I grew up in the sixties and seventies here in the culturally rich region of Northern California, the Bay Area. When he was a teen, my dad couldn't wait to get out of Spencer, Iowa and after graduating from college he took the opportunity in 1957 to serve as a pilot at the Alameda Naval Base. Possibly there was a connection between the next-door Iowa county "Palo Alto," and his decision to settle in the extremely diverse community of Palo Alto, California. Even in those early years, this was a melting pot. For once in his life, my dad "fit right in." Northern Iowa was not the kind of place where a black-haired, blue-eyed, exotic-looking man could exactly blend into the community. Most were of German or Scandinavian descent, so Carl had to charm them with his intelligence and affability.
Sadly, my dad passed away unexpectedly from injuries sustained in a Memorial Day water-skiing accident just before my eleventh birthday. However, his star shone brightly and left indelible impressions on my soul about acceptance, fairness, and a sense of community. The town of Spencer, Iowa was a safe place for him but he longed to know other cultures and ethnicity; he longed to find his own. Being the strong personality that he was, I learned some important lessons from Carl at a young age. I'll never forget the day I learned that racial discrimination was inhumane. He had taken a few of us kids, including my neighborhood friend, to McDonald's on Blossom Hill Road for lunch, it must have been a Saturday. I remember ordering my favorite: hamburger, fries, and chocolate shake. (I'm convinced they tasted better in 1969!) A few of us sat in the rear-facing back seat on the way home, munching our burgers and slurping our shakes. As a few people with warm brown skin walked down the sidewalk, someone from inside the car--selective memory prevents exact recollection--yelled out the now nearly-extinct racial slur for no apparent reason other than to harass the walkers. It didn't sound right to me, but as a painfully shy girl I giggled anyway at her brazenness.
My most vivid memory of my father is attributed to what came next...His slamming on the brakes of the station wagon, followed by flinging out of the driver's seat and to the back of the car and the open rear window. His towering, six-foot-four stature glared into our wide-eyed faces as he made it perfectly clear that we were out of line, "Don't you EVER say that word again, DO YOU HEAR ME?????" Then he called across to the couple walking and apologized for his naive children. Dad did not speak the rest of the way home down Almaden Expressway, and neither did we. I don't think I finished my chocolate shake, nor do I remember liking them nearly as much after that incident. But I do remember the message from Carl that day, and the message of acceptance that he continued to live throughout his short 39 years: We are all acceptable, none is better than another.
Dad came from a homogeneous little mid-western community where he tried to fit in, and later when he arrived in the town I now call home he was determined to make others feel the acceptance he always craved as a child and teenager. I wish I could ask him how Dr. Martin Luther King affected him in those years, I have a hunch it was profound. In reading about Dr. King I see his timely themes of social justice woven into the empowerment of all races in America; this is evolving into present-day interpretation of contributing community service as a means to promote social equality and to celebrate his life. I can think of no better way to honor Dr. King, and Carl Steffens, than to give back to my community and to my fellow man on this relatively new national holiday. Thank you Dr. King for the legacy, and thank you Carl Steffens for making your unquestionable statement of racial equality to a bunch of ignorant little kids who didn't know any better until you set us straight!
Want to give back to honor Dr. King? This will inspire you:
Idealist Blog Post, Honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. with a day on, not a day off. http://www.idealist.org/blog/en/honoring-martin-luther-king-jr-with-a-day-on-not-a-day-off/
These are yearly events:
Martin Luther King, Jr. Week of Service: http://www.handsonbayarea.org/AboutUs/index.php/specialevents/MLK.htmlSign-up for a Community Service Project - The Palo Alto Jewish Community Center is organizing a day of service, with more than 25 local volunteer opportunities, ranging from habitat restoration, making cat toys and dog biscuits for homeless pets, visiting senior citizens, serving meals at a shelter, working on crafts for hospitalized children and helping with the creation of a library in Botswana. Details: www.paloaltojcc.org/mitzvah Info: www.CityofPaloAlto.org/dayofservice
Community Service on Lytton Plaza - The City of Palo Alto in collaboration with Youth Community Service (YCS) will provide opportunities to donate food and clothing and to participate in a volunteer project on Lytton Plaza. Bring the whole family between noon and 3pm. There will be music and fun for all - and more importantly, this will be a chance to do something to help others.