Commentary: Signposts that mark changes in our society

Richard W. Hoover

As opposed to earth-shattering developments, signs of historic change may first appear as small, personal signposts that pop up, signaling that life, unfortunately, will not get better.

Motoring with Mother and Father through Georgia in 1949, we passed a sign– “Stuckey’s/Southern Pralines”— announcing that Stuckey’s was 30 or so miles ahead. Fine. But what occurred with such mounting excitement that we were soon screaming? … Yet more Stuckey signs, metastasizing into enormous billboards marking each passing mile, then the half and quarter miles, then the yards! Then, as I simultaneously held my breath and jumped out of my little socks, we rounded a sharp curve to behold a towering sign with a broad red arrow pointing straight to a shack below. It read: “This is Stuckey’s!” Mother registered our amazement in her diary.

Eventually, it dawned on me that this blazing signage was both ground breaking and out of proportion, that I had witnessed a prefiguration of man’s overweening contempt for landscape, a contempt now seen everywhere, say, on developing Routes 11 and 340/522!

On a Miami sidewalk, early 1962, a fellow came wearing a “Washington and Lee University” shirt. This enthusiastic alumnus of a half year halted him with a big greeting and comradely hug. Entirely taken aback, he exclaimed that he was just wearing the shirt – “OK?!” – and moved on.

Today, wearing the shirt of a school one has not attended is no biggie. In 1962 it was misrepresentation. Was I standing, then, on the cusp of decline? Whatever, I have never repeated that performance, certainly not with a big hug!

Another signpost: Germany, 1963, with my platoon on a 20-mile hike in killing heat. The water truck got lost. I spied a dribbling water pipe poking from a field’s edge and formed the men around to fill their canteens. Suddenly, a private broke ranks, ran to the pipe, put his lips around the spout and drank. A shout from the rear: “Lavender (that was his name), you ______ _______!” (No need to write these words; their first letters are the initials of our 13th president). I had never heard such revolting language! Shocked, determined to charge the soldier who had used it, I was later cooled down by level-headed, but wide-eyed superiors – wide-eyed because this obscenity was also new to them!

I had witnessed a personal historic first, one which would prefigure more cultural coarsening. Indeed, the expression has since carved a place in cinema, has passed into some vernaculars where its use, again, is no biggie!

In the 70s I returned to W&L to discover another signpost a-popping: passing right by Lee Chapel, cadets from neighboring Virginia Military Institute no longer saluted the general lying inside. What traditions and historical realities were they rejecting? What new pasts and new heroes might this presage? With what consequences?

The recollection of these personal historic firsts was launched by another signpost popping up from Section A of last week’s Northern Virginia Daily – an Associated Press article reporting that a NBA star was found “throwing up all kinds of stuff” in a brothel. In a brothel! First time I had seen that in the mainstream media.

What might this herald?

First, the coverage of trash is less confined to the lower depths where it belongs, e.g., to the “National Enquirer, The Mail,” and much of cable TV. Now, it migrates from the Northern Virginia Daily’s Section B Entertainment pages (see the recent coverage there of “Big Pimpin”) to Section A where, no doubt, it lusts after front page treatment. The firewalls are down and that which threatens the interests, values and culture of most Americans now competes with hard news for mainstream space!

Further, CNN, FOX, and AP have cloaked this rummy event in normalcy – weeping family bedside drama, Jessie Jackson joining hands in prayer, a brothel entrepreneur righteously standing up for “my girls.” (By the way, CNN’s Carol Costello looked mortified when reporting this material!).

In other words, does such broadcasting of sordid events indicate that Americans are becoming sympathetic and accepting of them? Is there, in fact, a new normalcy? I fear that another signpost has just been added to the collection.

Richard Hoover, a retired Foreign Service officer, resides in southern Warren County. He is also a Lord Fairfax Soil & Water Conservation District candidate in the Nov. 3 election.