It was late afternoon on the day before Thanksgiving and I had crossed the Arch from the South Building to the Administration Building of USDA, on my way to pick up some letters that were in the Administrator's office for Sharla, my secretary. As I turned down the hall, I was caught up by the cordial sound of the Administrator's voice.
"Oho, Larry! You've returned from Hyattsville," said Bob Melland.
"Yes sir, I have," I replied. I did not know that Bob knew that I had gone to Hyattsville, but, as the Administrator, I guess he is supposed to know these things. Before I could continue, Dr. Billy Johnson, all six-foot seven-inches of him, six-foot-six in bare feet, came out of his office into the hall with a piece of paper in his hand & started talking with the Administrator.
* * *
As I waited for them to finish their conversation, I recalled how that morning I had gathered my briefcase and set out for Hyattsville, destined for three separate morning meetings with ISCD, our computer folks, plus a predictably interminable afternoon meeting that I knew would soon degenerate into endless minutia concerning how we were going to handle records and the storage thereof in our new headquarters building. The APHIS lease is up on our headquarters building in Hyattsville, Maryland, in late July 1993, some eighteen-plus months from right now. Shortly before that magic moment, we're all supposed to move to a wonderful new building. I'm still a skeptic, but nevertheless had been assigned to a number of "teams" to develop the "norms" for various aspects of the new building. This meeting, as had been the case with the others, was run by Gene Skinner, who had the uncanny knack of turning something that could be settled in 30 seconds into a 15-minute discussion. (I had a feeling this meeting would be about as productive and efficient as the last meeting of the APHIS Publication Committee -- but that's another story.)
As an aside, it was during that very afternoon meeting on records management that I began to more fully comprehend how minorities feel when they are subjected to racial or ethnic slurs. On several occasions during the meeting, the term "pack rat" was bandied about, a thoroughly offensive and pejorative term for those of us with a penchant for saving who believe firmly in the adage "waste not, want not."
Finally, I could take no more. I rose to my feet and said, "In defense of Vic Beal and others of his ilk, I would like to state that the expression 'pack rat' is thoroughly offensive." I should note for those of you who do not know him that Dr. Vic Beal, our agency statistician, is a singular individual whose office resembles the disorderly on-the-tree-limb desk of the bird journalist in the comic strip "Shoe." I mean, who still has Department telephone directories dating back to the 1960's? Well, Vic does!
"If you must characterize a particular type or group of people who have a specific tendency with a certain nomenclature," I continued, "those of us with this unique inclination have a preference. We would prefer that you use the expression 'saving individual' or 'preserver.' I thank you."
Several in the group nodded their heads; the majority uttered a loud 'boooo' and threw rotten tomatoes at me. It's tough being a minority, even with understanding fellow employees.
Actually, I didn't stand up. And I didn't say anything. But I would have liked to. Instead, I left early. (Author's note: I never knew my wife was a bigot until I showed her this piece. She read it, looked up & said, "The word is 'pack rat'." But I digress.)
But wait a minute. Stop and think about the role these throw-awayers, these mavens of neatness-and-order play in raising "trash mountains" all across this broad land: Our landfills are over-flowing, folks are backhauling garbage in food trucks, the Canadians are shipping us their garbage . . . . all because of the "use-it-up, throw-it-away, buy-a-new-one" mentality of mainstream America. It is the Vic Beals of the world who could avert this disaster! Away with the wastrels, I say; hurrah for the preservers!! But I digress again.
* * *
Earlier that morning as I walked down the hall to start my trip to Hyattsville, briefcase in hand, I knew that I would be coming back downtown. But I suddenly stopped and thought: What about the people I was leaving behind? Did they know about my determination to come back? Some way, some how, I needed to communicate this to them, to show them my commitment. But how to do it? As a journalist, I knew I needed to find just the right words.
When I reached the end of the hall, I started wading through the water overflowing from the women's toilet on the first wing, first floor, Independence Avenue side of the building. I looked back down the hall at the people who were coming out of their office doors, staring at the emerging flood.
"Has anybody reported this?" I yelled.
They looked at one another, most shaking their heads.
"Sharla!" I shouted, "Call somebody right away!"
I turned to continue through the water and slipped, doing a Karen Sciacca without the broken knee. Picking myself up with nothing injured but my dignity and a pair of damp pants that would have to go to the cleaners, I realized again that I had to say something else to show my commitment to the people I was leaving behind.
* * *
"And so, Mr. Melland," I said, remembering vividly what could have happened to me earlier that morning (well, at times I have an over-active imagination), "I turned to the folks & said, in a loud and clear voice:
"'I shall return!'"
"You know," Bob said, "when MacArthur uttered those words, he and Marcos had waded out in the water till it was up to MacArthur's waist -- and Marcos almost drowned. So I ask, was Billy Johnson with you?"
I thought about Billy Johnson next to me in waist-deep water (his waist) & quickly replied,
"No, I was alone."
"You've got quite a way with words," Bob said.
"Yes," I replied modestly. "Sometimes I do."
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