Saturday, June 25, 2022

Forced Rhyme

by G. Jack Urso

 
“Silhouetted Crow,” Linnea Mallette (public domain).

There, a bird sits on my lawn.

Eats some worms and sings a song.
 
Takes a poop, and then is gone.
 
If it was from Indonesia and anthropomorphized for the purposes of this poem it would wear a sarong.
  
Fin
 
(That’s French, so you know this is a classy poem.)
 
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Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Participation Grade

by G. Jack Urso 

If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. — Epictetus, Greek Philosopher.

Photograph of a fake highway sign by Michigan Technological University students in 1984. 
Also applies to Houghton, NY (copyright John Marchesi).

Houghton College is in the middle of nowhere, and you have to bring your own nowhere.
 
When I attended Houghton College in the 1980s, the small, isolated Conservative Evangelical college community in Alleghany County had an insular provincialism that provided a sort of safe haven from the world for religiously indoctrinated youth experiencing their first real freedoms as adults, myself included. There were few computers, poor radio reception, poor TV reception, and no cable TV. Students were required to sign “the Pledge,” a contractual agreement that said the student would not dance, drink, do drugs, have sex (at least get caught), go to chapel, etc. Going to the movies on Sunday was also verboten, but things really loosened up in 1983 when they began letting students use playing cards.
 
Suddenly, Perkins
 
We told him about how our land was stolen and our people were dying. . . . He shook our hands and said “Endeavor to persevere.” We thought about it for a long time, “Endeavor to persevere.” And when we had thought about it long enough, we declared war on the Union. — Lone Watie, The Outlaw Josey Wales.
 
Professor Rich Perkins, a sociology professor, was bothered by a recent op-ed I wrote in my weekly column, “Pandora’s Box,” in the Oct. 9, 1987, issue of The Houghton Star titled “War and Peace” which addressed the question of whether Christians should serve in the military. A hypothetical situation regarding an invasion of the United States by the Soviet Union was proposed in an exercise in values clarification. I asked, what should be the Christian’s response? 
 
“Would I kill to liberate? . . . No, I would not. Christ, if you recall, was born in an occupied land. . . . Christ did nothing to further the zealots' cause.”
 
I identified as a pacifist and stated that I thought, based on the New Testament, Christians should not serve in the military. My opinion was that unlike personal self-defense, joining the military is proactively seeking out the opportunity either to kill or to support the killing machine. While it may be true that there are no atheists in foxholes, there is no God either. War is an act entirely of our own creation. We own war — not God nor the devil. So, military service, even under an occupation, seemed to me to be incongruent with the teachings and life experience of Jesus.
 
Professor Perkins, who served in the army during the Vietnam War (I believe as a lieutenant), and being a man of faith, took umbrage at my assertions. As a draft-era veteran, he didn’t have much of a choice except get an academic or medical deferment, dodge it, or serve. In response, rather than writing a letter to the college newspaper to bitch about me, as dozens did that year, Perkins instead choose to approach me in line at Big Al’s while I was waiting on an order of wings.
 
I knew of Perkins, everyone did. He was one of the most well-liked professors on campus, but I don’t recall ever having spoken to him before, let alone taken a class. So, I wasn’t a student of his, I didn’t live in his commune (more on that later), and I didn’t mention him in my column, so I wasn’t sure why he felt he needed to approach me.
 
He seemed a bit hesitant. I could tell this was a sensitive issue for him. Perkins must have seen his share of combat in the war, maybe lost some comrades, and my column probably kicked up some old dust. He briefly explained the moral quandary of his generation and ended with a plaintive, “Well, that’s all I wanted to say.”
 
I was a little confused. I did not mention Vietnam. I proposed a hypothetical regarding a Red Dawn-type scenario where we get invaded, not where we do the invading (as in Vietnam), but apparently the discussion of the morality of the faithful participating in the war machine struck a nerve. I muttered, “Um . . . OK. Whatever,” and took my order and left. I had a couple other words in mind, but I felt it better to err on the side of respect.
 
It was a rare moment of restraint for my younger self.
 
It probably struck Perkins as though I was being arrogant and didn’t give a damn, which actually was sort of true. Nevertheless, it was obviously a sensitive issue for him. Typically, impromptu public debates accomplish little more than just exercise egos. Besides, I wasn’t interested in debating, proselytizing, or changing anyone’s mind. I just wanted to have my say, I had my say, and if that bugs you, that’s on you. Let me eat my wings.
 
The Communards 

If any man despises me, that’s his problem. My only concern is not doing or saying anything deserving of contempt. — Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor.


Perkins was in charge of one of two “communal” off-campus houses, one for women and one for men. I use “communal” in quotes because it wasn’t really a commune; it was more of a cooperative living experiment. The residents were generally all like-minded liberal Evangelical Christians, though a few conservatives may have been included to balance things out. Nevertheless, it was largely liberal in orientation. Though to be clear, a liberal Evangelical Christian in the 1980s would probably be considered a moderate conservative today.
 
The emphasis of the community, if I recall correctly, was on building consensus among the residents with house activities, group meetings, group hugs, and fundraising for the Saul Alinsky Scholarship Fund.
 
I’m only joking about one of those, of course.
 
Unlike other on- and off-campus housing, where you got a place if there was a vacancy, admittance at the commune was selective, like a fraternity or sorority. Students had to apply for admittance and were voted on by the other residents. I believe this required either a majority or unanimous vote, but either way this struck many as not as egalitarian as the commune’s values laid claim to.
 
Due to the collective nature and liberal politics, the residents were sometimes referred to as “communards,” more so after the eponymous 1980s’ band than the members of the 1871 Paris Commune, though it kind of worked both ways. Despite my liberal beliefs, I was more of a “Christo-Anarchist,” which actually is a word. I did not invent it. I only discovered it years later, though I admit it probably is a good thing I did not find my “label” back then. Christo—Anarchism is a rejection of hierarchical authoritarian structures, both state and religious, with an emphasis on the Sermon of the Mount for its core principals. At the time, that pretty much defined my worldview. Like a malignant mutation, we spring up spontaneously at random, produced by the very system we criticize.
 
Interestingly, my biggest conflicts on campus were not with the conservative Christians, who, apart from some passive-aggressive behavior and letters to The Houghton Star, generally ignored me, viewing me with little more regard than they would a feces-throwing monkey at a circus sideshow. Rather, my conflicts were often with the liberal Christians who thought my antics were counterproductive, unChrist-like, and downright rude, which actually was the point, if I had one at all. Anyone looking for a method to my madness, I quote Minimalist composer John Cage, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”
 
In some ways, the campus conservatives and the communards were two sides of the same coin, both embracing hierarchical authoritarian structures with value systems they thought were inherently superior the other’s. My belief was simply, “A pox on both your houses.” Consequently, despite sharing liberal beliefs, my anarchism often found me ideologically at odds not only with the campus conservatives, but also sometimes with the communards, and occasionally with Prof. Perkins himself.
 
Anarchy in the Alleghenies 
 
Your boos mean nothing. I’ve seen what makes you cheer.                                                         — Rick Sanchez, Rick and Morty. 
 
I previously have discussed my antics as I blew through my college career in “A Liberal in the Land of Canaan,” “Blond Jesus: The Holy Hitchhiker,” “Jesus Drive Stick,” “Integrity is a Four-Letter Word,”  and “Year of the Dog,” Such modest efforts included grabbing the mike after a couple sets with the campus cover band “The Pledge” in the chapel for an impromptu protest against the Selective Service, or sitting down during the National Anthem during a basketball game, or testing a rich, new-found convert’s claim he no longer cared about material goods by taking his Mazda RX-7 for a transmission-grinding joyride. 
 
I ended up with my previously mentioned column, “Pandora’s Box” through a bit of subterfuge. The editor of The Houghton Star was elected through a popular vote. After the winner for my senior year had been announced, some supporters told me they stuffed the ballot boxes in his favor. Actually, they told me about it while we were smoking weed in the laundromat in town. Their candidate, a communard, never worked for the paper, while the “loser” had worked tirelessly the past three years. Usually, I wouldn’t have cared, but it rankled my sense of fair play. Also, all they had was dirt weed.
 
I “casually” informed a friend on the student senate about my encounter. To his credit, he kept the pot-smoking part out of it when he told the dean. However, before that happened, I extracted a promise from the loser that if I could get a new election, and she won, she would have to give me my own column. She thought I was nuts, but shook on it and kept her promise when she won the reelection. This probably didn’t endear me much to Perkins or the commune, but right is right, though I did obviously use it to my advantage. The title of my first column was “God is Dead.”


Along with a couple other classmates, we started a band called "China Blue," for which we would write and play all our own pretentious music. We liked the name because it had an artsy-fartsy, New Wave ring to it that would appeal to the avant-garde on campus, but primarily because it was the name of a prostitute played by Kathleen Turner in the film Crimes of Passion (1984) and we got some kind of vicarious pleasure seeing the name publicized in various forms on campus.

 
Performing in the campus center in all my New Wave glory (1986).

I helped set up the first chapter of Amnesty International on campus, and served as co-president, though all credit goes to my friend Mark for proposing it, getting it going, and doing the heavy lifting. Among the news we’d get from Amnesty International were reports of weapon sales and transfers, like landmines. In addition to solidifying my pacifism, this sparked an interest in the arms industry which eventually led me to a 25-plus year career as a freelance defense consultant specializing in tracking weapon development, deployments, and sales.
 
In 1985, Ron Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, and the author of the influential book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (1979), appeared on the Buffalo Suburban Campus of the college with a panel of Buffalo-area pastors for a lecture about the new challenges for the church in the 1980s. Sider’s book was must-reading and given his reputation on the cutting edge of social issues as a Christian, I thought it curious that he did not mention HIV/AIDS or homosexuality at all in his lecture. It was 1985 and it was the hot topic of the day, but not a word on it from Sider. So, during the Q & A I asked them, and Sider specifically, what the church was doing to reach out and minister to this group of people. It was a cheap trick because I knew the church wasn’t doing squat, but I was curious to see how he would answer it.  
 
The audience groaned and mumbled while the girl next to me covered her face and shrank down in her seat trying to hide from view. I wasn’t gay, but I knew a few of my classmates were, and I knew someone who died of AIDS. I listened carefully to what Sider said, and what he didn’t say. He fumbled about for a minute, but couldn’t come up with anything except that he heard a church in Philadelphia was “doing something.” Thanks Ron. I can see you were way ahead of the curve on this. It was clear this just wasn’t on the liberal Christian guru’s radar at the time. This was probably the point when my liberalism began to give way to anarchism. 
 
It was a loaded question of sorts because I knew one of the pastors on the panel excommunicated a man in his church over homosexuality. By the way, I am not dredging up an old grievance I never spoke about publicly at the time. I actually wrote about the incident in my column for The Houghton Star in 1987 (see image at left).
 
 
In 1987, along with another couple like-minded classmates, we campaigned for, and won, the leadership positions of the campus chapter of Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), a nationwide organization founded by Sider and the usual stomping grounds for the communards. We had never worked with ESA before, but thought the group could widen its appeal, and apparently so did enough of the members. Afterwards, there was a bit of an exodus as some who supported the previous leadership left the group rather than work with us, but it clarified who was serious about the group's work.
 
The ESA picture in the 1988 Houghton College yearbook. I insisted that it be taken in front of the urinals in campus center men’s room as a symbolic gesture.

Once, local Congressional Rep. Amo Houghton (related to the college’s founding family) invited a representative of the Contras, the U.S.-back rebel group, then involved in a war against the Communist Nicaraguan government with CIA assistance, to the college to speak in hopes of getting support of funding for his organization, The student senate president, and a resident of the commune, asked me to join him in aggressively questioning the Contra about his group and the Iran-Contra affair.
 
We attended both of the two Q&A sessions, sitting together in the packed rooms asking complex, multipart questions which challenged the Contra’s weak English language skills. It was a cheap trick to put the Contra at a disadvantage, but after trying an end-run around the Congress to fund a revolution the first time, they should have brought their A-game for the second attempt. The Secret Service eyed us suspiciously in the first session (the fact that the Black student senate president was a British citizen with an accent to match probably caught their attention). During the second session, the SS had enough and cut the hour-long meeting thirty minutes short. Amo Houghton later withdrew his support for funding the Contras.
 
Somehow, I managed to land a job working night security on campus. Frankly, I was as surprised as anyone else when they hired me. My job was to check that doors were locked, walk around campus looking for trouble, and let students into their dorms after curfew. This was great as I got to know every girl who stayed out late and also got to raid the leftovers in the cafeteria. After that, I would swing by the new guys’ dorm at about 1 am and roust a couple freshmen I knew to borrow their comic books and argue campus politics with them.

A cartoon from The Houghton Star about my nighttime exploits (1988, artist Dave Huth).

During my security guard shifts, I began leaving snarky, wiseass, anonymous comments on the bulletin board outside the campus center post office criticizing various religious beliefs. Those who disagreed began leaving responses and it was soon dubbed, “The Wittenberg Board.” After a couple months, the whole thing started to get out of control with decidedly unChrist-like anger in the responses growing in number each day. Satisfied I had accomplished my goal, I stopped, but the chaos continued without me.
 
I also ran afoul with some of the locals who understandably had nothing else better to do in a one-house town where you had to bring your own horse and your own town. One night, a pick-up with a trio of townies saw me and began harassing me. This actually wasn’t my first encounter with Jughead, Gomer, and Goober, as I called them. Typically, they only had the courage for a passing insult, but tonight they seemed ready for something more.
 
After listening to their shit for a couple seconds, I did what any Sicilian would do knowing he was alone, outnumbered, and on foot — I gave them the finger and a defiant “FUCK YOU!” Notably, this was in front of the only church in town. Gunning the engine, they came after me, making a U-turn, crossing the medium, and driving over the sidewalk in pursuit. I took off down the street and managed to lose them in the trailer park, which, I have to admit, I was amazed when that actually worked. I banged on the nearby door of a bodybuilder friend for help who came out saying he always knew they’d come after me some day. He had a “talk” with the townies and I didn’t see them for the rest of the semester. This incident, and others like it, was reported in the college newspaper April 22, 1988 (see image at right).
 
I could go on with other examples of my misspent youth, but something about the statute of limitations comes to mind.
 
Good times . . . Good times.
 
Professor Perkins’ Pernicious Pupil
 
Whatever happened to the American Dream? You’re looking at it. It came true. — Edward (The Comedian) Blake, The Watchmen (my senior yearbook quote).
 
The Spring of 1988 found me needing just one course to graduate, Intermediate Spanish II. Two years of a foreign language were required and as I had failed one semester and barely passed another, what should have taken me two years instead took three. It was one of those archaic liberal arts requirements and had absolutely nothing to do with my major, Broadcast Communications, or my minor, Literature. I did nothing with it. I cannot speak a word of it today. It was a complete and total useless waste of time and money that would have been better spent training me for my career.
 
But hey, can’t hold grudge, right?
 
After the events recounted in “Integrity is a Four-Letter Word,” instead of transferring to a college back home to take the course, I decided to stay and finish out Spanish with the instructor I knew and completely forget. Better the devil you know then the devil you don’t I figured.
 
For the other course, I decided to finally give Prof. Perkins a shot and take Social Stratification, a critical look at the interrelated dynamics of aspirations, class, and the economy.  The standard class size was about twenty-four students, and the class was full. Only some were Sociology majors. Others came from Business, Communications, Education, etc. Perkins had a rep on campus for being one of those professors you just “had” to take a course with, if just for the experience.
 
Both my classes were between 1 pm and 4 pm Monday through Friday. Since I can be a bit obsessive-compulsive in a slacker sort-of way, I spend every morning listening to the rock operas Tommy or Quadrophonic by The Who, and smoking a joint, often with another student hanging out between classes. As I lived in Jack House (named after a former coach, not me), an off-campus house whose houseparent was a single guy who worked in admissions and was away traveling most of the time. Consequently, with little supervision, it became pretty permissive regarding smoking pot and having girls over.
 
When out and about, I had my ever-present Walkman and usually one of the Violent Femmes’ tapes popped in and ready to go. The folk punk band’s anger and angst-ridden critiques of society always set me in the mood for discussions on class.

Label on the inside of books in the college library. A passive-aggressive way of saying, 
“Maybe you’ll go to hell for reading this book, maybe you won’t, but you decide what’s best.”
 
The Game of Class — Everyone Plays It, so Few Have It
 
Let me tell you about the rich. They are different than you and me. 
— F. Scott Fitzgerald (1926)

Yes, they have more money. — Ernest Hemingway (1936)

(Gilbert & Kahl, The American Class Structure, p. 84.)
 
For one of our final papers in Perkin’s class that semester, we were to write an analysis of our participation in a game in that mimics the dynamics of moving between economic classes. I forget what the name of it was, so let’s just call it The Game of Class. Perkins reserved space in the smaller auditorium where communications classes or the theater group met. Three large tables were set up. Perkins, standing behind the podium, explained the rules of the game. I may be foggy on some of the details, but the general thrust of the game is as follows.
 
Each of the three main economic classes would be represented by wooden blocks in the shape of a yellow triangle for the upper class, a green square for the middle class, and a red circle for the lower class. The goal of the game is to move through the classes, from lower to upper. Each class required a certain number of blocks to get in. I forget the cost, but let’s say it was one red circle to get into the lower class, two green squares for the middle class, and three yellow triangles for the upper class.
 
To start, as I recall, everyone was given the same number of blocks, but a random selection. So, some might be “born” in the upper class without having really done anything to get there. Staying there, however, was another matter, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
 
There were two sessions of play, the negotiation session and the committee session. The first was the negotiation session during which one could barter and trade to get more blocks. Someone might trade you three red circles for one yellow triangle, but the exchange rate wasn’t fixed. It differed from person to person and changed as the number of members in each class rose and fell. Sometimes, the availability of blocks to trade diminished as players held on to them for their own advancement, or to stop others from advancing. One could barter anything, not just blocks, such as promises of voting support during the committee sessions and conspiring to get someone kicked out of a leadership position in the group. Anything and everything were on the table. This might go on for five minutes.
 
After the negotiation session there was the committee session. In committee, the members of each class could make rules voted on in proper democratic parliamentary procedure. A president and other officers could be voted on. A constitution of sorts for each group was made up and voted on as well. This might go on for ten minutes.
 
Then, in the very next session everything from the previous session could be overturned as new members join and old members change alliances.  A coup d'état could take place and the old order overthrown and a new constitution written. It quickly became apparent that little could get done as the dominant personalities jockeyed for position and influence. I don’t recall if one could get voted out of a group, but people could lose their blocks and go down a class, conspire to isolate a player, refuse to barter with them, and essentially prevent them from obtaining influence in their group.
 
After a couple rounds, it became apparent is that a cycle of negotiation and barter and committee meetings soon became not just the focus, but the whole point of the game — to create a self-sustaining perpetual motion machine of pointlessness. That actually probably was the point, but I also observed that there was a lot of backstabbing and lying and hurt feelings taking place.
 
It reminded me about having been required to play the game Diplomacy in Dean Massey’s Western Civilization class as a freshman. Diplomacy is a bit like the game Risk, but set in Europe during World War I. To move, players have to write orders and get the support of allies, so influence, not luck, is how the game is played. One nation is not strong enough to win on its own, but only one nation can win the game. As with Prof. Perkins' Game of Class, there is a negotiation session during which allied players coordinate their moves to defeat other players, however, it is just a matter of time before someone backstabs you. I remember how all the games dissolved into arguments, hurt feelings, and occasionally tears. 
 
As it turned out, Dean Massey had never played the game. Considering all the melodrama, I wonder how he would have done. Likewise, I wondered how Perkins might do if he had to play his own game. Well, even feces-throwing monkeys at the circus get tired of being objects of other people’s entertainment and I just about had enough of being a lab rat (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?). So, I sat down.
 
I picked a spot in the middle of the room strategically located between the three tables and sat on the floor. Everyone would have to walk around me or over me, acknowledge me or ignore me, but they would have to deal with me. I thought about putting on my headphones and listening to the Violent Femmes, but concluded that would be more disrespectful than just sitting down in the middle of everyone’s way. I didn’t have to go full asshole. Half asshole would do just fine.
 
An anonymous ad
in the college newspaper.
Prof. Perkins gave me a look from his perch behind the podium. It was the “Oh God, what is he going to do now?” look I had become acquainted with. I did a sit-down protest at a basketball game when I sat down during the National Anthem (see “A Liberal in the Land of Canaan”), so I was pulling out an old trick. As I learned, when used at the right time, passive, non-violent, non-action can be very, very provocative.
 
The other students tried to ignore me at first. Some had a few terse comments about me messing things up. Some asked me why I was doing it. I simply answered, “I don’t wanna.” Expecting some extended anarchist diatribe from me, this frustrated them even further.
 
I sat there alone for a session or two until a couple students joined me. Then, after another session, a few more joined us. At this point, I probably did shout some Marxist slogans, primarily Groucho ("I refuse to join any club that would have me for a member"), and tossed in a “Viva la Revolution!” with my fist in the air just for good measure. That was probably the only phrase in Spanish after three years I could remember, though I probably picked it up from a Speedy Gonzalez cartoon.

 A snapshot of my personality and politics not long after graduation on WQBK-1300 AM. 
I may have mellowed out a bit since then.

Towards the end, about half the class joined me. The students who continued to play were spread across the now-sparsely occupied tables. With fewer participants, the last couple rounds were essentially lame duck sessions and the game slowly ground to a halt. Then, the bell rang and class was over.
 
As everyone meandered their way out the door, I got up off the floor, grabbed my books, and snapped on my headphones. Prof. Perkins leaned his long, lanky arms over the lectern and gave me a look that was both exasperated and amused, but mostly exasperated.
 
“This won’t affect my participation grade will it?” I asked rhetorically as I walked by and turned on the Violent Femmes without waiting for an answer. 
 
En Passant
 
“The only way to win is not to play.” War Games (1983)
 
In my paper, regarding my analysis of the game and the social class structure, I concluded by quoting from the film War Games (1983), “The only way to win is not to play.” This has continued to embody my attitude towards class and social stratification, though I’m not quite sure that was the lesson intended by the game.
 
I still have my textbooks from the class, The American Class Structure, by Dennis Gilbert and Joseph A. Kahl, and the classic Ain’t No Making It, by Jay MacLeod. I have read them periodically over the past 34 years. Admittedly, I was not much of a student and my face lost among the thousands of students Perkins taught in his lifetime, but I doubt many of them kept the books or reread them.

My textbooks for Social Stratification, Spring 1988.

Looking at our past is often through rose-colored glasses. As is the case with trips down memory lane, I am recalling events through my own singular perspective, which may be different than some of my old classmates’ recollections. I have certainly mellowed over the years and am no longer the thin, scruffy, long-haired neo-hippie I was so many years ago, though largely my opinions haven’t changed.
 
I know it sounds like I have been critical of Prof. Perkins, but he gave me space in class to be me and explore my ideas. An old classmate recently reminded me how my debates with Perkins would take up most of the class. It made me remember how patient he must have been. Every once in a while, I get a student all fired up who wants to spend the entire class debating their idea du jour, much like I used to do. I always remember Prof. Perkins, take a breath, let them speak, and then explain why I’m right.
 
Maybe I didn’t change all that much after all, but I like to think that would have pleased him.
 
Richard B. Perkins, 1943-2022.

                         
 

Sunday, June 19, 2022

In Absentia

by G. Jack Urso 

My old toy Volkswagen Beetle.

In the summer of 1969, at the end of the school year, and just before I was to have started kindergarten that fall, I sat on my parents’ bed playing with a small blue Volkswagen Beetle. Herbie, The Love Bug had just been released, but not having a toy version of my own to play with, I settled for pretending the blue one I already had was Herbie. My parents’ blanket was ribbed with raised lines that made for a perfect track.

My dad came in and placed a couple items on his dresser, a clay ashtray and a small brightly colored painted stone, gifts made in school by my brother and sister, Joe and Annmarie, respectively. I became immediately jealous. I wanted to make something in school to give my dad, but I didn’t want to wait. So, I picked up what was my most prized possession at the time, my little blue Volkswagen Beetle (see image above), and presented it to my father with the pride of a martyr being led to their fate. OK, perhaps it was because I just happened to have it in my hand at the time, but I really liked that toy car. I soon regretted my decision and entertained the thought of asking for it back, but I quickly forgot about it. I had lots of toy cars.

In any event, my parents divorced. As happens with divorce, families often scramble for a place to land. I moved between five addresses in the five years after the marriage broke up, bouncing between parents like a ping pong ball. My dad made at least seven moves between various addresses, getting remarried along the way. As it happens with frequent moves, much gets lost or left behind. I have absolutely nothing left from my youth except for an old beach blanket from the Summer of 1973 when we went to Miami, and just one other item.

My father died on June 15, 2002, the day before Father’s Day, and some thirty-three years after I gave him that small blue toy Volkswagen Beetle, so this day always seems a little extra empty to me. His death took six months and was agonizing to witness. It was like watching him slowly fall off a cliff and not having the strength to pull him back.

After the funeral and all the dust had settled, I found in the top drawer of his dresser my toy blue Volkswagen (see image above). It felt like being reunited with a long-lost friend. I didn’t know he kept it all these years.
 
Another item of my father’s found just a few years ago is an old Father’s Day gift from 1972. My folks separated briefly in 1971, so the following year my siblings and I got him a small statue of a father and son together with the words, "It's Great To Have A Dad Like You," as a gift for Father’s Day — fifty years ago today (see image left). Perhaps as a bit of emotional blackmail to keep the folks together, but alas, it did not work.

There is a bit of sadness whenever I look at these relics of my shared past with my father. Not just because it is a reminder of my childhood and my father’s love, but also for the family that was split up, for the home that was lost, for the years I cannot get back, and for the memories that claw at me as though they only happened yesterday.
 
The Old Man and I, August 1978, in Lake George, NY.
Joseph A. Urso Jr. 1934-2002.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Year of the Dog

by G. Jack Urso 



At Houghton College, the Evangelical Christian college I attended in the 1980s, there was a small white house that sat at the entrance. At the time I was a student there, it housed a large family of Cambodian refugees. Houghton College is a fairly remote, rural town in Western New York. How a family of Cambodian refugees ended up here, I’m not certain, but in a typical American display of “We mean well, but we don’t know what we’re doing,” whoever sponsored the family relocated them from a war-torn tropical nation to the Middle of Nowhere, NY, where snow falls in feet and can remain on the ground, and I kid you not, until early May.
 
In my last year of college, as part of my work with Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), I worked with an organization called Allegheny County Outreach in a Big Brother/Big Sister-type outreach program. Anke, with whom I was the co-director of homecoming that year, was tasked as the Big Sister for the four younger Cambodian kids, who ranged in age from about six to twelve-years-old. Overwhelmed, particularly with the silent, surly twelve-year-old boy, she asked me if I would be Big Brother to her Big Sister and help out.

In addition to homecoming, ESA, playing bass in two bands, working part-time, disc jockeying on the college radio station, and writing a weekly column in the college newspaper, I wasn’t studying, so why not help out.
 
Most Saturdays, Anke and I would do some kind of activity with the kids, such as taking them to a movie on campus or to the cafeteria for dinner and desert. There was a cultural gap that was difficult to manage at times. The youngest ones were usually just happy to be somewhere with “the big kids,” but the twelve-year-old was moody and surely. The Cambodia they escaped from was war-torn and experienced a nationwide genocide. My mother, who saw a lot of horrible things during the occupation of Sicily by the Nazis in World War II (see “News from the Front: Memories of a World War II Refugee”), gave me a certain amount of understanding, but being only 21 what the hell did I know about life, let alone kids?

The culture clash became apparent when we brought the kids to a luncheon event for all the children in the program. I’m not sure who originally thought of the idea kids like clowns, but they probably never had kids or saw clowns or saw kids and clowns together, ever. For the younger Cambodian children especially, in whose culture white is the color associated with death and mourning, white-faced clowns were both confusing and terrifying.

The culture clash also manifested itself in what only can be described as an awful and tragic miscommunication. Anke, in all her innocent naiveté, got the kids a puppy as a way of cheering the kids up and giving them something they could play with and learn responsibility.

A few weeks later, Anke asked how the puppy was and the children replied it was great and they enjoyed it very much.

Let me pause while that sinks in.
 


That’s long enough. Yes, OH MY GOD, they ate the poor thing!

It’s one of those times when you really don’t know what to say. We understood the differences in culture, but being confronted with it rather than as a sidebar comment in the margin of our sociology textbook, was a surreal experience.

Anke, as you can imagine was absolutely horrified. She looked at me for help and almost immediately regretted it.

Without missing a beat, and wanting to break the tension and belay the children’s confusion at Anke’s reaction, I commented as nonchalantly as possible, “I had some with the Korean students. It was OK, spicy, but a little tough and chewy.”

Let me back up and explain.

Cave Canem

In my freshman year, 1984, I befriended several South Korean students, Jin Kim and Min Kim (no relation), and a couple others whose names I forget, but included one young man whose fiancé was on Korean Air Lines Flight 007 which was shot down by a Soviet aircraft on September 1, 1983. One day, they made a big deal of cooking up a real homemade South Korean meal. They went to Buffalo to visit the local Korean community and get the ingredients. Nobody else was invited, or perhaps they turned down the invitation knowing what was coming.

As well all sat down to eat, Jin and Min kept giving each other sideways glances and looking at me. They asked me how I liked the dish, which was some kind of beef with vegetables and noodles, and snickered at each other. I was missing out on the joke until finally, the guy who lost his fiancé on Flight 007, and had little patience for pranks, blurted out, “It’s dog. We’re eating dog.”

They all looked at me, waiting for my reaction, having successfully baited the ignorant American, but I grew up with a Sicilian mother who made her own sausage (with real intestines!), butchered chickens and rabbits, and kept decapitated goat heads in the freezer to keep the brains fresh, so the revelation, however distasteful, didn’t faze me. They would have to do a lot more than feed me dog to get my goat.

“It’s a little chewy, but OK,” I commented in a backhanded passive-aggressive complement.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch . . .

Already stunned by the children’s confession, my admission angered Anke and she looked at me as though I was eating dog right then and there.

The oldest boy put his head back and laughed, almost uncontrollably. He laughed at me for admitting I once ate dog, he laughed at Anke for being horrified, and he probably laughed at the Koreans for not knowing how to cook dog properly. After that, our relationship improved and he began to talk with me more. Nothing serious, but he began to let his guard down.

While it seems I am making fun of eating dog, I am an animal rights supporter and have been involved in animal rescue and pet adoption groups, so I don’t toss around what happened lightly, but what happened, happened. I didn’t do so intentionally, but having done so I used it to reach across a cultural and age gap to connect with an immigrant child from a war-torn country. In that regard, I have no regrets. 

That white house at the entrance of Houghton College is long gone. It has been replaced by a modern, upscale inn which likely services a steady stream of visiting parents and prospective students. Whatever happened to the Cambodian family is unknown. That angry, young twelve-year-old boy would be about 46 now, and even the youngest child would be about 40. If they remember Anke and I at all, we are but long-distant memories shrouded by the passage of the years. Time, and life, goes on.

Well, except for the dog, obviously. 


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Friday, June 10, 2022

Integrity is a Four-Letter Word

by G. Jack Urso

 

I always have to preface stories about my undergraduate days by explaining I attended a Conservative Evangelical Christian college in the 1980s, so if this sounds like some kind of bizarre parallel universe in another dimension, that would be correct.
 
But I digress.
 
One requirement of the college was that we attend chapel four days a week, between 11 am and Noon, in the large auditorium on campus which also served as the church for Sunday services. Called “The Pledge,” this was a contractual agreement that required us to attend chapel and abstain from dancing, drugs, sex, and going to movies on Sundays. That sounds harsh, but I hasten to add the restriction against playing cards on campus was lifted in 1983, so to confirm Jerry Falwell’s comment about “That liberal college up North,” we were progressive AF in the Regan era.
 
As background, I should explain that I was to have graduated in December 1987, but because I failed my first year of Spanish, it pushed my graduation date forward one term. Now, I could have just gone home and taken the course at SUNY-Albany, but I knew the instructor at Houghton, who tolerated my low-performing existence, and I have no talent at foreign languages, so I wasn’t anxious to switch boats in mid-stream. I figured I would stay on campus that Spring and go part-time. In order to get financial aid, I had to take at least nine credit hours. I only needed one course, Spanish, but thought I could take a couple others outside my major I always wanted to take, like Social Stratification and another theater or lit course.
 
The first obstacle I encountered with that course of action was with chapel and Dean Danner. Taking nine credit hours to qualify for financial aid meant that I was still required to attend chapel four days a week. I absolutely bristled at the idea. I always pushed the limit on the number of chapels I could miss without getting expelled, and sometimes exceeding it, usually with a well-timed medical excuse near the very end of the semester when there was really nothing that could be done about it. At this point, needing only one course to graduate I was even less inclined to sit through them. It came to a head one day after I told my advisor I refused to go as I saw it as a pointless waste of my time. After Dean Danner caught wind of it, he asked me to visit him at home so we could talk about it.
 
We had a long conversation about faith, but particularly about integrity — being a man of your word. Dean Danner was a retired Army Lt. Col., so concepts like honor, respect, and integrity we important to him. I may not like the Pledge, but I signed it, Dean Danner reminded me. I gave my word and as long as I was registered for at least nine credit hours I was committed to attending chapel. Sometimes, there is a cost in keeping one’s word, he noted. In my case, it would be attending chapel.
 
Now, I want to say that Dean Danner was a real classy guy. He was patient and kind and had a sense of humor. For example, knowing he was perceived as the head Pledge law enforcement officer, he had no problem playfully portraying Big Brother on posters advertising a showing of the film 1984, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton (see image at right). I concede, however, that it was a little less than generous for me to go around adding toothbrush mustaches to the posters. It is probably even a little less generous that I held on to a photograph of it for nearly thirty-five years. I can’t say all our interactions were as pleasant as this meeting, but I can venture a guess he probably turned a blind eye at times.
 
I thought long and hard about what Dean Danner said and decided he was right. As long as I was registered for nine credit hours, I had to keep my word. So, I dropped a course and no longer had to attend chapel. My integrity was intact. Problem solved.
 
Ironically, while there is usually a cost to maintain one’s integrity, in my case, by dropping a course, I actually saved money. 
 
Hey, a Big Brother has to make a living, am I right?

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