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Social activism and the art of parenting

January 13, 2009

Like any parent, I’ve mostly learned not to lecture my kids.
It is not effective as a communication tool; it is tiresome for all of us and
can damage our relationship. I allow myself one exception, however, each year on
the weekend of President’s Day and MLK Day.  On most years over the past decade I’ve take
the opportunity to rant on an issue I feel strongly about, regardless of
whether they care to hear about it. It began more than ten years ago as my stubborn insistence that even
young children should observe a day of community service on this weekend although I eventually lost that battle. Lately my lecture
has taken the form of an essay I’ve asked them to read or a recording I’ve
asked them to hear. (Last year I asked them to listen to the entire “I Have a
Dream” speech). The tradition will continue this year.

This year’s message will be based on the theme of “The
M.T.A. Song” (aka “Charlie on the M.T.A.” or “The Man Who Never Returned”).
First of all, this is a fascinating folk song with an amazingly interesting
history. It is a capsule of American history in itself and a cultural landmark
in the construction of a protest song. The song was made famous by The Kingston
Trio in 1959 (the year before I was born) and had some influence on my father –
also a non-conformist and a fan of folk music.   A
recording of their version is available on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3VMSGrY-IlU .  (Thank God for the
media that allows the kids to relate to at least this single point). Since then
the song has been recorded uncounted times and even made its way onto my
step-son’s most recent TV episode of “Malcolm in the Middle”. I’ve enjoyed the privilege
of hearing it performed many times; perhaps the most memorable performance by
Pete Seeger. The meaning and background, I’m afraid are long lost to most
listeners. This song took on special meaning to me since I made a choice to be
an activist some years ago.

The song was actually written as one of seven jingles for a failed
political campaign in the days long before sound bites. There is much more
published about the history in several places including http://www.mit.edu/~jdreed/t/charlie.html.
 The point is that this is a protest song
about a $.05 transit fare increase.  It
is one person’s belief that it is unfair for the Massachusetts Transit
Authority to charge an extra nickel as an exit fee on top of the $.10 base fare.
The fictional rider (Charlie) protests by refusing to exit the train. I’ve
found parts of the song to be hilarious; i.e. the use of the phrase “tragic and
fateful day” and the part about Charlie getting his lunchtime sandwich.

Let me tell you the story
Of a man named Charlie
On a tragic and fateful day
He put ten cents in his pocket,
Kissed his wife and family
Went to ride on the MTA

Charlie handed in his dime
At the Kendall Square Station
And he changed for Jamaica Plain
When he got there the conductor told him,
"One more nickel."
Charlie could not get off that train.

Chorus:
                       
Did he ever return,
                       
No he never returned
                       
And his fate is still unlearned
                       
He may ride forever
                       beneath
the streets of Boston
                       
He’s the man who never returned.

Now all night long
Charlie rides through the tunnels of the
station

Saying, "What will become of me?
Crying
How can I afford to see
My sister in Chelsea
Or my cousin in Roxbury?"

Charlie’s wife goes down
To the Scollay Square station
Every day at quarter past two
And through the open window
She hands Charlie a sandwich
As the train comes rumbling through.

As his train rolled on
underneath Greater Boston
Charlie looked around and sighed:
"Well, I’m sore and disgusted
And I’m absolutely busted;
I guess this is my last long ride."

Now you citizens of Boston,
Don’t you think it’s a scandal
That the people have to pay and pay
Vote for Walter A. O’Brien
Fight the fare increase!
And fight the fare increase
Vote for George O’Brien!
Get poor Charlie off the MTA.

I have listened to the song dozens of times and sometimes, I
admit, actually with water in my eyes. The reason for my emotion has never
clear to those around me. So here is what the song says to me and the real
message of this post:

Social activism does not need to be about important world-changing
events. We each have the freedom to choose our points of decision and take a
stance on any issue at any time of our own free will! No one tells me what is
important, what is right or wrong, or what my reaction will be to any event. This
simple realization makes me feel more happy to be alive than any other I can
imagine. I pray that my children may enjoy the same feeling of freedom.

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