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Monday, August 15, 2011

No. 62 An Island that was part of the World

"We do not remember days; we remember moments.' Cesare Paves

From "Livin' & Leanin', the 25th Anniversary of Harkers Island Elementary School," remarks given by me in 1982

One beautiful Indian Summer afternoon in 1963, soon after recess, our Principal, Miss Wade, came to the door and beckoned our teacher, Miss Sudie, to speak with her outside the room. We could sense that something out of the ordinary was being discussed, both from the urgency in the gestures of Miss Wade as she summoned our teacher, and especially by the concern that was evidenced by Miss Sudie as she returned. In short order she stood at the front of the class and demanded our attention. Little could we have anticipated how much what she then announced would change us and our world in the years that followed.

Though we grew up on an Island, we were not completely isolated from what happened in the world around us. Important and often tumultuous events were taking place quickly in the 1960's and they were reflected within the walls of Harkers Island Elementary School. Almost half a century later I  recall most of them as still images of how I first experienced them. Years of study in the social sciences continue to dim in comparison to the influence of those images upon my political and social consciences.

In 1960 John Kennedy, a Catholic, ran for President. He hoped to end forever any suggestion that a man or woman's political opportunities as an American citizen might be limited because of his or her religious beliefs. That effort caused shockwaves to run throughout our country, especially in the South. And not a few of those shockwaves were felt as we third graders in Miss Daniels' class discussed and even argued whether Kennedy's election might mean that all of us would have to “swear allegiance to the Pope.” Then as now, children reflected the side of any debate they had heard championed in their homes. Already acutely aware of how my family’s peculiar faith (Mormon) was viewed by many of our neighbors, I was especially sensitive to the question and to its outcome.

Two years later, in October of 1962, our fifth grade class, like every other class in the country, rehearsed together how to seek shelter under our wooden desks if a nuclear attack resulted from what was happening in Cuba. As if it were only yesterday I can recall my teacher asking a visiting official what he thought might happen as Russian ships approached the limits of the American Navy's blockade of the island nation. My heart sank to my stomach as I heard him suggest, though only in a whisper so that we children might not be alarmed, that he felt there was going to be a "war." Though we were only ten years old, we were sophisticated enough to sense that war in 1962 suggested something quite different than it had meant to our parents. We had read enough “Weekly Readers” to know that in this "war," school children as well as soldiers would suffer from the "ultimate weapon." Seldom in the years since have I felt the relief that I sensed later that week when our teacher joyfully proclaimed to the class that, "The Russians have turned back!"

But events moved quickly then as now and there was little time for exultation. It was only one year later, on that memorable Indian Summer afternoon, that we sat together again as Miss Sudie announced to us that our President had been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. In the coming days she would try to explain many other things to us, such as why our flag was flying at half-mast. Unfortunately, there were some things she was never quite able to make clear. It took only a few hours for some and days or weeks for others, but we soon returned to the games and pleasures of childhood. Still, more than we realized at the time, at that early point in our lives we had been shocked into reality; the reality that even in the fairy tale land of America we were yet to overcome ignorance, bigotry, and violence.

Because of our special situation on this Island that really is an island, we were spared from having to witness first hand the cataclysm that was called "integration" (see Post No. 47). But we had ears to hear and eyes to see the televisions to which by then almost all of us had access. Perhaps because of our isolation from the main battlegrounds of that struggle, I recall that many of my classmates and teachers had a deep sympathy with the plight of Blacks in the South. Names like James Meredith, Medgar Evers, and Dr. Martin Luther King were not the anathema to us that they were to some other white school children throughout our region.

And finally, by the time I had entered the later years of graded school on he Island, some of my classmates were beginning to see brothers, uncles, cousins and nephews drafted and shipped off to fight in places whose names most of us had never heard of. But by the time we graduated from High School nearly all of us could reel off names like Saigon, Hanoi or DaNang as easily as if they were situated just across the Bridge. Obviously, none of us questioned then as some later would, the reasons for America's latest effort to "make the world safe for democracy." But when those same relatives began to come home wounded, scarred, and sometimes not at all, we realized that the toy soldiers of our childhood were all too rapidly giving way to the realities of a grownup world; harsh realities that could not be swept away merely by deciding it was time to go home for supper.

But those distractions were very much the exception to the normal routine of life we knew and enjoyed on the Island of my youth. For most of us, most of the time, life played out in a splendid slow motion – slow enough to be savored and enjoyed, and then to be remembered. As the years have passed those memories have loomed larger and larger. Rather than fading them into the distance,  the prism of time has actually brightened  their luster.

1 comment:

  1. Great recollection, Joel, of how these events "went down" in our corner of the world! Keep 'em coming! Bill(y) Griffin