Thursday, June 30, 2011

"The Tree of Life" is Terrence Malick's Masterstroke

Terrance Malik’s films have always been difficult to describe, and yet much ink and binary code has been dispensed trying to do so. The Tree of Life is just the fifth movie of his thirty-eight year career, and it appears that it is the masterstroke for which he will be most remembered.

On opening night in Nashville last Friday, the packed-out Belcourt Theater was buzzing with anticipation. After all, Malick is sixty-seven now, and this could very well be his final effort. For those who appreciate artistic expression and philosophical breadth therein, The Tree of Life is bursting with the ever-evolving complexities that make up our lives…and Life itself.

I’ve always described Malick’s style as “visual tone poems.” Hard to define, yet full of perception. Abstract, ponderous, and even audacious in its scope. You know when a film opens with portions of the 38th chapter of Job where God asks of the man’s ability (or lack thereof) to comprehend His ways, that substantive weight will ensue.

There are basically two story lines interchanging throughout The Tree of Life. First is the somewhat biographical story of filmmaker’s upbringing in Waco, TX during the 1950s and how it has haunted him into his adulthood. Simultaneously, there is much representation in stunning special effect and visual manipulation of deep space images showing the very beginnings of the universe. The wow factor is high as we see the progressive development of galaxies, then into our solar system, our planet, and the epochs that brought life here in its various stages. And even though the seventh day was set aside for rest and reflection, it apparently is not just in the past, but a still unfolding present that can cause continual awe. As the interwoven themes reach their end, it would seem clear that we are, indeed, all made up of star dust and mutually share much in common.

That is where the Everyman themes of the formation of a family anchor the piece; “hitting home,” as it were. The scenes of infancy within the Texan family are some of the most innocent yet captured on celluloid. The closest I can think of would be the excellent documentary, Babies, which came out a year ago. These waifs are completely unaware of a camera as they sleep, explore, and interact with others.

As the family grows from just Mr. and Mrs. O’Brian (played with intensity and lovely restraint by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, respectively), to three sons, it settles in around the time that the kids are aged nine, eleven, and thirteen. The eldest, Jack, begins exploring the boundaries of his will vs. his father’s, and much tension ensues. There are scenes of cruelty, overbearing discipline, and deep rage that bring forth long-lasting fear and insecurity. But there are also times of unfettered joy, camaraderie, and familial bonding that we can all recognize in the unpredictable relationships of our upbringings.

It is when death is introduced on several occasions, and the subsequent grappling with grief that is rendered over many decades that I was most moved. The bewilderment and depression generates many brief prayers—mostly in the form of questions—that are whispered over these contemplative scenes. Having lost my Father and fourteen friends over the past several years, I found myself fighting back tears at various moments that resonated deeply.

And even God can grieve. That is shown as the series of images play out. We all long for that coming back together, a unity beyond the splintered status quo.

When we see Jack as an adult (played quite pensively with very little dialogue by Sean Penn), he has developed into an even more regimented version of his dad. Equally creative, yet living in a very linear, hard-edged world of sharp angles, glass, steel, structure, and meticulous order of an architect. He has tried to control his life, and yet he is overwhelmed with a sense that there is something profound, even transcendent that must be in play for it all to make sense. He is grappling with the meaning of it all, and simultaneously trying to “break on through to the other side,” as Jim Morrison once wailed. He is longing to be free of these entanglements, and perhaps even more so, to be forgiven. There is much imagery of open windows and doorways beckoning the viewer to depart from the past, see beyond the present, and perhaps enter-in to a new perspective.

The characters tell us that there are basically two ways of understanding life: either through the lens of harsh Nature, or through the eyes of Grace. The first is represented with clutching, domination, grabbing, bitterness, confrontation, demand, uncertainty, jealousy, fighting, revenge, and arbitrary violence. The second is shown via more feminine qualities like patience, kindness, play, creativity, laughter, compassion, embraces, warm touch, reassuring forgiveness, open skies, dancing flocks of birds, light in the midst of darkness, and the wide expanse of the constantly birthing universe. Some have commented that, in essence, the father represents the Old Testament, and the mother the New Testament.

Only a few other films have been as visually evocative as this one for me: 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Koyanisqqatsi: Life Out of Balance. Both were heavy on imagery of how mankind has missed the point of the glory of creation, that our humanness is very much imbued with something much more eternal beyond the scope of our own machinations. Likewise, those masterpieces, as with The Tree of Life, do wonders with evocative scores that include music from symphonic geniuses, as well as searing stretches where no sound is proffered at all. The silence makes some of the images all the more is reverential; the moments more profound. We live in that silence, that pause between breathing-in and exhaling.

It is those contrasts that make this such an exhilarating piece of art. We are prompted--maybe even reminded--that science and religion are inextricably connected, just like doubt and faith, conflict and resolution, life and death.

In the end, the essence of The Tree of Life seems to come down to the same themes told in the oldest story known in recorded history, that of Job. Ultimately we have to release what we are holding onto that is painful and surrender to God who put everything, including us, in play.

For anyone who is ponders things beyond the stuff of earth, I highly recommend The Tree of Life to encourage your steps along the curious way.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

My Favorite U2 Story

As the excitement builds here in Nashville over U2’s July 2nd appearance (their first since playing MTSU in ’87), I’ve been reminiscing about one of my favorite concert experiences from the sixteen times I have seen this stellar band.

It was early spring of 1985, and The Unforgettable Fire Tour was sweeping across America, much like the burgeoning sales of the album of the same name. Fueled by the massive success of “Pride: In the Name of Love” on MTV and radio waves, the band’s popularity was moving well beyond the collegiate market. That single, an ode to the power of activism draped in love, was given more focus than any previous U2 song that had addressed the same theme because it was about the ideologies of a single man: Martin Luther King, Jr.

Upon arriving at the Omni Arena in Atlanta with a carload of friends from central Tennessee, I needed to verify if we were to get our backstage passes. I went to a bank of pay phones outside the coliseum to call my contact inside the building. While I was placed on hold, I turned to the person who was trying to make a call to my right. I say person, because for a few moments, I couldn’t tell if it was a girl or a guy. Wearing bib overalls, combat boots, blackened nails, heavy black eye liner, dozens of piercings about the eyebrows, nose, lips, tongue, and ears, sporting a 15 inch black-spiked Mohawk with shaved sides and tattoos too numerous to count covering neck, temples, arms, and Lord knows where else. This was one fierce looking soul.

As they were fumbling to find sufficient change, I offered a few quarters. Establishing eye contact, my gesture was met with a grunt, and the coins were grabbed out of my hand without the slightest hint of gratitude. I love to “people watch,” and was fascinated. I finally realized this was woman, perhaps early twenties, when she began to talk with the person on the other end of the receiver. I didn’t want to appear to be eavesdropping while I was still on hold—but I could tell she was vexed about something. A few times our gazes would meet, and she would glare at me as if I was representative of everything she scorned.

She was growling numerous invectives towards her caller and her circumstance, and then she was placed on hold. I asked if everything was OK, and she just frowned intensely and turned her back.

She wore her anger not only on her sleeve, but on and in her skin. I wondered if all the pain she went through to make these statements even came close to what she really felt even deeper. She didn’t have to say “I’m pissed and fuck you for noticing”…her entire being radiated it.

As I continued to wait, I thought, how on earth can anyone break through with someone this distraught with themselves and their lives? We are all given numerous divine appointments each day to show something of Christ within us to others, or for Him to reveal Himself to us through someone else. Even though this woman was a complete stranger, and she rejected my meager efforts to be kind, my heart went out to her. I prayed something along the lines of “Lord, I know you love this girl. But she sure is making it hard for anyone else to. Whatever you can do to reach her, please do it…she seems so mad at everyone, and I’m afraid she’s even angrier with herself. Please help her, ‘cause I sure know I can’t.”

Finally my band management contact got back on line, and I finished my business. The punk chick resumed her argument on the phone, and I nodded at her one final time as our eyes locked. Once again, she growled and turned around.

Upon returning to my group about twenty feet away, several mentioned they had never seen such an intense looking person in all their lives. I concurred and, to my chagrin now, condescendingly laughed that “only God could reach someone like that.”

After a great opening set from Lone Justice, U2 proved they were indeed ready for the transition from theaters to massive structures. The starkest of light shows gave all the more power to Bono’s gift of breaking down that invisible wall between performer and audience. The crowd was on their feet for the duration, bopping along, dancing, pogoing, and swaying, holding lighters aloft by the thousands during “MLK.” And singing--Lord Almighty, were we singing. Many times louder than the band’s tens of thousands of watts could produce.

The band seemed particularly energized by special guest Coretta Scott King, Martin’s widow, that evening. She had hosted them at his Peace Center and her home earlier that day. It was obvious they wanted to show her their best as a way of honoring her husband’s legacy.

Bono had flown his father, Bob, over from Dublin for this gig, too. It turned out it was his birthday, and he wanted his dad to celebrate it for the first time outside of Ireland. Bono even introduced him to the audience at the same time as Coretta King as they sat by the soundboard in the center of the hall, and they were warmly greeted by the diverse concoction that made up the gathering.

About an hour into their set, Bono shared one of the most heart-felt introductions I’ve ever heard from him:

“We are so humbled that so many of you came out to see us tonight. No one thought we could fill 4,000 seats at the Civic Center here last year; let alone what has happened tonight. We are so thankful to be this little rock band with a dream. We come from the lower middle class in Dublin, and while we’ve been so blessed with success, we know that many of our friends are still stuck in bad situations back home.”

“Take my mate, Benny, for instance. Benny was the smartest kid in our neighborhood. Good lookin’ too. He got all the girls. Funny. Even a way better singer than me. But, like so many in a country torn by political strife and an unforgiving economy, Benny just didn’t catch a break like we did. He’s been struggling with unemployment for the last few years. His confidence was shot. Benny, who had once been so full of life, was now giving in to depression…anger...resentment. He had given up hope. He started getting involved in booze, and other shit that sucks all hope out of your soul.”

“A few weeks ago, Benny had his 23rd birthday. We were all hoping it would help get him out of his funk. Unfortunately, his girlfriend gave him just enough heroine---as his gift---to kill him. This is for Benny. This is “Bad”.”

Edge began the contemplative, pulsing staccato tones that frame the building emotion of one of U2’s most powerfully empathetic songs, and Bono began the painful recollection of his friends’ plight as he sang…

If you twist and turn away
If you tear yourself in two again
If I could, yes I would
If I could, I would let it go
Surrender, dislocate

If I could throw this lifeless
Lifeline to the wind
Leave this heart of clay
See you walk, walk away
Into the night
And through the rain
Into the half-light
And through the flame

If I could through myself
Set your spirit free
I'd lead your heart away
See you break, break away
Into the light
And to the day

If you should ask then maybe
They'd tell you what I would say
True colors fly in blue and black
Bruised silken skies and burning flack
Colors crash, collide in blood shot eyes

If I could, you know I would
If I could, I would let it go

This desperation
In temptation

Let it go, uh-huh
And so fade away….

Bono’s yearning wail hearkened to those thoughts of the Apostle Paul, who longed so deeply for his readers when he claimed he’d be willing to take on their infirmities, doubts, and fears in order for them to find freedom in God’s acceptance and grace. As the song was churning upward into one of its many crescendos, Bono held his hand behind him to signal the band to bring the volume down, quietly vamping on the rhythm and chord changes as he paced the stage.

He was looking for someone—he wasn’t sure whom—but he was surveying the crowd. Many on the main floor had their arms outstretched as if to say “Me! Pick me!” He suddenly stopped his search and pointed towards a cluster of people about seventy feet from the stage and signaled for a particular person. The crowd grabbed a guy, and hoisted him up and were going to “hand pass” him over the sea of people to the stage.

Bono wildly signaled No! No!...not that one. Then pointing again as if to say Yes, THAT one! Suddenly, pushed up over the throng, I saw a spiky punk. As she was being shuttled by enthusiastic hands towards the stage, I looked at my friends down my row, and we all simultaneously said, “it’s that punk girl from outside at the pay phones!”

Once she was pushed up over the barricades onto the stage, it became apparent to everyone in the building that Bono had chosen the most undesirable person he could find. Someone that most would turn away from. Someone who would choose that alienation as opposed to being vulnerable.

As the band continued playing the throbbing riff over and over, Bono took her by the hand, meekly whispered in her ear, and then, like a complete gentleman on prom night, he began to slow dance with her—his right arm around her back, and the other holding her right arm aloft so sweetly. Slow, unhurried, tiny lock steps between the two moved them in a small circle. She slipped her arms around his shoulders and leaned into his neck. He embraced her so tenderly, and they rocked quietly back and forth to the somber beat. After about thirty seconds, it became obvious that she had started crying…her shoulders heaving, her whole body vibrating in deep sobs. She was now leaning heavily into Bono, and he kept them gently swaying.

I looked through flooded eyes at others in my row. All of my friends were crying, too. I looked behind me to see people wiping their cheeks and chins. I surveyed everywhere around, and it was the same. I looked out to the sound/light riser where Bono’s dad and Mrs. King were seated, and they were weeping and dabbing their faces with handkerchiefs. It is twenty-six years later, and I’m still reduced to tears as I type this.

That was one of the holiest moments I have ever experienced. The crowd, which had been a surging cacophony of rock celebration just a few minutes earlier, was utterly hushed—enraptured by this redemptive dance.

After perhaps another minute, Bono stopped their movement, and placed his hands on her shoulders, holding her out at arm’s length in a strong, admiring, kind gaze. Again he pulled her close and whispered into her ear. Having gotten to know Bono during those early tours, and from what I gleaned from other associates who know him well, I imagine he told her something along the lines of “You know, you don’t have to try so hard. I love you, and so does Jesus. There are others who want to love you. Let ‘em…it’ll be alright.”

He then took her hand like she was royalty, and led her regally over to the side of the stage where he instructed the stage manager to get her safely back to her seat. The charismatic singer turned to Edge, Larry, and Adam cranked his fist several times and they launched headlong back into the primary rhythm. He exclaimed with all the power he could muster, and we joined in full-throated accompaniment…

Let it go
And so fade away
To let it go
And so fade, fade, fade away

I'm wide awake
I'm wide awake
I'm not sleeping
Oh, no no

This wasn’t a dream. We witnessed God in action. We all sang along through tear streaked faces, many of us with a catch in our throat. But we did sing. I believe the Holy Spirit was so thick in the Omni that night that you could almost reach out and touch it.

God most certainly did something wonderful for that girl. I often wonder how her life changed from that point forward. As for the other 17,000 in the arena, I wonder if they are still impacted by that moment as I am.

As for me, I do know this—I will never forget how God reminded me that even the most off-hand prayer that I offer can sometimes have dramatic consequences. He wanted me to know that even half-hearted intercessions for strangers are sometimes part of the fuel needed for His redemptive energy to spark into action. I need to remember this always.

It was indeed a divine appointment that I will treasure. It causes me to be wide awake—not sleeping—in anticipation of what He can and will do if I make myself available.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Roberto Clemente: Baseball's Last Hero (A Father's Day Tribute)

When I was a wee lad, my Dad took my brother and me to baseball games at Pittsburgh’s famed Forbes Field. Built in 1909, this stadium hosted such immortal Pirates with terrific baseball names as Honus Wagner, Pie Traynor, Ralph Kiner, Elroy Face, and Willie Stargell for sixty-one years. The fabulous Homestead Grays of the Negro League also called it home in the 1940s. Even the NFL Steelers played there for thirty years.

The first of these games with my father that I really remember happened in the summer of my sixth year. We were sitting in the left field line bleachers for a Saturday afternoon game against the Milwaukee Braves. In previous visits, such culinary delights as Cracker Jack and a grape snow cone would keep me enraptured. But on this day, I remember taking a more active interest in what was happening on the field. I vividly recall Dad pointing out #44 for the Braves, saying that he was going to become the best home run hitter of all-time. Quite a prediction about a youngster who was still in his twenties. That player was Hank Aaron. My Pop knew his baseball.

When a particular Pirate came to the plate, Dad told me “watch this man, son. He really knows how to hit.” Later in the game, he pointed him out again in right field, and informed me “that fella is the best outfielder in the entire world.” I sat entranced watching him make his powerful throws to the centerfielder during between-innings warm ups, and how he made graceful “basket catches” down around his waist as opposed to above his head like everyone else. After he caught a fly-out, he would non-chalantly flip the ball underhanded 150 feet or more back to the infield. I’d never seen anyone throw it like that…and haven’t since.

At one point in the game, a Brave slapped a hard single through the hole into right field. As a base runner was rounding third base and trying for home, number 21 charged the ball with ferocity, and unleashed a cannon-shot overhand throw that was a white blur. As the catcher caught the incendiary peg, he waited a moment for the embarrassed runner who didn’t even attempt to slide--he was out by so much. Dad rose to his feet cheering, as did the rest of the throng. I instantly became a fan of the regal Roberto Clemente.

Throughout the 60s and early 70s, when he was in the quartet of the greatest outfielders of that era alongside Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, and the aforementioned Aaron, Clemente won four batting titles, eleven straight Gold Gloves for his defensive prowess, appeared in twelve All Star Games, earned an MVP award, and captured two World Series titles with the Bucs. He ended his career with exactly 3,000 regular season hits—a feat that only a handful of others had reached before him.

Roberto became my idol. I learned all I could about him. Upon hearing that he squeezed a rubber ball in his youth to strengthen his arm, I began regularly doing the same. I oiled-up my Roberto Clemente Rawlings glove the way he instructed. I used the same Clemente model thirty-six ounce thirty-four inch bat with the rounded handle just like he did…even though it was much too heavy for me until later in high school. Choking up on it was my only solution, and I learned a lot about bat control that way. I studied instant replays of his technique for charging a ball in the outfield, and how he put all of his being into those jaw-dropping rocket throws from right field to cut down runners (he had an amazing twenty-nine assists in one season alone).

Since the dimensions of Forbes Field were the largest ever of any in the major league stadium (355 feet down the left field line, 406 feet to left center, 457 feet to center--so deep that they stored the batting cage out there during games--and 390 to right center) Roberto adapted his hitting style to take advantage of those wide confines. Down the right field line was relatively short (317 feet), but there was a twenty foot wire fence above the eight foot wall, making it difficult for a right handed hitter to lift home runs over it. So, he became an expert of lining hard drives off that screen for extra base hits, or slicing screaming shots into the other gaps in the outfield. As a result, he hit an 166 triples in his career (no active major leaguer these days is anywhere near a hundred). Because Roberto hit that way, I modeled my style after that—becoming a “spray” hitter, and running the bases with wild abandon, trying to get that extra base if I could.

Many a night growing up in Columbus, Ohio, and Decatur, Illinois--hundreds of miles away from Pittsburgh--I would tune in the radio to clear channel KDKA (which could be heard in thirty-eight states and Canada) to listen to Pirate’s announcer Bob Prince and his eloquent descriptions of “The Great One.” When Roberto would stride towards the plate in a crucial situation, Prince would shout, “Arriba! Arriba!” (loosely translated ,“Let’s go, take us up!”) urging Clemente on to do something spectacular to help the Pirates’ fortunes.

I remember getting into arguments with other kids about whom the best baseball player was. I was often looked at funny because I revered this black Puerto Rican with the funny accent, as opposed to Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose, Carl Yastremski, or Johnny Bench. All great players, mind you. But because of the way I was raised, my Dad never noticed things about color or language—it was how someone carried themselves, and what they did with their lives that defined them according to how I was taught. And Roberto was the man for me.

Playing in a non-media center like Pittsburgh did not give Clemente the acclaim that he might have received otherwise. But during those two World Series in ’60 and ‘71, when the whole nation (as well as all of Latin America) was watching, he hit safely in all fourteen games, and led the Pirates to victory over the heavily favored Yankees and Orioles, respectively. In fact, he won the MVP award for the 1971 series by hitting .414, driving in or scoring most of the clutch runs, and making stalwart plays and throws out in right. It was on that stage when everyone noticed what an amazing star he was. Even women noticed him looking so dynamic and charismatic in his uniform...I dare say he was one of the most handsome men to ever play the game with his intense, brooding eyes, high cheekbones, and perfect lips. He carried himself like a proud steed, with the body of a world class ballet dancer: muscled shoulders rippling down to a narrow waist—thirty inches—the same throughout his entire career. He had powerful arms, and hands so magical they were said to have eyes in their fingertips.

The excellent biographer, David Maranis, wrote the definitive telling in Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero. It brought back so many memories of times shared with my father watching “El Magnifico” play eighteen seasons for the battling Buccaneers.

Eloquently, Maranis states: Anyone who ever saw Clemente, as he played with a beautiful fury, will never forget him. He was a work of art in a game too often defined by statistics. And though it is a great book about baseball, the author explains it is more than that: Roberto Clemente was that rare athlete who rose above sports to become a symbol of larger themes. Born near the cane breaks of rural Carolina, Puerto Rico, at a time when there were no blacks or Puerto Ricans playing organized ball in the U.S., Clemente went on to become the greatest Latino player in the major leagues. He was, in a sense, the Jackie Robinson of the Spanish-speaking world, a ballplayer of determination, grace, and dignity who paved the way and set the highest standard for waves of Latino players who followed in later generations and who now dominate the game.

Since coming to the United States in the mid-50’s, at the dawn of the civil rights era, Clemente had grown more assertive on questions of racial equality. Martin Luther King, Jr. was at the top of the list of people he admired. They had met several times, and King once spent a day talking with Clemente on his farm in Puerto Rico. When King was assassinated in April 1968, Clemente led the way in insisting that the Pirates and Astros delay opening the season in Houston until after the slain civil rights leader’s funeral. The schedule called for games in Houston on April 8 and 9. King was buried on April 9. The Pirates and Astros, at the player’s request, held off on playing until April 10.

Al Oliver (who went on to become another tremendous hitter under Clemente’s tutelage), a black teammate who considered himself one of Clemente’s disciples, said Roberto would draw him into long discussions, more about life than baseball. “Our conversations always stemmed around people from all walks of life being able to get along well, no excuse why it shouldn’t be…He had a problem with people who treated you differently because of where you were from, your nationality, your color, also poor people, how they were treated…that’s the thing I really respected about him the most, was his character, the things he believed in.”

What Clemente admired most about King was not his philosophy of nonviolence, but this ability to give voice to the voiceless. “When Martin Luther King started doing what he did, he changed the whole system of the American style. He started saying what they would’ve liked to say for so many years, but no one listened. Now that wasn’t only for black people, but all minorities. People were empowered by him. That is the reason I say he changed the whole world.”

Because Clemente had a thick Puerto Rican accent, and was often fiery in his interviews and interactions with sportswriters, many misunderstood him. Few knew what he was really like in his private time. He regularly visited sick children in hospitals in every city the Pirates played in. He gave away great amounts of money to the poor. Since he had chronic back pain most of his adult life after a car accident in 1955, he was very sensitive to those with neck and spine problems. He studied chiropractics long before it was en vogue, and helped many—even complete strangers he met—who were in pain with massages and adjustments. He did much in his native Puerto Rico to assist with programs to help young people have opportunities other than delinquency and drugs.

When Clemente went to a splashy New York awards banquet to accept the award for the Outstanding Player of the World Series Ward in October 1971, famed sportswriter Roger Kahn said “He spoke with a huge, bursting beautiful heart.” His speeches in the past few years had become sharper and more powerful. He had a specific goal, the creation of a sports city in Puerto Rico, but also a more urgent sensibility, one that he had first articulated at a speech in Houston back in February 1971, before the start of the championship season, when he received the Tris Speaker Award. “If you have a chance to help others, and you don’t, you are wasting your time here on earth,” he said that night. This line of thinking is why Roberto Clemente has stayed much more than just a childhood idol to me. He still influences me greatly.

In his final years, Clemente often quoted his mother’s favorite philosophy: “Life is nothing, life is fleeting, everything ends, only God makes a man happy.”

In December of 1972, just a few months after the last game of the season where He had collected his 3,000th hit in his final at bat, a ringing double off the left center field wall at the still new Three Rivers Stadium where they Pirates had moved a few years before, Clemente’s mythology grew greater.

He had coached some winter league games in Nicaragua that fall, and had fallen in love with the people there. When the world heard of the massive earthquake that shook the small Central American country, killing tens of thousands, and leaving scores more homeless and in dire need, Clemente sprung into action. Within a matter of days, he raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, as well as four planeloads worth of food, medication, and clothing in his homeland of Puerto Rico. After the first few shipments were delivered, and it became apparent that dictator Anastasio Somaza’s strongmen had confiscated them for their own purposes instead of letting them be distributed to the poor, Clemente determined that he needed to fly with the next load to assure that everything would be taken care of properly.

In the haste to get things done during New Year’s weekend, Clemente naively contracted an additional plane with an unscrupulous air trafficker to make the three-hour trip from San Juan to Managua. It turns out the DC-7 that was rented had mechanical problems, the captain had a terrible flight record and a history of drinking, the other crew were untrained, and to top it off, the plane was overloaded by at least ten percent.

On New Year’s Eve, 1972, at 9:18 PM, after several hours of delays trying to get various elements of the plane working properly, with Roberto’s insistence, the slipshod aircraft and crew took off. Clemente wanted to get to Nicaragua as quickly as possible to bring this aid, and to help unclog the bottleneck there, and hopefully be back home by the next evening to celebrate the holiday with his wife and three sons. The plane wheezed and groaned down the runway, barely achieving lift-off after using nearly all of the one and a half miles of concrete. Just avoiding some palm trees, it heaved and lurched out over the ocean, beginning to make the turn back towards the west, when it suddenly lost what little altitude it had gained, and crashed a mile off shore.

The skeleton staff at the airport (due to the holiday) didn’t know what had happened at first. In the darkness there was much confusion, and not enough rescue equipment to get out quickly in the rough seas. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, as later salvage operations proved that with the shredded fuselage and shrapnel-like remnants that everyone was most likely killed instantly upon high impact with the water. No bodies were ever found, most likely due to heavy shark population in that area.

Within hours, the revelry of New Year’s Eve celebrations across the island came to a grinding halt as the news spread that the great Roberto Clemente had been killed in a plane crash. By New Year’s Day, the airwaves across the America were sobered by the bulletins. I hadn’t been watching TV or listening to the radio when I got up, so I heard about it from my best friend, Duke, who called in tears to tell me around nine AM. I remember leaning against the washer in our downstairs laundry room where I took the call—stunned, and then began sobbing.

When all-star pitcher and teammate Steve Blass heard, he thought, “My God, Clemente! He’s invincible. He doesn’t die! He plays as long as he wants to and then becomes governor of Puerto Rico.” He and fellow all-star, reliever Dave Guisti, drove over to Pirates’ General Manger Joe L. Brown’s house in Pittsburgh’s southern suburbs. Brown let them in and they sat around drinking coffee, talking about Roberto, and crying. Brown says, “we recalled the depth of the man, and the intelligence of the man, and the humor of the man. Clemente never held anything back from the people. He gave them more than they had any right to expect from him. He reminded me of a panther—the grace and power of a panther. I will always remember of footage from the ’71 Series of Roberto rounding second and sliding into third, so graceful and strong, such spectacular passion. What a good man.”

On January 2nd, Hernandez Colon was sworn in as Puerto Rico’s new governor. But the proceedings were quite somber, and all the festivities that were scheduled were canceled. In his inaugural speech, Colon said of Clemente, “our youth have lost an idol and an example; our people have lost one of their glories.”

At Robert’s memorial service a few days later, nearly all of the Pirates’ players and front office staff, as well as hundreds of other baseball dignitaries and many US government officials came to Puerto Rico to honor him. Many spoke, but it was when Willie Stargell stood up, that everything came into focus. For nearly a decade, Stargell had been the other pillar on the Pittsburgh team. He towered over Clemente physically, but always looked up to him. “I’ll tell you, it’s really hard to put into words all the feelings that I have for Robby,” Stargell said, fighting back tears. “Since I’ve been with him I’ve had a chance to know a really dynamic man who walked tall in every sense you can think of. He was proud, and he was dedicated. He was in every sense what you can determine a man to be. And I think going the way he went really typifies how he lived. Helping other people without seeking any publicity or fame. Just making sure that he could lend a hand and get the job done…the greatness that he is, we all know the ballplayer that he is. For those who did not know him as a man they really missed a fine treat for not knowing this gentleman. I had the opportunity to play with him, to sit down and talk about the things that friends talk about. And I am losing a great friend. He will always remain in my heart.”

In Spanish, Clemente means “Merciful.” How fulfilling of his moniker to die while on a mission of mercy. So touched was the baseball world with his death, that he and the immortal Lou Gehrig are the only players to have the five year waiting period waived so they could be enshrined in the Hall of Fame immediately after their deaths.

In one of his final interviews, Clemente said “Even though I make a lot of money, I live the life of a common fellow. I am not a big shot. If you go outside the ballpark you are never going to see me trying to put on a show or pull attention, because that’s not the way I am. I am a shy man, but you see me with all kinds of people all the time. The only thing I worry about is being healthy and living long enough to educate my sons and help them respect other people. As long as they grow up to respect others, I will be happy.”

Thanks, Dad, for introducing Roberto Clemente to me. But, after all is said and done, it is you who taught me the most about a love for baseball, and respect for others, and social justice---Roberto just echoed it.

Here are some video tributes to Roberto Clemente:

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Keziah Singing in India

With the recent flooding along the Mississippi River valley, and the scenes of the tsunami tragedy in Japan a few months ago have had me recalling a little girl I met in India six years ago.

It was the summer following that massive tidal wave that swept across so many countries that share shorelines along the Indian Ocean. We were on the southeast coastline about an hour outside of Chennai in the fishing village of Ernavor.

A little five-year-old orphan named Keziah (ironically, after one of Job’s daughters), who couldn’t have been more than three feet tall, was decked-out in her Sunday best outfit, and proudly let us know that she wanted to sing for us. Even though the primary language of the area is Tamil, she informed us that she had been teaching herself English. I took her into a quiet office away from all the joyous clatter of several hundred other youngsters so we could hear her tiny little voice. Lisa Landis, from WJTL in Lancaster, PA decided to pull out a recorder in hopes that it might be something neat.

With about as wonderful pitch as you could expect from such small child, she sang “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” “The B-I-B-L-E,” and “Showers of Blessing” more sweetly than I could ever imagine an angel. Lisa and I looked at each other with tears in our eyes—not only because of the beauty of it, but the irony of it all.

You see, on that Sunday morning the day after Christmas in 2004, Keziah’s parents had dropped her off at her grandmother’s home about two miles inland so they could get some focused work done on his fishing boat. They, like the other 7,000 folks in that sleepy town had no idea what was racing across the horizon in their direction. Estimates from eyewitnesses who survived were that the initial wave was fifty feet high, and traveling as fast as 200 miles per hour. Since they were most likely in the harbor when it hit, they had no chance. They were never found, their boat was reduced to splinters, and their humble little two-room shack was vaporized by the wall of water.

Over the next few months, her grief-filled grandmother heard about a program to help children with great needs at the Wesley Center, a Compassion project based in a small Methodist church. The morning of the tsunami, the water had come to within twenty feet of the front door and then began receding. Keziah was enrolled right away, and within a week, she had a sponsor from Australia. Additionally, the pastor and his wife, Dipak and Ananda, were so taken with the spirit of this little orphan during that first semester, that they asked her grandmother if they would be allowed to adopt her. Granny said yes, and they even extended much love and help to the aging woman as their relationship has unfolded.

On top of all that, Keziah decided she wanted to accept the gift of grace in Christ as she was seeing His love carried out in such loving ways all around her. Not only had she received much, but many others in that village had seen the church as a verb after that horrific disaster. We met many who were so grateful that Compassion, through this local fellowship, had blessed them with a rebuilt homes, new aluminum fishing boats, new nets, new clothes, and much food and clean water while they tried to get back on their feet. Many of these families, once Hindu and Muslim, now embraced Christ because they saw His body in action, and were touched deeply by the outpouring of care that came without condition their way.

So as this bubbly little soul poured her heart out in song for us, it was more than a show being put on for these foreigners…it was a heartfelt and joyous expression of gratitude.

I’ll never forget her singing. We were able to record two of her renditions, and you can hear them here:

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Meditations on the Muse

While spending a few days this week with Kerry Livgren, who has to be one of the most musical people I have ever been blessed to know, I have pondered the gift that is music. Here are various thoughts on the same from others. Let me know which ones resonate with you…

A painter paints pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence. ~Leopold Stokowski

Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. ~Berthold Auerbach

Without music life would be a mistake. ~Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

Take a music bath once or twice a week for a few seasons. You will find it is to the soul what a water bath is to the body. ~Oliver Wendell Holmes

If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music. ~Gustav Mahler

Why waste money on psychotherapy when you can listen to the B Minor Mass? ~Michael Torke

Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness. ~Maya Angelou

Were it not for music, we might in these days say, the Beautiful is dead. ~Benjamin Disraeli

Music is what feelings sound like. ~Author Unknown

If I ever die of a heart attack, I hope it will be from playing my stereo too loud. ~Anonymous

There's music in all things, if men had ears:
Their earth is but an echo of the spheres. ~Lord Byron

Musical compositions, it should be remembered, do not inhabit certain countries, certain museums, like paintings and statues. The Mozart Quintet is not

shut up in Salzburg: I have it in my pocket. ~Henri Rabaud

Music is the poetry of the air. ~Richter

There is nothing in the world so much like prayer as music is. ~William P. Merrill

Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life. ~Ludwig van Beethoven

Life can't be all bad when for ten dollars you can buy all the Beethoven sonatas and listen to them for ten years. ~William F. Buckley, Jr.

Music is the wine that fills the cup of silence. ~Robert Fripp

Music's the medicine of the mind. ~John A. Logan

Music is the universal language of mankind. ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Outre-Mer

He who hears music, feels his solitude peopled at once. ~Robert Browning

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent. ~Victor Hugo

Music has been my playmate, my lover, and my crying towel. ~Buffy Sainte-Marie

Music is the art which is most nigh to tears and memory. ~Oscar Wilde

Its language is a language which the soul alone understands, but which the soul can never translate. ~Arnold Bennett

Music expresses feeling and thought, without language; it was below and before speech, and it is above and beyond all words. ~Robert G. Ingersoll

Music is the literature of the heart; it commences where speech ends. ~Alphonse de Lamartine

When words leave off, music begins. ~Heinrich Heine

Music is the shorthand of emotion. ~Leo Tolstoy

A jazz musician is a juggler who uses harmonies instead of oranges. ~Benny Green

Silence is the fabric upon which the notes are woven. ~Lawrence Duncan

Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without. ~Confucius

Music is love in search of a word. ~Sidney Lanier

It is incontestable that music induces in us a sense of the infinite and the contemplation of the invisible. ~Victor de LaPrade

Music is moonlight in the gloomy night of life. ~Jean Paul Richter

I worry that the person who thought up Muzak may be thinking up something else. ~Lily Tomlin