Thursday, August 30, 2007

Joyce: The 8th Grade Beauty

Years heal the wounds of youth!
by Charlie Leck
This is another of my series about my
50th High School Reunion, coming in
2008, trying to explain why I just won't
make it to the celebration.

Let’s see, in 8th grade one is about 13 years old. I was 13 years old on the spot when 8th grade began. Eight years had gone by in the very same building and I remember aspiring continuously to arrive in that particular classroom on the northeast corner of the top floor of Chester Public School. Whether that architectural level was the 2nd or 3rd floor depends on whether one formally counts the basement level cafeteria, down near the boiler room, as the first of the stories in the building.
Everyone now knows about the jangling, jittery, jumping hormones of 13-year-old boys. At the time, I knew nothing about the phenomenon even though there was a first-class demonstration of the process taking place within my own viscera. How, in heaven’s name, schoolteachers and educational administrators expected a normal, All-American boy to concentrate on complex fractions, and the multiplication and division of the same, is beyond sane explanation. Can you imagine such a boy reading The Catcher in the Rye when he had piles of emotional difficulty reading Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson? My mother insisted I read the Salinger book – not the kind of thing a confused teenager ought to be reading while his hormones are totally out of control.

While Mister Rodman was trying to introduce me to the basic elements of biology, Joyce was sitting at just such a perfect angle from me that I could observe some the most important elements of biology for myself. One lesson learned was that some girls pop before and more rapidly than others. Joyce moved at the speed of light in that respect. While I was 13 in actuality, I was at the maturity level of about 11 and one quarter. Joyce was streaming in at about 17 or 18. Looking at her made certain of my hormones bound around like crazy.

I cannot tell you how much I wanted to be Joyce’s friend. I tried so hard; however, she pegged me as a creep. Joyce knew her stuff all right. I think she knew that I closed myself in my bedroom, pretending to do eighth grade homework, and listened to Tereasa Brewer’s voice on my radio, belting out verses of Ricochet just as steel bullets actually ricocheted crazily around inside me.

Joyce was the most beautiful eighth grade girl who ever lived. That is without exception. It is an absolute that will never be proven incorrect.

I dreamed of sitting in a dark movie theater with her, holding hands and occasionally glimpsing at her spectacular profile.

Mister Rodman would ask why my homework wasn’t done. I couldn’t blame it on Joyce, but she was the reason indeed. I listened to countless songs about love and romance, dreaming of Joyce, and never quite got to my school books.

The problem that I and the other boys in my class had was that Joyce did not like eighth grade boys. She adored high school boys and, preferably, boys who were already driving cars. I knew that was reality and it forced a rich mixture of anger to intermingle with those jangling hormones. The Orioles were singing You Left me Cryin’ in the Chapel, and I, with tears in my eyes, was thinking about Joyce.

Nevertheless, I continued to get as close to her as possible, seeking some sort of friendship. I developed a particularly cool, high, cemented wave in my hair, just above my forehead. I thought Joyce might really like it.

“Look it, creep,” she finally came right out and said to me one day, “just leave me alone. I think you are the dumbest boy in the whole world and I don’t want you to hang around me.”

Only Perry Como and Eddie Fisher and, maybe, the Four Lads had descriptions of the pain I felt. I listened to their sad croonings for hours on end after that day. I knew that my life would always be a story of unrequited love and the great recording artists were always singing songs about me. I think they helped.

During our freshman year in high school, Joyce was dating seniors and even some boys who had already graduated and were moving on to jobs or college. There was no hope for either my fellow male classmates or me and we could only ogle her and fantasize about her on dark, dark nights as we drifted off to sleep.

Now, more than 50 years later, Joyce and I are pen pals. She writes in a very unsteady hand and tells me that time is running out – that it may already have run out. I type out long, long letters to her and celebrate our friendship after all these years. My innards are all settled now, and I think with my mind and my heart, and I shed a tear for her, the incredible 8th grade beauty.

It’s another reason that I can’t go to the upcoming reunion of my class. I want to remember Joyce the way she looked on that day when she called me a creep and told me to get lost. Gad that was a wonderful day. The fire in her eyes was so spectacular and the redness that flashed across her cheeks made her even more stunning than I could have dreamed. I have no desire to see my classmates grown old. They’ll be acting mature and sophisticated. All the bumbling and stumbling will be gone and that is just not who we were.

I want to remember Mike Farmer, my pal and debate partner, as the jerk he really was and not as the sophisticated New York lawyer he’s probably become.

Fred Kamm probably owns half the east coast now. When I knew him he was regarded, next to me, as the biggest oddball in our class.

Gretchen Denbraven, who was the kindest, noblest student in the class of 1958 at Roxbury High School, is probably about to solve the problem of poverty in Botswana. I want to remember her as the shy, quiet and unremarkable person that she was.

And Ronny Post is an executive, I am sure, with Barclay’s Bank and he drives a sleek, dark Mercedes Benz into Manhattan every day. I want to remember him as another of the little creeps who couldn’t get to first base with Joyce.

And, I don’t want to hear about who has died and who is about to.

Though many people would call them the product of a sicko mind, I’ve got great memories of that perfectly unextraordinary class. I’ll share them in my letters to Joyce.

Monday, August 27, 2007

First Love

Who would want to go to a 50 year class reunion?
by Charlie Leck

My high school class of 1958 will celebrate
the 50th anniversary of our graduations
next year and, of course, a big reunion party
is in the works. The organizers have
successfully tracked me down, captured my
address and formally warned me that they
will harass me for the next 8 months, trying
to convince me to attend.
This essay is the second in a series of four about
what a dunce I was in school days and why
I would never have the courage to show my
face at any class reunion. Another series of
four will follow in two or three weeks.

Love consumed me the first time when I was 9 or 10 years old. I didn’t say I fell in love, mind you. I was totally consumed by love. It overwhelmed me and it made me dim-witted. Instead of doing my math homework assignments in the evening, as I should have, I sat in my room thinking of her, my first dear love. At baseball practice, standing out at the third base position, I would take a line drive in the thigh because I wasn’t paying attention. I was thinking of her and how beautiful she was and what a perfectly wonderful smile she had.

It was unrequited love, believe me. She thought I was a jerk and she was certainly correct about that. She never looked at me and she didn’t even nod a ‘good morning’ or ‘thank you’ when I allowed her to go first in the lunch line. I’m not saying I blamed her. I didn’t. Even now, I don’t.

Had I kept this love to myself everything would have been fine. The world would never have discovered what a fool I was – how completely I had allowed ‘love’ to conquer my ‘sense and sensibilities.’

I’m not saying it was her fault, but had she not left our little, northern New Jersey township to go to Georgia every winter, none of my foolishness would ever have been discovered. Her family took her out of school around Christmas time every year and they went to Plantationville, in southern Georgia. They stayed there until springtime arrived and thoroughly settled over all of New Jersey.

It was in the fourth grade, I think, that I somehow I got hold of her Plantationville address. I must have mailed her a half dozen love letters – really mushy stuff – telling her how beautiful I thought she was, and how I could think of nothing but her, and how bleak and boring the days were without her in them. (You see, even then, I thought of myself as a writer! I’ve never stopped kidding myself.) Upon her return, it was impossible for me to look her in the eye and she, of course, was so completely embarrassed that she wouldn’t have allowed it any way.

Now, put yourself in my place. How would you feel on that day in April when she returned to the classroom in our little school? Where would you have cowered? Under which desk would you have crawled? How many consecutive days could you have feigned an illness serious enough to keep you home and in bed? Oh, my God, it was overwhelmingly awful! No human could ever have been more embarrassed. One could never feel smaller or dumber.

I sat frozen at my classroom desk, staring straight ahead, pretending to be anxious for the teacher to begin our day’s lesson. My cheeks burned with the fever of embarrassment. The palms of my hands were soaked with perspiration. My vision was blurred.

That was the year my math skills went to hell. I couldn’t deal with fractions – especially turning them upside down and dividing their denominators or whatever the heck our teacher was asking us to do. I just wanted my letters back. I wore myself out praying that, somehow, the postman had not made his appointed rounds.

In the ensuing months, however, I caught the young beauty’s mother taking peeks at me, with a silly grin on her face that told me what a little fool I was – that she had read each and every word of my barmy correspondence.

For the next nine years, until I could get out of New Jersey, I had to do everything I could – use every imaginable device and procedure to avoid allowing my eyes to collide with those of this pretty, young girl. I ruined my peripheral vision by concentrating so hard on only what was straight ahead of me. My neck and upper body became rigid; for I refused to turn casually for fear that I might encounter her full-faced.

Somehow I managed to avoid encounters for many years. It was sometime in high school that I first ‘stumbled upon’ her again. It was probably in our third year there and I came roaring down a set of stairs far too quickly, missing a final step, and nearly fell into her. She was looking intently at me, in a pleading kind of way. Her eyes tried to tell me that it was all right now – that she had forgiven me long ago for my silliness – that I could relax and limber up my neck again – that I could say hello occasionally – that I might even invite her to go have a soda.

My transgression had been too serious, however. I couldn’t ever, ever trust myself to not say again something utterly and unforgivably brainless. I gulped and turned away, graduated and got the hell out of town.

She? She went on to marry, I learned years later, and to have children. Eventually, she made her home in Plantationville – in that little southern village with the tiny post office that had handed over the remarkable love letters of a nine-year old boy.

A fifty-year reunion is coming up. How silly are reunions? Who would go to one? Who would want to remember and relive how shatteringly unremarkable he was as a child? Who would want to look one’s classmates in the eye and say hello again?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Becoming a Ball Player

What ever happened to Tommy Pugh?
by Charlie Leck

My high school class of 1958 will celebrate the 50th
anniversary of our graduations next year and, of
course, a big reunion party is in the works. The
organizers have successfully tracked me down,
captured my address and formally warned me that they
will harass me for the next 8 months, trying to convince
me to attend.

This essay is the first in a series of four about what a
dunce I was in school days and why I would never have
the courage to show my face at any class reunion.
Another series of four will follow in two or three weeks.

My dream last night was extraordinary; however, the most extraordinary thing about it was that, when I awoke in the morning, I remembered it in detail. That doesn’t happen often.

I watched a bit of the Little League World Series last night. You got it! There wasn’t much on and I was pretty bored. Yet, it was quite intriguing to watch these kids pour so much of their souls into their ball games.

So, I went to bed. I was tired and sleep came easily. Some time during the night, the dream started. It was a replay of an actual moment in my life – approximately 55 years ago.

There was green, green grass everywhere and this wonderful fence out there in the outfield. I’d never seen anything like it. We were in Brookside, New Jersey for the first organized Little League game in which I had ever played. The League had just been organized in our county and my age qualified me by only a day or two to play for one season. I was a big kid for my age and there I was, in my dream, towering over all the other players.

Our own town had just a ball field. It certainly did not look like a “ball park.” However, there in Brookside is was really different. It felt like we were stepping on to a major league field. There was a grass infield and level outfields and an attractive fence, set at Little League standards, which ran all the way around the outfield. There were real dugouts and bleachers for spectators. A number of flags flew from bright white poles.

Our manager, Mose, threw batting practice. I easily rapped several balls over the left field fence. It was very exciting, but Mose grabbed me before the game started and warned me that the pitchers wouldn’t be throwing at batting practice speed, and I shouldn’t get too excited.
Well, as the visitors, we were up first. The dream kept playing. Buddy and Hank both rapped solid shots to the outfield. Toby went to the plate and I stood in the on-deck circle and watched him take a couple of pitches. He was always a patient guy and liked to look for a pitch in a particular spot.

This guy’s stuff looked slower than the pitches Mose threw up to me. The ball seemed to be huge coming up there. Toby banged a line drive that almost took the pitcher’s head off. Buddy raced easily across the plate. Hank pulled up at second.

I was very excited. Something was jumping around inside me and I could sense that my eyes were stretched wide open. I couldn’t relax. I grabbed handfuls of dirt in an attempt to dry my hands. This was the most extraordinary moment of my little life. I looked to that fence in left field. It was so close. A ball hit to left field in our own town would just roll and roll for hundreds of yards and the fielders could just race after it and after it.

Tommy Pugh was on the mound. Within months of this day he would become one of my best friends and I would spend plenty of time with him. He was a cool dude with a really funny walk. His arms hung straight down at his sides when he walked and they remained very still with each stride, but his hands jiggled very noticeably. We all laughed at him until we got to know him. Then I got to thinking it was the neatest walk a man ever had. I tried it and couldn’t pull it off.

Well, Tommy was a cool guy, all right; but he couldn’t throw any heat at all. He wound up (players had to hold their bases, in Little League, until the ball was released by the pitcher). No one worked from a stretch in this league.

When the ball came out of his hand it seemed like I had long moments to think about it and make my decision. It seemed slower than the pitches he had been throwing to the first three batters and the ball just grew as it got near me. It was right at the letters and over the middle of the plate. I swung as mightily as I could and just knew I’d whiff on that slow ball.

Instead, I felt the sweet feeling in the bat when it encountered the ball and I heard that solid sound of impaction that every batter likes. The ball was flying away toward left field. It was a high line drive that wouldn’t lose its climb for some time and it was still climbing when it flew over the fence and crashed into some trees that lined the flowing brook beyond them.

In the dream, my legs would barely carry me around the bases. I felt as if I might have to crawl. It was the same 55 years ago. It seemed to take forever to get around to home plate. It was silent. Our team had no spectators there except one or two parents who had each driven a load of players. My parents were certainly not there. They didn’t do things like that. My teammates weren’t making any noise or cheering because, given the handsomeness of Tommy’s pitches, it wasn’t any kind of significant achievement to thump on him. Yet, inside, I was screaming like crazy. It was the first time I’d hit a ball over a regulation fence for a home run. I ran down the third base line, trying to making it across the plate. My feet were in concrete. They wouldn’t move and I awoke exhausted. It was dark and quiet and I heard my wife breathing softly beside me.

For a second I’d been a kid again. Now I was back to being old, with legs that can’t run anymore and eyes that can’t see a moving ball very well.

In real life I had homered the second time up, too. It wasn’t quite as sweet, but it cleared the fence by plenty. We moved ahead by about 36 runs – really – and Mose pulled me and Toby and Buddy. Some of the second stringers gave up a run and couldn’t push anything across the plate for us.

It was not uncommon to win 30-0. We beat every team in our league that way all year, right up to the last game of the season. In that one we played Brookside at our place and Tommy Pugh was the pitcher again. Throughout the year he had been showing improvement. He was stronger now and he had some speed. He had learned to move the ball around a little bit, too. Someone had taught him about throwing the ball high and tight. That put the fear of God in a lot of little leaguers. In the last inning, during our last at bat, we were losing 4 to 3. With two outs I sliced a triple down the right field line. Hammerin’ Hank was up for us and Tommy threw one really close to him, that his catcher couldn’t get. The ball got away and rolled behind the catcher. I hesitated on the third base line and I heard Mose screaming: “Go, go, go!” I took off, but that hesitation cost me. The catcher flipped the ball to Tommy, who had rushed to cover the plate. The umpire, big Al O’Brien, screamed that I was out. To this day I don’t think I was. People were tired of us, though, and of all our bragging and of all the whippings we put on teams. I think Al just had to call me out.

From the ground I saw Tommy Pugh dancing a jig and his teammates were lifting him up and you’d have thought they’d won the World Series. We only won every game of the season; yet we lost the last one and we’d have to taste it all winter. Tommy would savor victory all through the cold and snowy season.

I was crying as I got up from the ground. The Brookside parents were streaming on to the field and hugging their kids. I was thankful, this one time, that my parents never came to ball games. Mose and the rest of our team disappeared quickly. I couldn’t stop crying. Warner Johnson, one of the big guys, a catcher who had tried out with the New York Giants, came over and put an arm on my shoulder and told me to stop crying and be, at least, the only player from our team man enough to shake Tommy’s hand. I shook my head, indicating I wouldn’t. He crashed a fist into my arm, just below my shoulder, the way my brother did when he was pissed at me. The shot really rocked me. He pushed me toward the celebration. I went and, with eyes fixed upon the ground, offered my hand to Tommy. He was my buddy by this time. He didn’t take my hand. Instead he hugged me and I could tell he was crying. It was a really happy cry and I knew that he was as jubilant that day as I was on that first day of the season, in Brookside, when the ball flew so high and far out into left field.

“Way to go!” The words didn’t come out very easily, but I said them. I pulled away and started the long, long walk into centerfield and toward the joint, a few hundred yards away, that was my house. Warner fell in step next to me and put his hand on my shoulder again.

“You’ll be glad you did that,” he said. “You just became a ball player!”

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Mighty Military-Industrial Establishment

As Eisenhower warned, it drives a hunger for war!
by Charlie Leck

All of us have heard about former President Dwight David Eisenhower’s warning about a military-industrial complex in the United States. He issued the warning in 1961, in his final speech as President. It was his farewell to the American people. He spoke on national television from the oval office. The speech lasted less than 10 minutes. Eisenhower, not normally a powerful speaker, poured his heart and soul into the speech. I was a young man in my first year of college. I remember watching the speech in the student union. Several professors watched with us.

Did any of us realize how prophetic Eisenhower was? Today the establishment of which he spoke is a mighty one indeed, and some suspect it drives the American hunger for war. Below, as a reminder, I quote the relevant section of Eisenhower’s excellent speech.

A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.

Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peace time, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.
Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense, we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, and even spiritual – is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet, we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

The proper meshing is no longer a reality. Security and liberty are not prospering. The titans of the military industrial complex have been making the decisions in America for the last seven years.

Monday, August 20, 2007

He’s No Comedian

Garrison Keillor makes me laugh and cry – at the same time!
by Charlie Leck

He supposed to be a comedian. I think! Isn’t he? What is Garrison Keillor? The easy answer is that he is a brilliant artist. Both I and my wife love his Saturday evening show. Some immense peace comes over us when we listen to it. Turn off the TV and take the phone off the hook. Turn on the FM and increase the volume. Spread a heap of ketchup on a few slices of bread and let’s have a couple hours of delight and sanity. That’s the Prairie Home Companion Show – a Minnesota institution and one of the most successful entertainment enterprises on the face of the earth.

It took a “foreigner” to alert me to the wonder of the show. Decades ago a fellow in upper New York state – up near Rochester – told me he rarely missed sitting by the radio on a Saturday evening to listen to the Keillor’s old time radio show. I went home to Minnesota and made a habit of listening. It’s a highly anticipated part of each and every week.

Now Keillor is writing regularly in the Sunday morning opinion section of my local paper. For years my first move with the Sunday paper was toward the sports section. No longer! I turn now to the Opinion Exchange, to read Keillor’s weekly column. I probably like it because he so right down the line with what I think.

You want to know something? He makes more sense than Friedman, or Kristof, or Will, or Krugman… or any of the so called brilliant observers of current events. Keillor is a prophet and speaks with a tongue that stings and he occasionally shows his teeth, too. It tells America what it’s really like to be selfish and unfair and uncaring.

A few years ago I read Keillor’s little book, Homegrown Democrat. It was his attempt to explain what a Democrat is. It was a remarkable book – one of the finest I’ve ever read. It said lots of things the right-wing, evangelical portion of the Republican Party didn’t like (or wouldn’t like if they’d read the book).

This week, in his opinion column, Keillor wrote about Karl Rove, comparing him to the camp counselor who is always telling the campers how wonderful everything is out in the wild. Of course, every camper knew it was crappy and miserable, and what they really needed was a flush toilet and a hot shower. Rove kept trying to tell us how wonderful everything was in Iraq; and how many friends we really had around the world; and how good the economy was; and how great the American health care delivery system was; and how global warming is a farce. In his column, Keillor says goodbye to Rove and “good riddance” too.

Every nation needs a real prophet. Some thought Ralph Nader would play the role, but he just got whiny and self-righteous. Keillor is perfect. He’s got that sonorous voice (and you can even hear it in his writing) and piercing glare. He says what’s on his mind and he says it with extraordinary clarity. He points at evil and calls it what it is and doesn’t sugar-coat it in political vagueness.

If Keillor has a weakness it is that he’s too clever and too witty and a lot of those serious bastards with their pinched noses and pursed lips won’t get him. Garrison Keillor is as Minnesotan as they come. He believes in the possibility that no one has to be poor – that no one should be forgotten by society – that all people deserve high quality health care –and that going to war is the most serious decision a politician can make and that it should seldom be made.

Lake Wobegon, that curiously wonderful town just around the corner from here, has a strange affect on people. Karl Rove should have gotten to know the place and its people. Rove should have been raised on Powder Milk Biscuits and healthy doses of ketchup.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Three Great Candidates for President of the United States

Any one of the three makes me happy as can be!
by Charlie Leck

Well, my friends, I’m beside myself. I know I have one good friend out there who reads these blog regularly who is saying: “It not beside yourself you are, my crazy friend!” He just can’t understand how ecstatic I am to have three candidates for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States of America who all make me so happy and please me so much. Give me John Edwards, or Hillary or Barack and I care not! All three, or each of the three, are spectacular candidates for whom I will vote with the greatest amount of enthusiasm that I have had for many years.

Under the administration of any one of the three, the nation will be in good hands and we can move to solve some of the morass of problems we are facing, many of which have been created by a silly philosophy of political conservatism.

In order, I think those problems are as follows:

1. Solving the health care delivery problems
our nation has, making sure that high quality health care is available to everyone and not just to the wealthy.
2. Fixing the crumbling infrastructure of the nation – a project that has been postponed by conservatives for far too long.
3. Reenergizing our educational system in such a way that it becomes the finest in the entire world – recognizing that the world is indeed “flat” and that we must compete against those nations who are now providing higher quality educations for their young people.
4. Preparing our nation to be immediately responsive to crisis situations wherever and whenever they occur, meeting these events head on and with strategic plans that have been carefully crafted in advance.
5. Readjusting the balance of wealth, recognizing that there is nothing wrong with wealth, but making sure that wealth is not unfairly balanced on the backs of unfair and unjust poverty.
6. Attacking the causes of poverty and destroying those causes at the roots.
7. Establishing programs that will attack the root causes of crime and reduce violence in America.

It is time for the United States to reclaim its position as the greatest, fairest and most just nation on the face of the earth. Under any of the candidates I’ve mentioned, it will.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Rat Becomes Prince Charming

A Sincere Apology Transforms the Rat
The Story of a Golfer
by Charlie Leck

Back in June, in a state of agitation and significant anger, I wrote about a golfer who was pretty much a rat on the golf course, taking it out on me, as a rules official, when he lost a significant state championship after failing to find his ball after a drive on a playoff hole. His contention was that I should have seen where his ball went since I was standing out in the fairway. My contention was that this is not my responsibility.

Well, I called him some pretty vile names in that earlier blog. I indicated that his conduct was not typical of the fine sportsmanship most golfers display at all times. Within just a few moments on the golf course that day, this guy had gone from one of my favorite golfers to watch in competition to a complete skunk.

It isn’t only frogs that can transform themselves into charming princes through a simple kiss; rats, or skunks, can do the same.

This week I was working again as a rules official at a men’s four-ball championship when the skunk arrived at the area where I was working. He sought me out and offered his hand and apologized sincerely and charmingly for his poor behavior back in June. And, in an instant he became Prince Charming again. I happily watched him sink a birdie putt on the hole.

I had lost some sleep over the little tussle back in June. It was a terrible way for this prince to lose his match. I wished so hard, for so many days after the fact, that I had been able to follow his shot to its conclusion. I was sick that he had to lose that way. I had not expected him to turn so hard on me and it didn’t feel good when he did.

Just as unexpected was his apology this week. He stood there like a man and looked me hard in the eye and asked that I forgive him. Of course, I did and happily accepted his sincerity. It took a man to do what he did. I admire him for it.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Great Scripture

The Great Scripture Challenge of 2007
by Charlie Leck

I had lunch with a dear friend last week. She means a great deal to me and she has been a faithful, wonderful person during some of the rough moments of my life. Our connection is certainly not made secure through common feelings about religion. She is a fundamentalist of the first order and a literalist about scripture. I am a bit of a Universalist and I certainly take a very liberal position when it comes to interpreting scripture. I try to avoid conversations about scripture; however, she never allows it.

“What are your favorite verses from scripture?” She stared me hard in the eyes as she asked the question and her mouth gave evidence of a wry smile. I could sense that she didn’t think I would be able to recite a single verse. She’s wrong about that. I can recite a lot of scripture. Verses here and there, learned in Sunday School and in theological school, just hang in my brain and won’t fade away. I sometime stumble over the names of my children and what I did yesterday. I try memorizing things these days and I find it impossible. Yet, scripture lingers in my mind and floats to the surface at some of the oddest times.

And, I do have a couple of favorite verses. If I were to build a theology from scratch – a universal one that did not adhere to any of today’s known religions – I would begin with these two verses.

I took a sip of iced-tea and smiled back at my friend. I paused just a bit to allow her the feeling of delight that I did not know a single verse by heart. Then, just as she was about to speak in triumph, I reached for my deepest bass voice and rattled them out with good pace.
I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them,and the peace offering s of your fatted beasts I will not look upon.Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.(Amos)
I couldn’t tell my friend the chapter and verse. It was so apparent that she was waiting for that declaration. So I moved right on as if it wasn’t important.
God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
(First Letter to John)
My friend sat looking silently at me for a long moment. I saw no sense of wonder in her eyes. She cleared her throat and spoke with significant volume and very distinctly: “That is not King James!”
I felt a huge laugh rolling over me and working its way toward my lungs. I stifled it and sat silently, wondering if I should ask if that mattered. It was silent for some time. I realized my friend had loved me for a startling number of years and I certainly loved her. Did that mean that God was present? Was this a spiritual moment?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Soul and Spirit

William Faulkner’s Great Speech
by Charlie Leck

Yesterday I heard someone refer to what he thought were the three finest speeches in the English language. The common trait among all three was their brevity. Lincoln’s extraordinary speech at Gettysburg was one of them. Another was Churchill’s remarkable speech about challenging the Nazi Reich in the air and on land and on the seas. Surprisingly the third was William Faulkner’s acceptance in 1950 when he was presented the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. Naturally, I rushed to find the speech. Thanks to the wonderful Internet, it was a snap to find. I read it and feel it is both powerful and significant. Those who love to write should certainly not fail to read it.

I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work--a life's work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand where I am standing.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he learns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Friday, August 10, 2007

London Bridges

“Iron and Steel will Bend and Bow”
by Charlie Leck

I remember, as a wee one, being terribly frightened by the nursery rhyme about London’s bridges falling down. Growing up where I did, and in our family circumstances, I often made the trip in my dad’s old Model-A, and looked in wonder as we crossed the spectacular George Washington Bridge. As a small kid, it was some experience. So, when I heard the ditty about “bridges falling down” it always brought to my little mind the picture of the massive GW (as it is called now) crashing into the water below. I would have nightmares about it.

Now it has happened and I haven't slept well since it did. The image of that massive interstate highway bridge in Minneapolis, much, much younger in age that the old GW, filled with traffic, crashing into the mighty Mississippi, is more frightening in reality than anything I ever imagined.

There are people in our town who want to avoid the most crucial question. Why?

What went wrong? What caused the bridge to tumble? Oh, there will be scientific answers as the National Safety Board finishes its examination and study, but will we get the truth about the regular examinations of that bridge and why repair was put off. Did it have anything to do with expenditures?

The other day, in a press conference, our state’s Secretary of Transportation, who also happens to be an elected Lieutenant Governor with political promises to keep, got very irritated when one of our city’s best reporters asked her if budgetary concerns played a part in the delaying necessary repairs. She was insulted at the “implications” in the question.

Well, here’s the way it is. As the grief wears off, people are going to want to know why the reports about significant cracks and wear on bolts and shifting of the structure were ignored. The public are going to want all those bridge reports released for a “fine tooth comb” examination of the facts. We are going to want to hear testimony, likely under oath, about what was said in meetings within the Transportation Department about those reports.

My Fair Lady! We do not want to hear again about how your daughter drives over that bridge so regularly. We want to see the reports. We want facts about your department’s reaction to the reports. Finally, we want you to know that we do not think it so wise that you are both a political figure in the governor’s office and a department head who is supposed to advocate on behalf of your department. Not wise at all.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Let’s Talk This Over

Maybe the President is finally growing up!
by Charlie Leck

Forgive me for not writing during this last week.
It's just gotten to be one of those really busy times
of the year. I'm working on an exciting book and,
as it moves closer and closer to its conclusion, I
get more and more involved in it.

Remember the loud cries of “foul!” They came out of the President’s oval office about a year ago when Democrats were starting to feel their oats and were campaigning on the principle that we should have negotiated a peace settlement in Iraq. They were also saying we should be involving Iran and Syria in talks about that region.

The President scoffed at the idea and there were even words like “unpatriotic” and “disloyal” being thrown around. Certainly, the GOP was saying that the Dems were nuts. Funny how an election loss will change things for the GOP!

Now we read that there is actually progress in the talk with Iran about their involvement in Iraq. Iran is making suggestions about how to get this thing over with. Syria is too! Naturally they’re asking for some favors. That’s the way international negotiations work. Some favors for Iran, years ago, would have been extremely cheap when considered in relation to what this war has cost us. Do you think that we don’t ask for favors when we’re negotiating with Poland?

Executive Administrations in Federal Government, in whichever party, have got to think harder about building strong teams with negotiation skills, teams that understand International Relations. We need stronger, wiser State Departments. There are a couple of remarkable small colleges that have programs specializing in this field and government should look to those schools for skilled help. They’re nearly unheard of, but they’re really outstanding in these areas: The University of Richmond and Washington and Lee University, both in Virginia.

Tom Friedman’s concept of a flat world is a given everywhere today. Nothing is more important than learning how to talk to each other – learning how to find out what our common goals are and working together to achieve those goals.

Suddenly the President has learned about this. Conversations are going strong in North Korea, China, Venezuela, and even in Mexico and Canada. Maybe the President is growing up.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

If You Love Someone

If you love someone, tell them
by Charlie Leck

Earlier in the day, yesterday, I passed by the I-35W bridge that crosses the Mississippi River near downtown Minneapolis. I was on my way home from a day of research for something I’m writing. I wanted nothing to do with the bottleneck where I-94 joins up with the traffic coming off that bridge. I thought that I’d prefer dozens of traffic lights to joining that maze. There would be things to look at in the city and I’d observe some of the people along the way. Better stories come that way.

I got home, tired and hot and hungry. I fixed a drink and dug out the rice cooker that the kids gave me for Father’s Day. There was a good looking piece of ham in the frig and a nice loaf of bread. Nothing fancy, but it would do for dinner. I turned on the news and it murmured in the background as I read through the newspaper. I heard the good woman come in the backdoor and plop the mail down. She shouted out a hello just as I heard the guy on CNN say something about Minneapolis and a bridge. I moved closer to the TV and looked down at it. There was image of splayed concrete and steel, tangled and laying in the water and there were mangled cars everywhere. Other automobiles and trucks virtually hung on concrete roads that led only to disaster. People were moving about like ants on the screen. Some dove into the water. Others were climbing out of the river.

It took a moment for the sound and sights on the screen to come together so that I could understand what had happened. I screamed for the wife, telling her to come quickly, to see. The scenes were horrendous. The backdrop was all so familiar, though. How many dozens of times had I crossed that bridge. It is so high up above the river. The TV shots didn’t show the height at all. Down below – way down below – run a couple of roads on either side of the river and there are train tracks and railroad yards and, of course, the mighty river.

We didn’t sleep well. I had a number of strange nightmares. Some family called from Texas and Florida to make sure we were okay. It made us think about things and so we checked on our own kids to make sure they were safely home. We tossed and turned and thought about the families who were waiting to hear about someone who had failed to come home.

On TV this morning they interviewed the Engebretsen girls. They were so lovely and so pretty. They have beautiful, dark skin that doesn’t match their last name. They were adopted as infants and brought here to Minnesota from Columbia. Their mom had taken the bridge. She was missing. The girls were strong and brave and said they were prepared for whatever the outcome. They learned it from their mom. The reporter asked if they had anything to say to people watching.

One of the pretty girls, with very wet eyes, gave us her advice: “If you love someone, tell them, and always tell them!”

Warren Wakefield

Great Grand-Pappy Could Write Okay
by Charlie Leck

There is some news print and ink in my wife’s background. A great grandfather, Warren Wakefield, wrote for newspapers for most of his adult life. That is he, pictured above. He edited the Wayzata newspaper for the last six years of his life (1912-1918). Heading up a weekly newspaper back then was very different than today. They were real newspapers that people counted on and they were content rich. A nephew of Warren, Harry Wakefield, wrote editorials for the Minneapolis Tribune in the early part of the 1900s. A daughter, Lisa, has her Masters Degree in Journalism (I guess they call it Mass Media studies these days.)

One of my very pleasant activities right now is to learn as much as I can about Warren. Thanks to the History Center in Saint Paul, I’ve lately been reading some of the writing he left behind. I thought I would share a few gems with you. These came from either speeches he gave (for he was a frequent speaker at community events) or from some of his editorials over the years.
They are so good that I wanted to share them with you. Pass them on to others who also enjoy writing done well.
“The man who opens a farm on a frontier is building a home for himself and his family and his impulse is to surround that habitation with an atmosphere of morality that will safeguard the character of his posterity. His log cabin, mean in appearance and cramped in dimension, is to him but the foundation of a commodious dwelling which time and energy will evolve. His stumpy and stubborn patch of corn ground is but the prelude to the broad cultivated fields of the future…” [from a speech to a church celebrating its 50th anniversary]

“The legislature is in session, but who cares!”

“The state legislature has assembled in extraordinary session. All session of the legislature are extraordinary in their depleting effect upon the resources of the taxpayer.”

“Some children were badly frightened by a cow last week, when brave Mrs. Eddy came to the rescue with her parasol. The beauty of the parasol attracted the attention of the cow and the children got by unmolested. Our advice to ladies traveling unprotected is “always carry a parasol.”

“Great wealth makes a hog of its average possessor, while “Culture” removes its devotee from all genuinely human association. All real humanity is jammed between the High brows and the hogs.”

“My first work away from home was done for Mr. Dudley. I plowed what has recently become known as “Bald Hill” with the blacksmith’s famous horse, “Old Tom,” and a queer apology for a plow forged by my employer. I worked for five days for a wage of seventy-five cents per day and my dinner and when the job was completed I spent another week in an attempt to collect my pay. The old gentleman was quite deaf, but his infirmity never prevented his hearing an agreeable communication, and it was a matter of public knowledge that he was quick to hear a proffer to pay money and invariably deaf to a demand for settlement. After completion of my job I haunted the man’s stone shop for days and frequently interrupted the industry of its occupant with a loudly shouted demand for my pay. I would jerk his leather apron to claim his attention; he would incline his head, place his hand behind his ear and I would yell, “Mr. Dudley I want my dollar and a quarter.” He would regard me with astonishment and seizing his hammer would respond, “No, No, I never let boys take my horse.” I would repeat my demand to be told, “If you want a boat, take the red one.” Finally, I was obliged to appeal to Mrs. Dudley, who gave me five shiny silver quarters, the first money I ever earned.” [from the unpublished memoirs of Warren Wakefield]
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