By Jacob M. Appel
I vote in the same suburban elementary school building where my parents cast their ballots during my childhood. Every November, on the first Tuesday after the first Monday, I make my civic pilgrimage past the tiny plastic desks where I once studied phonics and long division, joining dozens of neighbors to wait my turn in the gymnasium where, not so long ago, I displayed my ineptitude at dodgeball. Now we all feed our picks into soundless laser scanners. During my childhood, the county still used mechanical voting booths. When my parents pulled the colossal red lever that rendered their preferences irrevocable, you could hear the magic of democracy in the whir and jangle of the retractable drape.
Election Day was serious business in my house. We voted early, as a family, rising with the dawn to ensure that we didn’t miss our opportunity. After all, the ensuing day might bring a toothache or a fender bender or countless other minor yet pressing distractions hell-bent on keeping us from the polls. Could we take such a chance, my father asked, when Poles and Hungarians risked their lives for such opportunities? Needless to say, I strove to make my six-year-old self worthy of all the little boys behind the Iron Curtain who could not accompany their parents into voting booths. Much as each adult was permitted one vote, precinct rules allowed each child to escort only one parent through the process. Invariably, whether through deceit or plea or willful criminality—on at least one occasion, I crawled beneath the drape—I managed to accompany both my mother and my father.
By the late 1970s, I recall my mother permitting me to pull the mystical lever. To my chagrin, she did not let me select among the candidates. I distinctly remember feeling indignation that the nation did not offer a children’s ballot akin to the children’s menus in restaurants.
My father, in those days, was a registered Republican. He admired Nelson Rockefeller, believed in “good government,” and embraced the twin values of tolerance and hard work. If anyone seemed suited to chase a man like my father out of the GOP, it was Ronald Reagan, whose conservative Presidential campaign in 1980 ultimately pushed him off the party’s yacht. Of course, that didn’t make the inept and unctuous Jimmy Carter any more appealing. By the morning of the election, my father had determined to cast his vote for Congressman John Anderson of Illinois, a good-government-Rockefeller-Republican-turned-independent with zero prospect of occupying the Oval Office. I approved of his decision. I’d seen a photograph of Anderson on the cover of Time Magazine—in a tiny bubble, below larger photos of Carter and Reagan—and he struck me as somebody I’d like to have as an uncle.
And then pandemonium broke loose.
“Are you out of your mind?” demanded my mother. We were riding to the polling station in her ’72 Dodge Dart, a vehicle perpetually belching out leaded exhaust. I rode in the passenger seat, a rare treat. My mother breastfed my brother in back. “You do realize you’re throwing your vote away, don’t you?”
“I’m voting my conscience,” replied my father. “I like Anderson.” You’d have thought he’d confessed to liking Attila the Hun.
“You like Anderson? You’re going to vote for him because you like him? And what are you going to do when Reagan wins the election by one vote and blows up the world?
My father said nothing: Arguing with my mother was like pouring words into a sieve.
“Well?” she demanded again. “Please don’t do this. You don’t want your children to get blown up, do you?”
We pulled into the school parking lot. Each of my parents held one of my hands as we crossed the asphalt and entered the gymnasium. The matter had still not been decided.
“If Reagan wins by one vote,” my mother warned, “I’ll swear I’ll never forgive you.”
Instead of speaking, my father pointed at a paper sign taped to a nearby post: No politicking beyond this point.
“That doesn’t apply to me,” snapped my mother. “I’m your wife.”
And so they stood in line, waiting to vote, my puny body between them, and the future of the free world hanging in the balance.
Jacob M. Appel is the author of the novel, The Biology of Luck, and a physician in New York City. More at: www.jacobmappel.com
Photo Credit: www.washingtonpost.com