Once in a while I get to spend a few treasured minutes with my father-in-law in his basement workshop. It’s a smallish room, tightly organized floor to ceiling and corner to corner with pegboards, shelves, and labelled bins. In there, you can smell his favorite pipe tobacco and the oil that keeps the motors free to spin. There’s a lifetime of tools on the pegboards, grouped by type and extending far beyond the obvious few screwdrivers and wrenches anybody might have, including several tools an English professor like me might not know the name of. Back in his working days, Tom etched his last name in cursive letters onto the metal surface of some of the larger tools. You see honorable wear and tear as well as the keenness and shine where he’s sharpened a blade on the grinding wheel. Many of the tools carry the shadow of his right hand on the grip. Could he possibly squeeze another item into his workshop? Well, if you’ve got a couple of inches of paint left in that can, don’t toss it out. You’ll find a nail up in the rafters you can hang it on. It won’t be alone up there. And somehow there’s open bench space where Tom can operate the power tools.
When he steps away, the workshop goes silent. It’s all just so much wood and metal and oil without his skilled hand and eye. Without the lifetime of vital knowledge he brings with him invisibly into the room. In all the best human endeavors, “That which is essential is invisible to the naked eye.” That’s a lesson I got from Fred Rogers. He got it from Saint-Exupéry’s beautiful storybook, The Little Prince. I’m pretty sure my father-in-law knew it all along.
“That which is essential is invisible to the naked eye.”
I thought of that lesson on Wednesday when I joined many fellow citizens to watch Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, dressed in his impeccable uniform, testify in Congress. In the final three minutes of his opening statement, he told the story of his own father rejecting the grim life enforced in the dictatorial Soviet Union and taking the chance to set out for a new life here. The officer described his own grateful, patriotic reasons for serving in the US Army. He noted that his father, accustomed to the violence of Soviet dictatorship, was fearful now that his son had stepped forward to testify against the American President. Lt. Col. Vindman ended his statement with these words addressed to his father: “Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth.”
Why did I find that so moving? I think it has to do with something essential yet invisible that Lt. Col. Vindman brought with him into that room. It was, I think, a memory.
A memory of American idealism. A memory of Congress on its best days. Maybe those days feel like long ago. Maybe they have been few and far between. But Lt. Col. Vindman brought the idealism of those days along with him. He evoked its essential and invisible presence for all to see. And he sought to calm his father with the thought that on the best days a citizen is safe in America telling the truth. On the best days, something invisible and beautiful animates Congress. On other days, its just wood and paint and marble, pretending to be a great and honorable institution. Members of Congress can inhale that spirit and be rejuvenated, I’m pretty sure. But citizens will have to shame some of them into doing it.
"Dad, I'm sitting here today in the U.S. Capitol, talking to our elected professionals. Talking to our elected professionals is proof that you made the right decision forty years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth."
-Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman concluding his opening statement before the U.S. House Intelligence Committee
Music: "Wrong Foot Forward" by Flook