Agony and ecstasy—12 months of turmoil, disaster, death, rescue, victory, and celebration
The origin of the word news may lie in the letters themselves: North East West South. That certainly made sense for 14 days in May lowlighted by suspicions about North Korea’s intent, the continued decline of liberty in what was the Middle East’s one Muslim democracy, and the growth of homelessness among those who hit the Pacific coast and cannot go any farther west.
The most tragic story came out of a town 36 miles south of Houston: Santa Fe, Texas. Police said Dimitrios Pagourtzis hid firearms under a trench coat (like that worn by the Columbine shooters in 1999) and wore it into Santa Fe High School even though the temperature outside was 90 degrees. They say he then left 10 dead before surrendering.
Santa Fe in Spanish means holy faith, but The New York Times reported that Pagourtzis apparently turned that trench coat into a walking billboard for some unholy faiths, and explained on a Facebook page his peculiar decorations: “Hammer and Sickle=Rebellion. Rising Sun=Kamikaze Tactics. Iron Cross=Bravery. Baphomet [a demon lord]=Evil.”
Santa Fe last received national media attention when the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 ruled that a policy permitting student-initiated prayer over the public address system at Santa Fe High’s football games violated the First Amendment. This time major media quickly made Pagourtzis the latest poster boy for gun control, minimizing the fact that he wielded not an assault weapon but a shotgun and a revolver, tools for hunting and self-defense found in millions of homes.
Who could expose with rapier wit the knee-jerk reactions of press propagandists? Four days before the May 18 shooting, the American best at doing that died at age 88. Tom Wolfe studied the American left while writing his American Studies Ph.D. dissertation on how Communists manipulated American writers during the 1930s. He then spent 60 years exploring dozens of diverse subcultures from the caverns of Manhattan and the sun-spackled neighborhoods of Atlanta and Miami to the wind-swept Californian high desert.
Yale initially rejected Wolfe’s dissertation, but he rewrote it to university tastes and then thumbed his nose at academia by becoming a reporter on a small Springfield, Mass., newspaper. He moved on to larger gazettes and then national magazines, where he colorfully reported about status-seeking pursuits from California customized cars (“The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby”) to New York political customs (“Radical Chic”).
In that last piece he skewered liberal lauding of the mega-violent Black Panthers. He went on to criticize fashionable but empty modern art and architecture in two short books, The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House. At age 50 Wolfe turned to fiction and produced long novels that historians a century from now will mine for insights into contemporary craziness in New York (The Bonfire of the Vanities), Georgia and California (A Man in Full), Miami (Back to Blood), and college (I Am Charlotte Simmons).
All of those books are worth reading for education and entertainment, yet readers who stopped there would know what Wolfe was rightly against but not what he was for. Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, a great 1979 book that became a superb movie (with the exception of two scenes), shows the ABCs of the American Western: action (not just words), bravery, and a challenge to conventional self-preservation.
That book and movie tell the story of the Mercury Seven astronauts, but lurking throughout the film (and in the consciousness of the excellent pilots chosen to be the first Americans in space) is the greatest pilot of them all, Chuck Yeager. The connection to Westerns is evident when we see Sam Shepard, the actor playing Yeager, on horseback at the outskirts of Muroc Field—which became Edwards Air Force Base—in California.
Shepard stares at the Bell X-1 that, in the proper hands, could break the sound barrier (about 761 miles per hour depending on air temperature). Other pilots had died in the attempt. Some said it couldn’t be done. One pilot was willing to try only if he received a massive payoff. Yeager, paid $283 per month, was raring to go without any financial incentive. He was willing to risk his life and his reputation for what he believed in—and in that sense he was a model for Christians throughout the ages.
Tom Wolfe, to my knowledge, did not indicate anywhere that he believed in God. In A Man in Full, Wolfe backed away from where the plot would logically go (the desperate Atlanta real estate mogul in the novel turned not to Christ, which desperate people in Georgia often do, but to “the religion of Zeus”). Yet in Wolfe’s last published book, The Kingdom of Speech (2016), he committed the unforgivable sin among intellectuals by disrespecting Darwin. In a CBS News interview Wolfe said flatly, “Darwinism, the theory of evolution, is another myth.”
The interviewer, Jeff Glor, glowered and responded, “It is bold and I think some would say very dangerous to say that Darwinism and evolution is a myth.” Wolfe didn’t back down. In essence he imitated what he described as Alan Shepard’s response when a Washington official told him that signing up for a space mission would be “dangerous, very dangerous.” Shepard, who became the first American in space, said, “Count me in.”