By Tom Squitieri:
The Press Club bar closes early now, to the regret of many of the dwindling number of old timers. The younger members were full of energy as they dashed out to begin a weekend of holiday parties. The bar emptied as quickly as if it were 40 years ago and a hot story just broke.
I thought I would sneak out and go down the hall and maybe pretend to find the once-hidden 24/7 poker room. No such luck. The efficient staff was already cleaning up and making sure all were leaving; they also had parties to burst forth later.
So I did what comes naturally on a dark, windy evening in downtown D.C. I walked though the streets of our beautiful capital, remembering the history made—shivering from both the Potomac River wind and the visions of what I sensed was coming.
As is often the case, I rambled toward the monuments and wound up near my namesake, Thomas, at his memorial near the river. My hope was he may have offered up wisdom to my tiring eyes and my shaking soul.
Across the river, the Pentagon stood in subdued light, looking like a fortress from the outside. Yet I knew better. Even there, the system was crumbling, and false words tried to make everyone sound brave and smart. No doubt they were patting themselves on the backs for their new promotions and laughing smugly about how they evade reporters’ questions.
“You wrote something before, Mr. Jefferson. Several things, actually, to pull together an unruly bunch into one voice. Please do it again,” I said to his stoic statue. He merely looked forward, out at the Tidal Basin.
“He is not going to answer you,” said a faint voice from behind me. “Even they are unsure what to say.”
I turned to see the Old Geezer, moving slowly, his eyes sunken and his breathing halting as he slowly walked up, paused, and sat on the marble steps.
“That is my fear also, Old Geezer. That the wolves that sit outside the house of democracy finally have the key, and they have determined how to guide the sheep to dinner,” I said.
The Old Geezer finally made it to the top of the steps. I had not seen him for a few years, years that had taken a toll on the country and on most of us. He seemed shorter this year, more bent over, but his smile reappeared as he pulled an old flask from his pocket.
“Isn’t it fun to still break national park regulations,” he said as he took a taste, then handed me the metal container. I took a sip and recognized what I thought was a long-lost elixir—moonshine from the hills of Western Pennsylvania.
It warmed my body and, at least for the moment, my spirits.
“That taste reminds of days when politicians were not a threat to democracy, when reporters were not targets all over the world, where challenges always eventually met with teamwork,” I said.
The Old Geezer sniffed and wiped my mouth with a handkerchief. “Those days are in a hibernation that extends long past the natural winter, Tomaso,” he said.
“Everyone hoped—and that is the word, 'hoped'—that 2023 would be 'normal' again,” I said. “Well, it is, but not the normal they expected or wanted. It’s the normal where the bad guys wear the badges and the dwindling number of good guys have no idea what to do.”
He took another sip and looked again at the water. So I continued.
“I thought the nightmares of the past were aberrations. That ethnic cleansing and war rapes were not going to happen again, that the last elections were to correct the course, that the words of those honored here would ring loud and true again, and rouse the slumbering to see the nightmare that is unfolding. But I feel this is a Planet of the Apes scenario, where I am going to wake up soon and see things that once meant greatness are graveyards.”
“The wrong things have been emancipated,” I said. “We are living in country now where the information we need to govern ourselves has been replaced by political spin and propaganda, hate and vile bravado.”
“What are your dreams telling you, Tomaso,” the Old Geezer said. “Have you learned to listen to them yet?”
I nodded yes. “Very much so, and yet unclear. They show turmoil and voices from the past trying to help. Reporter friends reappearing, offering smiles, and even phone numbers, and reassurance but then leaving with no pathways. Lots of trips to places that seem to be on Earth but are on no maps.
“And there was even a call on a land line, with man’s voice—not computer calls—saying my name, as if pleading for help, or warnings.”
The Old Geezer took another sip and said, “And I bet you did not respond.”
He knew. “No, I did not,” I said. “I was hoping that what you told me once—that the quieter you become, the more you are able to hear—would work.”
He shook his head no and looked at Jefferson. “Those once wise guidelines are perforated,” he said. He turned to me. “You have to work harder than ever before and strip it all away to think clearly and wisely now, Tomaso.“
My turn again to take a sip. “You know, Old Geezer, when I was a little boy, I used to run as fast I could from the darkened basement, afraid of the monsters that I knew where there, only to be laughed at by my father. ‘There is nothing there to be afraid of,’ he would say.
“Well, I am no longer afraid of the dark. In fact, sometimes I long for it, for I see much better in it. And those monsters are still there.”
The Old Geezer nodded. “They were always there,” he said. “You just knew how to get out of their grasp before.
“Don’t let them catch you now,” he said. “Many are obvious . . . but many remain hidden just around the corner as you walk your dog.”
We were quiet for a moment, and the Old Geezer looked back at Jefferson. “You know the conflagration that will come,” he said.
Then I had an idea.
“Old Geezer, we cannot save the world tonight, but we can save a few old trees. A friend sent me a note saying how the police department in her city told her that the left-over trees from their annual tree sale would be free, lying on the ground at a street corner. That seems to be the perfect conclusion for how the year transpired—good things tossed aside. So let’s go grab them and decorate them all and keep some bright lights glowing.”
The Old Geezer nodded. “A good idea from you, Tomaso. I guess miracles can still happen. You go get the Jeep, and I will wait here.”
I walked slowly down the slick steps, as I listened to the Old Geezer impart some more wisdom with Jefferson. Soon, though, his voice faded, and as I walked by the other monuments, I heard Dr. King praying for a new dream and FDR voicing about a new fear as they struggled to find words and a way to heal a plummeting, broken nation.
And I heard Lincoln crying.
Tom Squitieri is a three-time winner of the Overseas Press Club and White House Correspondents’ Association awards for work as a war correspondent. His poetry appears in several publications and venues. He writes most of his poetry while parallel parking or walking his dogs, Topsie and Batman.