Trip to North Carolina
It was a different time. A different world. June 2000. It was pre 9/11.
I had sponsored YMCA's Youth and Government for eight years at my previous high school. It is a model legislature held every year in the Round House. (What New Mexico calls their capital building) Students write bills and then have to get them passed through committees and two houses in two and a half days. There is also a Supreme Court and Panel Discussion Group. The kids pretty well run the show and as sponsors it's a couple of days watching and at night making sure that the kids don't get into trouble as they socialize. My son attended for four years and enjoyed it very much. After the school year is CONA. YMCA's Convention on National Affairs. It's at the YMCA conference center in Ashville, North Carolina for a full week. The year before my son attended this conference and seemed to enjoy it. A teacher from Santa Fe accompanied him on the trip.
For the summer of 2000 I got the opportunity to take three of New Mexico's brightest and best on the trip. The first leg was a flight to Dallas, landing at Love Field where the Texas delegation and Oklahoma delegation were waiting to take a twenty hour bus ride to North Carolina.
This was to be my first trip to the state where I was born since I was a baby and Dad was a Marine stationed at Cherry Point, NC. It was a really long bus ride and from Tyler, TX to North Carolina the Interstate was just a tree lined open top tunnel. Quite a change from the brown open spaces of New Mexico and West Texas.
We changed drivers and ate in Meridian, Mississippi. It seemed like a nice city. Hard to fathom that it is where the four civil rights workers were murdered in the sixties. We stopped in Vicksburg at eleven at night. I was rather disappointed visiting one of the most important battle sites of the Civil War and the only thing I saw was a Taco Bell, where we stopped to eat. The only major city we drove through was Atlanta. We arrived there at dawn and it was beautiful. I also saw Kudzu for the first time. Miles and miles of vines covering just about everything.
When we got to the conference center the bus dropped us off by the dining hall. The two boys and girl I was sponsoring were staying at dorms to the side of the hill. I was staying in Robert E. Lee Hall at the top of the mountain. Three tiers and nearly two hundred yards straight up hill. I only had three pieces of luggage, but in the 90 percent humidiy and 90 degree heat getting half way up nearly finished me. A few of the delegates from other states took pity on the fat old man and carried the luggage up for me. Getting to the building wasn't enough. My room was on the second floor with no elevator.
The conference started and the students did a wonderful job of running it smoothly. Each delegate had to write a position paper and present it to a committee. The committee then selected one paper to present to the general assembly held the last two days. It's not easy getting a paper to the general assembly for discussion and debate, but those that do are phenominal.
Robert E. Lee hall is the oldest, largest and dominate building of the center. It had no airconditioning. The main room had two huge french doors in back and two more in the front which created a breezeway that was surprisingly comfortable. On the front porch in front of the hall were green wooden rockingchairs -- dozens of them. They were very comfortable and I spent hours sitting in them looking out over the North Carolina mountains flabbergasted as the days went by that without a cloud in the sky how little visibility there was due to the moisture haze. I came to appreciate the clear skies of my home state.
As the days progressed I spent most of my time checking on my three charges making sure they were in their committees and making sure I was there when they presented their papers -- none made it to the general assembly, but they did a credible job. The rest of my time was chatting with other sponsors. I had hoped to have time to work on the novel I was writing (Optimus). On the long bus ride I had edited, and thought I could add a few chapters while sitting on the nice green rockingchairs, but I found myself too distracted. It would have been rude to be working on it when all the other sponsors were there chit-chatting. Then we were joined by a man from India. J worked for YMCA, and they brought him in to see the program so he could start one there.
Did I mention that nearly all the other sponsors were women? I wasn't the only male sponsor, but we were definitely a minority. J spoke very passible English and latched on to me like I was a lifeline. I think he was very uncomfortable around all the women. I naturally had quite a few questions about India since one of my alltime favorite novels in M. M. Kaye's Far Pavillions. I was also rather curious about what it was like being a Christian in a country made up mostly of Hindus, Muslims and Sihks. He was very patient with me. When I told him I was from New Mexico he had never heard of it -- not surprising as just about everyone east of the Mississippi in the U. S. hasn't either. To my astonishment and chagrin the entire conference center did not have a map of the U.S. I tried to draw a picture of the country to show him where New Mexico was, but I am not -- repeat -- not -- an artist.
We ate our meals together most days and except for the times I spent checking on my charges sat and talked either on the couches in Lee hall or on the green chairs.
Since he was a novelty for the conference most of the other sponsors and many of the students came by to chat - usually asking the same questions everyone else had asked (including me).
The dining hall had two lines. One for the days specialty -- one evening they served egg plant parmegiana! FOR TEENAGERS!! Not much of it got eaten. The other line was hamburgers, J usually ate at the first line, but on that particular day even he wasn't up for egg plant. He came to me and wanted to know what kind of meat hamburgers were made from. I told him it was ground beef. He naturally asked why it was then called ham - burger and might be pork. I tried to explain that it was named after Hamburg, Germany. He still wouldn't fix a sandwich and chose not to eat that meal. I asked why pork would bother him if he was Christian, but he had been Muslim before converting.
This opened up quite a bit of information from him. Muslim who leave the faith, even in India live a life of genuine fear. J was married, had children, but his brother also lived with him, and he was married with children too. His brother could not find a job because of their faith, and he wanted to know if I could find a way for his brother to immigrate to the U. S.
I asked what kind of education or training his brother had, but not much more than the equivalent of our high school. I told him I would do the best I could, but not to hold out much hope as without an education or skill it would be very difficult.
There was only one incident with my students. The sponsor from another state came rushing up one afternoon and wanted me to speak to one of my boys. He had said something in a meeting that got the girls a little ruffled. I asked what the problem was and got a rather garbled message. I took the young man we had a little chat. A young lady's position paper was to legalize prostitution. In the discussion he asked a question but made the mistake of starting it with the words "What if I were to..." For some reason all the girls thought he was propositioning her and claimed it was sexual harrassment. It was hard not to laugh with all the female sponsors looking our way. So I acted properly upset and told him from now on to make sure he phrased his questions in the third person, not the first person.
As I checked on another student a delegate from South Carolina was finishing up. He was a newly graduated Senior, had an easy drawl for a speaking voice, and was pushing for tax cuts. I was standing in the back of the room. It was a pretty lockstep Republican spiel I had heard since Ronald Reagan's first Inaugural. That evening the young man with others from South Carolina sought me out. They had some questions about New Mexico, but it didn't take much to get them singing the praises of South Carolina. They all thought their hundred year old Senator was practically God.
On the next to the last day there was a free afternoon. The students could go on a hike or go into town for a movie. My three charges decided on the hike. I took them to the man who would be their guide. When I told him we were from New Mexico he asked if I knew E, who had been there the year before. I told him he was my son. The man said E was the only one last year who had been able to keep up with him for the entire hike. Kind of made me proud.
I went into town for the movie. We had a woman bus driver for the drive to Ashville. Her ten year old son was sitting next to her. She naturally asked where I was from and I said, "Albuquerque." Her son then spoke up, "Isn't that what Bugs Bunny is always trying to find?"
The Trip Home
I finally got to work on Optimus on the long bus ride home. We went through Vicksburg around noon and I was surprised as we crossed the Mississippi how short the bridge was -- only about half a mile. It explained why this spot was so important. A battery of cannons on the heights would stop any ship trying to go up or down that spot. Shreveport, La was the hottest stop on the trip. Glad we were there for just an hour. When we got to the Texas state line the sponsor from Texas gave everyone the opportunity to speak about what they had learned. She started at the back of the bus and I was right behind the driver, so I prayed we would get into Dallas and Love Field before they got to me.
Almost everyone talked about the CONA spirit. That you could express your ideas and vigorously debate the issues, but afterwards be friends and have a good time together. They had all learned to respect differing opinions. They also said that the only thing they didn't like was the food in the dining hall.
I nearly got my wish. By the time they got to me we were already in Dallas and nearly the airport, but still enough time for me to finish up. I had a loaf of bread I bought the day we arrived at the conference center thinking it would come in handy for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches if the food wasn't edible. I distributed the slices out one for every two people there and had them break it in half and share. This is what I said:
"Breaking bread is the oldest form of human bonding. We've had a week to meet and make friends with people from all over the country. Most of that bonding took place in the dining hall. But when you break bread it's not the quality of the bread that bonds one another together. It's the quality of the people.
Everyone has talked about the CONA spirit. That you could meet people who have different ideas and beliefs, but still respect each other and even become friends. You've been told all your life by the adults that you need to grow-up. When you get home and in the coming months as we have national and local elections. When all the grown-ups running for office are calling each other pond scum and slinging mud -- maybe they need to grow-down and have some of this CONA spirit too."
We had a pleasant flight back to Albuquerque. I contacted Catholic Charities about J's brother, but they needed more information than I could give. I received a letter from J that Christmas and I wrote him back telling him I needed records of education or job skills, but have not heard from him since.