I was searching for my childhood copy of Uncle Remus stories, the topic of which had come up lately as part of a conversation about racial divides in this country. It’s hard to find a copy of those stories today that has not been edited to make it more acceptable. I’m told the “tar baby” is now referred to as the “glue baby” in later editions. Until I was told last week that tar baby was a racial slur, I had no idea. In all of my days of avid reading, and in my memories of Disney’s movie “Song of the South,” for the life of me, I always thought the tar baby was just the shape of a baby made out of tar by Brer Fox and Brer Bear. I had never, ever connected it to African Americans. The newer “glue baby,” I’m told, is now pictured as white. Makes sense, I guess. Glue is usually white and tar is usually black. I suppose the story can be told just as well using glue.
But in the process of finding Uncle Remus, I also found Dr. Suess’ “Cat in the Hat” and “Cat in the Hat Comes Back.” Buried under all of it was my favorite book as a beginning reader, “A Fly Went by” (Mike McClintock, Illustrated by Fritz Siebel, Random House, 1958).
I’ve often recited those four opening lines in my head:
I sat by the lake.
I looked at the sky,
And as I looked,
A fly went by.
I had long ago forgotten the rest of the story so I quickly sat down and read it straight through.
The premise is a boy out enjoying a summer’s day that is soon interrupted not only by the fly but by the frog, cat, dog, pig, cow, fox, and a man with a gun all seemingly chasing one after the other. They all feel imperiled by the creature closing in behind it. They think they are being chased: the fly by the frog, the frog by the cat, the cat by the dog, and, well, you get the picture.
One might think that the culprit in all of this is the man with the gun. He does seem to be bringing up the rear. And it certainly would be a teachable moment. But, no, it turns out the man just happens to have a gun in his hand, but he’s running in fear of some unknown sound behind him. He hasn’t seen what’s making the terrible noise, but he has conjured up in his imagination something terrible, something big, something very frightening. He’s just sure that if whatever it is catches up to him it will kick, bite or even kill him.
The man runs on and the boy turns around to see what kind of heinous creature is coming next.
It’s only a lamb. A small lamb with its foot caught in a tin can. The lamb tells the boy that it just wanted help from the man but the man ran away and the lamb was trying to catch up but was made lame by the tin can which held its right back hoof hostage. All the lamb could do was clunk along as it sought help.
There are several messages to be found in these pages, for sure, not the least of which might be environmental, but I think for me as a child the lesson I took from it was that I shouldn’t be afraid of things or sounds that I don’t know. Just because I hear something go thump doesn’t mean that it will hurt me. It was probably a good lesson for someone who has always been afraid of the night.
But as I re-read it today, I thought of how much fear I have – that so many of us have – of what’s out there in the world. There are so many more unknowns now than there were when I was a child. But then I remember the bomb shelter my dad tried to build and I wonder if the fears we have today are greater or if they are just different.
Certainly, I think it is safe to assume, when we think as children that our fears will go away, we find, to our dismay, that we become adults we just trade one fear for another.
Then again, I know people that appear to be fearless. I wonder what that might be like. And while I envy the fearless, for the most part I don’t want to be one of them. Most of the fearless people I know are a tad bit hardened, less compassionate than I want to be. Perhaps in my case, my fears cultivate my compassion. My fears for the safety and well-being of others nurtures my desire to reach out and care for them or advocate for them. There are days when I just shove my own fears aside so that I can tend to the needs of others who have so much more to fear than I – or whose fears are so completely different from my own that setting my sights on helping them relieves me of the fears I have for myself.
I can remember telling my mother on more than one occasion that I was afraid of something. When I was very, very young, maybe three or four years old, I can remember telling Mom that was I afraid I was going to die. She was busy making supper, I think. I know she didn’t put down her chopping knife to even look at me. She just pronounced it wasn’t going to happen.
I’d like to think that if a child came to me with an expressed fear that I would stop what I was doing and give comfort in words, in facial expression, with a hug, helping her to figure out exactly what was causing her fear and how she might be able to set it aside or to learn from it.
I remember 1968. I was in high school. In St. Joseph, Mo., we were removed from the racial riots in Kansas City but there were concerns of what might become of all of that. I remember that I was not afraid of my Black classmates, but I was afraid of violence. As well-educated as I was for a 16-year-old, I avoided discussions of that which I feared. Perhaps that was the right thing for me at the time, but not only did I avoid confronting issues of race, I also avoided all talk of Vietnam, a subject that would haunt me for the rest of my life. Perhaps if I had allowed myself to be subjected to more information, to learning, to conversations about all of it, I might have made some better choices for myself along the way. Maybe my fears would not have been alleviated, but perhaps my fears would have more constructively led me to wisdom and to compassion for others.
Today, however, I find some of those old fears returning as I look at the state of the world. I find less people who want to really converse about what’s going on and more people who have just circled the wagons to protect their own way of thinking and believing. Fearmongering is the rule of the day. It is divisive and intended to be so.
Sometimes we have to learn the hard way. But I suspect that a “beginner book” called “A Fly Went By,” aided my understanding that I have to confront my fears, learn about them, talk about them. Otherwise, I would be paralyzed by them and I would be useless in allaying the fears of others. And I may not stick around long enough to help a lamb made lame by an old tin can.
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long. – Psalm 23