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All American

Armchair quarterbacks are nothing new, and it turns out it’s even easier to be an armchair pundit. The NFL’s willingness to kneel and unwillingness to yield has moved the national pasttime from the football stadium to the political arena. Complaining from the comfort of a couch carries little weight with those whose service to their [...]
J.R. McMillan

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Armchair quarterbacks are nothing new, and it turns out it’s even easier to be an armchair pundit. The NFL’s willingness to kneel and unwillingness to yield has moved the national pasttime from the football stadium to the political arena.

Complaining from the comfort of a couch carries little weight with those whose service to their country includes crouched in a cage in a Vietnamese jungle, and it’s why you shouldn’t mistake Columbus’s George E. Smith for the familiar stereotype of a crusty old vet disconnected from the debate of day.

He’s outspoken, articulate, and offers no apology for either. With more social media savvy than those half his age, he confesses the most moving rendition of the Star Spangled Banner he’s probably ever heard was from Lady Gaga. There may even be a bit of Bernie Sanders amid his outrage, tempered by optimism. Smith is the street-smart septuagenarian whose hip, political acumen defies his age, one by which many of his peers are less concerned about current events than a hip replacement.

His story is so singular, Smith wrote a book about his experiences in 1971—one that ruffled enough feathers that the publisher cut their own name out of the front page of every copy before its release after being threatened with violation of the National Security Act.

Smith was raised in a loving home of limited means in Steubenville, Ohio, and joined the Army on his seventeenth birthday to escape the cycle of poverty common among those who enthusiastically enlisted rather than fearing the draft.

“I actually quit high school because I didn’t have the proper clothes. I was embarrassed to go to school,” Smith recalled. “I knew the Army would clothe me and feed me.”

He ultimately enlisted in the Airborne, though his 120-pound frame was easily outweighed by his parachute and combat gear. “Getting up out of the seat was a the hardest part. Getting out of the plane was easy,” he chuckled.

After serving his time, Smith returned briefly to civilian life, yet struggled as many vets still do. Minimum wage jobs at a dollar an hour barely offered more opportunity than when he enlisted the first time.

“I’d been a photographer with the Airborne. I even worked with some of the movie producers by the end of my time,” Smith explained. “But when I reenlisted I just ended up repairing film projectors.”

Working in the combat film archives, Smith saw lots of footage, including some from Special Forces—which as he put it, “looked like a lot more fun than repairing projectors”. Training for more than a year, he became a Special Forces medic presumably destined for Africa.

By Brian Kaiser

“They had me scheduled for Swahili school, but they said they were changing their ‘area of study’ to Vietnam,” Smith noted. “I knew nothing about what was going on in Vietnam at the time.”

Assigned to a “hearts and minds” campaign, Smith was part of a 12-man “A-team” stationed in a small compound in the South. His role was largely making house calls to local farmers and their families, most of who had never seen a doctor before. Smith was on a 90-day extension but the whole unit was assured they’d all be home by Christmas given the direction of the conflict.

But all of that changed November 22, 1963.

Word of Kennedy’s assassination made it to the camp by radio. Special Forces were considered by critics to be the president’s private army, essentially outside the Pentagon’s control. Later that evening, the camp was overrun by guerillas.

“We played pinochle in the evenings to wind down,” he recalled. “But that night, our interpreter who used to play with us went home early instead.” Shortly thereafter, the bugle sounded and the compound was under attack.

“They were getting first round mortar hits. The only way that happens is if someone from inside the camp had paced it off,” Smith explained. He grabbed his gear and emerged to find white hot, tracer rounds reigning down on the compound. “They’d captured one of our machine guns on the corner of the camp and turned it around on us.”
A handful of personnel, civilian and soldiers escaped, including the lieutenant charged with gathering intelligence from the nearby villages. Within minutes, Smith was among only four survivors who were captured by a force of more than 400.

“They tied a rope around my neck and dragged us through the villages for people to come out and see,” he noted. “The Viet Cong had the support of the people. We did not, or we never would have been captured.”

Smith expected to be killed immediately, but was instead marched to what would become his home for the next two years. Though fed a minimal ration of rice and bush meat and often tormented, he was unwilling to describe his treatment as “torture.” He and his fellow soldiers were used as forced labor, but refusal to comply with making punji stakes and sweeping their captors quarters was dealt with harshly. Smith found himself on the wrong end of a rifle repeatedly, but maintained his will.

“There were times when I knew the guard wanted to kill me,” Smith said. “But they knew we were Special Forces and had to keep us alive. They probably needed someone else’s permission to kill us at that point.”

Only after additional POWs arrived and it was apparent the encampment was becoming more permanent did they risk escape. Smith helped the strongest soldier among them slip out under the cloak of darkness and the cover of rainfall on the jungle canopy, knowing that he and his fellow troops faced likely execution.

“We’d planned to go together, but we knew we could give him a better head start if we stayed. We were in the same cage, so I knew they’d hold me responsible,” he explained. “They were going to execute me, but I talked my way out of it. I told them he didn’t trust me and didn’t tell me about his plans to escape—that he was the one who left me behind.”

The iconic photo of the execution of a Viet Cong captain by a South Vietnamese police chief is infamous, but hardly the first. Such summary executions were common for years. One night, one of Smith’s fellow prisoners who had mouthed off to a guard was marched further into jungle never to return. Only a shot in the distance. Told it was retribution for such executions by the South Vietnamese, none of the captives knew until long after whether he was executed, or if the whole incident was staged. It was not.

Unbeknownst to Smith and his sole remaining comrade, the antiwar movement in the US had become impossible for the press to ignore. A Quaker named Norman Morrison, a graduate of the College of Wooster, had set himself on fire just outside the Pentagon—an act likely inspired by a Buddhist monk who had done the same two years earlier in Saigon.

Hopeful that their camp’s location was compromised again, the two soldiers were surprised to find themselves being dropped in front of the Australian embassy in Cambodia. Allegedly in response to Morrison’s well-publicized suicide, they had been released, according to their captors, as a show of sympathy. But what should have been a relief became another kind of captivity.

“We thought we were going back to the United States, but they flew us to Okinawa and charged us,” Smith revealed.

Smith and his comrade found themselves accused of aiding the enemy—presumably for allowing themselves to be photographed as prisoners and being released in response to events of which they had no knowledge. “Propaganda” they said, with prison a real possibility, technically even the death penalty. The reversal seemed surreal.

After months of hand-wringing and legal wrangling, Smith received a general discharge—neither honorable, nor dishonorable.

“I guess you were on our side all along,” said a commanding officer at the hearing. “I always was,” Smith politely replied.

Though he openly calls Jane Fonda’s trip to North Vietnam “a childish mistake,” it didn’t stop him from appearing with her in the U.S. in opposition to the war—but not those who served.

“I was the only POW Green Beret willing to talk about my experiences in Vietnam. We traveled for six weeks across the country, mostly student unions,” Smith recalled. “We wrapped it up in California and all went home for Election Day.”

Though McGovern was considered “the peace candidate,” Nixon’s reelection was decisive.
“We weren’t just speaking out about the election. We were speaking out against the number of poor and black soldiers who were fighting and dying,” he explained. “Selective Service is ‘selective’, not a draft like WWII where an enemy was threatening our shores. We needed a draft then, one that took everyone, not just those who weren’t rich enough to get out of service.”

Somehow Smith managed to do all of this while ironically employed by the U.S. Postal Service. He was instrumental in the early days of the postal workers union, so much so, he was promoted to postmaster, thus making him a part of management—and thus, ineligible to remain in the union.

“When there’s a new president, we change out their portrait at the post office. The old photos are just discarded,” Smith explained. “But when Nixon was forced to resign, I kept it. It was my trophy.” (BTW: He still has it.)

It’s hard for younger generations to fathom fame before the advent of the internet, but Smith was that kind of celebrity—though the term would hardly be one of his choosing. He disrupted the narrative of who was and wasn’t sufficiently “American.”

He wasn’t a draft-dodger, yet he opposed the selectiveness of Selective Service.

He enlisted twice, and served among the mostly elite fighting forces of the US military, yet learned firsthand how lack of support from the civilian population, in Vietnam and the US, determines the success or failure of any military campaign.

Branded a traitor upon his release and even after his discharge, and unwilling to remain silent about his ordeal, he became a different kind of prisoner in a different kind of cage.

The entire experience remains fresh, frustrating, and haunting. That’s why it’s crucial, he says—regardless of where you stand, or kneel, when it comes to the National Anthem—to listen to someone whose patriotism has been both celebrated, and questioned.

“The government has co-opted the flag to the point that it’s no longer ‘our’ flag,” he noted. “Wrapping any issue in the flag is the reason we are so easily divided. It’s certainly not what the founding fathers intended.”

Though the term “identity politics” is relatively recent, its role in latter-day propaganda from both major parties isn’t overlooked either by Smith.

“It’s an effort to break us into smaller groups, isolate us, and pick us off one by one.”

“What does it mean to be a patriot? I don’t think it means you must agree with me or you’re not one,” he said. “If someone calls you un-American, how do you disprove it?”

Smith knows all too well how difficult that can be, even decades later.

Smith’s 1971 book P.O.W. Two Years with the VietCong, is available in hardcover via Amazon.com.

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The Interview: Wil Haygood

Author / Journalist / Curator Everyone loves an underdog. And in our interview, celebrated Columbus author Wil Haygood referenced many feel-good sports stories woven into the fabric of American culture. From Remember the Titans, to Hoosiers and Friday Night Lights, he maintains that the feat accomplished at East High during the 1968-69 school year, in [...]
Kevin J. Elliott

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Author / Journalist / Curator

Everyone loves an underdog. And in our interview, celebrated Columbus author Wil Haygood referenced many feel-good sports stories woven into the fabric of American culture. From Remember the Titans, to Hoosiers and Friday Night Lights, he maintains that the feat accomplished at East High during the 1968-69 school year, in which the Tigers won championships in basketball and baseball 55 days apart, eclipses them all.

“I would never like to be called an activist,” says Wil Haygood when asked if he might consider himself such. “That’s not my game. I’m here just to find a good story. It’s my calling to be objective. I could never just tell one side of the story.”

Yet, in reading his latest book, Tigerland, and immersing the reader in the strife East High faced in the wake of the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the “feel-good” triumph of two championships takes on a higher purpose. There’s so much more to the story. It’s the tale of a segregated city getting its first African-American principal in Jack Gibbs. Of the white basketball coach Bob Hart, choosing to settle in an East side neighborhood he was warned against. The players, and mothers of players, who persevered in the newly developed housing projects despite overwhelming odds. Haygood may not want the title activist, but Tigerland could easily serve as guide in how to counter civil unrest, especially now, fifty years removed.

That objective journalism is becoming more of a rarity is troubling. Haygood’s storytelling is a resistance, and in Tigerland it’s a redemption story brought “from the shadows” that is uniquely complex and distinctly of Columbus. He insists there are many more stories of Tigerland’s ilk which must be exposed. The uncovering of a zeitgeist forgotten is a theme consistent with Haygood’s recent curation of the Harlem Renaissance exhibit at the Columbus Museum of Art. In I, Too, Sing America (also an award-winning art book), he chose to spotlight lesser-known writers and artists of the era that continue to play “an enduring role in moving us forward.” How that dais influenced the cultural rise of African-Americans in the Mt. Vernon neighborhood where the sub-plots in Tigerland play out, is palpable in Haygood’s words.

In talking with Haygood, he’s acutely aware of how Tigerland’s legacy and the continued re-awakening of the Harlem Renaissance add to the social discourse that accumulates to this day. Our interview here is abridged, if only because we spent a taut 45 minutes veering down rabbit holes created by the vivid representation Haygood paints of Columbus, Ohio in 1968. Fortunately, it’s a conversation that has and could last for generations.

In an interview you talked about Tigerland not being the story “you were born to write, but a story that the rest of the world needed to hear.” Why is this now such an important story?

Wil Haygood: When I traveled around the country, to about 25 different cities talking about this book, people constantly asked me if the release of Tigerland was intentional given how timely the story was. It just happened that it was the 50th anniversary of the famous Olympic protests by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the Colin Kaepernick narrative was playing out, the President of the United States was attacking black athletes for their social activism—these were the things on the mind of so many people on this tour. Of course, I didn’t time it, but this story is just so topical, it’s so rich with drama, it just calls for very enlightening conversations with the people I met across the country.

I love it for the locality, and learning about a Columbus I never knew existed. So I’m curious to know if the heroes in this book, Bob Hart (East’s white football coach), Jack Gibbs (East’s first black principal), and the Tiger athletes, have always been heroes in your eyes, especially growing up? Did Columbus, en masse, know the history being made on the East side of town? 

WH: The city was so segregated that it was hard to give the East side its proper due. A figure like Jack Gibbs—he’s someone who you can almost make a movie about his life. It took so much perseverance and so much focus for the student body of East High to do what they did in that 1968-69 calendar year that I thank the literary gods for the foresight to return to my hometown and pull this story together. Frankly I kept waiting for this to be written by someone else, given the amount of high school sports stories that are on the shelf. I’m not trying to rate this story against any of the others, but I do think that it’s a book with a sports theme. It’s also a book that’s about far more than sports.

Was this your favorite book to write?

WH: That’s a tough question, but here’s how I’ll answer. As a little boy, I lived in the North side of the city. When I lived there East High was a mythical place and I had never laid eyes on that school. But I knew about it because it seemed to be this spiritual epicenter of the East side. It was where you had a lot of black teachers, an all-black student body. Your uncles, aunts, and cousins would always be talking about East High School. It constantly grew in my little boy mind. I lived within walking distance of the Ohio State Fairgrounds, so I would always beg my mother to let me go watch the team play. You had to be there. It was a lot wrapped up inside of me as I approached this book, because in a real way I was writing about my heroes. I’m sure that my history and emotions played a part in me wanting to do this book.
What memories do you have of Columbus during that time, that reminds you that no place was isolated from the racial and social unrest of the events of that era?

WH: In the summer of 1968, the very summer of after Martin Luther King’s assassination, my mother moved her five children to the Bolivar Arms housing project. Within weeks of moving there, there were riots on Mt. Vernon [Avenue]. I, as a 13 year old boy, saw National Guard tanks right through my screen door. It was a very frightening summer for me to wrapped up in that racial turmoil. I did not know that urban unrest on the North side of town. That street was integrated, our neighbors were white. Then I was thrust into this community on the East side that was feeling pain—the pain of a lack of good housing, a lack of jobs. The whole environment of urban America was set right outside of my front door.

How much do you think Columbus has progressed since the time of Tigerland in accepting inclusion and fostering growth in underprivileged neighborhoods like the East side?

WH: There has been a lot of maturity and growth in this city. I’m very proud of a lot of things that have happened. There is no big city in this country right now that doesn’t have social problems, but I think Columbus has done a much better job than some cities certainly in creating a peaceful dialogue over the years. I think that there have been stories that haven’t been championed as much as they should have. There is a gap in what the young people of Columbus know about the city’s past. Another fact from the book is that during that school year in 1969, East High sent more kids to college than they ever had before. Those are stories people need to know.

As a teacher of many students who come from broken homes and neighborhoods, I’d love to know what advice you give to young people?

WH: Since the release of the book I’ve spoken to Somali students in St. Paul, Minnesota, to white students in rural Maryland, black students in Dayton, Ohio. I tell students that on their darkest day, on that day when they feel like the world is not loving them enough, that they need only to take inspiration from these East High Tiger athletes. Eight of the twelve basketball players’ mothers worked as maids, many of them did not have fathers living in the home, two of them had fathers in jail, and none of them were born with a silver spoon in their mouth. But what pushed them and helped them succeed was a championship attitude before they dribbled a basketball or swung a baseball bat. They knew they wanted to be successful. They can lean into this story and they can rise up. Sports is a very gentle way to open the door to talk about poverty, racism, and sexism. You want to hear about how the winners won and how the losers dealt with losing.

Wil Haygood will be the first featured speaker of the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Carnegie Author series on Jan. 27th. Register for free at Eventbrite.com.

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Remembering Chris Bradley

What will be the job of a meteorologist in heaven? I’m not sure if I think of heaven as a place of eternally ideal weather, but I do think of it as a place of purpose. There’s a job for everyone in heaven. When I first met Chris Bradley, I didn’t know who he was. [...]
Laura Dachenbach

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What will be the job of a meteorologist in heaven?

I’m not sure if I think of heaven as a place of eternally ideal weather, but I do think of it as a place of purpose. There’s a job for everyone in heaven.

When I first met Chris Bradley, I didn’t know who he was. I was new to King Avenue United Methodist Church, and Chris was just a nice guy corralling his young son in the milling area, which was full of other people I didn’t know. He was the dad that everyone wanted, standing with a watchful and proud eye and who was always ready for a hug and kiss. Such a stunning smile, I thought. Almost like a trademark. He was the friend everyone wanted to be with, adding a buoyancy, an accessibility, a welcomeness to the conversation. Sharp ties. This guy’s got some sharp ties. The more I observed, the more I wondered. Somehow, he seemed like someone I knew, or should know. One day, I decided to engage Chris in the only awkward conversation I knew him to have.

“So what do you do?”

“The weather on Channel 10.”

The dots started to connect. My face became warm. I started wearing hats and sunglasses and avoiding Chris for a couple weeks, hoping he’d forget me. But that wasn’t possible with the gregarious Bradley-Krausses, and eventually I grew to know and adore this charming and very musical bunch: Chris (who was an adopted child) his husband Jason, and their two adopted children Spencer and Maria—four people connected not by blood, but by their love for each other. The Bradley-Krausses became activists simply by being a family and living out their love for each other and their community with endearing authenticity, creating bonds that have extended beyond the loss of a family member.

In their dying, some people give the rest of us life because they illuminate what life should be about. Chris Bradley’s death from an aggressive form of acute myeloid leukemia was one of those moments. We can sometimes strangely forget the worthiness of our own lives—the reality that life is indeed more than existence and schedules and tasks. Chris fought for his life because he knew life was worth living. And we should also fight every day for this rare and precious privilege to be alive: to understand all that we can, say all that we can, and be all that we can for however long we are called to do so. Life itself is a terminal illness, and once in a while we are granted a remission from that affliction in being allowed to witness a soul such as Chris love life so much that we cannot help but fall in love with it again.

Weather is defined as an “act of God” because it is completely out of our control. Death is also out of our control. Both tend to depress people. I imagine the great faith in God Chris maintained throughout his life and illness is why he could confront both these inevitabilities with awe, never letting either of them overwhelm him, make him become bitter, or lessen his spirit.

Weather is what makes our planet alive. Chris is now a part of the rain that will nourish the beloved gardens around his home. He is part of the sunshine that will smile on his husband and children. He’ll be in the iridescence of every rainbow we post on Instagram and part of the joy of every Columbus kid’s snow day. Each time we marvel at the mercurial, if not downright wacky amalgamation of temperature and precipitation that is Columbus weather, we will remember our Chris Bradley.

Welcome to the incredible green screen of heaven Chris. You’ve still got a job, we’re still watching, and I have my derecho plan. Thanks for that.

Donations in the memory of Chris Bradley can be made to The Columbus Foundation. Visit columbusfoundation.org/fund/bradley/3730.

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A League For All

It’s draft day for your fantasy football league. As of now, everyone in the room is friends as they share insider tips, sleeper picks, and the laundry list of avoidable athletes. But in a few moments, the friendships joined by football end, and those faces in the room now become your week-to-week enemy. If this [...]
Mitch Hooper

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It’s draft day for your fantasy football league. As of now, everyone in the room is friends as they share insider tips, sleeper picks, and the laundry list of avoidable athletes. But in a few moments, the friendships joined by football end, and those faces in the room now become your week-to-week enemy.

If this sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is. After all, it’s fantasy football. But anyone who plays in a fantasy league knows one thing: winning is everything and a year of bragging rights over your closest colleagues is a feeling comparable to very little.

With the highest highs of winning comes the lowest of lows of losing. It doesn’t matter if you have crafted the perfect squad from top to bottom—injuries occur, athletes are traded, and expectations for your sleeper picks were just a little too high. Thus, your league dues are simply put into the pocket of your frenemies, or worse, the random people you met online when you joined that Yahoo league at the last second.

“The traditional way of just giving isn’t really a lot of fun … You make the gift and then it’s over with…By gamifying giving, what you’re leveraging really is the experience of feeling good about giving to a cause, but having fun while you’re doing it.”

This situation happens all too often in the fantasy sports world. The week-to-week challenges offered on FanDuel are often saturated with fantasy pros who make a living off competing against the common sports fan, and the long-term season ends with only one true winner, so your odds of coming home with the cash are slim. However, DraftMates, a fantasy sports app dedicated to raising funds for 501(c)(3) charities, is a chance for the casual fan to delve into the fun of winning, bragging rights, and trash talking—arguably the best parts of fantasy sports—while also giving back to the charity of your choice.

Created by Matt Golis, a Miami (OH) graduate and a Columbus-native, DraftMates was a dream that started in the Bay Area and made its way to Columbus. With the San Francisco traffic, the cost of living, and the struggle to build a team to design this application, Golis said he started to toss around the idea of moving back home.

“It was really difficult to hire a team with that type of a model,” Golis said. “[There] just aren’t the rabid sports fans like there are in
Columbus in the Bay Area.”

Fast forward roughly five months and now it’s Golis, a team of six members, and an office in New Albany.

By creating your league through DraftMates, each league member will pay the traditional dues to the commissioner, but instead of that money going into a pot for a winner-takes-all style competition, each member picks a charity to represent their team. If your team wins the league or in a weekly face-off, 85% of the profits will go towards that charity. The other 15% is spread across DraftMates for operations, and you know, keeping the lights on.

The idea, Golis explained, is something akin to a “gamified GoFundMe.” While fundraising services like GoFundMe as well as Facebook’s donations feature offer a chance for people to donate money to essentially anything—medical bills, a new car, your Aunt Suzie just needs a vacation and can’t afford it—DraftMates takes a different approach that allows the user to feel like they are getting an experience out of their donation.

“The traditional way of just giving isn’t really a lot of fun,” Golis said. “It’s kind of like you put your credit card information in online and you just say ‘donate now.’ You make the gift and then it’s over with…By gamifying giving, what you’re leveraging really is the experience of feeling good about giving to a cause, but having fun while you’re doing it.”

By doing this, it accomplishes two different things. First, if you are winning, you get the pleasure of knowing you are the champion and the charity of your choice will benefit from it. On the other hand (and this is what fantasy sites like FanDuel can’t offer), if you lose, your money is still going towards a good cause and not your buddy’s drinking money.

And the FanDuel experience is actually what Golis is trying to stay away from. DraftMates is for the casual sports fan, and even if you aren’t an avid sports watcher, the app offers an auto-draft and auto-pick feature that will take all the stress out of it for you. The idea here is not to cultivate a community of charity gambling, rather, a chance for people to have fun doing what they were already doing, while also giving back.

While as of now DraftMates offers fantasy leagues for the NFL and NBA, Golis said they are working on rolling out options throughout 2019 for many different sports varying from March Madness with college basketball to the PGA. Who knows? Your next office March Madness bracket could be held through DraftMates where each buy-in benefits the charity your office selects. At the end of the quarter, inning, or day, the participants have fun competing, the charity is able to raise funds for the things it needs, and everyone gets to be a winner.

DraftMates is available on Google Play or the App Store.

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