Friday, September 30, 2005

Real and Imagined Horror in the News

Horror stories from New Orleans have been reported by news media. Tales of rape and murder and tens of thousands of dead bodies appeared frequently. These were not true stories but they exposed many in the media for what they were thinking, or for what they wanted to believe.

For one thing, such stories fitted an unfortunate pattern news media people seem carry around. It is that "This is what black people do." Pure racist baloney. The folks caught up in the hurricane in New Orleans were, for the most part, just hard-working, God-fearing people like almost everybody else. It appears that to the media, they were Southerners (horrors!), some were black (don't know any better!) and poor (probably stupid). Therefore, the horror stories were not checked for reality. They were just reported as true.

Recently, some newspapers began to chide other media people for their sloppy work (but not their assumptions).

Why did media people want the outlandish stories to be reinforced and reported? Many in the media were trying to make the Washington, D.C. administration look bad. They actively support an opposing political platform. There is the mental pattern among them that "everybody knows" the people in Washington do not care about its poor citizens. Well, at least the media know that, if not quite everybody else.

I hope people have figured out by by now that many media people have an agenda underlaid by false assumptions.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Planning for Grandchildren

One of the stories I told seventh graders had to do with names. That is, I warned them to start determining now the name they wanted their grandchildren to call them. And it was good advice. When I was first faced with the challenge, I was far too young to be a grandfather. So when the little guys would call me granddad, I would yell at them, "Uncle, darnit!"

It wasn't long before they began addressing me as "Uncle Darnit."

Well, maybe I didn't always say, Darnit." And maybe their mothers got after me. But I was happy.

Anyway, it didn't last. Somehow it was all perverted and now I am known simply as "Granddad," or "Uncle Granddad."

I was young and stupid and I didn't plan for the important things. Nobody warned me. I hope my former seventh grade students will be ready when their time comes.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Broken Bags in New Orleans

In my August 25 post to this blog, I talked about how my mother a white woman, reflexively helped a black woman in 1939 whose grocery bag broke, causing many small items to spread over the sidewalk in front of our house. As a curious seven year-old,I asked Mother why she bothered to help somebody's servant. Mother summed up a huge amount of Southern Baptist theology with the statement, "Her bag broke." That day I learned a broken bag trumped all sorts of social systems.

As I wrote the post, I had no idea that a huge bag was to break in the Gulf Coast in a couple days. But it did and places like New Orleans were heavily ruined by a hurricane. Sixty-six years after my mother's demonstration of concern, millions of people heard about the problems of folks on the Gulf Coast and went to work, helping them with their "broken bag." Some took in the homeless, fed them and gave them clothing. Others, living far away, contributed what they had, from food to clothing to money. Sometimes all three. Especially all three.

Contributors did not ask recipients what their skin color was, they just gave what they could. This of course, was bad for those who make their money from racism because it put to the lie many things they had been saying. Bags of racists may be broken, but frankly, I don't care.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Real "Man without a Country"

Most people know him as "The Copperhead," the leader of the Democratic "peace" party during the Civil War. As a fiery, handsome Democratic congressman from Ohio, Clement Laird Vallandigham, was fairly untouchable. Republican President Lincoln was not likely to arrest a U.S. Congressman in 1863. But when Clement lost a close election and was an ordinary citizen, Lincoln's bully boy, General Burnside, had him arrested as a civilian and tried by a military tribunal. He was found guilty, and then the tribunal convened.

The appropriate penalty for a Northerner opposing the Civil War was, of course, death. But Clement was far too popular to kill, so he was shipped out of the U.S. to Confederate lines. The Confederates knew Clement wasn't one of theirs, so they told him, in effect, to get out of the way. Clement took his case to the Supreme Court where the justices weaseled out with circular reasoning that would only work well in a spring factory. But they did not set this conviction aside. (Many of our problems with Islamic prisoners today stem from this and similar cases during the Civil War).

Working his way into Canada, Clement decided to run for governor of Ohio. He did and was winning when Lincoln's group hatched a plan to de-rail his campaign right before the election. A minister named Hale was to write a story about a man who damned his country and was exiled for it. He and the chief editor of Atlantic Monthly, a man named Fields were to produce the story in an issue that was to come out just before the election. It was designed to embarrass Clement. The story was the famous "The Man Without a Country."

It appears that Hale did not get the story to Fields in time so it failed to appear until December, well after the election. It also appears that soldiers in Ohio from other states suddenly decided to vote in the Ohio election, perhaps on orders from above. Many more votes were cast in the election than there were voters that year, and Clement lost.

In fairness, readers should know that Clement was my first cousin, several times removed. But I did not make up the story. It has been often documented by others and is often carted out as a weird footnote on history. And President Lincoln did not focus solely on Clement; historians report that over thirteen thousand civilian men (mostly in Northern states) were tried by the same military tribunals and put in prison.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Relative Beauty

We often look to the "beautiful people" for leadership. There are several for each decade. And some of them, often high school dropouts, are movie stars who decide to become experts in politics or weather or atomic energy or medicine. A few people take them seriously.

Many years ago I heard a man give a speech. He was not one of the beautiful people. He wasn't even ordinary-looking. He was truly ugly. Deformed from birth, he was small and twisted. His voice was high and thin. Strangely, children were not frightened by his appearance; they flocked to him.

I believe his name was Dr. Chester Swor. I don't recall Dr. Swor today because he was deformed. I remember him because of what he said. His talk was about love and hope and mercy. Of all the people I have seen, this one man had the greatest reason to be bitter and angry. Yet, he was concerned about others. He was immensely popular.

Beauty seems to be relative.

Monday, September 12, 2005

That Guy Can't Write!

I used to tell students in middle and high schools that before I went to college I would worry because I could not understand what some books were trying to tell me. I felt dumb. After graduate school I would read a few pages of a book, and if I did not get the meaning, I would put the book down and say, "That guy can't write!"

"Educators," I explained further, "are some of the worst writers in the world. So, if you do not understand a textbook right away, it might not be your fault."

If I got no other value from my college work, I got that very good understanding.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Keeping School Kids Safe

As a substitute teacher with several years' experience, I developed a sixth sense for danger on the 850 student campus for a local middle school where I often taught. Of course there were fire drills and city-wide earthquake disaster drills and even "man on the campus with a gun" drills. The kids were really good and knew what to do.

Once I was teaching when an actual fire occurred! Police sirens were screaming and fire engines were trucking up to the school while the kids were filing out of classrooms. Was there any hurry or anxiety on the part of students as smoke poured out of one of the rooms? Not a bit. They were bored as usual, because fire drills had become another rote experience. The fire was small and we were soon back in classes.

Then there came a day when something occurred that we had not experienced before. Yes, we were prepared for guns, knives, or worse, a person carrying a Bible. But not this: a mother in a new car she couldn't control, drove at a fast speed through the parking lot onto the lawn area and rammed the car into the solid brick wall of a library. Three eighth-grade girls were standing in the path of the car. It hit one of the girls and smashed her leg off above the ankle. Another sub administered first aide while I directed traffic around the scene while we waited for an ambulance.

We adults spent a lot of time protecting the kids and watching for problems. Especially where young girls are concerned. When a serious problem occurs, we are not always emotionally ready for it. Some of the teachers fell apart and had to go home. I wasn't in the falling-apart mode, but I was plainly upset. However, the bulk of the students were very practical and we did not have to close down the school. Oh, several friends of the injured girl had to go home. They were emotional wrecks.

A couple of months later, the brave girl was back at school, minus the lower part of her leg and weak from internal injuries. She continued her studies and slowly the matter was forgotten. Except for me. I will never forget. In the back of my mind, I think I might have been able to do something to protect that girl from the car.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Disaster Planning and Dumb Luck

Every city has a disaster plan. At least they say they have one. With this in mind, the incompetence of the leaders of the cities in the hurricane-swept areas surpasses all expectations (and mine were fairly low).

As the one-time disaster coordinator for a small company (under 100 million in sales), I have some experience from which to make observations. We had four major locations. Each had a computer that was interconnected with the other three at its manufacturing or warehouse site. What kinds of concerns did we have to worry about? One was that headquarters was on the flight path of low-flying jet planes that landed a a fair-sized airport. Another concern was that the Toronto installation was near an atomic energy facility which could release radioactive particles in the air, or worse. A third was that trucking strikes could shut us down. A fourth was that the wipeout of certain bridges on main highways could easily close down one or two facilities. A fifth was that a digging machine could easily break a fiberglass cable anywhere in this country or lower Canada and shut down the computers.

The list goes on and on. We developed contingency plans for each potential problem as we uncovered it. And we distributed the plans to each affected area of the company. Of course, problems did occur and we were able to cope with them.

One disaster occurred that we did not count on. It wasn't our disaster, it was our competitor's. He fired all his manufacturing staff suddenly and moved his manufacturing facility about a thousand miles away. We responded with a massive increase in inventory because we knew he wouldn't be able to provide items for delivery for six months. It turned out to be a year, but we were ready.

No amount of planning makes up for dumb luck.

The leaders of cities and towns and counties and even states that were affected by Hurricane Katrina did not find any dumb luck. They appeared to have blundered into a very bad situation with a very good plan but no execution. Unless, of course, they planned to do nothing and blame the federal government.

Citizens who paid their salaries did not get much for their investment.

This is another case that tends to prove that reliance on government to solve your problems is a fool's errand.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Nostalgia Isn't what It Used to Be

There was a time in the 1950's when my mother would read the evening paper and burst out laughing. I knew she was reading one of the funniest writers around. It was Louisville, KY and the columnist was B. M. Atkinson, Jr. He was a young man who had at least one young child at home. And he would sometimes describe the various ailments this child had.

One such ailment was "Potty Arm," in which the child was fascinated with the toilet. The child would roll up his sleeve, stick his little arm in the water, and plumb the depths of the toilet bowl. Atkinson could get an entire column out of the "diseases" of this one child. His descriptions were especially funny and close to home as my own child was beginning to look longingly at the white porcelain fixture in our house (he survived his water-logged arm problem and is now an artist named Caleb living in St. Pete, Florida).

Another column dealt with the misery of raking leaves out of the ivy in front of his house, as ordered by his wife. He could make such a dreary task ridiculously funny.

But alas, I left Louisville in 1957 and so did Atkinson. I heard that his columns got the attention of several Hollywood movie or TV people who asked him to write for them in the Los Angeles area. He seems to have disappeared over the years. I never heard from him again, except for a book he wrote, called What Dr. Spock Didn't Tell Us.

I seldom miss the past, seldom long for "home" and the good old days. But there are a few things I would like to revisit. One is the truly great rye bread from a German (Plehns?) bakery in Louisville. Also, I miss the thousands of acres of beautiful parks where I spent much of my time as a boy. And, yes, I would love to re-read those old columns by Atkinson.

Friday, September 02, 2005

September Song

Hot as it is, I can sense September is just around the corner, and with it comes the new school year. That should not be a problem for a retired industrial manager. But it does cause my heart to beat a bit faster.

Unlike most of my brethren, I did not retire completely. I dabbled at teaching in a local public middle school as a substitute. I know that you are going to say something about raging hormones and all that kind of stuff, but I really enjoyed seventh graders. Not only that, but also I became used to the school's rhythms. That is because I spent most of my teaching time at only one school (at the principal's behest).

If a person is alert, he or she can sense problems developing on a school campus. Patterns of behavior don't seem right. For instance, crowds of kids form in unusual places, or the kids become unusually quiet. Enough kids knew me that I could step into a small group and take care of problems quickly before all 850 kids on the campus were affected.

What did I teach? Mostly math and science. And every time I stood in front of an algebra class I thought of Mr. Wright, my own algebra teacher of over fifty years ago. If he were to come back from the grave and see me there, he would call the police to have me dragged off. I did it to torment his memory. He certainly tormented me enough.

So I am beginning to get restless as September approaches. And there is no reason for it. I am not going to teach a single lesson. This is my first year in a long time not to be licensed (credentialed) to teach in California public school.

Maybe I won't have those dreams any more--the ones about being late for classes.