Two Redheads

Ella and I were down at Penn’s Landing this afternoon, checking out the old WWII submarine and the USS Olympia, Admiral Dewey’s flagship at the Battle of Manila. Afterward we stopped for a few minutes at a park bench. Nearby, an attractive, very pregnant young woman was watching two young boys—her sons, it turned out—scampering around. They were ignoring her warnings not to get too close to the water, and she was starting to get exasperated, but smiled when she saw a slim, muscular guy—nineteen years old, if that—with bright auburn hair in a crew cut sauntering toward them.

“Look, kids!” she cried. “It’s Uncle Frankie!”

For the next few minutes her brother played with the kids, grabbing one or the other and pretending to toss them into the water. In the brief intervals when he stopped to talk to her, it became clear that he was on leave from Iraq, but was only in Philly for a day or two. There was a certain intensity to the way he played with those kids, as if to get as much possible roughhousing crammed into a short period of time. His sister was relaxed and upbeat when they were talking, but when the three boys were out running around, she watched from a distance and fought back tears.

Heading back toward town Ella and I came across an anti-war protest at a busy street corner. On one side a man wearing an oversized skull on his head stood next to a “US OUT OF IRAQ” sign. Across the intersection from him, a cluster of protesters milled around a young guy with deep red hair. He was pacing back and forth, speaking into a microphone—it was the sound of his tirade carrying over quite a distance that had drawn me there, curious, like many others in the crowd that had formed to watch.

He was engaging in a freeform rant. When I got there he was in the middle of laying into the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections—apparently one of the contractors implicated in the abuses at Abu Ghraib has a checkered history as a corrections officer here. But the speech swung wildly from that subject to invectives against Rumsfeld and Bush and back again. Most of what he said I agreed with on a purely factual level, but he was raving, and most of the crowd seemed to be either bemused or annoyed by his performance.

Uncle Frankie walked up his sister and her kids—they were crossing the street directly in front of the redhead with the microphone. Frankie had his attention focused on nephews, and was deliberately ignoring the protesters. But while they were waiting for the light to turn green, Frankie’s sister was watching the speaker with obvious distaste. She said something I couldn’t quite hear: “You know, my brother fought . . .”

I watched the guy with the microphone carefully to see what he would do. Let it go, I thought to myself, Just let it go. But he didn’t. “Then your brother is one of the people whose lives Donald Rumsfeld is playing with!” he shouted.

And that was the truth, but it was spoken at the worst possible time and in the worst possible tone, and the damage was worse than many a lie. The light turned green and Frankie made a point of shepherding the kids across the street. His sister came along, but was looking back the whole time, shouting at the guy with the microphone, arguing with him. He kept going right back at her, stupidly raising his voice, even though he was one who you could already hear three blocks away. That event clinched it for a bunch of suits standing in front of the hotel behind me. “What an asshole,” one of them said, and they headed back indoors.

And he was. It’s one of the ironies of war that I’m full of admiration for Frankie even while we almost certainly disagree when it comes to policy on the war—a point on which the asshole and I probably share plenty of views, even though I was angry at him for undercutting an important message with his insensitive vitriol. But I know how he must feel. Watching our country slide headlong into disaster, helpless to stop it, sometimes shouting from the street corner seems like the only option.

I walked away saddened by the whole episode; Ella, meanwhile, was mildly amused by the guy with the skull head. Where will we be when she’s old enough to be sad about these things too?