One Memorial Day years ago, my very young son and I were standing on a street corner on the Upper West Side. It was cool for the end of May. I think I was wearing a sweater. Broadway was closed and men in uniform carrying flags were marching down the street.
One of those uniformed men was a friend of ours from the neighborhood. He called out to my son, and just like that, carried him off on his shoulders with a band of brothers who were Green Berets in Viet Nam. One minute he was standing next to me, the next he was waving his little downy six year old arm in the air, brandishing an American flag.
Later when I collected him at the War Memorial on Riverside Drive, I asked him about the experience. He told me about an old geezer who kept warning him, “Don’t let the flag touch the ground, son.” The flag was heavy and my son was worried he would drop it.
I think I might have explained to him what it means when a flag touches the ground.
My son had that flag for a long time. First it was crammed into one of the slats of his headboard, his proudest possession. Then it hung from the wall. Then, it was in his closet. It was still somewhere around when I cleaned out his room after he left home and we moved house.
Last summer, I thought about the flag and those vets marching down the street when my son had an American flag pinned on his lapel. I wondered in a fanciful way if those vets had done a number on his malleable mind way back then? When he was a senior in college, for a while, he was threatening to enlist. I dare say, he didn’t learn about that brand of chauvinism at home. Other forms, but not that one.
Though what does anyone learn at home? That one is, or isn’t, worthy of love? Is, or isn’t, worthy of attention? Admiration? That one has the right to speak up? To protest? To wear an American flag in the lapel? To be strong enough to face the people who love one first and say they love one best and declare: “I’ll grow up and become a Republican and wear a flag in my lapel and there’s nothing you can do about it! So there!”
Myself, this Memorial Day, I’m planning on re-reading People Peace and Power, written by my friend from Bath, England, the brilliant Diana Francis. Diana, a life long pacifist, is an international figure in conflict resolution. She has gone to jail for her beliefs. I was in jail once briefly so I can say with conviction, I will do almost anything not to repeat that experience. I doubt whether any of my stridently liberal friends who have never been to jail would either.
But you never know.
To quote Diana:
“One of the influences which discourages most people, most of the time from taking any form of social or political action is the culture of domination, which, while it glorifies violence, incorporates the assumption that it is the task of some to rule and others to be ruled.”
Diana also believes:
“The culture that produces militarism and military machines, so often used in ‘defense of democracy’ also produces passive populations who do not participate in their own rule even when the legal space exists for them to do so.”
My son the former republican candidate (who I must declare isn’t in favor of Trump) does believe, however strong countries need strong armies.
My friend, Diana, would say, strong countries need strong citizens who speak up. And strong conflict resolution.
I fear I am one of Diana’s faceless people who for many reasons, doesn’t participate in her own rule.
And, of course, I’m wondering how I can change myself and others before this crucial flag-waving thing coming up in November.
In the meantime, I highly recommend Diana Francis’s three P’s. People Peace and Power available at the usual place and though not a beach book, time well spent on the beach or anywhere else you read it.
When I was eleven, we lived in a great big un-paid for house with a mansard roof, and several empty rooms because there was no money for furniture. Our house was in the new part of Shreveport that was to us, countrified, coming as we did from a track house with an ornamental screen door and two young pine trees in front. Our new backyard was full of old trees and new trees and was nearly an acre. At night in the winter, we could hear foxes.
At the end of the block was a branch of Bayou Pierre, and it was there, one morning in the summer, I went looking for dewberries so we could have cobbler that evening. Aline had been with us by then for more than a year, and though my mother cried all the time, she wasn’t my father, and we laughed at the dinner table. We were broke, of course, and told not to answer the front door in case it was the bill collector, but I was no longer afraid. My father was dead. My mother was at his store trying to make a living. It was my sister, my brother and I under the gentle reign of Aline, who could handle us. Two previous housekeepers, Henrietta notably, had run away screaming waving her hands in the air.
Land around the bayou was dense and the dewberry vines had prickles on them. I had discovered a big clump of them; enough to fill a huge tin can full, and was sedulously picking and eating and biting out prickles from my fingers, when I heard a noise in the bushes.
I was afraid of snakes. I was afraid of foxes. I was afraid of my father coming back from the dead to get me—I was terrified of that. But I wasn’t afraid of black men. And that’s what the noise in the bushes was. A black man. Maybe he was drunk. Maybe he was pissed off. Maybe he was just nuts. (Who could blame him?)
I was almost shoulder high in the marsh and berries, but he was waist high. And his pants were unbuttoned. And his arms were out and he was coming to get me. I dropped the can and ran out of that rich patch of berries I’d found on Bayou Pierre, up the tar road and into the kitchen. I was plenty scared by the time I reached Aline’s warm arms. I was probably shaking like a leaf.
Aline wanted to know what happened.
I told her a man had chased me.
“Yes,” she said. “What happened? Did he get you?”
“No,” I told her. “I ran.”
“That’s good,” she said. And she looked me up and down. And she sighed. I could tell she was relieved.
She looked me in the face. “You sure about that?”
“Yes,” I said.
Once again she looked me up and down. “What’d he look like? Was he black?”
Something in her look and in her voice told me what to say.
“White,” I told her. “He was white.”
“You sure about that?”
“So, do you want to call your mama?”
“No,” I said.
We made some jello for dessert that night, and I stayed away from the dewberry patches for a while. And to this day, no crazy black man has ever menaced or scared me again.
I thought of that long ago summer this morning, when I read the Op Ed pages of the New York Times. “Louisiana’s Color-Coded Death Penalty.”
“In Louisiana of today, a black man is 30 times as likely to be sentenced to death for killing a white woman as for killing a black man. Regardless of the offender’s race, death sentences are six times as likely—and executions 14 times as likely—when the victim is white rather than black.”
Louisiana has the worst record in the country. It’s right up there with repressive regimes in the second and third worlds.
Back then, I knew, if not the statistics, certainly what would have happened if I told Aline that a black man had chased me with his pants down. And she had called my mother. It would have meant, five, six maybe a whole dozen black men would be captured and probably lynched.
How can it be possible that all these years later, on some level this system is still operating in the land of the free and the brave?
In Louisiana 2016. In Ferguson 2015. The list goes on and on and on.
What are we to do about it?