- Glenn Sonnenberg
Musings from the Bunker 10/13/20
The other day I bumped into Jay Wintrob, a friend since our high school days in Anaheim. He suggested that the Musings need “just a little bit more of Anaheim …” This comment had us chuckling in the shared humor of the small, some might say backward, town in which we grew up. Anaheim in the 70s was decidedly “middle class surburbia,” a place where not much really happened and the biggest things in town were Disneyland, the Angels, the beach, and an unusual preoccupation with the space program (aerospace was one of the major employers). It was, as George Lucas would say, “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” It was a place of blissful ignorance of the larger world.
Anaheim in the 70s was not a particularly politically correct era and it was a particularly naïve era. In Junior High School, right after “dirty jokes” in popularity were “Pollock jokes.” It wasn’t until college that I made the connection that “Pollocks” was a pejorative for people of Polish extraction (see, I said we were naïve). And yet, as much as Orange County gets a bad rap for being a hotbed of bigotry and antisemitism, I saw little of either. I grew up in a neighborhood dominated by Catholics and Mormons. We were one of a very few Jewish families. My dentist was Armenian. Many friends were Latino. But I don’t recall a joke or an expletive associated with any of these minorities.
Here are two stories from the 70s…
During my senior year, our high school put on a “Senior Follies,” in which classmates showed off their talents. The acts generally fell into two categories. The first was artistic and the second was comedic (or at least the performers thought they were funny).
But one of the most memorable acts had to be when someone impersonated the great Louis Armstrong. The kid was pretty good. But to complete the effect, he painted his face black. Needless to say, I shudder when I think about it. It’s crazy to think that it didn’t register as wrong at the time. Not a single teacher or administrator stopped to question the appropriateness of this performance. Through the benefit of hindsight, this obviously was wrong.
It is fortunate that this guy, who innocently performed some 40+ years ago, didn’t have aspirations to public office, didn’t pursue a career in education, and never became a corporate bigwig. If he had, he would probably be in a lot of trouble right now. Because in the culture in which we live he would be ritually shamed and publicly humiliated. He might be the subject of hate mail or on-line trolling. He might even lose his job. For something he did when he was 16 years of age, without, I believe, any bad intention.
We are in a complicated moment in history. It is clear that bad behaviors should be called out. But it seems there should be some sort of “statute of limitations,” whereby we forgive the foolish acts of adolescents, while calling out adults who should be held accountable. At some point, we will begin to establish degrees of culpability and severity of wrongful acts. It’s wrong to shoplift a pack of gum and it’s wrong to hold up a bank and take hostages. But they are different crimes.
This desire to shame those who made questionable decisions way back when manifests itself in various insidious ways. Sometimes behaviors of today that may not seem particularly sinister are called into question. For instance, the author of American Dirt, a novel centered around Latino characters, was both highly reviewed and summarily dismissed as cultural appropriation. I don’t want to recap the sad story of this book and the author’s canceled book tour (she is not a Latina). But I’ll quote Oprah Winfrey, who was asked to rescind her designation of the book for “Oprah’s Book Club”:
“If one author, one artist is silenced, we’re all in danger of the same. I believe we can do this without having to cancel, to dismiss or to silence anyone.”
Going forward, it will be a delicate balance. We are going to have to learn to call out behaviors while at the same time putting them in perspective and learning to forgive others for what they have done—not only in the distant past but even in the recent past. In doing so, however, we must be vigilant to acknowledge that racism exists and that where it thrives it must be ferreted out.
I sometimes wonder what this fellow from my high school thinks about when he considers his performance. Does he regret his actions? Is he mortified? Is he fearful that people might find out and his career could be ruined? Or does he even think about it at all?
WHEN HIJINX WERE OKAY
Today we would be suspended from school for many of the pranks we pulled in high school, maybe even charged with a crime. Today we’re a little too serious. Yesterday, perhaps not serious enough. But at the time it was all innocent fun and no one was hurt.
Our high school mascot was “Sammy Saxon.” It was the week before our Homecoming football game and my friend Glenn Raines (or as our Vice-Principal described him variously, “your little friend,” “your partner in crime” or “the other guy”) came up with the crazy idea that we should hire a helicopter and land it on campus, with Sammy Saxon coming out in his regalia to the music of our band and the accolades of an adoring student body.
So we took money out of our bank account of earnings from various fundraisers (an account held in my name, so we could spend it on our frivolities, without the interference of the administration—another misdeed). We hired the pilot and we went through with our plan. Once everything was in place and Glenn was airborne, I was called to the principal’s office. Mr. Lindell was not happy. When he asked “where is your friend, Mr. Raines?”, I responded, like the mouthy kid that I was, “well, right about now he’s probably over Anaheim Stadium.” At this point, the principal looked one of those cartoon characters whose face turns various shades of red and his veins seemed to pop out. When, in the midst of this talk, a friend interrupted class with an announcement on the public address system, it was all he could do to contain himself.
Then a lifeline was tossed our way in the midst of his tirade about how the suspensions that would follow. The Vice-Principal (known affectionately as “the Sergeant”) chimed in that she knew of everything all along and approved of this activity. That was a lie. But she covered for us and instructed me to head out to the football field for the festivities. Lesson learned. Rules are made to be bent. No harm done… I’m pretty sure this would not have been the result in today’s hyper-sensitive environment but back then it was taken for what it was—youthful stupidity. Our Vice-Principal could hardly cover up her grin as she whispered, “have fun!”
There you go, Jay, “just a little bit of Anaheim.”