Thu – April 14, 2005
I get up pretty early on a work day – 0604. It’s a strange number, I know, but the Hobbit has determined that getting up at 0704 gives her exactly the right ratio of sleep to prep time for the coming day. When the alarm goes off, I’ve only got to make one adjustment, and she’s taken care of.
I’m usually out of the house by 0630 – the morning traffic is a little lighter then, joining the knife fight that is Hwy 5 South is a little less nerve wracking. That gives me enough time for a power bar and a cup of coffee before I get on the bike, and wend my way to work.
Getting there by 0700 or so gives me time to go for a morning run before the workday really cranks over. It’s good to get it done, since otherwise you never know what might come up during the course of the day. The phone might ring, or some all-important email flash on screen just as you’re lacing up.
Lately there has been a fog each morning going south, from LaJolla almost all the way to the Coronado bridge. It fogs my visor from the outside while my coffee-warmed breath fogs it from the inside. Trying to wipe the moisture free with leather gloves keeps your hands busy, but doesn’t do much to improve your view. It’s wear-a-sweater-underneath-the-jacket cold in the morning, much more pleasant in the evening. The heated hand grips are switched up to highest setting on the way down, off on the way back. If your hands are warm, you are warm – all else can be tolerated.
It’s a cost of doing business, I guess.
You can get lulled on a bike in the early morning – the imagination tends to wander, flung far afield by the monotonous sameness of the lane strips flashing by, the motorcycle engine banging away there at high frequency between your legs.
I was reflecting on a book I have been reading, by one G.K. Chesterton. I mentioned it earlier in the week. At one point, the author writes about the single-minded certainty of the madman who thinks that he is God. If he is right, Chesterton says, then he is not much of a God.
You know, a couple days ago marked the 50th anniversary of Jonas Salk’s creation (a team effort, really) of the polio vaccine. It’s hard to believe now, but in 1916, the year my dad was born, polio took 27,000 lives.
“The size of the epidemics varied from summer to summer, but by the time Youngner reached manhood, between 13,000 and 20,000 Americans, mostly children and adolescents, were being paralyzed by polio each year. Some suffered a profound form, called bulbar polio, which left them unable to breathe and dependent on a coffin-size breathing machine called an iron lung.”
Those times now seem almost alien – in a time when parents gleefully took their children round to the opportune neighbors’ houses to catch the measles and the mumps, they lived in fear of their children catching the poliomyelitis virus in the summer months. The last major run of the virus was in 1952 – it infected 58,000 people.
1952? That’s the one that got my sister, and nearly took her away.
Her doctor, a veteran of European battlefields, told my mother (in the rather unfortunately direct vernacular of the day) that he wouldn’t put a plugged nickel on her chances to survive. The best that they could hope for was the iron lung. Moms prayed and said her novenas, and my sister recovered fully – almost fully: To this day, when she blinks, one eye closes faster than the other. It’s her legacy of paralysis. As such things go, it’s not so bad. We talked about it over supper tonight – the kids asked what polio was, and how one caught it?
Of such little bricks we craft progress.
My father told me that in his day, it was considered unusual for there not to be an empty seat in a classroom at the end of the year. The childhood diseases we scarcely even think about any more: scarlet fever, whooping cough, etc; they carried children away not so very long ago. I think perhaps this hardened them – when I read about how they waded ashore under the withering fire at Normandy and Peleliu, I cannot think how it could be otherwise.
Thinking of my sister as the Boxer engine chugged away happily beneath me, I was led somehow, in one of those mysterious, flashing tricks of associative memory, to the recollection of standing on the tailor’s platform one day in 1982. I had just graduated from the Naval Academy, and thought it proper to have a civilian suit fitted to go with my service weeds. It was a rather proper establishment in the Georgetown district of Washington, D.C. The tailor was an elderly gent, very much the professional, with wild tufts of white hair which went this way and that. He asked me if I’d like my trousers cuffed, and, in the custom of the day, I told him that I would.
As he bent down to measure the trouser length, he pushed his rolled-up sleeve a little further up his arm. Which is when I saw the numbers tattooed there, on his forearm. He was a survivor of the camps. A witness to the worst atrocity of a century which was replete with them.
It made my blood run cold.
Oh, I suppose I was still a callow youth. I submit in my defense that I was very young, and had lived a rather sheltered life, if not a particularly privileged one. And while it’s one thing, of course, to know that the Holocaust occurred, somewhere back in the hazy mists of time, one is tempted, if one is lazy, to think that many terrible things have happened in history: Taken as a whole, the story of the human race is after all, rather a sorry one. But It is a far different thing entirely to stand upon the platform, and have a survivor of the camps measure the length of your trouser hem. That old man, with his wild tufts of hair, and the numbers on his forearm, made the Holocaust real for me, in a way it had not been before.
I saw this. I was there.
Eisenhower caused as many of his soldiers as he could to bear witness to the truth of the liberated death camps. He knew that the minds of people back home would recoil against such a truth, that they would not believe such a thing possible from the cradle of our own culture. He knew in time, that the Big Lie would once again be spoken – first in whispers, then in murmurs, finally in street corner shouts. And that some people: deceitful, willful or merely stupid, would somehow contrive to believe it or perpetuate it. Because there are people who are all too willing to substitute meaningless slogans for thought, all too willing to demonize the “other.”
So Ike wanted witnesses, and because of who he was, he got them. Most of them are dead now. The rest of them are dying. My tailor? Almost certainly gone, although I cannot know.
I did not see the camps. But I saw the numbers. And I tell my children. This is my way of bearing witness.
It has become fashionable now to bewail the sins of the 20th century, to focus on the horrors. It is all too easy to do, there is much in the record that is almost pornographic in its ghastliness.
But the 20th century is the handiwork of our parents’ generation, and it seems to me that it is not fair for us to judge their works in such a uniformly negative light. They conquered polio, among other diseases we no longer speak of. They conquered fascism, among other tyrannical ideologies now moldering on the compost heap of intellectual thought. They grew up hard, and made hard choices and did hard things, but left to us, in their characteristic inarticulateness, a gentle legacy of hope and the edifice of accomplishment. This of course, we take for granted. We know no one who had polio. We know no one who lived under unspeakable oppression. Such things as were common a mere 50 or 60 years ago, are as distant to us as the landscape on the moon. They are curiosities, lost in the hazy distance.
I submit: We cannot judge our parents. We are too close emotionally, for good or ill. It will be our children’s task to judge them, as it will be our grandchildren’s task to judge us for what we have done.
That all flashed through my mind as I crossed the Coronado Bay Bridge. In doing so, I fell behind a little blue Honda, with a bumper sticker on the back. It read: “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”
And I wondered if that was really true, or how it came to be that someone could believe it to be true.
Dissent is a right, certainly. Dissent can be patriotic. But it is clearly not necessarily or categorically true that dissent is everywhere and in all things “the highest form” of patriotism. Is it higher than that patriotism of those (there are no few) who having moved here from a foreign land, and enjoyed the fruits of our bounty, signed up to serve in the armed forces as a way of “paying it back”? Many of whom, alas, having done so, have laid down their lives at the altar of what they called freedom? And even if you do not believe in the context of such a sacrifice, and do not think that they were right, can you really deny that was the informed intent of the one who actually did the dying for that sentiment? Can you really label such a man a putz, not having walked in his shoes, not having seen through his eyes, sheltered in the world your grandparents crafted for you?
Is “dissent,” otherwise undifferentiated, really more patriotic than that?
I think not, for my own part. To peel the onion back on that just one layer is to discover a breathtakingly moronic sentiment. It forgives all sins, cleanses all intent, extends parole for things that went before and carte blanche for acts of potential calumny yet undone. It is analogous to (if not tantamount to) the Big Lie. It is a mere slogan, comfortable to say, entirely bereft of meaning. And in meaning nothing, it excuses everything.
If dissent, per se, truly is the highest form of patriotism, then it occurs to me (pace Chesterton) that patriotism isn’t that special of a thing after all.
Or, put it another way, perhaps patriotism truly is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
And then I was at work, in time for my morning run.