I have been asked to speak on the wisdom of sports as applied to life, so it will be short. It is a little eerie when you think about it: we’re celebrating today among other things the 100th anniversary of the first women ever playing basketball.
When I was a student at Smith, one of my odd jobs was as a reader for Miss Cara Walker, class of 1898, who still lived here [in Northampton]. Her eyesight wasn’t real good and her hearing was a lot worse, and one of my jobs was to go over and read to Miss Cara for a couple of hours every week.
She always wanted me to read the National Geographic and the Smith Alumnae Quarterly class of ’98 notes, which, of course, consisted largely of the news that various of her classmates had passed into the great beyond. You would have thought that would have depressed Miss Cara, but I’m pleased to tell you, that every time I’d say something like, “I’m sorry to tell you Miss Walker, but Laura Pebble’s husband has passed on in California,” she’d say, “Good, I never liked her anyway.”
It is amazing to me to think that a woman I knew was there when the first basketball game was played among women in this country.
Since basketball has played a large role in my life, I will tell you my history as a jock very briefly. When I was approximately 4 years old, someone looked at me and said, “Kid, you’re on the basketball team.” It went that way ever after.
I grew up in east Texas. I played basketball all over east Texas. We used to play in a town called Bed. It was a big joke, going to play in Bed. And let me tell you, the east Texas women are some of the meanest women on the face of the earth.
We used to play in these small towns; the guards were almost invariably named after flowers-there would be Lily, Rose, and Violet. The forwards were always jewels-Ruby, Pearl, and Opal. But it was east Texas, so everybody had two names, you know, like Ruby Jo, or Pearl Ann. And they always wore pink plastic curlers in their hair during the games so they’d look good at the dance afterwards. Meanest women I ever met.
I played high school basketball with Amanda Elliston’s mama, and I played a little ball here at Smith College as well. I should add that I was the first woman to integrate the Texas press corps basketball team. I integrated a number of basketball teams in my life.
I’ve been searching for wisdom in the history of my life as a jock. First of all, I want to pass along to you an important piece of life-advice: don’t wear pink plastic curlers in your hair during the game so you’ll look good at the dance afterwards. Because, what the hell, you might get injured and never make the dance. Go ahead and look good wherever you are.
Doug Osborne, one of my coaches, always said, “Pick your shots. Pick your shots.” I found that useful advice as a journalist.
And the third thing I learned from playing ball is that you’ve got to have fun doing what you do because you’re not going to always win. And that’s what I want to talk to you all about today, having fun doing what you do. No matter what you do, you are always going to be citizens of this country. You’re always going to be freedom fighters.
My recommendation to you is that you have fun doing it. It’s a real occupation, and I take it very seriously. (I could sound like one of those pompous old farts who say, “You young people, the new generation, take on these responsibilities.”) You have, each of us has as citizens of this country, an obligation to protect its political heritage, and an obligation to protect its Constitution and its basic rights. And in the course of doing that, you’ve got to have fun, because you’re not going to always win.
Now the person I liked to go freedom fighting with the most was a guy named John Henry Faulk from my home state of Texas. About four years ago summertime, I got a call from the director of the central Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is not a mighty organization. She was in a state of high excitement and said I had to report on a meeting that every night of the Austin City Planning Commission on account of they were about to destroy the First Amendment. I said, “Damn.” The first Amendment is under fairly steady fire in my home state, but I had not previously counted the Austin City Planning Commission among the forces of jack-booted fascism. It came as an unwelcome surprise to me.
Well, in Austin, Texas, there is a fundamentalist divine, the Reverend Mark Weaver by name. Reverend Weaver heads an organization called Citizens Against Pornography. He is hell-bent on driving sin out of Austin, Texas. I believe that he has his last work cut out for him. Reverend Weaver and his group march around outside the dirty bookstores and movie theaters of our town with signs that say, “Honk if you hate pornography.” I always honk. I do hate pornography. And besides, I think those signs add a certain je ne sais quoi to our municipal life.
Weaver and his group had come up with proposals for an ordinance under which you could not have a dirty bookstore or dirty movie theater within so many feet of a home, or school, or church. The upshot of it would be to drive all the dirty bookstores and dirty movie theaters out of Austin, Texas, to the general cultural deprivation of the citizenry.
Now, as a matter of fact, I do hate pornography, don’t like it worth a damn. On the other hand, I did not think it was a good idea to have Reverend Weaver deciding what movies we could watch and what books we could read. And so I hastened that very night to a meeting of the city planning commission and found there 350 citizens against pornography and four of us from the American Civil Liberties Union. I’m here to tell you there is nothing like sitting in the midst of a sea of citizens against pornography to make you notice that your friends look like perverts.
Now Weaver was up to speak first on behalf of his amendment, and Reverend Weaver is a fine preacher; he has a certain old-fashioned style of preaching, and he got preaching that very day.
That very day he got a telephone call from a lady who lives behind the dirty movie theater on South Congress Avenue. Well, I perked right up at the mention of that; it’s my neighborhood dirty movie theater.
In fact, driving up to the meeting that night I noticed they’d changed the billing. The new quadruple-X attraction was called The Nun’s Bad Habit.
“Yes,” said Reverend Weaver, “and after the five o’clock show a man came out of that theater, he went in the alley behind that theater, which is directly behind that lady’s home, and he there masturbated.”
Three hundred and fifty people simultaneously went “Ohhhhhhhh”-it made a very odd sound. “Yes,” said Reverend Weaver, “that man masturbated, and that lady has two little girls, two little girls who might have seen that man do that terrible thing, except, praise Jesus, she has a large wooden fence around her back yard.”
Whereupon, we all praised Jesus, and with that he was off and running, cussing sin up one side and down the other, and by the time he got through, it looked bad for the First Amendment.
We decided to send up our oldest living member, Mr. John Henry Faulk, who, doing his well-known impersonation of an enfeebled senior citizen, shuffled up to the microphone, and said, “Members of the planning commission, Revered Weaver, Citizens Against, ladies and gentlemen, my name is John Henry Faulk. I am 75 years old. I was born and raised in south Austin, Texas, not a quarter of a mile from where the dirty movie theater stands on South Congress Avenue today. I think you should all know that there was a great deal of masturbation in south Austin before there was ever a dirty movie theater.”
The KKK, the Ku Klux Klan, came to demonstrate in Austin just two weeks ago; they came on the Saturday before the Martin Luther King holiday to protest the fact that the state of Texas now recognizes the birthday of Martin Luther King. We don’t have very many Klansmen in Austin, so they had to bus them in from Waco. Forty of them got off wearing sheets and hoods and were met by 5,000 citizens of Austin who “mooned” them. It was really artistic. It was sort of like a wave on Congress Avenue. And that’s the kind of thing I mean about having a little fun fighting for freedom.
Basically I think citizens in this country fall loosely into three groups. There are those who believe the Constitution of the United States was perfect as written by the founding fathers. They believe in the original intent of the Constitution and are very vociferous in claiming that they know what the original intent of the founders was.
You see these people frequently on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour-premature fogies, wearing creepy suits and horn-rimmed glasses. I used to worry where MacNeil/Lehrer would ever find people like that. It turns out they are mass-produced by the Heritage Foundation. There is absolutely no danger of running in short supply of those guys.
They are the ones who tell you it was the dearest wish of Thomas Jefferson’s heart that the death penalty apply largely to black people and that Jamie Madison desired nothing more than to have teenage drug dealers running around with Uzi submachine guns. I used to wonder how they knew that, and it occurred to me that they are probably into that California thing, channeling. Always knowing what the original intent of the Constitution means.
Then there are some citizens who think that the Constitution probably was not perfect as written because the founders, bless their hearts, did overlook a few people. But this second group insists the document is now perfect as amended-having gotten in there your women, your blacks, your non-property white males. With all due respect to those who were not included in the past, things are pretty good now. We don’t have to worry about it anymore.
Then I think there is a smaller group of citizens in this country who understand that the only reason the Constitution of the United States means anything, the only reason the Bill of Rights means anything, is that there is always a bunch of cranks and eccentrics and mopes and drunks who actually use the damn freedoms described and upset all their neighbors. And therefore what we have to do is make sure they can continue to do this.
Unknown to many people, my friend John Henry had a career in law enforcement at one point as he was a Texas Ranger. Captain of the Texas Rangers. He was seven at the time. And his friend Boots Cooper was the sheriff. The two of them did a lot of serious law enforcement out behind the Faulk place in south Austin.
And one day Mrs. Faulk asked those boys to go down to the henhouse and get a chicken snake out of the henhouse for her. So they rode their bikes down there and tethered their brooms. Went in and hunted through the nests on the bottom shelf and did not find that snake. Then they had to stand on tiptoe to see over the edge of the top shelf, and they did find a snake.
I myself have never been nose-to-nose with a chicken snake, but I’ve always taken John Henry’s word for it that it will just scare the living hell out of you. And it did. It scared both those boys so bad they both tried to exit the henhouse at the same time doing considerable damage to both themselves and the henhouse door.
Mrs. Faulk, watching this from the porch, got to laughing so hard. And they came back up there, and she said, “Boys, what is wrong with you? You know perfectly well a chicken snake cannot hurt you, will not hurt you.” That’s when Boots Cooper said something fairly immortal. He said, “Yes, ma’am, but there are some things that’ll scare you so bad that you’ll hurt yourself.”
And that’s what we’re always doing in this country, getting so scared of something-another communist menace, illegal aliens, AIDS, people with a different color of skin. Always getting so scared of something that we have damaged ourselves. Damaged our rights. Damaged our freedoms. And you’ll see it time and again.
There are some really frightened people in this country. And I tend to think that, in many ways, they need more understanding than we give them. The current incarnation of fundamentalists in their politically active mode is something that those of us who are concerned with civil liberties regard with some alarm.
But let me explain to you that I was born and raised among foot-washing Baptists, and I hold that it did me no harm. (I was saved myself three times before I was 12. The fact that it didn’t take in the long run is no reflection of the underlying principle there.)
I would submit to you that being antifundamentalist is a respectable form of bigotry in certain classes of this society. In fact, I would challenge you to see if you could find a single modern film, television show, or novel in which a sympathetically portrayed fundamentalist is a major character. The only one I know of is the novel called Raney by Clyde Edgerton out of North Carolina. (It’s a lovely little novel; I recommend it to you all.) Fundamentalists are not dreadful people. They are badly frightened.
And what happens is that as this society becomes more modern and more secular, those who are more conservative and traditional cling more fiercely to their conservatism and their traditionalism. And what has been a gap between those two groups becomes a chasm. And that’s what is happening now. The fundamentalists who have always been with us in this country have been politicized, beginning with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the early 1970s. (I must say that one of the few journalistic trends I ever personally spotted-because I like to listen to radio preachers; I regard it as a minor regional art form, sort of like rodeos-was that my regular preachers were becoming political.) What we are seeing now in terms of politicization of fundamentalism in this country is of yet another order. The even more radically politicized fundamentalists, whose front man is the Reverend Pat Robertson, are what I call Shiite Baptists. We are talking about real serious people here.
But that’s no reason not to have fun. And that’s what we’ve been doing with some of them. When you find yourself engaged on behalf of one cause or another-whether it is reproductive rights for women or gun control, or any other cause that you might find to argue over, but particularly over freedom of speech, particularly the content of the First Amendment, the greatest and most important of them all-I would recommend two things to you. One is that you not cede the flag or the Bible to the opposition.
I always thought it was a mistake, made by people in the 60s, that somehow the flag was taken over by those who favored war in Vietnam, rather than by those who opposed it, as though we no longer had a right to it. The same is true of the Bible.
I would say also, having been there, that you do not cede your femininity to those who hold themselves out as traditional women. It doesn’t matter, of course, that any Texas legislator would probably identify you as a bunch of hairy-legged, bra-burning feminists. Pay no attention to those guys.
No matter what you do for the rest of your lives, you are going to have an obligation to protect the political freedom and heritage that you have received-I think the most magnificent political legacy any people has ever received. Now that you are fully functioning citizens, it is up to you to help defend it.
I want to close with a wonderful story about Joe Rauh, the great freedom fighting lawyer who died two months ago. Several years back in Philadelphia the ACLU was fixing to lay some serious lifetime freedom fighter awards-Izzy Stone got one that year. Joe Rauh was one of the people honored, but he was sick in a hospital and asked a friend to go and receive the award in his stead. His friend went to visit him in the hospital and said, “Joe, what do you want me to tell these folk when I go pick up this award for you?”
Rauh had been a freedom fighter back in the days of the McCarthy era. Bad, ugly, angry, sordid time when fear ruined so many people’s lives and destroyed so many people’s careers. The early days of the civil rights movement. Rauh had been through a lot of hard times.
He looked up from his bed and said to his friend, “I want you to tell them how much fun it was; tell them how much fun it was.”
And that’s what I’m here to tell you. I’m still doing it. It’s still fun. I want you to go out and do it. And if what I’ve seen of this class is any indication, you-all are going to make some great, fun-loving freedom fighters.