Tacked to the unfinished walls of my father’s musty backroom office in our big, old home on the North Hill was an eclectic assortment of press clippings, cartoons, poems and fading photos Dad apparently found worth saving.
The time period, the late 1940s to early 1950s, I was in my adolescence. Some of the items on the wall made a lasting impression — a photo of dad in his U.S. Navy chief petty officer uniform standing next to a still smoldering, gaping crater in the steel deck of an aircraft carrier after it had been struck by a Japanese kamikaze plane; beneath it, circled in black, was the nursery rhyme, “Humpty-Dumpty;” next to it was a yellowed copy of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If.”
Post World War II and my father’s discharge from the Navy, our family moved to Stillwater and dad set up a mechanical contracting business. He only had a high school education. He and mom were well respected in the community. But, when asked for views of something other than his trade, he’d reply, “Hell, I’m only a dumb plumber, what do I know?”
But Earl was far more than that.
As I was growing up, dad talked to me a lot about the significance of the Kipling poem and the importance of human ideals, honor, conscience, honesty, standing on principle and physical and intellectual courage. He simplistically described conscience as the little voice inside that must be listened to — pre-empting any vacillation when deciding right or wrong.
One day I asked him why he had the old English nursery poem, “Humpty-Dumpty,” on the wall. His response was abstract, but meant to inspire contemplation and understanding of its true meaning.
“If you live long enough, you’ll appreciate it’s more than a kindergarten riddle,” he said.
I didn’t get it at the time.
The Internet source, Wikipedia, offers a comprehensive history of the origin of the poem, should anyone forget:
“Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall
All the kings’ horses and all
The king’s men could not put Humpty-Dumpty together again.”
The childhood teaching, memorization and recitation of Humpty-Dumpty is almost universal in western culture, yet it’s apparent, given contemporary history and current events the wisdom implicit in the rhyme is ignored. Humpty-Dumpty is very old, folk metaphor describing the consequences of moral failure, idolatry and public fall from grace.
Some years passed before I finally began to fathom the juxtaposition of the memorabilia on Dad’s office wall — the idealism and manly advice of the Kipling poem, the Humpty-Dumpty rhyme next to the kamikaze crater in the carrier deck symbolizing the fall of the once great Japanese empire. It began to make sense.
As a military officer in the ’50s and 1960s, I was somewhat removed from the realities of grand human failing and moral misbehavior. A strict code of conduct and the Uniform Code of Military Justice prescribed a standard of personal and professional ethics that would not be violated. Only after emerging from that cocoon and becoming a civilian did I begin to comprehend the extent and impact of moral compromise in virtually every area of American society. The messages on Dad’s office wall took on new and greater meaning. What an eye-opening experience.
We watch the news today to learn that public figures held in highest esteem, our political office holders, admired celebrities, religious and education leaders, cultural icons, military officers of the highest rank inexplicably, self-destruct revealing character flaws that call into question their fundamental integrity and morality. To a person, these are intellectually vacuous self-inflicted tragedies, metaphorically representative of Humpty’s fatal tumble from the wall. Just a few high profile examples: President Bill Clinton, cyclist Lance Armstrong, U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y.; California Governor Schwarzenegger; Generals Petreaus and Allan; former presidential candidate John Edwards, senators and other presidential candidates of both parties and imprisoned financier Bernie Madoff.
Here in Stillwater, we have the recent Lumberjack Days-St. Croix Events collapse and the felony charges involving the principle(s) in the debacle. Some of these developments were more than evident and, thus, predictable: exaggerated public profile, political and media pandering, tax manipulation and banking hanky-panky, financially questionable lavish life styles.
So, should we be surprised, shocked, disgusted, disappointed, betrayed, angry and cheated? Yes, all of the above. But, is it not our own naiveté about human nature, especially when all the signs are so evident, that moves us to have unrealistic expectations and trust those we place on a socio-cultural-financial pedestal.
I don’t present myself as a psychologist or a moralist. I’ve had to confront my own vulnerabilities. But I am a pragmatist, non-religious, self-driven military-CIA-DEA experienced keen observer of human behavior. I’ve found there are three primary motivational influences that, if not kept in check by introspection and conscience, can lead to personal and professional kamikaze. They are ego, greed and willful self-indulgence.
There is an additional behavioral characteristic that accompanies these motivational influences. Compulsive lying is deliberate, personal, professional and social dishonesty when there is no moral rationale to circumvent the truth. It is a fatal cancer of the soul as is self-deception. A study of the individuals listed and their rise and fall reflects these behavioral traits and the negative results there-of. An astute observer can recognize them from a mile away, and there’s a troubling masochistic side to this phenomena.
Professional law enforcement is well aware of these foibles, especially when they become a public behavioral pattern. Given the information gathering capability of digital/electronic technology and the role of social media, it’s virtually impossible to conceal anything for very long today.
I say this from personal experience. While serving with DEA and taking down big-time, high-flying drug dealers, we watched for the telltale signs. Most of our busts resulted from flagrant, morally flawed behavior as previously described. I learned a lot about human nature and weaknesses.
I suggest the author(s) of Humpty-Dumpty, and my father, with his eclectic wall tackings, were trying to communicate something far more profound that transcended a simple nursery rhyme.
Bradley Ayers is a 77-year-old semi-retired military, CIA, DEA veteran and a regular contributor to the Gazette. A St. Croix Valley native, he began writing for the Gazette in 1952 as a junior reporter. He’s the author of several non-fiction books, the latest to be released in 2013 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination.