With a deadline coming, various ideas occur to me with regard to a monthly newspaper column. Many of them begin, go a certain distance and then run out of steam as for example what follows. But still, I like the ideas or writing them or something so, before it disappears into the great nowhere of forgetfulness, I think I'll keep it.
Back in the early 1960's, as part of my induction into the U.S. Army, I was required to present five letters of recommendation. The Army Security Agency seemed to demand such letters from all applicants and, as I imagine all the other applicants did, I scraped together the most reputable -- or anyway reputably-credentialed -- people I could.
One of these was my Northampton High School English teacher, a fellow who had left the academic fold and signed on as an Episcopalian priest. As I recall it, Mr. Baker wrote a smooth and soothing letter of recommendation to the army. But together with it, when he sent it back to me, was a far more personal note in which he strongly advised me not to join the military. Politely, but firmly, he pointed out that I was too individualistic, too anti-authoritarian, too much of a thinker and contrarian. I wasn't quite sure whether to be insulted or flattered, but by the time I read it, it was too late and my mind was made up: Like many another young man on whom 'patriotic' policy makers rely, I wanted the experience more than I understood morality.
Like a lot of my intellectually-endowed friends, I did what the law of the land required at the time and joined up. Those same friends would later report how much they had hated the whole experience. But I couldn't agree: In the army, I found myself in the single most intelligent -- not just smart, but intelligent -- group of people I would ever meet in my lifetime. What a hoot -- getting drunk as a skunk with a guy who had an MA from Harvard in Germanic philology and was just as big a jackass as any other 20-something military drone. He might take his hangover with him to the opera the next night, but the hangover was as real and compelling as the high notes of Mozart or Donazetti.
And it was at this point that the column idea seemed to fall off the cliff: True, I favor national service of some sort because it takes people outside whatever bubble they have been living under and introduces them to a wider world with a wider and more imaginative outlook. Not everyone is well-fed and well-educated; not everyone is poor and desperate. It's useful to know that the KKK or the Vatican or collectors of bottle caps or people who speak another language really and truly exist. But ... well ... people know this already. And if they don't, life is likely to inform them. Who needs a column?