The Ghost

By Jacque White Kochak

A ghost has haunted my dreams for more than 30 years. He is evanescent and ephemeral, in the way of dream figures. Unlike most ghosts, however, today he exists somewhere, most likely balding, with a pot belly.

Long ago, I knew him well. His name was Tim—still is, I guess. He was a frat boy with a houseful of Beta brothers all bound for law and medical school. His daddy was a doctor, and the golden boy was on the same track. He had a loving family, with two sisters, a brother…

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My brothers were a handful

By Jacque White Kochak

It’s been a scorching Kansas summer day, 103 degrees in the shade in the days before air conditioning. You can’t get in the car wearing shorts because the vinyl seat is too hot, and you can’t walk barefoot on asphalt or cement or you’ll be sorry. If you are out in the country, you’ll see water shimmering where the highway meets the horizon, but you know it’s a mirage.

Better to be outside than indoors, though, because in western Kansas there’s always wind, sending tumbleweeds scuttling down the side of the road. I’m not talking about a timid little breeze, flirting with the treetops. I’m talking wind, always wind, a familiar companion like a lullaby that eases me to sleep at night.


‘My twin brothers were like that, always with their fearless shenanigans. One time I came home from school at Sunnyside Elementary to learn they had shimmied up the television antenna by the side of the house, climbing as high as the porch roof.’ 


I’m alone in the backyard. I’ve used a slender tree branch to draw a circle in a patch of dirt beside the sidewalk that leads to the back porch, and I’m sitting inside the circle with my skinny legs crossed. This is my teepee, and I’m an Indian maiden. It’s getting towards suppertime, and Mother is in the kitchen cooking. Probably biscuits with dried beef gravy, because we ate a lot of that in those days.

Daddy is away, as usual, and my sister Kelly and brother Steve must be inside playing. Mother comes out on the screened back porch, pokes her head out the door, and asks, “Jacque, have you seen the twins?”

No, I haven’t, so she shakes her head as she wipes her hands on her apron. “Well, you better look for them. Those boys are going to give me gray hair,” she says.

So I unfold myself from my teepee and gallop across the yard to look behind the old outhouse. I crawl through the hole in the wire fence behind the outhouse and search around the rusty, decrepit farm equipment behind the barn. We are trained to stay away from the ramshackle chicken house and the barn’s interior, so I don’t check there. I don’t figure they’d dare go inside.

Deciding they must not be outside, I move my search indoors. I look upstairs, systematically checking each one of the four bedrooms and their closets. I return to Mother’s tiny kitchen, where Bruce and Brent have been known to race ants across the counter.

“Mama, I can’t find them,” I say tentatively, knowing I should have been watching them.

Consternation etches her pretty face, then anger. I cringe, because I know how my mother’s anger can escalate, culminating in a session with the pink plastic hairbrush, its bristles bent from contact with our bottoms and other tender parts. She’s too worried to waste time on me, though. My brothers are a handful, and there’s no telling where they’ve gotten to.

The mystery is soon solved. The doorbell rings, and a policeman looms in the front door, blocking out the bright late-afternoon sun. Bruce and Brent are in tow, their faces dirty and their bright blue eyes intent as they gaze at my flustered mother. They contentedly lick chocolate ice cream cones, with just as much ice cream dripping onto their t-shirts as makes it into their mouths.

“Mommy, wook!” says Bruce as he shows her his melting ice cream. They are about 3 years old, and their speech is a little hard to understand. In fact, they have their own language between them, a language that nobody else can understand.

The tall, kindly officer explains that the boys turned up at the drive-in restaurant located a block away and across four-lane South Second Avenue. I know he is kindly because, after the bemused owner called the law, the policeman showed up and bought my errant brothers ice cream before he brought them home. I see this as patently unfair, because they got in trouble, tempted fate by crossing a busy street, and received a reward for their daring.

My twin brothers were like that, always with their fearless shenanigans. One time I came home from school at Sunnyside Elementary to learn they had shimmied up the television antenna by the side of the house, climbing as high as the porch roof. When they were younger my mother tried attaching them to the clothesline with dog leashes, but they undid the latches.

As teenagers, Bruce and Brent often preferred to sleep on the floor, and they made their own bows and arrows from Osage orange, common on the Great Plains. The big green fruit, bigger than a softball, is known as a hedge apple because the Osage orange, like the cottonwood, is common in the windbreaks that stopped the wind from stripping the fields. The heavy, fine-grained yellow wood is prized for tool handles, fence posts—and bows. In the early 19th century, a good Osage bow was worth a horse and a blanket.

Don’t ask me how my brothers knew this, but they knew a lot of things that didn’t make sense for them to know. Once Brent told me that he and Bruce were reincarnated Indians, and I half believed him. Now, he says he doesn’t remember saying any such thing.

As the oldest child, I was usually nominally in charge when we played in the yard. Once, Kelly and Steve got into a giant ant pile, which left them screaming and crying as the ants stung them. Mother, enraged, demanded to know why I had let them get into the ant pile.

“And why did you get in the ant pile?” she also demanded to know of them. Kelly and Steve told her Bruce and Brent were playing in the ant pile, so she asked them why they would do such a thing.

“The ants are our friends,” the 4-year-olds replied. And the truth is that the ants were their friends, never stinging them—just one more thing I can’t explain about my brothers.

Steve’s last days

I didn’t know my brother was gay until close to the time he died. When AIDS stole his life, I was advised not to tell.


By Jacque White Kochak

When my brother died of AIDS, I was advised not to tell anyone. My adviser was a parent at my son’s school. A well-meaning pediatrician, he was short and round, with glasses and a single tuft of hair on his balding head. I figured he knew what he was talking about, so I took his advice.

I was living in the suburbs of New York City, and the year was 1995. The AIDS epidemic had settled in; at that point, some 500,000 cases had been reported to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta…

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Painting by Natalya Kochak

The memory that haunts me

This column by Gillis Morgan was first printed several years ago in The Auburn Villager and won first place for commentary that year in the Alabama Press Association Better Newspaper Contest. I am reprinting the column in honor of Gillis’ receiving a 2016 Auburn Journalism Honors award this month.


By Gillis Morgan

Sometimes I can think of more reasons not to write about a heavy thought or a dark memory, and I have found that not to write about something is simply a way of running away from it.

But it always catches up with you.morgan

So right now I have decided to write about the darkness of a memory I have been running away from for 58 years.


The man fell to his knees, about three or four yards from me. For a second or two he stared at me, and I could see the fear and terror in his eyes.


It was in June of 1952, about a week or so after my high school graduation from Evergreen High in south Alabama.

My plan was to join the Navy, get the GI Bill and then attend college to study journalism. My father was lobbying for chemical engineering, but we would have more time to think about that after four years in the Navy.

“You’ve got about two weeks before you join the Navy, so you have time to get a job,” Dad said. “Try the bus station. They’re always looking for somebody to pump gas.”

Dad was always saying that “a man without a job is not a man,” so I got the 8-to-midnight shift at the Greyhound bus station pumping gas. A character named Slim was the night manager. He was over six feet tall, lean and wiry, and had tattoos, which back then left a man’s character open for question.

I had been there a week, when about 11 p.m. on a Friday night the bus from Montgomery roared in, air brakes pumping and loaded with passengers. Evergreen served as the rest stop between Montgomery, 94 miles on north on U.S. Highway 31, and Mobile 113 miles south.

As the passengers were unloading to make their way to the station café, I was walking away from the pumps. Slim was standing outside the café door, and I was walking toward him when a young black man got off the bus, stretching and yawning his way to the café door.

I saw Slim reach into his pocket to grip a leather scabbard that held his ticket puncher.

At the black man approached the door, Slim snatched out the scabbard in his right hand and then slapped the young man on the left side of his mouth, and I could hear Slim saying something but I could not make out the words because of the roar of the bus motor.

The man fell to his knees, about three or four yards from me. For a second or two he stared at me, and I could see the fear and terror in his eyes. As he tried to stand, Slim charged again and slapped at him with the scabbard as the man backed up and began to stumble his way back to the open bus door. He got on the bus. The bus driver and the passengers were still inside the café.

Slim opened the café door and went inside. There was no one else out front.

I looked at the bus, and I turned away. I didn’t check out from my shift. I just started walking home, all the while thinking: “I didn’t do a damn thing.”

All these years, and I still feel guilty.

§

I never told anyone about what happened that night at the bus station—not my folks, not anyone.

After I joined the Navy, went to college, majored in journalism and started working, I never told anyone. Even when I was covering the Selma-to-Montgomery march I never told anyone.

It was only after I came to Auburn in 1977 that I told someone.

This past week was the first time I have ever written about it, and I rewrote it at least three times.

I never saw Slim again. Nor in all my visits to my hometown did anyone mention that night. I don’t know if anyone else knew about it.

And I figured the young man who got attacked then got back on the bus just went on to Mobile or Pensacola. It was 1952, and I don’t think he would have gotten much attention with his story.

Was I scared of what I had seen? Of Slim? I think I was scared, but I didn’t run home that night. I walked.

And after thinking about it while writing about it I think what I felt was mostly shock. And I have always felt guilt and pain. A whole bunch of guilt and pain.

After I decided to send this in to Jacque, my editor, I sent a copy to a friend who grew up in Evergreen but now lives in Huntsville. I asked him if I could include his letter and use his name—James Daniels.

It is a beautiful letter, and it made me feel better. Here is the letter.

§

Gilly: Thanks for that painful, heart-rending story. I know that, like all of us in our younger years in older times, you suffered from shame at your own inaction. But also, as we all did, there was the inertia of the soul that kept us from reacting in accordance with our conscience in black-white relations.

It was just the way we all were, like our parents, like our neighbors, like our friends, like the whole white South…and yes, like the blacks themselves, just bogged in our cultural swamp. As youths in that overwhelming noxious atmosphere of white adult prejudice, we felt the absolute helplessness of any overt response that would be counter to the norm.

I, too, saw acts similar to the Slim incident on a number of occasions, even among my own king. And, of course, I was hypersensitive to the constant lesser incidents, where I did not speak up or express my own evolving sentiments. I don’t excuse myself, Gilly, for not acting, for not standing up for my own conscience.

And, today, I don’t dwell on regrets and self-flagellation for my guilt. Yet, like you, I still can’t erase from memory such childhood failures to protest prejudice. But I find some solace in the fact that I did at times at least raise objection to my parents and some few adults.

And I know that in my adult years I have stood up for my convictions on a number of occasions. Of course, the climate of change and the protection of law had become prevalent by the time I started openly holding my stand.

Gilly, we need never regret nor dwell in self-condemnation for the timidities of our youth. Be proud, good friend, that in the soggy, foggy environment of our birth and childhood that we saw the light of right, anyway, and threaded our way through childhood thickets and found the dry hummocks through swamps of our youth toward the brightness. And that, today, though shadows still fall all around us, we live in the light.

And don’t forget that “the child is father of the man.” And you are today a product of all that you experienced as a child and a youth—the good, the bad, the indifferent. And, be grateful to the Creator for the cards he dealt you. You have played them well, my friend.

Now, my children, my sermon next week will be on sin and all the pitfalls therein!

The Auburn University Journalism Advisory Council presented the annual awards during a luncheon at the AU Hotel and Conference Center on Sept. 9. Also receiving awards were Rick Bragg, David Housel, Philip Marshall and Ken Hare.
Artwork by Natalya Kochak

 

You can go to war, meet your ancestors and even play Indian at the local library

By Jacque White Kochak

(This article first appeared in the Auburn Villager)

I’m a nerd, and proud of it. God bless Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish industrialist and philanthropist whose largesse built more than 2,500 libraries in the U.S., Great Britain and Ireland.

Thanks to Mr. Carnegie, I was able to spend long, hot summer afternoons in the cool, domed Dodge City Public Library, located on the western Kansas plains. My child’s body rarely traveled past the stockyard and feedlot at the edge of town, but my mind was free to explore foreign countries, spend a season with a Bedouin or see the world through the eyes of a French madame. My goal was to read every book in that little library.

I have always said that if I suffered a mid-life crisis, I would disappear into the bowels of a library to study ninth century marriage customs or some such esoterica.

And God bless former Auburn University President Ralph Brown Draughon, the moving force behind construction of the Auburn University libraries that bear his name. The libraries—there are several—boast combined collections of more than 2.7 million volumes as well as 2.6 government documents, 2.5 million microforms and some 148,000 maps. The libraries also receive more than 35,000 current periodicals, many available online. And the libraries provide access to more than 227 electronic databases.

I have always said that if I suffered a mid-life crisis, I would disappear into the bowels of a library to study ninth century marriage customs or some such esoterica. And this is the place to do it.

I tend to become enamored of a subject and research it thoroughly. Where else can you find the Colonial Records of South Carolina volumes relating to Indian affairs? I have perused the pages of a master’s thesis about the history of the old Drake Infirmary and wrestled with microfilm to read issues of the Opelika Daily News from the early 1900s. You’d be surprised what constituted news in those days.

I’ve even fended off the advances of a 30-something graduate student. I was carrying a volume about South Carolina’s old 96 District, and I guess the fellow—a history student with a passion for the Revolutionary War—thought he’d found a soul mate.

If genealogy is your thing, check out the archives in the basement. The staff was quite helpful when I begged them to find mention of my great-uncle, an early barnstorming pilot, in their collection of aviation memorabilia (unfortunately they weren’t successful).

The building is imposing, parking is difficult and townspeople may feel they’re not welcome. That’s not true. All bibliophiles are the same, if you ask me. Rich or poor, young or old, they’re all seekers.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got someplace to go. James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokees is calling my name.

 

SOCIOPATHS UNITE!

Here’s another one by Phil Watts about my not-so-favorite candidate, Donald Trump. Keep them coming, Phil, because I’m enjoying your take on this election!

By Phil Watts, guest columnist

Fellow sociopaths, we’re finally close to achieving the recognition we deserve. Although we make up at least 4 percent of the population, we’ve never had a U.S. President. Forty three men have served in this capacity, which means if we had been fairly represented, 1.7 of them should have been one of us. Some Presidents have matched some of our criteria, but realistically we can’t claim any one to be an unmitigated sociopath. This year can be different; we have someone running under the dual Republican/Sociopath banner who’s the real McCoy.

The race looks to be tight. We need every single vote to be sure we don’t miss this once-in-a-227-year opportunity. Let your voice be heard; make sure every sociopath you know has a yard sign and a bumper sticker proudly proclaiming “Sociopaths for Trump.”

I want you to be prepared in the event some aren’t convinced he meets our standards. Wikipedia, as you know, defines us as “having a personality disorder characterized by persistent antisocial behavior, impaired empathy, and bold, disinhibited egotistical traits.” The vast majority of voters will immediately recognize that Wikipedia must have had our gifted candidate in mind when they wrote this definition.

For the few remaining doubters, refer them to any of his remarks quoted in the media. If they insist on specifics, tell them about his put-down of America’s best-known war hero, or show them a video of him mocking a reporter with a disability, or mention the numerous demeaning remarks he has made about women, Mexicans, and Muslims. Just about any serious Sociopath should recognize that only a person who is truly one of our kind could be capable of the impaired empathy and antisocial behavior exhibited by these examples.

As for the bold, disinhibited egotistical traits, they could listen to five minutes of any of his speeches and count the number of times he says “I” or “Donald Trump” or uses self-aggrandizing descriptions of himself. That should convince anyone he’s 100 percent Sociopath.

In the event you encounter a purist who might still doubt his authenticity, I have the clincher for you. Just a few days ago our man dealt the coup de grace that will quell any lingering questions. This Muslim couple lost a son, a U.S. Marine captain who had been killed in Iraq, and they had the audacity to question whether Mr. Trump had ever sacrificed anything. He replied that he certainly had; that he had successfully invested a lot of money in his life.

Putting these know-nothings in their place like that would have been gratifying enough for most Sociopaths. But our man Donald is not just any run-of-the-mill Sociopath; he then really showed his stuff and put the hammer down on their arrogance. Who could be more vulnerable than a mother grieving over the loss of her son? He brilliantly recognized the opportunity and scrubbed her wound with a little salt. (Insert a Kapow emoji!)

You have to be awed at his quick thinking. In just a few words he insulted all Gold Star families, every veteran who has ever served and sacrificed for our country, every patriotic American, and all women everywhere. Beautiful! I get goosebumps as I write about it.

Even a hard core Sociopath would have to admit the above is a perfect example of impaired (nonexistent) empathy and extreme antisocial behavior. He knew the exchange would damage him with the vast majority of voters who can experience empathy for others; but our man Donald chose to show his creds as a true blue Sociopath no matter the cost to himself.

Fellow Americans, there’s no reason every proud Sociopath shouldn’t cast his vote for our man in November. This is our chance; let’s not blow it. Voters want change; we can give them real change; electing a Sociopath as leader of the free world is change you can believe in.

Sociopaths Installing Crazies Committee  (SICCO)

Understanding the Trump phenomenon

I didn’t write this, but thought it so good that I suggested putting it online so there would be a link available.


By Phil Watts, guest columnist

I have to admit a certain obsessiveness about my inability to understand the Trump phenomenon. I hope my readers will stay with me as I express my frustrations and efforts to reach some reasonable level of insight.

First, let me say that most Trump supporters are good people who love our country and want what’s best for her. That’s why it’s been so hard for me to understand what I see as their unblinking support of a hopelessly flawed individual. From the beginning of his candidacy and as I have come to know him even better now, I see Donald Trump as completely unqualified and unfit to be President of the United States and with ideas so at odds with the ideals of our Constitution and Bill of rights as to make him seem at home with the cruel and murderous dictators he has praised like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un and recently, Saddam Hussein.

…the only way this makes sense is that events have moved beyond the person of Donald Trump and that Trump himself is now just a bystander…the election must be about something else.

During numerous political discussions I have pointed out his lack of qualifications, outrageous statements and inconsistencies to his supporters only to be met with anger or a “yes but.” The “yes buts” include “he has been a successful businessman,” “he tells it like it is,” “the country can’t survive four years of Hillary Clinton,” and “he’s tough enough not to be pushed around.” In my mind these “yes buts” are either only marginally related to necessary qualities for a successful presidency or simply untrue. In this process I have managed to increase tension between me and some of my close family members and some of my good friends without changing anyone’s mind.

We have a great country, and thanks to the freedoms we enjoy and the balance of powers embedded in our Constitution our county will survive and likely prosper after four years of either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as President, barring our participation in a major armed conflict. My great fear is an unnecessary war costing us dearly in blood and treasure. Recent history is not reassuring on this point. Lyndon Johnson with his inflated ego used the Gulf of Tonkin incident in order to justify ramping up U.S. involvement in the civil war in Vietnam. Then Richard Nixon with his inflated ego ramped it up even more in order to end it honorably. As a result 58,000 Americans and 355,000 North and South Vietnamese died. Words can’t describe the folly of that one.

The scale of the current quagmire in the Middle East is enormous. I think you can draw a line back to W’s invasion of Iraq (perhaps the worst intelligence gaffe in history) as the source. The cost in lives and dollars has been enormous. You can also draw a line from W’s decision to the refugee crisis that is destabilizing much of Europe and Turkey today. You can say what you will about Barrack Obama, but his decision to eat his words about a “red line in the sand,” after having Assad drop his chemical weapons all over it, was right and took political courage. You can’t tell your friends from your enemies there and if you could they might change in a few months. We’re good at winning these wars; we just don’t know what to do next (see Iraq). Assad has a point when he says, “You better leave me alone; what you get after me will be much worse.” How many lives and how much money did Obama’s decision save? There are some things even the USA can’t fix. Beware the law of unintended consequences.

The critical question for me in the presidential election then is which candidate is least likely to get us into an unwise war? Both Hillary Clinton (who I find a thoroughly disgusting person) and Donald Trump have super egos. Big egos are dangerous things, particularly when their owners have the power to send young people to their deaths. Hillary tries to cover hers but it is uncontrollable as shown by her email fiasco; Donald Trump flaunts his every day. It makes for a tough choice.

One of our great freedoms is our right to express our political beliefs without fear of reprisal or criminal prosecution.

In my quest to understand Trump supporters I eagerly read every opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal and the Birmingham News and have watched Fox News, CNN and MSNBC commentaries and debates ad nauseam. Recently I have read two articles in the WSJ that have pulled back my blinders at least partially. Peggy Noonan a few weeks ago was theorizing on this topic and said a light turned on for her after one Trump supporter when questioned said, “I want my country back.” Of course, this could mean many things to many people. She felt it meant a sense of things slipping away, a loss of control, which caused a feeling of insecurity and fear.

The second piece was by Daniel Henninger in the 7/7/16 edition. In it he postulates that regardless of all the missteps Trump makes, any one of which would have doomed a normal candidate, he still stands within a margin of error of Ms. Clinton in the polls. He reasons that the only way this makes sense is that events have moved beyond the person of Donald Trump and that Trump himself is now just a bystander. Mr. Henninger says the election must be about something else. He thinks it is a reckoning of accounts and grievances that go way back. It’s a street fight between irreconcilable views of Americans. It’s about political correctness and its backlash, not just PC itself but the moral contempt and superiority its proponents show towards everyone else. Trump supporters are just fed up with attempts to make them feel morally inferior.

There’s a third thing I think fuels the passion and uncritical support of Donald Trump. As expressed to me by a friend this week, “Phil, four years of Hillary Clinton will turn us into Venezuela.” It’s a sense of impending doom. This is Armageddon for many; now or never—America’s last chance to stay American.

As I stated earlier, excluding war, I think whomever is elected, our country won’t be that different in four years from what it is today. It’s because of our history, our rights, the balance of power in our government, and our freedom that I feel this way. So while I am apprehensive, I am also optimistic. I’m sure my feeling of optimism has been a huge barrier to my understanding of the power of Trumpism.

I think I’m finally beginning to understand the Trump phenomenon, and as a result I’m feeling much less frustration with those whom I felt couldn’t really see their candidate for the defective man he is.

One of our great freedoms is our right to express our political beliefs without fear of reprisal or criminal prosecution. God Bless America!

Love and peace,

Phil Watts

 

ARE YOU OFFENDED YET?

Please don’t call me a hussy or I will be very angry. Don’t call me a courtesan, either.


By Jacque White Kochak

I’ve been thinking about pejoration lately.

I’m glad I haven’t used the word “Oriental” in years, because when I wasn’t looking this innocent word morphed into an offensive term for Asians. I was unaware of this inexorable shift, as I tend to think of Oriental as meaning Eastern. Occidental has not undergone such a shift, so I was taken by surprise. Fortunately, my consciousness was raised one afternoon as I listened to NPR and an earnest young woman talked about her father’s Chinese restaurant. She made a good case, so I’ll be on my best behavior.

‘But see, here’s the thing. Illegal alien and undocumented immigrant mean exactly the same thing.’

Thank heavens, I have long been aware that “wetback” is a totally unacceptable name for Mexicans who crossed the Rio Grande without benefit of papers, although in the 1950s, when I was a very young girl, President Dwight David Eisenhower made the inexcusable mistake of including this insulting term in the name of a quasi-military search-and-seizure operation aimed at illegal immigrants (remember “Operation Wetback”?). Umm, make that undocumented aliens. No wait, I forgot, “aliens” is not nice. Undocumented immigrants, that’s it—for now, at least. Apparently  Ike missed the memo.

I have to keep up with these things, because as a journalist I’m supposed to know AP style. For the uninitiated, that’s the style preferred by the Associated Press. Knowing AP style is a way to ensure consistency, so the reader isn’t subjected to the annoyance of things like the period that ends a sentence being isolated outside the closing quotation marks. I’m enough of a true believer that I cringe at such an abomination, and AP style says undocumented immigrant is acceptable.

Back to the subject at hand: Missing the memo these days, in the time of Twitter and Facebook, can be a very serious thing. One slip of the tongue, and yours can be a household name in every 50 states. Your mother may be exposed for failing to raise you correctly, and you may lose your reputation, your job, and I suppose even your family.

But see, here’s the thing. Illegal alien and undocumented immigrant mean exactly the same thing. The difference, as you’ll remember from English class, is that “illegal alien” has a negative connotation, or the “idea or feeling that a word evokes,” quite beyond the literal meaning.

The problem is that the connotations of some categories of words tend to pejorate. Pejoration is a linguistics term describing the way some words take on negative or disparaging connotations over time. This isn’t really a random process; certain categories of words tend to pejorate more than others, which to me raises some interesting questions.

‘You can insist that sexism exists only in the perfervid imaginings of a bunch of old feminists, but our language tells a different story.’

For example, words having to do with women often pejorate. Hussy started life as the perfectly respectable “huswif,” or housewife—but please don’t call me a hussy or I will be very angry. Don’t call me a courtesan, either, although a courtesan once meant nothing more insulting than a lady of the court. You know, like a courtier—but words having to do with men do not have the dismaying habit of slumming around with the riffraff.

A few centuries ago, a wench was a female baby or a young unmarried woman. I don’t think I need to explain “mistress” and “madame,” but you might not realize that a spinster was once a woman who spins. And a tart, in the sense of a prostitute? Tart was probably just a contraction of the innocuous “sweetheart.”

Are you angry yet? Our attitudes are indelibly imprinted upon our language. You can insist that sexism exists only in the perfervid imaginings of a bunch of old feminists, but our language tells a different story.

Words having to do with smells also tend to pejorate, as do words having to do with the bathroom. So that brings me to what I really want to talk about, which is words having to do with ethnic groups and words referring to people with disabilities.

This is perilous territory, and I risk a misstep that will send me into Twitter purgatory. I did my homework, however, and I believe—unless the terminology has already changed—that black and African American are still acceptable. “Negro” not so much, apparently—the Army actually apologized in 2014 for saying the term was tolerable.

I guess Martin Luther King didn’t get the memo when he used the word “Negro” in his moving “I Have a Dream” speech: “But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free,” he wrote. “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

Let’s not even talk about the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NACCP). What were they thinking?

Most people are aware of the care needed in referring to different ethnicities, but they’re shaky on words referring to people with disabilities. A “disabled person” or “the disabled” are definite no-nos. You should probably stay away from “mentally ill” (“person with mental-health issues” is better).

‘Why keep changing words when the problem is really societal attitudes? I realize I’m on treacherous ground here, but can’t the word police ease up just a little on us old fogies who grew up using terms that are now totally unacceptable?’

I’ve kept up well enough to know that “retarded” is no longer acceptable, never mind the fact that The Arc, an organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, started out in 1953 as the National Association for Retarded Children. The association’s history of name changes allows us to date with some precision the period when “retarded” pejorated to the point of becoming completely verboten. That would have been the early 1990s, when the Association for Retarded Citizens of the United States euphemized into The Arc.

And don’t forget, “handicapped” is really bad.

I could go on with examples all night, but I bet you get my point. In fact, my point is, “What’s the point?” Why keep changing words when the problem is really societal attitudes? I realize I’m on treacherous ground here, but can’t the word police ease up just a little on us old fogies who grew up using terms that are now totally unacceptable? It’s just hard to keep up, you know.

Does changing a word to something less “offensive” really solve anything? Doesn’t it make more sense to work on the entrenched attitudes themselves? If I ever end up in a wheelchair, please—just call me a cripple. I promise I won’t get angry (but stay away from hussy or courtesan).

Even worse, aren’t the sensitive, empathetic, socially conscious ones among us—the people who point out that “Oriental” is really not nice—the ones who are perpetuating this pejoration?

I realize I’m an outlier, but my philosophy has always been that I won’t take offense unless offense is meant. In this era of political correctness and “microaggression,” can’t we all all just lighten up a little bit?

 

Ukrainian famine shows that a journalist’s job is not always pretty

The job of an honest journalist is to climb to the top of a hill and shout, ‘Look what I see!’ no matter how messy or ugly.


By Jacque White Kochak

This article first appeared in The Auburn Villager

My maiden name is White, and every three years the White clan holds an enormous family reunion. The descendants of all my grandfather’s siblings show up at the appointed place—we’ve been to Kansas, Arkansas and New Mexico so far—to update each other about our families.

Inevitably, my children ask why I have so many relatives, and my husband has so few. The short answer is that he is Ukrainian, and his great aunts, great uncles and a vast assortment of second and third cousins are still in Europe, not in the United States.

The long answer is that many of them didn’t survive the Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933.

The state-orchestrated famine, designed by Josef Stalin to break the backs of Ukrainian peasants who refused to join collectives, claimed the lives of at least 4.8 million Ukrainians. That is the conservative estimate; others say the figure was closer to 10 million. No one knows for sure because Stalin suspended routine census taking during the period.

Stalin sealed the borders of the region and then sent soldiers through every home to steal any food that might help the peasants survive. Some resorted to cannibalism. While his own people starved, Stalin exported grain to the West, refusing offers to help from international relief organizations.

Never heard of the famine? I’m not surprised. Although Stalin’s genocide rivaled or surpassed Hitler’s, the history books I read when I was growing up were mum on the subject. The searing Canadian film Harvest of Despair finally started educating Americans about the holocaust in the early 1980s.

‘Whatever I may do or think in the future, I must never pretend that I haven’t seen this. Ideas will come and go, but this is more than an idea. It is peasants kneeling down in the snow asking for bread.’

Stalin’s oppression of the story was a triumph of “public relations.” He spoonfed the news that he wanted told to eager journalists who didn’t want to lose their cushy jobs in Stalin’s Moscow. After all, foreign correspondents had been “advised” to remain in Moscow by the press department of the Soviet Commissariat for Foreign Affairs and not go poking around the countryside.

And some of them believed in the idea of a Communist utopia. They couldn’t—or wouldn’t—see the truth. One of them, Walter Duranty of the New York Times, won a Pulitzer Prize for his vivid, glowing dispatches about Stalin’s Five Year Plan, in which he attributed the deaths to errors in Stalin’s plan. Duranty was fooled—or he lied.

Other journalists tried to tell the story, but their veracity was attacked. In 1932, you see, negotiations were underway to accept the Soviet Union into the League of Nations. Criticizing Stalin’s regime wasn’t “politically correct.” Available archival evidence testifies that several Western governments were well-informed about the Ukrainian genocide but adopted a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of a foreign sovereign state.

The British scribe Malcolm Muggeridge, who was sympathetic to  Communism when first posted to Moscow, was one of those journalists who told the truth. He described peasants ravaged by hunger, kneeling in the snow and begging for crusts of bread.

“Whatever I may do or think in the future,” Muggeridge wrote in his diary. “I must never pretend that I haven’t seen this. Ideas will come and go, but this is more than an idea. It is peasants kneeling down in the snow asking for bread. Something that I have seen and understood.”

Another was William I. Shirer, author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, who recorded the sight of ragged peasants crossing a river to escape the Ukrainian famine. And dispatches from another British journalist, Gareth Jones, left no doubts. “I walked alone through villages,” he wrote. “…everywhere was the cry, ‘There is no bread. We are dying.'”

The job of a journalist is to climb to the top of a hill and shout, “Look what I see!” no matter how messy or ugly. That’s a lesson to remember, even here in Auburn.

With the rise of blogosphere and every Tom, Dick and Harry spouting “facts” to support opinions, have honest journalists become irrelevant? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so at all.

 

 

Woman takes chance as a father seeks a handout

I wrote this a long time ago. It first appeared in the Westchester Opinion section of the New York Times. Although little Tommy is all grown up, I wouldn’t say my point of view has changed very much.


By Jacque White Kochak

As I wove through the crowds in Grand Central Terminal on my way home from work one day, I saw a man carrying a child and pushing her stroller. The little girl was plump, and her white shirt stuck out below a red jacket. A tiny face peeked out below a fringe of curly bangs.

The man was young, with a light shadow of beard and an open, unmarked face. The stroller was fairly new and nondescript. Nothing about the two particularly spoke of poverty. Yet the man walked along, chanting in a singsong voice. The words he chanted, walking along with the crowds ignoring him: “Can you help me feed a homeless child?”

I don’t deny that I was a perfect mark. I have three children of my own, and this little girl was just the age of Tommy. A picture of homeless children in a newspaper is enough to set me sobbing. I have a soft spot for children, of course.

I can also, sometimes, almost, see myself in that picture. Not as the parent, but as the child. By the time my mother was 22 years old and my father was 24, they had had five children, all born in four years. When I was 4, my sister was 3, my brother was 2, and the twins were newborn. My brother had cystic fibrosis. My parents had no insurance. I was very young, but I think things got kind of tough. I remember eating a lot of dried beef gravy on biscuits for dinner, and one year wearing shoes that scarred my instep because they were too tight.

I’m from Kansas, so New York-style poverty is alien to me. But once, when I read about a young couple with their children living out of a dilapidated car as they chased chimerical jobs across the Southwest, I imagined how easy it might have been to slip between the cracks.

So, I followed the man, through the crowds, until I caught up with him. A squat little woman, probably with grown children of her own, stuffed a dollar in the man’s cup. “God bless you,” he said.

I stuffed another dollar in his cup. “God bless you,” he said again. I imagined the people around me sneering. What an easy mark I was! The man was probably using the little girl to provoke pity, then he would take the money and spend it on booze or drugs.

Then someone called out. “Why don’t you put her in foster care?” the voice said. The young man reeled, furious and sincere.

“Yeah, and never see her again!” he yelled at no one in particular. “Only a moron. . . .” and his voice trailed off. The little girl just looked at him, with that uncanny patience and innocence that toddlers show before they really understand what is going on around them.

I am an easy mark, but I am also fairly sophisticated about poverty. I once worked for an organization that raised money for orphanages, schools, feeding programs and a child-sponsorship program in Latin America. It was my job to break vulnerable hearts with heart-rending tales of malnourished children. I know the techniques.

I also have traveled extensively, and I know that beggars can be very businesslike. I have seen gypsy women in Madrid who make a living begging. They find a comfortable spot, perhaps in an overpass shielded from the sun, and spread themselves out. They bring along two or three dirty-faced kids for effect, and one wily woman even displayed an enlarged black-and-white poster of herself with six or seven more children of all sizes.

And I have dealt with pint-sized beggars in Santiago, Chile. Their alcoholic parents dress them in rags and send them out to beg. The parents keep out of sight; they know that the children will be more effective alone. The money the kids collect goes for liquor.

But I also remember another man I saw in Madrid. He huddled against a wall, his face hidden in shame. Next to his begging cup lay a hand-lettered sign. “I am a poor man from Andalusia,” the sign read. “I sold my house and came to the city to look for work. Now I can’t find work, and my children are hungry.” Somehow, I believed him.

What can I say? I’m an easy mark. I gambled that my dollar would go for a nourishing meal for the little girl, just the size of my Tom. And really, a dollar is such a little bit of money.

And then I looked at the people around me, the ones who would chide me for being a sucker. They hurried by, dressed in their heavy coats and their winter boots, maybe not prosperous, but surviving. Not one of them would have missed a dollar. Yet, many of them wouldn’t hesitate to drop 10, 20, even 100 times that measly dollar in Atlantic City or Las Vegas. And that made me mad.

I prefer my gamble, thank you.