My recent scrape with death—for those who hadn’t heard, I rolled my car in the Wallowa River canyon on Sunday on the way back from a fine Portland Thanksgiving—and the crazy recess in the war in Israel/Gaza have me thinking about fortune and history, about being in a certain place in a specific time, about the people and events that create our life stories. About my heroes.
My first heroes were baseball players. I learned to read reading sports pages, and learned math figuring batting averages. In 1952 I knew the starting lineups of most major league teams. I was a NY Giants fan in the National League, because their catcher, Wes Westrum, was from a little Minnesota town not far from mine. Westrum wasn’t a big baseball name like Willy Mays or Micky Mantle who played against him, but Clearbrook, Minnesota was on the same map as my town. I could try to follow his path, be like him.
When I had trouble hitting the curve ball and learned that I’d never be a fast runner or have a slingshot arm, I settled for more modest heroes—role models really: teachers and coaches I liked. I could do that: teach math and coach baseball.
The dreams changed in college. Like most who were alive on November 23 in 1963, I can tell you exactly where I was when I heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination. And I remember two UC Riverside students dropping out of college and joining the Peace Corps right then. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” sent them on their way.
I had gone from thinking high school teacher/coach to college professor, but Kennedy and his words started working their way into my life. My best high school friend registered Black voters in Mississippi in what they called “Freedom Summer”; and a college roommate got me following Martin Luther King. A Vietnam “Teach-in” on the Northwestern campus was the final push—done with grad school and off to the Peace Corps. My heroes now were Kennedy and King. I picked up Gandhi too.
Those old heroes are gone. War heroes are the fashion now. Heroes and villains, but the players we follow in the news accounts and even in the games that gamers play: Zelinski, Putin, and Netanyahu, who will not rest until every Hamas militant is gone—I think that means killed.
The cries for peace seem desperate, the UN officials and journalists counting their dead, the pictures of torture victims and bombed hospitals and apartments. The ongoing attacks and reprisals, kidnapped children and ruined lives in Ukraine. The cries can’t compete with the war in Ukraine and the Israeli military and Hamas, who are at it again after that brief and crazy pause. In six or seven days a few score of hostages held by Hamas and prisoners held by Israel were released. It will take less than a week to count that many dead Palestinian children, aid workers, journalists, Israeli and Hamas soldiers.
There is a new movie out about Bayard Rustin. Rustin was the man who organized the March on Washington that we associate with Martin Luther King. Watching an interview with Coleman Domingo, who plays Rustin in the movie, sent me back to 1968 in Washington D.C. I signed on to help with the Poor People’s Campaign, and was in the capital city when King was killed and during the fires and riots that followed. We were trained by Quaker pacifists, and after the killing, listened to Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, and others urge us to continue with the campaign. Dead heroes still have power.
The story of Bayard Rustin, and the voices of Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers give me hope.
And Rustin, Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Jesse Jackson, the whole Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the chorus of white preachers and popular musicians who buoyed King as he marched, spoke, and wrote Civil Rights into the national conversation.
Kennedy rose with the hopes of a generation born and framed by WW II, and wanting peace. The people who guided him, people like Sarge Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, and the young Bill Moyers and Ted Sorenson, were supporters and co-authors of Kennedy’s vision for a better, and more peaceful, world. In the Peace Corps, we counted ourselves ground troops.
Today, we hear the loud voices of war and conflict. But there are other voices—Israeli, Palestinian, Russian, Ukrainian—struggling to keep people alive and drive us towards peace. It might sound corny, but there is no Willy Mays without a bunch of Wes Westrums, no Martin Luther King without Bayard Rustin.
I’m sure that most of us want peace for Israelis and Palestinians, Ukrainians and Russians. Sure also that there are plenty of strong bench players. We wait for Willy Mays, for JFK, MLK, for the Gandhi of and for our age.
# # #