Uncle Harry

February 8, 2011

Uncle Harry and the Big Picture

There galaxies.jpg was a time when the Milky Way was considered the entirety of the universe. Then around 1924 when Edwin Hubble figured out that the little blotches of light called nebulae were other galaxies and that the Milky Way was only one of many galaxies.

In a new show on The Science Channel last night, the sizes of galaxies were compared. The Milky Way is about 100,000 light-years in diameter, while the nearby galaxy in the constellation of Andromeda -- which you can see as a moon-sized smudge on a very clear night -- is about twice as big as the Milky Way. However, the galaxy known as IC 1101, which is a billion light years or so distant, is about six-million light years in diameter, big enough to contain both the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy in their present relative positions. Big stuff, and all relatively close.

Scientific notion -- e.g., 5.6x106 light years -- can make large things and distant things seem conceivable, when really they aren't conceivable at all. When human beings look at the Andromeda galaxy, we see it as it was some two million years ago, before our type of primate existed; and it is the closest spiral galaxy.

This realm of contemplation -- i.e., the cosmic aspects of time and space -- leads to such realizations that the life of a human being is pretty much comparable to that of any old germ living under a rock in the garden. Human beings are as irrelevant as germs, and so too our thoughts and actions, achievements and victories.

Given all that, I'm not much involved in politics, but last week I went to visit my Uncle Harry. (Names and relationships have been changed here to protect the . . . to protect those whose skepticism and intellectual thoroughness have lapsed.) I had one of the rare experiences of convincing someone into another way of looking at something.

Uncle Harry lives about two miles from me, close enough to walk or peddle to every week or so. He opposes the new healthcare law, says it's unconstitutional, that "the government can't force people to buy something they don't want." He also says Barack Obama is a communist and a Nazi, and probably a Kenyan and a cannibal. You know the type, and I'm sorry to characterize one of my favorite people that way.

Uncle Harry is my father's sister's husband, an uncle by marriage. When I was young in the late fifties, Uncle Harry taught me how to use lathes, wood and metal, how to weld with gas and electric arc, fabricate things, and work with wood and plastics. Naturally I used to worship him; because of Uncle Harry I became a mechanical engineer.

In 1950 when Uncle Harry was 19, he was drafted into the Army. He spent part of a winter in a foxhole in Korea with an M1, shooting at people and being shot at. He walks with a noticeable asymmetry because of a piece of shrapnel or some other fast-moving object from an exploding mine that killed one of his buddies; it hit in the middle his right shin, smashing the bone. He's alluded to a metal bar, but I'm not sure he has one. His right leg is an inch or so shorter than the other.

Despite my vivid memories of Uncle Harry -- and perhaps, also, because of his intelligence, intellectual thoroughness and early presence in my life -- I am now able to see him clearly in the narrowness of his current thinking. His thoughts on certain issues are shaped by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.

As far back as I can remember, Uncle Harry's war experience has been his favorite topic. But now, this past year or so, healthcare reform is also a favorite.

Last week we sat in his living room basking in the heat of a wood stove he had built from structural steel, and I had an insight. He had used the phrase, "the government can't force people to pay their hard-earned money," which somehow reminded him of Korea and a card game where he lost all his money, and while he was talking he pulled up his right pants leg to scratch his leg and I saw the scar and dented shin bone. Given the juxtaposed topics and seeing the wound, I realized this guy had been DRAFTED! -- the government had "forced" him to give over two years of his life and he hadn't objected, but the idea of having to pay a thousand dollars or so to, in effect, the government, is "socialistic" and "unconstitutional."

I pointed this out and said that being drafted into the army seemed a much bigger thing than giving money. I said it seemed like he put more value on money than on life, even his own life.

You can guess his response, which came after a brief and what seemed to me stunned pause: "Well, no, Obamacare is different." He began to ramble through an explanation, but I interrupted to remind him of Mitch, a single fellow who years ago had lived in Uncle Harry's basement apartment in the 90s.

Mitch had been single. He was in his late twenties. He worked at the airport loading baggage. In the evenings he drank a lot and smoked marijuana and, when he could get it, he used cocaine, meth not being fashionable then. Mitch's commute to work was mostly on high-speed roads, and one evening coming back from work he got in an accident where two people died and he got injured. The accident was not Mitch's fault; he was simply one of the victims, with a broken back and multiple bone breakage in each leg.

Mitch had no insurance and no savings. He was in the hospital four months, for which the hospital's bill was about half a million dollars. Uncle Harry remembered all this. But when I asked who paid Mitch's bill, he had no idea. I said I figured the government payed it, and maybe the insurance companies covered part of it, and the hospital probably took a loss too.

Uncle Harry agreed with me that Mitch was irresponsible. I asked if he knew anyone else like that. He said no, but I don't think he thought hard enough. I asked if he could imagine people like that in the world. He said he could.

Since Uncle Harry wouldn't have thought of it himself, I pointed out that Mitch's hospital bill was passed on to responsible people like him and me. Because of the uninsured irresponsible people in the world, taxes go up -- or would go up, were someone to raise the tax rate, otherwise it's the national debt -- which is called "the deficit" these days -- that increases. Insurance premiums also increase because of the Mitches in the world. Mitch had, in effect, received half a million dollars from the rest of us, which he got by way of higher taxes and insurance costs for us responsible people.

Uncle Harry actually agreed that Mitch had been well rewarded for his irresponsibility -- and that Mitch was equivalent to but worse than a Cadillac-driving welfare queen. He agreed, too, that "If people like Mitch could be forced to pay, then people like you and me won't have to cover other people's irresponsibilities."

We talked about an alternative approach to the Mitch problem, namely not to help people in dire need. If Mitch gets his back broken in an accident and has no money or insurance, the police at the accident scene should simply move his body out of traffic and leave him there. "Not a Christian thing to do, right, Uncle Harry?"