“Behind the daily storm of conflict and crisis, the artist continues the quiet work of the centuries, building bridges … reminding man of the universality of his feelings, desires and despairs, reminding him that the forces that unite are deeper than those that divide.” —John F. Kennedy.
CLARKSDALE – The tone, nothing like what I had half feared and suspected, was set almost immediately.
“You liberal SOB,” the man virtually shouted from three feet away, and when I turned to face him (there was little doubt as to whom he was speaking), what followed was a grin and a hug which rivaled each other in both size and sincerity.
In a room full of old friends he was among the longest holding of that status and while our politics could not be any more diametrically opposed, to this day he remains one of the three or four people on the planet I would most want in my foxhole during a firefight.
I drove the 100 miles up Highway 61 from my new home to my old one to attend an annual gathering of once very young, now not so young men at what I will argue is the best barbecue joint in the country for a little of that and a lot of reminiscing, flavored with perhaps just the slightest hint of failing memory-enhanced hyperbole for a couple of hours.
We call ourselves “Boys of Fall: Red Panthers,” and it is a somewhat loosely defined, but by-invitation-only group of those who played either starring or bit roles (ahem, that would be me) in the gridiron glory that was once associated with Coahoma County High School in the mid-to-late 1960s.
That’s right, a half-century — and more — ago.
It is old fart nostalgia at its best and I always enjoy it, but this year I must own up to having had some reservations about attending, solely because I did not want the presence of what by this group’s prevailing standard, almost certainly would be a “liberal SOB” to somehow compromise or throw a damper over everybody else’s good time.
At a time when political partisanship is insisting on the drawing of battle lines, I did not want to even witness, much less be the cause of any fissures forming in 50-year friendships.
And so, I conveyed that concern to one of the group’s organizers, with whom I have stayed in more regular contact over the years than I have with many of the others, just telling him straight out to let me know if he thought my attendance this year might be a complication and offering to create a significant enough excuse to bow out, if he did.
“Damn, Ray, you better come,” he said, allowing that we had all shared too much and known each other too long for any such ugliness to intrude. Though I still had my doubts, I told him I would be there.
And not only was he right, but he and everybody else went on to prove that.
The handshakes were firm and fully meant. The hugs were genuine. The black slapping was real and the entire back room of the restaurant that we’d filled was equally turgid with laughter and a pervasive good will.
And it strikes me that there’s a lesson or two to be learned from that.
People who have never met me, don’t know me from Adam’s off-side ox, write me letters expressing their fervent wishes that I might get to watch active evil befall my grandchildren—my grandchildren—because they disagreed with something I wrote in a newspaper opinion column, while others who might harbor the very same beliefs and equally strongly held opinions differing from mine, hug me hard enough to threaten ribs and sincerely inquire about my well-being, saying they’d heard I’d been a mite under the weather.
Because they know me. Because I am not “the media,” I am Ray. Because friendship trumps politics — or at least it can, and it certainly should.
And although I knew that, it was a knowledge reinforced this past weekend and it is a truth I hope to pass along to all of you in this sharing of it.
We are better than we sometimes show. We are better than we sometimes act toward one another. The better angels of our natures can get us off this path of mindless hatefulness and guide us back to where we always were and need to be — a common people, sharing common experiences and a common loyalty to a land where our differences are expressed at a ballot box and we can disagree without demeaning or discrediting.
The neo-tribal culture maintains there must be a process — we must be conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, and loyal only thereto, but prior to that, superseding that, we were and are Americans.
And if we can remember that, only that, then we can begin to build upon it.
Because shared nationality is a bond, just as is football to 50-year-ago kids-become-old men, and from bonds, adding only a catalyst of respect, can come friendships, and with friendships all things are possible.
This I believe, because what the smartest man I ever knew once said turns out to be true: people are more important than process.
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.