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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

THE PERSPICACITY OF JESSE HELMS

I have not written about Jesse Helms because, frankly, he was a racist, misogynistic homophobe and deserves no further attention. He warned the citizens of North Carolina, in an 1963 editorial, that “The Negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that's thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic, and interfere with other men's rights." Jesse Helms never repented those sentiments. More recently he alleged that “Homosexuals are weak, morally sick wretches”, and he warned the voters of North Carolina that, “Your tax dollars are being used to pay for grade school classes that teach our children that cannibalism, wife-swapping and murder of infants and the elderly are acceptable behavior”. Jess Helm’s loyalist are now feasting on the poverty of his legacy. Except part of that legacy now includes the story of Mr. Leslie Frank Eason III, a 51 year old chemist by training and buttoned down bureaucrat by nature; L.F. has spent his entire adult life buried deep inside the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, as a petty bourgeoisie functionary, avoiding the hot spotlight of celebrity that Jesse Helms spent his life chasing. L.F. was the Director, for the last twenty-nine years, of the Standards Laboratory on West Edenton Street in Raleigh, where he and his eight employees were the guardians of the North Carolina metric pound and the calculated inch and the measure of the moisture content of grain. It was not a post whose responsibilities encouraged celebrity. Quite the contrary, L.F.’s whole life was dedicated to specificity and minutia and obscurity. His hobbies were, like his job, detail obsessed - woodworking and working with stained glass and, giving perhaps a just hint of what was possible in his soul, motorcycles.
L.F.’s life reached its moment of moral crises after Jesse Helms died of vascular dementia early on Friday, July 4, 2008. Helms was 86 years old and his death was not unexpected. So it was not unexpected that on Sunday, July 6, North Carolina Governor, Democrat Mike Easley ordered that the state and national flags at all state office buildings be lowered to half staff for Monday and Tuesday, in Helms’ honor. And that was when L.F. unexpectedly began channeling George Hanson, the small town lawyer in the gold foot ball helmet from the movie “Easy Rider”.Something irrational took hold of L.F. and drove him to compose and send the following email to his eight employees after midnight on Monday July 7. Evidently he did not feel what he had to say could wait until the dawn for a re-think. Perhaps he should have. He wrote, “Regardless of any executive proclamation, I do not want the flags at the North Carolina Standards Laboratory flown at half staff to honor Jesse Helms any time this week. This is in no way a political decision. I simply do not feel it is appropriate to honor a person whose epitaph of government service was to have voted against or blocked every civil rights issue that came before the US Congress. His doctrine of negativity, hate, and prejudice cost North Carolina and our Nation much that we may never regain."
It was, in a way, a declaration of independence by L.F., because he had begun to think of the Standards Lab as his nation. He’d gone to work for the Department of Agriculture straight out of college. And in 1984 L.F. and his then boss had first sketched the lab’s design on a napkin at the Atlanta Airport. L.F. had even lobbied the legislature to line up funding for the building. He later explained to a reporter, “I designed and built that lab. Even though technically the bricks and mortar belong to the state of North Carolina, I feel very strongly that everything that comes out of there is my responsibility.”The problem is that governments tend to run on little technicalities like owning the bricks and mortar, as L.F.’s wife, Cathy, had tried to explain to him. And the state also felt that the $65,235 a year that the state paid L.F. had bought them a certain degree of loyalty and obedience. But L.F. felt very strongly about this matter, as he explained to his bosses, Steve Benjamin, director of the Standards division, and the Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler (pictured above) and even Governor Easley. And on Monday morning they and their staffs began to inquire about the E-mail sent to the lab employees and the naked flagstaffs rising above the pedestrian plaza in front of the Standards Laboratory.L.F; wrote,“I cannot in good conscience honor such a man who fought so hard against Civil and Human Rights throughout his life. Even to his death bed, he refused to apologize for the damage he caused. Now, I stand by this decision. It is a personal decision, but obviously affects my job at the lab. It has been over ruled by Division and Departmental Management and as I look out my window, I'm ashamed to see the flags lowered ...”Ah, yes; by 10:45 on that Monday morning the flags in front of the laboratory had been raised and then lowered to half staff by an employee of the lab at the direction of Steve Benjamin, director of the Standards Division, and L.F.’s boss. Later that morning Steve had even taken a drive past the lab to assure himself (and the Commissioner and the Governor) that the flag was indeed still there. Oh, say does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave, or’ the land of the free, and the lab of the brave” It does, or it did. But what no longer waves over the lab is L.F.After 29 years of dedicated and humble leadership, there was some discussion as to whether L.F. was forced to resign or not. L.F. says he was given an ultimatum via the telephone; raise the flags or leave the lab. But in an e-mail, Steve Benjamin insisted; “You weren’t forced to retire, but (in my mind) you chose this as the most palatable option given your strong personal feelings on this”. And I am left to wonder why L.F. did not simply call in sick for the week instead of throwing himself atop Jesse Helms’ funeral pyre. But L.F. was clearly too dedicated to his job to have called in sick when the only thing afflicting him was having Jesse Helms stuck in his throat.
Well, I hope that Cathy Eason understands, because L.F.’s sudden loss of income may negatively affect her hobby of showing champion Cocker Spaniels: not as expensive a hobby as showing champion race horses, perhaps, but still far too expensive for the wife of anyone with deep principles, particularly when those principles tend to burst forth without warning.The internet has been abuzz since L.F.’s last stand. Someone named “Beel” on the Chatham County Bulletin Board proposed an “annual L.F.Eason award for courage and perspicacity.” While Aileen Jeffries on her blog (http://www.aileenjeffries.com/) suggested that L.F. should be noted for “recognizing that the act if dying doesn’t automatically make one a better person”, referring I assume to Jesse Helms -to which I feel compelled to point out, neither does getting fired. My heart is with L.F. but my mind can’t help but see him as the awkward college nerd who could define perspicacity but hardly practiced it. I wish him well in his retirement. God bless him. And thank God he was not working at a bio-weapons lab.

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