April 26, 2010

It's Always Amateur Hour Somewhere, Part I

"I tell you, old sport—I've never met anyone as committed to a single cause as that man Weelykta. Why, I daresay he'd be a sterling example to all of us, if he manages to accomplish anything, of course."
—Jay Gatsby
"Gatsby's a rotten bastard, a hopeless lightweight. Terminal amateurs like him make us all look bad."
—Frank Weelykta
"Tequila and tabasco/Formaldehyde and gin/Hell yes we're gonna drink it all!/Hell yes we're gonna win!"
—Singing delegates at the 1924 Weelykta Party National Convention
Sustaining political enthusiasm is a hard racket—it starts ugly and ends uglier—and I know this is true because in my case it began early. As a seventeen-year-old budding party hack, I had an AP U.S. History term paper to complete, with two topics to choose from: the unjust tragedy of Executive Order 9066 or the gluttonous comedy of the Twenty-First Amendment. Being a righteous (but not yet terminally gonzo) adolescent, I chose the former, and have regretted it ever since. But now—now I can come clean.

Indeed, there is no twelve-step recovery program for sustained political over-enthusiasm, but if there were, surely one step would be immersion in the toxic yet inspiring legacy of the great Frank Weelykta—a true American Icon of the early Twentieth Century, on par with Babe Ruth, Huey Long and J. Edgar Hoover. You may laugh, but his rise and fall holds many lessons for those of us often frustrated by the political constipation endemic to the two major U.S. political parties. Check it:
Very little is known about Weelykta's murky origins. He was born Franklin Thomas Weelykta ("FTW" for short) in 1899 to William and Temperance Weelykta, allegedly in either Ann Arbor, Michigan or Akron, Ohio (the family owned property in both cities). The elder Weelykta, a professor of demography, would today be regarded as a raging case of bipolar disorder, but of course these things were not diagnosed back then. According to his son, William would explode in fury if anyone referred to him by his hated childhood nickname, "Wee Willie." Conversely, Temperance was said to embody her own name in every way except one: she was a functioning alcoholic, ameliorating her husband's crazed extremes with surreptitious helpings of gin, gin, and more gin.
The irony of this escaped no one, but irony was also rarely diagnosed back then. The (Library of Congress) biography continues:
The younger Weelykta made his way through the burgeoning years of America's Century in relative anonymity, but the one constant in his life was alcohol. Unlike the third-party advocates of today, Frank drank neither tea nor coffee. Frank just drank. From his first snort of Dr. McGillicuddy's Peppermint Schnapps at the tender age of five, his fate was sealed.

Like many other young men of his age, Weelykta joined the U.S. Army in the waning days of World War I, and though he never saw combat, his experiences in Paris immediately after the Armistice were defining; deranged nights out with a young Humphrey Bogart and a harem of French women were just the tip of that particular iceberg. However, Pvt. Weelykta's European tour was summarily ended with a literal and metaphorical dishonorable discharge: he was sent home to the Midwest after relieving himself at the base of the Arc de Triomphe.
Ozzy, you're a shriveled amateur next to the great FTW, but I'm sure you two would have made fast friends.
Once home, Weelykta did not stay in one place for long; tales of his drunken escapades are still heard in Chicago, Houston, Denver, and Los Angeles to this day. Oh sure, everyone has stories like that from their youth, but FTW's were different, mostly because of their inherently politicized nature. When Prohibition became the Law of the Land in 1920, it immediately earned many mortal enemies, but none more virulently committed than Frank Weelykta.

Previously apolitical, Weelykta was not, in the parlance of the times, a "progressive" man. While he shared many views with the old "Bull Moose" Progressive Party, his differences with their platform on the issue of prohibition were obviously profound. Above all, he hated Woodrow Wilson for enduring a humiliating veto override. After 1920, Weelykta declared his life's work would be the repeal of the "unjust, tyrannical, and fundamentally un-American persecution of recreational drinking."
The record deletes the rest of that quote. It really ended with a terse "Noble experiment, my flabby drunk ass!"
Weelykta's activism saw its apotheosis during the 1924 general election. Banished from the Progressive Party after publicly ridiculing presidential nominee Robert LaFollette's anti-gravity hair, Weelykta hitched a ride back to California in the entourage of ex-governor Hiram Johnson (a Progressive himself who only grudgingly respected LaFollette). Disillusioned with the progressives over their apathetic policy toward repealing Prohibition, Weelykta then organized his own political party "conventions" at various pubs and bars around Los Angeles.

Agitating for repeal up and down the West Coast, the eponymous one-issue Weelykta Party was a colorful but as yet ineffective force in politics. Their members eventually numbered over 1,500 from twelve states. Repeal, of course, didn't happen until much later, but the Weelykta Party sowed the seeds of eventual success by systematically infiltrating every other party: repealers found sympathetic drinkers among Democrats, Socialists, Progressives, and even some Republicans.
After that, FTW disappears from the usual sources; Wikipedia, Britannica, and even the Library of Congress all wipe him from the face of history. Until now—because I, well…I found out what happened to the poor guy, and it was 360 degrees of karmic balance for everyone involved. Oh yes—Prohibition was repealed, of course—but everyone already knows that. Besides, my own fermented sense of balance tells me that it's almost the month of May—high time for a sweeps-week cliffhanger—so anyone who actually cares about the end of the Weelykta saga will have to tune in next week...uh, sometime.

Hey, it's a tough week for me, okay? I got CSS and HTML to code by day and rock shows to see at night. I have not yet begun to defile myself, but I am also, after all, a professional.

Oh, one more thing: a hat-tip goes to Capt. Nick Clemente, U.S. Military, who first told me the legend of FTW back in 11th grade.

UPDATE: The story continues, with Part II here.

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