Fearmongers

Gripped by severe cold, I blinked Wednesday morning. Well, sort of. Nothing serious, mind you. Just that I foolishly decided before testing the elements that I’d feed the dogs, humor them briefly out by the brook, put them in the box stall for the day with fresh water, and forego our daily walk.

Yeah, right! I should have known better. I’m a stubborn old coot, you know. So once I got out there and sampled the frigid, sunny, winter air under handsome deep blue skies, I found it bearable and rearranged my itinerary to include a “quick” walk through Sunken Meadow. Problem was that I hadn’t laced on my boots or my knee brace. But, hey, what the hell? The snow was hard enough to stay on top in my hiking sneakers, thus my knee should be OK, and indeed it was, even though I must confess our walk became extended instead of reduced. Oh, how my frisky four-legged friends loved it, scooting around with an additional hop in their step, probably churning extra energy to stay warm. I too walked at a brisk pace, the snow squeaky and hard as pavement, me looking and listening and marching ahead, one foot in front of the other, always observing … letting my mind meander into dark mischievous corners, always dangerous.

On the frozen upper plain, just before skirting the aluminum gate down into Sunken Meadow, I passed many tiny red sumac berries staining the icy snow on the elevated riverbank. The sight reminded me of the walk I took a couple of days earlier, on Martin Luther King Day morning, grandsons in town for the long weekend, me and 4-year-old Arie — a mere 16 months old when his father left this earth — walking the dogs to playful banter. Looking down at those drupe drops reminded me of the surprise visit a Brandeis professor had paid us from that day his adjacent home. The man wanted to introduce his Laberdoodle pup to my Springers, all three of them liver and white. Our brief interaction eventually left me pondering a comment I had made that may have rubbed him wrong. It was probably just paranoia, so I’ll come back to it later. First Arie, though, my cherubic blue-eyed boy who had decided on a dining-room whim to join me. He told his grandmother he had “a lot of energy” and wanted to go. I was happy to have him, me always eager for little changes in pattern, in this case human accompaniment on what is typically a solo mission.

We fed the dogs out back by the brook before hustling them into their crates for a mile or so ride to the site. Then, on the drive, playing on my sound system was “When First Unto This Country,” a Depression-era ballad off Grisman & Garcia’s “Not for Kids Only,” a CD of first-class duets by virtuoso finger-picking masters I often insert for long rides with the boys. The track is probably my favorite, with Garcia’s mournful voice complementing Grisman’s high, lonesome mandolin like they were made for each other. Well, at least that’s my take. Arie? Not quite.

“Grampy,” asked the little lad with no hesitation, “what’s this  song? I don’t like it.”

I wasn’t insulted. Unlike several other cute little kids tunes on the CD — you know, old standards like “Jenny Jenkins,” “A Horse Named Bill,” “Arkansas Traveler,” “Hopalong Peter” and “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” — this doleful tune about a crime of passion and its dire consequences was way over a 4-year-old’s head. Maybe I should have just let his query pass without going into detail. But that’s not my way. Instead, I quickly mulled my approach internally and gave it my best shot.

“Actually, Kid, I like this song a lot,” I answered. “I like the message, the mood and the music, especially the picking. Listen to that sweet, sorrowful mandolin. Listen to the man’s sad voice and lyrics. He’s singing about crime and punishment, love and loss, and about demons called immigrants. The man falls in love with the woman, she leaves, and he steals a horse to follow her. The word gets out, police chase him, catch him, beat and jail him … all for a simple crime of the heart. You know, Kid, I believe the thief would have brought that horse back. He was just borrowing it for something very special.”

Huh? That’s what the look on the boy’s face screamed at me. I wouldn’t call the reaction unexpected. It really was unfair to lay that trip on a kid his age. Yes, yes, an awful lot to expect a prepubescent preschooler to understand, even though he did fess up last year to having a nursery-school girlfriend named Jessie. Oh my, I hope the older patrol boys reported the amorous vibes to the proper authorities, and I do hope someone stepped in to warned the innocent little boy sternly of the immoral perils men and women bring when they allow their emotions to dance. But, seriously, the way I look at it is that it’s never too early to plant seeds of perspective that might down the road counterbalance what a kid learns in the classroom, at Boy Scout camp or Sunday School. Who knows? Maybe in the end he’ll prefer to travel beaten paths he’s pushed toward. Then again, maybe not. Irrelevant in my world. The question is: Should a teacher, parent or grandparent hide alternative thinking and unpopular opinions from his children and theirs? I guess it depends who you ask, but I say throw it all at them, allow them to process it and hopefully evolve into critical thinkers instead of hapless, dazed automatons of the preaching, praying, clock-punching flock committed to suffering on earth for a better hereafter.

I guess what I should now admit is that the kid happened to catch me on a perfect, unseasonably mild winter-holiday morning for heady discussion. Yes, truth be told, I was predisposed to philosophical argument, having just the previous night read three impassioned Henry David Thoreau essays defending abolitionist martyr Capt. John Brown of Harper’s Ferry fame. What’s strange is that I had never really investigated the tale of John Brown, just accepted the textbook illustrations of a fiery, gray-bearded wild-man, and teachers’ description of a dangerous enemy of the state and crazed anti-slavery fanatic who took down a pre-Civil War armory and was justifiably hanged by the neck until dead for radical treason. Problem is I have over the years many times discovered favorable light shone upon this incendiary rebel of proud, Puritan, Connecticut roots by philosophical and literary giants I respect. Now, mind you, the guardians of freedom and justice, wavers of red, white and blue, will call such spokespeople “revisionists,” that pejorative I long ago learned to ignore. But when the great Thoreau speaks, I listen, and he claims Capt. Brown was a far better man than those who executed him, or those who have evermore defended the verdict as justice aimed at the greater good.

Well, I must admit that my long-overdue Sabbath-eve John Brown lesson from the man who made Walden Pond and civil disobedience famous really got my wheels spinning to a shrill hum about a contemporary dissident “traitor” cut from similar subversive cloth. I’m talking about NSA snitch Edward Snowden, who I finally got to know thanks to a Rolling Stone magazine piece written by the same woman who penned the radioactive Boston Marathon bomber profile that brought throaty accusations of treason from mainstream-media blowhards. The question is: Is it treason to explain to the public why folks like Snowden and Capt. Brown come off the rails? Well, maybe so in a totalitarian state. But it’s not supposed to happen that way here in this hallowed land of liberty, freedom and justice — you know, the “free country” that now chucks whistleblowers like Bradley Manning into the worst military prison money can buy, and can’t wait to get its hands on the exiled Snowden for the same fate, or worse.

Maybe I’m mistaken. Perhaps as a young boy I got pulled in by eloquent intellectual activists who took their complaints about unjust war, capitalistic greed and institutional racism to the streets in the Sixties. Perhaps that’s why I’ll take Eldridge Cleaver over Martin Luther King any day of the week, and likewise Geronimo over Cochise. In my world, Che was a freedom fighter, not the revolutionary Marxist monster our military-industrial complex murdered him as. And while we’re at it, why not “Free Leonard Peltier” as well? Plus, I’d love to know more about Josiah Warren, a Massachusetts man and son of a proud Revolutionary general. Look him up — an artist, a thinker and ultimately an outlier, likely another pouting anti-Federalist who fled west to escape Hamiltonian aristocracy, banks and taxes. Did you ever hear so much as a word about this Warren dude in your American History classes? Heavens no! Warren is considered America’s first anarchist, a scary term people fear but don’t understand, kinda like immigrants speaking foreign languages.

Which brings me all the way back to that short holiday-morning chat with that pleasant Brandeis professor and neighbor. As we walked together toward the aluminum gate, little Arie trudging, all ears, I pointed out those red sumac berries staining the icy snow overlooking the river and said, “Look at that. The wind dropped those berries there to sprout anew and feed wild creatures that can’t fly or climb. It’s too bad people can’t coexist in such peaceful harmony?”

I don’t know if the man thought I was weird, or if he had a preconceived notion of how far he intended to walk with us. But shortly after my comment, he stopped, said, “Well, this is as far as we’re going. Nice talking to you,” and turned back toward his fenced, palatial home. I do hope I didn’t offend, or, heaven forbid, frighten the gentleman.

Arie wasn’t afraid, and that’s good. Fear stifles open minds and strangles free thinking. And here in this land of the free, home of the brave, it seems to be everywhere these days. Maybe we should have listened to Orwell, because indeed there is a surveillance camera coming soon to a traffic light or downtown building façade near you; and, yes indeed, NSA is watching and listening. The majority seems cool with such invasions of privacy to guard against the bogeyman. Count me out, thank you. I must be getting old and goofy. But is the majority always right, or even worth listening to? Unfortunately not, especially today when voters are so easily manipulated with hidden boob-tube messaging. It’s a weakness of our democracy.

Enough!

Off I go, like a flittering, fluttering David Grisman mandolin riff that on a good day brings tears to my eyes. The licks are that good, that clear, that free … rare indeed, and quite beautiful.

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