Thursday, September 4, 2008


I traveled to our state capitol not long ago. I went to learn about new policy brewing and bubbling, vying to find a place on the upcoming legislative agenda. They don’t like me much in Austin. I can’t imagine why.
This trip was no different in most ways. Policy analysts tested the water and I tried to hold them under until they drowned. There was a new undercurrent though, just like the undercurrent at Lake Benbrook. Streams of warm water that flowed swiftly just below the surface of the peaceful lake had pulled many an unsuspecting swimmer to their death. The undercurrent in Austin flowed with meanness just below the charm of a slow Texas draw. I never swim at Lake Benbrook. I would remember that as I drove home from Austin the next afternoon.
The first sniff of something different came with a new phrase. “Those folks.” For two days, poor people were “those folks” and homeless people were “those folks” and drug addicts where “those folks” and, well, I guess you see where I’m going. The only people who weren’t referred to as “those folks” were us folks.
Then I looked around the room at the new group of policy analysts just hired for this new division. At first I thought it was old age setting in because not a one of them looked over thirty. But at lunch, I discovered it was more than just perception. Not a one of the new hires topped out at thirty, most were under 25, just out of the university. Now, sometimes youth can be a wonderful thing, bringing in new ideas and fresh thoughts but when I heard one pretty young blonde call “those folks” just lazy, my stomach took a turn south. It was time to hold her head under the water.
I ask her how many of “those folks” she had ever known. Ah-ha, now I had her, or so I thought. But her next sentence made me shudder. She went on to say none and to thank God for it and wrinkle her nose in disgust. Before I could throw her in a gunny sack and dump her in Lake Travis, her friends sitting around the table began to agree. None of them had ever worked with “those folks” and they considered it their job to see that no one else would ever have to. I heard bits and pieces of philosophy that I remembered from that morning. It had been spoken with that Texas accent, slow and sweet. These innocent kids were only repeating what they had been taught. A young man, still battling acne, spoke loudly, catching my attention. It seemed he was on a mission to get rid of “those folks” making it a better world for the rest of us. I must have said something because they all stopped talking and looked my way. I recognized the look in their eyes, I’d seen it in my own when I looked at some poor mentally ill street person. Pity. I was just some middle-aged hippie out of touch with the rest of the world. He smiled at me and spoke with such reassurance. “You don’t need to worry,” He said. “We’ll do what’s right.”
The next afternoon, as I drove out of town, I wondered if I could ever go swimming again.


My Daddy is a historian just for the fun of it. Growing up with him turned out to be one history lesson after another. At various stages of my growing years, I learned about the real Wild West, who Bonnie and Clyde actually were, and exactly why the South lost the War. Dinnertime and rides in the car could become a spontaneous history class.
One such lesson occurred shortly after my tenth birthday. I was the center of attention, bragging about being in “double digits.” For nine years, I’d been a single digit kid, now it would take two numbers to print out my age. I walked right into it. My Daddy seldom missed an opportunity to turn a topic into a lesson. He told me about turning ten in Germany in the 1930’s. That was a magic age. At ten a child was sworn in to the Jungvolk, the junior branch of the Hitler Youth Organization. He went on to tell me that not all kids got admitted into the Organization so it made it even more special. I have to tell you that got my attention, I did so love being special.
He told me that if a child looked different, they couldn’t get admitted. I must have asked what he meant by different because I remember learning about Jews and gypsies whose skin tanned easily in the sun. (I think he threw in the tanning part to make me a little nervous) He also told me that children with disabilities couldn’t go either. We would talk about Hitler and Nazi Germany a great deal over the next couple of months. I learned about the persecution and murder of thousands of people whose primary sin was simply being different. Later that year he bought me a book, The Diary of Anne Frank. The world looked a tad bit different to me after I was ten.
One afternoon I rode with my Daddy through downtown Mansfield. He didn’t know it, but I was a child on a mission. We turned a corner and there he was. Shorty.
“Shorty’s waving at you.” He hadn’t been but daddy hadn’t been looking and he fell for it hook, line and sinker. He pulled the car over to the curb and rolled the window down. Shorty struggled to get to his feet and walked over to our car. Shorty was a dwarf that Daddy had been friends with all his life. He was the only dwarf I’d ever seen. I liked him a lot because he was the only adult I could look straight in the eye standing up.
Daddy asked him what he wanted. Shorty’s funny little forehead crinkled. I think Daddy realized I’d been messing with him because he made up something about needing him to go around to my Grandmother’s house to do some yard work. Shorty seemed pleased with the prospect.
As Daddy pulled the car back onto the road, I figured I’d better come up with something quick. I decided to go with the truth because I hadn’t prepared myself a backup lie. “Is Shorty one of those folks?” I asked.
“Which folks would that be?” He liked to answer a question with a question.
“One of those different folks Hitler would have killed.” Well, I have to tell you, I think I almost took my Daddy’s breath away. Looking back on it now, I think I can understand why. It’s a mystical moment when your child proves he actually listens to something you’ve said.
I think I remember a whisper of a smile cross his lips. I sure remember his answer. He nodded real slow. “Yes.” He didn’t say much else for a while.
“I thought Scotty was suppose to mow Grandmother’s yard.” I hated to see my brother robbed of the opportunity of doing physical labor.
“He can another time. Shorty needs the money and it’s our job to help him earn it.” I remember him looking at me again. I guess he was trying to figure out just how much I could understand. Then he smiled real big, like he had made up his mind. “We all have a responsibility to help out those folks.”
I’m still trying, Daddy.

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