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The Murder of RFK--An excerpt from THE FIRE ESCAPE BELONGS IN BROOKLYN

REACTION TO THE MURDER OF BOBBY KENNEDY—
An excerpt from the novel, THE FIRE ESCAPE BELONGS IN BROOKLYN
      A small group of weeping campaign workers sat around Professor Staunton in a corner of the campaign office. As Erica and I approached, I could see he cradled something in his hands. His face was flushed and his words slurred; he had been drinking. When he saw us, he held up a Kennedy poster. Red paint had been dripped across Kennedy’s head. At the bottom of the poster, someone had painted the words,  “Compliments of the friends of Jimmy Hoffa.” 
     “There is no end to it,” Professor Staunton said. “There will never be an end to it. We suffer once and then again and again and again. Hatred is in the air we breathe; it is what keeps us alive; it is what kills us all; it is what we worship; it is what we pray to; it is what destroys our soul.” 
     Wakonda, who had been kneeling next to him, stood and held his head in her arms. She said to us, “This is another day of evil, but we must continue to find hope in our souls.” 
     “But please, Wakonda, please help me; tell me what to hope for,” Erica said. 
     Wakonda’s kind, dark eyes focused directly on Erica’s, and then Wakonda reached out, held Erica’s shoulders, and said with soft but fierce commitment, “You can hope for the vision to live even as others die, Erica. You can hope for courage…You can hope for the unborn and the newborn. You can hope for those you love and for those who you will love. And you can hope for yourself; we must all hope for ourselves….” 
     Erica looked at me, full of youth, beauty, and pain, her words measured as if she were trying to keep from unraveling as she said, “Then I will continue to hope...that whatever is happening will all mean something. I can—and will—continue to hope!” She was almost shouting. She used no strange dialect to cover her pain, and she shook hard; I tried to steady her, holding her close as we walked to the car. 
     For the entire drive to her house Erica held her hands over her beautiful face, crying in sporadic, heaving sobs, blurting out in whispers a mantra, a repeated prayer, a confused contrition of sorts: “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry for everything I have done…I must hope…I must do better…I must be better…I am sorry for it all…” And she huddled against the car door, her knees against the backs of the hands that covered the face I could no longer see. 
     I pulled up in front of her house. Erica’s face re¬mained buried in her hands. She continued to strug¬gle for self-control, but then she shook and made one final, high-pitched burst—a sound so deep and for¬eign that I can still hear it clearly, painfully, a sound like exploding glass that sent a shudder through me.
Copyright: Chuck Cascio; all rights reserved.
 

Arming Teachers--A Lesson in Failure

Arming Teachers--A Lesson in Failure by Chuck Cascio     

      I was a teacher for 27 years--four years in middle school and the rest in two different high schools in Fairfax County, VA, outside of

Washington, DC. I have been retired for quite a few years now, but I have vivid memories--almost all extremely positive--of that

workplace called "school." And the possibility of arming certain faculty members with guns and/or rifles, as President Trump recently

advocated in a speech to the NRA, frightens and disgusts me for many reasons, but mostly because the dangers far outweigh any

potential benefits…because doing so would teach the wrong lesson.

      Proponents of arming teachers seem to want to believe that the next time a shooter shows up to mow down our children, a teacher will whip out his/her rifle and shoot everyone to safety. Following are some realities that show what a misconception that concept is:

     Over the years, I, along with many other faculty members, occasionally had to break up fights between students. These fights always attracted an emotional crowd. Teachers would hear the noise, emerge from our classrooms, move through the crowd, and jump into the middle of two--or more--brawling students. We would separate them, talk as calmly to the combatants, wait for help, and then walk the fighters to the principal's office. The gathering of onlookers would usually disperse peacefully as teachers urged them to "move along now." 

     Sometimes the fights were brutal; other times, they were less intense. But there was always the potential for danger; after all, we were dealing with teenagers and the hormonal and emotional surges built into those years. 

     Now, add a faculty member with access to a gun or a rifle into those scenes. If that faculty member is in the classroom and hears ominous screams and thumps of students in the corridor, how does the teacher know for sure what is going on? Does the teacher proactively grab the weapon and race out of the classroom and into a hallway filled with emotionally charged youths? In an instant, how does the faculty member know it is a fight rather than the presence of someone about to be a shooter? If it turns out to be a fight, does the faculty member use the weapon to help stop it? If so, what message does this send to the gathered youths? How do we deal with the fear that the simple sight of a teacher displaying a weapon might cause in kids’ minds? 

     And what is the potential for danger by having the weapon present? Suppose it discharges accidentally? Suppose, in a fit of rage or panic, one of the fighters or one of the students in the crowd reaches for the weapon? How does the teacher react? Suppose the student succeeds in wrestling the weapon from the teacher? Where does that lead?

     Similar recipes for disaster exist even if, say, there is a lockdown because an active shooter has been identified in the school. Here is the reality teachers would face: 

     A teacher hears an announcement or an alarm or a code that signals "active shooter." The teacher must first ensure that the panicked students follow whatever safety protocol has been established. If the teacher is one of the faculty members who has supposedly been trained in how to use a rifle, that teacher would need to unlock whatever structure is storing the weapon, load it, leave his/her students alone, and wander into the unknown. In that unknown, and under those intense circumstances, is the teacher supposed to identify, without failure, the shooter...as opposed to some frantic student running around the halls? Or not just another teacher who speeds around the corner to try to help someone? Or not just the custodian who has slammed a closet door as he/she attempts to go into hiding? 

     There is another aspect of this "arm the teacher" movement that is extremely disturbing:

     These are schools we are talking about! These are institutions of learning! These are places meant to contribute to thoughtfulness, trial and error, youthful aspirations! These are places where the youth of our nation form their friendships, test their ideals, immerse themselves in community! Sure, the schools are by no means perfect. But they should not be turned into places where every look, every comment, every sound, every movement raises these questions in students’ minds: 

     Is that the teacher with the gun? If I laugh too loudly with my friends, will our laughter be mistaken for crying or calling for help and bring out a nervous teacher with a rifle? Is the only way to keep myself safe in life to arm myself?

    Arming teachers would be a lesson in failure destined to bring about more tragedies and to leave our already damaged schools, educators, and children with more scars.   

Copyright Chuck Cascio. All rights reserved.

 

Prof. Staunton Speaks on the Day of the MLK Assassination-1968

Prof. Staunton Speaks on the Day of the MLK Assassination-1968:

An Excerpt from the novel THE FIRE ESCAPE BELONGS IN BROOKLYN by Chuck Cascio

     “Langston Hughes asks us if dreams deferred dry up like raisins in the sun or if they stink like fetid meat and, of course, he must know the answer is yes to both—we know both are true because we see those truths in people every day, people who dry up with their dried up dreams, shrivel with their emaciated love affairs—and yet Hughes tries to convince us that it is wrong to give up on dreams because if we do, as he puts it in another poem, ‘Life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly.’

     “So the same man who poses the question in one poem, ‘What happens to a dream deferred?’ warns us in another that without dreams our lives will not fly. If you are writers, you are dreamers by definition, so you must wrestle with Mr. Hughes’s thoughts—some of you will, some won’t, some will be haunted by dreams deferred, some will forget about dreams altogether, some will look around and dream of outrageously ostentatious houses—the measure of opulence today being size and amount whether in square footage of homes or horse power or number of cars—and exotic vacations and perhaps beachfront mansions and cabin cruisers.

     “So many of you will be fickle to the dreams and words and passions that move you now, and by letting it all dry up or trading it all in, you will become vulnerable repeatedly to what we should have seen coming:

    “The squeezing of the trigger of the rifle whose scope was focused on Martin’s round black head, the assassin waiting, holding steady, calm, a horrifying distortion of Hemingway’s grace under pressure, slowly focusing on the hairs that covered the epithelial cells drawn tight across the cranium that stored one man’s extravagant and bold dreams—the perverted assassin turning his perverted dream into reality as he fired and felt the powerful kick of the rifle butt warm against his shoulder, and in the instant that he blinked from the explosion and smelled the acrid odor of gunpowder, he watched through his scope Martin’s exploding head, while inside that broken head confused and gasping dreams now spun madly in milliseconds into blackness and then hurtled out the exit wound or dripped out of the entry wound.

     “The assassin ended those dreams, betting that all of us will let them all dry up along with our own dreams, which we will trade in for comfort; in so doing, the assassin hopes to turn you all into assassins, murderers, killers, hypocrites. After all, he had the courage to act on his perverted dream and to gamble that we are not as courageous about pursuing dreams as he is. So what happens, I ask you, to a dream deferred and deferred and deferred and deferred…” 

     Staunton repeated the word, banging his fists on the podium while we sat in a silence only death itself could duplicate, until, finally, after screaming the word “deferred” one more time, his voice cracked into falsetto, and the blue veins in his neck bulged like tree roots, and his face shone like a beacon, and he looked up, panting, into the face of the tall woman with the long hair, who was noiselessly crying, and extended his arms to her. She embraced him, his white hair touching just below her mouth.

Copyright Chuck Cascio; all rights reserved

March Howls, 1968

Excerpt from THE FIRE ESCAPE BELONGS IN BROOKLYN by Chuck Cascio

      March howled through the Ides, each day bringing grisly new horrors. We plucked pistachios from a huge bowl in front of Bingham's color TV, sucking the sweet salted green nuts from their red shells, spitting the hulls into a wastebasket, fingers and lips stained blood-red with dye, we judged…and we theorized about the slaughter we were seeing:

      Bingham: "Soldiers do what they have to do."

      Bobby: "Overdo it just a little, maybe, bro? This war gonna kill us all; everyone in this fucking room."

     Bingham: "Who's to say we overdo it?"

     Moon: "What the hell, man, we are to say…I mean, someone gotta say somethin!"

     Fish: "Stuff happens. It’s war."

     Me:  "Does that mean it has to happen again and again?"

     Bobby: "All them people bein mowed down every day, like the cows in that movie Hud.”

     Moon: "Yeah, but those cows had a disease, man; all that these people have is slanty eyes."

     Bobby: "Sometimes that's all it takes to build the wall, right, brother?"

     Moon: “Say, you got that right—slanty eyes, different religion, different language, diff…er…ent skin. Just about any goddam thing’ll do if people want to hate bad enough. And one thing you can count—people sure enough want to hate.”

     We watched and thought and surmised and wondered and assured and speculated; to me, the world seemed increasingly littered with garish obscenities, human slaughter, human suffering, personal loss, vanishing youth:

     The Erica I met that night with Bingham was gone; the night of winning pool was an innocent piece of history; my Bob Dylan story seemed juvenile; Sally-Boy was a lingering dream becoming less real than our fire escape; the Fish I knew was morphing into something unrecognizable before my eyes, his wild mass of hair suddenly neatly trimmed; ancient Vietnamese watched their culture explode; young servicemen returned limbless…or not at all…and we sat in the now-vulnerable room of a college campus and watched life change while we ate pistachio nuts and, eventually, washed their red stain from our fingers.

Copyright: Chuck Cascio, all rights reserved

Bobby Kennedy’s Impact: An Excerpt from The Fire Escape Belongs in Brooklyn

Bobby Kennedy’s Impact: An Excerpt from The Fire Escape Belongs in Brooklyn     

     In March of 1968, Bobby Kennedy announced his candidacy for the presidency. His announcement sparked hope among many youths who faced the military draft, Vietnam War, campus protests, conflict with parents…and other societal issues that prompted raging tension that spread across generations, races, and politics.  Following is a scene from my novel, The Fire Escape Belongs in Brooklyn, where three young people hint at the issues, conflicts, hopes, and fears of that era.

       I drove the Camaro back to Katie's house with Erica riding next to me. From the back seat, Katie ordered the radio turned up to nearly full blast. Janice Joplin was singing about Bobby McGee (“That’s my Family Song!” Katie shouted) and Erica surprised me with a hair-flying Joplin impersonation, changing the lyrics from “Bobby McGee” to “Katie McGee,” so I chimed in with my best Bob Dylan voice.

     "Holy shit! It’s Joplin and Dylan!” Katie said. "What an act you two could put together!"

     When I found myself quickly imagining what it would be like to be in a band and on the road with Erica, I knew my mind was hopelessly working overtime.

     "Do you do any other impressions?" Erica asked.

     "Let’s see… how about Bobby Kennedy?" I asked.

     "Oh, I just love him," Erica said. It was the same simple, sincere tone she had used in talking about the Beatles' song "In My Life."

     I jabbed my right forefinger in the air and said in my best nasal stammer, "I would just like to shay...uh...that if you feel...uh...that way about him, then it's...uh...worth it for me to…uh…try to impersonate him."

     "Not bad, not bad at all!" Katie said. “It’s like RFK is here in the car with us, isn’t it E?”

     Erica made a mock squeal and shouted, “Bobbyyyy!” Then she quickly turned serious and said, "I think Kennedy has character, something that makes you believe in him, and he seems so empathetic to people less fortunate than he is…which is practically everyone, of course.  But my parents sure don't think much of him."

     "Oh, my parents can't stand him either," Katie said. "Dad says, 'Bobby Kennedy's a shanty Irishman born under a shamrock.’ I try to stay out of it myself, but I like what Kennedy says about Vietnam. It's a shitty mess there, I don't know if anyone can really stop what's going on."

     "Or anyone could stop it," Erica said flatly.

     "Maybe, but not soon enough," Katie said. "Not before Brian gets there."

     They exchanged a few more thoughts about their fears and their anger, and I turned off the radio as they spoke so I could listen more closely. When they stopped talking, Katie hummed to herself, Erica looked out at the black New Jersey night, and I drove, thinking about the words of two high school girls—two girls I barely knew, but two girls who clearly had thought about the war, its impact, the politicians leading our country—speaking personally, passionately, and I found myself considering, probably for the first time ever, how anonymous soldiers are to the people who are not fighting, to the people safe and secure in college classrooms, eating at burger joints, driving around in Austin-Healeys, sitting on fire escapes, and how blank the faces are that cross the TV screen—until you see the face of someone you know and love preparing to leave his home and family to go into battle for them and for millions of people he will never know.