Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory
You have no control
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

Disney-Plus has been running a movie version of the critically acclaimed, Tony Award– and Pulitzer Prize–winning Broadway show Hamilton: An American Musical, a tour de force written in its entirety by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

I had not seen it, for a variety of reasons, but it was easy to watch in the comfort of my own living room over a couple evenings after supper and before the news. And it was spectacular. It made me laugh, and it made me cry. It made me think.

The final scene is a full-cast song called “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” It’s a recap of Alexander Hamilton’s biggest accomplishments, and then of his wife’s accomplishments. (She lived another fifty years after Hamilton died.) One of them was this: she made sure that her husband’s story was told and preserved for history.*

And when you’re gone
Who remembers your name?
Who keeps your flame?
Who tells your story?

This is, of course, what I’ve been doing in these recent months of my sixty-seventh year, for my family, by utilizing Ancestry-dot-com, photographs and papers in my possession, and writing these little vignettes. Repeating stories I’ve been told (or lived).

Telling the story.

There are no coincidences, I think. At this same time I have been editing a book about human relationships that suggests we must be present in them (our closest relationships), must bear witness to their lives. And I have been piecing together my parents’ life stories and realizing how much deeper they were than I had ever imagined.

And when my time is up
Have I done enough?
Will they tell your story?**

* She also: raised funds for the Washington Monument; interviewed every soldier who fought with Hamilton in the Revolutionary War; organized Hamilton’s writings and made sure his papers were preserved; spoke out against slavery; established the first private orphanage in New York City.
** Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story, lyrics © 5000 Broadway Music, songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda

A Force To Be Reckoned With

Gini Gerbasi, a rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Georgetown (Washington DC), wrote a lengthy report on her personal Facebook page on 2 June 2020, right after the events in Lafayette Square.* She was shook up, having one minute been serving snacks to peaceful protestors and the next being driven violently from the park by tear-gas–wielding police. In the moment, she and the others had no idea what was happening.

(Not long after that, it came out that it all had to do with an awkward photo op for the fake president. You can read more about the events as reported by others in the Washington Post, New York Times, NPR, and the BBC.)

I loved her last lines: “… I got too scared and had to leave. I am ok. But I am now a force to be reckoned with.” And I said so on Facebook, finishing with “Pass it on: #aforcetobereckonedwith.” One of my friends left me a message that brought tears to my eyes: “Her last lines evoked you for me. <3” I just turned sixty-seven last weekend, I don’t have the stamina for walking city blocks anymore and can no longer keep up with anything like a peaceful protest (crowds make me uncomfortable), but by golly I can write, right? I’m trying to get my thoughts down as they happen, in the moment. In these historic days and weeks.

That very night a US senator** said on national television something like that: he’d been taking care of legislative business and wasn’t able to march in a local protest, and he acknowledged that at this time, for whatever reason (COVID19 not least among them), not all Americans who feel strongly about this cause can take to the streets. “The least we can do, though,” he said, “is not remain silent.”

And I will not.

* In which peaceful protestors had assembled and were just kinda taking it easy. With snacks. Until the cops arrived.
** Cory Booker, of whom I think very highly. Keep your eye on him.


My Aunt Kippy Was a Southern Woman Ahead of Her Time (Also, a Hoot)

My father’s aunt—his father’s only sister (their mother died young, their father remarried and had other children)—was named Kathleen. He (and we) called her Kippy, Aunt Kippy, or just Kip. The nicknames I know of that result from Kathleen are Kat, Kate, Kath, Kathie, Kathy, Kay, Kitty, Lena, Katie … but no Kippy. Where did that name come from, I wonder? The etymology of this isn’t known to me—and I’ve poked around on the interwebs—but it’s a happy name, don’t you think?

Long before I personally knew this to be true about her, Kippy was considered a live wire. Lots of energy, lots of talk. Heavy South Carolina accent. My father adored her. She visited us often. Every night she’d pull the pins out of her bun and let her hair down—it literally hung below her waist, even into her seventies—and my sister, Jill, and I would watch, fascinated as she brushed it out.

She was a nurse—I have a photo of her on the day in 1926 she graduated from nursing school at Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, and her commentary (which I wrote down) noted they “marched from Francis Marion* to the Battery.” I also remember my dad telling me it was a little controversial in the family at the time, because back then nursing wasn’t a profession for “nice girls.” Yes, that was the phrase he used, nice girls. The same phrase he used to describe my sister and I—meaning young ladies raised to know how to behave in polite company, and on and on.

Written on the back by Kip: “This is my class in the parade, which was 11 November 1926. We marched from Francis Marion to the Battery. We had loads of fun. Where the arrow points is my roommate. She is just as sweet as can be.” Kip’s head is directly below the round street lamp seen in the back of the group.

The many photos I have of Kippy and her brother Harry scrabbling around in the dirt yard of a rough cabin just after the turn of the century makes me laugh a little when the phrase nice girls comes up, but the Clarkes have always been a bit full of themselves. Regardless, Kip was clearly fierce.

I believe (but don’t know, yet) this to be Mahlon C. Clark and his wife, Catherine, with Harry and Kippy—their grandchildren from their eldest son, Sim, who was the third of their ten children. Behind them on the porch are probably Sim’s younger brothers (my guess: Claud, Butler, and Dock Weeks). As always, you can click on all photos to enlarge them. In this case, the family resemblance is clear.

But it’s true, that bit about nursing and nice girls. Sure, sure, we’ve all heard the romantic (?) stories of Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton, but the fact remains that until well past the turn of the twentieth century, nursing was “a low pay, low status, long hours, and heavy work job for working-class women.” MUSC “opened in 1824 as a small private college aimed at training physicians. It is one of the oldest continually operating schools of medicine in the United States and the oldest in the Deep South,” according to Wikipedia.  The nursing school opened in 1884. Kippy graduated from a two-year program in 1926. Still, Wikipedia tells us, “In the early 1900s, the autonomous, nursing-controlled, Nightingale-era schools came to an end. Schools became controlled by hospitals, and formal ‘book learning’ was discouraged in favor of clinical experience. Hospitals used student nurses as cheap labor.” This is fascinating stuff, and I encourage you to further reading.

As I’ve said, though, Kippy was fierce, and she apparently loved the work. (In fact, Kippy would marry twice, both times to doctors, and outlive them both.) She never had children, though her second husband had a son from a previous marriage and she was fond of him. (I believe, though, he was also the provocateur who tied up her estate for years, keeping it from her actual blood relatives. A sad tale but familiar, I’m sure, to many families.)

When I was in my late twenties I became interested in working on my genealogy; my parents were not particularly sentimental about family history, but my father had mentioned his mother had grown up right here in Middle Tennessee. That started it. (Maybe it was the moving around with the US Air Force, never truly having “roots.” I don’t know. I just had a fascination for it.)

In fact I traveled to Columbia, South Carolina, where Kippy lived on Duncan Street, to go to a Clark(e) family reunion and also to use the archives at the University of South Carolina (established in 1801), where my father went to college. I stayed with Kippy for ten days or more. She took me to gravesites. She gave me a couple of privately printed family history books and a lot of photographs. She encouraged me to join the UDC (United Daughters of the Confederacy).

I don’t think I will, of course. I don’t remember anything racist ever passing her lips and I definitely would have noticed—but Kippy was big UDC supporter. Having reflected on this article—“How Southern socialites rewrote Civil War history”—I think it was probably a social thing. It was the circle she ran in, doctors’ wife that she was.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy, a women’s group that was formed in 1894, led the effort to revise Confederate history at the turn of the 20th century. That effort has a name: the Lost Cause. It was a campaign to portray Confederate leaders and soldiers as heroic, and it targeted the minds and identities of children growing up in the South so they would develop a personal attachment to the Confederate cause.

My father was extremely attached to his aunt, our great-aunt. She visited us often. My parents had made sure she knew about all of us kids, what we were up to. I myself had a lively correspondence with Kippy throughout her life—she loved our dad, hosted his wedding in 1951, and loved us kids as if we were her own.

* That’s all I had: “we marched from Francis Marion to the Battery.” Well, I know the Battery is in Charleston. I know there’s a Marion Square in Charleston; I have a photo of Gerry and I taken there. Right next door there is a Francis Marion Hotel. (Maybe the graduation ceremonies were there? Or maybe this was an Armistice Day parade?) There’s also, of course, the actual Francis Marion, a hero of the American Revolutionary War. I mapped all this, and lo and behold, four blocks south there is a gigantic medical complex: Medical University of South Carolina. Bingo!


A State of Grace

When I was dating Gerry back in the early aughts, we spent a few days in Memphis. He was just getting to know Tennessee, and though for years before and after my divorce I’d had friends who lived in Memphis, I’d never truly been a tourist there. Oh sure, we ate barbecue at the Rendezvous, had been to the zoo, and to Memphis in May and Mud Island more than once. (That topographical map of the Mississippi River is way cool, y’all.)

Map of the City of Memphis in the Mississippi River Park (2006) taken by Thomas R Machnitzki and available on Wikipedia.

I’d driven I-40 over the lovely Hernando de Soto Bridge between Memphis and West Memphis, Arkansas, more times than I could count, honking, honking, honking the minute I hit the Tennessee state line, coming home. (It’s just a little tradition I made up for when I cross into Tennessee; I do this everywhere—just ask Jesse, who got a kick out of it as a boy but is embarrassed by it now, of course. Ha.)

But I’d never done the truly touristy things, like Graceland, Sun Studio, the Peabody Hotel, Beale Street, the National Civil Rights Museum. So Gerry was just getting to know Tennessee, and I’d never been a tourist, and we went. You know:

I’m goin’ to Graceland, Graceland
Memphis, Tennessee
I’m goin’ to Graceland …*

And we did go. Graceland was kind of sad. And neither of us like loud or late-night, so Beale Street failed to move us. But the National Civil Rights Museum, y’all … I was not prepared for it.

The words of Martin Luther King Jr. moved me when I was a teenager, and they move me now. We lost something irreplaceable on 4 April 1968, the day Dr. King was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel—a name familiar to those of us of a certain age. The museum is built around the motel; after walking through a carefully planned series of exhibits about the history of the Civil Rights Movement, you end up in King’s room.** It’s almost unbearable.

But there is grace to be had here in spite of it.

Downstairs, near the beginning of the exhibit, there is a room with benches and photographs on the wall, and a video—black and white, of course—playing an endless loop of King’s speeches. Gerry was working his way around the walls, but I was transfixed, as I always have been, by the sound of Dr. King’s voice, and I stood in the middle of the room, tears rolling down my face. Then I sensed someone beside me. It was a woman about my age, a Black woman.

“It was a terrible thing,” she said calmly, patting my arm. She smiled. “He was my hero,” I said, and we both smiled. That’s all there was to it, but it was enough.

* Words and music by Paul Simon, 1986.
** There was a major renovation in 2012; I don’t know if this is the same now.

Piecing Together a Memorial (Day)*

Sometimes you don’t know what you know until you start trying to piece your history together, y’know? It started with an email from my sister, Jill. I’m the oldest, and generally remember the most.

I know we went over this already. But I can’t remember our discussion. Easier to ask again. Which two years was Dad in Vietnam? Like 66 and 68 or 67 and 69? Also, what was the name of that group he was in? Jolly Green Giants? My friend’s dad was in Vietnam twice during roughly those years and he was a Green Beret. It’s 11:30 pm your time … hope you’re sleeping good. xoxoxo

I’d been “home” (to California) last summer to visit a dear friend who’d been unwell, and due to manuscript deadlines I’d only scheduled a flying visit to my sister, who lives about two hours from where we grew up. When I arrived, we’d realized we had thirty-six hours, so we started talking a mile a minute. Not sure how we got on the topic of family history, but it was a fabulous conversation. I took notes. (Another blog post for another day.) There are things I know, things I no longer remember, things I don’t know because I wasn’t present, and things that Jill knows because she was present.

Like the story about Daddy leaving for his second tour of duty in Vietnam, which I knew nothing about. Daddy was in the house, no doubt giving last-minute instructions to Mom and me while he waited for his ride from the base. Jill was sitting on the front porch, weeping. And my boyfriend drove up. (This would be Joe, later my husband and father of my only child.) When Joe saw Jill, she says, he sat down beside her and put his arm around her and tried to comfort her. Jill remembers him being so kind to her that day; she told me she’ll always be grateful to him for it. (I say this because, you know, it’s fifty years later and I don’t see Joe through my teenager’s rose-colored glasses anymore. But I’m delighted that she tells me this story and I make a note to call him when I get home and thank him.)

The US Air Force dominated all our lives, really, so we talk a lot about it. Where we lived, what happened there. When my father reached the end of his life in 1992, he had a second wife. So unless we’d taken momentos (stuff, yes, but also papers, photos, things that would help us to piece that history together) from the home—a house he bought when I was in kindergarten—while he was alive, those things were lost to us unless the second wife decided to give them to us. (Which she mostly did not. It is probably best if I don’t think too much about it.)

We have been meaning to ask the government for his records, but that hasn’t happened yet.

But we started piecing the story together today, with my sister’s email asking what years he was in Vietnam. I clicked reply and began to write.

“I don’t know that we know specifically yet,” I said. And then I remembered: I’ve been going through the boxes of ephemera that I do have, and I have this. I was astonished when I found it a few weeks ago.

When you travel to certain foreign countries, you have to acquire vaccinations, and you tuck this little booklet in with your passport.

Never forget to look on the back. Look at that! R&R = rest and recuperation.

“Well, wait,” I wrote. “I can extrapolate one year because on his vaccinations booklet, there’s a stamp that reads R&R Hawaii and the date is 24 Dec 1969. So his second tour of duty would have been ’69–’70. I’m guessing the first would have been ’67–’68 at the latest, but maybe earlier.”

And then—bing! it was like getting a text message in my brain—I remembered one of the biggest events of my life: I got my driver’s license at age thirteen. My mother was sick, you see (this truly is another post for another time), and was no longer able to drive. And yet the US Air Force was implacable: Jim Clarke had to go to Vietnam, no ifs, ands, or buts.

Why? They were running short on helicopter pilots. You see, it’s actually harder to learn to fly a helicopter than it is to fly a plane. The training period is longer. And Daddy was qualified to fly them. So he had to go.

But how would we manage without him? Easy (not): Jamie would get a driver’s license. And so I did. They had to jump through a lot of hoops to make this happen, including get permission from the governor of California (Ronald Reagan). My God, what a pain in the ass all that was.

“I would have turned thirteen in 1966, turned fourteen in May 1967,” I wrote. “I was already thirteen when they were working on the driver’s license thing. So it’s possible he went to Vietnam the fall of 1966 and returned in 1967.” It’s not a fact, yet, but we have somewhere to start.

She was wrong about the name, and I jotted down two other phrases in my notes, since I no longer trust my memory. Jolly Green Giants are helicopters. I looked them up, and continued my email: “I’m guessing he flew the 1959 version in Newfoundland* and the 1967 version in Vietnam. That photo I have of him (you’ve seen it on Facebook) with a rifle on his hip and a helicopter in the background, that’s a Jolly Green Giant.”

This image was not from his slides. Someone else took this photo and gave it to him; it did not come to light until after his death. It is one of my favorite photos. My dad hated guns, wouldn’t have anything to do with them. So in this photo it’s clear he is striking a pose, so to speak. You can tell by the grin on his face, which I know to be a sarcastic one.

I kept writing: “He flew others, of course. He flew the kind that had the bend in the middle and two rotors. And there’s that yellow one he’s climbing into down in Texas (where helicopter school was). Those photos are among the slides that Gerry scanned.”

Randolph AFB, San Antonio, TX

“When I was guessing a name, two came to mind: Flying Tigers and Air America,” I wrote. “But Flying Tigers were fighter planes/pilots, associated with WW2, and they were volunteers. This does not mean some part of that group’s ethic and name didn’t get revived in Vietnam.” I was googling and adding the links to the email, so Jill could look them up too. Flying Tigers are definitely mentioned in association with Vietnam, but I still didn’t think that was it.

In fact, I wasn’t sure that the name of his squadron had ever been told to me. It was classified, and Daddy was a by-the-book kinda guy. “I’ll come back to Air America,” I wrote, and then continued with what I knew:

I know he did different things in Vietnam, and I don’t know what during which. For one, I know he flew into the jungle at night and picked up downed US fighter pilots. (Like that movie BAT-21. Although I think those guys are Army. I could be wrong, however.) I know he was stationed, at least during one tour, in Udorn, Thailand. (And had a girlfriend there.) I know he transported Vietnamese women and children, whole huge helicopters-ful of them. That’s in the slides. He told me more than once that what he did was highly classified, that it would never be known or recognized by the US government, that his participation in the Vietnam conflict (never “war” for him) would never accrue to him in terms of a rank promotion or medals, because it was all top secret. And: HE HAD TO VOLUNTEER FOR IT. (For the missions. That he was in Vietnam wasn’t voluntary. He had to go.)

Still with me?

Next I googled Air America, and there it was, every bit of it, just as I remembered:

OK, Air America. Forget the goofy movie; not pertinent. Look at the Wikipedia intro: “Air America was an American passenger and cargo airline established in 1946 and covertly owned and operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from 1950 to 1976. It supplied and supported covert operations in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.”

Now look over on the right-hand side on the Wikipedia page. One of the hubs was Udorn. (Pretty sure you pronounce this “oo-dorn,” not “you-dorn.”)

This hits all the bases: run by the CIA (thus top secret), operating out of Udorn, helicopters, Vietnam, downed pilots, refugees.

Reference this paragraph: “From 1962 to 1975, Air America inserted and extracted US personnel, provided logistical support to the Royal Lao Army, the Hmong Army under command of Royal Lao Army Major General Vang Pao and combatant Thai volunteer forces, transported refugees, and flew photo reconnaissance missions that provided intelligence on Viet Cong activities. Its civilian-marked craft were frequently used, under the control of the Seventh/Thirteenth Air Force, to launch search and rescue missions for US pilots downed throughout Southeast Asia. Air America pilots were the only known private US corporate employees to operate non-Federal Aviation Administration-certified military aircraft in a combat role.”

I would have to study a lot more—and it would probably involve a FOIA request—to even contemplate his status with the USAF during this time. It may still be classified. Lots of unusual things went on during that time in American history, but there wasn’t a breath of it in our home. Just “top secret.” I may have heard “CIA” mentioned. But “that’s all I know,” I wrote to my sister. “And it’s more than I thought I knew when I started writing this. Love you.”

Since I started writing this—and stirring up memories—I took a look through the digital copies of my father’s slides. I kept running across photos that had clues, so I’d set them aside. Twice, buildings with a sign on them: Special Operations Squadron. What did I tell you? This was not a USAF operation. It was … ahem … extracurricular. No US flag anywhere. And look at that uniform with literally no insignia. Rank, yes, very discreet. But nothing else. That’s significant, I think.

The buildings had an unusual sign, an illustration, that seemed vaguely familiar: guy on a horse, clearly a reference to the historical Pony Express. (To us, Pony Express = mail but these pilots were delivering people.) And sure enough, I have a collection of Daddy’s plaques and photos, and there it was on a you’re-leaving-us plaque: “21st Special Operation Squadron, “Pony Express” / Udorn Thailand / July 69 – February 70.” So question answered about the dates of the second tour. There it was in my dining room, for heaven’s sake.

• • •

When he returned that second time, he was a different person for about a year, sitting in the living room, all up in his own head. I was a junior in high school and just really glad he was home, after months of not getting along with my mother and no daddy to run interference, as he did. So I don’t know if he was treated for depression, though it’s clear to me now that he was depressed. We thought of him as being tough, in control, but when Gerry was scanning the slides, he found sad little comments (in Jim Clarke’s handwriting) on the cardboard sleeves of the photos taken in Vietnam. One stopped him cold, and he took a photo and sent it to me: “Sometimes I cry,” it read. Indeed, sometimes he cried in the living room of our house in Merced, which was a bit shocking to us kids.

Daddy and his kids, home after that second tour of duty. It’s all good. He survived. We survived.

* This really should be a Veterans’ Day post, but I’m not willing to wait that long.
** Those three years in Newfoundland are also another story for another time. But he made some of his longest-lasting friendships there, and gained a reputation as a badass, even though to hear him tell it, all they did is “drop hay for hungry moose and rescue pregnant Eskimos.” At his funeral his friends told me he always did the last inspection on the “bird” before they went out, and that he tightened bolts with his bare fingers. Hyperbole, no doubt. I also heard quite a few stories about drinking at the officers’ club, which may or may not have been hyperbole. 🙂

And this is the helicopter he flew in Newfoundland.

Meditation: On Confederate Dollars and Monuments

When I was in first grade and my father was stationed at Ernest Harmon Air Force Base near Stephenville, Newfoundland, my parents bought the school (K–12) yearbook. I still have it (and the 1961 book too). Back in those days, in a school as small that one was, the seniors were allowed to insert all kinds of clever comments and phrases that amused them. (Think Brett Kavanaugh.*)

One such phrase scattered among the senior portraits was Save your Confederate dollars, boys, the South will rise again. I’d never heard it before. (And I heard lots of interesting stuff in our house; my parents were wordy, talky, bantering people. Also I’d already begun reading my mother’s novels.) But I did, certainly, know who the Confederates were. Daddy had been a political history major in college, and current events were definitely discussed at our dinner table. The Civil Rights Movement had already begun (with the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott), and its roots ran deep into issues that Confederates had raised.

I knew about the South, too, of course. My daddy may have been born in St. Louis, but he and both his parents (indeed, their whole family lines) were Southern born and bred. I myself was born at a US Air Force base in south Georgia.

That said, our upbring was carefully anti-racist. (That’s the best description I have, though this was the 1950s, not the twenty-first century, which has a different definition of the word.) Again, we were taught history. We were taught that slavery had been wrong. Though both my parents made it clear to us kids that racism was wrong long before the rise of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, they were products of their own white Depression-era upbringing. But they were good parents and didn’t want to pass on what they knew in their hearts was wrong.

We were most definitely not to use the N-word, though my father used it for dramatic effect when he told this story—an illustration of the evils of bigotry—about his youth: When he was about ten (so 1938 or ’39), he and his father, Harry, went to court (in South Carolina)—apparently this was something Harry did on occasion for its entertainment value. There’d been a lynching, and the murderer, a white man, was found guilty and fined. “Ten dollah!”** the judge said, banging his gavel. “This nigger-hangin’ has got to stop!” The point of this story was always (and yes, we heard it more than once) that the use of the word by a man in a position of power was shameful, but worse, the casual dismissal of the value of a human life was truly horrendous. It was an event that made a huge impression on young Jimmy Clarke, and he used it to make an impression on his children, of which I was the oldest.

(By the time my son came along, that so-called N-word, never a part of my life, was mostly gone, I thought. I’d been profoundly inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. as a young woman, and that has never changed. But really, it had only been eliminated from the circles in which I ran, I’m sorry to report. I’m older now, less idealistic, more jaded. Regardless, my son got a more stringent upbringing when it came to bigotry, and in his public high school, here in the American South, he ran in circles that included people of color. And the ground had been properly prepared; he would be judged—and judge others—only by the content of his—and their—character.)

But those Confederate dollars. Save your Conferate dollars, boys

I’d never really thought about it before, just had it as a miscellaneous factoid taking up space in my brain. Until I googled it. Dear God.

It is a phrase that hearkens the willing back to a time that never truly existed: a time of an idealized, genteel Southland in which white folk sat on the veranda and drank lemonade brought to them by polite Black folk who “knew their place.” Jefferson Davis used the phrase the South shall rise again (no mention of Confederate money) in an 1868 letter to a friend. But as this article says, “The expression ‘The south shall rise again’ is one that everyone has heard, not only in the southern states but throughout the entire nation. It has been used as a political slogan, a regional emblem, a football battle cry, and even been the title of a 1950s song (“Save Your Confederate Money Boys, The South Shall Rise Again”***). However, the expression is not a recent one; its genesis dates back to the turbulent years directly following the Civil War.”

By the time I was reading this phrase in 1960, it had been around for decades and had almost been sanitized by the popular barbershop quartet the Confederates, who had a hit with their song “Save Your Confederate Money, Boys, the South Shall Rise Again” in the mid-1950s. (Indeed, I suspect that reference in the yearbook was to the song.) But as I’ve said, we were wordy people, and this phrase certainly has a nice rhythm, doesn’t it? Almost romantic.

… Dear God. Will you listen to me?

I snagged this photo from rutherfordtnhistory.org (you can probably see their watermark). Rutherford County’s so-called Confederate Guardian of Peace monument was unveiled November 7, 1901, facing straight down East Main Street. It was moved to its current location in 1914.

Now I am old, and have been in a mood to remember these long-ago stories for my grandgirl. We have a racist as president of our country, and his presence has sponsored a rise in white nationalism, which in turn has created a progressive pushback against the symbols this movement uses, among them the Confederate flag and Confederate statues—bringing the term and concept of the Confederates into prominence once again. I confess that here in this Southern town I love we have a Confederate statue (along with a separate monument to locals who’ve given their lives in wars from the first World War to at least Vietnam****). And though it is only a generic statue of a soldier (not a “hero of the Confederacy,” as so many of them are), it is still a Confederate statue, and it has a different meaning for me than it does for every Black person in this town.

Especially since the majority of these statues are not historic. Not of the time. No. Most of these statues were not erected in the late 1860s, 1870s. No. It was not until the turn of the century that these statues began to appear in Southern squares and parks and other public spaces. This was when the Southern states began to enact Jim Crow laws—designed to deprive people of color of their equal rights under the law—that the white folks (in power then, in power now) suddenly got a yen for their Confederate “heritage.” (“Johnny Reb” appeared on the courthouse square in Murfreesboro in 1901.) And there was a second wave of Confederate heritage monuments erected in the 1950s and ’60s during the Civil Rights movement. Here’s a list of all of them.

Certainly there is legitimate history we should acknowledge. Just outside our town is the site of a major battlefield (the Battle of Stones River, 31 December 1862 to 2 January 1863). The land was set aside in 1896; the national park itself was established by an act of Congress in 1927. But the national cemetery there was established in 1864, before the Civil War ended. Just outside it stands the Hazen Brigade Monument, the oldest Civil War monument remaining in its original location; it was erected in 1863. By Union soldiers. None of these entities involves a Confederate flag or statue; just an acknowledgment of history. This happened here.

Yet the statues and the flags—on T-shirts and license plates, for heaven’s sake—proliferated. Save those Confederate dollars, boys … If you live your white, privileged life here in the American South, you see them but you don’t think about them much. Until you do.

It was only when photos of Dylann Roof posing with Confederate flags surfaced—this after he’d killed nine parishioners at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina (2015)—that folks started thinking that perhaps this Confederate iconography business should stop. And it should.

• • •

The South will rise again, I hope. But not like the song says. I hope it will rise above the mistakes of the past and heal the wounds caused by hundreds of years of racism and bigotry. I’m not sure any of us will survive if we don’t rise again.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.
—“Still I Rise,” Maya Angelou (1978)

* Well, maybe don’t.
** In 2020 dollars, it’s more than $180.
*** Words and music by Larry Markes, Hank Ford, Justin Stone, published in 1949.
**** I’ll have to check to see if they’ve included Desert Storm and the followup in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tougher Than You Think

While I was out and about today two separate people remarked on how beautiful my key ring is. It does regularly get that kind of attention, because it’s a little unusual.

Back in 1990 I divorced, moved back to Middle Tennessee, and got a job in the corporate office of a company I’d done good work for over the previous three or four years. It was located in a small town near here, and there was (ahem) a little bit of sour grapes related to the fact that I got the job and not one of the four younger-than-me local women who were then working in the office.

But one soldiers on, yeah? One does because one needs the job and has a child to feed and some time to spend in one’s head, getting clear after a divorce.

A few months later, after I’d returned from lunch and laid my car keys on the corner of my desk—where I always put them; because you know I am a creature of habit, and even now have a place to put keys—those keys just up and disappeared. They disappeared right as I needed to begin my thirty-five–minute commute back to the town I lived in to pick up my six-year-old from school daycare. During the flurry of searching EVERYWHERE for the keys, plus calling a friend to pick up my son and calling the school to let them know that and later asking the friend to keep my son overnight because the keys simply. did. not. turn. up (not even months later after my desk was moved out of the cubicles into an office) and calling my ex-husband to Fedex the other set of keys (cheaper than a locksmith) and calling the storage company to let them know I would miss my appointment to pay my deposit (but I still want the 10×10 and I’ll come tomorrow, please, please, please hold it for me) … after/during all that, I also broke down and sobbed right in the middle of the office and could not stop for a long time. I’d been divorced about six months and was just, you know, fragile.

I think these days you call it an Ugly Cry.

I believe those missing keys were meant to be a little poke, a little mean joke haha by those four girls who reported to me but resented it. But once I’d cried, there was no way on God’s beautiful blue-green earth the keys were going to come back to me. They’re rusting at the bottom of some creek in DeKalb County, Tennessee. No, ladies: I know one of you said I probably just lost them myself and they’ll turn up. But they never did.

They never did.

The next month I was at a crafts fair in Centennial Park in Nashville and I bought this handmade key ring for twenty dollars, the one I still get compliments on twenty-nine years later. (Twenty-nine! So what’s that you say about my losing my keys?) And every time I do, I remind myself that I am a strong person, even if I have to cry sometimes.

What the Mind Does

Funny how you’ll read something and it’ll spark this whole train of thought* … but here was an interesting thing that popped up: on the night I graduated from high school in Merced, California, Charles Ogletree Jr (yes, that one) came up to me and requested a celebratory kiss, and I obliged him (because, duh, I was full of myself back then, even with my boyfriend standing right there). It mightily annoyed said boyfriend, even though it was nothing more than a friendly—and quick—smooch. Charles was a scrawny kid, not tall, not possessed, yet, of the stature he would earn by his accomplishments.

He went on to Stanford University with a few of my classmates and from there to Harvard Law School, and subsequently a professorship at the university, where he taught, among many others, Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson (later Obama, of course). You can read more about him here; his is an impressive career, an impressive life.

I snagged this photo from Ogletree’s page at his speakers’ bureau, Collaborative Agency Group.

It was announced in July 2016 that he has early-stage Alzheimer’s, and that news broke quickly in the world and among my old Merced crowd. None of us have seen him in decades, I should point out, but we were proud of him from a distance, and we’re all sorry to know this news. There’s been some better, hopeful news on the horizon for Alzheimer’s patients; one hopes he gets the benefit of the latest treatments and that his twilight years are exceedingly happy ones.

But what I wondered, though, that night in bed, feeling the synapses fire between the Coates and Ogletree, who sprang into my mind unbidden, was this: I wonder who else of my friends he kissed that night? Funny, how the mind works.

* It was Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power, the introduction to the sixth essay, which speaks of “how black families had been cut out of the FHA loan program and thus excluded from much of the suburban housing development in the postwar years … [which] was a great source of the wealth for American families.” Including me. My first husband and I financed more than one early home with FHA loans. This train of thought really got my attention—and broke my heart.

Sunshine Patriots

These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.                                                                                 —Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, 1777

Ah, fall. It’s football season again, and the armchair patriots are passing judgment yet again. But, excuse me, did our false president just publicly call American citizens sons of bitches? Why yes … I believe he did.

This guy has been working overtime to conflate #TakeaKnee with disrespect for a) the national anthem, b) the American flag, and c) U.S. military veterans. And it’s working. He’s creating anger and discord across our nation. Everybody’s a superpatriot. I wrote about this a year ago, and you should read it again if the Great National Anthem Argument is raising your blood pressure.*

Look familiar? Hmm.

So, patriots, let’s talk.

a) The national anthem. You know it’s a drinking song, right? Here’s what the the Los Angeles Times says about Francis Scott Key’s 1814 poem, Defence of Fort M’Henry:

Key wrote his poem to fit the beat and melody of British composer John Stafford Smith’s “To Anacreon in Heaven”—a popular tune [at the time].

… Most elementary school classes note that the music for “The Star-Spangled Banner” came from a British drinking song. But in his well-received book, historian Marc Ferris, author of Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem (Johns Hopkins University Press, August 2014) gives a more sophisticated reading.

“The words of ‘To Anacreon in Heaven,’ the song that Francis Scott Key borrowed for the melody of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ is a sly 1700s paean to drinking and sex. Though understated, the line ‘I’ll instruct you, like me to entwine; The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine’ is unambiguous,” he wrote.

For the record, Venus is the goddess of love and Bacchus, the god of wine, and entwine is defined in any dictionary.

Key’s poetic effort grew in popularity over the years, but sectarian interests hindered the drive for a national anthem. Who thinks about unity during a Civil War? New lyrics were added to reflect that war, but disunity was the watchword and the era became more attuned to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie.”

Prior to 1931—when it became the national anthem by congressional resolution—various other songs were played at important occasions.

But wait, patriots! When did a football game become an occasion for the national anthem? My Irish husband has always scratched his head over this propensity to reel the anthem out at every little sports gathering. But we Americans are a sentimental people, and though the anthem had been played at occasional games (“important” ones, like opening day) since 1918, it didn’t really become a thing until after World War 2. Author Marc Ferris says, “The anthem was heard everywhere” during the second world war. “Before the opera, before the movies, before the theater.” At the end of the war, NFL commissioner Elmer Layden called for the anthem to be played at every NFL game. And that’s how it started.

Fine, but prior to 2009, players stayed in the locker room until after the anthem was played! What happened? In 2015, Axios tells us in an anthem timeline,

Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake released a report revealing that the Department of Defense had spent $6.8 million between 2012 and 2015 on what the senators called “paid patriotism” events before professional sports games, including American flag displays, honoring of military members, reenlistment ceremonies, etc. The DoD justified the money paid to 50 professional sports teams by calling it part of their recruiting strategy. However, many teams had these ceremonies without compensation from the military, and there was nothing found in the contracts that mandated that players stand during the anthem. [Emphasis mine.]

So in the wake of reduced enlistments eight years after the September 11th event, the DoD decided to goose its pool of potentials, and this is when the conflation of patriotism and professional sports really kicked into high gear. Only in America.

b) The American flag. Here’s what CNN tells us about flag respect:

The Supreme Court has ruled twice that destruction of the American flag is protected by the Constitution, specifically the First Amendment’s protection of free speech, even if the act is unsettling.

One of the staunchest defenders of the decisions, and a key vote in favor of both, was conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who was widely praised by Republicans after his death in February, including by Trump.

Scalia spoke about the matter in a 2012 interview with CNN, saying that while he does not approve of flag burning, it is fundamentally protected by the Constitution and the Founding Fathers’ efforts to create a government not ruled by tyranny. [Emphasis mine.]

“If I were king, I would not allow people to go around burning the American flag. However, we have a First Amendment, which says that the right of free speech shall not be abridged—and it is addressed in particular to speech critical of the government,” Scalia said. “That was the main kind of speech that tyrants would seek to suppress.”

… The cases were Texas v. Johnson in 1989, and US v. Eichman in 1990. The former case stemmed from a flag burning protest at the 1984 Republican National Convention and a Texas law banning desecration of a venerated object, and the latter responded to a bill from Congress that made harming the flag illegal.

In both cases, the Supreme Court ruled that burning a flag is an act of expression and “symbolic speech,” and exactly they type of action that the First Amendment was designed to protect.

But wait, wait, patriots. Nobody’s burning the flag (which, as we’ve noted, is permissible). The U.S. Flag code has a whole list of dos and don’ts for respecting the American flag. Here are just a few of them that you may have seen being abused around your own hometown (I know I have):

  • The flag should not be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should not be used for any decoration in general (except for coffins).
  • The flag should never be used for any advertising purpose. It should not be embroidered, printed, or otherwise impressed on such articles as cushions, handkerchiefs, napkins, boxes, or anything intended to be discarded after temporary use. Advertising signs should not be attached to the staff or halyard.
  • The flag should not be used as part of a costume or athletic uniform, except that a flag patch may be used on the uniform of military personnel, firefighters, police officers, and members of patriotic organizations.
  • The flag should never have any mark, insignia, letter, word, number, figure, or drawing of any kind placed on it or attached to it.
  • The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.
  • In a parade, the flag should not be draped over the hood, top, sides, or back of a vehicle, railroad train, or boat. When the flag is displayed on a motorcar, the staff shall be fixed firmly to the chassis or clamped to the right fender.
  • If the flag is being used at a public or private estate, it should not be hung (unless at half staff or when an all-weather flag is displayed)[10] during rain or violent weather.
  • The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally [as on, say, a football field], but always aloft and free.

The U.S. Flag Code suggests we stand when the flag is passing in a parade or being hoisted or lowered; it says nothing about standing or kneeling when the national anthem is performed. And, as we’ve already noted, a professional athlete’s right to a peaceful protest is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S Constitution.

c) U.S. military veterans. This is the one that just breaks my head, patriots. How in the world does a peaceful protest about injustices perpetrated against people of color offend—or involve in any way—American veterans? Well, it doesn’t. Here’s what Kaepernick’s colleague Eric Reid wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times:

It wasn’t until after our third preseason game on Aug. 26, 2016, that his protest gained national attention, and the backlash against him began.

That’s when my faith moved me to take action. I looked to James 2:17, which states, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” I knew I needed to stand up for what is right.

I approached Colin the Saturday before our next game to discuss how I could get involved with the cause but also how we could make a more powerful and positive impact on the social justice movement. We spoke at length about many of the issues that face our community, including systemic oppression against people of color, police brutality and the criminal justice system. We also discussed how we could use our platform, provided to us by being professional athletes in the N.F.L., to speak for those who are voiceless.

After hours of careful consideration, and even a visit from Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and former N.F.L. player, we came to the conclusion that we should kneel, rather than sit, the next day during the anthem as a peaceful protest. We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.

It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel. We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite. It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest.

It baffles me too. I grew up in a military household with an American patriot (i.e., my daddy). I know plenty of servicemen and –women, and the ones I know will tell you straight up that an American’s right to all the protections of the Constitution is one reason why they got into this military gig. They signed an oath to protect the Constitution.

So take a chill pill, armchair patriot.

Take a step back from your outrage and listen to the protestors before you start spouting off. There’s a lot of social injustice going around, if you have eyes to see. (Another post for another time.) But let me leave you with this thought:

  • 8 million Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t salute the flag.
  • 200 thousand Amish don’t stand for the national anthem.
  • Some Quakers don’t recite the pledge of allegiance.

But one black man** kneels respectfully to draw attention to injustice in his community and all hell breaks loose.*** The ugly comments all over social media from our fake president right on down to you are just mind-boggling. Shame on him for being a criminal and a self-centered fool. Shame on you for letting a criminal and a self-centered fool shape your opinion about anything.

* And seriously: how many times have you stood up in your living room when the national anthem was played? I’m willing to bet on none. So please: shut up.

** And have you donated a million dollars to charity like this unemployed NFL quarterback has? No? Shut up.

*** Some people might construe this as racism. The fake president is a well-known racist. Is that the sort of person you want to be associated with? No.