Friday, August 5, 2016

"Rainy Day Programming"

One of my favorite times at camp was when it rained. 

That’s like saying one of my favorite times at the movies is when the projector breaks.

“Oh, good.  I don’t have to see the movie.” 

That doesn’t make sense.  Why would I go to that movie in the first place?  On the surface, the “camp” example should be equally non sequitor.

“Oh, good.  I don’t have to do what I came to camp to do.”

But it wasn’t.  Because even though, after the first time, when I was sent to camp without knowing I was going – if you went “Really?” it may be time to revisit that traumatic narrative – I went to camp, often actually looking forward to going to camp, still, I had minimal interest in virtually all of its available activities – lacrosse?  Are you kidding me? – all of which were thankfully curtailed when the rains came down, frequently in buckets.  (Or is it into buckets, as each cabin had a red-painted metal pail sitting outside to collect the rainwater, a precaution to keep the cabin from burning down, although I am skeptical about a single bucket of water preventing a conflagrational catastrophe.

Here’s the thing… jumping ahead because I can blather away about rainy days at camp ad nauseum – glamorizing the distinctive aroma of rotting tree trunks – never getting to where I’m trying to go to.  That happens sometimes.  The old and lonely can get chatty.

When it rained – and I when say “rained” I mean like all day, and particularly in August, many “all days” in a row, our counselor would check out Seabreeze portable record player from the office, hauling it back to the cabin with requisitioned records, offering audial distraction during the endless downpour.

Sometimes it was music, a favorite selection being Harry Belafonte’s “Calypso” album.  (“Down dee way where dee nights are gay…”)  But equally popular were  the “Spoken Word” recordings, specifically the Edward R. Morrow collection called “I Can Hear It Now.”
“I Can Hear It Now” was a series of enveloped 78’s chronicling, via excerpted radio news clips, the greatest moments of the twentieth century: 

The live description of the Hindenberg (giant air balloon) explosion – “Oh, the humanity!” – the play-by-play of the Joe Lewis-Max Schmeling rematch – “Schmeling is down… the count is ‘five’…” – radio host Arthur Godfrey breaking down on the air describing FDR’s funeral procession down Pennsylvania Avenue, Neville Chamberlain’s “Herr Hitler” “appeasement” speech, Lou Gehrig’s heartbreaking farewell (the Yankees’ “Iron Horse” retiring from the game, suffering from terminal ALS – “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

I don’t know.  It seems like when certain stuff goes into your ears, it tends to stay there for the rest of your life. 

Which takes me, surprisingly rapidly, to where I was actually attempting to arrive.

Another source of “entertainment” – I say “entertainment” in quotes, because… well, you’ll see in a minute – were the “reel-to-reel” tape recordings of historical events our counselor made during a (1950’s) visit to the South.

Our counselor’s name was Steve Lewis.  Stephen Lewis was a socially conscious political activist, who went on to become the leader of the Socialist New Democratic Party in the province of Ontario (coinciding at one point with his father David’s being leader of the federal Socialist party.  Steven Lewis subsequently went on to serve as Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations.

But back then he was my counselor, the most memorable event in our relationship occurring when I was a volunteer “Ball Boy” for the “Counselor’s Tennis Tournament” and Steve Lewis hit me in the ear with his serve.  Yes, his New Democratic Party brought universal health care to the nation.  But my strongest association was the stinging ringing in my ear.  (Why did I ever volunteer to be “Ball Boy?”)

A little background (which you might possibly not need)…

In 1954, the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, ruled that the school segregation policy of “separate but equal” was unconstitutional.  The states were therefore instructed to desegregate their schools, as it was worded, “with all deliberate speed”, which states opposed to the decision interpreted as “Y’all take your time.”

In 1957, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, still refusing to integrate his state’s schools, staged a face-to-face a showdown at Little Rock’s Central High School.  Steve Lewis was at that schoolhouse, making an “on-the-spot” recording of what exactly took place.  

He played those tapes for me and my cabin-mates when it rained.

Here’s the part I may oversell if I’m not careful, and if I do I apologize.

Growing up in Toronto in the 50’s, I did not see, let alone meet, a single black person.  Conventional wisdom – which involves more than a few people though none of them by name – suggests that that kind of lack of familiarity generates ignorance, apathy and, frequently, prejudice.

And yet…

You listened to those tapes…

And that was all you needed to know.

At the risk of overstaying my welcome…

Venn diagram:

The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees all American citizens equal protection before the law.

Black citizens are American citizens.

Black citizens are guaranteed equal protection before the law.

The question, listening to those tapes was…

Why didn’t they get it?

1 comment:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Not a total non sequitur: I think you would like the documentary MOVING MIDWAY. I highly recommend you take a look at it (it's out on DVD).