“Turn me loose from your hands
Let me fly to distant lands
Over green fields, trees and mountains
Flowers and forest fountains
Home along the lanes of the skyway.”
Elton John, “Skyline Pigeon”
Ryan White; hospital visit by Elton John
The March 2016 issue of Indiana Magazine of History contains Allen Safianow’s “The Challenges of Local Oral History: The Ryan White Project.” A teenager in Kokomo, Indiana, White, a hemophiliac, contracted AIDS from contaminated blood transfusions and in 1985 was prevented from attending high school after protests from parents. When his mother fought the School Superintendent’s decision, her car tires were slit and malicious rumors spread that Ryan had caught AIDS from her. Another falsehood claimed that Ryan had spat at adversaries who shunned or insulted him. At Easter services members of his congregation refused to shake his hand and consigned him to the back pew. At Ryan’s request, the family ultimately moved to Cicero, Illinois, a community that welcomed him. During the lengthy legal fight, Ryan became nationally famous and befriended by singers Elton John and Michael Jackson and Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay. Elton took Ryan on a private tour of Disneyland, paid the down payment on their house in Cicero, and started the Elton John AIDS Foundation. At his funeral in 1990, which 1,500 people attended, including TV host Phil Donahue and First Lady Barbara Bush, Elton sang “Skyline Pigeon,” whose last lines go:
I want to hear the pealing bells
Of distant churches sing
But most of all please free me
From this aching metal ring
And open out this cage towards the sun.
Oral historian for the Howard County Historical Society’s Ryan White project, Allen Safianow’s scholarly article makes reference to insights by oral history heavyweights Mary Larson on making ethical judgments, Linda Shopes on challenging contradictions and inaccuracies, Alessandro Portelli on memory as an active process of creating meanings, and Donald Ritchie on the multiple ways of doing oral history. Safianow concludes with this quote from Ritchie’s classic how-to book “Doing Oral History”(2003), noting:
the tendency of oral history to confound rather than confirm our assumptions, confronting each of us with conflicting viewpoints and encouraging us to examine events from multiple perspectives. Oral history’s value derives not from resisting the unexpected but from relishing it. By adding an ever-wider range of voices to the story, oral history doesn’t simplify the historical narrative but makes it more complex – and more interesting.
Donald Ritchie in 2011
Five years after the Howard County Historical Society created a Hall of Legends, Ryan White name was finally added to the list. His mother, Jeanne White-Ginder, spoke at the induction ceremony, saying that Ryan, who lived five years longer than doctors predicted, would have wanted her to attend. In a subsequent interview Jeanne told Safianow: “He would want that fight to be over and say, ‘You know, you’re all forgiven. You helped me live.’ And I don’t think Kokomo realizes that, but they did, they helped him live with AIDS because of the fight.” Ironically, had the town not shunned Ryan, he might never have become, in reporter Patrick Curry’s words, the “beacon of hope [who inspired] millions toward understanding and personal growth.”
Shortly after Ryan White’s death I attended a Colts-Redskins game in Indy, and everyone received a free CD containing Elton John’s tribute. On the twentieth anniversary of Ryan’s death, Elton addressed these remarks to him:
I remember so well when we first met. A young boy with a terrible disease, you were the epitome of grace. You never blamed anyone for the illness that ravaged your body or the torment and stigma you endured.
When students, parents and teachers in your community shunned you, threatened you and expelled you from school, you responded not with words of hate but with understanding beyond your years. You said they were simply afraid of what they did not know.
When the media heralded you as an "innocent victim" because you had contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion, you rejected that label and stood in solidarity with thousands of HIV-positive women and men. You reminded America that all victims of AIDS are innocent.
Ryan, you inspired awareness, which helped lead to lifesaving treatments. In 1990, four months after you died, Congress passed the Ryan White Care Act, which now provides more than $2 billion each year for AIDS medicine and treatment for half a million Americans. Today, countless people with HIV live long, productive lives.
Allen Safianow has conducted oral histories with Kokomo residents about the Ku Klux Klan, a powerful hate group in that community during the 1920s. Safianow was the 2005 recipient of the Indiana Historical Society’s Emma Lou and Gayle Thornbrough award for an Indiana Magazine of History (IMH) article entitled “You Can't Burn History': Getting Right with the Klan in Noblesville, Indiana.” IMH editor Eric Sandweiss noted:
Safianow's carefully researched study sheds light on not one but two periods in Indiana: the 1920s and our own time. By unearthing the reactions of early Noblesville residents to the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in their community, he tells us a great deal about how racism incorporated itself into the lives of ordinary Americans.
[Safianow recounted] the sensitive issue of how a community deals with the fact that its most respected citizens, its esteemed forefathers, embraced an organization which now is commonly regarded as an anathema, a gross antithesis of the fundamental ideals of this nation.
The Engineers took 5 of 7 points from the Pin Heads. My best game was a 167 despite four splits. In consecutive frames I picked up the 5-7 and 5-10. After I missed a ten-pin, Ken Cichocki quipped, “Had the five-pin also been standing, you’d have converted the spare.” Ron Smith had a chance to win $50 if he knocked down exactly five pins on his first ball and another 50 if he then converted the spare. He did the difficult part, leaving the 1-2-3-4-5, for $50 but then left the 5-pin on his second ball. His team’s name, the Pin Heads, reminded me of a party during the late 70s when we invited softball teammates, who favored heavy metal, and friends who liked punk bands. When someone put on a Talking Heads album, my softball battery mate yelled, “Who’s the pinhead who put that crap on?”
A joke from Jim Spicer, who wrote, “Apparently it’s no longer politically correct to direct a joke at any racial or ethnic minority. So”:
An Englishman, a Scotsman, an Irishman, a Welshman, a Ghurkha, a Latvian, a Turk, an Aussie, two Kiwis, a German, an American, a South African, a Cypriot, an Egyptian, a Japanese, a Mexican, a Spaniard, a Russian, a Pole, a Lithuanian, a Swede, a Finn, an Israeli, a Dane, a Romanian, a Bulgarian, a Serb, a Swiss, a Greek, a Singaporean, an Italian, a Norwegian, a Libyan, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, and an Ethiopian went to a night club.
The bouncer said, “Sorry, I can’t let you in without a Thai.”