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Last Updated: Monday, 9 August, 2004, 15:48 GMT 16:48 UK
State Of The Union: Winning back respect
By Charles Gusewelle
In Missouri

The BBC series reflecting the views of American commentators in the run-up to the US elections continues with a piece from Charles Gusewelle, associate editor of the Kansas City Star newspaper.

My home is on a quiet street in the city that calls itself "the Heart of America" - Kansas City, Missouri, in the approximate centre of the country.

Riverboat in Missouri
Missouri is a key battleground state for presidential hopefuls

That is where my wife Katie and I have spent nearly all our married life, raising two daughters and sharing our space during 38 years together with eight dogs and 25 cats.

But a part of me - part of my heart - lives in another place, a place called the Ozarks. That's a region of winding rivers and steep forested hills beginning in the southern part of our state, and extending well into neighbouring Arkansas.

I was a young man in my twenties, away in military service, when my father and mother made the one extravagant investment of their lives.

For what was, to them, a serious sum - $1500 - they bought a little parcel of Ozark land and a cabin for a weekend retreat.

Really the cabin was hardly more than a shack - one room walled with rough-sawn oak boards, a wood-burning stove, a well with a hand-pump, an outdoor privy.

It was set in a clearing in the woods, a short distance back from the unpaved country road. A lane led from the cabin through the forest to a small pond for fishing.

People are eager to see their country restored to a place of honour again

They loved that place. And so did I, when I came back in 1958 to the newspaper where I had worked for a year before going off to my army duty.

But then time and bad health overtook my parents. And, after another year of journalism, wanderlust caught up with me.

I took leave from the paper, bought passage on a Dutch ship to Southampton and spent six months knocking around England and Europe, travelling poor, sometimes sleeping on the ground, beginning to learn how colourful the world is and how rich the variety of people with whom we share the planet.

From the town of Alicante on the southern coast of Spain, on my 26th birthday, I wrote a letter to the editor of the paper, resigning my place there and announcing I intended to be a novelist.

He wrote back, congratulating me - but saying that when I ran out of money I would be welcome to come back.

Well, I did run out of money, and came back stony broke. But not back to the paper. Instead, I drove a cab for six weeks, managed to save $76 and went in October to that cabin in the Ozark woods.


I spent that winter trying to learn to write better. I cut wood with an axe and handsaw. I bought eggs from a neighbour for 12 cents a dozen. I shot what meat I ate.

I did not have a car or even a bicycle. I walked four miles to the country store and back for provisions.

Much of the Ozark landscape - rugged hills and deep gorges - is beautiful almost beyond telling, but the land is stony and unsuitable for farming. And that topography long isolated the region.

Map of Missouri
Population: 5,595,211
Governor: Bob Holden (D)
Electoral College votes: 11

Early travel was by water or mule-back. The railroads and the first paved highways went elsewhere.

Prosperity and opportunity largely bypassed the Ozarks, along with the benefits of education and health care.

The people along my road were decent, often hard-working, people. And things are changing now. Until recent years though, that was one of the more depressed areas of the country.

I wrote every day, but didn't sell a single word. So I came back from my woods cabin in May, still with a little money, took a series of odd jobs and kept working at the writing.

That first year stretched into three, and it began to look like I was not a novelist after all.

Civil rights

Then the leadership of the newspaper changed. The old men who had run the place retired and an editor I much respected took over. So I went back to journalism - back to the same desk and typewriter I had left.

That was 1963. My first big assignment was to spend that summer covering the civil rights movement in the US. And images from that summer still are vivid more than 40 years later.

Civil rights march on Washington 1963
Blacks in the 1960s demanded basic rights

I was in churches in the South, where black men and women were praying, singing, preparing to march out and face the water cannons, the police dogs and thugs with truncheons - in the hope of claiming that most basic of rights, the right to vote.

And I remember wondering if I would have had the courage to march in their shoes. Because those were truly dangerous times. People died in freedom's cause.

It also was the summer that George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, stood in the door of the state university in Tuscaloosa to prevent two young black students from enrolling.

I listened to the TV in my motel room as President John Kennedy explained to the nation why federal troops had to be used to force Wallace to stand aside.

Equal opportunities

We are confronted primarily with a moral issue, Kennedy said. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American constitution.

The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.

On that bright June day I stood outside the university doorway in a crowd of journalists from a score or more of countries who had come to photograph and report the confrontation between prejudice and the law.

I remember feeling an odd mixture of regret and pride. Regret that the issues dividing us were so deep. But pride to be the citizen of a country willing to act out that moment of shame and pain in complete openness, before the eyes of the whole world.

John F Kennedy
John F Kennedy was a respected world leader

That November, an assassin's bullet struck down Kennedy in Dallas. On my way home from a hunting trip, I learned of the terrible event and stopped for the night in a small country hotel.

The place had a few rental rooms, but most of the occupants were permanent lodgers. In a dark parlour, some of them were sitting in silence around a black-and-white television set, on which the sombre reports were being endlessly repeated. Then one of the old men spoke his thoughts aloud.

"I didn't care much for Kennedy," he said - for that was a staunchly Republican rural county.

"But if I could get my hands on the fella that did that, I'd castrate him."

It was not a figure of speech. The man had been a farmer, and was experienced at barnyard surgery.

Go where you need to, write what you think is sensible... and come back when you get sick
Editor, Missouri newspaper

Early the next year, the same editor who'd given me the civil rights assignment sent me to Africa. And I would discover there how far the slain president's charisma had reached.

We had not until then been a very internationally-minded newspaper.

African independence

"There seems to be some kind of commotion over there that we ought to tell our readers about," the editor said.

That "commotion", as he termed it, was the wave of independence sweeping the continent, turning colonies into independent republics.

"Go where you need to," the editor told me. "Write what you think is sensible. And come back when you get sick."

I was gone nearly four months and travelled much of Africa. More than once I saw Africans laying flowers in front of US information offices in whose windows photographs of John Kennedy were displayed.

In up-country Ghana I stopped for the night with a geological survey team in the forest village of Twifu Mampong.

The neighbours don't expect the November election to bring them miraculous prosperity - no election ever has. But they are eager to see their country restored to a place of honour again.
The young village chief sent a chicken to our camp for supper, then invited us to his compound, where his headman poured a libation to the memory of the dead American president and wished courage to his successor.

I spent an amazing evening in a drinking club in Salisbury, Rhodesia, where a table of whites and blacks were having a heated but civil discussion of their conflicting hopes for the future of the colony.

As the gathering broke up, the most forceful of the blacks, in a gesture that surprised me, stopped to express his sadness at Kennedy's death.

"I thought you said you were an African Maoist," I told him.

"Yes," he replied. "But he was our president too."

That began for me what would be roughly half a career of travelling the world for my newspaper - to east and west Europe, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and nine times back to Africa.

Closer to home

And what does any of that have to do with my own country in this season of an approaching election?

Just this. Nearly everywhere I have travelled, even sometimes in nations whose policies or interests conflicted with our own, I have sensed a respect for the United States, admiration for our accomplishments, envy of our freedoms, and a fair measure of forgiveness for our mistakes.

It is clear, now, that much of that credit has been spent.

My happiest journey these days is the 100 miles down the highway to my Ozark retreat. The shack has been enlarged and made into a real cabin.

More land has been added. And in a lovely wooded valley we've created a wonderful lake, stocked with fish that are growing fast.

I was there this past week with a friend and will be going back again soon with my wife and both daughters.

The neighbours along the road that fronts my cabin - and others I speak with in that rural area - don't expect the November election to bring them miraculous prosperity. No election ever has.

But they are eager to see their country restored to a place of honour again.

Obviously there is sharp disagreement between the major political parties about how it can be achieved.

But that is what the contest is about.

State Of The Union is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Fridays at 2050 BST and repeated on Sundays at 0850 BST.

State of the Union
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