Main Street: Great expectations

Rich Wandschneider

It's difficult, in times when a mad gunman and teenage apprentice can close schools and keep thousands of adults in their homes and apartments paralyzed in fear, to talk about great expectations.

It's hard to go back in my own mind to a time when a high school teacher told me I could go to college almost anywhere, and that I could go to Denver or Santa Barbara or Pomona and play football and learn to be a teacher and coach like him. Difficult to remember a young Ted Kennedy telling our campus crowd that a Catholic could be elected President, and that we could be a bigger country, a more generous country, and that college students and young people could be part of it.

Today we are a hunkered down people in a hunkered down nation. Worried that our country is going to war in Iraq or will not intercept incoming terrorists, is going to allow or outlaw abortion or "death with dignity." Worried that the State of Oregon is going to make us label our foods or break or save us with a health care bill.

Our big picture is so small that we scratch and claw to save a few school programs, weary of the possibility of making schools and education programs bigger, better and available for all our children. From our bunkers, we see government, the insurance companies, the utilities, gangs, media, immigrants and politicians out to get us and fleece us. We grasp for the law or religion, politician or ideology that will protect us. A few years ago we - Oregon - went on a prison building spree hoping to make ourselves feel safer and more secure. The free market and robust economy of the time were going to allow us to buy our way past fear. School, health care and personal safety issues or problems - all but the lazy and the shiftless would be able to end run them with economic daring and pluck.

And then the dot com world went bust, California went brown and broke trying to relight itself, the stock market went south and pension funds evaporated. Today we watch scions of the new economy carted off in handcuffs. Which, in my mind, makes us a vulnerable lot, a population looking for a bogeyman to blame, a hand to hold, a speaker to believe. Back in the late 40s or early 50s, in a time when a 3 percent unemployment rate was considered "full employment," President Truman said that a 5 percent unemployment rate wouldn't hurt the nation - unless 20 percent of the people feared being part of the 5 percent. Now, 5 percent is "normal," and 7 percent is scaring many.

I'm reminded of watching and playing in thousands of ball games, and hearing and knowing that "playing not to lose" is not playing to win, and ofttimes results in losing. Cut back on spending for schools. Don't repair the bridges. Don't fix the Oregon Health Plan. Don't build a prescription drug plan that will cost dollars to save lives. Don't build a swimming pool. Be careful. Tuck in the folds. The "wisdom" of the day.

Things weren't perfect 40 years ago. Schools in many parts of the country were segregated and poor; businessmen were tiring of their gray flannel suits. Unrest boiled beneath the surface - civil rights, be bop music, beatniks.... A Republican President warned of a "military-industrial complex" that threatened our way of life; an "iron curtain" divided the word into communist and free; Russia moved missiles into Cuba; and Hodgkins disease was always and immediately fatal.

And then there was hope. And there were great expectations. Civil rights problems could be solved. There was an Alliance for Progress with Latin America, "Self-Determination" on Indian lands, National Defense grants and loans for college, a Peace Corps, and a plan to go to the moon.

If I could wish for one thing for our children and grandchildren, it would be that there will be a time when they too will have great expectations, when a world of hope will replace the smorgasbord of fast foods, electronic toys, credit card options, international scorn and skepticism, and timid political choices that we and they live with today.

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