Thursday, June 25, 2015

Add Me to the List: No More Confederate Flag

Burn the damn things already, every last one of them except for those Confederate flags still in history museums. The lessons are deep, layered and still have messages for us today.

In Germany the Nazi flag is illegal.

Why on earth wouldn’t they allow that raging symbol of murder, torture, war and genocide to be publicly displayed by any citizen who likes it? I mean come on, it’s a part of Germany’s history!

Isn’t that the argument? That the Confederate flag is a part of the South’s history?

So because it’s a “part of history”, that should make it okay to be slapped on the front of your trucks, hung on the walls of your homes or garages, plastered on tee shirts, etched to the outside of your coffee mugs and baseball caps and, of course, to be flown from the top of your American state houses?

I think not. It’s a symbol of something slightly, if not deeply, similar to Germany’s Nazi holocaust.

Maybe we should start by talking about death. And slave labor. And acts of aggression against another country.

Half of all southern slave babies died within the first year (more than half the number of white babies at the time).

HALF OF ALL SLAVE BABIES DIED WITHIN THE FIRST YEAR.

By the age of 3-4, many slave toddlers were added to the work force. Take a look at your 3 year old child or grandchild; now imagine them being put to work. In the heat. With no shoes.

Imagine your 3 year old being taken from you and sold, like a dress or pair of shoes. Imagine all of your children being taken from you. Or your spouse. Or your mother, father, sister and brother.

Imagine being owned by another person.

Let me repeat that: Imagine being owned by another person. Say it out loud. Think about it.

Boys, by the age of 11 (my son’s age), had transferred to field work. Imagine your 11 year old being forced to work in 100 degree heat, for eleven hours straight while surviving on poor nutrition and unsanitary water.

The majority of slaves didn’t live past the age of 50.

Slaves suffered the effects of improper nutrition, unsanitary living conditions and excessive labor. This left them more susceptible to diseases and higher death rates. The water supplies were often contaminated and contained human excretions, leading to cholera, diarrhea, typhoid, tuberculosis, influenza and hepatitis.

But that flag? It’s just a part of history. You know, the grand old days of the South.

Oh, we know about the whippings, beatings and killings. Unless museums or schools deliberately exclude photos of the swollen and layered monstrosities of scars on the backs of slave men and women it would be hard to deny that these atrocities were associated with slavery.

There are ample photos of continued violence against blacks in the South even following the ratification of the 13th amendment. I’ll include photos of lynchings in case you don’t get the picture.

While we’re at it, how about some photos of the KKK eagerly wielding their sacred banner, the Union Jack, or the unrecognizably swollen and crushed face of young Emmett Till.

White supremacy groups still proudly fly the Confederate flag as a symbol of their hatred and bigotry (the Nazi flag is too obvious I guess?). They proclaim a mournful and wistful longing for the nostalgic old South. When fellow human beings were sold as cattle, ripped from the arms of their families, worked, beaten and crushed as if they were nothing more than an animal or insect and where that very belief, that these humans weren’t human, is singed into the depths of their souls, continues to fester and be transferred to their own offspring even as I type.

I don’t care who you are or where you live. Let’s not kid ourselves. The Confederate Flag represents violence, an economic patriarchy of the very few elite who were in power at the time, deep seeded racism and downright sedition and terrorism against the United States of America.

Yes, when the Confederates attacked America’s Fort Sumter in Charelston, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, it was an attack on America. As a result of the South’s treason toward the United States roughly 620,000 people died.

But some keep flying their bastardized flag, the flag of a fabricated country. Some actual State Capitals still fly this flag, which completely boggles the mind. A flag that was never recognized by any other nation in the world.

Make no mistake, the Civil War was about slavery, pure and simple. Oh, for certain, it was about slavery as it related to the economic standing of a small majority. Slavery was the cash cow of only the wealthiest in the south; the fact that black human beings were viewed as stock in the minds of a deeply racist culture simply made it easier to suck in the majority of poor southern citizens to fight for the wealthy even though they benefited very little from the slave industry. In fact, slavery had a negative impact on the economy and hurt the development of industry and urban areas. It contributed to high debts, soil exhaustion and a lack of technical innovation while at the same time northern urban areas were expanding greatly. The south neglected industry, transportation and education. But the rich had free labor. And power.

Wealth was far more stratified in the south than in the north because large slaveholders owned nearly all of the slaves and wealthy plantations possessed the majority of land and slaves alike. In 1850, 17% of farmers held two-thirds of all acreage; in a population of roughly six million 7% of slaveholders owned three-quarters of the slave population.

These same plantation owners also held the political power. During this time, voting ballots weren’t secret and any white man who didn’t vote to support the wealthy slave owner’s agenda risked backlash (ah, yes, more of the golden days when only white men could vote; wasn't it a grand time).

Poor people and non-slave owners simply went along with the whims of the wealthy because of their deeply held racist views and because they had no understanding of the economics involved that were making their lives even harder.

As for the worn out “states rights” argument? The Southern politicians believed that states shouldn’t have the right to make slavery illegal, making their argument hypocritical at best. The federal government was a vital necessity after the Revolutionary War because the rag tag colonies were struggling on their own, fragmented and not aligned. Creating the American union is what effectively helped preserve it.

And any discussion involving the powerful Southern wealthy elite dictating political and economic policy at all levels of state government can't help but bring about a horrifying sense of irony for some of us currently living in deeply red states.

Today, in Kansas, voters continue to elect leaders who put the desires of a few small uber-wealthy businessmen ahead of the needs of the majority of normal citizens. The power wielded by these businessmen has led to politicians being put into office who are willing to enact laws that hurt the majority of citizens greatly and, in some cases, violate actual law. Ignorance and wealthy backing continues to put these people in positions of power.

To recap, there are Americans who continue to honor a flag that represents murder, slavery, child abuse, neglect and inhumanity. They want to continue flying a flag that represented an economy which supported a small number of massively wealthy men who relied upon the poor, often uneducated, racist and easily influenced citizens of the South to commit treason against the United States of American and to eagerly submit themselves and their sons to death and injury on the field of battle.

Let’s get real. Those who support the Confederate flag’s continued existence in our culture didn’t live during the tiny amount of time the South pretended to be its own country. You didn’t fight in the “war” (uprising). You call yourselves Americans...because you are Americans. The Confederacy invaded America in a blatant act of aggression, was defeated and ceased to exist on April 9, 1865.

So truly, what honest reason could any real American or patriotic citizen have to honor the Confederate flag?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Man Who Knew Phog

How many times in our lives do we meet someone new and ignore the chance to find out about them?

I’m guilty.

I can recall times when I was simply not interested, or distracted or so busy I only wanted to shake hands and move on.

There was even a time in my life when I thought “I already have enough friends. I don’t have time for any more.”

So many missed opportunities. So many amazing people in this world, each unique and special and each with their own rare story to tell.

My high school reunion a month ago is a good example. I met someone who reminded me that it is important to look, listen and hear another person when you meet them. You just might find a gem and a reminder of the things you love.

A childhood friend approached me after our dinner banquet ended and said “hey, you need to meet this man because I think you’d be interested in him!”

The man’s name is Keith Kappelmann and by the end of our short visit I was compelled to return to my hotel room, mid-reunion, so I could write down every detail of our exchange.

Keith graduated from White City High School in 1944, two years after my Grandmother Mary Jean Harmison. She passed away six years ago and I have felt the loss deeply. This man knew her, remembered her.

Keith’s sister Jean was also with him and she graduated in 1949 with my late Great Aunt Naomi Harmison. White City is a very small town and people from this generation are disappearing rapidly.

The first thing I did after returning home that weekend was to dig out my Grandmother’s 1942 year book. It is thin, paper, tattered and yellowed but I have loved looking at since moving in with my grandparents at the age of six. I know each page, recognize the names of her 17 class members. I would lie on the floor in our dining room and pour over the pages. Harlow Warneke, class Vice-President, seemed so handsome to me. Thelma Pretzer, class Secretary Treasurer, must have been smart, at least in my young mind.

I always thought my grandmother was the prettiest in her class and I could pick her out of every group photo.

Somehow, though, in those same group photos, I had missed a tall sophomore named Keith Kappelmann.

Keith told me that he remembered my Grandmother, that she had been sweet and kind. I knew this but it was wonderful hearing it from someone who had known her in her youth.

This little connection was only that, though. Little.

Keith and I had far more in common.

You see, Keith was tall for that time. 6’5 in fact. And he played basketball.

He planned to attend the University of Kansas and maybe, just maybe, play basketball under Phog Allen. Unfortunately, World War II was raging and like the rest of his generation Keith entered the military.

Yes, another connection.

Keith joined the United States Army and served in the Battle of Okinawa.

For those of you who know my own story, Okinawa is a very poignant place to my family. Keith served there at the same time as my Grandfather Delbert. Keith told me he spent most of his time on Okinawa helping with the supply chain on the Yontan airbase. My grandfather would’ve been further south at the same time, in heavy combat prior to losing his arm during the battle for Dakeshi Ridge.

Two Morris County boys, halfway around the world, fighting for their country on a small island in the middle of the Pacific.

I wonder if their paths ever crossed. If the jeep carrying my grandfather’s battered and injured body maybe passed by Keith as he was walking on the air base. So physically close, both knowing the same blue eyed girl, and yet so far away at the same time.

I’m sure I may have appeared a little odd and eager to Mr. Kappelmann, who is now in his nineties. In a ballroom filled with people a 46 year old woman was peppering him with questions, intent and focused. Of course he downplayed his time in the service, saying he didn’t do “much”, just helped on the airbase. Only I know what happened on the Island of Okinawa in 1945, to our own servicemen, to the Japanese soldiers and, most important, to the natives. It was a violent and turbulent place with many victims and nightmares.

When Mr. Kappelmann returned to Kansas he chose the same path as my grandfather. They both entered the University of Kansas in the fall of 1946 under the GI Bill. In addition to combing through my grandmother’s high school year book, I also dug through a University of Kansas 1946 year book, picked up several years ago in a KU vintage shopping expedition. I had never explored the KU album as deeply as I have in the following weeks since meeting Mr. Kappelmann and it has been a fascinating journey. In the fall of 1946, according to one of the year book articles, there were 370 veterans enrolled at KU. Mr. Kappelmann and my grandfather would have been two of them. By the spring, the number of veterans would be well over a thousand.

By that same fall of ‘46, Delbert was a married father, trying to juggle husband and father duties while completing homework using a single, non-dominant hand. The disability presented struggles, although to use that word could invoke his wrath.

Keith was single and, in piecing together what I can from our short chat, tried to resume his original course before the war created a detour.

Which involved Jayhawk Basketball.

Talk about yanking the proverbial “Marlys chain”. My grandmother…White City High School circa 1940’s…World War II Okinawa…KU basketball. We would be soul mates if only the same age and single.

I tried to contain myself while talking to Mr. Kappelmann. It was apparent that his small group was heading home from the reunion when we were introduced and I didn’t want to delay them. But curiosity was obnoxiously roaring in my head, creeping from my tongue.

The basketball story is short. There was roster space for 20 players and Keith was the 21st player, meaning he could still practice with the squad without suiting up. But he was a different man after the war, as was an entire generation.

He mentioned Charlie Black and Otto Schnellbacher; seemed impressed that I knew who these men were. He talked about the break the war caused and how the top tier players had been able to play while over seas, leaving them more like professionals after they returned. Players who hadn’t seen a basketball court during their time in the military had lost valuable time and seemed remedial next to the All-Americans.

The old veteran and KU alum was honest and forthright. He said that during one particular practice Phog Allen was pushing him to perform a particular spin move the correct way. The famed coach told Keith he wanted it perfected by the next day.

Keith told me he thought to himself “you know, I don’t really need this job.” So he left the team and continued moving forward with a free education (the word “free” somehow doesn’t seem quite appropriate now, does it).

I immediately thought to myself “no wonder - you had just been through war and this must’ve seemed so trivial, so minor; now that you had the financial support through the GI Bill to pay for an education I can’t say that I blame you.”

He talked about dunking and the fact that it was a fairly new phenomena and one which Phog Allen deeply disagreed. The players who were able to dunk would wait until Phog left the gym and then they would take every opportunity to dunk. The price, if caught, was high because Phog would bench the offenders during the next game.

Standing next to Keith was Jean’s husband. He was a Lawrence High School graduate, Class of ’49, and, like his brother-in-law Keith, had stories to share.

He said as a kid he managed a paper route which went right by Phog Allen’s home and he would often see Phog out walking. In 1938 his Boy Scout troop watched a game in Hoch Auditorium. It was so crowded students had to sit on the stage.

What was absolutely fascinating to me was the way they all still seemed to remember small details, like purchasing tickets to half of the basketball and football games for $20 during a time when only a fraction of the student body could even fit into Hoch Auditorium.

Keith’s brother-in-law recalled a time when Phog would actually address the young men who were registering for selective service, giving them a patriotic pep talk, if you will.

The conversation eventually drifted to Dick Harp and Phog’s retirement. Although Keith hasn’t seen the new movie, staring Justin Wesley, he says there was a law at the time that required Phog to retire at a certain age. But he gives credit to Coach Dick Harp, Allen’s predecessor, for ushering in an era of African American acceptance onto the court during a time when the country was extremely segregated.

Politeness required that I eventually allow them to continue heading towards the door but Mr. Kappelmann shared one last bit of information about himself. After college he joined the Air Force instead of reenlisting in the Army and served in the Korean War.

And although I was feeling guilty for holding them up and pressing them with questions, he relieved my guilt by telling me that meeting me and seeing my interest in him was the best part of the two reunions he had attended. They told me it was nice meeting a member of the Harmison Clan.

It was a brief meeting, a passing if you will. But I’ve continued to think about all three of them because they are from a generation that we are losing by the day, by the hour. Certainly, meeting someone who was coached by Phog Allen was a genuine pleasure. Hearing stories of Hoch Auditorium and Phog’s disdain for the slam dunk was, in the vernacular, awesome.

I was more honored, though, to meet a World War II Veteran, someone who had served on the same island at the same time as my grandfather. And though Mr. Kappelmann and every other member of The Greatest Generation will tell you “I was nothing, I did nothing, the others were heroes”, many of us recognize that this isn’t true at all. Every one of them contributed and was part of a unity and a commitment to putting our country, our freedom and our way of life before all else.

I’m documenting this to thank him for his service and for sharing a little of himself with a stranger. It meant more to me than he could know and for just a brief moment I could imagine him as a young man walking the halls of White City High School with a beautiful young blue eyed girl named Mary Jean Harmison.

Make sure to talk to people. You never know if their story may speak to you.

Update 11/09/2015: I received notice today that Mr. Kappelmann passed away on October 31. Having lost my own grandparents, I can honestly say it is a bittersweet thing when such a unique and special member of this generation leaves us. What an amazing life he lived and what a humble gift it was to have met him so soon before he left his family and friends. Obituary linked here.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Year of Firsts

Another “first”.

Yes, the “firsts” hurt. Deeply.

The first Thanksgiving wasn’t as difficult because I made sure we would be out of town, visiting Brian’s parents in sunny Florida where I could stay busy and not think about it as much.

Thanksgiving was always the one holiday we spent with my Grandparents. The singular tradition I maintained after we got married and the one time a year when the majority of Stone offspring were together, unified in our deep love, adoration and loyalty to Delbert and Mary Jean.

Christmas was the holiday I decided years ago would be spent with our own tiny family unit. As the child of my grandparents, whose home was THE hub for all holidays, I remembered Christmas being a madhouse. I love my extended family but thought maybe we would make Christmas a tradition where we didn’t have to get out of our pajamas, where we would literally hang out and do nothing…no driving all over town, having to get dressed up or having to worry about making meals and desserts. It has been a wonderful tradition.

The first Christmas wasn’t as difficult because we did what we always did. We stayed home.

The first birthday was a tough one. I typically begin thinking about what I’m going to get my Grandpa Stone for his birthday not long after Christmas. He was just always so much fun to buy for.

The man collected pens, hats, knives, trinkets, gadgets, books, KU memorabilia, Marine Corps mementos and old school Democratic collectables. Buying for him was easy and once you bought him something he would use it. He would display it. He would find subtle and not-so-subtle ways to let you know how much he enjoyed his gifts.

He was like a little kid, eager to play with any new toy.

I never bought gifts for my biological father, having met him so late in life. He lives far away and I don’t know him well enough to feel comfortable buying for him. Likewise, I didn’t have the chance to shop like this for my Grandfather Wentworth because dementia had already taken hold of his precious mind by the time I introduced myself to him as his granddaughter. But Grandpa Stone? Oh how I loved to buy gifts for him, from an early age.

Yes. The first birthday hurt.

Today, Father's Day, is the last grueling summit of “firsts”.

I will get through today because my husband will keep me busy; the kids and I will be celebrating him. But I am reminded, in complete and total simplicity, that I am very sad sometimes. And I miss my Grandfather deeply, viscerally.

Those of you who have already lost your fathers or father figures know exactly what I am saying.

For some of you, it has been many years and the sting lessons over time. But it doesn’t mean you don’t still pause at times, still wince, still want to pick up the phone…and still want to buy that perfect item for them.

For others, the loss is recent. Maybe just last week. You are still trying to wrap your minds and hearts around the fact that you will never be able to look into his eyes again, talk to him again or hear him laugh again.

My heart goes out to you. The year of “firsts” is just starting.

We each handle grief in our own way, but I think the “firsts” are maybe not quite so bad in hindsight. They allow us to pause, let the grief wash over us, and feel what needs to be felt. I need those soulful crying episodes every once in a while. They are cleansing.

And in some way, during those moments, I am connected with the man I mourn losing. I feel him and know that he is beside me. I believe that his spirit understands how much I loved him…how much I still do.

Today I will cherish our time with Brian and I will encourage my kids to take advantage of the memories they are making with their own father. I will rejoice in my heart the life I had with Delbert and the lessons he taught me. I will laugh and tease, just as he always did.

Today’s “first” will be a celebration of my hero. Today will be a great day.

Here’s to you Grandpa Stone…I miss you.