By Terry Hogan
When does something become history? Yesterday's news is in the past, but it probably hasn't fermented, been hashed over, manipulated, and abbreviated enough to be history. How about last month, or last year, or last decade? How about 40 years ago? Although 40 years ago sounds like history to me, I remember 40 years ago. I'm not ready to be history yet.
I remember over a decade ago, when my daughter came home from high school one day. It was near the end of the school year. The history teacher was trying to make up for lost time and was zooming through ''recent history.'' My daughter asked if we (the U.S.) were supporting North or South Vietnam during the war. She had hit several ''hot buttons'' with this question, but perhaps one of the key ones was the realization that it was history to her, but it was still contemporary events for me.
As I read history, I become less satisfied with it. History seems to be more of a political philosophy, and less of an analysis and representation of past events. It used to be the victor who defined what history was. Now it can be asserted by anyone with access to the Internet.
Gore really did us a big favor with the Internet. Now, nearly anyone, either at home, at school, or at the public library, can express his/her opinion to the world. From what I've seen, it is a great tool, but it is also full of abuse. Despite our perceptions of being on the point of evolution, we do remarkably stupid things. We ask for freedom of speech and freedom of action, but we go out of our way to abuse it. How many of us really have a valid need to know how to make a bomb with fertilizer and diesel fuel? Should we be using the Internet to spread hate and encouraging the marginally functional to act out violence?
The Internet is one more example of a new technology that challenges the checks and balances that protect our liberty. Personally, I think a little more self-control by adults and a little more parental oversight of their children's Internet habits might solve much of our dilemma. Somehow we need to value the importance of ''Responsible Adults'' as much as we do ''Consenting Adults.''
You ever notice that nobody is responsible any more? The most heinous crimes are laid at the feet of a troubled childhood or due to a ''broken family.'' We even play games with words to avoid taking responsibilities. We don't fire 500 people any more, we ''down-size.'' If it is an important person in the organization, he isn't fired for screwing up, he has ''resigned to pursue other interests.'' When is the last time that you called a ''service company'' (telephone, gas, electric, repair company, municipality) and got through to a ''real person'' instead of a recording ''Your call is important to us, please.'' You want to yell at the person, if you actually get to one, but you know in this case, that it really isn't his/her fault. At this point, the person on the other end has already been yelled at enough that perpetual burning in Hell sounds like a nice vacation. In a few more days, this individual may be the one looking for the Internet menu for making a bomb with fertilizer and diesel fuel.
Writing is easy. Writing well is hard. I listen to audio tapes as I commute. I prefer short stories and essays. Noah Adams, Bailey White, Charles Kalrut are particular favorites. They write simply and concisely. They provide a glimpse of everyday life and insight to themselves or others. We are a lonely group. We are given intelligence, rational thought, but in the realm of feelings, we are constantly at the whim of what others tell us or perhaps show us through body language. Strong emotions can be easily discerned. It is not these that attract my thought. It is those subtle emotions that are intertwined with our intellectual gifts. Do we all think the same sort of personal thoughts about growing old, about the approach of death, about those beautiful grandchildren who will continue after we are gone? It is this subtle intertwining of emotion and thought that is hard to grasp. Sometimes a good writer allows a glimpse of that. Sometimes it is a whole story, a sentence, or even a phrase. To the reader or listener, it reaffirms and resonates with his own thoughts and emotions. This glimpse of humanity, this reassurance, this flicker of insight, makes a good writer.
That's me. I'm a grandfather. I wear grandfather clothes. I like comfort more than style. I wear a warm coat on a chilly day. All of this is not necessarily bad. However, I do miss the passing gaze of a pretty woman. I sometimes check to make sure I'm still here.
I notice women differently now. I notice eyes more. I notice character in the face. Ads try to tell women to eliminate those wrinkles. That's nonsense. Wrinkles add character, show experience and survival. Wrinkles suggest that this woman has tasted life's experiences, good and bad, and is probably worth knowing, and hearing her story.
I believe that men get the worst end of growing old. We die first. We are the male elephant cast out from the herd, to wander alone. We have spent our lives combating other males, to succeed. While women bond, men build fences. I read somewhere that this is attributable to our early evolution. Man was the hunter and hunted alone or in small groups. Woman was the gatherer and took advantage of the safety in numbers. Women thus became social. Men remained competitive. If one believes this, the logical outgrowth is that women are the architects of our culture. Much could be said to support this.
What Do You Like About Me?
My wife hit me with that question a while back, just about as I was going to sleep. I didn't have a quick answer and the silence spoke volumes to her. We've been married for 33 years, and she seems to be an integral part of me. It was like having my hand posing the question. I tried to make some reasonable stabs in the dark, but they sounded feeble even to my ears. What do you like best about your old favorite sweater, I think. You don't have favorite parts, you like it in its entirety. It is not a sum of parts, some to be liked better than others. It is a sweater. It is more than a sum of buttons, yarn, and a little wear on the elbows. It provides me comfort, warmth, reassurance, and companionship. None of this could be done by buttons alone, or by yarn alone. So how am I to be expected to dissect my wife, in the darkness of night to rank her parts, her actions or inactions into the best and not so best? If I cannot do that fairly with an old favorite sweater, how can I do it with my wife, the woman with whom I have spent nearly two-thirds of my life? Of course, I could not even come up with this analogy on short notice. Perhaps I'll have to rely on my old sweater for warmth a little more, for awhile.
I remember when I was in high school that matching sweaters were in style. If a couple were dating regularly, the territorial proclamation was made by wearing matching sweaters. Of course this made little sense unless you shared a number of classes together, so it was usually coordinated for basketball games and perhaps football games, before it got too cool. (Matching sweaters under a coat had limited value). This proclamation had two drawbacks. The first was coordination. Half of a match pair didn't achieve the effect and tended to cause ill will to fall upon the one who forgot. The second was the selection of sweaters. Unisex was not really big in 1963-4. Guy sweater and girl sweaters looked different. As such, some compromise had to be reached, and looking back, I think the sweaters had that appearance. These look-alike sweaters were not your first choice for either sex.
But the 1960s were a long time ago, which I guess brings me back to the issue of history. Vietnam was a critical aspect of my college years, and of the two years I spent as an Army officer on active duty. I was lucky. I never saw Vietnam first hand. The nearest I saw of battle was riot control duty in Washington, D.C. The first time I saw the nation's Capitol, I was at a naval air station near Washington National (Reagan) Airport. It was midnight and I was commanding a small group of enlisted men that were loading riot control equipment with a powder form of riot control tear agent. We stood in the middle of a circle of army vehicles whose headlights provided light for us to perform our task. On the horizon, gleaming white in illumination, was the capitol dome. Given the task of the next day, my own doubts about our role in the war, and the tension between career officers and NCOs and the draftees about Vietnam and the demonstrators, it was a time for thought by a 21 year old, lst Lt. in the Chemical Corps.
In my unrecognized claim to history, I was the 1st Lt. who was called upon (much to my surprise) to recommend the proper sequence use of fire hoses and tear gas to defend the White House (and Nixon, I suppose) from Moratorium Day demonstrators. This occurred at a briefing at the Military District of Washington Headquarters where I was sent as a liaison officer for my unit. The question came up during a briefing and some major sitting next to me noticed my uncommon insignia (crossed Erlenmeyer flasks, with a blue benzene ringI'm not making this up) and volunteered me to answer the question. The major shouted something to the effect, ''Sir, we have a Lt from the Chemical Corps here, he should be able to answer that question.'' It was my first time, and my last time, as a Lt, instructing a general in anything. I can now safely admit (I think), that I made the answer up. I was clueless, but an answer was expected and an answer was received. For the record, neither water nor tear gas was used at the White House, so nobody knows if I was right or not. Not even me.
I lost a couple of friends to the war. I've looked up their names on the Memorial when I was in Washington. It was more moving than I expected. The personal items left at the base of the black granite were particularly difficult. I believe that veterans make the best case against war.
On the other end, life does go on. Our first daughter was born in an army hospital a few months before I completed my two years of active duty commitment. She and the GI Bill that helped me through graduate school are probably the lasting benefits of that period. She cost us $6 in medical bills. I used to tell her that she was cheaper per pound than steak. She was also the one who asked me if we fought with the North or the South, in Vietnam.
It's just history to her.