Dancing Around the Square

My father used the expression, “on the square” to indicate something that was open and honest. It’s an old expression, rooted in freemasonry. It was one of the guiding principles of his life, and in fact it was a hallmark of his generation.

That generation, however, did not live their lives in the two dimensional black and white images we see in old movies. Like every generation, the young endeavored to push against and reshape the boundaries of convention.

Dad loved to dance. He learned to square dance in high school and went often to the John Campbell Folk school where he competed in and won many dance contests. Square dancing is a stylized form of dancing which depends on a rigorous adherence to form. But in music, as in all human pursuits, adherence to form diminishes as boundaries are pushed out when people think outside the box and color outside the lines. In the 1940’s when Dad was in his 20’s, swing music became popular. Swing pushed out the boundaries of popular music with its emphasis on improvisation.

In 1944, the war with Japan raged in the South Pacific and Dad was a young seaman waiting to ship out for the first time. All his soon-to-be shipmates were confined to base as their deployment was imminent, and my father’s character was of the “lawful good” persuasion, another hallmark of his generation. There was no reason for him to even consider leaving the base.

However, if there was one thing that could possibly supersede his natural self-discipline, it was loyalty to a friend. His buddy had managed to enter a dance contest in town in an effort to impress a girlfriend, and he begged Dad to be his wingman. Loyalty to a friend, dance, and the rumor that Tommy Dorsey would be performing were just too much for him to resist.

Here’s where the story takes a fateful turn. Dad’s friend and his partner won the dance contest, and the whole party had their pictures taken by a local newspaper, which just happened to be read by the base commander on Sunday morning. As you might expect, he was…curious…as to how two sailors could get their pictures in the paper when everyone was confined to base.

The Navy was not inclined to waste two freshly trained and badly needed sailors, and Dad’s forthrightness probably didn’t hurt his cause, so the two dancing fools were not confined to the brig, but they were confined to their barracks while their case was adjudicated. The Navy made some last minute personnel changes and Dad and his buddy were assigned to another ship. Dad’s original ship was deployed without him.

A few weeks later that ship was sunk by a Japanese submarine and all hands were lost. Dad’s name was still on the roster, and it was several months before his family knew he was still alive.

They say that history turns on a dime. Personal history pivots on an even smaller axis. I’ve thought often about the number of factors to which I owe my existence: If Dad didn’t love to dance; if he didn’t like Tommy Dorsey; if he had never met his friend; if the Commander hadn’t read the newspaper that Sunday morning – the amazing luck involved in being given a body to inhabit on this earth is dependent on an infinite number of conditionals.

I’ve also pondered lately how, as each generation gets older, it is natural to seek comfort in convention. We are less likely to want to test and to push out the boundaries. We are inclined to take fewer risks, just like we are less likely to buy lottery tickets when we’re hungry and we’ve only got $20 left to buy food. Of course this isn’t true for every individual, but for a generation, it is.

For those of us who bother to look for patterns in the cycles of history, a case can be made that when the transfer of responsibility between older and younger generations begins to unfold, there will always be volatility. The aging generation begins to cling to the box for a sense of safety, and they will wield money and power to protect that box just as the younger generations struggle to push out the boundaries. Decades may pass during which there is a balance of generations which buffers the more dramatic conflicts, but eventually a nation or even a civilization will reach a point where there are very large groups of people with different values and therefore different goals.

Such is the case today. The aging Boomers are now fewer in numbers than the younger generations, but they have more money, at least for the moment. It is a situation ideal for feeding political conflict. Compounding that conflict is a mainstream corporate media which profits from seeding conflict and dissent and has little financial incentive for fostering communication and understanding.

If the generations could communicate better, perhaps the older members could remember when they were the ones pushing out the boundaries. Maybe the younger could realize that there is a difference between changing the boundaries and destroying them. This is difficult in an age when our worldly affairs are governed and our imaginations led by libertines and profligates.

There is a balance. A box with no bottom will never hold anything, but a closed container will never hold anything new. A dance that never changes is just another ritual, but without form it’s just waving your arms around on the dance floor.


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