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Stateside With Rosalea: An American Life

"In the Winston Racing nation, the right to remain silent is one we rarely exercise." So it says on the cover of the matchbooks that are given away with Winston cigarettes. This week that right was no doubt exercised nationwide, if only for two minutes, in remembrance of one of car racing's biggest names in America - Dale Earnhardt. Nicknamed "The Intimidator" because of his willingness to trade paint with other cars in order to bump them for a better position, he had 76 career wins to his name and had won the Winston Cup seven times.

His death on Sunday 18 February on the last corner of the last lap of the Daytona 500 was top of the newscasts on all the broadcast TV channels for a couple of days. Even PBS's Jim Lehrer's NewsHour covered it in a lengthy segment that concentrated on the safety of the NASCAR series in the light of this being the fourth death in the past two seasons. Suddenly HANS - head and neck support - became a household acronym and 35 orders for the strapping systems were placed by race car teams. Earnhardt had never taken to the device, saying it restricted his vision.

By the end of the week news emerged that Earnhardt's seat belt had snapped, perhaps explaining why his car suddenly veered to the left and slightly off the track for no obvious reason. It was as he corrected back into the closely packed race cars travelling at 180 miles per hour that his trademark No. 3 Chevy got into trouble, shot up the banked race track and crashed head-on into the wall. He'd walked away from far worse than this many times; this time he was killed instantly. Half a mile away down the track Michael Waltrip was crossing the finish line with Dale Jr behind, a 1:2 victory for the Earnhardt team.

In one of those bizarre pieces of serendipity that occasionally happen when you're doing more than one thing at a time, I happened to be watching the end of the race while listening to National Public Radio's "This American Life". TAL is a national treasure. It's a weekly radio program from WBEZ in Chicago, available on the web at www.thislife.org, and carried by most National Public Radio stations. Last Sunday the subject was "Last Words. People's last thoughts and last words before dying."

The program host was interviewing the author of a recent book called "The Black Box", which contains transcripts of the recordings recovered from plane crashes. Which might sound ghoulish, but the transcripts that are released into the public arena have had anything personal, e.g. relating to family, edited out. The impression that is left is of highly professional people going about their jobs as best they can in the face of ultimate certain death.

Very often because the plane's systems survive longer than its occupants do, the last words are those of a computer. But the most poignant recording the author recounted was that of the pilot of a Turkish plane who, realising all was lost, began singing a children's lullaby and kept on singing it until the moment of impact.

As for people's last thoughts before dying... that was covered by readings from Tobias Wolff's 1996 short story "A Bullet in the Brain", which is tearjerk material, if ever there was, about a cynic who is shot in a bank robbery. As the bullet enters his brain its trajectory is slowed to brain time and he remembers - or doesn't remember - the incidents of his life. The bullet, "in the end... will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet's tail of memory and hope and talent and love..."

Well, it's silly to get sentimental about some bloke who drove stock cars and who lived up to his nickname in his business and media relationships as much as on the race track, but I guess everyone hopes to die quickly and doing something they love so Earnhardt's death has this kind of larger than life quality to it. The son of a racecar driver, Dale Earnhardt virtually singlehandedly made the NASCAR races into a sporting phenomenon as big as any of the ball sports, and that is what he was remembered for in all the newscasts.

What can you say, as the racing mantle passes to his son, but "The king is dead, long live the king."

And speaking of kings, George 3.43 certainly got tongues wagging with that bombing of Iraq didn't he? It shared newspaper headlines with a photo of him talking horse with Mexico's President Vicente Fox, whom he was visiting at the time. Speculation in the alternative media was that it wasn't so much a warning shot at Hussein as at Fox - a little encouragement for him to sell his country's energy supplies to the right people. Texans.

And while he was on a roll with issuing executive orders - the monocrat's equivalent of a royal decree - 3.43 also stomped on down to the ranch and rescinded Clinton's executive order that people who pay "fair share" union dues but are not members of a union can withhold that portion of their dues that is used to finance political campaigns. ("Fair share" union dues are the ones paid to unions by workers who are working under union contracts in jobs where they're not also required to be a union member.) Take that, you union-loving Democrats!

He's had such a busy fortnight that I got the impression America's latest king (version 43 since ditching King George the Third) is rushing around trying to cobble himself together a lot of personal support wherever he can find it to fend off an imminent attack from his very own courtiers.

Lea Barker
California
Saturday 24 February


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