The sign by my seat said, “Fasten seatbelt whilst seated,” so clearly it was a British airline. My daughter and wife were alongside me and we were off to Europe for a break from the news. Our mad king had essentially been indicted in sworn testimony, and he claimed vindication and offered to testify under oath, forgetting the one he’d taken in January. Crazy times; it’s good to go away.
In London, the Brits were voting themselves into a deadlock, and the backrooms were busy with desperate dealmaking, according to the papers, but none of it affected us. We were quite happy whilst we strolled about.
In our hotel, I took a shower and saw that on the shower knob, in between Hot and Cold was the word “Tepid,” and that was enough to make me consider emigration. The engineer who designed that knob loved the language. It is the richest language in widespread use today, and “tepid” is a useful and lovely word. An American engineer would regard this as pointless — logic tells you that in between Hot and Cold is something in-between, lukewarm or moderate or room- temperature, lackadaisical, halfhearted, nondescript, whatever — and the use of “tepid” would be effete and elitist and unmanly and cause other engineers to avoid you in the cafeteria. Best to just use H and C. Or a red dot and a blue dot. A country where engineers are fond of language is a country I could be happy in, never mind politics.
We took a fast train to Brussels — 180 mph — and another to Rotterdam and walked along a canal, five-story brick tenements with bay windows and belfries, arched passageways leading to walled gardens behind, and on one corner a little cafe where we sat down at a table in a patch of sunlight.
The server who approached said, “Hey,” and handed us menus. Holland is a small country with a long history of trade and shipping, so it is multilingual, and she was prepared, I’m sure, for us to speak Dutch, German, French, English or a combination. We, being Americans, chose English, and ordered croissants and coffee, speaking quietly lest people around us hear our accents and ask us about the current administration.
The people around us, however, were deep into their own conversations. Even a table of four teenagers was engrossed in talk, none of them fingering an iPhone, texting, posting or checking voicemail, but looking each other in the face and speaking as young people in America used to do, except these were speaking Dutch.
The next morning we boarded a ship bound for Oslo and stood at the aft rail, inhaling salt air, watching the gulls swooping down low looking for fish vacuumed up in the ship’s wake, and I thought about the great armada of June 1944 that crossed over to Normandy in the predawn hours.
My old phys-ed teacher Stan Nelson was manning a Navy observation boat in that armada and steered it close to the shore to get a read on the state of German resistance. He never mentioned this in the ’50s when I was in his gym class. He simply kept a close watch for shirkers who tried to weasel out of doing the rope climb or the diving somersault over the horse. “Keillor, get back in line,” he yelled. I think of him plying these waters in his little boat. Did the Navy teach him sufficient French that if his boat got blown up and he had to swim to shore, he could ask a farm family to hide him in the barn?
The Europeans have a history of dealing with the madness of rulers; we do not. Lyndon Johnson was vain and dramatic and at times dishonest, but he had some principles and pushed through the Civil Rights Act and Medicare and thereby changed the country for the better.
Now here is a president who communicates in little specks and splats of twitters, leaving his minions to try to say clearly what, if anything, he thinks. The country will weary of this, the dead eyes, the heavy scowl, the jutting chin. The man’s base will discover eventually that he is a carnival hoax, the Cardiff Giant, the Wild Man of Borneo who eats live chickens. You can’t fool 40 percent of the people 90 percent of the time.
Meanwhile, honorable Republicans who have dedicated their lives to public service sit in committee and listen to insanity. If a man with a pistol in hand walks into a 7-Eleven and asks for money and his defense attorney explains that he was only asking for a loan, the gun was not loaded and the handkerchief over his face was for purposes of sanitation, this is a joke, right? Am I right? And if the courtroom takes it seriously, then we must bring in the psychiatrists.
Garrison Keillor is an author and radio personality.