Lessons in friendship from my 'communist' cousins

Children are remarkably gullible. All young children, so far as I know, believe that what goes on in their family is normal and that the rest of the world is like that, too. Eventually they discover that other families are different, or maybe even that their own family is different, and have to adjust to that. I think the way you react to this first discovery has a major effect on your outlook on life, even when the original realization is, as mine was, based on a complete and total misunderstanding.

In 1952, my family moved to the suburbs of Washington, D.C. We were the first household in either of my parent's large extended families to have a house in that area, and we were descended on by hordes of out-of-town friends and relatives coming to sightsee or, in many cases, to look for a government job. I was going-on-8, and just beginning to understand some of the big words buzzing around me when two of those houseguests arrived. My mother's cousin David slept in the tiny guest room, and my father's cousin Max slept on the old sofa in the unfinished cellar. They liked playing with boys who were going-on-8, and I thought they were wonderful.

My favorite show on our brand-new TV was "Howdy Doody," and it came on at 5:30 p.m., just when my father would get home from work. So my younger brother and I got to watch it unsupervised while my parents talked about whatever it was grown-ups talked about. In fact, we were so unsupervised that I'm not sure they realized at first when "Howdy Doody" got preempted by the Army-McCarthy hearings, and I got to hear the rather bizarre anticommunist demagogue Sen. Joseph McCarthy. I tried hard to understand him, but I was delighted when I found that our two houseguests didn't think he was as nice as "Howdy Doody," either.

By hindsight, I know that Max was taking bar exams, Civil Service exams, and applying for a job in the Patent Office. But all I knew then was that he complained about all the questions the government kept asking him. David was hoping to get a job in the Foreign Service, and I knew a little more about him. He said he'd been studying Chinese at the University of Hawaii. He was very unhappy that federal support for study of Chinese was being cut, and this somehow had something to do with congressional committees, China, and communist spies. David complained bitterly about the shortsightedness of any and all congressional committees.

I knew about congressional committees. I'd seen them when they preempted "Howdy Doody," and I knew the people they investigated were communists, and here was my cousin who was obviously unhappy about what a congressional committee was doing to him, and I could tell: He was a communist. And then the house was treated to not one, but two, visits from the FBI. Both cousins had given my father's name as a reference, and what was a routine check of references was very exciting to me because I knew why the FBI went around asking questions about people - they were communists! And we had two of them.

I still had no idea that it was unusual to have two communists in a household. But now McCarthy let the cat out of the bag. He stated in a speech exactly how many communists there were in the United States. I forget the number, but that week it was very real to me. And it was very real to me for a very good reason. That was the week I had finally gotten the hang of multiplication.

I counted the houses on my block, and I counted the blocks from my house to my school, and I turned the corner and counted the blocks to my friend Eugene's house, and I multiplied. I wasn't sure how many more houses there were in the rest of the US, but I knew how many houses there were in the part of the US I knew about, and even at going-on-8 my arithmetic convinced me that there were not enough communists for there to be two communists in every house. My house was different. My house was better. My house had more communists. Communists who were nice people who liked playing with boys who were going-on-8 and who liked "Howdy Doody" better than Joe McCarthy.

I didn't tell anyone about this for years. After all, I knew that if you found out someone was a communist, and you told anyone, you got in trouble with Joe McCarthy.

It wasn't until several years later that I bewildered my parents by asking when those nice communists were coming to visit us again. So by the time my mistake was figured out and corrected, it was too late. I had already learned my lesson. I had learned that my parents had a great many wonderful friends. And they had so many wonderful friends because they chose their friends because they were nice people, without worrying about their age, or whether they had a job, or their religion, or about any kind of awful name society chose to put on them.

And that was the truly important lesson that has served me very well.

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