“Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” — Honoré de Balzac
THE STATE OF AMERICA
What do you know about this holy land? Can you accurately define America in this year MMXII?
Oops, sorry. The Super Bowl agit-prop machine still has me thinking in Roman numerals.
The question holds: What is America?
I’m not smart enough to say in 60,000 words or less. And, with all due respect, neither are you.
But a couple of guys I spent some quality time with last week each might have an inkling. One’s a retired medical specialist. Let’s call him Dr. Moray. The other is a Catholic priest. He’ll be Fr. Frawley.
Let’s start with Dr. Moray. He retired about 20 years ago. The medical profession had been good for him and his family. He wasn’t a terribly wealthy man when he hung up his stethoscope but he was certain he had enough money stashed away to support himself and his wife through his golden years.
Long before he’d become a doctor, when he was still a teenager, a relative had died and left him a humble inheritance: a half dozen or so shares in a local bank. They were worth pennies.
Dr. Moray never thought much about those shares when he went out into the world to find his fortune. Like most young men, he tried on a hat or two before settling in to his lifelong career.
He grew up in a staunchly Republican part of the Midwest and he, too, proudly proclaimed himself a member of the Grand Old Party. He even took a job as a page in the statehouse. For a hot minute, he dreamed of a career in politics.
He thought: Who knows? Maybe I’ll run for the General Assembly one day. And why couldn’t I be a senator or governor?
This is, after all, America.
He also knew that thousands of young men entertained the same dream. Perhaps a woman or two as well. (This was just before women like Betty Friedan informed their sisters it was okay to dream the dreams of men.)
In any case, hedging his bet against a political career, he enrolled in medical school. Before he knew it, the medical profession had swallowed him up.
He wasn’t unhappy with the way things turned out.
About 30 years ago, a couple of things happened. The banking industry started inventing what they liked to call “financial instruments.” I like to call them magic tricks.
Employing these tricks, bankers found themselves able to make bushels of money appear wherever they pointed their wands. They became so good at it that they began to believe those bushels of money were real and not simply illusions.
The rest of the country started believing those bushels of money were real, too. A magician depends on his audience wanting with all their hearts to believe in his tricks.
Eventually, Dr. Moray learned that his half dozen bank shares had multiplied like rabbits being pulled out of a hat. And the value of those shares had increased so much his breath was taken away. He pulled out his pencil, did a few calculations, and discovered his modest inheritance was now worth a half million dollars.
He told his wife the good news. “We won’t have to worry about a thing for the rest of our lives,” he said.
Around the same time the bankers started their act, Dr. Moray learned he had developed diabetes. Being a medical man, he had access to all the information he needed to manage the disease. He knew he’d have to watch his diet, exercise, and poke himself in the belly with a needle every day for the rest of his life.
Dr. Moray was a disciplined man. Some 25 years after being diagnosed, he was still alive and, if not kicking, at least he could see the sunrise every morning.
You’d think he’d be the happiest of men these days. He’s lived a long, full life. He’s still got his wife. He reads constantly, always thirsting for more knowledge.
The only problem is that half million dollars worth of bank shares is now worth next to nothing. By Dr. Moray’s calculations, there’s enough left to support him and his wife until 2015.
You know why — crashes, the Great Recession, the banking crisis. The old magic doesn’t work anymore.
Dr. Moray visited Bloomington last week, as he does every month or so. But he’s essentially characterizing this round as his farewell tour. He says he wants to see all the people and places that have meant so much to him over the years. He’s starting to speak in the past tense a lot.
A man who’s running out of money is apt to speak that way.
I’d hate to think Dr. Moray isn’t terribly interested anymore in seeing the sun rise tomorrow.
Now for Fr. Frawley.
He’s the pastor of a small parish not terribly far from Bloomington. He’s also the chaplain for the state maximum security prison near his church.
Fr. Frawley has spent a lot of time hanging around guys who’ve killed people for gain or sport. Many others have relieved individuals and businesses of scads of money.
I won’t say bankers are the moral equivalent of murderers but the money they’ve relieved individuals and businesses of makes the inmates at Fr. Frawley’s prison look like rank amateurs.
If the bankers were magicians, then many of the men Fr. Frawley ministers to are nothing more than pesky uncles who pull nickels out of six-year-old kids’ ears.
It’s important to note, though, that America loves a professional man. Slap a nice suit on a guy and automatically we think of him as a man who’s going places. The guys in Fr. Frawley’s maximum security prison have never much gone in for nice suits.
Fr. Frawley has learned that many of the men hardly even know how to read.
Imagine that. In the richest nation in the history of Earth there are countless men — and women — who can’t even read a children’s picture book.
If you want to learn a little bit about the correlation between illiteracy, criminal behavior, and recidivism, read through the National Center for Education Statistics report entitled “Literacy Behind Prison Walls.” Or you can scan the study, “National Assessment of Adult Literacy and Literacy Among Prison Inmates,” published by the University of Alaska.
Do I need to mention that many official prison literacy programs are operating under severe funding cutbacks these days? You know, money’s tight — crashes, the Great Recession, the banking crisis, and all.
Fr. Frawley, figuring that more than a few of the inmates would one day be shoved back into society, decided that what the men needed was a lending library. Maybe some of them might even learn to read. He contacted his diocese and asked for money to buy books. He got the go-ahead a few years ago.
Now, once a year, Fr. Frawley makes the long drive up to Bloomington, to the Book Corner, where he purchases piles of brand new books for his lending library. He spends about $500 a crack.
He purchases as many or more children’s books as he does books written for adults. He shies away from murder mysteries and true crime stories. He figures the men don’t need any help in those departments.
Fr. Frawley buys the children’s books because so many of the inmates have the literacy level of kindergarteners. Some of them can’t read a single word. The men must learn to read just as little kids do.
Naturally, every year a few of the books go missing, even the children’s picture books. Fr. Frawley shook his head and wondered why some inmates don’t take the basic lessons they learn in the children’s books to heart. Lessons like stealing is wrong.
I tried to comfort him by pointing out at least they’re stealing books. They must sense there’s some value in the written word.
Fr. Frawley shrugged when I told him that.
But Fr. Frawley is not a pessimistic man. No man who spends hours with hardened criminals and hopes they learn to do something as simple and basic as read can be called pessimistic.
I expect to see him next year and the year after that.
I wonder, though, if I’ll ever see Dr. Moray again.
Two Americans. Two people who know a little something about this holy land.