One day in 1951, a runaway 14-year-old boy named Merle Haggard accomplished two memorable things: He bought his first pair of cowboy boots in a secondhand store and he lost his virginity in a whorehouse in Amarillo, Tex.
Interviewing Haggard for a wonderfully entertaining profile in the November issue of GQ, writer Chris Heath asked the legendary country singer and songwriter if his experiences in that whorehouse changed him.
Haggard pondered the question for a minute. "Not really," he replied. "I think the cowboy boots affected me more. I mean, the gal just affirmed what I already knew, but the cowboy boots made a new man out of me."
These days, country music stars are created in a factory in China, molded out of plastic by workers earning 38 cents an hour, then shipped to Nashville, where they are fitted for a cowboy hat and taught to sing ditties written by a committee of moonlighting Hallmark employees. But Haggard, now 68, is the last of a more authentic breed.
He was born in California in 1937, two years after his Okie parents fled the Dust Bowl in the exodus immortalized in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" and in countless Woody Guthrie songs. Haggard grew up in a converted boxcar in Bakersfield, where his father worked for the Santa Fe Railroad. When he was 9, Haggard returned home from a Wednesday night prayer meeting to find his father paralyzed from a stroke. When his dad died, Haggard started running away from home.
"I was 11 years old when I first hopped a freight train," he says. "Didn't go far. Went about a hundred miles and they arrested me in Fresno."
That was the first of many arrests for various petty crimes. Finally, when Haggard was 20, he was caught drunkenly trying to burglarize a restaurant that was still open and sent to San Quentin prison. He spent three years there and witnessed, he says, "horrors too terrible to think about, much less talk about."
When he got out, he turned his experiences into dozens of simple but powerful songs. In the late 1960s, he had hits with two anti-hippie anthems -- "Okie From Muskogee" and "Fightin' Side of Me" -- which got him stereotyped as a right-wing redneck. But he's far more complicated and deeper than that, singing with powerful sympathy about death-row inmates and hunted fugitives and the pain of hardworking men who can't earn enough to support their families.
Heath asked Haggard what somebody might learn by listening to his songs.
"That I'm a contrary old son of a bitch, I guess," Haggard replies.
Indeed he is. As it turns out, the man who sang "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee" not only smoked tons of marijuana but also got himself messed up on cocaine. He told Heath how he concluded, in 1983, that he had a problem: He was on his houseboat with a beautiful woman and a pile of coke for five days and never got around to having sex.
That's yet another good reason to avoid the evil white powder. But somehow I don't think the Partnership for a Drug-Free America will be summoning Haggard to tell that story in an anti-drug ad anytime soon.
Now, Haggard and his fifth wife have settled on a 200-acre spread in Northern California that he has turned into an animal sanctuary. But he's still as unpredictable as ever. One minute he's telling Heath that he's sick of showbiz and never wants to tour again. The next minute he's on the phone promising to do a benefit concert for some local fire victims.
As Heath was leaving, Haggard, egged on by his wife and son, has rubbed goop in his hair and created a spike hairdo and told his band, "We're going punk rock."
Then he offers the departing Heath one final bit of explanation: "I am not an ordinary man."
Abu Ghraib Redux
Last month, the Senate passed a bill that would make it illegal for Americans to torture prisoners overseas and the Bush administration threatened to veto it.
Last week, this newspaper reported that the CIA maintains secret prisons in several foreign countries, where the agency interrogates suspected terrorists.
This week, the New Yorker has published a disturbing story about a man who died while being tortured by a CIA interrogator in Iraq's infamous Abu Ghraib prison.
The man was a suspected Iraqi terrorist named Manadel al-Jamadi and his battered corpse was shown packed in ice in one of the most famous photos from Abu Ghraib. Now, the New Yorker's Jane Mayer identifies the non-covert CIA officer who allegedly tortured him -- Mark Swanner -- and tells the grim story of Jamadi's death.
When Jamadi was captured by Navy SEALs in his house in November 2003, he "savagely fought one of the SEALs," Mayer writes, and "was manhandled by several of the SEALs, who gave him a black eye and cut on his face." When Jamadi arrived at Abu Ghraib, he was naked from the waist down and his head was covered by a plastic sandbag, according to witnesses, but he was able to walk and talk. Then he was turned over to Swanner for interrogation and 45 minutes later, Jamadi was dead.
During those 45 minutes, Jamadi, his head still covered by the plastic bag, was "shackled in a crucifixion-like pose that inhibited his ability to breathe," Mayer writes.
"He's just playing dead," Swanner said, according to one witness.
But when the witness, an Army MP, lifted the plastic bag off Jamadi's head, he saw that the prisoner was dead. When his body was lowered to the floor, another witness said, "blood came gushing out of his nose and mouth, as if a faucet had been turned on."
After an internal investigation, U.S. government authorities classified Jamadi's death as a "homicide." The CIA's inspector general also investigated the death and, after determining that a crime might have occurred, referred the case to the Justice Department for possible prosecution.
But, Mayer writes, "Swanner has not been charged with a crime and continues to work for the agency."