The Morality of Third World Debt

I have a question for the small army of intelligent people with whom I share Facebook.  Over the years the Western World has made loans to nations of the developing world, the enormity of which are matched only by the level of corruption practiced by the kleptocracies which have run those countries in the past and in many cases continue to do so today.  A vast percentage of that money was drawn off into the private accounts of family, friends and political allies of whatever gang of thugs happened to be running those countries at any particular time, most of which accounts may be found in European and other offshore and out-of-country banks.  The numbers, in many cases, are staggering.

The unfortunate result of this practice is that people who live in places like Guyana, Burkina Faso, and a host of other garden spots retain these debts when the local dictators mercifully die off or, as is more likely, are deposed by characters no more savory than those who preceded them.  Western lenders insist on maintaining the fiction that the dollars or pounds or Euros or whatever form of currency that was ‘lent’ went into development of the borrowing country was legitimate however, and that the money lent should be repaid at interest out of the resources of that country.

Of course, precious little development ever went into those countries and the lenders (smart people, all of them) never really believed that any development would.  Instead, a drain of natural resources flows out of those countries as payment for loans which nobody ever really expected would be repaid while new kleptocrats negotiate new loans which, again, have no chance of repayment.  This is a process well understood by loan sharks and credit card companies.  These debts insure that the indebted nations will never achieve any sort of development, not that most are likely to do so under any circumstances.  The people who live in those countries are therefore forced to live under conditions of exploitation by foreigners of their natural resources, crushing debt that will never be repaid, and national ‘leaders’ who are not at all likely to do anything to alter this picture.

In these circumstances there is little that Westerners can do to ease the suffering of citizens of those countries.  Their lot is indeed hard and devoid of much in the way of hope.  We in the West cannot march into those countries and run them for the native’s own good; a form of that idea was tried in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, the negative consequences of which continue to be felt to this day.  The selection of leadership of those countries and the use and allocation of their resources must largely remain issues to be settled by the citizens of those countries by whatever means they chose.  It may not be pretty but it is, for the most part, not our business.

What we can do however, is address the problem of their debt.  I do not believe that there is much argument that loans were made to the governments of those nations in order to obtain access to natural resources at bargain basement prices or for geopolitical advantage, or both.  The welfare of the people was rarely a factor in the advancing of those loans.  I therefore propose that it might be a good thing to investigate a process of forgiving all or part of those loans as a means of lifting at least our part of the crushing burden which lies across the backs of many of the suffering citizens of the third world.

Of course, it is wrong to paint all nations and governments of the developing nations with a broad brush.  Some countries are actually making gains and are responsibly paying back loans as their improving economies permit.  In these cases, it might be proper to forgive loans on a graduated basis.  To simply forgive a loan to a nation which is honorably engaged in developing it’s people’s well being would, in my opinion, disrespect that country.  To greatly reduce it’s debt burden however would better reward it’s efforts while respecting it’s national pride.

Of course, there would be a financial impact here in the United States and the West and, God forbid, in my own 401K.  I, for one, could stand that blow.  Those loans were made to known thugs, in my opinion, and have no more legitimacy than a 40% loan to a Cosa Nostra loan shark.  There is no honor in benefiting from the tragedy that is life in the very difficult places of the earth.

But this may just be sentimental nonsense.  I am no economist.  I am a Christian who believes very much in the commandment to “Love my neighbor as myself”, but I may be taking that out of context.  I look forward to the response of any folk who are more conversant with economics out there to help me understand if I have got it wrong.  I eagerly await your input.

It Was Only A Rape

It is an interesting coincidence that I was reading N.T. Wright’s “Evil and the Justice of God” one night recently, and when I put the book down to take a break and scanned the CNN web site my eyes ran across a story about a gang rape which occurred during spring break on Panama City Beach in Florida.  Although hundreds of people were partying and walking to and fro within feet of the attack, police would still be unaware of it having taken place except that it was captured on video and posted in the internet by some bystanders.  The face of the victim, whom it is believed was drugged, was blurred, but she recognized her tattoos and contacted police.  She knew that something wrong had happened but had no idea exactly what it was.  Now she knows.  Make no mistake here; this event, including the primary actors in it and the passive bystanders who did nothing to prevent or stop it, is a monstrous evil.

There are many schools of thought about the nature of evil and how we should deal with it, and one of those schools teaches that evil will fade away as more of the population becomes educated.  Greater exposure to great ideas will eventually tame the beast which lurks within us all.  I am not at all convinced that this is true.  This event took place on spring break, and spring break is an event which represents time off from – – – school!  Three men have been arrested for this crime and at least two of them were college students.  I have not read any details on the third arrestee, but the odds are better than even that he, too, is a student.  The bystanders, or at least the vast majority of them, were in all likelihood students as well, and their role in this tragedy is even more despicable than was that of the three rapists.  If education is supposed to be elevating our social game above such acts of evil it is glaringly obvious to me that it is failing miserably.

And then there’s the devil.  Many of us do not like to talk about Lucifer, Ha Satan, Beelzebub, Old
Scratch, or whatever you want to call It.  For millennia it was not so, and the devil was widely acknowledged to be behind much of what is wrong with the world.  Too much, I think.  Most people in the past saw demons and the devil behind every rock and bush, and some still do so to this day.  But can we say that they are entirely wrong?  Is there no such thing as a negative spiritual or supernatural force which hates life and creation and strives against it to our injury?  Jewish and Christian traditions ascribe evil to be the special province of a devil and Its cohorts and I suppose that other spiritual traditions do as well, but a great segment of the population at large does not believe in the existence of a devil and many Jews and Christians are not comfortable even talking about It.  This of course is a great comfort and strategic asset to the devil.  It is a good deal easier to harm an enemy when that enemy (us) does not even believe that you exist.

But I have to ask myself, whether by devil or otherwise, how could this event take place in America?  Literally hundreds of partying young people either stood by and watched or, what is even worse, paid no attention at all while a woman was sexually assaulted within a few feet of where they were standing.  I think it would have been better if the observers had cheered or maybe even participated.  To simply ignore the attack as something beneath notice implies to me a soul deadness that is the most frightening aspect of this whole event.  The rape leaves me shocked and furious.  The dismissal of it by the bystanders as something no more noteworthy than a paper hot dog wrapper blowing by on the Gulf breeze while it was going on at a few feet’s distance leaves me frightened and shaken to my core.

I am not using this event to smear all college students, all young people, or all Americans with a broad brush.  It is my hope and belief that if this had occurred in Central Park in New York City, the Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque New Mexico, along the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago Illinois or in Esther Short Park in Vancouver Washington, or even Panama City Beach on any time other than spring break, it would have ended quickly and painfully for the attackers.  What I am saying is that at one time and one place a vicious act of evil occurred and America – all ages and genders and ethnicities and social strata – should look at it and ask how we could let such a thing happen.  And just as the Jews said about their holocaust, which now happened several holocausts and genocides ago, we should look at this together as a society and say “Never Again”.

A Sermon Dealing with Little Things like God

The sermon at my church this morning was a piece of brilliance.  I say that a lot, but that’s because it is always true.  As is so often the case I left church this morning with an incredible, to me at least, new insight to chew on, and now I am going to pass it on in case you, dear reader, would be interested in chewing upon it too.

We finished a year and a half study of the Book of John today.  Twentieth chapter, verses 19 through 31.  In these verses the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples, with the exception of Thomas.  Thomas hears from the others that Jesus has returned from the dead but his natural tendency to skepticism, a tendency that I would almost certainly share with him if I had stood in his sandals, wins out and he famously says “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”  Jesus, of course, shows up and invites Thomas to get close and personal with the holes in His hands and side.  In the end Jesus says “Now believe in me”, and Thomas replies “My Lord and my God.

In my opinion, based on my limited knowledge of theology, this is the apex of the Bible.  The Old Testament, from the history of the Jewish people to their laws, and from the genealogies to the prophets – the whole shooting match – spoke of God’s good creation, its corruption by evil, God’s plan to use the Hebrew people to correct that problem, and their corruption into being part of the problem.  Then the New Testament comes along and the Gospels tell the story of Jesus being the culmination of the mission of Israel.  Jesus, who’s perfect life and teaching confronted the evil found in politics (Rome), religion (the Temple and the priesthood), and society (the fine, rich, and distinguished people who looked down their arrogant and privileged noses at the poor and the ‘sinners’), faced that evil down and defeated it once for all time when He died on the cross.  At that point, God had done what He could do  Now it was time for man to do his part.  “Believe,” Jesus said to Thomas.  “Believe” Jesus said to all of us.  Believe what?  Believe that Jesus was Lord and also God; God who created all and now gives His life to redeem His creation from the sin which seeks to drag it to hell and to destruction.

Now the Bible is complete.  Evil entered God’s good creation, a plan of a couple thousand years’ duration had played out and God had begun to reconcile heaven and earth.  Paul and the other New Testament writers have filled in some gaps and polished up some teachings, but the main point, and we should always remember to keep the main point the main point, was that it was time for us to play our part in this drama.  It was time for us to simply, and in the face of all which says that we are crazy to do so, believe.

Believing should be easy, right?  I’ve been a Christian for over thirty years.  I’ve heard the voice of God two times and once felt Her presence as if She was a physical pressure pushing against my chest.  Working in a hospital I have seen people free of cancer who should not be, and I have seen people go home who should not have gone home.  In fact, I could easily write of a half dozen times that I should have died, but did not.  Nobody alive should have more reason to be hard core, rock-solid, one hundred percent certain of God than me.

Yet sometimes I doubt.  Sometimes I doubt.  I hate the thought; I hate the sound of it if I say it out loud.  Just for a moment I feel like a failure.  Was this all the futile exercise of an emotional cripple leaning on a spiritual crutch, trying to stagger through a pointless life and denied even the dubious consolation offered by the false promises of full throttle sin?  Then I remember the rich history of God in my life and God in the life of His creation, and I answer “No.  Hell no.”  This doubt is nothing more than the accusations of the enemy multiplied by my own weakness.  With the help of the God who’s existence I sometimes doubt, in those random, empty, anchorless and thankfully brief moments, I remember what I’ve seen with my own eyes, heard with my own ears, and discerned with my own heart and mind.  God is real.  He is there; always has been.  God the Father, or God the Mother if that makes you feel more comfortable, is as real as anything around me.  More real than anything around me really, since He is the Real that all reality flows out from.  More real than me, and I’m pretty real.

So that is what I came away with from this morning’s sermon.  John 20, verses 19-31 is the point that the whole Bible leads to, and is all the assurance that I will ever need.  God cares.  He made a plan.  She completed the plan.  Believe and find peace in God, creation and eternity.  Yeah, I can live with that.

Death Comes For Three Friends: Why Not For Me?

Death.  Now there’s a topic that will always attract attention!  Just the word is enough to set the mind to working, sometimes changing the topic and sometimes creating fantasies to explain how we don’t fear death.  In the end, however, only a person terribly sick in body or sick in mind ever welcomes death.  Or perhaps I’m employing a cheep trick designed to attract readers to my blog by writing of death; a hook to snag the curious fish and pad my ego with the numbers of those who take the bait.  Huh, Why didn’t I think of that sooner?  No, really, all joking aside.  If you feel that I am playing some sort of self-aggrandizoing game I urge you, dear reader, to go elsewhere.  I am writing about death because it is something common to all of us and something that I have seen my share of.  I sincerely hope that those of you who press on will derive something positive from the activity.

Death is something that is very common; as common as life, and we see life all around us.  The streets and buildings of our cities and towns are filled with life, and if you try to reserve a camping space at a state or federal campground on short notice in my Pacific Northwest you will quickly feel like there is way too much of it.  We are surrounded by life in our families and friends, as well as in our workplaces.  In our yards life explodes as flowers and vegetables and ornamental shrubs and trees, if we are of a mind to cultivate them, and life explodes as weeds if we should chose the opposite.  In the mountains and in the countryside and even in the driest of deserts, if you know where and when to look for it, life abounds.

It is very easy for most of us to shut death out of our view as we cruise, totter, stumble, careen and otherwise navigate our way through life.  All of us have to deal with death at the end of things however, and just about all of us have to deal with it along the way.  A tree you planted might have been killed by beetles; a disappointment.  A beloved pet who loved you as you loved it for many years as you grew up begins to piddle on the carpet, struggles to get from its bed to its food bowl, finally quits eating and dies one night on your dinning room floor.  Father/Mother in heaven, how much pain, and how much I loved that cat!.  One or more of your parents finally runs out their course on this beautiful but broken planet and goes to join their parents who died before them.  Yes, it happens to us all, so unless you are better at deceiving yourself than I have been you have tasted the bitter cup of death and know that it is a cup that we all are destined to drink.  I hate death, but it is common to us all and therefore deserves to be spoken of.  In fact, perhaps it’s sting may be softened if we would speak of it more often and deny it some of its mystery.  A devil known is always better than a devil which is not.

But death is a big topic and I do not write of big topics.  I am a storyteller and propose to write about three particular deaths and how those people were related to me, and perhaps what impact their death had on me.  I had experienced the deaths of pets while a child; the almost obligatory death of goldfish and parakeets which I could not keep alive no matter how I tried, and a couple of cats who’s death by automobile and disease gave me a good deal of heartache.  And I saw more than my fair share of death in the war in Vietnam, but in that case we knew it was coming.  When people shoot at you and launch things that explode on impact into where you are working/sleeping/hiding, death sometimes happens.  Hell, it happens a lot!  That’s the point of war!  But the thing is that you expect it.  Death is not a surprise visitor in the night.  Rather, death always has a place set at the table in such situations, and frequently arrives to share an unpleasant meal.

In fact, I did not begin to develop a true sense of the randomness and injustice of death until I returned home from Vietnam.  In very short order after my return I learned that three friends who had never left the safety of the United States of America had died while I was away at war.  Three people whom I had known for one year, three years, and nearly all my life were gone by the time I turned twenty one.  That shook my soul and contributed to some degree to a very nihilistic and pleasure-driven personal philosophy that guided my life for many years.  I propose now to write of these three people.  Their deaths impacted me in many ways and contributed to my living as if death could take me before the sun rose the next morning, and I must confess that the way that I lived certainly increased that possibility.  But that was not my friend’s fault.  They were people who lived their short lives and died without the least intent of injuring me.  I will therefore write a celebration of their lives, and thereby celebrate the victory that my puny literary endeavor gains over that old worm Death, who has deluded himself into believing that he is the winner in the end.

I met Kathy Hustead at a house that she was sharing with three young women, one of whom was an old friend from my neighborhood.  I was on leave for a month between my two tours of duty in Vietnam and Cynthia Orgulson invited me over to drink some beer and smoke a joint or two at her place.  I went to that house and the party began, and before the evening had ended I had formed a very interesting bond with Kathy, and a very uninspiring relationship with Olivia, the young woman who had first secured this living space and thought of herself as the alpha female.  I usually get along well with people but we did not click at all, and I quickly departed from that house but my connection with Kathy remained intact.

We did a lot of things together for the rest of that month, which was odd if you think about it.  Kathy had a boyfriend, and we never elevated our relationship to what you could call romantic.  It’s not that I inhabited some lofty. shining tower of platonic indifference; I would have pursued a romantic relationship with Kathy in a heartbeat!  I knew that this was not likely to happen but enjoyed her company so much that it didn’t seem to matter.  And Kathy sensed the genuine enjoyment that I felt of Kathy for Kathy’s sake, and not for what I could get out of her, and returned my affection in her own way openly and honestly.  We both knew that I would go back to war in a dwindling number of days and that my odds of coming home in a box were such that deep attachment was a dangerous thing, so we developed a more superficial attachment that was all the same thick and strong, like the cables on a great suspension bridge, and we swore that we would renew our friendship as soon as I should return to America alive and released from the military.  I hoped that Kathy was thinking “Who knows what a year might bring?”  I certainly was thinking just that thought.

Three years earlier I met Doug Barnett on the hight school diving team.  I had always loved diving off of the boards at swimming pools and had become pretty good at doing flips and ‘corkscrew’ dives and gainers and a host of other maneuvers, mostly at the Navy pool which my veteran father had access to and at the municipal pool near Balboa Park in San Diego.  Doug and I were thrown together on the junior varsity team for Hoover High because we both loved diving, and because we both couldn’t quite achieve the gymnastic perfection required to truly compete at a varsity level, so for us junior varsity had to do.

We certainly did know how to have fun though.  Our practices included a good deal of goofing off and experimenting with new dives, which often ended up in painful ‘belly flops’, and we loved to climb up on the three meter board, or high board as we called it, and practice wobbly and ill-advised dives from that height.  We buckled down as best we could when competition with other teams rolled around, but our skill level was limited and a second or third place was the best that we could ever seem to muster.

When we weren’t competing or practicing, Doug and I were hanging on to the edge of the pool, trying to avoid the cold spring wind that rose up from the canyon below and blew directly at the San Carlos Country club, who generously allowed our very working class school to base its program there.  On competition days we had to stand perfectly still on the board, waiting for a judge to blow the whistle that told us it was time to begin our dive.  I froze my wet, skinny little cojones off standing in the wind on that board, and frequently didn’t care how well I scored on a dive as long as I could quickly get back into the warm water of the pool.  Any other time we would be in the water of not very far removed from it, laughing and talking about our dreams (mostly girls) and the lives that we meant to pursue when we graduated.

Before graduation day came Doug and I made plans to get together when he got back from a trip that he was going to make to see his father in Wisconsin.  Doug’s family had been broken up by some trauma that he never shared with me and he struggled to remain involved with both of his parents.  The split had been ugly, and so it would require the emancipation that Doug’s eighteenth birthday would provide to enable him to journey the fifteen hundred miles to visit with and strengthen his relationship with his father.  Doug swore that he would call me when he returned, and I believe that he probably did so.  I was not there when he called however, for I had joined the Army to seek adventures where I might find them before Doug could return.

I knew Jo Herrera for most of my life.  I met Jo, or Josefina, in kindergarten and we were friends all through elementary school.  Jo’s family was Mexican but her parents were very proud that they had retained their Spanish heritage.  Jo invited me to her house to begin learning the Spanish language when we were very young, the first or second grade I think.  I didn’t stick with it because tadpoles and playing tag with the other neighborhood boys and other such pursuits eclipsed learning a second language from a girl who was in all ways very average.  We liked each other but in the most innocent and prepubescent manner, and by the time I began to develop an interest in girls in the later years of elementary school La Donna and Willie, who were very pretty, had captured my heart, attention, and fantasies.  Jo remained a friend, but very much on the margins of my attention.

We went to different junior high schools and so I didn’t see Jo for three years.  Then, in 1964, we were reunited at Hoover High School.  Time had been very kind to Jo.  In those three years Jo blossomed into one of the most beautiful girls that I have seen even to this day.  Jo’s was not a painted-on beauty either.  She just quietly went through her days giving light to every room and situation into which she walked.  In our senior year Jo was elected homecoming queen.  I think that the vote was as close to unanimous as one can get at a high school with nearly three thousand students.

A big part of Jo’s beauty was her personality.  She really didn’t seem to know that she was beautiful, or if she did know it she didn’t act as if it really meant anything.  Jo was often seen hanging out at school with people she had known for years even if they weren’t ‘cool’, didn’t have letters in football, basketball, or track, or didn’t have cars.  Jo really was our queen.  The popular kids deferred to her for he beauty and accomplishments, and the rest of us loved her for her humanity, and in our wildest dreams thought that she might someday be interested even in one of us.  Jo was special, there is no doubt about it.

When I got home from Vietnam I set about making contact with my old friends, and was for the most part successful.  My life was rocked however when I went to look for Kathy, Doug and Jo.  Kathy married her boyfriend who was a stock car racer.  She was sitting in the stands one evening watching a race when one of the drivers lost control of his car, flipped over and over, and landed in the stands right on top of her.  Killed her instantly.  Doug was involved in a drug deal that went bad and took a knife blade to his neck.  He lingered for a while but finally, mercifully, died of the knife stroke that had changed him from a laughing kid on a diving board into an insensate vegetable with decubitus ulcers.  Jo developed an aggressive cancer of the ovaries or cervix or something down there and died quickly.  None of them saw their twenty first birthday.

I did see my twenty first birthday.  Now why the hell is that?  I heard bullets whistle over my head (they don’t ‘whang’ or ‘ping’ or any of that Hollywood ricochet bullshit.  They make an evil, fluttering whistle sound as they go over your head or past your ear, and you love that sound;  it means that you are still alive).  I heard rockets explode scant yards away from where I stood, saved from blast and shrapnel by the aluminum walls of buildings, sandbags, and the bodies of other soldiers who stood between me and the point of impact.  I saw men drop on the field of battle, or hanging from their harnesses in the door opening of a Huey helicopter, and bodies of enemy soldiers plumping up under the burning Vietnamese sun like roadkill in the middle of a country lane.  How, I asked myself, did I come back from that hell to resume my life when these friends had theirs taken from them for no damned good reason at all?

I will not pretend that I pondered these questions deeply.  I was far to stoned to do anything like that.  I was twenty one and the fact of my survival of the war had in many ways trumped the self-doubt and insecurities that I had felt as a child.  As a result I tackled life with an irreverent and egocentric gusto in which I felt wildly empowered to seek gratification of any want that I felt as quickly as I might once I was aware that I felt it.  Still, the memory of these three friends and their tragically shortened lives haunted me in brief, unexpected moments of sober reflection.

In later years those memories have come to haunt me even more.  Perhaps Twain was right in his short work “The Mysterious Stranger”.  Perhaps Kathy and Doug and Jo were spared painful and unloved lives and slow, agonizing and unnoticed deaths by their early exit from the world of the living.  Perhaps.  Mark Twain was a pretty good writer, and could use his noodle.  But I call ‘bullshit’ on that.  Death is not natural after all.  Death was not a part of the plan.  Death is the peculiar province of a certain son of a bitch who is frequently portrayed as having horns and hooves and a pointy tail and, well, you know the picture.  Death shouldn’t be.  Kathy and Doug and Jo should not have died, and I should not feel guilty that i didn’t.  And I no longer feel the least bit guilty about that.

I hope that my three friends have found peace.  I don’t believe in a God who takes pleasure in barbecuing His victims so I know that I have a good chance of this hope being true.  In any case, I have survived my own folly long enough to finally understand that we are given a time to be on this planet, and if we live long enough to learn some wisdom along the way we should share it with those who come after us in the hope that we might bring some clarity to them, and make their passage through this life a little easier.  It is this that I hope I have accomplished by writing this story.  If I have failed in that, at least I hope that you have been entertained.

A Word About The Poor

I recently saw a post on Facebook that caught my attention in a special way.  I don’t recall who posted it and I don’t know anything about anybody who had anything to do with producing it.  The post in question appeared to be British, and was a video.  In this video a young man was wearing a sandwich board with a very offensive message written on it, and there is no way to sugar coat that message and still convey the power of the overall post.  I could report that the sandwich board said “SCREW THE POOR”, or I could write that the message was “F___ THE POOR”.  I could say it in Spanish too:  “CHINGA LOS POBRES”, or Latin; “PEDICABO EGO AUTEM POIR”, and if I really want to be obtuse in Chinese; “TA MA DE QUONGREN”.  In this manner I could tell you what the board said but that would not tell you what the video meant to expose, which is entirely wrapped up in exactly what was written on that board, and that message was “FUCK THE POOR”.

The person wearing the sign was a young white guy.  He was walking around at what appeared to be a bus station or some other sort of node of public transportation.  People were walking by and some of them were profoundly upset by his message.  I couldn’t really hear their comments, but by the expressions on their faces and the few words that I could read on their lips the passersby were telling the young man that, among other things, he could go f___ himself.  The clip went on for one or two minutes, which seemed like a very long time if you were watching it.  Finally the scene faded to black while a well-dressed young woman was jawing away in the man’s face.

The scene faded back in a few seconds but it was instantly clear that things had dramatically changed.  The same young man was now wearing what was very nearly the same sandwich board but with one very big difference.  Now the sign shouted out in big capital letters “HELP THE POOR”.  Same location, perhaps the same people, but clearly a different response.  No anger, no outrage, no getting into the young man’s face.  In fact, the young man might as well have not been there.  Eye contact was assiduously avoided.  People flowed around the young man like the water of a river flowing around the concrete base of a great bridge.  The young man couldn’t have found more solitude if he had scaled a Himalayan peak and found a vacant cave up there.

Now comes the hard part.  What does all of this mean?  Clearly, when the sign just came out and said “F— THE POOR”, people were stung by that harsh message and were moved to seriously reprimand the bearer of that same harsh message, but when the sign called out to help the poor, the obvious message sent by the passing throng was “F— THE POOR”.

Is it that we don’t really care about the real poor people in our midst and around the globe?  Maybe we love the poor when they are an abstraction; two urchins under the cloak of the Ghost of Christmas Present, or a family fleeing the Oklahoma dust to find their fortune in the golden fields of the Golden State.  “Wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there—” says Tom Joad while relatively well-off moviegoers munch popcorn in comfortable theater seats and Henry Fonda, a great and deserving actor, deposits very nice checks for his work on Steinbeck’s classic story,

Somehow, when the reality of poverty confronts us real-time and in the flesh it is less glamorous and less likely to start a crusade.  The bum holding a sign at the freeway offramp is smoking, which is an expensive habit, no doubt drinks too much alcohol, and smells bad in the bargain.  The couple on the bus, him scrawny and shaggy and her overweight, wearing her pajamas and sporting a poorly done tattoo of a red rose on the top of her right boob, using “colorful” language as they ride to within walking distance of wherever they are going.  The old guy sitting on the porch of a house on the “poor side of town” while a profanity-laced argument is heard coming out of the open windows.  The poor can be a much more uncomfortable commodity in the flesh than they are in the abstract, and perhaps that’s why our charity for them usually stops just before we actually meet them.

Oh, what a radical step it would be to actually make myself vulnerable and available to the poor!  The “needy” is one of the names that we give the poor and a good name for them it is.  The poor really do need.  They need resources, and if I engage the poor those resources, or at least some of them, must come directly from me.  The poor need to be acknowledged as having value, and I may not be able honestly to see any value in them if I only see them through my comfortable, material, middle class eyes.  It won’t take them long to know if i am faking it either.

The poor need governments that will help them rather than warehouse them in prisons, control them so that they don’t pester “good folks”, or divert effort, time and money to enrich patrons of government.  A person uncomfortable with too close a proximity to the real poor may at least demand that government tailor its delivery of services more towards those who really need them the most and away from those who are doing just fine already.  I am not writing about soaking the rich; only about not deferring to them first, and all American governments do that to one degree or another

So how do we move beyond this state of loving and defending the poor in the abstract and ignoring them in the flesh and blood?  I do not know the answer to that question, or should I say that I don’t know the millions of answers to that question, as the answer is undeniably complex.  When does help lead to dependency?  When does helping hurt?  How do you know that your help is genuinely needed and when you are being scammed?  Is your help being appreciated?  Does that matter?  The list of questions is a very long one and I can’t answer any one of them for you.  Hell, I can’t even answer most of them for myself.

But nobody should be avoiding those questions, and Christians frankly are commanded by God not to avoid them.  I will not bother you with the Bible verses that refer to this but if you are a Christian you know them, or you should.  If you are not a Christian, something in your heart tells you that it is wrong to ignore the poor.  Even if your rational mind says that their poverty is their problem, you still would hesitate before verbalizing what was written all over the signboard in the first scene of the video mentioned above.

Helping the poor will be an endless and oftentimes thankless endeavor.  That cannot prevent us from trying however.  The solution to the problem of the poor begins with me, and you, and you over there, and there is no hope if I/we check out of the game without ever even getting into it.

Camping Tonight, Camping Tonight

One of the great failed experiments of my life was a brief stent that I did with the Boy Scouts of America.  I have loved camping and the outdoors for as long as I can remember and the attraction to an organization that represented pup tents and hiking and sleeping bags was irresistible, so in due time I and several of my friends contacted the Boy Scouts.  After a short while Mr. Saysack made contact with us and our parents and we were placed together, along with several guys from the margins of our neighborhood, into something called a “pack” or “troop” or “patrol” or something like that.  While I don’t really remember what they called our little group I can clearly remember that we were number 926.

The goal of the Scouts is to turn out boys who become good citizens and the Boy Scout Oath says it all:  “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; To help other people at all times; To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”  The Scout Law mentioned above states “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful and thrifty.”  If I was to cudgel my brains for a week I don’t believe that I could come up with a group of kids less likely to succeed in this endeavor.

The core of our group were myself and my friends Wes Miller, Brian Nosanko, Butch Martin and Larry Gerrow.  I don’t know what Butch’s real name was, but I suppose that it could have been Butch.  I knew Butch through my friendship with Wes, and can’t say that I ever really liked him very much, if at all.  Butch lived with a single parent and used the freedom that that condition gave him to run completely wild.  Butch knew nothing about truth, honor, kindness or anything else of that nature.  I lived in a very authoritarian family situation and the utterly unencumbered freedom that Butch enjoyed seemed appealing to me, but any amount of time spent in his presence led me to believe that he was not a person whom I would ever call a friend.  In later years Wes, who stuck with Butch into early adulthood, came to call him “The Worm”.  It was an accurate name.  I have no idea what happened to Butch after we were all about 22 or 23 but I am certain that it wasn’t good.

Brian was more fun to be around, but he had his issues as did all of us.  Brian’s issue was that he was an enormous liar.  Now all of us would tell a fib every now and then in order to get out of trouble, impress a girl or something like that, but Brian would tell whoppers that were breathtaking in scope simply for the pleasure of telling them.  Most of Brian’s corpus of work I have forgotten, but his dad’s rubber blowtorch and his ability to take the head off of a wasp with a BB gun, or maybe it was a bow and arrow, stood out from amongst the throng.  One time Wes and I tried to count all of Brian’s lies and, with a little enhancing of our own, arrived at the number of 1,000.  Brian, who we called “Fantastiko” in a modification of his real last name, was outraged by this activity.  “It’s not more than 700” he declared.  I’m not making this up!  Brian was last seen wandering burned out, befuddled and homeless on a beach in San Diego many years ago.  I doubt that he is alive today.

Larry was just a normal guy, for our neighborhood anyway.  He had an edge about him and would not hesitate to fight over issues that I could not see the worth of, but he also had a good heart and was a lot of fun to be around.  We spent a lot of time just hanging out, daydreaming and competing with each other to tell the biggest lies about our significance, frequently with an eye towards impressing Susan Smith, who was not nearly as impressed with either one of us as we were with ourselves.  Larry moved out of our neighborhood in my early teens and I lost track of him.  I was told that he walked into a liquor store that was in the process of being robbed and was shot and killed, and I assume that this story is true.

If you have read any of my other stories you know about Wes.  He was also from a single parent family and was a handful for his mother, but Wes had a better grip on life than did Butch.  Wes always did have a sense of order and of right and wrong, and in the end turned out very well indeed.  We still write to each other to this day.

So we became part of the group numbered 926, and Mr. Saysack began immediately to try to mold us into something like Boy Scouts (a fool’s errand if ever there was one).  None of us were any good at tying knots with ropes, starting fires with a bow, or any of that other merit badge stuff.  In fact, I am not aware of any of us even earning a single merit badge.  For my part I lacked the self confidence necessary to even conceive of so doing, and the other guys just didn’t care one way or the other about it all.  What we mostly wanted out of the Scouts was the hiking and camping, and hike and camp is what we certainly did.

Our experiences were pretty much what you would expect them to be.  We cooked simple meals over campfires, with the scoutmaster doing the more complicated duties and us ineffectually trying to clean up.  We pitched our tents and gathered wood, climbed trees and descended from lower branches by climbing down ropes, and best of all, we hiked.

I loved the hiking and often engaged in that activity with my father.  He taught me to take water in a canteen, wear a hat to keep the sun off of my skin which refused to tan, and most important of all, find and carry a longish stick to use as a walking stick and also as a snake finder.  The mountains and deserts east of San Diego are full of snakes, some of which have a diamond pattern on their backs and a big rattle on their tails, and father taught me early about the wisdom of letting them know of my presence well before I put my shoe down in the midst of their coils.  Rattling my stick in the brush as I walked would alert the snakes to my presence and they in return would rattle their tails to alert me to theirs.

On one particular hike I was more interested in goofing off with my friends than paying attention to details like those mentioned above and we found ourselves running single file down a narrow path through the low chaparral in the hills east of the city.  The scoutmaster and his assistant had told us to stay together as a group but of course we blew that instruction off as quickly as we could.  I don’t remember just why we were running down that path but running we were, and I most vividly remember what happened next.

I heart Butch scream a short distance ahead of me, followed by a shouted curse word by Larry and then the same from Brian.  Wes and I had time to pull up and then we crept forward to see what was happening.  A couple of yards in front of us we saw a small widening in the path with a huge rattlesnake coiled on the edge of it.  It seems that the guys burst into that clearing running at full tilt as the snake was crawling across the path.  Snakes, as you undoubtedly know already, cannot strike unless they are coiled, and this snake was surprised by the appearance of three idiots who flew noisily over his head before he could coil for action.

He was most certainly coiled appropriately when I pulled up at the edge of the clearing and was sending an unmistakable message that any further interference with him was going to be paid for in the most painful of ways.  The three boys on the other side of the clearing were howling for the scoutmaster and Wes and I ran back up the path to find him.

Mr. Saysack came back with us and calmly assessed the situation.  Picking up a large rock he advanced to as close to the snake as he safely could and threw the rock down upon the snake’s head.  He repeated that process with another rock and then, holding the snake’s head down with a stick just in case it was only playing possum, extracted his Boy Scout knife from its sheath and cut off the snake’s head.  We dug a hole in the dirt and buried the head several inches deep, since one can step on the head of a dead snake and still receive an injection of venom through its sharp teeth.

Mr Saysack then skinned the snake and ordered two of the other boys to make a campfire.  We all carried with us our collapsable mess kits which included a frying pan that could also be used as a deep plate, and Mr. Saysack proceeded to use several of these pans to fry up chunks of that snake, using its own fat as oil.  Most of the guys indulged but I resisted eating any of that snake.  They said that it tasted like chicken.  No surprise there.

On another campout we were joined by several other groups of Scouts where we enjoyed joint adventures and some competition.  I recall one boy from another group trying to get a swimming merit badge by entering a standard swimming pool, swimming the length of it, and exiting the deep end, all without making a sound.  This is an impressive enough accomplishment in it’s own right, but in this boy’s case it was made all the more so by the fact that he got nailed on the shoulder by a drowning honey bee while making his exit.  None of us noticed this until he was declared successful, at which time he hopped around that pool like a jumping bean.  The stinger was extracted and a poultice of shredded potato was applied, and the boy’s status grew by leaps and bounds even among our own group.

Later in this trip we engaged in a match of “capture the flag” with another group of Scouts.  I knew that I was no way close to being fast enough to dash up a low hill and capture the other team’s flag before they could catch me, so I hatched a plan to crawl through the tall grasses on my belly like a reptile and catch them by surprise.  I moved out to the right edge of the field which stood between our two flags and began to execute my plan silently and invisibly.

I don’t know how long it took for me to use what the Army would later teach me was a “low crawl” to cross that field and begin to approach that low hill where their flag fluttered in the breeze at the summit, but I would say at least a half hour and probably more.  I had crawled through thistles and the occasional cactus, with bees and wasps fluttering around my head and anthills everywhere to be avoided, but finally I was at the base of that hill, well rested and ready to explode out of hiding, race up that hill to where the flag was, and carry it past tired defenders to the accolades of my fellow Scouts.

It was at that moment that Tim Jensen, one of the members of our group from the margin of the neighborhood, popped into view from the other side of the hill, snatched up the enemy flag and ran whooping past the boys of each group.  Tim was a pudgy kid who had less athletic ability than even I did, so I cannot adequately express how greatly it vexed me that he used some stratagem similar to my own to earn the cheers of our side.  I arose from my hiding place and took my time coming in, dragging my feet and pouting all the way.

We didn’t exist as a group for long.  Mr. Saysack grew tired of wasting his energy trying to make Scouts out of us, and we were just hitting the years where girls and cars and music and smoking and everything else was successfully competing for our attention.  My parents separated then and now I lived in a single parent family too, with predictable results.

Rumor has it that the Boy Scouts retired our number, not wanting to take the chance that anything like us would ever come around again.  I don’t know if that is true, and in fact it probably is not.  But we really were not what Robert Baden-Powell had in mind when he started the movement over 100 years ago.  Still we had fun, and while we were Scouting, however poorly we accomplished that endeavor, we were not doing anything worse, and for that I guess the Boy Scouts of America deserves a round of applause and a tip of the hat.