by Emmett R. Smith
SUMMERS In the 1950’s, in southern Minnesota–in those good old days, before ‘global warming’–were hot affairs, indeed. Then there would come, a week or ten days at a time, near or just-over one hundred-degree heatwaves. These, usually, would break in crashing thunderstorms, often by night, and as I went to bed, my Great-Aunty Leona would say to me: ‘Buddy! The weather looks owly, tonight! There might be twisters–if I get you up, come quick, and we’ll get in the cellar….’
Tornadoes WERE a real possibility–I had seen one during a day-visit years before, when I was five, I think, and stood on the cellar-step, watching to the southwest as the roof was torn from the Eagle Lake elevator and flung into the lake north of town. Before Grandpa snatched me by the scruff of my neck, down to safety in the potatoey cellar, swearing softly to himself, while my grownups, Mom and Pop and Great-Aunty all tremored, and my Uncle Emmett muttered: ‘Oh, Jesus Christ….’
So, I had all of a little boy’s enthusiasm to see one, again–now, I even had a flashlight my Aunty gave to me, ‘to hunt funnels with’ after dark. And, so, I would fall asleep to the far grumble of thunder from over the horizon, and the distant glimmer of heat-lightning in at the screened windows of the old house and porch. Often enough, too, I would awaken to the looming wind and rattle of rain and small hail, at the windows–and, the tread of my Grandfather, coming in from the sleeping-porch on the west side of the house, the yellow light from the kitchen, and the murmur around the kitchen table, of the grownups.
Then, I would dress all in a hurry, pulling on my gumboots and raincoat over my pyjamas, and lean out of the backporch screened-door as far as I could, shining my light straight up in the air and squinting against raindrops, to see if THIS time there would be a real tornado. I knew better than to SAY how much I really wanted to see one again: In 1929, the story went, a storm had all but ruined Grandpa’s new-built dairy-barn, double-walled and then just two year’s old. Now, the arcing roof over the haymow was triple-trussed–and, Grandpa did NOT like thunderstorms…. But, after a time, that quiet old man would chuckle at my night-time antics, and then we would all go back to sleep, as the weather banged and crashed away overhead, to the east.
1958 Was such a year, I was nine years old and staying on my Grandfather’s farm for the third summer in a row, on the high–and, today, alas, chemically-exhausted and cement-like, farmed-out– ground northeast of Eagle Lake. There were cats and dogs, chickens and ducks, sheep and pigs and cows, and two old draught-horses, too. And, swallows and purple martins, salamanders and toads and frogs–and, gardener snakes…. Grandpa hardly ever worked his last team, anymore, and he was proud of his small hand-milked dairy-herd. My bachelor Uncle Emmett lived at home with his Dad, and he drove–at a high rate of speed delightful to a small boy!–a two-door black-and-yellow 1957 Ford ‘Fairlane’ car–with a really powerful and surging over-drive. And, this summer, he had just bought a brand-new John Deere ’45’ selfpropelled combine-harvester–the first of three in the neighborhood….
Now, it was down in July, and today was the first day of the annual Eagle Lake absurdly-named ‘Tater-Days’ town-festival. Ridiculous because potatoes had not been a cash-crop for years–but, I was looking forward to going down to the village and watching the parade from the house on Agency Street, of Grandpa’s sister, my Great-Aunt Huldy. There had been storms in the night, there were puddles in the gravel, and it was a boiling day….In at the drive there came a shiny new car, and out there piled a group of young men and women–people I’d never seen before. They wanted to know about where my folks were at as Leona came self-importantly out of the blazing noonday kitchen, and they said they wanted to rent a hay-wagon–‘to use as a float in the parade!’
‘Oh, Leona, please!’ I broke in, ‘Can I go ride on the wagon!’
Leona turned to the young people, who said they were students at the State College in Mankato, and that they were campaigning for Congressman McCarthy–Eugene McCarthy–who was running for the US Senate. All I knew was that McCarthy was a Democrat, and so that everybody would probably say NO, that I could not be in the parade. Grandpa was a Republican, if anything, always said the Democrat party was all just for the unions…and now I heard the crunch of his footsteps behind us, as he came up from the machineshed, where he’d been at work on the New Holland hay-baler, with its squat and powerful Le Roi engine.
IN Short order, the deal was closed, the students had pressed twenty dollars (!) on Grandpa for the use of his wagon and some bales to sit upon, and they were all hard at work, stapling up crepe ribbons, bunting and signs. Meanwhile, in the house, Leona was busy cutting the skirts short, on a man’s old black topcoat, and I was digging through closets to find a cheap black felt bowler hat I’d gotten at the Garden City fair, the year before. Soon I was decked out with my toy walkingstick in a kind of Carl Barks and Scrooge McDuck idea of a politician, complete with an old cellophane-wrapped cigar, which I pinched from Grandpa’s writing desk. And, a good time was had by all, as the Eagle Lake-Madison Lake Times put it, in the following week’s edition….
On the Democrat party-float (my Grandpa’s best-looking hay-wagon!), I hopped up and down and yelled cheerfully such helpful slogans as:
‘Congressman McCarthy for Senate in ’58!’ and ‘Skunk the Republicans–vote DFL!’ Grandpa did not go to parades, of course…. All of a sudden, there was Great-Aunt Huldy, by the kerb in front of her white and red-trimmed house:
‘Huldy!’ I called. ‘Look at me–I’m a Democrat! I’m in the parade!’
Hulda Olson smiled, laughed outright when she saw, really, it was me, waved back–and, Congressman McCarthy, riding with us on the float, looked, well, nonplussed. After awhile, as I kept calling out his name, he observed: ‘Maybe you should mention Governor Freeman a few times, too–he’s running for re-election this year….’
Afterward, Congressman McCarthy thanked us all, and me, too, shaking all our hands. I liked him, I decided. In his short-sleeved white summer shirt and dark slacks, he looked sort of like Mr Berge, who taught fifth grade at Minnehaha elementary, in Minneapolis, and who was the only male teacher in my school, where I would be in third grade, in the Fall…. For now, I walked over to Huldy’s house, to drink Kool-Aid and munch chips and dip and read Donald Duck-comics, until Uncle Emmett could bring me home, in his black-and-yellow Ford.
WHEN I was a young man, then, an adolescent, in the 1960’s–another college-bound child, of the ‘McCarthy-generation’–I was by way of becoming quite an accomplished thief–precisely, a shoplifter. All of this went on from when I was in seventh grade, in what used to be called junior highschool, in the spring of 1962 (five months before the Cuban missile-crisis), until the fall of my junior year in high-school (at the height of the L B Johnson build-up, in Vietnam). All of it (my thieving AND the Vietnam war) much to the chagrin, and bitter anger, of my divorced and widowed Mother. Then, in 1965, I was laid by the heels by the Dayton’s department-store security-staff–and, then, scared within an inch of my life, by the Minneapolis police.
This was in September, I was sixteen, and I was just back from the summer at work on my Grandfather’s farm, northeast of Eagle Lake, here at home, in southern Minnesota: I had on a nice suntan, a nice spring to my step–and, a really nice, short, haircut! THAT, it turned out, was the saving grace, for even then, so long ago, long hair had become the premier insolence-marker, of insubordinate young malehood. And, so, the policeman said to my mother on the telephone, from the Minneapolis courthouse, late that warm and sunny Saturday afternoon:
‘We have him on charges of theft, he denies it and didn’t sign anything for the department-store people, I of course have no doubt there’s something to it…. But, Ma’am, he is a polite & well-spoken young man–he has a good haircut! And, so, we are going to let him go–this time.
‘But, God help him if we ever catch him back in here again!’
And so it was, more than forty years ago now, I sat in the squadroom, listening to these words of reprieve–all the while accompanied by the muffled thuds and bangs, and stifled ejaculations, coming through the frosted windows of an inner office. There were strangled yells, of F-this, -that, -you and the other, all in a variety of voices–and, an occasional muffled silhouette loomed and thumped against the opaque glass. Then, when the door opened at one point, only slightly and but briefly, and an officer stepped out, rubbing his bicep and working open and shut the fingers of his hand, I could see the figure of an African-American or an Hispanic young man, being tossed around the room. This was three years before the Miranda-ruling, of course, and then we should have said, too, that it was a Negro or Mexican young man, who was being beat-up. Certainly–because of all this judicial-progress, I mean–I am more than glad to tell you, that such things do not today continue to happen in police-stations. It is, of course, difficult to believe that American police used to routinely roughhouse and–dare one say it?–torture suspects, to get confessions, and that they did so on a daily basis throughout most of the history of the republic. Nowadays, American enforcement authorities, of course, simply don’t pull such stuff, not anymore they don’t, they just don’t, of course they do not, and those who say otherwise, well, we all just KNOW this (they tell us so, after all, night after night, right on Fox TeeVee):
These people who claim otherwise are liars–plus, they are just trying to get money–probably off of the government. After all, just listen to what they tell us–on TeeVee….
But for me, altogether, one good came of all this grim history–and, to have witnessed those terrible images unfold in the courthouse in old Minneapolis DID cure me of the criminal-career idea of being a thief–and all of that much to my beleaguered Mother’s glad relief:
‘After all,’ she scolded me later, ‘if you do get fingered for being a little stealer–that’s it for college! You’ll wind up in Vietnam with everybody else being chased around in the swamp!’
SO It was that four years later, in November of 1968, as a sophomore at Augsburg college, in Minneapolis, I found myself, as did so many of our generation born between 1946 and 1964, ‘going to school’. And, in my case as in so many, because of family illness and want, I found myself going to school–thanks to President L B Johnson!–on other people’s money. If you will, ‘free’ money, from–you guessed it!–the government. In my case, of course, whilst I had no solid record of academic achievment in high-school to justify the affair, well, I WAS good at aptitude-tests….
Those were the days, you see, when, with so many like myself, I was lounging and skipping class and smoking marijuana, all at the expense of that selfsame government, which, with the other hand, was drafting so many from my Minneapolis highschool class of over eight hundred, to go and flounder around in Vietnam, in that not-inapposite swamp of my mother’s direst intuition.
My conscience about this all was not entirely clear, of course–I think not a few of the young men with whom I found myself (on some days, at least!) in class were similarly troubled–and so it was that at, about 3.00 o’clock in the Monday afternoon on this particular late-autumn–or, early winter’s!–4th of November, that my class-mate, Tom Peterson, who was a photographer for the student news-paper, for which I was, likewise, a reporter, came rushing into the campus coffeebar, the ‘Chinwag’, where I was regaling friends with a lot of impossible stories and non-sense, of my mainly nonexistent achievements, past, present–and, future….Now, Tom Peterson was altogether a more-decided young man than was I, and, indeed, he worked also as a professional photographer, weddings, family-parties and so on. So, I was not entirely surprised when he called out across the room:
‘EMMETT! Gene McCarthy is on campus! He’s coming here for coffee…!’
IT Was so!
Senator Eugene McCarthy, late from all of the dreadful heartaches and Chicago-violence, and the terrible upheaval, of the 1968 Democrat party presidential-nomination fight, with Vice-President Humphrey–and, more recently, reporting in the papers on the World Series!–now, on the eve of the election of R M Nixon to HIS first presidential term–that same Senator McCarthy was now among us, on the campus of Augsburg college!
It was a gray and cold, icy-fingered, day such as we used to have in Minnesota, before ‘global warming’. It was way down in the fall, and Minneapolis had on that day its iron hat. And, the story was that Senator McCarthy, in his suit, had been detected just a few blocks away, in Riverside park, overlooking the west bank of the Mississippi, tossing a foot-ball with a party of his U of M volunteers. He was invited, straightaway, to come along over to the Augsburg campus and to sit down for a few words with any students who should care to meet him.
Now, as the Senator walked into the coffeebar, Tom Peterson–altogether a more BUSINESSLIKE young man than I–hissed into my rather waxey ear: ‘Now here’s the plan! He just endorsed Humphrey, so I’ll take pictures and you write down everything he says, especially any good stuff about the election, and then we’ll run right downtown and sell all of this stuff to the AP, The Associated Press. And, so we did….
NOW, I think that I have explained to you all, in the course of previous interviews and readings, on Mankato History This Month, how it was that, in the course of my enthusiastic–but, altogether, rather sociopathic–adolescence, I had been a passionate Young Republican campaigner for Senator Goldwater, in 1964–a whole year before I got busted–‘Finally!’ said my Mother–for stealing other people’s merchandise.
And, I think, I have also said that I remain convinced that, had the Senator from Arizona become President, forty-one years ago, the whole course of the history of late-cold war America would have been vastly different, than it is. I even suppose that, upon some study through the years of who were his advisors, that we should have had a civil rights act, also, although there would NOT have been the course of lavish public funding of social projects that came with L B Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ programs. Also, in plain fact–and, despite all the wild talk of nuclear war–I think that there would have been a truce-line in Vietnam, just as in Korea….
Now, in all of this, I may well be in error–but…A corollary, I suppose, is that we may very well, then, never have heard of Eugene McCarthy–because, first and last, there would never have been the government-created student-base.
(And, I admit it, I have to suppose that it would be only fair, for the cynics among you, to conclude that I was vastly suited–as a young shoplifter, I mean–to be, indeed, what I had been in those days, namely, a Young Republican….)
Be that as it may, now, it was the eve of the 1968 election, and in the course of the general discussion with Senator McCarthy–I think, because it was late in the day on our half commuter-student campus, there were perhaps but thirty to forty students gathered, to meet the Senator–when my turn came, I admitted to my Goldwater-past, and I said that, all-in-all, it was really hard to know for whom I should cast my ballot on the morrow–if only I were old enough to do! I was only in my twentieth year, but now that we were in an actual war, in Vietnam, the choice between Humphrey and Nixon seemed to be, to me, a six-or-half dozen affair–because, really, no one seemed to have a clue, about what to do. But, I concluded stalwartly–some of my friends looking on were grinning derisively!–at least Nixon seemed to have bona fide anti-communist credentials….
TWO Things I remember, about all of this:
First of all, Eugene McCarthy was very kind to me in his reply. He did not recoil in mock-theatrical horror as had done some of my professors, and he said that it was quite conceivable that many voters, indeed, did feel themselves to be in the position that I described. It was, after all, the voter’s eternal problem, of whom to choose out of a campaign made up so much of puffery and plain lies: This was the basic problem, said Senator McCarthy, of democracy, itself….
The Senator was, in his dealings with my somewhat-recalcitrant republicanism, altogether tenderhearted, and he gave to me–as, indeed, he gave to us all, in turn–the gift of his complete and lively attention, all the while including us all, in what might well have been an extended one-to-one discussion.
The other thing that has remained in my mind through all the years since–and, it struck me at the time as all the more remarkable, these words that Senator McCarthy spoke, for coming from the mouth of a Democrat–mine was, after all, an old Tory family, on both sides, and we were raised at home in wild suspicion of ALL big government, no matter WHAT its avowed purposes–and, now, this stalwart Democrat, this stalwartly democratic man, said to us all in the falling light of that freezing day, thirty-seven years ago…he said to us all:
The Constitution of the United States is, first and last, an operating manual for the federal government–and, it sets definite–indeed, they are absolute!–limits on how far government may go. It is a document drawn up in the interest of the rights and the liberties of the individual citizen, and it only permits government to legislate to the extent of 1) ensuring the common good, and yet 2) only so far as that common good will not violate the individual good, at least not unnecessarily.
These limits are, precisely, the rights both enumerated (in the Bill of Rights), and all of the rights of individual citizens as free men and women, to live their lives, think their thoughts and express their opinions and acts, all as they may choose–as long as one does no harm to the rights of another. And, yes, it is so, the Senator DID speak of the INNUMERABILITY of rights–at least a sure hook for young people, one supposes….
The corollary which he introduced in this discussion has also stayed with me:
Such a conception of government, such an instrument of governance, is very fragile. And, so, as often as we would deal with politics in the course of all our long lives to come, the Senator wanted us–over and over, he said, and always and always–to think of party-politics, and the momentary issues–always in the light of the Constitution.
NOW, To be sure, I have learned long since that the ideas of Senator McCarthy for the application of the Constitution differed in marked degree from either a conservative–which, today, of course is NOT Republican, not anymore!–or, indeed, a libertarian view-point. There was–and, there is now–an ongoing discussion in politics, said the Senator, about the creative tension between the common good I have already alluded, and the individual good. For example, the Senator–a child of the ‘New Deal’, an upright man of the ‘Fair Deal’ and the ‘Great Society’–tended toward the idea of a ‘presumption of constitutionality’, in favour of legislators trying to realise common goals.
(Whereas I, for one, tend toward a ‘presumption of liberty’–in favour of individual citizens….)
I perceive that the Senator considered–I think it is safe to say it this way–that, in the legislative-process–and, as long as legislators have the moral sense to hold themselves accountable–there is just cause to presume that laws passed in a constitutional manner–that was, certainly to Senator McCarthy, in a RESPONSIBLE manner–were, and are, constitutional. And, whenever new laws may be NOT so, it is the plain duty of citizens, through their representatives, to enforce the proper changes.
This was Senator McCarthy’s basic point throughout, again and again, over and over: This whole political discussion in which we found ourselves immersed would require lifelong OUR continual attention as citizens, he said–and, the touchstone for our assessment (as voters) of OUR representatives in Congress must be ALWAYS in terms of how well they fulfill THEIR OBLIGATIONS laid on them, ON OUR BEHALF, by–the Constitution of the United States.
AT Another point in the discussion, a young woman class-mate of mine demanded, with some heat, to know WHY the Senator had not until the previous weekend gotten behind the campaign of Vice-President Humphrey. It was not, she said, the way for Democrats to behave! Again, Eugene McCarthy was the kindest and most patient of–teachers. We were, after all, plainly having–a seminar.
First of all, he reminded her–and, us–many of the American founders had been sceptical of the emergence of political parties as such, and that, indeed, some had thought that all factions would be, in the end, a direct threat–to the Constitution, itself. Then, he quoted the great nineteenth-century English Tory-party leader and prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who had apparently said that parties invariably mutate, and that the real question was about how disgracefully (!) far a party could go, in moving away from its traditions.
Eugene McCarthy–of Watkins, Minnesota–concluded with a baseball-image:
Perhaps, he said, the Democratic party has had its innings. The implication, seemingly, was of a re-building-period, ahead….
HE Was with us all, there in the cheery coffeebar atmosphere, the kindest and most patient of men, indeed, and I was shocked, looking at him, to see that he was so much more gray and pale, and tired around the eyes, than he had seemed to be, in all of the newspaper-pictures, and in our still largely black-and-white TeeVee-sets, just a few short weeks before. I suppose I noticed this because my Grandfather would be dead within the month, of melanoma, and I realised all of a sudden that I was thinking that I hoped to goodness that Eugene McCarthy didn’t have cancer, too. So–there is no doubt about it–I saw this for myself–the 1968 campaign had been very hard, indeed, on Senator McCarthy, both as to bodily tiredness, and as far as his deepest feelings ran. But his spirit, with us there, that night, was–wonderful.
As we know, too, that campaign of 1968 was hard on his party, and it was very hard on our own Minnesota DFL-party. I heard, afterward, that a late professor in his office, when told that the Senator was present, disdained to come down to greet him–even though they had been something like the friends of many years….
Now Eugene McCarthy said to us, that late afternoon now so long ago–and, as he was say again so often in all the many years since–that he campaigned as he did, and at the expense of the unity–and, friendship!–of his own party, quite simply because legislators at every point of the compass had failed on this point of–responsibility. Responsibility–for the Viet Nam war. And, it must fairly be said, that his crusade was quixotic, indeed, in the late-modern atmosphere, so akin to that of to-day, of what C. Wright Mills, in his 1956 book on American power–The Power Elite–called ‘the system of organized–irresponsibility’.
At any rate, Senator Eugene McCarthy, of Watkins, Minnesota, brought L B Johnson down, when no one else in the United States Senate, seemingly, could bring that rancorous Texas old man to heel–and, the fact that the Minnesota Senator’s crusade introduced–by fits and starts–a new and Republican, nominally conservative, era, is an ironic consequence which I am certain his poet’s soul enjoys even now, somewhere out there in The Beyond–that blissful al-‘Abru of the muslim mystics–now that he is no longer with us, in this shadowed world, being yet whirled about.
All of this happened because this reflective and scholarly–above all, personally decent–and, no-doubt-about-it, self-convinced!–man knew (no doubt for him at all, about THIS!) that men and women of good will could, IF they so chose, work together to employ constitutional government to the improvement of–the common good. And, the real well-being of the ordinary American individual citizen….
Eugene McCarthy embraced all of that paradox with a passion that, perhaps, never did grow dim. And, so, if there is, then, any question about the meaning and the value–and, the problem (for the historian)!–of his public life, it lies, I think, in this immense fact: Namely, that he thought so much, and so well, of the possibility of government–constitutional government–to do well:
Because, at bottom, Senator Eugene McCarthy thought–and, by God!–he was entitled sincerely so to think it!–and he did!–I saw this for myself about him, too–he DID think so well of himself. And, what he thought of himself–so help me, God–he thought surely to be possible, for others. He thought that to be consistent and principled and honest was, altogether, the best for the longterm–and, surely, that all reasonable people must see it so….That was the heart and soul of his–vanity. Therefore, I have to concur with University of Minnesota historian Hy Berman, who, when interviewed in the week following Senator McCarthy’s death, last month, said that Eugene McCarthy would no doubt NOT have been a successful president–simply, this un-simple and always-thoughtful man had too much in his mind to have been able to focus with the sort of singlemindedness–scarcely to be distinguished from obsession and sloganeering!–that we seem to demand of our Presidents.
TO Be a successful President, alas, one has got to be just a bit more of a rogue.
WHEREAS Senator McCarthy gave every impression of a sincere belief that government had the no-doubt-paradoxical task, which I would state this way: To serve in common the individual good–and, for him at least, that government should so do was the moral imperative of any public life at all worth living–again, this was his vanity and his pride!–and, so, he bent every fibre of his being in public life to serve that end, and not the goals only of party-success. This set him up for his gad-fly role, of a kind of itinerant political conscience of the embattled and befuddled nation–and, for what some critics called the ‘martyrdom’ of the 1968 internal battle of the Democrat party. But, to be truthful, the feeling I got from Senator McCarthy was of a solid-enough ego about him, and stubborn sense of–I-ness!–that I expect, mainly, that he felt–insulted– about how events had gone for him.
(Eugene McCarthy was certainly NOT un-sarcastic in some of his replies, to our questions:
(Someone asked him about the embroglio early in 1968, when Governor Romney, of Michigan–a Republican would-be presidential-nomination candidate–or else it was Ed Muskie, a Democrat presidential-aspirant–had said he had been ‘brainwashed’ by the Johnson Vietnameers–and got himself crucified in the media. ‘Well,’ said Eugene McCarthy, grinning foxily, ‘There’s “brainwashing”–and then there is–SELF-HYPNOSIS….’)
And so–again, I think so, albeit I met him only twice in my young life–the great consolation for Senator Eugene McCarthy was his self-view as that, above all, of–a teacher. Say what you will, who were not there, then, his love for my ‘baby-boom’ generation was no doubt real. I felt that unaffected devotion he had in his heart for us, all of us whom he had met and knew, in class and in the campaign–and, it was NOT demagoguery…. No, none of that: He was entirely–too–present–with us that November afternoon, on the eve of the first election–of R M Nixon.
But, for all of the love that was there, I have no doubt that Eugene McCarthy fatally misperceived my generation–based, after all, on the limited number of us whom he actually knew–and that he projected onto us all the hopes that good teachers and parents have, always, for the future. His moral seriousness and individual excellence were his great gifts to us all. But such gifts can be, also, very loneliness-making, and where he was weak–if that is the right term–perhaps it was simply and necessarily a matter of his own personal share at work, of the universal blindness–is that he did NOT ‘know it all’. Not really. No more than he knew all about–US. Nor could he have done–and, I am not suggesting seriously that he ever went THAT far down the path with himself, either. But, he knew only those of us whom he’d met personally–and, of course, these were mainly the ‘clean-Gene’ students of my sprawling young-time.
Simply, he did not guess all of the influences that had went to form us in our entirety, our WHOLE generation.
And, the influences that would go on forming–and driving!–us into our looming adulthood. After all, disco & cocaine, both, were just around the corner…. And, the Reagen-miracle was but twelve years away. And, quite apart from the future, there was the question of all that had gotten into our heads, before.
And, so, I Find myself, these days, meditating on this recurring image.
In the middle of this second and incredibly noisy decade of the postmodern age–which we Americans now all infest, like so many anxious hostages in need of hot showers, in an equally-noisy and rundown, Third World, international air-terminal–I do find myself meditating on this recurring image. Which came to me in the middle of the first month, of our invasion of Iraq:
PICTURE To yourself, if you will, a cartoon-coyote. In the foreground–in the shadow of a mesa. He is peering right at us, with wickedly bloodshot eyes, all magnified and looming through the yawning lenses of a pair of ‘Acme’ binoculars. In his left paw, he holds a black and round, smouldering, ‘Acme’ WMD-bomb. ‘Weapon of Muslim Destruction’, it means….
All of a sudden, beyond the vertical edge of the mesa, behind the coyote, there screeches to a halt, in a whirling funnel of dust, a flock of–roadrunners. In turbans…. They flip out their prayer-rugs, dust clean their feet and heads and wing-ends, and they bow and pray by turns, the others craning their necks and whistling derisively at the coyote. As He turns, to make out the source of these insults–BANG! The bomb goes off….
And, next, we see the bandaged coyote on crutches, in his workshop, busily unwrapping his next package from–you guessed it–the friendly folks at ‘Acme-Halliburton’. As he toils to strip away the string and brown paper, he growls:
‘I AM! the master–of low expectations!’
(And, I would add, of the doomed undignified high hopes and daily-more-preposterous vanity, of a generation now, frankly, growing old.)
ALTOGETHER, Then, I expect that we all, of the 1946-1964 generation, would be just a little bit better-off with ourselves, if we could only admit it: We all grew up liking Coyote best! I did–and–I just KNOW this–YOU do, too!–so did OUR President, G W Bush. And the corollary would seem to be, alas, that he Presidents best who Presidents back at the people an image of themselves as they most wholly ARE…..
Meanwhile, there in the Long Ago, thirty-seven years ago last November, I seized the moment and walked out with Senator McCarthy and his party, from the Augsburg college coffee-bar, when he got up to leave us:
‘You see, Sir,’ I said, ‘I just want you to know that I DID campaign for you once–BEFORE I campaigned for Senator Goldwater!’ Eugene McCarthy looked at me curiously, as we stepped down the side-walk in front of the Augsburg Old Main-building. ‘It was in 1958, Sir, when you first ran for the Senate–I was nine…. In Eagle Lake, down by Mankato!’
‘I DO remember you!’ Senator Eugene McCarthy laughed. ‘When I said you should cheer for the other candidates, too, you told me:
‘”No! We’re Republicans–we don’t like them!”‘
And, laughing at it all again, putting his arm across my shoulders, Senator McCarthy walked on with me down the crumbling pavement, for the last few steps of our short journey together, in the world….
AND, Meanwhile, there in the Long Ago, forty-seven years ago last Summer, it was hot in the long evening on Grandpa’s farm, after supper, and as he sat on the cement steps, silhouetted in the setting Sun, lacing up his shoes, I
‘Gee, Grandpa, I like politics–it’s fun! I’m going to run for the Senate, too!’
Then–that time–that old man–he’d been born when Cleveland was in his first term!–laughed and laughed. He looked at me with glistening eyes and said:
‘By God, I should slap your ass! Well the world will tame you, I guess. You talk foolish….’
And, together then, an old man and his only grandson, walked down the crunching gravel, in dusty insect-buzzing beams of setting light, to feed the cows and finish-up the milking-chores–swallows from the barn sweeping low, overhead.
[Emmett R Smith all rights reserved 15 December 2005]