Friday, August 30, 2013

Branch, Jackie, and Pee Wee


Earlier this month June and I watched “42,” the new movie about Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 became the first African-American to play in major league baseball.
Strangely, I don’t remember much about him specifically. His being a black player seemed to be no big deal four years later when I saw Robinson play. My Aunt Mary took me and a friend to St. Louis in June of 1951, and the first day there we saw the Cardinals play the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson (as well as Pee Wee Reese) was in the starting lineup.
The movie “42” also features Branch Rickey, who became general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1942. He determined in 1945 to bring an outstanding “Negro” player to the major leagues.
In “42” Harrison Ford did a wonderful job portraying Mr. Rickey (1881-1965), as most people called him. Since Rickey’s parents were staunch Methodists, they named him Wesley, but he generally went by Branch, his middle name, taken from John 15:2.
According to the movie, Branch liked Robinson as a strong candidate for the first black major league player (and there were many others) partly because of Jackie’s religion. “He’s a Methodist,” says Rickey. “I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist!”
In his first season with the Dodgers, Robinson played first base, and one of his teammates and main supporters was “Pee Wee” Reese, the shortstop and captain of the team. Little did I know when I saw them play in 1951 that eight years later I would become pastor of the Baptist church in Ekron, Kentucky, the town nearest to where Pee Wee was born.
This month I discovered that Pee Wee’s grandmother died in 1924 and was buried in the cemetery right behind the church where I conducted several committal services during my four-plus years as pastor in Ekron.
Pee Wee was born in 1918 and lived near Ekron until he was eight years old when his family moved to Louisville. However, his father Carl Reese died in 1938 and was buried in the Buck Grove Baptist Church Cemetery, about three miles from Ekron.
When we lived in Ekron, I remember hearing some of the old-timers around Buck Grove talk not just about Pee Wee but about his father. Some said Carl was probably a better baseball player than his son but just never had the chance to play professionally.
One of the touching scenes in the movie portrays the real-life incident that occurred when the Dodgers played in Cincinnati for the first time in the fall of 1947. Jackie was the target of considerable hostility, and Kentuckian Pee Wee even received hate mail before that first game with the Reds in Crosley Field.
With the crowd booing as the Dodgers took the field, Pee Wee ran over to first base and put his arm around Jackie in an act of friendship and solidarity.

That touching event is depicted in a statue unveiled at MCU Park in Coney Island in 2005. Sadly, that statue was defaced with swastikas and racial epithets earlier this month.
Still, societal conditions are certainly much better now than they were in 1947—or in 1963. But as the President and others reminded us Wednesday at the Lincoln Memorial, there is still much to be done for racial equality and justice in this country.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Futility of Retaliation

Quite a celebration has been planned for next weekend in my hometown, Grant City, Missouri, in commemoration of its founding 150 years ago, in February 1863.
The town was named after Ulysses S. Grant, a Union solider in the Civil War who was stationed in Missouri when President Lincoln appointed him to be a brigadier general in August 1861. Grant then fought a series of successful battles and was promoted to major general in 1862.
But while people in Grant City will be celebrating its sesquicentennial, people in other parts of Missouri are remembering the terrible devastation of their houses and other property 150 years ago this month—just as the people of Lawrence, Kansas, recently remembered the destruction of their town on August 21, 1863, as I wrote about in my previous posting.
As a direct result of the Lawrence Massacre, and in an effort to defuse the “border war,” General Thomas Ewing issued Order No. 11 on August 25. That order resulted in the burning of most of the rural houses and crops of the Missourians who lived in Cass and Benton counties and parts of Jackson and Vernon counties. That was the area adjacent to the Missouri-Kansas border from the southwestern part of Kansas City to north of Nevada.
At that time, George Caleb Bingham was the Missouri state treasurer, and he knew and personally disliked Gen. Ewing. Bingham said to Ewing: “If you execute this order, I shall make you infamous with pen and brush.”
Even though Bingham also served as a Union soldier, he was appalled by the consequences of Order No. 11, which Ewing did execute. That resulted in much of those four counties being destroyed by fire, and the area came to be known as the “Burnt District.” The population of Cass County, for example, was reduced from 10,000 to 600. And in 1868 Bingham did paint a picture depicting the sad consequences of Order No. 11, which became the title of the painting.
On August 17, June and I went down to the River Market area of Kansas City and saw the reenactment of the issuance of Order No. 11. That took place across the street from Pacific House, the very building that was the headquarters of Ewing after he was promoted to brigadier general in March 1863 and given command of the District of the Border, which was comprised of Kansas and western Missouri. A small print of Bingham’s famous painting hangs on the wall in Pacific House now.


Order No. 11 was issued mainly in retaliation for Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, which was largely in retaliation for James Lane’s raid on Osceola, Mo., in 1861. And so it went, violence begetting violence. This evokes the memory of Martin Luther King’s oft-quoted statement, “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.”
People of power never seem to learn, though. The terrorist attack of 9/11/01 spawned retaliation on Afghanistan, and the ongoing war on terrorism now conducted increasingly with drones and causing the death of non-terrorists, women and children as “collateral damage” continues to spawn anger toward the U.S.
Thankfully, the March on Washington led by King 50 years ago next Wednesday (Aug. 28, 1963) recognized that reconciliation is better than retaliation. I wish the “bushwhackers” and “jayhawkers” had recognized that in the 1850’s and ’60s.
And I wish the President and the U.S. government had recognized that in 2001, and would even now recognize the futility of retaliation and the urgent need to work more diligently for reconciliation.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Border Wars

In celebration of my birthday last week, June and I made an overnight trip to Lawrence, Kansas. It was largely because of recently watching the 1999 Ang Lee movie “Ride with the Devil” that we decided to make the short trip to Lawrence and to do some sight-seeing there.
Part of the movie was about the infamous “Lawrence Massacre,” which occurred 150 years ago tomorrow, on August 21, 1863. That event, also known as “Quantrill’s Raid,” was a guerrilla attack led by William Quantrill. Between 150 and 200 men and boys were killed in that atrocious raid.


We re-traced the path of the guerrillas’ rampage, which began around 5 a.m. on that fateful August morning. We also visited the Watkins Community Museum of History, just a block from South Park that was part of the original layout of Lawrence when it was platted in 1854.
Watkins Museum houses exhibits from Lawrence and Douglas County—and a new permanent exhibition featuring the events of 1863 officially opened last Saturday. Fortunately, we were able to get a “peek preview” of that fine new $300,000 exhibition.
At noon on the fifteenth we dined in the historic Eldridge hotel. On that site, the Free State Hotel, a well-fortified structure built by the staunch anti-slavery Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society to receive anti-slavery settlers as they arrived from the east, was completed in May 1856--and burned down the same day by the avid pro-slavery sheriff as well as ruffians" from Missouri!
Colonel Shalor Eldridge rebuilt the hotel, naming it Eldridge House. That building, completed in December 1858, was then destroyed less than five years later during Quantrill’s Raid. But Eldridge and others built it back in 1866.
The new Eldridge House was torn down in 1925 and then rebuilt as The Eldridge. In 1970, though, it was turned into an apartment house. But in 1985 it became a hotel again after the top four floors were completely rebuilt and the lobby restored to its original elegance.
Before the Civil War started, the guerrilla free-state fighters were known as “Jayhawkers,” and they often clashed with pro-slavery groups from Missouri known at the time as “Border Ruffians” or “Bushwhackers.” After the Civil War, the word “Jayhawker” became synonymous with the people of Kansas.
In 1890 when the University of Kansas, located in Lawrence, fielded their first football team they were called the Jayhawkers. Now the KU sports teams are known as simply the Jayhawks.
After June and I moved to Liberty in 2005, we became fans of the University of Missouri Tigers basketball team, and we especially enjoyed the exciting games with the KU Jayhawks. Those games were sometimes called “border wars,” though.
The more we learned about the real border wars of the 1850s and ’60s, the more uncomfortable we felt. We were not particularly happy when MU transferred to the SEC, bringing the MU v. KU rivalry to an end. But at least we are no longer regularly reminded of those horrendous days when the deadly border wars were being fought.
Somehow we went through the Missouri school system not learning much about the appalling conflict between the Bushwhackers and the Jayhawkers. I don’t know if that wasn’t mentioned much back then or whether we just weren’t paying attention.
At any rate, although there has in the past been intense rivalry between the MU and KU sports teams, and while there is now some economic rivalry between the states especially in the Kansas City area, at least there is no longer actual fighting with lethal weapons.
Some things, thankfully, have improved over the last 150 years!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The First Day of Winter

No, I am not confused about the date, as maybe you wondered when you saw the title of this posting. I know it is still more than four months until the first day of winter according to the 2013 calendar. But I am writing about the seasons of life.
The Japanese make much of the four seasons. Often in Japan you see four paintings of the same scene in nature, but each in a different season. Sometimes, though, a person’s lifetime is said to have four seasons.
Traditionally, there seems to have been the idea that each season is 20 years long. There are special birthday remembrances for those who turn sixty, which would be the first day of winter if each season is twenty years.
Years ago I had a Japanese acquaintance who thought that each season should be 30 years long, so he talked about living to be 120. (I have lost touch with him, and I’m afraid he has already passed away, long before reaching 120.)
Still, maybe he was onto something. The cover of the May 2013 issue of “National Geographic” shows a young child, above whose picture are the words: “This Baby Will Live to be 120.” And a footnote says, “It’s not just hype. New science could lead to very long lives.”
But for me and maybe for all of you reading this, living until 120 is quite unlikely, and perhaps not even desirable. Realistically, four seasons of 25 years is perhaps all we can expect—and even at that most of us will likely not make it to the end of winter.
I am writing this because today, August 15, is my 75th birthday, and I am thinking of this as being the first day of winter for me. Actually, I started thinking about this more than a year ago. And I thought I would probably make several lifestyle changes at the beginning of winter.
For example, I thought I would not sign up to teach any more university classes. And I thought I would quit jogging and just take long walks for exercise.
But during the past several months I changed my mind. I have agreed to start teaching my one class again at Rockhurst University next week. I am also going to keep on jogging two-miles a time, five days a week – at least for now.
Of course, health is a big factor in what one does. Illness greatly hampers a person’s activities regardless of age. But I have decided that as long as one is healthy there is no use ceasing to do what one enjoys doing, or what is good for you, because of an arbitrary date.
So I am going to keep on keeping on, enjoying winter, and enjoying being active, for as long as possible.
What about you? According to a Pew Research study released this month, “69% of American adults would like to live to be 79 to 100 years old.” But only 8% wanted to live past 100. So maybe four 25-year seasons is a good way to think about the “ideal” length of life.
Those of us who are already 75 or older can enjoy the beauty of winter. And for the rest of you who have not yet reached winter, let me assure you that it will be here faster than you think.