My dad, the sweetest, greatest guy in the world was smart, a reader of history, knowledgeable about the world around him. He served in the Korean conflict and earned his accounting degree with the help of the GI Bill. He was a successful businessman and even in retirement, had a huge circle of friends and acquaintances. The funeral home was packed to the doors for his memorial when he passed away at 77 years old.
He was also a conservative and a lifelong member of the Republican Party. Yet for most of his life he was open minded and loved nothing more than a good, genial debate. I can’t say that he often changed his mind, but he understood that others had other opinions and views that differed from his, and that they also had relevance.
I went the other way. I became a liberal, a progressive and a Democrat. I think I know why, now.
Our discussions over the years always ended with both of us agreeing that we disagreed, but that changed during the last 15 years or so of Dad’s life. Bright, articulate and curious, he always had the TV on and listened to the radio in his car. He always knew what was going on in the wider world. But his TV news channel of choice was Fox, and on the radio, he tuned in a local talk station that carried Rush Limbaugh and other conservative talk show hosts. He was getting his news, but it was propaganda. As intelligent as he was, Dad was never able to discern the line of bull they were feeding him. And he’d get angry if I tried to point it out.
When I was kid – 10 years old, I think – I read a book called “The Forgotten Door,” by Alexander Key (thank you, Google!). The story was about a boy from another planet who, while playing one evening, fell through a long forgotten door in a hillside that joined his world and ours. Hurt, disoriented and frightened, he was discovered by a local family and taken home. The boy was a telepath who could hear what others were thinking, including animals, and he quickly discovered that this world and his were very different. Here, people used money to buy the things and services they needed; on his world, people shared what they had and helped each other. Here, people thought unkind things about others, or pitied them, but didn’t offer to help them learn how to do things better. It bewildered him.
I believe it was that book that first put the concept into my mind that there might be worlds other than ours in the universe. But beyond that, it also made me aware that there were other ways of thinking and other ways of doing things – ways that might have the same validity, too. I identified with the isolated protagonist and shared his wonder. And when I was finished reading The Forgotten Door, I told my Dad about it. He loved reading and had opened the world of books to me; I wanted him to read this book so he could tell me what he thought. I wanted to discuss it with him. I had a lot of questions.
But Dad wouldn’t read it, which disappointed me. Looking back, I imagine it was because, as an adult, he couldn’t imagine getting any joy from reading a children’s book. Still, he put his newspaper down and listened as I described the story. When I got to the part about using barter rather than money, and sharing rather than selling needed goods and services, I asked him why we didn’t do that, too. It seemed a much kinder, fairer way to live than the way we did.
“But sweetie,” Dad said, “that’s communism.”
“It is?” I was shocked. I knew that Communism was bad and that my country was fighting a “Cold War” against the Communists. They wanted to destroy us and our way of life. I’d never thought about it, before that. It just was, like the moon just was.
“Why?” I asked.
And so he explained, briefly, the concept of the collective, why it was considered bad – even evil, in our country -- and why capitalism and democracy were better. I argued, using my newfound understanding of another way. It might have been our very first political discussion, now that I think about it.
Finally, he said, “Honey, you’re just an idealist.”
An idealist? That one I didn’t get – but the matter was closed, as far as he was concerned.
And he was exactly right, too. I was then and I still am an idealist. Sure, the years – and reality -- have tempered my idealism with pragmatism, but I still yearn for a world in which human beings could be kinder to each other, and put their minds to ways to help each other, rather than taking advantage of each other. Most of the time, I no longer believe it will ever happen.
And then, I read something like this, and that old idealism and hope flares in my mind again, just like it did when I read “The Forgotten Door.”