GROWING UP WITH MUHAMMAD ALI

I really didn’t actually grow up with Muhammad Ali. I just grew up during his time. He was born in Kentucky, I in South Carolina but for some reason I was drawn to his charisma when he was still billed as Cassius Clay. Sometimes I was drawn to him for some not so nice reasons. I remember first seeing him on a small, fuzzy, black and white TV when he won Olympic gold in 1960. This was before he became the “brash” legend and self-proclaimed “The Greatest” who swaggered his way to the 1964 Heavyweight Championship over the “big, ugly bear” Sonny Liston. In the rural South where I lived he was not the “much loved” Muhammad Ali.

In the middle Sixties, the teenaged me was still drinking a bitter brew of white supremacy, American Exceptionalism and Cold War rhetoric that included slogans like “I’d rather be dead than red.” It would be a decade before I would come to the realization that I might be living IN a lie. I remember the disparaging remarks from my peers along with adults I knew and those I didn’t, and yes from myself. When Ali changed his name from Clay, adopted Islam, called out people about race and then nailed his coffin shut by refusing induction into the army many people were more than just a bit critical. After all, had our idol, Elvis Pressley, not seen his duty and done it? Here was this “mouthy colored boy” refusing to go fight the Reds in order to keep America safe. What a coward!

I did not have to make a decision whether to serve as I was never called up. I met an older man yesterday, my age or a little older. He was wearing a baseball cap proclaiming himself a “Viet Nam Vet.” As we stood in line to pay for what might have been the best fried shrimp I had ever eaten, I thanked him for his service and told him that “I had hidden behind my college deferment.” He was proud but still bitter about returning home and being portrayed as a “baby killer.” I don’t blame him for being bitter. As I think back, I should have paid for his meal while asking what he thought about Ali. It might have made me feel better instead of feeling that I somehow missed out on something, a coward in my own right.

I know exactly what would have happened if I had been called up. I would not have run off to Canada or gone to jail rather than serve. I would have done what thousands did, the expected no matter what my principles were. To have done otherwise would have let someone down, something I seem to have a phobia about despite doing it often. If anything it makes me respect Muhammad Ali even more. He did what was unexpected…for his principles instead of what others thought. His was a special type of bravery that didn’t involve following the “pied piper” of what is expected. Serving in Viet Nam or refusing to serve took a “special kind of guts” that I now realize were both based upon principle.

I don’t know when I began to view him differently, with the respect he deserved for doing what he thought was right. It’s not as if a light suddenly came on; it was more gradual as I became more “educated.” I knew I had found the light when I saw him lighting the Olympic torch in 1996 despite my sorrow over the body that was betraying him. His voice has given voice to other professional athletes and has somehow transcended generation, race and religion. I am truly sorry it has been silenced.

More nonfiction by Don Miller is available at http://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

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REMEMBERENCE

As we pause to recognize those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom this Memorial Day I am troubled over some of the reactions to President Obama’s visit to Japan and the site of the first nuclear bomb drop at Hiroshima. This goes beyond the rumors that he might apologize for an act that he characterized as evil. It was the reaction to his characterization that troubles me and not the reaction to a rumor that did not take place.

War is evil and yet we glorify it. I grew up in an age not far removed from World War Two and spent many hours during my childhood playing “war.” I see nothing wrong with it but I never pretended to be Paul Tibbits in the Enola Gay either. I was glorifying the men who stormed the beaches at Normandy, Sicily, and too many islands in the Pacific. I glorify all of the men and women who have served in all of our wars, especially those who gave the ultimate price and believe that our lawmakers have abandoned many of our vets. I glorify our men and women who serve but I will never glorify the act of war. War is evil and shows the worst that humanity has to offer even when it is a necessary evil and you are on the side of “God.”

One of those worsts acts was the use of the nuclear bomb, a truly evil action, even by President Truman’s admission. A truly NECESSARY evil action that Truman was justified in making to end a war that had already ended too many lives. I can’t imagine the personal deliberation Mr. Truman wrestled with coming to the discussion to use the A Bomb but agree with its use. Evil defeating evil…how bizarre.

I don’t know how anyone would not want a nuclear free world? It isn’t going to happen, nor is there going to be world peace. Should we not strive for it though? Should turning the Middle East into a parking lot be the FIRST OBJECTIVE…or even the last. Those of us in the Baby Boomer generation grew up with the fear of “massive retaliation” and “preemptive first strikes.” Alerts were issued cautioning us to not eat snow cream or root vegetables because of high levels of radiation caused by too many nuclear tests. Teachers attempting to convince us that we could survive a nuclear attack by sitting under a desk with a book over our heads. Is this a necessary evil? Until everyone beats their “swords into ploughshares” I would say yes but I still do not support the evil.

We should never apologize but we should never forget it any more than we should forget the price our military paid to end World War Two or any other war. “A Bomb Dome” in Hiroshima should always be a symbol of the evil of war as should the ovens at Auschwitz or the redoubts at Vicksburg. Hiroshima should always be a symbol for the destructive power of nuclear weapons and a reminder of the cost of their use. We should also read what President Obama said, it was a long time needing to be said.

More nonfiction by Don Miller is available at http://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM