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If the Poor Learn Croquet, Is Nation Kinder, Gentler?

November 25, 1990|Christopher Corbett | Christopher Corbett, the James Thurber Journalist-in-Residence at Ohio State University this year, is the author of the novel "Vacationland" (Viking)

BALITMORE — William F. Buckley's new book, "Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe Our Country," proposes national service for 18-year-olds. Young people would devote nine months to working for the public good, from teaching reading to saving a forest.

We sort of know Bill Buckley. Friends of friends, that sort of thing. He is wonderfully droll on his television show. And he writes all of those books, too.

I've never actually read any. But at Christmas, I just say to Mimi, why not pick up copies of Buckley's book. He's always got at least one. Fiction, nonfiction, what difference does it make? It's better than booze because so many people we know just aren't drinking any more.

But no one I know--and I know a great many people--took this "gratitude" thing terribly seriously. I mean, it's not as if we're not grateful--because we are--but no one believed it would ever happen.

Now, we give money to soup kitchens and things. And last Thanksgiving--no, last Thanksgiving we were in the Vineyard. Well, it was the one before that, I'm fairly sure. Lizzie had us working at a church. It was Episcopal--so you had some really very nice people volunteering. Feeding the homeless! They were very interesting. We were just exhausted. But we felt so much better afterward.

But nine months! In low-paying public service. Look, I'm too old now to worry about this sort of thing. But young people are just not going to go along with this.

Apparently there are ways out. I understand if you're very, very rude, they won't take you. And there are apparently legitimate things you can be deferred for. I mean, apparently, if you're just not a very good tennis player you can hardly be expected to help youngsters in Appalachia work on their backhand. They're just going to pick up bad habits.

The whole thing just makes me sick. Someone was saying to me the other day that it's our Vietnam. Or World War I. A whole generation of young men and women not around for nearly a year. It's destroyed the squash ladder. The girls at the Ethel Walker School have tied yellow ribbons on everything.

Everywhere you go people talk about it. And to think that this happened with a Republican in the White House!

Buckley was just not thinking clearly. He apparently wrote this book in two hours. But people will carry the scars of this with them for the rest of their lives.

It's not too far-fetched to imagine some sort of monument some day--like the one on the Mall in Washington--for the young men and women who took a school year off from Wharton and Amos Tuck to teach contract bridge, dressage or how to read a menu in French.

But the thing I wonder about is--do the poor really want to know how to play croquet? They don't really own lawns, do they? The whole thing is going to get very complicated. Like the Fresh Air Fund. A sort of Upward Bound. Groups of street people being sent up to Mount Desert Island every summer to play tournament croquet at the Claridge.

Will the end result of this be of any value? You'll have hundreds and thousands of poor people with a five handicap who know how to make a Southsider. But is that really going to make us a kinder and gentler nation? About the only difference will be that all sorts of dreadful people will be stopping you at Grand Central Station, asking for green fees.

And what are those who choose not to serve to do? Flee the country? Canada? No. Canada's all right for a canoe trip but no one wants to live up there.

Europe? Sweden? Please. Europe is too expensive. With the dollar in the shape it is, you could have all of these old-school-tie types driving cabs in Paris like the White Russians in the 1920s. It's very sad when you think about it. Years from now, you could get into a cab one night in the 14th arrondissement and find some guy your brother was in Cask and Gauntlet with at Dartmouth driving. I'm really worried about this whole thing.

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