Civics 101

The Hungarian Uprising, 1956 ~ Erich Lessing, Magnum Photos

On October 23, 1956, I celebrated my tenth birthday.  There was cake, ice cream, and a small party with balloons and crepe paper streamers.  On that same day, in a world utterly removed from my cozy Iowa neighborhood, other children watched as friends, parents, and neighbors dared to cheer an occasion first known as the Hungarian Uprising and, somewhat later, as the Hungarian Revolution.

As I headed toward our kitchen for my post-birthday breakfast on October 24, or perhaps on the 25th, the Des Moines Register was lying on the dining room table, where my father always laid it before going upstairs to shave. A huge photograph filled the space above the fold, with the words “Revolution In Hungary” splashed across the top.

I never had met a Hungarian, and had only the vaguest sense of what a revolution might entail. But I could read, and I liked to look at photographs. Curious about the large print and big pictures, I paused to look at the paper. Suddenly gripped by a strange, vertiginous feeling, I realized I was holding my breath as hints of a world far larger than my own, and far less pleasant, began to envelop me.

Photo republished by Daily News Hungary ~ October 23, 2013

During the Budapest uprising, there was no 24-hour news cycle; no CNN; no internet; no embedded reporters and videographers. There was only the newspaper, lying motionless and mute in its accustomed place while my father readied for work and my mother drank coffee in the kitchen. 

As I stood at the table, my air of concentrated astonishment caught my dad’s attention. Stopping, he asked, “What’s happening?”  I pointed to the photograph. He picked up the front page and scanned it, then brought it to the kitchen. We talked about the events through breakfast. “Maybe you should tell them about it at school,” he said. And so I did.

Educated at a time when teachers were left more or less free to teach children as they saw fit, I benefited from my teacher’s willingness to set aside her lesson plans in order to talk with us about events in Europe.  She astonished us by finding the 1848 Hungarian national poem with the assistance of a librarian rather than Google — and we made its words into a poster.

Stand up, Hungarians, your country calls.
The time for now or never falls.
Are we to live as slaves or free?
Choose one. This is our destiny!
By the God of all the Magyars, we swear.
We swear never again the chains to bear. 

Even as a child, I was moved by the straightforwardness of the poetry, particularly its breathless assertion that chains could fall. Years later, turning over events of the time in a somewhat different context, I found myself pondering Karoly Nagy’s The Legacy of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution:

Liberty, democracy, human rights are like health. Servitude, oppression, discrimination are like sickness. Totalitarian tyranny is death. A revolution that overthrows tyranny and achieves liberty is a resurrection.
During the last week of October and the first few days of November, 1956, most of us in Hungary felt as if we were risen from the dead…
It was euphoria.  We sang our long-forbidden national anthem, embraced each other on the streets, laughed and cried with joy.  We felt redeemed. We were intoxicated by hearing and saying words of truth. We learned the truth and demonstrated it to the world: that what defines a country, what qualifies a society, is not any ideology, but the presence or absence of freedom.

As the days passed, we began to talk of freedom at the dinner table, as well as of freedom’s consequences and responsibilities. On November 4, as Russian tanks swarmed into Budapest to put an end to the uprising, I asked my parents, “Is that going to happen here?”  “Of course not,” said my mother. My father said not a word: not that night, and not the morning after.

But on the evening of November 5, he broke his silence. “When you get up in the morning, put on a good dress.You’re going to be late for school.” “Why?” I asked.  My father looked at my mother, and then at me. “You’re going with me to vote.”

From “Vote: The Machinery of Democracy” ~ Smithsonian Institution

In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower was running for a second term against Adlai Stevenson, the candidate he previously had defeated. During the campaign, my political involvement had been limited to wearing red, white, and blue “I Like Ike” metal stickpins: not because I supported his candidacy, but because I liked the sound of the words. My mother and dad were regular voters, and I knew they’d be voting on November 6. I imagined them voting for President Eisenhower, but I hardly expected to take part in the occasion myself.

Clearly, it was an ‘occasion,’ because I’d been told to dress up. In our small 1950s Iowa town, we dressed for every occasion: Easter and Christmas, weekly Sunday worship, trips to town, visits to grandparents, and travel in general. No one stepped aboard a bus or train without being starched and pressed to within an inch of their life, even if they were traveling only to Des Moines or Omaha. And if, by chance, someone were to board an airplane, nothing would do but the best suit, the prettiest dress, well-shined shoes, and a matching purse.

So it was that, on election day, I donned my best dress, patent-leather Mary Janes, and the pearl-drop necklace an aunt had sent for my birthday. As I settled into the car, trying to avoid wrinkling my dress, my dad looked at me and said, “Do you know why I’m taking you along?” I shook my head. “It’s time for you to start paying attention to these things.  Even though you’re too young to vote, when the day comes that you can vote, I want you to be ready.”

For years we continued the routine. When election day arrived, I got up early, dressed, and went with my dad to the polls, where I watched, waited, and grew ever more eager for the day when I, too, could participate.  After he voted, he’d take me back home so I could change clothes and get ready for school while my mother dressed for her own election day activities.

Once, as he was taking me back to school with my excused absence note clutched in my hand, Dad reminded me that voting is only part of the story of citizenship. “What we do day after day is important, too,” he said. “If the candidates we like win the election, we have to work to be sure they keep their promises. If our candidates don’t win, we need to work even harder to help elect them next time. But I’m going to work and you’re going to school because those are our jobs right now, and they’re important for the country, too.”

A lesson like that may fade, but it never is forgotten. Working on the docks some years ago on a sunny afternoon in late October, a radio appeal for early voting in Houston caught my attention. Harris County had lost most of their voting machines in a warehouse fire, and even though replacements had been found, officials were encouraging early voting to ease complications brought on by the voting machine loss. Though not a Harris County resident, I felt a sudden urge to vote; my choices already had been made, so there was no reason to delay.

Brushing off a day’s worth of sanding dust, the habits of those early years reasserted themselves. I drove home, showered, and dressed before heading to the polls, even though ‘dressing up’ meant resort casual with a good pair of boat shoes. Still, it was enough to release a flood of memories. Driving to my polling place, I thought about my dad: about the lessons he taught and the passionate love of country that enlivened him. I thought of him as I voted, and thanked him as I drove home.

This year, early voting in Texas begins on October 22, and I’ll be ready. My candidates may win, or my candidates may lose, but no matter the result, I’ll continue to work in one way or another on behalf of my country. As my dad reminded me so often, that work is the price of freedom, and freedom’s benefits far outweigh its cost.

Boy Scouts of America 1956 voting poster ~ Smithsonian Institution

Comments always are welcome.

 

124 thoughts on “Civics 101

  1. Very well said. When I see all of the protest marches going on, at first I wonder if I should be participating. Perhaps they have their place, but I have concluded that my job is, in part, to be the best version of myself as a US citizen as I can be. And to vote.

    1. There’s nothing wrong with marching or protesting in other ways, but those actions should complement voting, not replace it. And there are other, equally satisfying ways to be involved in the process: working for a candidate, serving as a poll watcher, and so on. Even today, when technology’s become such a huge part of the process, it’s still people who make it work — and keep it honest.

  2. What great memories of your dad teaching you the value of voting and paying attention to the political world around you. My own dad did something similar. We had a representative in congress who’d park a trailer all over the county and people could go to the trailer to talk to him about whatever issues they cared about. My dad was a union leader and he’d always take me with him to Gerald R. Ford’s trailer when it was in our neighborhood starting when I was eight.

    1. I love the thought of you and your dad heading off to visit with Ford. Some of my relatives got to see Truman in 1948 when he was on his whistle-stop tour of the states, but being able to stop by Ford’s trailer and just have a chat is even better. That kind of exchange is good for politicians, too. Emails or phone calls coming into an office are useful, but they don’t always communicate the depth of someone’s concern.

  3. This November 6th, I will bring cookies to the township hall where we vote. If one is not inspired by politics or democracy, perhaps cookies will do the job. They will be molasses cookies and I know several people who would wade through a swamp for a molasses cookie.

    1. Given a choice between a chicken in every pot and a molasses cookie in every hand, I know which way I’d vote. It’s not the worst enticement in the world — as long as you’re a bipartisan baker! (I know you will be.)

      1. Actually, I am very partisan. You might even say tribal. But only one person has joined my party and my tribe: me. Yet, I can still reach across the partisan/tribal divide to share cookies. :)

  4. A fascinating and emotional post for me to read. We are the same age so I tried to relate to your experience and memories. I couldn’t except for the fact that mom and the step-father voted and I voted when I was old enough. But I have no memories of my stepfather teaching me anything except to fear and dislike him. You are so fortunate, Linda. Thank you for sharing this. And for reminding everyone of the importance of the vote.
    I’m waiting for my ballot, but so far it hasn’t showed up in our traveling mailbox for me to forward to Arizona. I am hopeful.

    1. I hope your ballot reaches you in time, Martha. If it doesn’t — so be it. I suspect the good news is that by the next election in 2020, you’ll be far more settled, and the combined complexities of the political and postal systems will be less of a problem for you.

      It makes me sad to think of you without the loving father I had; I certainly know how fortunate I was. My only regret is that he died so early — long before I became fully aware of how much he’d given to me, or could express my thanks to him as I would today. But we had our time, and the lessons he — and my mother — taught certainly are among my life’s treasures.

  5. Well, first of all, let me be the first to wish you an early Happy Birthday!
    This post, and the way you chose to tell the story of the importance of participating in a privileged and ordered way of civic responsibility, are evidence once again of the reasons you are the splendid person we all read here on your blog.

    The instruction your father offered you as a 10-year-old is priceless, and as your reader Martha so poignantly observed in her own life, not always offered to all children.

    Your father, mother, and Iowa have contributed a lovely person to our democracy.

    1. Thanks for the birthday wishes, Cheri — I’m amazed by your memory.

      I like the way you phrased it: “privileged and ordered.” Flaws of various sorts have appeared in our system over the years and adjustments have had to be made, but the system endures: a bit of a miracle, I’d say. Some don’t view participation as a privilege at all, and forces dedicated to disorder always are lurking at the edges, but I lived under a quite different system in Liberia, and much prefer ours.

      I wonder now if my father shared similar experiences with his parents. They arrived from Sweden not so many years before he was born, and they certainly cherished their citizenship. I like to imagine that they might have taken him to the polls in the same way that he took me.

      1. I suspect that your father’s parents did take him to the polls. We learn from our parents’ practiced values and rituals. As far as my memory goes (LOL), I always remember my fellow Libras.

  6. Civics? What’s that? Many of our high school “graduates” don’t know the three branches of government, or anything that the First Amendment protects, or anyone who’s on the Supreme Court, or who the vice president is, or how many senators each state has, or how a bill becomes a law, etc. Many college “graduates” don’t know those things, either.

    When immigrants want to become American citizens, they’re given 100 civics questions to study, along with the answers. When the would-be citizens are ready, they take a test on which a small subset of the 100 questions appears. I think anyone, native born or naturalized, who wants to vote in a federal election should have to pass that test each time.

    1. Just for fun, I looked up the list of 100 questions. I had to grin when I saw the question about the due date for federal income taxes tucked in among the questions about geography, history, and the constitution. It would be fun to find a state willing to give your proposed test for voting a try. I can imagine howls of protest, but the results might be instructive.

      What you say about the remarkable lack of civics knowledge today certainly is true. On the other hand, efforts are being made to bridge some of those gaps. One of the most interesting is called iCivics, which was started by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Boys’ State and Girls’ State still are around, as well as other traditional groups dedicated to engaging students in civics education, but since technology and video games are here to stay, they might as well have a role, too. The list of supporters, from the Library of Congress to the Annenberg Public Policy Center, is familiar.

      I like what O’Connor was quoted as saying on the site: “The practice of democracy is not passed down through the gene pool. It must be taught and learned anew by each generation of citizens.”

    1. Voting’s always been important to me, and this seemed like a worthwhile story to tell. It’s always easy to focus on the skullduggery (which I also remember hearing about in childhood!) and miss the bigger picture.

  7. Thank you for this timely reminder Linda. Although we are kitty-corner across the continent and in two different countries; in spite of political concerns both near and far; thank you for this very timely reminder of why we perform our Civic Duty and that, win or lose, ‘this too shall pass’… Namaste

    1. And despite those differences you mention, I suspect we’re more alike than different in our basic concerns and commitments. There’s a lot I’d like to see “pass away” in terms of our public life these days, but I remind myself from time to time that I can’t control anyone’s behavior but my own. That can be a big enough challenge!

  8. How great for you. I don’t recall either of my parents taking me with them to vote. Perhaps my mother did once. We were never encouraged to follow politics or become informed like you. In fact I remember when I first became interested in politics, a presidential election when I was in my second year of college and of course supported the liberal candidate and was going to an event, my father was not supportive at all, basically insulting me for my choice. I was still too young to vote since it wasn’t changed in Texas until the 26th amendment in 1971.

    1. I suspect most of us have presidential campaigns among our earliest political memories. As a child, I remember all of those balloons and banners: bright, and colorful. Later, there was the polling and floor votes and such — the coming of television brought all of that into our homes. There was a lot going on that we didn’t see and couldn’t imagine, of course, and those unseen realities weren’t so bright and shiny. Still, anything that increased our interest had value.

      When it came to differences of political opinion, I don’t remember ridicule or insults being part of our family discussions, but when the extended family gathered, there could be sharp disagreements. Bringing up Truman always was interesting. Some thought he was the best thing since the proverbial sliced bread. Others, living in the Kansas City area, always brought up his history with the Pendergast machine — and not in a positive way. There was a lot I didn’t understand, but I did learn that disagreement was acceptable. I do remember my parents joking about cancelling out each other’s votes — apparently they often agreed to disagree about candidates.

  9. Don’t get me started on people who don’t vote. I voted yesterday. And I have to agree with reader Martha Goudey that you have had a fortunate life. Rockwellian at times.

    Early Happy B-day to you!

    1. I certainly did have a marvelous childhood, and in many respects “Rockwellian” describes it. Later, there were times that were more rocky than Rockwellian, but that’s life; those times come to us all. Still, the values my parents inculcated helped me to deal with the less pleasant times, and I suspect I’ll find new uses for them in the future.

      Your comment about having voted already made me curious. I looked up a list of the states and their early voting periods, and found they range from 5-49 days before the election. There still are a few states that don’t have early voting (seven, I believe), but even there absentee ballots can be requested by those unable to vote on election day.

      Thanks for the birthday wishes. So far, so good — I’m still “creeking” along instead of creaking along!

  10. Your love of history and putting it in reference to today is remarkable, Linda.
    BTW – I hope you’re not around all that awful flooding going on with the Llano River! 40 feet so far, our news said!!!

    1. Without an understanding of history, it’s impossible to understand the present. Besides, it’s just interesting to see how things were “back then.” More often than not, the way we imagine things is off, to one degree or another. Your blog certainly proves that.

      No flooding here, although some friends in the hill country were indirectly affected — primarily in terms of travel. The road flooding is less of a problem now, but some rivers still are up, as are central Texas lakes, and a lot of land that had been prepared for the hunting season’s a mess.

  11. A very timely remembrance – more parents should teach their children as your father did. I remember vaguely hearing about the Hungarian Revolution. And I remember the “I Like Ike” buttons. I remember my father getting involved more in local politics as we lived in Duval County and he was involved in the local Freedom Party. An excellent post! May we all go to the polls no matter how we are dressed!

    1. Anyone who knows Texas history, or knows something about LBJ, or is interested in political machines takes note when Duval County is mentioned. I suspect you’ve heard a few tales yourself, particularly since your dad was involved in the Freedom Party. If “The Duke of Duval County” ever became a country song, it would be a good one!

      And you’re right: getting dressed up was a good way to emphasize the importance of voting to a child, but jeans or flip-flops will do just fine. The important thing is to consider the choices, and then vote.

    1. We started early, Oneta: reading, exploring, working together. In a sense, that first trip to the polls was just an extension of the sorts of things we’d been doing for years. He never could teach me to throw a softball, but he taught me a good many other things.

  12. While voting is thought to be a duty for everyone, compulsory voting by punishment is getting a bit too far. Here in Australia voting is compulsory by punishment which seems odd Should we not have the freedom ‘not to?’ Countries that practise CV are not the most salubrious.
    I remember the Hungarian revolution when Australia took in many of their citizens. But, who would have thought that this freedom in Hungary has now turned so sour. Viktor Orban is close to being a dictator and has recently banned homeless people from sleeping on the streets and outlawed the teachings of gender studies at universities. An iron curtain surrounds Hungary once again and like Poland is anti refugees and immigrants.
    The freedom to vote does not prevent it from bringing forth some very dangerous megalomaniacs.
    But, as your post points out, the freedom to vote is the best way to carry on, and if we don’t like the way we are being ruled, vote in your preferences and keep hoping.

    1. I remember the first time I heard you mention compulsory voting, Gerard. I was astonished then, and I still can’t quite wrap my mind around the idea. Of course, I grow restive when the government decides it’s time to compel yet another behavior of any sort, so there’s that. It was interesting to look at the list of countries where it’s still enforced, and those where it’s no longer required.

      I was curious about Australia’s penalties for not voting. This summary from Western Australia brought a smile. A $20 fine (or $50 for subsequent infractions) doesn’t seem like much of a deterrent. I did find another site that listed the fine for a second infraction as US$180. Even so, there were 1.4 million who didn’t vote in 2016 — the lowest turnout since 1922, when voting still was optional. Interesting.

      I didn’t realize that Hungarians reached Australia after the short-lived uprising was put down. As for Orban, the recent EU vote condemning Hungary doesn’t seem to have bothered him.

  13. Your father was obvious an especially thoughtful person to instil those ideas into you at an early age. In Australia we have compulsory voting, one of the few countries in the world that does this. People from other countries think it very odd, but at least it means that voters put some thought into how they are going to vote. Of course, they could scribble on their ballot papers, and no one would be any the wiser, but I think people who do that would be in the minority.
    I can just remember the Hungarians uprising- such a time of hope, but so quickly stamped out.

    1. I just made some observations to Gerard about how odd compulsory voting seems to me. I was amused by a video included in this article, , which shows some of the more creative votes cast in one of your recent elections.

      We can “write in” candidates, but it’s a complicated process; it does seem you have more freedom to vote as you please — partly because of the use of paper ballots. There’s increasing support for a return to paper ballots here. They’re not a foolproof defense against manipulation of vote totals, but they certainly have advantages.

    1. Exactly so. And we need to be informed voters, which implies a need for literacy and critical thinking skills. It takes a little effort, this business of being a citizen.

  14. First, Happy Birthday in advance. Your post has been one of your best! When ever you write about family it evokes in my mind, memories of my own family and I can see parallels. Thank you Linda for your wonderful lessons on Civic Duty. :)

    1. Thanks so much, H.J. — for the kind words, and for the birthday wishes. There’s nothing like a loving family to give us a good start in life, just as you’re doing with your son. He’s learning a few good lessons with you, too, and I’m sure he’ll remember them in the future.

  15. While I don’t recall being taken to the polls with my parents, I do remember their campaigning for candidates and their pins and banners and other election paraphernalia. What I remember even more is the dressing up – for all of the things you mentioned and more! (Like visiting a jail, which my mother thought might be “interesting” for us kids, in my little navy blue wool coat and white gloves.) What a wonderful set of parents you had! Excellent and timely post, too.

    1. And it wasn’t only us girls who remember the tradition of dressing up. A friend who grew up in the Panhandle likes to tell the story of his weekend trips to town with his grandmother in the late 1940s. His job was to open doors for her, carry groceries, and such — but he had to do it while dressed in his little blazer, good shirt, and tie. And you’d better believe that Grandmother had gloves, too.

      I’m quite taken with the thought of you all trooping down to the jail. What an experience for kids. We made trips to the county home, nursing homes, hospitals, dairy farms, and the state capitol, but I never once got to visit a jail. I think I would have liked your mother.

      1. The little piece of info I did not include was that the warden refused to let my mom and us in! He said there were better places to show children than a jail. My mom still tells that story as an example of how her mind just always worked a little differently. She was convinced it was a perfectly appropriate cultural activity! (As a fascinating aside, that jail was the scene of a true-story movie, “Mrs. Soffel,” and when it came out, my mom kept pointing out to us where she had walked in with us and been turned away.)

        1. Well, that answers several other questions I had: including a few about the response of the inmates to a white-gloved child coming to visit. I must say, if it were me, I’d have a DVD of Mrs. Soffel in my collection, just because!

    1. Thank you for linking it, Patti. Perhaps I ought to move the individual sharing buttons out from behind the single one that says “Share,” so people know it’s fine to do so.

      Knowing that it’s going to be a raucous couple of weeks until the election, I thought it might be good to remind ourselves how important our participation is. I’m glad you enjoyed my own story about the beginning of political engagement.

    1. Thanks, Derrick. Often, the passage of time brings a deepened appreciation of events that seemed quite ordinary when they occurred. This certainly was one such experience for me. I’m glad you enjoyed reading my reflections on it; I certainly enjoyed writing them.

  16. What a wonderful practical political education you had, Linda. My parents didn’t take me to a polling booth but, somehow, I did pick up from them the importance of voting. I cast my first vote when I was 18. Later in life, I found myself in a strange predicament where I was legally entitled to vote in UK elections, as a Fiji citizen temporarily resident in the UK. Although legality was on my side, it seemed wrong to vote, so I chose not to.

    1. The complexities of dual citizenship, or of being resident in a foreign country, can make voting difficult. It’s interesting that you chose not to vote, but I can understand why you might have made that decision.

      I’d never considered the fact that Fiji was part of the Commonwealth, but of course it was: entitling you to vote. I had a quick browse through the list of current Commonwealth countries, and was astonished to find there are fifty-three. If asked, I would have come up with fifteen: maybe twenty. I also noticed that Fiji was suspended, readmitted, and then re-suspended: good to see that they’re back in the fold, now. ‘Fiji’ and ‘coup’ just don’t seem to go together; I hope they can keep things on an even keel.

  17. School Civics/History/Social Studies have been encompassed and/or encumbered by a cavalcade of expectations and community judgments all around the U.S. Stepping outside the approved curriculum, as you point out, is not always easy. Thousands of skilled teachers can and do integrate ad hoc lessons from current events, but woe betide them if they lose a step in the march toward the approved lesson plans.
    Civics is complex. Kids can’t grasp the import of world events without some awareness of historical context, but most kids come away from history class convinced it consists of memorizing dates and names. Making the leap from student to “informed citizen/voter” requires a steady practice of inquiry and thought that most citizens never begin. So those who do vote too often vote on gut reaction and emotion. That encourages public office holders and -seekers to appeal to emotions couched as “ideas” or “policies.”
    Why, yes, parents might help. What a concept. Or, they might pass on their prejudices, anger, resentment and assumptions as wisdom, because it’s ‘way simpler and clearer, and makes them always sound correct and wise.
    Well done.

    1. You’ve touched on some issues that didn’t fit in this piece, but that deserve consideration: particularly, the preference for celebrity over character, the substitution of various ideologies for history, and the practice of ‘teaching to the test’ that’s skeletonized the curriculum in so many school systems.

      While I focused on my parents in this essay, schools do have a role to play, and mine certainly did its job. Since our brief exchange about Emerson Hough — both the man and my grade school — I’ve learned something interesting about those years.

      Emerson Hough was the first school in the state of Iowa to use the so-called ‘platoon system’ of education. Alice Barrows, who devoted her career to instituting Dewey’s progressive ideas about education in the schools, was less concerned with the bureaucratic efficiencies of some platoon systems, and more interested in developing what she called a child-centered education. (There’s a good short article about her and her ideas here.

      Practically speaking, my days in grade school were divided between a half-day of academics (arithmetic/math, science, reading and writing, American, world, and Iowa history), and a half-day of other activities: music, art, storytelling, geography and map-making, and so on. There were morning and afternoon recesses for outdoor play, and field trips galore.

      All of this helps to explain my teacher’s willingness to adapt on the fly, and it certainly helps to explain why I remember my grade school years with so much more affection than many of my friends. There were plenty of times tables and vocabulary words to memorize, and sorting out all the historical dates and places could get burdensome: but — fun? My goodness, we had fun.

      1. I actually didn’t intend to get going on schools, but I’m interested in what you say. I DID want to second your message that it’s not solely our schools’ role to turn children into citizens. That’s what parents (can) do, and yours did an admirable job of it.

  18. Such a good and timely reminder, Linda. Absentee voting has already begun here in Illinois, and both my mom and Domer will be participating. I plan on doing so as well. I love the life lessons your dad imparted, and it reminds me how, when Domer was a wee lad, I always took him with me to the polls. Even journalists (maybe especially journalists who at least *ought* to be informed on the issues!) should exercise their right to vote. I’m glad that Domer is continuing that, despite his bewilderment at the extensive ballot in our state’s biggest city!

    1. Your perspective on the obligation of journalists to vote is interesting. Several high-profile journalists have been quite vocal about their decision never to vote, and there are certain media outlets that lump voting in with yard signs, caucusing, and bumper stickers — all ways of expressing a preference which could be seen as coloring their reporters’ “objectivity.” In truth, journalists’ objectivity has taken such a hit across the political spectrum that a yard sign or bumper sticker would only be declaring the obvious. But it does seem to me that voting ought to be their right.

      On the other hand, one of NPR’s reporters told the tale of going to vote without considering that she would be asked, publically, “Republican or Democrat”? She said she whispered the answer.

      Those ballots can get long, can’t they? It’s one reason I always look at the sample ballot well before the election — just to try and figure out what positions are open, and who all those people are!

  19. They taught their children well. Freedom must be cherished and defended. Those that had to struggle for it know. To forget is dangerous as freedom is so fragile and can easily slip away.
    We did dress up for everything – to emphasize the importance of where we were going and what was going to be done. No casual dress or thought. Today’s jeans and sandals are on the outside, hopefully not replacing the seriousness of voting and citizen’s responsibility.
    Excellent post – maybe e repost again on Election Day?

    1. As our parents’ generation knew, the struggle for freedom can take many forms. In Iowa, when my parents and their siblings were kids, freedom from fear and intimidation were issues as the KKK roamed the land. The issues there were focused less on race and more on religion and immigration, but the grip of certain politicians on the process was more than strong: it was a stranglehold, and the vote was part of the way that hold was broken.

      By election day, I think it would be too late for a post like this, particularly with early voting gaining such favor. I might roll it out again in 2020, though. I suspect it still will be relevant.

    1. That was another aspect of our voting education, too. It was especially interesting to watch the people coming to vote at our grade school during recess, since many of them were people we knew. I’ve never fussed about having to wait in a line to vote. I find it strangely moving, and always enjoy listening to the conversations around me.

    1. As long as one generation keeps teaching the next about these important civic virtues — as well as the virtue of civility — I think we’ll be fine. Sometimes it seems as though campaigns are nastier now than they’ve ever been, but that’s not true; there were remarkably creative insults being hurled around even in the earliest days of this country, and we’re still here. With luck, the country will be here in another two hundred years.

  20. Great memories, thanks for sharing. The challenge is spreading that same feeling you describe to people who don’t vote, and who grew up in families that didn’t vote. I like to think that this year more people will shake off their feelings of cynicism and powerlessness. We’ll see.

    1. Exactly. I’m quite aware that not everyone has been blessed with parents and schools like mine, and far too often the appeals being made to those potential voters are cheap and tawdry. My sense is that turnout this year is going to be higher than usual. I hope voters’ understanding of and appreciation for the issues is greater, too.

  21. Thanks so much for this. We vote for municipal candidates on Monday. This is the vote with the weakest turnout. But these are politicians who make decisions that impact our lives in so many ways. I will be out to vote and will gladly do so. Democracy only works if it works at every level.

    1. Those “off year elections” always have low turnout here, too, despite the importance they have for cities, towns, and the state. A local exception was a recent bond election for flood control projects. It passed by a rarely seen margin, and brought out more than the usual number of voters. There’s nothing like an event like Hurricane Harvey to focus people’s attention. If only we could find less dramatic ways to get people to the polls.

  22. I truly appreciate how your father included you in his own civic engagement and talked to you about it at an early age. Reading your essay and thinking about it, it’s interesting how something as simple as dressing up can change the feel of any event or occasion – even voting. In a time where voter turn out is so low, I think many people can take a leaf from your book. Thank you for sharing this.

    1. You’re right about dressing appropriately, and how it changes perception: how we feel about ourselves, how others see us, and how we feel about what it is that we’re doing. A man I know began a campaign about bare feet on airplanes and other public transportation. It’s been a bit under the radar, but it’s spreading. As he likes to say, “As goes the footwear, so goes the nation.” And in a very real sense, he’s right.

      I’m so glad you stopped by, and I’m glad you appreciated the tale. Even today, I’m continuing to learn from my parents.

  23. I once knew a Hungarian refugee, a friendly delivery driver at the grocery store I worked at while a high school student. I got my civic lesson from talking with him about his country’s political situation. Sadly he died in a car accident not long after that. Today, looking at both our countries, a different kind of sadness appears. Surely, the freedom and right to vote is still seriously and sacredly held, but the integrity and wisdom to govern is all but absent. In a case like this where a worthy candidate is hard to find, is our freedom and right still justifiably ‘sacred’? Just a thought, a quiet ripple.

    1. The lack of worthy candidates can be an issue. More than once, I’ve had to swallow hard and vote for the candidate I thought best, even when I was convinced both were unsuitable. In that situation, the importance of voting actually may be amplified; in any event, the nature of the candidates doesn’t change the importance of participation, or the value of the vote.

      What I will say is that, in that situation, it’s greater involvement that brings change — not withdrawal. The process of candidate selection begins long before a name appears on the ballot. Processes vary from state to state, but becoming involved on the precinct level; taking part in caucuses; seeking to attend state conventions — all of these are ways to ensure better candidates from whom to choose. Beyond that, increasing participation in primary elections is critical — too many people don’t begin paying attention until the slate of candidates has been settled. Sometimes, that’s too late.

  24. I love this post & your memories. I was an entirely different 10 year old – not the least bit interested in the world around me. Leave me alone with my Nancy Drew please!

    Early voting started on Wednesday here & I went ahead & voted that day. No need to change – I was already at work :)

    1. There’s nothing wrong with Nancy Drew; she and Cherry Ames were my boon companions once I’d moved beyond the Bobbsey Twins. I did love to read. I was one of those flashlight-in-the-closet kids.

      It’s interesting to see the diffences among the states when it comes to early voting. I’m always glad to have it behind me: not because it’s a chore, but because it means the decision-making process is over. All that ‘on the one hand, but on the other hand’ internal debating can be tiring.

  25. I was moved by the story of your father’s teaching of the importance of voting. I remember the Hungarian revolution as well, and even had the pleasure of meeting some of the refugees that managed to get away before their country slipped into slavery again. When going to vote, and even when paying my taxes, I am grateful to our fathers and mothers for building a free society, and in going about my life and working, I aspire to peace with those who have different values, and different agendas, in the knowledge that only by working together can we guarantee our freedom. Thanks for a beautiful post.

    1. You would have enjoyed waiting in line with me at the polls today, Shimon. Turnout has been exceedingly high, and I had to wait in line for nearly an hour. But people were patient, and a good many ended up having conversations in line with people they otherwise might not talk with.

      There were two mothers with toddlers in the line near me — one black, one white. Everyone watched the children play, and smiled. Whatever differences we had were erased in that moment; may it be so, more often.

    1. He was a great teacher, Sheila — in so many ways. He never could teach me to throw a softball properly, but eventually we agreed to forget about that, and moved on to other things. But I learned the voting lesson well, and every time another election comes around, I’m grateful to him and my mother all over again.

    1. How it is elsewhere I’m not sure, but in my area the number of people voting is much higher than usual. I have my candidate preferences, of course, but my primary hope has been that people of all political stripes would become more engaged. That seems to be happening, and it pleases me.
      Needless to say, we’re watching developments in your country, too, and wishing for a rational solution there.

    1. I’ve profited all my years from my parents’ wisdom — even though I was quite convinced for a few years that they didn’t know a thing. I think we call that adolescence! I know how important your family is to you, and I’m sure they helped to shape you in many of the same, good ways. A good family is one of life’s greatest blessings.

  26. I truly love and appreciate this reading. I marvel at your parents and the way you grew up. My parents neither one were registered to vote, ever. Only two siblings take an interest in voting. I find that odd because my mother’s father emigrated from Denmark and was a very proud American, thankful to be in a country where he was free. He told us kids every chance he got, the importance of having the right to speak and make a difference in our government. I can still remember the smile on his face and the delight in his eyes anytime something presidential came on the television. He often put hand to heart and stood during the national anthem. I also remember my high school current events teacher. I learned more about life all around from that man. He had a way of holding our interest and delighting us in the world.He opened our minds to consider and look deeper. He also taught history, which was never boring. I thank Grandpa and Mr. Rasmussen for awakening me to world events, and taking a strong interest in my own country. Not everyone enjoys learning the way it maybe should be (at home), but we have opportunities to get what we need all through life.

    I am delaying a trip to Nebraska one day, so that I can vote early. I won’t be dressed to the nines, but I do fix up a bit when I go to town. However, I appreciate and understand the cowboy or farmer next to me who has cow poop dried on his boots! We’re all in this together!!

    1. “We’re all in this together” is a sentiment I actually heard expressed while I was standing in line to vote, if not in exactly those words. I heard people say other things, too: “This is important” was a common theme. From our voter turnout, I’d say a lot of people agree, and that’s good.

      I enjoyed reading about your Danish grandfather’s feelings for his new country. My father’s parents both came from Sweden in the late 1800s, and I remember their feelings being much the same. I do wish I’d known about some of the things they had to contend with while they still were here to talk about them, but there’s no chance for that now. At least I learned some of the stories before my parents’ deaths.

      My ‘Mr. Rasmussen’ was Roger Ratcliff, who taught world history. His ability to engage even the least-interested students was remarkable. He offered some of those opportunities you mentioned to kids whose home lives weren’t at all like mine; I wish teachers had more freedom to do that today.

      As for the dressing up, I suspect that if I had a memory of the lines at the polling place when I was a kid, there would have been the same mix of people. We were a factory and farming town, after all, and bib overalls and barn jackets were as common as suits and ties. In the end, as you say, how people dress is far less important than whether they show up.

  27. I loved reading this, firstly because of the way you write, which is so compelling and eloquent. Secondly because of your father taking voting so seriously and instilling this in you as a young child. If only people did that with their kids today!!

    I can really relate to this post because I grew up in South Africa where the majority of the population was not allowed to vote during the apartheid era. When I found this out, as a young child, a little older than you were when you first went with your father, I was horrified. At the age of nineteen I left my home country, my family and went to live for a year in a country that had “one man one vote”. I wanted democracy and equal treatment for all. Which is not what my country was going through, not at all. I started out in Miami and so shortly after my arrival, there was a huge conflict between whites and blacks ~ of course I was very naive about America as we had grown up learning about South African history (the warped version) and British history (South Africa being a colony of Britain at the time), but not American history. I started reading… I was shocked to find out that this land of one man one vote, had a brutal and tragic history and that was when I realized that voting rights are just the beginning of a democracy…..

    Thank you for this poignant post.

    Peta

    1. I couldn’t agree more with your comment that “voting rights are just the beginning of a democracy.” Too many people in this country don’t exercise their right to vote, or don’t bother to inform themselves about the candidates and issues. As for candidates, they too often play on peoples’ love of excitement and celebrity. That’s not a partisan issue; it’s a cultural reality across the board. We need to do something about it, but I don’t have even a clue how to go about it.

      Your comments about the disconnect between what you knew of this country before coming here and what you learned of its reality reminds me of my experience in Liberia. Before I moved to Liberia, I studied its history. I learned that people spoke English, used the American dollar as currency, and had a government modeled after that of the U.S. With Monrovia named after James Monroe and the houses in the capitol city looking mostly like Biloxi or Mobile, it was easy to believe that the repatriated slaves who arrived there after our Civil War left the worst behind and took the best of life in the U.S. with them.

      Unfortunately, that wasn’t always so. A joke that was common when I lived there was that the Liberian government was a perfect replica of the United States government — including the corruption. There was much more, including the grim irony of former slaves taking slaves themselves. Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, conditions led to a coup, and then — even more ironically — to a terrible civil war. It’s a history worth pondering.

  28. That was a powerful lesson your father taught you. Much to be learned, especially applicable for today and every other election. You captured the tenor of the times. I remember all too well we dressed to the nines when going anywhere of consequence, carrying our white gloves during summer in our hot sweaty hands.

    Your Hungarian story reminds me of Czechoslovakia in 1968. We had just relocated, I would have my first child, when I received a note from a relative who taught at Columbia Univ. that one of her grad students from Czechoslovakia had just joined staff at the Univ. in our town. I made note when we settled to contact him. Then the Prague Spring occurred with Russia repressing the Czechs as had happened to the Hungarians. Our local newspaper edition soon after carried an article revealing that Czech son had taken his own life. Freedom is not free.

    1. Those gloves were de rigueur: no question about that. Some of us were laughing recently at memories of other fashion requirements of that day: sweater clips and organdy aprons, high heels dyed to match prom dresses and mohair anything. Oh — and starched crinolines drying on the basement floor. It was quite a time.

      Your account of the untimely death of the Czech grad student — just at the beginning of his career — and your comment about the cost of freedom both resonate. They reminded me of something once said by Yevgeny Yevtushenko: “Who never knew the price of happiness will not be happy.” I wonder if students today read Yevtushenko and Solzhenitsyn, or learn about the Prague Spring, or Lech Walesa and the Polish Solidarity movement. There are lessons there, as well as rich history and compelling writing. We let all that go at our peril.

  29. Those childhood encounters with the importance of voting make all the difference. Re Ike, we went to West Point today, with a family member here from England, and took a bus tour of the grounds. Along the way, our guide pointed to a small courtyard in the midst of the cadet barracks. There were a lot of “opportunities” to get demerits at West Point, as there are a lot of rules, and cadets who got a certain number of demerits had to march up and down this courtyard. Those who racked up a huge number of points were called Centurions and were set to marching back and forth for hours. Ike turned out to have been one of them. He was, apparently, a real prankster. Once, when the cadets were told to come to the field in the dress coats, he did so—but without his dress pants (because, after all, that instruction hadn’t been given). Our guide said all this quite mildly, and concluded with, “but that didn’t stop him from greatness.”

    1. Just yesterday, I overheard a conversation on the docks between two men who just had been to the polls. One has a nephew in his early twenties who’s signed up for the Marines, but who refuses to vote. The uncle was utterly perplexed; no argument or gentle bribe had moved his nephew at all. I wish I knew the young man’s reason(s) for not voting.

      That’s a wonderful tale about Ike. Equally wonderful is your description of the guide’s description as “mild.” One of the things I miss about ye olde days is the much greater acceptance of foibles, quirkiness, and occasional odd or bad behavior. There are stories about my great-aunt Rilla that those who knew her tell with glee, always ending with, “But that was Rilla.” We could use a little more of that bemused tolerance in these hyper-critical days.

      1. Amen to that! The guide was wonderful that way. I think he was a West Point grad himself, so while he “told tales” like that about Ike, he clearly admired him and also clearly had true affection for West Point.

        Very odd indeed about the nephew’s refusal to vote. It would be interesting to know his perspective.

  30. What a joy to read this post, Linda. I loved the message, the storytelling, and the graphics all so much. How fortunate you were to have a father who took time to share these important lessons with you, and involve you from a young age, teaching you values. The narrative was superb, with sidelines about dressing up in the 1950s and today; and your experience with your teacher and classmates during the Hungarian revolution; and your work/voting experiences that still exist today. And by the way, Happy Birthday.

    1. What delightful affirmation you’ve offered, Jet. I’ve often wished my parents still were around to read some of these posts: evidence of how deeply they influenced and shaped me. Especially today, as I look around at some of the unhappy and broken families that are so common, I appreciate even more what I was privileged to experience as a child.

      How these elections are going to turn out is hard to say, but one thing is certain: the turnout is remarkable. No one’s quite sure whether the turnout for early voting will mean a decrease in numbers on election day, but there’s no question that interest is high, and commitment is higher than usual.

      Thank you for the birthday wishes! Honestly, I can’t quite believe I’m as old as I am and still relatively healthy. Apparently my parents contributed some good genes to me, too.

  31. Thanks for the reminder about voting. The voting picture from the Smithsonian is great. It so wonderfully evokes the way community buildings looked in the mid-1900s – all the way down to the picture of George Washington.

    1. I just looked at the picture again, and laughed. I missed the spittoon next to the policeman the first time around. You’re right that the details are perfect — it’s just the kind of community I remember from childhood. I do think voting in a small town is a different sort of experience, just because everyone from the poll workers to the candidates are well known to everyone.

  32. Interesting post Linda about your background. I also have an immigrant parent who was my mother. She later became a U.S. citizen. It was my father, however, who instilled in me civic duty, but it was regarding P.R., of course. As you can imagine, having been raised in P.R. there was always a ‘dual citizenship’ issue. Now living here I can vote, but I still think I haven’t lived here long enough to know the candidates, so I’m cautious. Maybe I will one day, but for now I still feel I need time.

    1. It can be time-consuming to research the candidates, particularly when municipal elections, bond issues, and the selection of judges are joined to elections for senator, representative, and so on. I always begin with the League of Women Voters sample ballot for my county; it’s a good way to become familiar with the down-ballot candidates.

      There have been a million jokes over the years about “running for dog catcher,” but the truth is that council members, mayors, county officials — and even the dog catcher — can have more immediate effect on our lives than those in Washington.

      Having lived through elections in another country, I take a great deal of pride in the volunteers who make the whole system work. I hope this year’s election goes smoothly, without the kinds of disruptions that leave everyone unhappy.

    1. And, really — true around the world, no matter the differences in procedures and voting systems. I can’t quite get my mind around your parlimentary system — at least in its details — but it seems to me from what I’ve read that participation is increasing there, too. It’s all to the good.

    1. I did, indeed. With only a high school diploma, he rose to become an industrial engineer at Maytag, and then a supervisor in the department. He was curious, well-read, and far more adventurous than my mother. He also demanded my own apple cake every fall. I wish he was still around to try your ultimate layered apple cake. I’m certainly going to give it a whirl.

      Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad to have found your blog through your visit.

    1. Thank you, Diane. I’m so pleased that turnout in my state has continued to be high; on the ninth day of early voting, more people came to the polls than on the first, and some are suggesting that we’ll have a fifty percent turnout. If all of those people are informed voters, even better!

  33. Wonderful post. I especially enjoy your childhood posts. What a great dad you had. I’m ready to vote on Tuesday.
    I’m not getting notification of your posts. Not sure why, but some of my followers have mentioned the same problem to me about blog. It must be my problem because I’m private.

    1. I’m so pleased that the turnout has been good here. Actually, it’s been better than good, and my hope is that people have put some effort into evaluating the candidates and understanding the issues as well as making the effort to get themselves to the polls.

      I’ve been getting notifications of your posts just fine; I’m just behind in visiting. Some people weren’t getting emails about my new posts, but when they unsubscribed and then resubscribed, all was well. You might give it a shot.

  34. This is an outstanding post on more than one level. I especially enjoyed being allowed for a few moments into your family life.

    1. I appreciate those kind words, Charles. As I’ve aged, I’ve grown increasingly appreciative of my parents’ and grandparents’ good qualities, even as I’ve learned more about some of the experiences that shaped them. Finding a way to write about these things isn’t always easy, but when it works — as it did here — it’s satisfying.

  35. Without a childhood memory such as yours, my editorials have been that much poorer, but suffice it to say, every election cycle, I toss off a couple to remind folks that every vote is important. Great post!

    1. Every editorial counts, as does every word of encouragement to unengaged, apathetic, or just flat lazy voters. Even with your shorter early voting period this year, it looks like numbers are keeping pace with 2014: all to the good.

      I just came across Rhiannon Giddens’s Freedom Highway album. Her version of the title track, written by Pops Staples in 1965, would be a good fit for your playlist, if you haven’t already included it. I had the chance to hear the Staples Singers in concert in Oakland back in the 70s, and they included the song.

  36. I love these stories about your growing up, Linda. What you learned and how you learned it — such different experience from my own.

    And I kind of miss the days when people dressed up to travel instead of the pajama bottoms and flipflops I see from time to time.

    1. As my mother liked to remind me in my younger years, casual is one thing, but slovenly is quite another. I’m no more ready than the next person to re-adopt the anxious formality of the 1950s, but there certainly are people out and about who could use a little spiffing up.

      Every time I write about my early years, I realize even more deeply how blessed I was. Everyone comes to trials in their life, and everyone can learn to cope, but that firm foundation certainly makes it easier.

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