Old Man, Look at My Life*

Literary Themes Subconsciously Rooted in Childhood

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My father and his “Mama” on the family farm, early 1940s.

Insecurity and salvation.

These two themes recur often, yet unplanned, in the fiction and poetry I write. They usually emerge from a character’s self-doubt, countered by an unrealistic belief that situations, no matter how awful or threatening, will eventually turn out okay, that adversity will ultimately surrender to peace. But why do these particular themes keep showing up?

A few years ago, a political disagreement with my father ignited in him a firestorm of condemnation of other cultures and races—never mind the mixed racial heritage of my spouse and our daughter. Communication ended abruptly in mutual expletives. After more than five decades, he and I were finally done. I figured I’d never hear from him again, that the next time I visited him would be at his graveside.

The relationship with my father has always been tenuous at best. I felt safe with him only once—in 1958 as he carried me through the hospital parking lot on my way to a tonsillectomy. I was two. Fear soon obliterated that initial sense of safety, thanks to repeated episodes of rage, from verbal abuse and an eagerness to fight, to animal cruelty and domestic violence, a few incidents recounted in my published fiction.

My parents separated when I was twelve. I’d spent that summer of 1968 working in my father’s Phillips 66 service station in Crestview, Florida—sometimes alone and always under order to wear a “Wallace for President” Dixieland hat and campaign necktie. Dad’s small, two-pump station had three restrooms in back, designated as “Men,” “Women,” and “Restroom,” the third to which he directed people of color.

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My father, age 18, holding me, mid-1956.

In the station’s front window, he’d hung a hand-drawn recreation of an auto tag that read “Put your (heart symbol) in Dixie, or get your (donkey symbol) out.” One hot day, a traveller from a northern state noticed the sign after I’d gassed his car. “If I’d seen that damn thing,” he snarled, “I wouldn’t have stopped.” I was glad my father was away at the time. Otherwise, a fight would have certainly ensued.

Bizarrely hot-tempered, my father was quick to violence. I witnessed such fury that crippled and killed animals and bruised and broke people both emotionally and physically. I felt a flood of relief and freedom when my parents split and I ended up in Pensacola, Florida, fifty miles from Crestview and my father. Marrying his second wife shortly after the divorce finalized the following year, he moved some forty-five miles north to his hometown, Andalusia, Alabama. With his wife’s deft support, he established a used car dealership that provided a good income, even though he faced legal problems at one point for buying and selling stolen cars. Due more to his wife’s business savvy than his public charm or honesty, he skirted prosecution and became wealthier than he’d ever imagined he would, though it had no effect on his refusal to pay child support, doling out only small portions when I visited him.

During my visits that never exceeded two days, he appeared to have mellowed since the divorce—specifically, his propensity to violence had apparently evaporated. I became jealous of his wife’s two sons whom he’d adopted. They, I believed, enjoyed the father I craved, a reasonable man who respected them enough to do what a parent should do. The emotional distance between us increased while the frequency of my visits decreased. Only after his death did I become aware of the psychological and physical violence he waged against his new family.

Fast forward four-and-a-half decades.

My father’s wife died in April 2015, succumbing to cancer. During her decline, her children visited her at home, but not without consequence. When his wife’s daughter said she would not move into my father’s home to take care of him after her mother’s death, he became so livid he threatened to kill her if she ever returned for any reason. She didn’t. When his oldest adopted son visited his mother a few days before she died, my father accused the son of plotting to steal his money and slugged him. The son responded instinctively, knocking my father to the floor.

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The Phillips 66 station where I worked summers, afternoons, and Saturdays when I was age 9 to 12.

“Get out!” my father raged. “Get out before I kill you! I’ll put you in the ground you ever come here again!”

Increased paranoia followed his wife’s death and led to rabid accusations that relatives were constantly plotting to steal his land and money. He threatened to kill many and alienated all but one, a cousin whose tolerance ensured the care he needed.

Already receiving thrice-weekly dialysis treatment before his wife’s death, my father had developed a notorious reputation among Andalusia’s medical workers for verbally abusing doctors and dialysis personnel. In early August 2016, he suffered a mild heart attack that placed him in a hospital where doctors determined he’d require rehabilitation center placement upon release. Facilities in his hometown, thanks to his reputation, refused to take him, necessitating placement in a Crestview facility where he required sedation most of the time. Shortly after placement, my cousin informed me that his condition had begun to deteriorate rapidly, that he suffered from advanced diabetes, kidney disease, and increasing dementia.

Living in New Mexico, I decided not to visit him. Any possibility of reconciliation, no matter how remote, had surely vanished within sedation and the distortions of dementia. Then my wife’s brother in Pensacola died unexpectedly, and we made the 1,350-mile drive to attend his memorial, placing us within forty minutes of the Crestview rehab facility.

On a rainy Wednesday morning in a town that’s grown unrecognizably large since my childhood, the nurse in the rehab facility’s locked wing pointed out my father at the end of a line of wheelchair-bound patients parked along one wall. The greasy pompadour he’d worn most of his adult life had been replaced by shorter hair, brushed into a faux mohawk, the result of a nurse’s playfulness. He stared blankly toward the opposite wall, murmuring. I knelt before his chair and took his hand.

“Dad?”

He slowly turned his gaze.

“You know me?”

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My father in his prime.

After a moment, he nodded almost imperceptibly.

“Who am I?”

He smiled slightly. “Ray,” he whispered.

“No, not Ray.” I have no idea who Ray is. “Try again.”

Something clicked. His face tightened, his lips parted slightly, and he began to cry. “Chris…”

Just as quickly, his expression muddled, and the stare returned. He nodded. And nodded.

I engaged him in talk as best as possible and took a few photographs.

He held my hand off and on, muttering things like, “I used to have lots of money. No more. It’s okay, it’s okay. Madelyn [his deceased wife] is coming soon.”

Aides began wheeling patients to the dining room for lunch.

“You seen Mama?” he asked. His mother had died some forty years earlier. “She ain’t been by.”

“No, but you’ll see her soon,” I said. “She’s waiting.”

A shadow of a smile played on his lips. He nodded once. “I love everybody.” He nodded again. “Everybody loves me.”

“I’m sure they do.”

He leaned slightly forward. “I’m proud…”

My breath caught with hope that, at last, he’d express something he’d never before expressed.

“I’m proud,” he whispered again, “real proud of my life.”

I let the breath go. “Yes, you should be.”

He sat back.

An African-American nurse arrived to take him to the dining room. My father, whose racist rants were legendary, reached for her hand and grinned.

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My father (right) discussing one of his used cars with a potential customer.

“She’s nice,” he said. “People…people’s the same everywhere.”

The nurse positioned herself behind the chair.

“We need to go,” I said. “Time for you to get some lunch.”

He raised a hand toward my wife—that unsuitable, racially-diverse person who married me thirty-eight years ago.

“I love you,” he whispered.

She hugged him.

He then held his hand out to me. His face twisted momentarily as though he might cry again.

“I love you,” he said. And he nodded.

“Yeah, I love you, too, Dad.”

His eyes glazed.

I lowered his hand to his lap and let go.

The nurse said, “Y’all can wait or come back after lunch if you’d like.”

We thanked her and stepped aside, and she wheeled him away.

Six days later, the day after our return to New Mexico, he died. My cousin said that he had been en route from dialysis to the rehabilitation center when he went to sleep for the last time.

I didn’t travel to Andalusia for the funeral, but my cousin filled me in. The preacher of the church my father attended—designated as a primary recipient of Dad’s estate after he disinherited his wife’s children and me—delivered a glowing tribute that had some attendees wondering who the hell the preacher was talking about.

That’s fine.

Southern preachers consider eulogies sacred opportunities to exploit insecurity and harvest souls by lobbing sizable chunks of fire and brimstone while praising the exceptional life of the dearly departed, now cozied up in heaven with Jesus.

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My father six days before his death. (May 11, 1938 – August 16, 2016)

What does it hurt?

Most of us—kind or cruel—reach for higher standards at some point. And we all fail in different degrees. It’s okay to remember people as better than they were. It’s okay to grant a little salvation.

At some point, I’ll stand at my father’s graveside, keenly aware of how he influenced me to strive to be his opposite, of how he will always affect the characters and themes in my fiction and poetry.

Perhaps I’ll thank him.

Perhaps not.

 

* from Neil Young’s “Old Man”

 

Personal Experience Effect

No matter the effort to avoid it, personal experience—from the drama of relatives to political shenanigans—creeps into every writer’s work, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. The Confederate flag hoopla and the fight for and against the rights of people of color, women, and homosexuals are examples of issues that have proved provocative, disruptive, even destructive in interpersonal relationships and a godsend for the political powers who use division as a control device. Buying into the propaganda of political and media organizations, we make extreme decisions that affect our interpersonal relationships for the rest of our lives. When those decisions involve a writer, you can bet the effects will be reflected in the writer’s work.

Politics is naturally contentious, each generation viewing its own political tomfoolery as more contentious than what came before. Since the advent of 24/7 “news” channels, whose primary purpose is not to report news, but to stoke fear, frustration, hatred, and anger, politics has been exploited fully as a tool to divide and punish rather than to find compromise and serve the common good. I’m not so naïve to believe this use of politics is something new, but its in-your-face nature has strengthened exponentially in recent decades, thanks to technology. We’re assaulted relentlessly through our televisions and radios, computers, smartphones, tablets—umbilically connected to designer “news” sites that feed our prejudice and fear to the point we lose grip on reality and rationality and strike out at all who differ in opinion, worldview, gender, sexuality, religion, lifestyle, or race.

I grew up in South Alabama and Northwest Florida during the late 1950s through the early 1970s. The region wasn’t then nor has it become one of the most tolerant of diversity. Flaming midnight crosses lit up country pastures. Robed, hooded figures gathered like kids at a mega weenie roast, singing angry, hateful campfire songs about folks born of different race or religion, preaching the end of the world was nigh if lesser races acquired the same rights whites already enjoyed. Oh, save us, Jesus! It’s Armageddon! Color me silly, but I don’t think Jesus the Jew would be welcomed at such an event.

A close relative was then and remains a man of the white robe, flames flickering in his eyes, despite his interaction over the decades with a variety of people of color and cultures, thanks to his public sales business. He has never felt a need or desire to question the region’s prevalent stereotypes and fears of people who’re different, to overcome the hatred, to grow. Why, I don’t know. To my knowledge, he’s never suffered physically, financially, or mentally due to malicious acts by any person of color. And he certainly hasn’t lost his rights to groups or individuals gaining their own. He has, however, been a willing, unquestioning consumer of the Wallace/Thurmond/Trump/Helms/Cruz/Santorum/Fox/et.al. stream of fear and hate mongering, never once seeking objective verification to even the most extraordinary claim, never once attempting to understand any issue through a viewpoint other than his own bigotry.

During a phone conversation four years ago, I voiced support for the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. “Don’t you tell me,” he growled, “you like what that communist nigger’s done.” I wasn’t shocked by his response. We’d debated his use of such small-minded epithets on numerous occasions, especially this particular word which he uses not only in reference to anyone black, but also to persons of Middle Eastern, Mexican, and other cultural and racial backgrounds. I suspect he used the word this time simply to anger me as he began a litany of irrational charges against President Obama, that the President had “ruined” the economy, that he’s Muslim, that he’s waging war against Christians, that he’s not even American—all the batty, right-wing talking points and conspiracy theories that even reality can’t counter in the true believer’s mind. Then he asserted that the U.S. should have never pulled out of Iraq, that Obama had secured the destruction of America by doing so.

“We never should have invaded Iraq in the first place,” I said.

He took a breath. “That’s something we agree on,” he said. “We should’ve nuked the hell out of them because them A-rabs ain’t even human.”

That was it.

We were done.

After a lifetime of shared, reluctant tolerance, our relationship had abruptly come to an end.

Earlier this week, my spouse received an email from one of her relatives, an email purporting that the factual histories of the Civil War and Rebel battle flag are instead myth, that the war had little to do with slavery, that the flag is a symbol of only southern heritage, not racism. The sender did not copy me on the mail, perhaps because she understands my view of such bigotry and did not want to risk rebuttal. When my spouse replied to the mail, she copied all to whom the original had been sent, and she copied me as well, addressing the original mail as though her relative had offered it as an example of how gullible people are when something supports their bigoted worldview:

“People will believe anything rather than admitting that it’s been 150 years since the end of the Civil War and we still have racism. How sad and disappointing. As a nation we have made progress, but we still have far to go.”

A day later, the following landed in my mailbox, thanks to my spouse’s relative who hit “reply to all.” It’s presented unaltered:

“No one living today is a slave or has owned a slave, am I wrong in not liking group of people who have different views of life than I do? I have always been told ‘your rights end when they intruded on mine’ how much longer do we as Americans need to bend over and take it up the as…before these people realize they need to start to take care of themselves? This crap has been going on for years. The American public has, in my opinion done way too much to make amends for what has happened in the past and they still want more, work for it like the rest of us have done and quit asking for a hand out.”

It would have been wise not to reply to the rant, but I’m not a wise man. I thought that, by engaging the writer in a rational, fact-based discussion, he might look beyond the hyperbole of pundits, might change his mind. So I responded, copying all on the list:

“Thanks for your entertaining mail. If you would like to engage in a rational debate on specific issues, backing your points with objective, valid sources (not political organizations such as Fox News or DailyKos), I’d be happy to debate you. However, specifics are required. For example, instead of generalizations such as ‘these people,’ define whether they are black, of Mexican descent like yourself, Jewish, Middle Eastern, East Indian, Asian, etc., since the average southern white lumps all races of color into the same lesser-than category. Another example would be ‘handouts’ and the group to which the so-called handout is provided–social security, Medicare, food stamps, housing assistance, etc.–and how it affects you and how or why it is right or wrong. Back your argument with objective sources. Another example is ‘your rights end when they intrude on mine.’ Be specific. For example, do you mean you have the right to fly a Nazi flag on your property, but you don’t have the right to demand government or public entities to fly the flag on their buildings or property since that property represents all people? Or I have the right to worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster but not to force you to say my prayers in school?

“You get the idea.

“If you and the others in this mail exchange do not desire a rational debate but would prefer to vent anger and frustration over issues based on the ‘factual’ nonsense regarding the Confederate flag that began this exchange, I prefer to be left out of the loop.\

“Take care…”

A few moments later: “Fuck you.”

My response: “Okay.”

Then: “Just forget my email address and I don’t ever want to see you or any of your family again. Chris you are a looser.”

“For future reference,” I replied, “it’s ‘loser,’ not ‘looser.’”

When we refuse to engage in rational discussion, when we set our minds so rigidly based on irrational hatred and fear, when we refuse to consider another point of view unless it agrees with our own, when we refuse to grow, all of us are losers.

From fiction to poetry, creative nonfiction to straight reporting, personal experience colors my work in some way. One example of experience influencing my nonfiction work began with intervention in three on-the-street domestic violence incidents in Hawaii in the early1980s, which led to an article for Honolulu Magazine on the state’s problem of domestic violence, what police termed “local love.” The article helped in a small way to push a mandatory arrest bill through the state legislature to become law, requiring police to arrest aggressors when responding to domestic violence calls. In fiction and poetry, the above relatives, as well as others, have provided models for characters in stories such as “Side-Road Shack” and “Luau,” the novel Big Daddy’s Fast-Past Gadget, and in many of the poems in White Trash & Southern ~ Collected Poems, Volume I.

We writers are grateful to the relatives who manufacture drama, the politicians who stir the pot of fear and hatred, the citizens in our communities who fuel suspicion and discontent. By simply being who they are, these people prove an ironic benefit to writers. We thank them for helping us to explore the irrational, the hateful, the destructive through the characters they inspire. If, by chance, our work benefits the reader or society at large in any measure, we owe them that much more gratitude.

Yes, we’re deeply indebted to them.

I wish we weren’t.

White Trash & Southern explores joys, sorrows of living

Collecting 232 poems spanning more than three decades, White Trash& Southern explores the beauty, joys, challenges, and sadness thatencompass life. From the book’s cover:

“Poetry in this data-saturated age is not, for most, a viable way to make a living. So why expend the time and energy to create something that few people will read and even fewer will purchase? To which I must ask, why do people sing in the rain, paint pictures, dance? Because it provides pleasure and reward and perhaps even keeps them sane. As a writer of fiction and nonfiction, I am most concerned with story. When I write poetry, I view it not as some lofty literary tool to fool or condescend, but as an exercise in crafting story within the strictest confines. White Trash & Southern is a collection of such exercises, spanning nearly three decades. To create a complex story within a limited number of words—to communicate far more than appears on the page—is a challenge that can provide enormous reward and satisfaction. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I don’t. But at least I remain sane. Sort of.”

“With an eye for the particular and an ear for the music of everyday life, C. S. Fuqua shares with readers his brave and lyrical view of human experience. An unflinching examination of the sorrows and joys we experience while moving through the world, White Trash & Southern is a fine collection of poems.” ~Dr. Wendy Galgan, Editor, Assisi Literary Magazine

White Trash & Southern is full of empathy and honor for the human condition that we ultimately all share. This is a wonderful book of poetry, and a fine achievement that will greatly enrich its readers.” ~Devin McGuire, Editor of the Unrorean literary magazine and author of After the Hunt (Encircle Publications 2013)

“White Trash & Southern [by] C.S. Fuqua [is] gritty, insightful, humorous, tragic, and celebratory … [B]egin anywhere, skip around, or read it from back to front … a well-written, coherent collection … however you read it.” ~Jonathan K. Rice, Editor/Publisher, Iodine Poetry Journal

A good friend asked whether the poems in White Trash & Southern are autobiographical.

Yes.

No.

All of the poems evolved out of experience, certainly, but that doesn’t mean the events explored transpired exactly as detailed. Some did. Some didn’t. Some sort of. Many of the ideas came from other people. Some poems are simple exercises of placing myself in other people’s situations. An idea has a way of becoming more on the page, transforming into something completely different from the original inspiration and intent.

Don’t believe anything you read.

Believe everything.

White Trash & Southern is available in paperback, Kindle, Nook, and audio formats.

“I’ll be Fine”: Empathy through Experience

The cashier’s eyes widen as a faint, embarrassed smile blossoms. Even though she won’t ask the obvious question, she can’t stop looking. Outside, the guy passing us on the sidewalk rubbernecks for a full view. And the two women in the minivan in the lane by the walk are simultaneously so disgusted and relieved, it’s comical. Angered, my teenage daughter threatens to educate these people on the social impoliteness of staring.

In my dark fantasy story, “Eyes of a Child,” a father effectively imprisons his physically deformed daughter to spare her negative public reaction and saccharine sympathy. As a father, I understood during the writing the character’s desire to protect his child, albeit misguided, but I could not genuinely empathize with the daughter because I’d never experienced a “disability” and the public reaction to it. Then, a few days ago, I had a bicycle accident.

I’ve been riding the same bike/pedestrian course for months, day after day. Usually, extraordinary evens are limited to one or two auto drivers who fail to yield for pedestrian/bike crossings. One part of the route descends a shallow hill with a curve at the bottom. I’ve had no problem with it in the past. But heavy rain had fallen overnight, spreading a thin layer of clay mud across the asphalt path, mud that I saw too late. The bicycle slued from under me into grass and mud beside the path, and I hit the asphalt path that took chunks of flesh from my knuckles, arms and elbows, and a wide swath from below my left knee. My head and face hit first. The impact destroyed my helmet, but it protected my skull. My nose, left cheek, and chin didn’t fare as well, slamming into the asphalt and scraping across before I began to roll.

Though aching and bloody, the wounds on my hands, arms, and legs were no worse than any I’d suffered before, only more in number than usual. My face also burned, but I had no way of examining it, so I knocked mud off the bike, mounted, and cycled the four miles home, noting a few stares along the way, chalking them up to my bloody-leg, muddy appearance. Back home, a mirror revealed why my face burned and why people had been staring. The impact had scraped the skin off my left cheek, across my nose, above my upper lip, and off my chin. My left eye was bruised and puffy, and my cheek and chin had begun to swell. I showered, cleaned the wounds, and bandaged those that could be covered, but those on my face could not be bandaged effectively.

Injured or not, I still had work to do. My first stop was to drop a package for shipment. The clerk’s initial look of fear as I came up to the counter nearly made me laugh. “A bike accident,” I said. She nodded eagerly, relief flooding her face. “Oh, I’ve had that happen, too. Just keep it clean, and you’ll be fine.” Yes, I’d be fine, but what about people like the daughter in my story, people with permanent disabilities, people who will never be fine in the public view?

The subject of disabilities is saturated with ignorance and media misrepresentation. In movies and literature, blindness is often equated with stupidity, disability with inability, deformity with evil. A recent Louis Harris poll found that nearly 60 percent of Americans are embarrassed and uncomfortable around people with disabilities, and almost half are actually afraid of people with disabilities. In “Eyes of a Child,” the father fears public disgust and feigned sympathy so much that he never allows his daughter out of the house. If I were writing the story today, I would better empathize with the girl’s character and more deeply understand the father’s love for his daughter and his fear and loathing of the public.

My injuries will heal and leave only the slightest of scars on my cheek and chin. They have not provided me with complete understanding of the social challenges faced by persons with disabilities, but the reactions of others to my appearance have provided me with a glimpse of the daily battle. In the past couple of days, I’ve considered wearing a cap and keeping my head bowed to spare others the sight of my hamburger patty face, but, more, to spare me of their reactions. But I won’t. We all can learn something important without the cap.

Back at the store, my daughter and I cross the lane to our car, get in. Another car pulls into the space facing us. The guy behind the wheel narrows his eyes at me until he realizes I’m glaring directly back at him. He fumbles with the door, gets out, and hurries into the store. I glance over at my daughter, and we laugh. The guy doesn’t know I’ll be fine.

***

Another perspective…
by Dick Claassen

The owner of this blog, Chris Fuqua, is a good friend of mine. He recently had a bike accident and told me he really bunged up his face. As proof, he sent me a frontal photo of his face a couple of days after the accident so I would get the full impact of the damage. Ouch! Chris could walk onto the set of an action flick and wouldn’t even have to go through makeup!

Chris commented that when he appeared in public with his temporarily wounded face, his appearance drew many stares. So many stares that it made him uncomfortable. He told me he didn’t even want to appear in public until his face was healed. I was amazed by this rude behavior of strangers. I mean, this is 2010, for crying out loud. Aren’t we supposed to be enlightened by now? But as I thought about Chris’s experience, I hearkened back to the experiences of my own life when I was a kid. I’m 69, and when I was five, I contracted Polio. This would be in 1946. (Yeah, I know, loooong time ago.) People were truly ignorant back then. Polio randomly attacks and paralyzes different limbs, and all too often those of us who are hit by it end up with not only weak limbs, but muscles that won’t keep the feet up, giving the Polio survivor a peculiar slapping walk. This was me. So people stared at me when I walked. I hated to move in a group of strangers, because my funky walk was sure to draw stares.

I put up with this ignorant nonsense until I was a young adult, and I’ve gotta tell ya, that can do some serious damage to your self confidence. But then something peculiar happened: Sesame Street. Sesame Street? Yup. That program was all about tolerance. Preaching tolerance was its reason for being. We saw kids of different races as a matter of course on that show. We also saw kids in wheelchairs. And most important, those “different” kids were characters in the show along with all kinds of other “normal” kids. Sesame Street didn’t point out that little Suzie had to be in a wheelchair. Suzie simply was another normal kid on the show, and was treated as such. Now, this change in attitude among the public gawkers didn’t happen all at once, but eventually those who watched Sesame Street long enough, (and that was just about everyone of any age), finally became comfortable with those who were “different.” Without realizing it, the majority of our population, both young and old, helped by the positive influence of Sesame Street, finally saw the light and put people like me into the “normal” category. And as people became more accepting, they no longer stared at me. I seldom get stares anymore, and that’s a very nice feeling. And I give Sesame Street all the credit.

I don’t mind being physically disabled. Okay, I do mind. But not to the point of either distraction or destruction. I’ve had this body for 64 years. If I’m not comfortable with myself by now, there’s no hope. But after experiencing real courtesy from almost everyone I meet these days, I was very disappointed that someone like Chris, who simply had bumps and bruises, (okay, granted, BIG bumps and bruises), was stared at. Apparently this kind of behavior varies from one region to the other. Case in point: I live in Iowa, and never was I more proud of the people in my state than two weeks after 9(11). Emotion was high, and people were scared to death of anyone who even wore a beanie, let alone a hijab. One day in Wal-Mart I was about to walk out when I just happened to look behind me. There was a family of four walking into the store: a mom, dad, little brother, and big sister. They obviously were Muslim because they all wore traditional Muslim clothing. The dad and son wore trousers and shirts of their culture, and the mom and the big sister were in long abayas and hijabs. (The hijab is the veil that frames the face but doesn’t cover the face). Their attire really made them stand out in the crowd. There were many people in the store, all local white bread Protestant Iowans, and they all saw this young family. But not one person stared. Not one. Sure, there were quick and covert glances, the kind of looks one might give to any stranger. But those glances never lingered. They would simply look elsewhere and go about their business. The Muslim family was comfortable, the people around them were polite, and I felt proud to be an Iowan.

Before you conclude that none of this is any big deal, it is. It’s huge. It’s far bigger than we might suppose. The very future of our democracy hangs on tolerance. Intolerance breeds fear, and fear will tear a democracy down faster than anything else. The question is not “Is Obama a Muslim?” That question shouldn’t even be asked. What faith, (or no faith), our leaders embrace is none of our business. It really isn’t. Personal faith or no faith is a private matter. Sesame Street was extremely successful in acclimating us all to those who were “different” from us. That show increased our level of tolerance. We might have to hope for an adult version of Sesame Street that can instill and infuse tolerance into the heads of those who insist on infusing fear and violence into the minds of those who should know better. Let’s all get down on our little knees and pray tonight for the adult version of Sesame Street before it’s too late. Even if you have no personal faith, pray anyway.

–Dick Claassen is a retired math and chemistry teacher, a guitarist, banjoist, professional of the Native American flute, and author of numerous romance novels, textbooks, magazine articles, and several books on Native American flute instruction and technique. Please visit his website at http://playfolkinstruments.com.