I remember a scene in an old World War II film in which a soldier hunkers in a foxhole at night, listening for the enemy. A voice whispers from a nearby foxhole, “Hey Joe, is that you?”
The guy’s eyes go steely. “Yeah,” he says.
“Got a cigarette?” says the voice from the dark.
“Sure,” says the guy. “But first tell me: How many games did it take for the Yankees to win the World Series last year, six or seven?”
“Seven,” comes the voice.
“Wrong answer,” says the steely-eyed guy over his smoking gun. “The Yanks weren’t in the Series last year.”
That scene made sense to me when I first saw the film, because the setting was the early ‘40s, a time when any American who didn’t know who won the World Series was either a Japanese spy or some guy from Idaho who was just asking to get shot.
But lately that scene has come back to haunt me, because I worry about the things that every red-blooded American knows — except me.
My problem is that I get all my news of the world from newspapers. I read at least two of them each day, and I never pay a moment’s attention to news from TV, radio, or the Internet.
Getting your news from the electronic media is much faster, of course, but the advantage of getting your news from a paper is that you can just turn the page past news you’re not interested in. With TV news, even if you only want to know what the weather will be tomorrow, you have to sit through a cavalcade of corpses for the first 10 minutes, then a bunch of good-natured joking from the announcers, then a few “teasers” to let you know what’s coming up after the fast-food commercials.
But with a newspaper, you can scan the headlines and turn the page until you come across something that might have some bearing on your own life. Something that you have some reason to care about, other than the nosy urge to meddle in other people’s misery, or the morbid hunger to wallow in some macabre spectacle.
I don’t mean to sound unfeeling about all those corpses who are featured in the nightly news cavalcade, but I remember reading something that Henry David Thoreau said about reading the news of the day.
He argued that “all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.” He went on to say, “If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for the myriad instances and applications?”
In other words, once you realize that some people do mean things to other people, why would you bother to dwell on every news story that features a mean person doing mean things?
For example, a few years ago I noticed an item that said that some mother might have killed her kid. But it wasn’t my mother or my kid, so I turned the page and never looked back.
Thoreau would have been proud of me.
Day after day there were more articles about this mother and this kid, sometimes with new information and sometimes with reminders of the old stuff you might have forgotten since yesterday. Each day I turned the page and never looked back.
And then there was a trial of this mom — who was probably a bad mom or maybe not. The jury would decide that. But it still wasn’t my mom or my kid, and I wasn’t called to be on the jury, so I kept turning the page and not looking back.
Recently, just as the trial was nearing its dramatic conclusion, I went for a 10-day fishing trip to northern Ontario, where the only way to get news was by carrier pigeons, which I didn’t bring along with me.
When I returned, everywhere I went in America — to Burger King, to the doctor’s office, to the auto shop — people were chatting about the case. The lady’s name was Casey Anthony, I think. Maybe that was the kid’s name. I’m not sure, because I kept turning the page of the newspaper every time that story popped up.
In the Burger King and the doctor’s office and the auto shop I heard a lot of chatter about a tattoo, and some duct tape, and chloroform, and some other folks who were probably just as bad as this Anthony lady was. But I had no idea what any of it meant, because I hadn’t been paying attention.
And then the jury decided that this lady wasn’t as bad as everybody thought she was — a decision that seemed to be unpopular at the Burger Kings and doctor’s offices and auto shops I frequented.
And that’s when I began to worry, because even if my curiosity had been whet from all of the indignation and wrath over the verdict, how do you begin to ask people what the case was all about? How do you admit that you don’t know what the tattoo said or where the duct tape was found?
When you’ve been voluntarily out of touch for more than three years of a story that has riveted every other citizen of your country, asking too many questions might cause folks to question your nationality. Or your mental health.
And that’s why that scene from the old World War II film keeps popping into my head. Because if I ever find myself in a foxhole late at night and have a hankering for a cigarette, I’ll keep my mouth shut for fear that the steely-eyed guy in the hole next to me might ask me if the Anthony kid was a boy or a girl.
- - -
The author splits his time between Naples and Chicago. Not every day, though. Contact him at email@example.com.