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The way we were

Bill Meredith

"I believe it is better to tell the truth than to lie. And I believe it is better to know than to be ignorant." H. L. Mencken.

(2/2017) It was a Saturday evening, which meant there was nothing worth watching on television, and it was raining, which meant there was a soft, soothing whisper of white sound in the background. I had finished the crossword puzzle, so I picked up a book that a friend gave me several years ago and I had been meaning to read as soon as I got around to it. It is a good book; but this was the time for thinking, not reading. I got almost half-way through the preface before I dozed off.

I didn’t exactly wake up, but I gradually sensed that I was not alone in the universe. The particular sense that informed me was my nose; it told me there was a skunk somewhere in the near vicinity. I opened one eye and scanned around the room; nothing appeared to be out of place, so my mind wandered off on its own again. The skunk, I decided, must surely be a male who had moved into the abandoned groundhog hole behind our house a couple of months ago. He would have gone into hibernation, knowing that when January came the temperature would be well below freezing and snow would be at least a foot deep. Apparently he woke up to find it was nearly 50 degrees F., and raining; so he must have thought he’d overslept and it was March already, or maybe even April. He must have gone into a panic. Even under the best of circumstances, a male skunk is in a bad mood when he wakes up; he’s hungry and thirsty, and he has responsibilities to take care of. He has to explore the neighborhood until he finds the den of a female skunk, and then he has to persuade her to let him move in with her… and here he was, in the rain and two months behind schedule. So off he went, grousing all the way; and it must have been just then that a stray dog or cat approached. He must have turned around and given it both barrels, hence the smell that woke me up. I could read his mind: "Things aren’t like they used to be. Life was better in the old days. And simpler. We had real winters then; you could depend on your biological clock to wake you up when it was time. The world is in a mess."

Of course, I couldn’t really "read his mind." To put in in the most abhorrently correct English possible, I think I can safely say that I think some animals can think, but I don’t think they think the same way I think. Over the past 40 million years, the ancestors of my skunk survived by repeating certain patterns of behavior in situations that they encountered regularly; and these behaviors became ingrained in their brains as nerve connections that were passed on by heredity. For example, the diet of skunks is primarily insect larvae (grubs), which they dig up from the soil; baby skunks know how to dig instinctively, but they get better at it with practice. In other words, they can learn by trial, error and repetition, but they don’t actually think about it. A wild skunk will recognize a human as something dangerous, and will defend itself by spraying when approached; but skunks raised by humans from infancy can be house-broken and make good pets. They are smart, as animals go; but they cannot use logical thought to deduce that walking down a highway at night is dangerous. We will see the evidence of this in a few months when they all come out of hibernation.

Sometimes I find myself thinking the same thoughts I just attributed to the skunk in my yard. "Things aren’t like they used to be. Life was better in the old days. And simpler. We had real winters then, but they made us tougher. They built character. It’s not like that any more. The world is in a mess." But those thoughts don’t stand up under analysis. I have read enough history to know that things never really were "the way they used to be." Life wasn’t better then; it was just different. The average life expectancy in the early 1930s was barely 60 years; now it is around 80 years. The newspapers and radio regularly reported outbreaks of polio, smallpox, typhoid fever, and tuberculosis; and I remember when one of our neighbors died of "blood poisoning" after scratching his finger on a piece of rusty barbed wire. The good old days?

The underlying reason things were different when I was born was the size and composition of the population. Around 1910, when my parents were children, the population of the U. S. was about 92 million, 54% of whom were rural. When I was a child in the early 1930s, the population of 123 million was 44% rural; and now, the population of 319 million is 19% rural. Those are the underlying facts; from them, as I try to understand, I make the following conjectures. From the time of our country’s founding until 1945, our basic values did not change much. The majority of the population stayed near their ancestral homes, raised children locally on basically traditional rural values… mind your manners, go to church, obey your elders, study hard, work hard, live honestly. Of course those ideals were not followed universally… people moved, sometimes in waves, as the west opened up, and as conditions became more urbanized. We had inventions… railroads, telegraph, electric lights… the Civil War, Mexican War, World War I… mechanization… cotton gin, assembly lines… economic booms and bank failures… the Dust Bowl and the Okies… the Great Depression… all those things I learned about in school. But after 1945, as urbanization accelerated, the old rural values began to be abandoned. Even though H. L. Mencken was born and bred in Baltimore, what he was writing in the 1930s was the credo of our rural forbearers had lived by since the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. Today, when the news seems to be based mainly on tweets, internet hacking, and "alternate facts," he sounds hopelessly idealistic and naVve.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that I dozed off, smelled the skunk, and started thinking when I was half asleep. The scrambled mixture of ideas described above are the product of that nap.

If Mencken were still around, he would say I am the one who is hopelessly idealistic and naVve; and he would be right. I still believe it is better to tell the truth than to lie, and better to know than to be ignorant.

I am stuck with the values I grew up with, and am too old to change, even though it limits my ability to understand. To me, the skunks are a metaphor of the world as I knew it. When I was young, there were skunks around literally every night; our dog always had a faint odor of methyl mercaptan about him… and sometimes it was more than faint. Occasionally something would kill a young chicken, and skunks always were blamed for it (there were weasels and foxes around, but we rarely saw them, and they didn’t stink). But even so, some skunks were loveable. Pepe LePew in the movies was a hopeless romantic who always lost at the game of love, just like teenage boys; and Miz Ma’m’selle Hepzibah in the Pogo cartoons was a cultured French lady skunk who spoke in a fractured French accent and was constantly bewildered by the attention she received from every male creature except Pogo himself. And one spring, a mother skunk had five babies under the porch of the house where we waited to catch the school bus; we saw them come out and play every morning, and they were cuter than kittens. Even back then, the world was a mixture of good and bad. Maybe Ecclesiastes was right after all.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith