It’s a crisp October day, and the National Mall is reverberating with the shrieks and bongo-drums of antiwar protesters, those silenced few who dare to converge on Washington in their thousands and raise their voices on C-SPAN against the Bush Regime–
”This is the sound of occupation!” cries an excited female over the radio. For a moment, there is only the sound of silence. Molly looks at me, her eyes dancing. I grin and cover my mouth with my hand. The children are familiar with protest, having lived in Washington during the “Rush to War,” the “Quagmire,” and now the thrillingly titled “Military Occupation.” This time last year, antiwar demonstrators decorated some statues with party hats, which is why a particular stretch of 16th Street is known to Violet and Phoebe as “The Lion’s Birthday Bridge.”
“Molly, did you know that when Saddam Hussein ran Iraq, there was one newspaper and it said only what he wanted it to say?” I tell her, “And did you know that now, during the Occupation That Silences Everyone, there are more than 50 newspapers in Baghdad alone?”
Paris comes into the kitchen and scowls at the radio.
“Why are they yelling?” asks the loudest boy in America, “Why don’t they just talk?”
A cynical Swamp reader might suggest that my children are, as the protesters would say, “picking up on my vibes,” but it seems to me that children are notoriously good at sensing phoniness when they hear it. And, boy, is the radio transmitting phoniness.
“Cuba has universal heath care! Cuba sends doctors all over the world–” we hear a heavily accented voice saying.
“Mummy, isn’t Cuba run by Communists?” Molly asks.
“Yes,” I reply, “And if these people tried to talk half this noisily in Cuba they’d be put straight into jail.”
Molly smiles broadly. “We live in a great country,” she says.
I swear I am reporting this straight.
Then Molly spies the pumpkin we bought for her at a farmer’s market earlier in the morning. Phoebe has strapped it into a little pink perambulator.
“Hello, Pumpkinny!” Molly cries, bending indulgently over the pram. She
looks up sideways at Paris. “Do you dare me to kiss him?”
Pumpkins are the gourd du jour in our household, and probably also in yours. As with so many features of modern family life, I feel sure that when I was a child pumpkins didn’t exert quite the same magnetic power over not only children, but also over school administrators. In Washington, every autumn, all young schoolchildren seem to go on field trips to a “pumpkin patch”–which is a strange cross between a family farm and a camp in the gulag archipelago.
The day Paris and Violet’s classes are due to go, we whiz in convoy–children in buses, mothers in minivans–beyond the Beltway through what used to be orchard country but is now speedily filling up with deluxe housing projects. “Minestrone Mansions,” announces a granite gateway as we speed past, or at least I think that’s what it says. I’m a little foggy due to the Phoebe-waking-at-3-A.M. phenomenon.
Like deportees, we arrive hungry and cramped on a bleak steppe punctuated with signage: “Two Apples Per Person Only;” “Weekday Hayrides, $5.00.”
The children spill out of the buses and stand, stunned, in the full teeth of the wind. None of us is prepared for cold like this. The noses of chic mothers in sweaters and scarves quickly turn an unfashionable red. Skinny toddlers turn blue. The teachers bravely sort us into brigades, and instruct the children to eat their snacks while crouched on the damp ground.
“Ugh, it’s too damp,” says a chaperone, rising quickly and dusting off her jeans.
“Sit down, children!” a teacher urges, cheerfully oblivious.
We are then herded into lines for transport to the fields. The children’s noses are running and everyone is jostling for a place warmer than the one they’re in. One little girl in my care bends over her feet for a long time, then stands up, perplexed.
“My shoe is untied,” she says, holding up white, bloodless hands, “But my fingers don’t work.”
“Why can we not be here?” asks tiny Robert from behind me, pressing against his mother for warmth.
Eventually a tractor pulls up with an open wooden trailer strewn with hay, and we clamber awkwardly on. “Sit down! Sit down!” an indifferent orchard worker shouts from the depths of his Thinsulate parka. I look back to see Violet tucked beside a chaperone, her face pale and pinched. Paris curls up on my knee, pressing it painfully against the hard wood. Gusts of diesel fuel blow over us as the tractor pulls us away towards the forest. Here, briefly, as the wind dies, the gloom dissipates. The boys rejoice in dropping fistfuls of hay on each others’ heads and pitching it over the side.
“A witch!” children shriek credulously, as we rumble past a slab of
“A bear! A ghost!”
“It’s Sully! And Boo!” cry the Disney/Pixar-spotters.
The crowded transport then trundles up over a hill, back into the bitter wind, round a corner, and on to a mostly barren and wintry field where we are unloaded to glean, just like peasants in old black-and-white photographs from the U.S.S.R.
It is here, at last, that there are the first stirrings of rebellion.
“I wonder if we oughtn’t…”
In pursuit of pumpkins, first- and second-graders are tripping over tangles of spiky, low-lying weeds, crashing onto their faces, losing their hats. Some of the nursery children are weeping openly from the cold. Teachers struggle with frozen hands to label each child’s pumpkin in magic marker. The wind cuts fresh lines into mothers’ faces.
“Oh, man, let’s just go!” says a desperado-chaperone.
Unlike actual deportees, we are, of course, free to leave. Slowly, each child climbs back behind a tractor, rumbles along, gets off, and is helped on to a bus. Slowly, our convoy pulls away. Immediately, the heating ducts of my friend’s minivan whir to life beneath my frozen feet. We begin talking of what we will eat for supper.
“Macaroni and cheese,” one mother says dreamily.
“Hot roast beef,” says another.
As cozy sleepiness steals over me, I have another delicious thought. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could round up all those anti-American demonstrators on the Mall, all those agitated sign-wavers who think Cuba offers a superior way of life, who think the American military wears the jackboot of imperialism, and deport them? Not to Siberia–heavens, what do you take me for? No, just to a pumpkin patch. Just for a day. Would that be so wrong?
–Meghan Cox Gurdon is an NRO columnist. Gurdon lives in Washington, D.C. and writes as much as her young family will permit. “The Fever Swamp” appears on Fridays.