Sunday, April 13, 2008

April 4th, and Heroes

April 4th is a day of reflection for me. I know, it's April 13th today, but I was busy and didn't have time to post. So sue me.

April 4th is the day that two very important people in my life died. The first I didn't know personally, but is someone whose life history had a profound impact on my view of how people can work together. His name was Martin Luther King. Dr. King, as everyone who has gone to school knows was an iconic figure of the 1950's and 1960's responsible for moving the cause of civil rights forward. Killed in 1968, he died doing what he did best: working for the common man. He was shot in Memphis while working with local garbage collectors who were on strike for better wages.

King was a memorable figure for me because of his view towards non-violence as a way of protesting and solving conflict. King, Gandhi and the other fellow I'll tell you about in a moment all had a point of view that violence only begets other violence. The idea that you could work through your problems rather than fight about them was a central theme in the philosophies of these men. This has had a profound impact on my world-view.

Dr. King was not only a voice for civil rights, he was also a voice for America in that he wasn't a blind patriot in the mode of Dick Cheney or George Bush. He loved America like one loves their children. Praise them when they do well, rebuke them when they need it. His speech at the Riverside Church (pastored by another of my heroes: Rev. William Sloan Coffin) is as relevant today as it was when he made it in 1967. One excerpt from that speech is timeless. Simply substitute the word Southeast Asia for Viet Nam, add in Latinos and see what I mean:

"Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. And so we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor."

Dr. King was as right now as he was then. I see no difference in the futility of purpose of Viet Nam and Iraq.

The other fellow I mentioned above is my Dad. He died on April 4, 2004. He was a cancer victim and passed away at age 79. My Dad was as heroic and impactful to me as King, John Kennedy, Mickey Mantle, etc. etc.

Sam Sherrard, or S.C. as his friends called him was a working man. He was in the grocery business for about 45 years. Anyone who has worked in this field knows of the long hours, back-breaking work and minimal pay that it brings.

Self educated, he was the first of his family to finish high school. After completing his military service in World War II, he came home and decided to go to work rather than college. The mythology I grew up with said he went to work because his family was effectively destitute and he had to support his mother, father and "no-account" brothers. The reality that I learned later in life from him personally was he was "too frightened" to go to college. So, he took what he considered the easy way out and went to work. I find deep irony in this. Here was a man, who at the age of 18 was drafted and sent into the bloodiest war in history, and after surviving that, comes home and is too afraid to try college. He takes the "easy" way out by deciding to work in a field that pays very little and requires a lifetime of hard labor.

However, he read voraciously. He had an immense vocabulary and became a self-taught historian, particularly regarding the Civil War and World War II. The conversations he and I had later in both of our lives was as valuable to me as gold bullion.

What's heroic about my Dad is that he lived his life without a lot of complaint. Oh, he was distrustful of the rich, as most non-rich people are, but I never heard him complain about his life decisions. He sucked it up and made the best of it. He loved his work. He taught my brother and I simple lessons: Integrity is of paramount importance. Always give a dollar's value for a dollar's pay. Be faithful to your friends, your loved ones and your family. Stand up for what you believe.

Pretty simple stuff. Pretty courageous stuff. I miss him a lot.

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