Truth to Power
Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, recounts an early lesson in speaking his truth…
When I was sixteen years old, back in 1969, Richard Nixon was still in his first year as president of the country and, having campaigned on a promise to end the war in Vietnam, he had yet to do anything but justify its continuance. I snuck off to Manhattan on the weekends and attended some anti-war rallies and walked among beautiful young hippies who sang folk songs about love, and peace, and justice. The year before, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were both killed trying to bring peace and justice to the nation. So, my visits to Washington Square Park were to be in a place of hope for a better future. It was there I first met some of our returning veterans who talked of speaking truth to power. It was all so worldly and so beyond my experience growing up in the Village of Hillburn, but I remember the veterans emphasized that the only way to speak truth to power was to do it on a personal level, from the heart.
That Thanksgiving, we were having relatives join us from Nova Scotia, Canada. Among them was an in-law named Hughie. Now, this Hughie was a great admirer of my dad, Walt. Hughie was a hunter and he loved Walt’s hunting stories. Hughie sponsored hunting trips in Canada for his father-in-law and Walt to go on. He regularly sent wild game down from Nova Scotia for Walt. And when Hughie came down to hunt in the states, he regularly defied the hunting laws. He was a big, powerful presence and had little regard for local regulations. And Hughie considered me the inheritor of Walt’s role in Ramapo Woodlore; I was (in his mind) the one who would carry on Walt’s traditions.
However, I was deer hunting only a week before Thanksgiving, when I was shot at by careless hunter. It was a close call and not my first. I declared that this was nonsense and that too much of legalized hunting was carried on by dangerous weekend pioneers. I quit hunting right then and there (and, anyhow, I was losing focus thinking about Vietnam and all this ‘speak truth to power’ stuff).
So, there we were around the Stead Thanksgiving table: my family and our Canadian cousins. Walt was at one end of the table and my Mother, Tessie, was at the other. My sisters and a brother-in-law sat with me on one side, and Hughie’s wife and his daughters were all on the other side facing us. I was at the middle of the table and Hughie sat directly across from me. The eating of the meal had gone well and was pleasant enough, but I detected that Hughie was preoccupied with something. Then just as the coffee and apple pie were set out, he spoke. Looking directly at me he said, “I hear you don’t hunt no more.”
The room fell quiet. The gentle sound of silverware clinking and spoons being stirred in coffee cups disappeared and a heavy expectation fell over the whole scene.
I said, “Yup, I quit.”
“Quit? What on earth for?”
I said, “Because there are too many people walking around in the woods shooting at each other.”
He smiled and said, “Oh hell, that don’t make no difference.”
I said, “Yes, it does.”
He lost his smile and said, “Why?”
And there it was, that personal moment of truth to power. I knew Walt was watching me now. It seemed like everyone was waiting for my answer. I said, “Because that is my decision. We don’t need the meat and I don’t need to be shot at.”
He looked down at his plate of Tessie’s apple pie. I waited for somebody else to say something, but the room was so silent now it felt like a loud silence. Without looking up he said, “Then I sure hope you don’t go to Vietnam.”
And before I could think of what to say I said, “I’m not going. It’s wrong and I’m not going.”
That was not one of our friendly Thanksgiving meals. I don’t really remember much of what happened after that. We eased back into a ‘let’s not talk about things’ mood.
Later, after everybody left and my sisters were talking with Tessie in the kitchen, I sat in the living room with Walt, watching an old black and white movie on the television. It was a war movie and, after a while, he said to turn it off. I got up and went over to the television set and switched to a different channel that had a Thanksgiving special with the singer Perry Como. But Walt said to turn the whole set off. I did, and returned to the upholstered chair where I picked up a weather-beaten paper-back book of poetry by e. e. cummings. Walt picked up his monthly issue of New York State Conservationist magazine. We read in silence: him smoking his pipe and me chewing a stick of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum. The voices of the women in the back kitchen teased and reminisced. The bad time of my talking with cousin-in-law Hughie was slipping away.
That was when Walt looked up from his magazine and said, “You know, Hughie don’t like you much.”
I said I knew that.
He then said, “But he respects you for speaking your truth.”
That was when I learned that few people like you for speaking truth to power, but they just might respect you.