A lesson from 1968 we still haven’t learned

Racism and the National Anthem are not new issues. They go back a long way.

I re-discovered this as I re-read a book by, of all people, the great Detroit Tigers baseball announcer Ernie Harwell, who I grew up listening to with his partner Paul Carey. Best baseball radio duo ever.

Published in 1985, “Tuned to Baseball” includes a chapter titled “Jose’s Song.” Harwell, in addition to being a longtime sportscaster, was a songwriter and musician as well. In that role, the Tigers asked him to choose the National Anthem singers for the city’s three World Series home games in 1968 – games 3, 4 and 5.

Racial sensitivity

In Harwell’s words:

For the third game (the first in Detroit) my choice was Margaret Whiting. She was female, white, and represented the establishment. Margaret had strong Detroit ties. Her father and uncle, both famous songwriters, were Detroiters, and her sister Barbara still lived there.

For the second game, I picked Marvin Gaye – male, black, and a top star with a tremendous following. He also lived in Detroit.

Detroit race riots in 1967 and 1968 were still fresh in the minds of many at the time. Harwell proved his sensitivity to the era by choosing carefully his first two singers.

His choice for Game 5 on Oct. 7, 1968, revealed his deep concern for people of all racial and social backgrounds. Yet many who heard it were not happy with this musician’s rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner.

To sing the National Anthem for Game 5, Harwell chose a relatively unknown but up-and-coming blind Puerto Rican singer: Jose Feliciano.

Feliciano stood by himself in deep center field, with only his guide dog and his guitar to accompany him. Wearing dark glasses (because he’s blind), Feliciano sang a bluesy rendition of Francis Scott Key’s battle song.

The intense reaction

The public’s response? In Harwell’s words:

That evening in my apartment, the phone was ringing off the hook. Radio men for interviews, newspapermen, TV men – all telling me that a furious reaction was sweeping across the country.

A couple of pages later in his book, Harwell discussed why he thought the response was so intense, and negative:

Riots were still taking place. The war in Vietnam was a major issue of the day. Drugs and crime-in-the-streets were causing even more unrest. The campuses were restless, and the chasm between young and old was deepening.

Into this vortex stepped Feliciano. The establishment reacted violently toward him. His wailing, bluesy, rock-singing style was different. Because he played a guitar and didn’t have a crew cut, the establishment equated him with “long-haired hippies.” Yet, his hair was not long. And (as his own statements later proved) his attitude toward the song and America leaned, if anything, more toward the establishment.

Even the dark glasses (worn because of blindness) prejudiced some against him. All his critics seemed ready to find something to protest. And they let him have it – full volley.

The plot deepens

What have we learned in the past half-century? Not much, it seems.

The establishment today is still fighting differences among us. It’s not Vietnam, but Russia or China. Racism, including riots and protests leading to death, destruction and plenty of publicity. Judging differences, including physical (and mental) disabilities.

We are ready to protest. And counter-protest. Full volley.

I think there’s a deeper issue in 2020 even than racism, even than COVID-19. Another issue set the stage for those crises to turn vitriolic. President Donald Trump is the lightning rod, but the issue goes deeper even than him.

The one non-negotiable issue in this country today is abortion.

The Republican Party is unabashedly “pro-life.” The Democratic Party supports abortion rights.

My opinion: Republicans are more anti-Democrat than they are pro-Trump. They cannot support any platform that allows abortion. Period. No other issue rises to the level that abortion does in the minds of staunch Republicans.

The wrong forum

The president of the United States, it should go without saying, faces many more issues besides that one. Foreign policy. The economy. The federal budget (and deficit). Education. “All men are created equal.” Public safety. Working with Congress. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” He’s commander-in-chief of our military. And on and on.

That’s why abortion is the wrong issue to stake our nation’s soul on.

Here’s a better idea. If abortion is the engine that drives Republicans, the presidency is not the correct venue for that fight. Shutting down abortion clinics doesn’t solve the problem either; it just drives it underground, out of public view.

The number of abortions performed in 2017 was less than half the number performed in the peak year of 1973, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which calls itself a leading research and policy organization committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights in the United States and globally.

Even still, at 2014 abortion rates, about one in four (24%) women will have an abortion by age 45, the institute says.

Abortion is a complicated issue, with women who undergo the procedure listing several reasons – not just one – for doing it. Issues include not being financially prepared, an unplanned pregnancy, partner issues, focus on other children, and interfering with educational or vocational plans, according to a verywellhealth.com report updated last December.

Let’s focus on those issues rather than the procedure itself. In today’s sex-saturated society, that’s a tall task.

The right issue

Republicans, especially the evangelicals in the party, should realize that faith is a bigger, much bigger, issue than abortion – or politics itself. No, the Democrats don’t have all the answers. Republicans don’t either.

The Bible, and the savior who claims the Bible was written about Him, do have the answers. Again, not the Republican version of Jesus Christ. Please, no. Jesus is so far ahead of them.

The Bible talks of unconditional love, which is love that asks nothing in return. Sex of any type does not offer that. Politicians don’t offer that. Even churches themselves can’t provide that – and Biblical churches know it, and preach Jesus and not themselves.

Ernie Harwell, in his book on baseball, understood this. In addition to being a Hall of Fame broadcaster and songwriter, Harwell was a “born-again” Christian who let his faith shine, humbly, through his microphone and in the way he lived his life. He participated in the Major League Baseball Chapel program, which offers a faith message on Sunday mornings to ballplayers who can’t attend church because of time or they are away from home. He was married to his wife, Lulu, for 68 years. He visited clubhouses and heard the rough language, but he didn’t participate in it. He understood people, that we’re all sinners. We aren’t to judge anyone, but are to love them and serve them.

That’s Harwell’s legacy. As Christians, that should be our legacy, too.

We’ve learned the wrong lesson from 9/11

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

So said George Santayana, a Spanish-born American author, in 1905.

Perhaps that’s why my wife and I, during a long weekend in New York for a wedding, took a train and subway ride into the Big Apple to see the 9/11 memorial.

As a friend told us, that’s something you do only once. It’s a sober reminder of what happened on one particular day 18 years ago.

Once is enough for a powerful reminder like that.

Cannot forget

If you were old enough to remember that day, those two airplanes crashing into the iconic World Trade Center towers provided memories you’ll never forget. I was a newspaper copy editor in Michigan at the time, watching the surreal events unfold on deadline.

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Our daily newspaper published several editions that day, because the news happened so fast. Our first edition didn’t even mention the attack. The last edition – literally a stop-the-presses moment – reported the panic and shock of a nation-defining tragedy.

Since that day, our society has changed permanently, and not necessarily for the better. We no longer trust each other, not in airports – security is tighter than it’s ever been – or even on the sidewalk, where we stare at our phones or listen to our music, oblivious to the world around us.

Burned-out fire trucks and ambulances. Twisted steel of the north and south towers. Charred pieces of the airplanes-turned-weapons. Snippets from the morning TV talk shows, interrupted by updates from Ground Zero. Smoke billowing in New York, at the Pentagon and in western Pennsylvania.

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The memorial captures all of it. And much more.

As if we could ever forget.

Fear replaces trust

It struck me that people in other parts of the world face these fears every day. Imagine the Kurds in Syria right now. Will they be alive tomorrow?

We lived through that once.

Just once.

We have the capability to prevent such attacks, for the most part anyway, by stepping up security. Cameras watch us everywhere – not just at airports, but at businesses, street corners and even some private homes.

We don’t trust anyone anymore.

Why is there so much evil in the world today? Because that’s what we expect of each other.

We act out our fears.

If, instead, we would look for the good in the world, we’d see it. I discovered that as we raised our three sons. Give them a little age-appropriate responsibility, and they’ll step up. A little alone time because Mom and Dad both need to run a short errand. Then, our oldest driving to an out-of-town event with his best friend as a teenager. Eventually, all three of our sons went away to college.

We trusted them, because we’d prepared them. And they passed with flying colors.

Perhaps that works at home, but society no longer operates that way.

Unity, for a brief moment

If your skin color is different, if your nationality or religious beliefs are different, you are not to be trusted. That didn’t start on Sept. 11, 2001, of course, but it sure increased after that date.

Immediately after 9/11, this nation unified like I’d never seen it do before. That lasted about three weeks. Then people stopped going to church and praying for each other, seeking solace in the unity that comes from a shared experience.

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In a sense, we’ve forgotten the past already. We’ve forgotten what unifies us.

We care only about what divides us. Our politics, our religion, our nationality, our social values, our language. We build walls, literal ones and figurative ones in our hearts.

Every one of us, including me, does this.

When our sons were learning to drive, I told them not to trust any other driver on the road. Act as if all of them are idiots, so that when another driver does something stupid, you won’t be surprised. And you’ll be ready to react.

That’s good advice on the road. Unfortunately, we live all of our lives that way, don’t we?

We prove ourselves untrustworthy. Every time I drive on a highway – every single time – I get passed by drivers going 15 mph or more over the speed limit. So do you, unless you’re the speeder. There aren’t enough police cars out there to prevent this.

Identity theft. Robo calls. Inferior products (we don’t build things the way we used to; I could write a column just about this). I’m renting a tux for an upcoming wedding; the company doesn’t want me to pick it up early, and they want it back on Sunday, the day after the wedding. They don’t trust me to keep it even one extra day, even though I’m paying more than $200 for the privilege of holding onto that tux for, like, four days. Not five.

The new normal

Why do we remember 9/11? Is it to point fingers at the bad guys?

Is that all we learned?

Have we forgotten what unifies us?

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Every one of us is the bad guy, actually. Each of us, including you and me, is an enemy to someone. If you call yourself a Republican or a Democrat, you’re an enemy. If you’re white or black or Middle Eastern, you’re an enemy to someone. If you’re a Christian or a Muslim, you’re Satan personified to someone.

We have more in common than we think we do. 9/11 proved that, if only for three weeks.

The fallout proves how much we’ve forgotten.

Why visit the 9/11 memorial in New York?

How do we prevent such a tragedy from happening again? While we haven’t had an attack of that scale on our soil since, we have mass shootings all the time. Most of them are internal, not from outside terrorists.

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We no longer trust each other. We put up walls and stockpile weapons to protect ourselves. The spiral deepens.

I went for a jog through the neighborhood shortly after we bought our house two years ago. I left the front door open, since I wasn’t planning to be gone long. My neighbor noticed and said I shouldn’t do that, because there’s teenagers around who will steal stuff.

Even in suburban America, this is the world we live in. We’re hardly safe even in our own homes.

The world has come to our front porch. We’ve slammed the door, and locked it out.

This is our 9/11 legacy. I’m afraid we’ve missed the lesson we needed to learn.

The reason we’re here: To touch a life

I scroll past the vast majority of memes I see online because they are shallow and often untrue. They are easily misunderstood. I speak from experience; I comment on them occasionally, and have been told I missed the point.

But this one caught my attention. For one, I hadn’t seen it before. For two, I like the message it presents.

I actually like it.

… touch the past, touch a rock

My wife and I recently spent a weekend at the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum in northern Kentucky. We touched rocks, and other things.

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Both attractions were designed and built by Answers in Genesis, an organization that “advocates Young Earth creationism on the basis of its literal, historical-grammatical interpretation of the Book of Genesis,” according to Wikipedia. While there, I bought a book, “A Flood of Evidence; 40 reasons Noah and the Ark still matter” by Ken Ham, who founded Answers in Genesis in 1994, and Bodie Hodge, his son-in-law.

They use the Bible to prove itself.

If you believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, which I do, that’s fine, but I don’t see this book convincing anyone of its truths who doesn’t accept the Bible’s inerrancy. That eliminates most Americans.

The book, the Ark and especially the Creation Museum use rocks to explain how fossils formed quickly when plants (mostly) and animals died. Plants and animals that die naturally don’t fossilize; they decay. It took a quick catastrophic event, such as Noah’s Flood, to bury plants and animals in a hurry, allowing them to fossilize.

Noah’s Flood also formed the Grand Canyon. That masterpiece of God’s creation was not formed over millions of years by a tiny river. The book and museum discuss this too.

And they mention Mount St. Helens which, when it erupted in 1980 and again in 1982, made rock formations in hours and days that scientists previously thought took millions of years.

Rocks, as this meme indicates, are a window to the past. We interpret the rocks differently, depending on what we’re looking for.

But the past is gone. We can’t change it. We interpret it and try to re-interpret it (are some people truly trying to say the Holocaust never existed, or that man never walked on the moon?). We study the past to learn how best to live today. Or, that should be why we study the past.

… touch the present, touch a flower

I’ve been on a weeding kick recently. Our yard and gardens are full of them, unfortunately. It seems like it’s a never-ending battle. Weeds choke off plants and flowers.

flowers

I’m not an expert on flowers, but I see them bloom for a time, then disappear. Annuals bloom for one season, then die. Perennials bloom year after year, going dormant during the winter, then re-emerging in all their beauty in the spring.

I think this is what the meme is trying to say. Flowers are beautiful today. We enjoy them in the present. We’d better, because tomorrow they’re gone.

Even perennials don’t live forever. They have to be replaced with other flowers eventually, if you want to keep your garden colorful.

A sunset. A rainbow. Sparkling ripples on a slow-moving lake or river. A fall color tour. A gentle breeze.

Such beauty. Nature can be so wonderful.

Then, it changes. The beauty is gone.

Night. The storm that precedes the rainbow. Crashing waves. A frigid winter snow. No breeze at all in 90-degree heat.

We endure, hoping for the touch of a flower once again.

… touch the future, touch a life

People matter. We so often forget this.

If you’ve read this far, hopefully I have touched you at some level.

But touching a life involves so much more than words on a printed page.

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I volunteer at a food pantry twice a week. I’ve met an 18-year-old girl who is head of household for her family of six. Her mother passed away a year ago, and now she’s in charge at home. At 18.

We at the food pantry can help her for a day or two. What then?

I also volunteer at a once-a-week after-school pick-up basketball ministry that our church youth director organizes. After playing for a couple of hours on a recent Thursday, one of the young men told us how he’s trying to build a life for himself and lead his teenage brother down the right path, even though both of their parents – who are separated – are drug addicts.

Can we make a difference in the lives of either of these families? Are we touching the future when we connect with young people at these events?

I come home to a nice house in a decent neighborhood. No one is forcing me to touch a life.

Actually, that’s not true.

Since I call myself a Christian, and since I try to live by the Bible, God Himself commands in that Bible that I must connect with other people at some level.

You are watching. I know you are. If I call myself a Christian, what do you see?

I must serve.

Far too many “Christians” use the Bible to try to justify sinful lifestyles. Jesus was crucified for saying exactly this. The apostle Paul was stoned, flogged and beaten for saying exactly this.

What does it mean to touch a life?

It’s not about me, trying to justify myself at all. That’s an easy way to identify “fake Christians.” What’s our motive? Is it to serve others? Is it to touch a life?

This will be our legacy. If we want to touch the future, we MUST touch a life. That life will continue on after I’m gone.

Already, I’ve lived in South Euclid, Ohio; Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; New Kensington, Pa.; East Lansing, Mich.; Ridgewood, N.J.; Pickford, St. Ignace and Saginaw, Mich.; Rockford, Ill.; and Elyria, Ohio.

I touch people, and I’m gone. You touch me, and I leave. I take part of you with me wherever I go.

Because you have touched my life.

Thank you.

I hope I am worthy of your time. I hope I have helped you get just a little closer to God because I was there.

Don’t be too hard on me when I let you down. I try not to criticize when I see others fall. We’re in this life together.

The future will change because both of us are here in the present. That’s a given.

How will the future change? For good or evil?

May the rock and the flower guide us as we learn how to touch a life. No matter where our lives take us.