of those who wanted to leave could have been much more. We’ll never know.

Ryan began processing the paperwork to repatriate Temple members. In the middle of this, Ryan was attacked with a knife by temple member Don Sly. This would-be assassin was stopped before Ryan was hurt. Eventually the Ryan party decided to leave. They and the Jonestown defectors drove to the airstrip and boarded planes.

Jim Jones had other plans. He sent armed Temple members — his “Red Brigade” — after the Congressional party. These creepy “soldiers of the Temple” opened fire on them, killing Ryan, a Temple defector,  three members of the media, and wounding eleven others. The survivors fled into the jungle.

jonestown massacre anniversary

When the murderers returned to Jonestown and reported their actions, Jones promptly started what he called a “White Night” meeting. He invited all Temple members. This wasn’t the first White Night. Jones had hosted previous White Night meetings in which he suggested U.S. intelligence agencies would soon attack Jonestown.

He had even staged fake attacks to add a realism, though it’s hard to believe anyone was fooled. Faced with this invasion scenario, Jones told Temple members they could stay and fight imaginary invaders. They could take off for the USSR or run into the jungles of Guyana. Or they could commit mass suicide.

On previous occasions Temple members had opted for suicide. Not satisfied, Jones had tested their commitment by giving them cups of liquid that supposedly contained poison. Which they drank (???). After a while, Jones told them the liquid wasn’t poison — but one day it would be.

Jim Jones had been stockpiling poisons — cyanide and other drugs — for years. On this final White Night, Jones was no longer testing his followers. It was time to kill them all.

Don’t Drink It!

After the airstrip murders outside Jonestown, Jim Jones ordered Temple members to create a fruity mix containing a cocktail of chemicals that included cyanide, diazepam (Valium), promethazine (Phenergan — a sedative), chloral hydrate (a sedative/hypnotic sometimes called “knockout drops”), and Flavor Aid, a beverage similar to Kool-Aid.

Jones told his followers they should commit suicide to make a political point. What that point was supposed to be is still a matter of considerable debate. Temple member Christine Miller suggested flying members to the USSR.

Of course, Jones was never really interested in escape. There was only one answer that he would accept. Death and lots of it. He repeatedly pointed out to his followers that Congressman Ryan was dead (and whose fault was that?)  which would surely bring down the weight of American retribution. An audiotape of this meeting exists. It is just as creepy as you’d expect.

Then it was time for the detailed instructions which — still baffling to me at least — the followers did as they were told. I will never understand why. Probably that’s a positive sign indicating I’m not insane.

Jones insisted mothers squirt poison into the mouths of their children using syringes. As their children died, the mothers were allowed to drink poison from cups. Temple members wandered out onto the ground where eventually just over 900 lay dead, including more than 300 children. Only a handful of survivors escaped — primarily those who happened to be away on errands or playing basketball when the mass suicide/massacre took place.

Jones did not drink poison. He died from a gunshot to the head. It’s unclear if it was self-inflicted. Jones probably died last or nearly so and likely preferred the gun to cyanide. He had witnessed the horrendous effects of death by cyanide and preferred something quicker.

What’s With the Kool-Aid?

In the wake of the tragedy at Jonestown, the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” became a popular term for blind obedience, as Temple members had apparently accepted their cups of poison without objection. According to various accounts, the primary beverage used at Jonestown was actually Flavor Aid (sometimes “Flav-R-Aid”) — although both Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid were used.

Kool-Aid was better known than Flavor Aid. Kool-Aid was introduced in 1927 in powdered form. When Americans thought about a powdered fruity drink mix (other than “Tang”), “Kool-Aid” came immediately to mind.

So, although Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid were both present at Jonestown, the phrase “(don’t) drink the Kool-Aid” has become entrenched in popular lingo.

Personally, I never touch the stuff.


Within the past couple of days, more remains of massacre victims were found in Delaware. These were contracted out to local funeral homes after being flown back from Guyana, apparently marked as “unidentified” and unclaimed.

If you are interested in more of the aftermath of this nightmare, you can read:

Discovery of cremated remains brings closure for families of Jonestown Massacre victims

Memories stirred after 35 years after Jonestown Massacre when victims’ remains found at funeral home

Jonestown Massacre remains found in Del. funeral home

REVISIONIST HISTORY AND RACISM – GARRY ARMSTRONG

Three Bad Men: John Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond

by Scott Allen Nollen

Three Bad Men

As big a fan of these three men as I am, there is a level of revisionist history that is impossible for me to accept.

I had to stop reading the book. At least for a while. It’s a temporary interruption I’m sure, but I needed to back off from Three Bad Men. I need to take a few deep breaths and calm down before continuing.

This book chronicles the lives and friendships of John Ford, John Wayne and Ward Bond. Two great actors and one extraordinary director. It’s an interesting read. I have been reading, as is my habit, slowly, savoring. I was enjoying it.

Until I got to the section in which the author claims Ford used Stepin Fetchit and other minorities to “slyly mock America’s racism”.

That’s absolutely untrue.

What I see — and have always seen — is the perpetuation of racism by Pappy. As much as I love John Ford’s westerns, there’s no escaping the racism in his films.

They were still calling Woody Strode “boy” as late as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Even considering his belated attempt to make reparations with Cheyenne Autumn, it was much too little, way too late.

I’ll get back to the book in a while, when I have calmed down a bit. Right now, I’m sorry. I simply can’t continue reading it.

A HUNDRED YEARS OF WAR

Today, August 4th, 2014 is the centennial of the first day of battle of World War One.

Although war had been declared a week earlier (28 July 1914), the 4th of August was the day on which troops clashed and men died. Millions more would die before the war ground to a halt four years later.

It was not only the start of The Great War. It was the end of the Old Regime in Europe, of a way of life. The beginning of a modern era of endless war in which more than 50 million people have died on battlefields, in death camps, of starvation, and disease. And of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Rupert Chawner Brooke was born 3 August 1887 and died 23 April 1915. He was an English poet known for his sonnets — mostly written during the First World War, in particular “The Soldier”, which follows. He was well-known for his good looks, which were said to have prompted William Butler Yeats to describe him as “the handsomest young man in England.” He died before his good-looks had time to fade.


1914 V: The Soldier

by Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Rupert Brooke never came back from the war. He was one of an entire generation of men who died in that war. The male population had barely begun to return to normal when War II began. The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was more than 37 million. It  included tens of thousands of Americans, and millions of English, Australian, Canadians, French, German, Belgian, Austrian, Russians and many others.

Civilian casualties out-numbered military casualties.

We are marking the hundredth birthday of “the war to end all wars.” It was merely the opening salvo of a century of endless war which still continues. Maybe some day it will be over. I hope I live to see it.

As for what lesson we learned from this war? A war that achieved nothing except slaughter and destruction? We learned nothing.

IT WAS A LOVELY WAR — A WORLD WAR ONE CENTENNIAL

Happy Birthday, Great War. It’s 100 years since the day you officially started. World War I (WWI), also known as the First World War, was a nearly global war. It officially began on July 28, 1914, though its real beginnings were rooted in events beginning decades, even centuries earlier.

It was an ugly, devastating war. Four years of slaughter that — technically — ended on November 11, 1918.

The official number of military casualties is 22,477,500 killed, wounded, or missing in action. The combined number of military and civilian casualties is more than 37 million. If, as I do, you consider World War II as chapter two of the same conflict, the number of dead becomes even more incomprehensible.

For the past couple of weeks, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has been “celebrating” the centennial of the first world war, inviting historians and military people to do the introductions and closing comments on the films. General Wesley Clark has been doing TCM’s intros and outros, the last of which was for Oh! What a Lovely War.

He referred to the movie as a musical comedy. While it has amusing moments, calling it a musical comedy doesn’t really cut it. If comedy can be dark, this is one dark comedy.

It’s also surprisingly informative. I can date my interest in World War I and modern American history to having seen this movie when it was released in 1969.

In his closing comments following the movie, General Clark said he hoped we had learned our lesson from this and all the other wars of the past century. I turned to Garry and said, “And what lesson, exactly, might that be?”

“Obviously,” said my husband, making a sour face, “We have learned nothing.”

I agree. Well, I guess we did learn a few things. We learned to build more efficient weapons, including weapons of mass destruction. We can kill more people faster — but no deader — than we did 100 years ago. Much of our military technology emerged during and post-WWI.

I don’t see this as progress. If you want to know why I’m so cynical, why I have trouble believing in a benign deity, look at the casualty figures from the collective wars of the past century.

I love this movie. Not only because of its historical veracity — it’s accurate — but because the music is wonderful. The cast includes everyone who was anyone in British cinema at the time — Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde, Ralph Richardson and more, all having a great time.

I’ve seen this many times and I guess so has Garry since we can both know the words to all the songs. Catchy. Very catchy.


OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR

Directed by Richard Attenborough (his directorial début)

OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR

I saw “Oh! What a Lovely War” when it was released in 1969 and never forgot it. Based on the long-running British stage production, it’s World War I — in song, dance and irony. Its catchy score sticks in your brain.

The songs are those sung by the troop during that long war. The cast includes everyone who was anyone in British stage or screen during the 1960s. The credits were a veritable who’s-who of English actors.

World War I is hard to understand, even when you study it. No matter how many books I read, I’m not sure I do or will. Its causes are rooted in old world grudges that make no sense to Americans.

So many ancient hatreds — thousands of years of scores to be settled.

My mother summed it: “Everyone was armed to the teeth. They wanted war. They just needed an excuse. Europe was a giant bomb waiting for someone to light a match.”

Hers may be as good an answer as any other. When the war began, it was the old world. The crowned heads of Europe ruled. When it finally ground to a halt in 1918 (it didn’t really end — WWII was the second chapter of the same war), the world had changed beyond recognition. The European monarchies were gone. A generation of men had been slaughtered; the death toll was beyond belief. The callous indifference to loss of life by those in command remains incomprehensible.

More than 9 million men were killed in battle. This does not include collateral damage to non-combatants and death by disease or starvation. It paved the way for major political upheaval throughout the world.

Says the movie at the beginning: “The principal statements made by the historical characters in this film are based on documentary evidence, and the words of the songs are those sung by the troops during the First World War.”

The first World War could be called an orchestrated, organized international effort to murder a generation of men. They did a good job.

The statements of the historical characters — all lodged a safe distance from the fighting — are ludicrous. General Haig, looking at the staggering loss of life on both sides, really said: “in the end, the Germans will have 5,000 men and we will have 10,000, so we will have won.”? He said it. And meant it.

The arrival of the Americans and their takeover of the endless war — bringing it to a conclusion while there was still something left to save — is a great cinematic moment. I wonder how long it would have gone on without American involvement? Would Europe exist or would it all be a wasteland?

The war is told with music and dancing. Songs mixed with pithy comments from generals, kings, Kaisers and soldiers. It’s a long movie — 144 minutes — and I can promise you that you will have a far better and more visceral understanding of this war and what those little red poppies the Veterans organizations give out (do they still do that?) to commemorate the war to end all wars. Until the next war. And the one after that.

The music is ghastly, funny, catchy. The movie is out of print. It was only in print for a couple of months. I had been looking for it for a long time and was thrilled to snag a copy. A few copies are still available through Amazon. If you are a history buff and love great movies, grab one.

Great directing, biting sarcastic humor, terrific music and informative, this movie is in a category all by itself. It was unavailable for more than 20 years. You won’t be disappointed and you won’t forget it. In the 45 years since I first saw it, I haven’t forgotten it.


From Amazon.com:

Richard Attenborough’s directorial début was this musical satire that deftly skewers the events of World War I — including the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a Christmastime encounter between German and British forces, and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles — by portraying them as absurd amusement park attractions. All-star cast includes Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde, Ralph Richardson; look quickly for Jane Seymour in her screen début.

144 min. Widescreen (Enhanced); English Dolby Digital mono; Subtitles: English; audio commentary by Attenborough; “making of” documentary.

NOTE: As of a couple of days ago, there were 11 copies remaining.

IT’S GOOD TO BE THE KING

Somewhere on the Internet, Garry found a cartoon that says it all about history … ours, everyone’s. Great surfing, Gar!

It IS good to be the King.

good to be the king cartoon

You only have to kill the historians you can’t buy off or threaten into writing your story the way you want. And keep the bards. They’re all suck ups anyhow.

AMERICAN HISTORY FOR NON-AMERICANS

The Revolutionary War was about money — like every war. Mostly taxes (especially on tea, which was very big until America discovered coffee) and who should pay what to whom.

The Colonists (us) felt we should keep all our money for ourselves.

King George disagreed.

We offered to split the difference.

George said “Hell NO!” So we had a war.

France was pissed at England anyway, so they came here with warships and troops and beat up the British. But we helped. Then everyone went home and despite a minor skirmish called “The War of 1812″ when the British came back and burned down Washington DC, we survived.

AP Photo/FS

AP Photo/FS

100 years later (give or take a few decades), we had a lot of money, an economy, had finished killing each other off in our own Civil War (about which there was nothing civil) and had become a real country.

The rest is history.

Yay US!