Thank God and Mount Pinatubo, I Can Get Angry Again

ANDREW CIOFALO

October 30, 1991|By ANDREW CIOFALO

Mount Pinatubo was finally at rest -- at least that's the assumption most Americans made when the Philippine volcano disappeared from the headlines and TV newscasts late last summer. It reappeared occasionally as background to political stories about the negotiations between the U.S. and the Philippines over extending the leases of our air and naval bases there.

But two weeks on a North Carolina beach at August's end and a move up county in September had sufficiently disconnected me from my newspaper, TV set and the noise that is Baltimore to have broken the threads of concern about events beyond my bucolic realm in the land of corn fields and horse farms. At night I marveled that the sky was a deep black; I had moved out from under the glowing pinkish dome that eerily exposes urban denizens to the pleasures and terrors of the night.

My wife and I, college professors both, had long sought to escape the cascade of traffic on Bellona Avenue, to find a quiet place where reading and writing would be interrupted only by devices of our own choosing -- forays to the Shrewsbury markets, walks along the trail overlaying the bed of the old North Central Rail Road, breakfast or lunch at the Wagon Wheel in Hereford, and apple sampling at the orchard farmstands on Route 23 wending toward Stewartstown.

Being a city-bred guy (New York and then Baltimore), I was amazed at how well I was taking to a laid-back country life. Had my psyche somehow been altered by childhood exposure to those Dick and Jane readers that touted an allspice American norm in which rosy-cheeked hobos, hooked by their noses to aromatic strands, floated toward oven-fresh pies cooling on kitchen sills?

Or did the rolling boil of the pasta pot in Nana's kitchen send me on steamy plumes of garlic, oregano and sweet cooked tomatoes into a dim genetic past connecting me forever to a patch of Sicilian hillside? At last I began to understand that strange upwelling in my chest when the retired Don Corleone keeled over dead in his tomato patch in ''The Godfather.'' Was I, too, destined to plant tomatoes?

Morning after morning of spectacular salmon-shaded sunrises with encores in day-glo orange each evening on the opposite side of the sky, all framed through farmhouse windows, evoked Norman Rockwell sensations that crowded all other sensibilities from my life. I turned to my wife and said, ''I don't think I'll ever have another important thought . . . I don't have any ideas . . . I'm not even angry about anything . . . I'll never write another op-ed piece.''

Then Jim Brown called. Holder of the local Sunpaper-delivery franchise, he asked if we wanted The Sun delivered. I said yes, and by 4 a.m. the next day the newspaper arrived at the foot of our driveway.

And with it can an unwelcome wake-up call -- Mount Pinatubo. All that ash the volcano has spewed into the atmosphere was splashing brilliant sunrises and sunsets across American skies. Later that morning I watched the colors streaking the horizon from my east-facing kitchen window. But this time the roseate glow evoked no prismatic nostalgia. All I could think of were our bases in the Philippines.

So now it begins. Those few days of escape from caring about the world, that brief suspension of conscience, the appeal of living in my own perfect little world -- they plugged the neural pathways through which creativity ordinarily wells up under the unbearable pressure to resolve the unending contradictions in the human story. The news will not be denied.

Journalism is our only connection, tenuous as it is, to a distant reality. There are those who would deny us that reality by replacing the judgment of editors with the fecklessness of reader focus groups so that tomorrow morning's newspaper won't cause a trembling reader's hand to slosh one precious drop of coffee over the cup's lip.

I could have been lost in corn, but being out here doesn't mean abandoning back there. Yes, I'm willing to pay more taxes so that those living in fiery fear in Baltimore's crumbling row houses can have better schools, better health care, better housing and three squares a day. Once again, saved by the news.

As I make the morning drive to my job of teaching would-be journalists the skills and ethic of the profession, I am renewed by the thought that I can prepare them for no higher calling. Theirs is the duty to uncover corruption and preserve the integrity of our societal and legal systems. In between they give you the weather, the ball scores and the body count.

I could never teach them if I remained in a bucolic state of mind. Thank God and Mount Pinatubo, I can get angry again.

Andrew Ciofalo teaches journalism at Loyola College.

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