That's progress?


THE COAST Guard has abandoned the Morse code. Or to express it in an anguished cry of that now obsolete tongue: "Dit-dit-dit, dah-dah-dah, dit-dit-dit."

It has to be said very fast -- "ditditdit dahdahdah ditditdit" -- and means, of course, SOS.

Morse code was invented by Samuel F.B. Morse, who sent the first coded message in 1844. As every schoolchild once had to learn, that message was, "What hath God wrought."

Communications machinery has improved mightily since 1844, but the same cannot be said for the quality of messages. Neil Armstrong's first moon message -- "That's one small step for a man, but a giant leap for mankind" -- doesn't hold a candle to "What hath God wrought."

This is not to belittle Mr. Armstrong. He is a brave, intelligent and perhaps even wise adventurer. His rare refusal to exploit his deed for fame and fortune has been one of the century's noblest displays of honorable character.

Nevertheless, Mr. Armstrong's message is not in the same league with "What hath God wrought." It has the sound of writing that has been exhaustingly labored over while dozens of government titans looked over the poor author's shoulder. Imagine the editing:

"You can't use a musty old word like 'hath,' Neil. And that 'wrought,' baby, that's one of the forget 'em antiques. And don't get us wrong, fella, we're not hypocrites or atheists or anything, but God in a Federal program context is strictly a no-no these days."

It is not easy to produce memorable messages, of course, even when censors are not leaning over you. Here, for instance, is Wink Wingender of Glen Burnie, Md., who, according to The Evening Sun, sent and received Morse code both at sea and ashore for many years. What did he say upon learning that the Coast Guard was abandoning it?

"You can't stop progress," he said.

Here was a chance to say, "What hath God unwrought," but Wink Wingender, probably flustered to discover himself talking to a newspaper reporter, could only produce that dubious old line about the unstoppability of progress.

Anyone who has ever found himself suddenly confronted by the trouble implicit in a newspaper reporter will sympathize with Wink Wingender's failure to realize that the auto industry has stopped progress for the past 50 years, that Newt Gingrich has not only stopped progress but also started to roll it back, that --

But we were talking of the end of Morse code. Sentimentality doesn't dampen my eye, but I do feel a bit sad. Here is another instance of a hard-earned skill suddenly declared useless.

Learning the code was one of the more satisfying experiences of my Navy career, possibly because it seemed a little like being able to hear music with a musician's ear. Each letter and number makes a distinctive rhythmic sound.

After repeated listening conditions the ear to recognize each distinctive sound, you have the same sort of pleasure professional musicians must feel in listening closely to complex music, or so I thought.

It was a skill I never needed, as things turned out, but it was useful for entertaining small children, or at least those with enough wit to be amused by hearing their names -- dit-dah-dit, dah-dah-dah, dit-dit-dit, dit -- in Morse code.

Still, it was a skill that until last week might have made me valuable to the Coast Guard. Now -- useless. As useless as my skill at maneuvering a propeller-driven plane through a perfect Immelmann turn.

The purpose here was to enable me to destroy the air arm of the Imperial Japanese Empire, which fortunately collapsed before the skill had to be tested and, probably, found inadequate.

Nearly all skills, no matter how painstakingly learned, must eventually become obsolete, leaving once valuable workmen feeling suddenly valueless. The "downsizing" of American heavy industry and the resulting end of well-paid jobs in both labor and management is the bad news of our age.

Ditditdit, dahdahdah, ditditdit. Ex-bosses fear ending as burger dispensers. Nobody needs a perfect Immelmann anymore. What hath God wrought?

Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.

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