I got a call from a friend this evening. “Do you have a minute?” She was calling from her cellphone, on her way home; her husband had just called to say their house was on fire. It is, now was, a beautiful Queen Anne style three-story house, built in 1900 with a turret and a big curved west-facing porch, which was apparently where the fire started. Fortunately, the two of them were at work and their two youngest children, college students, had left the house to go canoeing. Even the cats were outside. Still, the enormity of fire, its erasure of their material past, the blackened clapboards dripping with water, was startling and a bit other-worldly.
The family has lived in their small New England town for at least three generations and the father was recently elected mayor. A huge crowd turned out and watched from the schoolyard across the street. The couple who own the house were stunned into a kind of gaiety, making jokes and soldiering on while people around them were in tears. Firemen came from all the nearby towns and from towns 20 miles away. A firefighter explained that the firemen get so hot and tired from putting out fires they need other firefighters to spell them while they recover. They had a big board on an easel to keep track of which group of firemen were in the house at any given time.
The evening was windy and fresh breezes periodically fanned new flames into being and the fire–which had apparently started around 4:45 p.m.–was still being confirmed as out as night came. People were exchanging phone numbers and figuring out a place to drop off food and clothing, offering the family to stay. One neighbor bought take-out submarine sandwiches for the family; another brought the parents a really stiff drink.
It was sobering; we have so much stuff that we count on staying still for us when, of course, it’s as subject to physics as anything else. There’s a Zen poem about a hut burning down and how clearly the poet can see the stars now. I have heard someone say that having her house burn down was a kind of blessing, because other people were so extraordinary, so generous and good-hearted.
Wondering what I could do to lower my dependence on the oil industry, I dusted off my old bike, checked the brakes, pumped up the tires, and took it for a spin. It’s a funny bike, with smaller (less efficient) wheels and a fully adjustable set up: seat height, handlebar height, and handlebar pitch. It’s not as a fast as my road bike but after a two year hiatus I didn’t trust myself not to crash on the better, higher, more sensitive bike. So the “old lady” bike it was. Today I rode it to get dinner and the Times, a trip I would usually make in a car. Total breeze on a bike.
Most books I read come to me second-hand and serendipitously. Warriors Don’t Cry spoke to me last weekend from a shelf at the Goodwill. I thought it would be about the Maori—I remembered a movie with a similar title. It was instead a gripping first-person account by one of the “Little Rock Nine” who integrated Central High School in 1957. Melba Petillo Beals recounts the constant threats and insults that made her dream of attending this prestigious high school a nightmare she had to steel herself against daily. Only faith in God and the unyielding support of her mother, grandmother, and brother, got her through what was surely the most miserable year of her life.
Beautiful, smart, and articulate, Petillo Beals would have been a star student if she had been allowed to participate—or even to focus on her studies instead of fending off thrown pencils, eggs, attempted rapes, and stabbings. Although one member of the 101st Army, placed in the school at the request of President Eisenhower, kept an eye on her and taught her something of being a warrior, the Arkansas National Guardsmen ignored the assaults, and the school administrators were too timid to do anything but dismiss her complaints.
Fortunately, a white student, aptly named “Link,” helped her, warning her of places and people to avoid—segregationists became more and more agitated as the school year went on and were on a murderous path—and she and seven of the original nine survived the year (one transferred to a northern school).
The most famous picture of the event was probably that of Elizabeth Eckford (right) being harassed by screaming adults who surrounded her and threatened to lynch her. A sympathetic white woman led Elizabeth away to safety. This white woman, like Link, are reminders of the critical role bystanders play when wrongs are being committed. We often forget in disputes that third-party players have a role, too. It’s not enough not to be bad.