Friday, February 1, 2008

Small Signs of Our Decline

I went to a very small college. 1400 students total. One of the benefits of going to a small college was that you got to know the faculty pretty well (that actually was both a blessing and a curse, depending on the particular faculty member). There were no TA's teaching, in fact I don't remember there being TA's at all. I was a biology major and the head of the biology department was Dr. Meredith. Doc Meredith was pretty easy going and soft-spoken and he had the affinity for dumb jokes that all science teachers seem to have. There was a folksy, aw shucks intelligence about him that reminded you of Andy Griffith or Will Rogers.

One day I was in the department office for one reason or another and Doc Meredith was there with a package that had been delivered to him. He was looking around the desk for something to use to open the box. Now when I was growing up every male in the house carried a pocket knife and I was no different. It was a natural thing to me. I got in the habit when I was around eight years old and I've carried one ever since. Naturally I reached into my pocket and produced my knife and handed it to the good doctor.

He looked at the small knife in my hand, smiled that small smile that told you something was coming, then he looked at me and said, "Why, Bruce. You are an educated man."

Well, I was in college in the hopes of becoming educated but I didn't really know what he was talking about so I responded in the manner that any college freshman-aged educated man would. I said, "Huh?"

He proceeded to explain, just as I knew he would, that back in the days when writing was done with a quill dipped in ink, the quill had to be frequently cut and sharpened in order for it to hold the ink and write properly. This cutting was accomplished with a small knife kept and carried specifically for that purpose. The knife became commonly known as a "pen knife". Back then the vast majority of people did not know how to read nor write. The only people that had "pen knives" were those who had and used quills. The only people who used quills were those who could read and write and the only people who knew how to read and write were those who were educated. I carried with me a pen knife, one of the early earmarks of one who was educated, therefore I was an educated man.

It's interesting to me that I had entire semester-long classes in college that I have absolutely no recollection of but the parts of my education like the pen knife story will stay with me for the rest of my life. Strange.

The reason I relate this story to you now is because I was reminded of it last weekend. My wife and I went to Washington, DC for a couple of days for her birthday. We spent the day Saturday walking around near the Capitol and hitting a few of the museums on the Mall. We were about to enter the Library of Congress when I remembered that in this post 9/11 world it is impossible to enter government buildings without first going through security. I have reluctantly gotten used to leaving my pocket knife at home or in the car when I travel by air but I had completely forgotten about the security checkpoints in our public buildings. I really wanted to see the exhibit but I didn't want to have to give up my knife for good. We had traveled by Metro and were too far from the hotel to go back. Hmm. What to do? My wife suggested hiding it outside. It was a Saturday. It was cold. There were very few people around. Sounds like a plan to me. That's what I did. I hid it as high up as I could reach on an out-of-the-way ledge around the corner from the entrance, then retrieved it when we came back out. My wife is a genius. Fortunately, there wasn't much security to speak of in the other buildings we visited that day so I didn't have to resort to knife hiding again.

My point to all this is that from time to time (often when I'm standing in my socks in an airport) I am slapped with a reminder of how far we have regressed. A reminder of what we have lost. When I was a kid we trusted eight year olds with pocket knives. Then the terrorists struck on 9/11 and put us into shock. But that which we lost was not taken away by the terrorists. They acted. We reacted. That's what this country has gotten really good at. Reacting. Usually with a jerk of the knee and little to no thought. To be responsible means at its root that we have the ability to choose our response. We could have chosen to respond using reason, and education, and intelligence. We could have responded in so many ways. But we responded, and continue to respond blindly with fear of a boogieman that our government constantly reminds us of. Our response was to take off our shoes and stand in our socks at the airport. Our response was to accept that our bottles can't hold more than three ounces and that the stock of the companies that produce one quart plastic bags went up. Our response is to reach in our pocket and hand over the sign and symbol of an educated person. In many ways, for me at least, it's the little seemingly insignificant things that speak the loudest. On Saturday I heard that one loud and clear.

14 comments:

Mike said...

Boy, you nailed that one right on the head. Things have changed, and not for the better. Did the terrorists do this to us? No, not really. We did it to ourselves.

Bruce, a work in progress said...

Yeah Mike they've changed indeed. Now a days, that cop that gave you the ride probably would strip search you and nail you with a Taser.

Kitty said...

We have an expression here in the UK ... 'The Nanny State' ... it refers to the fact that the Government now decides how safe we are in any number of situations, and passes laws to that end.

This was a fabulous post Bruce. Well done you. x

Bruce, a work in progress said...

Thanks Kitty. Sounds like you folks across the pond are experiencing a little of the same. What really fries me is the "pass a law to ban it" attitude. People use a gun in a crime - let's ban guns, people getting abortions - let's ban abortions, people turning to drugs - let's ban drugs, people resorting to terrorism - let's kill all the terrorists. Our medical system reflects exactly the same attitude. Why cure a disease or better yet, PREVENT it, when you can treat the symptoms for years using good old meds. They're trying to legislate behavior by banning the result of the behavior or the inanimate object used during the behavior with no regard for what caused the behavior. It was bad enough but it keeps getting worse. YOU can't have a pen knife, YOU two can't get married, WE can't allow YOU to watch that TV show, listen to that music, express that opinion. And they want to turn some of this nonsense into constitutional amendments - marriage and flag burning. An amendment to the US Constitution should NEVER take rights away!!! The Constitution imposes restrictions and limitations on THE GOVERNMENT not THE PEOPLE from whom the government derives its power. Period. End of Story. End of rant.

Malicious Intent said...

I always felt a great way to determine a person, group, state, or even an entire countries character was not by what happened to them, but how they reacted to it.

I wish my child could go outside and play with the neighborhood kids and not worry. I had that freedom. No more.

Malach the Merciless said...

It is funny, I carry a Gerber Multi Tool around with me, but need to leave it in the car becuase I spend half my week in Federal Buildings and Court Houses

Bruce, a work in progress said...

MI, I agree that is a good way to guage a person or a country. At first we reacted well and the world wept for us. Then instead of building that goodwill into something amazing he pissed it away. It was criminal. Well, that and shredding the Constitution that he swore to protect and defend.

Mal, when my brother-in-law graduated from law school I wrote down the Dr. Meredith story and gave it to him with an engraved pen knife. Because like you, he spent so much time in court houses and later worked on Capitol hill, he can't carry it.

Malicious Intent said...

Was wondering what you thought of my friend Phoenix Rose? She is a real pisser in the real world, absolutely darling. So glad she decided to go blogging and glad you all welcomed her with open arms. Now keep harrassing the shit out of her, she needs it. :)

Bruce, a work in progress said...

MI, she seems like a really nice person that got a raw deal from a real jerk. It's great that she has you around and that you introduced her to this unique form of therapy. Harrass? Me?

Colonel Colonel said...

The War on Terror is over, and the terrorists won. Our country is completely tied in knots.

and it as all so easy...

BBC said...

A biology major sounds cool. If I went back to collage I would like to take physics or something like that.

I've carried a pocket knife ever since I was a kid, wouldn't be without one. And a lighter.

All this security crap will blow over someday, it's not like things like this hasn't happened in the past.

Just history repeating itself because mankind

Tequila Mockingbird said...

hey. i'm far too hungover to read this long of a post, especially since it has no porn in it. i'll get to it tomorrow. oh, and i thanked you on my blog

Hungry Mother said...

I lost a good knife in the airport in Venice back in August 2001 (pre-9/11) when I accidentally put it in my carry-on bag instead of my check-in bag. The cop that found it was very pissed at me, but he just confiscated it and didn't arrest me.

I remember this airport hassle back in 1985 in London, so it isn't new.

Malicious Intent said...

Ham Sandwich with Mustard, this is Crab Cake...over...

Are you there Ham Sandwich with Mustard?...over....

Uprising in the Pacific, send all the .........*signal lost*