Friday Firesmith: The Sins of Gregory McMichaels

Gregory McMichael had no regrets about murdering a man who he admitted he wasn’t sure had done anything wrong. When he called 911 he was asked what his emergency was and he told them there was a black guy running down the street. After the murder, he called his friends who worked in the DA’s office to make sure everyone understood that he thought he was doing the right thing, after all, there had been a black man in his neighborhood.

Two different DA’s bailed on the case because McMichael had worked with them before he retired, and one of them said even though it was inappropriate to get involved in the case, he was sure McMichael was not guilty of any wrongdoing.

But William Bryan, for whatever reasons, leaked a video of the murder to the press, and all hell broke loose.

From the very beginning, I assumed Bryan would be the undoing of the defense because he was the third man out going against a father and son, who would see him crucified to help one another, and I think Bryan knew it. I think he leaked the video to save his own ass, not because he felt remorse for killing an unarmed man whose crime was running.

Gregory McMichael is old enough to remember a world in black and white. He was sixteen when segregation ended, and his world of white privilege, the one I grew up with for the first decade of my life, disappeared. But he still remembers the time when white people would treat black people any way they liked, and there would be no legal repercussions.

Gregory McMichael is old enough to have tasted the evil for so long it seemed natural and right. Blacks had their place, and they were supposed to stay down, accept whatever white men like himself allowed them, and it infuriated Gregory McMichael that a black man would run through his neighborhood.

This was an old fashioned lynching in 2021. This was the 1900’s come to life in south Georgia because in his heart of hearts, McMichael knew the white system of justice could be called on the phone and he knew he would speak to the right person, and everyone would understand nothing had happened that had not happened thousands of times before, and he would live his life without so much as a ticket.

But in this day and age, a video is worth a thousand nooses, and the outrage grew as did the size, and color, of the protest crowds. What very likely sank the defense was you cannot chase someone down with a gun, and then claim self defense once you catch them, and kill them. But McMichael never seemed to understand he had done anything wrong.

Because he never understood he had done anything wrong.

In the end, white men like McMichael are ghosts of segregation. They haunt us all, whispering in dead voices that black people aren’t really people, the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, and we were all better off when white people could kill black people anytime they wanted, for any reason.

McMichael has been sentenced to life without parole, and he’s going to have the rest of his life to think about this subject.

You should think about it, too. How one man can kill another, and then think the system will save him from murder.

You should think about how close this came to being swept under the rug of a justice system that still will offer more help to a murderer, than a black man.

Take Care,

Mike

The Unicorn on a Unicycle

Memory, in your brain, in the human brain, isn’t like memory in a computer. I once read we do not store memories at all, but store the scaffolding of it, and rely on external input to fill in the blanks. This doesn’t make sense at all, until you think about the number of times you’ve remembered the words to a song, but only after hearing the song on the radio. You couldn’t have written them down, but now the song is playing, you’re singing along just like you were a very long time ago.

Dreams are worse, in as far as remembering them goes, for they are not reality, sometimes not even based on reality, so there’s nothing there to grab to build on. They are here, somewhere, in your brain, then the dream is gone, and you cannot remember anything but how it made you feel.

I started getting up and writing down my dreams, back in the 1970’s, when I was in high school, and that helped me remember them. As is usual, the effort you’re willing to make to do something will define how well you do it. But most people ignore their dreams, consider them transient things that happen, and afterwards, only a vague unease exists.

Last night a dream began, ended, and as it was gone before any sort of writing could be done, I cast my line into the darkness trying to snag an image or feeling, or anything that night help. A house, in the darkness, lights on, and that was it. I knew who lived in the house, a woman I have not seen, literally, in decades, and right now I’m having trouble remembering anything about her at all. Wait, it’s the house she lived in with her husband and kids, and I want to say I know where the house is, but I cannot.

You would recognize the house where some character on television lived in, the rooms, the kitchen, but you know it’s a set, not a real structure, and in your mind there are places that actually exist but you’ve never seen them in their totality. Ever been in the kitchen of your favorite restaurant? Ever been on the roof? You go home with someone for the first time, you sleep in their bed, and leave the next morning, and if you see that person again, they show you their garden in the backyard, and it’s a surprise to see the rest of their living space, just as it was a surprise to see their body for the first time. Interesting tattoo you have there, why did you get a unicorn riding a unicycle?

But then the person is gone. This person you were once joined at the hips with has eased out of your life, and you’ve eased away from the backyard and bedroom, and now you are a memory, and so is that person. There was a fight over money or infidelity, or there was nothing there but heat to begin with. Or you were unable to keep from being weird. That happens.

Now, years later, something sets off the scaffolding and the memory is recreated, flawed and patchy, holes in the details which your mind dutifully fills in, and destroys the memory in doing so, but you still, even if you know this as a fact, accept the memory as whole.

We cling to the scaffolding of memory, not the memory itself. The memory doesn’t exist, it never has, and it never will. We accept this, unconsciously, subconsciously, for it is all we have ever known, literally. Dreams lack this, so we allow them to pass into the ether, and even though I suspect the two are closely related, we will declare one a crop, and the other a weed.

The house, the woman of decades ago, the memory of the past is an illusion created in my mind, and after I am done writing this, soon now, it will recede again, a coin flashing and reflecting as it sinks deeper and deeper, until forgotten.

Take Care,

Mike

The Death of Christianity

Back in high school, I began to drift away from the beliefs of my parents, my siblings, my friends, and community. It made no sense to me there might be some old white dude in a bathrobe and sandals, waving a shepherd’s crook around flinging people into Hell forever because they never got dunked in water.

The Christians I knew back then were dying out. The church was changing. There was a time you sat with your family in a hard wood pew in a dimly lit wooden church, and listened to a preacher talk for an hour, if you were lucky. Being a kid didn’t get you out of it. There wasn’t a separate place for children. Infants were held by their mothers; little kids were forced to be still and quiet.

The people in the church did things for the community and nothing was ever said about it. No one ever mentioned the fact that three or four members of the church got together and went over to someone’s house and cleaned up their yard because of sickness or poor health. People donated food because they could. Christianity didn’t need a presentation because it was a lifestyle.

Today’s churches don’t resonate with people because it’s more of a commercial than a message. There are huge television screens, microphones, piped in music, soundtracks, and all of this costs a lot of money. Churches are businesses now. There’s a contract to sign, autopay, direct deposit, and money is a big concern.

Churches have nurseries, ball fields, gyms, carpet, full kitchens, security systems, professionally designed websites, their own email domains, and it’s more of a social club than a spiritual journey.

Atheism is getting easier. Leaving the church isn’t what it once was. Now, it’s like walking away from a bar, or a restaurant. The depth of spirituality of Christians is as superficial as the strip mall buildings they’re housed in. There’s no bond of generations of families who sat in the same pews three generations ago. Convenience of parking, how pretty the lawn is, and how big the building is, yeah, that’s what the Christians are these days.

There are multi-millionaires running billion dollar industries that call themselves Christians, and there are millions of people following this in the name of a man who told people to sell their belongings and give the money to the poor.

I never truly believed. I never accepted the idea of a god of any sort, not even when Christians were good people, conscious of their beliefs at all times, and the driving force in every community. Oh yeah, the judgmental and racist churches that littered the south were a problem for many of us, but overall, I miss the Christians, those who were good people.

Christianity, if it is not dead, is on the brink of extinction. Greed, the love of political power, the raw and ugly commercialism of Christian holidays, and the idea that presentation trumps faith and service is killing the church my grandparents knew.

I always hoped to see the day religion died in America. I just never expected to be this sad about it, and I never thought for a minute it would look this goddam ugly.

Take Care,

Mike

Digging the Dimetrodon

Back in the 60’s when I was a little kid, one of my favorite toys was a white plastic Dimetrodon dinosaur toy. I wanted to be a paleontologist when I grew up and I would be the one who dug up thousands of new dinosaurs, never seen before, and eventually, find one that was taller than buildings and bigger than mountains.

One day, I took my white plastic Dimetrodon, and using a small shovel I buried it in our sandbox, past where the sand ended, and I used the shovel as a measuring tool to mark where it was. The dinosaur was buried a shovel head away from the southeast corner. I decided not to look for it for an entire week, which was extremely difficult, and to make matters worse, a week later I was kidnapped by my parents and we spent an entire weekend at my grandmother’s house.

 It was still raining when we returned, so it was almost two weeks before I could dig again. I couldn’t find it. It was too cold to be allowed to stay outside very long, and eventually, my mind turned to the possibility that my Dimetrodon had been poached by some kid in the neighborhood who might have seen me bury it.

            Mike Church was an older kid with a mean streak. When I asked him if he had seen my Dimetrodon, he claimed a dog had dug it up, brought it to him, and he had thrown it away because it had been mauled so terribly. Now, this was a small neighborhood, and the idea of some random stray dog arriving to dig at a certain spot at a certain time was totally ludicrous. Yet we were children, and fantastic stories were more fun to believe than the truth. Mike and I actually went out hunting for the dog, and this was really strange because I suspected his story after the description of the dog shifted a few times.

            Then there was another possibility, one far more sinister, in that my father could have thrown the Dimetrodon away. My earliest memories of my father were of him pushing me to grow up faster. I was supposed to be able to figure out models and puzzles meant for much older kids, and “That’s for babies” was what I heard more often than not when I wanted something. Some of my favorite toys went missing for no good reason, and more than once I rescued one from the trash can when no one was watching. Oddly, my father kept throwing things away as an adult. Anything he didn’t like he would toss it and simply not tell anyone he threw it away. It was an odd form of control to exert over people.

            Eventually, I assumed the dimetrodon was extinct. The world was harsh and cruel, I knew that, and forces beyond my control were at work to create misery. Kids pretended to be your friend to steal from you, and your parents weren’t to be trusted with your toys or innocence.

            One day, maybe two or three years later, I remembered the dimetrodon, and decided to dig for it, one last time. Using my hands, I dig into the soft sand, now in the corner of a flowerbed planted where little kids once played. There was a flash of white plastic and I stopped digging. No. It was not possible. Frantically, I dug down, and saw the tail, a leg, the back fin, and finally pulled the dimetrodon from the earth.

            But it had shrank. It was smaller than I remembered. Once, my index finger fit inside its mouth, and now it did not. The once large toy I treasured was much smaller. In its smallness, I felt diminished, as if for my abandoning the creature had somehow led to it becoming less than it had been. The idea that I had grown larger never occurred to me. But my world was changing, swirling away like water out of a drain. My family was falling apart. My parents’ marriage was failing. My grades in school were dropping. As now, as if it were a sign from the Gods, a lost dinosaur had been found, much less the being he once was.

Take Care,

Mike

The Final Falcon

Everything changes. Even if you don’t want change, it’s coming, one way or another, and those who refuse to accept change usually are swept away by it. When you’re a kid, and the family dog is dying, your parents have to try to explain why an elderly dog just isn’t going to get better no matter what the vet does, and it is time to let go. That’s a hard lesson to learn.

For those of you who missed it, and most of you did, the first Falcons game in 1966 featured a flight by their live mascot, Freddie the Falcon, who was supposed to circle the stadium and then return to his handler. Freddie took off like he was fired out of a cannon and never returned. Freddie saw it coming. Freddie saw the future.

The Falcons lost the coin toss.

The Falcons very first play was a kickoff, which the kicker muffed, and they took a penalty before their first play.

From there, it got worse and worse. I grew up with this team. I remember watching them on Sunday and wondering if the day would ever come where I would no longer feel the deep bite of disappointment and the never ending frustration of being a fan of the Atlanta Falcons.

That day is finally here.

After over fifty-six years of watching, waiting, cheering in those very rare times, and turning the television off early in the first quarter in too many games to count, I’m simply done.

The turning point was watching the Ravens-Chiefs game and realizing I didn’t enjoy football anymore. It has become meaningless. Watching good teams play is like watching porn while dating a virgin. Watching teams that can, and do, play good football is a reminder that the Falcons can, but do not, play good football.

In December of 1972, I was twelve years old, and watching the Falcons play the Kansas City Chiefs, the last game of the season. Dave Hampton, Atlanta’s running back, came into the game needing 70 yards to reach 1000, and become Atlanta’s very first 1000 yard rusher. Late in the 4th, Hampton reached the 1000 yard mark. Exactly. The game stopped. They game Dave the ball and even KC players shook his hand. Then Hampton was thrown for a loss and ended the season with 995 yards.

That was not the first, last, or only time, the hopes and dreams of fans would be crushed.

(Hampton would finally achieve that mark in 1975, by the way)

In 1980 the Falcons were up by 14 in the 4th quarter against Dallas in the playoffs. Roger Staubach, the venerated Cowboys’ quarterback went down injured, and it looked like the Falcons would be headed to the Superbowl for the very first time ever. They let reliever Randy White, who was the punter, lead the boys back, and they lost by three.

But mostly, in 56 seasons, the Falcons have lost, lost, lost, and lost again, and again. They’ve lost, in those 56 seasons, over one hundred more games than they’ve won. Record (W-L-T): 369-476-6. Their playoff record is 10-14 which means they’ve played in the post season only 24 times in the playoffs in 56 years. Both super bowl appearances have been agonizingly embarrassing. If your kid came home from school with a record as bad as the Falcons, you would think tutors and summer school. But after 56 years, it’s time to forget college.

I went from the first grade to the age I was old enough to get drunk legally before the Falcons played in their first playoff game (1978). It was a dozen more years before they played in another. (1991) It was 2008-2009 before the Falcons had back to back winning seasons.

When Julio Jones said, “Nah, I’m outta there; I want to win” He was stating a very simple fact; the current team isn’t going to win. The man who is the team’s all time leading receiver, and one of the best ever, saw the future Freddie the Falcon saw. There is a hell of a lot to be said for this.

At the end of all this, I have decided to simply walk away, too.  Perhaps, I’m thinking, it’s fans like me, who will endure season after season, year after year, decade after decade, of miserable games, double digit losses, and terrible coaches, maybe, fans like me are the problem. Maybe fans like me are enabling the Falcons’ losing ways. Because we keep coming back, we keep getting what we’ve always gotten.

That’s it. I’m done.

Take Care,

Mike

The Pencil

It’s been two decades, now two decades and two years, since I found the pencil. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? I was working on a bridge project in Valdosta, where the two bridges and the field office were close to the State Prison. What roguery men committed to be enclosed in such a place, I cannot say, but I never looked upon those shining spirals of razor wire on those fences without wondering how it is that a man could find his way there, and how other men could find a way to keep him.

There was a set of scales, like you’d see at a farm, or a woodyard, where a truck would pull up to be weighed, and perhaps at one point I knew what they were for, but I have since forgotten. The scale house was an old trailer, falling apart and in ruins, but I pried the door open one day at lunch and looked around.

There was a soft drink bottle on the floor and a trash can with paper in it. All manner of evidence of the office not being used, the smell of urine, recent signs that rodents had taken over, and there on the floor, was a pencil.

Once upon a time, if you used a pencil, and everyone did, the instrument had to be a No. 2 pencil, and that had something to do with the darkness of the graphite that was the part which wound up on the paper. Most people referred to it as “lead” but it never was. This pencil was rather old, having survived many trips to the pencil sharpener, and I wondered why, at the point of its life it had ceased to be possessed by a particular person, it had been left lying on the floor.

It was a big deal, when I was a kid, that everyone had a pencil every day of their lives at school. The worst crime, and all crimes were the worse crimes, was not to have a pencil. We were led to believe we might have a job one day, go to work without a pencil, and be fired for it. True enough, I once worked with a manager who despised anyone who was not, at any given moment, in possession of an ink pen, but for some reason, the world kept spinning and the work was done, and no one, ever, was fired.

I kept the pencil, pondered its existence, and wondered what it had been used for, by who, and when. Had some great work of literature been sweated and scrawled into being by this very instrument? Had a love poem been written during lunch to the object of some man’s affection? Did someone write the letter to their wife or husband, explaining why things had gone wrong, and nothing could fix it ever, and this was the end?

Or, more likely, had this been the tool used to mark official forms, with its No. 2 darkness, date, time, load number, weight, tare, and truck number? Its future sealed in wood, the tiny rubber eraser nubbed at times, day in and day out, like the man, or men, who used it, and then one day, the office closed for the last time, and the pencil lay on the floor, abandoned and forgotten.

How many pencils have I owned? In grade school, middle school, and into high school, dozens perhaps, each one of them gone, forgotten, lost, broke, stolen, loaned, given away, but nevertheless unaccounted for. Perhaps, incredibly unlikely, this pencil was one of those I released into the wild, only to be found accidently, unrecognized, like a chance meeting of the same stranger, twice.

I took the pencil, put it in a plastic water bottle, then sealed the cap with glue. The contractor didn’t notice me digging a hole at the bottom of the form and the next day they poured a footer for the bridge, and underneath that, the pencil lies waiting to be discovered again. It’s damn unlikely, I know, that one day someone will find an old plastic bottle, with an even older writing tool in it, and they’ll wonder, much as I have, why and how, and when, and who.

But it is entirely human, for memory to kick to the surface, the image of that time and place, and that pencil, and it is entirely human for me to write about it now, and you to read it. The prison is filled with men who might be freed if the right words are read, or written, and we must understand the power of this. Yet for all the men, and all the pencils, this is the most likely outcome, memories, laid to letters to be read, and perhaps, found again one day.

Take Care,

Mike