Song Of The Scythe: The Death Column March 2012

A bunch of cool people died in March. I can’t possibly cover them all but here are some opinionated remembrances of a few of them.

On March 2, Van T. Barfoot died at age 92. Any man with that name must have been a rough tough hombre and he certainly was. During WWII he received the medal of honor and the citation is jaw-dropping enough to warrant extensive citation here:

"With his platoon heavily engaged during an assault against forces well entrenched on commanding ground, 2d Lt. Barfoot (then Tech. Sgt.) moved off alone upon the enemy left flank. He crawled to the proximity of 1 machinegun nest and made a direct hit on it with a hand grenade, killing 2 and wounding 3 Germans. He continued along the German defense line to another machinegun emplacement, and with his tommygun killed 2 and captured 3 soldiers. Members of another enemy machinegun crew then abandoned their position and gave themselves up to Sgt. Barfoot. Leaving the prisoners for his support squad to pick up, he proceeded to mop up positions in the immediate area, capturing more prisoners and bringing his total count to 17. Later that day, after he had reorganized his men and consolidated the newly captured ground, the enemy launched a fierce armored counterattack directly at his platoon positions. Securing a bazooka, Sgt. Barfoot took up an exposed position directly in front of 3 advancing Mark VI tanks. From a distance of 75 yards his first shot destroyed the track of the leading tank, effectively disabling it, while the other 2 changed direction toward the flank. As the crew of the disabled tank dismounted, Sgt. Barfoot killed 3 of them with his tommygun. He continued onward into enemy terrain and destroyed a recently abandoned German fieldpiece with a demolition charge placed in the breech. While returning to his platoon position, Sgt. Barfoot, though greatly fatigued by his Herculean efforts, assisted 2 of his seriously wounded men 1,700 yards to a position of safety. Sgt. Barfoot's extraordinary heroism, demonstration of magnificent valor, and aggressive determination in the face of pointblank fire are a perpetual inspiration to his fellow soldiers."

After more-or-less singlehandedly winning WW II he went back for more in Korea and Vietnam and won a total of 3 Purple Hearts to go with his Medal Of Honor, Silver Star and Bronze Star.

In 2009 he made the news again when his neighborhood homeowners association attempted to force him to remove the American flag from his front yard. Like the Axis Powers, they learned to choose their battles more wisely. The flag stayed.

On the same day, Gérard Rinaldi died, age 69. He was the member of a pop/rock band called Les Charlots. They were a pretty popular band but what I love them for is their movie From Hong Kong With Love, which shows them embroiled in far-eastern intrigue and making great music. This clip, featuring a thoroughly unexpected major Hollywood star, should tell you all you need to know about Les Charlots.

Ralph McQuarrie died on March 3. He was largely responsible for the look of the three good Star Wars movies. His incredible original concept paintings helped to sell 20th Century Fox on the movie and he designed the look of nearly every character and set of the film. He also contributed his visual magic to Close Encounters, Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Cocoon, for which he belatedly won an Oscar. He was 82.

On March 8, Leslie Cochran died at age 60. Leslie, a bearded middle-aged man who typically dressed like a Miami hooker, was a ubiquitous sight on the streets of Austin since the mid-90s. It is to Austin’s credit that he became a sort of patron saint and, even though city services didn’t do much for him, he was taken care of by a network of friends and neighbors. He really got around a lot, but he was most often seen in South Austin, where he sometimes bunked. On numerous occasions I bought him a beer from Food Mart and I had a few confusing conversations with him. The last time I saw him he was urinating in a fountain behind a coffee shop while children and dogs frolicked.

Comedian Peter Bergman died March 9. He was the bald guy from Firesign Theater. Many of my generation inherited Firesign Theater records from our parents. Though my first response was the sort of revulsion provoked by hearing a hippie doing a W.C. Fields impersonation, the records grew on me. They are densely packed, exceptionally well written satirical radio plays based on the radio shows Bergman and his compadres created for KPFK radio in Los Angeles. I can’t vouch for all of the LPs, but I really love Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers and I Think We’re All Bozos On This Bus. He was 72.

Jean Giraud (Mœbius) died March 10. He was certainly one of the greatest comic artists of his time and his style more than any other personified the psychedelic look of his generation of European comics artists. He cofounded the magazine Métal Hurlant, issued in the states as Heavy Metal and his iconic style graced not only comics but many films as well, including Alien, Tron, Willow and of course The Fifth Element, which is like a Moebius comic come to life (with a gallon of fancy perfume spilled on it).

On March 17, Chaleo Yoovidhya died at age 88. He and his partners mass-marketed an energy drink based on a formula used for years by Southeast Asian truck drivers. They called it Red Bull and it became a phenomenal success, largely because it actually works. You’re drinking one right now.

On March 19, Ulu Grosbard was discovered dead at 83. He was perhaps more eminent on the stage than in films but he made one true classic film and a couple of pretty good ones. His classic, Straight Time, is a stunner about an ex-con who tries to walk the straight and narrow but finds that he can’t because of pressures from without and within. It may be Dustin Hoffman’s best performance and Grosbard, an actor’s director, really aids and abets Hoffman, as do co-stars Gary Busey, Harry Dean Stanton and M. Emmet Walsh. See the movie!

Robert Fuest died on March 21. We will always be indebted to him for directing the two Abominable Doctor Phibes movies, which helped to bring real visual imagination back to gothic horror films. He also directed the stylish but challenging The Last Days Of Man On Earth and And Soon The Darkness. Hardcore trash film enthusiasts also love him for the insane devil-worship movie The Devil’s Rain, which effectively ended his theatrical directing career but plays very well now. He was 84.

On March 21 Tonino Guerra died at age 92. He was a living monument of cinema, a man who wrote or co-wrote most of Antonioni’s films, Fellini’s Amarcord, Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, as well as a number of less reputable but nonetheless well-crafted films. A lifelong anti-fascist, he did time in a German prison camp during WWII.

Poet Adrienne Rich died on March 27. She was the leading poetic champion of feminism. I've always liked her poetry and I especially admire her for turning down the National Medal Of Arts with characteristically strong language. "I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration...[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage".

Novelist Harry Crews (pictured) died on March 28 at age 76. His books took the southern gothic settings of his precursors William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, doused them with bourbon and set them alight with a burning bible. He wrote novels about rattlesnakes, sex, religious mania, freaks, karate-obsessed beauty queens and a man who eats an entire 1971 Ford Maverick a little bit at a time. Crews was an ex-marine and a hell-raiser on a grand scale. In 1989, Kim Gordon and Lydia Lunch paid tribute to their favorite novelist by starting a band called Harry Crews. He had a tattoo on his right arm of an E.E. Cummings line: "How do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death?"

On the same day, Earl Scruggs died, age 88. One of the greatest names in bluegrass music, Earl Scruggs came to prominence in the band of the king himself, Bill Monroe. Later with Lester Flatt he made some of the best bluegrass recordings and was one of the true ambassadors of the music. Scruggs also lent support to progressive causes. While you’ve probably heard Foggy Mountain Breakdown and The Ballad Of Jed Clampett, you may not have heard the records he made with his long-haired sons in the Earl Scruggs Revue. The albums are a rock/bluegrass fusion that often really works. You’ll find them in dollar bins everywhere.

Michael Peterson died on March 29. Virtually every Australian surfing tournament during the early and middle ‘70s was won by the enigmatic Michael Peterson. He was a surfer of such profound talent - genius, really - that the only real controversy in surfing circles was about who will finish second. His desperate shyness led him to become a kind of mystery man. Competitors recall Peterson seeming to magically appear in the water, not even bothering to enter tournaments but winning anyway and then disappearing without collecting his prize money. After retiring from surfing his life went awry and his personal problems culminated in a harrowing cross country police chase and eventual confinement and, reportedly, shock treatment. In his later years he lived with his mother and spent a lot of time staring at the sea. See the excellent documentary Searching For Michael Peterson for the whole story.