Judgement and Grace in a Rubber Stamp

It’s difficult to comprehend all the political jousting about immigration policy. And even something as simple as people yearning to breathe free seems to be smothered in sound and fury. Sometimes it helps to hear a story from someone you can relate to…here is one by Rich Little.

I was detained by immigration at Miami airport. I was returning from a mission trip to Jamaica leading a group of 18 Harding University students. I had applied for my green card several months earlier and was unable to leave the States. If I left while my application was being processed (which took one year) my application would be canceled. I had to apply for a special exception to this rule called “advanced parole” (yes, the same word used for prisoners and detainees).

After expediting my advanced parole application with the help of U.S. Senator Hutchinson whose son attended Harding I felt confident in my ability to re-enter the US. 18 Harding students and Heather waited in the U.S. Citizens line while I lined up with the Foreign Nationals. I handed my Australian passport and advanced parole papers to the immigration officer. He looked at the papers and scanned my passport. He then reached under his desk and pushed a button. He took my passport and papers and placed them in a sealed envelope. I asked him if there was a problem. He said I needed to speak to a supervisor.

The supervisor arrived and escorted me to a separate room. He told me to take a seat. I was panicked because we had a one hour connection and I was the leader of a group of 18 students who had just been detained. I had no way to contact Heather. A man sat beside me. I asked him where he was from. “Antigua,” he said. He told me he didn’t have the correct visa. An immigration officer called him to the desk and told him he would have to return to Antigua unless he purchased a visa immediately. The visa cost $80. He didn’t have the money. I approached him and told him I had the money to give him. He refused it. I told him if he didn’t take it he would be returning to Antigua. He knew. He didn’t like the thought of someone else giving him money. He was escorted out and placed on a plane back to Antigua.

I was then called to the desk. 45 minutes had passed. I was hoping Heather and the group had gone to their gate and would leave without me. Rescheduling 19 people to fly together on the next flight would be virtually impossible. The immigration officer opened my envelope and asked me why I was entering the US. I wanted to say, “Because I live here!

Because U.S. Senator Hutchinson expedited my parole. Because all my papers are in order and I shouldn’t be in here!” I didn’t. I said, gently and calmly, afraid of being escorted out and placed on a plane to somewhere, “My wife and I live in Arkansas and I’m returning to my home and work.” He said, and I quote, “We don’t have to let you in, you know. But by the grace of the INS you have been allowed to re-enter.”

He took a rubber stamp and stamped my papers and passport and handed them back to me. I can’t tell you the feelings of loneliness that comes over someone in that situation. Alone. Unable to contact anyone. Unsure of the outcome. Feeling like a criminal. And my papers were in order! I ran through the airport and to the front of the security line to enter my departing terminal.

I discovered our flight had been delayed by thirty minutes. I approached the gate and everyone asked what happened. I simply said “paper work.” I boarded the plane and slumped down into my seat. I look out my window and saw a plane next to me wondering if my Antiguan friend was on there on his way back.

I am an immigrant. I am a wealthy, white, Christian, immigrant from a “safe” country who had access to power. Because I am a wealthy, white, Christian immigrant from a safe country who had access to power I can only begin to imagine how a non-Christian refugee family from Syria must feel when they learn that their application has now been denied.

I can only begin to imagine how the Iraqi businessman green card holder feels now sitting in a hotel room in Berlin unable to come home to the States to be with his children and wife.

There are many great evils in the world. Confronting these evils while crushing humanity in the wheels of despair has never achieved the greatness my new country has modeled. It breeds a harmful and inhumane result, the scars of which are born on the thousands and millions of innocents whose lives are damaged as a result.

There must be ways to confront evil while continuing to honor and protect and elevate the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

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Barely Getting a Leaf Out

My good friend Ralph Rowand once told me something in college that made me look at him with a tilted head like a dog that’s been given kale. “Our generation got cheated out of a war.” said Ralph bemusedly. Once my head leveled back, I understood him to mean that the cheated part was the glory, the John Wayne and Sands of Iwo Jima stuff. Those of us who never served in combat often think just of the glory and flag waving valor dismissing the reality that we can never fully understand, the price paid for freedom. David Brooks writes about victims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, “The victims of PTSD often feel morally tainted by their experiences, unable to recover confidence in their own goodness, trapped in a sort of spiritual solitary confinement, looking back at the rest of the world from beyond the barrier of what happened.”

Ralph, nevertheless, wanted in the battle. Which reminds me of the perseverance of my Dad who also missed out on military service, although he did play tailback for the Bluejacket High basketball team. His coach admonished him, “Get your tail back on the bench!” After enduring 26 consecutive losses, coach told him to get in the game after one of the starters fouled out. Terrel swished several late free throws to ice the victory and break the losing streak. I’ve heard Dad tell that story dozens of times and have always wondered what it was like to sit there for 26 consecutive losses, and then get carried off the court as the game winning hero.

My Dad tells another story which helps me reflect on heroes who are sometimes only honored after languishing on the bench for years. I hope those who have served understand the value of what they have done and that in the grand scheme of life, they are part of a tapestry of sacrifice that is bigger and more powerful than they can imagine.

But before I tell that story, let me tell you about JRR Tolkien, a soldier in World War I who became a writer to a large degree because of what he saw and felt and heard at the Battle of the Somme. His book, Tree and Leaf, contains a story about a man who could barely get a leaf out. The author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, wrote about a painter named Niggle, who spent his whole life trying to paint a very beautiful tree with snow-capped mountains and forests behind it. In spite of his efforts, when the Niggle dies he has finished painting only one leaf.

Tolkien’s story reminds me of the story my Dad often tells with a shaken voice like he was the redeemed one. An American soldier in Vietnam shot a North Viet Cong soldier who had lined up a South Vietnamese family with intent to execute them including their children. Many years later, he was playing golf in Bartlesville and he happened upon a couple of younger golfers. Since play was slow they decided to play together. The older man noticed the younger man stealing glances at him, like he knew him. After several holes the younger man looked the old soldier squarely in the eyes and said, “You saved my family, many years ago in Vietnam. I was a child then. You saved us. Thank you!”

What happened to the painter in Tolkien’s story? Disappointed that he only finished one leaf, he goes to his reward and sees something in the distance. As he approaches, he realizes that there is the completed tree he was trying to paint all along!

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9477541-tree-and-leaf

Whether its everyday life or a bloody battlefield, we often find ourselves disappointed, discouraged, even disillusioned, at how little we’re able to accomplish. We feel like there’s so much unfinished, so much still to do.  The one leaf that we paint often goes together with leaves that others paint to create a beautiful tree. The tree wouldn’t be complete unless we did our part.

John Garth writes about Tolkien’s time spent on the battlefield in World War I.

In the ordinary soldier – an inspiration for Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings – he saw astonishing resilience and courage on a battlefield swept by machine guns. Autumn rain made it all a mire, with corpses afloat in shell holes.”  John Garth, ‘Battle of the Somme: the ‘animal horror’ that inspired JRR Tolkien.’

Tolkien’s first dragons are surreal hybrids of beast and machine. They lumber against the elf-city of Gondolin, spouting fire and clanking, with orctroops hidden inside. This was in the first Middle-earth story, begun by 2nd Lieut JRR Tolkien in hospital straight after the Battle of the Somme, where Britain’s own secret weapon, the tank, had just been rolled out. War had caught him at 22, marking the end of the world as his generation knew it.

Tolkien believes that our vision of what we want to accomplish is often inspired by God, and that in the end God can weave our leaf together with the leaves of others to create the beautiful tree.Battle of the Somme

God bless the few, who have given so much, for so many.

A Choir of Donkeys and Angels

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.  

~  Victor Hugo

I had a reputation as a youngster that enshrouded me like cigar smoke hovering over Churchill on a still summer evening. I sang pretty well. I sang because my church sang a capella and everyone sang. If you stole our hymnals we would sing, because we knew the words and music by heart.

We sang during chapel at Harding University for an entire semester sans songbooks when a guy I know but won’t incriminate hid 3,000 hymnals in an obscure corner of a storage area near the Benson Auditorium. The books were discovered by the Secret Service detachment of former President Gerald Ford as they did their standard facility search. It didn’t stop the Christians at Harding University from singing in chapel in the days before Powerpoint. We sang from memory. We had no choice. If we didn’t sing, the rocks and the pews would burst forth in song.  And so we sang using only the song leaders pitch-pipe as a mechanical helper, although there were some who viewed that instrument with suspicion along with pianos.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4ww1LLr4NM   Our National Anthem at Harding University and everyone is singing!

That reputation for singing brought with it expectations, responsibilities, and pressure. Because of the reputation my church esteemed for singing simply and beautifully, those who knew us well, believed singing must be passed along to each congregant like holy elixir. This wasn’t true. Our church sang with a common passion but with a diversity of talent, like the host surrounding Jesus in the manger. Donkeys bellowed, cows mooed, chickens squawked. But while the barnyard animals made a loud noise, many of our church sang like angels hovering over baby Jesus, beautiful, surreal. And most of us were painted with the same reputational brush, “Hey, those Church of Christ folks can sing.”

My music teach knew this about me, this reputation for hanging out with the church of unadorned singing. I was loitering in the hall outside Mrs. McDonald’s 7th grade music class at Central Junior High, waiting for my 4th hour class while 3rd hour was still in session. Suddenly the door opened and Mrs. McDonald pointed a crooked finger at me. She said, “Come in here, I want you to sing.” I sheepishly shuffled into the room and stood beside her piano. Her music was open to an Irving Berlin song, “Mary’s a Grand Old Name”, and she jauntily began playing as I sang for the 3rd hour students. I finished and walked back out into the hallway. I was shy but never felt uncomfortable during the impromptu exhibition, perhaps because singing is easier than talking to a beautiful cheerleader. My heart seemed bigger when I sang, my mind calmer, my feet no longer mired in clay.

There is something evocative in the way our souls mournfully waltz to music when we bury our dead and stand taller when we sing the Star Spangled Banner. Our souls burn to the beat of rebellion and the disharmony of revolution when we are stupidly young, our souls soar sublimely as we sing to our children. Music gives voice to the broken, courage to our warriors, and megaphones to our injustices. And all of this articulated in tones which softens the calloused and awakens the indifferent.

Music strums and hums and changes us in keys that sound more reasonable and beautiful than words alone. Music is the stuff that comes out of us when we can’t speak, notes shaped like the essence of our unspoken emotions.

Music does something that logic cannot, it changes me, softens the edges, and raises my hackles. My creative nature affirms the lyrics of Chris Martin singing “The Scientist”…”I was just guessing at numbers and figures, pulling the puzzles apart, questions of science, science and progress, do not speak as loud as my heart.”

Holy Scriptures also affirm this in Ephesians 5:19, “…speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.”

Ray Charles speaks of music in the biological sense, that it was a body part, or perhaps an organ or one of his senses. “I was born with music inside me. Music was one of my parts. Like my ribs, my kidneys, my liver, my heart. Like my blood. It was a force already within me when I arrived on the scene. It was a necessity for me – like food or water.”

I wonder if music ever goes away? Do songs from our lives hang in the air forever, the shaped notes hanging in the ether? I still hear Sunrise, Sunset from our wedding day, and my wife singing Hush Little Baby Don’t You Cry to our mortally injured dog Cocoa just hours before we took her to the vet and said goodbye. I hear pastel smocked teens singing Up With People at the old Bartlesville Civic Center in the Sixties, and the screams of teenage girls on the Ed Sullivan show as The Beatles sang, I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Like hot air balloons hovering over our world, musical memory shapes and influences our thoughts, our legacy, our souls.

Music notes in space

My earliest musical memory came from furniture. My parents RCA stereo console doubled as fine furniture and music savant. I cut my teeth and the living room rug on Al Hirt’s Fancy Pants and Herb Alpert’s This Guy’s in Love, which led me to a love of big brass and Chicago’s Beginnings.

I remember walking down the aisle between scarred metal chairs at Green Valley Bible Camp to the strains of voices singing Just As I Am before I was baptized in the camp swimming pool. I hear Paul McCartney and Wings, Band on the Run driving west on Highway 60, travelling to a junior high golf tournament in Ponca City. The next year in Norman at the state high school golf tournament, I played the worst round of my competitive career, 88, and trudged down the seventeenth fairway, head down, distraught. From the open window of an apartment near the fairway, the Beach Boys soothed my sagging competitive soul with the soaring Help Me Rhonda.

And I sang when my daughter Lauren was born, alone in my car on a pastoral New Jersey highway, driving home from the hospital on a December night, “You don’t know what it’s like to love somebody, the way I love you.” I sang with the Bee Gees as I drove and thought about how happy I was to be a father, serendipitous happiness, like I had found a secret door to Heaven. So I sang, although the sentiment with which I sang wasn’t what the Bee Gees sang about. I didn’t care, that’s how I felt, like nobody understood the joy of having a daughter like I did in that moment, so I sang like Pavarotti in the shower.

I have a good friend and old college roommate from Harding University who can’t sing but does anyway. He drove a white 1970 Dodge Charger and called it The General. We sang Jimmy Buffett’s, Son of a Son of a Sailor, while driving in The General and sang Marshall Tucker Band’s, Can’t You See What That Woman is Doin’ to Me, on Friday nights in our living room when we had no female companionship.

And when we attended ball games, we sang only the last line of the Star Spangled Banner, …’and the home of the (Atlanta) Brave.’ It was funny that Ralph loved music. He didn’t seem the type to love music, but I often thought of Ralph later in life when I sang to my kids before I put them to bed. I sang An American Trilogy: Dixie, All My Trials and The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a trio of songs arranged by Mickey Newbury which originated as American folk songs from the 19th century and popularized by Elvis in the seventies.

I thought of the stories Ralph told me about being young and hearing about the Confederacy from his Mom and listening to songs about the South before bed. I was from the Great Plains and thought all Americans were like me, and yet one of my best friends still spoke of the South, and he spoke of the War of Aggression Against the Southern States and he laughed when he said it but I knew the truth buried in the humor was complex and textured and layered with pain, heartache, pride and honor.

And of course I married a beautiful Yankee from New Jersey. And so I sang that Trilogy of songs to my kids and thought about how great our country was and is and how we are all different, yet the same, and how many have died for that ideal. And that Ralph and I are friends despite being cut from different bolts of geo-political-cultural cloth.

We are unique, we are the same, and I sense that every time I hear An American Trilogy and every time I see the Stars and Stripes waving in the breeze while singing our National Anthem, which Ralph and I now sing with a different understanding, with the correct ending, standing older, but taller, more proud and respectful, and grateful.

Grateful that many have died fighting for the principle of freedom and liberty and the United States of America. And grateful that floating out there somewhere in our memory ether is a jukebox of music carved from our voices, hovering around us like Winston Churchill’s ubiquitous stogie smoke that magically never blows away.

Abraham, Martin & Me

David Schribman recently writing in the Pittsburg-Post Gazette shared these thoughts about the 50th anniversary of the Martin Luther King Jr. “I Have a Dream” speech.
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With a black man in the White House, has Martin Luther King’s dream been realized? …
The civil rights movement, lasting roughly from 1955 to 1968 but with antecedents reaching far earlier and with effects cascading far later, produced a profound transformation — and has itself experienced just as profound a transformation.
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It has been transformed in American memory from a much-reviled outsiders’ movement making what seemed to be extremist demands into a much-beloved popular uprising that almost seamlessly extended the logic of American values to a broader base of the nation. Many of its roots were in the effort to open the schoolhouse doors, and today its goals are so widely embraced that schools are closed in the middle of each January to celebrate its aspirations.
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It began as a terrifying assault on broad, commonplace practices, led by the bold and the brave, steeped in civil disobedience, prosecuted on buses and at lunch counters and at the violent end of the fire hoses of the powerful. It evolved in memory into a proud, broad-based surge of honor whose principal genius is celebrated with a holiday and a Washington monument. Abraham Lincoln today has only the monument, no longer the holiday.

In history’s long view, Lincoln and King — one white and one black, one a 19th-century martyr and the other a 20th-century one — might be remembered as relay runners in the same long-distance race. Indeed, long before it was the backdrop for King’s speech, Lincoln’s memorial, its Doric columns symbolizing ancient and eternal values, was the backdrop of Marian Anderson’s contralto in a celebrated 1939 episode of defiance and determination to the strains of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”

In the pitch-perfect symmetry afforded by the decimal system, we mark the 50th anniversary of King’s dream in the same year as the 150th anniversary of those other hinges of history, the Emancipation Proclamation and Battle of Gettysburg, and of the only other speech in all of American history that changed the American character, the Gettysburg Address, whose anniversary is but a dozen weeks away.

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But before the self-congratulation becomes too hearty, let’s remember that this is not a “mission accomplished” moment and that all this was prompted by one of the greatest injustices in all of human history, a stain on the American story that begs a different question, still without an answer: Why did it take so long?
It is difficult to remember today, when that march is a monument in memory — cast in stone, you might say, like the Lincoln and King memorials — that the genius of it all wasn’t only in the careful planning of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. It also grew out of the improvisation prompted by Mahalia Jackson, once so well known that it wasn’t necessary to identify her as the Queen of Gospel.

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King was deep into his oration when Jackson, who had sung at a rally to raise money for the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956, worried that he was losing his forward momentum. She urged him: Tell them about the dream, Martin.

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King had given his “dream” riff many times — it wasn’t a new element of his repertoire when he stood on the Lincoln Memorial steps. Then again, Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg, with its biblical allusions and rhythms, wasn’t a complete original either. The result wasn’t only history. It changed history.

Bespoke

It was the first time I ever prayed with my face touching the earth…and the first time I have ever had a prayer interrupted by a President of the United States. I lay prostrate on the green grass surrounding the Washington Monument, praying with ten other men in a tight circle, and a half million men all along the Washington Mall. It was October 4, 1997, a Saturday afternoon, and the Presidential helicopter with William Jefferson Clinton aboard, had just powered over our prayer huddle flying barely higher than the Washington Monument peak as if by governmental mandate.

Washington DC October 4, 1997

As dusk neared, I looked behind where we sat, and I noticed the reflecting pool leading to the Lincoln Memorial. This was near the place Martin Luther King stood and delivered in his sing-song style perhaps the greatest speech I’ve ever heard, the I Have a Dream speech of the civil rights…

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Humility in a Sea of Tranquility

orangemoon2Apparently, Neil Armstrong used to tell unfunny jokes about the moon and then follow them up with, “Ahh…I guess you had to be there.”
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Well, I was there…at least I felt deep down in my soul I was there with Neil. It was Sunday evening, July 20, 1969 and I stepped out of the back seat of a white Buick in our driveway which was surrounded by a cluster of canopied scrub oak. Walking out into the center of our front yard to escape the trees, I peered into the gathering of the evening as it mingled with day, orange and blue and white melding into dusty shades of infinite space. And I saw Neil Armstrong in the Sea of Tranquility planting the American flag in moon cheese. At least I thought it was him. The shadows may have fooled me. I rushed inside to confirm my suspicions and watched a black and white talking TV image of Eric Sevareid declare, “We’ve seen some kind of birth here.” Sevareid, the CBS commentator, described Armstrong’s clumsy first moments on strange ground as a “clumsy creature, half-blind, maneuvering with great awkwardness at first, and slowly learning to use its legs, until, in a rather short time it’s running.” There was some inner competition to be the first of the crew down the ladder of the Lunar Module and perhaps one NASA official explained it best why Neil set his foot on the moon first. “Neil was Neil. Calm, quiet, and absolute confidence. We all knew that he was the Lindbergh type. He had no ego.” Steve Rushin’s Sports Illustrated article about Neil Armstrong is a great piece about the celebrity culture in which we live. Rushin also quotes C.S. Lewis, who is not often quoted in the context of sports. That’s reason enough to read his piece about humility. It’s worth the time…enjoy.

Neil-Armstrong-american-flag

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/steve_rushin/08/29/humility/index.html?utm_content=buffer5b1f5&utm_source=buffer&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=Buffer#ixzz2bTBhnD2z

LBJ & Dad had No Idea What Fuse They Lit in 1965

Fireworks Statue of LibertyMy favorite childhood holiday through the wonder years of the Sixties was the 4th of July. I had no precocious notions of patriotism, not one noble sentiment of love for country. I just loved fireworks. Sparklers (Please…don’t plunge them deep into the retina of your sister…yes ma’am, I’ll be careful), lava-flowing glow worms that mutated from fire to molten ebony marking our driveway with a trail of patriotism identifiable in the concrete for years to come. Pop bottle rockets that never saw the translucent green glass of a pop bottle, only the synchronized whip like action of fleshy adolescent palms, flinging the firecracker on a stick into the smoky haze of summer evenings. Black Cats, Lady Fingers, Whiz Bang Spinners…we all had favorites. But my favorite firework was the Family Pack…no, there wasn’t a fuse to light, it was more like a candle or blow torch and it wasn’t condoned by the Certified Firework Makers of America. It was the remains, the bottom of the box of the Family Pack, when my Dad got tired of shooting them off one by one on a particular July 4th evening and he said, “Light ‘em up.” And we did. Roman candles, pop bottle rockets, Lady Fingers, Whiz Bangs, Cherry Bombs…whatever we hadn’t lit yet got lit…or more to the point, set on fire. And so that was the culmination of our pyromania one muggy summer evening in our backyard in Oklahoma. It was memorable…and colorful. And it was hard on the heels of some other fireworks in 1964 & 1965.
Immigration Act 1965 LBJ
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Immigration Act of 1965 marked the year the Family Pack got lit all at once. Even as Lyndon Baines Johnson assured nervous Americans that the passage of the Immigration Act was not significant and “not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions…”, he would tell us. And Ted Kennedy hastened to assure Americans that the demographic mix would not be changed. Oh my, how wrong was Ted? Immigration law at the time of the passage excluded Latin Americans, Asians and Africans in quotas and preferred northern and western Europeans over southern and eastern Europeans.

And so in the volatile Sixties as I just began to understand that not all folks were white, something exploded, not just in our backyard, but in our collective national conscience. Had LBJ any sense that he had become like my Dad losing patience with lighting Lady Fingers one at a time? As he signed this Act into law at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, he unwittingly lit the Family Pack ablaze.

The notion of a melting pot where all cultures and colors create a kaleidoscope of thought, economic clout, creative energy, entertainment power and sports competitiveness is the world we live in today. It’s the Family Pack exploded. It’s tattooed, brilliant, loud, participatory. 1964 & 1965 were watershed years, the years of the Civil Rights & Immigration Acts, the years through which we emerged from pale skinned, crew cut, male-dominated culture. The Celtics and the Packers were winning all the championships. It’s hard to find a more white working class culture of sport and middle American culture than the Packers and Celtics. Upon the shoulders of the Civil Rights Act and the likes of Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King and many others, places like Atlanta and Memphis and Charlotte, became national and international cities in the years following 1964, places with African-American mayors and sports stars. Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium was a project enabled by the Act of 1964. On faith and a prayer, the stadium was built and soon Henry Aaron came to town to play baseball in the deep south. My memories of 1964 are innocent of legal and social and racial tension. I remember a teenage garage band a block away serenading the neighborhood on summer evenings trying to be the next Beach Boys or Beatles. I remember playing kick the can and a neighborhood where we all knew one another and actually spent time in each others homes. And there was truth in the sarcasm of The Monkees song, Another Pleasant Valley Sunday, it was the suburbs and there was charcoal burning everywhere along with the haze of spent fireworks.

Monkees Pleasant Valley SundayDrive in movies, anything with a car…Sunday drives, cruising main street or the burger stand or Dairy Bar. I remember playing basketball with the neighbor kids in our driveway and hearing the great sonic boom of jets flying over through the sound barrier. Space and the sky was the frontier and the United States of America, well, we were the cowboys. There wasn’t anything our American ingenuity could not conquer. The sound barrier, the Soviet menace, the moon. Except perhaps the bullet from the rifle of Lee Harvey Oswald. And so as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said at the end of The Great Gatsby, “… we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” 1964 was the year Camelot came undone, our innocence ended, and we were borne back ceaselessly into the past. We were being borne back to the beginning of democracy, starting over, all in now. We became a country of color, of pastels, of diversity, in the years following 1965. It was during the summer of my early youth in the white-bread suburbs when the world was exploding in color and I watched my Dad light a Family Pack of fireworks, when the door was cracked and the kaleidoscope of light spilled into my world, my town, my country. Little did I understand about other colors and cultures and races, but neither did LBJ…or my Dad…or any of us. We were simply enjoying the fireworks in the summer our country burst forth into brilliant color. I’ve outgrown my love of fireworks and exploding things with fuses. But I still love color and the freshness and life and vivid interest it brings into my world. A world filled with much more to eat than just hamburgers and potatoes, a world awash with the sound of much more to hear than the simple earthy English of the midwest, a world with much more to see than the brown-haired freckled faces of my youth, a world that challenges me to understand my place in it, to be proud of my heritage, proud of my country, proud of my family…even as I admire all the voices and faces and smells and foods and ways of those born far from the smoke of my own backyard. Happy 4th of July to our great nation, The United States of America!

Abraham, Martin & Me

It was the first time I ever prayed with my face touching the earth…and the first time I have ever had a prayer interrupted by a President of the United States. I lay prostrate on the green grass surrounding the Washington Monument, praying with ten other men in a tight circle, and a half million men all along the Washington Mall. It was October 4, 1997, a Saturday afternoon, and the Presidential helicopter with William Jefferson Clinton aboard, had just powered over our prayer huddle flying barely higher than the Washington Monument peak as if by governmental mandate.

Washington DC October 4, 1997

As dusk neared, I looked behind where we sat, and I noticed the reflecting pool leading to the Lincoln Memorial. This was near the place Martin Luther King stood and delivered in his sing-song style perhaps the greatest speech I’ve ever heard, the I Have a Dream speech of the civil rights movement in 1963.

Martin Luther King Jr.

“Abraham, Martin and John” is a 1968 song written by Dick Holler and first recorded by Dion in response to the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King in that same year. The song refers to the loss of Lincoln, both Kennedys and King. I could imagine on this day, sitting on the grass beneath the Washington Monument, humming that song and gazing along the length of the reflecting pool as Martin Luther King delivered his speech in August, 1963. Then I saw something amazing. Through the shadows and slanted sunbeams piercing the foilage that lined the pool walkways, I watched men baptizing other men, dunking all comers, and they would come up out of the water looking like they had just remembered the bags of cash they had left under their mattress before they left for the war, and they were hugging the wet and the dry. Black and white men, all sizes and shapes, all getting wet, they were getting saved in that long shallow pool where words exploded along the surface 50 years ago. It was a surreal scene from a distance of a hundred yards, like a silent movie since they were out of earshot, but the men seemed to be rejoicing in their mass washing away of sins. It seemed that only Abraham, Martin and me had any interest in this scene, and I looked through the gathering dusk at Abe seated on his concrete chair, and I thought of what he had meant to our country so many years ago…and I wondered what Honest Abe thought as he sat serenely listening to Martin Luther King’s passion in the summer of 1963. That speech still gives me chills. Cue up YouTube and listen to the words. It’s over 17 minutes, so fast forward to 12:45 and you’ll see an outtake from 12:52—13:10 of Lincoln viewing the speech. I’ve copied below the last few paragraphs to celebrate Martin Luther King Day. Dr. King’s words still point a beacon of hope into the dimmest caverns of our individual and national conscience.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:
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My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
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And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
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But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
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Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!