Paper and Little Bullets
Those Were the Days
Going through some old stuff I’ve saved, feeling nostalgic, I came across two clippings. Literal clippings, because these are from way back in 1964-65, when English usage rode on actual physical clickety-clack keys and ink and scissors -- on paper.
Here's the first clip, which brought me back to when I was fulfilling what all young American men used to have -- a military service obligation. I was in the Army, at 22, and here's the kind of language I was involved in:
"Appropriate disciplinary and pecuniary action will be initiated promptly against any individual found responsible, through willfulness or neglect, for causing a fire, fighting a fire in a desultory manner, or failing to protect government property during or after a fire."
That sentence is from the original manuscript of the Fort Totten, N.Y., Fire Regulations, which I had been assigned to polish up. It is one of those sentences that looks like it needs polishing to about half its size. But it has a sweet spot: desultory.
That desultory was the kind of occasional highlight that kept me from going crazy in the Army.
Once I read that sentence, I could cling to the image of a soldier so radically not on the alert that he would put up no more than token resistance to the incineration of his fort.
Was there such a soldier in the history of Fort Totten? Was he caught directing a hose lackadaisically around just the edges of blazing government property?
Or was that sentence the work of some experienced -- but also imaginative -- commander of men, who, determined to cover everything, and growing angrier and angrier, kept featuring vividly, with a novelist's vision as well as a moralist's, each of the kinds of malfeasance his men could be counted on to commit around a fire.
Either way, desultory was good for my morale. But I couldn’t resist: I polished it. I changed that sentence to read as follows:
“Appropriate disciplinary and pecuniary action will be initiated promptly against any individual found responsible, through willfulness or neglect, for causing a fire, fighting a fire in a casual manner . . . “
I started to change willfulness to woefulness, but that would have stuck out too much. And casual is a synonym of desultory. And it sort of looked like it might have had some connection with causing. Furthermore, casual has a military meaning — a soldier temporarily attached to a unit, awaiting long-term assignment.
That was my rebellion. It helped me hold on to who I was: a born civilian. And it can’t have done anybody any harm.
Kids are different today. A soldier who is 22, the same age I was back then, is facing prison time for serious malfeasance. He took it upon himself to leak highly, internationally sensitive secret documents. Wanted to impress other online-active vid-game-playing louts. And did. Had his own personal intelligence operation.
Where do you get that kind of sense of yourself? Off the Internet, I guess.
So after the Army I became a newspaperman. And I saved this second clip, an Associated Press Wirephoto with this caption:
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