SUMMARY: At a time of national turmoil, the lives of four boys become connected as each struggles to accept his sexuality and to address the challenges he faces in life. To the extent the boys succeed in coming to grips with those challenges, it may be in ways that prove surprising or troubling. This story is also being published on my blog and you can find a longer synopsis there. While some events, locations and features in the story have been moved forward or back in time for dramatic and other purposes, it takes place during an era when prejudice against homosexuals is rampant and the gay revolution in America is still in its infancy. Italics are typically used within the story to indicate what a character is thinking or saying to himself. Any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental.
WARNING: Sex is not the primary focus of this story. If you're looking for erotic content, you'll do much better with other stories on Nifty. While sexual content is secondary and incidental, the story does include some scenes that depict sex and violence, sometimes graphically depending upon the characters and circumstances involved. For that reason, the story is intended for mature audiences only. If you do not wish to read such material or it is illegal for you to do so, please look elsewhere. The story remains the property of the author and may not be reproduced in any form without written permission. It is protected by the copyright laws of the United States and other countries. You may download a single copy to read offline and to share with others as long as you credit me as the author, but you may not use this work for commercial purposes. You may not use any of the characters, bars or other fictional locations described in the story in your own work without my explicit permission. Nor may you use, alter, transform, or build upon this story in any way.
AUTHOR NOTES: This is my first effort at writing a story. As a general rule, I only plan to publish one chapter a week, usually on Thursdays. The latest chapter will always be posted on my blog before being published here. You may want to bookmark the location of my blog in the event you cannot find the story here at some point in the future and you wish to continue reading it: https://cafepalermoannex.wordpress.com. It is strongly suggested that you look at this introduction to Chapter 34 at my blog before actually reading this chapter. As always, comments and constructive criticism are welcome. Flames will be ignored. Have fun reading and feel free to let me know what you think by leaving a comment over at my blog or contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading the story. I hope you enjoy it.
THE PREVIOUS CHAPTER: In Chapter 33, Andy arrives at his office on Capitol Hill and starts to go through all of the paper he has prepared for his meeting that morning with his boss, Congressman John H. "Happy Jack" McPherson. Andy likes his boss and his job because he can focus all of his time and energy on the amendment to cut off funding for the war in Burkistan, unlike the Congressman who has to spend a lot of his time doing things to keep getting reelected. Still bone-tired, Andy lapses off again and recalls more of the details of his relationship with Jesse. Over the course of thirty days spent together, the two had genuinely fallen in love. But Andy has never fully recovered from Jesse's death and has been unable to find someone to replace the young soldier. Rousing himself, he thinks about his approaching fight with the White House and the Pentagon over the McPherson amendment. Andy thinks his side is better prepared and is looking forward to the upcoming fight to cut off funding for the war.
Part IV - Virtues and Vices, Public and Private
I checked the clock on the wall and then gathered up all of the paper I had been setting aside. I knew he was in the bathroom. He was like clockwork that way. At the appointed time I strode out of my office and knocked on the door.
“Come in,” I heard his voice boom as I entered.
“How are you this morning, Andy?” he said, looking up from his desk.
“Fine, sir, thanks for asking,” I replied. “How are you?”
“Terrific,” he said, smiling at me. “You know those constituents I was just having breakfast with over at the Capitol, Andy? They’re Republicans, have been for years, and I’m pretty sure that neither of them ever voted for me for the longest time. But now they’re big supporters of mine and all because I have breakfast with the two of them in the Capitol every time they’re down here in Washington.”
“I love it; two votes and all for such a small investment of time. But now I’m ready to go to work. What have you got for me, Andy?” he added”
“So what have you got for me, Andy?” he added.
“We have the latest whip count,” I said, handing the sheets to him.
“And what does it show?” he asked, glancing at them briefly and then placing them down on his desk.
“Right now we have 189 definite yes votes for your amendment to cut off funding for the war, sir,” I replied. “That’s 11 more than we got for the amendment last year. In addition, we have 12 who are leaning yes. I think at least 10 of them will be with us for sure when the votes are counted. That would put us at 199 votes, just 19 short of a majority, assuming everyone votes, of course. But the really good news is there are 66 undecided members right now and I think we could get up to two thirds of those.”
“So we have a chance, sir, an excellent chance, of pulling this off,” I continued. “I don’t think the Speaker or the Majority Leader understand just how much sentiment has changed this past year, Congressman. And I know for certain the White House is totally clueless about that.”
“You know I’m not the world’s biggest optimist, sir,” I added, “but I like our chances this year.”
“That’s terrific, Andy,” Happy Jack replied. “I know you’ve invested a lot of time and energy into building this alternative anti-war whip system for us. And it’s been really accurate in the past. I’ll give you that. But just how confident are you in these numbers it’s producing this year?”
“I’m very confident, sir,” I replied. “I’ve gone over this count with a fine tooth comb. I keep going back to the people who are doing the whipping and pressing them on their sources. If we have the slightest doubt about anyone, we move them into the leaning or undecided category. These numbers are solid, sir. You can take them to the bank. I guarantee it.”
“Very good,” the Congressman replied. “Do you need me to make any calls or to talk to anyone on the floor at this point, Andy?”
“Not yet, sir,” I replied. “The Defense Appropriations Subcommittee won’t even be considering the bill until next week at the earliest and it won’t go to full Committee until the week after that if they do. Frankly, I doubt it’ll get to the floor before the end of the month at the earliest once the leadership does their own whip count and finds out what they’re up against. They might even delay floor action longer. So it would be premature to talk to anyone right now, especially since I’m hearing the Subcommittee is going to try to include some sense of the House language to provide cover for some of the members whose support is wavering. We need to see what that language actually says before we start deploying the heavy weapons like you, sir.”
The Congressman beamed at me. He loved it when I flattered him like that and by then I was good at it.
“What about press availabilities?” he asked. “Should I be talking to anyone in the press about the amendment?”
“Yes, sir, there’s definitely some work that needs to be done there,” I said. “As you know, we don’t really hold out very much hope for the Washington Post. The Post has never met a war they didn’t want to endorse so we can count on them to be against the amendment as usual. We probably won’t even get a fair shake in terms of their op-ed page. When it comes to war, they’re only interested in promoting their point of view.
“The New York Times is another story, of course,” I continued. “I’ve been talking to Bob Harrison and he’s working on a long biographical piece about you for their Magazine section. He wants to follow you back home in the district when you’re up there discussing the amendment with constituents so Gene is working on setting that up. In addition, we’re going to try to get you up to New York City to meet with the editorial board early next week. And we’re also working on an op-ed piece by you that the Times could run before the House acts on the amendment.”
“We also have you set up for Meet The Press this coming Sunday,” I added. “I was concerned about doing Meet The Press at this early stage, but we have a commitment from them to bring you back at least two other times before the amendment comes to a vote. So we’ve agreed to an appearance this Sunday and we’ve set aside two hours Friday afternoon to bring you up to speed on what we think they’ll be asking you. I have a bunch of questions and suggested answers here for you, sir, if you want to go through them before the Friday briefing,” I added, handing the papers to him.
He looked at a couple of the question and my suggested answers while I just sat there waiting for his reaction.
“I wouldn’t put too much more time and effort into these questions and answers, Andy,” the Congressman finally said. “They look fine; and the truth is, that pretty boy airhead they’ve got moderating that program these days couldn’t ask a tough question if his life depended on it.”
I remember laughing. The Congressman wasn’t generally ranked among the very brightest members of Congress in those surveys the media occasionally did, but his assessment of his colleagues and others, like the press, was always dead on.
“And as for the Post,” he continued, “I wouldn’t worry too much about that either. It’s really sad what’s happened to that paper, Andy, and they’re going to realize too late they made a mistake freezing us out. This is going to be a major story for the next couple of months and every media outlet I know is going to want to be talking to us about it. The Post needs us more than we need them. They just don’t realize it yet.”
It was one of those canny observations that often amazed me and helped me better appreciate just how skillful a politician Happy Jack was.
“One final thing on the press, sir,” I said. “We’re planning a press conference and an evening floor vigil for next week once the Subcommittee reports the bill; assuming they do report it, of course. We want you out there denouncing their sense of the House language right after they unveil it. We also have a whole bunch of outside groups lined up that will be denouncing it as well.”
“It’s going to be really important to let the undecided members know from day one that the language the Subcommittee comes up with isn’t going to provide them with any meaningful cover back home this year like it has in the past. So I have a draft of the statement you’ll be making at that press conference here for you to review as well as your remarks for the vigil. But keep in mind that both of those will likely change some when we have a better idea what their language actually says. The only thing we know for sure at this point is that it’ll be totally meaningless as usual.”
“Okay,” Happy Jack responded. “As you well know, Andy, I’m capable of some mighty fine denunciations,” he added, smiling to himself. “Some mighty fine denunciations indeed.”
“Just as long as it’s not personal,” he continued, looking over at me. “I don’t want us attacking Norm, any of the members of the Subcommittee, or the leadership. Or the White House for that matter either, Andy. We can attack the war without attacking the motives of those who support it. Understood?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, biting my tongue; because to me the war was all too personal.
“I keep emphasizing that a lot with other staff and especially with the non-governmental staff who are helping us out,” I continued. “Some of those outside groups are pretty hard to control, you know, but I think they’ll listen because they know how much progress we’ve made this last year.”
“Very good, Andy,” he said, taking the statements from me. “What else?”
“That’s about it, sir,” I replied, “at least for right now. I’ll be meeting with some of the other Congressional staff who are helping us out at 10 a.m. this morning to go over strategy and tactics for the coming week. And I’m meeting with the non-governmental staff that support your amendment at 11:00 a.m. to do the same thing with them.”
“That’s good,” he said. “You’ve been doing some terrific work helping me out here, Andy. I appreciate it. Now you know, of course, that offering this particular amendment doesn’t do me very much good back home.”
I had been expecting this. The Congressman would do the right thing, but there wasn’t a day that passed without him letting me know how much his support for the amendment wasn’t helpful politically back home. He needed to be reassured.
“Well, you know, sir, the latest polling back in the district does show that lots of people support your amendment,” I said, “a majority in fact.”
“Yes, I know that, Andy, and lots of them don’t support it either,” he countered.
“I understand, sir,” I replied. “But the people who oppose the war feel much more passionately about your amendment than those who support the war.”
“That may be true, Andy,” he countered, “but they also tend to be younger and don’t vote as much as the people who oppose the amendment.”
We went back and forth like this for several more minutes. It was a ritual by now and I knew how it would end.
“Not that I’m wavering on the amendment, Andy,” the Congressman finally said. “It may not help me back home, but I do believe it’s the right thing to do. And I always do what I believe is the right thing.”
“It is the right thing, sir,” I added, gathering up my papers. “History will show you were right on this and really courageous to take on the Administration, whether Republican or Democratic.”
It wasn’t a lie or just flattery. I believed it deep in my heart. But I also knew that his reasons for opposing the war didn’t really get to the heart of the matter. Oh, sure, it hurt him to see how many young men and women were being killed or maimed by the war, how many civilians were becoming collateral damage, especially the children.
So many children, I remember thinking. Like those boys gathering wood to keep the chill away in the hovels they and their parents lived in up in the hills.
A mistake, of course, that’s what the White House spokesman always said. It was a terrible mistake. An investigation was underway to make sure something like that never happened again. And then, gathering up the bullshit papers the Pentagon had fed him, he would disappear from the podium, at least until the next time it happened and he was called on to do his job once again, to feed the American people the same tired lie about how it had been a mistake, a terrible mistake, and how the Pentagon was conducting an investigation to prevent it from ever happening again.
It wasn’t a mistake, of course. It was policy and it was a crime, a crime against humanity. But the criminals weren’t the boys like Jesse who pulled the trigger and gunned down nine boys. Most of the time they were just following the rule, the real one, not the phony rules the Pentagon said applied. They were following the rule of survival: shoot first, ask questions later.
No, the criminals were the politicians back in Washington that sent boys like Jesse off to fight wars that could never be won. The criminals were the faceless military and civilian bureaucrats at the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies who devised the strategy and tactics that that did nothing to weaken those we were fighting, but invariably ended up killing innocent civilians and their kids. The criminals were the corporations that profited from war and lobbied to keep the wars going in order to satiate their greed for the obscene profits they earned every year.
And the American people? For the most part, they never even seemed to notice. They were too busy doing something that must have seemed more important. And if they had noticed, it’s doubtful most would have cared very much. It wasn’t their kids who were being gunned down after all and they had been told there were more important things at stake than nine boys gathering wood on some hill in some god forsaken hellhole.
What were those more important things, an occasional voice among the citizenry would ask? But by then the news cycle had moved on and so the answer was never forthcoming.
So, yeah, I was proud that Happy Jack cared about the killing. But most of all the war offended his conservative values, the fact that so much money was being wasted on such a futile effort. He was tight with his own money. That’s why he had lots of it. And he believed the government should be tight with taxpayer monies as well.
To me all of those were good enough reasons to oppose the war. But they didn’t get to the heart of the matter, the fact that America was still embarked on the same tired imperial mission designed to reshape the world in its own image that had been ongoing for so many years, from the very beginning if truth be told.
Oh, sure, the American Revolution had been about more than one thing. But one of the things it had been about was repudiating the King’s efforts to close lands west of the Allegheny Mountains to settlement. Too many Americans had too big a financial stake in those territories to ever allow something like that to happen. And once the Revolution had begun, those imperial ambitions had revealed themselves still again in the effort to incorporate Canada into the United States. That had failed, of course, but we would try again in 1812.
Once the Revolution was won and freedom to move west secured, the imperial project gathered even more steam. You could see it manifesting itself along the trail of tears although, truth be told, there was never just one trail of tears. Every native American tribe would eventually experience its very own trail of tears.
You could see the project at work in the Mexican American War. Lincoln had wandered these very same halls of Congress denouncing that conflict for exactly the land grab it was. But he hadn’t been able to stop it, of course. Nothing seemed capable of stopping America’s imperial mission. It was our destiny, our manifest destiny.
“Where shall we find room for all of our people, unless we have Oregon?” the Congressman had asked in 1846. “What shall we do with all those little white-headed boys and girls - God bless them! - that cover the western prairies?”
You could see the imperial project at work in Cuba, the Philippines, Panama, Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Nicaragua and El Salvador, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now in North Burkistan.
Like Athens, America was a democracy at home but an imperial power abroad, an “empire for liberty” as Jefferson had put it, “a shining city on a hill” as John Winthrop and Ronald Reagan were wont to say. Along with slavery, imperialism had been one of America’s two original sins. Unlike slavery, imperialism was still alive and well in America even if its aim had shifted from the acquisition of land to the control of resources and events over the centuries. It was nurtured and sustained by a military industrial complex that an earlier President had warned Americans about.
And now in our time everything was there for anyone who bothered to look: the incredible sums of money lavished on the military and the intelligence agencies while socially productive investments in education, technology, infrastructure, and more were starved; the craving for military bases overseas, more than 700 of them and still growing; the permanent stationing of American ships and forces in forward positions around the globe in order to project power; the threat of force to keep others in line and its use to overthrow those foolish enough not to obey; the support provided to despots around the globe who slavishly supported our policies. You had to be blind not to see it.
But Americans didn’t want to hear that, of course. They didn’t really want to be bothered with looking. They had long since been told they were morally superior to other peoples, lesser peoples, and thus entitled to employ force rather than persuasion to get their way. They never even saw the contradiction in having a government that accused some nations of state-sponsored terrorism while rewarding others who murdered scientists in a futile effort to prevent those in disfavor from obtaining whatever it was we didn’t want them to have.
America was an exceptional nation they had been told by countless politicians, one destined by geography, culture, constitutional genius, divine providence and more to play a unique and outsized role in human affairs. They didn’t understand or appreciate that it was those very same politicians whose behavior every day tarnished the ideals that could have made their country an exceptional nation.
They were too consumed by the pursuit of wealth and the consumption that wealth permitted to resist the imperial project. Once they no longer had to fear their own sons and daughters would be drafted to fight for the imperial project, that it could be managed entirely with paid volunteers, Americans had turned away and let successive Administrations pursue the project without any further serious challenge.
They were only too happy to let others do what they had been told needed to be done. Torture? Indefinite detention, even for American citizens, without access to the courts or any hope of ever being released? So be it. They lived in dangerous times. If privacy needed to be sacrificed, if the Constitution had to be trimmed, so be it. Even if we had to bankrupt the country in the process, so be it. Americans wanted to be protected against any risk and they were willing to risk everything that made them Americans in the process.
“We’re an empire now,” one President’s chief political strategist had noted, “and when we act, we create our own reality.”
And thus successive Administrations had become more and more skillful at demonizing whoever happened to be the latest object of the imperial project, whether Árbenz, Mossadegh, Allende, Ortega, Noriega, Saddam, or even religious faiths, such as Muslims, who became a handy stand in for terrorists more generally. They knew how to manipulate public opinion, how to scare people into acquiescing in what was being done in their names, how to persuade Americans that chanting “we’re number one” somehow made America number one.
So many of the abuses, crimes and other excesses of the last couple of decades - torture, indefinite detention, invasions, bombings, illegal surveillance, renditions, assassinations, disappearances, even the killing of small boys gathering wood on a hill - resulted from the endless demonization of those they called the enemy. And once sufficient fear of an enemy had been generated, it became almost impossible to convince Americans that the tradeoff between security and freedom was too great.
It was sad to see what had happened to America. To be sure, there had always been voices who spoke out against it. Lincoln did so during the Mexican-American War. Others had spoken out in 1898 when American forces intervened in Cuba’s three-year-old struggle for independence. Mark Twain and other prominent Americans had formed the American Anti-Imperialist League in 1898 to battle annexation of the Philippines. One newspaper editor who agreed had even noted in jest that it was “a sinful extravagance to waste our civilizing influence upon the unappreciative Filipinos when it is so badly needed right here in Arkansas.”
Americans had taken to the streets in massive numbers to oppose the Vietnam War. Many Members of Congress had fought Reagan’s secret wars in Central America and still other voices had spoken up against Bush and Obama. But as the project gathered more and more steam, the dissenting voices had begun to fall silent. The schools didn’t teach their children about the Platt amendment anymore so Americans had little appreciation for just how hated they were.
“There is, of course, little or no real independence left Cuba under the Platt Amendment,” General Leonard Wood remarked to Theodore Roosevelt, in October 1901, soon after the Platt Amendment was incorporated into the Cuban Constitution. “The more sensible Cubans realize this and feel that the only consistent thing now is to seek annexation.” But annexation would have been costly. Better to let greedy corporate investors lease the country in order to make it safe for gambling, prostitution, and exploitation.
The schools didn’t teach how America had paid Spain $20 million for the Philippines or how the Filipinos, rallying under the slogan “No hay derecho a vender un pueblo como se vende un saco de patatas” (“There is no right to sell a nation like a sack of potatoes”), flocked to the forces of Emilio Aguinaldo to oppose their new colonial master. They didn’t teach how General Funston and his troops had been forced to chase Aguinaldo around the Philippines for almost two years in an effort to suppress that country’s independence movement or how that movement had continued even after Aguinaldo was caught.
Nor did they teach that, as of July, 1902, when the United States declared what it called the Philippine Insurrection over, 200,000 to 220,000 Filipinos had died, of whom only about 15,000 were actual combatants. It was astonishing how little Americans even knew about the history of their own state of Hawaii or how territories like Puerto Rico and Guam had come into their possession.
And so the imperial project survived and prospered from one administration to the next, and by now there were more than sixty bases alone dedicated to the drones that rained down death and destruction from the sky on the innocent and the guilty alike.
The military industrial complex grew ever stronger, consuming resources to make weapons that had to be used up in one war so that still more weapons could be manufactured and used in the next. Americans no longer called those who manufactured the weapons - corporations with names like Halliburton, Northrop, General Dynamics, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and the many thousands of smaller companies feasting at the Pentagon’s tit - what they would have been called by an earlier generation of Americans, merchants of death.
The Pentagon’s appetite for more and more ships, tanks, Hummers, planes, helicopters, missiles, drones, thirty thousand pound bombs (just twenty of which cost Americans $314 million) and other high tech toys was insatiable. Why should it come as a surprise that there would be companies willing to produce such weaponry, companies only too anxious for the bloated profits to be made from cost plus contracts and the negligence of their Federal overseers?
Indeed, over the years the Pentagon had become more and more skillful in making sure those contracts were spread far and wide so that Americans would have jobs and politicians would get credit for enhancing the economies of their states and their districts. The B-2 bomber had suppliers in all fifty states. What community would voluntarily relinquish the plants, the jobs, and the stimulus to the local economy provided by those bloated contracts? How could the national economy not become warped and distorted when it rewarded death rather than life?
It hadn’t been all bad, of course. America had done the right thing at times. It had stood against fascism and totalitarianism in Europe and Japan. It had rebuilt those economies in the wake of those wars. But Americans were accustomed to celebrating what their country had done right, oblivious or indifferent to what it had done wrong or just how badly it had lost its way. Yet, for all of it, there were still some Americans who dreamed of a different America, of course, a better America.
It was the reason why the President had been elected. She had promised change and people had believed once again. But, just as before, the promised change wasn’t forthcoming. The President had "reassessed" the situation once the election was over and had suddenly discovered she needed flexibility, that we couldn’t leave North Burkistan after all, at least any time soon, even though we had already been there for more than eight years. There was too much at stake, she argued.
It was the same argument her predecessors had made before her and her successors would make in the future. And, after all, who could argue with the President? She must have some secret information that none of the rest of Americans had. Better to be safe than sorry was the reasoning of most Americans. And what did it matter after all if a few boys were killed in some hills far away while gathering wood to help their families stay warm?
But now the imperial project was coming undone, I remember thinking. And this time it was finally going to take America down with it when it did and that troubled me greatly because I loved my country and wanted her to be the best she could be. America was in decline, but not very many people realized it just yet. They wouldn’t realize it until much later. They wouldn’t realize it until it was too late in fact. And then they would wonder how it had happened, never understanding that it had happened because of them.
Happy Jack would have agreed with none of this, of course. He still believed in the benevolent America he had been taught about in his youth. And perhaps he was right and I was wrong, at least I hoped he was right. I just didn’t believe it. But I knew both of us agreed on one thing. What this fight was about was the future of America and both of us wanted to win.
As I rose to leave his office, the Congressman peered at me.
“Just one other thing, Andy,” he said.
“Yes?” I replied, turning and looking back over at him.
“Promise me you’ll go home early today and get some sleep, son. You look tired, Andy, really tired. How are you ever going to persuade one of those pretty young ladies over in Charlie’s office to marry you if you don’t take better care of yourself, son?”
I remember laughing.
Fat chance of that ever happening, Happy Jack, I said to myself. It’ll be a cold day in hell before you catch me in bed with one of those babes, no matter how good looking they are. But thanks. It was nice to know someone cared even if it was just an aging congressman who genuinely wished the best for everyone under the sun.
“Thank you, sir,” I replied. “I was up really late last night and I’m pretty tired right now.”
And with that I left his office.