Monthly Archives: August 2010

Return of “Billy, Don’t be a Hero”


Last night, while Pam and I were eating at MacAlister’s Deli, I heard the song, “Billy Don’t be a Hero.” It took me back to 1974 when this anti-war song hit Number 1. It was originally recorded by Paper Lace, where it topped the charts in England. But before Paper Lace could release it in the States, Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods covered it, and their version is what I remember. (The Paper Lace version stalled at 96 in the US.)

The song appeared during the latter years of the Vietnam War, when we were getting out. The mood in America was, “Let’s cut our losses. It’s not worth losing our sons in that no-account country.” Kind of like people are now thinking about Afghanistan.

The song ends on a note of despair. Billy’s fiance had been telling him, “Don’t be a hero. Keep your head down. Come back to me.” But in the midst of combat, he volunteers for a risky mission, and dies. The song ends:

I heard his fiancee got a letter
That told how Billy died that day.
The letter said that he was a hero.
She should be proud he died that way.
I heard she threw the letter away.

I was a junior in high school at the time. I loved that song; it told a good story and I could understand all the lyrics. (The same guy wrote “The Night Chicago Died,” another great story-song, and one which did become a US hit for Paper Lace). I can still remember all the lyrics. When I heard the song playing last night, it all came back to me. I was mentally singing along with it.

The song was probably written with the Civil War in mind. That’s how Paper Lace portrayed it on their album cover. Twice it refers to the men as “soldier blues,” and one line says, “I need a volunteer to ride up and bring us back some extra men.” Like, ride up in a Jeep? More likely ride up on a horse.

Yet, the song is anonymous enough to apply to any war. Especially unpopular wars. In “Star Trek: the Next Generation,” Tasha Y’ar’s death is described as an “empty” death, a death without real purpose, no heroics, no lasting meaning. That is how people had begun viewing Vietnam–an empty war, undeserving of American blood. Billy’s fiance seemingly viewed his death as empty (though I’m sure Billy, and his fellow soldiers, didn’t).

Are people beginning to view Afghanistan that way? Just another hopeless cause, like Vietnam?

I’ve been musing about that song’s reappearance. Pop music often reflects what’s happening in society. Is “Billy, Don’t be a Hero” being revived, because that’s how people feel about our two wars? We’ve been lauding our fallen as heroes, and they are. But will people begin telling their children and spouses and siblings, “Don’t be a hero. It’s not worth dying over there.”

Give it a couple more years, with weekly American deaths in Afghanistan and no progress worth mentioning. Then some opportunistic group could re-record “Billy Don’t be a Hero,” and they may just have a huge hit.

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Glenn Beck as a Christian Leader?


With Glenn Beck increasingly talking about God and Christ, and using the same terminology that Christians use, it’s easy for Christians to assume, “He’s one of us. He believes the same things.” But he’s a Mormon. The Mormons are adept at using our terminology, but giving it different meaning.

Now, he’s using pretty specific terminology about salvation by faith in Christ alone, and he has presented the salvation message clearly on his show. Is he a born-again Christian living within the Mormon church? Is that even possible? Ed Decker writes, “Only after Beck announces that he is leaving the Mormon Church will I believe he is a Christian in a biblical sense.” This is all very puzzling.

The fact is, Mormons differ substantially with Christians on every major doctrine. There is no compatibility. Mormonism is an entirely different religion. You can’t be an evangelical Christian and a Mormon at the same time, anymore than you can simultaneously be a Buddhist and a Muslim.

Glenn Beck has an influential platform, and he declares himself as part of the Christian mainstream. He surrounds himself with persons with solid Christian credentials. Legions of Christians follow his program religiously. With Saturday’s rally at the Lincoln Memorial, and his new group to organize pastors, Beck has positioned himself as a leader of Conservative evangelicals. As I said, it’s very puzzling.

Richard Land, who directs public policy for the Southern Baptist Convention, and who doesn’t consider Beck a Christian, says he was stunned by the “Restoring Honor” rally.

“His shows sound like you’re listening to the Trinity Broadcasting Network, only it’s more orthodox and there’s no appeal for money…and today he sounded like Billy Graham.”

So it’s important to know, when he throws around Christian lingo, what he actually believes. When he talks about Christ or God or salvation, don’t apply your own understanding of that word. As long as he identifies himself as a Mormon, those words have a different meaning based in Mormon theology.

I researched Mormonism years ago, but had forgotten much of it. So I did a quick refresher study, wanting to be reminded of the fundamental beliefs of Mormonism. Listen to Glenn Beck all you want. Join his causes. Just be aware of what his religion is all about.

God. God was once a man named Elohim living on another planet, who became a god by following the laws of that planet’s god. He then came to earth with his wife, and they produced offspring–Jesus, Lucifer, and all the rest of humanity. God is not a spirit, but has a flesh-and-bones body. Mormons say, “As man is, God was. As God is, man shall become.”

God says in Isaiah 44:6, “I am the first and I am the last, And there is no God besides Me.” Mormons don’t believe that.

Jesus. Jesus was merely the first child of God. Lucifer was the second child, and you and I are equally children of God (Jesus is our oldest sibling). Jesus is now a god.

Trinity. Rather than God in three persons, the Mormon trinity involves three separate persons–the god who rules our planet, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit (the only god who doesn’t have a body).

Bible. The Bible is accurate only as far as it is correctly translated. Mormons believe it has been corrupted over the years. It is basically trustworthy, but not infallible like the other Mormon holy documents: the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.

Book of Mormon. An angel directed Joseph Smith to some gold plates, which he translated. The Book of Mormon is more authoritative than the Bible. It contains a lot of really strange stuff.

The Church. The church is the Mormon church with its organizational structure and laws, not the universal body of believers. Mormons view themselves as the true church of Jesus Christ. After Christ’s death, the church fell into apostasy. When Joseph Smith came along in the 1800s, the true gospel hadn’t been preached for 1800 years. Thomas A’Kempis, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley–all heretics.

Man. We exist as spirits in heaven until we are given human form as babies, at which point our memories of preexistence are wiped out. We all have the chance to become gods of our own planets.

Salvation. Mormons achieve perfection not through Christ’s atoning death on the cross, but by works–by following the tenants of the Mormon church.

Former Mormon prophet Spencer Kimball wrote, “One of the most fallacious doctrines originated by Satan and propounded by man is that man is saved alone by the grace of God; that belief in Jesus Christ alone is all that is needed for salvation.”

Christ’s sacrifice is not enough to cleanse us from our sins. Good works are necessary. Also: There is no salvation without accepting Joseph Smith as a prophet of God. (Brigham Young wrote that only polygamists would become gods.)

Baptism. It’s necessary for salvation. Your ancestors can be baptized by proxy, which is why Mormons are so big on genealogy research. (Christians believe baptism is an important ordinance, but not necessary for salvation.)

Heaven. Everyone will go to one of three levels of heaven. The Celestial Kingdom is for Mormons who become gods, the Terrestrial Kingdom is for moral people and lukewarm Mormons, and the Telestial Kingdom is for everyone else.

Hell. There is no eternal punishment. Hell is just a temporary place between death and resurrection. “Eternal damnation” refers to anything less than becoming a god.

Living Prophets. The head of the Mormon Church is a living prophet whose pronouncements carry more weight than scripture. Brigham Young believed his sermons were equal to Scripture. “I have never yet preached a sermon and sent it out to the children of men, that they may not call Scripture.”

David Barton tells Christians to ask, “What fruit do you see produced by Glenn?…Christians concerned about Glenn’s faith should judge the tree by its fruits, not its labels,”

That is a dangerous, dangerous attitude. It is not our works that make us Christians, but our faith in Christ. We can find good, moral people doing great work in every religion, including atheism. But their fruit doesn’t make them fellow Christians.

Ed Decker describes the problem this way:

Beck = Christian,
Beck = Mormon
Mormon = Christian

Just because you like what Glenn Beck declares regarding President Obama and the Founding Fathers and everything else, don’t assume that he is a brother in Christ.

Matthew 24:24–“For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.”

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Five Milestones Toward Adulthood

Salon magazine wrote about the five milestones that signify adulthood:

  1. The end of formal education.
  2. Separation from the family.
  3. Financial independence.
  4. Marriage.
  5. Parenthood.

In 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had
passed all five milestones by the age of 30. By 2000, fewer than 50
percent of the women and 33 percent of the men had done so.

We’ve heard this before–that all of these are being postponed to later in line.

I was musing about it regarding myself. I did the first three on time. I basically separated from my parents at age 19 when I moved across the country to start college. I ended my formal education at age 23, and went right into my career, thereby achieving financial independence.

Marriage waited until I was 33. Most people agree that postponing marriage can be a good thing, since you go into it with more maturity and resources. And parenthood ain’t gonna happen, by choice.

So I’ve followed the traditional script pretty well. So did my two brothers (all five steps). I think it’s a pretty healthy script, when you get right down to it.

The article notes that some people now refer to the 20s as “emerging adulthood,” a stage people pass through on their way to full adulthood. I don’t like that concept. In earlier times, people were getting married and having kids and starting careers at 16, and doing fine. Is there something about our culture that makes it more difficult for people to mature?

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Book: “Dead Street,” by Mickey Spillane

dead-street.jpgI just read my first Mickey Spillane novel, and it’s not at all what I expected.

My image of Spillane goes back to the 1970s, when I was a teenage kid and would see risque book covers by such authors as Spillane and John D. MacDonald. Judging a book by its cover, I assumed they were tawdry, sex-filled books, and being a good preacher’s kid, that didn’t interest me. Besides, back then, all I cared about was science fiction.

But mysteries have been my primary interest for 20 years. About ten years ago I discovered the older pulp fiction and was delighted by the plots, characters, and relative lack of sexual content. Hammett, Chandler, Whittington, Goodis, Willeford–good stuff.

In 2004, a line of paperback hardboiled crime novels was launched called Hard Case Crime. Most feature covers which hark back to the golden age of pulp fiction, with beautiful women in peril, and not necessarily well-clad. The series, now up to 70-some books, features pulp fiction writers of decades past (Charles Williams, Gil Brewer, David Goodis, Brett Halliday), along with established or promising contemporary writers of the genre.

One of the first Hard Case Crime books was Stephen King’s, “The Colorado Kid.” I knew Stephen King, knew what to expect. It was a decent book (though he should stick to horror), and I decided to try other Hard Case Crime books. To this point, I’ve read 19 books in the imprint.

At Half-Priced Books, I came across “Dead Street,” by Mickey Spillane. I started reading it last night, with ingrained assumptions, and was immediately hooked. The guy can write!

The story is told first-person by Jack Stang, a retired NYPD cop. Twenty years ago, his fiance was abducted by mobsters and presumed dead. Now he discovers that she was found–blind, and with no memory–by a veterinarian who took her in and cared for her. Bettie is now living in a Florida community populated mostly by retired NYPD cops and fireman, and the vet has arranged for Stang to move into a house next to her.

So he moves to Florida, immediately encounters Bettie, and long-buried memories are triggered. Bettie knows nothing about her past relationship with Jack, or her previous life in general. But scraps keep surfacing.

Of course, mobsters had abducted Bettie for a reason, wanting something she could give–but were foiled in their efforts. If they learn that she’s still alive, they’ll come after her. And of course, they do.

In trying to track down the mystery of why Bettie was abducted, Stang makes several trips back to New York. The story gradually unravels. There’s action and killing. But there are also long passages where it’s just Jack and Bettie talking. I’m very impressed by how Spillane constructed this book.

Spillane died in 2006, with “Dead Street” mostly done. Max Allan Collins finished it, using Spillane’s extensive notes, and Hard Case Crime published “Dead Street” in 2007. It’s really a wonderful book. with practically no sexual content and minimal obscenity (for a contemporary book). I couldn’t put it down, and finished the 207 pages in half a day.

I don’t know what Spillane’s other books are like. Perhaps the Mike Hammer series, for which he’s best known, is more in line with the slutty covers of that era. But maybe not. “Dead Street” had the restraint, sexual and otherwise, of detective fiction from the 1940s and 1950s, even though it was written in recent years. I need to spot-check another Spillane book to see if it delights me as much as “Dead Street” did.

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Letter Jacket Glory Days


Me and Jenny Vergon with our high school letter jackets. Be true to your school!

This morning at Anchor, we had a schooldays theme. Pastor Tim recognized everyone who is attending school, and everyone who works in a school setting. The message was directed to the younger children, who then all received a pack of crayons. We’ve been collecting school supplies for kids for a while, in cooperation with Grace Presbyterian. Those supplies were given out at Grace this afternoon.

After Tim passed out the crayons, the worship team did the Beach Boys song, “Be True to Your School.” Two of us on the worship team remembered to bring our high school letter jackets–me, and Jenny Vergon. Jenny’s jacket still fit great, but mine was pretty tight. However, I squeezed it on.

I played two years of varsity tennis at Tulare Union High School in Tulare, Calif. We were co-champs of the East Yosemite League both years. We then won outright in a playoff both years, thereby earning the chance to compete in the San Joaquin Valley championship, where we ended up 3rd or 4th each year. Glory days. However, the patches on our jackets still said “co-champs.” I was captain my senior year, which gave me an additional star.

I always loved wearing that jacket. Even when I earned a college letter jacket after my freshman year, I preferred wearing my high school jacket with all the additional bling. Call me insecure. Yeah, I probably was. This made a skinny kid feel (if not look) like a real athlete.

Last summer, I threw out my college letter jacket after removing the big “H.” The cheap lining in the sleeves was disintegrating, leaving red specks everywhere. A hopeless cause. But my high school jacket was still tucked away in a storage bin, where Pam located it last night before church.

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Book: “Lake of Darkness” (Ruth Rendell)

lake-of-darkness.jpgIt’s easy to recognize Ruth Rendell’s writing. The prose is elegant, and it’s restrained, with strong emotions held in check. When violence occurs, it happens in an almost incidental way, without fanfare. The violence emerges from a well-defined character, and seems totally natural. The fact that she’s a British writer completes the description.

I just finished my fifth Rendell book, “The Lake of Darkness.” Martin Urban wins a large chunk of money and decides to give half of it away to selected people in need–a task which is more difficult than it would seem. Along the way, he strikes up a romance with a young woman named Francesca, who is quite a bit of a mystery.

Occasionally, the narrative switches to Finn, a strange guy caring for his demented mother. Finn is also a killer. The Finn and Urban storylines, obviously, eventually intersect.

The book moves along slowly, yet purposefully. Rendell develops her characters well, and you begin guessing where things are headed. I wasn’t surprised by the ending, but I wasn’t sure just where it would end up.

I prefer lots of action and less description. And yet, Rendell is such a doggone good writer that I’m perfectly willing to plod along with her.

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Book: “Flood,” by Andrew Vachss

FC1441817042.JPGThis is the first of the 18 “Burke” novels by Andrew Vachss. It was first published in 1980. Now, all 18 books are part of the Black Lizard imprint from Vintage Books.

“Flood” is the name of a young woman who seeks Burke out in her quest to track down–and wreak vengeance on–a pedophile who calls himself the Cobra. Flood is highly trained in the martial arts, but lacks the know-how for navigating the New York City underworld, which is Burke’s specialty.

Along the way, Burke deals with two mercenaries with a huge shipment of weaponry to sell, a pimp named Dandy who is beating on his girl, and a guy who makes snuff films.

I previously read the fourth book in the series, “Hard Candy.” It’s much grittier, darker. The Burke in “Flood” is squeamish about killing people, about leaving forensic evidence, and about using violence in general. Not so with the Burke of “Hard Candy.” But “Flood” is the better book.

Andrew Vachss, in his 18 “Burke” novels, continually draws attention to issues of child abuse, pedophilia, violence against women, and other sexual abuse. Mention “pedophile,” and Burke goes on the warpath.

Burke is an expert in urban survival and living beneath the radar. He runs with a collection of very interesting characters, including:

  • Max the Silent–a mute, hulking warrior from Nepal.
  • The Mole–a genius who lives beneath a junkyard.
  • Michelle–a transvestite prostitute.
  • The Prophet–an eccentric guy who is the closest thing Burke has to a father.

Now I’m going to read the 2nd and 3rd books in the series, and see if I want to read more. I suspect I will.

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Book: The Long Goodbye (Chandler)

long-goodbye.jpg“The Long Goodbye” is among my favorite Raymond Chandler books. The 9-volume Philip Marlowe series begins in 1939 with “The Big Sleep,” and ends with 1958’s “Playback.” I’ve been reading the books in order, which means I have only “Playback” to go. Then I’m done, because Chandler died in 1959.

The book begins with Marlowe’s accidental friendship with Terry Lennox. When Lennox’s rich wife is killed, and everything points to Lennox as the killer, Marlowe helps Lennox flee to Mexico. There, Lennox apparently commits suicide. And the book moves on.

Marlowe gets involved with a self-destructive, alcoholic writer and his wife. This relationship consumes most of the book. Eventually, their story intersects with that of Terry Lennox. Then several varieties of nastiness commence.

The book moves along rather slowly, but not in a bad way. Chandler masterfully creates the smoky pulp noir mood; you can see steam arising from the LA streets at night. I found myself basking in the atmospherics, which is unusual for me.

And yet, this was a different Marlowe. The Marlowe of the previous books–snarky, smart-mouth–is gone. In his place is a more caustic, rude, humorless fellow who bears little resemblance to Bogart.

And gone are the Chandlerisms that make his books so delightful–the sentences, metaphors, and descriptives that stop you in your tracks every few pages. You must, MUST stop to re-read and admire the wordsmithing.

The only real flash of that Chandler came on page 82 with this line: “He was a guy who talked in commas, like a heavy novel.” His earlier books are filled with such things. From “The High Window,” for instance:

From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.

He looked as if he had been sitting there since the Civil War and had come out of that badly.

Out of the apartment houses come women who should be young but have faces like stale beer….people who look like nothing in particular and know it.

We looked at each other with the clear innocent eyes of a couple of used car salesmen.

She had eyes like strange sins.

A rather heavy perfume struggled with the smell of death, and lost.

There are websites devoted to Chandlerisms (like this one). But “The Long Goodbye” contributes next to nothing. It’s just way too serious.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s an elegantly-written book, with everything you could ask of a novel. But the renowned Marlowe wit is missing, and I don’t know why.

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