April 23rd, 2008

In Which VDB Confronts the Olympic Torch

by Philip Baruth

Announcer: Commentator Philip Baruth’s Vermont, whatever else might be said about it, is a very strange place. Today he imagines confronting the Olympic torch, and all of the political contradictions now implicit within it.

Notes from the New Vermont
Commentary #214:
My Vermont Contains Multitudes (And a Torch)

Funny the things you remember. For instance, one night last week I was walking down Church Street, and I remember wishing I hadn’t ordered that second dozen chicken wings, or that I’d opted for the quote-unquote “medium-hot” wings instead of the quote-unquote “Georgia Asphalt” wings.

Because even though it was a beautiful false-spring night, all I could think about was finding the nearest car-wash, and hosing myself down completely.

There’s a certain sense of shame that accompanies a serious buffalo wing binge, and I was really feeling it — not just on my hands, but in my soul. I was nursing a big 72-ounce cup of ice water but it seemed only to be making the swelling in my lips worse.

Then I noticed a commotion on the block ahead of me, but whether it was screaming or cheering was hard to make out. Coming up Church Street, at a good solid dogtrot, was a guy in neon shorts carrying what looked like the Olympic Torch, surrounded by a hulking Chinese security team in light blue track suits.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what was going on. Protestors have been ambushing the torch on its way to China, to protest China’s record on human rights, and in France they were able to actually extinguish it, twice. So when the torch reached San Francisco, organizers tried something different: they switched the torch’s route at the last possible moment.

Now the bait-and-switch had obviously been taken to the next level: instead of being flown to India, as reported, the torch was here, in Vermont, on Church Street, headed straight for me.

And suddenly I knew what I had to do. Just as the torch passed me, I would reach between the bodyguards and douse the flame with my Big Gulp. Because in my Vermont it’s not okay to work innocent people for pennies an hour, or to attack them with tanks, or to try and create your own Dalai Lami, in order to confuse believers.

But just as the bodyguards dog-trotted into range, I remembered something else, a piece by VPR commentator John Morton that ran years ago, called “The Torch.”

In it, Morton talked about seeing the torch run in Canada to the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, and being allowed himself to pass it hand to hand in a little mountain village called Canmore. The thing I remember most about the piece was Morton’s deep pride in that flame, the pride of a man who’d been an Olympic athlete, a trainer and a team leader. He saw it as a way to unite the world, and everyone in it, no matter who, no matter what.

And I realized then that I also sided with Morton: in my Vermont, people don’t snuff out the Olympic flame, no matter who, no matter what.

But that meant my Vermont was a mass of political contradictions. Which is fine: like Walt Whitman, it’s large, it can contain multitudes.

But what to do about the torch?

I’m not going to lie; I did the only thing I could. As the massive Chinese security team jogged by, I shook every one of their hands real good, covering them with some strange red American substance that burned with the heat of a thousand suns.

[This commentary ran first on Vermont Public Radio. Audio of the piece is available here.]