Freedoms so basic we forget that people fought and died for them

By Bob Howard

 

An e-mail came in late yesterday afternoon – a pleading note from a food-poisoned editor, begging me for a story – and now, at about a quarter after five on Wednesday morning I find myself hurtling down blood highway, dodging eviscerated raccoons and wavering semis, with one eye open and a cup of instant coffee gurgling ominously in my gut. I’m supposed to meet a man named Frank, at the Donut Nook on East and Cohasset. The assignment is politics. Frank meets with a group of friends and colleagues and, over coffee, they talk shop. This morning I am meant to introduce myself, to observe, to take notes on these men and their political views, but more importantly, to annotate this fundamental process of democracy: debate.

 

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from infringing on citizens’ right to peaceably assemble, and to say whatever they want to say – even if that speech is highly critical of the administration in power, or of the government in general. We take this right for granted these days, but the Founding Fathers didn’t pen the Bill of Rights lightly. Throughout the history of the world and to this day, there have been many parts of the world where questioning or criticizing the leadership of one’s country could land you in prison or worse. Specifically protecting free speech from government impediment was a radical act in its day. Frank and his group choose to exercise that freedom.

 

I arrive early at the donut shop – no one else is there, but a bell rings when I enter, and a young woman appears from the back and takes my order. I ask her what time they open and she explains it’s a 24-hour joint, catering late night to the intoxicated students, and early morning to the working crowd, and the folks like Frank who come to read the paper and shoot the breeze. There is a dazzling array of pastries: chocolate twists, maples bars, old fashioned style. I order a single sugar donut and a cup of coffee, then grab a seat in the back of the room.

 

People filter in and out: cowboys, casually dressed business people, even the odd gym enthusiast. Aside from the woman behind the counter there’s a young man working in a separate room, behind a clear pane of glass but in the dark. He is steadily rolling and kneading dough.

 

Frank strides in shortly after 6:00 a.m., but I don’t recognize him, I’ve never met him before. I had only spoken with him once, over the telephone, yesterday. During that call he informed me that some of the people in his crowd “weren’t too thrilled” about the idea of my being there, in a reporting capacity, but then told me I was welcome to come anyway, if I wanted to. He sits at a table near the counter and is soon joined by a couple of other fellows. They have newspapers, and soon they’ve struck up a conversation about the lead story – a heartbreaking account of a shooting carried out in Pakinstan, by members of the Taliban, against a fourteen year old girl. Malala Yousafzai was an unlikely activist who had dared to speak out for women’s rights, and against the oppressive rule of the Taliban. For speaking out against the unofficial tribal government, she was shot in the head. I’m intrigued, and it’s also dawning on me that, more than likely, these are the guys I am here to meet. I also realize, to my chagrin, that at this point I am basically eavesdropping on their conversation, and I am wondering if this really qualifies as “journalism.”

 

After a few minutes I work up the nerve to move over towards them and introduce myself. In spite of Frank’s forewarning everyone is gracious, and they immediately invite me to take a seat and join them. My coffee is quickly refilled as I’m introduced to the four at the table. Frank and I finally meet face to face. I’m relieved, but then their conversation, that had been rolling along so smoothly, jerks to a halt.

 

This doesn’t surprise me too much – the newest member of their informal group has been coming down to the Donut Nook for eight years, and a fellow named Mike tells me he’s been frequenting that shop since the early 1970’s. They’ve developed an easy rapport, and so here I am, the intruder, the reporter. At least I’m not sticking a microphone in their faces, and I’ve even left my notepad back on the table I came from. It doesn’t take long before the conversation is rolling again.

 

These gentlemen are conservative – not necessarily all Republican, but firm believers in a limited Federal Government and a strict adhesion to the Constitution. A sharp-dressed man named Steve explains to me the specific amendments in the Bill of Rights he is particularly fond of – if memory serves, he mentions the first, second, fourth, and tenth.

 

With the Presidential election less than a month away, it’s impossible to avoid the subject of the President, his record, and the challenger. This is not an Obama crowd. I don’t get the impression anyone at the table is really enamored of Romney, but it doesn’t matter, because the collective disdain for the policies of the last four years provides all the passion they need.

 

The subject of communism comes up – specifically when I am asking about the inability of Congress to reach compromise, and the Republican’s recent jag to the right – the ousting of former moderates and their replacement with rigidly ideological TEA Party members. Mike explains that, when you see communist tendencies emerging, you don’t have the luxury of compromising. It dawns on me that these gentlemen are all old enough to understand the “Red Scare” first hand; to experience the very real and tangible specter of Communism. To my generation and younger, I don’t think the word is as loaded as it is to the generations ahead of us – the folks who lived through a time when Communists overtly battled to take over the world. When Mike uses the word “communism,” he says it in a way that presumes it is a terrible thing, and there is no requirement of further explanation. I don’t ask him for one, anyway.

 

I sit there with the group for nearly two hours. During that time, different people join us, while others get up to go about their days. I think some people might have felt the views expressed were tough – and I don’t think the people espousing them would disagree. But these men reflected great compassion for their fellow man. When they say people should get off welfare and work, it isn’t simply that they want people to work – it’s that they want people to experience success, and to make better lives for themselves. I get the impression that a strong sense of faith resonates within these men. I feel a twinge of discomfort when I mention to David, a member of the Knights of Columbus, that the column I write is entitled “Immaculate Infection.”

 

Overall I leave with the impression that there is more common ground out there than the “liberals” and the “conservatives” tend to believe. But it’s as though there is a language barrier, a difficulty in explaining the contrasting points of view.

 

Whatever though, I’m flying and ready to go into work, loaded up on eight cups of coffee and sugar donuts. The Donut Nook is packed with young moms and children by the time I finally say my goodbyes. People are streaming in dressed in bathrobes and pajamas. I look at the clock on the wall – 7:45 in the morning. Good God.

 

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Bob Howard has been living, working, and writing in Northern Califonria since he moved to Chico in early 2000. In January 2011, he and his wife Trish relocated to Los Molinos, 30 minutes north of Chico, where they are the proud proprietors of the Double Happiness Farm. There they grow organic food, ornamental plants and trees, and generally work to enjoy the beauty of this great region.