Use It or Lose It

Years ago, when I was in the Army, I got stuck in a typing pool. I typed a memo for a captain that contained several erasures. When I gave it to him, he said: "That’s pretty (expletive) typing, Private. I hope you don’t have to make a living at it."

I said nothing, but I watched him, and when he put another handwritten memo into the box, I grabbed it. I typed it perfectly and then walked over to his desk with the typed copy and his original.

"That’s pretty (same expletive) handwriting, sir. I hope your livelihood doesn’t depend on anybody being able to read it."

His jaw dropped, but he didn’t say anything. Captains are not used to being talked to that way by privates. The beauty of being a private, however, is that there is very little the Army can do to you that it is not already doing.

I recount that anecdote from my checkered past to tell you that free speech is meaningless if you don’t use it. If being an American means anything, it means that you don’t have to tolerate personal insults from anybody under any circumstances. At least that’s the way we are taught in the South.

When Lithuania was still part of the Soviet Union, a little girl came home crying. She told her mother that her teacher had stood her up in front of the class and ridiculed her Christian beliefs. Now, this mother was in a totally powerless position. She lived in a dictatorship. The government could do anything it wanted to do with her, and she would be defenseless.

Nevertheless, this brave lady marched down to the local Communist Party headquarters and gave the people there verbal hell. Many, many men and women who live under tyranny nevertheless demonstrate great courage.

Some Russians believe that Alexander Solzhenitsyn did as much as anyone to bring down the Soviet Union. His books about the gulag ripped the faade off the Soviet Union so that not even American liberals could deny anymore what an evil tyranny it was.

After being released from prison, Solzhenitsyn was ordered not to attend the funeral of another Soviet dissident. The great man not only attended the funeral, but he marched up to the casket and kissed the forehead of the dead man. Even though he lived in the one of the world’s worst tyrannies, Solzhenitsyn always acted like a free man.

There are good Americans who show the same kind of courage. In one Central Florida elementary school, the children were told they could bring holiday cards to exchange with their classmates. One little girl affixed stickers to her cards that said "Jesus loves you." When the teacher saw this, she ordered the little girl to take back all of her cards. The child was humiliated.

An attorney friend of mine heard about this, contacted the parents and then informed the school board that it owed the little girl a public apology. The school-board attorney said: "You’ll never get it. I can tie you up in court, and it will cost you $30,000."

"Well," my friend said, "I just happen to have $30,000, and if that’s what it takes, so be it, but the board is going to give this child a public apology." And that’s exactly what happened, because one man decided he would not tolerate an injustice. He didn’t charge the girl’s family a penny.

The government would like us all to spy on our neighbors to detect terrorists. What we really should do is keep our eyes open for injustices, and when we find them, we should speak out.

Many people in this country are powerless. They don’t have much money. They don’t have influential friends. And quite often, because they are powerless, they suffer injustice. What a wonderful country this would be if the powerless knew they were not alone, if they knew that there are other Americans willing to use their voices and their resources to protect them from injustice.

Freedom is a wonderful thing if used properly, but wasting freedom on selfish pursuits is probably a sin God will have a hard time forgiving.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.