Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"Mister Redding"

I spent Father's Day with my father on Sunday.

I am blessed.

I hadn't spent Father's Day with him in many years. He'd get the obligatory phone call from me. Or a card. But I really cannot remember the last time I hung out with him on his special day. You see, my father and I weren't all that close. At times I feared him, thought I didn't like him and I didn't really understand him. That's changed now.

Last week my parents, Rudolph and Lucille Redding, who live in Atlanta, came out here to California to visit me. And I am glad they did.

Rudolph Pershing Redding was born to a working-class family of seven sons and three daughters during a time when folks had big families. It was the thing to do. And the more sons you had, the better. That's just the way it was. Mr. Redding spent about three decades working at Inland Steel, near Gary, Ind., and retired as a welder. It was dirty work, but the money was good. And the steel mills of the Midwest provided a good living. My dad, always thinking ahead, spent the last several years of his stint at the mill taking classes at Purdue University, where he got an undergraduate degree in education. He taught as a substitute in the Gary school system before moving to Atlanta, where he received a master's and taught special education for a couple of decades before retiring yet again. Now, he's into real estate.

Some people just can't sit still.

My dad, as my brother, sister and I were growing up, always had something going on the side job wise. Cab driver, moonlighting at other steel mills, selling Amway. Something. So he wasn't always the most patient person. I didn't understand it then. I thought he was just being mean. He was tough. His brothers were tough. Granddaddy Albert, my dad's father, was tough. That's the way it was back in the day. All the Redding men had a reputation for being mean. Tough. Hard on their kids. "Spare the rod..." was an understatement at our house. At all my cousins’ houses, too. We used to compare notes, trying to figure out whose fathers were the meanest. The only real arguments that I can recall my parents having during their 50-year marriage was about how my mom didn't always agree with how stern my dad was with my siblings and me. But they stuck it out and hung in there. Still together. None of this "He doesn't wear the kinds of clothes I like" or "I don't like his friends" or "It's about me, not him ... so I want a divorce." (But that's another story, for another time.)

One time, I must have been about 6 or so, I stole some toys out of some lunch-size potato chip packages. It was my best friend, Terrel, and me. We got caught and our mothers were called. My mother was the first to be contacted, so she picked us up from the grocery store and paid for the open packages of snacks. We walked Terrell home — everybody knew everybody in those days — and Terrell’s dad and mine both were at the mill. Terrell’s mom split the cost of the snacks and began whupping Terrell in front of us. I knew I was in for it. When my mom and I got to our place, I got it. But my punishment wasn’t over by a long shot. My mother has asthma, so when she’d whup us, the whuppin’ didn’t last too long before she’d start wheezing and stop. Besides, she’d only whup us for major transgressions: lying (or telling “stories” as she called it), stealing or disobeying. My dad, however, wasn’t as discriminating with his use of the belt. And he didn’t have asthma. After I’d gotten my punishment from my mother for stealing, I got sent to my room … and was awakened by my father whuppin’ me after he’d gotten home from his 3-to-11 shift at the mill.

So you can imagine my surprise when my mother told me that my father was teaching. Teaching!

I remember thinking, "Who would let him around their kids?"

Time has a way of chilling you out, I suppose.

Now, my dad is cool. Maybe he was cool all along. Maybe I just couldn't see it.

That's what my cousin Mark used to say all the time. Mark moved from Indiana to Chatsworth a couple of decades ago, and he'd been trying to get me out to California. I used to be jealous of Mark because it seemed as if my dad was more into Mark than he was into me.

“You know, your cousin Mark …” I was so tired of hearing that. But to my surprise, Mark told me during a family reunion that his father, my Uncle Albert, seemed to be more into me than he was into him, his only son. He’d grown tired of hearing “You know, your cousin Radcliff …” We laughed about that one. Mark and Uncle Albert have since passed on. But Mark’s widow, Belinda, a nurse who has worked at Cedars-Sinai among places, still lives in Chatsworth.

So, Father’s Day, we met up at Belinda’s and presented my dad with a truck. It wasn’t new or anything. As a matter of fact, the pickup is more than 10 years old, with about 140,000 miles on it. But to our family, that truck is special. It was Uncle Albert’s. After he died, Mark took it over and drove it from Indiana out here. When Mark got sick with cancer, he made Belinda promise to keep the truck in the family. She offered it to me, but I thought my dad should have it. So Sunday, we surprised him with the keys. My dad's first truck.

The tears flowed that day.

Years ago, Uncle Albert had given my dad his first bicycle.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

"Familiar Road"

"Did you hear about the old man who shot up the Holocaust Museum?"

"What about that man at the Holocaust Museum yesterday?"

"Dude, what's up with the old dude who shot the guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington?"

These were snippets of conversation I overheard today. On the 150 Metro bus. At Union Station. At the Cal State L.A. station platform. Young and old, black, white, Hispanic. Folks were talking.

Unfortunately, hatred is alive and well in these United States.

I listened to the talk of the deadly chain of events in Washington, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where white supremacist James von Brunn, 88, opened fire with a rifle. A museum guard, Stephen T. Johns, was killed in the attack. Johns, 39, was black. Listening the way I did, all the talk took me back... to about 11 years ago, when another hate-fueled incident occurred that had people talking.

James Byrd was tied/chained to the back of a pickup truck in Jasper, Texas, and dragged until his body was torn apart. Byrd, 49, was black. His three assailants were white. I, along with most others who learned about Byrd at the time, was horrified. Outraged. I wanted to do something. I had to.

So I pitched a story idea to my editor at the NAACP Crisis magazine, where I freelanced at the time, and about a week later I was in Texas, walking along the road where Byrd had been lynched. I counted the spray-painted circles on that road where authorities had found pieces of Byrd's body. Before I'd reached 30, tears were streaming down my face.

"I don't understand how the guy got a rifle into the museum in the first place."

"Me neither, homes. That was crazy!"


"Yeah, sick."

I've been to the Holocaust Museum, too. About a week after it opened back in '93. And before I got to the second floor that day, tears had filled my eyes.

Three thousand miles away and years after my trip to Texas, listening to the snippets of conversation about Wednesday's incident, I felt like crying again.

Onions and racism.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"Back to the Front"

A funny thing happened on the way to get my unemployment check from the mailbox a little while ago.

I got my old job back.

You never know how things are going to turn out.

In February, when I was told that I would have

to be let go from my job at the Los Angeles Daily News — because of a reduction in work force — I was somewhat prepared. I’d gotten a heads-up. It's a shame what's going on in the newspaper business. But when the phone call finally did come telling me that I had to go to Human Resources form my "final check," I was stunned.

So, I got on a train and headed north to my home in Santa Barbara. The shock of my not being gainfully employed remained for about a week or two. It took me a little while, but I finally settled into life outside the work force. It was pretty cool, after I’d wrapped my head around the idea. I took the dog on long walks to the beachfront and back. I went on long bike rides. I lost weight. I grew my hair. I even had a ‘fro going on. I started blogging and my writing got more attention. I reconnected with folks with whom I had lost touch. I was eating better. Even sleeping better. It was all good.

Mentally, I had moved on. I had turned the corner and began to move away from the profession that I had worked at for almost 20 years. It was a good run, at some good papers, with some good people. But it was time to move on. I’d looked into going back to school and had settled on a plan: media arts. Part of the Workforce Investment Act. And the unemployment checks had started. Between those and some freelancing, I figured I might be able to get by. At least for a while. 

Good to go.

So — about a month after I got laid off — I got word that I was being called back into action, back to duty. I had some mixed feelings … at first. No more waking up when I felt like it and spending part of the day figuring out what I was going to do. No more bottomless cups of coffee and reading the paper cover to cover while looking out at the waters of the Pacific in sunny Santa Barbara.

What to do? What to do?

Here it is, two months after my return and I’m back to “normal.” Working nights. Not always eating right. Not getting nearly enough regular exercise. Not spending as much quality time at home as I’d like. Back to the front. And I got a haircut, too.

I still get a rush whenever I see the newspaper front that I worked on the night before … prominently displayed in a newsstand … and someone stops to read a headline I wrote. Back to the front.

I’m STILL happy to be a journalist. I can't think of many other things I'd rather be doing. I’m in for the long haul — until the wheels fall off.