This U.S. history class I drop in on from time to time moves terrifyingly fast. The lecturer is a pro with a commanding stage presence, a West Pointer whose withering glance alone should be enough to change all cell phones to “vibrate,” although alas some people still don’t get the message. The little twerp who got the last call to come during class time failed to wither, and actually sat in his seat when class ended and returned the call. “Some men you just can’t teach.” — the Captain, “Cool Hand Luke.”
Anyway, things move fast. This class covers Reconstruction to yesterday, and we’re up to the cold war. Today the teacher spent 30 minutes on Joseph McCarthy. His verdict: A nasty, lying drunk who did more real harm than most Americans will ever know, and whose acid presence is still felt today, years after his death. (This is a theme that interests me more as I age — the reverberation of certain acts, large and small, decades or centuries after they take place. My grandfather committed suicide in 1930, and I’m convinced it influences our family to this day.) The prof cited a U-M econ professor denied tenure for suspected pinko tendencies. He went off to Johns Hopkins and won a Nobel Prize. Just one of McCarthy’s minor casualties; worse were the Far East scholars hounded out of the State Department for the crime of telling the truth — that the Communists were going to come out on top in China, and we’d best start preparing for the inevitable.
It’s strange, moving closer to the part of the century I can actually remember. It’s strange, being a 46-year-old student, period. In English, we read Joyce Carol Oates’ short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” with its mystifying dedication, “For Bob Dylan.” The students knew who Bob Dylan was, of course, but as the only person in the room who remembered when “Bringing it All Back Home” was released, I felt like the only person in the room who really understood why Oates might want to dedicate a story about the loss of innocence to him. Hello, kids, I’m your damn mama, is what I am.
Of course, I’m feeling incredibly old today — our seminar tonight featured the author of “Bobby Fischer Goes to War,” about the Spassky-Fischer chess match of 1972. I remember that, too. I was in junior high, another institution that doesn’t exist anymore.
In other news at this hour, a big shout-out to “The Wire,” which was shut out for so much as an Emmy nomination, but snagged a Peabody Award yesterday. Much cooler, when you think about it. Ashley will be so pleased.