Sanity and Rationality in the Cuban Missile Crisis

October 22, 2017 – Fifty-five years ago today, President John F. Kennedy announced a quarantine of all ships approaching Cuban harbors.

He used the word “quarantine” advisedly because he was actually ordering a blockade of Cuba, which is an act of war. War would have triggered the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union. It wouldn’t have mattered that the U.S. arsenal was vastly superior to that of the U.S.S.R. There were enough nuclear weapons on both sides to obliterate life on earth.

I was 16 that dark Monday night when my family and I watched Kennedy’s ominous address. I assume most Americans who had a television were tuned in because White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger had announced the President would address the nation “on a matter of the highest national urgency.” That night at 6:30 p.m. Walter Cronkite couldn’t report all the news until the presidential address began. He started to end the CBS broadcast with his usual sign-off: “That’s the way it is.” But he stopped and looked directly into the camera: “Well, we’ll find out the way it is in a few minutes.”

President Kennedy, speaking calmly but firmly, announced the Soviet Union was installing offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba.

“To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated,” Kennedy said. “All ships of any kind bound for Cuba, from whatever nation or port, will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back.”

The line in the presidential address that frightened me the most was this:

“It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

It occurred to my uncompleted adolescent brain that we might be on the verge of extinction, but I wasn’t sure what that meant. We had read John Hershey’s Hiroshima in class and knew how devastating a single atomic bomb could be. But by 1962 the bombs had multiplied geometrically and were infinitely more powerful.  It was impossible to imagine the effect of all of them exploding simultaneously all over the world. No doubt everyone shared the thoughts of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara: “When I went to bed that night, I wondered if I’d wake up to see morning.”

We did wake up the next morning, but the crisis had deepened. My Dad and siblings and I prepared silently for school, where Dad was a business teacher. We were scared but silent. Dad may have been expecting the worst, but he tended to keep his anxieties locked up inside. Mom, who often talked about what worried her, was also mute.

In school I sat next to my friend Pam. “My mother didn’t get dressed this morning,” she whispered. “She just sits at the kitchen table in her night gown, listening to the radio and holding her head.”

I nodded. I could understand that.

In history class, Mr. Gourley – a World War II veteran like many of our male teachers – stood in front of the room and seemed to be studying our faces.

“I’ve had my life,” he said. “It will be too bad if you don’t get to have yours.”

He may have drifted into his lesson plan after that, but I don’t remember. I’ve remembered his opening sentence, word for word, for 55 years.

Throughout the next several days, most of us stayed close to our radios, which were the most convenient source of news. I remember John Steinbeck was asked how he learned he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. “I was turning on my radio to see if we were about to be blown up,” he said.

Even now, most people don’t know how close we came to being blown up in October 1962. Decades later, declassified documents revealed the Soviet nukes were armed and ready for use before the quarantine was announced, and Soviet colonels had been authorized to launch them at the first sign of a U.S. attack. President Kennedy’s more hawkish advisors, including Vice President Lyndon Johnson, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, urged an immediate airstrike of Cuba. Their bellicosity could have ended the world. No one will ever know if Soviet colonels, who, after all, were human with family and children at home, would have responded as ordered.

There are still hawkish historians who criticize John Kennedy for needlessly creating a military crisis that could have been addressed diplomatically and solving it by backing away from a brink of his own creation. But it was his caution and, to a great extent, his courage to resist the strident calls of his advisors to attack, that prevented a nuclear holocaust. And for that we can be thankful.

In 1962, there were many things I didn’t know. I didn’t know that my future wife, Martha, had already emigrated from Cuba with her parents and that her family was watching the crisis unfold from their five-story walk-up at 452 Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen. I didn’t know that many primos y primas I would come to love dearly were still living in Cuba and would have been among the targets of U.S. attacks. I didn’t know how close the future we built together came to never happening.

Happily, the Cuban missile crisis passed in 1962 and the world went on.

Fifty-five years later it’s impossible to reflect on that past without thinking of the nuclear threats that are now being hurled back and forth between the U.S. and North Korea.

In 1962, the two men in position to push the nuclear button – John F. Kennedy and Nikita S. Khrushchev – were sane and rational human beings.

I wish we could be more certain that the current nuclear jousters are sane and rational. Because, as we learned decades ago, sanity and rationality are important ingredients for keeping the planet alive.

And only sanity and rationality will assure we will never have to tell our grandchildren that we’ve had our lives. And it would be too bad if they didn’t get to have theirs.

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#IKnew

iknewagain

#MeToo.

The response of thousands of women to Harvey Weinstein’s serial abuse of females should come as no surprise to us guys. Harvey and his evil ilk are everywhere, and if we have not been him we quietly rolled our eyes and turned away when we saw him.

He exists in every strata of society, in our offices, in our factories, on our farms, in our schools, in our homes, and – God knows – in our churches. If you’re on social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, the number of women who said “#MeToo” because they have experienced harassment, sexual abuse, or rape may not have surprised you. But it was staggering to see who the women are: our wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, nieces, teachers, colleagues, neighbors, and pastors.

The #MeToo testimonies on social media – one woman posted #All Women as a corollary – were painful to read and guys like me squirmed uncomfortably as we looked for ways to respond. Bishop Robert Rimbo of the Metropolitan New York Evangelical Lutheran Synod posted, “I Believe You.” I have yet to see a guy post “#IDidIt,” and I’d like to believe that most men are not in the Harvey Weinstein category of chronic abusers.

But virtually all men should post #IKnew, because even when we were keeping our hands to ourselves, we knew what some of our brethren were doing.

#IKnew, when I was a student at Eastern Baptist College in 1969, that one of my fellow students, a future missionary, asked a Freshman girl out one night and forced her to have sex. She told her roommate, who told other students. “I was very disappointed in him,” one of my friends, a future clergyman, told me, and we shook our heads sadly. #We Knew. But we maintained the guy code of silence.

#IKnew in 1974, when I was editor of American Baptist News Service, that a high ranking Baptist executive had to be fired because he was a masher and a habitual grabber of women’s breasts. My bosses told me what to write in the press release: “He was so committed to his ministry that he is utterly exhausted and he needs to take a long rest.” #IKnew the truth, but I wrote the lie. Within months, the executives recommended the masher as pastor of a Baptist church. And within weeks he was assaulting women again, and the church fired him. Years later, a member of the church told me, “We never got over that. And we certainly never trusted the denominational offices again.”

In the 1980s, one of my male bosses died after a long, painful struggle with bone cancer. He had been a good teacher of writing about denominational politics, and I was sad to see him go. I called the woman who had been his secretary to give her the unhappy news.

“Oh!” she said. “I hated him! I know you liked him, but he chased me around my desk and couldn’t keep his paws off me. I hated him.”

I was dumbfounded. I thought of him as a sweet and nurturing old intellectual, but he had a shadow side I didn’t detect. And among the things I didn’t detect was that he created a painfully unsafe environment for one of my office friends.

#IKnew, also, that another high-ranking Baptist executive was known for inviting female colleagues into his office, where he would proposition them. One of the man’s staff subordinates confronted him and told him the behavior must stop. But it didn’t stop, and the man was allowed to ease into a comfortable retirement, where he remained active in Baptist activities.

Throughout the years, #IKnew men who were flirtatious with women but didn’t cross what they (and I) considered to be “the line.” No doubt many of the women considered the line crossed, because flirtatious and suggestive banter can be very uncomfortable.

One of the complicating factors in the Harvey Weinstein syndrome is that God created animal magnetism and bestowed it on all of us. Sexual attraction is not only necessary for human reproduction but its pleasure is also a gift of God. Sexual desire is the initial glue of committed relationships and it can also bring couples closer to God. Just as Olympic runner Eric Liddell said he could feel God’s pleasure when he ran, so, too, can God’s intense joy be experienced in the orgasms lovers share.

Even when we lust only in our hearts, as when our eyes discretely follow an attractively lithesome form on television or on the street, we feel pleasure. I can enjoy my spouse’s enthusiastic appreciation of Idris Elba and she will make sure I’m not dozing when Beyoncé appears on late night television. There is no rule preventing any of us from covertly admiring the earthly delights of another human being.

But there are limits to that, and when the line is crossed, it’s usually by us guys. In her #MeToo testimony on Facebook, one clergywoman told of entering a room filled with male clergy. She might have expected to be greeted collegially by her professional co-workers, and no doubt most of the men regarded her with respect. But one looked at her and exclaimed, “Delicious.”

That was a line crossed. The man may have thought he was offering a compliment, but he created an uncomfortable situation that automatically objectivized the woman in the presence of her peers.

I suspect much of the harassment experienced by women is from wolf-whistling men who think they have the right to shout crude compliments at them, in private or in public. I don’t know what can be done to stop men from saying dumb sexist shit, especially if their parents never got around to teaching them to keep their mouths shut and their hands to themselves.

But one of the jarring lessons of the #MeToo movement is that it shows us – as if we guys didn’t already know – how prevalent are the Harvey Weinsteins in our culture.

And one of the reasons they are free to prowl is that other men – those who, due to introversion, or age, or strong mothers, only lust in our hearts – know about it but remain silent.

Clearly the time for silent acquiescence is over, guys. If we see harassment or abuse, we should say something. We should have the balls to look the dude in the eye and say, #IKnow. And it has to stop.

#IKnew. #WeKnew

And we have been silent too long.

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John Woolman, the Great Muslin Hope

John_WoolmanOctober 19, 2017 – John Woolman, the itinerate Quaker mystic who spread his peaceful witness throughout Colonial New Jersey in the mid 18th century, was born 295 years ago today.

Woolman became one of my heroes when I was a student at Eastern Baptist College (now Eastern University), 1968-71. I began classes as a recently discharged veteran of the Air Force but soon began to feel the Vietnam War was a hideous mistake by America’s best and brightest politicians, and an immoral travesty by the presidents who refused to stop it.

I became active in the peace movement and spent hours exploring pacifist ideas with Professor John L. Ruth, a Mennonite minister. One afternoon, John handed me his first-edition copy of John Woolman’s Journal. It was a loan, he said. “I know you’ll treat it gently.”

It was not easy reading because the pages were yellowed, the letter s was stylized f, and the ancient binding made crinkling sounds when I cradled it. But I turned each page with extreme gentleness and read the journal in one night.

No book I read at Eastern had a greater impact on me. Woolman, committed to Christ’s command to love God and neighbor, swore he would never do harm to any living creature. He adjured carriage drivers to treat both their horses and their African coachmen with kindness. He walked in friendship with indigenous peoples in New Jersey. And he was an early abolitionist.

As a notary public, he refused to notarize wills if they included slaves as property. An excerpt from his journal:

A person at some distance lying sick, his brother came to me to write his will. I knew he had slaves, and, asking his brother, was told he intended to leave them as slaves to his children. As writing is a profitable employ, and as offending sober people was disagreeable to my inclination, I was straitened in my mind; but as I looked to the Lord, he inclined my heart to His testimony. I told the man that I believed the practice of continuing slavery to this people was not right, and that I had a scruple in my mind against doing writings of that kind; that though many in our Society kept them as slaves, still I was not easy to be concerned in it, and desired to be excused from going to write the will. I spake to him in the fear of the Lord, and he made no reply to what I said, but went away; he also had some concerns in the practice, and I thought he was displeased with me. In this case I had fresh confirmation that acting contrary to present outward interest, from a motive of divine love and in regard to truth and righteousness, and thereby incurring the resentments of people, opens the way to a treasure better than silver, and to a friendship exceeding the friendship of men.

I will always wonder what it was about Woolman that people found so persuasive. I was used to the concussive debates of the sixties and seventies when we tended to shout at persons who disagreed with us, never expecting to convince them. But Woolman spoke with gentle persuasion and people generally saw he was right.

Incredibly, he could walk into a raucous New Jersey pub, preach about the evils of rum, and convince both the pub crowd and the pub owner that he was right. “When men take pleasure in feeling their minds elevated with strong drink,” he wrote in his journal, “and so indulge their appetite as to disorder their understandings, neglect their duty as members of a family or civil society, and cast off all regard to religion, their case is much to be pitied.” It’s a mystery – and perhaps a miracle – that Woolman was not simply thrown out on his head.

Woolman was eccentric in the extreme. He discovered that the harsh chemicals used to blacken men’s coats were blinding the slaves forced to do the dyeing. He couldn’t convince his fellow Quakers to stop dyeing their clothes, but he refused to do it himself. He wore white muslin clothes as traveled around Colonial New Jersey, snow time or mud time.

That is the image of Woolman I have carried in my head since I returned his journal safely to John Ruth’s keeping. He must have cut a comical figure when he arrived in meeting houses and pubs, wrinkled, yellowed, and stained with soot and sweat.

But it seems unlikely anyone laughed because most people quickly figured out that John Woolman was a prophet in their midst. He’s one of the unsung heroes of U.S. history, and I wish more people would sing about him.

Nearly two-and-a-half centuries since he passed from the American scene, I’d love to see his loving, peaceful spirit, rumpled jacket and all, returning to speak wisdom and nurture to our bitterly divided country.

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The Day I Was a Lazy, Filthy Fogger

foamyThe memory had been lost for fifty years in the dim recesses of my hippocampus. This morning a little dab of shaving foam dislodged it.

There it was, dangling defiantly from the plastic red spigot of my foamy shaving cream can. I gasped and knocked the can into the sink.

It’s not the worst memory I’ve blocked, and now that I’m revisiting it in daylight, in seems relatively harmless. But it’s clearly the source of more than one of my neurotic habits.

The memory dates back to an incident in basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in September 1964.

Our World War II vintage barracks were open-bay with rows of GI bunk beds lined up in precisely measured formation. The beds were covered with olive green GI blankets pulled tightly into hospital corners. The blankets were hardly necessary in the stifling summer heat of San Antonio, but we were required to sleep beneath them anyway.

Most of our earthly possessions were neatly organized in footlockers at the foot of the bed. By neatly, I mean in military fashion. Boxer shorts, T-shirts, and black socks were tightly rolled in rows. Shoe polishing rags were also rolled, and toiletries – safety razor, toothbrush, toothpaste, and a can of shaving cream – were fastidiously cleaned after each use. The shaving cream can had to be dismantled at the nozzle to remove excess lather so it wouldn’t dribble out.

But sometimes the cans dribbled anyway.

Each morning the TI’s – training instructors – conducted a full inspection of our personal areas. The beds had to be firmly made, shoes shined, uniforms clean and hung precisely on a rack, and foot lockers immaculate.

Dressed in white baggy boxers and T-shirts, we’d stand nervously at parade rest while the TI, scowling disapprovingly, would move among the beds.

A1C Elihu Ellefson, a tall, blond, foul-mouthed TI, opened my footlocker and peered in. It looked perfect to me.

But Ellefson reached in, rudely dislodging rows of socks and underwear, and pulled out my shaving cream can. A tiny blob of cream was attempting to escape from the spout.

“What the fog is this?” he asked shrilly, pushing the can onto my nose. (Of course, he didn’t say “fog,” but I decline to use Norman Mailer’s 1946 transliteration “fug.”)

I was silent.

Ellefson glared at me censoriously. He up-ended my footlocker and poured the contents onto the floor. Boxers unraveled among socks and rolled away. My toothbrush clattered on the linoleum, and my safety raiser made a snapping sound. Ellefson picked up the offending can and, staring at me, spewed shaving cream onto the remaining contents of my locker.

“Jenks,” he said, “The only thing I hate more than a lazy fogger is a filthy fogger.”

I was silent. After Ellefson left, I picked up my locker and its contents and went into the latrine to remove the foam and put everything back into GI order. One of other trainees followed me in to commiserate.

“Geez, too bad,” he kept saying. “What a dick.”

Of course, Ellefson was not supposed to be popular with the trainees, and most of us hated him. In 1964, he used racial and ethnic slurs freely, including the N word, and he seemed particularly punitive with Jews. I’m not sure why that was, unless he was angry with his parents for naming him Elihu.

No other GI in our training flight had his footlocker tossed. No doubt Ellefson felt the point had been made.

And, looking back, having one’s footlocker tossed is not a big deal. It probably pretty much of a universal experience for basic trainees in all branches of the service.

Even so, I’m curious about whatever happened to Ellefson. I don’t hold any grudges against him, beyond the fact that he was a racist, homophobic, anti-Semite.

But it was clearly Ellefson who made me mildly obsessive with my personal hygiene habits over five ensuing decades, a habit I may have passed along to some of my children.

And I’d like to thank the son of a bitch.

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When Uncle Frank Jenks out-acted Raymond Massey

cantreadmylinesME TV (Memorable Entertainment Television) is one of several networks catering to Boomers by broadcasting reruns of 1950s and 1960s era TV programs we loved.

Sometimes I think it would be kinder if they left some shows to our fading memories. If Perry Mason or The Beverly Hillbillies were not as brilliant as we remember them, what does that say about us? That we were not as sophisticated about popular culture as we thought?

I tended to favor westerns when I was growing up. I still enjoy watching The Rifleman Chuck Connors brace his 44-40 Winchester into his hip and blaze away at an unseen target (this is the early sixties so we’re not supposed to see this as an erotic metaphor). I love listening to Richard Boone quote Shakespeare or Euripides as he outdraws the menacing bad guy and climbs on his horse to serenely ride away, a weekly scene on Have Gun, Will Travel. I can even get through the first twenty minutes of Gunsmoke without switching to CNN.

But my favorite western was Wagon Train. And it is Wagon Train that I wish METV had left unmolested on the shelf. Each rerun has been a painful disappointment.

The weekly show dramatized the adventures of a wagon train traveling from Missouri to California.  It featured Ward Bond (Bert the cop in It’s a Wonderful Life and Rev. Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton in The Searchers) as wagon master Major Seth Adams, and Robert Horton as scout Flint McCullough. Bond was one of those character actors who played his craggy self in hundreds of roles, and Horton was the show’s pretty face, so neither of them was called upon to actually act.

Each episode featured a guest star famous enough to give the show heft and attract viewers. Over the years they included Dan Duryea, George Gobel, Joan Blondell, Gloria DeHaven, Ernest Borgnine, Annette Funicello, and Charles Laughton. Few of them appeared to take their roles seriously, and Laughton – playing a mean-spirited British officer – seemed to be reprising his Captain Bligh pouts from Mutiny on the Bounty.

RayMasseyasMontezumaBut the distinguished actor who did the worst job was Raymond Massey, although it probably wasn’t his fault. Massey, who was nominated for an Oscar for his 1940 portrayal of Abe Lincoln in Illinois, was assigned the silliest role of his career: Montezuma IX, complete with an ornately feathered Aztec crown and a garish Aztec royal robe.

In Wagon Train’s sixth episode of its fourth season, the story line finds Flint McCullough leading a four-man party searching for the father of one of the riders. They encounter – inexplicably it would seem – an Aztec princess from a lost remnant of a tribe that has been extinct for 400 years. Princess Lia is played by Linda Lawson, the only member of the cast still alive, and the role requires little of her but to maintain a blank face and speak in etherial monotones. Since Lawson has continued acting for decades after this role, she must have been capable of a wider emotional range than was permitted by the script or by Wagon Train director Richard Whorf.

As the story progresses, Flint McCullough falls improbably in love with Princess Lia, despite her wooden demeanor and dazed expressions. Their love is star-crossed because Lia is to be sacrificed to an Aztec God, a fate she accepts with stoned stoicism. When Flint finds out about it, Robert Horton’s limited acting range is harshly exposed:

“You were born to live a full life, to know the love of a man, to bear his sons,” he pleads, flatly and unconvincingly. “Everything that I am and everything that I feel and believe demands that I stay here and fight for you.” But when Lia insists she must die “for the greatest good,” Flint needs little persuading to high-tail it out of there.

But the award for the most excruciating performance in the episode belongs to Massey, who must feel as ridiculous as he looks in his feathered crown and gilded frock. The only emotion he betrays is suppressed embarrassment, and when the role calls upon him to show anger he must be motivated by an urge to strangle his agent. Massey seems to be reading his lines from a cue card, and he sounds painfully aware of their inanity (“You and your party enter the gates of Tenochtitlan favored by the gods. We are honored by your presence and it is our heartfelt wish that happiness attend you each day you stay with us …”

In my opinion, the most stellar performance in the episode belongs to Frank Jenks, a busy but fairly obscure character actor of the 1940s and 1950s. METV viewers can catch Frank, a distant relative of mine, on reruns of Perry Mason, The Adventures of Superman, and various TV oaters, usually playing a bartender, a con man, or a petty hood. Curiously, his role in this episode of Wagon Train is utterly superfluous. I can only surmise that the director saw him as a Greek Chorus commenting on the action.

Uncle Frank plays a character named Carl “Dutch” Anders, described by Flint McCullough as a man “available for almost any job for almost any money.” But as the four-man party embarks on its search Frank is called upon to use his nasally voice to set the mood for the episode: “I’m sorry I took this job. I’ll swear I felt eyes on the back of my neck all afternoon.”

When Flint discovers Princess Lia of the Aztecs along the trail, Frank utters a necessary warning: “The Aztecs made human sacrifices didn’t they?”

Later, when the search party is led into the re-fabricated city of Tenochtitlan, Frank is called upon to exchange incredulous glances with his fellow actors as Massey’s Montezuma proclaims the interlopers as messengers of the gods. “We’re not messengers of the gods,” Frank complains undiplomatically. “We’re a searching party. We’re from a wagon train. Were on our way to California.”

Frank’s longest speech is a dialogue with Flint McCullough on the second day of their stay in Tenochtitlan:

“Someone washed my clothes while I was lulling in my marble bed. I never took a marble bath in in my life before.” He picks up a small artifact and tests its weight. “Solid gold, Take it from me those jewels aren’t glass. There’s a couple of pieces in my  room too. They’d make nice souvenirs don’t you think? What do you think? You haven’t said a word. The old man sure talks a lot of mumbo jumbo doesn’t he.”

Flint dissuades Frank’s character from grabbing souvenirs, and in a later scene Montezuma explains to the visitors that gold has little value in Tenochtitlan. “You mean a man  is poor if he has gold?” he exclaims to the emperor. “You sure out of touch with the world.” I suspect that was intended to be a profound insight, and Frank pulls it off with aplomb.

That’s the last time we see Frank in this ridiculous episode, which ends with Flint’s unconvincing melancholy over his lost love. More likely he dodged a bullet. At least he will not be spending the rest of his life with a catatonic woman in an emotionless trance.

This episode may well be the worst Wagon Train ever produced. But, for me and other Jenkses and Jenks relatives, it has some redeeming value.

This is the episode in which Frank Jenks acted circles around the great Raymond Massey.

It suggests to me that Frank could have gone much further than he did, if casting directors had given him half a chance. I can’t see him as Abe Lincoln in Illinois, exactly. But I can easily see Frank Jenks as Adam Trask, bringing James Dean to tears in East of Eden.

But regardless of Frank’s presence, was Wagon Train really as bad as all that?

I invite nostalgic boomers to judge for themselves:

 

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Dick Gregory, October 12, 1932 – August 19, 2017

Dick_Gregory_2015
Dick Gregory was a lean, mean running machine in 1974 when he came to the first annual Communication Center at Green Lake, Wis.

The Center was a week-long seminar in interfaith communication planned by the American Baptist Division of Communication, then headed by Norman R. DePuy. The speakers who addressed the conference that week were stellar in their own rights, including editor Norman Cousins, pop-anthropologist Ashley Montague, George Gerbner, legendary chair of the communications department at the University of Pennsylvania, and NAACP head Benjamin Hooks.

All of these luminaries stayed in the Green Lake Center’s elegant but rickety Roger Williams Inn, where the ancient elevator doors clunked open with (in Montague’s words) “the thud of an atomic bomb.” Montague, an elegant Brit who was famous for occasional appearances on the Johnny Carson show, exposed his bony white knees between the hem of his yellow Bermuda shorts and black knee socks, and he was a pain in the neck to the Center organizers. He was an avowed Unitarian who hated the Roman Catholic Church and frowned condescendingly at the Protestant Christians who came to the Center, “The only time I hear Jesus Christ’s name in my church,” he proclaimed in his opening lecture, “is when the janitor falls down stairs.”

Cousins and Hooks, fortunately, were charming and accessible to all attenders. Gerbner cheerfully accepted the uneven surface of the Green Lake tennis courts, saying they were useful lessons for life: “You never know where the ball will bounce.”

But it was comedian and social activist Dick Gregory whose presence was remembered by most. In the summer of 1974, Dick was running from coast to coast to express his opposition to the Vietnam War. He agreed to come to Green Lake if the organizers would allow him to run when he wasn’t making speeches, and that’s how I remember him: brief glimpses of a skinny, sweating, bearded man running quickly through crowds, often accompanied by teen-ager Scott Waterston, the son of one of the Baptist organizers.

But Gregory never refused to stop and talk with people, and he was generous with his autographs. His humor was always present and occasionally cutting. One day the staff was meeting in the canteen, a small snack shop at the rear of the Roger Williams Inn, and Gregory walked in to ask for water. He had removed his running shoes, which created a dilemma for the young woman at the cash register. “I’m sorry,” she said with adolescent firmness, “you can’t come in here without shoes.”

“What?” Gregory said, stifling a smile.

“You can’t come in here without shoes.”

Gregory quickly surveyed the small crowd in the canteen and raised his voice. “JESUS wouldn’t be allowed in here,” he announced loudly. But he stepped outside obediently and slipped into his shoes.

Dick Gregory’s keynote address was brilliant and full of famous lines from his public appearances. “I was told, ‘We don’t serve colored people in here,’ and I said, ‘That’s okay, I don’t eat colored people.’” And, “These big white guys surrounded my table and said, whatever you do to that chicken, we goin’ to do you. So I kissed it.”

Not everything Gregory said was scientifically substantiated, including his assertion that feeding cows milk to human babies was the underlying cause of sudden infant death syndrome. But his social observations were usually insightful and always wise.

During the question and answer session following his evening speech, Dick asked for water and sipped from a cup while responding thoughtfully and humorously to each question. As the hour grew late, Division of Communication staffer Milt Ryder, who was presiding over the session, announced there would be time for one more question. The question came, Gregory answered it thoughtfully, and turned to Milt for the adjournment.

But before Milt could get to the microphone, Phil English, an African American pastor, stood to be recognized. Milt looked awkwardly from English to Gregory and back to English.

After a few seconds of enjoying the awkwardness, Gregory intervened.

“Don’t worry, Brother,” he told English. “No way these folks will dare tell you to sit down.”

There were other communications centers at Green Lake, and later gatherings in Mississauga, Ontario, and Valley Forge, Pa. None of them quite matched the power and eloquence of the first one in 1974.

Years later I  ran into Dick Gregory by chance, some time in the early nineties. He and I found ourselves on the same commuter plane, probably en route to Philadelphia. His beard was longer and almost white, but he was still lean and his eyes still studied his surroundings to search for irony. As we were shuffling off the plane, he noticed I had recognized him.

Twenty years earlier we had been in daily contact for a week at Green Lake, and he seemed to be studying my face. Perhaps, I thought, he might actually recognize me.

Whether he did or not, he smiled and nodded. “Hello, bro-ther,” he said.

I smiled back and grasped his hand.

That was the last I saw of Dick, but the impression I had of him during these fleeting encounters never dimmed.

He was a great and a good man, and he will be missed.

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Smoke Signals to Eleanor

19732277_10210159996176119_6473011920983640967_nThanks to daughter Lauren Jenks for uncovering this long-lost response from Eleanor Roosevelt, pasted 55 years ago in a book to keep it safe.

The topic was an interview I conducted with her through the mail. The elaborate adolescent signature to the right is my own.

“Smoke Signals” was the mimeographed student newspaper of Morrisville-Eaton Central School. We justified the columns (making them flush on the left and the right) by typing slash marks at the end of each column. The slash marks were counted by the typist so he or she would know how many spaces to add between words so the right-hand column would be even. It was crude, but I have an idea Mrs. Roosevelt didn’t mind.

The back story of the exchange with Mrs R. is here.

The older I get, the more incredulous I am that this towering figure of the 20th century took the time to sit down at her typewriter to craft such thoughtful answers. Did she ever let a letter go unanswered?

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