Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Laughin' & a-Scratchin'

Every now and then I have a moment of duh. I’m sure we all do. It is that moment when you realize that you have totally overlooked something important and you need to rectify it as soon as you can.

Consider this my moment of duh.

Over a year ago I wrote a story about my mother, a heartfelt homage to a wonderful person. Since then I realized that I never did a similar tribute to my father. And this was a clear whiff on my part, because Charles Herald Bryan was one of a kind. To begin with, yes, that’s how his middle name is spelled, as in ‘Hark the Herald Angel sing’. This probably has to do with his West Virginia roots, but I cannot say for sure.

My dad went by Chuck, though he also answered to Charlie. He was a Chuck. He would greet you with a smile & a firm handshake as if you were his longtime friend. Chuck made friends easily. He had a knack at making you feel at ease within a few seconds of meeting him. How? With pithy phrases to mundane questions. For example, an innocuous, ‘How are you?’ was answered with any of a variety of colorful retorts: "I never had a bad day", or "Glad to be on this side of the earth", or my absolute favorite, "I’m just laughin’ & a-scratchin’." I have no earthly idea what "I’m just laughin’ & a-scratchin’" means. I just know it brought a smile to the other’s person’s face and made them feel comfortable. Chuck was very good at that.

Dad was quite a contradiction. He could be very self-centered, almost self-absorbed. But at the drop of a hat he would do anything for you. I know in my life he did that many times. If I was in any kind of situation that needed his assistance, he was there. Usually at 5:30 in the damn morning, but he was there. Because that was another of his traits - a very, VERY early riser. When I was still living at home & in my early 20’s, I would stagger home at 3 or 4 in the morning to find my dad just waking up, drinking coffee & smoking a Winston. In the dark. ‘Good morning son’. ..‘Goodnight Dad.’

Which brings me to another one of his lovable traits. He was not a judgmental person. Now I am sure my siblings may have a different take on that, but what I mean is that dad was not an intervener. Instead, I think he believed, at least for me, in allowing people to make their own mistakes. I married the wrong woman - he supported me. I got into a couple of jams in my younger years - he was there to bail me out of them. Never once did I hear from him, ‘If I were you I would…’ Instead, his typical line was, ‘Son, if you’re happy, I’m happy.’

And he was a happy guy. That’s the part of his personality I have tried to incorporate into mine. To this day, when people ask me how I am, I try to refrain from the bland ‘Fine’ answer but instead search my mind for WWCS - What Would Chuck Say. My latest favorite for that question is ‘I’m just living the dream.’

I will tell you what made me mad about Dad. He didn’t take care of himself. He was a lifetime smoker, two packs a day. He didn’t watch his diet (one of these days I will relate the custard pie story). He didn’t exercise. As a result, he had a number of health issues & heart bypass surgeries. In fact, that was the way he lived his life - do what you want, eat what you want, let the doctors fix you up when needed. And it was one of these surgeries that ended up taking his life. He had a heart bypass on April 2, 1997. He never came out of it. And on April 12, 1997, he passed away at the too-young age of 71.

But knowing Dad, even that wasn’t a bad day. Because he never had a bad day.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

May 4, 1970

In two days, the 40th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State University will occur. Forty years.

In May 1970 I was a 12-year old boy growing up about t
en minutes from Kent State. Six years later, I was student there. And now I am an alumnus, having earned both my Bachelors and Masters degrees there. That doesn't make me any kind of expert on what happened on 5/4/70, but it does, hopefully, point out that the venue has been a large part of my life.

I still remember riding with my mom
on the weekend that preceded the shootings. We were passing the National Guard Armory in Akron, where a line of trucks, troops and equipment were rolling down the highway. I asked my mom what this was all about. She replied "Oh, there's something going on at Kent State and the governor called the National Guard." And as usual, when my mom said something, it had a certain logical finality to it that made me just think, oh, okay. And that was that.

But then Monday May 4th came. And the tragedy of that day, as we know, ended up having far-reaching ramifications that vastly changed geopolitics, and, as many historians concluded, aided in ending the Vietnam War. As a black student colleague of The Washington Post writer Clarence Page stated, "Man, they're killing white kids now." Anti-war protests up to that point were considered communal sit-ins where the far-left fringes smoked dope & sang Joan Baez songs. After Kent, this stuff became serious. Now it was clear that your life could be in danger if you dared speak up...or show up. Which, given American's penchant for thumbing their noses at authority, had the effect of exponentialism. It made people angrier. And louder. And eventually, no longer at war in a far away jungle.

But in my community it had a very different effect. Thi
s happened in our backyard, and many families had both Kent State students and National Guard members in them. Picture that dinner conversation. In neighborhoods and bars across the area, you would have violent arguments between people who had a child in college there, and another who had a Guardsmen as a son. Those Guardsmen were local kids too. It was, in effect, a Civil War scenario in northeast Ohio. And up until that point we were just middle-class middle-America. We weren't overly concerned with worldly matters. But what we became gravely concerned with was how our community was being torn apart - Kent State was not some kind of activist hotbed - it just happened to be the intersection point of history. And we had a real hard time accepting that.

Through the years, the University has had difficulties in adequately commemorating this event. For the first ten
years, it was a head-in-sand mentality, almost as if the University refused to believe it occurred. Case in point - the parking lot where three of the four students died remained unchanged for years. It was as if the University was saying that having places for cars to park took precedence. They even tried to officially change the name of the University from 'Kent State' to just 'Kent'.
But as the years went on, and the historians wrote the accounts of the Vietnam War, Kent State was increasingly recognized as a pivotal point. It was when the war came home. It was then that the University realized that history occurred here, and it could not be denied. Today, the efforts put forth to recognize the events are, in my opinion, perfect. That Prentice Hall parking lot now had cordoned-off areas where Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer & Allison Krause died (see the picture to the right - that's Jeffrey Miller's spot where the 6 lanterns are under the pagoda roof). William Schroeder's felled spot is also cordoned off. There is a memorial to the east of Taylor Hall with four granite monoliths, and to put it in context, 58,226 flowers were planted around them - the number of U.S. deaths in Vietnam. The pagoda where the Guard fired still stands. As does the metal sculpture next to Taylor Hall with a bullet hole in it.

What were the lessons of Kent State? Oh my goodness. Volumes have been written on that subject. Who was to blame? Ditto. And I am not going to get into that here. But I do have to say how it affected me. This is, after all, my blog. I spent a lot of time reading about this event. I have walked the site of the shootings countless times. I have even talked to some of the wounded students - and some of the Guardsmen. And in the final analysis I cannot fathom a situation that necessitated armed troops firing on unarmed students, killing four, wounding nine.

So my lesson was a pretty simple one. Just two words:

Question authority.