Columns » Bob Lancaster

Willard redux

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Mr. C. was asked during the current book hoohah what he'd do different if he had it to do over. His answer was typically prolix and circumlocutary, and I'll exercise some editorial license here to compress it: He said there's plenty he'd change. I think most of us would say that. Because even though President Bush has never made a mistake - not one he'll admit to, anyway - the rest of us are all too familiar with St. Paul's plaint that he was forever screwing up, not doing the things he knew he should be doing, doing the very things he knew he shouldn't. Here are a few of the remedial changes I'd make. I'd take better care of my teeth. I might choose the MIT scholarship over the one from SAU. I 'd do more reading in those National Geographics and less searching through them for pictures of bare-breasted island women. I'd use that first package of Lucky Strikes for .22 practice. I'd learn to tie all those stupid knots that kept me out of the Boy Scouts. I'd put all my baseball cards in a lockbox and mail them to myself 50 years into the future. I'd learn to play a musical instrument but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be a clarinet. I'd donate the lime and canary leisure suits to the Salvation Army a couple of years earlier. I'd snatch up some of that first or second or third offering of Wal-Mart common. On a slightly more exalted note, I like to think I'd take to heart the wise counsel concerning self-denial that I've got from wiser heads than my own: that it's a practical virtue and not just a philosophical one. That not yielding to temptation just about always turns out to be the healthier and money-saving choice. That the quick thrill is the short route to remorse and worse. That if Hemingway's formulation is correct - that moral is what you feel good after, and immoral is what you don't -- then there's a lot of heartache to be avoided by making a habit of the polite thanks but no thanks. That's your geezer talking, obviously. Try telling it to these youngsters who don't know what regret is, and look forward to earning themselves some of it, and don't know yet how incredibly soon the big masquerade party will all be over. The weird sisters at their cauldron give us to know that our character flaws control us, rather than vice versa. The devil that got into the thane was murderous Ambition, while the one that seemed never to tire of hoisting Mr. C. by his own petard, speaking of "My Life" again, was dubbed Willard by one of the hoochies. In the book, Mr. C. treats Willard's serial gallivanting with some amazement, almost as if he's hoping he can personally dissociate and disengage, but to his credit he doesn't shirk. There's a little bit of playing the victim of alkie Pap, but not much, and Mr. C. seems to realize that there was bound to have been something more to Willard's hijinks than just the glandular whelming that's fairly standard in this species of Elvisian cockwobbler, else he'd have called a halt or anyhow a hiatus after the mob had formed, passed out flambeaux, and loosed the dogs of impeachment. But he didn't call a halt then. He only grew bolder. It was insane. It was that recklessness - rubbing it in everybody's face, so to speak, even those trying to be on his side - that caused the humongous disappointment that still attaches to his administration. Why on earth would he have done that? "Because I could," he says now, admitting it's a fool's answer, though true, and not even a pisspoor excuse. "Because I could" suggests the involvement here of another devil in addition to the one named Lust. That would be the one named Pride. He thought he was smarter than all the sons-a-bitches out to get him, and he thought he was so much smarter that he could still outfox them if he gave them the gun to shoot him with. He did it not only just because he wanted to, but because he thought he was so clever that he could get away with it. This was the last hurrah of The Kid who wanted to go on being a kid forever, with no thought of tomorrow, the antithesis of that self-denial back yonder in Graf 5, determined to have his Kate and Edith too. When Martin Luther sensed those very same demons occupying his flesh, subverting his highest hopes, he flogged himself to insensibility trying to chase them out, and there must have been fleeting moments in that frenzied span when Mr. C. would've submitted with relief to the haltering of ol' Willard with some kind of double-padlocked jockstrap version of the chastity belt, when he recognized with Pogo who his real enemy was, when he knew he'd been duped as bad as anybody ever had been by poor old Bro. Vaught's superannuated reassurances that maybe there could be a moral exemption or suspension or exclusion for the mere beej, particularly if it successfully headed off (pardon that) the Big Ugly. Mr. C. seems to be wearing a metaphorical version of such a restraining device now. He seems to have outgrown those demons that get bored with oldtimers and go easier on them, and avers, who knows with what sincerity, that if he could go back and do it over this time he'd find a way to act his age rather than his shoe size.

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