Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Rule #1: Never rape a mobster's daughter

Before I share with you the craziest dude that ever lived, I would like to wrap up Z. I didn't think I would be able to. As the book continues it becomes apparent that Fawcett was a little nutty. He got really into Madame Klavatsky's spiritualism and as his surviving son Brian sifted through his late father's notes, it became apparent that Z could very well have stood for a realm that is not of this earth. A transcendental city in which you can obtain pure enlightenment. Some Buddhist bullshit. Literally hundreds of people were lost forever or died trying to find Fawcett and or his legendary city. So if this is a hoax, some religious mumbo jumbo, the world will be furious.
However. It ends on a good note. The author, David Grann, follows Fawcett's footsteps into the jungle. He learns that the bones that were claimed to be Fawcett's that surfaced back in the 1960's were in fact phony. Fawcett stood at a whopping 6'2. The skeleton was 5'7. The tribe who had taken responsibility for his death admitted that they had not killed him but had in fact helped him and warned him not to travel into the more harsh tribes' territories.
The author catches up with another anthropologist in the region, Michael Heckenberger, who has apparently been in the Amazon for nearly a decade. He leads Grann way out in the jungle, in the actual area where The City of Z was said to be around. He tells Grann to look around. Gran sees nothing but the trees and wildlife. But as he looks closer he realizes that he is standing in the midst of a an ancient plaza. It is hard to see because there are no stones, no logs, nothing rising high to mark the city. But there are marks on the ground. Heckenberger discovered roads, causeways, cites on which vast communities had lived. The roads all lead to the center circle, all bent at right angles. The people who built them knew what they were doing. An advanced civilization had lived in the Amazon. No one could find it because it had been built out of wood and mud and and material of the forest, so it all disintegrated. No ruins still marked where the buildings had stood. But the vegetation was different within the plazas than outside The roads were an obvious tip. Here, at last, was proof that Fawcett had been right all along. Maybe not the Z he had in mind, but the civilization he stood up for when everyone thought he was crazy.
Well, I guess he was a little crazy.
But not as crazy as Richard Kuklinski. As soon as I finished Z I began The Ice Man by Philip Carlo. It is the story of Kuklinski, a contract killer hired by the mafia. A little off the beaten path of my usual selection of history, but interesting nonetheless. The dude is a madman. By the age of 26, he had already killed 65 people. When he would get in a bad mood as a young man, he would travel from his home in Jersey City to Manhattan's west side where he would kill anyone who looked at him wrong. He killed bums and junkies and secret gay men. He always used different weapons, and, seeing as how he killed people no one really cared about, he was never questioned or linked to any murder.
His posse in Jersey City, The Coming Up Roses (brilliant name, by the way--I love it), started getting noticed as a rough and extremely violent crew. Richard was the leader of this serial killer group. He murdered without passion, without conscience. He began being noticed by the higher ups. Mafia men started contacted him and asking him to take out marked men. He did it with precise aptitude and enjoyed doing it. What created this monster? He often wondered that himself. He was born to a devout Catholic mother who did not care for anyone. When she wasn't at the church praying, she was being beaten up by Richard's father. Stanley Kuklinski beat his wife often and even hit his children. After a good while, he hit his first born son, Florian, so hard, he killed him. Killed his own son. Richard's mother helped to cover it up to make it look like an accident. Constantly being beaten up by his father, never shown affection, didn't even receive presents on Christmas. The man was raised with hatred and violence in his blood. It was only a matter of time.
Murder met his hands for the first time when he was 18 years old. He killed a neighborhood bully. Eventually he got married and had kids. He tried getting out of the underground lifestyle, but he made so much money and liked killing people. So he went back to doing what he did best. Murder. And he did it so often and in broad daylight. Yet he was NEVER linked to anything. Well, at least not yet. I'm a little over halfway through.
Here is my favorite story by far:
A guy raped a girl who was the daughter of someone related to the Gambino family. Richard was hired to kill the guy but he was to make him suffer first. So he drives down to Miami and stakes out the guy for a few days. He finally makes his move and abducts the rapist. He then drives out to the beach where he sits the guy down and tells him calmly that he will be killed and it will be slow and painful. First, he rips off the guys nuts with just his hands. Then he cuts of his ding dong and shows it to him. Then he starts slicing off stretches of skin with a hunting knife. Then he pours salt all over the wounds. Then he rips open the stomach with the knife. Then he puts a life preserver on the man and throws him into shark infested waters.
Holy shit.
I guess I am not learning any important lessons from this history book. There aren't things to really make me think and wrestle in my mind. But it's terribly fascinating. And disturbing. If anyone is interested in watching some interviews with Richard Kuklinski, you can see them here:

Life sure is full of wacky characters.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Lost City of Z

History books.
I am so sorry that I've forsaken you for so long.
I got wrapped up in Harry Potter, which, even though they are fantastic and I would have had plenty to talk about, they do not count as history.

I am nearly finished with The Lost City of Z by David Grann. The author goes back and forth between the life of Percy Harrison Fawcett and his own. Percy Fawcett was an Englishman who became obsessed with a legendary city in the Amazon. Much like, El Dorado, the city of Z was a rumor, a possible lost civilization. But unlike El Dorado, there weren't so many stories of gold and treasures. Sure, there were some, but Fawcett wasn't interested in that. Way ahead of his time, Fawcett was a pioneer anthropologist. He believed that the existence of the city of Z would disprove the belief that no civilization could successfully exist in the Amazon. The rest of the world watched as centuries of explorations unearthed the most savage and dangerous peoples. Still living in huts, still hunting with bows and arrows, still sporting nothing but a revealing loin cloth. From the conquistadors up through Fawcett's own travels, the Amazon proved to be impossible to cultivate, civilize or conquer.
But Fawcett discovered not only clues that pointed toward this city, but found tribes of Natives who had indeed been able to survive off the jungle for centuries. The last remnants of the people of Z? Perhaps. But Fawcett never returned from his 1925 exploration. He and his son were lost in one of the most famous disappearance in exploration history. Hundreds of people have tried to follow Fawcett's footsteps to either find him or his lost city. None have succeeded in the latter. Some claim to have found Fawcett's bones, but his story remains so intriguing and mysterious.
What would the implications be if that city were found? Would it have shifted the image of the people of South America? There certainly were vast and rich civilizations in Africa, yet the Europeans and Americans looked down at them as if they were subhuman. Would it make a difference if the city of Z were located? Sure, it would change the landscape of the Amazon. Does it matter now if we set the record straight after all that has been done to the Natives in the Americas? I don't know. I'd like for the city of Z to exist for the sake of Fawcett and those who believed so much in it, who resisted the teachings of the times that said the Indians were savages and uncivilized, for the sake of those who fought against the violence and discrimination of Indians.
More than the implications of city of Z was the crushing realization of what the first Great War meant to the people on Earth. Seeing the reactions of Fawcett was heartbreaking. He, like many Americans and Europeans before the war, lived in a crumbling religious world. Science was taking over and the Victorian era was coming to a close. Already the standards of the world were being questioned. Agriculture was being overtaken by industry. Cities were booming. The new world was on the rise. World War I was the straw that broke the camel's back. A very large and heavy straw. It's interesting that World War I gets overlooked because of the atrocities of World War II. And I don't wish to diminish either one of these terrible events. But the first war threw the world, especially Europe, into a terrible and desperate reality. Fawcett put it best when he said that it wasn't the Native Americans who were the savages. It was the Europeans. It wasn't the Indians who killed explorers for infiltrating their isolated villages. It was the rest of the world blowing each others' heads off because of a shaky set of ethnic and national alliances. It was not only the volume of people killed (as many as 25,000,000) that astonished the world, but it was also the fact that the whole world, not just two sides of a nation or two nations, were battling a losing fight for optimism, for faith, for the world. Was it really that devastating? Fawcett was an excited man who lived life to the fullest, who barrelled through the jungle and would hang on the brink of death because he loved the jungle and the prospect of making important discoveries. After he served in World War I, he would sit inside of his house with his head in his hands, his eyes glazed over without speaking to anyone.
Fawcett eventually snapped out of his distress, but not before his financial backers, including the Royal Geographic Society, were too depleted by the cost of the war to send him. He eventually got back to the Amazon, which was his sanctuary. The rest of the world was not so lucky. Not to be a pessimist, but it's pretty clear that the Great War damaged our self esteem and our belief in human kind that catapulted us into the War to End All Wars that catapulted us into the Cold War which catapulted us into Vietnam which catapulted us into Iraq which catapulted us into George W. Bush who catapulted us into cancer which catapulted us into a computer job in a cubicle.