I got an email from Senator Jeff Merkley’s office saying there would be a town hall meeting with the senator Saturday afternoon up in Coburg.  All the places where Merkley holds such meetings are small towns.  Lane County is big, Eugene the County Seat, but Mr. Merkley, from a small town in southern Oregon, held his Lane County meeting in Coburg.  Good for him.

I arrived at the IOOF Hall to find it full.  I could have probably wrangled a seat because I’m graying, but seats are for old people, if you get my point.  I stood in the back.  I had never been to one of these town halls and had no idea what was going to happen.  I was amazed that I didn’t get patted down.  Five years and a day prior, my Congresswoman was holding a town hall when she got shot in the head from 3 feet away.  She amazingly survived.  Six others did not, including a county attorney, 63, a “9/11” girl, 9 years old, and women in their late 70s who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Nothing changed, and we can’t even put fingerprint codes on firearms, which would keep children from firing them.  America the armed; America the afraid, America the land that used to innovate, America where a billionaire boor stands a damn good chance of becoming president.

When I signed in, I was asked if I wanted to ask the Senator a question. I chose not to, but had I, I would have been given a ticket with a number on it, and as numbers were announced, if my number were called, I would have held up my hand, given a microphone, and then talk one-to-one with a US Senator.  That’s pretty cool.  I’ve seen a few important people in my life, but it’s been a long time since I saw a significant public figure.

Merkley gave the first question to a little girl, who asked him something about charter schools.  I didn’t hear the question, which was just as well, because I think we ought to support public education and limit the numbers of people who are homeschooling and using for profit schools that aren’t doing anything better.  I was the son of a public school superintendent who could have put me in a private school named after one of the duPont’s.  A lot of superintendents did that for their children, but Dad enrolled me in one of the public high schools. Had to do with integrity and belief in the system he ran.

I survived—and thrived—in a public school, where I learned about diversity, dated a Jewish girl, and had my first girlfriend the daughter of a single mother.  I never felt special; I worked hard.  The private schools probably had better curricula, but I there were plenty of damn smart students in my school.  We were integrated; back when people thought one black student was integration, a third of our student body was black.  If we set public education up to fail, it will, and America will fail, too.  Our choice.

Anyway, back to Merkley.  He was asked two questions about the LNG pipeline that might go to Coos Bay.  This is a bad idea: a Canadian company wants to build it and use eminent domain, which they can’t do.  The young people, one of whom walked the pipeline’s proposed path, weren’t articulate, but their fervor spoke volumes—clear cuts, carbon footprint, and putting a terminal in a major earthquake zone.

A teacher, retired Air Force, had ideas for gun control in schools and wanted more than a form letter back from the Senator. That one went to a staffer on the spot.  The teacher, like everybody else in the room, was polite. One guy was upset about the Malheur insurgents, saying that it was continuing because it was a bunch of white guys with guns.  If those were black guys with guns or Muslims with guns, he said, I think the response would have been a little different.  Merkley listened and said he was getting updates.  Lot of Oregonians are upset about outside agitators coming in with their camo and their big assault weapons.  I think that’s terrorism and treason, but I stayed quiet.   You got a problem with how federal land is run, you use lawful means.  Merkley added that the ranchers were in jail because of a mandatory sentencing law, and that if one breaks a chair in his office that could lead to a 5 year jail term.  He didn’t think that right.  Maybe he can change it.  It might stop future problems.  Mandatory sentencing for drug problems has helped make incarceration a major US industry.

Somebody with chronic Lyme disease had a question, and the lady in front of me was having trouble with getting Social Security and paying for her expensive insulin.  She gave such a scathing diatribe about the pharmaceutical industry that Mr. Merkley said he couldn’t improve upon it.

Town halls aren’t for discussions of foreign policy.  They are discussions of local and state-wide issues that affect everyday people.  Senators need to hear this, and Merkley was listening.   There isn’t a lot he can do as a member of a minority party.  He has some ideas, but working across the aisle isn’t easy to do these days.  When one side refuses to negotiate, says your arguments are all wrong, and they are right, it’s difficult to govern.

I missed a chance to ask something near and dear to me, but that can wait for maybe Mr. Merkley’s 280th town meeting next year.  Yes, the Senator goes around, along with the senior senator, Ron Wyden, to every county every year.  Next year, I am going to ask Mr. Merkley about mandatory national service.  I may get a couple of boos, but maybe not.  I think every young person should serve America in some non-sectarian way for at least a year and maybe two.  It would do them good.  They might get to see other parts of the country and understand why Mississippi, Carolina, Vermont, Michigan, or Nebraska folks think differently from us up here.

We need infrastructure rebuilt, we need help in the schools, nursing homes, highways, animal shelters, the Parks, which have a several billion dollar maintenance list that isn’t being funded.  We give the young people room and board, a decent stipend, and have them do something as part of service to America.  When their term is up, they may have a job waiting for them, or they may to go back to school, which will be paid for by taxpayers.  There would be a lot less student debt and a lot more people in college who should be and not in college who shouldn’t be. Being told one has to show up at a certain time or place builds character.  I don’t have the idea totally right, but it’s valid and needed.

At a town hall, I would have to say those 9 sentences about as fast as Ralphie  told his parents and Santa that he wanted an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle.  The Senator is busy.

But wow, to stand up at a town meeting and ask a senator what you think the country ought to do.  Why, that’s downright American.


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