an Online Journal of Sorts

By Alyce Wilson

June 11, 2004 - Day of Mourning

Since today is National Ronald Reagan Day, in honor of the late president whose funeral is today, I had decided to write today about my memories of growing up in the Reagan years.

And now, as it turns out, we've got another great American to mourn.

Ray Charles passed away yesterday at the age of 73 from complications of liver disease. He was one of America's most beloved musicians, over the years penning countless hits ("Hit the Road Jack," "Georgia," "Shake a Tailfeather"), performing at high profile events such as Ronald Reagan's second inauguration, and even acting ("Blues Brothers").

As I was growing up, President Ronald Reagan was the first president I really noticed. Before that was Jimmy Carter, of course, but the most I knew about him was that he had been a peanut farmer. The hot political joke amongst my classmates was "the president came from Mars in a peanut shell."

During the 1980 elections, my fourth grade class held a mock election to learn about the electoral process. We each cast a vote by secret ballot, and then the teacher read the results. I would guess most students did what I did and voted for the candidate their parent liked.

My mom was strongly against Reagan, even though four years previously I distinctly remember her and my dad getting ready to go out on election night and her saying, "If that Carter wins, I'll scream."

So I cast my vote for Carter. When the teacher read the results, they were astounding: one vote for Carter, the rest for Reagan. "Reagan would have won," she announced. But my classmates were concerned about only one thing: who voted for Carter?

There were rumblings at lunchtime. "Who voted for Carter?" they demanded, their voices rising in volume and intensity as they hoisted invisible pitchforks. "Who voted for Carter? Burn him! Burn him!"

Suspicion eventually fell on the class scapegoat, a skinny, shy, disheveled boy who wore ill-fitting, out of date hand-me-downs and was rumored to pick his nose, put it on the bottom of his shoe and then eat it later. A disgusting habit that, in retrospect, he probably never performed.

Nor did he vote for Carter. I was in a unique position to know this, but I stood by silently as they dragged him away to his recess punishment, he insisting the whole time, "But I voted for Reagan!"

Lessons about the electoral process, indeed.

Reagan was president during my teenage years, as I transformed from awkward middle schooler to offbeat college freshman. All those years, I must admit, I never gave too much thought to his eloquence or his grace under pressure. That was simply how presidents were supposed to behave. Only more recently, under George W. Bush, for example, did I learn that Reagan had a unique charm few others possess (Clinton had it; the Bushes didn't).

All those years, my mom was highly critical of Reagan's policies, referring to him as if he was the enemy. And yet, I would hear his speeches and, knowing little about the intricacies of policy, wonder what she was talking about. If only all our "enemies" were so affable, so witty and so kindhearted.

Now, as a 30-something adult, I know enough about politics to enumerate the various policy points on which we disagreed. But I still mourn Reagan as a great leader, who did what any great orator, any great writer, must do: motivate those who already agree with you, convince those who are on the fence, and offer enough concessions to the other side that, even if they don't agree with you, they respect you.

I honor, also, Nancy Reagan, who stood by his side through every difficulty, and whose tireless dedication during his battle with Alzheimer's will likely continue, as she becomes more and more involved in advocacy for Alzheimer's research.

The Great Communicator has slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the face of God.

For as long as I can remember, my dad loved Ray Charles. When we were young, visiting Ocean Grove, New Jersey, for summer vacations, we would walk by a certain building in Asbury Park and he would unfailingly tell us about how he'd seen Ray Charles perform there in the '60s. A magical experience, he said.

So when, as a Penn State student, I learned that Ray Charles would be performing on campus, I got us tickets. My dad, my brother and I attended a concert none of us would ever forget.


When Ray Charles took that stage, it was like the sun had come out. I wrote a poem about it:

Ladies & Gentlemen - Ray Charles!

Electric smiles surge
through thousands --
grunt and melody,
legs swing up to heaven.

Reflect this spirit up
and blind the sun, baby!

The concert was fantastic. Ray Charles performed all his classics, backed by a band and numerous background singers, the Rayettes. His boundless energy, million-watt smile and smooth, smooth performance had all us all jumping to our feet for encore after encore (I think he played about three).

So much love in that room, and Ray was the inspiration.

For a Christmas present for my dad the following year, I tried to find the Ray Charles Christmas album. When I had no luck, I looked around for another album. But none of them contained the sampling of hits I wanted to include, a sampler that would remind us of that incredible concert.

Instead, I combined the radio station's Ray Charles collection with a couple albums I signed out from the public library and put together a tape I called The Best Ray Charles Collection Ever. I mixed it down in the production room at the station, and to this day I can say it's one of the most thoughtful, appropriate gifts I've ever given my dad.

I made a copy for myself, natch, and it remains one of my favorite mix tapes.

About four years ago, my dad and I got one more chance to see the great Ray Charles perform. This time it was just the two of us, in a venue in Williamsport. This concert was different than the high-powered one we remembered.

First, there were sound problems. The guy mixing the sound was clearly incompetent and you could barely hear the keyboard Ray Charles was playing. I actually went back and complained, and they made adjustments.

After that, the mix was better, but Ray Charles was clearly ailing. He still had the million-watt smile, but he seemed less energetic, less sure of himself. His performance was still solid, but he seemed to be having trouble, for example, walking to and from the keyboard. It seemed, to me, as if he was fading out.

Only after he died did I learn the likely cause of his problems: liver disease. A slow wasting disease that does to the body what Alzheimer's does to the mind.

Last night, I called Dad and told him the news. He hadn't heard it yet, and he was clearly saddened. But when I told him about the liver disease, we both agreed that at least his suffering was over.

And now that he's stepped out of his ailing body and winged toward the light, I have no doubt that brilliant spirit is shining down on us all, singing one more encore. And then, maybe another after that.

In fourth grade, ballots are never secret.

Copyright 2004 by Alyce Wilson

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