My dad led the design team for the electrical system of the original Goodyear Blimp. One summer, between the third and fourth grade, his work on airships called him away from Akron and we spent the summer in Tom’s River, New Jersey. After returning from Portugal, we had stuck close to Akron so was looking forward to a trip that took us hundreds of miles to the sea-side. I could smell the ocean when we still an hour away from Tom’s River. Our small apartment in Tom’s River sat a mere two blocks from the public library, a library that contained the “Powers of Ten” book which takes the reader on a journey from the innermost workings of the atomic nucleus to the outermost regions of the galaxy.
While my dad worked at Lakehurst, my mom and I spent part of the day watching the “McCarthy Hearings.” I was too young to understand it thoroughly, but I could quickly discern that McCarthy was a liar. I had a harder time telling whether he was genuinely a very hating hateful person or whether he just appeared to be full of hate in order to popular with other hating people. Hating others has never come very naturally to me. I always felt connected to my family, my friends, other people and even other forms of life. So, hating, to me, has always consisted of nine parts self-loathing plus one part prideful ignorance. Don’t get the idea that I am a saint. I’m far from it and anger comes quite easily to me when I’m frustrated. My parents claimed that, as a toddler, frustration would propel me to run across the floor and smack my head down on the floor. By the time I was nine, I had developed less self-destructive ways to express anger. But whether McCarthy really was a tiny person filled with hate or simply a person who tried to impress those who really were haters in order to win their support, I couldn’t tell. I have no idea how “large” McCarthy was physically. I call him “tiny” because it seems essential in order to hate that you must pull in your sense of wonder and appreciation to the boundaries of your own physical skin. When people hate, something has happened to them and it shouldn’t happen to them because, after all, they are the center of the universe. Apparently, haters have never seen the book, Powers of Ten.
Probably so they could have some adult time, my parents also enrolled me in summer church school. I became friends with one of the kids in church school and he invited me onto his Cabin Cruiser. My parents met with his parents before accepting this and they ended up being invited too. A bright sunny day and off we sped onto the sparkling ocean! At some point, the kids, under the supervision of my new friend’s dad, went crab fishing. Although I had never gone crab fishing before, I understood the basic concept from several fishing trips with my Uncle Karl. Karl lived in a fancified log cabin on Comet Lake near Akron. Fishing consisted of going out into the lake on a row boat, putting a live worm onto a hook, putting a fishing pole over the side of the boat and then sitting quiet and still for hours on end. I think I may have caught one small fish in my three trips. It seemed frankly like a huge amount of boredom for a very small reward. So, when crab fishing was announced as the next activity on the Cabin Cruiser, I tried to steel myself for hours of boredom. I didn’t want to end up running across the deck and smacking my head in frustration.
The baiting was easier and instead of poles, we put out some lines with multiple baits. Over the side of the boat they went. That wasn’t so bad as pithing the worms. Now would come the endless hours of waiting for a nibble. Two or three minutes later, for no reason I could discern, we started pulling up the lines. They were filled with crabs! While the trout, bass, perch, and bluegill in Comet Lake were shy and crafty little critters who would try stealthily to nibble away the worm without getting barbed on the hook, the crabs of the Atlantic seemed to have no greater goal in life than to clamber into our boat as fast as possible. This fishing sped along more in synch with my natural rhythm. No need for head-banging here! Line after line went over the side and minutes later, back each one would come with a meal’s worth of crabs. Now this fishing was more like it!
After sunset scattered scarlet shards across the ocean, the kids went down below to sleep in the bunks. There were portholes in the bow and we could see through those portholes into an ever-darkening starry sky. We could hear the murmuring of the alcohol-plied adults above discussing whatever it was that adults discussed back then; perhaps the McCarthy Hearings; perhaps something about a popular movie or TV show. We kids below however had more serious things to discuss. Mainly, we discussed the fact that we could see stars that were (or at least had been) far, far away. We speculated whether, at this very moment, there might be a planet circling one of those distant stars. It seemed that if there were planets, they too might have oceans and Cabin Cruisers and kids. And those kids would also be looking up into the night sky seeing a faraway star — our sun! And, they might well be thinking, those alien kids, of how there might be a planet circling Sol and how on that planet could be kids looking up at the night sky at them…or at least at their sun. Of course, we might be years or even thousands of years “out of synch” which only added to the mystery.
These possible aliens might be like us in every way. More likely, they would be like us in some ways and unlike us in some ways. They might be wondering whether we would be friendly to them just as we wondered whether they would be friendly to us. And, probably, we concluded, a lot would depend on the particular alien you encountered. For some reason, that particular small group of kids didn’t talk much about “categories” of people. It seemed to me, and to my new-found friends, that everyone was quite different. We had learned in school that every snowflake was different. If something as simple as a snowflake is unique, how much more true that must be of people. And, it seemed completely and obviously true. My Aunt Emma and my Aunt Mary were completely different from each other as each was from my Grandmother Ada. Of course, people were all different. As I listened to the voice of the other kids, I could see that person’s face in my mind’s eye. Yes, we all had one nose, one mouth, and two eyes, but we were all really different. We sounded different. We looked different. We moved differently. We were from different states hundreds of miles apart. But we all were interested in whether there were aliens and what they would be like. Though we were somewhat mindful of the potential danger, we were much more excited about learning about them and from them than protecting ourselves from them. And we all understood that all the thoughts and feelings we were having about them were quite possibly mirrored by their thoughts and feelings about us even if separated by lightyears of space-time and by biological lineages.
None of our group of nine-year olds were such “scaredy cats” that we were terrified of the aliens and therefore filled with hate for them. It never occurred to any of us. I don’t think that’s just because we were all going to “church school.” It’s just more natural to assume that the kids on the faraway planet would be wondering about us in much the same way as we wondered about them regardless of the number of eyes and legs they might have. I think that in order for us to have hated or feared the aliens, an adult would have to come into our cramped quarters to tell us that all the aliens were the same; that they were all out to get us; that they should all be hated and destroyed. Maybe McCarthy would be good for that job. It’s honestly hard to believe any of us would have taken him seriously. But, I suppose, if we heard that hate day in and day out, complete with fake news features filled with fake facts and fake figures, we might eventually find ourselves in a state of hate and fear.
Of course, no such adult came down below decks to sell us that particular bogus bill of bads. Why would someone like McCarthy decide to make their fame and fortune by filling young minds and hearts with hate and fear? I still don’t know whether he was really so filled with hate and fear himself that he couldn’t help it. I did, years later, read a biography of Joe McCarthy and something his wife said made me very much think it was all fake and he didn’t actually believe any of it. That just makes it all the more disturbing. A hate-monger such as McCarthy, who does it all as an act to gain power, does not just hate communism and communists. He also hates the people he is hoodwinking. He totally disrespects them through his dishonesty and dissembling. Eventually, Joe McCarthy soon found himself completely discredited and disgraced but not before wantonly laying waste to the lives of many innocent individuals.
Of course, in the right circumstances, almost everyone lies on occasion. What most people do when they are caught in a lie is apologize and try to explain why they lied. What a McCarthy does, however, is quite different. Instead of apologizing, they simply shout the lie more and more loudly. On other occasions, they will deny ever having told the lie in the first place. The screaming gets louder and louder. When no-one believes their lies, they are left with the only recourse left to them: violence. War, incarceration, murder — all of these seem a nothing compared with the ego bruising hurt of admitting that they had been lying. In the meantime, Joe McCarthy did provide a summer’s worth of entertainment. It’s too bad it came with ruining innocent lives.
I wonder whether those far planets we hypothesized as revolving around those far suns in our night sky hold their own McCarthy-like beings. It seems hard to believe an entire species would survive if they were all McCarthy-like. Imagine a river full of piranha that attacked each other! The species wouldn’t long survive. Is there some utility to having a small proportion of the population of an otherwise intelligent species be McCarthy-like? I don’t really think so. At least I haven’t been able to come up with a scenario yet in which actual witch hunts are useful to the group as a whole.
A partly related phenomenon might be called “Cassandra-like” in which someone thinks they see a danger which no-one else does. But such a person is useful to the society as a whole only to the extent that they are willing to share their concern and work together with others to determine whether the danger is real, how to assess it, how to protect against it etc. On the other hand, if the person simply insists that there is a danger regardless of whether others see and just tries to prove it by screaming more loudly, that is not very helpful. If the “danger” is premised on something which is absurd on its face (e.g., because you were friends with a communist, that meant you must be communist as well; or, because some communists wanted to overthrow the US government, if you were a communist, that meant you were a traitor as well) then, it can’t lead to very effective action. A McCarthy-like person is completely unhelpful in locating and protecting against actual danger because their cognition is too damaged to be helpful in itself and their communication style is so warped that it actively interferes with the attempts of others to do actual problem solving.
In the years after the summer of McCarthyism, I worked with kids in many capacities. For instance, I worked as a child care worker and camp counselor. I can tell you that kids often engage in conversations about deep topics. They are concerned about their world and other worlds that might be. Kids care passionately to learn about the world. But despite their passion, they tend to be pretty careful about discriminating the bait from the hook. In my experience, they are more like the Comet Lake trout, perch, bass, and bluegill than the crabs off the New Jersey coast. However, if people of any age are desperate enough; if they are told the big lie often enough, many will stop acting like discerning vertebrate fish and just latch on to the first shiny thing that appears before them. Perhaps that is why the McCarthy’s of the world, if they had their way, would outlaw public libraries, gut public education, and discredit the independent press. They wouldn’t want the fish to be able to discriminate the bait from the hook. They are much too impatient for trout fishing. Throw a line over the side of the boat and make sure that people are so desperate that they clamp right onto the empty line. Who knows what exactly goes on in the mind of a crab? Perhaps they clamp on in hate. Perhaps they latch on in fear. Perhaps it is a little of both. But what we do know is that whatever motivates the crab to grab hold of that shiny line, it is always the crab itself, not its enemies, who ends up in the belly of the beast. One can still hope that this will be a good year.
@John Thomas, 1/16/17
(The story above and many cousins like it are compiled now in a book available on Amazon: Tales from an American Childhood: Recollection and Revelation. I recount early experiences and then related them to contemporary issues and challenges in society.