"When Freemen Shall Stand" was first performed in a dramatic reading before the NRA Members Council of Los Angeles on October 10, 1996. It is posted for entertainment purposes only and may not be crossposted to any other website, datafile base, conference, news group, or email list, without written permission of the author.
Copyright © 1996 by J. Neil Schulman. All rights reserved.
When Freemen Shall Stand
by J. Neil Schulman
It was the third Wednesday in October, just two weeks before the election of our sheriff, and, as chairman of the political action committee, I was supposed to be moderating the candidate's debate for our monthly Southwestern Freehold Militia council meeting. Only, when the candidates are from the Independence Party, the Constitutional Rights Party, and the Founders Party, nobody wants much moderation and you're not going to get it anyway.
Our council meetings are supposed to start promptly at seven p.m. on the third Wednesday each month, but stragglers are always still drifting in to the American Legion Hall for the next hour. Our council president, Audie St. Cloud, my oldest friend, principal of the junior high, and our Justice of the Peace, is a stickler for time, but he's learned to bend a little bit for us grownups. He always gavels us to order at seven-fifteen and doesn't schedule anything important until after the eight o'clock doughnut, coffee, and I'll - show - you - my - gun - if - you - show - me - yours break. Not that anyone was likely to have anything to show that most everyone didn't already have, or hadn't already seen during first Wednesday drills, anyway. I picked up a copy of the canary yellow agenda from my seat. The candidate's debate was scheduled as first item after the break.
I could always tell that Tony Bonaduce was in attendance, even if he was way in the back near the doughnut table, grabbing an early one, because right after the "With liberty and justice for all" of the stars-and-stripes salute that starts each meeting, Tony always loudly proclaimed, "Amen!" That's why I was surprised by the dead silence after the Pledge of Allegiance. Tony, and his son, now sixteen, hadn't missed the Pledge in six years. So I knew as early as 7:15 that if Tony and Rick couldn't make the meeting, something was wrong. I caught Audie St. Cloud's eye and could tell by his expression that he had the same gut feeling.
The first half of the meeting was just the usual housekeeping stuff, committee reports, my report on the blood donation drive, plans for our float in the Waco Memorial Day parade next April 19th. And, of course, every sort of fund- raising -- dues reminder, passing the hat, raffle tickets, ticket sales for our annual Shoot Out and Barbecue. I figure on spending around twenty bucks at each meeting, not counting tickets for our events. Whatever Marcia Alvarez hasn't already gotten out of me at the donated-book table by the end of the meeting, I just spend on raffle tickets. This year, so far, I've won two bags of reloads for my M-16 assault rifle, a bound edition of the Encyclopedia of Thomas Jefferson, a collection of John Wayne movies, and a "Danger: Politically Active" tee- shirt -- in XL, as a partial consequence of the bear claws and fritters that Jamal Johnson contributes as refreshments from J.J.'s Doughnuts each month.
I was trying to get myself back down to an ordinary shirt size on my camo, so I only had a plain cake doughnut this meeting and had my coffee black. Besides, I planned to join Audie, Jamal, and some of the other guys for supper after the meeting anyway at the Thirsty Cactus. Wednesday was all-you-can-eat fried chicken night. When it comes to Bessie's fried chicken, I just have no self control. But if I don't get the extra pounds off by June 15th, I'll pay for it with extra laps and push-ups during summer training, I know. My cardiovascular fitness is fine, and even though I'm over the age for mandatory participation, I'm not about to quit.
The candidate's debate was going to be a decisive factor in the election, since our current Sheriff, Fred Wu, was term- limited out and it was an open field. Fred wasn't endorsing a replacement and the Freehold Clarion's latest website poll showed it pretty much a three-way dead heat between sheriff's deputies Aaron Goldstein, Ralph Springer, and Deborah Butler, which meant a run-off election two weeks later. But whomever was going to be in the runoff, this was their last shot at speaking to us, since our November council meeting would be the day after a runoff, and no politicking is allowed at our first Wednesday drills.
The main issue in the sheriff's election this year was the same as it always was: what the sheriff was going to do about the raiding parties of drunken Peacekeepers from Ft. Barbie.
Every few months, a bunch of Brown Berets right out of Peacekeeper boot camp storm onto the freehold under pretense of buying marijuana, which their regs don't allow them to buy on base, and start looking for trouble. The Edmonton Accord doesn't allow us to deny them entry, or disarm them prior to arrest, and no matter how many petitions we've sent to Playa del Rey, we've gotten absolutely no cooperation from the interfeds in controlling them. The base commander of Ft. Barbie keeps assuring us that when our posse arrests one of his men within freehold limits, the soldier will be court-martialed; but all of our follow-up inquiries after turning over their detained personnel have been bureaucratically stonewalled. Also, every request for the M.P. captain to at least warn our sheriff when Brown Berets are off-duty and might be headed our way have been denied on the grounds of "international security." And worst, every arrest of a Brown Beret on the freehold has been followed by an even nastier incident a few days later. The Brown Berets protect their own.
They say nobody ever raped a .38, but that isn't true with the stuff the Peacekeepers are equipped with. The Brown Berets carry everything from C.D.F. sweepers, which will instantly turn a perfectly good bullet into a dud from a thousand feet away, to heartbeat detectors, which makes hiding perfectly useless, to prohypnol tranquilizer canisters.
I probably have a better idea how many of the freehold's women have been raped than anyone else, because even though most women won't talk about getting raped to the sheriff's deputies, sometimes they're torn up so badly that they need a surgeon.
But our freehold has had more than our share of babies born who don't look anything like their daddies, and even though abortion is illegal here, nobody has ever asked me if I've been supplying RU 486 to women following the raids. I'm not about to tell you, either; that's strictly between my patients and their doctor. Medical privacy is guaranteed under Article 4, Section 6 of our freehold's Declaration of Rights ... until someone decides to file a complaint against me.
I took my place at the right side of the head table with the candidates to my left, and after I did the formal introductions, they proceeded to put forward their different schemes for dealing with the raids, if elected sheriff.
Aaron Goldstein, the Independence candidate, has served on the posse for eight years -- the last two of them as a deputy. He promised that if elected he'd hold onto the next Brown Berets arrested on the freehold and make the interfeds petition for extradition. That got a lot of applause, but I wasn't particularly anxious to find out how the interfeds would respond.
The Constitutional Rights candidate, Deborah Butler, was all for equipping the posse with arms equal in power to what the Peacekeepers were carrying, and citing Article 51 of the UN charter as the legal basis for doing so when the interfeds came to arrest her. This was also a popular idea, but one which seems impractical to me. Even assuming we could find an outfreehold source willing to sell us the hardware, how are we supposed to allocate funds from the treasury's bank accounts without the interfeds knowing about it immediately? And with as little money as we have to work with, how can we justify spending tens of thousands of our budget on arms which are just going to get confiscated, likely even before they're delivered?
I didn't get to find out what the Founders candidate, Ralph Springer, had to say, because just after I introduced him, young Rick Bonaduce burst into the American Legion Hall and ran right over to me at the head table. "Dr. Lester," he whispered to me, "come quick! Dad's barricaded himself in the bedroom with a gun, he's been drinking heavy, and I think he's tryin' to kill himself!"
Audie St. Cloud took the microphone from me. I followed Rick out the door as fast as my legs would carry me, climbing onto the back of Rick's motor scooter, and held on for dear life during the bouncy three-mile ride down Eagle's Nest Highway to the Bonaduce's trailer.
"Is your mom at home?" I asked Rick softly, as soon as he cut the engine.
Rick shook his head, causing straight blond hair to bounce against an almost-invisible mustache he was trying to grow. "She's over at Mrs. St. Cloud's tonight."
"Anybody else in there?" I asked. He shook his head again. "You have any idea what this is about?"
"He got some email earlier today is all I know for sure," Rick started. "Broke out the Jack Daniels right after Mom left. First I knew something was wrong was when I told him it was time for the meeting and he said he wasn't going. Then he started watching some old movie -- you know, the one where David Koresh survives Waco and masterminds the Oklahoma City bombing? I always thought it was pretty funny but Dad never liked it. Anyway, I guessed he'd just fall asleep in front of the screen like he always does when he's had a few but this time he went to the gun safe and grabbed his old Colt sidearm and a box of .45 ammo. Then he went into the bedroom and locked the door. Dr. Lester, you know my dad. He'd never touch a gun after he's been drinking. Breaks every safety rule he's pounded into me since he taught me Eddie Eagle when I was four. I thought about calling the Sheriff's station but thought you'd be able to figure out what was eating him faster."
I put my hand on Rick's shoulder to steady him a little. He looked around twelve at the moment, really scared. "You ride on over to Ethel St. Cloud's and get your mother," I said. "I'll see what I can do."
Rick rode off on his motor scooter and I went into the trailer.
I could see a light on from under the bedroom door, so I knocked right away. "Tony, it's Jess Lester. You scared the hell out of Rick already. You want to let me in?"
"It's not locked," came Tony's voice through the door.
I opened the door. Tony was sitting on the foot of the bed in a cut-out undershirt and boxer shorts, with the Government Model pistol in his right hand, cradled on his lap, safety off, index finger inside the trigger guard.
There was a wicker chair against the one wall of the bedroom where there wasn't either a door or a dressing table. I picked up freshly-washed pink towels from the chair and tossed them onto pillows wrapped in flower-print pillowcases, then made a production about sitting down casually. Even from across the room, I could smell the liquor on his breath. His eyes were bloodshot and his hair was laying the wrong way across his bald spot.
"It's Bessie's fried chicken night," I said. "If you put on a pair of pants and comb your hair, there's still plenty of time to meet Jamal and Audie over at the Cactus."
"Did you know I wanted to be a composer?" he said after a few moments. "Not just songs or movie scores. I wanted to write symphonies, choral works, piano concertos."
"You should talk to Sam Katz over at the high school," I said. "He could turn whatever score you give him into parts using their MIDI software, have the school orchestra work it up."
Tony acted as if I hadn't said anything.
"You want to hear a joke I made up?" he asked.
"Sure," I said.
"What's the difference between a zoo and a freehold?" he said.
I thought carefully about several flippant answers, then decided not to risk them. "I don't know, Tony," I said. "What's the difference?"
"Exactly," Tony said, and before my lunge could propel me all the way to his right arm, he had already swallowed the barrel of the pistol and blown his medulla oblongata and an impressive portion of his cerebellum onto the wallpaper.
If you're curious about the email that young Rick said his dad had received earlier, that might have set him off, you can stop wondering.
After Deborah Butler got Rick and his mother, Claudia, back over to Audie and Ethel St. Cloud's place to stay the night, and Fred Wu and I had done what we needed to do with Tony's body and the medical examiner's report, I logged onto our electronic village using Tony's account and his password, which Rick had given me.
Tony had received no personal messages for two days. There was nothing attached to his email queue except the usual public notices, not even in his deleted message queue. Later, as part of the medical examiner's inquiry, I asked Aaron Goldstein to norton the email cache memory of Tony's phone just to see if Tony had trashed anything. But there were no trashed personal messages in the box.
So I can state with some authority that all Tony had been reading before he ate his gun was the weekly edition of the Interfederal Register, the same that we all get.
But there was plenty of probable cause for Tony's suicide to be found in that publication.
To begin with, we were being consolidated again. The Tucson Freehold was being stripped of 35,000 acres of its territory, because a type of short-tailed rodent listed as extinct had been found there by an eight-year-old girl. She'd just thought it was some sort of field mouse and had naively taken her new pet to school for show-and-tell on a day when some eager-beaver intern from the Department of Freehold Affairs was observing. The land had been declared an endangered-species habitat, and 1871 Tucsonites were being relocated to our freehold by the end of the year. The Tucsonites were not going to be particularly welcome neighbors. A lot of people around here who lost family members in '08 still haven't forgiven their council for signing the Declaration of Interdependence.
To "pay" us for the costs of consolidation, we were being thrown a bone by the IAA. The Arts Administration had authorized a $450,000 location fee to be paid to our treasury by "Dynamic Entry Entertainment," for a remake of Last of the Extremists, starring Rolf Glock and Donelly O'Brien. An additional hundred bucks a day was available to any locals chosen by the company for extra work. I knew that left non-whites like Jamal and me out. These productions never wanted anyone with other than a Nordic complexion to play the freemen.
Tony Bonaduce had always been a favorite of the production companies for extra work, whenever they shot on the freehold. He'd even been given small speaking parts on occasion. He was pale and blue-eyed, with a round face and a strong chin, and after they'd shaved his head for a part, he always looked the perfect freeman skinhead, rather than the fringe-topped, beer- bellied poultry inspector that he was the rest of the time.
Because Tony's death was a suicide, Claudia Bonaduce had been unable to get a Roman Catholic priest to perform a funeralmass or allow Tony to be buried at San Miguel's. So, appropriately, Tony's funeral was held the following Monday at the same American Legion Hall where most of his close friends had been meeting the night he died, with Pastor Audlin performing the service. Rick Bonaduce had cut some Yucca flowers from his father's garden and placed them on Tony's flag-draped closed casket; they were the only flowers he'd planted that were in full bloom this October.
Then Tony was buried with a full U.S. Army honor guard at Veterans Memorial Park. Tony was laid to rest with a rifle salute, taps played off key, and the American flag from his coffin carefully folded and presented to his widow, as befitted a Silver Star veteran of Operation High Five, a medal he'd won by walking for three days up 11,000 feet in front of a school bus on a heavily mined mountain road, leading thirty-eight children and their teacher to safety.
After the burial, there was a wake of sorts at the Thirsty Cactus, with the bar closed off to the public for the afternoon. Ethel St. Cloud was up front at a table with Claudia and Rick. Fred Wu and several of his deputies were in the back room playing pool with Bessie, she of the magnificent fried chicken, and the owner. Audie, Jamal, and me sat around a table near the casino entrance, about halfway back, and proceeded to try figuring out why Tony did it, what we could do to help Claudia and Rick out, and to try getting stinking drunk.
We didn't get very far in either analysis, but we were about half way to drunk when three Brown Berets walked in.
The Brown Berets stood for a moment, looking around, and seemed to focus their gaze on Claudia Bonaduce. I don't blame them. Claudia has that classic model look and she's kept her figure. Now that she was wearing black, her wavy blond hair was set off even more. Then the Peacekeepers took a table near the door and all three sat down with their backs to the wall. One of them tried waving over the bartender.
I noticed Rick looking toward the Peacekeepers apprehensively. He looked as if he was about to go over to them and say something. I caught Rick's eye and shook my head. Instead, I went over. "Gentlemen," I said, "the sign on the door said that this is a private party tonight."
The middle of three Brown Berets, a beefy Russian or maybe Ukrainian, gave me a look as if I was dogshit. The other two, one who looked like he'd be at home in Ku Klux Klan robes, one Mediterranean-looking I think, just stared. These were no fresh recruits out of camp for the first time, looking for casino action or a fling with one of Bessie's back-room girls. Their ranks were equivalent to what in the old system would have been master sergeants.
I don't have it in for most cops. The average street cop's job involves meeting the worst kind of people, and even the best kind of people when they're at their worst. A city cop's job isn't all that different from being the bouncer at a dockside bar. Even our posse have to have training that makes them able to control a situation, no matter what happens.
But the Peacekeepers are missionaries with guns. It's not that they're inclined to be bullies. They're trained to be bullies. It's part of the job description. They're always right, you're always wrong; they can be trusted with the keys to the city and you're trouble waiting to happen.
"Move aside," the Russian said to me. "You're blocking my view."
I didn't move. Somehow, my head was perfectly clear. Perhaps if I'd been more sober I would have been more afraid, though. "My name is Jesse Jackson Lester," I said. "Doctor Jesse Lester. I serve on the posse, I'm the freehold's medical examiner, and I'm a captain in our militia. If you're here on official business," I told him, "I'll step aside, or even assist you, if you need it. Otherwise, as I said, this is private. We just buried a friend today. That's his widow and son over there." I gestured toward Claudia and Rick's table.
"The cockroach who killed himself," said the Mediterranean- looking one, speaking not to me but to his companions. "A failure even among these pathetic losers. He did not deserve to fuck a woman like that."
All three of them laughed. The Russian leered at Claudia Bonaduce and winked. The expression on her face was enough to break your heart.
There are moments when the provocation is clear and intentional, and designed to create an opportunity for conquest. I noticed that my friends from the back room, including the Sheriff and his deputies, were now only a few yards behind me waiting to see what I would do. I knew the Peacemakers had almost certainly used their C.D.F. sweepers to deactivate any ammunition within the bar before they walked in, so there was no chance of shooting it out with them, if it came to that. They were twenty years younger than I was so there wasn't even much I could do to start a brawl with them.
So I said, "Gentlemen, I believe you wanted something to drink."
I walked calmly behind the bar, grabbed a bottle of 120 proof rum from the shelf, and started pouring it onto the bar countertop. The Peacekeepers stared at me in disbelief. I struck a match and dropped it onto the rum, setting the bartop ablaze.
"I don't like you," I told the Peacekeepers, as the fire spread. "You are indecent. You have no regard for our legends or our history or our culture. You don't have a clue what makes us tick. Your movies and books lie about our history and libel our forefathers. You steal our families' lands. You think trees and rats have more rights than we have. You are the most sanctimonious, self-righteous creatures ever to walk the earth. There is no living with you, and I will burn this entire goddamned country down before you will ever get anything to drink here."
I heard a hail of cheers and applause from behind me. I glanced over and saw that even Bessie, whose bar I had just torched, was cheering.
It could have turned out differently, I know. The Peacekeepers could have grabbed their weapons and started firing. We might have all been massacred. Instead, they got up and left quickly, watching their backs as they withdrew.
We all chipped in to buy Bessie a new countertop for her bar, which was the only thing singed before I grabbed the fire extinguisher from the wall.
I didn't want to be sheriff, but I wasn't given any choice in the matter. All three of the declared candidates withdrew and Fred Wu organized a last minute write-in campaign for me.
I've been spending a lot of my spare time with Rick Bonaduce, but have to admit that at least part of my motivation isn't altruism but the dinners I've been invited to by his mother.
I think my boyhood friend, Audie St. Cloud, summed up my unexpected savagery better than anyone else, when he swore me in as sheriff. "Jesse Lester and I used to play Cowboys and Indians as kids," Audie told the crowd. "Both of us always wanted to be the cowboy, like every American kid does. What Doc figured out," said Audie, "is that it's just our turn to be the Indians."
October 9, 1996
Since it is rarely sung, here is the final verse of the national anthem of the United States of America, "The Star Spangled Banner":
Oh, thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation;
Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven-rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust!"
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave!