Stray Cavalcade

Other than oasis stops on some caravan route, maybe, where else does so much diverse as well as damaged humanity cross except Las Vegas?

There are bigger, better, brighter, more dynamic cities upon our globe. Yet in them the cast of characters, residents and visitors, rarely change as often nor as rapidly or as abruptly as in the Big Mayberry.

Also, most of those populaces, steady or transitory, exhibit and practice a restraint that might be mistaken as stoicism in Las Vegas. The Marcus Aurelius kind. Yeah. That severe. But it’s a good bet only a precious few here in this part of the Mojave understand the ancient Roman’s principles while even fewer can define stoicism.

As 2022 hurries to a little lamented close, there were several people encountered who managed fitting narrow rubiks or narrative. Be assured several were lost. One or two intentionally. Should someone have decided to lend them a hand, an observer might’ve imagined whatever had been hoped to have been grasped might become vapor and shade to the touch.

What’s that? Phantasmagorical? Or just an out of season heat shimmer from mirages?

Now that time has overtaken Tom Brokaw’s lionization of “the Greatest Generation,” Americans who came of age during the Depression then won World War II are dwindling through mortality. Their presence is quite reduced on our national stage. The epoch which formed them and for the longest shaped postwar America is yielding its hold on our imperatives.

That became clear on January 6th, 2021, when rabble goaded on by traitorous leadership attacked the Capitol. An inconceivable act two decades earlier, then the response to such a breach of order would’ve been met by across-the-board outrage and unleashed lethal corrective measures.

The insurrectionalists of this era don’t know how lucky they are that ours is a softer America. Twenty years ago, the still strong remnants of “the Greatest Generation” would’ve been put them down like rabid dogs. And anyone supporting the rebellion, say, “fellow travelers,” might’ve anticipated being put under the loupe of a government security agency which suspected their loyalty to the United States.

That’s the thing about death. A lot of institutional memory is lost. The experiences can be compiled for future research, but the nitty-gritty cannot be replicated. The distance between having done and being told how lengthens yearly.

Thanks to prescient organizations like the Depression Era’s Works Progress Administration or James Agee’s feature-length reportage published by Fortune Magazine, his articles accompanied by Walker Evans’ photographs, both eventually compiled into a tome under the title Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, we today can read or even listen to downloaded oral reminiscences of how the Depression debilitated that America. Of course, akin to fighting for national survival seeing America so flat on her back is unthinkable today.

Ensuring prosperity, providing comfort, and looking forward by the generation which endured need and war drove its efforts insulate successors and inheritors from the same. They did such a thorough job they rendered that past abstract for later generations. Meaning through institutional ignorance or forgetfulness there’s a likelihood of our nation again being convulsed by preventable calamities.

Today’s young American adults don’t know need. However, they’ve been conditioned to drool at want. A consequence of being given plenty minus much effort beyond insistent wheedling and cajoling. And since reward has become so easy what results has nearly ephemeral value.

But then hasn’t it increasingly been that way since we Boomers have reshaped society and misshaped parenting? We asked less from the Participation Trophy generation our cohort begat. In turn, this progeny then sought and instilled even less in exchange from those it sired. Except those elders, fully comfortable with the kind of consumerism a used-car salesman would know as “the hard sell,” have piled greater amounts of flashy though immediately obsolescent merchandise at their young successors’ feet.

Oh! Won’t the above be an ideal theme for a 2023 post!

Through nine years of living here in Las Vegas, there were chance encounters of meeting seniors who as children were most rudely dumped from their feathered nests by the Second World War and its aftermath. Now somewhere in their 80s, it’s difficult imagining these one-time fortunate sons and daughters as children. Gray hair, bearing “the ravages of age,” misguided by “shifty memories,” may change earlier pictures immeasurably. But then unless you’ve retained childhood acquaintances, isn’t it tough envisioning any older stranger in the freshness, precocity, and vigor of early life?

No? Okay. Try forming images of your parents before they entered adulthood. Almost impossible seeing mom and dad doing the same stupid shit you did as a kid, right? It does not compute.

Carl, nee Karl-Heinz, doesn’t remember or doesn’t want to remember his parents as committed National Socialists. Instead, he saw them as “run of the mill Nazis.” They attended the rallies. They repeated the perversions heard on the radio broadcasts or newsreels to maintain their “true believer” cred among other Germans. Even had a portrait of Adolf Hitler placed prominently inside their home to further limit any suspicions of watering the Kool Aid. But Carl recalled them more as opportunists who benefited from going along to get along than “the world belongs to us” types.

In Carl’s early adolescence, his parents having been Nazis enriched the family’s life materially. Well known how that redistribution of wealth occurred. But a child then couldn’t have fathomed how. And if his parents had speculations or just flat out knew, well, let’s surmise they allowed once unobtainable possessions to blind them against any unpleasantness regarding the truth.

No surprise if Carl had been generous alibiing his parents. Even if they’d been absolute beasts, few sons or daughters will admit their sires were monsters.

He didn’t fudge about the war itself. British and American air forces pulverized his hometown of Stuttgart. His deepest memory of that time? Reflexively running like hell towards an air raid shelter at the siren’s first keen. Then upon hearing Allied bombers approach having the excruciating wait for the sharp concussive bowel-loosening explosions.

“All clear” never meant “all right.” All that signaled was for survivors to burrow back to the surface to see how the rubble had been rearranged.

Carl’s father died in combat. He emphasized his father a member of the Wehrmacht, not Waffen SS. That aside regular German army soldiers were just as blackened, but the distinction scrubbed the stains some.

He served the regime. About his father having served the “Fatherland” Carl’s was ambivalent. The first was criminal. The second obligatory. Despite popular revisionist history, there was no alternative. They lived in that time and comported themselves to it. A fact revisionists often conveniently overlook to force their points.

Carl’s mother died during an air raid. They’d been apart when the bombers carpeted Stuttgart. He was lucky. Located where she had been turned her into a casualty and the boy into a wartime orphan, a displaced person afterwards. Then a refugee.

Or as he summarized, “That’s life during wartime.”

Postwar American generosity must’ve seemed like a magic carpet ride to him.

In utterly defeated Year Zero Germany there was no hope, no prospects, little food. Just Allied Occupation troops and the Red Army.

A humanitarian organization spirited Carl from misery to an international runway here. No, it wasn’t a miracle. Postwar, through distant conscientious relatives, ones who’d immigrated to the New World after the Great War, wondered if any of their Old Country kindred had survived Hitler’s 1939-45 carnage. As far as the agency could ever determine Carl was that last Mohican.

Amazing how paperwork done perfectly – in triplicate! – and properly submitted as well as a sponsor who can prove the applicant won’t be a burden on taxpayers moves mountains.

Sailing into New York Harbor, atop ship’s deck, Manhattan’s gray vastness didn’t astonish Carl. Nor did the Statue of Liberty. That no structures showed signs of destruction did. War had been so traumatic he’d forgotten the ordinariness of peacetime.

His postwar life Stateside followed the pattern of unknown tens of millions of landed sons and daughters. A college degree led to a professional career. Inherent advantages let him thrive further. Decades later in Las Vegas he couldn’t have imagined the same relative ease propelling him upward in a Germany then still groping for reacceptance.

When Carl proclaimed “America is the greatest country in the world!” his was a genuine declaration. Most Americans braying the same know next to nothing about other nations. They also only see what America has bequeathed them – or should’ve bequeathed them instead of “giving it to some foreigner” – while ignoring our more glaring injustices and inequities.

Any immigrants who’ve undergone naturalization and have become one of us, their enthusiasm I always cut slack. They’ve had to strive harder than hell to reach levels anywhere near the native born. What’s most admirable is once attaining parity, they see the opportunities to rise farther. Unlike Americans lacking motivation though beset with envy, a high proportion of our new fellow Americans will try excelling further.

Which is probably why there’s a deep well of resentment against them in less dynamic Anglo America.

Another figure from storm-ravaged Europe met here in Las Vegas is Linda. She’s a sad case. By the way, “Linda” is an Americanization of her Hungarian name. At the time she modified it, she worried her Magyar background might create some sort of distance between her and newly-made American friends and acquaintances. Clearly Linda arrived on our shores long before heritage should neither be hidden nor ignored but loudly lauded.

Whether she’d like it or not, there is one story that paints Linda.

During the interwar years in Hungary, Linda’s family resided within an estate. That made them gentility, right? They weren’t old-money wealthy. However, they were sharp-eyed and sufficiently reactive to opportunities which arose from the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Another casualty of the Great War.

Stability was another feature forfeited. In Hungary, as in other European countries, the right wing regarded this new world disdainfully. In their eyes, progress devalued tradition and convention. Elements of society that had been repressed into near invisibility started edging from the shadows. What announces the approaching end of civilization better than groups forever seen as submissive lifting their eyes and voices?

For Hungary, the Arrow Cross were the self-annoited who sought to defend the nation’s true virtues. Like brown and black shirts everywhere this movement intended expunging modern notions and repressing inferior people in order to maintain Magyar purity.

Linda’s uncle stood among its higher functionaries. Seeing him then, remembering him today only shines his image. He just wasn’t handsome. He resembled nobility. Particularly so when saddled on his favorite horse. No crown atop his head but a wavy blond mane. Though too young to have comprehended it then, even as a child Linda recognized the uncle’s ability to draw esteem.

Doting on his niece, the uncle taught her how to horseback ride. Then once she became proficient, they, accompanied by other riders, spent many afternoons roaming in the saddle. Those years receiving his tutelage by bestowing his grace upon her ended when the Red Army smashed through Hungary’s border.

A Nazi ally, Hungary after World War II verged on a long-lasting involuntary Soviet presence.

Despite oversight from Moscow, Linda’s family maneuvered into an advantageous layer of postwar Hungary. A teen by the middle 1950s, nothing more preoccupied her than the usual silly girl pursuits and diversions. The Soviet’s 1956 invasion radically redirected hers and every other Hungarian’s aspirations. Special refugee status gave her family entry into the United States.

Linda did not thrive to the extent Carl did. Stateside living may’ve been a step down from life in Hungary. As in the old country, there was land. In California. The difference? There, peasants labored in the fields. Here, Linda and the American man she eventually married also had to initially donate some of their own labor to the endeavor before enough produce harvests returned any modicum of prosperity.

And here in Las Vegas there is little measure of happiness for her. Running the farm became too much; none of their children wanted the headaches. In hindsight the parents sold years too soon. The money they have does not give them pleasure. Nor does the hooch through which they attempt to drown their sorrows.

As for Linda’s uncle? Partisans or Russians made sure he did not die a hero’s death. A fate a loving niece certainly sees as tragic. But one I’m sure those Hungarians who survived the Arrow Cross’ tortures doubtlessly saw as just.

Paola is this post’s last figure from a Europe that ought to serve as caution and lesson for our modern times. Don’t bet on it.

Her father wasn’t a right-winger. He was a fascist. If possible, he would’ve strutted in Benito Mussolini’s footsteps. The father fulfilled a role calling for him to be a mean demanding tyrant. Perhaps he thought such projected strength. If such odious people carried membership cards, be assured he proudly wedged one in his wallet.

Much as Hitler stared down from a perch of intimidation in Carl’s one-time home, Paola’s father simply wasn’t content to have Il Duce glower from one spot. Instead, the head of that household had the dictator’s scowl or sneer darken rooms throughout Paola’s former home in the Heel of Italy.

It’s laughable now, the father’s going overboard with comic extremes. But then?

Paola resented the misery Mussolini imported with the Nazis. Home-developed fascism polarized Italians enough without adding the contagion of race hate, a sickness nowhere as prevalent in that Italy as in Germany.

In Italy, Paola saw different “-isms” being drivers of contention and strife. Economics. Capitalism. Communism. One side guided by industrialists, bankers, big landholders, the other through agitators, labor unionists. In the middle, masses too stupid to understand both sides sought to exploit them for either bigger profits or an ideology wishing to roll their individuality into bloodless collective purposes.

That’s why Paola’s father became a Mussolini adherent. A fascist. A black shirt. Il Duce filled plates. The other side filled heads with rhetoric that didn’t nourish. She admonished one should never discount the power derived from the contentment of a full belly. Despite the aphorism’s aptness, we laughed at her springboard simplification from the vantage of living in the 21st century. It wouldn’t pass muster with today’s minds demanding complications where none existed.

After Italy’s fascist regime capitulated to the Allies in 1943, what comforts Paola’s family enjoyed diminished. No more being fawned over in the confiscated villa. No more unquestioning deference from the local peasants. A lot of nervous and unnerving meetings with cadres. All of which worsened when the Germans took over administration of Italy through Wehrmacht units.

The higher Allied armies pushed up the Italian boot towards Naples then Rome, the tauter local tension became. Partisans, who had been a non-factor, suddenly became priorities. Reports of black shirt comrades killed during encounters with the vengeful Italians, or worse, tortured before being executed, seeped into awareness inside the villa.

There’s a useful American saying describing what happened next. Paola’s father decided he and his family should get while the going was good. They skedaddled. When she told me they decided to take fate in their hands through their feet, it reminded me of the scene in 1900 when two of the movie’s leading fascists, Attila and Regina, waited way too late to attempt escape.

Paola’s father listened correctly to his fight, flee, or fuck instincts. He chose the stealth option.

Mostly sleeping by day in the countryside, then stealing what food they could by night while on the move, the family walked an arduous course into the anonymity Naples offered. Submerged in this city, helped by sympathetic contacts, the father could gauge which way the wind might blow.

Not only was there concern about food, but whether Italy would veer left. Would it construct whatever suited the Allies as a representative democracy? Or would communists win enough plebiscites to become a Moscow vassal?

Democratic or communist? An essential mid-20th century question.

If Italy turned “red,” the father hoped civil war the result. He swore an oath on this, to do his utmost to rid their land of that “godless vermin!”

One hopes his fulmination got the eye roll it deserved.

What part of postwar Europe wasn’t moribund after so much devastation? Austerity conditions even sapped bright colors brilliance. Half of the 1950s in Europe was either dull or monochrome.

Paola the girl grew into a woman. Along the way she acquired a husband who had more than an assist in her producing two more babies Italy needed. By this time the 1960s had arrived. The foursome had made Rome home. She’d also developed a profession. A seamstress.

Minus any rancor she admitted this she owed her father, her own Il Duce. He gave her common sense advice on how to survive. Harsh, but practical and worthwhile.

Her diligence and industry, two qualities thinly spread in the Italy of that era, drew a certain kind of special attention. From modists. And not just the local fashionistas. Her reputation borne along with her work crossed the Atlantic.

The sumptuous floorshows that dazzled Las Vegas audiences are long gone along with lounge acts. Instead of spectacle, visitors seeking over-the-top entertainments and diversions must find satisfaction in arena-sized “residencies” and mega nightclubs where DJs are the stars. Performers whose talents could once make several hundred people feel as if they were in intimate settings are long gone. Today’s Las Vegas is leaching off that heritage.

When showgirls who wore fabulous costumes still did command stages, those garments needed adjusting or repairing or just plain upkeep. Beautiful as Rome was, one must have lived in a cave to not know the fabulosity of Las Vegas.

For Paola and her family, moving to Las Vegas was easier than their relocation from Naples to Rome. She never regretted it. Nor have they.

And once the showgirl/floorshow era ended, Paola made the boldest move of all. She opened her own seamstress shop. It continues today.

Although magnificent beauties in towering headdresses are history, Paola had a ready replacement clientele in hotel/casino personnel. Staffers, not managers and supervisors. While the ever-younger crowd only knows of showgirls by downloading videos, working people of all ages respect word of mouth from trusted sources.

Her business has extended from the hospitality industry to people unaffiliated with “Vegas jobs at Vegas hours.” They also want their garments to fit better or perfectly hemmed.

Oh. The meat of the advice given Paola by her own Il Duce? “Get a trade. Make it a profession. That way you’ll always be able to eat.”

He said it in Italian, so there’s no Chico Marx accent.

Happy New Year.