Grand design?

“Don’t join anything, Greg. You don’t know who’s collecting those lists.”

My cousin Greg was along with us on his way to his freshman year at the University of Chicago. We lived in Nebraska, part way there from Greg’s home in Billings, Montana. From Omaha, Greg would go on to Chicago. The plan was that he would help my dad, who was not getting around that well and tired easily because his MS had decided to get real. Greg could drive.

We’d just had a long, and for my dad tiring, vacation that included visiting family in Billings and Denver, a week in Yellowstone and the Tetons, a short visit to the Black Hills and Devil’s Tower on the way from Nebraska to Billings. I didn’t know it then, but it was my dad’s Beautiful Spots in Nature Swan Song.

“You never know what the government is going to do with those lists. You might think you’re joining a club and your name lands on some list in DC and you end up in jail.” My dad was very serious.

I was there for these conversations, but I didn’t understand them completely. I was 12 or so. Now I know my dad was referring to Joe McCarthy’s blacklists. My dad was afraid Greg’s whole life would be blown away because of a club he naively joined his freshman year in college.

My dad had grown to real adulthood during the Red Scare. While he truly hated Totalitarian Communism, even more than that he hated “the thought police” and believed fervently in individual rights. My dad was absurdly intelligent, definitely not a mainstream guy. “They” in my dad’s mind, were the “conformists,” who would try to make everyone the same. He loved Ayn Rand’s novels and I think he would have found the political party that has grown around them to be oxymoronic. My dad’s biggest fear for Greg was that he would end up on a list and lose his personal freedom.

Greg had never really been out of Billings, Montana. I imagine my dad also thought Greg might need extra preparation for the big city. Greg majored in theater which was part of my dad’s concern. So many Hollywood actors, directors, etc. had been persecuted during the McCarthy Witch Trials.

That November, when Greg came to us for Thanksgiving, he walked with me to junior high. We walked through the forest. When I came home the same way, I found Greg at the opening to the forest. He wanted to walk me home through the golden and red deciduous woods. It was 1964 and Greg told me that he was attracted to men. He asked me not to tell anyone. I told him I might tell my dad. As I remember it, Greg shrugged. Maybe he understood that I didn’t fully understand what he’d told me. Maybe he trusted my dad. All my dad said when I told him was, “I’m sorry to hear that. That’s going to make Greg’s life a lot more difficult.”

We got back to my house. Greg sat down at the piano and played — and sang — “I am a Pirate King” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance in which he’d been cast. It was great.

Greg ended up dropping out of the University of Chicago and going back to Montana and finishing university at the University of Montana in Missoula where he majored in literature. He lived for a while in San Francisco, and ended up back in Missoula.

I didn’t see Greg again until he was in his fifties! We were at his mom’s house. The aunts were arguing about what they’d do if they had a million dollars. Greg showed me a book that had belonged to my grandfather, the essays of Thomas Carlyle. We talked about everything, then, to escape the noise, went outside into the snowy pasture. I took him to the back of the pasture where a local vet had built an immense “cage” to rehab raptors that had been injured one way or another. He died when he was 56.

I have thought often in recent months about what Goethe said, something to the effect that our lives depend on luck, specifically where, when and to whom we are born and at what point in the stream of history. That was Goethe’s response to the idea that our lives are motivated by a divine design. In OUR moment we have a lot of advantages that people born even, well, when I was born didn’t have. I got the measles and the mumps because there were no vaccines for them back in the 50s. My dad’s moment had (among other things) the McCarthy trials and the specter of the mind police looming over it. My cousin Greg’s moment considered his sexual impulse a crime.

13 thoughts on “Grand design?

  1. We all have a history that is formed in part by the times in which we lived. I hope that I can rise above the moments in my history where social injustice and racism was the norm.

    • We think that because that is an issue of our time. That’s Goethe’s point. Maybe fifty years ago — if we were the age we are now — we wouldn’t have that concern if we were our age. It’s interesting to ponder that, especially when we have a president who’s so out of touch with THIS historical moment. I keep thinking, when I hear him, “We’re not there now.”

  2. Yup we are influenced by the luck of which families we are born into and the times we live through, but we do have some control over how we respond and what we do with it all…until you don’t…

    • I don’t know. I guess we have some control over our reactions, but I wonder how much of our responses, our ideas, everything is determined by our world. I really don’t know. I thought of this a lot when I was reading one of the books this summer, My Wild and Precious Life. What many of the African families considered to be totally normal horrified the American white woman who was there setting up a school. And then the kids would graduate into what?

      • Well, I think that was kind of where I was going with “until you don’t” comment. Sometimes there are things in society that overpower us and we can choose to go down different roads, but sometimes we can fight with all our might but the outcomes might not be what we want. The government voted in, decisions made that affect our well being, sometimes we just don’t have the power to make the difference…

  3. Kids growing up today have the coronavirus, terrorism, school shootings…shall I go on? I remember the Communist Threat as fearing the Communists (Russians) would round up all the children in the country and put them in communes for brainwashing or something like that – explaining why we were in Vietnam. And, before then, if we hid under our desks at school, we’d be protected from a nuclear bomb. We had air raid drills in school and I recall a vague anxious fear about it all. I’d like to think your cousin Greg would have an easier time of it now, but it probably depends where he was growing up. So, luck or divine design? Interesting question.
    I also got the mumps at the same time as my mother. We were quarantined in the same room together for many days. Many many days.

  4. The thinking of our day, as well as the family circle thinking & behaviour that surrounds us as we’re growing up, definitely shapes us, but the course of our lives is as much dependent on our own choices. So I don’t know if I totally agree with Goethe.

    One thing that intrigues me — and I wonder what those commie-fearing people of the 50s would think if they knew: a US presidential candidate being an out-and-out Marxist. Another cultural worm turns. 😉

    • Goethe would argue that our choices are largely determined by the world in which we are born. To vaccinate or not was not a choice at all in his day. I don’t know the answer but it’s an interesting question.

  5. I was active in the Libertarian Party when I was very young. I like a lot of their ideals but I disliked their refusal to try to integrate them into a real society. They took the notions of individualism, social liberalism and fiscal conservatism and turned it into a secular religion. A moderate version of the philosophy might have had some broad appeal.

    I see that happening today. The people who support Trump despite all he has done have to be doing so out of religious fervor, not any rational, thought out worldview. Many of the folks I see on the far side of the spectrum from him have that same attitude. And that is what drives the polarization of the world, the fervent unquestioning belief that you have the gospel truth and everything else is evil on both sides of the coin. The far right just happens to have landed on top this time.

    Religious fervor in politics leads to secular inquisitions by government. Just ask tail gunner Joe.

    I think this is a fabulous time to be alive.

  6. Interesting proposition. Also interesting considering what that other infamous German tried to enact and the uses to which science is being put these days.
    How might my life have turned out if I had been born after a cure for Type 1 diabetes been discovered?

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