Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A drink of freedom

When I was 18 and in the Vietnam War, I couldn’t drink legally. I remember an editorial cartoon depicting GIs in a foxhole, bombs bursting in air, and one saying to the other, “If I couldn’t drink, then why am I here to die?”

The cartoon brought a brief, knowing smile to my young face, knowing well that, worse, I couldn’t vote myself out of the war, either. You had to be 21 to vote and to drink, yet most of my bros were my age or not much older. We knew the law, but we also knew how to get fired up while “in country."  We all needed numbing to get through that unreal, and no one asked for our IDs back then, not that it mattered. 

Years passed, and I moved on from Thunderbird -- the vintage of black choice in ‘Nam -- to Boone’s Farm, then onward to something with a cork. In between, there were some name brands as I grew toward sanity after a tour of the duty with Uncle Sam. 

Strange how Election Day brings out the patriotism and memories in me. Today I wore my Vietnam veteran baseball cap while waiting in line to vote. I never said a word to my fellow Americans, except to the poll workers when required. I heard my companions banter about Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty, same-sex marriage laws and legalized gambling in Maryland.

And I silently rejoiced. For I made their banter possible. I stood there, knowing they were free because I did what was asked of me when I was but a child. I enlisted in the U.S Air Force at exactly 17 years and 9 months old; I needed my parents’ signatures to enlist, and they grudgingly signed. 

It was the best move of my life. 

Back then, I began to learn how to survive in an unfair world. I learned how to communicate in spite of ignorant and intolerable rants from folks who thought themselves superior in rank, intellect, good manners and beyond. I learned about hate and rage and heroic acts that ultimately bested the former. 

Reflecting on that young life brought forward through the crucible of war and a career in public service through the art of journalism, I understand the cries of democracy and the unrelenting forces that seek to mute it. 

I remain a warrior for good thoughts and deeds. Today, while waiting in line, I changed my vote to allow children of illegal immigrants to receive low-cost college tuition. That’s because I saw a young Latino couple cradling their playful infant daughter. They too had come to vote.

They, too, are part of my America. I figured that out while waiting in line. I changed my mind because I can.

Because I am an American. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Siding with the truth

Who’s watching the watcher, now that political hay can be made from untruths that go on and on?

No one is watching -- or seemingly caring -- as this debacle of an American presidential election continues to go down Pinocchio’s unseemly path.

Ethical and professional lapses darken our doorsteps with increasing frequency. A meningitis outbreak kills at least 16 Americans so far, and has tragically sickened thousands more. All because a Massachusetts pharmaceutical company was left to its own devices and allowed a fungus to contaminate its drug stock.

The Bay State also has to come up with a tough explanation about how a state police lab technician willingly falsified thousands of drug cases. Her false reports imprisoned hundreds, but no one was watching her for years.

As a crisis communicator, I continue to be amazed by the mirage people and corporations create to uphold their lack of character.

  • Pizza Hut reverses itself on a “Free Pizza For Life" contest if someone at tonight's presidential debate asks the candidates whether they prefer sausage or pepperoni toppings -- diminishing the seriousness of the moment.
  • American Airlines fails to answer questions today regarding the conviction of a long-time baggage handler who got other airline employees to secrete drugs on passenger jets -- at the risk of downing a jet because their hiding places were in the planes' control systems. His drug ring netted millions.
  • A Maryland lawmaker last week pleaded guilty to using $3,500 in campaign funds to pay for her wedding and a second charge in which she was found guilty of using $800 in state funds to pay an employee at her law firm. The woman still believes she should keep her post.
  • Lance Armstrong, the doper. 'Nuf said.
Such arrogance is an appeasement to vanity. Trouble is, today it boils over in more public scenarios than one can list. Yet, the perps think nothing of it, like tailgating speeders with no fear of consequence.

There is no prescription for humanity to act in a humane way. Which is why, in conscience-free 21st Century America, we need watchers empowered with the soul and commitment to know right from something less -- no matter someone’s ill-conceived definition.

The truth will always outflank a lie. It just takes longer today.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

When name-calling is a beautiful thing

Godfather, he used to call me.

“Sensei,” I was called by another young brother, years earlier.

“Big Daddy, Dwight,” was one of my more recent appellations. It came from one of my many young charges who, like me once upon a time, chose journalism as a career with the expressed intention of making waves to change an unfair, racist world.

“Obi Wan” is perhaps my most favorite nickname. Joe Gray calls me that whenever we talk. It’s not all that frequently these days. He’s really busy, working for Time, Inc., as a page editor. And, yes, he continues to make his mark in New York City, quite a few miles and decades from where we first worked together in Detroit.

I hired Joe for his first full-time journalism job at the city’s business publishing group. As managing editor, I had just created the region’s first small-business magazine – and Joe was my stable’s only horse. The publication was wildly successful. Now Joe’s shepherding other young black journalists as an elected official with the National Association of Black Journalists. I couldn’t be more proud.

The guy who calls me “Godfather” is now a vice-president at Comcast. Neil Scarborough was a hot property almost 25 years ago when I tried – unsuccessfully – to recruit him to his hometown newspaper, The Record of Hackensack, N.J.  
And the cat who calls me “Big Daddy” – Corey G. Johnson – is now up for a Pulitzer in the investigative journalism category. A few years back as Corey switched careers, I helped train him to become a journalist.

I like being called names by these young brothers, many of whom now are seeing the other side of 40. Back in the day, I recognized them for who they were and what they wanted to become, and I worked with them to help them achieve their dreams.

But I was merely passing along the torch. That same torch lighted my way years earlier in the skilled hands of Paul Delaney. He was a national correspondent at The New York Times when he put my name forward to become a news clerk at the paper’s Washington Bureau. I took the job, wrote non-bylined pieces at every opportunity – and remembered his guiding hand and words mixed with an abundance of wisdom and good humor as I – we  – launched my career.

So, for all of my journalist friends who have no doubt propelled many careers in journalism, I have my own name for you: Hero. And I ask each of you to reach back one more time, because we need more young African Americans to help protect our democracy.

We veterans worked hard for our newsrooms and for all the American people. Now it’s up to the young ones to keep America’s oft-failed promise alive.