It is just a tea or coffee cup marked Staffordshire Tableware, England on the bottom. It is an off-white color and has a grey rim at its lip. A crack runs from one edge of the rim into one of the four Blue Tits embossed on either side. It is just an ordinary kitchen cup, but like so many items that are saved during a lifetime, it is more than it appears.
It was during the summer of 1999, and I was working at St. Peter’s College, Oxford as the Dean of a summer program for American high school students. The program office was in Staircase 4, and the scout for that staircase was named Hilda. Each morning when I opened the office before the busy day began, she would bring me coffee or tea in the Blue Tit cup, and we would chat for a bit before her day and mine began.
Over that summer, Hilda told me some of her life as we shared our morning ritual. In the summer of 1999, she was getting up in years, but still managed to keep our rooms and Staircase 4 clean. You would hear her singing or humming softly as she swept, emptied dust bins, and changed linens. She wore her scout’s apron and frock proudly, but I was surprised to see her attire one afternoon walking to the coach stop after her day’s labor. She was dressed in what I think of as “Sunday clothes”, and when I, the next morning, commented on how nice she looked, she said, “Now, there is no need to wear one’s work clothing to and fro, is there!” Knowing I was bested by this older, plump woman with short, blond-white hair, I drank my coffee and listened. Oh, and what a story Hilda told over the weeks of that summer.
Hilda was a German, but she met and married an English soldier stationed in Germany after World War II, and came with him to England after his post-War tour in Germany. She shared that she was not the only German female who had done this. She and “my soldier” as she called him, settled outside of Oxford and shared life. When I met her, her husband had been dead some years, but a son lived in London. Fascinated by her story, I listened each morning over tea or coffee-sometimes she would brew me one and then other times the other. She would say a few things about the times of “that awful Hitler” and how he destroyed her beloved country, as her eyes filled, looking away from me. She did not know it, but becoming a refugee made her, in the words of V.S Naipaul, one of “The flotsam of Europe not long after the end of the terrible war….” But when she shared about meeting her English soldier, their courtship, marriage, and move to England, she beamed.
The Blue Tit cup sits on a shelf in my library. Sometimes I take it down and blow the dust out of it, careful of the crack. And think of Hilda. I learned much about the War and Germany from Hilda, but I learned more about living. However, someday, as it is with a life’s accumulation, the Blue Tit cup will sit on a rickety table at an estate sale. Someone will pick it up and upon turning it, notice the crack, but decide that it is worth the low price and take it home to use as a holder of pencils or such.
In the fine, short novel, A Month in the Country, J.L. Carr writes of Tom Birkin, the main character, being given a Sara van Fleet rose by Alice Keach, the woman he loves. The novel continues, “I [Birkin] still have it. Pressed in a book. Someday after a sale, a stranger will find it there and wonder why.”
Indeed! A Sara van Fleet rose or Blue Tit cup is often more than it appears, and a stranger can only wonder what or why.
The killing of Brittany White by her boyfriend Jonathan Bennett last week in Charlotte is, by itself, tragic. Bennett’s death after he ambushed police outside police headquarters is another tragic event. White’s two children have no biological mother, and the infant daughter that Bennett fathered with White and took to a safe place before he ambushed police, has no biological parents. That is tragic. Both White and Bennett were only twenty-three years old. That is tragic.
I did not know Bennett, but he has occupied my mind these recent days because I keep wondering how a twenty-three-year-old could come to the place in his brief life that caused him to kill the mother of his child, then ambush police, and seemingly commit suicide by that action? Why, I think, would such a young man use violent acts by a gun to settle a problem or problems with White? Bennett shot White in front of her children, but cared enough for his daughter to take her to a safe place and did not harm the other child, but left him/her in the house with his/her dead mother. Rage? Of course, but what in Bennett caused him to allow rage or anger or even frustration to settle issues in his life? And, how many Bennett’s live in our society and does our society bear some responsibility for them?
I am a baby boomer which means that I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s. Where I spent those formative years was a Southern cotton mill town owned by one man—Mr. Cannon. All our lives depended on the mills, in our case of Kannapolis, North Carolina, Plants One and Four. If parents did not, and many did not, work in the plants, their wages were indirectly paid by the wages of those who did. If you were a merchant in downtown Kannapolis, your shop was owned by Mr. Cannon. If you were a high school athlete, you played in the large gymnasium building or on fields that he helped build or built. If you were a good student, you may have attended Wingate College or N.C. State through one of his scholarships. In short, we depended on Mr. Cannon, but he depended on us.
I do not mean to imply that life there and then was perfect. Like any child or adolescent, I suffered through problems of not my doing and some that I caused by poor decisions. My mother, who hemmed washcloths in Plant One, was a single parent of six children, so poverty was a reality of life, but so was hope. Our hunger was fed by that hope, and as a child and teenager, I had several adults in my life who instilled in me that I could do better. My mother was the first and most important adult in my life, but there were others: Jhonsie McKinley, the principal of my first elementary school, was kind to me. Mr. Cowan, the principal of my next elementary school, was firm but just when I hit a girl with my book while we walked home together. Her mother complained, but Mr. Cowan took me aside and explained that that was not the best way to show a girl that I liked her. In the seventh grade, Mr. Brownell was my first male teacher, and a good one who loved me, but worked me, too. Mr. Mast and Mr. Carter in high school encouraged me when I did not deserve their attention. And, I will always value the lessons of academics and life taught by Mr. Boone, Ms. Gray, Mr. Poole, and Coach Mauldin. Outside of school, there were the mothers and fathers of school mates or neighbors who taught by word and deed. Mr. Harris, my paper route manager, taught me about loyalty to a task and money. Bus Goodnight was a kind man who grew kinder as I matured and learned about true kindness; and Frank and Nell McCray were merchants who gave my mother food on credit. Fred Reece would pay me fifty cents to sweep his small barbershop, and at that time, fifty cents was a lot of money. Our neighbor John Gathins, who took me with him to race his cars at red-dirt tracks around Concord, taught me lessons on how to be male. Now, I knew all these people through my eyes as a child or young person, so I think that they had their warts, and other adults I do not mention were known by our town to have theirs. But the adults in my time did not share or display those warts to us children. For instance, I never had or never knew of any teacher who wanted to, tried to, or had sex with a student.
Growing up in that special place and time, I had heroes. All my heroes, but for one, were local. Growing up I wanted to be like one of the high school stars that I heard of or read about. There was James, Wayne, two named Jerry, Ronnie, two named Jimmy, and Bobby. They were stars in football and baseball, the glory sports of that time. There were the fathers that I met while working in Plant One who inspired: Harold, Bernard, and Tommy. Fathers like “Paw”, who lived next door to us on Juniper Street, and Mr. Hilton, who hauled a pack of R.A.’s around town in his pick-up truck to play other R.A. teams, inspired by their loyalty to God and family. And, there was Aunt Susie, Uncle Grant, and Uncle Guy who always had a kind word to share. Perfect? No, but good.
At that time and in that place, I was surrounded by all of these and other adults who knew my mother, my family, and me, and they cared enough about me to make sure that I always did the right thing when in their presence, and if they saw me mis-behave, they would correct me or tell my mother, which was worse. And, remembering all of this brings me back to the tragic deaths of White and Bennett.
Not knowing details of young Bennett’s life, I can’t honestly know what demon or void or lack in his life caused him to act as he did. If any? However, I know, just as many people do, that too many of our young males of all identities see no way to settle issues (or fill voids) in their lives except by the violence of guns, beatings, drugs, or even rampant sex. For many of our young males, the only “heroes” they see are the local drug dealers on the near-by street corner. Sadly, a friend of mine teaching in an inner-city Washington, D. C. school, was told by a student, “Doc, I makes more in a week on the corner, than you do in a month teaching school.” I once read an article about crime in New Orleans and its high murder rate. The article high-lighted Angola inmates from New Orleans who had found a vocation while imprisoned. One young man, serving a life’s sentence for murder, had discovered his talent for making jewelry. Why did it take this young man, a killer, going to Angola to discover his talent? Will my friend’s student discover his talents after he is imprisoned, if he is not killed on “his” corner? Is the only future we can offer many of our youth one of a quick and sudden rise ending in an early flameout?
We are, and have been for years, losing our young people, our future. I know that we can’t go back and give them the type of life that I had. Maybe we should aim higher. However, we can create a culture that teaches them what it means to be male and female. We can teach them that the quick and easy way is a dead end. We can teach them that to love one another is not a sign of weakness but of strength. We can teach them that justice is better than fair. We can value them without abusing them. We can correct them through kindness not meanness.
On this day of celebration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is obvious that we are not doing our best. Since that great man’s assassination, we have lost many of our youth. Let us not lose others. Let us remember the words of Solomon, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” and Langston Hughes, “What happens to a Dream Deferred?”
We must find a way to give our children hope so that they, too, may have their dreams.
When I hear someone’s name mentioned as a possible candidate for President, I pay attention for obvious reasons. However, when that person is a product of our celebrity-crazed culture who gave a speech at an over-produced and glorified awards function, my attention is roused.
After hearing all the buzz and excitement about Ms. Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globe Awards, I found it on the Internet and read it. I also listened to her deliver it. Stirring? Yes, Passionate? Yes. Presidential? No. I write this because, in my mind, the acceptance speech offered little that is new. What Ms. Winfrey gave is no different than what can be found in the writing of such women and men as Alice Walker, Tillie Olsen, William Bradford Huie, Gloria Naylor, Ernest Gaines, Zora Neale Hurston, Dr. King, Jr. and many more. (Read the short story Everyday Use by Alice Walker, for an example.)
However, my main objection is not with the speech of Ms. Winfrey or her strong personality or popularity, but with the public’s reaction to all of it. Are we such a base society that we are willing to not only accept but glorify the ordinary, the what is already known, or even the mundane? Of course, the professional in Ms. Winfrey delivered a strong and timely speech, but what of its substance? The media often used one quotation from the speech, “So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon!” Strong words delivered well? Absolutely. But we knew, or should have known all of that, if we had been following current events. Many women who joined the #Me-Too movement and men who supported it, had given notice that the “good old days of abuse” were gone. Of course, but are those words and their repeated sentiment worthy of being Presidential?
I like the speech and its allusions to Ms. Winfrey’s experiences as a child, adult, and actress. I admire the following poetic words she strongly shared, ‘In my career, what I’ve always tried my best to do, whether on television or through film, is to say something about how men and women really behave, to say how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere, and how we overcome.” I applaud the references to Recy Taylor and Rosa Parks and the importance of these two women. I like that she gives some men credit for being in the battle. Ms. Winfrey is powerful, and I like that. I understand, but don’t agree with, the craze over her speech; but I must draw the line on it making Ms. Winfrey Presidential.
A recent article in the Charlotte Observer chronicles the sad fall of Jerry Richardson, the builder of the Panther empire and of a major restaurant chair. As told in the article, Richardson’s rise from little to much is, in the classical sense, a tragedy. When any person falls because of wrong decisions and actions it is sad. However, how the public explains and understands the fall is far more important than the fall itself.
Jim Morrill and Michael Gordon, the writers of the article, state that, “Some [people] say he [Richardson] fell victim to changing times and workplace mores.” That statement is offensive and shows delusional thinking. To view Jerry Richardson as a victim of any kind is offensive and wrong-headed. How can a man of is power and reputation be a victim? If he is a victim of anything, he is a victim of his own arrogance built from too much pride. Also, any man intelligent enough to build such an empire as he did, is smart enough to adapt to the changes of society and the work place. This statement and or belief only excuses the cheap behavior of Richardson.
In explaining the alleged racial slur used by Richardson against an African-American team scout, Morrill and Gordon explain: “It [the slur] was a surprising suggestion for a man known for the courtly manners of a Southern gentleman and whose star quarterback, like many teammates, is African-American.” Once again, the article manages to offend. First of all, the allegation is just that. Not a suggestion. To use the word “suggestion”, the writers soften the possibility of a racial slur and, once again, excuse the behavior of Richardson by using surprising as its adjective. Why would we be surprised by such actions of a man who settled lawsuits concerning racial prejudice while the owner of a large fast-food chair? But Morrill and Gordon are not finished with that. They continue by describing Richardson as “courtly…Southern… and gentleman” who, because of the color of Cam Newton, the team’s leader and quarterback, could in no way be racist or even use a racial slur. What is more astounding is that the writers mention that many of Newton’s teammates are African-American, so that is support for Richardson’s racial views because he makes money from the work of African-American?
Richardson and his Denny’s chain were sued by six Secret Service agents for racial discrimination. Washington, D.C. attorney John Relman, represented the agents. He is quoted by Morrill and Gordon as saying, “People just don’t start using racial slurs when they’re 80.” That quotation is insightful and should engender deep thought concerning Richardson’s actions.
I don’t know Jerry Richardson, but as I read the article by Morrill and Gordon, I saw much in him to admire. He rose and built an empire and a team loved by its city. However, in reading his history, it seems to me that he kept attitudes and beliefs that should have been discarded long ago. A victim? Yes, of his own hubris.
Programmed ViolenceThe last time I was at Lake Norman was about 1960 and there was no lake—yet. My Uncle Guy had driven my cousin, my brother, and me to see where the lake would be. He took us to a field and stood looking out over it and told us how, one day in the future, all that we saw would be covered by water. I don’t remember much more than that, but I was impressed by Uncle Guy’s ability to see far into the future. Uncle Guy is now dead, but LKN now covers the field we stood in with him, and many more such fields. Maybe the field in which we stood is now the lake-front property that my wife Mary Ann and I now call home.
I don’t know why Uncle Guy drove us from our homes in Kannapolis to see where the lake would be, but I suspect it was because he loved to fish, and he was known for his “fish fries” in the back yard of his Oak Street home, and he may have been envisioning future fishing trips to the lake. For whatever reason, he took us and that trip standing in the field has stayed with me and was my only connection with LKN until now.
I left Kannapolis in 1964, went to college, and settled in the Washington, D.C. area, but I always carried the memory of standing in that field with Uncle Guy, his son, and my brother wondering if he knew of what he spoke. Time and rising water have proven him correct. While my connection with the lake has not been one where I watched it develop into the varied resource it now is, I was there before the lake. Now it has drawn me to return, not quite to Kannapolis, but close enough.
So much has changed, obviously, since I lived in the area. The mills are gone, yet the area thrives with a wide variety of businesses. While Route 3 still is Mooresville Road in Cabarrus County, the creek we swam and played in, Coddle Creek, is now a reservoir. The school we went to for wrestling matches against an always good Mooresville High School team is now rebuilt. Davidson College, where I won my first wrestling championship, now accepts females. I-77, a line on a map then, now tries to carry traffic to and from Charlotte. The quarter-mile, red-clay, dirt tracks have been removed, making room for the modern NASCAR era. And Isle of Pines Road, Mooresville where we now live, was only a developer’s plan.
How can a person return to what did not exist fifty years ago? Dr. John R. Coleman in his book Blue Collar Journal: A College President’s Sabbatical, disagrees with the fine North Carolina author Thomas Wolfe who is well known for his title about going home. Coleman says that, in fact, “You can’t ever leave home,” much less return.
Our return began with a family reunion weekend in February 2017. My mother reared six children, and she has many grand-children and great-grandchildren. While not all of us were able to gather, about eighty of us shared good bar-b-que, sweet tea, hush puppies, and Cole slaw. Mary Ann and I enjoyed the gathering of family, and the delightful dinner we had one other night with Coach Mauldin’s widow, grown son, and two high school teammates with their spouses. After the festivities, we were crossing Lake Norman on I-77 driving back to Virginia, we were talking about the wonderful time we had just experienced, Mary Ann asked, “Would you move to Lake Norman?” “Don’t kid me,” I answered. A phone call that instant led us to a great realtor, then a fine mortgage broker, and, after some looking, to our new home on Isle of Pines Road.
Place! For eleven years, Mary Ann and I identified deeply with the small place of ours that we called Red Hill. Nestled in the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, we lovingly built it into a fine postage stamp on the land. Planted, tended, and all those things one does with a property, it became our home, but it was, after all, only a place. It defined us in some ways, but we moved on to another place while we could. We have met our new neighbors, have contractors making some necessary changes to the house, and have plans for the yard and interior. Like Red Hill, 581 will begin to define us as we do what is done “on the Lake” instead of near the mountains and North Fork of the Shenandoah River. And, our family will be near to watch and share with us as we create our new home on LKN.
I think Dr. Coleman right. Home is the place that we carry with us no matter where we go. Its values, friends, and family make an imprint, good or bad, on us that we never erase. Uncle Guy would approve.