July 23, 2009


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No diving for Arnie today.

To ‘pool lawsuit’ parents: Get over it!

When I first read about the incident at Valley Club in Huntingdon Valley on June 29, I felt terrible for the kids, of course. The TV and newspaper reports I saw strongly suggested that the 65 non-white children from Creative Steps Inc. Day Camp were told not to come back to the swim club (their money was refunded) and that racism may well have been one factor, if not the major factor, for the club’s decision. The club’s image took a nosedive when its president, John Duesler, commented that having so many new kids in the club’s pool changed “the complexion” of the club.

I, along with just about everyone else to the left of Rush Limbaugh, was on the side of the kids until a lawsuit was filed July 10 by a parent against the club, and other parents called a news conference July 13 to say that they would be filing a second discrimination suit, claiming that the children had suffered “permanent emotional scars” from the incident.

In other words, this is not about justice anymore; it’s about money. Duesler, by the way, insisted the contracts with Creative Steps were ended because of safety issues from overcrowding, not racial prejudice. After a hurricane of bad publicity that swept around the world, however, Duesler offered to restore the original contract with Creative Steps, but the camp rejected that idea. No surprise there.

If a judge or jury buys the argument that the kids suffered permanent emotional scars, then I’m going to sue Dr. Lepow, who flunked me in biology in 10th grade at Central High School, as well as Mr. Robinson, my drill instructor in the U.S. Air Force (he yelled four-letter words at me every day straight for five weeks, including an ethnic slur), not to mention every employer who ever fired me, the Acme checkout clerk who rejected one of my coupons last week (she said it had expired; a likely story) and every magazine editor who ever failed to return my phone calls. They’ll all be sorry. Before this is over, I’ll have a stock portfolio like Donald Trump’s.

There’s no way to know for sure, of course, but I’m inclined to believe Duesler’s side of the story. First of all, a Chestnut Hill businessman who knows him well told me he is “one of the most decent and kind people you will ever meet.” Also, if this was a case of racism, then why were the kids at Creative Steps invited in the first place to swim at Valley Club? It’s not logical.

Finally, the Inquirer reported last week that Creative Steps owes $79,094 in federal taxes and $31,426 in state taxes and unemployment insurance. Also, Alethea Wright, executive director of Creative Steps, was found guilty in July, 2006, of not paying more than $9,000 in unemployment insurance. She was sentenced to probation and is now making restitution. So they could certainly use some extra cash.

Now there is no gainsaying the fact that two centuries of unimaginably hideous legal slavery, one century of legal discrimination and a million acts of violent racism have left a stain on our country’s history that can never be erased. But as many African-American intellectuals like Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Stanley Crouch, Glenn Lowry, John McWhorter and others have argued, blaming every ill in the black community in 2009 on white racism may be politically correct, but it is intellectually dishonest and self-defeating.

White racism has undoubtedly been responsible for a great many evils in American history. (In 1963, when I was stationed at Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., our group of six airmen in full military uniform could not get served food in any restaurant because two of the six were black.) However, in a nation with a black president and in a city with a black mayor, black school superintendent and black police commissioner, racism is probably not responsible for the fact that half of our inner city kids do not graduate from high school, that many who do graduate can barely read and write, that 85 percent of inner-city children are born out of wedlock, that most do not have a father in the home, that crime, drugs and murder are epidemic and that many kids who do want to study, read and learn are routinely derided for “acting white.” Unfortunately, none of these ills will be resolved by lawsuits.

So my advice for the Creative Steps parents (not that they asked me for it) is to introduce your children to great art, music and literature; instill in them a love of learning and justice; take them to libraries, museums and lectures; teach them to be kind, caring, respectful, generous human beings and yes, even forgiving. And as far as the swimming pool issue is concerned, get over it!

Len Lear


Club meeting at Aunt Judy’s Uniforms

BELFAST, Maine — My son, Andrew, collects old 78-rpm records and the quest for them sometimes leads to strange experiences for me. None stranger than yesterday’s.

Last year, the Searsport flea market man who runs the white tent with the word “RECORDS” scrawled across the side wall in Magic Marker told me to get in touch with him before I came up again. He said he keeps a lot of good stuff at home and he’d bring it in especially for us. Just go into Belfast and stop at Aunt Judy’s Uniforms and tell his wife, Judy, why we’d come.

Yesterday I drove into town, parked in front of The Fertile Mind bookstore and walked down to the corner and up the next street. I walked past a small crowd of parents and children waiting on the sidewalk outside the Colonial Theater, buying tickets for the new Harry Potter movie. When you pass the movie house, Aunt Judy’s Uniforms is the first store you see in the small strip of shops. I walked in.

Judy sells those cheery, brightly patterned outfits that pediatric nurses and dental assistants and other medical workers wear. She stocks such an abundance of them you might feel you’ve fallen asleep and awakened in a euphoria palace. A solitary customer, a middle-aged woman with short-cropped blonde hair, wearing a white nurse’s shirt was browsing a rack of shirts and talking to Judy when I entered.

They paused, and Judy stepped out from behind a circular rack of shirts and said “hello.”

“Hi, you are Judy, right?” I asked.“

“Yes, can I help you?”

“Yes, I’m a record collector from Philadelphia. Actually, my son is. We come up here every year and we go to the Record Tent up in Searsport. He’s your husband?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“And his name’s Dana?”

“That’s right.” She’d moved over behind the counter and was reaching for a pad of paper, and a pencil. “What would you like me to tell him?”

“Well, just that we’re here and that if he has anything good for us and wants to bring it over we’d sure like to see it.”

“What kind of records you interested in?”

“The usual … you know … early jazz, blues, vaudeville, very early comedy.”

She was looking down, writing what I’d said when she said, “What’s your name so he’ll know?”

“Hugh,” I said, but then I thought of all the confusion my first name sometimes causes, so I quickly said, “No, don’t bother with the ‘Hugh,’ just tell him ‘Gil,’ that’s easy enough.”

She took a sharp breath and stiffened slightly, but then wrote “Hugh.” She was still looking down, examining the pad as though expecting something to happen. Without looking up, she said softly, “Hugh’s my son’s name.”

“Oh,” I started to say, “well then you certainly …”

She looked up. Her eyes were strong, but red-rimmed and moist. “He died just this May. He was 39.”

My heart flooded with empathy, but also guilt, for bringing his name up when she seemed not ready for it. What can you do when even the very sound of your own personal name is the cause of someone else’s grief?

“I’m sorry, I said. My heart goes out to you.”

She said, “And then you came in here and said your name … and it’s his name. It’s so … I don’t know …” She looked at the pad again, as if the word “Hugh” held the key to a mystery she’d been tussling with.

I said, “Had he been sick or was he in an accident or something?”

“Motorcycle. The girl in front of him, if she’d just stopped they said, but she kept turning, so he tried to avoid her. He went into a pole.”

The lady who was browsing stiffened and watched the two of us.

“Where was this?” I asked.

“In California. San Francisco. He was a chef at the Fairmont Hotel. It’s such a beautiful place. You know, what do I know about any place? I’m from Maine, but I had to go out there. They showed me where he worked. It was real nice. They even put me up in the penthouse. I‘ve never been anywhere. I thought the letters PH on the elevator meant the phone.” She laughed at herself.

“Well, you know,” I said, “I lost a young son too. It’s awful. When birthdays or death day anniversaries come up, they have a life of their own, they start eating at you a month ahead of time dragging you down.

”Judy said, “Today’s my Hugh’s birthday.”

“Oh,” I said. The other lady in the store moved over closer to us so we made a small conversational triangle. She said, “Just today?”

“Yes,” Judy said, “And so …” (looking at me) “when you came in and gave me your name and I wrote it down … I just thought, maybe, this is some kind of message for me today.

”We were all quiet for a moment, then Judy said, “I just want to know what happened to him, how it happened, whether he suffered, what he was thinking when …”

I said, “That’s one of the biggest pains. You just hope your child didn’t suffer, not even mentally, but it’s hard. I used to put myself in his place all the time trying to imagine what those final seconds were like.”

The other lady said, “I lost my Tommy up north on the water. They say he drowned. They were all fooling around on the boat or something. The detective told me he must have gone in with a full gasp, so the water took him right away and he never knew what happened. Thank God.”

“Thank God,” said Judy.

We stood together and talked for another twenty minutes I guess, members of the world’s most exclusive club with the highest dues: parents who have lost a child. No one joins voluntarily. But here we had found one another for a little while and held an impromptu club meeting.

Three people from different walks of life, sharing a common bond. I took a final look around the room, getting a new appreciation of all those jolly little creatures printed on the nurse’s costumes, those bright little attempts to keep the reality of mortality at bay.

I hugged both ladies briefly and said goodbye, carrying the burden of my name and the memories of three young men who don’t live with the rest of us anymore.

I stepped out into the temporary sunshine let down from some holes in the gray sky and walked down to the dock. Water always heals. Standing there, leaning on a railing at the water’s edge, I looked up to the left and saw the bridge a half-mile away, the trucks and cars scurrying along, looking miniaturized, making the world of schedules and commerce seem small.

Then I turned to the right, and looked out across the bay towards the ocean.

I thought of the last lines of Robert Frost’s poem about the people looking out at the sea,

They cannot look out far.

They cannot look in deep.

But when was that ever a bar

To any watch they keep?

Contact Hugh Gilmore at