Indiana Street Crime BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN THE TIMES OF A SIGN: A FOLK HISTORY OF THE IRAN-CONTRA SCANDAL Directed by David Goldsmith and Steve Day DUMPING TRASH is not a negligible crime against the environment. It was serious enough to render Arlo Guthrie unfit for military service. The story of how a littering conviction kept him from combat in Vietnam is told in “Alice’s Restaurant,” a funky anthem of the anti-war movement. Guthrie’s ballad questions the ethical priorities of a government that drafted men to drop napalm on Asians but was too fastidious to recruit someone who strewed ordinary refuse over a Massachusetts lot. The Times of a Sign, the fmal offering in the 1994 season of P.O.V., is a similarly sprightly study in moral incongruity. Scheduled for national broadcast by PBS on August 9 \(but check the schedule for up to the topsy-turvy world in which those who perpetrate high crimes and misdemeanors prosper while a prankster who protests them is forced to do time. John Poindexter and his co-conspirators in the Iran-Contra scam got away with murder and perjury and obstruction of justicebut Bill Breeden was sentenced to eight days in the Daviess County jail for swiping a street sign. ‘ The sign read: “John Poindexter Street” and hung near the high school in southern Indiana from which George Bush’s National Security Advisor was graduated valedictorian. Breeden also grew up in rural Odon, population 1,500, and he, too, nourished great expectations. Born to a family of Nazarene fundamentalists, he was, according to his sister, Ginger Sears, “raised to be the next Billy Graham.” She was appalled at his transformation into a kind of Hoosier hippy preacher. Breeden dropped out of his conservative seminary and moved into a sylvan tepee, crying in the wilderness against injustice. When his wife Glenda returned from an eye-opening stay in Nicaragua, both determined to oppose their government’s mischief in Central America. Bill explains: “We both de Steven Kellman teaches comparative litera ture at the University of Texas at San Antonio. cided that, by God, if there is any way that we can do something to affect a change in this kind of policy, I’ll be damned if I’ll pass it up.” What Breeden did was strike at the most visible local symbol of that policythe sign erected to honor Admiral Poindexter, a cunning native son who lost his moral compass by favoring North, the twisted Oliver of the radical right. Convicted on all five counts with which he was charged, Poindexter wasalong with others implicated in flouting federal laws prohibiting material assistance to either Iran or the Nicaraguan rebelspardoned by President Bush. The placardnapper of Odon left a note on Poindexter Street: “There are some graduates of this high school who believe that the government does not have the right to lie to its people. Lo, how the mighty have fallen.” He signed the message: “M.W.L.F. Midwest Liberation Front.” Directors David Goldsmith and Steve Day cut between archival coverage of the arms-for-hostages scandal and interviews with Odon residents about the episode of their purloined sign. While Poindexter is invoking his privilege against selfincrimination before a committee of the Senate, Breeden playfully pleads the Fifth Amendment to a filmmaker curious about the whereabouts of the missing sign. But he also offers to return it in exchange for $30 million, to buy supplies for the children of Nicaragua. Figuring that: “It would be pretty silly to get shot over a damned old street sign,” Breeden eventually turns himself in. Awaiting trial, the county’s first prosecution for the crime of poaching a sign, he is let out on $250 bail. Though national reporters ignored the Odon caper, Dan Carpenter, a columnist for the Indianapolis Star, explains denizens’ sentiments toward Breeden as a reaction against the admiral’s Doppelganger: “They considered him a local boy gone bad, just the opposite of John Poindexter.” However, several locals dismiss the whole affair as much ado about nothing. John Myers, editor of the Odon Journal, complains that the trial “just gave Bill Breeden a forum for his views.” So does this film, gladly. Goldsmitha New York freelancer whose only previous feature was Roads and Bridges, a examination of racial discrimination in middle America and Daya doctoral student in political science who joined the project because of his Indiana roots and his acquaintance with the casedo not pretend to be impartial. They have created a gem of droll dudgeon. However, many of the Odon townsfolk revere the former National Security Advisor, the way a native of Norwich, Connecticutt, birthplace of Benedict Arnold, might venerate the turncoat general as confirmation of one’s own potential for renown. County officials found themselves under intense pressure to prosecute Breeden. Demands to apprehend and punish the renegade of Poindexter Street arose from influential figures in the community, including Poindexter’s cousin Richard, who operates a funeral home in Odon. After conviction in a trial by jury, Breeden served four of the eight days to which Judge Robert Arthur sentenced him. The public property that he held for ransom was worth $35, while the funds and arms misappropriated during Iran-Contra amounted to about $30 million. No Iran-Contra convict ever spent a minute in prison for his crimes against the United States, and Oliver North might even spend six years in the Senate, the institution at which he flaunted his smarmy contempt. The Midwest Liberation Front never freed the Hoosier State. If the mighty have fallen, it has often been onto the backs of the feeble. The Times of a Sign is a study in the perpetration and perpetuation of injustice, but it masks its rage with whimsy. It is a melancholy matter to contemplate people and places and how the latter often commemorate the least deserving of the former. Stalingrad survived the German invasion, though not revulsion against the Georgian tyrant that finally surfaced in 1961, when the city was renamed Volgograd. It seems unlikely that Odon will soon rename Poindexter Street for valiant Bill Breeden. The French, with sad wisdom, call all their streets rue. ANDERSON & COMPANY COFFEE TEA SPICES TWO JEFFERSON SQUARE AUSTIN, TEXAS 78731 512 453-1533 Send me your list. Name Street City Zip 20 AUGUST 5, 1994
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