In 1985, China beckoned and sucked me up within one frantic week. Occasionally an oddly urgent opportunity whisks you away to another world, and when you are there, gaping at the newness and strangeness, you realize something about your own world that you never would have.
I’ll tell you more background at another time, but when I woke up in the Beijing Hotel after a long flight from Seattle, the six lanes of traffic going into the city were solid bicycles. They tell me now that, after 30 years, all those lanes are solid with cars. My task at that time was to demonstrate my CPR simulator, complete with videodiscs, to representatives from all over China who had come for the 5th Party Congress from every corner of the country. These were obviously the movers and shakers of the emerging country: their poise and intelligence were obvious straight through my barriers of culture and language.
All day long I demonstrated my CPR system with a translator, and allowed many of the audience members to come down from the surrounding benches to try its interactive learning, with a graphic screen printout of their performance in depth and rhythm of compression on the manikin. I also demonstrated a videodisc simulation that helped store managers spot shoplifters by their movements in the backgrounds of various scenes. The viewers would stop the video and identify the individuals they felt were shoplifting. If they caught the shoplifter, then in a video branch the shoplifter would show his or her moves in more detail. The CPR simulator drew people’s appreciation because of its hands-on interactivity, but the interactive shoplifting videos elicited unquestioned smiles of understanding. Crime, it seems, may be the universal language.
All week long my Chinese hosts moved people in an out every hour, and I wondered how much of China they had invited. One thing I did notice was the many old soldiers in stiff grey uniforms who sat on the top row of the rollout benches set up in the Beijing Hotels ballroom for these demonstrations of Western technology. At first I thought they were some kind of police force, but most were very aged and some had to be helped up to their top rows and back down by the younger representatives, all with the utmost respect. The translator answered my question as to who they were. They were the survivors, the victors from the Long March.
No history of modern China could ever leave out the Long March. The small communist cadre was on the verge of being eliminated by the old government, and they fled to the countryside. Over a period of years these ragtag forces fought battles with the pursuing government troops and at times were reduced to eating tree bark. But over a few years,they persevered in the outer regions of China, and collected up thousands of peasants and believers in their cause of a new China. And when they returned to Shanghai and Beijing and Hong Kong a few years later, the People’s armies had swollen to hundreds of thousands. The remnants of the Chiang Kai-Shek’s army fled to Formosa (now Taiwan), and the new China was born under the General Chou Enlai and the President Mao Tse Tung. So these old soldiers in grey were the last of them, the veterans of the Long March and most honored in China as they sat, some with vacant stares, on the top row of benches in my several presentations all week long.
From some corner of my memory I remembered being a nine-year-old with my older cousin Tharpe in Cushing, Oklahoma. We walked around the small town, some of whose roads were still red dirt like the surrounding countryside. There was a very small city park there, and a bunch of very old men in cowboy hats and boots, sitting on the line of park benches and speculating all day long on what the next day’s weather would be. I commented to Tharpe that this looked liked some kind of old folks’ home. He glanced around, hoping no one had heard my innocent comment, and then leaned into me and told me the real story.
“See that little guy on the end of the bench. The one whittling?”
I did see the wizened, wirey little man, and the stick he was working on, and the pile of chips near his dusty boots. “Yeah.”
“Well, when he was nineteen years old he was the volunteer sheriff here. That guy was the one who ran Jesse James out of Cushing, Oklahoma. He’s always on that particular bench. Nobody else gets it.”
Oh…It was clear now. He had earned his place on the bench.
And the old, decrepit veterans of the Long March were still most honored in the new China…They had earned their places on the bench.
So it may be China or it may be Oklahoma, there are people who did what they did in a few years or a few days or a rapid moment, and in that time earned their place on the bench for as long as they wanted it.
I probably will never be invited to give a commencement speech, but if I ever did I would tell the bored listeners in the hot afternoon that they might be educated now, and they might turn out rich, and they might achieve some successes or be fleetingly famous, but only a very few of us ever, ever truly earn our place on the bench.