I Was a Revolutionary, page 9
I remember one day in the bar that summer when Johnny suddenly pointed to the television, where one of the networks was broadcasting the Democratic National Convention. It was the year in which a simple peanut farmer from Georgia was poised to win the presidency of the United States largely because of his ability to motivate untapped pockets of the electorate, knowingly or not, by professing his faith in evangelical Christianity. “He learned that from my father,” Johnny said. I asked what he meant. “Dad was doing this,” he said, waving his bourbon-and-water at Carter, “forty-five years ago.”
The Goat Gland Doctor’s story, I learned, did not end in 1930 when his medical and radio licenses were stripped, not even close. Knowing that the governor appointed the state medical board, Brinkley announced within days of his defeat in court that he was entering the gubernatorial race. Revenge on his mind, he would win the election and appoint choice members to the board so that he could continue to practice in the state. Oh, and he’d be governor of Kansas. It was September, the primaries were over, but in the five weeks leading up to the election, he mounted an independent write-in campaign unlike any before.
He had advantages no other candidate had, namely a fortune in discretionary money to blow and a private radio station to get out the vote twenty-four hours a day. He appealed the revocation of his radio license, an appeal he would lose, but which nevertheless allowed him to stay on the air through the election. He spoke to his fans and followers over the airwaves, presenting himself as the underdog, the messianic outsider who was being persecuted by the establishment, just as Jesus had been. He used his private airplane to keep a campaign pledge to visit every county in the state when most politicians were still putting around in trains. He hired a New York PR firm—a new field then—to advise his campaign, to manage his image and stage photo-ops for the press. He was a pioneer of the sound truck and sent his from town to town, playing recorded speeches from speakers bolted to the roof. But Brinkley’s real genius was the campaign rally. He turned his into spectacles such as never before seen, where little politics was spoken. Instead they were like old-time tent revivals, full of sermons, testimonials from audience plants, and performances by musicians from Brinkley’s roster of popular radio personalities. Fifty thousand people attended a rally here in Wichita, unprecedented turnout for such an event.
The Republicans and Democrats knew they were in trouble, so they colluded to keep Brinkley from the capital. After all the standard election-day malfeasance to misdirect Brinkley voters and dump ballots, it was still too close to call, the closest election in Kansas history. So in the days afterward, as the danger of a full recount loomed, potentially exposing their fraud, the Republican and Democratic candidates made a deal. The GOP had control of the legislature, so the Dems would fill the governor’s mansion this time, and the two would duke it out again in two years when Brinkley, hopefully, had lost interest and moved on. Handshakes and champagne, smoking cigars in the smoke-filled room.
“Dad won it in 1930,” Johnny said, chewing loudly on the ice from his empty drink. “They stole it clear out from under him.” And he was right. If democracy had properly functioned, the people of Kansas would have elected the Goat Gland Doctor governor, which might not seem like a big deal, but when you consider that the man who won the gubernatorial election in ’32, Alf Landon, went on to face FDR in the national election of ’36, then you start to see the implications and possibilities of what a rich, proselytizing, antiestablishment candidate with the most powerful radio station in the country might have been able to accomplish nationally.
I couldn’t believe it, my hand barely able to keep up with Johnny’s dictation as I imagined the novel I’d write about Brinkley. Again Johnny pointed at the television, where Carter was smiling and waving at the large crowd before him shouting his name. “Took them a while, but they saw it worked,” he said. “Now they all follow his script.”
Will and I spend the night of July 4 over at my friend Ron’s place, grilling out and catching up as we watch fireworks from lawn chairs in his backyard. We drink light beer and white wine that chills in a red Igloo cooler of half-melted ice. It’s become a tradition of mine to spend the holiday at Ron’s. I’ve brought many boyfriends over the years. Ron recently split with his longtime partner, so it’s the first time I meet his young, new flame, Alex. Twenty-five years Ron’s junior, Alex is a knockout. Tall, blond, and fair-skinned, he seems to have fallen into a wormhole on some New York City runway and resurfaced in Wichita. When he excuses himself to go to the bathroom, we watch him leave the yard, and then turn our attention to Ron. He laughs, already buzzed, imagining what we’re thinking. “I know,” he says. “It’s crazy. I’m old and depressed—I don’t know what he sees in me!”
“He’s magnificent,” I say.
“Is the sex as good as I’m imagining?” asks Will, elegantly sliding a cigar out of its silver case and raising it to his nose. I look at him like he’s just pulled a turd from his breast pocket. Ron shakes his head, leaning back in his chair, trying to summon the words.
“I haven’t been fucked like this in a decade.”
“I despise you,” says Will.
When Alex comes back, we continue to laugh and drink and drink, so that when the fireworks start we’re good and drunk. Ron and I rise from our lawn chairs and begin to waltz around the backyard, trying to avoid the croquet mallets and balls no one has used the entire evening, singing, as we always do, “You’re a Grand Old Fag” while the bombs burst in air above us. Grown men acting like children. Alex is amused, Will confused. He asks what the hell I’m doing. “I’m celebrating my country! Stop hating my freedom, you terrorist,” I say, and Ron cracks up as Alex joins us on the lawn. Will looks at me like, Do I even know you? then at Alex’s perfect ass, hermetically sealed in tight, dark denim. This is what Ron and I did in previous years with other men we loved longer than the ones watching us now.
It’s after midnight when Will and I arrive back home. I head to the kitchen to ward off the coming hangover and he upstairs to change. I pour us two tall glasses of water and spill six ibuprofen capsules onto the counter from the bottle I keep in the spice cabinet. I down mine and pour another glass from the tap when Will appears in his pajamas. He comes up behind me and wraps his arms around me, kisses my neck. I don’t pull away. I feel the long-absent attraction move through me, floating up from my toes slowly like champagne bubbles. I turn around and we begin to kiss, pawing at one another, when I catch sight of the answering machine. “Look at all the messages,” I say. Fifteen, blinking red.
“Oh no you don’t,” he says, pulling my mouth back to his.
“What if something’s wrong?” I break away from him, then turn back, adding seductively, “Or maybe it’s Alex asking to come join us.”
As I push the button on the machine, again he comes up behind me and begins rubbing my cock, breathing heavy on my neck. The messages are not from Alex. They are not from family members. One is a prerecorded message from the Democratic nominee for president, Old Stone Face, wishing us a happy Fourth of July and asking us to donate to his campaign. The other fourteen are from a man who identifies himself only as a disciple of Jesus Christ, who says Will works for a murderer and will go to hell for committing genocide against the unborn.
We’re silent a moment, and Will lets go of my hard-on.
“Can you imagine if he also knew I was gay?” he says. “Then where would he put me? Hell would be too kind.”
“Does this really not worry you?”
He starts to delete the messages.
“What are you doing? Shouldn’t we share them with the police, or keep them as evidence?” Then I say, “How the fuck did they get your number?” By which I mean: How the fuck did they get my number?
“Look, don’t get worked up,” he says, sipping his water. “This happens now and again. I used to get stuff like this occasionally, particularly around the elections. It’ll go away. George gets this
“Yeah, and they tried to kill him, remember?”
“That was a crazy person. No one’s going to kill me, sweetheart.” He rises and embraces me. “This is what they do. They try to intimidate you, scare you so you’ll leave town. But this is the worst of it. After the election they’ll get bored and stop.”
“That’s four months away.”
“Things will be fine,” he says, taking me by the hand and leading me upstairs to the bedroom. “You need to relax.” He ushers me to the bed and begins taking off my clothes. At first it’s utilitarian, but then I realize he’s trying to start with me again. I’ve lost the mood, though. My head is foggy with drink and the aftertaste of the messages, but Will’s upon me. “Relax,” he says again. I try to roll away, but he holds me down, lowering himself to my middle. I tell him to stop, but he keeps going. “I want to make you feel good,” he says, kissing my waist and tugging at my underwear with his teeth. I squirm, and just as he’s taken me in his mouth I’m able to roll to the other side of the bed.
“If you want to make me feel good, rub my fucking feet,” I say and pull the comforter over my shoulder. It’s quiet, just our breathing, and then I hear him put on his clothes, followed by the sound of his footsteps padding down the stairs, the slamming of the front door.
And still Brinkley’s story wasn’t finished. The guy loses the election, can’t practice medicine in Kansas, and is barred from broadcasting on American soil, so what’s he do? It’s 1931, the Depression, and states are looking for anything that might provide an economic boost. He had his pick of several, but decided on Texas. And here’s the genius part: knowing radio waves pay no attention to lines on a map, he relocates his hospital to a little town on the Texas side of the Rio Grande and puts his radio station on the other side of the border. Angry with the United States over a recent policy disagreement, the Mexican government was more than willing to give all their wattage to this man who’d become such a pain in the Yankees’ ass. As a result, the five thousand watts Brinkley’d had in Milford grew to one million in Villa Acuna, giving the Goat Gland Doctor the most powerful radio station in the world. Sheiks in Saudi Arabia, workers in Russia—on clear nights, just about anyone anywhere could pick up Doc Brinkley’s signal. Despite the hard times, his fame and fortune only increased throughout the thirties.
So what became of him? I wondered.
Perhaps understandably, Johnny was vague about his father’s demise. He’d only say he was a victim of a witch hunt by the federal government and the American Medical Association. I had to do my own research to truly find out. I learned that in the years leading up to the Second World War, Brinkley became increasingly enamored of fascism. He took his family abroad to Berlin to see the Third Reich firsthand, and at home he tiled his pool with swastikas and the Iron Cross. Increasingly, his stable of popular musicians like the Carter Family were bumped from the program lineup to make room for appearances by the vanguard of American fascism: William Pelley, Father Coughlin, Fritz Kuhn, Gerald Winrod. This did nothing to deter the attention of the U.S. government and the AMA, the head of which, Morris Fishbein, was Jewish. But, like all great tragic figures, Brinkley was really undone by hubris.
In 1938 Fishbein published an article titled “Modern Medical Charlatans,” exposing Brinkley as a quack. Granted, Fishbein had been writing such articles about Brinkley for almost two decades and little had come of it, but Brinkley wanted to be done with the “dirty little Jew” who’d been pestering him all these years, so he sued for libel. Determining whether libel had occurred, however, meant examining whether the goat gland transplantation was a real and viable surgical procedure. Brinkley walked right into his own trap. Soon after he lost the case, charges of fraud came pouring in, as did the wrongful-death suits and court orders for unpaid taxes. Finally caving to U.S. pressure, the Mexican government seized the radio station, closing it for broadcasting Nazi propaganda. Brinkley’s health worsened in the long process to adjudicate matters. Johnny was fifteen when his father died of cancer in 1942, bankrupt.
I was so excited by the prospects of my novel that I had trouble sleeping at night, turning it all over in my head, caught up in the epic sweep of a story that struck me as quintessentially American, insofar as it seemed to capture all that was great and terrible about this country. Despite his quarrels with the government, Brinkley loved the United States passionately, grateful for what it had allowed a poor kid from the mountains of North Carolina like himself to become. In fact, according to Johnny, his father often called himself an “Americanist.” Not an “American”—that wasn’t the right descriptive, didn’t quite capture the love and boosterism he felt for the United States. The Americanist. I knew this would be the title of my novel. But a problem was emerging: I couldn’t find a way into the story. Brinkley’s story was already written, and it was real. How could I improve upon, in a novel, what had actually happened, a true narrative that needed no fictionalization? Soon a writerly paralysis took hold of me, one from which I’d never recover.
On the day Will comes home early from work, I’m in the middle of what I’ve told him is my second full week at the Aviation Museum. Each previous morning I’ve showered, put on a suit, and left the house, sometimes going to museums, sometimes just driving around, and each evening I tell him about the strange lives of my invented coworkers, the comical encounters I have with patrons. It started off just as a way to get Will off my back about finding a job, then it became fun and I wanted to see how long I could pull it off before coming clean. But on this day, when Will enters the house, he finds me sitting at the kitchen table watching the little TV.
“Busted,” I say, smiling.
“I knew it,” he says in a voice that is both surprised and not.
“Because you’re a bad liar,” he says. He turns off the TV and takes a seat across from me. “I had a feeling you’d be here. I just thought I’d find you in bed with someone else.”
“I’ve become asexual, remember?”
“Don’t joke now, Michael.”
“You came home because you thought I was cheating on you?”
“No, I came home because a bomb threat was called into the clinic. Dr. Tiller sent everyone home.” He pauses. My mouth opens, but words do not come out. “I was shaken up—we all were. I went to find you at the museum. But it was strange. Even before I went inside, it was, like, I knew. I sat there, staring at the entrance of the building, and I knew: Michael’s been lying to me.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Why have you been doing this?”
“I don’t always know when I’m lying.”
“Yes you do.”
“Sometimes I do.”
“Tell me something true,” he says. “Right now.”
“I don’t like hurting people.”
“You are a grown fucking man,” he says, leaning across the table. “Tell me something.”
“I worry about you at the clinic, about these people who leave us messages and what they might do.”
“That’s sweet and unremarkable.”
“I don’t know why I don’t want to sleep with you anymore.”
“You’re doing it to push me away.”
“I don’t know why I crave closeness and then pull away when it comes, or why I’m so withholding, or why it’s so hard for me to be honest even when I know these are the reasons none of my relationships last.”
“Why did you ask me to move in if you knew this would happen?”
“I thought I loved you, and I thought that would make me change, but I don’t, and it’s only made me worse.”
“I see,” he says, rising from the table. Only now as I watch him leave the room, realizing it’s over, do I feel the desire to chase after him, but I don’t, because that will only twist the knife further. At the bottom of the staircase he stops, like he might say something, but then I hear his lumbering footsteps upstairs to the bedroom, the creak of the floorboards
After he told me his father’s life story, I saw less of Johnny. This was about the time all the packinghouses left Wichita for western Kansas, where there were no unions to deal with, and Johnny said he’d gotten a job as a foreman at one of the last remaining slaughterhouses. Then one afternoon in August he showed up at the bar. I didn’t ask whether he’d been fired or simply stopped going in, or if the job had ever actually existed. He seemed down. He tried to talk about his father again, but they were stories I’d already heard, stories he’d forgotten he told me. “Did I ever tell you how Dad was elected governor of Kansas but they stole it from him?”
I asked Johnny to tell me a story about himself, about what his life had been like. He perked up, and I realized then that throughout his life he’d been someone often asked or expected to speak about his father but never about himself. That’s when Johnny told me he’d been a Cold War intelligence officer, working for the CIA. I was dumbfounded. My favorite story was how he’d been embedded with the M-26-7 in Cuba. Desperately in need of press for the revolution, Fidel’s group of insurgents welcomed him. Most of the men had never seen an instant camera before and they asked Johnny to take their pictures to send home to family. I tried to imagine Johnny humping through the Sierra Maestra with a group of revolutionaries, memorizing fuel routes and jotting down snippets of overheard conversation to turn over to the Agency when he returned stateside. “Make sure you tell them we are not Communists,” implored Fidel. Johnny became particularly close with Raúl Castro, and after a day of difficult hiking they’d drink rum under the starlight of the hot jungle night. One such evening he confided in Raúl that his father had, for a time, been the most famous doctor in America. When Raúl asked what kind of doctor, Johnny demurred, but finally told him after another drink. Raúl began to laugh, spitting out the dark liquor. He said Johnny had to tell this story to their medic, calling out for him in the middle of the night, “Ernesto, ven aquí!” I couldn’t get the picture out of my head: Johnny telling the story of his charlatan-cum-fascist father to Che Guevara on the eve of the Cuban revolution. It seemed impossible, but so had everything Johnny told me. I didn’t know what was true anymore, or whether it mattered.