by Paul Ketterer

In 1957, my family made one of several spring break trips south, this one to Hot Springs, Arkansas. It was one year after the integration of Little Rock Central High, most of which went right by my awareness in my secure northern culture. Being 11 had something to do with it as well. On this trip, my parents included a tour of the State capitol building in Little Rock, as well as museums and other historical sites. My brother and I both distinctly remember the shock we felt turning a corner and seeing the rest room:


White Men Only

I can’t remember whatever explanation my parents made, only the loss of innocence. There were three African American students in my 20-student 5th grade class, just like the rest of us. I had no previous awareness that the world they encountered was different from mine. In the following year, other “negro” students came to our school as a result of “urban renewal” in central Madison. I was in college before a research project for a social work class taught me of the “Negro removal” nature of that process.

One such student became a close playmate on the playground and in frequent visits to my home. I never wondered why I never was invited to his. I lived across from the school, he almost a mile away, and I guess I just put it down to that. He was an unusually gifted athlete, most unusually because he was thin to the point of appearing emaciated, while being amazingly coordinated and able to jump twice as high as any of the rest of us. We enjoyed basketball together in after school sports and on the playground.

In the eighth grade, I somehow began to overcome a social isolation and get involved at parties and sports with the more popular kids. One in particular had been a best friend, and we played basketball at his place most days after school till dark. One day, “J” joined us and we had a great time. The next day, the host friend told me his mother didn’t want any “darkies” around. I was told I had to inform my friend that he couldn’t join us anymore. Out of my insecurity I did so. I still remember every word said and every expression on his face. Few experiences changed my life more. Incredibly, he remained my friend through high school. I wish I still had contact so I could finally apologize, belatedly and inadequately.

As a freshman at UW-Madison, in 1964, I found myself active in support of the US involvement in the Vietnam conflict and circulated a petition to that effect. At that time, there was not much clarity on the scope of conflict, the corruption of the South Vietnamese government, of the nationalistic nature of the Viet Cong. We were heirs of the McCarthy era, the space race and cold war images of Communism. In my physics class a fellow student, a nun,  spent some calm and considerable time giving me a much belated history lesson, with some excellent theology attached. As I remember, I did not turn the petition in. At the end of the semester, I turned in the Air Force uniform I had been given as a part of Intro to ROTC. (I did get to keep the hat, with which my nephews played.) I did learn to line up the buttons on my shirt with the fly in my pants in that class, which I diligently follow to this day. My pacifism grew with reading of Gandhi and King, and eventual involvement in protests.

In the course of those days, I became involved in a campus religious center, grew deep relationships, and found a growing desire to live “helpfully”. The clergy I encountered seemed to be doing the kinds of things I wished, so I made a tentative commitment to seminary. The first place I applied as a Junior, partially because it was the denominational school, and because pre-enrollment earned me a 4D draft status. I visited a seminary in Boston that Spring break, with a friend considering Harvard for grad school. I also spent a weekend at the University of Chicago Divinity School, which had a high academic rating, and more important, a socially involved curriculum. There were three of four getting the tour and meeting faculty. An option early Saturday morning was to attend a meeting of Operation Breadbasket in the school’s hall, led by a student who never graduated, but was ordained anyway, Jesse Jackson. Being the only white attendee among a couple hundred black activists was humbling and inspiring.

In my first few years in the church, the beginning of the 70s, the new experience of clergywomen brought the issue of language to awareness–and controversy. This one was easy to see: how exclusively male pronouns and references rendered women invisible and powerless. All it took was having it pointed out to me and I changed my speaking as quickly as I could, finding a Bible paraphrase with inclusive language produced by an Episcopal church in Washington, DC.

As I became aware of the bias and violence against LGBT persons, I participated in action within the local church as well as the general church for affirmation and inclusion.

The point of this rambling is that personal and institutional change is possible. Even in the situation our culture faces today. It only requires a capacity for empathy and compassion. I believe this is a trait of most people, the only exception being a few psychopaths. Fear blocks these capacities. Secondly, community is required, so that fear may fade and love increase. Thirdly, truth is required, so that justice may be clear.

Gandhi said that “truth is truth, though I be a minority of one.” Therein is hope, for empathy, community and truth all exist. Sometimes the journey is lonely, sometimes exhausting, sometimes filled with beauty. We are avid fans of Peter, Paul and Mary. My favorite of all their songs: “Sweet Survivor”.

You have asked me why the days fly by so quickly

And why each one feels no different from the last

And you say that you are fearful for the future

And you have grown suspicious of the past

And you wonder if the dreams we shared together

Have abandoned us or we abandoned them

And you cast about and try to find new meaning

So that you can feel that closeness once again.

Carry on my sweet survivor, carry on my lonely friend

Don’t give up on the dream, and don’t you let it end.

Carry on my sweet survivor,

Though you know that something’s gone

For everything that matters carry on.

You remember when you felt each person mattered

When we all had to care or all was lost

But now you see believers turn to cynics

And you wonder was the struggle worth the cost

Then you see someone too young to know the difference

And a veil of isolation in their eyes

And inside you know you’ve got to leave them something

Or the hope for something better slowly dies.

Carry on my sweet survivor, carry on my lonely friend

Don’t give up on the dream, and don’t you let it end.

Carry on my sweet survivor, you’ve carried it so long

So it may come again, carry on

Carry on, carry on.


This is my chosen attitude, with one caveat.

Isaac Asimov wrote a classic trilogy: FOUNDATION. Without pretending to be, it is a treatise on cultural and governmental theory. He later added prequel and sequel volumes. In the books, a mathematical process has been developed to predict history, and to provide direction for intervention to control the future. All goes well for the plan to return civilization and galactic empire after anarchy. Till a mutant leader with mind-control power upsets the plan.

Some of what is going on in our culture is off the course of my systems understanding, and my observation of political behavior. What happens if power is given to insanity?

It’s just not waste effort on what I cannot change, and invest all the love I have on what I can.

 © 2017 Paul Ketterer.

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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1 Response to Hope

  1. Doug Elwell says:

    Mr. Ketterer, Thanks for sharing this memoir. We had similar experiences in our growing up years which I can relate to. Your piece is well written and clearly illustrates the experiences of a large number of us in our generation. Even to your Air Force ROTC experience with a twist. I was about to get drafted out of college so I left and enlisted in the AF. Beyond that our experiences with minorities is similar. This is a good piece of memoir. Thanks.


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