Word from Bird May 2016

Summer memories

I was speaking to an old friend recently and the topic of childhood memories came up.

After thinking about it for a second, I realized I didn’t have a particular moment that was my favorite, but one summer stood out for me.

The summer between my sixth and seventh grade year of school was one of the most memorable ones I have had the pleasure to have spent. It wasn’t full of madcap adventures, and nothing particularly significant happened; it was just an average summer. 

It was a summer balanced on the fine edge of still being a kid and taking the first tentative steps toward adulthood. It was the first summer where my parents thought I was old enough to go certain places on my own. They believed I was mature enough and trusted me to keep out of trouble. 

I grew up near a municipal golf course that was the center of activity for most of the year. In summer there was golf, of course, but in the evenings we would sneak on and play football or baseball on the manicured fairways.

In the winter, when snow blanketed the ground, the wide-open land served as the sledding hills, cross-country ski course and snowball fight arena.

That particular summer I was presented a season pass as a birthday gift. The pass allowed me to play golf every day of the year. Naturally, my friends also had received passes. (I think it was a conspiracy from our parents to get us out of the house.)

Nearly every morning my friends and I would meet at my front yard and walk the half block in the cool morning air to the clubhouse where we would gleefully present our cards and get our tee times. 

After a few minutes of warming up and good-natured ribbing, we would tee off and begin our daily ritual.

We would play nine holes in the morning, enjoying the small talk and the warming weather. At the turn we would go into the clubhouse and order a candy bar and soda where we would meticulously record our scores in our notebooks.

We kept track of everything about our games in those books. How many shots on each hole, how many putts we took and the penalty strokes from hitting the ball into the water. 

The books also kept track of our bets. We would wager a quarter on each hole, plus fifty cents to the overall winner of the day. I don’t remember anyone ever paying off a bet, but it did keep it interesting.

After our mid-morning break, we would head out to the back 9 where it all began again. 

When we finished, if we still felt spunky, we would sneak in another few holes before retiring to the cool sanctuary of my basement where we would play video games until it was time for supper. 

Like I said, nothing major happened that summer. But if there was ever the possibility to go back in time and relive a few months, that would be at the top of my list.


Won’t you be my neighbor? 

One of my idols would have turned 88 years old this year.

This man never wanted to be famous, he just wanted to educate children and present them with a positive message to grow up by. He rallied against bombarding kids with flashy cartoons and slick advertising campaigns. He believed children just needed to be talked to and treated with respect.

He spoke before the United States Senate, defending public television, and was one of the principal reasons the government backed off their threat to pull funding from stations like PBS.

This man, who trained to be a minister, took a major career detour because he saw the potential of television to be a positive force - and in doing so he enriched countless lives.

For 33 years Mr. Fred Rogers hosted his seminal children’s program “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” and reached  millions of children across the globe.

I remember watching the show as a kid, but it never really dawned on me until I was much older  what a powerful influence he had.

Such a simple man, a Presbyterian minister, delivering life lessons in such a humble and accessible way, but he never once preached to his audience. By using themed episodes, he helped kids get over the fears of going to the doctor, school, bullies and countless other topics.

Through the use of make believe, he talked about caring, sharing, feelings and fears. He taught kids that it was all right to get afraid sometimes, and how to face those fears in a productive manner.

The wonderful thing about his show was that the messages from the first season were just as meaningful in the last, so PBS could rerun them in any order and not fear confusing the viewers.

He kept it simple, singing the same songs over and over so the viewers would always hear something familiar.

He was the same man off camera as he was on. He didn’t trade in his sweaters and sneakers for an Armani suit and a martini after wrapping an episode. He was almost too good to be true.

“One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self. I also believe that kids can spot a phony a mile away,” he famously said.

If you want to see a truly heart-touching moment, search out the video of his acceptance to the Television Hall of Fame. I won’t spoil it, but fans of his will see his reaction to meeting a familiar face. It is honest, raw and awe inspiring.

In the end, Fred Rogers was just a man. No super powers, no multi-million dollar endorsements, and no hidden agenda. He was just a walking, breathing person, like you and me.

What made him stand out was that he never lost sight of the message he wanted to impart, and lived his life just as he portrayed it on his show.

His message was simple and to the point…”Won’t you be my neighbor?”


Where have all the heroes gone?

Good guys wear white. At least they used too. In all the old time westerns, you could tell the hero from the villain just by their hats. Black Jack McGee, Simon Legree or whatever nefarious sounding names the bad guys had back then, would always be decked out in a black trenchcoat and matching hat. But Gene Autry and Roy Rogers sported shining white duds. When the sheriff walked through those saloon doors, there was no doubt who to root for.

Back then politicians, statesmen and soldiers were looked up to. Dwight Eisenhower, Churchill, Roosevelt, McArthur, were idolized and respected. Parents wanted their sons to grow up and be like those leaders, and wanted their daughters to marry one. We weren’t as progressive as a people then to believe that a woman could be so strong.

Athletes were a different type of hero then. Exploits off the field were overshadowed by triumphs on the field. The press, unlike now, overlooked the foibles and failures of the greats, so as not to tarnish the image of the star. If someone was a heavy drinker, like Mantle or Ruth, or a mean, hateful cuss, like Cobb, it only added to the mystique.

But somewhere down the road, the bloom fell off the rose. The turbulent 60’s served notice that the newest generation was tired of the staid, stern idols of their parents.

Anti-heroes were thrust headfirst into the national consciousness. The ideas Abby Hoffman and their ilk represented were nothing like their predecessors.

In the 70’s we learned that even politicians aren’t above rebuke. It wasn’t until Reagan that the nation would see government with some reverence again, and even that was guarded.

Since then, the term hero has been thrown around a lot more liberally lately. Pop stars, athletes, movie and television stars all get idolized and worshipped today. It seems that anyone who gets their 15 minutes of fame today gets the moniker, Hero.

But if it is easier to call someone a hero today, it is also easier to take that away from them. Darryl Strawberry, as an example, was once regarded as someone to look up to. He had great talent and a personality that fed the monster. But the fame got to him, and he succumbed to the demons of success. Today, he is pitied rather than envied.

The Spice Girls, Hanson, and countless others like them, rode their fame for all it was worth. Thousands of screaming teenagers at every concert, millions upon millions of dollars made off their fans, success and adulation followed them wherever they went. But they found out that the flame of glory cannot burn for long if there is not sufficient talent to fuel it. Rap stars and hip-hop artists make their fame by becoming heroes for all the wrong reasons. Drug use, shootings, abuse and general disregard for the law propel them into the hearts of our youth.

Movies glorify the violence. The hero of a movie often has to kill more people than Union Carbide did in India, in order to save the day.

Is this what the modern definition of hero has become? I certainly hope not. To me, a hero is someone who makes a significant change or impact on another persons life, without personal gain for themselves. Someone who would put their own life on the line for another. We have plenty of them around; we just have to look. They are the doctors and nurses working in the free clinics, firefighters, policemen and other civil servants who do their job among great risks and little reward, teachers who try to shape our youth into decent men and women. And above all, our parents, who sacrificed their personal freedom and a great deal of money to give you life. Do someone a favor and hug a hero today.



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