Saturday, February 20, 2016

Some perhaps contrarian thoughts on To Kill a Mockingbird upon the passing of Harper Lee

Some Perhaps Contrarian Thoughts on To Kill a Mockingbird upon the Passing of Harper Lee
Homer Hickam

            With news of her passing, we now accept that we live in a world without Miss Nelle Harper Lee. Although sad, it won't change much for most of us. In some ways, Miss Nelle's been gone for a long time. After the dizzying success of To Kill a Mockingbird, she tucked herself away in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, and wrote no more. Yes, we heard that she occasionally made secret trips to New York, and there walked incognito through its bustling streets as some sort of literary ghost but, for the most part, she had long since gone away for reasons that only she would ever know, but about which the rest of us are free to speculate.
            My speculation is that Harper Lee became a recluse, not for any contrived purpose, but because she had an instinctive sense that to add anything to her masterpiece, even her opinions about things that had nothing to do with it, might disrupt the sense and power of the story as she told it. In effect, she allowed herself to be a blank canvas on which we could paint our own portrait of Mockingbird's author, thus not clouding in any way the text itself except in the manner in which we personally understood what it meant. Yes, yes, I am aware of Go Set a Watchman but I believe, as long as her mind was clear, Lee wouldn't have allowed that book to be published. Like most authors, I have books in my filing cabinet that require more work to get ready for publication than I think they're worth, or I have come to accept were part of my growth as a writer, their value only to me and not to my readers. Watchman, I believe, was never meant for the rest of us.
            With her passing, a ripple in time most of us will not feel beyond a vague knowledge of the fact, we are still left with that most important thing Harper Lee accomplished, the writing and publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. For years to come, academics will dissect this classic novel and try to determine why and how it is an important part of literature and where it fits in the lexicon of books that define our civilization. This is well and proper. After all, according to most of its acolytes, To Kill a Mockingbird is a brilliant book about social injustice. Perhaps, but I take a somewhat contrarian view. I think the brilliance of Harper Lee's novel was that it managed to accomplish the most astonishing and improbable deed: It made the vast majority of Americans who read it, and indeed the citizens of the world who turned its pages, come to love characters who were Southern white people.
            Ever since the Civil War, Southern white folks have been the objects of a certain amount of derision from people who reside outside the boundaries first established by the Mason-Dixon Line. Indeed, it has been perfectly acceptable, and often considered clever, to refer to and think of white Southern males as rednecks, meaning rough, angry, and bigoted, and white Southern females as belles, charming, perhaps, but ultimately vacuous. Their proclivities, amusing and frightening all at once, are evident in such matters as their outrageous affection for the Confederate flag, their tendency to be Bible thumpers, their honey-dripping mannerisms, and their general love of firearms. To those of us who were raised in the South, it's just the Southern way and certainly doesn't define our souls. To outsiders, however, our souls and even our hearts are indeed defined by these things and in a way that isn't good. Yet, in To Kill A Mockingbird, the people who embrace Southern civilization are not only good but even admirable.
             If a writer wanted to do it, I think it would seem an impossible task to write a novel that would refute the stereotypes placed upon Southerners for nearly two centuries, but Miss Nelle did it with astonishing ease. There are people out there right now who are afraid to set foot in Alabama lest they be set upon by a mob of cross-burners, and think General Robert E. Lee the worst rascal who ever strapped on a sword, and also think every southern politician is a George Wallace of some stripe. Yet, these same people swoon over Harper Lee's novel and have even been known to name their children after its characters! With her remarkable talent, she managed to make heroic the most unlikely of folks, the people of Maycomb, Alabama, the progeny of those who fought for the Confederate States of America.
            How did Miss Nelle accomplish this remarkable feat? She did it primarily by allowing her readers, as Atticus Finch recommended, to walk around the streets of Maycomb and in the shoes of its people. In Mockingbird, even the bigots are made understandable and nearly sympathetic, as when the Jewish store owner reflects about that time when the KKK came to his house only to be reminded by him that he'd sold them their sheets, thus causing the hooded mob to sheepishly slink off without doing any harm. Bob Ewell, an ignorant, perhaps incestuous creep, is presented ultimately as a victim of the society in which he was raised and, although we shed no tears when he is killed, we are made to understand his impotent rage by having to wear his ragged clothes, feel his empty pockets, and suffer beneath the grinding, pitiless pity of his white betters. In contrast, black people in Miss Nelle's world were downtrodden but psychologically the freest people in town because they were allowed to be who they were without the weight of societal opinion. After all, they already knew that opinion and couldn't do anything, good or bad, to change it.
            By resting awhile with Harper Lee on the porches of Maycomb, and watching her people go by and even entering into their company, we begin to understand their perspective, that perhaps it's best to take what life has given us, mind our own business, be brave when it counts, but not to do anything too outrageous which might upset the communities on both sides of the track. That doesn't mean, however, that we shouldn't work to lift our heads high enough to hear the angels sing. Yes, that's in To Kill A Mockingbird, too. You just have to feel between the lines.
            And that, I think, is the genius of the entire enterprise. The author of this classic novel made us feel and care for a people who, if only observed from the outside, might otherwise be thought of as nothing but cornpone racist rascals. Atticus Finch, a graduate of the University of Alabama, is noble because he acted nobly when put to the test. Before that? The jury is out. He's nice to his children, is kind to his black housekeeper, takes care of the poor whites who need his help, but we're not sure what else he believes deep in his heart past a wish, we suspect, that Alabama would win every football game it ever played. Nonetheless, when given the task to defend a black man, he takes it on even if, as we learn, it will be to the detriment of his reputation. That's why the black preacher stands when Atticus passes, not because Scout's father has defended an innocent black man, but because the preacher knows he has risked the scorn of his white peers. Atticus has heard the angels sing, although they may be far away and not exactly singing the chorus we hope we're hearing. Sheriff Tate confesses he's a bad man but he, too, lifts his head to hear the angels sing as he recommends a crime be ignored because otherwise a greater crime, this one moral and not of the law, will be committed. All of Maycomb ultimately hear the angels sing, even those miscreants who found guilty an innocent man. Through Scout's telling, we sense their shame and understand that the jurists perhaps finally understood that when they found Tom Robinson guilty, they also found themselves guilty and thus began their long, hard road toward redemption. Our personal discovery, through the tale as it is told, is that we are all on that same long and hard road, whether we are from the South or anywhere else, and thus the novel's true value.
            So goodbye, Miss Nelle, and thank you for the gift of To Kill A Mockingbird. May your novel forever remind us that people are people, even when they're not us, and that we should always try to walk around in their shoes before making a judgment about them. You have done your job, the one you were meant to do, and I trust now you are resting easy as you should.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Remarks by Homer Hickam at the Challenger Remembrance, Space & Rocket Center, Jan. 28, 2016

30 Year Anniversary Remarks
 as given by
Homer Hickam
in Huntsville, Alabama
at the USSRC Remembrance Day for Challenger
beneath the Space Shuttle Replica Pathfinder
January 28, 2016

We come here today to honor the men and women who have gone on before us, they who were lifted from the Earth 30 years ago today, they who were determined to venture into the far reaches of space, they who met with tragedy instead, a tragedy that still causes pain in the hearts of not only those of us who knew them but in all of us who believe in our future in the great beyond, the great beyond of our solar system and, yes, even the stars.

I was in Japan that day, there to train the first Japanese astronauts who were to join us in a Spacelab mission. The schedule showed that in all probability they would fly aboard one of America's sleek space shuttles, the one called Challenger.

Although I was not there, I was told it was not a normal day at Cape Canaveral. Ice was on the launch pad, icicles hung from the tower. Yet, the sky was blue, the air clean. The countdown, after days of frustration, was at last proceeding. An expectation was in the air. Challenger was going and where it would go, so would its crew and, in a way, so would we all.

The call in Japan was very early in the morning. In disbelief, I heard that Challenger had come apart in the sky. How it had happened, my caller didn't know, just that it had. Within a few days, the mission for the Japanese astronauts was put on hold for how long, we didn't know. For all we knew, it might be permanent. I came home, home to Huntsville, home to Marshall Space Flight Center, home to a shaken agency, a shaken country, a shaken dream.

As the tragedy unfolded, and we began to learn the physical causes of the accident, the national media and many elected officials kept demanding: Of what value is all this? Is it worth seven lives or even one life? Why proceed? Maybe what we should do is just give up. Maybe this was the reckoning that had always been there, the bitter fruit of an endeavor that is too much for the grasp of mere humans.

I had met all the crew and knew fairly well El Onizuka. El came up to Marshall often, to put on a space suit and venture underwater in the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator. I was often his safety diver. He was a brilliant man with a fine sense of humor. All of us at the tank liked him a lot. I also met another of the crew. Christa McAuliffe. The teacher in space. She came to the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator on a tour and I was there that day. We only shared a few words but her excitement for all things space was truly evident. She was on a mission to show school children in the country and the world the value of education, the value of exploration, the value of pushing into the high frontier.

There is a beauty in anything well done, and that goes for a life well lived. Christa lived a fine, productive life.

She was not afraid. None of them were afraid. And that was why we were and are not afraid to continue her dream which we do today.

There are many space programs in the world today. In many ways, they share the dream with us. How could they not? We are all humans. But we often forget, in our rush to be inclusive and fair, that there is something unique about any great endeavor in which Americans are part and this is especially true of the movement into space, there to explore and even live.

We represent a minority but very important view in this world of people as individuals. From our founding as a nation, we have believed that we have the natural right to be free, that no man or woman is inherently greater than another, that we do not have to accept tyranny as a way of life, that we can remake and reshape ourselves any way we like without others telling us we can't.

This outlook is actually a heavy burden. It would be easier to let someone high and mighty tell us what to do. But that's not our way. Those are not our values. When they go anywhere, even into space, often without even realizing it, our people carry with them the values of freedom, of representative democracy, of a disdain for oppression, and an overarching optimism that if the goal is important enough, it will be obtained, not by a collective following orders, but by individuals voluntarily bound together for a common goal. That is our heritage. May it ever be so.

Of course, we make mistakes. Launching Challenger that day was one of them. Seven extraordinary men and women died because those who held responsibility for their lives did not fully understand their vehicle.

Afterwards, it was not a time for heroics. It was a time for reflection and then to roll up our sleeves and get back to work. This we did at NASA, at our contractors, and especially here at Marshall Space Flight Center. When it was clear that President Reagan, God bless him, and the Congress were telling us to go ahead, the engineers at Marshall got busy. They solved the problem that caused Challenger and we began to fly again.

If they had not, if they had failed, there would have been no Hubble Space Telescope, no Hubble repair missions, no Spacelab missions which included those first Japanese astronauts and many others from around the world, no International Space Station. The ISS could not have been built without the shuttle. Those things we did but always, I think, with the Challenger and her crew on our minds.

As we come together today, in the shadow of the past and the literal shadow of this magnificent space shuttle replica, we recall a failure that was followed by the triumph of the human spirit and a series of great missions.

The temptation always is to remember those triumphs and those missions and put aside our failures but we must never forget the awful lessons of Challenger even while we dedicate ourselves anew to the high frontier.

The people who raised me in the coalfields of the Appalachian mountains were no strangers to hardship and death. But they sustained themselves by following a few simple rules of life. They said to themselves and anyone who wondered about them:

We are proud of who we are.
We stand up for what we believe.
We keep our families together.
We trust in God but rely on ourselves.

By adhering to those simple approaches to life, they became a people who were not afraid to do what had to be done, to mine the deep coal, and to do it with integrity and honor.

I believe we of NASA, we of the American space program, also adhere to those rules.

We are proud of who we are.

We not only hold the dream of space. We're doing something about it.

We stand up for what we believe.

We are not afraid to voice our belief that the future for mankind is not just here on this planet but other planets and moons and stars.

We keep our family together.

We are a family, just as sure as blood relatives. We are bound together as a family because we have a belief that what we do is not just a dream but a requirement for the survival of mankind.

And we trust in our Maker but rely on ourselves.

Yes, there is a spiritual side to what we do, a sense that there is something far greater than ourselves urging us to do what we do, to climb off this Earth and try to touch the stars. We know it's not going to be given to us. To reach this great goal, we will have to strive for it, to sweat, and, sadly, sometimes to die.

And so we find ourselves here, 30 years after Challenger, challenged by the memory of that vehicle and its crew to dedicate ourselves anew to go forth from this place with not only the latest technical marvels and the most advanced machines possible, but also with an enduring belief in the old ways, the old virtues, the old truths that all but force us to lift our heads from the darkness to the light, and say for the nation and all the world to hear:

We are proud of who we are.
We stand up for what we believe.
We keep our family together.
We trust in our Maker but rely on ourselves.

We do what needs to be done.

We are Americans. We are NASA.

We are not afraid.