Saturday, October 28, 2006

HUNGARY 1956 -- USA 2006

This is the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution when, in 1956, the citizens of the country rose up against Communist domination. I was a junior in high school with a brilliant history teacher, Carlie Gilstrap, who never married and was said to be an excellent pistol shot. (Not necessarily a relationship between the two characteristics.) She had a classroom with an old-fashioned windowless “book room” (this was in the days when teachers had real textbooks) big enough for the class to barely squeeze into, so one day when she was called to the office for a minute (in those days a teacher could leave a class without expecting mayhem to break out), we all crowded in there. When she returned to what seemed to be an empty classroom, she saw the situation in a flash and simply locked the door. We were in there until the end of the period.

She was a bold woman, protected by tenure, and she had us passionately convinced that we were witnessing history. I got up at 5AM every morning to hear what the Soviet tanks had done while we slept. The US and NATO had promised that if the Hungarians would rise up, the rest of the world would step in to help them. But they didn’t. In English class I learned by heart ee cummings’ poem, “Thanksgiving, 1956:”

a monstering horror swallows
this unworld me by you
as the god of our fathers' fathers bows
to a which that walks like a who

but the voice-with-a-smile-of-democracy
announces night & day
"all poor little peoples that want to be free
just trust in the u s a"

suddenly uprose hungary
and she gave a terrible cry
"no slave's unlife shall murder me
for i will freely die"

she cried so high thermopylae
heard her and marathon
and all prehuman history
and finally the UN

"be quiet little hungary
and do as your are bid
a good kind bear is angary
we fear for the quo pro quid"

uncle sam shrugs his pretty
pink shoulders you know how
and he twitches a liberal titty
and lisps "i'm busy right now"

so rah-rah-rah democracy
let's all be as thankful as hell
and bury the statue of liberty
(because it begins to smell)

I wonder if anyone has translated that to Spanish.

We’ve got a re-election campaign for a judge here on the High Line. I know this man two ways: one was as the person who presided over Bob’s probate and let all sorts of dubious things slide by and then later, when I appealed to him about Bob’s widow being held hostage and drunk, did nothing. The second is that I was on a jury at a civil trial over which he presided, allowing a local lawyer suffering from Alzheimer’s to wander all over the place, coached along by his legal aides who passed notes. (The other lawyer had wanted me on the jury because he was from Portland, a good Catholic, and assumed that because I was from Portland and former clergy, I would be conservative. Big mistake.)

The actual jury foreman was afraid to let the community know that he had been the foreman, for fear of retribution from the complainant, so I agreed to sign as foreman if he would actually do the job. Probably illegal as hell. But we did that, and then the good Catholic lawyer asked for a person-by-person vote instead of a majority consensus, which we didn’t know he could do, and someone changed his vote. In the sorting process, it came out both that I’d only pretended to be the foreman and that the actual foreman was afraid of retribution. The judge just looked glazed. The whole thing was appealed anyway.

But ever since I’ve been thinking about this huge crack in the democratic system: it depends on the character of the citizens. I mean, I moved back here into a house I owned, with social security, a small but secure income after having being fired from several jobs around here because of what I had said about the system, the boss. I had thought I was coming back bravely, to tell the truth and witness boldly. But now this judge is up for re-election and I’m wondering whether it’s safe to state my opinion in a letter to the editor. What if I come up before him in court? What if a friend of mine or a former student of mine comes before him in court and is punished because of what I say?

This judge probably threw himself out of office with a decision last year. A sexual predator committed really terrible acts, was a habitual offender, but a friend of the right people (some folks in that town don’t think of sexual predation as much of a crime anyway), and was let out with a low bond on his own recognizance. As it turned out, the victim and the neighbors also had good connections and came down on the judge so hard that he reconsidered and threw the guy in jail. In other words, this is a judge who just goes with the flow. (All parties concerned are white, I hasten to say.) I’m told that he hasn’t got a chance of keeping his office.

So maybe I can just let him go down in flames without throwing my match on the bonfire. Or maybe it’s safe to kick him now that he's down, but that seems like a chicken thing to do. On the other hand, if I keep my powder dry, maybe there will be an even more crucial test down the road.

This is the second judge to be in big trouble around here. The other one spoke carelessly on email -- dirty, cynical comments -- and has been sentencing people to jail for not paying their debts, calling it “contempt of court” because they were ordered to pay in trials. In other words, he has recreated the “debtor’s prisons” of Dickens’ day.

So back to Hungary, where in 1956 the Soviets read everyone’s mail for the sake of state security and tortured or banished people to gulags for the safety of the system. On NPR the other day was a story about a man setting up a display about the Hungarian Revolution in a public place. He was just stepping back to check it when along came a little group of young people, maybe juniors in high school, who looked, as kids do these days, rather sinister. Leather jackets, punk haircuts, chains, tattoes, piercings, etc. The man’s impulse was to protect his display, so he stepped towards them.

They were actually looking closely and reading the captions. He introduced himself and they had a question: “Who won, Russia or Hungary?” The man started to say Russia, but then corrected himself. “Hungary. It just took us fifty years.”

I like his answer, but what’s happened to ME in the last fifty years that I’m afraid to speak up? Of course, a few newspapers around here won’t print my letters anymore anyway. How long before the blogs get shut down?


Old Scrote said...

This post brought back memories of my 1956. Thank you for reviving them.

dumneazu said...

I've neen living in Budapest for nearly twenty years, and that cummings poem is new to me, thanks for bringing out of the cobwebs. Unfortunately, the 50th anniversary here was a mess - the country is too divided by politics to have been able to celebrate October 23 without riots.

You are a fascinating story teller and a compelling writer. Thanks for continuing to provide an island of diginity in the blogosphere.

Anonymous said...

I second dumneazu's assessment of your story telling and writing, Mary--and the thanks offered to you.

As a practical person, I believe that, to be effective, a person must jealously hoard her critical expositions. Choose your "battles" and save your "ammunition" for the times when you believe you can make a difference. Not much is usually to be gained in entering the 1% or 99% contests. Usually, it is in the 49% or 51% contests where one might have the most influence.
Cop Car