Even as a little kid, I was as intrigued with stripes as I was perplexed by them. Zebras had them. And just like a new pair of gym shoes made you run faster, putting stripes on a car made it go, well, faster. Why else would they call the stripes ‘racing’?
But even back then, I suspected stripes had a dark side. Sunday school teachers went to great lengths to talk in vivid detail about the whipping Christ endured in the prelude before His crucifixion. Stripes, bloody ribbons of back flesh, stripes He bore for us…talk about guilt inducing! I never wanted anyone to suffer such abuse, much less fear somehow the flogging had been my fault. I was horror stricken to think I could have been so culpable in what the Romans had done.
“He earned his stripes.”
Growing up, I knew the phrase early. The people around me used it often. In fact, it was the veterans in my extended family tree who seemed to rely on the verbal shorthand of stripe-earning more than anyone else.
My Uncle Paul in WWII, my Dad in Korea, my eldest cousin Doug in Vietnam and looming large above them all, my Grandpa and his service in France early in WWI. Even then, my tragically literal mind was troubled to think ‘earning your stripes’ in the military first involved getting whipped like Kunta Kinte in Roots.
One day we were out in his garage working on something when I blurted out, “Grandpa, how do you get stripes in a war?”
Like so many veterans who had killed other young men on battlefields throughout our history, he never really talked much about what had happened over there.
About all I knew was his deafness had come from his job as an artillery spotter. I knew he must have been pretty good at it because the Germans shelled the church tower he was using to direct Allied fire. Family lore spoke of him running down the side of the steeple as it slowing listed on its’ way to the ground.
“So how do you? (my question haunted with images of flogging loitering in the back of my mind) Can anybody just get the ones they want. Do you buy ‘em and why do they put them on their sleeves?”
I remember it as clearly today as the day it happened. It was one of those rare moments that seemed to find him far, far away, maybe remembering private thoughts he never shared about a time when he wasn’t much older than I was going to be.
Snapped from his daze, I remember him imperceptibly shaking his head the way he did with me when he was trying to keep a quiet smile from playing out across his face.
“You don’t buy stripes. You earn them. And having them on your shoulder is the Army’s way of telling other soldiers what grade you’re in.” That made sense…sort of.
He must have sensed I wasn’t quite done wrestling with what had prompted my questions. So without stopping his work, he went on to tell me about a time he’d been playing cards and one of the other soldiers didn’t have any more money to bet with – so he bet his stripes.
I was stunned! Grandpa played cards? For money? But he was a Methodist!
But then, somehow, someway, I connected with the image of him as a young man very far from home, finding whatever way he could to keep from thinking too much during the interludes of boredom between cannon blasts. In my book, his ‘cool’ factor went way up.
“Can you do that? Can you bet your stripes?”
“The cloth bits? I suppose so. We let him. But no, not really. Stripes are something you earn. They aren’t something you give away. They’re yours.”
This past Memorial Day, I thought about Grandpa and the others as I put our flag out on the porch. I even saluted as I breathed their names. The Stars and Stripes.
Ever the history buff, I binged all day on every bit of television programming I could find on veterans and the wars they had fought in. History Channel, NatGeo, Smith and TLC all delivered in spades. As I watched, I gained new respect for the journey Grandpa and all the others in my family orbit had taken; the races they had run. They all grew somehow to be more than just Grandpa at Christmas or Uncle Paul taking us to the Shrine Circus. They had done and seen things we could not even imagine. They were so much more than what I knew.
Same is true for Maya Angelou. Back in the day, I knew she had a deeper voice than mine and she was Oprah’s friend. And though I didn’t know much else, she intrigued me from the start, somehow understanding what she meant when she said something about her drive to ‘keep on, keeping on’. Why? ‘Because I want to see what the end’s going to be’.
I think Ms. Angelou knew all about stripes and running the good race. But being ever the linear thinker, I wondered if now, being on the other side, had she and my Grandpa met? Inexplicably, I flashed on an image of the two of them sitting around a table somewhere in Paradise, playing cards with Nelson Mandela, Bobby Kennedy and Ghandi. I’d like to think I can hear laughter coming from their table as they made their bets and played the cards they were dealt like they had when they were here on Earth.
On other fronts oddly converging, our nephew ran his first 5K this week. Son of “Big Tim”, who I might add is aptly named for his three-hundred pounds of blacksmithian presence, Little Tim was anything but tiny not all that long ago. Around his 13th birthday, he had already passed the two-hundred pound mark on the scale.
But since then, something woke up inside Little Tim. Maybe it was girls; maybe it was getting teased by kids he couldn’t intimidate with his size like he had the kids in his neighborhood; or maybe it was not making the football team last year. Sure, he had the size to be a great defensive lineman, but what tackled him during tryouts was a cold hard truth…he didn’t have the fitness. Not long after that Little Tim started exercising…all on his own.
If he was waiting for the bus, he used the back of the bench as a push-up station. Or if he had to go upstairs, he’d go two stairs at a time and then, come back down and do it again. It was as if he were listening to some small inner voice none of the rest of us could hear.
The big day came and friends and family were there to cheer him on in his first race…each of us having high hopes for a kid that’s come alive and already achieved so much.
The race was disastrous.
In the rain, we watched kid after kid come into view and cross the finish line as the big clock ticked off their times. But no Little Tim.
The intervals between finishers were growing as the shadows lengthened across the soggy course. And then, suddenly, we spotted him off in the distance. Even then I could see how heavy his feet were feeling as sweat dripped off him while the drizzle fell on him. It was so hard to watch.
Knowing who he was and how hard he’d worked, we cheered as he slogged past the stands and staggered across the finish line. I so wanted to be supportive, but our little crews cheers didn’t have the same verve as families of the fast kids. What do you say that doesn’t sound false or patronizing?
But as we drew close, what we saw was not defeat. He was beaming through the exhaustion. “I’ve never run that far that fast. I can really do this!”
All of the sudden, it hit me. Like Angelou, he had run his own race for his reasons. Little Tim’s measure of success lay deep within him and he knew he had done something he could never have imagined just a summer before. And though he may not know it yet, that, race fans, is something no one will ever be able to take away from him no matter where his life’s track takes him.
Later in the day, someone asked him if he had doubted he would finish? He said he hadn’t been sure, because having a finish line was sort of new. When he’d gone running in the park or at school, all he knew to do was to keep running until he was done. He’d never finished a race before because he’d never stopped running before he had to.
Even though he knew where the finish line was, Life did not grace him with the certainty that he would cross it. Angelou didn’t know where her finish line was going to be. But like our track star, she kept on keeping on because she knew it was out there, somewhere. And it was hers. And she wanted to know all there was to know about what the end was going to be.
There was no family meeting that afternoon…no formal motion from the Floor, but since the race, I’ve heard less and less reference to ‘Little Tim’. What I’ve been hearing of late is just, ‘Tim’.
Why? We had seen his Heart. He’s earned his first stripes and they’re his. What he did that afternoon and in all the months leading up to it showed us who he is. In such a revelation is held everything he’ll ever need or want to be.
In one way or another, each of us knows Tim’s story as our own. We are running races and facing obstacles that never seem to finish. None of us knows what the cards hold for us in the coming week – or any other for that matter. But the good news in all of this for me is my genuine belief that all the Cosmos has ever wanted for you or me is already there, deep inside, just waiting for us to show up. So hear me when I say I’m not saying anything to you I haven’t said to myself of late.
“Wake up and pay attention.”
As the new week begins, don’t be tricked into letting anyone call you little anything.
And if they do? Don’t you believe it. It’s their problem.
Do you have what it takes to claim that small spark of God waiting inside you as yours?
I’m betting my stripes you do.
And that my friend, that’s for keeps.
born Marguerite Annie Johnson
April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014
“There was more to Angelou than her status as a poet, wordsmith or writer, because she was and remains a source of inspiration not just for what she wrote, but for the life she lived — a life richly lived. Her life was the source of all the words, her youth growing up in segregated Arkansas, an African-American girl growing up in the American South were the signs of separation were everywhere, crept into your mind walking around town, bending over to get a drink of water…She was at some point or another, a singer, a dancer, an actress—see that challenging woman in “Roots”—a mother, a wife, a number of times, a streetcar conductor. She once toured 22 countries in a production of “Porgy and Bess.” She was a traveler, a civil rights activist, and a symbol for young, and not so young African-American women just about everywhere.
She was just plain vivid. If her voice was sometimes angry, it was also pushing forward, encouraging women to do more than just keep on keeping on, to aspire, to achieve, and always recognize unfairness and injustice for what they were.”
Source: GARY TISCHLER, Writer for the Georgetowner, MAY 29TH, 2014:
Let’s listen to Ms. Angelou speak for herself:
“We keep on keeping on, don’t we? I’m so grateful. I’m grateful to be party to this party. I’m grateful that you won’t forget me because I won’t forget you. I call on you all the time. I make myself available to you and you know this is so. You can call on me all of the time and I’m there. I always come when you call me. Isn’t it true? The most important thing, I think, is to be present—to be present all the time, all the time to be present. Bring your whole self all the time. Don’t shuck and jive. Bring your whole self.
“I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.” …When you look at this statement tonight, in your encyclopedia, under Terence (one “r”), you will find besides his name in italics is “Terentius Afer.” He was an African. He was a slave. He was sold to a Roman senator. The senator freed him. He became the most popular playwright in Rome… “I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.” My Lord! That statement is liberating! It not only liberates me from other people’s ignorance, it liberates me from my own…
A woman is no small matter. A man is no small matter. A man may be four feet tall. He may be white. He may be black. He may be anything, but you know when you’re in the company of a man. You know when you’re in the company of a woman. She can be pretty, plain, fat, thin—it doesn’t matter. A woman is going to respect you and, if you are disrespectful, a woman is going to say, “Excuse me, not here you don’t.” A man is going to say, “Excuse me. No, no, not here you don’t.”
I am proud and grateful to God to be an African American woman… I never understood why some men wanted women who didn’t know anything. Wait a minute! Run that by me one more time!… You just want somebody to feel superior to. Suppose you have a heart attack. I think the wise thing is to take responsibility for the time you take up and the space you occupy. So women, if you’re with men, who don’t respect you, too bad, too sad, your bad because you can’t count on them. And men, if you’re with women, who don’t know who they are, too bad, too sad, your bad, they can’t help you.
I come to these gatherings where black women are here, and black men, and I hope other people are here cause we learn from each other and you have to learn that, you have to know that. I love being an African American woman. Now, if I were a white woman, I’d learn what that is. I’d learn because there are some white women that have been heroes and I’d like to know them… I know that some of them don’t know their history to know that they’ve already been paid for, so they don’t act in accordance with their inheritance. But there are women, Asians, Spanish-speaking, Native American, white American, African American, African women, who have paid for us already. And it behooves us to respect them and not to carry along useless baggage.”
Dr. Maya Angelou in her comments made before the Organization of Women Writers of Africa in New York City, October 14, 2011.
SOURCE: NICOLE SEALEY, Writer for Salon.com (THURSDAY, MAY 29, 2014 11:00 AM CDT):
Murdered on Friday, March 23rd, 2014
Victims of Santa Barbara shooting, stabbing spree remembered.
Read about the individuals that died.
This has to stop.
Honor their lives and jump to: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/victims-of-santa-barbara-shooting-stabbing-spree-remembered/
I think Ms. Maya would like this one. Backed by a tight big band arrangement, Frank Sinatra and Luther Vandross sing their duet version of “The Lady is a Tramp”. I think it’d make her laugh to hear these two master vocalists break out and do a little improvised scatting for fun around the middle of the track. Enjoy.
SOURCES, PHOTO CREDITS and ATTRIBUTIONS:
Banner Coastal Redwood Forest by Eric E Photography is used with permission.
Kunta Kinte: “Kinte was born circa 1750 in the Mandinka village of Juffure, The Gambia.
One day in 1767, while Kunta was searching for wood to make a drum for his younger brother, four men chased him, surrounded him, and took him captive. Kunta awoke to find himself blindfolded, gagged, bound, and a prisoner of white men. He and others were put on the slave ship the Lord Ligonier for a three-month Middle Passage voyage to North America.” SOURCE: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kunta_Kinte
Stripes: http://cleanenoughlaundry.blogspot.com/2014/02/faux-fashion-friday-stripes.html; Men of the K.O.Y.L.I. playing cards: Soldiers are playing a relaxing game of cards. Positioned in a circle round the cards, they are stretched out on the ground. A small pile of money has been placed in the middle. One soldier looks over his shoulder towards the photographer, probably John Warwick Brooke. https://www.flickr.com/photos/nlscotland/4699709157/; Young Angelou: http://www.onelifesuccess.net/maya-angelou-why-the-caged-bird-sings-life-lessons/; KidRunningRace: http://i1.ytimg.com/vi/NSQiSBIm560/maxresdefault.jpg; Swirling Stripes: http://images5.fanpop.com/image/photos/29700000/Colourful-stripes-colors-29701491-1600-1200.jpg
Sinatra. Best of Duets: Released November 2, 1993; Recorded July 1, 6, 9, 1993 on Capitol Records and produced by Phil Ramone and Hank Cattaneo (http://grooveshark.com/#!/search/song?q=Frank+Sinatra%2FLuther+Vandross+The+Lady+Is+a+Tramp)
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