Questioning the “content of my character”

Like a lot of people who are lucky enough to have jobs with paid holidays, I had today off work for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. After going out for breakfast with a friend I decided to go to the YMCA. I went up my usual exit ramp from the freeway, where I then make a left turn. There is almost always someone standing there holding a cardboard sign, asking for money. Like a lot of people, I usually try to avoid eye contact. The fact that I do that makes me uncomfortable with myself. I’m certainly not against helping a stranger and I’m not afraid of homeless people. “But there has to be a better way to solve this problem, right?”, I tell myself.

There’s one particular guy who I see a lot — at that exit and others, who (in my opinion) gives exit ramp sign holders a bad reputation. He looks to be in his mid-twenties, good looking, decent clothes, Nike bag at his feet. He’s been holding up the same “ABSOLUTE DESPERATION” sign for at least 3 — maybe 4 winters now. Of course I shouldn’t judge. He may indeed be absolutely desperate. One of these days, I’m going to stop and talk to him. But I don’t want to give him money. Maybe I’m an uncaring, arrogant jerk. I don’t know.

That’s what bugs me — I don’t know. What does it take for someone to cross my threshold of caring? What does a person have to look like or act like? What if every passing car gave each sign holder a dollar? Would that help? Is that the answer? Isn’t there a better way? I honestly don’t know.

Yesterday morning, I was in Chicago. It was 15 degrees and windy. As I left the nice downtown hotel where I’d spent the night, I walked past a couple of people lying on the sidewalk, covered by coats, rags, cardboard — obviously anything they could find. Were they sleeping? Were they alive? I don’t know. Did I care enough to try to help them? Obviously not.

So, back in the Twin Cities today, I’m on the exit ramp on the way to the “Y”. There was a middle-aged man and woman I’ve never seen before. If they hadn’t had a cardboard sign announcing their desperation, I might have assumed they were just out of gas or their car broke down on the way home from work. But for his bulky winter coat, the man looked like he could have just left his good-paying job in one of the nearby office buildings. His female companion was also bundled up and actually just sitting in the snow.

By the way, they were white.

I was relieved to be second in line at the stop light, so I didn’t have to maneuver my eyes to look everywhere but at them, like I usually do. In front of me was an expensive, new car. After a minute of waiting, the driver’s window rolled down and an arm handed the guy some money. He thanked the driver as the light changed and the car drove off. As it rounded the corner in front of me, I could see that the driver was a Black woman.

I don’t know why that should be relevant or ironic or touching, but on this, of all days — it was.

Dr. King hoped that someday people would be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”.

It’s a brilliant line. But the older I get, the more it makes me squirm.

Memories of Red Carroll

Red Carroll died on Saturday at a hospital in Beckley, West Virginia at the age of 92. He was recovering from surgery on a broken hip from a fall a few weeks ago. I first heard the news from Joe Hotkewicz, a good friend of Red’s who lives in Louisville, Kentucky. The fact that neither Joe nor I have ever lived in Coalwood is significant, because it tells you a little bit about what kind of person Red was.

Ernest “Red” Carroll was one of the first people I met in Coalwood, West Virginia in October of 2005. I was there as part of a group of teachers from Minneapolis on an unusual and (for me) life-changing professional development experience called “Coalwood to the Cape”, organized by Brad and Julie Blue.

We had come to Coalwood for the annual October Sky Festival to visit the home town of Homer Hickam and the Rocket Boys, made famous by Homer’s book and the movie October Sky. Father of rocket boy Jimmie “O’Dell” Carroll, Red was the last surviving rocket boy dad. Julie Blue knew Red well from her several previous visits to Coalwood and she made sure we got to spend lots of time with him.

Brad and Julie with Red during our tour of Coalwood, October, 2005 (photo by Steve Date)

Red led us on a narrated tour of the town, the rocket launch site (dubbed “Cape Coalwood”), a working coal mine, and he was part of a panel discussion in the town of War. He also invited us to his house. There, he showed us some of the “treasures” he’d collected while hauling trash in Coalwood, plus his vegetable garden, his bee hives and his beloved dahlias that lined the fence around his yard.

Julie and Red in his backyard. His shed (left) was a museum of old machines and gadgets he had collected. Some of his dahlias are visible in the background. (photo by Steve Date)

Red was in his late 80s in 2005 and while he moved slowly and took frequent short breaks, he still had plenty of energy to show us the town he loved so much. He was born in Coalwood and had live there all his life. He worked at the “tipple” for the coal mine for 16 years. The tipple is where the coal is loaded into trains or trucks after it comes out of the mine. Red’s job was “picking bone”, in other words, sorting the coal and discarding other types of rock that come out of the coal cars. He told me that he loved that job – “Couldn’t wait to go to work every day”, he said.

When the tipple closed in 1954, Red needed to find another job. He applied for the position of garbage collector. He was thankful to get the job and did it well for the next 33 years. Red was one of the instrumental adults that helped Homer, O’Dell and the other rocket boys get the materials they needed to build their rockets.

Red Carroll giving kids pony and wagon rides, 1956 (photo by David C. Ridenour)

The Red Carroll I knew was a quiet man – kind, generous and gentle. He was above all, a man of faith. To say he was deeply religious understates it. His faith in God was stronger than anyone I’ve ever met and God was just barely under the surface in every conversation. Peggy Blevins always says that Red had “DSL to the Lord”.

By some accounts he had a little harder edge in his younger years. He was a strict, but loving father to O’Dell and his brothers and sister. O’Dell says that one of the things his dad wouldn’t allow him to do while growing up was go to movies. How ironic that years later, Red not only liked the movie October Sky, but embraced it with all his heart and encouraged everyone he met to see it.

After Homer’s book and then the movie came out in 1999, tourists started coming to see the town that was now known as “Home of the Rocket Boys”. Red would usually be around somewhere and stop to talk with visitors. He told them about the history of the town and showed them the sites they had come to see. When a few people in town decided to have a yearly festival honoring the Rocket Boys, Red quickly became an important part of the festivities.

Red opened every October Sky Festival with an emotional prayer and then spent the rest of the day roaming around town, greeting visitors and catching up with old friends.

Here’s a little video I did from the 2009 October Sky Festival, featuring Red Riding the fire truck into town with the Rocket Boys and then saying a prayer to open the day’s festivities.

Red kicks off the 2006 October Sky Festival by delivering the invocation as only he could. (photo by David Goad)

Red had two sets of children. The older generation — with Virginia, his first wife — including Jimmie (O’Dell), grew up in a very different time in Coalwood. There isn’t much left (in Coalwood or anywhere) of the life and times that Homer Hickam wrote about in his memoir. Red was very proud of Jimmie (O’Dell) and the rocket boys. Sadly, Red lost another of his sons, Donnie, a few years ago.

Red in his backyard with Caleb and Ivy, October, 2007 (photo by Steve Date)

Long before Larry King ever got the idea, Red had two sons at an advanced age with his second wife, Ivy. Josh is now in his twenties and Caleb is a Junior in high school. Red always talked about hoping to live long enough to see them grow up. It was one of the things that kept him going.

During the 5 years that Brad and Julie brought Minneapolis teachers to Coalwood, Red’s tours and a stop at his house became a regular and special part of the group’s activities. Each year he moved a little slower, he needed a little more nap time, and his voice became a little weaker, but he always gave us all the energy he had. He was a good friend to us and a great ambassador for Coalwood.

Red welcomes the 2007 Minneapolis GEMS/GISE teachers group to his house. (photo by Steve Date)

I’m not going to pretend I knew Red well. I was just one of the thousands of people who came through town, met him and will never forget him. I have to thank Julie and Brad Blue for introducing me to Red and to Coalwood. They had a lot of affection for Red and he for them. Brad told me yesterday, “Homer introduced us to Red. And Homer wrote The Coalwood Way. Red LIVED the Coalwood Way.”

My favorite picture of Julie and Red together.

I also want to thank David Goad, for helping me get to know Red better and going to Red’s house with me to interview him for my film (the first interview I ever did) and coming along when I did other shooting with Red. Red and David liked each other a lot and David’s presence, approval, and his helping me interview Red was very important to me.

Red and David Goad at City Hall in War, WV, August, 2006 (photo by Steve Date)

The last time I talked with Red was a couple of days before the 2009 October Sky Festival. I had just arrived in town and was talking to someone in front of the Clubhouse. Red was cruising around in his car as he often did. He pulled up next to me and rolled down the window. “Hey Buddy, when you gonna stop up at the house and see me?” I know he called everyone “Buddy”, but I always liked it.

I stopped over there a little later and we had a nice talk. I had just gotten DVDs of my movie printed and it was one of the great moments of my life to be able to give some copies to him. Red was one of the main reasons I made the film. He was the first interview I wanted to do when I began shooting in 2006 and he was the cornerstone of the project.

He seemed tired and frail that day. He would occasionally drift off and lose his train of thought. He told me he thought it would be his last October Sky Festival and the condition he was in gave me no reason to doubt it.

However, it wasn’t his last festival. He hung on for another 15 months and was able to greet all the visitors to his town one last time about 3 months ago.

If we are equal parts mind, body and spirit, then Red did it right. He took care of himself and lived a long, good life. His body and mind gradually deteriorated at a ripe old age, but his spirit continued to the end. To me, that’s the way it should be. He loved life, but I’ve never met anyone so prepared to leave this world as Red was. And now his spirit continues through the memories of all of us who knew him.

Rest in peace, Red.

Do you have any memories of Red that you’d like to share? Leave comments below. Thank you.