Friday, October 28, 2016

Chronicles of a Baby Boomer - Camaraderie






As we approach this holy time of Samhain and prepare our sacrifices of pumpkins and dignity to the alter of Trick or Treat, we are reminded to not be bad boys or bad girls. Once again we're told what offensive costumes we can't wear. No sexy Pocahontas. No black face. No whatever is un-PC today.

Politically Correct is not new. It's just George Orwell's Newspeak gussied up for a new gullible crowd. And like Newspeak, PC is not about what you can say. You can say anything in Newspeak! It's all about what you can't say. And you can't say, or do, or wear, costumes of ideologically incorrect stuff. That's Thoughtcrime!

Ok. Fine. I don't want to insult anybody. But, if we can't say something, how can we have a dialog about it? How can we talk about it if talking is verboten? There's even a word we can't use about women. The C-word. Pretty bad. So, what's the word no woman can use about men? There must be a corresponding insult too heinous for her to pronounce! No? Hmm.

The issue is not words. The issue is the reality the words represent. I worked for a defense contractor in the seventies. I was in a big room with a bunch of men and women, all at our industrial grey steel desks. You could shoot a rubber band, one of those little ones they use to contain rolled up plans, at anybody in the room. And we did. Many of the people there were WWII vets. Fascinating people. Chet Goddet. Little French guy next to me. He was at Pearl Harbour when the bombs fell. Malone Jones, submariner in the Pacific theater. Nice guy. John Webster. English. Don't remember his back story. He was a machinist like my father. And a wise guy.

He told me a story about when he worked in an unairconditioned building. All the windows were open and a dragon fly flew in. He caught it. He took a strip of onion paper and wrote, "Eat at Joe's" on it and used correction fluid to glue it to the fly's abdomen and let it go. It buzzed around the room advertising lunch.

And others. From other services and other nationalities. And they ragged on each other. Chet would swear like a sailor. "What's that little Frenchman grousing about now?" we'd say. Or, "Hey! Polack! Get your ass over here!" The young people, like me, were Flounders. We used to call John Webster, 'Fossil.' He'd roll his eyes and say something clever.

Chet had a daughter named Irene. She had Down's Syndrome. They called it Mongoloid Syndrome back then. Not PC, I know. He and his wife could have put her in a home, a horror house masquerading as a hospital. But they choose to keep her at home. I met her. She was as lucid and outgoing as you could hope for, and obviously happy. Doctors said she was as functional as she was precisely because Chet and his wife kept her in their family.

Everyone knew this. Everyone knew that Chet was a descent loving man. Fucking little Frenchman!

But we didn't treat blacks this way.

I got the hang of it. Later on I was transferred to another department. Up on 'The Hill.' Engineering. I was no longer in 'Yard Support.' I liked yard support. Occasionally I got to go down onto one of the boats. Or to the pipe shop. Or the foundry. Or the warehouse to inventory surplus supplies. I had a pipe fitting on my desk as a paper weight. It couldn't be put back into inventory because it was 'Level 1' and the paperwork certification for it was missing. I almost got a chance to go out on a sea trial for a boat. They talked about having a material specialist on board. They decided against it. I was disappointed.

I felt more in touch with things down there. It's traumatic being thrown into a new group of people... Unfamiliar... Don't know the rules... The pecking order... The bureaucracy... Where the coffee pot is...

A guy about my age who sat behind me took to hazing me. Once I was wearing a somewhat scuzzy shirt. Hardly Versace, I admit. He made fun of my shirt. Every chance he got. He said he hated that he had to look at that shirt. So I said, rather loudly, "Well, it could be worse." "How so?" "Our desks could be turned around and I could have to look at your face!" The old timer next to me piped up and said, "I think the guy from dept. 460 is going to make it!"

Years later, when I was doing my Masters work in Anthropology, I brought up this group dynamic. As a topic of discussion. I was glared at in horror by my professor, as though I had brought up Jim Crow, Torquemada, the siege of Leningrad, and Tom and Jerry, all as nominees for the Nobel Prize. No Thoughtcrime here, if you please. This is a University!

So. Getting past the fact that I used to work in a seething caldron of blue collar racism, why is it exactly that you can say or not say certain things? The Polacks and Frenchman and Italians and English in the stuffy, Military Industrial Complex hovel in Groton, were basically equal. Socio-economically. There was no distinction. They lived in suburban homes. Partied together. Their kids dated. Enjoyed the same rights when they went out from their front doors and entered the world. So their banter was without malice. It was funny. It was bonding. To outsiders, it was incomprehensible. Better yet. Outsiders belong outside. I was thrilled to be accepted inside. That's not easy to do.

Except for they who weren't. Blacks, like I said. I worked with several. Some good. Some assholes. Some I came to admire. Some friends. But I always knew it was different for them. They didn't get the same treatment at the bank. Or town hall. Or from their employer. Or the traffic cop. The issue never was about banning bad thoughts or words. How about banning bad practices?

I mentioned WWII. These men learned to trust each other. They learned each other's worth in a place where nothing else mattered. They developed bonds. Secret codes. Shared horror. I wonder. If blacks had been fully integrated into the armed forces in WWII, instead of segregated into their own companies, would they and whites have also bonded? Also realized the enemy is not the other? The enemy is the one who wants to divide? It's not that we call each other ethnic slurs, but that we are in all things unequal. I noticed that about Vietnam vets. They were a lot less racist than others I knew. They served side by side and looked past the superficiality of labels. War made them equals.

And so we distract each other. With nomenclature. With dictionaries of our desires and ledgers of our defeats. And say, "No! You can't say that. It's forbidden. It's forsaken. It's banished from thought itself. It's a non-thought. An un-speak. A pariah of voice!" So 'No' it is.

We just forbid topics we can't deal with.


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