When I found a copy of Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger in a Little Free Library on Super Bowl weekend, I thought it was placed there to help me brush up on my football lingo before writing a big article for work. Instead, I think it was there to help me get through the following weekend—the weekend of my Djiedo‘s memorial service in Austin. It was a timely lesson, too, in the problems of racism and classism that persist in our country, but what made it just right for me right now was understanding what makes a hero in Texas (or anywhere).
We know we have a problem with racism in our country. Or at least I hope we know how much of a problem it is. It was helpful for me, though, to dig into this story of a small(ish) Texas town obsessed with football and how much they did not see (or did not want to see) how they excluded entire categories of people based on the color of their skin. Living (as a white person) in the Northwest, it has been easier for me to pretend that the civil rights era put us on the right road to setting ourselves straight. But reading about Odessa forced me to look hard at some ugly facts. It’s hard to change the views of people who are comfortable with their lives, even (especially?) if those lives are lived on the backs of others. I was gobsmacked by the fact that Odessa’s high schools were not integrated until 1982. Not only that, but the sense of white entitlement that accompanied that segregation.
This book made me look differently at my Texas experience this time around. I’ve been looking even harder at my own actions and beliefs in the past few weeks as I’ve watched the Ralph Northam controversy unfold. I’ve never worn blackface nor a klan uniform, but I know I’ve said some racist, bigoted, sexist, and downright mean things in my life. I’m actively trying to be better, but that doesn’t change the hurt I put into the world. Looking around me in Texas this trip, I’m seeing so much of what I’ve failed to see at home—the stratification of the society around me. I see the Hispanic cashiers at the CVS, the Hispanic cooks working behind white cashiers at the BBQ joint, the almost entirely white and Asian audience at my grandfather’s memorial.
When my Djiedo’s people came to the U.S., they were just hunkies—a racial slur that encompassed anyone from Eastern Europe. He worked his way up from coal miner to professor to presidential advisor, but none of that makes me entitled to better treatment or a better life just because my ethnicity blended out in a generation. I was shocked to read about the casual racism in Odessa and it was also all too familiar. It’s easy to think I’ve earned the life I have based on my merit (that’s the American ideal, right?) when really I’ve had so many advantages (and not just racial ones).
One of the stories I was raised with was that my Djiedo was friends with everyone—from the man who made paperclips to the man who owned the paperclip factory. In some ways I think this was true as I’ve met some of the friends he accumulated over the years. True that many of them had achieved much in life, but some of that was that age gives us time to accomplish much and I often had the feeling that Djiedo had known many of these men “when”—before they became the titans they became.
Reading about Odessa’s origins and the glorious days of oil booms and the terrible failures of busts, the fact that people were pulling down large salaries with little to no advanced education and then were flat busted when the price of oil changed reminded me how much of our identity we tie up in our achievement—and how hard we fall when that achievement is taken away. It made me think about how harder it’s getting to make a living wage, even with a college education and how, as a country, we’re drowning in student loan debt because school seemed to become the right (only) option after 2008 even as tuition skyrocketed. How this takes us all so much farther from the “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps ideal. How it makes us afraid. How in our fear we pull even farther apart as a country. How a life like my Djiedo’s is still maybe possible, but not really. And I wonder what we’ve become.
The Making of Heroes
On a hill in the middle of the Texas State Cemetery stands a granite stone as close to burnt orange as you nature allows. On that stone the names of my grandfather, grandmother, and aunt are engraved, their ashes buried beneath. It was a big deal to my Djiedo that he was able to be buried there. Having never forgotten where he came from, acclaim mattered in every bone of his body.
I couldn’t help but think of my Djiedo as Bissinger returns again and again to the image of the Permian Panthers as gladiators—boys who carry the hopes of an entire town for a few months in the fall. While being a player didn’t change their class, they were heroes on the field. Until they weren’t. Some of those boys made good after, but not based on the brutal things they did to their bodies in that stadium.
Because my Djiedo was building for the long haul, his sense of achievement only grew with time and he never had to experience that sense of bubble bursting. Instead, my family and I sat in a large hall on Saturday while deans and a university president lauded my grandfather. They talked of his energy, the way be made friends with everyone (and for life), and his propensity for throwing erasers at sleeping students. It was a surreal experience. The kind of thing Djiedo soaked up and loved, the kind of thing most of the rest of us dreaded (being trotted out for display for the achievements of others can make you feel, well, less than achieved yourself), but something I know he earned. The stories were familiar, the film, too, but appreciated, all of it. There was a lot of love in that room for my Djiedo. And reminders that my own heart could (and should) be more open. That I have been given everything and now my life is only what I make of it (in alignment with whatever values I choose).
Life is not linear. Nor is the path to success. I was reminded of that and inspired when, at my Djiedo’s graveside, my cousin did what I would never have thought to do—she opened the lid to the urn and let my curious son release a smidgen of Djiedo back into the world. Djiedo lives on in places of honor—that cemetery, the John J. McKetta School of Engineering at the University of Texas, in my heart. And his legacy is set. Now it’s my time on the field. May I do honor to the name of great man and to the life I have been given.