I remember the summer before I went to college my mother, my grandmother and I sat on the front porch in Punxsutawney Pa. We had been talking about what things I would have to bring to the campus in Geneseo as I was to room with two other girls in the dormitory. After a lively discussion filled with memories and jokes about what mama had taken to her dorm when she went to Elmira; my mother injected a serious question to my grandmother. "What advice do you have for Claire when she gets to college and meets new friends and joins clubs and groups?"
My grandmother got very serious and reflective and her words of advice were completely unexpected to a teenager leaving home for the first time. She did not off er advise about smoking, drinking, or sex with boys. Instead she addressed a topic which has stayed with me up until now and that I remember so succinctly. I will have to paraphrase but the driving and clear intent has remained etched in my mind.
My grandmother told me to be very careful of any groups I joined, political, moral or social because the ramifications of the beliefs held by the groups could have a negative impact years later. It was 1961 and we were still dealing with the effects of the McCarthy era.
"Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist party?"
In the 1950s, thousands of Americans who toiled in the government, served in the army, worked in the movie industry, or came from various walks of life had to answer that question before a congressional panel.
SENATOR JOSEPH MCCARTHY rose to national prominence by initiating a probe to ferret out communists holding prominent positions. During his investigations, safeguards promised by the Constitution were trampled.
Why were so many held in thrall to the Wisconsin lawmaker? Why was an environment that some likened to the SALEM WITCH TRIALS tolerated?
My grandmother was well aware of the lives which had been ruined by the relentless probing of the most innocent associations in Politics, the movie industry and even employment and social circles.
She was stern as she told me to investigate carefully before joining any political group and even sororities and clubs like theater and music could be subject to misinterpretation.
Her words and examples chilled me and I was subsequently very careful about what I joined.
Caution has followed me through the years. I have always been outspoken among friends and family but was careful of my words and actions. I have never gone to or participated in a March, or Sit-in, or Political Rally. I have never been active in a political party and have always been somewhat secretive about whom I voted for. At work I had many political discussions but was careful to note I was being the "Devil's advocate" iso owning to my somewhat radical, liberal and even Progressive views. It has only been in the context of human rights that I have stood up and spoken my piece. Regardless of how fearful I have been in other areas, when it comes to my fellow human beings I know no fear. I have tried always to recognize everyone's dignity and beliefs.
I have always regretted being so cowardly in the paths my grandmother warned me about, but in my old age I have become much more open in expressing myself and my beliefs. "
My concern is that we are again entering an age of insulation and isolation and that if we are not very careful idiots like McCarthy and other radicals could rise once more among us.