Reading Old, Reading New

When younger, I never paused long enough to re-read a book because, charged by my youthful ignorance, I felt the need to rush on in an attempt to learn as much as possible. After all, as a child from the Mill Hills of North Carolina, I was a late starter and felt a strong need to catch up;  but recently I decided, for some unknown reason,  to re-visit some of my earlier, favorite reads. The first one that I removed from my library shelf holding special books was, All the Strange Hours, The Excavation of a Life, the autobiography of Loren Eiseley.  I was not disappointed in my re-reading and found much that I had forgotten and late in the book I read  Eiseley’s words that caused me to feel better about my decision. He writes in Chapter 23, The Coming of the Giant Wasps, “I  was getting old enough to want to rethink what I had learned when I was younger,” and “I have come to believe that in the world there is nothing to explain the world.” Perhaps those words resonate because they are late in the book, as I write, but nevertheless, I felt a bit of validation, and no less from such an intellect.

Having finished Eiseley’s great book, I must choose my next re-discovery. The  paperback copy of Parallel Lives, Phyllis Rose’s grand examination of five Victorian marriages draws my attention, and I note that this copy is one purchased to replace the fine hardback that has gone the way of several books-given away or loaned to a forgetful friend. It carries no marks of mine, so it sits, waiting to be read as a new copy and studied.

However, because a sister and dear friend are engulfed in their own choice—how to live as they fight their personal cancers- I wonder if I should explore once more a well-worn hard back, Intoxicated by my Illness, which was published two years after the death of its author, Anatole Broyard. I thumb through the copy, seeing my margin tics and underlining and wonder if examining Broyard’s words will enable me better help my sister and friend? I think it may when I read this un-marked sentence of Broyard: “The important thing is the patient, not the treatment.” I may not re-read the book just now, but I’ll remember his wisdom as I try to form feeble words for her and him as poison cocktails are pumped into their bodies.

While Broyard writes of life and its shared end, Patrick Lane in What the Stones Remember, writes in this memoir how he, at the age of sixty,  spent his first sober year in his British Columbia garden. It would be easy to write that Lane’s garden is simply metaphor, but he writes, “My garden is a living place, not just a showroom for flowers and plants.” His memoir offers a poet’s prose examining life and how it should be lived. A good re-read for sure.

Yet across the room are two shelves from which several books, fiction and non-fiction, call. One that I used to teach to high school juniors and seniors is A Gathering of Old Men, by Ernest Gaines. The novel recounts the story of a sheriff who, upon arriving at the murder of a white farmer at his father’s Louisiana sugar plantation, encounters a young white girl, over a dozen old, Black men holding ancient shotguns, and a murder to solve. Over the course of the novel the reader hears the story of each of those old men that explains why he is the one who shot the young overseer. In an era when White Privilege is denied, it seems like a good time to re-visit Gaines’ searing story.

Not wanting to seem like a literary prize that publishes a long or short list, I will cease my ramble around my modest shelves. However, this musing has helped my decision. Eiseley gives good advice, and I will heed his words. I will, for the first time in my reading life, read two books simultaneously—one an old favorite and a few ones that are unexplored. Well, simultaneously is not quite correct: I will spend most of my time with the favorites and sprinkle in the new ones. After all, Eiseley warns that no explanation is to be found here, but I will enjoy the journey into what Rufus Jones describes as “the awe and the wonder of the beyond.”

Clif

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …., writes Dickens in what could be the most famous beginning sentence of any novel. However, when I think of Clifton Titus, Jr. , what I remember of Dickens’ words is, It was the best of times,…. Those six words describe the time, that of Saint Stephen’s Episcopal School for Boys during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s; but what words describe an educator like Clif Titus who led the school by preparing it for another chapter of growth that began in 1944 with its founding?

Does the ever-present pipe describe him? Or his appreciation for golf? What of his skill at Dick Babyak’s poker nights?  Does his service for Emmanuel Episcopal Church define him?

What of his love of family-does that describe him? Does his coaching of several sports? Or his willingness to be dunked in a water-tank during a school play day? What of his admiration and knowledge for science-is that what Clif Titus was? Or does his intellect satisfy the need for an accurate description?

            For many years as a teacher I taught under Clif the able administrator, and for a brief time I was fortunate enough to be his assistant when he was Headmaster of Saint Stephen’s School. Since our offices were separated by just a few feet during that time, we were always near each other either literally or figuratively. That brief time was a privilege for me because of Clif, a gentle man whose waters ran deep, who was gracious to all,  and who believed that he could teach any student his great academic love-mathematics.

            Clif was a great supervisor because he did what all good ones do—explain what needs to be done and then step back, out of the way, as the work gets done. Now, I made some boneheaded mistakes, but Clif just continued to encourage me during those tumultuous times, and his gentle, guiding manner made me feel capable of and desiring to do better. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I was simply another one of his students, just one with an office next to his.

            Because Clif identified as a teacher before any other role, he taught a class even with all his duties as Headmaster. One day he walked into our offices after his class and said to me, “I gave my class a test and the boys didn’t do well. So, I told them that I was tossing their tests, and we were starting over. They can do better, so we’ll cover that material again and then they will take a new test.” With that he tossed the bundled tests into the trash can and walked into his office. Clif Titus refused to believe that he couldn’t teach any student any subject he chose. It wasn’t arrogance of Clif’s but faith in his training, wisdom, and ability to explain the most complex aspects of mathematics to even the most reluctant student. He was the teacher who went to where his students were and then brought them forward.

            During his thirty-six years serving our school, Clif filled many roles. Every one, from junior varsity football coach to Headmaster, was done with a grace and strength and love for learning that defines Clif. We, his colleagues and students, are better for having shared those years with him.

Bill Foley’s Belt

Every morning when I ride the stationary bike, I use a worn, blue belt to hold my knees together. The belt keeps my paraplegic legs from flopping about and being hit by my hands as I crank the wheel. The belt belonged to Bill Foley, who I had the honor of coaching when he wrestled at Bishop Ireton in Alexandria, VA. in the early 1970’s.

Today his brother Ward called to tell me that Bill had died earlier in the morning.

Bill Foley was an outstanding wrestler who won both major tournaments his senior year for which he was eligible . In the St. Albans finals he defeated a defending champion and in the Virginia Independent State Tournament, a week later, he defeated the defending national prep champion.. Those two tournaments personified Bill as a wrestler

But Bill was so much more than a wrestler who worked to achieve success on the mat. He was a gentle, kind young man who studied academics and wrestling. He cared about his peers and teammates. He helped coach younger wrestlers in our room, setting an example. After graduating from James Madison University he, not surprisingly, became a counselor. He continued helping others.

After Bill graduated from BI our paths separated, but years later when his baby brother and he were inducted into the BI Athletic Hall of Fame, he asked me to introduce him. Wrestling, once again, connected us, and at the induction we discovered that we lived a few miles apart in the Shenandoah Valley. By then the Parkinson’s was present in Bill’s body, but not obvious. He and I, however, determined to stay in touch this time; we did.

During those years, Bill not only learned how to live with Parkinson’s, but his wife, Cecilia, died of cancer. Bill continued living as he had wrestled: Dedicated to his children and grandchildren and a right-way life. One day he phoned me to tell me that he wanted to purchase some summer clothes;  I drove to his home, and we went shopping. I enjoyed advising him of colors and styles- feeling much like I had done as his coach, knowing all along that he knew what to do, but was allowing me to speak.  After choosing new shorts and shirts, he chose a new belt, and his old, blue belt ended up in my car. When I discovered it some days later I told Bill, but he said he  didn’t want it. That is how I began using it for my stationary rides. But as odd as it seems to me, on the morning of Bill Foley’s death, I  felt puny, out of sorts, and decided not to ride, not to have Bill Foley’s Belt around my knees, helping me in my workout.

In 1896 A.E. Housman’s tribute to a village athlete, To an Athlete Dying Young, was published. The young man celebrated in the poem ran a race that Housman describes as “The time you won your town the race”, and Bill, like the athlete in the poem, won championships for his family, his school, and finally for himself. However, this morning, Bill, like the young runner of Housman, came to “the road all runners come.”  Now, we honor Bill like the young athlete who was celebrated in Housman’s words, “Shoulder-high we bring you home.”

For years you carried us; now we do the same for you.

    For the Common Good

An evil man has severely disrupted the world’s order. Like others before him he told the world what he was planning, and now democratic world leaders are working together to stop him. One measure is economic sanctions against his country, but there is deep concern about the impact of such sanctions as removing Russia from SWIFT would have on the world economies. For instance, President Biden has repeatedly told Americans that our gas prices will rise as will the price of other goods. Sanctions against Russia will not only affect Putin’s regime, but the  world economy. We ask, what price will we be asked to endure? As always, history tells us.

The Blitz, the “lightening war” of Germany’s Blitkrieg against England, began on the night of September 7, 1940, and ended on May 11, 1941. The Blitz was an evil man’s invasion of a sovereign country by the indiscriminate bombing of London and other cities designed to break the spirit of the English people before a land invasion. The nightly bombing did not work.

Sanctions! They hurt Putin, but also us. However, do we have the fortitude and perseverance needed to fight him and his evil? Will we, the free world citizens, come together, forgetting individual wishes such as diamonds or oil/gas prices, and think of the world’s common good? Will we, as the Turl Street haberdasher in Oxford (who was a child of the Pied Piper evacuation of London’s children during The Blitz), said to me, “Well, get on with it,” in response to my becoming a paraplegic.

Yet, I wonder if the collective citizens of the world have the grit that will be needed in order to defeat Putin and his ilk. I worry that we all have become too accustomed to luxury and all that it provides. I worry that we will not have the gumption to lower the home thermostat and “get on with it” as other goods are rationed. I wonder if we can manage our daily lives without the oodles of social media that have become addictive and even thought of as necessities. Do we even have a concept of necessities?

During WW II many people across the world sacrificed in order to defeat The Axis powers, and it  seems to me that all democratic peoples are now called to unite in order to defeat Putin, and that unification will require unknown sacrifices for an unspecified time. No exceptions! And the mettle of the British during The Blitz serves as an example.

Here is the first paragraph of a cable from London written by Mollie Panter-Downes and printed in the September 21, 1940 issue of the New Yorker:

September 13, 1940

September 14 (by cable)

“For Londoners, there are no longer such things as good nights; there are only bad nights, worse nights, and better nights. Hardly anyone has slept at all in the past week. The sirens go off at approximately the same time every evening, and in the poorer districts, queues of people carrying blankets, thermos flasks, and babies begin to form quite early outside the air-raid shelters. The Blitzkrieg continues to be directed against such military objectives as the tired shopgirl, the red-eyed clerk, and the thousands of dazed and weary families patiently trundling their few belongings in perambulators away from the wreckage of their homes. After a few of these nights, sleep of a kind comes from complete exhaustion. The amazing part of it is the cheerfulness and fortitude with which ordinary individuals are doing their jobs under nerve-racking conditions. Girls who have taken twice the usual time to get to work look worn when they arrive, but their faces are nicely made up and they bring you a cup of tea or sell you a hat as chirpily as ever. Little shopkeepers whose windows have been blown out paste up “Business as usual” stickers and exchange cracks with their customers.”

Let us all freedom loving peoples “get on with it” and defeat this evil.

  Garden Enigma

Early evening and suddenly every bird at or near one of the three bird feeders in our back garden disappears. No bird song. Only the silent flutter of wings as the quiet before the storm passes, and the storm settles on a limb of a dogwood tree.

The resident Cooper’s Hawk perches, facing the house. Its roan-tinted chest plumage reflects late sunlight as the eyes study every piece of the small garden. Its flat crown reminds me, in a silly way, of the flat-top hair style some boys paraded during my youth. But this flat top half crowns two dark, piercing eyes that  search for a meal in our garden, the one where we feed its potential prey for our pleasure, not for its food.

The head moves from side to side and soon the body of death turns and faces the wider, back expanse of garden, perhaps hoping to find food in the larger area. But, when none presents itself, the grey-shoulder hungry one drops to the ground and peers into the thick, green foliage of the gardenia. One hop of grey death flushes a male cardinal that flies low to the ground before escaping to the safety of the rhododendron.

Unruffled, the Cooper’s Hawk takes dominion over our side garden and Doug’s large front yard by perching on the white fence dividing our properties. Unruffled, but obviously hungry, it sits there for some moments before gliding away to expand its search. Within moments of its departure, a fat squirrel appears on the ground below one of the dogwood trees, and birds return to the feeders.

The small, back garden returns to another cycle, one that is an enigma of sorts since we humans attract the birds and squirrels for our pleasure by feeding them, not to provide for the fearsome but beautiful Cooper’s Hawk.

            Legless Wrestler

Hips!

Every sport has its basics and in high school wrestling every wrestler is coached to control his/her own hips but also the hips of his/her opponent. Without that established control, wins will be limited. Thus, every wrestler drills to learn and establish and perfect hip control: To use his own hips for power in a move and to limit the power in the hips of every opponent. If the wrestlers are standing in the neutral position, the hips of an opponent are controlled by using hands, arms, and shoulders/chest. If the wrestlers are on the mat, the top wrestlers uses his weight to drive into the bottom wrestler’s legs so as to control the hips. If the top wrestlers shifts his force above the hips of the bottom wrestler that wrestler is more easily able to stand and score points by escaping. If the wrestler is on bottom on the mat then he will work to get his hips free of the top wrestler’s force. “Hip control” is a directive shouted out often by coaches during high school wrestling matches because the hips are the center of gravity for wrestlers and if a wrestler controls the opponent’s hips, he controls the opponent.

Some wrestlers become quite skilled in the neutral position and will work to keep scoring takedowns and releasing their opponents only to take them down again-give up a point but score 2. (Yes, like “catch and release” in fishing.) Other wrestlers opt to become “mat wrestlers” and work at perfecting moves from the top position in order to pin the opponent. No matter the choice, hip control is vital for success. Successful high school wrestlers work to perfect muscle memory in both the neutral and mat positions or sometimes just one, but it requires a great deal of work to achieve.

So, what does an accomplished high school wrestler do when the opponent comes to the neutral circle on his legless body? How does a wrestler approach an opponent who is no taller than his waist or even shorter? Has he drilled hours in the practice room against such opponents? Has he drilled to establish hip control over an opponent whose center of gravity is at the level of his shinbone? Has he drilled endlessly to learn how to take down an opponent whose center of gravity is much like a large ball on the mat?

This past weekend at the Virginia High School League wrestling tournament a fine,  determined, and talented young man won the class (large school) 6A 106 weight class. Kudos for him and his coaches. But I offer that his championship was not a just one.

Adonis Lattimore, with a record of 32-7 for the year,  won a state wrestling championship. Born without either leg, and only one finger on a hand, he did what every high school wrestler wants. Yes, he has overcome huge physical obstacles, and like all successful wrestlers, persisted. But he has a great advantage because of his trunk only body that prohibits opponents from being able to attack his center of gravity, his hips. Because Lattimore’s lack of legs an opponent is forced to attack his arms, chest, going to where Lattimore’s huge advantage lies. His upper body strength outweighs that of an opponent because he is allowed to wrestle in a weight class without legs, which accounts for about 15% of body weight for each leg. Do the math and determine in what weight class legless wrestlers should compete.

Wrestling is a sport that welcomes all levels and interests and skills. High school wrestling offers 14 weight classes in which athletes can compete: 106 up to 285. Wrestling welcomes blind wrestlers, ones who cannot hear or speak, girls who have no other option such as all-female competition, and able-bodied athletes. But they all must “make weight” in a class between 106-285. If the digital scale records that the wrestler is over the weight class, he or she does not wrestle.

I suggest that Adonis Lattimore does not “make weight” for the 106 class and must be disqualified.

Protection or Poison

Another young, Black life is extinguished by police executing a no-knock warrant while looking for a suspect. Last week 22-year-old Amir Locke sleeps on a friend’s sofa, wrapped in a white blanket just before 7 A.M. when shouts, noise, and confusion wake him. Startled out of a deep sleep and likely only half awake, and probably fearful for his safety, he reaches on the table for his pistol which he is licensed to carry. It’s the last movement he will ever make because a White, Minneapolis policeman, Mark Hanneman, shoots him twice in the chest and once in the wrist. The police say that Locke’s gun was pointed at the police, but the released video that I have watched many times shows the gun still pointed toward the table from which young Locke was retrieving it. But his name was not even on the arrest warrant that was being executed, and he was only visiting the apartment the week before he was to move to Texas where his mother lives. Another needless death. Another suffering family. Another no-knock warrant gone horribly wrong.

It would seem that, after the tragic death of Breonna Taylor, no-knock warrants would be discontinued as too dangerous, and her death is a tragedy in which only Taylor’s boyfriend showed good gun control. Yes, the police want to have the upper hand in apprehending a dangerous suspect. But we know, and did know, that mistakes can and are made in such frantic raids. But police still ask for and judges still sign for no-knock warrants. On the screen they look exciting and effective, but that is make-believe. Real life is when a Taylor or Locke, innocents caught in the mess, die.

Amir Locke, according to his family, was a licensed and careful gun owner. He studied before he purchased his pistol and made certain he purchased and carried it legally. After all, he was Black in the city of George Floyd’s death by police. However, even if he was not a  licensed carrier, he had his pistol in the apartment in which he slept. Therefore he was acted legally in every way. Asleep, he is startled awake, and moves to protect himself. He did nothing wrong. He did everything right.

Why Amir Locke felt the need to be a licensed carrier has not, as far as I have read, been stated and that is his business and right as many Americans believe. Did he have a particular experience or witness one that convinced him to obtain a pistol and permit for it? Did he feel safer because he carried the pistol as a private citizen? Perhaps, but I ask: What would have been the outcome of that senseless raid if Locke had not gone to sleep on the sofa just after placing his pistol on a table within reach?

Too many Black people, especially young males, have been shot by police because the shooter felt threatened. We can see by the bodycam that Hanneman reacted not to a threat, but a  black man with a pistol. The acting police chief explained that, in such a situation, the police have to make quick decisions. Well, so did young Locke who was snapped out of his sleep by invaders into his sleeping space. What is good for one person in this situation is good for another.

Another gun legally carried by an America who is, as many believe, exercising his right. Another gun on an American street carried for whatever reason, but most likely as protection. Another gun in the hand of a cautious, concerned, and loving  young man. Another gun loved by America.

But what if young Amir Locke had just wrapped himself up in those blankets on the friend’s sofa and gone to a deep, relaxing sleep and when shouts and confusion woke him, dreamingly uncovered his head to see what was happening, would Hanneman have shot him twice in the chest? Would one more White policeman seen a Black hand gripping a pistol and shoot?

Amir Locke suffered an unjust and wrongful death by police executing a needless warrant. Both the policeman and his department must be held responsible for killing a citizen instead of protecting him. And all no-knock warrants, nationwide, need to be abolished.

But did Amir Locke’s pistol act as the protector or give the executioner an excuse to fire two bullets into his still sleepy chest?

Distant Leaning and Basketball Elites

When schools were closed because of COVID-19, students were taught by Zoom and other means of distant learning. It was a system of necessity not choice. We often heard about the ills of distant learning from parents, politicians, and other pundits. There is much lacking in distant learning and all of us welcomed the return to in-person schooling.

On February 4, 2022, our local paper in Charlotte, NC carries two large, front section articles on local “Basketball academies in North Carolina.”   Both articles highlight the decisions of star basketball players leaving traditional high school for “more exposure” at schools not governed by the NC state athletic association. As one founder of one of the highlighted academies says, “They [state association] don’t get to regulate our games….”

The article centers around six academies that exist in order to give their elite basketball players exposure in order to help the players gain a converted college basketball scholarship. All the players, female and male, written about in the articles are Black; however, I am assured by one of the writers of the articles that the academies enroll players of different races. As far as I could find, none of the academies publish their race enrollment, so I assume that what I am told is accurate. However, why are all the portrayed players black?

The world of athletics is, mostly, one of institutional racism. Just examine the crowd at many sporting events and you will see predominantly White crowds watching teams of mostly Black players, especially in basketball, that are predominately owned by White men. These academies give us one more example, I suggest, of a system of White owners using Black athletes for their profit.

Now, I want any young athlete to be able to use her or his talent for success. I used mine to attend college and that changed my life. I understand that. But, I  not only wrestled, I got an education, and I hope these young people are given the same opportunity. However, at least one of the academies uses on-line learning for its players. They practice ball in the mornings and take long-distant classes in the afternoons. So much for what we learned about education during the Pandemic.

I hope these talented young athletes succeed in basketball and academics and are given the life skills required for a life of quality. But I have deep reservations because the adults involved in their lives seem to concentrate mostly on basketball.

He Deserves Better

The Veteran’s Cemetery Annex in Salisbury, NC is a peaceful gathering place for our dead soldiers. Its rolling hills fade to railroad tracks in the distance, and on a mild February afternoon in 2022  my wife and I attended a service for a Marine. His memorial service was held in a hilltop pavilion surrounded by the white markers of his comrades. The hills cradled the dead while we paid our debt to a Marine who fought in Vietnam but succumbed to brain cancer years later.

After the words and prayers of his pastors barely had had enough time to float across the hillside, two workers pulled up in a noisy gator-type vehicle. On its bed was a large black wooden box. Before the widow and family had exchanged words with the gathered or even exited the pavilion, the workers invaded the space and backed up to the casket. After they had unceremoniously loaded it into the black box, they drove down the hill as some of his grandchildren watched its frenzied race to his waiting grave.

Not a veteran, I don’t have any appreciation for the words, “Thanks for your service.” However, I find them empty and phony. And when I witness such callous disregard as I did yesterday for our soldiers, I question our sincerity for their service. As the adage has it, words are cheap, but acts speak loudly.

Swallowed by a Giant Turkey

It’s a good thing that second-grader Dillon Helbig doesn’t live in Texas where book banning is in full swing.

            Young Dillon wrote and illustrated an 81-page book telling about a Christmas adventure (The Adventures of Dillon Helbig’s Crismis) he had in which he travels back to the first Thanksgiving. Illustrated with colored pencils in a red-covered notebook, Dillon slipped the book onto a children’s picture-book shelf in the Ada Community Library of Boise, Idaho so that other readers could read his story. The book now has a long waiting list of eager readers.

            However, if indications of current acts in several school libraries of areas in Texas can be believed, Dillon’s masterpiece of children’s literature would likely be banned in Texas because on page 51 is an illustration of young Dillon inside the stomach of a giant turkey. That drawing could give young, innocent, and impressable children an awful view of one of our most cherished holidays. Also, the illustration could cause nightmares in such young minds when they are exposed to such a horror as a giant turkey eating children.

            But the good news is that Dillon’s creativity is being experienced and shared by many readers in Boise and thank goodness he did not place his creation on a library shelf in Houston or some other such backwater.

            Quite a metaphor of where we are in American public education—being swallowed by a turkey.