Thursday, January 12, 2012

Yankee Acts in South Carolina

As Mitt Romney tries to seal the deal in the Palmetto state and falls in the polls, memories come back of a culture clash when I was in basic training there during World War II. How much has changed in seven decades?

The country boys in my company were excited by anything exotic and, given their lives before induction, it took little to tickle them. One day they were chortling over a guy in the next battalion named Zero.

He had been at City College a decade before me and in the 1940s was getting known in Manhattan night clubs for political satire that would later fail to amuse the House Un-American Activities Committee. The night I looked him up, Zero Mostel was on his way to becoming the pear-shaped presence that years later would charge around a Broadway stage and turn into a rhinoceros.

Sitting on his bunk, field jacket zipped to the throat, his big head seemed to be resting on a bulging bag of laundry. He was in his late twenties, but his eyes were a thousand years old. When I told him I was from the Bronx, he grabbed me as if I were a pastrami sandwich.

We went into town Saturday night to the Spartanburg USO, where local ladies entertained with doughnuts, coffee and Southern charm, and the troops entertained back however they could. When the hostesses heard Zero was a professional performer, they pushed him to the stage. I sat in the front row, happily awaiting my share of the attention he would be getting.

Zero slouched up to the microphone with a shy smile and a glint in his eye, gathered his bulk, fixed his face into a scowl and suddenly emitted the roar of a deep Southern demagogue. To this audience of dewy damsels and redneck recruits, he was offering his rendition of Senator Pellagra T. Polltax, a raging parody of the Mississippi racist, Theodore Bilbo.

As Zero flung his arms in all directions and turned up the angry rant about niggers and kikes, I slid down in my seat, looking for an exit.

By the time he finished, I was crouching near the floor. Through the startled silence, I heard the start of a low rumble, and I sprinted to the stage where Zero was beaming and bowing, grabbed his elbow and shoved him through a door toward the bus that would carry us, untarred and unfeathered, back to camp. On the ride Zero seemed relaxed, a small smile on his face. We never went to the USO again.

All these years later, Mitt Romney no doubt faces a different South Carolina, but the latest polls show him with only a slim lead there. If he can win, the nomination will undoubtedly be his but, somewhere in Comedy Heaven, I can picture Zero still smiling that knowing smile.

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