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Slow Miracles – Published in the Providence Journal

BY JIM RAFTUS
jraftus@aol.com
Last week, on Patriots’ Day, I was standing amidst a group of family and friends at mile 19.5, in Newton, waiting to cheer on my niece, Kathy Raftus Wilder, who was running her first Boston Marathon. In separate conversations with two women, one 30 and another in her early 40s, I recalled how, in 1967, a race official named Jock Semple literally pulled Katherine Switzer off the course because women were not allowed to race. Both young women I was talking to, intelligent and successful, were astounded to hear the story.
This year, there were 16,107 women runners out of 35,755 participants. I consider this a huge evolution within my lifetime, a sort of slow miracle. It made me think of other slow miracles over my 67 years.
Most people picture miracles as events that transpire relatively quickly: Jesus changing the water into wine at a Canaan wedding or Moses parting the Red Sea. Or, on a more secular level: Mike Eruzione scoring the winning goal to beat the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics for the “Miracle on Ice” or Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landing Flight 1549 on a river, saving 155 lives in the “Miracle on the Hudson.”
I believe that slow miracles do exist. Not taking the time to notice and savor them robs a person of a great sense of optimism and faith.
On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to move to the “colored” section of a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala. On Nov. 4, 2008, Barack Obama was elected president.
No matter what a person’s political ideology, there can be no denying this miraculous shift in understanding and acceptance. This was a long, slow miracle that needed the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act and many other acts of courage to evolve. Of course, it would be naïve to say racism is a thing of the past, but within my lifetime we have moved from government-sanctioned segregation to having a black man in the Oval Office. A slow miracle.
In the 1970s, only 23.7 percent of cancer patients survived at least 10 years. By 2007, that had risen to 45.2 percent. In specific cases, such as prostate cancer, the increases for the same time frame rocketed from 20 percent to 70 percent. The work of places such as the Dana Farber Center, in Boston, and the efforts of organizations such as the Jimmy Fund and many other charities has prolonged the lives of millions who in the past had little hope. While this disease still inflicts turmoil and heartbreak on far too many lives and families, the progress toward stemming the cause continues. This is a still-evolving slow miracle to be savored.
As my niece, Kathy, approached her large, cheering clan at the 19.5 mile mark, her 5-year-old daughter, Erin, held up a handmade sign that read, “Go, Mom.”
Kathy beamed as she spotted us, gave high-fives all around, hugged Erin and continued on for seven more miles, to be greeted by another family contingent at the finish line. As 16,106 other women passed by us, another slow miracle came to mind.
Women in the United States could not vote until 1920. During my early primary and secondary school days in the 1950s, girl classmates were shepherded to continue their education, if at all, at Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School, the Rhode Island Normal School for Teachers or nursing school. This could, and did, lead them to honorable careers, but in hindsight there was an almost institutionalized limitation on higher aspirations. All the talk of future doctors, lawyers and scientists seemed directed toward the boys in the school.
Now, thanks to efforts such as the Equal Pay Act of 1960, the Equal Rights Amendment of 1972 and heroic attempts by women’s groups and their male supporters to make these resolutions realities, not just words, parity, while not yet achieved, is at least in viewing range.
There are currently 20 women in the Senate, the highest number in history, and three women serve as Supreme Court justices. There are finally some female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies. Now, 58 percent of college undergraduates are women.
Our niece Kathy ran her first marathon as part of a project called “Dream Big!,” which raises funds to provide sports equipment and opportunities for young girls living in impoverished areas. Kathy raised nearly $14,000 through her efforts and contributions by others.
When I looked at her daughter holding that sign, all I could think was, “Go, Erin.”
There are miracles slowly blooming all around you. Spend your life embracing them.
Jim Raftus (jraftus@aol.com) is a retired marketing director who lives in Cumberland. jraftus@aol.com

Conflict vs. War – Published in the Providence Journal

BY JIM RAFTUS
Now we are dropping bombs and exploding missiles in Syria to diminish the radical group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Thirteen years after 9/11, we have entered a new area of the Mideast quagmire.
The American public must come to some harsh realizations.
There will be no newspaper photograph of a celebratory Times Square kiss between a jubilant Navy corpsman and an unsuspecting, but willing, young lady to signal a victory over ISIL. There will be none of the pomp and circumstance of the June 28, 1919, signing of the Treaty of Versailles hailing the end of hostilities.
A true war requires an opponent that has defined borders, a citizen army and a known hierarchy of evil leaders. ISIL has none of these. It is an evil, amorphous, growing snake that abhors the West and has no concerns about the rules of engagement such as those in the Geneva Convention.
The United States, and a few allies, are engaged in mortal combat, not a war. We will never be able to truthfully unfurl another banner claiming “Mission Accomplished” in this fight against extremist terrorism.
Successive generations of Americans have been brought up with Hollywood versions of great American victories, from Audie Murphy (who was an actual war hero) to John Wayne, Sylvester Stallone and Matt Damon.
Too many of us retain the dangerous illusion that, given enough time, money, troops and munitions, democracy will bloom in the Middle East, tribal differences will disappear and the women will shed their hijabs while attending schools in their Guess jeans. This will not happen. They, and not we, will determine their culture.
The failures in Vietnam and the frustrations in the Mideast have somewhat tempered America’s jingoistic hubris, but ours is still a victory-driven mindset.
Am I saying that we should be isolationist?
No, we cannot stand idly by. ISIL is beheading civilians. If their captured enemies do not instantly convert to their brand of radical Sunni Islam they are summarily executed. They are recruiting disenfranchised Westerners. Splinter al-Qaida cells, such as the Khorasan Group, are plotting direct attacks on the West (they were also targeted in the initial bombing attacks in Syria). Radical groups such as these must be contained.
But, while this is a major global problem, the immediate threats are to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
My visceral response mechanism wants to believe President Obama when he declares that there will be no American boots on the ground. Still, because I feel this problem will never have a complete resolution, I consider it never-ending combat, not a war. Therefore, I also think Obama’s strategy is too vague and extends too far into the future.
I would immediately announce four actions:
•The current bombing of ISIL, and other targeted factions, will continue unabated for six months at which time it will cease. While we will do our utmost to limit civilian casualties, such losses will, unfortunately, occur. (I refuse to sanitize this by calling it “collateral damage.”)
•The United States will spend six months training moderate troops from all our allies in the Middle East to prepare for battle. We expect all such allies, including Turkey, with its million conscripted soldiers, to participate as boots on the ground. It is their region and, in the end, their fight. Obama’s one-year schedule is too long and too open-ended.
•If needed, units from the Joint Special Operations Command, such as Navy Seal Team Six, will eliminate specific radical leader targets. Let well-trained volunteers who crave such action do the needed chores, not my pharmacist or postman on his fourth rotation.
•Implement a vigorous, thorough vetting of all travelers going to, or coming from, Middle Eastern countries. If there is a scintilla of vagueness about the purpose of their trip they should be denied their travel. On Sept. 24, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution requiring member countries to enact laws barring suspected militants from traveling abroad. A good start, but let’s put some real teeth and firm implementation into these regulations.
We face, unfortunately, endless combat against radical terrorism. It is the new reality. We must do all we can to protect our homeland with a minimal erosion of personal individual rights. We will remain a great, but more diligent, nation.
The “war” we must win is one over an illusionary mindset that victory is only possible with a defined end and a completely vanquished enemy.
Jim Raftus (jraftus@ aol.com) is a retired marketing executive who lives in Cumberland. He served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971.

Rhode Island andLife Long Friendships – Published in the Providence Journal

BY JIM RAFTUS
jraftus@aol.com
Tonight I will be attending a high school 50th reunion. More than 2 million high school seniors across the country graduated in 1964, so I am not alone in participating in this ritual.
Here’s what will make my night somewhat different and Rhode Island-centric.
While there will be plenty of “not quite certain who that guy is” moments, I’ll be seated at a table with several graduates I’ve stayed close friends with since September 1952, on the first day of first grade at St. Leo’s School, in Pawtucket. In fact, a few of them — Bill, Steve and Ed — are often part of my regular golfing foursome. We’ve remained buddies for 62 years.
When I tell folks, especially non-Rhode Islanders, that my foursome consists of mostly friends from first grade they are incredulous. My joking reply to their response is, “Yeah, we can’t decide if we are really loyal or really boring.”
What we really are is Rhode Islanders. I’m convinced that there is something unique to our native Ocean State that tends to cultivate long-term relationships.
In our younger days, the boundaries of parochial school parishes herded us together during these important formative years. The parish school and church were links that bound us together. We navigated the influences, good and bad, of the nuns and priests as a united group.
Left to our own devices during non-school hours, we poured our energy into traditional sandlot and playground sports: baseball, football and basketball.
A few months ago, relaxing at the 19th hole after a round of golf, we reminisced about a “two-on-two” basketball league we organized between the summer of our seventh and eighth grades. My team happened to go undefeated. Steve insisted that it was only because I “towered over all of them.” I am 6-foot-4. I let him keep this fantasy for a week.
The following Saturday, as we sat on the porch overlooking the 18th green, I unrolled, like an old biblical scripture, a faded, crinkled copy of the St. Leo’s graduation class of 1961 photo. There, standing in the second row, separated only by a girl I don’t remember, Steve “towers” over me by at least a full inch. You see, I sprouted three inches the summer after this photo was taken.
Rhode Island’s most often noted feature, being the smallest state in the Union, certainly is a factor in the long-term maintenance of friendships. We are long since removed from the Pawtucket of our youths, “scattered” all around the state: Cumberland, Barrington, West Kingston and East Greenwich. (Scattered being a relative term that folks from other, larger states would find laughable.) Most importantly for our needs, we can all easily find our way to whatever golf course we want to conquer in Rhode Island.
We went to different colleges: Providence College, Bryant and Rhode Island College. We’ve served in the military, Vietnam and Alaska. We’ve had careers: education, finance, insurance and marketing. We’ve attended each other’s weddings, our children’s weddings and funerals for our parents, all now gone.
It has been a long, mostly blessed, journey. Although more than five decades removed, I can still recall the climb up the back stairs to Bill’s family’s apartment in a no-longer-existing building behind Howell Smith’s Drugstore on the corner of Newport and Central Avenues. I can still hear his wonderful mother’s hearty, infectious laugh.
Times have changed. A more mobile society, instant international communication methods and, in general, a more frenetic lifestyle seem to have made such long-term close-proximity friendships less viable. I know my children, while still in contact with old chums via social media, have established newer lives and friends in new locations.
Oddly enough, the reunion my wife and I will be attending, St. Raphael’s Class of ’64, is not the high school I graduated from. Financial circumstances at the time forced me to transfer after my sophomore year, but so strong is the bond with my friends that I’m always invited back to school functions.
So, while I’ll be saying plenty of, “Wow, I haven’t seen you for 50 years,” I’ll also, happily, end the evening with, “See you next week, 8:30 tee time.”
Jim Raftus (jraftus@aol.com) is a retired marketing executive who lives in Cumberland.

My Day With the 1%ers. – Published in the Providence Journal 7/17/14

BY JIM RAFTUS
I never envisioned Alec Baldwin and Nathan Lane would help change my views on really rich people.
I would describe my own political stance as slightly left of center, except in these divisionary days I have no idea where the center is, or if it still even exists. I do have concerns about the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, but my day with Baldwin, Lane and the supporters of the Hole In the Wall Gang Camp gave me a new perspective.
Just prior to the 2012 election, my wife and I attended a charity event at the camp in Ashford, Conn., as guests of the owner of the company I used to work for. Lane was the emcee of the wonderful talent show and Baldwin was the auctioneer for the fundraiser.
Lane began his stand-up routine with a series of Mitt Romney jokes. When the reception to his humor proved tepid, Lane lamented, “Am I going to be the first person ever heckled off the stage of a charity event?” The liberal-leaning actor now realized many in the audience were well-to-do residents of Fairfield County and the Upper East Side. He was “in the belly of the beast.” As a veteran performer, he smoothly segued into several Joe Biden slams.
Following Lane, we were thrilled by a short violin concert by Itzhak Perlman and captivated by several songs from young camp attendees, all of whom are dealing with serious health issues. Anyone who could have a dry eye after watching them perform should get his tear ducts examined.
After leaving the theater, all the attendees headed to the hall for dinner and the auction. There was an array of interesting silent auction items and fine food to keep one busy until Baldwin took the stage to conduct the live auction.
He did a remarkable job, using humor to prod, tease and cajole the bidders into making serious bids for the various items. These folks, surely part of the 1 percent group, were digging deep to help the camp reach its goals. One of the most hotly contested items was lunch for two in New York with Bradley Cooper, a red hot actor. A middle-aged gentleman bidder, prodded by his teenaged daughter sitting next to him, raised the bid to an astronomical $95,000. The much-maligned and mocked Baldwin responded, “If you make it an even $100,000, I’ll match your bid.” Apparently, Baldwin donates all the proceeds from his Capital One commercials to charities.
I know cynics are going to say it is all about tax write-offs. However, I know some of the tax implications. It is not quid pro quo. You do not get a $100,000 tax break for donating $100,000.
The well-heeled people at this event gave in remarkable numbers. A prime example happened after all the items had been auctioned. The camp director took over and reminded everyone that it cost $2,500 for each youngster to attend for one week. No families have to pay for their children. It all comes from donations.
The director asked people who wanted to sponsor to simply hold up their bidding paddles and call out the number of campers they wanted to pay for. My former boss’s paddle was one of the first in the air. He is modest, so I will not divulge how many children he and his wife paid for. I will tell you that there was a thicket of paddles raised, with some individuals pledging to support 50 campers. You do that math. It was heartwarming altruism at the highest level.
The divisiveness between “classes” in this country is truly troubling. This day was a cautionary tale to me personally to avoid the stereotyping, which can block one from seeing the gray areas that exist in all arguments.
And, in fact, these folks don’t take themselves so seriously. At the end of his performance, Nathan Lane asked a friend and veteran character actor, Ernie Sabella, to join him on stage. Lane and Sabella are the two voices who sang “Hakuna Matata” in the “Lion King” movie.
Just before starting the song Lane turned to Sabella and said, in a just loud enough stage whisper, “Sing slowly, Ernie, they’re Republicans.”
The house came down.

Jim Raftus (jraftus@aol.com) is a retired marketing executive who lives in Cumberland

In Praise of Longevity – Published in Providence Journal 2/22/14

BY JIM RAFTUS
I’m always pleased when I see Roger Angell listed as a contributor in The New Yorker. I subscribe to The New Yorker because it keeps me on my toes, although I only get about half of the cartoons, and some of the fiction pieces leave me perplexed and, frankly, annoyed.
Angell’s work, however, is usually brimming with charm, intelligence and compassion. He has been a less frequent presence lately, but he can be forgiven. He is 93.
Fortunately, he was in the Feb. 17 and 24 edition. The New Yorker always includes a list of contributors: For example: “Jeffrey Toobin has written six books including ‘The Oath. The Obama White House and the Supreme Court.’”
Angell’s terse profile states: “Roger Angell first contributed to the magazine in March, 1944.”
That is two years before I was born — and I’m now undeniably into the senior, retired, fixed-income phase of my life! Angell was published in The New Yorker before the end of World War II. They’ve been accepting his work through 12 presidencies. In this modern era of instant fame and disposable careers, Angell sits proudly amid a pantheon of greats who have lived long and well.
Pablo Picasso created long enough to have, at least, five periods; Cubism, Rose, Africa, Modern and Blue. His initial work to receive notice was “The First Communion,” painted in 1896, and he unveiled the “Chicago Picasso” sculpture in 1967.
Jack Buck Sr. first broadcast a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game on KMOX radio in 1954 and he continued until 2001. He charmed the Midwest from Stan Musial’s fluid swing to Mark McGwire’s tainted 61-home-run season.
Leonard Bernstein studied as a youth at Tanglewood in 1940 and conducted his last performance at Tanglewood in 1990. The composer of “West Side Story” led the New York Philharmonic for two decades.
Helen Thomas was a White House correspondent covering presidents from John Kennedy to Barack Obama. She was a true pioneer for females in a traditionally all-male club, and press conferences were not done until she intoned, “Thank you, Mr. President.”
Angell’s article in the Feb. 17 and 24 New Yorker was titled, “This Old Man.” It is a poignant piece deliberately weighted with the winnowing of so many of his friends and family that comes with the passage of so many decades. It also, briefly and heart wrenchingly, describes the sense of invisibility that even someone as urbane and sharp as he feels when one seems merely tolerated during conversations.
Still, Angell’s humor and undampened spark for life shine through as he discusses the sexual yearnings of a 90-year-old or the joy of blogging. Here’s a writer who probably spent the first 50 years of his career changing ribbons on his Remington typewriter, rhapsodizing about the freedom of blogging. There’s a life lesson in all of this if we would just take the time to listen.
John Prine, singer/songwriter, who is in the fifth decade of his career, wrote a song called, “Hello In There.” It features this chorus:
You know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder every day.
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello.”
Well, all I can say is, “Write on, Roger, write on.”

Jim Raftus (jraftus@aol.com) is a retired marketing director who lives in Cumberland.

Racism – The 3rd Rail of American Society – Published 12/08/14 Providence Journal

Jim Raftus: Have we become too complacent about racism?
Published: December 08, 2014 01:00 AM
Comments 1

BY JIM RAFTUS
Invariably, amid the heated arguments surrounding the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, many statistics will be used to justify a position — percentage of crimes committed by blacks, ratio of white police officers vs. minority population in a community, etc.
Here is a more personal statistic that causes me to deeply ponder. In my 68 years, most spent in Rhode Island, never has a black person been invited to a home I lived in. Conversely, I’ve only once been invited into a black home. It was in high school after a pickup basketball game. The visit lasted 15 minutes.
How is this statistically possible? Am I an anomaly?
My father, Leo, was born in Dorchester in 1910. At that time it was a mostly Irish and Jewish enclave. He moved to Pawtucket at the age of 12. By then, Dorchester was “transitioning,” including the arrival of black residents. My father was a good, kindly man. Everyone said so, but he was weighted down by his background.
Our few conversations about race were lower-case “All in the Family.” My father was not nearly as bigoted as Archie and I was not quite the far-left-leaning hippie of Meathead.
Dad once innocently told a story about a street fair when he was a boy in Dorchester where they played a game called “Hit the N—— on the Head.” It consisted of throwing a wet sponge at the top of young black boys’ heads protruding from holes in a cardboard rectangle. When I objected, he said the black kids were paid a nickel and gladly participated.
Late in life he made, if not friends, at least good acquaintances with a couple of black golfers at the old six-hole Silver Spring Golf Course, in East Providence.
While I was growing up in Pawtucket in the 1950s and ’60s, we Northerners clucked our tongues and shook our heads at the awful bombing of the church in Birmingham, Ala. We railed against Police Commissioner Bull Connor unleashing police dogs against blacks and bemoaned the murder of civil-rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner.
Those evil, racist Southerners, we thought, can’t make peace with the blacks. Meanwhile, most blacks who migrated north continued to be herded, red-lined, into specific urban neighborhoods with poor educational opportunities and neglected infrastructures.
On my first day of basic training in Columbia, S.C., in 1968, the blacks in my barracks, upon hearing me speak, nicknamed me “Irish.” “Irish” I was for eight weeks, and I got along fine with the blacks who were, mostly, from New York City. My best friend, however, turned out to be named Moses McCutcheon, whose family worked a very small cotton farm not 15 miles from the base.
Blacks, like whites, come with a wide spectrum of pigmentation. Moses was the darkest black person I have ever met. With his Southern drawl and my Rhode Island accent, I’m not sure how we even understood each other, but we bonded.
One day the New York City blacks started razzing Moses about our friendship. He quietly, but decisively, pressed one of the agitators against a locker. Moses was short in stature but hard work on the family farm quickly turns a boy into a man. The harassment stopped.
Several weeks later, I was on a bus heading back to base after a trip to Columbia. The passengers were predominately black soldiers. As we headed toward the final few stops, a chant of “Kill whitey” began from, ironically, the back of the bus. When the bus made the next stop, the many blacks exiting threw punches at the few whites in their seats. Although I was not really hurt, the incident made me mentally replay my race discussions with my father. It took me a while to regain my quiet civil-rights advocacy.
Now retired, a full life in suburbia behind me, I see racial strife re-emerging, and I worry and question. Despite great gains by some blacks, politically and economically, far too many have been left behind. The progress of the 1960s and 1970s seems to have stalled for all but a select few.
Have we all been complicit? Have we been satisfied as long as the “problems” remained in Roxbury, East St. Louis, Harlem and South Providence? And the core question: Why have the races not truly more readily and happily mixed? Are the difference insurmountable?
My final question is to myself. Have I been all rhetoric? Too complacent, standing off to the side?
I would love to find Moses McCutcheon again. I would invite Moses into my Cumberland home.
Sixty-eight years is too long to wait.
Jim Raftus (jraftus@aol.com), an occasional contributor, is a retired marketing executive who lives in Cumberland.