Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Point of View

A number years ago I was working on a construction project in a foreign (non-US) country. Among the subcontractors on the job was a Israeli company, doing some of the mechanical work. The Israelis ran a tight, businesslike operation. One of their go-betweens was a normally jolly fellow by the name of Joseph, who coordinated the use of cranes and heavy equipment with us.

Someone had hung a strip of toilet paper on the wall of our office. On every piece was printed a picture of the president of the United States. (An approximation of what it looked like is posted above.) It had been hanging there along with notes and memos for some time, before I even noticed it. To me it didn’t seem much more scurrilous than other avant-garde political cartoons of the time. I mean, look what we did with Nixon.

But the it had apparently caused a stir among our non-American coworkers. One day an extremely agitated Joseph burst into our office and pointed out the presidential toilet paper.

“I cannot believe that you allow this outrage!” He said. “A thing like this is a disgrace! It is a terrible insult! Yet you leave it there on the wall, for everyone to see it!”

I looked at it again, trying to see his viewpoint. To tell the truth, I couldn’t imagine who from “our side” would have put it up there. Our boys’ conversation tended toward beer, babes and baseball, not current affairs or politics. “Well, you see,” I said (this was back in the day), “a lot of construction workers are Democrats . . .”

“Then you would just leave it there? I cannot believe you would put up with such a thing!” he said, storming out, before I thought to explain that partisan mudslinging has been an American tradition going back the expiration of the Alien and Sedition Acts. We left the toilet paper up for a while as a mute paean to the First Amendment.

Sometimes it seems–as in the present climate–that the stridency of partisan voices goes too far. But who would limit them without endangering our basic right to freedom of expression?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Igor and Them

Igor became the fourth hurricane of the season Saturday evening as it headed farther west over the open waters of the Atlantic. The storm has since intensified rapidly, reaching powerful Category 4 status Sunday afternoon.

Still being waylaid, so to speak, and absent from the tropics (having gone back to the land in North Carolina: more on this later) we’ve been again neglectful of putting up our annual, strictly nonscientific (but highly accurate) hurricane predictions. And here we are already at our ninth named storm!

So once again we've managed to contact our old time prognosticator "Typhoon" O'Connor (who otherwise refuses to be named or depicted) for this year's belated reading on the thickness of caterpillars’ fur, the direction in which land tortoises are crossing the road, near and offshore water temperatures, and a general sniffing of the tropical breezes leading to an uncannily accurate prediction of what will come.

“This is one a them La NiƱa years,” he says, “and as such, th’ hexperts say there’ll be more storms than usual. But knowin’ as how th’ Titanic was built by hexperts, and th' Ark was built by amatoors, I’ll be going with the amatoors this year. Thems as have dipped their dainties in th’ local waters tells me, th’ water’s on th’ cool side this year. That means, for whatever reason, th’ hooricanes-- what there’ll be of them-- will be stayin’ offshore. Do pull down your coconuts, and doon’t be cancelin’ your inshoorance, but doon’t be chewin’ your nails neither.”

So that’s it. The pressure’s off. Now, we wonder if that’s what we were thinking just before Wilma? Still, October it’s over, isn’t it?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The African Student

At one time I was friendly with a fellow freshman college student from Africa. He was older than most of us by a dozen years He'd never seen snow. "From the pictures we thought it looked like sugar!" he said. It was interesting to talk to him--he had a different perspective on things.

One day, while visiting his room, he brought out a book to show me. "Have you seen this?" It was a brand new-looking version of Hitler's Mein Kampf. I took it and looked inside the front cover. Sure enough, it had been printed in 1933 by such-and-such a Verlag in Berlin.

"Wow, man! Have you got any idea what you have here?" I said. Not realizing that the Nazis had printed as many of them as the Chinese did with Mao's "Little Red Book," I was thinking that it might be a really rare item. Worth a few bucks to some collector. "This is really something!" I was startled by his reaction.

"Please! Please!" he said. "I did not know!" I really wish I could duplicate his accent.

"Excuse me?" I said. "What are you talking about?"

"I did not think. I did not know." He took the book back and set it down like it was a ticking time bomb. "I beg of you! I beg of you! Please!"

"Wait a minute!" By this time he was on his knees. "I don't get it! What's the problem?"

"Of course I should have known!" he wailed. "I did not think, when I brought this thing with me from Africa! I should have known that here it is forbidden!"

"Forbidden?" I said. "No, you can have them here. I just thought it looked like an original version. Some people pay money to collect things like this." His eyes widened in incredulity. He was sweating and shaking.

"Are you sure? Are you sure?"

By this time I was getting a little "creeped out," so I said good night and left. A couple of days later I saw him, and he explained, "I--all of a sudden--realized that of course, your country had defeated them in a war, and anything like that book would be illegal!" Apparently when I left, he was certain that within minutes jack-booted thugs would be breaking down his door, to haul him off to an American gulag.

"No, there are a number of things that our government doesn't like us to have, but books, thank God, are not one of them."

Much later I heard that my friend had gone on to become "speaker of the house" in his home country, and after that, minister of tourism. Hope some of what he learned over here enabled him to do some good over there.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Look On a Man's Face

A recent article suggested that there might be irregularities in the upcoming elections. Let's hope not.

Something happened to me years that reminded me once and for all about the value of free and fair elections.

Some friends had talked me into becoming a poll worker. You had to get up early and be ready to open the polls at 7:00 AM. The polls closed at 7:00 PM, after which we would complete some paperwork and deliver the ballots to the election headquarters downtown. It made for a long day. Most of the other poll workers were retired people. Some of their stories were amusing. Still, after a few years I’d had enough and decided that the presidential election 1992 would be my last. Then something happened that changed my mind.

A friend of mine, who had managed to leave Cuba with some of his family a few years before (despues, despues de Mariel, he would assert–he was not one of that bunch), came in to vote, along with his mother. Both were naturalized citizens. His brother, a radiologist who had somehow been allowed to come from Cuba to visit his family in Florida for a short time, was with them. He waited outside while the others went in to vote. I tried chatting with him in my high school Spanish. It went something like this:

“Well, today we’re choosing a president.”
“Yeah, sure you are.”
“So, by tonight we should know who it’s going to be.”
“Yeah, sure. Of course that’s not really what is going on here.”
“Sure it is. You watch TV tonight, and you’ll find out which way it went.”
“But there are no guns. No police.”
“Uh, well, there were a couple of police officers here earlier, but after they vote they have to leave just like anybody else.”

I can’t really describe the look that came over his face as he realized that, yes, we were actually choosing the next president of the United States right then and there, and that his brother and his mom were actually part of that process. I suppose “amazed” might be a place to start, but it can’t come close to convey the way he looked.

After that I decided that the long day at the polls was a minor price to pay to take a small part in a critical process, which most Americans take for granted. Some of us don’t even exercise a basic right that most of our fellow travelers on this planet can only dream of, a lesson I learned from the look on a man’s face.