Arts Mixtape

"Daylight Precision" by Douglas Lackey

by Jerry Tallmer

Editor's note: The author of this article, Jerry Tallmer, was on the founding staff of the Village Voice. He was the main arts writer of Dorothy Schiff's New York Post for many years, and most recently, has written for The Villager as well as our own NYTW. He served in World War II as a radioman on B-25 bombers. In a memorable essay in The Villager, Tallmer recalled seeing the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki from the window of his bomber while on another mission over Japan. "Didn't like it then, don't like it now," he wrote. His writings in The Villager were recognized in the New York Press Association’s 2011 Better Newspaper Contest. The judge in the Best Column category wrote, "Tallmer uses his own history and knowledge to enhance the stories he shares with his readers. His style adds depth to his columns and helps place contemporary issues in context." In 2012, Tallmer was inducted into the Players Club Hall of Fame.

Pat Dwyer as General Haywood Hansell in "Daylight Precision," a play that examines "just war" theories through this unsung hero of World War II.

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze

-- Randall Jarrell, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"

"First of all," said Douglas Lackey, the chairman of the philosophy department at Baruch College on East 22nd Street, "I memorized that poem when I was12 years old…"

Douglas Lackey

Douglas Lackey is now 68 years old -- a notably youthful 68 -- who keeps himself fit by bringing forth books with such daunting titles (and subjects) as "Ethics and Strategic Defense" (1990) or "Moral Principles and Nuclear Weapons" (1984) -- a little touch of Orwell in the night.

Ten years ago professor and moral essayist Lackey turned playwright Lackey with "Kaddish in East Jerusalem," which "came bursting out of my head" and into Crystal Field's Theater for the New City, First Avenue at 10th Street. The kaddish was for a dead Arab.

"I think Crystal's politics and mine are pointed in the same direction," says playwright Lackey.

"Daylight Precision," the precisely titled new work that comes flooding out of Lackey's head and onto stage at TNC under the direction of Alexander Harrington, sweeps us back to an all but forgotten World War II and its tangle of moral questions that still won't go away; indeed that intensify any time a drone is launched by anybody in any direction.

The cleanly written "Daylight Precision" puts its questions in classic terms -- director Harrington, son of the late Michael ("The Other America") Harrington, is a classicist. He specializes in heroes from real life, real death, or what was once real life, real death (Hector, Achilles); in this case the 120,000 dead Japanese in Tokyo after Curtis LeMay's B-29's got through with them, not to mention Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

On the other side, a flyboy I had never heard of, the more rational and intellectual Gen. Haywood Hansell (Pat Dwyer), who applied his first-hand observations of the British resistance to Goering's bombers -- the "Battle of Britain'" -- toward practical plans for bombing the hell out of Goering's own Germany.

In early 1944 Hansell was transferred to the Pacific theater preliminary to an invasion of Japan -- a gruesome prospect at best -- but at the last minute he was yanked off that assignment too. Even those of us in the Pacific at that time knew only that Curtis LeMay (Joel Stigliano) was "a great soldier, a great pilot, a great navigator," a great cigar smoker, even a great mechanic -- he carried his own tools --, but to the name Haywood Hansell we'd look blank.

Douglas Lackey was born in Staten Island on August 22, 1945, three weeks after Hiroshima, and grew up with a Roman Catholic education in the borough of Queens. His father, a Santa Fe ticket agent, had an office at 500 Fifth Avenue, off the corner of 42nd Street, from which vantage point Lackey the kid looked down on the frenzied Welcome Home from the Pacific parade for Gen. Douglas MacArthur.….

Speak of spoiled heroes…....

My father, Albert F. Tallmer, also worked in an office at 500 Fifth Avenue, but I don't believe he watched any Douglas MacArthur parade. In any event, in 1968 recent schoolboy track star Douglas Lackey found himself running at top speed through Grant Park and down Michigan Avenue in Chicago, with Mayor Daley's cops hard on his heels.......

"I have to tell you I'm Irish," says Michigan State graduate Lackey, "and they tell great stories. We stretch the truth a lot."

The "hinge" then of "Daylight Precision," as Lackey puts it, is the tender-minded Haywood Hansell vs. the tough-minded Curtis LeMay, with everybody from lowliest enlisted men to starriest generals (USAAF commander Hap Arnold, Britain's Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris) snapping to attention every time they leave or enter a room.

I never before thought of snapping to attention as such powerful stage directions -- but then, it's been a long time since you could research the films "12 O'Clock High" (starring Gregory Peck) or "Command Decision" (Clark Gable), which dealt with these matters.

Weaving in and out of "Daylight Precision" is an enlisted man -- a sergeant under Hansell's command who's both a ball-turret gunner and a poet, and is straining for a good last line to his own deeply moving poem about the death of a ball-turret gunner, i.e., his own foreseen death.

Randall Jarrell, 1914-1965

Playwright Lackey gives him the name "Robert Jarrell," and brings him and his poems safely through the war, but there was an actual Randall Jarrell, a tall, gentle young man who was very kind to me when we were both breaking in at The Nation magazine a year or so after the war. And yes, he was Randall Jarrell the poet and could prove it. It was a sad day in 1965 that we lost him along a superhighway in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.

Curtis LeMay was of course a wise guy who could counterpunch a critic with: "Don't worry, Sir. We'll take care of it. Peace is my profession." Haywood Hansell's rather more sophisticated jibes run to: "We are military men, not arsonists." They are both wrong. But the wrongest, or at least most annoying person in this equation is a famous British pacifist named (no joke) Vera Brittain (Danielle Delgado), who haunts London's American bars and drives Haywood Hansell half crazy with questions like: "So the idea is that, if you can't kill the enemy, you kill the enemy's children. Is that an American value?"…

As one bored junior command officer puts it while killing time before the smashing of Japan: "How did it ever happen that our fighters and bombers have different ranges? That's crazy."

The answer: "That's because the P-38 is made by Lockheed, and the B-17 is made by Boeing, and those guys hate each other."

Next question.

When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Out of the turret and into our presence starting February 23 at TNC.


February 21 to March 16, 2014
Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. (at East Tenth Street)
Presented by Theater for the New City
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 3:00 PM
$15 gen. Adm., $10 seniors & students. Box office 212-254-1109,
Runs: 1:50 with intermission.
More information on "Daylight Precision" is available on Theater for the New City's website.

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