Oft, in the Stilly Night

It is quiet now with the snow. Streets, sidewalks muffled. A dog barks. We are too far for church bells.

     In Charleston winters when I grew up, we often had windows open to the clack of palm fronds and the cries of children playing in the courtyard. The bells of St. Matthew’s rang the quarter hour. Yet, with windows shut and us all at home after eight o’clock, it was quiet, as dark came on, and my sister and I sat on either side of our mother, listening to her musical voice reading “In an old house in Paris, all covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.” .

     The human voice unmediated. Yes, there was the radio, a gothic affair that sat on the floor. We pressed as close as possible to the speaker cloth, trying to get on the other side to ride with the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Or to tremble with “The Shadow” But the volume was subdued and the fidelity so good I believed I could hear the shadow’s wheezing threat.

     Occasionally when our parents invited guests for spaghetti supper, we played duets, I on the piano, my fahter on violin. Then voices sang in our quiet, the Italian songs from my father’s childhood, brought across the water by the earlier generation. Except when he vented his Italian fury and strode back and forth in agitation, except when I ran in from the courtyard, slamming the kitchen door and protesting that Bobby Star or Jimmy Moon or Mildred Cake was tormenting me, it was quiet. Now, looking back from my own quiet winter house, I recognize quiet as a household blessing.

     It is also a civic blessing. Yes, I know. I danced the shag or other rock ‘n’ roll to very loud booming Elvis, the Coasters, Little Richard. By then a teenager, I had a huge upstairs bedroom in our Mr. Pleasant house–we’ve moved across the roller coaster bridge and my parents built a small bungalow on a lot with towering magnolia trees. My little radio and small phonograph played loud music. My father–his musician’s ear sensitive to anything but his own ranting–would stand at the bottom of the stairs and shout, “Margot, turn off that infernal jungle music!” I slammed my door but I turned it down. The last thing I wanted was to have him storm upstairs and yank the record off its cradle.

     We were on the edge of disrupting the civic peace and quiet. That was my mother’s phrase, “peace and quiet.” When my father and I argued, now downstairs, standing nose to nose in the kitchen–“Leonard, Margot,” she would protest, “please give us some peace and quiet.”

     There were no gunshots outside our door. No backfirings of cars that sounded like gunshots. My parents were decent, law-abiding citizens. It was just that my father grew up in a culture where a range of vocalizing was required. Pater familias, he tried to lay down the law, and his own daughter sashayed and sassed him back. I wouldn’t have dreamed of taking our argument into the street. There were no guns in our house, ever. If violence was what we were practicing–and his rants against Negroes and “those Commie, Northern infiltrators” wore on and on, threatening destruction and mayhem FROM THEM! though he was the one “raising his voice,” as my mother said. “Leonard, lower your voice.” If violence was what we were practicing, at least it ended with our walls.

     Though I would not want to relive that era of my teen years with my father’s hate-filled denunciations, yet they gave me a measure against which to gauge the moment when family conflict passes into violence so destructive that it becomes a civil menace.Violence that occurs within a public arena–and I’m not talking about the north woods or a huge lake–but city streets and parking lots, schools, churches, movie houses–the public arena belongs not only to individual liberty, but to community regulation.

     We have a new law that motorists must stop when a pedestrian has stepped off a curb to cross a street. I’ve seen this new law in action: it is based on the obvious fact that a bus or car or truck has an enormous murderous capacity against a pedestrian. To allow vehicles to usurp the right of way, to rage pell mell across all  intersections not only would cause damage to many vehicles, but would kill pedestrians very very dead.

     Since many Minnesota drivers use their vehicles as weapons, this is a very precious new law. It puts protection of the “unarmed” first. Would that we could learn to see the connection between the gun and the largely unarmed walker on a stilly night. Just as we regulate who can drive a car–not a child, not a confirmed psychopath… Just as any of us can lose our license and have the civic privilege to drive taken away…Just so should we all be protected from guns outside our houses, in our streets, cafes, churches, schools. We do not drive cars into school yards. Churches. Schools. Guns don’t belong there either.

     Cars did not exist when our forefathers built the 2nd Amendment. Nor did automatic weapons and cartridges capable of delivering 100 rounds of ammunition within minutes. To pretend that everything capable of destruction today was heralded by our forefathers puts the Constitution within the same sacred category as the Bible. If we intend to treat it this way, then we should be willing to reduce our capability to the level intended by our forefathers. That is, very simple and not particularly deadly firearms. And we should give up our cars for mules and horses and carriages.

     That’s fine by me. And we can throw out volumes higher than is beneficial to the human ear. But I’d like to maintain soft electric lights and the power to fly, if you don’t mind.

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