Friday, October 16, 2009

Warhead of State

President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize made me think of my eighth-grade field trip to Washington DC. I had never been out of Ohio before. In fact, I sometimes wondered if Ohio was it . Oh, sure, I was taught there were other states, and other states were often mentioned in books, movies, and TV shows, and I knew other kids who who had been to or were from other states, but it could have been all part of a giant conspiracy designed to lull me into a false sense of security as our bus drove off the edge of Ohio and into the abyss. Fortunately, it drove into Pennsylvania instead. We spent an hour in Gettysburg, proving that place actually exists, even if Abraham Lincoln was still in question. Finally, toward the end of the day, we reached DC. Or a motel on the outskirts of DC, as it was late and we were all tired. For the next couple days, however, all those places I had only seen in books, film strips, the evening news, and in special two- or three-part episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies and Gomer Pyle, were suddenly there in front of us in 3-D. You didn't even need cardboard glasses! The Washington Monument. The Lincoln Memorial. The Capitol. We had to drive through what looked like slums to get to some of these places. I never saw the Clampetts do that. But no matter. That bit of reality meant it was just that, real. As did the crowds. Whenever sitcom characters visit Washington, the place always looks relatively empty. Oh, there are extras in background playing tourists, but they keep a respectable distance so as the regular cast members have a lot of room to make fools of themselves. In real life, you have to be careful making a fool of yourself, so as to not bump into someone with a Nikon. Washington DC was like an amusement park--lines everywhere.

The longest line was the one that snaked around the White House, the place I was the most excited about seeing. I'll get to why I was so excited in a second. But as I waited in line with my fellow eighth-graders and tourists from around the world, two things caught my attention. First, some guy was mowing the White House lawn. Over the years I've thought quite a bit about this guy. He was black, looked to be about 19, and wore a blue T-shirt with Superman's "S" on the front, blue jeans, and a pair of sneakers. He seemed neither happy nor sad about the work he was doing. Just an average guy mowing the lawn. I wondered then, and I wonder now, how did he get such a job? Did the White House advertise in the classifieds? Or did you have to "know somebody"? What was the pay like? Did he get paid more than the guy who cut the grass in front of the Capitol? Maybe he mowed both. I wonder if he ever got to meet the President. In 1976, that would have been Jerry Ford. It would have been something had Ford come out his house, walked up to the guy, slapped him on the back and said, "Son, you're doing a fine job!" and then, as he turned to go back inside, tripped over a lawn ornament (those of you either alive at the time, or who have seen an old repeat of Saturday Night Live with Chevy Chase, will get that joke.)

The other thing I noticed was that just inside the wrought iron fence that surrounds the White House, somebody had thrown a used candy bar wrapper. It was close enough that, had I wanted, I could have reached through the fence and removed it. But I didn't. It wasn't my responsibility, and, besides, there might be a Secret Service agent hiding behind a tree ready to shoot my hand off. Besides, I assumed the guy mowing would eventually make his way to that part of the lawn, and pick up the wrapper. Or, he could do it the lazy way and mow right over it, watching it shoot out the side as little paper crumbs. Suppose President Ford had come out and seen that wrapper. Would he have yelled at the guy for not picking it up immediately? Maybe he would have just walked over and picked up the wrapper himself, in the process tripping and landing face first onto the wrought iron fence (I've been waiting for over 30 years to make up my own Jerry Ford-tripping-and-falling-down jokes. Such humor played a formative part of my early adolescence.)

A bird landed on the candy wrapper and started pecking at it. The Secret Service agent I was sure was hiding behind that tree left it alone. The bird was no threat to the President. The bird didn't even know it was on the White House lawn. If it had flown over and pooped on the President's head, well, then the agent might have taken a shot at it.

The line moved along, and soon we'd be in the White House itself. I was so excited, and I'll now tell you why. It wasn't because the President signed legislation into law, or that he sometimes vetoed such legislation. I couldn't have cared less. The President's role as commander-in-chief? Close. Let's just narrow it down a bit.

The President had his finger on The Button. If he pushed that Button, it would cause a nuclear war that would destroy the world. I thought that was so cool.

Hey, I was 14 years old, OK? I also thought Fonzie, Sasquatch, the car that Starsky and Hutch drove, and slapstick passing for political satire were cool.

Besides, I didn't want the President to destroy the world. I just thought it was cool that he could destroy the world.

I fully expected that once inside the White House, the tour guide would usher us eighth-graders right into the Oval Office where the President would shake all our hands, then pull The Button out of a drawer, and place it on his desk where we all could get a good look. Not too close, as one of us eighth-graders could fall on it (though, as Ford was President, that fear was rather misplaced.)

Of course, he could decide to press The Button even while we were still outside waiting. What would happen then? Would he come out and yell to the guy mowing the lawn to get his ass into the bomb shelter? And then turn around and fall into a rose bush? Actually, he'd probably have to walk up and whisper it in the guy's ear. If he said it too loud, all us eight-graders and tourists would start panicking and climbing over the wrought iron fence to safety. There maybe wasn't enough room for all of us in that bomb shelter. The President would have no choice but to order the Secret Service and Marines to start shooting. It would have been a bloody massacre. It would have certainly ruined the field trip.

Fortunately, none of that happened. Less fortunately, once inside the White House, we saw neither The Button nor the Oval Office. We quickly passed through six or seven rooms of roped-off fancy furniture, and that was that. We might as well have been at Ethan Allen.

I later learned there's no actual Button. It's a metaphor. A short-hand way of saying that if the President wants to start a nuclear war, he can. There's actually a guy with a suitcase that follows the Commander-in-Chief wherever he goes. When the President so desires, a set of codes comes out of the suitcase. The President than gets on the phone to NORAD or wherever, the codes get punched into a computer, and the missiles emerge from their silos. Something like that. Of course, for the world to properly end, the other side has to fire back. As they no doubt would.

Given all the stupid, cruel things people do to each other, it's a bit surprising that we've never had a nuclear war. Maybe the Nobel Peace Prize should have gone to every president since Harry S. Truman, just for suppressing that inner eighth-grader and not pushing that button. And to every leader of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. Even India and Pakistan have shown remarkable restraint.

I no longer find the proximity to power, to nuclear power, to be all that cool. If a President ever decides to push that metaphorical button, I might as well be at a rest stop on the Ohio Turnpike watching some guy mow the grass divider while a bird pecks at a candy bar wrapper in the parking lot.

The bird wouldn't know what the hell was going on, anyway.

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