Amid the brutality of today, taking comfort in the past

October 24, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

SO WE TAKE our comforts where we can. Monday in East Baltimore, a neighborhood vents its sorrow over a mother and five children about to be lowered into the ground. Tuesday in Montgomery County, a bus driver becomes the latest sniper victim, and a note left near a killing issues the cruelest of warnings: "Your children are not safe."

In downtown Baltimore that night, at the Wyndham Hotel, a generation gathered to remember a football team and a more comforting time. The past is always comforting; we know how it turns out.

In the current insanity, we seek refuge among friends, among the familiar, among our memories. In a crowd of several hundred people Tuesday night, at an event held by the Babe Ruth Museum to bring together 60 of the old Baltimore Colts, there was Mayor Martin O'Malley.

"This is what we need sometimes," he said wearily. He'd been to East Preston and Eden streets, where Angela Dawson refused to cave in to drug dealers and she and her husband and children may have lost their lives for it. He'd gone to the kids' schools and talked to their classmates and seen the murdered children's empty desks. And he'd gone to the March Funeral Home.

"I saw Mrs. Golden there," O'Malley said. He meant Donnell Harrington Golden. She was Angela Dawson's mother, the grandmother of the five lost children.

"She was picking out caskets for her babies," the mayor said. "And she was wearing a T-shirt. It said, `Baltimore Believe.'" He was visibly moved by the image. In spite of everything, people want to believe: in their community, in their city, in the sanctity of their own lives. A day earlier, fists clenched, voice barely containing rage, O'Malley vowed to give up "not one neighborhood, not one block, not one house" to street toughs who try to silence honest citizens.

And now, in the midst of a brutal time, at the end of another day of killing and nonstop television sniper coverage from the Washington suburbs, the mayor looked for an hour of comfort.

"It's nice to remember a time," he said, "when we all stood up and cheered for the same team, no matter what neighborhood we came from, or what background. Because what's happening now, it just tears us up. The reality of it, it keeps bringing me this close to tears."

In the big crowd around O'Malley now, some of the old Baltimore Colts were arriving. There was the Hall of Famer Lenny Moore. He works with troubled juveniles. Moore immediately brought up the message delivered by Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose, from a letter left at the scene of Saturday's sniper shooting: "Your children are not safe anywhere, at any time."

"Terrible," Moore said. "To threaten children like that, it's terrible. What kind of a person does such things?"

Nearby stood Sanders Shiver, the rugged Colts linebacker from the 1970s. He runs a literacy program in Bowie. A 13-year-old was shot outside a school there. What does Shiver tell his students?

"`It's going to be all right,'" he said softly. "You want to be as calming and as reassuring as you can. And so you tell them, `It's going to be all right.' And you wish you could say something more than that. But you can't."

So we seek our small comforts where we can.

"This," said Baltimore Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, looking across the big hotel crowd, "is a bonding. With each other, and with another time, when it felt safer."

"It's a feel-good dynamic that we need right now," said Mike Gibbons, who runs the Babe Ruth Museum. "We've got a firebombing that kills five children. We've got a sniper. And we lost John Unitas. In the midst of all that, no group brings us comfort like the old Colts."

Unitas died Sept. 11, but his widow and children were there Tuesday, warmed by the outpouring of affection for the old quarterback.

"There's a spirituality here," said the Rev. Joe Ehrmann, formerly a defensive tackle for the Colts. "It's a connection to a football team, but it's also about values, about connections to a community."

At times like this, we need to hear such things. When they introduced the old Colts on Tuesday, they packed a stage and grinned delightedly. John Mackey bounced across as though running over linebackers. Bruce Laird leaped as though plucking an errant pass, and Roy Jefferson juked an imaginary defender.

And then, with scores of grown men approaching the stage with cameras in their hands, the whole group posed for photos amid cheers and flashes. We've grown older together, all of us. We share histories. We've survived tough times before this.

It's important to remember that. In a week when we bury innocents, and cringe from a sniper's threats, we take our comforts where we can.

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