Sunday, July 19, 2020

WAPAKONETA ON THE WARPATH



Shawnee Chief 
Catecahassa, or Black Hoof, 1740-1831
The decision by the Washington Redskins to—finally—get on the right side of history and state their intention to change their name and logo has had long-tailed consequences in what should be the front line against racism throughout the United States—public high schools. And nowhere has the hornets’ nest been poked more savagely than in my hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio, where the School Board has stubbornly resisted reiterated attempts to foster a change in its team name and mascot. For, as we were drilled throughout the school-days of our youth, “We are the Redskins, the mighty, mighty Redskins!”
Alas, we are not. In fact, ours is a blindingly, nearly homogeneously white community. And therein lies the rub, which has caused a direct clash between the Wapakoneta Superintendent of Schools and the Chief of the Shawnee Nation. As a result, the controversy about the team name and mascot has gone from being an ongoing and bitter debate between local residents—with other far-flung Wapakoneta alumni weighing in as well—to actually making a ripple on the national scene.
Last week, Wapakoneta schools Superintendent Aaron Rex released a statement in the midst of a backlash from the Washington Redskins’ historic decision in which he stated, “At Wapakoneta we have always believed that our representation of Native Americans and their history in our area has been done with a great deal of respect. Our community was once a place inhabited by many Indian tribes with the last being the Shawnee under the leadership of Chief Black Hoof. In the last few years we have redesigned our school logo and feel that it has been done keeping the idea of respect and history in mind. Wapakoneta has a great deal to be proud of, as you know. Native American history is one piece of what makes our town one of the best small towns in Ohio.”
There are a few things blatantly wrong with that statement: First, as an educator, Mr. Rex should know that “beliefs” aren’t facts. What Wapakonetans have “always believed” about our way of representing Native American culture and history is in apparent and aggressive conflict with the view of the ethnicity involved. Second, any redesigning of the school logo has been carried out, according the representatives of the Shawnee Tribe, without consulting the true experts on tribal culture—namely, the Shawnee themselves. And third, although Wapakoneta may indeed have attributes that it can be proud of, its history with Native Americans in general and the Shawnee Nation in particular isn’t one of them.
The fact is that our white ancestors first forged a peace treaty with the Shawnee and then betrayed the trust of once great warriors and defenders of the land like Black Hoof, breaking the treaty, stealing the sacred lands of the Native American residents and driving them en masse on a forced march to the far off Kansas territory, during the course of which large numbers of them perished. Our history with the indigenous tribes of the region is, then, not a happy story of respect and ethnic diversity. Rather, it is one of abject tragedy, betrayal and complete disregard for the native peoples of our area, who had come to trust the European settlers enough to agree to a treaty in the belief that it was better to live in peace with them than to attempt to fight a burgeoning trend. Their trust, like elsewhere throughout the continent, was met with a ruthless and genocidal push to be rid of Native Americans once and for all.

In response to Mr. Rex’s rather cavalier statement, Shawnee Tribal Chief Ben Barnes tweeted, “You said, ‘Our community was once a place inhabited by many Indian tribes with the last being the Shawnee under the leadership of Chief Black Hoof.’ The office of Chief of the Wapakoneta Shawnee is now me. Ask us our opinion first.” So far, the chief reports having no response from Wapakoneta school officials.
In statements to a Native American publication called Indian Country Today—an online magazine that, it is worth noting, never writes the word redskin, referring to the clearly racist term as “the R-word” just as has become standard practice everywhere else when mentioning “the N-word” on citing racist references to African Americans—Chief Barnes again referred to Superintendent Rex’s statement, asking, “How can they say they’re honoring us if they won’t even speak to us?”
The Shawnee leader had earlier stated the position of his tribe regarding the decision of the Washington team to change its name and his hope that high schools would follow suit in also rejecting anti-Indian racism. “We are not mascots,” Chief Barnes said. “We are living cultures and languages with histories going back thousands of years. Our stories are a thousand-fold, filled with wondrous stories of our ancestors and our relationship to the land. It is in this way we want people to know us, not as an emblem on a hat.”
Ben Barnes, Chief of the Shawnee Tribe
In telephone statements made to newsman José Nogueras for an article that appeared in The Lima News—published in Lima, Ohio, fifteen miles from Wapakoneta and the county seat of what was once the Hog Creek Shawnee Reservation—Chief Barnes again commented on Superintendent Rex’s unacceptable defense of the Redskin name and logos saying, “Our nation and our office is totally preoccupied with COVID, and I can’t devote fifty hours to this, but at some point I will reach out to the school district, and so my tweeting was in a way to say don’t presume to speak for the Shawnee tribe.” In response to Mr. Rex’s historical reference to Chief Black Hoof, he added, “We are still here. I occupy the seat of Black Hoof’s descendent government. I’m in that position, so why not come to our nation and ask us. Black Hoof’s family exists. I know these people. They are here. They are available.”
Referring to the importance to Shawnee culture of the land where Wapakoneta now stands, the chief had earlier told Indian Country Today, “Wapakoneta is holy ground for us; it is where Chief Black Hoof died.”
The Shawnee chief also told Nogueras, “I think saying they are honoring us is at best disingenuous.”
After a week of wrangling with local opponents to a team name change, I feel that “disingenuous” is a perfect term for the arguments I’ve heard for maintaining a racial epithet and a racial stereotype for the name and mascot of Wapakoneta’s home team. One local history-hobbyist sought to convince me that it was only now, in the wake of the George Floyd slaying and the Black Lives Matter movement that people had started getting touchy about anything that could be construed as being even vaguely racist. The term “redskin” had only recently become taboo in this context, he claimed. Before, he indicated, when we were all young, it had no pejorative significance. It had been, he posited, a sort of term of endearment.
In order to provide a bit of context, I should mention that this is the same local history-hobbyist and antique picker who, the previous week, had sought to convince me that there was nothing racist about so-called “lawn jockeys”, those caricaturesque and stereotypical little hitching post statues that depict antebellum stable slaves holding the hitching ring and a lantern at the service of their masters.
A quick perusal by myself and others of a variety of online dictionaries that all qualified redskin as a pejorative and insulting term failed to convince the pro-Redskins crowd including my local history buff interlocutor. It was all a recent liberal (for many “libtard”) political play and they were sure the Indians wouldn’t mind “because we’re honoring them and ‘our’ Native American history.”
Clearly, Chief Barnes and the folks at Indian Country Today beg to differ, as do I. There is nothing recent about the pejorative, racist status of the R-word. While the same revisionist movement that erected multiple statues glorifying the Confederacy in the first half of the twentieth century apparently also ended up convincing dictionary publishers to edit out references to the pejorative nature of the term “redskin”, both earlier and later (post-civil rights era) editions have identified it as such. For instance, an early edition of the Webster’s Collegiate dictionary from 1898 defines it as follows:
Redskin — A North American Indian; —often contemptuous.  
In referring to Wapakoneta, I say “our town”, because, wherever I have wondered in my life, I have remained, truly, a Wapakoneta native son. Much of what I consider my best writing has been done about my home town and I have always felt a deep, inextricable attachment to it. So much so that I often describe myself as being like an aging vampire who still carries some of his native soil with him wherever he goes. Except that mine doesn’t hail from Transylvania, but from Wapakoneta, on the banks of the legendary Auglaize River, where the Shawnee once made their home and founded the Council House of their nation.

Expats like myself tend to be just the opposite of how the people we left behind see us. We all have different reasons for why we live abroad, but many of us find ourselves living in a kind of permanent limbo between the world we adopted and the world we left behind. We are not detached. We are, in fact, invested and hungry for news from “home”, from our next of kin, from our heartland.  What is more, while we tend to get deeply involved in the current affairs of our homeland, we also tend to idealize that world of our childhood and youth, freezing it in our minds exactly as it was when we left it.
For the first thirty years that I lived abroad, Wapakoneta was the stateside address in my passport, just as it had been on my Army papers for several years prior. And on every trip back to the US for a visit during those first three decades, Wapakoneta was home base. It was where my parents lived until their deaths, six months apart, in 2003. It was where I stayed, in the room I had shared with my younger brother when we were boys, where my books were still on the shelf, my keepsakes in the drawers, the place in which I was reunited with my sister and brother on every trip, where friends and relatives dropped by to see me. The place where my brother and I frequented the bars on the main drag and bumped into friends we hadn’t seen in years. Wapakoneta was even the county seat where I was registered as an overseas absentee voter.
Wapakoneta, my home town.
This was the town to which my father and two of my uncles came home from World War II to found what, over the next quarter-century, was to become an iconic Wapakoneta eatery, the Teddy Bear restaurant. It was the farming town where my mother’s German immigrant paternal family had started a new life, bought supplies and sold their produce, while farming the surrounding land since the mid-nineteenth century, and around which her mother’s people, who were of Scots-Irish and German descent, had farmed since no one knew when. It was the place where, for the last two decades of his working life, my maternal grandfather, Vern Weber, was the superintendent of the local cemetery and laid to rest the dead of three generations of Wapakonetans. Indeed, it is the place where all of my dead loved ones have been laid to rest as well. For me, as for the Shawnee, Wapakoneta is, then, a sacred place. But that doesn’t mean that I am blind to either its attributes or its failings.
When my parents passed away and their house was sold, I grieved not only for them, but also over the fact that Wapakoneta would no longer be my stateside residence. First it was Ocala, Florida, where my brother had gone to live in what had once been my parents’ winter home. I had no kinship to Ocala or to Florida and resented having that address as my Stateside home. I was only consoled by the thought that it was where my little brother had chosen to live until two years later, when I lost him as well.
Later, my sister, by this time divorced and her children grown, moved into a condo in Cleveland, and was kind enough to share that address with me. I was an Ohioan once more and Wapakoneta was only two and a half hours away by car. Each year when I return, I “go home” to Ohio and home to Wapakoneta, where I bask in the warmth of family and friends, both new and old. And where I walk the familiar streets of my childhood and youth and the surrounding countryside.

I mention all of this for two reasons: First, because in discussions like the one now raging over the Redskins team name, it is on the tip of the tongues of many “locals” to tell me to butt out, since I left and, according to them, have nothing more to say. To these people I say, sorry, I feel I have every right to opine, because in my mind and heart and family traditions, in my history and the history of my family, Wapakoneta will always be my home town. And as such, I will always not only portray my best memories of it in my writing, but also my worst, since there is nothing more consistent in human beings than conflictive feelings and the constant dichotomy of life itself. Second, because I think my expatriate status provides me with a tiny crack in the window into the pain that the Shawnee must feel when faced not only with the history of having been driven from their sacred lands on the banks of the Auglaize, but also with the indignity of white residents of the area mocking the traditions of their race and supposedly “honoring” them with a racial slur.
I recall our Wapakoneta High School football games in the sixties in which we all delighted to the “war dance” of our Sammy Spirit mascot, an unmistakably white classmate who donned TV stereotype Indian buckskins, moccasins, war paint and plains Indian headdress to cheer on our team, firing a miniature cannon every time our players scored a touchdown, before whooping and hollering and waving a tomahawk in the air. At Redskins basketball games our fair-skinned, blonde-haired “Indian princess” with long twin braids did the honors in a cute little beaded, buckskin outfit that distracted many of the male spectators from the game. There was no intentionality in the inherent racism and mockery of these theatrics, and we were indeed proud of our town’s Native American past and unique Indian name.
But it was all a fantasy, a myth, like the bedtime stories we were fed about noble Chief Wapa and his lovely daughter, Princess Koneta, who only existed in white people’s story books. Our feeble attempts to “honor” the native past of our town have blithely ignored and continue to ignore and inadvertently disrespect the true and tragic history of the Shawnees’ encounter with white settlers. Says Chief Barnes, “The Shawnees of Wapakoneta and the Shawnees of Hog Creek were both forced marched after The Indian Removal Act (1830), so Wapakoneta is built on the pain and suffering and tears of the Shawnee people, and they can’t even get the headdress right or talk to us about the mascot.”
I asked some of the people I debated with this past week how they would feel about “honoring” our own ancestors, the German and Scots-Irish settlers who replaced the Indians on the site of our town and the surrounding countryside. Perhaps we could call our team “the Krauts” and our mascot could be an apple-cheeked lad in lederhosen and a Tyrolean hat with a feather waving a beer stein in the air to cheer the team. Or maybe the mascot could dress in a storm trooper’s uniform and goose-step up and down the sidelines threatening to send the other team to the Russian Front. Or, how about calling ourselves “the Micks” and dressing the mascot in a kilt and bagpipes on which to drone the Fight Song, while waving a whisky bottle at the crowd? Don’t our own ancestors deserve to be “honored” as we “honor” those of the Shawnee?
Chief Barnes makes it clear that the Shawnee have never tried to step in and legally force teams to change racially charged names and logos, but his people ask that whites permit a dialogue to discuss a more empathic and respectful use of Native American names, history and symbols. In particular, he considers the use of the R-word as a team name unacceptable, pointing out that it is beyond hypocritical to pretend to “honor” the Indians while using a name that is racially insensitive and has a long history of demeaning application.
The chief laments the fact that while terms such are Oriental, colored, the N-word and logos that were offensive to other races and ethnic groups have been retired from use, stereotypes and racial slurs that are offensive to Native Americans continue to be considered acceptable by the white community at large.
My hometown has a poor record for racial tolerance. This is a confession that has always hurt me, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Until far too recent decades, it was known as a “sundown community”—a place where African Americans were forcefully discouraged from allowing the sun to set on them within city limits. It made national headlines in the latter part of the twentieth century by turning down a project to build a Japanese firm’s auto plant there because the mayor at the time had “fought the Japs” during World War II and refused to have them in “his” town no matter how much progress and how many jobs the firm might bring. And time and again, it has resisted attempts to change the Redskins team name and logos despite unequivocal messages from Native Americans explaining that the name is disrespectful and racist and that the logos are offensive and have nothing to do with the tribe that they allegedly honor.
Local defenders of the Redskins name argue that they mean no offense and don’t consider it a racist term. But that argument is rendered invalid by virtue of the fact that the Shawnee are indeed offended by it, no matter what white townspeople’s intention might be, and do indeed consider it a racial slur.
I find it sad that the white leaders of the hometown that I still carry in my heart have once again had the chance to get on the right side of history and do what is proper and have failed the test, thus missing yet another opportunity to shrug off the town’s racist reputation of the past. And in so doing, they have also offended the very aboriginal tribe that they groundlessly claim to be honoring, turning deaf ears on the outreach from Chief Black Hoof’s own descendants.


Blogger’s Note: I would like to apologize to readers of my blog, the Shawnee Tribe and the Blackfeet Tribe for an error in an illustration that originally accompanied this post, "Wapakoneta on the Warpath". The photograph that I captioned Chief Black Hoof was actually of Chief Mountain of the Blackfeet Tribe. The fact that I had only seen one image of Black Hoof in my life—the one above, which now illustrates the blog entry—and that the image I used was mislabeled on the site from which it was culled is illustrative of precisely what I discuss in the "Wapakoneta on the Warpath": namely, the abject ignorance of most white people, including myself, about the history and protagonists of Native American tradition. My thanks to FB friends and reader Judy Clark Walter and Joel Smith for the heads-up, and again, my apologies to all, even when the error only serves to underscore the premise of the piece.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

REGARDLESS OF YOUR REGARD FOR IRREGARDLESS



The sniveling, weak-kneed language police at Merriam-Webster have just caved and let "irregardless" out of idiomatic lock-down.

According to their justification: "It may not be a word that you like, or a word that you would use in a term paper, but irregardless certainly is a word. It has been in use for well over 200 years, employed by a large number of people across a wide geographic range and with a consistent meaning. That is why we, and well-nigh every other dictionary of modern English, define this word. Remember that a definition is not an endorsement of a word’s use."
And with that little disclaimer at the end they figure they're covered.
Whitie must be laughing his rear-end off somewhere because it was one of his favorite words whenever he was trying to provide a didactic explanation of just about anything. As in "Dan, irregardless of what you may think, you're wrong about this and I'm right."
To which I would say, "Regardless, it's regardless. Irregardless isn't a word."
Reddening he would say, "Yes, well, regardless, or irregardless, I'm right, smartass." (Which also isn't a word).
Webster says irregardless is a "nonstandard" (which I would hyphenate) equivalent of regardless. But it's not. It's a nonsensical word that negates itself by indicating NOT regardless when it is clearly used to mean regardless. If irrespective means "without respect to", then irregardless is a veritable double negative meaning "without, without regard to," or in other words, NOT regardless at all but with regard to, since the "ir" prefix negates the "less" suffix, leaving the root word "regard" standing alone.
While we're at it, why don't we just add supposably, non-defunct, unequivocably, and unthaw to the dictionary as well?
Might as well go whole hog!


Monday, June 15, 2020

A YANKEE BOY



I worked for many years for a newspaper in Buenos Aires that was majority-owned by a media company based in Charleston, South Carolina. When I was about seven years into my career there—and nearly eight years into my life as an American expatriate—I had pretty much decided that, at some point sooner than later, I wanted to move back to my native United States. By this time, I was general news editor of the paper, but I had never been to the headquarters office in Charleston. While on vacation with my wife and brother-in-law, I decided that as long as we were going on a road-trip, it might as well include Charleston and a visit to headquarters. Maybe I could make the necessary contacts there to provide me with a ticket back to life in the USA.

I had gotten my first taste of the South (as a society, not a region) in 1970, when I was in the Army before moving to South America. I’d done Basic Training at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, which was, I discovered somewhat to my surprise, named after a Confederate general, Braxton Bragg, who had led his rebel army in numerous major battles against the United States, in an effort to overthrow the American republic and create a new, opposing nation the basic tenet of which was to be the preservation of a long-standing tradition of slavery as a mainstay of the Confederacy’s agrarian economy. Why, I wondered, would a major US Army base be named after a leading proponent of insurrection and rebellion against the United States? Why not, I wondered, just name a base after America’s most famous traitor, Benedict Arnold? Worse still, Bragg was one of some sixty West Point-graduate general officers who used all of the experience they had gained in the Army of the United States to become the enemy of that Union and to defend the enslavement of the ancestors of a race of people who made up an important segment of the US population, and, indeed, of the Army?
Despite being taught in school that there were other factors beyond slavery between the industrialized North and agricultural South, it was clear to me that the principal reason for the Civil War had been the issue of the federal government seeking to dictate the abolition of slavery to the Southern states. But I thought that this was a long settled affair. That it had ended with the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, in 1865. Crass error on my part.
I was made painfully aware of this error on my first day in uniform. Standing in formation in our brand new fatigues and painfully stiff new combat boots, we were each asked by a drill sergeant to tell where we were from. It was the typical humiliation exercise—part of the unwritten rulebook for drill instructors—of proudly pronouncing the name of your home state, which you were already missing, only to have the DI howl, “O-hi-o! Oh...hi...oh! Only queers and steers come from Ohio, maggot! Which one are you?”
I noticed as the question made its way down the line that the only northerners in my platoon were myself, a scared-stiff Jewish boy from the Bronx and an older guy from Maine whose number had come up in the draft lottery right after his student deferment for college had run out. Everyone else, to a man, be they black or white, was from the South.
I had already been getting static from one of the DIs since we were lined up at the Reception Center and counted off into platoons, while still dressed in the civvies we’d come from home wearing. I always tended to dress more formally than my contemporaries and that, combined with my then-willowy frame and horn-rimmed spectacles, caught the guy’s attention.
Standing almost nose to nose with me, the broad stiff brim of his felt campaign hat almost touching my forehead, he asked, “You a professor, maggot?”
“No.”
“No, what, shithead?”
“No, sir!”
“Sir? Sir!? I ain’t no goddamn sir! I work for a goddamn living! You will address me as Drill Sergeant. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant.”
“I can’t hear you, maggot. Sound off like you got a pair!”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant!”
“I still can’t hear you!”
“YES, DRILL SERGEANT!”
“And are you a professor...a bookworm...a faggot intellectual?”
“NO DRILL SERGEANT!”
“Well, you sure as hell look like one, and I promise you, trainee, I am going to bring smoke on your young ass!”
It was divide and conquer. They picked out someone to humiliate in front of the rest so as to keep the pack in line. Nobody wanted to be the brunt of that kind of withering exchange, so if the DI could reduce just a handful of men to trembling masses of jelly, he’d have the others’ attention.
But when you were one of the victims, that’s what you were seen as in the eyes of your peers and you had to overcome that imposed identification right away or have it stick throughout training. These were prison-type rules, since we were all captives here and the DIs were our jailers. And that wasn’t always a metaphor. The fact is that several new recruits had come to the reception center in the company of the military police. These were guys, I found out, who’d been given a choice by the judge of going to jail or joining the Army. They had apparently come directly from a holding cell to patriotic duty.
So after asking what state we were from that first day in actual uniform, they asked, “How many of you maggots are Regular Army?” meaning how many of us had joined rather than being drafted. Oddly enough, I was one of the few in my platoon to raise his hand.  
You, maggot?”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant!”
“Really?”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant!”
“Well, well, so the professor is Re-gu-lar Army! I am surprised all to hell!”
I was thinking, “Vindication. I’m in.”
“So how long you in for, O-hi-o?”
“Three years, Drill Sergeant!”
“Three years?”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant!
“Three...fucking...years?”
 “Yes Drill Sergeant!”
“Well, I think it’s a pretty miserable fucking excuse for a human being that only has three goddamn years to give to his country. Get the hell down and knock out twenty-five, you maggot.”
When we were dismissed to go to our barracks and get our things squared away before chow and the next formation, we were issued a dire warning. Our particular platoon DI, who was five-feet-ten, a solid if lead-bellied two-hundred-twenty pounds and African American, said, “One other thing, maggots. In my Army there’s only one color—green. If anybody wants to dispute that, you’ll do it with me.”
Then the sergeant turned on his heel and headed back to the cadre shack and we trainees were left briefly unattended. As we broke ranks and walked to the door of the barracks, I felt somebody tap me on the shoulder. I turned to see a tall, rangy drink of water with a crooked sardonic grin, who, had it not been for the fatigues and the attitude, could have passed for a banjo-player from the Grand Ole Opry. He was one of the other few who confessed to being Regular Army. I was also pretty sure I remembered him as being one of the ones who had arrived accompanied by the MPs.
“Hey,” I said with a friendly smile.
“Hey yourself, you Yankee, blue-balled, sumbitch,” he snarled as he landed a left hook on me that I never saw coming.
I went down, dazed, in the red dirt of the company street. Some of the other guys gathered around to see how this would play out, while others wandered off to the barracks not wanting to get involved. Nobody sought to restrain my attacker. I sat up slowly, desperately trying to shake clear my head and saw the guy standing over me, legs spread, fists cocked. I thought, “If I get up and ‘box’ with this guy, I’ll lose big-time. He won’t even let me get on my feet before he hits me again. So as I dragged myself to my knees, I shot my fist out and up, and the blow was right on target, catching him flush in his unprotected groin. He went down and I was up, shining my brand new boots on him to make sure he wouldn’t feel like jumping right up and hitting me again.
It worked, and discouraged any of my other reluctant comrades from bothering me. But it was clear to me from that point on that if the only “race” in the Army was green, there were still minds in which blue and grey vividly existed. And it wasn’t the last time I would hear insults about “goddamn Yankees” and the honor of the Confederacy.  
Granby Street in Norfolk as I knew in in 1970
I had a much better Southern experience during the seven months that I spent in Virginia on my next assignment at the Army Element of the Navy School of Music. I had a chance to occasionally rub elbows with the traditionally urbane and genteel higher society of that early-American state. An Army buddy of mine—who was from New York, had a doctorate in liturgical music, and had no business being in the Army despite which he was drafted—had a Navy officer friend who asked him to direct his church’s choir in Virginia Beach.
My friend had me singing tenor on Sundays because he had an over-abundance of baritones and basses in the group. So we got to know people who knew people. And then too, this buddy, who was older than I was by six years, was a guy with refined tastes and he took me along on his tours of the local cultural sites in Norfolk and the surrounding area, which was where we worked and studied. He even ended up living off-base in a little century-old bungalow behind the “big house” on what had once been one of Virginia’s traditional antebellum plantations.
But even in that refined atmosphere there was a barely disguised distrust of Yankees and a feeling that, until they got to know us, they should assume that we were slippery, judgmental and up to no good, sticking our Yankee noses in where they didn’t have any business being.
I was pleasantly surprised, then, years later, when, on my first visit to Charleston, I was received by none other than the president and majority owner of the publishing company. He even came in his own car to pick up my wife, my brother-in-law and me at our hotel to show us around the flag-carrier paper (the company owned a total of seven dailies, as well as other news media).
Charleston, South Carolina
I knew enough about him to know that he was a liberal-minded intellectual with a deep respect for democracy, and human and civil rights. He was also a former Navy officer—like several of the top editors in the organization, including a retired rear-admiral. (So much so that the editorial offices upstairs were known as “battleship row”). I was introduced to all of them and we all promised to talk more the next day.
The publisher had traveled widely and bought the controlling interest in our paper in Argentina (his only foreign property) because it was unique—the only English-language daily in the country and one of only a handful in Latin America—and because it had long been a staunch and fearless defender of the ideals that he cherished. He spoke a little Spanish and was quick to bring my brother-in-law, who spoke no English, into the conversation.
That evening, he and his then-fiancée-later-wife showed us the sights in Charleston and then took us to their favorite Greek restaurant for dinner. He told us a great deal about the history of Charleston, its refined cultural traditions, and his family’s long parallel history in the area. He was clearly proud of that history and of his city. But his nostalgia was for the urbane and highly cultured past and present of Charleston society, not, clearly, for the Civil War or for the area’s less savory past in years leading up to the Civil Rights Era.
The following day, my wife and brother-in-law went off sight-seeing, and I met up with a group of editors and columnists from the organization.
“We thought it would be nice to all go to lunch together so we have a chance to chat,” one of the editors said.
“Great,” I said.
“I thought we could go to my club.”
“Sure.”
He introduced me to the others presenting me as, “This is Dan Newland, the Yankee boy that runs our editorial department down in Argentina.”
The Yankee boy? So what was he, the Johnny Reb that ran the editorial department in Charleston? I bit my tongue but thought, “Okay, here we go.”
“So where did the boss take you to supper last night?”
“A nice little Greek...”
“Oh lord! Not that god-awful place. He’s always taking people there. It’s embarrassing. I don’t see what he sees in it.”
“I thought it was lovely.”
“You’re just being polite. Did he make you drink that rot-gut retsina as well?”
“I quite liked it.”
“You’re way too kind. Today I’ll take you to a real Charleston institution.”
It was all very pleasant but there was an undercurrent that made me squirm a little. There was a lot of joshing about my being a Yankee, fond mentions of the antebellum glory of the city, with a barely perceptible hint that it was people like mine, Ohio Yankees, who had destroyed all that. The other editors and columnists seemed less than comfortable as well and kept trying to talk shop with me. The host editor’s message seemed to be, you’re not just foreign because you live in Argentina, but also because you’re a Yankee.
Before we left for lunch at his club, he presented me with Lord Ashley Cooper’s Dictionary of Charlestonese, a lovely tongue-in-cheek study of Charlestonian pronunciations written by Frank Gilbreth, one of the columnists (a.k.a. Ashley Cooper) accompanying us to lunch. Frank was also the best-selling author of Cheaper By The Dozen. We hit it off from the outset. The editor seemed to forget that Frank, although a transplanted Charlestonian for the past thirty-two years, was a Yankee from New Jersey and educated at the University of Michigan.
“Frank here has been kind enough to write this guide for Yankees like yourself who are always at a loss to understand us,” our host said with a wry chuckle.
The club was posh and steeped in tradition. It was in the harbor district, and looked onto Fort Sumter. He made sure we were seated at a table where I would have a clear view of this iconic Civil War relic of the Confederacy.
“You a Civil War buff, Dan? Lots of Yankees who come down here are.”
“Not really,” I said. “Most of my knowledge of it stems from the Civil Rights Era.”
He said, "The Stars and Bars still flies above
the Statehouse here."
“Well, that right out there is Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began.”
“Yes,” I said, “that part I remember from history class. Quite a view.”
“It’s practically a shrine here. You know, the Stars and Bars still flies above the Statehouse here.”
We ordered drinks. Bourbon for him, scotch for me.
“Not a bourbon-drinker?”
“Nope, never acquired a taste for it. My brother is though.”
“Well, if you ever move to the South, you’ll want to learn to like it.”
I wasn’t paranoid or crazy. There was definitely a “you and us” thing going on here even if I refused to participate.
While we all talked shop, waiting for our steaks and seafood, we ordered another drink. As the host editor was finishing his second bourbon, he tried again to bait me and this time it worked.
“Know what it means to renege, Dan?”
What is this, I wondered, a vocabulary test in case I ever work here? But, okay, I was game. If nothing else, to see where he was going with this.
I had a pop of my scotch and said, “Sure. To welch on a commitment.”
“No,” he said with a wry grin, and then carefully pronouncing it so I would get the joke, he said “Re-NEGE is what they do when the change shifts down at the carwash.” And then he laughed raucously at his own joke.
If he had been testing me to see how far he could push me with this Confederate thing before he finally got under my skin, he had finally reached the limit. This was where appeasement ended. He chuckled. The others fell silent. I gave him a hard look, and then looked down at the ice in my scotch. Quickly one of the other editors recovered and said brightly, “So Dan, tell us how you ended up in Buenos Aires,” and that was the end of the renewed Blue and Grey hostilities.
I’ve been thinking about all of this in the context of a piece of news that I saw this week about the failure of the Ohio State Legislature to approve a bill aimed at prohibiting the sale of Confederate memorabilia at this year’s Ohio State Fair. Clearly, this is part of a broader debate going on right now and sparking nationwide protests. But it got me analyzing what it was that had consistently bothered me about what I’ve always considered a futile and divisive attempt by some white Southerners and some white Northerners to rekindle discussions regarding a cruel and needless Civil War prosecuted and settled a century and a half ago at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.
Part of what bothers me about it is that I am indeed an Ohio Yankee. That doesn’t mean I hold any animosity toward the South. On the contrary, I’ve spent a lot of time in the South over the years and have met a lot of wonderful Southerners—whom I know only as fellow humans and fellow Americans. I simply grew up feeling repugnance and shame regarding the well-deserved reputation of my country, as a whole, as one of the staunchest and most long-standing defenders of slavery anywhere on earth.
As such, I was always proud that my state had been a major first stop on the so-called Underground Railway, the network of abolitionists who aided and abetted fleeing African Americans in their bid to escape from slavery in the South and to find a new life as free men and women in the North. Ohio was a sanctuary state, a haven for members of an entire race of people held in bondage for more than two and a half centuries, simply because of the color of their skin.
I was proud too that Ohio had provided not only hundreds of thousands of
Ohio general and future  president U.S. Grant
troops but also many of the most prominent generals who fought in that bloody half-decade conflict to not only save the republic but also to root out the scourge of slavery and, once and for all, fully implement the country’s founding principles of individual rights, equality and freedom for all—a struggle that, unfortunately, as witnessed by current nationwide protests, continues today. Indeed, the leader of the Union Army, Ulysses S. Grant, was from Ohio, as were nearly a score of major generals including such historic names as Sherman, Sheridan, Custer, Garfield, McPherson and McCook. The state also furnished over fifty of the Union’s brigadier generals.
Ohio’s immigrant German farming communities, like the one that I hail from, were also well represented in the anti-slavery effort, not the least of which was the Ohio Ninth Infantry that originated in my native Auglaize County under then-Colonel (later Brigadier General) August Willich of St. Marys, a little town about the size of my own and ten miles west.  Willich was a former Prussian Army officer, who brought his knowledge of war with him and made good use of it in that bloodiest of American tragedies.
Ohio immigrant August Willich of St. Marys
There were so many fellow German-Ohioans under his command that his infantry was nicknamed “Die Neuner”. He led those Ohio immigrants in major battles including Shiloh, Stones River, Liberty Gap, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Peachtree Creek and Resaca. Willich spent long months in a Confederate prison as a POW before being released in a prisoner exchange. He was severely wounded at the Battle of Resaca (Georgia)—and never fully recovered from his injuries after returning to his home in St. Marys. A radical communist who considered his countryman Karl Marx to be “too conservative”, Willich’s zeal in fighting the American Civil War was clearly ideological and based on his repugnance toward the institution of slavery embodied by the Confederacy.
My conclusion in thinking about all of this in the midst of current unrest and renewed divisiveness across the US came as something of a revelation to me. Basically it is that it has nothing to do with North and South, Blue and Grey, Yankee and Rebel, or any other political and regional discussion between white Americans. It boils down, rather, to the two and a half century US institution and tradition of slavery and whether we as white people, still support it as “just another part of our history”—albeit one that is vile and contrary to everything that our nation claims to stand for. It isn’t an historical discussion about the industrialized North subjugating the agrarian South. It is about whether we accept slavery, with no moral judgment, as “just how things were back then.” Which, to my mind, is no different than if today’s Germans accepted the Holocaust as “just another chapter in our history” and as “just the way things were back then.”
It is also about whether we continue to honor and glorify, not the South, but the Confederacy as simply part of a cruel Civil War in which all is now forgiven and in which the leaders of the Confederacy and their symbols have been somehow “sanitized”. Whether we accept those Confederate leaders simply as fellow Americans who were in disagreement with Washington about issues that have grown hazy over time. Whether we continue to be willing to leave slavery out of the discussion of efforts to keep alive the practice of honoring symbols and historical players that are emblematic of only one thing—the dark chapter that the enslavement of an entire race has played in our history.
In the end, I have concluded, it is not a discussion that we white people can have or “own”. It’s not ours on which to have an opinion. It is only a valid historical discussion within the history of our African American fellow-citizens. And efforts to keep the symbols and “heroes” of the Confederacy in a place of reverence, rather than within the context of insurrection and slavery, is one of the last hurdles on the road to true racial equality in America.


Saturday, May 30, 2020

A TRIP TO THE DENTIST



If you’re anything like I am, once you get a dentist you like, you never want to switch. And sometimes finding one you can live with is a little like trying to find a spouse.
In this second case, as an aside, I should (better!) note that my first choice “took”—met her when I was eighteen, married her when we were both twenty-one, and have been with her for the past forty-nine years (much to her credit, since I’ve never been an easy person to live with and because we’ve had to weather some very difficult times). But from what I’ve witnessed in observing others, this is an exception to the rule.
At best, generally speaking, dating, engagement and marriage—or the more modern version of marriage, which has to do with dating, tentatively living together, seeing if it works and continuing on until it doesn’t then going separate ways (sometimes amicably, other times definitely not)—tends to resemble a fishing expedition. Whereas, at worst, it can be a dangerous big game safari, in which it’s hard to tell who’s the hunter and who the hunted, and in which the one who thinks he or she has bagged a real prize can end up getting eaten for lunch.
Choosing a dentist usually isn’t quite that bad, but it can still be similar to taking a devil-may-care walk in a minefield. The first one I had in Buenos Aires was a noted odontologist. He had written several books on dental materials and was a professor at the national university’s School of Dentistry. He was recommended by an American compatriot. I figured the guy’s documented expertise would be a real advantage. Turned out, however, that he wanted to try out every material known to Man in my mouth. What he didn’t tell me however, was that I actually had an excellent set of teeth that I was, little by little, wantonly destroying due to stress. I wouldn’t find that out until years later. So he puts in a nickel crown on a tooth that my perpetually clenched jaws have cracked. Why, because it’s such a hard, durable material that it will be “eternal”. (Yeah, but also so hard that when stressed, it will shatter the tooth under it...which it did within six months). And so I lost my first tooth.
This was also the guy who took out my impacted wisdom teeth. One of them was a real bitch. So, the Material Boy gets out the niftiest little miniature stainless steel hammer and chisel set you’ve ever seen and starts wailing away on my jawbone. After about ten minutes of this, I feel like I’ve gone a couple of rounds with Muhammad Ali and my jaw muscles go slack. “Resist the blows, Mr. Newland,” he tells me encouragingly as he hammers away, “or I’ll break your jaw.”
After that, I happened on another prospect. He was recommended by the guy my sister-in-law was dating at the time—a fellow who was, it should be said, a notorious skinflint. But his pride and joy was a lovely sailboat that he had, which I think was probably what my wife’s sister found most attractive about him. His dentist belonged to the same sailing club and was, he’d have me know, the best in the city. And “best of all” he was cheap.
So the next time I have a tooth complaint, I go to this new dentist with a hearty recommendation from my sister-in-law’s beau. I find his office a little down-at-heel but, I think, “an honest professional, somebody who charges a fair price and so can’t afford better digs.” We talk about our mutual friend, about the sailing club, about what a great person my sister-in-law is, and finally, we get down to business. He’s giving my ivories the once-over, tapping on this, pulling on that with his hook. As he takes it out of my mouth, the hook slips from his hand and falls on the floor. He snatches it up again quickly—as if invoking “the five-second rule”—and is about to slip it back into my mouth.
Before he can, I catch him by the wrist and say, “Hang on a sec. Don’t you think you’d better sterilize that?” He laughs as if I were being a big sissy and says, “Don’t worry, the floor’s immaculate. But hey, if it bothers you, I’ll go get one out of the sterilizer.”
As soon as he heads for the little back room, I’m out of the chair, stripping the dentist’s bib from around my neck, and headed for the door. He pokes his head out and says, “Hey friend, where are you going?”
“Be right back,” I say. “I just remembered I left the beans on the fire.”
Third time was the charm. I met an outstanding dentist—also through my sister-in-law since he worked in her neighborhood—who was knowledgeable, resourceful and empathic. The whole time he was working on you he was reminding you to let him know if you had the slightest pain. There was, he said, no reason to have to withstand pain in the dentist’s chair and if I was in pain, it made his work all the harder. He discovered that I had “very high resistance” to anesthetics—the bartender at my favorite haunt had been telling me this for years—so he started using one that he imported from Germany “for people like me.”
I was kind of male-vainly proud of this fact, the high-resistance thing I mean, until he told me that such resistance was a sure sign of an inability to deal with stress, which meant that I operated at a high level of tension all the time. How was my blood pressure? Fine, thanks for asking. (I’d never had it taken). I had a high-stress job. I was a news editor in charge of an editorial department at a paper that was opposing the dictatorship that was running the country. You couldn’t get more high-stress than that. But hey, I told him, my friend Mr. Whisky and I were handling it just fine.
“Not according to your teeth,” he says. “This one has a fissure, these two are chipped, these are showing signs of gum retraction...”
“So you’re telling me I have bad teeth?”
“No, I’m telling you that you have an excellent set of teeth that you’re destroying as a result of bruxism.”
“Brux...what?”
“Bruxism, when you clench your jaws all day and grind your teeth at night. I’m going to make you a bit to help you keep from wrecking the rest of your teeth in your sleep.”
The Doc and I had a long and fruitful relationship. In fact, when I moved out of the city and went to settle a thousand miles away in Patagonia, I would wait to go to the dentist until I could fly back to Buenos Aires. Then came the day that I called his office and got no answer. There was no message machine. Nothing, no response, though I called a dozen times to try and make an appointment. On a trip back to Buenos Aires, I went by his house, where he also had his office. The block of wood on which his brass shingle had been mounted was still there, but the plaque itself was gone.
I called up my sister-in-law and asked if she knew anything about the dentist.
“Oh, him?” she says, “he moved!”
“Where? I need an appointment.”
“Italy.”
Italy!
“Yeah, he got dual citizenship because his dad was Italian and decided to take up a friend on an offer to open a dentist’s office together over there.”
“Well, that’s just great! Now, what am I supposed to do?”
“Uh, stop whining and find another dentist?”
So the search began again.
In the ski resort that was the nearest town to my new home, I knew practically no one. By coincidence, however, one of the few people I did know happened to be a dentist. I was reluctant, however, to go to him, since my first encounter with him hadn’t been as a dental professional, but as a local wheeler-dealer.
He showed up at an adventure tourism conference that I was attending and made a special point of meeting me. He had set up a private horseback trek for the next day in the mountains near the small, remote, Andean town where the event was being held and invited my wife and me along. We had a great time, if a very long journey—ten hours on horseback in the mountains is a long time when you haven’t been on a horse in twenty years and were never much of a rider to begin with—but I had a gut feeling that this wasn’t a disinterested invitation.
And I was right. Not long after I moved to Patagonia, he contacted me to talk to me about a business venture. He was planning on gaining control over a swath of land “on the other side of the lake” and wanted me to come in on the deal. I said, “Why me! I mean, I know a lot of people think us Yankees are born with a gold ingot under our arm, but believe me, I used the last of my savings to buy my place, and I’m just a regular working stiff.”
Not to worry, he told me. Anybody could make money with money. The trick was to do business with “other people’s money.” I should leave that to him. “All he wanted me to do” was be the general manager, you know, the visible face of the development venture. If I came off as honest to other people as I did to him, I’d be worth my weight in gold.
Frankly, I needed the work. I was trying to adapt to having moved from the big city to one of the remotest parts of the country and wasn’t at all sure how I was going to make a living in a place where my twenty years as a newsman would be about as useful to me as ice cubes in an igloo. But, nothing about this sounded kosher. So I did what I was good at—investigation. What I found out was hair-raising. This dentist, with his flashy clothes and flashy cars was better known for his scams than for his practice. The venture he was talking about was, I discovered, a move to take over land that belonged to local Indians and the often poor families of pioneer settlers, who had old deeds that tended to be “iffy” under modern regulations. And much of their land owed back taxes, through which a slick lawyer—which the dentist had as a partner—could find a way to pay the state and gain temporary possession of the real estate. I didn’t understand the details and didn’t want to, since the few other people I knew and talked to about him said I might want to steer clear of Doctor X.
Taking their advice, I started avoiding the guy. Finally, he one day drove out to my place and wanted to know if I was giving him the cold shoulder. Honesty’s the best policy, so I told him the truth. That I’d looked into the venture and wanted no part of it or him. He acted hurt, said he was sorry I felt that way. That he’d offered the deal to me first because of the great respect he had for me...yada yada yada.
But then, I suddenly had a dental emergency and had no idea where to go, so I called him up. I needed a root canal and a cap and he was the only dentist I knew. So I called him.
He was friendly and accommodating. Gave me an appointment right away. His place was impressive. I complimented him on his consulting room.
“Ha!” he said. “This is nothing. Let me attend you in my VIP salon.”
“Your what?”
“Follow me, friend.”
He led me into an adjacent consulting room that looked more like a stateroom on a private yacht—dark-stained teakwood paneling, indirect “mood” lighting, a small built-in bookcase with leather-bound volumes, tongue-and-groove eucalyptus flooring, an overstuffed soft-leather-upholstered armchair, a Tiffany-style belle fleur floor lamp, and, at the center of it all, his dental chair, covered with the same deep-green-stained soft-leather upholstery as the armchair but surrounded by equipment that looked like it had been designed by NASA. Off to the side, I noticed a sideboard with several bottles of single-malt scotch and fine Irish whisky.
“So, you entertain in here as well?” I asked, nodding toward the whisky.
“Oh that,” he laughed. “No, whenever one of my high-end clients is in the chair, I offer them a whiskacho. Doesn’t bother me if they drink while I work. Would you like one?”
“No thanks.”
“Don’t be shy, I know you like whisky.”
“Thanks, I’d just like to get on with it.”
He sat me down in the incredibly comfortable chair, turned on an examination light that seemed to have come from a lighthouse, and started going over my teeth with a fine-toothed comb. Talking around his mirror, I said, “Itha gnolar ung uh ’ower ‘igh aha gack.”
Fluent in dentist-speak, he said, “I know, I know. I’ll get to it. But since I’m in here anyway I’ll have a look at the others too.”
Then he got out a card with a perfect set of teeth, uppers and lowers, diagrammed on it and a fine-tipped marker and as he continued his examination, he went, “Hmm...aha...tsk-tsk...wow...uh-oh...” and so on. And as he did, he marked this, shaded that, circle this and exed out the other on his diagram. When he was done, he took his mirror out of my mouth, shut off the examination light and said, “Frankly, Dan, I don’t know how in the world you’ve gotten this fat with that mouth. How the hell do you eat?”
“Obviously, no problem, except for the molar on the right at the back that I came in here about,” I said, starting to get irritated.
“Okay, well, let’s see...” He got a calculator out of the pocket of his tailor-made uniform jacket and punched keys for a few seconds. “I figure you’ve got about ten thousand dollars worth of work to do there, but don’t worry I’ll extend a credit line to you which you can sign today and you can pay as you go with one easy monthly installment.”
“Whoa,” I said. “Wait a sec. I just came in for a dental emergency. All I want to take care of is the tooth I came in for.”
“Well, I don’t recommend that. I mean, teeth are like car parts. You have to fix them all, because if you fix one and not the other one, it starts affecting other parts and all of the sudden the whole thing breaks down.”
“Well,” I said. “Thanks for your concern, but for today, let’s just take care of the one I came for.”
His mood darkening, he said, “Okay, if that’s the way you want it...Follow me.”
He led me, with the bib still around my neck, back to the plebe section and sat me in the normal chair before calling in another dentist—a pretty, young woman professional who seemed serious and efficient.
“This is Lola,” he said. “She’ll do a root canal on that tooth. Then we can talk about the rest.” Lola did a wonderful job, put in a temporary filling and sent me to the receptionist, who broke the price to me so quickly that my knees went weak. The dentist dropped by the reception desk and said, “When you come back to get fitted for the crown, we’ll set up that credit line.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Yes, of course.”
“Would you like to set up an appointment?” the receptionist asked.
“I’ll check my schedule and call you,” I said. I had no intention of calling, or of ever coming back.
So I went around babying that temporary filling for a time while I tried to find a dentist who drove a Ford or a Renault instead of a Mercedes-Benz. At about the same time that this was going on, I started doing well enough in my new environment that I figured it was about time we got some real health insurance. Once we did, I went to the local office and asked for the name of a good dentist. The young woman who waited on me handed me a list of all of the dentists in the area who had health care contracts with them.
I said, “Uh, great, but what I’d really like is a recommendation.”
She glanced around to see if anybody was eavesdropping, then confidentially, she said, “We aren’t supposed to do that.”
“Okay,” I said, “let me ask you another way. Who is your dentist?”
Without hesitation, she said, “Dr. R.”
“And do you like him?”
“Like him? I love him! There’s not another dentist like him in the world! He almost makes you want to go to the dentist.”
“Okay. Give me his number.”
And that’s how I met Dr. R., or Marcelo, as I call him by now. I’ve been his patient for the past twenty years. And I’m pleased to say that he’s enough younger than I am that, with any luck, he’ll be my dentist forever! He is a firm believer in non-pain dentistry and he always remembers why patients are called “patients” and tries not to abuse that patience any more than necessary. I’ve never had to wait for him to attend me more than ten or fifteen minutes, and only when an unexpected emergency has cropped up. He respects his appointment schedule almost to the minute.
Marcelo is prone toward detailed descriptions of maladies and solutions affecting his patients. His explanations are consistent, timely and educational, crash courses in dental hygiene and mechanics. He has been an auditor for pre-paid medical insurance firms to help them decide who the best professionals are to have on their rosters—which is why he was discreetly appalled that I had been to Dr. X, letting me know he was glad my better judgment had led me to limit my contact with the guy to one visit.
My dentist is a minimalist. He will never recommend radical, expensive treatments when something simpler will do. And he always provides his patients with a series of options when they are available. His own rates are reasonable, he works with all major medical insurance firms, and he partners with dental mechanics who are just as honest and reasonable as he is.
Over the course of our twenty-year relationship, he has never once given me cause to doubt or distrust any treatment he has provided to me or to ever feel that he was “just in it for the money”. For instance, if you’ve always wanted a gold incisor or ornamental edging on your front teeth, you’ll have to find another dentist. He’ll refuse to tolerate your vain fantasies. Nor will he cap your teeth because you’ve always wanted a perfect smile. If you get a cap from Marcelo, it will be because you needed it, and it will look exactly like your original tooth.
Absolute, no-bullshit trust is what he inspires, which brings me to why his take on the COVID-19 pandemic is so telling. Last week, I knocked loose a cap. I sent him a text asking for an appointment. He texted back that, due to the pandemic, he was just now reopening his practice after a fifty-day hiatus. It was, he said, “really complicated” but if I was game, he’d see me on Tuesday morning at ten.
Now, I should point out that, ever since I moved to Patagonia, I’ve become more and more hermit-like, but at least I would go out once or twice a week with my wife to go to the bank and then to breakfast, or to do the Saturday shopping and have lunch out. But since the start of the lockdown in Argentina in mid-March, I hadn’t been past our front gate. So my naturally hermit-like tendencies had become borderline agoraphobic. Going to town to go to the dentist after sixty days in absolute isolation seemed, then, like a very big deal.
I left early, masked like a bandit from neck to eyes, in case of traffic jams of the kind I was used to near town at that time of the morning. I needn’t have worried. Strict federal quarantine measures are still in effect all over Argentina. Citizens can go out for very limited reasons (to buy groceries, to go to the doctor, to go to the pharmacy, to go to essential-service jobs) in accordance with the numbers of their national ID cards: odd numbers one day, evens the other, Sundays stay-at-home. Except for a Provincial Police quarantine checkpoint where things slowed to a crawl, the rest of the fifteen miles to town was smooth sailing in very sparse traffic.
I was able to park right in front of the building where my dentist has his office, something unthinkable on any normal weekday, when I would have had to leave my truck four blocks away at a parking garage. I looked at my watch. I was forty minutes early. Any other time, I would have walked a block up the street to a bar I knew and had a cup of coffee, but all bars and restaurants remain closed because of the quarantine.
So I sat in my truck and reflected for a while. All the way into town I’d been thinking about how carefully I had followed the safe and sane social distancing and prophylactic measures put in place by Argentina’s federal government, how I’d defended them against the comments of American acquaintances who considered them “exaggerated”, overly cautious, martial law-like, etc. How I had defended them as well against Argentines with conspiracy theories about their being part of a plot to impose authoritarian rule. In fact, I had gone them one better and lived in complete lockdown.
But I also reflected that it seemed natural for fear to wear off, for people to get used to existential dangers and to take bigger and bigger risks as soon as things started getting inconvenient. I couldn’t help recalling the AIDS epidemic when, despite the proven fact that condoms saved lives and protected against a modern-day plague, huge international campaigns had to be mounted to convince people to use them, to convince men to put them on and women to insist that they did and to convince people having same sex intercourse to implement these precautions as well. Now it was masks and despite the overwhelming evidence that they helped save lives, people were still rebelling against putting a piece of cloth over their mouth and nose, as if their basic rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were being violated because the health authorities were striving to keep them out of harm’s way. It was like with seatbelts when they were first made obligatory: “By god, I won’t have the damn government telling me what to do. If I want to fly through the windshield at seventy miles an hour and split my skull open on a tree trunk, that’s my constitutional right!”  
Still, I wondered if I wasn’t incurring in an overabundance of caution. I was almost terrified to leave home, and even more scared to be going to the dentist. How did I know what precautions he was taking not to infect himself and me with this deadly virus? Maybe, however, I was just being a paranoid lunatic.
Again, however, I needn’t have worried. Marcelo was being paranoid (abundantly cautious) enough for the both of us. At the door of his building, I was stopped by a burly security guard in a black mask who asked me where I was going.
“To the dentist,” I said.
“Hands...” I held them out and he doused them liberally with a spray bottle full of alcohol. “Turn toward me, sir. Raise the visor of your cap.” He then pointed a little pistol-like thermometer at my forehead and waited for it to beep. “Okay, you’re good to go. It’s on the mezzanine.”
At Marcelo’s office, I knocked on the door. I heard him say, “Just a minute please,” and then heard him scurrying and rustling around inside. Finally, he opened the door. He was already masked and gloved and wearing his operating uniform. The waiting room looked different, stripped of everything extraneous—curtains, floor coverings, the TV that usually hung from the wall tuned to a news channel. There was a vinyl sheet hanging between the waiting room and the door to his consulting room.
“Okay, stop right there,” he said as I stepped inside. “Take off your coat and cap and hang them there. All right. Now come over and sit on that chair, take off your shoes and place them on the paper mat next to the chair. Fine. Now I’m going to ask you a series of questions. Do you now have or have you had a fever in the past fifteen days? To the best of your knowledge, have you been near or cohabitated with anyone who has had fever or symptoms of COVID-19 in that time? Do you know anyone who has had the virus, and if so, how have you interacted with them?” And so on for over a dozen queries.
When we were done there, he said, “Okay, now come with me.”
We stepped to the other side of the vinyl curtain where he motioned me to sit on a second chair. From a small table he picked up a disposable paper poncho and slipped it over my head, covering me to my waist. Then he picked up a hoody made of similar material and placed it on my head, with the bottom skirt of it covering my shoulders and chest. Then he knelt in front of me and slipped a pair of paper boots on me that covered my legs halfway up to my knees.
He led me into his consulting room. Which had also been stripped of every ornament and doodad. It was his chair, his dental equipment and his bare desk. Nothing else. He covered the chair with a large paper sheet, then invited me to sit down and lie back. Once he had accommodated me, he said, “Now it’s my turn.” And for the next five minutes or so I could hear him busying himself with preparations in the next room, including a thorough scrubbing of his hands before he snapped on a fresh pair of gloves.
Marcelo came back looking as if he were hazmat-uniformed for a day’s work in the core of a nuclear reactor. Fifteen minutes and my cap was back on my tooth good as new. Now we did the process in reverse—back to the chair outside the consulting room door where he stripped me of all the paraphernalia he had put on me. Then to the waiting room where I put my shoes, jacket, mask and cap back on, and finally, standing near the door, I signed the card that he would turn in to the insurance company. I was about to turn and leave when he said, “Wait, give me your hands.” He liberally squirted alcohol gel on them and told me to wipe them down. Then he used his gloved hand to open the door for me and we bade each other good-bye. I realized that as soon as his next patient arrived, Marcelo would have to go through this entire tedious process again...and again...and again...
Once back in my truck and on my way back home, I realized that nothing that I was doing to keep my wife and me safe from the virus was an exaggeration. I knew Marcelo to be a minimalist and a non-alarmist, and if he was taking all of these precautions, they were necessary. And for a moment, I felt sorry for all of those who didn’t believe that they were.
My dentist, I knew, had my back.