Yesteryear’s Memories — Mr. Sommers

January 23, 2023

He lived in my neighborhood as a ‚ kid. I remembered him as a man of few words; he seemed nice enough but I don’t recall ever seeing him smile. I didn’t know much about him, but I think he was a veteran of WWII. His wife was gone and he lived alone. I was around twelve or so and would occasionally ‘make the rounds’ of the neighbors, talking to them about anything and everything. Most everyone knew everyone else and it was normal to visit and talk about whatever was going on in the neighborhood. I was sitting in a lawn chair talking to Mr. Sommers about his roses. He said they needed trimmed and I could help carry the branches to the burn pile. Then something came over his face. A truck went by with a popular soft drink ad on the side and he asked if I drink ‘that stuff.’ I did but I didn’t know what to say — he seemed so serious. Then he told me in no uncertain terms that it was poison to the body. He explained that sugar was bad and carbonation was bad and just about everything else in the mixture was somehow detrimental to this organ or that organ. At the time, I didn’t know what to believe since just about everybody I knew drank it at some point in time. I just shook it off as a man in his eighties being a bit crotchety.

A week later I was talking to Mr. Sommers again. He started talking to me about people who don’t have our best interests at heart. Some were even evil, he said. The cold war was still on and he talked about communists and spies and how they worked to change our minds about, well, everything. I didn’t really understand many of the things he talked about, but I listened and for some reason it stuck with me. He talked about how people can twist words and make something bad seem good. How people try to change our views about a product, a situation, an event, or a country. I learned some things from that man, but over time the information gradually faded like the words to a favorite song. Years went by. Mr. Sommers passed away; I went to high school and college and worked at jobs. Just in the last year or so, I was looking at old films from the 1940s and 1950s. (Everything is available online nowadays.) Back then the cold war was on everyone’s mind. The military made training films for troops and for civilians. All of a sudden, it made sense. They were concerned about propaganda and how it was used. Mr. Sommers’ words came flooding back, and I was shocked.

The films talk about glittering generalities, name-calling and deflection. Testimonials and card-stacking. Transfer and the Bandwagon. Plain Folks, loaded words, faulty cause and effect, and euphemisms. They talk of the truth becoming lies and lies the truth. They describe how to cause fear — through threat of war, of being arrested, of shortages and of deadly pandemics. They create fear of saying the wrong thing, of not going along with what the propagandists want us to think. My neighbor used many of the same words. I realized that what was true decades ago is still true today — that we need to think for ourselves. Mr. Sommers was trying to teach me to trust my own judgement, that I should do my own research, and use my brain. Not to blindly follow what the media or the government or what the ‘experts’ say. Knowledge is power. Faith over fear. I finally realized that the crotchety old man wasn’t crotchety at all. He was offering me a gift. A gift that so many have worked and struggled and sacrificed for — and even though it took me decades to realize it, he was right.

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