Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, April 26, 2004

Letter from California-April 27, 2004

California. What a source of material! After almost a year of writing about California every single week, I’ve never been short of a topic. I can always count on something worth writing about: either someone in the State Assembly is trying to pass a law banning ketchup or a millionaire Hollywood star has decided to go and live among the Eskimos so he can convince them they shouldn’t eat seal meat anymore.
Yes, there are plenty of crazy ideas here, and some of them make Californians seem a little foolish. That’s ok. We can take it. On the other hand, when I come across the kind of crazy idea that makes Californians look good, I love to write about that too. I’m going to explain one of these to you and then issue a challenge that I hope you’ll accept.
Would you believe that you can save the world with 50 Frisbees? There’s a man in Los Angeles named Jim Hake. He found out that some of the Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq had some ideas for things they would like to do for the local people. The problem was that these Marines didn’t have the funding to do all this great stuff, and that gave Hake an idea. What if he could raise the money to buy the stuff so that the Marines could actually do all these great projects? Would people be interested in helping?
He started Spirit of America. When different units from the Marines or the other branches have an idea for doing something to help improve the lives of the people where they are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, those units create a “request.” This request explains in detail exactly what they need and then challenges people to donate or buy those items. For example, one of the first Spirit projects was the construction of a baseball field in the Afghanistani village of Orgun-E. As the Spirit of America website says, “No one told the Special Forces soldiers” to build the field. They just saw the need and did it. Why baseball? It’s a game that doesn’t need much equipment and provided a way for the locals to get together with the Marines for a good time. Under the Taliban, sports specifically and fun generally was against the law, so getting a chance to spend a day tossing the old bean around the ballpark is like a Florida vacation to an Afghani. As Sergeant 1st Class Jay Smith said, “The things we did for the people in Orgun-E literally saved lives. Theirs and ours.” The local minister of education called baseball “a gift from the United States.” Local boy Nazim says it even better: “I like to be a player, not a fighter.” Take that, Bin Laden.
Whether you supported the Iraq war or not, everybody wants peace and stability there now. Marines stationed in Iraq are finding ways to improve lives and build bridges there too. Tune into cable news anytime and you can hear about the high unemployment and misery of Iraqis now that Hussein’s evil government is gone, so the Marines (and the SeaBees or military engineers) are training Iraqi men as plumbers, carpenters and electricians with the help of Spirit. Marines and others are building and improving schools, adding the little extras that make a difference like toys, and yes, Frisbees. If the Marines say Frisbees help them make friends with Iraqis, I’m going to reach into my pocket and buy them some Frisbees. I bought 50 myself.
Jim Hake says that shortly after 9/11, he realized that in addition to defeating our enemies, we were also going to have to build some bridges. He fronted the money to get the organization started and has asked people all over the country to take it from there. An entrepreneur in the high-tech business, Hake has nothing to gain from the effort except a sense that in this battle against the people who want to destroy us, America really is trying to make a better world.
You hear people say “Support our Troops” a lot, but sometimes I think people don’t quite know how to do that. It’s nice to hang a red white and blue ribbon from your car antenna, but if you want to support our troops and make a better world, I can’t think of a better way to do it than through Spirit of America.
So here’s my challenge to the people of Sumter. There are two Air Force chaplains in the “Sunni Triangle” village of Kirkuk, Iraq who are working hard to improve the lives of orphans and school kids. Gary Garvey and Lonnie Baker say that, “It’s not yet safe for non-military humanitarian organizations to operate in Iraq…If we don’t, who will?”
For $520, Garvey and Baker can outfit an entire classroom with writing paper, construction paper, pencils, markers and the rest. I challenge the people of Sumter to come together over the next week with enough to supply one classroom. I’ll contact Hake and let you know what you’ve given. Of course, I’ll do my part too.
Our GI’s in Iraq have realized on their own that the people who suffered under Hussein and the Taliban aren’t our enemies. In fact, they are our only hope of lasting peace.
Here’s how to donate to Spirit of America: online at www.spiritofamerica.net; by phone at 1-800-691-2209; by mail, with checks payable to “Spirit of America” with “Kirkuk” in the subject line, sent to 215 So. State Suite 1170, Salt Lake City UT 84111.
One of the very nicest guys to make it ultra-big in Hollywood is Ron Howard. You remember him, of course, as lovable carrot-top Opie Taylor and the Fonz’s nerdy friend Richie Cunningham. He’s gone on to become the director of gigantic movies like Cocoon, Apollo 13, and Academy Award Best Picture winner A Beautiful Mind. He’s a Preferred Customer with the money truck service. Everyone loves him, and he’s now a good family man with carrot-top kids of his own now. In a town where addle-brained crazies like Oliver Stone and Woody Harrelson can live like Roman Emperors, it’s heartwarming that Ron Howard is as big as any of them.
Ron Howard makes me think of Mayberry from the Andy Griffith Show. Even city slickers think about the slow, friendly rhythm of Mayberry and imagine themselves trading fresh baked pies for jars of peach preserves with their neighbors. The Main Street is picturesque and every shopkeeper is friendly, attentive, and good at what he or she does. Alas, Mayberry has vanished in America, but it’s still nice to think back to the way it was, even if today’s big-box, mega-store world can’t measure up. Ah, the memories!
Wait a minute. Let me think about those memories for a minute. I grew up in a town that should have been like Mayberry. I was a little kid just a couple years after Andy and crew signed off for good. I don’t remember Floyd the barber or Gomer the honest mechanic in my town. Instead, there seemed to be a small string of stores that sold low-quality, overpriced stuff that people didn’t want in places they didn’t want to go. Some people say that in past, the shopkeeper would bust his buttons to make sure you got your dollar’s worth and thank you for your business on the way out the door. I can’t say that didn’t happen sometimes, but it’s not how I remember it. I remember going to the Sears catalog center (where you ordered from the catalog and came back to pick it up in a few days) and ordering the same set of toy soldiers three or four times. I saved up my $11 and waited. Time and time again and they never showed up. No explanation. No one at Sears seemed to be busting any buttons to get me my little Army so I could wage whatever campaigns of conquest I had been planning. Just a long, inconvenient wait with no payoff at the end.
I also remember people in town practically throwing a parade in 1976 when Kmart opened in town.
So in a town far from Mayberry and much closer to Ron Howard’s real-life home, right here in Southern California, the citizens recently voted on whether or not to let Wal-Mart build one of its SuperCenters in their town. The town is Inglewood, and it likes to refer to itself as a “middle-class town,” but this is no Main Street USA at Disneyland. It’s a tough place, with a higher than average level of violence and unemployment.
Here are the basics of what happened. Wal-mart wanted to build a big store in Inglewood, but the city refused to issue the permits. In response, Wal-mart got enough signatures to put the question on the ballot, letting the citizens of Inglewood decide for themselves. After spending $1 million to support the measure, Wal-mart lost big, with more than 60% of voters voting against green-lighting the gigantic store.
Are you wondering why? Celebrity protester Jesse Jackson came to the town and said that Wal-mart represented racists coming to “destroy” Inglewood. I didn’t quite follow that one, but I don’t think many people follow Jackson anymore period so I don’t think that’s the reason. On top of that insanity, labor unions, like the Grocery workers, turned out in force because Wal-marts threaten their low-skilled, high-paying jobs. Instead of just saying that, of course, the unions talk about how Wal-mart will cause bad traffic, might cause pollution, and will, you guessed it, hurt Mom and Pop stores.
What I’ve always wondered, though, when I see the acres of cars parked in front of a California Wal-mart, is how someone managed to force all those headstrong Californians to go somewhere they don’t want to go. Were they hypnotized? Is there a mysterious high tech device that took remote control of their cars as they drove to Main Street to do their shopping in all those wonderful Mom and Pop stores?
Of course they didn’t. People shop at Wal-mart because they want to.
I’m sad to report that part of the reason that some Californians hate the idea of Wal-mart coming to their town so much is that down deep they don’t like imitating towns like Mayberry. Californians expect people to want to imitate us, but it’s not comfortable the other way around. It’s much easier to pretend we’re fighting for the hard-working little guy who’s doing business the good, old-fashioned way, like they did in an earlier time.
Even if in truth they only did business that way on TV.