There is No Middle Ground

I’m sitting in skybox 306 in the BOK center and the Broken Arrow band is playing Pomp and Circumstance as 1,137 Broken Arrow Seniors stream down eight aisles like ants who have discovered a donut on the sidewalk.

This isn’t anything like my graduation except it was also in a gymnasium, where I sat by Howard who leaned over and said, “Tata bud, I’ve gotta pee like a race horse,” while Lt. Governor George Nigh talked about Pink Floyd as if he knew a thing or two about popular music and social upheaval.

No, this graduation is different. There are more goosebumps and technology, a huge video screen, nosebleed seats and more ushers here than graduates at most high school commencements, along with an audience of 10,000.

I ask our sky box usher about the carafe on the counter behind us. “Is the coffee fresh?” She replies, “It’s cold.” I press her. “What day?”  “Don’t know.” “Well, I’m having a cup anyway. My nephew Jacob is speaking because he is whatever they call 1 of 1,137 these days…Valedictorian or something like that.” She smiles and says that’s wonderful and I sit down next to Karen and Ray.

Ray was stationed in Hawaii with the Marine Corp before he got married. He says that he kept Wakiki beach safe the whole time he was there.

He is 83 now and he stands up when the band plays the Marine Hymn during the “Salute to the Armed Forces,” and Karen gets misty like she doesn’t even do watching Hallmark movies. 

Ray sits down and I tell him his grandson Jacob is walking to the stage and Ray leans over and says folks back home in Texas don’t believe him when he tells them Jacob got his academic chops from his pops who went to college on the G.I. bill.

Eric and Johna ring the old Broken Arrow High School bell for the 109th time…tradition.

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The choir sings, “I’ll Always Remember You,” and I think of an email I read this morning soliciting names for my 40th high school reunion and I can only remember half of the names from the list of 1977 classmates. I’m sure at one time I knew them all. A song from Seals and Crofts dances in my brain:

Dreams, so they say, are for the fools, And they let ’em drift away, Peace, like the silent dove, Should be flyin’, but it’s only just begun…We may never pass this way again.

Noah Osborne, class president has a velvet singing voice and he speaks, eloquently, but he finishes simply singing…Amazing Grace How Sweet the Sound, and he stops before the line, I once was lost…and a choir of 10,000 sings…was blind but now I see.  

Jacob approaches the lectern, and he steals this moment like his Biblical namesake whose name in Hebrew means supplanter, the one who takes the birthright. His words are hopeful, and my goosebumps are filled with pride as I watch Jacob who looks a lot like his Father on the big screen, and sounds like his Mother, full of passion and grace.

Jacob tells this to 10,000…

Choose.

Be a hero or a villain.

There is no middle ground.

There are moments when you realize that we may never pass this way again, and that it’s okay, the world doesn’t depend on you, and our children are becoming the heroes and the villains, their dreams on the clouds of hope, silent doves taking flight.

God, make us wind underneath their wings and give us the good sense to get out of their way.

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Limestone School part 6 walking home

As John Welch’s arm exploded through the safety glass just above the brass push bar he realized the race had been won and the battle lost. Our third and fourth grade classes routinely made the sixty yard sprint across the playground from the north wing to the south wing of Limestone School rewarding the win, place and show runners with the spoils of being first in line for lunch. We had no grand illusions of gourmet meals. Our goals were attuned to completing lunch quickly and excusing ourselves to the asphalt playground to maximize our time playing workup-style kickball, foursquare or tether ball. With a corndog, wacky cake and lime green jello (we thought of it as our vegetable) washed down with a half pint of chocolate milk, we sloshed to the playground fueled for action. John would be ok, he was tough, and the scratches and shallow cuts that bloodied his arm would soon heal. It wasn’t a fluke that John hit that door first. He was a great athlete and would go on to play golf for an Oklahoma high school state championship team at College High School in 1976. John played quarterback on his sixth grade Limestone football team. The team practiced in the backyard of our coach and principal, Mr. George Tyner. George Tyner lived about a block southwest of our school and we geared up in the boys bathroom near the cafeteria, sneakers and jeans along with a jersey over shoulder pads and a helmet purchased at Curtis Sporting Goods. The store smelled of glove leather, tackily fresh basketballs and ode of liniment le’ tube sock. Cotton and polyester numbered jerseys hanging from round chrome racks created an athletic apparel browsing maze, a dreamy wonder to a kid who loved sports. The floors were old dusty hardwood wooden and my favorite item to browse was balls, Whiffle balls with holes on one side, Wilson footballs, Rawlings baseballs, Spaulding basketballs, Acushnet golf balls and Penn tennis balls. I wanted to buy one of each and stock my closet. Curtis Sporting Goods was the only place to buy certain things we didn’t talk about. A lad would walk in with his Mom and say, “Yea, ummm…I need one of those, ummm,” and a curmudgeonly, crusty gentleman I knew as Mr. Curtis (although I had no idea what his name was) the proprietor I assumed, who seemed woven into the fabric of the store would say, “Ya need a cup?” And the kid would nod rapidly as if quick acknowledgement would make the awkward moment go away. Curtis Sporting Goods Entry Terrazzo
And so armed with flimsy equipment, certain unmentionable protective devices and a boiled-in-water malleable mouthpiece, we walked double file across the stone and thorn laden playground west on Lincoln road to Mr. Tyner’s soft Bermuda backyard. We practiced there and played every football game away because we had no tackle-worthy field, ours being infested with goathead thorns and unforgiving spiked limestone.

We traveled to Highland Park, Lincoln (Boy’s Club field), Wayside, Ranch Heights and Wilson, every game as visitors, competing without a playbook. Mr. Tyner called each play in the huddle, schemes barely more complex than the finger drawn plays we famously drew in the dirt of our backyards. “Let’s go halfback dive to the right with L.L.” or “Davey, fake a sweep right and go flanker reverse handoff to Brent…on hut two boys, hut two now, remember the count.” The Wayside game was a one mile hike through the oil pumpjack fields strewn with namesake limestone and now occupied by the Park Place neighborhood and Jefferson as the main arterial road which translates roughly to the path we walked to play the game against Wayside. I vividly remember the Wayside game as a fiercely contested game against many of my buddies who lived nearby in the Wayside district. Mr. Tyner called my number on a flanker reverse and I took the handoff from Davey Davis and veered along the line looking for daylight. My next thought involved oxygen as in ‘get me some’ and the Wayside boys coming over and whacking a kid by the name of Pickles on the butt, congratulating him for cleaning my clock.
LImestone School Front Entry
The day I graduated 6th grade at Limestone School we had an assembly in the gym and I received a certificate telling me of my accomplishment. Despite the handicap of losing that graduation reminder, I have no trouble remembering my days at Limestone School. Those days were filled with good memories. Coke and Cake walks as we transformed the school into a Fall Carnival roaming from class to class, places of learning now festivals of fun staffed by our teachers and parents. My first crush on a girl and holding her hand made my heart race and my world stop. Mrs. Whitney’s flyback paddle with the red rubber ball removed as a means of deterrence applied to our derriere. Sitting on towels in Mrs. Brock’s kindergarten class in the little schoolhouse and easing into uni-desk/chairs listening to Mrs. Maurer, Mrs. Haines, Mrs. Solomon, Mrs. Karbosky, Mrs. Mayberry, Mr. Rapp and Mr. Tyner George Tyner teaching me more than just book learning…they taught me about fair play and discipline and service and sportsmanship…about how to live. I was lucky to have them as my first collection of teachers.

After the final bell graduation day, I wandered to the pick up zone for the bus kids to say goodbye not sure if we would still be friends again in that uncertain moment of graduation finality. Yellow buses were boarded and my friends were talking and laughing, unmoved by this watershed moment. Summer was here and it was time to move on to summer camp, pool parties and puppy love romance. A new school year awaited on the other side of summer and I would board a bus in late August with the other kids in my neighborhood. Our bus ride downtown to Central Junior High began a new era of lockers, specialized teachers, shifting classrooms, geometry, wood shop and American History. I watched the buses roll onto highway 75 and walked around the south side of the gym to the playground, then down the sidewalk and steps to the crosswalk on Nowata road. Crossing the highway at Mission Drive I walked north to my home without looking back. The final scene in the movie Stand By Me features Richard Dreyfuss tapping this line into a typewriter, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve.” I was unaware of that latent thought deep within my mind as I made that last walk home, a lingering solitary waltz, eyes down, scanning the pebbled salt and pepper asphalt. With apologies to Stephen King, I never had any friends and teachers later on like the ones I had when I was at Limestone School. I know what I was struggling to understand on that last walk home, looking back over my shoulder, finally, forty-two years later. limestone back gym

Limestone School part 4 sliding candy and crooked forks

Brach’s hard candy slid across the gleaming tile floors of the main hall at Limestone school like tiny hockey pucks propelled by the hand of Rusty the janitor who kept the cinnamon, butterscotch and peppermint treats in a coffee can in his supply closet. The pine scent floor polish and a strict discipline of machine buffing created a brilliant sheen enhancing the illusion that the candies in cellophane wrappers accelerated as they neared our greedy hands at the ends of the hallway north and south, where stairs descended to intersect another hallway running east and west at each end of the main hall. The stairs descended five steps to the lower level hallway, transforming kids into drooling goalies intent on saving the brittle candy from a shattering finish against the masonry wall of the lower hallway, an unforgiving backstop for the skidding candy. Diving headlong was normal practice, offering our fully extended bodies to the shiny tile floor in the name of whole candy preservation. Rusty was one part Santa flinging treats and one part angel in our pocket, always looking out for us, a caring custodial set of eyes keeping watch over the youngsters he knew by name. Rusty also knew most of the kids parents which was just another reason to walk the good walk, at least when he was in sight, although a few times he appeared out of nowhere and caught me red-handed, although grace was usually extended as far as I knew, and he never ratted me out to my folks. The world would be a better place if every kid had known a janitor like Rusty.

The raised cafeteria doubled as the stage at the end of the gym for assemblies and talent shows. There was a cold box in the corner at the top of the stair accessed by a sliding top door keeping the triangular milk cartons covered and chilled, though a blast of slightly sour milk greeted each nose as arms grasped down into the cold reservoir. Government-grade cheese and high calorie kid-comfort-food…corn dogs, meat loaf and pigs-in-a-blanket…slopped onto plates by vaguely familiar woman with spider-net hair who called us by name as if they were our personal institutional cafeteria aunts, filled our partitioned plates and our partitioned stomaches where the four basic food groups went to their digestive places awaiting nutritional instructions from the FDA.

My dread of drawing a crooked-tonged fork made me triple check my pull from the silverware tray. Our wariness to ridicule if observed eating with a crooked fork was mysterious, nevertheless, we resented the identification with the pontificating utensil which would result in this admonition, “Oooh, he has a Mayberry fork!” The infamous moniker was given to any battered and beaten fork with tongs that didn’t align due to said fork abusively being hammered into the table top to garner attention of unruly children. Urban legend informed our young conspiratorial ears that it was bad luck to dine with a Mayberry fork, and we had indeed seen with our keen eyes and heard with our attuned ears the crash of Mattie Mayberry’s fork on table top, reminding us of a scene from the Wizard of Oz. And so those crooked-tonged forks became anathema and we viewed them as glowing radioactive metal.

Limestone school was famous for having the only wooden floored gymnasium in Bartlesville among elementary schools. Pictured above is that floor during demolition. Once we went to play Highland Park 6th grade on their tile floored gym in an older building at a site now occupied by the Hampton Inn on highway 75. Early in the game, I launched a shot from the wing and my shot was rejected…by the ceiling. I looked over at my coach and principal, Mr. George Tyner and he shrugged and waved at me to keep playing, like that sort of thing happens often. After the game, Mr. Tyner told me that he learned how to shoot underhanded at an early age, because the ceilings were low. And I remembered that he would come into the gym after school final bell where I would often stay and shoot baskets. When he tossed one at the goal, it was always underhanded, so I knew he was not feeding me a story. I never questioned Mr. Tyner anyway. He was the first adult authority figure, outside my parents, with whom I felt total confidence and assurance that he had my best interest at heart. Mr. Tyner was part of my world for seven years and was a great model for me as my principal, coach and teacher.

One more story that originated in that gym.  On a cold winter morning in our sixth grade year, my best friend, Davey Davis, walked into the gym before class began. Since he never dressed in slacks and dress shoes as a matter of course, I said, “Hey, what’s up Romeo?” He said, “I’m going to David Leithead’s funeral.” David had fallen through pond ice and drowned. My friend was there and tried to help but they couldn’t save David. And so I’ve always refrained from asking people why they are smartly dressed, fearing the awkward moment when they reply, “I’m going to a funeral today.” Occasionally I slip and ask why an acquaintance overdressed in suit and tie, and they reply, “I’m going to a funeral today.” And I think of that small pond just east of Silver Lake Road and of David Leithead who never made it out of the fourth grade at Limestone School.

Limestone school part 3 a time to tear down and a time to build

When they tore down the limestone walls of my grade school in 2008 part of me came tumbling down into the Oklahoma dust. It was the part of my childhood that soaked into my pores through simple exposure to the cold hard stone, the sheer structural mass of those Limestone walls, along with the soft warm hearts of those who taught me grace and patience mentoring and teaching me for seven years. Through the dust and debris of the demolition I’ve recognized that both areas in my life, the hard law of truth standing sure like those stone walls, and the softer side of my humanity, love and mercy and grace, both came to me in wondrous moments in that spot now occupied by heaps of stone. Moments of grace, truth, doubt and wonder.  I still carry those moments with me…some longing for resurrection from the stone pile…others preferring to remain buried forever. Small moments in time: Sounds, sights, smells, tastes and feelings…a world of wonder, learning and hope tempered by a sense that life didn’t always treat everyone the same and nothing was guaranteed to be fair for me or anyone else. And so those moments washed over my adolescent soul in wondrous moments of hope and trembling times of fear and anxiety. As the Bible says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Here are a few memorable sounds from Limestone school.

The crushing violence of  a high speed collision, metal on metal, outside at the Limestone intersection of highway 60 & 75 before there was a traffic light and only stop signs cautioned drivers as accidents interrupted the melancholy quiet and boredom of early afternoon post-lunch sleepiness. Sonic booms from passing military jets punctuated our afternoon recess reminding us how small and insignificant we were. The rattling clatter of the film projector along with the voice over by the never-seen yet ever-present narrator who seemed to know just about everything from the orbital position of protons to the fastest mammal, the cheetah, and the largest, the blue whale. That guys voice lived inside my head as a constant academic arch angel sitting on one shoulder counterpunching the angel of skepticism sitting on my other shoulder. Those guys had many running battles on days like Earth day and Nuclear Safety Day and the days we toured places like the National Zinc smelters. The skeptical angel looked like Alfred E. Neuman, the cover boy of Mad Magazine, with big jug ears, a missing front tooth and one eye slightly lower than the other, mischief written all over his face. Those guys still sometimes balance on my shoulders, battles between orthodoxy and mischief, although the battle lines are askew and not always defined quite as elegantly as articulated by the velvety voiced narrator in the 8 mm films.

Limestone School part 2 paying attention to things we love

My 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Karbosky, brought a new element of deportment into my informal midwestern upbringing, an air of dignified carriage replete with reading glasses strung around the neck with a silver chain and an erect and sometimes stiff posture. It was my first brush with the imagined upper class whom I’d never met personally but had read about in books like the Great Gatsby. I didn’t know if Mrs. K had any money but was sure that the rich folk acted like her. My stern opinion of her softened one early spring day in 1969 shortly after my Grandpa Davis passed on. I had just come back to class the day after Grandpa’s funeral and she told me she was sorry about the passing of my Grandpa. She seemed a little more human to me after that, like she knew I had another life and a family outside her sterling little fiefdom of a classroom. Mrs. Karbosky was also famous for the expression she used to garner the attention of her class when they became a little too boisterous. She would say, “Class, I would like your undivided attention.” Which was certainly a new turn of phrase to me as I had never heard anyone talk that way nor had I ever attempted to divide my attention purposely, so, at a bit of a loss, she simply overwhelmed the 4th grade class by sheer force of intellectual elegance, which in hindsight was no great feat, but she scared me with her sophistication. And so as I approached her desk with my buddy Stan to ask if we could listen to the World Series between the Tigers and Cardinals in the autumn of 1968, I was frozen with fear of her belittling my desire to listen to a silly game. To my amazement she said yes and Stan Baughn and I huddled in the back of the class listening to Harry Caray and Jack Buck call the games as Gibson and Carlton dueled Lolich and McClain. During recess we took the transistor radio to the playground and turned it up and listened along with some of our buddies in between taking our turns at kickball or tetherball on the asphalt playground. On the day of game seven when Lolich would win his 3rd game against my Cards, I skipped on home after the 3:00 final bell to watch to last couple innings on our console television which rendered me inconsolable after the final out as the Tigers won the 1968 series. I wandered aimlessly out my front door crying and said the only thing that made sense to me…no, I screamed the only thing that made sense to me in my moment of despair. It was something Mrs. K would never approve of for it was filled with unbridled emotion and a certain lack of deportment. “I haaaaaate the Tigers.” I wonder if any of the neighbors heard?

Newtown

December 24, 2012

On December 14th, I wept for twenty six souls in Newtown, Connecticut. The despair I felt was a sense that we’ve lost control as a nation, abandoned universal morality for individual amorality. Have faith, hope and love, ancient words from ancient texts, devolved into hollow shells of confectionary meaninglessness? And then I remember that even those who trust in the ancient words of holy scripture find a sense of hopelessness embedded in the words of Ecclesiastes. “I saw the tears of the oppressed-and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors-and they have no comforter.”  Meaninglessness is not new. But it seems so new right now because this is the season of hope and hope is more difficult to grasp in the midst of our grief.

But why the senselessness and just where was the all-powerful God I believe in by faith and not sight? I don’t know…perhaps taking a cosmic nap? Or, the Creator of the universe watches with arms folded in a state of parental disbelief? Could it be that God is wracked in grief alongside us?

One day I’ll know with perfect clarity…but here is what I believe for now.
I live in a broken world. It’s the shallower, darker, hurting world that anticipates and longs for a better one. And for now heaven overlaps earth in moments of transcendent beauty while I await the purer, holy and radiant world that is to come. Those moments of overlapping transcendence where Jesus words, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven…” have revealed themselves in high definition images. Watching my bride walk down the aisle, seeing all three of my children for the first time at birth, watching my 99 year old grandmother take her last breath on this earth. Heaven can and does touch this dusty and sometimes dark world that is fraught with random acts of violence, in moments of clear wonder and transcendent beauty. And yet outside those moments of abiding truth and beauty, doubt lives and flourishes in the grip of evil and violence.
So…where was God?

Like Elvis, it does seem that God has left the building and we exist within the confines of a moral free-for-all. And then again maybe God was and is and always will be…at least that’s what Yahweh told Moses. “I am who I am.” He told Moses to tell the Israelites that this is my name forever, the name you will call me from generation to generation. God said I have a name, I exist, I was, I am, I will be, from generation to generation.

And so I wonder. Is this the better question? “Where was I when a disturbed, broken, hurting twenty year old kid lost all control and did the unthinkable?” Indeed, where was I?  At the office working too hard for things I don’t even need. I was at the gym getting in better shape. I was surfing the internet because I had nothing else to do. I was worshipping at church oblivious to those hurting outside my church walls. I was watching television three hours a day. I wasn’t paying attention to the broken and blind and crippled and hurting…the ones I stepped over as I went about my work each day. I still don’t know the answer to, “Where was God?” I only know where I was. God forgive me…and may the Almighty grant me the wisdom to refrain from cursing the darkness and the courage to light a candle.

Limestone School part 1 red tab levis and open mouth wonder

I was five years old as I headed across the undulating back lawns along the west side of Mission road headed to my kindergarten class at Limestone school. The smothering late August Oklahoma heat of 1964 dictated my dress, white riveted red-tab Levi’s and a red mock v-neck shirt. My head was shaved tight and I was fearfully instilled with a dread of barking dogs that lived along the east side of Mission road and so my route circumvented my worst fears as I made my way to the Nowata road school crossing. I would later take a more direct route to school after conquering my barking dog fears and have calculated that I made that two block stroll to school and back home 2,800 times. Which means that I’ve breezed through the stone lined hallways of Limestone School roughly 10,000 times. 

They demolished Limestone School in 2008 to make way for Armstrong Bank. The namesake native limestone rock was quickly reduced from structure to rubble creating pilgrimages to the debris pile by former students intent on collecting unwieldy keepsake paperweights.

I can remember all seven of my teachers from kindergarten through sixth grade. My 1st grade teacher was Mrs. Mattie Mayberry who inaugurated the WPA built version of Limestone school built in 1939 as sole teacher of that small school on the south edge of Bartlesville, OK. Mattie was pretty hard on me at times and I thought her to be older than the fossils I found etched into the limestone rock in the schoolyard. She once told me to, “Close your mouth Brent or a bug will fly down your throat.” She was a prophet…it happened one evening in the churchyard and I thought of her as I felt the winged creature hit the back of my gullet as I reflexively swallowed a moth whole.