1991 Pulitzer nominee American Culture

II. So Many Burning Issues, So Little Time

Mirthology column, 1st run Wednesday 9 May 1990 in the Arkansas Democrat

By Ben S. Pollock
Copyright 1990 Ben S. Pollock

(This is Part 2, back to Part 1, go on to Part 3)

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Young at heart, Oscar Hapgood was a match for his budding flower children, 11-year-old Duff McDuff and the teenaged Young Dude, whom he was teaching the art of peaceable assembly.

Y.D. this Saturday morning picked up Duff to shop for picket parts at the art supply store.

Duff followed Y.D. down aisle after aisle quietly as long as he could. “Cardboard sheets were on the other side of the store. And why did you put the felt-tip markers back just now?”

Ceci Davidson illustration, 5-9-1990
“’If we reuse or recycle it ourselves, then we’re exempt from practicing “safe soapbox,”’ Y.D. said.” — Ceci Davidson illustration

“We’re fixing to protest for the long term, and that calls for foresight,” the non-conformist teen said. “Look at these thick sheets. High-gloss paper sandwiches a slice of dense foam. We’ll be able to ….”

“That won’t break down quickly in the environment,” Duff interrupted.

“If we reuse or recycle it ourselves, then we’re exempt from practicing ‘safe soapbox,’ ” Y.D. said, picking up three colored foam-core boards.

“Three 3-foot dowels, a couple of brushes, paint and tape,” Duff noted as Y.D. put them in Duff’s shopping cart. “I’m beginning to understand. Oscar will be proud.”

Y.D. also tossed in a large sponge, collapsible water jug and some other items.

The youths carried their purchases in knapsacks to the downtown park. It was noon when the boys arrived to find Hapgood (who though gray was on the near side of middle age) serenading passing vehicles with his euphonium. Oscar could pitch the tenor tuba to mimic car horns. The more he tooted, the more the infuriated drivers honked. Oscar put down his brass instrument every so often to giggle at his escapade.

“Good job, boys,” Oscar said, examining the purchases. “We can get started right away. Teachers are picketing at the school administration building three blocks down.”

After filling the jug at the fountain, they headed over. Oscar talked with the picketers — with Duff tugging at his belt to point out his favorite instructors — while Y.D. affixed the poles to the signs.

“Every Saturday they protest the quality of teaching materials,” Oscar turned to tell the boys.” Is that my picket, Y.D.? Where’s its message?”

“The large the rally the bigger the impact, and that’s where we can help — numbers,” Y.D. said. “With so many causes to pursue, we’ll need the flexibility of blank signs. Mine is black, Duff will hold a white board, and since no issue is just black and white, we’re bought you one that’s gray.”

The three fell in line behind the teachers.

Duff noticed the only bystanders the group drew were a newspaper reporter, a wire service correspondent and a couple of television news crews, all looking bored.

The media was just about to leave, this being a typical protest with nothing standing out, begging to become stories, but the print reporter grew curious.

He asked the lead teacher about these guys who obviously were not educators. Knowing better than to appear uninformed or not in control, the rally organizer said the trio was calling attention to illiteracy and that’s why their signs were blank.

All the journalists then headed toward Hapgood.”Illiteracy? Sure we’re for that … I mean, oppose,” Oscar said. “Boys, let’s walk to a protest song, like my gang did during the Vietnam days.”

Although Duff and Y.D. had read of Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, they had not memorized their hits. The only folk song all three knew was “Look for the Union Label” so that’s what they sang.

The teachers firms asked the three to leave.

“Did we fail, Y.D.?” Duff asked, sniffling.

“No. Some activists think they don’t need allies,” the wise teen said as they walked away. “The blank boards may not have been the best idea. I picked up some jars of poster paint powder, just in case. It washes off the plasticized paper so we can repaint the signs with different messages.”

The guys soon came upon another protest. This was a group wearing white hard hats, marching for economic security. Their own pickets read: “Japan Go Back,” “U.S.A. makes my day,” “We invented high technology. Europe stole it.”

Y.D. unloaded his pack, mixing tempera with water from the jug. On each of the signs he painted a clock face. One read 11:45, the next 11:50 and the last five to midnight. He printed one word on each, respectively: “Tick,” “Tock” and “Tech.”

“Y.D., how clever. Simple symbolism is best,” Oscar said.

They fell in behind the blue-collared men.

Unlike the teachers, the workers did not ask the fellows to leave; they ordered them.

One sympathetic laborer, however, yelled, “You might try the environmentalists; they’re at City Hall today. And pro- and anti-abortion protesters are on opposite curbs of Main Street at Acorn Drive.”

Oscar gleamed. “There, we could work both sides of the street.”

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This is Part 2, back to Part 1, go on to Part 3


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