-- Paul Krassner
Ever since I began to read, study and compose words as a young boy, poetry has spoken to me in a language as clear as anything in my life. It’s been a vital part of my personal healing and a great reconciler during times of distress. My first published writing was a four-line, rhyming poem that appeared in a national scholastic magazine when I was nine years old. Two brothers who lived up the street from me burned their house down after playing with matches in their basement. No one was hurt in the blaze, but I can remember watching the flames as the family huddled under blankets on the sidewalk. For several nights I had terrible dreams about what I had witnessed. Writing a poem about it helped me express my fears.
A poem’s origin is sometimes lost on its author and rarely revealed to its reader. But when the direction of a poem is exposed, particularly to the poet who wrote it, the effect is often transformative. This is certainly true of some of my earliest poems whose beginnings have not always been so obvious. It’s taken me decades to appreciate the true source of a particular poem and how its unlikely foundation helped guide me through a minefield of uncertainty. Realizing the hidden genesis of an idea has given me valuable insight into where I’ve been and who I’ve become. One such poem of mine, which was responsible for influencing much of my future work, got its start long before I knew the power of my own words.
How Long And Deep Are The Roots
In 1977, my second collection of poetry, “Loading the Revolver with Real Bullets,” was published by Second Coming Press, a small but noteworthy literary publisher based in San Francisco. Its editor, poet A.D. Winans, was a native of the city, like myself, who believed that socio-political poetry was often best served with a twist of the absurd. Many of the poems in my book used satire as a wedge to pry open popular culture and expose the duplicity of cherished institutions.
One of these poems, a short, acerbic verse titled, “The Three Stooges at a Hollywood Party,” not only accomplished this by taking aim at conservative politics and self-serving awards, but it used John Wayne as both a symbol and a conduit. It also helped launch the mock-literary school known as stoogism which poet Allen Ginsberg once called “the only movement with a punch line.” In the poem, fellow actors Randolph Scott, Stuart Whitman and Glen Campbell attend a party at Wayne’s house and end up beating him to a pulp. With reality often stranger than fantasy, the poem managed to spark a wacky political debate and a firestorm of publicity.
Since Second Coming had received a grant from the California Arts Council to publish several books of poetry, including mine, Bob Wilson, a state senator at the time from San Diego, seized the opportunity to bolster his longstanding argument for abolishing the arts council. On September 15, 1978, Wilson held up a copy of my book and, as preposterous as it sounds today, proceeded to read my “Three Stooges” poem on the floor of the state senate. Because public funds were used to produce the book, Wilson insisted that not only was taxpayers’ money being wasted on poetry like mine, but that the state of California would be held liable if the principals named in my poem decided to sue. Here’s the poem in its entirety:
THE THREE STOOGES AT A HOLLYWOOD PARTY
The Three Stooges
get an invitation
to a big party
at John Wayne’s house
but besides the Stooges
the only people
who show up are
and Glen Campbell
who all drop acid
and beat the shit
out of John Wayne
just for the hell of it
John Wayne looks
to the Stooges for help
but they’re too busy
melting down his Oscar
Within hours of Wilson’s political stunt--which went nowhere, legislatively--the phone in my small apartment began ringing like crazy. I fielded calls from United Press International, Reuters and The Associated Press (which dubbed me the “stooge poet”), and I spoke with reporters from a number of metropolitan newspapers across the country, including The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, all of which ran the story and published the poem. One reporter from The New York Times proposed doing a feature and suggested I pose for a photograph holding a pie (I declined). Even Herb Caen, the respected columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle, jumped into the fray. After making light of the situation, Caen poured gasoline on the fire when he concluded that “a few real poets might sue, too.” His remark prompted the California Arts Council to write Caen a letter and remind him that, regardless of personal taste, judging any artist on the weight of just one creative work was playing into the hands of the politicians. To his credit, Caen issued an apology.
Several weeks ago while I was compiling work for a new manuscript, I revisited the poem which had caused such a ruckus many years before. Halfway into it, the origin of the work suddenly burst upon me unexpectedly. For the first time I came to realize how long and deep are the roots of this poem. The basic idea had been dreamed up by me when I was a high school sophomore in 1966, ten years before the poem would ever appear in its final and notorious form. Days before this discovery I had read passages in a journal I kept as a young student at Saint Anthony’s Seminary. Some of the entries not only offered a revealing look into my past, but they presented the reasons why I wrote them in the first place. Although I kept the journal safely hidden behind my dormitory locker, I was often afraid it would be discovered by the priest who was molesting me. Not that I was writing anything incriminating about him or the abuse. What was happening to me was not anything I could easily put into words. I was ashamed, depressed and totally confused, with no wish to share how I felt with anyone.
On the surface, journal writing represented my sincere views and innocent observations. But on an unconscious level I seemed to record my feelings of anger and sorrow in a more creative way. Because I feared revealing my innermost thoughts, I devised a particular code to help me express certain feelings without exposing myself to perceived danger. Though it took a lot of thought to undertake this, I don’t believe I was fully aware of what it meant. Looking at it now, I can see how it all made perfect sense to a fifteen year old boy.
All throughout my journal there appeared, usually in the margins, dozens of fabricated, parody-quotes which I had composed myself. Often silly and absurd, I had attributed them to various famous people, from Emerson, Einstein, Plato and Voltaire, to Danny Kaye, Roy Rogers, Charlie Chaplin and the Three Stooges. Each of the quotes was punctuated by an asterisk at the end but never referred to again anywhere else in my journal. This was meant to remind me that the quotes were alluding to something specific and unnamed. They were, in a sense, little memory triggers.
The hidden meaning of some of the quotes I created are obvious to me today as I decode the context and recall the circumstances (e.g.: the quote, “This is a day that will live infirmary.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt, is a reference to my nightmarish stay in the school infirmary during my freshman year). But it seems I was a little too clever for my own good. The passage of time has made it difficult to make sense of what I was attempting to say in many of the other quotes. Over the years, as I’ve delved deeper into this period of my life, I’ve tried to honor the boy I once was by respecting what he wrote. Total recall is impossible. But true remembrance is often a mystical practice. Like so many memories associated with the trauma of my abuse, some have remained hidden for nearly fifty years waiting to be discovered.
Something That Required Subterfuge
In the fall of 1966, I returned as a sophomore to Saint Anthony’s, a Franciscan minor seminary in Santa Barbara, California. The year before, and all during the first half of my freshman year, I had been sexually assaulted by Mario Cimmarrusti, a priest on the faculty who served as the prefect of discipline. Mario was short in stature, gruff in manner, and had a quick temper. He was a feared and formidable presence on the campus with the authority to make life miserable for any boy he chose--and he usually did. His power and influence over decisions that shaped the lives of those under his control could never be underestimated. He was the only Franciscan in the school whom every student had to answer to on a daily basis.
During this period, many boys in my class were also being molested by Mario. No one ever spoke about it, at least not directly, and certainly not in a way we could understand and explain today. For me and a lot of others, the term, “sexual abuse” was as unfamiliar as sex itself. And yet, those of us who were being traumatized knew, instinctively, that things were bad in our world and in the world around us. It wasn’t until years later that many of us learned, some for the first time, how similar our fates had been.
In the evening, students would be summoned to Mario’s room from study hall, choir practice or the dormitories. During the day we might be yanked from class, football practice or other school activities. With no name for what I was experiencing, my anxiety and confusion only increased. The dreading was more than I cared to admit. It was not difficult to recognize in the faces of my classmates the same pain I saw in my own. The abuse made me feel humiliated, alone and isolated—something it was intended to do. And yet, in the middle of all this dismay I still looked for ways to cope.
One such way was with acts of rebellion.
Many of these acts were small, discreet and secretive, like carving a name on the inside of your study hall desk; sneaking food into the dormitory; or mailing a letter off-campus. In one sense, this was normal behavior for normal boys. But in the context of the abuse, such acts of resistance were undertaken with a greater stake in the outcome.
All of us were begging to be heard. Some louder than others. I was still at the mercy of forces beyond my control even though my abuse had ended months before. Trapped and powerless, I felt there was little I could do to rescue myself, short of leaving the seminary for good, a decision I struggled with almost daily since my return. My confidence received a boost when my classmates chose me to be their class president. But the feeling didn’t last. Acting out in even the smallest way was an attempt to break the rules and revolt against the tyranny I felt was crushing me. Like the abuse, defiant behavior was something I wanted to make sense of but couldn’t. It meant behaving with little regard for the consequences while trying to beat the system. It meant stepping out of character, if only for a brief time, to wrestle control, defy authority and escape an intolerable situation.
Another way I learned to cope was by using humor.
All my life I found myself drawn to friends who possessed a similar sense of the absurd, and many of my seminary classmates were no exception. There were a few students who revered propriety as if it were a sacrament, but even they succumbed in the end. We were young boys swimming in a sea of rules, conventions and, for many, unspeakable horrors. There was simply too much gravity at Saint Anthony’s that begged for comic relief.
As a child growing up in a large family I learned how to get laughs whenever I saw a chance to comment on the cruelty of my surroundings or the ridiculousness of my own existence. At home, I was the court jester. I instigated and aggravated, but I always entertained. When I got to the seminary I realized I had to be a lot more cautious. I became more subdued and watched my own humor mature, more out of self-defense than anything else. I learned to be guarded and open, serious and funny, and usually with a sense of irony about everything.
Despite bouts of anger, cynicism and depression, I remained pathetically optimistic in the face of gloomy alternatives. I had a sensitive, self-critical way with myself but was quick to celebrate the playfulness in others. It was not my style to be the class clown, but I fully appreciated and admired those who dared to take on that role.
One such person was my friend, Ben (not his real name). Like me and so many others, Ben had also been making regular visits to Mario’s room. He was a tall, lanky kid with droopy eyes and a sense of humor that rivaled the best of us. Ben was the guy who made funny, screwball remarks about anything that came to mind. It didn’t seem to matter if he was in class, study hall or even chapel. He usually found a way to express a peculiar thought without regard for his own welfare. After awhile, punishment seemed to have a numbing effect on him.
This infuriated Mario but inspired the rest of us. Ben's droll antics and non-conformist attitude made him a constant target of Mario’s rage. He was one of several boys at the seminary who landed on the prefect’s unofficial blacklist; a marked kid who was constantly being singled out and restricted. He was one of those students who always seemed to be wearing his tie, an odd form of discipline that represented our “scarlet letter.”
By mid-September, the effects of the restraints and the abuse were taking a toll on Ben. The tension was apparent. Most of us who were being molested would either succumb to the shock of the abuse or bury it. Practically no one knew how to resist or fight back.
It was under these conditions that Ben approached me one day with a daring proposal: to join him in a “great escape” from the seminary. Ben had it all figured out. We would pretend to get lost while on a hike looking for eagles’ nests, hide out all night in the mountains, and then return to the seminary the following day. Ben maintained that he didn’t have a prayer if he attempted this by himself. He was a screw-up and he knew it. No one would ever believe his story. But the plan had a greater chance of success if the responsible class president also got “lost.”
I didn’t hesitate for a moment and I think Ben knew that I wouldn’t. In fact, I jumped at the chance of doing something that required subterfuge. In my mind, it was long overdue.
The worst that could happen to us would be expulsion from school, which, in effect, would put an end to our misery once and for all. But the prospect of deceiving Mario and getting away with it only added to the thrill. Both of us knew he would challenge our story. But we also knew that if we both stuck to the same account it would be difficult to break us. If Mario couldn’t prove we ran away he would have little choice but to accept our explanation. And he might not pry too much for fear of opening a can of worms. We also counted heavily on the sympathy our sudden disappearance would arouse in the rest of the faculty and student body. Getting lost in the 800,000 acres that comprised the vast wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest was a possibility that entered the mind of every boy who ever hiked its trails.
Journey Into Rattlesnake Canyon
On an early Sunday afternoon in late September, the first “Visiting Sunday” of the new school year (when parents and family members converged on the campus), Ben and I joined a group of fourteen other boys from our class on a hike to the top of La Cumbre peak. Saint Anthony’s was ideally situated near the foothills, making Sunday hikes into the great outdoors a regular outing for seminarians. Students were rarely given permission to go into town, so the friars encouraged these long mountain excursions, mostly to keep us busy, tire us out or to burn off some of the restless energy we accumulated from being cooped up all week in a boys’ boarding school.
Ben and I took the trail to the summit that day with the rest of our group until we arrived at a path that forked down into Las Canoas and Rattlesnake Canyons. At that point we announced our departure, said our goodbyes, and peeled off from the group to look for golden eagles. Ben and I had a genuine interest in birds, especially birds of prey, thanks to our counselor, Fr. Severin Baumann, the seminary’s eccentric but beloved biology teacher who tutored many boys, including us. It was Severin, in fact, who encouraged Ben and me to explore the mountainous terrain and canyon trails.
But in order to find our way that day it seemed we had to lose our way first.
For a few anxious hours Ben and I actually did get lost in Rattlesnake Canyon after we left the trail and made our way through the underbrush and deep into the creek below. Night was beginning to fall before we managed to scale the steep eastern wall of the canyon and climb back out onto a main road. Using it as a fixed coordinate beneath us, we stayed off the fire trails and climbed higher up into the mountains, making our way in the dark, careful to use our flashlights sparingly to avoid detection. We had brought along extra sweatshirts for the cold and plenty of water and provisions, including fruit, bread and crackers that Ben pilfered from the kitchen while he was serving on “dish duty.”
By nine o’clock we could see the lights of the cars and trucks on the road far below us. We learned later they were part of a search party organized by the county sheriff’s department. By 11 o’clock we reached an old, wooden water tower long since abandoned and hundreds of feet above the main road. We settled in behind it, huddled together, dirty and tired but excited with the prospect of spending the night outside the walls. Knowing that we had managed to break our chains and vanish without a trace rekindled boyhood dreams of bold deeds and daring adventures.
That night we slept very little, keeping ourselves vigilant with stories that seemed to go on forever. In those early hours, Ben was captivated by my history and I learned more about him than any other boy I ever knew. I used to think that no one had more troubles than me. But when Ben spoke about his life, words shot from his mouth like bullets. His anger didn’t scare me as much as it made me sad. When we wrapped our arms around each other to stay warm I felt it was more than just the cold we were both trying to fight off. But our high spirits bound us closer together than ever before, and our pleasures truly sustained us. We both knew what was funny and we both knew what made us laugh. We reveled in the low-brow and the high-brow, particularly when we brought the two together. In the end, I came to love Ben for joining with me to mock the mad, unreasonable core of things, even when they were way over our heads.
This self-knowledge opened me up to endless possibilities. I fooled with a thought until I could build and expound on a joke or a gag, stretching it beyond the conceptual into a zone where upside down was right side up. Ben understood this better than anyone I ever met and he knew how to play with an idea. We were like runners passing a baton to one another. Out there in the mountains together, we had complete freedom of expression, something we hadn’t experienced in a long time. It was exhilarating to take an uncensored crack at things that clearly deserved to be poked and prodded, knowing that all bets were off and that everything was fair game.
Looking For Ways To Hold Him Accountable
One thing that Ben and I shared the same love for were the comedians of our parents’ generation. Television had introduced us to the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Jack Benny, Wheeler and Woolsey, Bob Hope, the Ritz Brothers, and our heroes, the masters of mayhem, the Three Stooges.
During the Depression, when people spent a few precious pennies and sat in the dark of the great movie palaces to escape the dreariness of their lives, no other comedians offered more comic solace than Moe, Larry and Curly. Almost single-handedly they helped a nation sit up and laugh at itself. Their two-reel shorts, shown before each feature film, became so popular with working class people that the Stooges were often billed above the names of the main stars. People who struggled every day to survive were eager to forget their worries. They sat back and laughed as three guys with strange haircuts made a mess of everything revered by the very rich. .
Although Ben and I were incapable of addressing the sexual nature of Mario’s crimes against us, both of us were clear about the resentment we felt toward him. Sitting there in the dark, feeling safe and whispering our feelings to one another, we began looking for ways to hold him accountable in the most absurd manner.
I don’t recall who started it, but we began to imagine any number of wild scenarios in which the Three Stooges showed up at the seminary and confronted Mario: on the altar, getting him drunk during mass; in the laundry room, stuffing him into a washing machine; on the baseball field, hitting line drives off his head; and in his bedroom, dangling him upside down outside a second story window. But our absolute favorite was the one in which Mario invites the Stooges to tour the Old Mission next door and they end up using him as the clapper inside the Mission bell. We laughed so hard at that one that we had to clasp our hands over our mouths to keep from giving ourselves away. And when dawn broke Monday morning we were still laughing.
Ben and I dragged ourselves back onto the seminary grounds as the rest of the student body was waking up. Trudging all the way down the mountain, we went over the details of our story and rehearsed it until we sounded like actors reciting lines in a play. We reported immediately to Mario’s room. As anticipated, he was furious and challenged our account. The fact that we were alive was incidental. He grilled us separately for thirty minutes but got the same response from both of us, practically verbatim. Hungry and exhausted, we were finally admitted to the infirmary where we showered, ate breakfast and slept the rest of the day.
The following morning we learned how the sheriff’s department had been out searching for us most of the night. Mario had instructed Ben and me to write “thank you” letters to all the members of the county search party and to sign a statement (which he drafted) explaining how we got lost and verifying our account under penalty of expulsion. We didn’t escape punishment entirely. For getting “lost”, Mario placed us on dish duty for two weeks and ordered us to wear our ties for a month--which we did, like a badge of honor.
With renewed bravado now, Ben continued to get under Mario’s skin until he was finally dismissed from the seminary right before Thanksgiving. Most of us didn’t know he was gone until we saw his empty dormitory locker that night after chapel.
In less than a month I, too, would be gone, deciding on my own to leave at Christmas break. The final entry in my journal that day, December 18, 1966, appeared to sum up my experiences at Saint Anthony’s with unintentional but prophetic irony: “Today I say goodbye to Saint Anthony’s and take my memories with me.” At the bottom of the page I added my last bogus quote, a parting shot attributed to Winston Churchill, which aptly read: “We have nothing to Mario but Mario itself.”
At the time, I had no way of knowing that those few, satiric words would foretell the direction my poetry would take over the course of the next forty years.