Old newspaper columns reveal how little has changed

Cleaning up I found some newspaper columns I wrote in 1995-96 for the Courier-News.

Opening that manila envelope containing a few columns and letters of thanks was like opening a time capsule.

The items included a letter from a Frenchtown family whose son had a terrible disease that turns muscle into bone; stories about the efforts of non-profits to help the handicapped and homeless; and fun stories like the Flemington Falcons, the 1966 Pop Warner Football National Champions.

The stories remind me why at the time being a newspaper staffer was the best job in the world.

I wrote these columns when I was the Hunterdon County bureau chief, based in Flemington.

That town, like working later for the Daily Record in Dover and Morristown, was a treasure trove of news and personalities; just walking down the street could produce news or a column.

But the columns also show how little progress has been made on some issues, and I was surprised to see what I wrote 20 years ago could have been written last week.

First, the fun stuff.

A favorite column was about the Flemington tradition of Christmas carolers: Groups of volunteers had gathered each Christmas morning since 1910 to sing carols to the cold streets and welcoming homes.

The annual event honored the Miss Bessie Vosseler and Miss Bessie Hopewell, founders of the Flemington Children’s Choir School.

I wrote: “Blessed be the song givers; blessed be those devoted to the small, personal things that can not be replaced by glitter.

“Blessed be those who remember.

“As our collective memory and attention span shortens to a microchip’s blur, let us praise those who remind us that life was once not so cluttered, that singing old songs on a cold morning is a ritual worth preserving.

“For it is not their voices that die, but ours; it is not their spirit that shrinks.”

 

Another favorite was about The World Game, played in a  classroom at the Readington Middle School.

The teachers said the idea was to allow the students to use compromise and conciliation to find solutions.

The game was to provide solutions and goals for the world 20 years hence.

The problems the students identified in 1996: “Violence, poverty, terrorism, earthquakes, crime, drugs and the economy.”

In the column I suggested we play the Central Jersey game: “The problem: Years of disorganized policymaking produced a region at war with itself.”

The symptoms: “The culture of the big house assumed pre-eminence. The cities begin to look like poor farms and the suburbs look like country clubs.”

For the Central Jersey game I concluded: “Perhaps until every I-78 exit from Newark to Pennsylvania is filled in with offices and stores we will not be satisfied. Maybe when every available building lot is filled will we give up manifest destiny and turn our sights on repairing the damage we left behind: Violence, poverty, terrorism, crime, drugs and the economy.”

The ideal world for 2016 imagined by the Readington students: “Green and healthy; enough clothing; world peace; clean water; fix the hole in the ozone layer; more stable population growth; cure for diseases; more doctors and nurses and protection of the rain forest.”

Those kids were more optimistic than I was.

The last set of columns could have been written today and deal with homelessness and the social safety net.

The first was about a man named Jack Connell of Clinton, who once sued the town over his right to be homeless.

His logic: “The average homeless person is just trying to exist. They just want a place to live.”

This was who he was defending: “They get help from groups such as the Interfaith Hospitality Network, Women’s Crisis Services, Fisherman’s Mark and food banks.

“Sometimes they seek shelter from an abusive husband. Sometimes they lose themselves in a mist of drugs and alcohol.

“(Connell) knows there is grace in the face of a hungry child and healing in holding the hand of a lonely old man; there is forgiveness in being poor and pride in standing when no one gives a damn.

“Years on the street have taught him that we are all just human after all.

It might be the first step to freedom.”

But here is the line on the column that could have  been written today: “These are the people the Republicans were talking about last week when they were talking about cutting entitlement programs.”

That leads to the last column, about welfare reform, the big Washington. D.C. fight, and its potential impact of a group of women learning life skills at a workshop offered by NORWESCAP.

I wrote this: “National Republicans love welfare reform. It gives them something to go into all those white suburbs and scare the country club voters into worrying about.

“And it gives them a handy, albeit racist, villain to argue for budget cuts.”

“But the national Republicans said welfare has to go, so the president (Bill Clinton) has to agree because his polls show he will be seen as being soft on welfare. And our governor (Christie Todd Whitman)  has to look tough so it can be said she looks properly vice presidential. And so it goes.”

I concluded the column this way: “(Case worker) has a big job: She has to explain to people with targets on their backs how to duck when she’s being told to stand still so one can be painted on her back.”

How is this any different 20 years later?

Is this not what teachers in Colorado, Arizona, Kansas and West Virginia were striking and marching about?

Today the federal government handed the ultra wealthy and corporation so much tax relief that they cannot spend or hide it fast enough, and the rest of us are going to have to tighten belts to pay off a couple trillion more in federal debt.

The 1996 kids at Readington Middle School concluded that cooperation and understanding helped solve problems, but that money makes the world go round.

I concluded that column this way: “It’s an easy trade. A little money for a little hope. Sometimes it’s the same thing.”

In 1996 were unwilling to make that trade

And today we are even more unwilling.

What’s left?
The goals unmet in  two decades: Violence, poverty, terrorism, crime, drugs and the economy.

About michaelstephendaigle

I have been writing most of my life. I am the author of the award-winning Frank Nagler Mystery series. "The Swamps of Jersey (2014); "A Game Called Dead" (2016) -- a Runner-Up in the 2016 Shelf Unbound Indie Author Contest; and "The Weight of Living" (2017) -- First Place winner for Mysteries in the Royal Dragonfly Book Awards Contest.
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