Stafford: My job is a continuing education in my own ignorance

July 29, 2018
Tom Stafford

My brother, Bill, put me up to it.

I was maybe 10 at the time, which would put him at 13 and put everyone around us in the mid-1960s.

Although we had both by then learned in our classrooms late on a Friday afternoon that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, the rest of that turbulent 60s had yet to unfold.

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I had not yet put together an elementary school report about Vietnam; my map of the Koreas, done in dried corn, kidney beans and peas, had not yet been entered in my teacher’s lesson plans; and my yackety mouth had yet to give Finland, the land of my mother’s forebears, a much larger role in the mock United Nations held at our elementary school than it ever has experienced in world history.

On this particular evening, my brother and I were doing what we usually did after the table had been cleared and the dishes were drying in the plastic drainer: Listening to “Dialing Dave Diles” on Detroit’s WXYZ radio.

Diles was what Omar Williams would become in the Dayton/Springfield area and what Mike Hartsock might be considered now: The “dean” of local television sports casting (although Diles also appeared nationally on ABC Sports). His call-in show was as much a part of our lives as pears and grated carrots in lime Jell-O and the fried spam and ring bologna that we ate for supper at a circular pedestal table in the kitchen of a new Cape Code home in the Fairway Farms subdivision in Livonia, Mich.

Although I still retain some of the penchant now, at that point I was always willing to do what people whom I liked suggested. Just as my brother and our cousin, Michael Franti, would send me up the hill to my grandparents’ house to fetch cold water, pop or anything else they needed, Bill put the phone in my hand after he had dialed Dave Diles and primed me with the question.

Dave had a soccer player and coach of some renown on the show that night, and what my brother really wanted to know, but was afraid to ask, was whether some change in the game of soccer that would up the scoring might make the sport loved the world over more popular in the United States.

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In that time, youth soccer was virtually non-existent in our community. The two of us and most other kids growing up played on baseball and basketball teams almost exclusively, and we loved football enough that we fashioned knee pads out of thin cardboard and rubber bands so we could play in in the dirt back yard of our home before it was sodded.

As soon as I spoke the question into the receiver, I discovered why my brother had put me up to it. Diles all but called me a stupid little kid on the air. Both the accuracy of that essential statement and the possibility of libel suits from older and equally stupid callers has retained to this day the policy most radio call-in shows have of exclusive using callers’ first names.

Another thing I remember for that era in nearly all-white Livonia, Mich., aside from talk about the Tigers and the Lions (at that point, the Pistons were a perennial joke) were the jokes elementary school kids told on the playground. In that era, jokes about the Polish would take on a popularity of their own that even withstood a challenge from lava lamps.

All these things of decades ago came to mind a couple of weeks ago when I was enjoying the games in the World Cup. I’ve become something of a soccer fan both because of the general rising popularity of the sport and because a couple of friends of mine and a student in a journalism class I taught are all fans of the Tottenham Hotspurs of the English Premiere League.

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I appreciate European, Asian, African and South American football largely for the reasons I appreciate ice hockey: Just as hockey players show incredible skill in moving the puck between their sticks and skates just to make plays under pressure even in their defensive ends, the things soccer players do with their feet persuade me that most could lead a full life without benefit of hands – one that also would prevent penalty kicks being awarded to the other team because their hands could never inadvertently touch the ball. Plus there are the corner kicks, headers and saves.

My attitudes toward other things have changed as well. Again, larger forces are involved, but I’ve experienced most of my changes in Springfield, among the people I have come to know here, to work with here, to have coffee with. My change has been greatly helped by the job I have had – a job that has put me in contact with people in a much wider circle than my limited social circle, while expanding the same.

It’s the reason I have called my job a continuing education in my own ignorance and prejudice.

At the risk of reducing the number of people I can interview in the future, I’ll say that I consider so many of the interviews I’ve had with people to have been intimate hours. The interview, because of its purposeful nature, covers more ground than a meandering conversation might. It tends to more quickly get to those things that are important to people. And it requires some patience on both sides of the table.

I’ve sometimes talked with people for more than half an hour before I realize, by the looks on their faces, that we’ve just arrived at what they really want to say – what’s most important to them and closest to their true cores and what powers a story. So we talk on, and the power of sharing those stories somehow humanizes us both.

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Before countries go to war, they most often will have discontinued student exchanges, business relations, cultural ties and other things so people grow more isolated from one another. In short, they segregate themselves from one another. Just as the connections they pursued once gave them something in common, the segregation gives them little or nothing in common, and, almost with the predictability of the force of gravity, they separate.

That worries me about the degree of segregation that has re-established itself in our land.

But there is always hope. A few years ago, while talking to Pastor Eli Williams about his fatherhood initiative in Springfield, I remember thinking about the expectation children have that a parent will love them, the hurt they feel when that’s not realized, and how long they will hang on to the hope before giving up. Granted, that often doesn’t go beyond the family.

But when I talked with Williams about that, I began to think of the force as a kind of gravity of the heart – something that has the potential to draw us together in a way that separation or segregation pulls us apart. It’s the kind of thing people talk about when they say sports or music or knitting or book groups have given them a common interest that brought them together, their being together a necessary first step toward sharing stories with one another.

Something about this hope has always been central to what I have considered to be the American Dream. It doesn’t just involve liberty or equality. As best expressed in the final line of “America the Beautiful,” it asks a higher spirit to “crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.”

I know we never may reach it in any perfect or permanent sense. But the thought that we might revive that part of the dream makes me want to piece together clips of all the announcers in the World Cup calling out every score, reminding us once again of our highest: GOOOAAAALLLL!!!!