We are thick in the middle of a presidential election, which has been a rancorous affair, causing many Americans to long for the olden days when we were governed by clueless English kings. I wonder if it’s too late to apologize to the British, abolish Congress, and ask the queen to take us back?
When I was a kid, elections were a happy event, earning us a day off school if we assisted the candidates by passing out their pencils, pens, matchbooks, and rulers. Naturally, as the date neared, every child in town took a sudden interest in the body politic and its attendant obligations. We would rise early and hurry to the voting sites to eat the doughnuts intended for poll workers who were overweight and should have been grateful for our intervention but seldom were. At noon, we would walk to the Dairy Queen and eat hot dogs cooked by a light bulb and revel in the democracy that was America.
At 6 o’clock, when the polls closed, we would gather in the courthouse on the town square and watch through the evening hours as the county auditor climbed a stepladder every few moments to write the latest votes on a chalkboard hung high upon the wall. The air was thick with cigarette smoke, making me queasy, causing me to associate nausea with politics, a pattern that persists to this day.
Around 10, the results from the outlying polls were called in, the numbers adjusted to allow for chicanery and error, and the victors announced. They would step to the podium and humbly thank, in order, God, their family, the long-deceased founders of our town, then end with an unrehearsed and lengthy speech on the general wonders of America and the specific virtues of Danville and Hendricks County, Indiana.
My father, the town board president, had raised the speeches to an art form. In my mind it was the acme of representative democracy, watching the votes accrue beside my father’s name on the board overhead, then listening to him extoll the town that had opened its arms to our family in 1957. With the presidency came the responsibility of keeping the groundhog population at bay, lest they destroy the backyard gardens that everyone had in those days. My father was a crack-shot, like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the terror of groundhogs everywhere. Most townspeople thought any man unable to exterminate rodents was unfit for public office. To this day, I still half expect presidential candidates to tell us their stance on groundhogs.
Being Indiana, everyone in our town was Republican, except for Bob Pearcy who owned The Danville Gazette newspaper. He also had a maple tree in his front yard that had been twisted a quarter-turn by the 1948 tornado. Pug Weesner, the owner of The Republican newspaper, lost his house in the same tornado, causing some in our town to believe God was a Democrat, temporarily swelling the ranks of that party and ushering Harry S. Truman into the White House.
There was a luster to government service in those days—a regard not only for the office, but also for those who held it. World War II was still fresh in our collective memory, a cataclysmic event resolved by government’s know-how and young men’s courage. If today the less capable are attracted to office, and there does seem to be a weakening in the strain, that was not the case then. The words, “I work for the government” were a statement of pride. One did not run for Congress for the lifetime healthcare; one ran to serve, to help, to make America the “shining city on the hill.” Service to the country was a calling, not a last resort when employment in the private sector didn’t pan out.
Election night, that holy night, was the one school night my parents let me stay up late. By 9 o’clock I would be flagging, so would curl up behind the pillar next to the marble staircase and fall asleep in that cradle of democracy. At 10 o’clock, the last precinct would phone in, and the cheering would waken me.
I would listen to the victory speeches, as one would a bedtime story, lulled to sleep by the soft cadence of freedom.