A Lesson In Civics—but not what they teach in school


Of course I had right along been in favor of my father’s getting into politics, and now, in my way, I got into it myself, i typed my father’s speeches and newspaper advertisements; i cheerfully ran errands; and I not only attended the Goo-goo rallies in club rooms and Ore stations, but I spied on the opposition at their rallies, too. From my father i learned the word “nepotism”; he was against it. I learned that one’s opponents never had an honorable reason for running for office: candidates for trustee of the public cemetery wanted to appoint themselves giavediggers, and candidates for assessor wanted to start a lucrative insurance business. At the rallies I learned that the principal orator should be, not the candidate, but a lawyer, who after all could tear his spurious passions to smaller tatters than could the less practiced office-seekers. I learned that each side must refer to the opponents’ lawyer-orator as “the power behind the throne.” There seemed to be a rule about this. The power behind the Goo-goo throne was my Uncle Freddie, and my, didn’t he catch it from the other side! At an opposition rally, i heard an ex-police chief named Murphy declare, “I point the finger of scorn at Alfred Cenedella”—and an opposition advertisement in the Milford Daily News read in part as follows: At a rally last night, the air was permeated with vilification and abuse of the town and its people. In referring to Mr. Fitzsimmons’ community service—in decorating and paying tribute at the graves of the deceased members of the G.A.R.—the brother of one of the candidates and the chief beneficiary of the “spoils system” [Uncle Freddie!] sacrilegiously called Mr. Fitzsimmons “the graveyard candidate.” To stoop to this low level and verbally debauch such a sacred national observance as Memorial Day is unparalleled in the history of politics.

When the incumbent selectmen—Citizens’ Caucus men, all of them—announced the list of election tellers, there was an indignant outcry from our side. Scarcely any Goo-goos at all had been appointed, and Uncle Freddie made oratorical capital of this. By now I thought I was pretty wise in the ways of politics, and I regarded this matter of the tellers as just a talking point. I got wiser after the election.

Finally election day arrived.

I started early in the morning working as courier between the spotters and the checkers. Our election headquarters were in an office in the Town Hall, and it was my duty to run from these headquarters through the corridor, out the side door, around the building, in the front door, and into the election room where two spotters were writing down the names of the voters as they arrived. I would take the list of names from them, run all the way back to headquarters, and hand it to the checkers—women who checked the names off a voting list. Then I’d do it all over again. No one ever tackled any job with more vigor. The morning vote was slow, but I was in there pitching every minute. As the newness of my duties wore off, I no longer asked the spotters for their sheets of paper: I yanked them from their hands and was gone. Once I returned to headquarters with papers I had snatched from the spotters only to have the checkers complain that there were no names at all on the papers. “Slow down, kid,” one checker said, but I was halfway down the corridor.

At noon my mother phoned to say that I must come home for lunch and then go to school. High school freshmen in Milford—I was one then—had to attend school in the afternoon, because the high school building was overcrowded. As a matter of fact, while the school situation never did generate as much excitement in the campaign as the issue of whether the chief of police should be a man named O’Brien or a man named Moloney, it did get frequent mention. Everybody except a few Yankees who had no children agreed that the situation was intolerable. Both political parties declared that we should build a new school. And so we did, eleven years later.

I went home to lunch, took my schoolbooks, left the house, and went straight back to the Town Hall and my courier duties.

I continued working until eight o’clock, when the polls closed. Then my father (I suspect my mother had whispered to him) told me I had to go home. I went, because he drove me. Upstairs in the bathroom, I delivered a political speech, ending with a shadowboxing uppercut to Higgiston’s chin. Then I went to bed.

In the morning when I went down to breakfast, my mother and father were already at the kitchen table, and listening to my father, I thought he had not been elected. In his vocabulary there were no genuine swear words, such as I could have taught him, but there was a word that was close to swearing: “gorramm.” He used that word a lot at breakfast. Each time my mother said, “Philip!” rather automatically.

“Last year the gorramm votes were all counted by two-thirty,” he said. “This year the tellers started six hours earlier—six whole gorramm hours, and still they didn’t finish until three o’clock. What were they doing for six and a half extra gorramm hours?”

“Philip!” said my mother.

But who was elected? ” I asked.