Presidents' Day thoughts on monuments to decent lives

By

I saw myself as presidential timber. This was 50 years ago, fresh from a triumph in the student government election in my elementary school. Proudly I pinned the yellow button around the belt loop of my corduroys. Affixed and centered atop the yellow button was a smaller button; white with blue lettering that proclaimed my hegemony over fourth grade.

One student government triumph followed another all the way through to my junior year in college - when realpolitik reared its head. It was the late '60s, and I learned through campus politics what no political science text could impart: I didn't have the stomach for politics, and my skin wasn't thick enough.

So I feel for the families of those who enter "the lists" and joust for positions on a ballot; who brave caucuses, primaries, and the battles of election campaigns. Invariably, they lose the leeway to be candid, forthright, genuine. It takes a different grain to be presidential timber.

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And, let's face it, there are few Mount Rushmore lives.

It takes a special kind of following to warrant being memorialized on a postage stamp, let alone on coin or currency. And few careers command hours of prime-time tribute or require a library to house hundreds of pages of recapitulation and self-justification.

Still, each of us, in our own way, carves out a bit of history that should be set down - for our own edification, and for each of our families and a few friends.

Not the way former President Clinton's "My Life" goes on for more than 900 pages. Volumes don't always tell the whole story. Much can be conveyed with levity and brevity.

Not the way presidential nominees' lives are IMAXed and over-amplified. Volume doesn't always speak volumes. Enlargements sometimes make pictures fuzzy.

Not the way former President Reagan's passing brought forth hours of selective recall and mass veneration.

Still, video highlights of Reagan's self-effacing quips and Clinton's thoughtful articulations do provide seminars in communication. While few of us have any claim to public audience, let alone public outpourings, we can still aspire to some kind of special conveyance - some kind of transfer of recollection to the next generation.

I have only one constituent - a son. Without fanfare, I have inaugurated my own campaign, not just for approval ratings but to pass down a bit of my history - a sense of the little moments that made big impressions, and are housed in my mental archives.

I want my son to know how I felt when:

• As a Little Leaguer, inexplicably, I struck out with consistency.

• As a Babe Ruth sub, I once got a walk and, miraculously, stole second and third.

• As a college freshman, with my father in the stands, I ran a distant fourth in the 100-yard dash, having stayed up the night before to participate in fraternity pledge inanity.

• As an ROTC cadet, I experienced abject fear crawling under barbed wire with machine-gun fire spraying that sector at Indiantown Gap Military Reservation; I endured slurs and condemnations as I walked to and from Ivy League classrooms every Thursday; and I was conflicted when officially advised that I was medically unusable in the jungles of Vietnam.

• As an infantry reject about to enter law school, I saw a college track teammate return to campus in uniform, medals thick on his chest, taking big strides on crutches, and with a trouser leg shortened to above the knee.

• As an infantry reject who had just entered law school, I learned of my ROTC company commander's death in action in Vietnam.

• As a law student, I learned to be cynical about the law and lawyers.

• As a political volunteer, I learned to be cynical about politics and politicians.

• As a teacher, I learned to be cynical about public education.

• As an underemployed public relations writer, I learned about job searches and became cynical about human-resource professionals and economic recovery.

• As a writer of personal essays, I learned that my cynicism was not helpful, and that more could be conveyed by working through disappointments, by purging resentments, and by trying to understand and explain how good things come about.

Appraisals of one's worth or contributions do not require book-length memoirs.

Monuments to a decent life do not require marble or granite. And nothing you set down has to be written in stone.

Joseph H. Cooper teaches English and journalism at several colleges in Connecticut.

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