Take a ride to ‘Dream Town,’ where little is as it appears to be

Prolific mystery writer David Baldacci’s latest novel is “Dream Town,” the third in a series about World War II veteran turned private investigator Aloysius Archer. (That was probably the last time your heard of anyone being named Aloysius.)

Archer, who only answers to the name Archer for obvious reasons, takes advantage of the 1953 New Year holiday to pay a visit to his friend Liberty Callahan, who was a Reno showgirl when they met in a previous book but is now an aspiring actress in Hollywood. Instead of spending his whole visit heartily partying in a party town, Archer winds up being hired by a co-worker of Callahan, screen writer Eleanor Lamb, who fears she is being stalked.

When Lamb herself mysteriously disappears, another film industry associate hires Archer to try to find her. From there the cast of assorted and often unsavory characters grows as Archer delves into the dark secrets of glamorous moviedom as well as the weakness some of those characters have for the tables in mobbed-up Las Vegas and the consequences of the resulting indebtedness. Then there is the sleazy Jade Lion bar in Chinatown, where bad booze is served with a chaser of slutty behavior by ladies with familiar faces on the celluloid.

As Baldacci weaves his plot, many of those characters turn out to not be as they first appear. The beauty of the book is how Archer discovers and interprets clue after clue, leading to his unraveling of the underlying mystery in the end. It is a trip worth taking in the passenger seat of Archer’s 1939 French-made bloodred Delahaye convertible that Archer had purchased with a windfall of gambling winnings in Reno, proving the book is a work of fiction.

Baldacci also manages to get Archer into Jack Reacher-style fisticuffs. Here is an excerpt to give one a taste of the action:

He could hear shouts from all over now and knew his odds of escaping were slim to zero, and his final resting place might be in a hole in Chinatown, or the silty bottom of the Pacific. Neither one appealed to him.

The next second Archer ran headlong into someone and he felt the man’s fingers close around his throat. It was the struggle on the beach all over again. Although this time his opponent was the doorman. And his empty knife holder apparently hadn’t really been empty, because the curved blade was in his hand.

Archer didn’t waste a second because he didn’t have one to waste. He grabbed the knife hand and held it away from him. Next, he planted an elbow in the man’s face, breaking his nose. Then he kicked his foot out and bent the man’s knee the wrong way. The man went down screaming in pain, and then Archer laid him out with a crushing hook to the jaw. He had to keep thanking the Army for teaching him so thoroughly how to fight, win, and stay alive to fight again. As he kept running he looked down at his hand: It was wet.

The guy’s knife hadn’t entirely missed. Archer had a two-inch-long gash in his left palm. He took out his handkerchief, wound it around his hand, and kept running.

Though Archer is good in a physical fight, it is the cerebral wrestling that clinches the story.

In celebration, sort of, of Bug Out Day — April 30, 1975 — and how it changed countless lives

Bugging out of Saigon

On this day 47 years ago the United States military “bugged out” of Saigon, leaving South Vietnam to fall to its communist invaders from the north.

The media are largely ignoring what most veterans of that war call Bug Out Day.

I’m not sure how the event got that ignoble appellation, but perhaps it came from Henry Kissinger. Here is a clip from a HistoryNet account of White House talks:

“Declassified transcripts of the meeting reveal Kissinger’s candid assessment of the unfolding situation in Phnom Penh and Saigon: ‘We have two nutty ambassadors. Dean wants to bug out. Martin wants a new version of the Easter Rebellion. He is supporting Thieu too strongly.’

“(President Gerald) Ford asked his secretary of state, ‘Supposing Ike, Kennedy, Johnson or Nixon were president, what would they have done?’ Kissinger responded, ‘Kennedy would have ratted out. Nixon may have bombed, he was vicious in these things.’

“‘How about Johnson?’ asked Ford.

“‘He wouldn’t have bugged out,’ replied Kissinger. ‘His advisers would have tried to bug out.’

“Then Ford took a shot at President Kennedy: ‘Without appearing to do so, Kennedy probably would have bugged out, with some famous statement that would have disguised it.'”

The Vietnam police action, it never was a real declared war, altered the lives of millions of Baby Boomers, who were either drafted, dodged the draft in one way or another or joined the military to avoid the draft. I joined the Air Force, the branch of the military where the officers were the ones being shot at.

They told me my high test scores guaranteed me my pick of jobs. I picked journalism. No, you have to make three choices, they said, but you’ll get your top pick for sure. So I picked something else and my third pick was intelligence. Yes, I was sent to Denver to train for intelligence. I can’t tell you what planes our Air Force flies, but I could’ve told you what planes the Soviet Union had. We used to joke that there are three kinds of intelligence — human, animal and military, in that order.

After months of waiting for my top secret security clearance, apparently the FBI had a hard time finding anyone in the backwoods of north Texas to vouch for my character and integrity, I was shipped out to Thailand to work on McNamara’s Wall.

Never heard of it? Don’t feel bad, some histories claim it was never built, though I seem to recall spending a year with my thumb in a chink of that wall.

Robert Strange McNamara was secretary of defense in the late 1960s. In his autobiography “In Retrospect,” he said he had misgivings about the conduct of the war as early as 1967, which, coincidentally, was about when his Air Force decided to send me to Nahkon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base — Naked Fanny, as we called it, which was a short but perilous bus ride to the town of Nahkon Phanom on the banks of the Mekong River just across from Laos, where Johnny’s Ice Cream Parlor kept the Singha beer in the ice cream freezer — to work on his wall.

For me and thousands of others whose lives were changed, it might have been better for him to express his misgivings sooner.

My little piece of McNamara’s war deserved only a brief mention on page 246 of his book (The braces are mine, parens are his.):

“They concluded the bombing [of the Ho Chi Minh freeway, as we called it] had indeed been ineffective and recommended building a ‘barrier’ as an alternative means of checking infiltration. This concept, which had first come to my attention in the spring of 1966, would involve laying down a complex belt of mines and sensors across the Demilitarized Zone and the Laotian panhandle to the west. (the sensors would guide our attack aircraft to enemy forces on the move.) The barrier would be costly [that was the most secret aspect of the whole damned thing], but because our bombing was ineffective, I authorized it … Once it was put in place, the barrier was intended to increase infiltration losses. And it did.”

His intelligence from people with brass on their shoulders, and mine from inside a computer-filled, air-conditioned tin shed in the jungle, tended to differ.

Thomas Mitchell, next to never used bunker outside his hooch on Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base just across the Mekong River from Laos.

Each of those sensors was said to cost the same as a Volkswagen beetle, which then was about $2,000. They would drop a series of them from aircraft. Some sensed seismic motion, some sound, some smell. How a jungle dwelling Loatian smelled any different than an infiltrating Viet Cong with his heavily laden bicycle was a mystery to the enlisted men manning the computers.

In those computers we kept track of what was being bombed, secondary explosions and fires, even sightings of POWs, which the F4s were supposed to avoid. But based on the assumption the POWs were moved frequently, the sightings were to be scrubbed after five days. After a while, not being a fan of assumptions or bombing of POWs, I stopped removing them. But someone else would later.

It was all so antiseptic, so high-tech compared to what was on the ground, beneath the three-tiered canopy of jungle, in the mud and the rain, the insects and the snakes.

McNamara said the project came to be known as McNamara Line, without mentioning the derisive allusion to the Maginot Line. We just called it McNamara’s Wall.

To this day I wonder if there was not some cosmic joke in the fact that as we walked from our monsoon-soaked hooches to that tin shed the lizards in the trees would make a mocking call that distinctly sounded like: “(Expletive) you.”

Thankfully, my first wife’s uncle, who was in the military police on the base while I was there, never came around when we went over to the Jolly Greens’ (the guys who dangled from helicopters to rescue downed pilots in Laos) hooches to drink beer and smoke our nickel bags. Yes, a walnut-sized wad of seeds and stems wrapped in newspaper cost one baht, a 20th of a dollar.

The fact that the whole operation and its billion-dollar-plus price tag were top secret made it clear to me who the real enemy really was. Those Viet Cong on bicycles didn’t care what it cost, though perhaps the taxpayers might, but it was secret.

By the time Saigon fell, I had finished college on the G.I. Bill and was working as a city editor at a small Texas daily newspaper. After working in an outfit were information was on a need to know basis, I had chosen to work in a field where the watchword was right to know. So, I guess you could say it changed my life, as I’m sure it did many others, including the 58,000 whose lives it ended prematurely.

All these years later, is it pointless to ask what might have been?

A version of this was posted in 2015.

Latest Jack Reacher outing worth the journey

Just finished Lee Child’s most recent novel romp with his donnybrook prone vagabond protagonist Jack Reacher. On this one he’s teamed up with his brother Andrew Child to pen “The Sentinel.”

Former Army MP Reacher — a tall and muscular specimen who appears to survive on a lack of sleep, strong black coffee and greasy burgers — has just been dropped off in the tiny burg of Pleasantville, Tenn., by his latest hitchhike driver, landing by circumstance and mistaken identity into some rather unpleasant and violent contretemps.

Reacher bumps into the town’s recently fired IT manager. It seems the town’s paper archives have recently been destroyed in a fire, which was quickly followed by its computerized data being blocked by a ransomware hack. The IT manager was falsely blamed for not protecting data and he is out to clear his name and somehow recover the data, which is not what a bunch of Russkie spies and a gaggle of neo-Nazis would not like to see happen, for reasons that remain a bit murky. (Coincidentally, the neo-Nazis are planning a huge well-lighted celebration of Hitler’s birthday, which happens to be today, April 20.)

As is Reacher’s wont, on more than one occasion he winds up protecting the IT guy and himself from a half dozen or so of the baddies by using his head — in more ways than one — as well as his fists, elbows, knees and feet in tightly detailed and choreographed combat in which Reacher comes out largely unscathed but the others well scathed and a few hospitalized.

You might assume, as I did, that Reacher is the titular Sentinel, but toward the end it turns out the feds are secretly working on a software program dubbed The Sentinel, which is intended to block malware and ransomware hacks. Or is that a red-herring like so many others? One should not assume all is as it appears.

Looking forward to the next outing with Reacher, but, meanwhile, you likely would enjoy this one.

A senseless and futile gesture … and our senators are just the ones to do it

Thank you, Jim Hartman, for pointing out in today’s Elko Daily Free Press that the proposal by Nevada’s two Democratic U.S. Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen to waive the 18.4 cent per gallon federal gasoline tax through 2022 is not only a political gesture, but for Nevadans it is a futile gesture.

Hartman is the first I’ve seen to point out that Nevada has on the books Nevada Revised Statute 365.185, which automatically increases the state gasoline tax “equal to the amount by which the federal tax is reduced,” so it won’t save Nevadans a cent.

Hartman also observes:

It’s a terrible idea. No one likes paying taxes or feeling gouged at the pump, and that’s the appeal to politicians. It’s a transparent political stunt to give political cover to a handful of Democrats up for election in states where gas prices are going up over 40 percent from last year.
Nevada’s gas prices are up $1.07 per gallon from a year ago, reaching an average price in Nevada for regular of $3.97 (Feb. 23). Crude prices recently passed $90 per barrel and the Russian invasion of Ukraine will raise crude prices to over $100.
Cortez Masto’s legislation is a contradiction in her climate politics. Isn’t the central tenet of Democratic climate plans to raise the price of fossil fuels so we use less? Progressives should welcome higher gasoline prices until consumption drops dramatically.
You can’t have an aggressive “green” climate policy and cheap gasoline. You must choose one or the other.

Who is the enemy and how to confront it?

What are the threats Biden’s Department of Homeland Security is concerned about?

Of course, according to a national terrorism advisory bulletin put out this week by DHS, it is all those quacks spreading “mis- dis- and mal-information” about election fraud and COVID-19.

The bulletin warns against:

The proliferation of false or misleading narratives, which sow discord or undermine

public trust in U.S. government institutions:

— For example, there is widespread online proliferation of false or misleading narratives

regarding unsubstantiated widespread election fraud and COVID-19. Grievances

associated with these themes inspired violent extremist attacks during 2021.

Though it is one of those “government institutions,” nowhere in the bulletin does the word “police” appear, as in, you know, anti-police riots staged by the likes of those calling themselves Antifa and Black Lives Matter.

Who is the enemy?

This alarm over what the bulletin calls “false or misleading narratives, and conspiracy theories” also hints mightily that such “free speech” needs to be curbed in the name of public safety. The bulletin advises: “Keep yourself safe online and maintain digital and media literacy to recognize and build resilience to false or misleading narratives.”

(Does anyone else wince a bit at the use of the term Homeland Security and hear not too distant strains of “Deutschland über alles” in their heads?)

Equal rights or color and gender quotas?

It was interesting to read columnist Larry Elder’s take on equal rights vs. equal outcomes in today’s local newspaper — the same day President Joe Biden promised to nominate the first Black woman to replace the retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

Elder lambasts Skip Bayless, a white sports commentator, for being critical of the National Football League after the firing of two Black head coaches, leaving only one Black head coach. Bayless was quoted as saying: “It is shameful, it is disgusting, it is embarrassing and it’s inexplicably wrong.”

Elder wonders what the “correct” percentage of Black head coaches should be. “The NFL consists of 57.5% Black players. Should 57.5% of the coaches be Black?” he asks.

At one point in the opinion piece Elder quotes then-Sen. Joe Biden from 1975: “I do not buy the concept, popular in the ’60s, which said, ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years and the white man is now far ahead in the race for everything our society offers. In order to even the score, we must now give the black man a head start, or even hold the white man back, to even the race. I don’t buy that.’”

Elder concluded that, for once, Biden was right.

He then concludes: “MLK spoke of a colorblind society. What is truly shameful, disgusting, embarrassing and inexplicably wrong are people such as Bayless, who demand a society that is color-coordinated.”

Today that same Biden was quoted as saying of his coming Supreme Court nomination: “The person I will nominate will be someone with extraordinary qualifications, character, experience and integrity. And that person will be the first Black woman ever nominated to the United States Supreme Court. It’s long overdue in my view. I made that commitment during the campaign for president, and I will keep that commitment.”

Also in today’s local paper Washington reporter Gary Martin relates that of Biden’s confirmed nominations 78 percent are women and 53 percent people of color. This was contrasted with Trump’s 76 percent of nominees being men and 85 percent white.

Rights vs. quotas? That debate appears to be ongoing.

Could Trump be hoisted on his own petard?

Fourteenth Amendment, Section 3: “No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President … who … shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. …”

Or given aid or comfort?

A statement released by Trump’s Save America PAC in September:

“Our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly relating to the January 6th protest concerning the Rigged Presidential Election. In addition to everything else, it has proven conclusively that we are a two-tiered system of justice. In the end, however, JUSTICE WILL PREVAIL!”

Just asking.

Trump on Jan. 6

Happy birthday, Bill of Rights

Several years ago I penned this for the Review-Journal.

On this day in 1791 the Bill of Rights were ratified by three-fourths of the states. At the insistence of the Anti-Federalists led by Thomas Jefferson the first 10 amendments were added to the new Constitution.

They might more properly be called a Bill of Prohibitions, since they are not so much a delineation of rights as a list of things the federal government may not take away from individuals and the states and local governments.

Bill of Rights

This is our day to celebrate the First Amendment prohibition against establishing a state religion, despite odd rulings about nativity scenes and posting the Ten Commandments, and the right of free speech and press, despite McCain-Feingold limits on campaign spending and advertising. (Since somewhat overturned by Citizens United.)

This is our day to celebrate the Second Amendment, despite requirements to register handguns and other laws.

We celebrate the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unlawful search and seizure, despite the Hiibel case in which Larry Hiibel was arrested for not giving his name to a Humbolt County deputy. (Not to mention civil asset forfeitures.)

There’s the Fifth’s protection against taking of property except for public purposes that was bounced by the Kelo decision that let government take property for private development.

As for the Sixth’s right to speedy and public trial? Forget it. No explanation needed.

The right to trial by jury according to the Seventh? Try that in traffic court, buddy.

No cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth’s prohibition. Lifetime sentences for possession of pot belie that one.

The Ninth’s and 10th’s guarantees that rights not delineated are prohibited to feds? Let’s see the states try to set the drinking age or voting age or speed limits.

There’s still the Third’s prohibition against housing troops in private homes. (Right?)

Happy birthday, Bill of Rights, long may you be respected.

A couple of years ago I ran across the Cato video below. As my ol’ Pappy used to say: Great minds travel in the same plane, while fools just think alike.

Actually, the Third is also suspect as I reported here. The courts have since ruled that cops are not soldiers. They sure look alike and are armed alike.

Nevada lawsuit seeks more tax money for education, though more money has not improved education

On Monday the Nevada Supreme Court heard arguments in a lawsuit brought by nine parents claiming the state Legislature is not meeting its constitutional requirement to adequately fund K-12 public education, according to the morning paper and the online Nevada Independent.

The 37-page lawsuit was filed in March of 2020, as reported here, but dismissed in October by a Carson City district court judge who said “the Court will not substitute its judgment for that of the legislature with respect to the education policy in the state of Nevada.”

The suit, filed by Educate Nevada Now, says Nevada students “inhabit one of the lowest-rated and worst-performing state school systems in the United States,” and asks the courts to find that the level of funding of public education in the state has fallen short of the constitutional requirement to “ensure a basic, uniform, and sufficient education for the schoolchildren of this state.”

There are two problems the Nevada high court justices must grapple with in deciding this case. One: As the suit itself notes, the Nevada constitution states that the Legislature shall appropriate education funds that “the Legislature deems sufficient …” That would seem to dictate that lawmakers are to determine what is “sufficient” rather than the courts. Two: Past spending increases on public education have produced no discernible improvement in the quality of education.

From a 2014 Cato Institute analysis of state by state education spending versus SAT scores.

The Nevada Supreme Court in the case of Guinn v. Legislature in 2003 held that Nevada students have a basic right to a public education under the state constitution, the current suit states. In that case the court decided education funding had to take precedent over a constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds majority to raise taxes.

Justice Bill Maupin was the only dissenting vote in the case, citing separation of powers, “Again, we are powerless to order co-equal branches of government to exercise individual acts of constitutional discretion. Our authority depends upon whether extraordinary relief is warranted and in exercising our authority to grant relief, we would be restricted to an interpretation of the Constitution, utilizing recognized tenets of statutory construction.”

The current lawsuit neglects to point out that the justices three years later overturned Guinn v. Legislature, largely for the very reason cited by Maupin.

The Educate Nevada Now suit further quotes the state constitution, which says, “The legislature shall provide for a uniform system of common schools, by which a school shall be established and maintained in each school district […].” A school? The quote is cut off before the part that says such schools, however many there are in each district, must be open “at least six months in every year …”

The litigation comes despite the fact Nevada lawmakers in 2015 passed the largest tax hike in history, $1.5 billion, largely to fund education, and lawmakers have since approved 3 percent raises for teachers.

The problem with Nevada public education is not so much a lack of funding as it is a deficiency in accountability.

At one time Nevada high school students were required to pass a proficiency exam in order to graduate. That was dropped in 2018.

With the 2015 tax hike came a requirement that third graders who could not read at a certain proficiency level would be held back to repeat the third grade. That has since been dropped.

At one point 50 percent of teacher evaluations were based on pupil achievement growth. That has been cut to 15 percent.

Another problem is that education evaluations are all over the board. According to Teacher-Certification.com, Nevada now ranks 39th in K-12 education funding and neighboring Utah dead last. According to Education Week, Nevada ranks 18th in quality of education and Utah ranks 10th. According to U.S. News & World Report, Nevada ranks 48th in quality of K-12 education and Utah ranks 21st.

But the bottom line is: The constitution seems clear when it says education funding is whatever “the Legislature deems sufficient …”

Author Baldacci shows no mercy in latest book: ‘Mercy’

David Baldacci’s latest installment in his mystery series featuring FBI agent Atlee Pine, “Mercy,” finally connects his protagonist with her twin sister Mercy, who was abducted from their shared bedroom at the age of 6. In doing so, as is his wont, Baldacci piles on the action to the point of stretching credulity. Hey, it’s fiction!

The Pine sisters are no shrinking violets. They are tall, fit and can and do fight with their bare hands and assorted weapons.

To fully appreciate the characters and their development as one sister searches for another — who doesn’t know for sure she even has a sister or what her real name is — I recommend reading the series in order: “Long Road to Mercy,” “A Minute to Midnight” and “Daylight.” But “Mercy” gives one all the background necessary to appreciate the intricate plotting.

Without providing too much of a spoiler, it can noted that Baldacci opens by backgrounding the reader on just what happened to Mercy and how she has survived for nearly three decades.

After her abduction, Mercy was enslaved and tortured for years by a sadistic woman and her husband. When she escaped years later the husband was left for dead, making Mercy a person of interest, even to her FBI agent sister. To make extra money she took up back alley mixed martial arts fighting.

Due to those MMA skills, along the way Mercy gets on the wrong side of an organized crime figure as well as the law, leading to some brutal encounters.

Baldacci weaves the events and reveals the mindsets and motivations as he takes the reader to a breathtaking conclusion.

The book came out just a couple of weeks ago but already is No. 10 on The New York Times’ fiction bestseller list, just ahead of Michael Connelly’s “The Dark Hours.” Deservedly so for both books. I highly recommend “Mercy.”