Cook: The night Rep. Fleischmann wore the Howard cap

Cook: The night Rep. Fleischmann wore the Howard cap

June 25th, 2017 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., and the Howard baseball team.

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., and the Howard baseball...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

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Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., can't forget the June 14 shooting.

His mind keeps playing and replaying the images: his congressional friends and colleagues shot, bleeding, sprinting for cover. The sound of the first bullet. The way the gunman, standing so close, could have targeted him instead of Rep. Steve Scalise and four others.

"I have recounted that event in my head many, many times," Fleischmann said.

Who wouldn't? It was like a drive-by. One moment, baseball; the next, bullets. All sorts of post-traumatic reactions are understandable — stress, anger, hyperanxiety, depression.

Yet, some 24 hours after the shooting, Fleischmann and his colleagues bravely returned to the field. The annual congressional baseball game must go on, they told America.

Keeping tradition, the representatives wore jerseys and hats from colleges back home.

Fleischmann, normally in UT orange, dressed differently.

He wore a white pinstripe jersey from Chattanooga State.

And his cap?

A black hat with a burgundy "H" outlined in gold.

The Howard School.

"I promised," he said.

Months ago, the former all-star second baseman from Long Island toured Howard — he's working on a technology initiative with Rep. Barbara Lee from Oakland, Calif., which is a story in bipartisanship for another day — when the baseball team walked up. He'd heard their story: their devoted coach, the players who rebuilt their own field, the outpouring of community support.

Congressman, would you practice with us today?

I'd love to.

Fleischmann shagged flies, took grounders, talked about Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. They gave him a cap and jersey, and he gave them a promise: I'll wear this cap at the congressional game.

Little did he know the weight of such a promise.

That evening in Washington, D.C., the Howard cap became more than just a cap.

It became a bridge.

A connection.

A link between two worlds: political Washington and inner-city Chattanooga.

On the day after a gunman shot at him and his colleagues, Fleischmann wore the hat of a team that faces shootings on a regular basis.

As other congressmen wore uniforms and caps from big-time universities, Fleischmann wore the cap representing 12 young men for whom inner-city violence and drive-by tragedy is all too common.

By wearing that Howard cap the day after the shooting, Fleischmann, knowingly or not, acknowledged this truth: he, too, was now a victim of violence.

"He was put in our shoes. He kind of felt how we feel," said Cameron Thomas, last season's catcher and team leader. "Once he had on that hat, to me, it seemed like he felt the vibe. He had a life-flash of what our life was like."

Fleischmann had never been shot at before; most congressmen haven't. Yet, for the Howard community, the reverse is true: it's hard to find someone unaffected by gun violence.

Of the 12 members on the Howard team, how many know someone who's been shot or killed?

"Everybody," Cameron said. "Most everybody in my neighborhood knows somebody who has died."

No Secret Service to protect them.

No media outpouring.

No counseling.

"Today, my friend's brother got shot. He just called me, crying," Terrance Beamon, a rising junior and outfielder, said last week.

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Fleischmann and his colleagues are now part of that tragic fraternity.

They have tasted the bitter cup.

"It happens regularly," Terrance said. "When you hear about people dying, that's not surprising."

Fleischmann said he wore the cap to honor Howard.

After the shooting, something else happened.

The cap honored Washington.

How?

In the midst of the horror of violence, the Howard baseball story teaches you how to survive and thrive. How to wake up after a night of gunshots, go to school, do homework, then get to practice — not on time, but early.

The Howard story teaches you how to turn nothing into something: In the face of despair, they built their own field. They made their own team.

They are survivors in a gun-and-funeral world. So are hundreds of other teenagers, just like them, trying to do the right thing, without attention, fanfare or economic support.

"I'm going to Austin Peay," said Cameron, who's majoring in a blend of communications, art, broadcasting and media.

Terrance? He'd never played ball before this season. Now he's a starter and key leader who's making better grades and good decisions.

Fleischmann isn't surprised. In the half-hour we spoke, he mentioned again and again the amazingness of these young men and women.

"The tremendous potential," he said.

Washington, don't forget them.

Legislate for them.

And remember: the burgundy "H" on that black cap?

It stands for Howard.

And in the face of violence, it also stands for something else.

Hope.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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