Amoeba’s Lorica: Vox Populi, Vox Dei

The spending caps at the center of the debt limit agreement target federal programs such as education, scientific research …   – News item

In the late afternoon of an early summer’s day in eastern Massachusetts, Chuck, aged 14, wandered along a path through the piney woods that he knew well (or thought he did), in search of pink lady’s slippers.

The plants. He was not yet of an age or inclination to seek the items of feminine apparel, or the feminines attached to them.

He was, however, interested in sex, or at least procreation. Because he was looking for seed pods. The time for flowers on the lady slipper orchid plants had long passed, the time for seed pods should be now. He wasn’t finding any, and that worried him, because he understood that, without seed pods, there could be no seeds, and therefore no new plants to provide the flowers that so many people stomped through his woods – his woods! – to cut for their bouquets, in disregard for the rules and regulations designed to protect the plants. How dare the Government interfere with my right to pick flowers? Chuck counted plants, as he had counted for several early summers now, and fretted. At this rate, there would soon be no flowers to pick, and people would be wondering what the hell happened.

Chuck moved on, towards the blueberry patches that occupied the open spaces where the path connected to the fire road (an old railroad bed). The blueberry patches that gave him the excuse to be walking this familiar path through the woods, which he was no longer supposed to be on. For his woods were not. They belonged to someone else. His family – there were five – occupied a cottage at the head of the trail, and new owners of plots along the trail were building new, and “proper”, houses. His mother had told him that the new owners did not want small uninvited children around their places. On the few occasions Chuck had seen anybody in the new places, they had waved, they didn’t seem to mind. But Mother did, end of story. Except when it came to help feeding the family. So he was allowed to go see if the blueberries were ready for picking.

Chuck had worked since he was ten, carrying golf bags for golfers at the local country club; he was a caddie. Some of the bags had been bigger than he was, especially when he first started. Every once in awhile, a golfer would ask what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he would tell them of the things that he observed in the woods, and his dream to turn those things into a career as a research scientist, studying nature. Most merely nodded and returned their attention to golf and their buddies. A few were dismissive. “Don’t do this, there’s no money in it. You got smarts, use them to earn a living. Screw flowers.” None were supportive.

The public school teachers were no better. One, who had come to congratulate him on his language and math tests, had asked the “grow up” question, and when he told her, she shook her head. She reached into her desk, pulled out a glossy brochure, handed it to him. It was a promotional flyer for a prestigious private school near Boston.

These children get to play with flowers”, she lectured Chuck sternly. “They have money, they can afford it, they can afford to lord that privilege over the rest of us. You need to turn those grades into the best job you can get, because you do not have money and you need to make it. Nothing else is personally or socially responsible.”

“But, science!” Chuck protested.

Science”, she snapped angrily, “does not make money. It sucks it up. If you do not have your own, you have no business sucking it from anyone else!” She launched herself from behind her desk, leaned over, yelled in Chuck’s face. “Do I make myself clear?

Chuck nodded, meekly, miserably. The teacher sat back down, her face still red. After a moment, she reached back into her desk, pulled out another piece of paper, slammed it on the desk.

It was a photo of Brian May, Ph.D..

First”, she snarled, “you make your money. Then you can indulge your filthy selfish self any way you like. Do you play guitar?”

Chuck shook his head ruefully.

Flowers“, the teacher sniffed in response. “Maybe you can get a slave-labor tech job with Megazon or TesX or any of the half-dozen other commercial empires that run things in this country now. Megazon is hiring. This week. Maybe.”

Chuck grimaced. He knew all he needed to know about Megazon. Its computer systems, despite their abysmal reliability rate, had tossed his father out of a job. He now mowed grass at the same golf club at which he caddied, and his mother worked second shift at the hospital.

The teacher dismissed him brusquely. “You have some things to think about. Go think about them.”

One more hill to climb up and down, and then Chuck would be among the blueberry bushes. The “hill” was little more than a hump, but it still offered a good 100 feet of sled run during winter when snow and ice were on the ground. He cherished the memories as he trudged to and over the summit – and then stopped, aghast.

The entire hillside had been torn up. Innumerable pits had been dug between the trees, pits small and large, with heaps of earth tossed all about them. Many of the heaps sparkled like starry nights where beams of the sun struck them.

Apprehensively, Chuck approached the nearest pit with starry sparkles. He was about to run his fingers through the dirt when his eyes stopped him, almost audibly shouted their warning. The sparkles were glass fragments, many of them freshly broken. His hand, should he have stuck it in the mound, would have come up bloody. He looked around, found a fallen tree branch, used it to poke the mound. A little digging revealed an almost-intact glass bottle, surrounded by shards of glass and plastic and rusted, disintegrating metal. The pit digger or diggers had apparently been looking for bottles that had survived their burial intact.

Then it hit him.

Chuck’s ‘pristine’ nature spot, where he tracked the lady’s slippers and the pine cones and the chipmunks and the trailing arbutus and the blueberries … had been a garbage dump. From the girth of the trees, about forty years ago. Who knew what kind of filth he was now picking through, had been walking through for as long as he could remember?

The revelation was more than he could bear. He plonked down on his backside, back against a tree along the side of the path, and bawled like a baby.

When he woke up, it was dark. Probably around 10 PM. Chuck had no idea that he had slept, never mind through dinner and well into the evening. He sprang up, but then picked his way home, a slow process through the pitch black of the woods. Eventually, he saw the lights of the “proper” houses and could increase his pace. Finally, he found his family’s cottage and went in through the back door. The door was unlocked. It was never locked. The family didn’t have much of anything to lose.

His mother was not yet home from work. His father, who had to be at the golf course ready to punch the clock at 5 the next morning, was in a recliner in the living room, a single lamp by his head, the only light on in the house. When Chuck entered the living room, his father stood up, a look of tired disgust on his face. The two stared at each other, the younger too ashamed to speak, the elder too busy looking through his annoyance to see that his son was at least physically intact. Satisfied, at last, that this was the case, the father finally spoke.

“No’count kid. I oughta kill you myself.”

With that, the older man turned off the light and stomped off to bed, leaving Chuck, once again, blinded by the night.

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