Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Price of Free Speech

Photo Credit: F. T. Rea (2005)

by F. T. Rea

Given that in Richmond the proper meaning of the words and deeds of Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) is still hotly debated, the stately Lee Monument has been a lightning rod of sorts over the years, as well as a tourist attraction. On a pretty morning five or six summers ago a curious commotion was underway about the statue's pedestal. About 25 adults were milling about purposely; some were propping large posters against the monument itself. Upon closer examination the posters proved to be pro-life propaganda. It was the same sort of designed-to-disgust material displayed relentlessly by demonstrators outside the Women's Clinic on the Boulevard for years.

So, why would anti-abortion activists be rallying in the shadow of a piece of heroic sculpture that fondly remembers a Confederate general mounted on his horse? Baffled, this scribbler's curiosity got the best of him.

To get a better look, I continued walking toward the proceedings. In response to my inquiry it was explained they were there to picket an “abortionist” with an office in the medical office building, just across the street. Well, OK... Then, with that mission accomplished, the group had opted to take some keepsake photographs, using the oldest of Monument Avenue's statues -- it was dedicated in 1890 -- as a backdrop.

Standing next to identical placards displaying a blown-up depiction of a bloody fetus -- at first it looked like an undercooked hamburger that had fallen off the grill -- they posed with easy smiles; it could have been a company picnic or a class reunion.

On a one-to-ten scale, in the Absurd Postmodern Juxtapositions category, this business was easily a nine. Old General Lee -- whose view on abortion is not widely known -- he did not flinch.

A year or two before this morning a group of a similar ilk had set itself up on the grassy, tree-lined median strip, a half-block to the east. On this occasion they were there to use the funeral of Associate Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church to suit their purpose. Along with a large contingent of the working press and dozens of uniformed police officers, they waited for the funeral underway to end.

Inside the church Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist delivered the eulogy, “...[Powell] was the very embodiment of judicial temperament; receptive to the ideas of his colleagues, fair to the parties to the case, but ultimately relying on his own seasoned judgment.”

Outside the church the eager TV crews had their cameras and microphones at the ready. The patient cops had their night sticks and side arms close at hand. The lathered up news-makers brandished their oozing fetus signs and posters citing Powell as a “murderer.”

When Powell’s family, friends and Supreme Court colleagues came outside, following the service, they had no choice but to notice the demonstration before them. Lenses zoomed in to focus on their stunned reactions.

As a longtime admirer of Lewis Powell, when I saw that one of the ranting pro-lifers was wearing a clerical collar, my curiosity got the best of me then, too. So I walked over to ask him something like -- was he really a man of the cloth, or was it just a shirt?

Taking umbrage, he fired back at me something about Powell having killed millions of babies. I had to assume he was referring to Powell’s role in the famous Roe vs. Wade decision. Asked what that had to do with forcing the dead judge’s family look at his gross placard, the sweaty zealot huffed and puffed. Instead of answering the question he repeated the same blustery charge against Powell.

There you have it -- free speech isn’t always pretty. In practice, the first amendment means we all have to take turns putting up with people who seem twisted, even mean, to us.

It’s difficult to imagine the demonstrators at Powell’s funeral changed any minds on the abortion issue by creating such a disturbing sight in the middle of the street. No, I’d say they were chiefly interested in venting their collective spleen and dealing out some payback. They weren’t there to persuade. They were there to punish and strike fear in the hearts of anyone who dares to rub them the wrong way.

Still, in our optimistic and open society, we are supposed to be obliged to allow for such venting. Let’s not forget that popular speech has never needed much protection at any time in history.

OK, that’s the price of free speech. Pose however you like next to the statue of old General Lee, astride Traveler. Wear funny costumes and bring props, if you like. Short of what might constitute an assault, it’s your right. Lee won’t flinch, even if I do.

* * *

Baseball on the Boulevard

by F. T. Rea

If the Richmond Braves do abandon their current baseball stadium on Richmond’s North Boulevard to play home games in another part of town, or perhaps another city, no doubt, some local fans will grumble. Others will shrug it off and be content to reminisce about favorite memories set at Parker Field (which was demolished in 1984), then The Diamond, which replaced the former in 1985.

Parker Field, which opened in 1954 to serve as home for a new minor league club -- the Richmond Virginians -- once seemed to be no less than a baseball temple to this scribe. At seven I began going to games there with my grandfather. Eagerly, I breathed in the magic in the air, especially stories told about legendary players and discussions on the strategy of the game. When my grandfather and I cheered the clutch hits and acrobatic plays we witnessed, and we rose for the seventh inning stretch, and we always stayed until the final out, I took comfort in being enveloped in the game’s lore and traditions. Naturally, we pulled for the home team, the pinstripe clad Virginians, or V’s, for short.

As I got older I went to Parker Field with my friends. We usually took our baseball gloves with us to the games. I still have my glove from that time -- a Nakona (Don Mossi model), which was purchased at Harris-Flippen (then at 6th and Main).

As the V’s were the New York Yankees’ International League (AAA) farm club, in those days the Bronx Bombers paid Richmond an annual visit in April. Just before Major League Baseball’s opening day Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and the other great Yankees of that era played an exhibition game -- a dress rehearsal -- at Parker Field vs. the V’s. It was always a standing-room-only affair.

After the 1964 season the V’s left to become Mud Hens (of all things!) in Toledo. Then in 1966 the Richmond Braves arrived. A few seasons before Parker Field’s wooden stands were removed, to allow for the current setup, I attended an evening ballgame with my daughter, Katey. We went as guests of neighbors who had comps from a radio station (WGOE-AM).

To Katey, at seven-years-old, the bright lights were dazzling. The roar of the crowd was exhilarating. Nonetheless, by the middle of the game she was getting tired of sitting still and baseball’s charm was wearing thin. During the sixth inning I tried to entertain her by telling her more about baseball, about seeing the one and only Satchel (“Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you”) Paige pitch from that same mound when I was a kid, not much older than her, and so forth.

It didn’t help. Soon rambunctious Katey was climbing across seats, again, and this time she knocked an unlucky fan’s tub of beer into his lap.

As the visitors began their turn at bat, in the top of the seventh inning, I felt obliged to rein Katey in, so, I got a sudden inspiration and subsequently asked whether she’d like to be in on a magic trick which would move everybody in the stadium.

Of course she did. I pulled her in close to whisper my instructions: The gist of it was that she and I -- using our combined powers of parapsychology -- were going to telepathically will everyone to stand up at the same time.

Katey was thrilled at the mere prospect of such a feat. Next, I told her to face the on-going game, close her eyes, and begin concentrating. After the visiting team made its third out, I cupped my hand to her ear to remind her that we both had to think, over and over, "stand up, stand up…"

As baseball fans know, when the home team comes to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning of every game, the spectators get up from their seats, ostensibly to stretch their legs. It’s a longtime tradition known as "the seventh inning stretch." There’s a mention of the practice in an 1869 report about a game played by baseball’s first professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings.

When Katey turned around, and opened her blue eyes to see thousands of people getting on their feet, it was pure magic in her book. Maybe baseball was boring but magic wasn't! No one in the group gave me away when Katey breathlessly recounted what we had just done. She wanted to recreate the stunt in the eighth inning, but I somehow distracted her from that notion. As I remember it, though, she stayed true to her word and was quite well behaved the rest of the game.

Years would go by before Katey came to understand what made for the magic that night. And, today, I still have a pair of those old wooden general admission seats from Parker Field (third base side). Those artifacts were gathered firsthand, 21 years ago, after the last baseball game played at Parker Field.

The first International League game was played in Richmond in 1884 (supposedly, at a ballfield somewhere near Stuart Circle). And, now the 40th season for the R-Braves playing baseball on the Boulevard is about to end.

Who knows? After all the runs, hits and errors, since 1954 maybe there’s a trace of magic still in the air over that baseball park. If history is any help, should the R-Braves pack up and leave they will be replaced. And, I suspect it would happen quickly. The game will go on, one way or another, and each one will surely have a seventh inning stretch.

-- 30 --

Friday, August 26, 2005

Days of May

Richmond writer/musician Travis Charbeneau, an occasional contributor to SLANT over the years, has penned a new novel called "Days of May." Much of the action is set in 1968, a year of rapid-fire, momentous events that probably rocked the Baby Boomers' world like no other, before or since.

Of this recently completed work author Charbeneau says, "I started a novel many years ago, 'Days of May,' in which an aging hipster encounters his misspent youth -- 1968 to be exact -- 20 years after the misspending. By 1988, the current roll back the clock mindset was already well-established, and our hero suffers from crushing disappointment, divorce and drug abuse. The plot naturally includes sex, drugs; rock and roll -- even some violence during a Paris riot -- but can't escape a spiritual subtext: is there any power in goodness?"

Click here to read a review at

Monday, August 22, 2005

Beware the Unkempt

You Make the Call in Monroe Park:
Hobo, Terrorist or Babe?

There have probably been hobos and winos congregating in Monroe Park since who-knows-when, maybe even the Reconstruction Era? No doubt, property-owners and business people in that neighborhood have been plotting to run that same ilk off ever since. Over the years such efforts have met with little lasting success.

Now VCU has adopted that green space, Richmond's oldest public park. And, perhaps a government terrorist alert from the US Attorney's office has just revealed a strategy the university might use to sweep Monroe Park clean of the homeless, er, terrorist elements that lurk there.

Here's a preview of the AP story about that alert: "The warning is similar to one issued by the FBI before July 4, 2004 that said terrorists may attempt surveillance disguised as homeless people, shoe shiners, street vendors or street sweepers. The e-mail stresses that there is no threat of an attack and that it is intended to be 'informative, not alarming.' Homeless people easily blend into urban landscapes, the message said."

Click here to read the rest.
(Credits: Model -- Brett Lewis. Photo -- F. T. Rea)

The Bounce

The ACC Divisions

Ordinarily preseason college football polls don't interest me much. This year is an exception because it's the first time the expanded-to-12-members Atlantic Coast Conference will play with two divisions -- the Coastal and the Atlantic. Here's a look at which school is where and how the experts see their relative strengths as we approach the 2005 season. First place votes are in parenthesis.

Coastal Division
1. Virginia Tech (62)
2. Miami (29)
3. Virginia (1)
4. Georgia Tech
5. North Carolina
6. Duke

Atlantic Division
1. Florida State (65)
2. Boston College (24)
3. NC State (2)
4. Clemson (1)
5. Maryland
6. Wake Forest

The Best in the Business

Grizzled baseball manager Bobby Cox is almost too good to be true. Perhaps more than any player, Cox keeps my love for Major League Baseball alive in an age plagued by tacky off-the-field issues.

So, if your taste runs toward stories about steroids, contract renegotiations and celebrity gossip, do yourself a favor and skip the rest of this piece.

With 13 division titles in a row in hand -- a feat that sets the standard for any major sport -- at this writing Bobby Cox, who walks like he’s stepping on tacks, has his Atlanta Braves atop the tough National League East by four games. It’s August and once again you can forget most of what the Braves-bashing pundits told you in April.

This season Cox has been forced by injuries to a long list of supposedly irreplaceable starters to put bunch of untested young players called up from the minors -- can you believe 21-year-old outfielder Jeff Francoeur? -- into his lineup. That, after losing key performers from last year’s squad in the off-season and starting the 2005 season shaky veterans in the outfield corners. Not to worry, the ever patient Cox adjusted and just kept on finding ways to win baseball games.

Cox, who wore a Richmond Braves uniform as a player in 1967, is often criticized because Atlanta has won only one World Series during its run of 13 divisional titles. But it says here, especially with baseball, winning over an entire season is more of a true test of a team’s mettle than how it does in any given best-of-seven postseason series. That isn’t to say the two tiers of playoffs and World Series aren’t compelling entertainment, at times, but in the long history of baseball the better team has failed to win the World Series many a time. For instance, the 1954 Cleveland Indians went 111 and 43 in the regular season, only to be swept by the New York Giants (97-57) in the Series (there were no playoffs in those days.)

As unfamiliar as some of the names in box scores for Atlanta games have been this season -- due to all the rookies -- the name that still counts the most remains that of Bobby Cox.
(Bobby Cox Illustration: F. T. Rea)

-- 30 --

Friday, August 19, 2005

Ignoring the Heat

Columnist Richard Reeves weighs in on the effect of August's humidity and off-season politics:

"'I know what they want to say,' [President Bush] says, and he is quite right. We want to say that he is repeating 19th-century British imperial history, and that he had better figure a way to get our troops out of Iraq before we don't have any real troops left.

"By 'real troops,' I mean highly trained young men and women, not prison guards and volunteer firemen in their 40s. Bush is in the process of destroying the American military. I wanted to cry for the beloved country when all those Marines were killed two weeks ago traveling across the desert in a lightly armored amphibious troop carrier. Why are Marines, trained as assault troops, being used as an occupying army and military police?"

Click here to read the entire column.

A Peace Movement At Long Last

Georgie Anne Geyer's commentary on the Peace Mom phenomenon set in motion by Gold Star mother Cindy Sheehan in Crawford, Texas is a bulls-eye:

"But the biggest reason behind Cindy Sheehan's lightning effect on the country is that she has been saying -- with her actions, gestures and intonations, if not exactly in words -- what has been left deliberately unsaid in America until now: That the war in Iraq is useless, and that all those Americans who died or were wounded there died and suffered in vain. That Iraq is not and never was a war that America needed to fight, but that it was an adventure on the part of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith and the rest. And that it still could end horribly. This is frankly unbearable to most Americans, even now."

Read the piece.

The New Rosa Parks?

This has to be what propaganda master Karl Rove has most feared -- a timely anti-war statement with the simplicity and power to launch a movement. I think Cindy Sheehan may well have done that with her much-publicized Crawford, Texas vigil.

Now other parents are following: "'We feel you either have to fight this war right or get out,' Rosemary Palmer, mother of Lance Cpl. Edward Schroeder II, said Tuesday. Schroeder, 23, died two weeks ago in a roadside explosion, one of 16 Ohio-based Marines killed recently in Iraq. The soldier's father said his son and other Marines were being misused as a stabilizing force in Iraq.

"The couple applauded Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a fallen soldier who has camped out in protest near Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, for bringing the war to the public's attention. 'We consider her the Rosa Parks of the new movement opposing the Iraq war.'"

Read the AP story.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Where's the Money?

By way of the Freedom of Information Act the busy boys at Save Richmond have finally gotten to look at the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation’s bank accounts. To say these watchdogs have to be pleased with themselves over this development is probably an understatement along the lines of saying Boston fans were pleased when their Red Sox eliminated the New York Yankees in the playoffs last season.

For readers who’ve been following the developing story of Mayor Wilder’s peeling of the VAPAF onion, a visit to Save Richmond's web site will allow for some interesting reading. Here are excerpts of a July 29 post by Andrew Beaujon:

"VAPAF lists two accounts, a First Market Bank one that holds $759,333 and a BB&T Scott & Stringfellow account in the name of the Carpenter Center that holds $717,575, for a total of $1,476,908. We happen to think that’s laughably small for a group that:
  • Is proposing a $98 million project (that will probably cost a lot more)
  • Claims to have raised $68.8 million
  • Has spent $21 million without a single brick being laid.
VAPAF CEO Brad Armstrong
(Photo Credit: F. T. Rea)

VAPAF has a twice-monthly payroll of $38,688.50. Of that, CEO Brad Armstrong receives $11,691.50 every two weeks (excuse me while I weep on my desk). His salary, which comes to $280,000/year before benefits, accounts for 30 percent of VAPAF’s payroll. This is especially interesting since Brad has claimed in the past that “not a penny” of his salary was paid by public money. Seeing as the VAPAF has only one account to pay for both construction and staff, and it’s taken in tens of millions of dollars in public money so far, we can only speculate that VAPAF Chairman of the Board Jim Ukrop instructed the dollar bills in the foundation’s account to separate themselves from one another by provenance, in an orderly fashion. The funds are commingled, the balance is this low, and still we’re supposed to believe Brad’s outrageous compensation isn’t coming from we, the Richmond taxpayers? Puh-leeze.

Our repeated warnings that council was mistaken to allow a group with no cash to rip a hole in the most visible part of the city went unheeded. Now VAPAF depends on fancy accounting and “value engineering” in its bank accounts to stay afloat.

...And we think that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to VAPAF’s arrogance, wastefulness and ineptitude. Yeah, it would be great to have an arts center downtown. But as we asked before, why on earth are regular Richmond folks paying VAPAF to make such a mess of this dream?"

With nothing but bad news leaking out of the VAPAF, Mayor Wilder’s administration has finally pulled the plug on the whole shebang -- issuing a Stop Work Order that will keep the Carpenter Center from being ripped open for the sake of continuing to follow a fizzler of a zillion dollar plan that seems to be coming undone before our eyes. And, get this -- it turns out the VAPAF couldn't be bothered with getting a few required inspections, allowing its construction permit to expire.

Oy Vey! Is it too soon to start using the word “scam” to characterize that so-called plan?

Don't be surprised to see a SWAT team seizing VAPAF computers and such next. With all this happening in lazy August, a sun-baked month usually known for it’s lack of political news, the VAPAF may well become an interesting hot-potato issue for the local and statewide campaigns to deal with after Labor Day.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Modern Terrorists Are Not What We Have Supposed

OpEd column Hall-of-Famer Georgie Anne Geyer has been writing some of the sharpest analysis of international affairs routinely since the 1960s. Here's an excerpt of a real-time reality the Bush gang can't be happy about facing:

"The common belief here in Washington, repeated over and over, was that the jihadis, suicide bombers and violent radicals we have found ourselves up against were, first, all Arabs and, second, from the dregs of Arab and Islamic societies. All they had to lose were lives that weren't worth living, anyway. Then came the London subway and bus bombings on July 7 and July 21, and what did we find?

"... a database of jihadis drawn up by Marc Sageman, formerly of the CIA, showing that about 75 percent of anti-Western terrorists are from middle- or upper-middle-class homes, that 65 percent have some college experience, and that three-quarters have professional jobs, excelling (my Gaza experience, again) in science and engineering."

Click here to read the Geyer piece.