The Story to Keep Me Going

June 25

Every night from 5-9pm us Obama fellows have call time. During this massive, enduring four hours our job is to go down a call list, and depending on our objective, discuss with those on the other end different topics. The goal could be persuading former Clinton supporters, getting to know the issues in a certain community, or asking others to volunteer with the Obama campaign. Whatever the case is, it is a very trying four hours. I thought I’d be prepared for the occasional angry, obscene person who answers my call thanks to my tour guide training in the call center at Cornell. But call time doesn’t come close. It’s like call center on every steroid or human growth hormone you can imagine.

There are some people who just say no and hang up, others who say they’re voting for Obama but please don’t call back, some supporters who volunteer, and others who screen their answering machine then pick up at a time they desire and curse you off. EG: “John McCain you dumb ass.” Every now and then, and it’s more frequent than one hopes, one of us callers comes across the “openly racist voter”. Once in a blue moon there’s an “openly racist voter” who decides that calling back would be a great way to vent their frustration and starts cursing at you, calling you and Obama names, and ends by saying you’re a n***** lover. These are the times where you just have to take a break and recover or else you start thinking, ” Do I really want to call another person,” or “Is America really ready or are we just fooling ourselves.” Eventually I come across the ever anxious volunteer who is just as ideal and excited as I am and that conversation revives my spirit.

However, two nights ago I talked with an 80 year old woman who told me a story I won’t forget, a story that will keep me going no matter how many racist McCain supporters or angry cursing citizens I come across on my nightly calls. I don’t need to hear anything else for as long as I live.

Her name is Mary Ritchie. She’s a lifelong Republican, but this year is voting for Barack Obama. My call with her lasted 12 minutes. She did all the talking…all the talking being the roughly paraphrased story below. She cried at the end, my throat choked.

 Every time I see Barack Obama walk on stage I can’t help but think of little Eddie. Eddie was black and a brilliant boy. He died when he was 7 after excessive bleeding during surgery. My son and Eddie were best friends in Belpre, Ohio while growing up. Every day they’d walk home from school with their arms around each other’s shoulders. Mind you this was in the early 50’s. Every white person walking along the street craned their necks to look at them. I wasn’t raised in a bigoted family so I didn’t know until then what racism was. Even today people say they aren’t racist, but when they let their guard down you can tell they are. My son and Eddie would play in the yard when they got home. On Sundays we would go to church and I taught Sunday school. For a couple years Eddie didn’t come and I asked his parents why. They said they were afraid for my safety if I were seen teaching a black kid. I told them, hell no I’ll protect Eddie and if that ever happened I’d walk up to the front of the church and tell everyone what happened. Then I’d walk out and never come back. So then Eddie started going to Sunday school with my son and I was able to teach that brilliant boy. One time afterwards I was walking with Eddie’s mom and invited her to the pancake house to eat breakfast. We walked there and she said she couldn’t go in. I asked why, you got two legs. She said black people aren’t allowed in there. I said well hell then let’s leave. So we did, and I never went back. Eddie died sometime later and I brought my son to his funeral. I tried to explain the difference between the body and the soul, but he didn’t understand so he brought two cookies to the funeral. We walked up the hill and he tried giving one to Eddie. That’s when he understood the difference between the body and the soul. After the funeral we went home and he ate both cookies while he was crying. Anyway, I know Eddie would’ve been a wonderful person and when I see Barack Obama walk on stage I can’t help but see Eddie and the person he would’ve been if he were still alive. I’m so glad I’m alive to see this moment.

Its people like Mary Ritchie who have grown up in an ocean of racism but still maintain the moral high ground that makes me believe our time has come.