You’re not going to change the world
In a 1961 movie, “The Hoodlum Priest,” co-written and directed by and starring Don Murray, there is a segment wherein a young “hoodlum” has been sentenced to death and people who oppose capital punishment gather in front of the governor’s mansion to protest the execution. As weeks go by, the ranks of protesters thin until, finally, there is only one young man still walking up and down with his protest sign. The security guard on duty at the door of the mansion comes to have a grudging respect for the young man’s persistence when all the others have given up. He walks out to the gate and speaks to the young protester, telling him, “You know, son, you’re not going to change the world.” The young man responds, “I’m not trying to change the world. I’m trying to keep the world from changing me.”
The young protester understands that it’s important to stay true to oneself, especially to what President Lincoln called the “better angels” of our nature.
A common refrain heard from people who are not doing the right thing is “Everybody does it.” That rationalization does not hold up to a reality check, of course. “Everybody” does not do it, whatever it is – cheating on taxes, speeding, driving alone in the HOV lane, abusing handicapped parking spaces, spreading hurtful gossip, taking advantage of others, or whatever. But even if everybody else was doing it, that wouldn’t confer a license to me or you or anyone. We alone are responsible for what kinds of people we are.
I have a few relatives who haven’t sent me a Christmas card in years, even though I send them cards every Christmas. The reason I continue to send them cards is simple – they are not my teachers. They do what they do and I decide what I will do. As much as possible, I try always to act guided by my own principles, not just react to what others are willing to do. Of course, I sometimes fail to live up to my own belief system, but I don’t abandon the beliefs. I try to keep the world from changing me.
Another little pearl of cinematic wisdom – In a 1950 movie, “Harvey,” starring James Stewart, a good-hearted and very pleasant young man who has an imaginary friend is taken by some relatives to be examined by a psychiatrist. In that encounter the young man tells the shrink that when he was very young his mother told him that for a person to get by in this life it is necessary to be either very smart or very nice. He concludes, “I recommend nice.”
I can endorse that recommendation. Of course, if you are lucky enough to be both smart and nice, so much the better.
She Got My Attention
When I was in the fifth or sixth grade at a school in a small Eastern Washington town in the 1940s, we were visited by a famous choral group of the time, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. Their appearance was arranged through the “National Assemblies” program that brought cultural events to schools in small towns across America once or twice each year.
As we filed into the gymnasium/auditorium the singers were in place on the stage and the first thing we noticed were the several African-Americans (the polite term at that time was Negro) in the group.
We knew black people existed, of course, from seeing them in movies and newspaper and magazine photos, but most of us had never seen one in the flesh. I doubt there was a single black family anywhere in the county at that time. We were aware of Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, etal, but probably formed our ideas about black people more from Stepin Fetchit, Butterfly McQueen and other comical characters in the movies. And, of course, from what we heard adults say.
I and a buddy seated next to me found the presence of the black chorus members very amusing. We began a giggling recitation of all the derogatory words for black people that we could remember. We didn’t get far into this recitation before I received a powerful smack on the back of my head. I twisted around to see who had attacked me and found myself looking into the angry face of a girl from my class seated behind me. She very forcefully instructed us on the error of our ways, letting us know those words were vile and unacceptable. I can still remember her bright red hair, the fire in her green eyes and the fierce expression on her face.
Of course, we ridiculed her and scorned her objections. But we didn’t continue our racist epithets. I don’t know about my buddy but I was not able to get the incident out of my mind for some time. Somewhere deep inside, I suspected she was right.
Over the following years her lesson, reinforced by other experiences, and some maturing, took root in my consciousness, if not to say my conscience. And I often wondered how it was that the red-haired girl, who was my age and grew up in the same socio-cultural environment, knew when something was wrong, while I had to have it pointed out to me. In time, life taught me that the human race, in matters of morality, falls into three groupings. The first, and, unfortunately, the smallest group contains those who, like the red-haired girl, instinctively know what’s right. The second, largest, group are those who, like me, have to learn. Some learn early and easily, others need more time and repeated lessons. The third group is, sadly, learning-resistant, the way some people have no ear for music or head for math.
My own case reminds me of the old joke about a foreman explaining about one of his workers, saying the man will do whatever he’s told to do but, sometimes, before you tell him what to do, you need to smack him upside the head to get his attention.
Well, the red-haired girl got my attention.
Some Life Lessons We Keep Forgetting
Some life lessons I have had to learn more than once. An example is the old adage, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
In the 1950s, when I was a teenager in a farming town in the Columbia Basin, one summer I worked as a busboy in the largest restaurant in town. One day I saw a somewhat grizzled-looking older man walk in and look around, as if looking for someone. My immediate impression was that he was probably a migrant farm laborer or maybe a wino, judging by his well-worn denims, faded plaid shirt and badly scuffed high-top work shoes. I expected the hostess would politely turn the man away but, to my surprise, she greeted him with a big smile and escorted him to a table where a man in a business suit was seated. The businessman stood up, smiled and shook the scruffy man’s hand.
When the hostess returned to her reception area I went over and asked her about the man, saying he looked like a bum. She said, “Don’t be fooled by how he looks. He owns one of the biggest farms in the county and he could buy this restaurant if he wanted to, and probably pay cash. A while back he was in here with the owner of the farm implement dealership and I saw him pull out a beat-up checkbook and write a check for over $20,000.”
Over the years, I have on other occasions made snap judgments about people or situations that proved premature. A couple of times the reality turned out to be worse than the first impression but most of the time it’s been the other way around.
Some years ago on a business trip I was unsure of the best route through a city to my desired destination. Being a male who defies the stereotype that men won’t ask directions, I stopped at a mini-mart to get information. When I entered the store I was disappointed to see that the clerk behind the counter did not look like a reliable source. He looked like a teenager but would have had to be at least 21 to sell beer and wine. He had an exotic haircut with a bright red strip of longer hair on top. His left ear was pierced three or four times to accommodate some little metal rings. But I told him anyway where I was trying to get to and asked how best to get there.
To my surprise, he proved to be intelligent, well-informed, articulate and helpful. His directions were detailed and easy to follow. I had no problem finding the place I was looking for, chiding myself as I drove there for once again making a judgment based on superficial appearances.
And I will probably do the same thing again sometime. Some life lessons just don’t seem to make a lasting impression on us. As Shakespeare’s character Puck says, “What fools these mortals be.”
Y’all Talk Kinda Funny
When I was a youngster living in an orchard labor camp in Okanogan County of Eastern Washington State, during World War II, there was an element of the area population that was the subject of widespread bias. What characterized these people was not foreign-sounding names, religious affiliations or skin color but they could be distinguished by how they pronounced or enunciated some words and some of their down-home vocabulary. These were folks from the South, especially Oklahoma, Arkansas or South Carolina, who came to the Pacific Northwest during the war to fill the many jobs in agriculture vacated by local men drafted into the military services.
I was cautioned not to get too chummy with the children of those families and instructed not to go to their cabins or accept a cookie or piece of candy if offered by their mothers. Even more importantly, I was not to bring those children around our cabin. Being in daily contact with those children, I sometimes was guilty of proscribed fraternization but I never fell so far from grace as to go to their cabins or bring them to our cabin.
At that time in rural Eastern Washington there were not many of the kind of people who are the usual objects of prejudice or racism but our Southern cousins were useful in teaching children the rudiments of bigotry. As farm workers from Mexico began appearing in the area in large numbers, a little later, they soon replaced the Southerners as “those people.”
WELCOME TO SEGREGATION
After graduation from Navy Recruit Training (“Boot Camp”) at San Diego in 1956, I headed to New Orleans on a Greyhound bus for a few months of temporary duty at Naval Station Algiers, across the Mississippi from New Orleans. I was scheduled for further transfer to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, near Chicago, in January 1957. Along the way I was introduced to a social environment I had never before experienced.
We entered Texas from New Mexico at El Paso and stopped for lunch. As I headed for the bus depot waiting room and lunch counter I confronted a sign directing “coloreds” to a waiting room on the left and “whites” to a waiting room on the right. It was like something exposed when a rock is turned over – disgusting but riveting. I stopped and stared at the sign for several seconds. Inside the doors were two drinking fountains, side by side, with signs above them matching the waiting rooms sign. I realized it was going to be like this the rest of the way.
My bus pulled into New Orleans about 9:00 the evening of the next day and I learned I would need to take a ferry across the river (there was no bridge at that time) and then a taxi (there were cabs for whites and cabs for blacks) a mile or so to the Naval Station. The easiest way to get to the ferry landing was by the Canal Street streetcar.
I lugged my seabag up the steps onto the streetcar, dropped a dime into the fare box and plunked down into one of the nearest seats, feeling pretty well worn from three days and nights on the bus. I soon heard some grunting and coughing close behind me. I turned and saw the conductor making head movements indicating I should get up and move forward. I looked around and realized all the passengers near me were black, and obviously amused by my social gaffe. I sighed, got up and lugged my seabag forward to the part of the streetcar God intended for “whites only.”
When I checked in at the Naval Station I was assigned a bunk in one of three wings of the barracks building, the wing for whites. Another wing was for blacks and the third wing was for everybody else – Hispanics, Asians, Pacific Islanders, etc. This barracks segregation was in defiance of the executive order signed by President Truman in 1948 abolishing segregation in the U. S. military services. It was several more years before that order was fully implemented. When I retired from the Navy in 1975 the practice of discrimination had not disappeared. It had just become more subtle.
BABY, THE RAIN MUST FALL
And it did, in torrents. But it was the wind that was the most devastating.
In 1970 I and my wife and two children were in Corpus Christi, where I was attending Del Mar (community) College under a special Navy program for senior petty officers. As July ended, tropical storm Celia developed in the Caribbean and began moving toward the coast of Texas. On August 3rd, hurricane warnings were issued for Corpus Christi and surrounding areas.
The newspaper and TV stations put out advisories and helpful hints that I followed closely. The morning Celia was due to arrive, I filled the bathtub and many pots and bowls with water. I had bought extra batteries for the flashlight and portable radio and filled the car’s gas tank. Supermarket shelves were stripped bare (one of the first items to sell out was toilet paper).
Those who could simply locked and boarded up their homes or business buildings and left town, to their later regret. It was ironic that the more expensive homes, especially those built of brick, suffered the worst damage while many cheaper, flimsier houses, such as ours, had little or no serious damage. The better homes had roofs blown off and windows smashed, despite plywood coverings, and parts of walls knocked down. When the barometric pressure dropped suddenly, as it does inside a hurricane, the higher pressure inside the structure escaped by blowing away part of the building, allowing the torrential rain to thoroughly drench everything inside.
An extra concern for us was that my wife was due to go into labor at any time. We were worried that it might happen while Celia was in town, making it impossible to get her to the hospital. But the fates were gentle with us throughout the ordeal (not so much with many others in the area). My wife went into labor two days after Celia passed through and I was able to get her to the Naval Station hospital.
As advised by the experts, I opened the windows on the side of the house away from the wind and, as the wind changed direction (the winds inside a hurricane are circular) I closed some windows and opened others. This allowed the barometric pressure inside the house to escape without bursting the structure like an over-inflated balloon. I was able to keep the front door open all day.
Standing on the small front porch, I couldn’t see anything beyond the edge of the porch except a gray-white blur. The car was only a couple of feet from the porch but I couldn’t even tell if it was still there. I hoped some flying debris wouldn’t find the windshield. The sound was like an express train on steroids roaring by right next to the house.
As soon as Celia arrived the electricity went out and it was some days before the first areas had it restored. Our working-class neighborhood was not on the high-priority list so we waited ten days for electricity. Some areas waited even longer. With no air conditioning or TV, a lot of people sat out on their front steps or in their yards and some strolled over to sit for a spell with neighbors. We had reverted to a simpler and friendlier kind of society.
Each day at certain times they announced over the radio where ice was being distributed (hauled into town by semi-trucks) and where milk was available that day. It was essential to have ice to make the refrigerator somewhat useful and to have milk for the kids. Part of each day was spent standing in lines in the hot sun to get one quart of milk one place and a 2olb block of ice somewhere else.
Under normal conditions, my wife and new son would have been released from the hospital two days post-partum. But because of the conditions in the community, new mothers and some other patients were able to remain several extra days. Navy Seabees had pre-positioned generators so the hospital never lost electricity. While I and our other two children hunkered down at home, living a rather Spartan existence, my wife was able to enjoy air conditioning, regular meals, cold drinks, etc. On the tenth day post-Celia I brought my wife and new son home. We got to the house about 4:00 p.m. and by 4:30 the electricity was back on. Sometimes, timing is everything.
We were fortunate in not suffering any injuries or serious damage to our rented house. We were mostly able to pick up with our lives right where we had been when so rudely interrupted by Celia. Many others were not so lucky. In Corpus Christi 70 percent of the residences suffered significant or total damage. For those whose homes were no longer inhabitable there was no alternative housing available. Many small business owners suffered a similar fate.
Most people behaved decently in the difficult situation, cooperating and being thoughtful of others. But it wasn’t unanimous. Some took advantage and caused supplies to run short, depriving others. A natural disaster really does bring out the best in humanity and the worst in humanity.
Lock’em Up & Throw Away the Key
A very bad idea, no matter how emotionally appealing it might be to some people. Apart from the moral issues, the cost of operating a prison system is an enormous drain on the public budget. The U.S. has a greater percentage of its citizens behind bars than any other industrialized nation. It would be far more productive if the prison population could be reduced and some of that expenditure could be invested instead in things such as education, infrastructure or other critical needs.
During 20-plus years as a member of the board of directors of an organization that operated a half-way house and employment assistance program for released offenders, and as a volunteer teacher and advisor with a prison vocational training program, I came to understand how wasteful, in lives and taxpayer money, is the criminal justice system across America.
The foundational weakness of the American criminal justice system is that it’s predicated primarily on punishment, as if just making the offender suffer for his crime is all that’s needed to change his, or her, future behavior. Of course, incarceration shouldn’t be enjoyable, but it’s important that the experience should also assist the offender in undergoing a change of attitude, and lead to an alternative future.
It is well established that a major contributor to a reduction in recidivism (re-offense and return to prison) is a decent job at a decent wage. If the ex-offender has something positive in his life that he will lose if he re-offends, he is far less likely to revert to the kind of behaviors that put him behind bars in the first place.
The half-way house I was associated with operated for 47 years and never had a resident commit a crime against persons or property. There were a few “failures” – a few parole violations and a handful of drug busts (using, not dealing) – but the residents of the house were never a threat to the community. Much of the credit for that record can be attributed to the emphasis on getting and keeping a job.
I had many revealing chats with prison inmates over the years and there are some biographical elements common to many of them. These include a poor home and family environment early in life and a sense of alienation from society at large. Ways of relating to the world around us that are normal for most people are often not part of the life experience of the individual who is sent to prison. But I have seen abundant evidence that such individuals can learn a better way to live, if given support, such as job training, while they are being punished. After all, in most states it’s called the Department of Corrections, not the Department of Punishment. We need to do a better job of “correcting,” not just punishing. And the burdensome cost of the huge U.S. prison population could be reduced.
Sometimes Our Humanity is only Skin Deep
For better or worse, we tend to adapt to the environment in which we find ourselves. For the most part, in ordinary environments, this is a useful survival trait and not damaging to ourselves or others. But in extreme environments it can produce unfortunate changes in personality and behavior.
There are few environments as extreme as armed conflict. Even though I was not involved in combat operations, in Viet Nam I experienced how close exposure to the brutality of war can change how we feel about things. As night news manager during 1964/65 at the Armed Forces Radio Station in Saigon (made famous by the Robyn Williams movie, “Good Morning, Viet Nam“) I aired reports on an almost daily basis of Viet Cong atrocities. An example was the VC herding all the people of a village into a single hut and then setting the hut on fire, burning the men, women and children inside alive. This was because the village had cooperated with government forces. It was intended as a lesson to other villages.
Such events were compounded by my personally witnessing the results of a VC bomb exploded in a market place in Saigon. I saw the shattered bodies of women and children being picked up and taken away and the pavement being hosed down to wash away the blood. I wasn’t in Viet Nam very long before I developed a deep, personal hatred of the Viet Cong.
At one point during my time in-country there was a news photo that was reproduced all around the world, arousing loud condemnations of the Viet Nam war and U.S. participation. The photo captured the exact moment a Vietnamese army colonel fired his pistol into the head of a VC captive. The photo didn’t stir any disgust or revulsion on my part. To me at that time it was no worse than swatting a fly or decapitating a venomous snake. This was only one of a number of events that at another time, in other circumstances, I would have found outrageous.
When I finished my year in Viet Nam and returned to my wife and child and resumed living in a more normal environment, I found over time that my attitude toward the war and U.S. involvement underwent a significant change.
Unfortunately, humankind has not yet evolved to a high enough level to make war obsolete. For now, we have no choice but to meet force with force and accept the inevitable consequence – brutality begets brutality.
Assuming we don’t destroy ourselves or make the planet unfit to support life in the meantime, perhaps at some time far in the future our humanity may become more than skin deep.
CHRISTMAS GREETINGS FROM THE VIET CONG
Until shortly before I got orders to Viet Nam in early 1964, I, like most Americans, had paid little attention to U. S. operations there. The overthrow of the Diem government in 1963 and the bombing of the Capitol Kindo Theater in Saigon, killing and injuring several Americans, moved Viet Nam news to the front page shortly before I was chosen to be a participant.
I reported to the American Forces Radio Station in Saigon, where my job was night news manager. AFRS Saigon many years later became famous as the setting of the movie Good Morning, Viet Nam, starring Robin Williams. The character he portrayed, Airman Adrian Kronauer, arrived in 1965, shortly after I completed my one-year tour and transferred to the carrier ORISKANY in the South China Sea.
My nightly shift at AFRS began with a two-man six o’clock news report. My partner doing that newscast was an Army sergeant named Don Busser. He was also the morning drive-time DJ, a very funny guy and popular air personality. The name of Robin Williams’ s show in the movie, The Dawn Buster Show, was originated by Busser as a play on his name.
On Christmas Eve, 1964, I was in the studio going over my copy a final time, a few minutes before six o’clock air time, when suddenly there was a muffled roar and the station was plunged into darkness (there were no windows). Several seconds of ominous creaks and groans overhead ended with a deafening silence. I sat perfectly still in the blackness for maybe a minute, not sure whether I should be scared or not. I felt my way along a wall to the studio door and then down the hallway to the radio station lobby.
The main entrance door in the lobby had a small frosted window that let in just enough light to guide me across the room, bumping into furniture as I went. As I opened the door I could hear the angry crackling of flames. The middle of the building was burning fiercely.
AFRS occupied the ground floor of the Brink Hotel, a billet for command grade officers. Between the radio station and the hotel lobby the ground floor was open and used for parking, a security lapse the Viet Cong took advantage of. A jeep had been parked there with a large quantity of plastic explosive in it. The blast dug a large crater but was mostly expended upward, blowing through four floors of hotel rooms, killing one or two and wounding several others, some severely. The casualties would have been greater if the VC had set the timer for seven p.m. instead of six. Many of the officers had not yet returned from work, despite it being Christmas Eve. Working late saved a lot of lives that evening.
The radio station escaped destruction, and several casualties, by random chance. A few weeks earlier, part of the parking area under the hotel, next to the end wall of the station, had been appropriated for storing merchandise by a Navy Exchange branch in another billet hotel across the plaza from the Brink. This provided a 50-foot-thick blast absorber between the explosion and the station. The end wall cracked but didn’t give way. A couple of our Vietnamese employees in the transmitter room inside that end wall suffered some eardrum damage from the concussive wave coming off that wall but no other station personnel were injured.
We sent the Vietnamese employees home and decided we should get out of the way of the fire-fighting and medical teams that were arriving. We walked the several blocks to the Central Post Office where we could send telegrams to our families in the states. We knew the bombing would be reported on newscasts in the U.S. and wanted to assure our families we were not injured.
After I finished my year in Saigon and was home on leave, my wife told me that she had been awakened by what she thought was a loud bang outside the house. She decided it must have been a dream but it left her with an uneasy feeling. When my telegram arrived a while later, and then she saw the newscast report from Saigon, she was convinced it was not a dream after all.
After we sent our telegrams we were rounded up by the Assistant Officer-in-Charge of the station and taken to the Vietnamese government broadcast center where it had been arranged for us to borrow studio facilities. It was considered important to limit the psychological impact of being put off the air by getting back on as soon as possible. We were back on the air by 8:00 p.m. and operated from there the next two days, albeit needing to do a lot of adlibbing and improvising without our news teletypes, music library and other equipment. A team of Navy SeaBees made temporary repairs to the radio station and hooked up a generator to provide electricity and it was business as usual back in our own spaces two days later. The Viet Cong only got us off the air for two hours.
The bombing did serve to embarrass the public affairs briefer at the daily MACV (Military Assistance Command Viet Nam) press briefing (commonly referred to as the “Five O’Clock Follies”) at the U. S. Information Agency library a few blocks from the Brink. As the briefing was winding down, a little before 6:00 p.m., a reporter asked if MACV was expecting the Viet Cong to do something spectacular to mark the Christmas holiday. A few minutes after the briefer said there was no indication of any special attack, the briefing room windows were rattled by the blast a few blocks away.
A few weeks before the Brink explosion, a VC bomb had been discovered and removed from the billet hotel where I lived before it could go off, one of four VC bombs that could have ended my Viet Nam tour of duty early, but didn’t. But that’s another story.
Thoughts & Observations from 7 Decades — 1
I have long been aware of a significant difference in the public behavior of women as compared to that of men. Perhaps you have noticed it also.
When you pass a woman face-to-face in public, on the sidewalk perhaps or entering or leaving a store or whatever, the woman will very often make eye contact and smile. A man will rarely make eye contact and never smile. I’ve thought about why evolution ingrained those different behaviors in humans. One possibility is that women have, through most of human history, felt vulnerable when encountering a man not known to them and want to convey a friendly and non-threatening attitude. Men, on the other hand, have probably found it prudent to avoid eye contact with a stranger so as not to convey the possibility of a threat or challenge. Among most higher mammals eye contact does imply a challenge. In the military, when standing in ranks to be inspected, one does not make eye contact with the inspecting officer standing right in front of him. I learned that the hard way, early in my Navy years.
The actual reason for these behaviors may be something different than I suppose, of course, but it’s an interesting difference between the sexes that has been consistent throughout my 79 years.
Something I have become aware of over the dozen or so years since I started walking with a cane (and, more recently, two canes) is that many people will go out of their way to be helpful to a crippled old man. Almost any time there’s a person near a door as I approach it, such as entering the post office or a store, he or she will open and hold the door for me. More than once I’ve even had somebody at a table near the door of a coffee shop I visit get up and go to the door to open and hold it for me, before returning to their coffee and WiFi. I always give that person a hearty “Thank You.” Altruism, even in small things, should be encouraged.
This has reinforced something I became aware of early in life – most human beings like being helpful. It makes them feel good about themselves. And the closer they are in time and space to the fellow human who will benefit from their kindness, the stronger is the urge to altruism. When they can see the needy person in the flesh and up-close, the odds are that they will be moved to render assistance. If the person or persons needing help are not physically present but are within the community the urge is not quite as strong but is still quite powerful. This is demonstrated by the success of Go Fund Me sites on behalf of individuals or families who have suffered misfortune. It seems that every such site exceeds its financial goal within a few days, if not several hours.
It’s true that human beings also have the capacity for greed, cruelty and indifference. The ancient reptile brain segment still resides in our sculls. But the overlaid brain elements suppress the worst instincts in most people, at least much of the time. That’s what makes modern civilization possible and allowed our stone age ancestors to survive in a world full of dangers. With the unfortunate exception of those who embrace the poisonous philosophy of Ayn Rand and her think-alikes, most of us embody a complex web of contradictory urges and emotions. What is needed for the survival of humankind is the ascendancy of what President Lincoln called “The better angels of our nature.”
Thoughts & Observation from 7 Decades – 2
After 79 years there are things that one easily remembers, often fairly trivial things, and other things, some fairly substantial, that one has stored so deeply in the memory file that they are rarely brought to mind. It’s sometimes remarked that old people tend to “live in the past.” That’s somewhat true and the reason is simple – we no longer have a future.
It is sweet to recall moments of triumph and happiness. But most of us also inevitably recall those moments not so sweet, especially those involving regrets about things we wish we had done and things we wish we hadn’t done. We seem to be writing our own report cards, rating ourselves as human beings.
I’m aware that I’ve managed over time to disremember some of my failings as a husband and father, as a supervisor of subordinates, as a citizen or simply as a person. But there are still plenty of memories to fuel some regrets.
One of the things I regret having done goes all the way back to the fourth grade, at age nine. My class included a girl who at that time was classified as mildly retarded. She attended school with the other children because there were no “special education” provisions for such as her at that time. She was sometimes mildly disruptive in class, among other things often laughing when nothing was funny. The teachers and some of the girl students shielded her as best they could, but some teasing and tormenting went on anyway.
One thing I regret is that I was a sometime participant in being mean to her. In my last abusive act I put some snow down the back of her neck. I found that her screeching and crying gave me no pleasure. I never again did anything to discomfit her. But there’s another regret, for what I didn’t do. I didn’t do anything to defend her from abuse by some other students. The reason was that I didn’t want those students to turn their nastiness on me – simple cowardice. My final regret on her account is that I never had an opportunity to apologize to her in person.
I also owe her thanks for helping me develop a conscience, although I still managed to rack up some additional moral debits over the years. That’s one of the downsides of long life, as memorably noted by Hamlet.
Thoughts & Observations from 7 Decades – 3
As an old curmudgeon, it is to be expected that I would find myself making odious comparisons between yesteryear and today. In many realms of our society, preferences for what was, over what is, are really just subjective matters of taste and not terribly meaningful. But in one realm I think serious issues are in play, freighted with importance for our society and nation.
To set the stage – in recent years there have evolved some TV channels that feature primarily reruns of sitcoms and variety shows of the 60s and 70s. I have enjoyed revisiting TAXI, BARNEY MILLER, CAROL BURNETT, SONNY & CHER and some others. But it has somewhat surprised me that one sitcom – ALL IN THE FAMILY – that I found highly amusing in its original airings, no longer makes me laugh. I have turned it on several times but never watch it all the way through. I puzzled about why I no longer think Archie Bunker is funny and came to a conclusion.
At the time the show originally aired there were signs across the land of real progress in racial relations and other parts of the social contract. We could laugh at Archie Bunker because he represented what we believed to be a shrinking minority of unenlightened. He was, we thought, an endangered species. Alas, it was not to be.
In my childhood the Archie Bunkers were ascendant and relatively few who were not the objects of bigotry were offended by blatant racism or other forms of prejudice. I grew up hearing derisive names not only for blacks but also for Italians, Native Americans, Hispanics, Jews, Asians and others, including women. But by the 196os there was much less acceptance of verbal disrespect, at least in public and the media.
I believe the ranks of the unenlightened hadn’t actually thinned but many found it politic to keep their attitudes to themselves or, at least, only share them with those of like mind. Over time, in a society less accepting of verbal bigotry, I think the ranks of the unenlightened did actually shrink appreciably, but in the current era of extreme views by commentators available daily on fringe media and social media, the Archie Bunkers, though fewer, are newly empowered and enabled.
So, I’m no longer able to find humor in Archie Bunker. He’s been resurrected from a harmless fool caricature of the bad old days into a modern icon of ignorance and intolerance and a role model for some.
To borrow a signature line from a popular old-time radio sitcom – “Taint funny, McGee!”