Thursday, April 4, 2013

Being Right

Decades ago, I had this friend.

More of an acquaintance, really.  We knew each other from before, from Nebraska, and for various reasons we became neighbors in a foreign land--Texas.  He was a very pleasant fellow, hospitable and talkative.  Certain subjects were safe to discuss.  Football.  Childhood reminiscences.  History and science and war.  He worked in the growing high-tech sector.  I wanted to be a writer.  My neighbor didn't have any great interest in reading that stuff.  Fat historical novels and desiccated technical manuals were his burning pleasures.  But he asked questions and took an interest in my answers.  In very different ways, we were two smart young men, and for several months, he filled the role of being my best friend.

The relationship always had rules and limitations, and I walked into his apartment knowing what was expected.

Conservatives come in different breeds.  My neighbor was a visionary who dressed for the 1950s.  He was mannerly to everyone, though women were a different kind of creature, demanding patience and the occasionally patronizing tone.  He belonged to a church run by an ex-military man who put his prophetic beliefs into a series of taped speeches/sermons.  Sometimes I heard snatches of the monologue coming from the tape recorder in the back room.  The voice I remember was lucid and stern--exactly the kind of authority figure that would appeal to a young man with a PhD in one of the cookbook sciences.  My neighbor didn't hide his political stances.  (I usually like opinions, particularly those that expose my own.)  In his mind, Reagan was a blessing from God, and the United States had a singular role to lead the world, and Communism was the evil of all evils.  We often discussed politics, each making the other angry, but only to a point.  We were careful.  And to his credit, he remained genuinely tolerant of my doubts and pithy, marginally humorous taunting.

I might claim that he was working on me, trying to make me believe in his cause...but really, he had no blazing interest in converts.  Which was one reason why we remained friendly.  What the fellow was was a very smart brain, an engineering-style brain, and he lived in a universe full of simple pure rules leading to predictable consequences.

We were neighbors living inside different Creations.

I don't believe any natural law is simple, and I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, much less in twenty years.

That is a critical admission, considering that this blog is aimed at science fiction and the fragile art of prediction.

There weren't many topics that made my neighbor spit-flinging angry.  But the Soviet Union never failed to redden his face while he beat at the armrests on his Lazy-Boy.

His disciplined mind believed that war with Communism was inevitable.  War would be violent but endurable, and God's people should prevail.  Should.  But he had little use for our NATO partners, and Jimmy Carter had left our military weak, and he dismissed my arguments that the numbers of tanks and warheads meant little in the application of brutal, uncontrollable force.  War was not a chemical reaction inside a clean flask, I argued.  And the men inside the Kremlin probably knew the limits of war better than certain bright boys sitting in their comfortable air-conditioned Dallas apartments.

It was the early 80s. and I didn't believe in intentional wars of annihilation.  Mistakenly launched ICBMs, yes.  Israel nuking Baghdad, perhaps.  But puffy old Brezhnev deciding to drive ten thousand tanks through the Fulda Gap?  No way.

And I wasn't sold on the deep strength of the Soviet Union.  In college, I toyed around with a future where good Americans escape from some despotic Alaska, seeking refuge in the Far East of Siberia, in a Russia that has collapsed into civil war.  The story never amounted to anything.  But just mentioning that prospect--giving the Soviets any hint of feebleness--made my buddy churn and quake.

A man has to find his pleasures where he can, and for me, his angst was reliable fun.

Of course there always were doubters about Russia's real strength and endurance.  I certainly wasn't alone.  But what drove my buddy bat-poop crazy was a very clear prediction that I made once or twice:  With all the bluster I could manage, I declared that the Soviet state would collapse, probably before the century was done.

Yeah, I'm a genius.

Or more likely, a certain book review had made a big impression on me.  Not the book itself, which cost too much.  But there was a long, comprehensive review, maybe in THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.  Maybe not.  Whatever its history, the book was written by someone with forgotten credentials, and that nameless author saw the Soviet Union as being perhaps the worst-run empire in history.  Where most overlords milked their conquests for gold and slaves, the Kremlin spent its own treasure to keep distant people fed and housed and under some kind of rough control.  Money wasn't flowing into Moscow's coffers, but instead it was flowing out, and what the West saw as a monolithic empire was instead a Potemkin house built from inertia and weak paper walls.

I don't remember exactly when I told my one-time friend about this wondrous vision.

It might not have been while I lived in Dallas, but instead when I returned for a visit.

By then, my former neighbor and I weren't close.  We didn't trade phone calls after I moved away, and we only saw each other at mutual friends' house.  But when I started pounding nails into the Soviet coffin, there was instant vivid tension.  He didn't want this news.  Didn't accept it and couldn't remain polite in the face of this insult.  This was an illuminating moment.  Let's say that you have an enemy--a great treacherous monster that gnaws at your soul--and one day someone tells you that the monster has cancer.  The monster is going to be dead in a short while.  Why would you not want to embrace this verdict?  How can every drop of blood in your body rebel against what on the surface looks like very good news?

Something instructive was at work, revealing an essential part of the human animal.

What we believe is far more important than what is.

I haven't seen the fellow for years, by the way.  Although I'll ask around for news and rumors from those who might know something.

I hear he's the same person, basically.

But that's what most of us are.  We don't change easily and never willingly.

Yes, I lack facts.  But that doesn't stop me from imagining my one-time friend staring at China and Islam, finding all of the purpose that he needs from those two adversaries.

Myself?  I don't have much faith in the staying power of any empire.

Including our own.

1 comment:

  1. I met many people like your friend within my life. I was born during the Cold War in a military family. My father was a career man in the Air Force. A major portion of my youth was growing up in Bellevue, Nebraska, at Offutt Air Force Base. Yeah, one of the Top 5 prime targets for ground zero. I'm surprised that no one was every able to coin a "four letter word" for communism, because that's what it was to a lot of folks.

    Now, I live in Grand Island, Ne. The people out here are just as conservative, but they point their angst to more current the ones your one-time friend is probably doing.

    It seems there's a loosely literary parallel with your distant friend's feeling toward those "evil" empires, Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty. Just a playful thought.

    I'm glad to see that you have a new story out with Clarksworld Magazine. I like your work very much, and it's not because you're a fellow Nebraskan. Stephan King should be kinder to our state by not writing about religious nuts who worship corn (no...not talking about Husker Fans!) Your novel, Down The Bright Way, was more pleasant about our fair state, and I enjoyed reading.

    Good luck with all your writing. Maybe someday, you'll read and enjoy some of mine.

    Jeffrey Gershom