A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I recall those gray days after school in the 1950s when I settled in to watch “Superman” on our black and white TV. The theme music was proto-John Williams epic hyperbole, and the living room was stuffed with huge upholstered armchairs I have since interpreted as giant shock absorbers from the threats the Cold War invented on a daily basis, like rogue Japanese pilots dropping bombs on us in retaliation for the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima; or a surprise nuclear attack from the Soviet Union after some apparatchik spilled his vodka on a launch button. The chairs dwarfed my huddled figure with my glass of Bosco and milk and my stash of vanilla wafers. But it was the voice-over that announced our hero stood for “truth, justice, and the American way” that thrilled me. Imagine protecting the truth!
These days there’s hardly a shred of uncontested prose coming out of Washington, D.C. or the news media. Everyone distrusts the written word, the broadcasted word, or any word that could take wing on social media. As a wide-eyed youngster I was eager to believe George Reeves, who acted in the role of Superman, really was “Honest George, the people’s friend,” the sign he hung up outside his dressing room. At five o’clock in the afternoon, nothing soothed my soul more than when Superman flew down to rescue some poor soul caught in the meshes of big crime. Reeves died at 45 of a mysterious gunshot to his head during a party at his house. No one can say for sure whether he committed suicide or someone else pulled the trigger. The irony is, he was stuck in his caped role all his acting life and couldn’t get out of it; his costume was his “monkey suit,” he once said ruefully. But he loved the fame, and the trickle of acting money, and made peace with his strange, tangential life. But he died naked on his bed, feet on the floor, gun dropped on the carpet. A handsome man, big-boned, with a soft round, rather handsome face that begged a kid like me to believe everything he said.
Maybe the reason I was so attracted to this man was that I was given to lying on occasion. I couldn’t help myself; I had the gift of gab and loved to elaborate huge flimsy contexts in which to deny I had done anything wrong. But of course I liked to pilfer things from my brothers’ drawers, or even peel off a dollar bill from my mother’s purse. I was too timid to do any serious shoplifting, but was blamed once for the theft of a Coca-Cola lighter from a novelty store near our house. Turns out the neighbor’s kid confessed after some serious grilling and I was exonerated, but not without some sweat and frenzy of my own. But in the dark, dreary days of the Cold War, falsehood was that ever-shifting energy in the hands of the KGB and the CIA, a tool, a weapon perhaps, that one used for political ends, and for fighting some terrible, shapeless war between nuclear powers.
It just so happens that “Dragnet,” the cop show with Jack Web and Harry Morgan, got going around the same time as “Adventures of Superman,” in 1951. It was my dad’s favorite show, and he liked to say to my mother, “Just the facts, ma’am,” the way Joe Friday did. The family gathered dutifully at night to watch it, and even a whisper was hushed. It was the closest thing to church we ever knew. If I had homework due the next day, I lied about it so I could sit on the sofa arm and watch with the rest of the family. No one cross-examined me on such nights. Truth hung in the balance, and the detectives were humorless creatures molded out of the fires of World War II, combat heroes riding the crest of a wave of public approval and veneration in peacetime. We only laughed at the poor saps that tried to lie their way out of a tangle of contradictions and sobbed on their way to jail.
Truth is not just words; it has a bone in it, a hard, indigestible substance your teeth close upon when you least expect to encounter it. My father was an investigator for the Civil Service, later the State Dept. in Washington. He was a portly man with a face as round as the full moon. He was handsome, with a long thin nose and a smallish mouth, blue eyes staring out of a wreath of crows’ feet. But his deep voice and his deliberate, colorless personality were the instruments for discovering where that bone hid in the murky depths of the people he investigated. He had colleagues made of the same stuff, and they hardly acknowledged how skillful they were at finding the truth. They seemed a little bored at their mastery, their self-assurance in a world of inveterate liars and cheats. The truth, like some filament of gold, lay in the muck of these souls and would reveal itself no matter how tough they were.
I learned just how artful my father was when I stole a brick of clay from my second grade classroom. The teacher called the house the next day and said she thought it might be me. I came home from school and was told my dad wanted to talk to me. He sat me in a chair in the dining room and stood close to me. He was calm and spoke in a soft voice. He was in no hurry. He asked me to tell him where I was the day before when I came home late. I told him I was playing basketball in the recess yard. He went through my story moment by moment and asked if I liked clay. I said no. I said it stunk of the basement. He made me repeat my movements all that afternoon, and again, and each time, my fabrications became hard to recall exactly. I stumbled. I felt words disappear from my mind. My voice went up a note here and there. I sweated a little. He was very patient, like a brain surgeon snipping around some rogue nerve in my head.
The light was failing in the windows. The kitchen was dark. My mother was upstairs sewing. There were no supper odors. My brothers were elsewhere. I was alone with my dad, usually a cold, aloof man, but now hovering over me so close I could smell his talcum powder. He even touched my shoulders now and then. He was slow, deliberate, like some Galapagos turtle sauntering around in the dust. Then I began to contradict myself. I couldn’t help it. The falsehoods were collapsing. My conscience was sore, afraid. I felt the first sob in my throat, and hung my head. I heard myself say, very quietly, I had taken the box of clay, that it was hidden in the closet upstairs. I went up and got it. He opened the box and saw that the wrapping had not been disturbed. He didn’t look at me. He handed the clay back and said to give it to the teacher and apologize to her.
That is how I know the truth has a sharp bone in it; it is lodged in the heart and will only begin to loosen as you tell the truth, one syllable at a time. Someone must be there, a man with a soft voice, a hand on your shoulder, with some vague smell of manhood and elegance, and the even vaguer hint of authority backed by something unimaginably vast, like the federal government. My father was a genius at detecting the hidden lie, the thing we clutch at, as if it were a real diamond that we cannot lose. And then we give it up, chastened, embarrassed, grief struck at our self-delusion.
When we ate dinner at one of his colleague’s houses, everything was ordinary. The baked ham, the potatoes, the kids our age, the small talk, the fruit juice in the pitcher, the suburban street with its family sedans. You could hardly tell that any of these pear-shaped bureaucrats with their nasal voices and soft chins was actually a mind reader, a bloodhound in a suit, a mystic, in a way. They knew something I didn’t know as a kid. That the human heart is actually a sensitive organ that will not lie. Or if it does, it cannot continue to lie. Even the adulterer will admit his affair if one of these men were to sit in a quiet room and ask questions. The lies come first, they gush like an Italian fountain. The liar is sure of himself and has many tricks and strategies. He lies and lies, and believes much of what he says. He has no idea that the lies are melting in his eyes, and that he is growing bored with them. They don’t picture the world vividly enough. The illogic gets stale; the details begin to rot. He is aware that he is pawing around in a refrigerator full of decaying lunchmeat and leftovers, and that he can’t eat it. He feels the truth shudder in his chest and it becomes the remote paradise that he longs to inhabit, if only he could. But the sacrifice is great, and he knows that reality is this flowering, organic garden. He must make the sacrifice and give up the drab world he has invented and take into himself the truth, no matter how much it costs.
That’s what I learned from my father. He knew that unless I was corrupt down to the roots of my soul, I would eventually give up this strange lie that caused me so much pain. And reach for the truth that offered me a chance to live again. It was only words, but some are false and hurt the ear that utters them, and some are so clear, and clean, and meaningful you cannot live without them.
Copyright 2018 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a writer and poet who lives in Vermont.