Hiking Bare-legged Through Blackberries

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – I just took my mail-in ballot down to the mailbox. To anyone who might ask, “Is that safe?” I would answer, “This is Vermont. I don’t know where it could be safer. In any case, it’s done.”

There are many things that just have to be done, in spite of the blizzard knocking at the windows of our consciousness and competing for our attention and reaction. Timely voting is just one of them, especially considering the fairly obvious and clumsy (but dangerous) stratagems that may be deployed by the putative losers about a month from now to frustrate a fair count.

My pup here beside me has no intimation, as far as I can tell, that life is anything but serene and predictable. Yet here, a few feet away, where information (and misinformation) pours in 24 hours a day, I’m driven often to remember Lyndon Johnson’s description of his situation during the Vietnam War protests: “… like a jackrabbit in a hailstorm, just hunkered down and takin’ it.”

My hero and touchstone in all of this is a creation of Joseph Conrad: the conspicuously unimaginative Captain Thomas MacWhirr of the steamer Nan-Shan, who, in the middle of the South China Sea, observes the lowest barometer reading he’s ever seen, and remarks, “There’s some dirty weather knocking about.” Captain MacWhirr does not rattle easily, if at all, and through the ensuing terrifying typhoon, with a volatile cargo of Chinese migrant workers sliding almost uncontrollably around in the hold, a second mate who loses his mind in the middle of the worst of the typhoon, and the need, in the middle of all the chaos to send the mate below to secure the living cargo with lifelines, he repeats his mantra, “I shouldn’t like to lose her for the owners.”

There’s certainly some dirty weather knocking about right now. You can take your pick of it, from climate change and western forest fires to the pandemic and a Supreme Court nomination, or from dodgy income taxes to (this just in!) the President’s current medical status – about which, in this climate of almost completely unbridled mendacity, the truth has become elusive as a feral cat.

It’s nothing new. For various reasons of their own, previous administrations have kept mum about or minimized Presidential illnesses. Grover Cleveland, just beginning his second term at the beginning of the calamitous Panic of 1893, was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his mouth. It was removed, almost miraculously, during a four-day “fishing trip” on a friend’s yacht. Cleveland’s bushy mustache hid the fact that he’d lost several teeth and part of his left upper jaw, and almost no one knew until years later. Woodrow Wilson’s “Spanish flu” was announced as a severe cold, and his subsequent incapacitating stroke as fatigue. Dwight Eisenhower’s heart attack was called a digestive upset, until he was photographed in a wheelchair. We don’t like to see our leaders sick.

For some months we’ve watched our current leader flouncing about the country, maskless, in clear contradiction of medical advice, and setting an irresponsible example for his devoted followers. Meanwhile, many of us watching, keeping our heads down, and wearing masks, have felt more than a touch of anger at being thus endangered. I must admit to wondering often how long he could tightrope-walk above a pool of crocodiles without falling in. Well, now I know.

The reactions of responsible government officials, from Leader McConnell to Speaker Pelosi, have been appropriately muted. Those of the denizens of the Internet have been markedly less so. From the predictable (and justifiable) cries of “Karma!” and folks wishing the President all the pains of respiratory Hell, to those wishing him “a speedy recovery,” to many asking their readers to join them in fervent prayers for our heroic leader, we may take our pick.

There’s no way of knowing, as I write on a Monday that a White House spokesman has declared will see the President “going home” (an evangelical Christian expression that bodes ill), and as we see more and more of his personal contacts testing positive, what’s next. As Lincoln observed, not everyone’s prayers can be answered. Personally, I can’t value the man’s life any more than those of the 210,000 already dead – though clearly his physicians do. Dealing with him has been like hiking barelegged through blackberries, and I wish only for a clearing in the woods.