Reputation

My new Mars story isn’t done yet, so I’m not ready to write about how I did it. While you wait, here’s a brand-new anecdote from the Mostly True collection.wbhs2

Every class has one student known by his negative reputation instead of his name, and some have more than one. Unable to excel at education, he strives to be known for rebellion instead. He may become the class clown, taking foolish risks to gain attention. Other times, he lashes out in violence.

As a high-school freshman (9th grade), my crowded course schedule placed me in gym with a class of 8th-grade students. This wouldn’t happen in most school districts, because most districts don’t teach 8th-grade classes at their high school. Ours was different. Eighth-grade students were using the gym in my only available calendar slot, so I was assigned to their class.a bubbler, or water fountain if you don't come from Massachusetts.

This left me in the unexpected role of “big kid.” I have never been athletic, and to this day I cannot truly comprehend the idea of being a threat to anyone in gym. Still, I was the outsider, older than everyone else, a clear target for the Worf Effect. And I drew the attention of the class tough guy.

We were in the locker room after class, he and I, jostling for position at the bubbler (water fountain). I was not a selfless child, and probably did something to provoke his ire, but the response I got was entirely unexpected: without a word, he punched me in the head. And I–

Did nothing.

Okay, to be honest, that’s not entirely accurate. If you’ve ever taken a haymaker to the left temple, you know it hurts. And while he didn’t knock me down, he did surprise me. And I just stood there, looking at him, while tears of pain filled my eyes. After a few seconds, he took his drink at the bubbler, and life went on.

Looking back, I wonder why this day lingers in my mind when nothing ever came of it. I didn’t hit him back. I didn’t meet him after school to settle things at a time and place when school discipline wouldn’t be invoked. I didn’t even change my standing in gym class, because I’m not a jock, and never will be. But despite all this, the memory of that day still haunts me.

Maybe it haunts me because I’ll never know what would have happened. I tell myself I did the right thing, that he led a tough life, and had probably been beaten on by tougher people than I. I tell myself that I was the “big kid” at that bubbler, and social standing being what it is, I had nothing to gain by a fight, while he had nothing to lose.  But I also know it hurt, and I tell myself I could have punched him back, and won.

Science is beginning to prove that it’s not the larger-than-life personalities who make the best leaders. For men, however, social ranking is still achieved by a Rambo-sized physique or a Napoleon-sized ego.  Ninth-grade boys desperately need to feel like a man, and society tells our boys that violence is a quick way to get there. But I did nothing. The adult in me knows I did the right thing.

The 9th-grade boy in me still doesn’t know.

Baby Steps across the Racial Divide

Massachusetts bigotry is the zit that appeared on your nose the afternoon before prom night. At first, you didn’t even know it was there. Then, when you found out about it, you were embarrassed. You tried to treat it, to ignore it, to cover it up, but it’s still there, and everyone knows.

I first realized this in 1978, when my brother was home from college. It was Sunday, and my grandfather had come over for Sunday dinner. The big news that night was my brother’s upcoming date that evening. Since I was still in middle school, and hadn’t yet discovered girls, this seemed an appropriate thing about which to tease him.

“P–‘s going on a date,” I said.School bus zoom in front

“Is she white?” my grandfather asked.

“No,” my brother said. “He’s black.”

I knew when I heard this that P’s date was in fact a white girl. I also knew that my brother, with his reply, was telling my grandfather he had stepped over the line. Over the years, I’ve become proud of my brother for doing it. Since May 17 will be the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, it seems appropriate to tell this story today.

Unlike the plaintiffs in Brown, my life was insulated from racial concerns. As far as I can remember, my High School had one African-American student and perhaps two Asians when I was there. I’m fairly sure we had more identical twins in school than non-whites. Race never really came into my consciousness at the time, but since then, I’ve been thinking about it more and more.

I think about it when I think about Boston, a city I love. Bill Russell, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, described Boston as a “flea market of racism,” and never really felt comfortable with his home-town fans. Although Boston’s Racial Imbalance Act of 1965 was one of the first desegregation laws in the United States, minority students involved in that integration effort were met with thrown rocks when their buses came into white neighborhoods. And from what I’ve read, discrimination is still a problem there. In school, we learn about the underground railroad, and how Massachusetts regiments fought from the moral high ground in the Civil War. Unfortunately, somebody forgot to notify the bigots. Bill Lee

I think about it when I remember 2004, when a pair of dark-brown Dominicans named Martinez and Ortiz led the Boston Red Sox to their first World Series Championship in 84 years. The real Curse of the Bambino was racism: if Tom Yawkey had been willing to hire a black man, baseball greats Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays could both have easily come to Boston long before they went to New York.  Bill Lee may be a less-than-ideal poster child for your “Say No To Drugs” campaign, but he got it right when it came to understanding racism in Boston.

I think about it when I listen to music, because so much of “american” musical culture has come from the african-american community. The black gospel, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and hip hop I enjoy may be popular with whites, but they were all birthed by people of color. Even the “traditionally white” opera on my iPhone is sung by Leontyne Price, an african-american woman.

I think about it when I try to write, because minorities have long been under-represented in science fiction. Unlike those things I’ve mentioned above, this is one area I can change. When I write, I need to find more ways that the protagonist of my story can be non-white. To be honest, this is hard for me, because I need to write what I know, and I don’t know enough about people of color.

To fix this, I’ve been listening to discussions on racial inequality from Fuller University on iTunesU. I’ve been reading blogs by people like EthiopianAmericanGirl who talk about integrating their minority culture into the white majority. And I’m trying to work up the courage to interview some of the many minority people I have met, but never really known.

I’m going to get there. I’m going to learn what I need to know. And my stories will be integrated. It’s only right.

Microsoft Delivers

Nineteen years ago, I was one of the senior developers in a project to develop a new factory automation software package under the Windows NT operating system. I received, as part of this project, a “Solution Provider” tee shirt, with the tagline “Microsoft Delivers.” Being a stereotypical New Englander (read: cheap), I wore said shirt periodically. My friends, who knew me as an advocate for UNIX, would often question me about this behavior, and I would tell them a story.

cattle farm

No longer a dairy farm, but cows still live there.

My grandfather owned a vegetable farm in southeast Massachusetts. Though he sold most of the property long before I ever knew it, he continued to farm a small plot of the original land to supplement our diet with fresh produce.

Across town, a friend of our family owned a dairy farm. Every spring, when the dairyman mucked out his barns, he took a truckload of manure and spread it on my grandfather’s field.  Years of this habit led to my grandfather having excellent soil on his property, which in turn made it easy to find nightcrawlers there for an afternoon of trout fishing.

Unfortunately, the neighborhood around my grandfather’s farm was not the same as it had been in the days when my father was a child.  Over the years, a residential neighborhood had sprung up where once oaks and swamp maples had grown across the street. These neighbors, as you might expect, had a different perspective of the manure delivery:

  • As far as my grandfather was concerned, he was making an annual purchase of fertilizer for his fields.
  • As far as the dairyman was concerned, he was providing a service to an old family friend.
  • As far as the neighbors were concerned, however, somebody had just driven up in a truck and dumped a big load of crap in my grandfather’s back yard, and it stank to high heaven.

Clearly, this story has absolutely nothing to do with the slogan “Microsoft Delivers”, but as the storyteller I can choose to tell you whatever story I wish.  Still, I think that perspective matters, whether you’re buying a product, selling a service, or witnessing a transaction.

Breaking Plymouth Rock

My family first came to America on the Mayflower, and died that first winter. At least, that’s the story as it was told to me. It’s hard to tell if the Turner who came to the Boston colony some time later and from whom I’m descended is any relationship to the merchant John Turner and his two sons, all of whom died in 1621. It may be true, and if so, I am content, but I still harbor suspicion that the whole story is a bill of goods sold to my family some sixty years past.

saints-and-strangersOf greater interest to me is the story of my great-grandfather Archie Turner, who, according legend, was part of a group of men who broke Plymouth Rock. As the story goes, the piece of Vermont granite known as Plymouth Rock was not always present in its current location. In fact, it was at that time in two locations, because only half of the stone had been hauled into public view. The other half remained buried near the shore.

When the time came that the Town of Plymouth wanted to give their beloved stone a new resting place, they decided to reunite the two pieces once again. They hired a man to do the job, and that man hired a young laborer named Turner to assist him.

Since the second piece of Plymouth Rock had been buried all those years, no one knew how big it was, which turned out to be a good thing, because it turned out to be too large and too unwieldy for the workmen to manage properly. Having hauled the boulder out of the earth, they proceeded to drop it in transit, and it broke.

Naturally, this is a reason for concern, because the locals held Plymouth Rock in high regard as the place their forefathers first set foot when founding the Plymouth Bay colony. Whether this legend were true or not was irrelevant — one does not simply break a town monument.

To cover up their failure, so they say, the group of workmen broke up the smaller of the two pieces of Plymouth Rock and carried them away. The larger piece was hauled to its new home and passed off as the whole thing, and the customer was none the wiser.

Evidence in favor of this story includes the fact that many pieces of Plymouth Rock turned up as souvenirs in the hands of locals after that time, and that the piece of rock delivered by the laborers didn’t quite mesh with the piece previously moved in the 1700s.  The dates, however, don’t quite seem to fit my family timeline, and it’s possible that this tale may just be an embellishment wrapped around some ill-defined bits of local history.

If my family is responsible for breaking Plymouth Rock, I must offer the people of Plymouth my humblest apologies. And if not, I probably should apologize for being part of a family of liars. Either way, I am sorry.

Note: Saints and Strangers by George F. Willison, shown above, is a dense but interesting history of the Plymouth Bay colony. If you enjoy reading history, pick it up. I found it a useful resource when researching the history of Plymouth Rock and Plymouth Bay Colony.

The Legend of Big Bill

Those who think larger-than-life American personalities are limited to the Old West have never lived in a small town in New England. When you live in a small town, you get to meet any number of fascinating characters.

Back in the 1930’s in my home town, Big Bill was one such character. At six-feet-plus of muscle and sinew, he could have stood toe to toe with any of our modern exercise freaks, but Bill was the town fire chief, and he earned his strength from hard work farming and fighting fires. I only knew him in later years, but he was still a hulk of a man, and strong.

When World War Two arrived, the Massachusetts state government decided that a well-trained populace was going to be vital to civil defense. To that end, they sent an official to every small town to teach them how to put out the phosphorus bombs the Nazis were using to such devastating effect in London and elsewhere.

This particular government man was no fool– he knew how small town influence worked. To teach these stubborn New England yankees anything, he would need a vivid example of his own superiority. And to do that, he used the town fire chief.

For his demonstration, the government man chose a gravel parking lot near the center of town, framed to the south by Town Hall and to the north by the local Catholic church. In this lot, he set up a small wood-frame building similar to an outhouse, and placed a phosphorus bomb within it. The whole town turned out to see the event.

The plan was simple. The government man would light the bomb, then ask the fire chief to put out the blaze. A single man on a fire hose would normally have to use the standard firefighting method of spraying water on the fire in a broad arc. This would fail, because you have to suffocate a phosphorus blaze to put it out. The government man would then step in, douse the fire with sand, and thereby teach everyone how to put out a phosphorus fire.  His mistake? Assuming that Big Bill used “standard” methods.

Bill may have been a small-town fireman, but he knew there was a firebomb in that outhouse, and he knew he had to put it out.  When challenged to put out the fire, he didn’t spray water on it at all.  He picked up that hose, held the nozzle within a few short inches of the bomb, and turned it on.  Full blast.

The phosphorus bomb was snuffed out like a candle.

The reason this isn’t a standard method, though, is the strength required.  A single man should not be able to hold a hose that steady with that volume of water flowing from it. An ordinary man couldn’t.  Big Bill was no ordinary man.

After a few moments of astonished silence, the government man recovered and explained what they had just seen.  “Unless you are as strong as your fire chief,” he said, “I recommend you use sand to put out a fire like this.”

By all accounts, the people listened.