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November 13, 2007

Don't Rest in Peace, Norman Mailer Part 1

Roy Meachum

Serious literary authors and small-town journalists, we take care of our own. The death last week of Pulitzer Prize winning Norman Mailer earned lots of space, in national media as well as the local press.

Remembering the passing of Ernest Hemingway, I found myself reading phrases and praises left over from the Nobel Prize winner's obituary. And I resented them.

The idol of youth had long since passed out of my personal favor when he died. His sentences' brevity hit my ears in later years as popping of intellectual short circuits. It seemed he aborted all, maybe because he seldom had an idea or a thought worth continuing.

I reached that conclusion at the age young people, of both genders, discard the past as irrelevant to them. When everything that happens is a world's first, they think. Eventually, I grew up to a degree.

As he aged, Mr. Hemingway's self-confidence waxed. He won the world's greatest literary accolade for "The Old Man and the Sea," a singular triumph to the reflecting only possible when the end's in sight.

The story's giant marlin is generally taken for life itself, essentially because the fish, having towed the old man and his boat for days, winds up as an eviscerated carcass on a beach, so bereft of characteristics as to be mistaken for its nemesis, the shark. That's life, the author says.

The world's ultimate literary accolade came to Ernest Hemingway six years before he manufactured personal death: a shotgun blew out his brains on an obscure western airfield. He was three weeks short of turning 61.

As all the world read and heard in recent days, Norman Mailer reached 84 when his kidneys did him in. It was not for a lack of trying on their part. The single time I saw the famous author he was blind drunk and kept from stumbling on his face by literally supporting U.S. Marshals.

It came on an October day that started off cool but toasted out early, as normal autumn days in Washington go. It was at the Pentagon.

At the River Front, thousands of braying, angry young men and women, many decorated by flowers, taunted hundreds of uniformed, equally young men, drawn up in ranks to keep their counterparts away from America's national military headquarters.

The U.S. Army's aerial photo counted some 57,000 pinheads in the Saturday's crusade against the war in Vietnam. The night before the crusaders filled an outsize movie theatre (now demolished) to listen to Mr. Mailer and the other adults who organized the affair.

Among the reporters and cameras lined up behind the uniformed "children," word spread the cavernous theatre had been thick with marijuana fumes. In 1967, that figured.

We also heard that the famous writer and his booze-soaked inner circle (whoever they were) had to be helped up on stage. We were told Mr. Mailer had been the drunkest of all, but by establishment PIOs. We had learned not to trust any official sources.

In that morning's coolness, the entire entourage, including media, the curious and establishment spies, had gathered around the Reflecting Pool, under the solemn gaze of Abraham Lincoln.

Speaker after speaker delivered speech after speech, so many they threatened to take the crowd's angry edge away. A few young crusaders tested the pool's still chilly waters, eliciting cheers from their comrades safe on shore.

At last, offstage and out of sight, the signal was given. The 57,000 lurched in motion, headed for the Pentagon in a leisurely stroll. Reporters and camera crews climbed into cars and vans that assured they would be on hand to welcome the throng.

The crusade's arrival was anticlimactic. The uniformed young men's eyes stared under their helmets; they were defiant or scared. How many of each category predominated? Take your pick. There was simply no time to count.

The children without uniforms dawdled and giggled, quite a lot. The autumnal air was split by sharp marijuana smoke. A group advanced on the uniforms and placed a flower into their carbine barrels. There was a smiling withdrawal.

No news was happening, so I wandered away, looking for anything. That's how I happened to be inside the Pentagon when the well-publicized face appeared between a pair of buttoned up suit jackets.

(Conclusion on Friday)

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