Let us praise the worker ants

The Baltimore Sun

Helped a friend move into a new old house last week, just like we used to do back in college, except there was no case of beer and no radio blasting. Hauled in 50 boxes, one by one, and felt like an ant carrying grains of sand to build up the anthill. The tedium of it was blissful. Though I did remember those helpless ants of my childhood, when my great shadow fell on them and they looked up and shook their minuscule fists, and then - WHUMP - it was all over.

It was a lovely, violent boyhood back during the Cold War. We boys ran around on the playground, machine-gunning each other, and we discussed nuclear holocaust, especially if girls were around. "Your hair will catch on fire, and then your eyeballs will melt and run down your cheeks," we said in authoritative tones learned from newscasters. "And then your intestines will explode."

We lounged around under the elms, drinking Hires root beer, imagining how the communists would sneak a bomber through our radar and drop the big one and eyeballs would melt and the president would go underground and squadrons of B-52s would go roaring over the North Pole and turn the Soviet Union into a glassy desert. We were 10 or 11 years old. We were militants. It was intensely pleasurable.

Nowadays, we boys would've had video games with which to obliterate the enemy, and we could've gone online and speculated about bursting eyeballs. We could've lived in dark rooms like vampire bats and produced bat blogs and linked to distant bat colonies.


Anyway, I got over it. These days, I am indifferent to militance and more inspired by the worker ants of science. The patient accumulation of data, the dry formulation of theory, the countless little defeats, then the big leap forward that changes the world. I don't have the mind for it, but I appreciate those who do, such as John W. Backus, who died this week at 82, the man who led the team at IBM that created the programming language Fortran in the early '50s, a giant step toward harnessing the computer and making it work. While the militants of his day stewed over the danger of rock 'n' roll and Reds in the State Department, Mr. Backus' team of young math nerds toiled away in Manhattan and took small, decisive steps toward the future.

In my grandfather's day, Thomas Edison toiled to design a machine for managers to dictate letters into and then events led in another direction: Enrico Caruso sang into it and Jimmy Rodgers and King Oliver and the recording business burst forth into the 20th century, and the hybrid genius of America bloomed and blew the seeds of jazz and blues and rock 'n' roll around the world.

In my lifetime, scientists at MIT and UCLA and the RAND Corp. proposed the interconnection of giant computers that would enable scattered communities of scholars to share data and which, about 20 years ago, burst forth and blossomed as the global information system we know as the Internet, which enables you to quickly transmit photographs of Lulu and Gimpy or access every light bulb joke known to man or disseminate angry blogs excoriating your enemies.

You drift around the Internet and find the right-wing kulturkampf bubbling along, the snapping turtles chewing on the same old sticks, oblivious to the real world, and you think of how this medium that has served angry militants so well was the work of committees of patient, hard-working, anonymous ants hauling grains of data up the slippery slopes. This was an enormous, heroic enterprise, carried out in the dark by men and women motivated by the pleasure of problem-solving. There are thousands of statues of lousy generals and blowhard statesmen and enormous temples erected for the worship of presidents, and not much recognition of people such as Mr. Backus who did the work that actually made life better.

So what? Who wants to be a statue anyway? I would rather haul boxes and shelve books and wash the wineglasses than have pigeons sit ululating on my shoulders. We insects learn to appreciate the complex systems and paraphernalia that go to make up the American home. We come to appreciate materialism. These books, the pots and baskets, the souvenirs of Japan and Italy, the photographs of lakes, the well-worn armchair, the lamp, the portraits in silver frames, are symbols of the fundamental goodness of life. Militance and paranoia shall not prevail against it.

Garrison Keillor's column appears Thursdays in The Sun. His e-mail is oldscout@prairiehome.us.

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