Small Town Ohio: High School Football, 1965

I’ve been doing some deep cleaning the last several days, and among the many things I uncovered was an envelope from my mother’s stuff which contained my high school football memorabilia. She saved stuff that I haven’t touched in over 45 years! There were pictures, newspaper articles, and individual score sheets on each week’s individual and team performances. There was a special award for my receiving the team’s Mayhem Axmurder Award for 1966- given to the “meanest and most effective” defensive player. I played tackle and I made a bunch of them that year.. I guess.

So I was the 1966 Mayhem Axmurderer of my high school football team. I got to keep the jersey which affirmed that. Yes, I know:

Good. Lord.

Among the (many, many) other papers were several prep sheets. These were write-ups about the coming game. They covered particular players from the other team, the kind of offense they ran, and included special plays which the coaches had put together to be used against that team. The cover page of the prep handout was a hand drawn cartoon and an initial pep talk written by the coaches. (Note: this was the days of blue mimeograph and I don’t think the coaches typed, so the prep sheet was handwritten, before it was run off on the mimeograph machine. Those of you who are my age will understand that I held these particular papers to my nose just nowto see if they still had that special mimeograph smell. They did not.)

Anyway, this particular prep sheet was about a team from Youngstown which we were playing that week- Youngstown North. Let me quote some of the coaches “motivational” comments:

“North has been knocked out 64 straight times, and plans to get off the canvas against us. Anyone who has been knocked out that many times is bound to have a weakness, which they do. On many occasions they have beat themselves through faulty execution and mistakes.”

Of course the same thing can be said of the Dallas Cowboys or any sports team, but this was 1965, so there is more.

(If you are easily offended, stop here. Really. I should tell you before we go on that Youngstown North was an almost-all African-American team, although at that time, we knew them as an all Negro team. And all of our team members were white. The “glass jaw knock out” you see in the motivational picture above reflects a very real stereotype of the time: even the toughest black guy had a glass jaw, some thought, and taught, and believed.)

Continuing:

“Gentlemen, there is no alternative in the game this week. We must WIN it. There is too much shame connected with losing it…Everyone knows why North is getting beat. They are predominately low intelligent colored people. They can’t learn many things, and what they do learn they have trouble executing it very well.

“There is no doubt about it, some of them have good muscular strength and speed..but we know that it takes another very important element- BRAINS. This is where we can get our advantage…

“We must beat them or be put to tremendous shame.”

The coach was right- even now, I still feel tremendous shame, though it’s not the kind of shame he thought it would be. I tell myself that it was 1965, and it is 45 years later. But I know how the institutional racism I grew up with has knocked at the door of my consciousness over the years. What bothers me are the times when it manifested itself through me and I wasn’t aware of it. I’m certain that has happened any number of times.

I’m not really angry at the coaches or other adults who passed along this system of exclusion to the following generation, as much as I pity them. As Martin Luther King Jr. stated often, the civil rights movement was (and still must be) about freeing all people of their wrapped-chain attitudes and the crippling weight of judgmentalism. I pity those handicapped by such lies and I feel sorry for myself and so many others who have never been able to completely shed the imaginary but inflicted veil stretched over our fields of vision.

And what of the young men of Youngstown North? Across years and space, across a different country and an always brand new culture, I can say “I’m sorry.” But those are just words- useless, pale, impotent, nice-sounding words if I do nothing to back them up.

So I’ve tried. I don’t think there’s an iota of any of this shit (and that’s what it is) in my own children. They were raised in the South where the flavors of racism were and are different than they were in ’65 Ohio, but that I detect nothing mean about their attitudes, exclusionary about their relationships, or narrow about their love for others, tells me that their mom and I did some things right in this regard.

But I’ve experienced the outward and visible kinds of racism in the last several years, after decades of not experiencing it. The use of the ‘n’ word, the telling of really awful race-based jokes, and the overt attempts to re-establish institutionally racist principles among some persons and groups in state and federal government, are things I thought I would never ever see again. Wow, I was wrong. I have been dumbfounded so many times recently that I have been and know I will have to continue to be a pastoral advocate against and in the face of this ..awfulness. This little essay is a tiny part of that effort; and the the best part of this whole story may be this:

The winner of the game between our small town high school and Youngstown North was..

Youngstown North!!

North broke their 64 game losing streak against us! We discovered there were were no “glass jaws” to be broken. They executed very well and made fewer mistakes than we did. And it looked to most of us, that North had strength, speed, AND brains.

I’ve looked back on the game for many years as one of the best things that could have happened to me as an individual, and I bet there are dozens of my teammates who would feel the same way. There were stereotypes shattered that cool October night and the shattering of stereotypes is always a good thing. I’m guessing- if such things can be quantified- that the sounds of joy on the bus home to Youngstown North that night far outweighed whatever “shame” we may have felt in our hometown locker room.

So I laugh over a genuine soreness in my soul for a time and a place that never should have been. But I also laugh because we were such asses. We really were.

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Obama’s Speech to the School Kids- What I learned on the way to the end of my fears

At Booker T. Washington High School in downtown Dallas, they gave President Obama a standing ovation when they saw him enter on the large television screens. Booker T. is my daughter’s alma mater- it’s the performing arts high school. It’s Norah Jone’s alma mater, too. And something she is proud of, also.

So, when I saw the kids there jumping to their feet as the President appeared on-screen, I knew that the people to whom the president was aiming this speech were going to hear it. And as was evident from their comments, they heard it loudly and clearly in a way even most of us adult supporters of the president could not have heard it.

“He was speaking to me,” one small 9th grade boy said.

“He makes me want to get all As this year,” said another.

Many adults, especially- it appears- those of the Caucasian persuasion, were fearful of what the president would inculcate their children with today. I heard them breathing hard and sweating into the cameras pointed toward them as they screamed that the president had no right to tell their children what to think. Maybe they were afraid he would reveal the secret message of the fist-bump to curious fifth graders, or describe the joys of his parent’s interracial sex to shy high schoolers. Given the level of anger and suspicion many of these parents displayed, it is hard to even guess at what kind of jive they were afraid the president would brainwash their un-brainwashed children with.

And, despite the fact that even Laura Bush and Newt Gingrich endorsed the content of Obama’s speech, we know that in today’s America the facts don’t matter nearly as much as what a person wants to believe. If you want to believe Obama is a Muslim, there’s nothing anyone can say, show, or demonstrate that will dissuade you from that belief. In America today, among a certain crowd of fellow believers, you will even be applauded for hanging on to a belief despite the Truth that lies dying in the ditch nearby.

And there are still people waiting for the release of Michelle’s “Whitey” tape and for the Belgian Congo birth certificate of the president. And they’ll wait and they’ll wait because they KNOW they’re right and it doesn’t matter that that astronomy reveals the sun to be the center of the solar system, you silly fools, you can see that the sun rises and sets around the Earth, can’t you?

So here’s what I’ve learned today: All of that noise was preceding the speech was irrelevant. A whole lot of parents kept a whole lot of children out of school and away from the Internet and television today because they were afraid of something that bore no fearful meaning whatsover- liminally, subliminally, or otherwise. They were people being afraid, and that’s all. They would probably call it being protective, but they could have been protective at home, with some intelligent conversation around the dinner table tonight. They could have introduced their children to genuine critical thinking. I assume most of them are capable of that.

Since the noise was irrelevant, I should consider it so as well. AND SO SHOULD THE PRESIDENT! My argument with the president so far, indeed, my disappointment with the president so far is that he is spending too much time trying to be friends with people who don’t like him, did not and will never support him, and whose candidate in the last election was convincingly defeated.

President Obama: those of us who voted for you voted for change, significant change to happen. We wanted our country out of the twin sinkholes of Iraq and Afghanistan that we were lied into. We want war criminals tried, if that is what a grand jury deems them to be. We want sexual preference among adults to not be a factor at all in a person’s enjoyment of their full civil rights. Those are the changes we voted for above and beyond the need this country had for a president who was smart and who didn’t look like every president before and who was running with a vice-presidential candidate who didn’t scare the living socks off of us as we imagined him possibly becoming president. That’s what we voted for, Obama, not how many friends you could make among the people who had gotten us into the military and economic quagmire we are in now.

So, while many many, many of my friends are Republican, most of whom I would take a bullet for (and they know it), I must tell them that I will not listen to their political views with any more fear. Theirr politics are coming to an end. The world can’t be the way it was in the 50’s; they’ve spent us into a hell hole of unimaginable depth, and while they can try to blame the other party for that, the statistics of Reagan, Bush, and Bush tell another story. Unfortunately, I voted right there beside them until 2006, when I saw the light. It’s not a bright light- Pelosi and Reid are both standing in it after all- but it is a whole lot brighter than the dim fluorescents pirated out of Enron’s headquarters.

And I know this: that the loudest among you old-timers- those who fussed the most about Obama’s Svengali grip on the minds of school kids, some you made asses of yourselves. And your kids saw you doing it. And while they no doubt still love you, they have seen you be wrong, over-reactive, maybe even goofy. Statistics show that that has happened a lot recently. During the 80s and 90s you preached and preached and preached about the takeover of schools and government by those with a gay agenda. You made bogeymen out of young men dying of AIDS so that you wouldn’t have to confront the sympathetic response you deeply felt toward them. (We all know it is easier to fear and hate than it is to give in to love, especially if that love- holy cow!- might be misconstrued as fag love!).

The point is, you painted the homosexual community into something it wasn’t. At all. Your kids went to college, got jobs, and moved into apartments near and with these men and women. They even became friends with them! They found out that you had been wrong about them, and that some of you and some of your preachers had been lying about them to you. They even found out that there seems to be a direct relationship between the loud rantings of an anti-gay protester and his desire to passionately kiss the object of his fury!

So you lost more young people in your loud and silly protests over this speech today.

Good.

And knowing those things, I won’t be so upset the next time. Your numbers are decreasing even as the spittle from your radio and television leaders is increasing. Even as the crazed rantings of Beck and Limbaugh and Hannity grow louder, more and more young people are hearing them, and the demographic slice of their advertising pie grows older by the day.

(Thank you again, young people of Booker T. Washington High School, Dallas, Texas. I’m giving you my own private standing ovation right now!)

One More Reason I Love Texas. . . . . . . ."Great, Speckled Bird"

It’s 1975, in a small West Texas town. The Band Director of the high school announces to the band and the baton twirlers that he has arranged and choreographed the 1936 Roy Acuff gospel song “Great Speckled Bird” for them to perform. I’ve got to believe that no similar announcement was ever made by another Band Director, anywhere.

Don’t read any further, though, without listening to the song first. Then try to imagine the embarrassed horror of being a 15 or 16 year old member of the band or twirling squad and having to perform this song, with appropriate choreography, on the football fields of other towns, in front of other 15 and 16 year olds, at halftime. As I’ve heard the story, the performers marched, twirled, and cringed, all at the same time.

ssc band may65a

The song was written by a Rev. Guy Smith. It is based on Jeremiah 12:9, “Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird, the birds round about are against her; come ye, assemble all the beasts of the field, come to devour.” Right off the bat, we have a 2500 year old metaphor that is being absurdly used in a mid-20th century context, and the attempts to make it work fail, I think, miserably. Look at some of the verses:

1. What a beautiful thought I am thinking
Concerning a great speckled bird
Remember her name is recorded
On the pages of God’s Holy Word.
2. All the other birds are flocking ’round her
And she is despised by the squad
But the great speckled bird in the Bible
Is one with the great church of God.
3. All the other churches are against her
They envy her glory and fame
They hate her because she is chosen
And has not denied Jesus’ name.

From Baptist Singing Conventions in the 30s, to the Grand Old Opry in the 50s, to football fields in Petrolia, Chico, and Alvord in the 70s, the Great Speckled Bird was both a testimony to Jesus and a psychological trauma for many Texas teens. Where else could a song achieve such a legacy?

Oh Texas, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways..