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In the County Home

Fiction by Thomas E, Phipps, Jr.
Urbana, Illinois

Installed on 7 July 2002

      Eh? You'll have to speak up. You want to know how I pass my time here? No you don't want to know that, and I don't want to tell you.
      TV? Well, I do still have my eyesight, unlike many. But my hearing is shot. Anyway, I never have been one for watching it. I come from the prehistoric era of radio. In my day they had soap opera for kids, on the radio. Know what I mean? Practically every weekday evening there was Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, waving the flag for Hudson High, or Little Orphan Annie and Sandy, arfing for Ovaltine. They were among the crummier examples, in my expert opinion. My mother was always trying to raise the tone by getting me to listen to the Singing Lady. She loved the Singing Lady ... but I couldn't stand that pabulum ... not after the raw meat of Killer Kane and Ardela, the villains who pursued Buck Rogers and Dr. Huer in the Twenty-fifth Century. The one I really went for was Dick Steele. Nobody recalls that any more, but it was tops in my book - right up there with The Shadow. I still remember the wonderful laugh that went with "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!" They say Orson Welles contributed that laugh. It was a masterpiece ... no opera basso could match it today.
      You may sigh over the intellectual impoverishment of kids back then, deprived of television and forced to use nothing more than their ears in order to get their vicarious kicks. But you can save your sympathy. They were better off using their imagination. Believe me, a kid's imagination is more vivid than any special effects ever produced. I've never been as scared by anything in the movies as I was when the bad guy was tunneling with a blowtorch into Dick Steele's sealed room, or whatever. It was all done with sound effects. The visuals were provided free of charge by me ... and they were never equaled in my later experience.
      What was I going on about? Kids. Back in those days kids had a bit of freedom. They didn't have their activities planned and their lives scheduled to the minute by clingy do-gooders. Hell, they didn't even know they were doing "activities." A whole vocabulary has sprung up like weeds during my lifetime to ensure right-thinking through right-speaking. Nowadays it's safety first and no risks. But, you know ... as I look back on it, I think the only times I was really alive were the times I was taking risks. Today, people go through life from cradle to grave without being alive even once. They're protected from it - protected by their friends, their neighbors, their government. I used to shoot a .22. My father encouraged it. He would target shoot with me. Not today. Nowadays, guns are dangerous, risky - evil. Or take the Fourth of July - a celebration of freedom. In those days boys like me blew the badness out of their systems by blowing up firecrackers. Today, they live like heavenly cherubs, sung to perpetual mental rest by choirs of angels and anesthetized by computers ... until the first moment they can bust out from under society's all-seeing protection and get into drugs or motorcycle gangs or corporate crime. Even mention firecrackers to modern do-gooders and you get a lurid lecture on burns, blood poisoning, hospitalization, madness, and death. We're great ones for worst-case scenarios - equating potentialities to actualities. And statistics ... you name it, statistics will prove you shouldn't do it. This is the USA I'm talking about - the land of the risk-free and home of the safe. Hitler promised his people Ordnung - fascistic order - and only fifty years later, what do you know, America delivers on the promise.
      Where was I? Oh, yes, the Fourth of July. Let me tell you a story. Back then people aspired to culture. In my family, culture took the tangible form and accompaniment of the piano. Somewhere along the line we acquired an upright. I was supposed to learn to play it. Those were dark days for me, as I had no aptitude. But my mother had a shining vision of me as a virtuoso, and I had to take lessons from Miss Tubbs. Imagine being cursed with both spinsterhood and a name like that. But in those days I had no sympathy to waste on her - she was The Enemy, and I was wily in devising tactics to thwart her. You may not think there's any relation of all this to the Fourth of July. Patience - there is some connection, I just have to reconstruct it.
      In those primitive times there was no flood of junk mail, but a tell-tale trickle had begun. One important day, I recall, there came to our house a fat mail-order fireworks catalog. It originated from out of state - Ohio or Iowa, someplace ... I still get those two mixed up. That catalog was a wonder, an Eldorado. I pored over it when I was supposed to be practicing. There were cherry bombs, salutes, fountains, Catherine wheels, Roman candles, seductive varieties of sparklers, snakes ... The heart grew faint with longing. Mine did, anyway. I wore the thing out ... and finally pinned all my hopes on the $5 Assortment. That doesn't sound like much, but in the depths of the depression $5 was a king's ransom.
      From that moment my mother was under siege. I deviled her. No stratagem was too low, no argument too specious. I had to have that Assortment. Finally, the poor lady made a desperate bargain with the devil. If I would learn to play the Minuet in G, I could have what my mortgaged soul longed for. Miss Tubbs and I had our work cut out for us, as July was only a few months away. Unfortunately from my mother's point of view, there was a loose screw in the bargain - in that it turned on an undefined concept, "learning to play." I was perfectly satisfied that the plodding, excruciating sequence of sour notes I produced met the condition of learning - long before my mother could be browbeaten into accepting such a travesty. Memory mercifully draws the curtain. Suffice it to say that this bargain, like all of Old Nick's, awarded hands-down victory to the forces of darkness. At the eleventh hour - as it were, in the nick of time - I got my Assortment.
      And what a day it was, when the mails operated and the Assortment arrived! If I live to a hundred - which seems abysmally likely - I shall never again get such an over-abundant fulfillment of my dreams. The box was more than two feet long - a length set by the skyrockets and Roman candles - and about six inches square in the other dimensions, crammed, jammed, and packed with explosives to delight the heart of any budding terrorist. In all things in my mail-ordering history during later life as a consumer there has been some taint, some hint, some shade of shortfall from the summit of prior hope or expectation. But that Stakhanovite Assortment was different. It over-fulfilled the quota. There was no commercial corner cutting. It really delivered. It was pure value for money. One Fourth of July did not scratch the surface of its bounty. Three or four years later, come each Fourth, I was still mining its treasures ... and in truth I grew up and went off to college with the contents of that Pandora'sbox still not fully expended. I suppose my mother ultimately ditched it. I never inquired. One thing was sure: it far outlasted my proficiency in the Minuet in G.
      Another Glorious Fourth came along this year, as it has a persistent way of doing ... but I have to notice the difference. Now the Fourth has become a spectator sport, as we have become a spectator nation. The kids no longer do it themselves. That would be risky. Now they go in safety to their zombie old ages with the recollection of risks not run, challenges not met, excitements not experienced but only watched ... abundantly watched. The pattern is established and approved by an all-powerful army of Puritans, academic theorists, gurus, pundits, know-it-alls, right-thinkers, right-talkers, caregivers, and do-gooders. The next chapter will be virtual reality. With virtual reality will come virtual lives for everybody, suspended animation - something like the life I live right now, if I understand it. But mark my words ... in the kingdom of the virtual livers, the man who does the plumbing is king.
      Stick around, sonny. No need to rush off. I had it in mind to tell you some more of my geezer stories. Don't recollect any at the moment, though. I can see you have to be going - getting restless. Thanks for letting me talk at you. It's been a pleasure. I don't get many visitors here ... outlived my welcome on this planet. A bit like being in prison or hell ... but better, because I'm told that in those places they have compulsory TV.
      What's that? Did you say Assortment?
      Assignment. Assignment? Who from? Miss Tubbs?
      Oh ... your editor. Well, if it's human-interest stories you're looking for, maybe you should talk to the ladies. You may have noticed there's no lack of them around here. Bet they can tell you some hot ones. They're the last of their breed, you know. There's no more ladies ... all we've got in the pipeline now is women, thanks to the triumph of feminism that was incubated in our academies of higher learning. Lots of progress in that direction - irreversible, I'd say. Got rid of the cultural aspirations, too, as a side benefit, clean as a whistle. The ladies were the ones who cherished those aspirations, get it? No ladies, no aspirations. Simple - what they call a no-brainer. Same story for civilization. Funny how higher education wrote finis to all forms of higher aspiration. Treason of the clerks. Not exactly the outcome the taxpayers of my generation thought they were buying.
      Maybe you'll stay for supper? I think they signed on the Singing Lady as dietician here ... serves up a powerfully nutritious predigested pabulum, vitamins added. The idea is that if society denies an old, worn-out, fed-up, useless person the right to death it owes it to that person to make what's left of life at least equivalent to death, or slightly worse if possible. So the stuff is totally unredeemed by flavor. I believe if you act real helpless she'll chew it for you. You won't like it, but if you can gag it down it will do good to you. Same as everything in America.

Dr. Phipps passed away on July 11, 2016.
See: Tom's World Science Data Profile.