So, What Finally Happened to the Chavez Family?

It only took a couple of days to get our house back in order and for our dog and cat to realize that it was ok to come out of hiding. For two or three weeks, I did not think much about the family until one day as I was walking from my office to a lunch meeting in downtown DC, I noticed in front of me a family, nestled under a blanket, sitting on the sidewalk on the corner of a busy street. As I got closer, I realized that it was the Chavez family. I immediately turned around and crossed to the other side of the street. Close call. There were several other close calls over the next two weeks, and in each one I wimped out, going to great lengths to avoid them. The thought of their moving into our house again was too much. We also got a call from Rosa asking if we needed any more painting, which we of course declined. After that they seemed to disappear from the downtown sidewalks, and I assumed they had moved on.

Then the next week in the “Style Section” of the Washington Post appeared a feature article with headline, “What Will Become of the Chavez Family?.” The article was extremely critical of the Chavez family accusing the parents of child neglect and abuse due to using their children for panhandling. What had prompted her to write the article was that after she had reported the family to the DC Child Protective Services, the family had not shown up for a mandatory court hearing. Embry immediately took issue with the reporter from the Post and called her to complain about her insensitivity. The Post reporter hung up on her.

Embry had pointed out that the parents loved their children, were doing the best they could, and that there might be some mental illness associated with the father. I do not believe that José was trying to exploit the situation when they were living in our house. He genuinely believed the hourly wage I proposed was below what it should have been and that the total job cost should have been $1,500. For him it was a matter of self-respect and pride.

In any event that was the end of Chavez family for us. We never saw them again. It is unlikely that there was a Cinderella happy ending.

The Chavez story happened in the early 1980s, almost 45 years ago. The children would now be entering middle-age. What kind of lives have they had? Were their parents still alive? I tend to overuse the metaphor of everyone being dealt a hand of cards to play on one’s life journey, and that we humans will be judged according to how well we play the hands we have been dealt. Think about the hand that each of the Chavez family children was dealt. José and Rosa probably started off with poor hands as well. And then think of how many other families and how many other people there are who get dealt very tough hands to play.

Life is not fair.

While homelessness was a problem in the early 1980s, the problem has persisted and even gotten worse. The homeless count in the U.S., based on the annual “point in time” (PIT) survey nationwide, was over 650,000 in 2023 and this does not consider people and families who are doubling or tripling up, staying temporally in a hotel, or “couch surfing” with friends, which if counted would probably triple the number of homeless people. The number of households nationwide who are “housing insecure” is estimated to be 10 percent of the population and increasing. No single cause has driven the troubling trend of increased American homelessness though an unequal financial recovery, a shortage of affordable housing and housing vouchers, limited access to critical healthcare, the cessation of COVID-era aid programs, and an immigration influx  are all important.

In DC the number of homeless in 2023 was just under 5,000 in the PIT survey. The number of shelter beds, however, was only about 1,200. Two thirds of the homeless are single people, many but not all, with serious substance abuse or mental health issues. One third are families. Shelter beds are temporary overnight accommodations, first come/first served, which require everyone to clear out during the day. They are hardly a long term, desirable, or permanent solution to the housing crisis. Tent encampments are now ubiquitous making some areas of the District of Columbia look like a third world city.

Why can’t the richest country in the world do better? Why can’t “the most important city” in the richest country in the world do better? This will be the subject of the next blogpost.






Oldies but Goodies: Helping the Homeless

This true story happened in the late 1980s and is reprinted in case you missed the first one, which appeared in a blog post many years ago.

In the mid 1980s a homeless family appeared on a cold Saint Patrick’s Day, shivering in front of our local drugstore.  Embry saw them first; and when I got home, she handed me a stack of blankets and directed me to see what I could do to help.  It was around nine o’clock in the evening, and the wind chill had to have been in the twenties.

I walked over to the drugstore, which was only a few minutes’ walk from our house, where in the dark shadows a young couple and three small children were huddled next to the entrance of the drug store. A large beat up  suitcase  rested next to them.  People were walking past them, not making eye contact. You never know what to do in situations like this. But they were not begging, just sitting on the sidewalk, freezing.

I handed them the blankets and asked where they were planning to spend the night. The husband, probably around thirty, answered with a thick Spanish accent, “Church, señor.” Thank God, I thought. The idea of their freezing was bad enough, but the thought of them ending up in our house was out of the question.

What else could I do to help this family?  Our house always needed work. Maybe the guy could do a little painting. When I asked if he could paint, he nodded enthusiastically, and we agreed to a plan. He would come by the next day, Saturday, return the blankets, and I would pay him to do some painting. I suggested he come by around mid morning and gave him our address. I smiled as I returned home and reported the successful outcome to Embry.

At six  the next morning, we were awakened by a loud banging on the front door. I had no idea who could be knocking on our door so early on a Saturday, stumbled out of bed, and inched my way down the stairs trying to see who it might be. It was the homeless family. In the dawn I was able to get a better look at them. The guy was short and stocky and had a big mustache; and his wife had dark hair and was rather pretty. She had the features of a native American and was quite pregnant. The three little ones in tow were about four, two and a few months old.

 “Here to paint, señor!”

“Well, yes, but it is a bit early…”

The guy’s name was José, and his wife was Rosa. Rosa said that her husband was from El Salvador, and she was part Sioux and part Seminole and had grown up in New Mexico. They were very appreciative for the blankets. She said they had found a place they could rent for $250 a month but that they were flat broke. It was hard to understand José with his thick accent, but Rosa usually translated from broken English to understandable English. Oddly, she would repeat to José what I said in English, not Spanish. Then I realized that she probably did not speak Spanish.

Okay, I thought, we have a baseline number to work from. If I could give José a painting job for $250, that would start to solve the immediate housing problem. There was still an issue of food, but at least they would have a roof over their heads, and it would be a start. So, I proposed to José that he paint our master bedroom for $250 and that I would advance him the money so that he could secure the apartment that day.  I also agreed to buy all the painting supplies. I had recent estimates for painting a room, and the $250 I negotiated with José was about the right number. Pretty fair deal—we would get a room painted, José and his family would get shelter and a start on the road to employment.

Day One. Saturday. Andrew, our fourteen-year-old son, and his ten-year-old sister, Jessica, were a bit puzzled to find a ragtag family in our living room when they came down for breakfast on Saturday but seemed to understand. I took  José to the hardware store where we got all the supplies; and he enthusiastically started to paint the bedroom while his wife watched the children, who by now were crawling or toddling around the house terrifying our dog and cat. Shortly after lunch everyone disappeared, presumably to put down the $250 for the apartment.

By six o’clock they had not returned, and I naturally assumed they were warmly tucked away in their new apartment. In fact, I was feeling so good about the situation, I offered to treat everyone in our family to pizza at one of our neighborhood restaurants. As the four of us munched away, I used the occasion as a teaching moment. I had always tried to be a role model for our children and to set a good example. I pointed out how I was empowering this poor, homeless family and not just giving them a handout, how actions like this could change the world, and how proud they should be to have a father who really got it, who understood how to make a positive impact in the world.

I noticed some skeptical, puzzled looks but got generally approving nods.

On the way back home, as I turned into our driveway, I almost ran into the back of a car with the motor running. On the back window was a sticker which said “Dartmouth College.” I figured the car belonged to a friend of our neighbors’ teenage children, who were always blocking the shared driveway. After muttering a few curse words, I got out of my car and walked over to the car in the driveway. As I got closer, I could see two people in the front seat and several smaller bodies squirming around in the back. It was José and his family.

“Oh, just parking, señor,” he cheerfully replied. His children were crying and whimpering in the back seat.

“But where did you get the car?”

His wife translated his broken English, “My husband says he bought it today. Good value. $250 down.”

I took a deep breath and asked timidly, “Well, why don’t you just stay here for the night?” My family had remained in our car, and all were observing the action with great interest.

José protested, saying unconvincingly that sleeping in the car was fine. His wife pleaded for him to let them come in; and before I could walk back to my car to fill everyone in on what was happening, the entire family was on our front porch, shivering. “God bless, God bless,” said Rosa several times.

This happened on the evening of Day One.

Embry was leaving on Sunday, the very next day, for a business trip to California and taking Jessica with her and would not return until the next Sunday. My parents were arriving on Monday, the day after Embry and Jessica returned to spend the week before Easter with us as was their custom. My parents were wonderful, tolerant people but they were also of the older generation. To cohabitate with a homeless family would have sent them to an early grave.

Day Two. Sunday. On Sunday afternoon, I took Embry and Jessica to the airport. We talked about the situation at length in the car. That morning Rosa had confided to Jessica that she was terrified of her husband, that he beat her constantly, and that she had to escape. Jessica considered giving her all her savings from odd jobs. Both Embry and Jessica were supportive and understanding. But they both were headed to sunny California. I grimly headed back to the house.

I had offered the homeless family the use of our bedroom in the basement, which we used as a guest room and where my parents usually stayed. But when I got home it was obvious that they had the run of the house. The living room was a wreck, and the house had the smell of a zoo with soiled diapers rolled up in virtually every available wastebasket.  Andrew had disappeared as had our dog and cat. I went directly to the bedroom, shut the door, and collapsed in bed. I could not help noticing that only a very small portion of one wall had been painted.

Day Three. Monday. I got up as early as possible, left a note that I hoped José would finish the work that day. If the house was a wreck on Day Two, on the morning of Day Three it was in shambles. Having a bowl of cereal—the only food I could find in the house–I bumped into Andrew, who was getting ready to leave for school.

“Dad,” he said cheerfully. “I think what you are doing is really good and I support it. When you get it all worked out and the family is gone, let me know. Until then I am moving in with Bronson.” Bronson was Andrew’s best friend.

So now it was just me and the homeless family. Day Three was not getting off to a good start. I tore up the note and rewrote it saying that the job had to get done now or else. I returned home at the end of Day Three around six, anxious to see what work had been done to the master bedroom.  No one was around, and there was a note scribbled on a typewriter sheet taped to the bedroom door.

 “Dad, I don’t think you want to go in there. Love, Andrew.” He must have had to come back to pick up something.

With a trembling hand I slowly opened the door. The room looked like it had been hit by a tornado. José had taken all my clothes out of the closet and thrown them on the bed; and in painting the room, he had splattered paint everywhere—on the bed, on the rug, on the floor, and most unfortunately, on all my clothes. He had poured the paint into a pan in order to use a roller, and the animals had walked across the pan leaving paw prints everywhere. This was actually a positive sign that the pets were still alive since I had no idea where they were hiding. At least José had gotten the message and was painting the room. I guessed he was about half finished. I slept in Andrew’s room in the attic where to my relief I found both pets cowering in the corner.

 Day Four. Tuesday. I admitted that I had a problem. The first step in any recovery program is to fess up, to realize your shortcomings, and  to take action. I also was aware that on the next Monday, Day 9, my parents would arrive. Should the homeless family still be ensconced in the Howell house at that time, it would be a nuclear event. The clock was ticketing.

I conferred with several of my colleagues at work. Everyone suggested that I should get them into a homeless shelter. The problem was that at that time there were few options for homeless families, only for homeless single people. With some calls I determined that there was one shelter for homeless families called “the Pitts.” It was located in a decent neighborhood not too far from our house, and I decided to drive over and give it a look. The name was derived from its former use, “The Pitts Hotel,” and it was not in the best of shape. The building was rundown and decrepit—paint coming off the sides, a couple of broken windows, trash everywhere, and graffiti.

It looked like a pretty good option to me.

So when I got home, I was pleased to find José, though he was not doing any painting, and the room remained half painted in its chaotic condition.

“José,” I replied, “Have you ever considered living in a homeless shelter? I understand that many are quite nice. In fact there is one very near here, the Pitts.”

“No Pitts, man, no shelter. Shelter no good.”

I encouraged him to be open minded and told him I was making a call to the Pitts to see if they had any room.  A pleasant enough woman answered the phone and replied that they did have room for homeless families. I explained that I had a family temporarily living with me and would like to bring them over to take a look at the place.

“Well, don’t waste your time,” she exclaimed, “We are not taking the Chavez family. They are disruptive and we have already evicted them twice. They are banned from the premises forever.”

“Wait a minute, I didn’t say who they were. I don’t even know what their last name is.”

“The guy, a Mexican with a mustache and short?”

He was from El Salvador but he was short and had a mustache.

“Wife, some kind of American Indian, pregnant?”

“Well, yes.”

“Three tiny kids?”

“Now hold on one minute. I turned to José. “José, what is your last name?”


I sadly reported that it was Chavez family. She told me not to feel too bad since I was the fourth or fifth family who had tried to bring them in over the past year. “Where do you live, Georgetown?” she asked. I told her Cleveland Park.

 “That figures, “she said, “But Georgetown is their favorite.”

When I asked her how I could get them out of my house, she said except for the Pitts, there were no shelters for homeless families with vacancies in DC; and if there were, they would not take the Chavez family. They were blacklisted. Maybe I should try one of the counties where the family was not known.

I thanked her for her time and immediately called Fairfax County, explaining that I had a very nice, temporarily homeless family staying with me and wondered if they had space available. Absolutely, she said, Fairfax County had a brand new facility, state of the art, and there was plenty of room. It seemed most of the homeless families were in DC. Thank God, I thought, at last a break. I told her I would bring them by in about an hour. All she needed was a little information starting with my address. When I told her I lived on Macomb Street, she paused for a moment and said that it did not seem like a Fairfax County address. I told her it was in DC.

“Sorry, we only take homeless Fairfax County families. You must go to DC. You will find that policy applies everywhere.” I explained my desperate situation, to which she volunteered, “Well, you can bring them across the bridge and then dump them. Then call 911 and high tail it back to DC. They will probably end up here that way.”

And that is how Day Four ended. Work on the room seemed to be at a standstill.

Day Five. Wednesday. When I briefed my colleagues at the office on the latest events, someone gave me the name of a good landlord tenant lawyer, whom I called immediately. I explained the situation and asked him what my options were. The key issue, he said, is whether I had invited them into my house. Well, yes, I told him that it was very cold and I did actually invite them in.

“Bottom line, sir, they own your house. DC has the strongest tenant-favored laws in the nation; and if you invited them in, they will stay there until they are ready to leave. Even if the law were in your favor, it would take six months to get  a judge to rule and he would probably rule against you. They are now yours, baby.”

I felt a panic attack coming on and considered calling 911.

That was the end of Day Five. I returned home late, around nine, avoided the Chavez family, fed the pets in the upstairs attic, walked the dog, and collapsed in Andrew’s bed, hoping I would wake up the next day to find that all this was just a bizarre nightmare.

Day Six. Thursday. I awoke somewhat refreshed but with the somber realization that I had three days to get them out of the house by whatever means necessary. I took off from work. My sole objective was to make this happen, recognizing that I had virtually nothing left in my arsenal. I had no option but to throw myself at their feet and beg for mercy.

Around ten in the morning José wandered upstairs with a paint brush in hand. This was a good sign. When I asked him if he thought he would be able to finish, he said he was stopping work because he had not been paid. Not been paid? I had advanced him $250. He replied that he had already worked more hours and needed more money to finish. Enraged, I regained my self control and told him I would pay him $12 an hour to finish up.

Hearing that, José screamed at me, “$12 an hour? You no good sheet! You are a no good sheet! $18 an hour they pay in California!”

Rosa was watching and translating, “My husband says you are a no good shit”

“I heard what he said! Okay, forget the hourly rate. Let’s discuss how much money total it will take for you to finish up the room and clean up everything.”

 José calmed down and did some calculations in his head. He said it would be $1,500.

This time it was my turn to lose it. I exploded. “This is a complete outrage! I got an estimate a month ago to paint the room from a professional painter and it was $250. I have already paid you $250 and what do I have? The room is only half painted. Paint is everywhere—on the rugs, the floor, my clothes are ruined. You have eaten me out of house and home. Soiled pampers are in every corner of the house. The house is a complete wreck. My dog and cat are hiding in terror. My wife has left me. My daughter has left me. My son has left me. And even if I had $1,500 in the bank to give you, which I do not have, I wouldn’t give it to you. You have destroyed my life….” I was sobbing before I finished.

He turned his back and charged down the stairs. Rosa said I had hurt his feelings and followed him. I sat at the top of the stairs, alone, feeling a little better that I had gotten it off my chest, though as a practical matter I was still in deep trouble. The nuclear event when my parents would arrive was now on a three day count down.

A few minutes later, he trudged up the stairs with Rosa. “Okay, señor, $1,000.”

“Do you swear, do you swear on a Bible and on your mother’s grave…” I had no idea what this meant, but it sounded like it might mean something to a Salvadorian. “Do you swear on your mother’s grave that you will finish and clean up everything and be out of this house by Saturday evening, at the latest? Do you swear?”

He nodded, yes.

I breathed a deep sigh and wrote him a check for $1,000. At last, we seemed to be getting somewhere.

Day Seven. Friday. I fixed breakfast and went downstairs to see what was going on. Rosa said that José had torn up the check, stormed out and would not paint until he was paid in full in cash. I explained that I could only take out $500 a day from the ATM, which was the policy at that time. He then appeared and said he was not doing anything without the cash. I exploded and told him it was $500 in two installments or nothing, and that he had to be out of the house in 24 hours. He consulted with Rosa and reluctantly agreed. We both went to the ATM around the corner and I took out all I was allowed to and would get him the balance the next day. That afternoon he returned with a friend and they started to paint.Two days until the nuclear event.

Day Eight. Saturday. Jose and his friend, who seemed to know how to paint, finished the job around two in the afternoon, cleaned up the bedroom, took their belongings and were out of the house by five pm, paid in full and broadly smiling. A miracle, to be sure! I sat on our front porch in relieved disbelief. How could I be so lucky? All the agony, yet they were gone. Our cat and dog cautiously returned from their hiding places in the attic. 

Day Nine. Sunday. Embry and Jessica returned from their California trip at noon. Andrew, hearing the news that the coast was clear, returned at three. I gave them a briefing of my eight days in hell. They listened wide-eyed with great interest as I described every incident, smiling, and summing it all up that at last everything was back to normal and all was good in the world.

But was it? Where were the Chavez headed? Did they have another place to stay? The family did have a thousand dollars, but how far would that get them? And what did the future look like for this family? What about  their three–soon to be four–children? Well, I thought, whatever happened was not on my watch anymore. I do not recall a time in my life I ever felt more relieved.

Day Ten. Monday.  My parents arrived in a cab at noon from their flight from Nashville. After the hugs, they asked how everyone was doing and if there was any news. “Oh, no news to report.” I replied, smiling painfully and breathing a long sigh of relief. Over the course of the week, however, I did fess up, telling them about the Chavez family as they listened with painful looks of disbelief, realizing how close they had come to what I have referred to as a nuclear event. They had dodged a bullet, albeit barely. 

While all was well with the Howell family, all did  not turn out well with the Chavez family,  and what happened next  will be the subject of the  next post.


American Armageddon: The Fight for the Soul of the Nation, Part 2

A Letter to the President

Dear Mr. President:

Thank you very much for reaching out to me for advice. Well, ok, maybe you didn’t actually reach out to me, but you would have if you had been reading my blog. I understand. You have been going through a lot lately and have a lot on your mind. And by the way, terrific job on the State of the Union Address! You showed vitality, conviction, and fire-in-the-belly. This is important going forward if you are going to defeat the most dangerous candidate for President of the United States that we have ever seen. I don’t want to make you nervous. I know you know how high the stakes are and how narrow the road to victory. A false move here or there could mean disaster, but I have confidence you can do it. Here are ten things that I believe will give you an edge and lead to your reelection. The target audience, of course, are the independents, swing voters, and traditional Republicans fed up with Trump—and your focus will be on the six or seven swing states. I am assuming for the moment that there will be no convictions or jail time for your opponent before the election. If there are, your chances should improve, but in the crazy MAGA world, a conviction might even give Trump a lift. However, you will win if you follow my advice:

  1. Stay healthy and vigorous. The State of the Union address was a good start. Yes, you are old, and age will remain a concern for many voters. I am a few months older than you are. I cannot begin to fathom the pressure you are under as President of the United States, not to mention the challenges in running an all-out campaign. I could not do it, nor could anyone I know who is our age.  (And the hit job by Hur describing you as old and feeble with memory loss was a punch below the belt. Shame on him!) That you have been a great president in your first term makes you a superstar in my book and for many others. But since age seems to be the major factor in negative polling, you can’t let up with your vigor and energy, and you can’t afford a health or age-related stumble. Since you have over seven months to go, you will have to balance your energy level with a pace that is more akin to a marathon than a sprint. In your favor is the fact that Trump is only a few years younger and frankly shows more far more signs of aging than you do. If you were running against a Nikki Haley or a Ron DeSantis, it would be a different story, but you are facing another old codger, who does not seem to be playing with a full deck. Don’t let the voters forget the age of your opponent, his many incoherent remarks, and his gaffs.
  2. Showcase Kamala. This is related to the age issue. If something were to happen to you, your vice president would take over. Kamala Harris is not popular with many voters, not so much because of anything she has done or not done, but because we do not know that much about her. Give her more chance to shine and to stand out. Many voters this year will be thinking about the ticket as well as the presidency.
  3. Keep the focus on the main issue: democracy versus autocracy. This is the main issue of the campaign and do not let voters forget it. Trump is a wannabe dictator. If he gets elected, it will be the end of democracy in the United States. He has told us what he plans to do. This is the most important election in our lifetime and probably in American history.
  4. Spell out a plan for immigration and border control. This is a very complicated issue but a very important one with no easy or noncontroversial solution. But you need to have a plan that is fair, equitable and achievable, and that people can understand.
  5. Empathize with those struggling, even those who are now supporting Trump. Feel their pain, which is real. Continue to talk about your blue collar roots and your commitment to working people, White, Black, and Hispanic. Compare your roots with those of Trump, who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, stiffed many contractors and working people, and has been convicted  of illegal business practices.
  6. Talk about the major accomplishments of your administration, keeping in mind that many do not yet believe or understand how these accomplishments have benefitted them personally. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 was huge in creating jobs for people without college degrees. The majority of jobs and infrastructure projects are still to come. Your administration has aggressively addressed climate change and promoted clean energy. Under your leadership there has been low unemployment, higher wages for working people, and expanded health care and social benefits. The list is long. Focus on how this benefits middle income and working class individuals and families. Your foreign policy supporting Ukraine and opposing Putin is important for European stability and point out how your opponent’s plans could end NATO. Explain why inflation has been a problem but under your leadership has fallen off dramatically and is close to the Fed’s target. Compare your record to Trump’s and focus on how his tax breaks for the rich lead to higher inflation and sky rocketing deficits.
  7. Champion a woman’s right to choose and keep reminding people that Trump is responsible for the antiabortion policies due to his extremist Supreme Court appointments. If you are reelected, remind people you will work to overturn the antiabortion initiatives due mainly to Trump.
  8. Do not hold back from personal attacks on Trump. You can bet that he will use every ounce of his strength to go after you personally. He will mimic you, ridicule you and make fun of you. Give back to him what he deserves. He is a monster. Remind people of the indictments and (hopefully) the convictions. No more mister nice guy.
  9. Talk about tax policy and what you will do to level the playing field. The big corporations and the super-rich should pay their fair share. The biggest problem we face is the widening gap between the superrich and everyone else and the challenges of ordinary people who live from paycheck to paycheck.
  10. Stay the course, but do not make a big issue of the culture wars. Continue to support LGBTQ rights, and support DEI and ESG initiatives but do not make them a centerpiece of your campaign.

So, Mr. President, follow my advice and you will win. I have not mentioned voter turnout and boots on the ground and assume your campaign will be highly focused on that. It could make all the difference in swing states.

But there is one other thing that I have not mentioned, which may turn out to be the toughest of all, and that is the War in Gaza and the horrific scenes we see every day on the television news with children dying of starvation and innocent people in desperation. Over 30 thousand Palestinian have been killed–mostly women and children–many more have been wounded. Much of Gaza has been destroyed. Yet Israel persists, following the orders of its extreme right wing government. It is not your fault, Mr. President, but this war is bordering on genocide and crimes against humanity.

 It is not antisemitic to oppose what Netanyahu is doing to innocent people in Gaza. Yes, what Hamas did was worse, but is that the case now and does it justify atrocities against Gaza civilians? The U.S. has given billions of dollars to Israel, much of which has gone to support their supply of weapons, bombs, and ammunition. We don’t know if our money has gone into the war that has killed thousands of civilians in Gaza. If it has, we could be considered complicit. Virtually the entire world has turned against Israel except for the U.S., which historically been Israel’s chief ally. We are the only country in the UN Security Council to veto UN resolutions censoring Israel.

For many of your Democratic supporters—especially those with ties to Palestine—this is not acceptable. If the War in Gaza continues into the summer along the lines that it is now, you will likely lose the election in November. Many in the Progressive Wing of the party will stay home. You certainly will lose Michigan, a key swing state where there are many Palestinians, but probably other swing states as well. “Yes,” the Progressives will say, “we love you, Joe, but this atrocity has happened on your watch. We can’t vote for you.”

The counter argument goes, “The situation in Gaza is horrific, but Biden is far better than the alternative.” That is also correct, but people vote with their hearts, not their minds, and the hearts of many Progressive Democrats and others in the U.S. and around the world are broken by what they see happening to innocent people in Gaza. If this can’t be “fixed” –or at least substantially improved soon so that people are no longer starving to death and civilian casualties are drastically reduced–your chances of being reelected are slim. I know that you are working on this now. I am praying there will be a breakthrough.

And one final point: If your health begins to fail or if you have an incident which puts into question whether you can continue to campaign aggressively or to handle the demands of the Presidency, you should step aside and let the convention decide who is the Democratic candidate. I certainly hope that does not happen, but as one octogenarian to another, people our age do tend to slow down. Health issues do happen.

Thanks, Mr. President, for considering my advice. Good luck, give it all you’ve got, and stay healthy!

Your friend,


Joe Howell



American Armageddon: The Fight For the Soul of the Nation, Part 1.

No, I do not see the current political battles in the United States as threatening the end of the world, but the battles could portend the end of America as we know it if Trump and the MAGA revolutionaries win what I am calling “The Final Battle.” Despite a strong showing in his State of the Union message, Biden is still trailing Trump in the polls conducted in key battleground states. Except for the Civil War, the stakes have never been higher.

We do not have to rely on speculation. Trump has told the world on Truth Social and MAGA rallies exactly what he plans to do:

  • He will remove the guardrails that (barely) kept his first presidency from going off the cliff. Here is a list of 24 of his top aides, each of whom was fired or quit, and what they have said about the former president. These aides would be replaced by sycophants in a second Trump Administration.
  1. Mike Pence. “The American people deserve to know that President Trump asked me to put him over my oath to the Constitution. … Anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be president of the United States.” 
  2. Bill Barr: “Someone who engaged in that kind of bullying about a process that is fundamental to our system and to our self-government shouldn’t be anywhere near the Oval Office.”
  3. First Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis: “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people – does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us.”
  4. Second Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper: “I think he’s unfit for office. He puts himself before country. His actions are all about him and not about the country. And then, of course, I believe he has integrity and character issues as well.”
  5. Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley: “We don’t take an oath to a wannabe dictator. We take an oath to the Constitution, and we take an oath to the idea that is America – and we’re willing to die to protect it.”
  6. First Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson: “Trump’s understanding of global events, his understanding of global history, his understanding of US history was really limited. It’s really hard to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t even understand the concept for why we’re talking about this.”
  7. Nicky Halley: “He used to be good on foreign policy and now he has started to walk it back and get weak in the knees when it comes to Ukraine. A terrible thing happened on January 6, and he called it a beautiful day.”
  8. Transitional Team Vice Chairman, Chris Christy: “Someone who I would argue now is just out for himself.”
  9. Second National Security Advisor, HR McMaster: “We saw the absence of leadership, really anti-leadership, and what that can do to our country.”
  10. Third National Security Advisor, John Bolton: “I believe (foreign leaders) think he is a laughing fool.”
  11. Second Chief of Staff, John Kelly: “A person that has nothing but contempt for our democratic institutions, our Constitution, and the rule of law. There is nothing more that can be said. God help us.”
  12. Acting Chief of Staff, Mark Mulvaney: “I quit because I think he failed at being the president when we needed him to be that.”
  13. Former Communications Director, Anthony Scaramucci: “He is the domestic terrorist of the 21st century.”
  14. Former Communications Director, Sarah Grisham: “I am terrified of him running in 2024.”
  15. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos: “When I saw what was happening on January 6 and didn’t see the president step in and do what he could have done to turn it back or slow it down or really address the situation, it was just obvious to me that I couldn’t continue.”
  16. Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao: “At a particular point the events were such that it was impossible for me to continue, given my personal values and my philosophy.”
  17.  First Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer: “The president has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military, to fight ethically or to be governed by a uniform set of rules and practices.”
  18. First Homeland Security Director, Tom Bossert: “The President undermined American democracy baselessly for months. As a result, he’s culpable for this siege, and an utter disgrace.”
  19. Former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen: “Donald’s an idiot.”
  20. White House lawyer, Ty Cobb: “Trump relentlessly puts forth claims that are not true.”
  21. Director of Strategic Communications, Alyssa Farah Griffin: “We can stand by the policies, but at this point we cannot stand by the man.”
  22. Aid in Charge of Outreach to African Americans, Amarosa Manigault Newman: “Donald Trump, who would attack civil rights icons and professional athletes, who would go after grieving black widows, who would say there were good people on both sides, who endorsed an accused child molester; Donald Trump, and his decisions and his behavior, was harming the country. I could no longer be a part of this madness.”
  23. Former Press Secretary, Sarah Mathews: “I thought that he did do a lot of good during his four years. I think that his actions on January 6 and the lead-up to it, the way that he’s acted in the aftermath, and his continuation of pushing this lie that the election is stolen has made him wholly unfit to hold office every again.”
  24. Final Chief of Staff Aide, Cassidy Hutchinson: “I think that Donald Trump is the most grave threat we will face to our democracy in our lifetime, and potentially in American history.”
  • He will irrevocably alter the role of the United States in world affairs. He is unlikely to select competent, experienced leaders who would be his foreign policy advisors.  
    1. He has hinted he may attempt to pull the U.S. out of NATO and cut off aid to Ukraine.
    2. He has hinted that he will reduce foreign aid to desperate countries.
    3. He has already cozied up to Putin, Erdogan (Turkey), Oban (Hungary), Kim Jon Un (North Korea), and other authoritarian leaders. More will likely follow.
    4. He has said he favors a more isolationist approach to foreign affairs. It is not out of the question that he would try to pull the U.S. out of the U.N.
    5. He has said he will impose stricter trade restrictions and new tariffs on China.
    6. He has said he will radically restrict immigration to the U.S. He will complete building the Wall and drastically cut border crossings from Mexico and immigration in general.
    7. If the War between Israel and Palestine is still raging, there is no telling what he would do, but it would not likely involve humanitarian aid to Gaza or taking a tough stance with fellow authoritarian, Netanyahu.
    8. He has hinted he will champion the rule of authoritarianism (“law and order”) over democracy world-wide. His heroes are all dictators.
  • As frightening as his foreign policy is likely to be, his domestic policies may be even worse. He has stated many times, his primary motivation is retribution against his domestic enemies.
  1. He is already working hard with state Republican officials to scratch Democrats from voting lists and taking other measures to assure he wins. Unlike the election in 2020, which was not rigged, Trump is already working to rig this one.
  2. He will try again to kill Obamacare and try to  cut entitlements and shred social safety net programs.
  3. He will keep the deep tax cuts for the rich and for major corporations that were put  in place during his first administration; and will try to get even more tax cuts for billionaires.
  4. He will fight labor unions and resist the call for living wages.
  5. He will fight other reform efforts to reduce health care costs, support affordable childcare,  build affordable housing, and promote climate initiatives.
  6. He will weaponize the justice department and replace civil servants with loyal followers.
  7. He will pardon  himself on all of his convictions and grant pardons for most of those convicted in the January 6 Insurrection.
  8. He will champion the cause of prohibiting abortions nation-wide.
  9. He will urge retribution against those promoting diversity, equity and inclusion and anyone considered woke.
  10. He will go after the free press, continuing to label it fake news and will ramp up propaganda with help from Russia and other foreign dictatorships. 
  11. He will honor and support the extremist hate groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers.
  12. He will advocate for more guns and fewer gun laws.
  13. He will encourage book bans in schools and public libraries.
  • He could turn the United States into a police state in his effort to evict from the United States most undocumented immigrants starting with the Dreamers. This will take time since there are over 10.5 million undocumented workers but will start on Day One with a massive round up, putting the detainees temporally in newly constructed prison camps. He has said he will use the National Guard and the U.S. Military for this purpose and perhaps in other areas. Trump has already hinted that he sees the military as his own private police force.

The stakes are indeed high. But Trump does not have to win. I believe that Trump will not win. That will be the subject of the next blog post.



My Greatest Day In Sports

This one is a follow up to my last blogpost.

Now to be fair, it is likely that had I not had polio I still never would have been a good athlete. I can’t claim that I had athletic talent. But that did not keep me from longing to be good in some sport. While polio put an end to that, I was able to participate in sports in high school by being the student trainer for the school’s football, basketball, and track teams. This was a wonderful experience for me, which is right up there at the top when it comes to what I valued most in my high school experience. But still, it was not the same as being a good athlete or playing a competitive sport.

In my last blogpost I described my ill-fated experience with athletics at Boy’s State and at Davidson. After a few years I got over that; and by the time I had enrolled in Union Seminary in New York, I was egging to give it another try. By this time, I had been cleared to try to play most sports. Football and wrestling were clearly out but not basketball. For some reason, I thought basketball might be my sport. There was a full gym across the street from Union at Teachers’ College, which had a regulation-size basketball court and was the site for pickup games mainly by graduate students from Columbia and a few from Union. Pickup games happened all the time though Wednesdays at 2 PM was the only time that worked for me, so that was the time slot I chose to head over to the gym and give basketball a try. In a pickup game there are two captains, who choose players from those gathered at the gym until two teams of five players are assembled. If more than ten people show up, those not picked could sit in the bleachers and watch, hoping they might get picked as a substitute if someone got hurt, or they could give up and try again the next week.

As I gathered with others for the selection process, I could tell that most people already knew each other, and everyone was giving me the lookover. I could almost hear them asking, “Who is this guy? Is he any good? How much experience?” Eleven people showed up that day. I was not chosen but decided to stay and watch the game. I realized that I was lucky I was not playing. The players were good, played hard, and took the game very seriously. Nobody said a word to me after the game as the winners departed smiling and the losers frowning.

Even though I realized that I was not nearly as good as the other players, I forged ahead practicing shooting baskets when I had a chance and when the basketball courts were free. I continued to show up for pickup games, hoping to be selected. On the third try there were a total of ten guys including me, so finally I had my chance. Of course, I was chosen last, but finally I was on a team. The only problem was no one threw me the ball and I never got a rebound or a chance to shoot. Few players even said a word to me. I was not sure if anyone even knew my name and concluded that they were basically a bunch of jerks. I nevertheless persisted for several more weeks, and always was chosen last if there was a slot. After a few games I got a few chances to shoot though never made a basket and maybe got a couple of rebounds while also turning over the ball more times than I would like. Finally, a few guys began to call me by name, though by this time I was ready to quit and call the whole effort off. To be honest, I was not in their league in terms of ability and had no business trying to play with them.

Then I got a call from a guy at Davidson whose name was Bobby Lane. Bobby Lane entered Davidson the year after I had graduated so I did not know him, but I did know him by reputation. He was Lefty Dressel’s number one recruit  for that year. (Lefty was Davidson’s iconic basketball coach who got Davidson into the Elite 8 in the NCAA playoffs twice while I was at Davidson.) Bobby was a high school All American from California and considered one of the best players in the country. I had seen him play on television a couple of times. He was six-three, could slam dunk a ball with ease, jump so high it looked like he was flying, and had a great long shot (3-pointers did not start in college until the early 1980s.) He was an all-conference point guard his first year, but had had a falling out with Lefty, quit the team to focus on his studies, and was considering in his senior year going to law school or possibly seminary. Someone had suggested that he call me to see if he could spend a week at Union to see if seminary might be a good fit. I jumped at the idea.

Bingo! The great Bobby Lane–a player who would probably have been a first round draft pick in the NBA had he stayed with basketball, and one of the greatest players ever to go to Davidson. I immediately thought of the Wednesday afternoon pickup games and burst out laughing as I envisioned what would happen if Bobby Lane showed up at the court.

Bobby was a great guy; and when I told him of my grim experience in the pickup games, he said he would be glad to join me, but we had to be a two-fer. If anyone chose him, they also had to choose me, and I should not let on to anyone that at Davidson he was ranked as one of the best college players in the country.

When the two of us walked into the gym, as was customary, the guys were warming up and practicing shooting. They paused for a minute and looked Bobby over as they had looked me over several weeks before. When one guy asked me who the new guy was, I replied, “Oh, just a friend.” Bobby then joined in the practice shooting, making what would be three-pointers today one after another and then drove to the basket and did a behind-the-back slam dunk. Suddenly everyone on the court stopped in their tracks, staring at Bobby, gaping, then looked back at me in disbelief. The gym went stone silent.

I was grinning from ear to ear.

“Two-fer,” I replied. “You choose Bobby, you get me too. Non-negotiable.” We were the first chosen.

Our team won by a score of something like 70-25, but what was even better, when the opponents tried to double or triple team Bobby, that left me wide open, and Bobby would throw the ball to me, unguarded. Having never scored a basket before in the pickup games, I scored something like ten points. I do not recall any of our opponents saying a word to me after the game as they stumbled off the court in disbelief. A couple of guys from my team looked at me and smiled, giving me two thumbs up. That was my last day playing basketball at the Teachers’ College gym, and I never saw any of the guys again. It will always be my greatest day in sports.

The Lucky One

Note to readers: first, thank you for following my blog posts. I am deeply grateful. I have been doing this for over a decade—having written well over 500 posts– and am amazed how many of you have stuck with me. My posts have for the most part focused on politics, personal (often disastrous or humorous) experiences, travel, religion, and issues of the day. In a recent post, “A Haunting Memory” I added a new category which falls under “reminisces,” which this story fits into. I plan to add more of these in future posts. And I am grateful for and appreciate your comments.

In the summer of 1952 when I had just turned ten, I attended a YMCA camp in a state park near Nashville where I had a stomach virus for a good part of the two-week sleepover camp. My counselor, a thin guy in his twenties with a shaved head refused to allow me to miss any camp activities, calling me a wimp and a pussy. I returned home two weeks later, having lost about ten pounds, to the horror of my mother. I recovered but a week later, when my temperature reached almost 104 degrees, my father called our family doctor, who put me in the back of his car and rushed me to Vanderbilt Hospital where I had a painful spinal tap. The next day the diagnosis came in: polio.

It is hard today to exaggerate what polio meant to people in 1952 when there was no vaccine. It was the plague of the era, which I have written about in my book Civil Rights Journey. I missed two years of school but had “home bound teachers” who enabled me to not fall too far behind my classmates. It may sound odd but looking back on the experience, I have positive feelings and believe, though difficult, it was a pivotal experience in my life.

 I had friends come by to see me on a regular basis, and Allen, my best friend, came by almost every day. This made all the difference. The two of us will turn 82 in the first half of April this year and still talk by phone once or twice a month. How important it is to have long and lasting friendships!

I say that I am the lucky one because if I had been born a few years earlier, I would not have made it into my twenties. Because my stomach muscles were most affected, the second year following my initial convalescence, my backbone looked like the letter “C”. It turns out that your stomach muscles are what keep your backbone straight when you are still growing. With a backbone the shape of a “C” my organs would have been out of place, and I would have been a dead duck in a few years. While a spinal fusion is commonplace now, it was not the case in 1954. It was a new procedure that had  been developed to enable a surgeon to cut open your back, straighten the bone, and fuse it with a steel rod– or in my case a shaving off my shin. I was told there was a 50-50 chance that it would work. If it failed, then he would try again. I had a young, arrogant, hotshot surgeon who had been trained in this procedure, which improved my chances. I would not know if it had worked until several months later, but, of course, it did. I still have a bias that if a surgeon is not young, arrogant, brash, cocky, and lacks the most basic people skills, I want nothing to do with the person. (I note, however, that two of my best friends were orthopedic surgeons and this observation does not apply to these kind, gentle people, but still….)

 I had to lie on my back in bed, not elevated by more than six inches for a year, and then wore a body cast for the next several years. But I made it through this ordeal and have lived a normal life. In fact, for most of my adult life I have been a fitness fanatic, for many years running 20-25 miles a week and running 10-mile races and occasionally longer ones. I finished at mile 20 of the Marine Corps Marathon (my goal) when I peaked in my mid-forties. After my knees gave out in my fifties, I became a devoted walker and still am, albeit now at a very slow pace and with the aid of a walking stick.

So, the “luck” had to do with the time I was born—ten years earlier it would have been a different story. It also had to do with the great care I received including spending six months in Warm Springs, Georgia, site of the nation’s best polio clinic, having great, loyal friends, and a supportive family. There were a few incidents, of course, though ironically these happened well after I was on my way to recovery when I was no longer in a wheelchair and would appear normal to anyone who did not know my story. My senior year in high school I attended a week-long event called Boy’s State where one boy from every white high school in Tennessee (which at the time was totally segregated) was selected to participate in a camp-like experience focusing on civics and political engagement. To my surprise it was run mainly by retired military personnel and had a paramilitary atmosphere more like a boot camp. The counselors were focused on toughening us up and their favorite tool was humiliation. Every morning at ten hundreds of white, high school seniors spread out on the ground for calisthenics on the football field in the stadium of the college where the camp was held. Calisthenics were not what you would call one of my strong points then or now. Having paralyzed stomach muscles, sit-ups were beyond my ability and still are. Toward the end of the exercise routine, over the loudspeaker all us boys were ordered to do sit-ups. The meanest and toughest of the counselors, who on numerous occasions had called us campers “sissies” and “softies” saw that I was struggling. He slowly walked over to me and with a gleam in his eye and a microphone in hand bellowed out over the loudspeaker, “Stop. Everyone stop!”  The field of boys became silent as all activity came to a halt. The guy then asked me my name and which school I was from. All eyes were on me.

“Ok,” he said in a sarcastic tone, “Now, Mr. Joe Howell from some fancy prep school in Nashville, do a sit up.”

I gave it everything I had but nothing happened.

“I said, do a sit up! That is an order!”

Except for a few snickers the football field was deathly silent.

“This will be my third and last order. Do a sit up now!”

I looked up helplessly at the guy noting his sadistic smile and wishing that there was some way that I could just disappear. He then turned his back on me and over the loudspeaker repeated my name sarcastically using me as the number one example of how in our generation there were too many pathetic weaklings. The exercises continued for another five minutes as I sat there wondering what to do next. As I was getting up when the exercises were over, a boy I did not know wandered over and pated me on the back, saying, “Don’t let the jerk get to you, he is an asshole.”

So, there were occasional moments that were not pleasant. When I thought about it, I had to agree that for a healthy high school senior not to be able to do a sit-up probably was not a good sign, and the instructor had no way of knowing that I had had polio. I moved on and overall had a good experience at Boy’s State. But that I can visualize the event so clearly now– some 65 years later—suggests it had an impact.

I had several similar experiences to my Boy’s State nightmare in physical education programs at Davidson College. The first was when I was directed to wrestle a big guy, in a required physical education class. I had doubts about being in P.E. but never mentioned to any of the coaches that I was a polio survivor. In fact, during what was the tail end of my recovery period, I did everything I could to be “normal” and not to be known as the polio kid. I looked at the huge guy, who could have been on the football team, and concluded I had no choice but to inform the wrestling coach that I had had polio and that to wrestle this guy was probably not wise. He replied, “You wimp, get out there and wrestle. The best wrestler I ever coached had had polio.” My opponent dislocated my shoulder in the first 30 seconds of the match, sending me off  to the college infirmary. Nevertheless, I persisted. I continued to keep my polio a secret as best as I could. Then came acrobatics class. Jumping up and down on the trampoline was not that much of a challenge, but when the coach yelled at me, “Now do a flip,” I hollered back while in the air, “Not a good idea!”  I gave it a try anyway, missed landing on the trampoline by about ten feet, and mercifully landed on several of my classmates softening the fall. It was at this point that I went to the college administrators asking them to allow me to skip the PE classes, which they did after receiving a letter from my doctor.

Yet, looking back on my polio experience, I see it as a hugely positive and important experience. There are two primary reasons. First, it gave me a new perspective in identifying with people who were trying to overcome obstacles. I identified with the underdog and with people who were struggling with disabilities and (later) with poverty, social class, and racial discrimination. I remain an unapologetic bleeding heart. Second, I was determined not to let the polio experience keep me down. Studies show that most polio victims of the 1940s and 1950s developed Type A, never-give-up personalities, who were determined to be just normal people. I also acknowledge that compared to other victims of polio, my case of polio was probably somewhere in the middle. Others had much tougher challenges to overcome. My three roommates at Warm Springs were far much worse off than me, confined to wheelchairs probably for their entire lives.  I sometimes wonder what happened to these three guys. After graduating from Union Seminary in 1968, I entered the Planning School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where I began my serious running routine, which I was able to keep up for decades. I achieved my goal of leading a normal life. And finally, I never experienced the dreaded “post-polio syndrome” that cruelly has affected so many polio survivors.

I truly am the lucky one.