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Cruising With Commander Contra

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There were about 100 people protesting my arrival at the north dock of Navy Pier, where I was going to board the Chicago Princess for a "contra cruise" sponsored by the Young Turks Committee of the United Republican Fund of Illinois. It wasn't that they were irritated at me, I reasoned, but rather at the presence of Adolfo Calero.

Bobo, my chinawoman in conservative Republican circles, had called to say, "Like, it'll be great! OK?" I told her I'd show up because I like meeting great old baseball players, same as everyone. She rang off, puzzled as always, and I prepared myself to meet the president and commander in chief of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force.

I'm used to working the other side of the line: shouting, not shouted at. And banter from the crowd was not particularly creative: "Calero is a murderer and so are you!" Somehow the hyperbole didn't stick. I did enjoy one placard: "Snort Coke, Fund Contras." And so, I suspected, did some of my companions.

Two hundred forty of us boarded, the women having their handbags checked for grenades, the gentlemen opening their coats, exposing the area where their Uzi holsters would have been. Everyone headed for the bar.

It's difficult to describe the political spasm that is the new right in the Republican party. There were the University of Chicago nerds: big Oliver North buttons, bad suits, odd neckwear, delighted by beer. An eagerly dressed law intern introduced himself; a toothy guy working for a prolife office, he seemed keenly aware of the conundrum of abhorrent federally funded abortions on the one hand and the crushing burden of aid to dependent children on the other. Elegantly draped WASPy girls grew silly with the pitching of the boat, wobbly in their heels, Gidget-earnest in their ideology. The rest--yupsters, overweight outsiders, hicksters--seemed perfectly at home as they waited to meet, finally, his graying eminence Dr. Calero.

It was part Mexican wedding--a few giddy passengers overdressed: tuxes with pink ties and cummerbunds, Hispanic women with laced but otherwise backless gowns. Prom night with a purpose.

The first joke I heard was telling: How do you drive a yuppie crazy? Give him a sleeveless sweater. It played well in this crowd.

An exaggerated and tanned blond with a throaty voice and a pink jumpsuit dominated the stern. Channel Two News worked the crowd. Reporters from City News and the Sun-Times took notes, as I did. People milled about, an aquatic country club where everyone knew each other, sort of.

The Chicago police obliged nicely. Three boats rode side-on-side shotgun. As we left the dock, one boat arrested a small sailboat whose occupants shouted at us. The boat bobbed against our strong wake, its police custodian ludicrously, overpoweringly confident as it roped its prey.

The Chicago skyline erupted into vertical brush strokes of chemical reds and marbled, gray clouds as the Chicago Princess lumbered out into the lake.

"Are you active in anything?" a puff-pastry-faced youth asked a bewildered young woman. An older Hispanic took the occasion to test-drive his white three-piece with matching fedora, Scarface-fashion.

An adorable and recent Brown graduate explained her major (political science/economics) to three attentive gentlemen, and when there was a break, a shy, bespectacled man introduced himself. They exchanged the briefest of vitae, after which he had the courage to ask her for lunch in exchange for a history of his political beliefs, and she said yes. The system works.

Steven Baer, a Young Turk, took the microphone to explain "yuppie in its best sense," listing a belief in free enterprise and so forth. He finished by saying that America used to be called El Norte by our Hispanic brethren; now it's El North. Did I mention the proliferation of Oliver North posters?

An auctioneer, who got the rhythm all wrong, started selling ten Ollie North posters signed by Calero. When the price snagged at $75, he pleaded, "We want to keep this man [pointing to Calero] armed." The first poster went for $100. The tap dance of supply and demand took the bidding over $240 per before the frenzy subsided and the last poster vanished.

Calero began his brief remarks at the end of the cruise. I had had my picture taken with him earlier. I shook his firm hand. He had the ease of a German ambassador entering Paraguay. The man has worked parties. He told us that he had swum in Lake Michigan when he was a student at Notre Dame--35 years ago. (A beefy Irish guy earlier had insisted that Calero must remember one of the cafeteria workers there--continuing to enumerate her features to Calero's unblinking wonder--until someone more sensible pushed him out of the way.) Calero said, in lounge-act sincerity, "I used to be a Central American. But now I am a North [as in Oliver, get it?] American." The crowd, sensing television history, went crazy. Toward the back of the ship, the Young Turks were finishing off the last of the burritos, the dip, the chemically nachoed chips. Calero was asked about religious oppression in a country he had not set foot in in three years. "Well, Marxism believes that religion is the opium of the people," he started and even the heads of the converted drooped. He likened himself to our General MacArthur, who, as far as I know, never smuggled drugs. He reaffirmed his country's will to win. He deplored the U.S. government's "fickle, inconsistent support" of his thug-ridden resistance movement. I decided to take a hit of the fresher night air available on the upper deck. We docked, and there was a long line of Young Republicans who had endured a sea passage together waiting to photograph their coincidence with Calero.

I walked home as Chicago had the good sense to darken; the protesters had gone home to see if they had made the news. We all had. And it didn't matter.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.

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