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As we approach this election and attend rallies and try to enthuse ourselves when many of us feel neglected or even abused, it occurred to me this morning that this story, written several years ago, might contain a nugget of relevance to the situation in which we find ourselves.

It is the story of three simple, but life-changing things I learned from a sailor I never met, and from a third-grader who is very near and dear to me.

It was out of respect that I participated over the years with black friends and co-workers in Martin Luther King Day celebrations.  But secretly, I felt like an outsider, an intruder.

No matter how much I believed in equal rights, I was still white.  In that most superficial but conspicuous way, I represented the race that had persecuted Dr. King's followers.

So how could I possibly relate to their suffering, when what I really wanted to do was forget?  The answer would come to me on Martin Luther King Day, 2001.

That day I had the privilege of hearing Tom Daniel Jr. speak to a group of young children about finding their place in America.  He began, as I suspect he always does, by mentioning his father, not by name, but as the young sailor in the photograph on his office wall.

He described his father's "crackerjack" sailor uniform - you know, like the one on the box - and said that his father served as a ship's cook aboard USS LST 1073, a tank landing craft, between 1942 and 1946.

And that's all he said before refocusing his attention on the children.

"I want you to remember three things," he said, "not just for today, but for the rest of your life.  Number 1:  The only thing you can control is your own attitude.  Number 2:  Whatever you do, do it with enthusiasm.  Number 3:  Have high expectations."

My thoughts kept drifting back to the sailor in the photograph.  The most common occupation for a black man in the navy of 1942 was mess steward.  Several distinguished themselves in combat.  But even while facing down Japanese kamikazes, their title was still mess steward.

There were 100,000 black sailors, and not an officer among them, until 1944, when the navy made a show of promoting 13 black men - "The Golden 13" they were called - to the rank of Ensign.  Those 13 men had the highest collective academic average ever scored by naval officer candidates, but they were given menial assignments and were never accorded the respect they deserved.

Ship's cook was the best the sailor in the photograph could do for himself.  If anyone ever had an excuse to be bitter, it was Tom Daniel, Sr.

But Daniel was not a man to be defined by the limitations placed on him by others.  He knew the measure of a man is not the ribbons and medals on his chest, but the character within his heart, in the face of impossible odds.

And so it was that a young sailor in his "crackerjack" uniform, somewhere in the Pacific in 1942, decided to make his own history, by investing in his future.  His future would be Tom Daniel Jr.

Decorated Naval Captain Thomas Daniel Jr. wears those medals and ribbons on his chest because of three things planted and nurtured in his heart.  Three little things.

A few months later, my then third-grader Evan entered his first spelling bee.  That would hardly be noteworthy, except for what we feared would be Evan's undoing.

People with Asperger's Syndrome often panic in social situations.  Evan used to hide behind me when a stranger approached.  How could he stand before an auditorium full of people and compete?  But he did.

As we walked to the car with his first-place trophy, Evan looked up at me and said, "Dad, I couldn't have done it if you had not told me the three things this morning.  I had high expectations."

I tried, but failed to hold back the tears.  Tears for a young sailor at war for his country, robbed of the very freedoms he secured for others; tears of joy that against all odds, this young sailor had reached across six decades and three generations to take the hand of my scared little boy and make him a champion.

Post script:  Evan went on to win several spelling bees, advancing twice to the regionals.  HIs experience there instilled in him a love for the English language.  He's now an 18-year-old senior about to enter college where he plans to major in technical communication and rhetoric with an emphasis on politics and government.  

Last year he competed at the Texas State UIL competition in Spelling and Vocabulary.  He was seventh in the state individually, and his team placed third.  This year, the coach made him the group's leader, and he is recruiting team members for the 2010-2011 competition.

Evan once received special accommodation, but always resisted the idea that he was somehow less capable than the neurologically typical.  He qualifies for extra time on the ACT and SAT, but refuses to take advantage of it because he thinks it gives him an unfair advantage.  He has practiced his social skills to the point that people meeting him for the first time are completely unaware that he is anything but typical.

I realize that not everyone with Asperger's is fortunate enough to have as mild a case as Evan's, and nothing I have said here should be taken to mean that I think special accommodation for the disabled somehow denotes "weakness."  It does not.  People with Asperger's Syndrome think through a different process than most, and that puts them at a disadvantage in a world designed for typical thinkers, but there is nothing inferior about their thinking, and in fact they often see aspects of life that most of us are incapable of seeing, and make contributions that would be difficult for the rest of us, held back by our own typical thought process.

Originally posted to ZedMont on Fri Sep 24, 2010 at 05:53 AM PDT.

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