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March 18, 2003


Questions at a Time of No Answers

By Betsey Culp (bculp@sfcall.com)

My father would have been 90 today.

I’ve thought about him a lot during the past few weeks, wondering what he would have made of the world’s present predicament. I really don’t know. I wish I did.

One of the problems with living in the Bay Area is that it’s very easy to lose touch with the way people think in the rest of the country, or to imagine differences that aren’t necessarily there. In many ways, my father’s political opinions exemplify that gulf: he was not “one of us.” And yet he and I sprang from the same American mold. We were formed of the same clay. Beneath the markedly different outward markings, is it possible that we, in fact, possess a common framework of ideals?

You had to have known my father to understand how odd this line of reasoning sounds.

Imagine a boy growing up in small-town Indiana in the 1910s and 1920s. The frontier was still vivid in the memories of his grandparents, and given new life occasionally when an Indian or a Klansman came to town. My father and his five siblings set a family milestone by going to college, but even so, they stayed close to home, attending IU or Purdue or the local Mennonite Goshen College. Although bright beyond the norm, they chose down-to-earth careers, becoming an engineer or an accountant or an osteopath.

And they believed passionately in the principles they saw guiding the United States of America.

My father carried that belief to an extreme. Perhaps purified by the clear air that blew across Lake Michigan, the Bill of Rights became a religious creed for him. Infringements on free speech or a free press were potential attacks on his own personal liberty. As were restrictions on abortion or sexual practices. And the right to own property. And the right to bear arms: “They’ll have to kill me to take my guns away from me.” Behind the fireplace, he filled a secret compartment with rifles and silver coins, just in case. He toyed with membership in the John Birch Society. In another time and place, he would have been a survivalist.

The other pillar of wisdom was the capitalist system: it was free enterprise that made America great and guaranteed protection for its other freedoms. Proud of his self-made success, he assumed that, in a society where anything is possible, other people’s poverty reflects a poverty of character that should not be encouraged by a government subsidy. But in his eyes, such a dole was really unnecessary, because it was the responsibility of any moral person to offer private assistance to people in need.

The term “red-blooded American” has gone out of fashion, but he would have accepted the label gladly. As a thirty-something husband and father during World War II, he was not draftable. Still, he yearned to fight, and only the insistence of his employer that he was needed in a “vital industry” kept him from enlisting. Day after day during the war, my mother recalled, she would find him alone in the bedroom, staring out the window, regretting that he could not fight when his country needed him.

And he took the subsequent cold war threats to the United States very seriously. I knew that the cache behind the fireplace was not simply in case of federal attack. But I didn’t realize, until he was hospitalized in the 1980s, how deep his fears ran. In 1965, a sudden blackout hit the Northeast and my father was stranded in lower Manhattan, where he worked at the time. In the hospital twenty years later, his illness-befuddled mind took him back to that evening in New York. He played out a harrowing scene of capture and interrogation by “them.” “Who are they, Dad?” “You know… the Communists.”

Yet throughout all those years, his fears were amazingly unideological. It was the Russians’ military power that fueled his hallucinations, not Marxism. Thought, like speech and religion, should be free. Throughout his life, beginning in high school, he remained close to a man who was, if not a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, at least a strong sympathizer. After the fall of the Soviet Union, my father spent hours on the phone, trying to console his old friend.

In many ways, although extreme in his quirkiness, he was a child of his times. As he tried to make sense of a world that had strayed far from his expectations, he resembled no one so much as Ronald Reagan, whom he admired.

How then, would he have responded to George W. Bush’s post-9/11 decisions?

I sense the sorrow he would have felt at the attacks themselves, the fear and the anger. His instinct, I am sure, would have been to punish the perpetrators. And guided by information derived, as it was in the last years of his life, from Rush Limbaugh and the Wall Street Journal, he would not have thought to question the rationale behind the Bush administration’s announced course of action.

Nevertheless, the shadow of a doubt tugs at the corner of my mind. I don’t think it’s merely a daughter’s desire to absolve her father from complicity in a plan that she finds repugnant. But it may help to explain why millions of Americans, espousing very different political positions, have shared that distaste.

It’s something called fair play.

Travel back a few decades, to a time when life and death - and life-and-death decisions - were more visible parts of our everyday life. When the chicken for Sunday dinner was very likely running around in the back yard on Saturday. When the family mode of transport, a gray mare, broke her leg and required quick attention. When a wounded foot festered into gangrene. Or even when a desperado killed the local schoolteacher.

A housewife might take her axe and chop off the chicken’s head. A stable master might shoot his injured horse. An army surgeon might remove the swollen foot. A sheriff might track down the outlaw and string him up.

Or they might not.

But they wouldn’t - if they followed the prevailing rules of decency - play cruel games with the unfortunate creatures who were in their power.

It was understood that being human meant making decisions that would cause pain no matter what course was selected. The difficulty lay in focusing on the decision itself and not losing oneself in the godlike feeling of power that such occasions engender. The result demonstrated the difference between a good person and a bully.

That strange man who was my father had a strongly developed sense of fair play. Of the noblesse oblige that characterizes a true democrat. And no matter how staunchly he might have argued for the justice of the cause, I suspect he would have regarded the Bush administration’s actions over the past year and a half as shameful.

Happy birthday, Dad.