ralph robert moore
the official website for the writings of
Copyright © 2004 by Ralph Robert Moore.
Print in HTML format.
Return to lately 2004.
listen to the banjos in the sky
november 1, 2004
I suspect if you stopped Americans on the street, asked them to name five facts about George Washington, the first or second fact would be he had wooden teeth.
Which is strange.
Here is a man probably more responsible than any other for the success of the American revolution. If Jefferson was the mind of the rebellion, Tom Paine its heart, George Washington, certainly, was its back, a beast of burden who carried the actual fight for freedom over blood-stained snow through six long, cold years.
And yet, one of the first things we think of, when his name is mentioned, are his wooden teeth.
It's like asking, Who was Albert Einstein, and people saying, Oh, he was that scientist who came up with the theory of relativity, and he had this big boil on his butt (I'm sure Einstein's butt was unblemished, but you see my point).
Of course, like most facts we know, the fact George Washington had wooden teeth is not true. He had several sets of dentures made for him, but none of them contained wood. A typical set, made by his dentist, John Greenwood, included a cow's tooth, one of Washington's own teeth, and a lot of shiny white squares carved out of hippopotamus ivory, all the individual pieces held in place by metal, outfitted with a powerful spring on one side. The contraption was said to be uncomfortable to carry around in one's mouth.
I read recently, and regret I don't recall the author, the hypothesis that given the poor dental services available in Washington's time, the tendency of teeth to decay, it's likely everyone living then was in constant mouth pain. But it probably didn't bother them too much, because they had no pain-free option to contrast it with, no idea it was possible to not have mouth pain. They accepted constant toothaches as a part of life.
We think of many of the measures taken in those times to deal with disease, as barbaric. Leeches applied to the sides of the nose. The worth of a surgeon who performed amputations, of which there were many, based, in those days before the invention of anesthesia, on his elbow-lifting speed with a saw.
But surely, perhaps as soon as fifty years from now, given how technology speeds up exponentially, our own medical practices will be thought of as equally barbaric. Kids in school will be shocked to learn dentists in our time drilled holes in teeth, filling the holes with metal, in order to control the spread of cavities, rather than everyone simply taking an oral hygiene pill each morning. "Back in the early years of this millennium, class, people still had to use small, stiff brushes and floss (a thin, wax-coated string), in order to clean their teeth." The students will look at each other. Gross! "And if someone had arterial disease, instead of reversing the condition with sound waves, surgeons actually sawed open their ribcage, removed a length of artery from the patient's leg, and sewed that artery to their heart." "Yeech! No way! You're making that one up!"
Freedom, too, has had a long evolution.
The idea of individual freedom was virtually non-existent for most of the world's history. A small group of individuals, usually related by blood, ruled all the people in their area of control. Most of the populace were serfs. You lived on land owned by the local lord. Everything you grew, except for the bare minimum needed to keep your family alive, you grew for the lord, for his own use. In some serfdoms, when you married, the lord was allowed to sleep with your bride first, before you did. In many cases, it was the lord, in fact, who decided who you would marry.
And we're not talking about isolated areas, either. During the Middle Ages, ninety-eight percent of the European population were serfs.
People for the most part accepted this, because like constant mouth pain, they knew of no alternative. The idea of being a master of your own life, able to make your own choices, able to decide what you'll do with your day, was not something available to most men and women.
Democracy has been a long struggle, and it will continue to be a long struggle. Some of today's fledgling democracies still have cows' teeth and hippopotamus approximations, but that'll evolve, over time, although during that process, those who hate democracy, who believe they own the men and women in their nation, will continue to do everything they can to keep freedom from the people. I remember in the sixties, when Mao Zedong was the leader of China, leading its people through purge after bloody purge, the Western world was shocked to see photographs of little school children in China being taught to hold a bayoneted rifle, and run with that bayonet at a large photograph of then-President Lyndon Johnson's face.
As of the time I'm writing these lines, the 2004 Presidential election in America is undecided. Actual voting, and the tallying of those votes, will not occur until tomorrow, November 2.
Who will be America's president for the next four years? Will it continue to be George W. Bush, or will it be John Kerry?
In a season in which most people feel compelled to announce their own preference, from the rooftops, if they're not afraid of heights, I'm not going to give my preference. Why? Because who I choose between the two is based not on a rational, objective evaluation of both men, but instead on my own personal history, my emotions, my gut reaction to the two, my past party affiliations, and other factors that probably aren't the best criteria to use in choosing a leader. Plus, why should anyone care who I endorse? Quite frankly, although I think I'm a good writer, that doesn't mean I have any insight into the major issues of the day. Talent in one field doesn't carry over into talent in any other field.
We all have opinions regarding political issues, dear God, do we have opinions, but how many of those opinions are based on actual, first-hand knowledge, and how many on what we hear or read second-, third- or fourth-hand? (show of hands: how many of us have actually been in Iraq since the invasion?) And even then, the second-third-fourth-hand information we do receive is filtered through our own pre-existing prejudices, so that we only hear what we want to hear, ignoring what we don't want to hear.
Mary and I will stay up late tomorrow, to see the results. We'll cook a seafood dinner, serve it with salad, thinly-sliced avocado across dark greens. The Haas avocadoes we bought are still hard behind their alligator skin. "They'll ripen quicker if we put them in a brown paper bag," I said. Unfortunately, we don't have any brown paper bags. What Mary did instead, ever inventive, was retrieve one of the small, white bags into which the pharmacy drops the orange, hard-plastic vials of her prescription drugs, slipping down between its saw-toothed opening the oval weight of the avocado.
There are some who have called this the most important election in a generation, or, more grandly, the past one hundred years, or, grandest of all, since America was founded.
That's a touching thought, but it's nonsense. The truth is, there are thousands of influences on the average citizen's life, and whomever is sitting in the oval office at a particular point casts one of the feeblest lights of all on that life, compared to the blazing beacon of a lover, friend, parent, newborn, boss, or next door neighbor.
Presidents rarely make history. They respond to it, with the permission of Congress, the Supreme Court, and us. We reach a national consensus, no matter how large the minority may be, which is what democracy is, and then we act, or don't act, on everything from invading Iraq to a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
The true leaders in our lives arise outside elections. A parent, friend, teacher, or a stranger who takes the time to point us in the right direction. One of the most profound, beneficial influences on American thought in the past century was Dr. Martin Luther King, and he never held any elective office.
So whichever man wins the election tomorrow, America will survive. Neither man is evil. Both want to make this world a better place. It would be nice if after the election we forego the childish petulance that has been so dominant the past four years in certain sandboxes.
Democracy is here to stay. Freedom is something that once lit, can't be snuffed. You only have to be exposed to it once, and it survives, in the mind, the heart, and when necessary, in whispers.
The schoolchildren who were indoctrinated to run their heavy bayonets into Lyndon Johnson's face grew up, and when they did, they gathered in Tiananmen Square, stood defiantly in front of Mao Zedong's tanks, and erected, out of whatever scraps were available to them, a replica of the Statue of Liberty.
They believed in democracy. If you do, with even one-tenth that passion, accept the results of tomorrow, even if your boy didn't win. Go down to the river, lie on its bank, listen to the banjos in the sky.
The other evening, I was working on a new story, "Fleeing, on a Bicycle with Your Father, From the Living Dead", when I heard the double ring of the doorbell, rapid follow-up knocking, gear-shifting drive-away, of the UPS guy.
Mary went down the stairs.
Creak of the front door opening.
"What did he leave?"
From downstairs, "I don't know."
Sound of a box being opened.
"Oh my God! Oh my God!"
I stopped typing. "Is everything all right?"
Mary came up the stairs, excited, holding out a white letter, the open-flapped cube of a brown cardboard box.
I scanned the letter. Congratulations! Your photograph has been chosen to be included in the 2005 edition of the Workman Publishing Desktop Cat Calendar (the type of calendar where there's a page for each day of the work week).
Mary sent in a photograph of Lady's five kittens, sleeping against each other, about a year ago.
Your photograph appears on the January 28 page.
We stood next to each other, hips touching, grinning, gently raising the pages, going into the future, until we reached January 28, 2005, and there was Mary's photograph, with a credit to her, a quote by Cleveland Amory to the effect cats are happiest when they're sleeping.
That moment, standing side by side, looking down at the page people all over the world will see on January 28, 2005, while at work, while at home, was so cool.
So much, much more important, to us, than who'll win tomorrow.