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Monday, January 21, 2013

TED STERN AN HONORABLE MAN

     cleve gray, red thrust on gray



This is the day Ted Stern had his memorial service at the cistern, by his request weather permitting. I found a short video Channel 5 put online of the flag-wrapped bier with a friend of more than half my life inside it dead. First time I went to google to look for info on his passing, I saw "Ted Stern dead at 100." It knocked me for a wobble on my track. Dead. It was a little bit hard to take. Dead  is such a dead word. It's inert like a cinder block. A name and memories. The first time I saw him, he was walking across the cistern on his way into the main building. We at the college knew we had a new president, though I hadn't seen him. One day I was walking into the quadrangle through the gate between the library and the main building (1968) and saw Ted Stern walking over the cistern. At a distance and at a glance, he looked somewhat formidable. He walked with a self-confident air. I'd heard he was retired Navy, which turned me against him automatically. I'd been in the Navy too, though he and I had very different experiences there. The Navy was good to him. He gave it his all. The Navy was not good to me, because I gave it my time that it had usurped in the period of the draft, and nothing else. The ultimate authority. I resented having two years of my life taken because I was born a boy in USA. In retrospect, I have an entirely different version of the time in the Navy. Yes, it took me out of my life, but I needed it at the time. The time in the Navy was my transition from rule from outside myself to making my own decisions for myself, which theretofore I'd failed at repeatedly. I needed to get outside my life at exactly that time to assess the pit I'd fallen into of my own ignorance.

I'd come out of a family situation where I had been taught to reject authority. In photographs I've seen of self in childhood, I see that rejection of authority started about the age one and a half. That's when the deep furrows between my eyes started their very early development. Resentment. Hating being hit. Hating the ongoing berating. By the time I left parents, I was dead set against authority and dead to parents. Him for the hitting and berating. Her for never protecting the boy child from his insanity. Hitting the kid sublimated hitting her. Resentment of male authority runs deep in me. Like I say, all the way back to age one. The child within hated being hit daily without recourse. Didn't just dislike it. Hated it. Hated. Going to a Kansas fundamentalist church five times a week, it was hate that was developing in me, not love. Love was nasty. It was a four-letter word. Bad. There wasn't any of it going around in our house, anyway. Certainly not in the church. Church was duty. Or else. In my time in the Navy and the College of Charleston, love was a word I scorned. Had no idea about it. Experienced some heat, but it wasn't anywhere near love. It was a peep hole, nonetheless. A beginning.

I tell this for the origin of my rejection of authority. The authority I grew up under was wildly irrational. There was no reasoning behind it, no guidance, no correction. The only thing I was required to understand was No, Don't and You Better Not. I was promised a better life if I could start everything I do with no-dont-you-better-not. A kid has to move. A kid has to talk. I refused the straight-jacket, so I was in trouble every day. Existence was the cause of my trouble. It doesn't sound good to resent parents openly, but when your mother tells a neighbor woman, "He's my kid, I'll kill him if I want to," and then tells the kid about it, proud of herself, it causes a child to question the advisability of living with these people. But there was no place to go to. It was a matter of seeing I was born in prison with a sentence at least through high school. Free from parents and church, then I had the prison sentence of the military to go through for being born in Amerika. Then there is the prison sentence of you-better, you-oughta, you're-supposed-to, you should, the rules unspoken, but you're expected to know them and go by them. When-ya-gonna-get-married-when-ya-gonna-get-married-when-ya-gonna.... I got married, because of supposed-to.  I'm an Hephaestus personality drawn to an Aphrodite personality. He failed to see the humor in his wife's infidelity.

All this to say that in the first view of Ted Stern at about fifty feet and maybe ten seconds, I saw Authority. He was big with a big Jewish nose, which I respected. I'd known a few people of the Charleston Jewish community, liked them all and respected their intelligence. Upon seeing him with his Hebraic schnoz, I was entirely disposed to rejection, though with curiosity. The Jewish part told me this is not the average white man. It indicated that the board hired him for reasons that cancelled any prejudices among the Southern white men of the Old South way of thinking. Still, it didn't matter to me, one way or the other. Navy. Authority. Why did this have to happen at my school? Within, I was braced against him. There came a time I did something arrogant, disrespecting his authority. He handled it like King Solomon. I was so impressed by his way of "taking me to prayer meeting," rationally, intelligently, as well as firmly, I came away from it respecting his authority. He did it in front of about thirty people, never letting on who he was talking about, never making eye contact with me to say, I'm talking about you. I sat in my metal folding chair red faced in awe. I had never experienced such intelligent authority. My respect for Ted Stern started that day. It didn't change anything between him and me, because I didn't know him to avoid him or cultivate him. I just stopped talking down about him among my friends.

It was not cool to admit I admired him suddenly. His pattern all the way along in his time in Charleston was to turn the people most dead set against him into his most ardent supporters. I saw it even in cases I never believed would be sympathetic with him, like my own. He had a great deal of opposition in his first few years with the college, and he played through it. I'm recalling a Miles Davis concert in England, Isle of Wight Festival, in a documentary about his music. It was a big outdoor show of what is now called classic rock, the Who, Hendrix, Janis, the Doors. Miles was playing his electric music. Audience was throwing every kind of trash at the band, booing them. At a certain point in the music, the bass player told Miles he couldn't take dodging flying bottles and being booed any more. He wanted to quit and leave the stage. Miles said, "Play through it." By the time they finished the set, the booing and bottle throwing had ended and the audience went nuts in ovation wanting more. This sentence, play through it, has been with me since Ted Stern's passing. He played through it when metaphorical bottles were thrown at him and he came out of it beloved by the people of a great Southern city, his funeral a major moment in the history of the city of Charleston. For the College of Charleston, corny as it sounds to say it, Ted Stern was indeed its founding father. His obituary could be reduced to three words, an honorable man.


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