Michael Berry's Dead Osama Pep Rally

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Janise Car.JPG
Photos by John Nova Lomax
Wheels fit for a celebration.
Early yesterday, Michael Berry, the former Boy Wonder of Houston politics turned radio rabble-rouser, sent out a press release plugging a "Houston Celebration: Osama Bin Laden Dead." The event would be later that day at Hefley's, a Texalicious bar/BBQ joint in what used to be Freedmen's Town. The event would be starting at four and Berry would be gracing us with his presence at 5:30, the release said, and he wanted it known that this was to be a NON-PARTISAN event. (Caps his.)

He then closed his communiqué with a slam at Sheila Jackson Lee. So much for the nonpartisanship, but bless his heart, that's just a reflex for him. As Hunter S. Thompson trained his dog to attack on hearing the word "Nixon," as Chief Inspector Dreyfus would degenerate into a cold-sweating bundle of tics and spasms at the mere mention of Inspector Clouseau, so it goes with Michael Berry and Sheila Jackson Lee. Berry seems unable to go 500 words without nipping at her expensively, if not tastefully, shoed heels.

Turns out that dead Osama pep rally was a much more subdued affair than we thought it would be. In fact, it was so subdued that the perpetually irascible KTRH grouser showed up over an hour and a half after he said he would, which was about an hour after most of the media, including Hair Balls, had already lost interest.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. We had to be there. This was history.

And we went expecting to see vengeful, drunken mobs like the ones we saw pictured in New York and Washington overnight Sunday. What we found instead was a slightly militarized happy hour with deafening AM radio providing the audio.

Bud Light and an "Osama Dead" T-shirt: Ain't that America?
There was less a sense that we were attending the aftermath of a public execution of a very bad man than there was a sense of relief, a feeling like that in the days after Hurricane Rita swerved east.

At about 5 p.m., from half a block away, the event looked promising. The parking lot was studded with the masts of three or four TV vans. A company called Big Fat Freedom was handing out T-shirts bearing Osama's likeness with a red X through it and the single word: "Terminated." (Another shirt read "God Bless Arizona," so there goes that nonpartisan thing again.)

Before they switched to a live feed of Berry's show, the jukebox was kicking out country, blues and classic rock jams. (Naturally, we did not escape without hearing the obligatory dose of Lee Greenwood's stomach-churning "proud to be an American" song.)

All that was missing was the turnout. The five or six cops on hand were supremely bored, and the dozen or so reporters had to fight over people to interview. (In fact, I wasted my first interview questioning a guy at the bar inside who turned out to be a freelance photographer there to do his own story. For the record, he thinks Osama's death was a good thing, and he is glad it happened.)

Meanwhile, all the flat-screens in the bar were tuned to Fox News, and George Thorogood's Delaware Destroyers were rumbling through their cover of John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillun." As I read for the first time details of Operation Geronimo, the fateful raid, as the news-scroll unspoiled tidbits like the choppers descending and disgorging 24 fast-roping Navy Seals, I couldn't help but feel a surge of testosterone.

In all seriousness: America! Fuck yeah, baby!

Energized, I spoke to B. Lee Frazier, a 69-year-old white guy sitting alone at a table outside. Frazier said Osama's death was long overdue, and he was shocked that it had finally happened. I didn't bring up Obama, but Frazier broached the subject for me. "I don't make judgments," he said. "I give credit to whoever was in office."

By this time, Berry's show was getting beamed into the bar. Berry was saying that Obama should have called George W. Bush and given him credit for never forgetting about 9/11. WTF?

And today wasn't about presidents anyway, Berry continued, it was "about the brave men and women in our armed forces." He said that many of them would be at this event and we should buy them a beer and show them our support. I didn't see any, yet.

Your money's no good here, Marine.
And then, as if on cue, a tubby guy in an Army trucker cap and an Operation Enduring Freedom T-shirt came in with his girlfriend. Another woman asked the guy if he had served, and he said he had. A free beer was produced. (Later a more convincing-looking military man --- a Marine in full dress uniform -- would come in to backslaps and cheers.)

Back at Hefley's at a nearby table sat Ray Brooks and Josefina Porto, both of whom were feeling truly vengeful. They hoped that scenes of celebration like this one would be beamed back to the Middle East as payback for the way some there were shown dancing in the streets in the aftermath of 9/11.

Both of them had lived and worked over there, in places like Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia, where they say they were persecuted by the locals for being American. "We were questioned, poked, prodded," Brooks said. (Saudi was the worst, he said.) Porto said Arab women she personally knew were beaten by their husbands for expressing even the most timid of anti-Osama views. "I am just ecstatic that he is dead," she said.

With short, silver hair and bewitching brown eyes behind severe, steel-framed glasses, Porto made quite an effect as she told of emigrating here from post-Franco Galicia, a Celtic region of northwestern Spain where the people play bagpipes. Her love of her adopted country, and Texas even more so, was fierce indeed. Even if I found a lot of her politics wrongheaded in the extreme, her passion literally brought tears to my eyes as she told of her struggle to become an American, the great internal battle she fought for many years.

"America gives its citizenship too easily to too many people," she said. She herself refused to become an American until she realized that if there were another war between Spain and the United States, she would enlist on the American side and be prepared to kill her former compatriots.

She loved that America allowed her to say what she thought, but still had some quandaries she would love to see resolved. "How is it okay to burn the American flag but not the Koran?" she asked, fire in her eyes. "My mother used to say too many people confuse libertad with libertinaje. Do you understand that?

"It's freedom versus license," Brooks put in.

And then Russell Janise drove up in his red, white and blue art car, a 1960s convertible Lincoln that looked like something Evel Knievel would have used to run errands in back in his heyday. Janise was given pride of (parking) place, and he stepped out wearing an American flag shirt and ball cap.

He said he painted the car about ten years ago when both of his nephews were sent overseas to fight in the army. Ex-mayor Bill White had ridden in it with him in the Art Car Parade a few years back, and Janise wanted Mayor Parker to do it too. It had been to Detroit and Talladega, the latter an all-American kind of place where many people appreciated the sentiment behind it.

He seemed like such a nice guy. He had family in the army. Sometimes he wore an Uncle Sam suit. It was all in good fun. And then he told me how he had also driven it to Crawford to help shut up that Cindy Sheehan woman.

Though there was a reasonably decent turnout of several dozen by about 6:30, by that time the TV trucks had retracted their masts and gone in search of richer quarry. Contrary to the hopes of Porto and Brooks, this subdued death-jubilee would not be provoking that "Arab Street" we used to hear about so much.

Berry's Deep East Texas voice could still be heard on the loudspeakers throughout Hefley's. He was saying he would be down here after his show was over, and we would all get to sing the national anthem together and recite the pledge of allegiance. He worked in a couple more Sheila slams, too; something about how she was on the Pakistan Caucus seemed damning to him, as if Dubya and Reagan and Bush Senior all hadn't been currying favor with various regimes over there since the Russians invaded Afghanistan.

So it was a weird day. Everybody I talked to was willing to give President Obama at least some tiny sliver of credit, even if they claimed it was the only good thing he had ever done in his entire, foreign-born, crypto-Islamic, secretly Socialist life. For those couple of hours, they were willing to say he wasn't all bad after all.

But like Michael Berry said, this wasn't about the president. This was about the soldiers.

Somehow we wonder if he would have said the same thing had Osama been taken out five years ago.

But was the sense of relief we all felt rooted in reality?

Out on the deck, early on in the evening, we also spoke to Raul Salas, who saw Osama's death in the sweetest terms imaginable, even as he wore one of the shirts with a red X through Osama's face. "It's a sign the war is almost over," he enthused. "Now we can spend less money overseas and start spending it over here, creating jobs and bringing America back."

Ah yes, the peace dividend. How quaint. We remember when people used to talk about those... Right after the Cold War ended, and Communism had been safely corked back in the genie's bottle from whence it came, America was going to take billions and billions of dollars out of the defense budget. We were going to beat those swords not just into plowshares, but bridges, better health care, better education. There would be a chicken in every pot, a Chevy Blazer in every garage, petunias blooming in every flowerbed, good books in every soul, and healthy blood running in the veins of every American child.

But suddenly, when all this talk of a peace dividend reached a fever pitch, life, in the form of Saddam Hussein, got in the way.

Suddenly, just when the risk of peace seemed highest, George H.W. Bush and Dick Cheney convinced us all that we were talking rot. All that talk of peace dividends now seems as much a relic of its time as Murphy Brown and Milli Vanilli.

And this time around, we aren't even allowed to dream of one of these cute little lovey-dovey peace dividends.

We got on our bike and pedaled off home, past the burned-out churches and worn-down shotgun shacks in what little remained of what once had been Freedmen's Town.


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