Let me tell you a story that came to mind today, while I was thinking about the election, and reading the depressed, anxious, disappointed, e-mails from many of you guys. See if this doesn’t make you feel, as it did me, a little bit better.
My Uncle Johnny was a mechanical genius. He could completely disassemble an automobile down to the smallest part and put it back together and it would work. In fact, he did that once, a black Lincoln, during his vacation. Socially he was a little rough, a Georgia boy with an eighth grade education and a bit of a mean streak, but he could make anything mechanical sing. A tall, skinny Southerner with a cigarette dangling perpetually from his lip while he worked, one eye squinting and watering under the smoke, the irritated look on his face something between a scowl and the evil eye, a shock of blue-black hair falling in his other eye – Uncle Johnny frightened some people, but machines smiled when he passed. Machines loved him.
Early on, shortly after he married my Aunt Geneva, my mother’s sister, Uncle Johnny took his family North to work on the giant steel freighters that prowl the Great Lakes, hauling steel from Ohio and Pennsylvania up to Detroit, where it is pounded into Fords. Before long he was made chief engineer on one of the ships, spending the bulk of his time below among the giant pistons of the diesel generators that ran the giant electric motors that turned the screws that pushed hundreds of thousands of tons of steel across the water. Uncle Johnny, lived most of his life in the company of his gargantuan machines (and a couple of machinists’s mates he liked to yell at.) I don’t remember seeing Uncle Johnny smile, but I’ll bet he did when he was down there in his engine room.
So, one cold October day, Uncle Johnny’s ship was making the run from Toledo to Detroit with a full load and a new captain at the helm, and as they were approaching the dock, at full speed, but still a mile or so out, the machinists’s mate called to Uncle Johnny. “Sir, we are coming in way too fast. We need to reverse the props.” “Nope,” replied Uncle Johnny. “Wait for the order.” And the great ship plowed on. “But Sir, we have to reverse the props or we’ll hit the dock.” “Yep,” said Uncle Johnny. “We sure as hell will. Wait for the order.” “Wait? Sir, there’s no way we can slow the ship down in time.” “Goddamn right, son, and if I reverse her now, it’ll be my fault when we hit, but if I wait for the order, and then reverse ‘em, and go full throttle, and we still hit, then it was the Captain’s fault. I was just waiting for the order. So I’m waiting for the Goddamn order.” “But we’ll hit either way?” “Yep. You be ready to reverse when the order comes down, and then you best grab your ass and brace for impact.” “Aye, aye, sir.”
They smashed the shit out of the dock in Detroit, did about 1.5 million dollars of damage, and that was in 1970 dollars. Nearly sank the ship.
Uncle Johnny had a long career, and retired with a clean record. The captain, he went on to pilot a Yellow Cab.
Well, imagine, if you will, that the United States is a big ship. A really big ship. Like one of the great steel haulers, it takes miles and miles to slow her down once she’s moving. And whoever gives the order to reverse the props is going to take the blame for the damage that is done. Isn’t it right that the captain who put that ship up to full throttle without looking at the charts to see how far from the dock he was, should take responsibility for the damage?
There you go.
Could John Kerry have changed the direction of the war, reconnected with our allies, repaired the environmental policies, bolstered the economy, and fixed the health care system in four years? Probably not. I was hopeful, but things really are a huge mess. I don’t think anyone can turn this leviathan ship of doom around. Too much momentum. So, looking on the bright side, grab your ass and brace for impact. At least it’s not our guy at the helm. We did, after all, yell “lookout”, the 48% of us. We did our duty and we can sleep safe in the wreckage, our consciences clear, our hands clean, our souls light.
And if, by some bizarre stroke of irony, things actually do get better, the killing stops, our friends respect us, our rights are protected, we can all afford heath care, well what a joy it will be to have been wrong. What a narrow escape we will have made from disaster. And in our little ship metaphor, the dock, which is the rest of the world, will be happy and safe and we will all smile like Uncle Johnny’s great machines. It could happen.
Churchill once said, “There is no thrill so great as being shot at, and missed.” What a thrill we will have had!
But just in case, even as you enjoy the sense of speeding toward a bright and hopeful future, grab your ass and brace for impact. Just know that it ain’t your fault.