Monday, January 21, 2019

Guest TigerBlog - The Feeling

TigerBlog has a long-standing open offer for guest entries, and Tad La Fountain ’72 has submitted a few through the years. Today he once again has the floor for a piece that is appropriate for today, Martin Luther King Day. TB will be back tomorrow, when he'll answer the "Who Am I" questions from last week. 

For today, here are some words from Tad La Fountain:

There’s a wonderful scene in “Diner” - Barry Levinson’s movie about a group of young men in Baltimore at the end of the 1950s. Like “The Big Chill” or “The Breakfast Club,” the cast included a bunch of actors who went on to successful careers; in this case: Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern, Steve Guttenberg, Ellen Barkin, Paul Reiser, Tim Daly and Michael Tucker. Like a bazillion other movies, Kevin Bacon was in the film, playing the role of Timothy Fenwick Jr. When Boogie (Rourke) and Fen are driving in what appears to be the horse country northwest of Baltimore out near the McDonogh School, Boogie spots a beautiful young woman riding her horse and waves her down. Their interaction is remarkably brief, and she rides off, leading Fen to pose one of life’s great questions: “You ever get the feeling there’s something going on that we don’t know about?”

Fifty years ago last spring, I was wrapping up senior year in boarding school when I was contacted by F. Gardiner Cox ’41. Having won the 5.5-metre sloop World Championship the previous year, a former National Intercollegiate champion while at Princeton and a member of the Intercollegiate Sailing Hall of Fame, Gardner was mounting a campaign for the Mexico City Summer Games (with Acapulco as the sailing venue). There would be extensive sail testing and one of his two crewmembers wouldn’t be available for a couple of Sundays; could I fill in? This was a bit staggering - I’d be replacing Dr. Stuart Walker, who literally wrote the book on small boat racing (which had served as my sailing bible growing up) and ended up a member of the National Sailing Hall of Fame. The bowman was Steve Colgate, veteran of a couple of America’s Cup campaigns and likewise a Hall of Famer. This was akin to a high schooler being asked to take BP with the ’27 Yankees.

I got to spend hours on the Delaware River on a beautiful 30-footer as we tried different combinations of mainsails, jibs and spinnakers while sailing against an identical boat also designed by Britton Chance, Jr. (Chance’s father had won the Gold Medal in 5.5s at Helsinki in 1952 and had a remarkable scientific career at Penn, but he also had a Princeton connection – he facilitated the enrollment of a young polio victim from a relatively modest background at the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia; Dick Fisher ’57 ended up captain of the Princeton wrestling team, later served as a Princeton trustee and capped his career by becoming CEO of Morgan Stanley). 

At one point during our trials, Steve Colgate needed to poke his head belowdecks to make an adjustment at the bottom of the mast. Since he was bowman, he had the responsibility for the line running through the end of the spinnaker pole set to the windward side (known as the guy) that controlled how far the spinnaker was kept away from the mast; as middle crew, I was tending the sheet – the line that trimmed the spinnaker in and out from the point established by the guy/pole combination. If Steve pulled the guy back too far, the spinnaker would collapse. Conversely, if he let it run out, the sail would start pulling the boat leeward instead of forward. It’s a tricky role that requires constant attention, and he could have very easily passed the guy to me. Instead, I watched in amazement as he ducked below, blind to everything going on above the deck, holding the guy behind his back. Even as he dealt with the adjustment at the foot of the mast, the spinnaker was always kept at the perfect angle. After a couple of moments, he resurfaced, and we continued as before.

I was dumbstruck. I wasn’t onboard because I was incompetent; in fact, even though I had all the cockiness of a 17-year-old who had enjoyed some substantial success in the sport, that confidence in my abilities wasn’t misplaced. But I had just been given a glimpse of a completely different level of competence, and it was both jarring and humbling. There was something going on that I clearly didn’t know about.

That 1968 was an extraordinary year has long been acknowledged. Two rivers coursing through America since the beginning of the decade - Vietnam and the civil rights movement - came together that year. Either one would have subjected the country to painful challenges; the combo plan called American society’s well-being and possibly even its existence into question.

Our Vietnam engagement has been shown to be both ill-conceived and ill-fated. We’d like to think that it at least served as an expensive learning experience (as in “Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment”), but there has been a substantial body of evidence that the educational aspect has been more honored in the breach than the observance.

The civil rights movement was (and still is) the polar opposite. It is nothing less than the manifestation of fundamental human decency and its relevance to everyone who draws a breath. Furthermore, it is inexorable – there is simply no way the species advances if groups are systematically left behind. But even though this effort is grounded in the best of our religious beliefs and is referred to in our fundamental civic documents, it has never been easy and has often come at high cost.

On June 12, 1963, World War II veteran Medgar Evers, the Mississippi NAACP field secretary, stepped out of his car in Jackson and never made it to the house for dinner. Gunned down on his driveway, Evers was assassinated with his family just feet away. After the funeral, hundreds of mourners out of the crowd of 5,000 began a simultaneous demonstration, singing “Oh Freedom” and “This Little Light of Mine.” The police charged the group, arresting 30. It appeared that a full-blown riot was inevitable. 

A lanky white man proceeded to position himself between the two groups, with each showing an itch to create chaos. He yelled to the groups “My name is John Doar! D-O-A-R. I’m in the Justice Department in Washington. And anybody around here knows that I stand for what’s right!” He then walked around and convinced the crowd to disperse, avoiding what would have been sure bloodshed.

Everyone knows the greatest basketball player to ever wear a Princeton jersey. But the greatest Princetonian to ever play basketball was John Doar ’44. Often in conjunction with Attorney General Nick Katzenbach ’43, John Doar spent years in the South consistently displaying levels of moral and physical courage that defy most of our imaginations. Repeatedly, and at key junctures, John Doar demonstrated what he stood for, and it was invariably right. For most of us, being able to lead a life of such integrity in the face of such danger was a glimpse of something going on that we just didn’t know about.

Jazz, with its Afro-Cuban roots, is the quintessential American art form. It’s not cacophony – there are rules and forms, even as lines are improvised and liberties are taken. But it’s clearly not in the European symphonic tradition, with every instrument’s part being carefully delineated. At any point, one of the players can take over the piece and be the leader. Then, solo done, the player flows back into a supporting role. The players feed off each other; they must listen to the others even as they play their own roles. It is the musical equivalent of great team play.

Watching the integration of American sports over the last 50 years or so, we’ve seen Naismith’s game taken to the streets. Two-handed set shots are now alley-oops and backhand jams. But the best ballers know when to take the solo and when to revert to the supporting role. And when we talk about “Education Through Athletics,” what we’re really talking about is developing an understanding of what is right, what we should stand for, and learning how to muster the physical and moral courage necessary to make that stand when it’s our time to solo.

April 3, 1968 – the night before he was assassinated – Dr. King told an audience in Memphis that “It really doesn't matter what happens now.” And then he went on:

“What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I'm happy, tonight.

I'm not worried about anything.

I'm not fearing any man.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

We can’t help but get the feeling there was something going on that we don’t know about. But taking a day every January to reflect on the significance of the man and the movement is both fitting and proper.

And the name of Gardner Cox’s 5.5-metre sloop? Cadenza – “a virtuoso solo passage inserted into a movement in a concerto or other work.” Sounds downright jazzy.

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