Serving as a chaperone on the Washington Youth Tour feels a bit like taking a voyage to Gilligan’s Island.
Every summer, Louisiana’s electric co-ops send a group of 25-30 castaways – I mean students – to D.C. to learn more about the electric co-op movement. And each year it seems the characters and plots come right out of a comedy premise dreamed up by Sherwood Schwartz.
Schwartz, who also gave us such campy TV hits as The Brady Bunch and My Favorite Martian, could have easily typecast the crew setting out from the tropic port of Baton Rouge last month.
Representing a cross-section of our state, every year the group includes a few brawny jocks, a few perky cheerleader types, a few brainiacs, some who are shy and reserved, and some who are Dale Carnegie curve-setters. Toss in a beauty queen or two and you’re ready to roll the cameras.
Gilligan? Well, that has to be me. I usually try to provide the comic relief. There’s no guarantee I’ll survive spending 35 hours on a charter bus with a group of rambunctious road-tripping teenagers, but humor improves the odds.
Whether part of this annual adventure or not, every time I’ve visited Washington it’s always reminded me of Gilligan’s Island, a place of contradictions, irony, buffoonery and implausibility, set apart from the real world, seemingly a product of someone’s wacky imagination.
My suspicion is that, at some point during their week-long stay, the students probably wondered what zany uncharted desert isle they were inhabiting. Touring all the memorials and monuments was tame enough, but some of the politically- charged activity they observed on the streets seemed to grab their attention.
For instance, while lining up for a photo in front of the White House, the students stood within a few feet of a feeble old woman seated in a folding chair flanked by a patchwork wall of large hand-painted signs – Westboro Baptist-style – calling on the U.S. to stop supporting Israel.
The woman chattered non-stop in a frail, heavily accented Middle-Eastern voice to anyone who walked by about how the U.S. is a terrorist nation with blood on its hands. And as the woman prattled on about a complex, intractable, generations-old issue the kids didn’t really know much about, I think that’s when they realized they weren’t in the Boot State anymore.
I hoped they would realize this was what they were there to see first-hand – the democratic process in action, people in the street vocally yet peaceably expressing their opinions, whether you agree or not, without being thrown in prison. But I think they just wanted to move away from the old wind-bag.
Later that day, the group encountered more protests while walking along The National Mall. One was a parade-like demonstration where a few dozen folks marched while calling for “clean power.” As with all public protests, only one side of the story was presented. But the activists bellowed a clever, catchy chant, so I think our students were slightly entertained as they made their way to the Smithsonian Museums.
Yet another demonstration was witnessed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This event was a call for the worldwide elimination of child labor and slavery. The keynote speaker, Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi, was passionate in his delivery, but his audience was sparse. Most people in that vicinity were less interested in the plight of the planet’s 168 million exploited children than trying to find some relief from the 100-degree heat.
As the stage was being struck, the students decided to have their picture taken around the individual 7-foot letters that spelled out the word “FREEDOM,” which served as a dramatic backdrop to Satyarthi’s speech.
But no sooner had they begun gathering around the letters, an agitated organizer swept in and waved them away with as much passion, anger and vigor as Satyarthi had shown at the podium. I hoped, again, the students were grasping the irony of being shooed away from a set of letters that literally spelled out the word “FREEDOM,” and maybe understanding freedom has its limitations. But they seemed more interested in grabbing one of the Popsicles being peddled by a nearby vendor.
Still another interesting, yet heartbreaking, twist occurred just one day after visiting the Lincoln Memorial and reading the text of his second inaugural address on the north wall. That’s the one where Lincoln reminds both sides in the Civil War that the God they both claim to worship cannot be pleased that they’ve tragically decided to destroy one another and battle brother-against-brother to the death over an institution that is itself morally indefensible.
It was later that night that we learned a disturbed young man, professing racial hatred and inconceivably attempting to trigger another Civil War – like the 19th century conflict that cost the lives of more than 620,000 – and once again turn brother against brother, Christian against Christian, slaughtered six women and three men, in cold blood, during a Bible study, in a house of worship.
Washington has its flaws, and can sometimes seem like a bizarre island set apart from the real America that lies beyond its borders. But the work that goes on there is serious business, where leadership changes, laws get written, people argue, and the winds of doctrine blow mightily, all without resorting – at least
theoretically – to violence.
Hoping that our Youth Tour students grasp this lesson and understand how blessed we are to live under this form of government is the reason Louisiana’s electric co-ops support this program. And it’s the reason we’ll head back to Washington next June.
To view a video of the trip, visit https://youtu.be/5WZydmnqfuM.