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SIMPLE PLEASURES Ted Salins © 1999

Posted in Uncategorized on March 13, 2014 by Ted Salins


A breeze sweeps across the field. On the fifty yard line an honor guard stands three strong, in full regalia, with muskets and flags held upright. A loudspeaker echoes, “Will you please rise for the national anthem”. It seems half the population of Botetourt (pronounced Bot-Ta-Tot) County Virginia rises. There is a long silence.

The football field of Lord Botetourt high School lies at the bottom of a woodsy dell between two mountains and at dusk looks like the bottom a dark bowl. A velvety circle of darkening sky sits on top like a lid closing out the last strains of light. A railroad track rounds the oval at one end of the field and runs the length before disappearing off into the valley. But where is the national anthem? Silence. More silence. The crowd gets impatient. Then more silence.

The voice on the loudspeaker comes on again: “Well… everything is apparently ready for the national anthem except, it seems, the musicians”. Laughter. Then, suddenly, three disheveled teenage boys still buttoning and securing their band uniforms run onto the field towards the honor guard. One is still limping while pulling up his trousers; they all clutch cornets while trying to keep their hats from flying off. Finally, nervous, but in place, the three put the horns to their lips. Too late. Before they release a single note, a freight train circles the field drowning out the sound of the horns. If you came to this game to hear the national anthem, you went home disappointed.

You wonder why they ever built bleachers here. The hills surrounding the field provide a natural amphitheater. This is where the school’s students roam – the ones not on the team or marching band. Watching the game is the last thing on their minds. They are looking for dates or trying to show off new clothes. The bleachers are filled with parents and young children with hot dogs, popcorn and sodas.

This is the battle of the county’s only two high schools and the electricity in the air is discernible. In the first half, Lord Botetourt’s offence consists of rushing plays by the star quarterback. Apparently this team is short on receivers and running backs, but the quarterback is so multitalented he makes the team look dominant. James River’s game plan is to throw interceptions, perhaps in an attempt to wear down Lord Botetourt’s defense, then get some late scoring in the second half.

The half time show is breathtaking. James River Marching Band performs selections from Fiddler On The Roof. This is a major production. A set is constructed right on the field – a small Russian village. The women are dressed as little babushkas and the men carry rifles; but most conspicuous is an outhouse. Two fans in the crowd discuss the meaning of the outhouse. One says that since large sections of Botetourt are in Appalachia, the outhouse is a symbol of the common bonds of poverty in other cultures. The other agrees but feels the piece as a whole is an olive branch to the Jewish families (both of them) in the county. Either way, the kids are terrific, though off key and out of step. Equally as talented, and equally unable to keep a symmetric formation, the Marching Band of Lord Botetourt performs valiantly. Their program is called “Gino Vanelli: The Sound of Jazz”. I have only recently come to remember the singer of “I Just Want To Stop”, but that night I thought the announcer said there is a tribute to Dino Danelli, the flashy drummer of The Young Rascals. How the heck could anybody or any teenager in this rural outpost know who Dino Danelli is? Pretty obscure. A student conductor, a young girl of fifteen or sixteen, in the throes of womanhood, drops her cape midfield, strides to the post with her chin proudly up, climbs high above the others, waits a dramatic silent moment (demurely aware all eyes are upon her) and begins to flail her baton with an enthusiasm and speed for which stage frightened teenage band members are not prepared to march. I didn’t recognize the music and tried to make out “Groovin”. I thought maybe I heard strands of “Good Lovin’”. The band weaves and files in multiple formations as best they can but get tied up in knots along the way. One little fellow doesn’t move at all. He waits at the giant kettle drum, his eyes fixed on the conductor. Nothing is going to distract his concentration. He is the most serious musician on the field and this could be a big moment. He waits patiently, ready for his turn in the limelight. Finally, the flailing conductor turns to the boy and points her baton at him with a flick of the wrist. He pounds the kettle drum and makes thunder clap in the valley. The crowd is heady from excitement.

In the second half, James River, no match for Lord Botetourt, scores their only touchdown on a trick play – a bomb thrown by the halfback. This is the game’s most exciting play – that is, until Lord Botetourt’s halfback comes right back and launches a TD strike to the star quarterback (who has already run in four touchdowns).

I was raised in D.C. Small town life is alien to me; Richmond is the smallest place I ever lived. Perhaps I’m deluded, but I can’t remember having this much fun in the bars and nightclubs friends dragged me to in Manhattan last summer where everyone talked about how much money they make and how many hits their web site took. Last year I was in Big Sur teaching a workshop at Esalin Institute. At dinner one night I asked if anyone had heard if the Yankees had gotten into the World Series. There was a dead silence and one woman chastised me: “Oh. Are you one of those?” One of those what? Sports fans? East Coast meat eaters? Which “those” was she accusing me of being? Everyone was in concert with her on this point and I became the villain because of my baseball query.

On a football field, on a crisp September night, I watch James River High School lose gracefully to Lord Botetourt with a happy crowd enjoying the simple pleasures in life. I am one of “those”.

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MECCA Ted Salins (c) 1999

Posted in Uncategorized on August 24, 2013 by Ted Salins

On a recent trip to Atlanta, a friend and I took a pilgrimage to that holiest of American shrines, The Ebenezer Baptist Church. We got off the subway and walked through the Auburn neighborhood where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up and played as a child. We had to ask directions and everyone was more than pleased to show us the way. The neighborhood had seen better days but several of its old red brick factories were being renovated and a badly designed 1960’s high rise apartment project was empty, apparently waiting for the wrecking ball. Then we turned the corner and there it was – the blue sign above the entrance to the church. I wanted to see that sign all my life. To me it is a symbol of what the Founding Fathers intended the struggle for freedom to be in America. The Civil Rights Activists in the twentieth century put Democracy to its greatest test. Rosa Parks, Fanny Lou Hamer, and Martin Luther King Jr. belong in the history book illustrations right next to Madison and Jefferson.

This original chapel is being repaired and cleaned up as a national historic site (services are held in the new Ebenezer complex across the street). The renovated outside gleams, but inside, scaffolding is erected to repair decades old cracks and falling plaster. The tin ceiling is being replaced. Martin Jr.  honed his skills at Ebenezer, and tapes of his sermons are played from huge speakers on each side of the chapel. We sat in our pew enrapt, listening to King cajole the congregation: “The other day I was reading in this here Roget’s Thesaurus – you know that book that has all the synonyms and antonyms – and I looked up the word black.” He goes on to enumerate the negative uses of the word: “Morose, evil, dismal, depressed and – what’s this? –  Negro, African, colored, swarthy. When the stock market bottoms out it’s called a black day. If you got a member of your family who goes awry, he’s called the black sheep.” You hear the laughter in the background as King uses humor to disarm the congregation and make a point. You hear his fingers emphatically tapping the dais in stereo; his words bathe your ears like poetry: “Poverty is a lonely island of despair in a vast ocean of material wealth”. You imagine, with your eyes closed, that you are in the church that day and the cracks and fallen ceiling tiles disappear. His voice slides up and down the register like a violin. If nothing else, he was America’s greatest speaker. We sit there for an hour mesmerized, unable to get enough of his voice and message. I look back to the scaffolding on the balcony and two very rural looking white men – tin ceiling specialists imported from South Georgia – lovingly replace tiles. At the entrance I see a docent staring bemusedly at these four white people – two in the pews, two up on scaffolding – and her face says “We’ve still got a long way to go, but we have come a long way”.

When we finally get up to leave, that docent greets us in the lobby. She is Miss Shirley Barnhart and grew up a few blocks away. She recounts tales of the neighborhood and shows us pictures. One is a newspaper clipping from the New York Times of her and her sister as young girls singing in the choir behind the coffin at Martin Luther King Jr’s. funeral at Ebenezer. Miss Shirley is probably known by many prominent people, but certainly, by legions of tourists who get to meet her if they are lucky to be there when she is. She emphasizes that Martin Jr. was only an assistant Pastor in this church and that it was his grandfather and father, the Reverends A.D. Williams and Martin Luther (Big Daddy) King Sr., who reigned supreme around here for eighty one years. She takes delight in knocking Martin Jr. down a few steps, as if to tell her listeners “He was not the only one in this movement, least of all his daddy and granddaddy”. Auburn Avenue was an early centerpiece of Negro capitalism and “Big Daddy” recruited insurance salesmen as members and had them collect church fees while collecting premiums. He blended religion with financial empowerment and increased his church membership while supplying low premium insurance. The two senior Reverends were stern but used equanimity to forge a congregation knowing in the ways of faith, not afraid to stand up for their rights. It shows in the face of Shirley. These are people who interpret the good book for what it says: practice good works and love mankind. Twisting Bible passages to point fingers and wield anger is the opposite of Christ’s message of tolerance and has no place at Ebenezer.

We roam the neighborhood stopping first at Martin Jr.’s coffin publicly displayed in the middle of the block. We see the house he grew up in and visit the learning center where we see pictures of Rosa Parks and Coretta King uncharacteristically “dressed up”, looking quite pretty in gowns, drinking in the spirit of a party. We need to find a post office and we go, naturally, back to Miss Shirley. We go back and find Shirley several times. We ask her where to eat. “Oh that would be Beautiful”, she said, “It’s right across the street”.

Not The Beautiful, or Beautiful Restaurant – just “Beautiful”.

“Miss Shirley loves Beautiful”, a young woman in the Church bookstore said, “She goes there just about everyday”. We cross the street and feast on catfish, collards, macaroni and cheese, cornbread, lima beans. It is only later I discover, in an Atlanta guidebook, that the food at Beautiful is low in fat. You would never know it. A week later, at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, we think we see a 1960s photo of a strategy meeting of Movement leaders, King among them, sitting at the very table where we sat.

The King Memorial Site is not a museum. It is a neighborhood. You get to meet people who worshiped with and knew Martin, and fought for your civil rights. When we leave the Auburn Avenue area and head back to the futuristic towers of downtown Atlanta, we feel we have walked out of the twentieth century.

Ebenezer Baptist Church is at 407 Auburn Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30312; (404) 688-5001; http://www.ebenezer.org

SOCIALISM

Posted in Uncategorized on January 30, 2011 by Ted Salins

Ted Salins © 2011

Remember that first time you went home from college or the military? You couldn’t wait to see your mom, your friends, your hometown, your favorite hangouts. That’s how most Americans feel about our country. We love it for what it has been to us.

How many of you felt, “no, instead of going home for Thanksgiving, I want to go Moscow where I’ve never been, have no friends, it’s cold and I can march lockstep with Marxists and give up my freedoms.”

Can we stop demonizing a large percentage of Americans as Soviet style totalitarian socialists? This idea is illogical and absurd.  “Fidel Castro likes Obamacare, but the American people don’t” (Sarah Palin, CNN,  3/26/10);  “Most of the liberals I know want to live in a nanny state” (CSPAN caller) ; “Russia called, they want their socialism back” (Teaparty sign).

In other words, conservatives choose to work hard and take personal responsibility while those who disagree are  lazy and want to be fed and clothed by the government.

Think of twenty people you know. How many of them do not work hard? How many game the welfare system or attend Communist Party meetings? One? Two? None? Where are these lazy Trotskyites?  These accusations are specious: Those who claim Government meddling is “socialism” overwhelmingly voted for politicians who borrowed  money from Marxist China. Those that rail about “lazy” welfare recipients and brag about responsibility do not feel responsible to clean up man made pollution, whether it causes global warming or not.

Furthermore, it was a recent neo-conservative administration that subscribed to torture, passed off taxpayer paid propaganda as news, planted fake reporters in legitimate press corps, put undue pressure on scientists to manipulate research  and spied on the public through telephone lines – actions one can attribute to Soviet style totalitarian models. In another era, I was tear gassed and beaten with a club exercising my right to peacefully demonstrate against the war in Viet Nam. Who attending a “tea party” can say that? 

Recently, someone made the outrageous claim that “Obamacare” was “socialist” because it would deny breast exams for women until they were 50. I asked which specific provision in the proposals said this. In the time it takes to do a “Google” on his I-Phone, he came back with “It was at an HHS panel” (the source changed from a provision). I pressed, “When and where was the panel and who said it?” (I actually knew the answer). His response:  “I’m not your librarian. Do some reading. Don’t be lazy”.

Again, with “lazy”. This person makes a vague claim he did not take the time to justify, yet I’m lazy? Confucius said, “He who thinks he’s superior proves he’s not.”

Columnist and talk show host Mark Joseph asks, “Why is ‘Socialism’ such a dirty word? A government for the people by the people should banish all pejorative definitions of it.”  We have always socialized taxes, military, education, civic pride and protection.  That’s the responsible thing to do.

CAN WE DO BETTER?

Posted in Uncategorized on December 22, 2010 by Ted Salins

One of the three major cable “news” networks came on the TV screen. Under “BREAKING NEWS”, a banner with fast moving words flew by:

…the dismembered body. Police say the victim was hacked up and stuffed into a duffle bag……… In South Carolina an apparent suicide after teen sets himself on fire………New York: Boyfriend arrested for brutal murder of fashion designer girlfriend………Police say mutilated body found near Boston likely fell from airplane………Mortgage rates jump to six month high………

When I was a boy, breaking news meant President Kennedy got shot. Are these ticker tapes edited by morons? Does test marketing precisely calculate that this is how people want their breaking news?

Above two more banners with fast moving numbers, a talking head goes into great detail about the “Narnia” film franchise, the expectations of the investors, the poor showing of the second sequel, how was the target date decided for the new sequel and will it perform? She never mentions the content of the story or C.S. Lewis. The talking head she’s talking to then faces another camera  and announces that The United States is going to borrow 700 billion dollars  and needlessly give it to the already super wealthy.

Are we sure we know what we are doing? Two ill explained wars we can’t exit; Incivility and intolerance among Americans unseen since the 1960s. Yesterday a man stopped his car in the middle of a major intersection blocking all lanes of traffic in any direction; he was texting. Perhaps he was searching for the weekend boxoffice.

Can we do better? First, we need to find out: ………was the mutilated airplane victim near Boston an accident or suicide? Video after this (long) commercial break………