Sunday, January 01, 2012

Heaven's Rap Sheet

The new year brings news of a 16-year-old girl named Heaven Chamberlain, arrested with Occupy the Caucus protesters in Des Moines along with her mother.

Heaven, detained once before at an Occupy rally in October, says her rap sheet is like lines on a résumé (“It shows that I’m active with the community and that I care about people’s opinions”) and that she plans to run for president in 2036 after a stop brief in the Senate.

Ms. Chamberlain (no descendant of Neville, by all evidence) takes me back over seven decades when I was her age and preparing to become a foot soldier in World War II, but my teen-age rap sheet was different.

College had become unreal, unbearable, so I signed up for a summer in the Maine woods on a Federal Youth Project, an odd choice for a kid who had never been away from city streets or held a shovel or an ax.

It was a fiasco, of course. I rode all night on the Boston & Maine Railroad, drank coffee on an empty stomach, threw up at 3 A.M., arrived in camp for a checkup by a gaunt woman doctor who sent me into a panic by fingering my scrotum and, after a day in the woods that is now a merciful blank, I was put back on a southbound train. So much for a would-be Paul Bunyan from the Bronx and, all in all, no preparation for going into the Army a year later to train for hand-to-hand combat.

But if I was afraid, and I certainly was, I was also restless. I couldn't concentrate on classes so that fall, when the Daily News had lost enough Irish Catholic copy boys in the draft to start hiring Jews, I left school and took a job there in some blind urge to meet what was coming head-on, an eager lemming packing his bags for a seaside vacation. If I was going to be shoved into the world, I wanted to take some experience with me, even if it meant being drafted before my college exemption ran out.

In four months, I learned a few things. While waiting to run errands, I taught myself to touch-type. Each day I carried gallons of coffee in cardboard containers to rewrite men with headphones while their fingers flew across keyboards and copy editors who sat around a horseshoe-shaped table pushing thick pencils, smoking and gossiping. (One of them, a nasty man who never let a copy boy keep the change, was later charged with treason for failing to stop moonlighting as a flack for the Japanese government after Pearl Harbor.)

On Saturday afternoons I would meet a photographer at Madison Square Garden and rush back with film of high-school basketball for the back page of Sunday’s early edition. The first Monday I turned in my expense slip: ten cents for the round trip by streetcar. The head copy boy tossed it back, “Put in for taxis, like everybody else.”

At a four-alarm fire, again a photographer’s coolie, I was clutching film through heavy smoke when a fireman spotted me, shook his head at my knickers and the press card in my cap, took me firmly by the shoulders and turned me in the opposite direction, away from the fire.

I tell all this to Heaven Chamberlain, and generations between, not only to underscore the difference in expectations back then but to suggest that something may have been lost in an era of self-entitlement that equates carrying placards for TV cameras as “being active with the community.”

All my best to Heaven and her counterparts now reoccupying Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, but they may want to consider trying some scut work like those of us did back then, and try bringing coffee to campaign workers and getting closer to the electoral fires by ringing doorbells.

Not all presidents start out by being community organizers or Wall Street tycoons.

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