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Column: Just like the roaches of my childhood

  • Will Lange. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 4/9/2019 10:20:16 PM
Modified: 4/9/2019 10:20:14 PM

During the late 1930s and early ’40s my family lived in a fourth-floor walkup a few blocks from the capitol in Albany. I remember there was a gap of maybe a quarter of an inch between the linoleum flooring and the bottom of the wooden baseboards in the kitchen. I went in there one night to get something, pulled on the ceiling light cord, and was startled to see cockroaches scuttling for the gaps. Within a few seconds they were gone; but they’d changed my perception of my world in a major way.

A few years later, we’d moved to our own house in Syracuse. I came home from a couple of weeks at YMCA summer camp and left my duffel bag in the basement near the washing machine. Shortly, I heard my mother scream. She’d dumped the bag (full of soggy duds, bathing suit and towel) and found herself surrounded by earwigs scrambling for shelter.

They’re all around us — the critters that live unseen and subsist on our scraps or unguarded comestibles and can hide almost anywhere. We do all we can to control or exterminate them, but biologists predict that when the “higher” forms of life, including us, have gone extinct, they’ll survive. They’ll also, of course, continue to evolve to fill any available niches in their environment. I hope for their sake they won’t evolve to the level of humanity.

Humanity, for all its promise, is largely blowing its chance. Besides slaughtering each other pitilessly, we’re destroying the environment crucial to our survival, and denigrating, disbelieving and defunding the scientists we’ve appointed to let us know how things are going. In the race between our better and our lesser angels, the lesser certainly seem to be winning.

This month, after a couple of years of probably unjustified hype by the media, the so-called Mueller report has been delivered, as is proper, to the U.S. attorney general. And that is where it remains, at least for now, pending the results of what is likely to be months of litigation and trudging through political mud. The American public, like the poor Romans at Marc Antony’s reading of “Caesar’s will,” want to see it now. But this desire will not soon be requited; even though “it exonerates the president completely,” it will be held closely. Like the famous tax returns or university grades, we don’t get a look inside. Legal wrangling will obscure, and perhaps eventually erase, the truth. As Woody Guthrie so beautifully put it, “I’ve seen lots of funny men. Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.”

My current perception of Washington’s executive branch, abetted by a supine and thus complicit Senate, bears an uncanny resemblance to a description of the creatures I encountered as a child. I found this from the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service: “Subterranean termites have a cryptobiotic or ‘hidden’ lifestyle. ... They are always hidden from our view ... beneath the surface of the soil, beneath the surface of the wood, or in their mud tunnels. This ... contributes to their success in invading human structures. ... We usually do not detect their presence until damage becomes evident or swarming takes place. Often we have no idea how termites got into our home. This can make it very difficult to control them.”

If that doesn’t characterize perfectly the hugger-mugger of much of official Washington, I don’t know what does.

I can appreciate, for example, why earwigs and cockroaches might seek cover when the light goes on as we enter a room; they don’t want to die. But why in the world, if the Mueller report does indeed exonerate everybody involved (except for those arranging plea deals, or those headed for court or prison), won’t it be made available to those of us who paid for it? If the president is the genius he claims to be, why did his lawyer threaten legal action against any school that revealed his academic record? If, after repeated assurances that he was willing — eager, even — to produce his tax returns, why is his current chief of staff swearing, “Never! This a hill that we will die on.”

If there are no dirty secrets to hide, why are so many grown men in expensive suits lying, obfuscating or declining to answer reasonable questions?

I think we all know: It’s just like the roaches of my childhood, scuttling for the baseboards.

Often, when in Washington, I’ve marveled at the vaulting halls and domes of the Capitol, and could see how the setting could easily ennoble the thoughts of a people’s representative — or, conversely, suggest less-than-noble opportunities. We desperately need redress, or at least correction. But under our constitutional system, and as our legislative branch is currently constituted (elections do have consequences), there’s little we can do, except remember Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Spotsylvania in 1864: “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” A year earlier, knee-deep in Mississippi gumbo, his army had opened the river by capturing Vicksburg. We can do as much. All it takes is patience, roach poison and a pair of mud boots.

Willem Lange can be reached at

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