Confessions of a White Privileged Radical

Walking the ‘Hood With the Bats

In a time when Americans are inundated by messages of “support the troops,” and “honor our veterans,” and simultaneously veterans continue to commit suicide at alarming rates, go homeless and hungry, face battles with addiction, and isolate themselves, it certainly feels as if more effort can be made to think of and offer innovative programs and therapies that may better address veterans’ needs. While this researcher would not claim that therapeutic horticulture is a panacea to all the problems that plague the veteran population, nor would she argue that every veteran would be interested in and/or benefit from this modality, as this research shows, some veterans are reaping significant benefit by engaging in this practice.

Therapeutic Horticulture as a Healing Tool for Veterans, Dr. Cherie Eichholz, UPenn PhD Dissertation, Spring 2020

There is something really special about gardening. You get lost in it. Working the soil. Going to the nursery, creating designs, and then sitting there in this place you created. You can just sit there – with a coffee in the morning or a beer in afternoon – just watching the bees and butterflies and bugs, watching as different plants mature at different times. I never thought I could just sit there and be. I never thought this could give me so much joy.

Wounded Vietnam Marine combat veteran Frank Corcoran, quoted in Dr. Eichholz’s PhD dissertation

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It’s become very evident from polls that most Americans feel the country is in real trouble. I’m one of them. I’m a Vietnam veteran; I don’t suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but I do have a whopping case of Survival Guilt and I do feel I’ve lived my whole post-Vietnam life in an effort to heal from what is these days called The Moral Wound. That is, once I began to educate myself about the war I participated in as a kid, the scales began to fall from my eyes, to use the metaphor applied to the Biblical soldier named Saul who became the disciple Paul. Since I was 20-years-old, this learning process has never stopped, and I’m now 73.

As a kid, I volunteered to use skills taught to me by the US Army against the Vietnamese who were defending their country. It’s that simple. Later, I taught myself photography and practiced it on trips to Central America during the Reagan Wars in the 1980s. The following lines from Salvadoran poet Claudia Lars have for some reason haunted me ever since:

I saw the masked men

Throwing truth into a well.

When I began to weep for it

I found it everywhere.

And here we are today. First, the COVID19 pandemic hit and stopped social life in its tracks, driving us to hide in our homes and forcing us to live on the internet, a place that over the years has become a haven for a host of nefarious operators with fraudulent intent or for spreading lies and fictions to accomplish things like getting Donald Trump elected President of the United States. Second, the pandemic quickly created conditions of unemployment that surpassed the Great Depression. And, third, police and white civilian killings of African Americans  culminating in the grotesque video taken by a brave 17-year-old girl through which the nation watched the nine-minute agonizing “wasting” of an honorable man’s life led to an explosion of civil unrest that has spread across the country. This all happened in a matter of a couple months.

The civil unrest is still spreading. While Donald Trump is acting more and more like a tyrant cornered in his palace. He’d like the 82nd Airborne and, perhaps, his own palace guard of uniformed psychopaths and 2nd Amendment militants to break up the protesting. There’s a genre of Latin American tyrant novel devoted to exactly this kind of man; all the so-called Boom Writers felt obligated to write one. Some of the greats are The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia), I The Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos (Paraguay), The Peron Novel by Tomas Eloy Martinez (Argentina) and El Senor Presidente by Miguel Angel Asturias (Guatemala).

Observing Donald Trump at work, the founding fathers in their white powdered wigs must be looking down and scratching their heads. “What the fuck!?” Jefferson must be muttering to his slave mistress Sally, “Who are these people who’ve taken over my little experiment?”

Not being one inclined to seek therapy, I don’t know what the shrinks might call it, but my stress level these days has gone up the scale and over the top. Since I’m not the type to react and fulminate on raw emotion, I’ve become a writer who can’t write. Before I can run words together, I need some kind of experiential or intellectual grounding of understanding — or at least enough understanding of what’s going on that I can convince myself to take the plunge. Reading the paper and watching the news, I was feeling a bit like the proverbial deer in the headlights. Then I realized this was exactly what President Trump wanted and that he was reveling and dancing in the halls of the White House at my stymied condition. He seems to be that kind of sadistic rat. As with many others, this pissed me off.

Metaphors are great. As a writer, I live by them as wordsmiths have done since the beginning of time; they help us imagine that we’ve got our minds wrapped around very complex and perplexing things. Everybody does it. And although he may not really understand what he’s doing when he does it, our would-be tyrant president (I like referring to him as “Agent Orange”) can take a tiny, insignificant element of life and flog it like a poet with a bludgeon until it represents, for some, an obnoxious, often racist truth applicable to the whole, complex nation of 300 million people. Complexity ignored and made simple-minded and self-serving; language used to befog, to obfuscate, rather than to enlighten. His base, of course, loves it when he insults and beats up on liberals and leftists. Michael Moore is right: Good people underestimate him at their peril.

[My assistant, Charlie, who helps me make sense of the New York Times every morning, my scribblings evident on the Sports Section.]

So for my sanity I’ve decided to think globally and act locally. I can get so “local” that I do things like paint our house, clean up our yard and make a number of raised-bed gardens for tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and an assortment of greens we’ll eat later. I love witnessing the growing process. I love taking the sprouted seedlings from my office/nursery and planting them in the garden, then to watch them “take” to the new environment and begin to grow into food-providing mature plants guided by mysterious biological instructions I’m ignorant of but, nevertheless, in awe of. Watching it all distracts the mind from the human political madness I read about every morning in The New York Times with a cup of coffee and my unlicensed service animal, Charlie. Consulting Charlie by rubbing his belly and watching my vegetables grow makes me appreciate the most basic and fundamental fact of life, something instrumental to the idea of reform:

Life wants to live.

[One of my raised-bed gardens in need of some weeding.]

A few nights ago, I was so disturbed by all the crazy things rattling around in my political activist head that I could not sleep. I’d been painting red trim around the windows of our house after I’d earlier painted the whole house a dark storm blue. When I went to bed I didn’t change out of my black sweat pants that had paint all over them and the white t-shirt featuring a photograph of Paul Robeson, which was also covered with an assortment of paint drippings and splashes. Without my watch, I went to my back porch and sat in a chair by the table and just looked for the longest time at my back yard with the raised-bed gardens and the potted tomatoes and the majestic tulip-poplar tree we’d purchased at a fund-raiser many year ago and brought home in a pot in the back seat of our Volkswagen. I planted it in the yard between the house and the two-story former garage, now workshop/office, 60-feet behind the house — where I‘m writing this.

Last week, we’d been made aware of the vulnerability of large trees when in a wild storm our neighbor’s huge black walnut fell and crashed into his house, pulling down a spaghetti mess of hot electric wires that fed the entire neighborhood onto the roof of my workshop/office. It took four days for teams of electric and cable TV workers to put it all back together. Since we so take for granted our lifestyle, the down time was a pain-in-the-ass. But it was also an inspiring moment. A neighbor let me use his Honda generator for three or fours hours each day, which saved a freezer-full of meat. The sense of community cooperation and sharing in a crisis caused by the destructive chaos of nature was really encouraging in such a fraught time. I felt good about my ‘hood.

So here I was sitting on my back porch in the dark pondering my backyard in paint-spattered pajamas in only black socks as I began to sense the dawn sneaking up on my little world. I decided it was a great moment to walk around my neighborhood. I debated whether to go get my shoes, but decided the hell with it.

[At bottom, our blue house with the red trim; top right, the entrance to the cul-de-sac where I encountered the bats on my dawn reverie.]

We’ve lived in this cul-de-sac next to a high school for 27 years; it’s a development just beyond the Philadelphia border built in the post WWII moment as returning soldiers came home to go to college on the GI Bill and to raise baby-boomer families. American Exceptionalism was taking off. The first Interstate Highways were being built to connect the nation. Senator Joseph McCarthy was leading a national lynch mob focused on leftists. The Civil Rights movement was growing, and the early embers of Vietnam were glowing. The house we live in is one of dozens in the cul-de-sac, all cheap rectangular boxes; for some, the plans are reversed, some are all brick, some brick and siding; many now have additions. Lots of trees make the place look established. Then there’s the former garage-workshop in the back.

In the early fifties the township was dominantly white, and some might say our police department was tasked throughout the last half of the 20th century to protect the township from African American incursion from the city. The department was investigated by the FBI for racial profiling in 2003. Census projections suggest the African American population will soon be around 14%, the national figure.

As I set out to walk the ‘hood, everything was quiet with no traffic. I walked down the middle of the road, scanning left and right and into the trees and the sky, trying to soak up the reality of my neighborhood as I was aware I was living in an unprecedented, crazy moment in history in which everyone — even the experts — are clueless how things will turn out.

A friend of mine who is a cross-country trucker living in Kansas has a metaphor that aptly explains the mess we’re in: The country, he says, has entered a long, dark tunnel representing what I call the trifecta, pandemic, economic depression and civil unrest spreading across the nation. His point is that the nation that will come out of this long, dark tunnel is not going to be the same country that went into it. Donald Trump wants it to be a police state with him “dominating” everything from the top. Many of us — we’ll find out how many the first Tuesday of November — want something else, something that belatedly reforms the beleaguered mechanics of democracy, the police and criminal justice systems, our education systems, the environment, militarism obsessed with dominating the world, and the list goes on.

My wife and a friend organized a demonstration in our little township that turned out 300 people, one of whom was a young African American resident who told the crowd he had earlier said to someone it was very unlikely the township’s white residents would show up for a Black Lives Matter protest. “I have to eat my words,” he told the mostly white crowd. Meanwhile, it was hitting the fan across the border in Philly. Angry black activists feeling their righteous fury were articulating being fed up even with good-intentioned, white liberals. The Philadelphia police did some nasty things cornering a crowd and are facing an unprecedented intelligence operation of archived protest-friendly iphone videos that are being collected to make a case for an over-zealous police response to protesters. As in 1968 Chicago, the forensic question seems to be, who was the more obnoxious rioter, protesters or the police?  My wife is getting Black Lives Matter lawn signs printed up to be distributed in our township, something we’ve avoided in the past.

On my dawn walk, I passed the home of a police lieutenant I’ve engaged with off and on in recent years; much of my incentive to engage with our cops had to do with three unfortunate interactions I had with one officer in the past. The lieutenant and I seem at odds, politically, but I don’t know for certain. He doesn’t seem to be a perfect man; but neither am I. But after getting to know him a bit, after a little good-natured joking around, he seems to be a good man, aware of the need for good police supervision of officers like the one I had problems with. Due to the current unrest in the streets, our relationship and my publicly expressed concerns with the department have been renewed. As I walked past his house in the first glimmer of dawn, a fantasy took over my mind of someone (not him) noticing a wandering lunatic in paint-splotched pajamas walking down the middle of the street in his socks. In my fantasy, a series of events are set in motion based on fear and delusion, ending up with me being shot six times at dawn in the middle of the street.

The shooter would tell the cops: “When I asked him what he was doing, he told me to fuck off! I was scared for my life.” Meanwhile, poor me is laying in the street, bled out, my run on this earth over.

I’ve reached into the realm of fiction like this more than once in my life. But I don’t know; I feel I’ve heard stories of dead men in the street that don’t sound too far off such a fantasy. But, it’s true, I am white. It seems to me likely that many police shootings of African Americans are due to similar delusional fears on the part of white cops terrified of black rage. I feel deep in their heart they understand black rage is real and even justified, an understanding that can only intensify a young, inexperienced cop’s sense of confusion and fear. The only way to get over this kind of thing is for people of different races to engage and talk with each other. That especially means cops — if real community policing is the goal.

The culmination of my dawn reverie came as I turned back to my house, where in the driveway I expected to find The New York Times. Once the sun was up, I looked forward to sitting with a cup of coffee, with Charlie on the table rolling over for a belly rub, and reading about the latest madness. I was at the point where the cul-de-sac splits left and right. I became aware of movement and air displacement above me and soon realized it was dozens of small bats soaring and whipping around this way and that, critters I presumed had just woken up and were having breakfast of bugs caught on the fly.

I stood there in the middle of the road for maybe 20 minutes. the morning light increasing, totally dazzled by the flying mammals, following them with my gaze as they darted around. I imagined their radar being aware of me standing there, in the same way I sensed the air displacement from their movements. These were small bats, but it made me recall one dark night in El Salvador years ago under a huge tree when I felt the air displacement of something big in the air. I put the widest-angle lens I had on my camera and attached the flash. When I sensed movement, I’d hit the flash. This was the age of film, so I had to wait a couple week to discover images of bats with wingspans of up to a couple feet frozen in fine detail by the flash.

I was also reminded of a wonderful scene in Terrance Malick’s post-Vietnam film of James Jones’ classic WWII novel, The Thin Red Line, a tale of bloody fighting on a South Pacific island. A lone soldier is running in a shallow creek from a Japanese patrol that’s after him; he’s doing it to distract the Japs (the term used by my father, a PT boat captain in the South Pacific) from the rest of his small unit. Fear and adrenaline are palpable in the scene, which includes lots of crashing in the brush and splashing in the creek. Breathing hard, our man hides for a moment under an overhang of vegetation. The camera turns and focuses on a cluster of bats hanging upside down under the large overhang of vegetation. They’ve been woken up from a daytime snooze. Their eyes are wide open, as if to say: “What’s all the commotion?”

Instantly, the whole adrenaline-intensive reality of humans at war is thrown into the jolting new perspective of Nature itself. You realize how wrapped up we can become in our squabbles, some of those human squabbles reaching the level of horrific world conflagration, in this case on an otherwise beautiful island in the Pacific Ocean. The film is one of my wife’s favorite films, due to its strange spirituality. In another powerful scene, soldiers are ordered by their lieutenant to move forward into a sea of tall grass. If you know Malick’s work, the sea of grass image reappears in other films. We hear gunshots. The men fall one by one and disappear into the beautiful swelling and flowing sea of grass moved by the wind. The men are gone, yet the grass continues to move the way it always moves in the wind — the way it always has and always will. The Earth abides and will cough us off at some point if we don’t figure out how to do better preserving it.

The point is — as I was told recently by an old friend about something I had written she did not like — to “get over it.” (I accepted her comment and re-applied it here.) We need to get over so many of our petty little differences, to slow down and employ some strategic forgiveness so we can move on to better things.

And keep our eyes on the prize.

What is that prize? To me, no one said it better than Rodney King, who an LAPD squad beat without mercy as plumbing supply salesman George Holliday made history with a video camera. Rodney’s crime? Beyond fleeing police at speeds up to 117 MPH, he was high on PCP and, after a night of drinking and carousing with friends, was feeling just a bit too full of himself for those LAPD troopers.

When he came out of the hospital — after all the cops had been let off for “qualified immunity” and “past practices” and other legal sleights-of-hand and after six days of rioting that cost 63 lives — Rodney did not express bitterness toward the cops or rant against the history of white oppression against his race. He certainly would have been justified in doing so, given the nightmare scene that has become iconic of white cops wailing with billy clubs on his prone black body. But he seemed to feel some human responsibility for some part of the horror of the riots.

“Can we all get along?” he humbly asks the gathering of press cameras, his voice breaking from emotion. “Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids. . . . We’re all stuck here for a while; let’s try to work it out.”

We’re all stuck here for a while . . . stuck between our births and deaths, between the “kids” and “the older people”, caught without being consulted, in a flash, in our individual lifespans, like those Salvadoran bats. To me, Rodney was saying, slow down and cherish the marvel of life itself. Get to that perspective that includes the world of the bats of the world, creatures who inhabit a hidden world of night and dawn that we rarely see much of. It’s good to ponder something so ordinary, but so marvelous, as bats feeding at dawn, especially when bats are often associated with horror and fear in our perceptions. When, really, like all creatures large and small, they’re incredible living things.

Life wants to live.

After the riots, Rodney’s life was one of ups and downs that ended tragically. He published a memoir titled The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption. He had plans to be on the Oprah Show. On September 11, 2009, he won a celebrity boxing match with a police officer in Chester, PA, no doubt some entrepreneur’s brainchild to make money. He was in and out of drug rehab units. Then, on June 17, 2012 — Father’s Day — he was found drowned in his pool, his body showing alcohol, cocaine and PCP, on the exact same date his father had been found drowned in a bathtub 28 years earlier. The BBC reported Rodney saying this:

“Some people feel like I’m some kind of hero. Others hate me. They say I deserved it. Other people, I can hear them mocking me for when I called for an end to the destruction, like I’m a fool for believing in peace.”

We fall and the waving sea of grass absorbs us and abides.

“We’re all stuck here for a while; let’s try to work it out.”