None of us was making a lot of money, but the dollar was a lot stronger then compared to the franc and the deutsche mark. Nevertheless, we decided to fill a few jerrycans with extra gasoline for the trip. Gas was selling on the Air Force base where we were stationed for 14 cents a gallon, while it was going for more than a dollar a liter in the civilian economy.
Off we went through the green spring countryside, full of the excitement of three days of freedom from GI drudgery and looking forward to the Paris we knew only from movies. We gave no thought at all to what it might mean to us that France was at that moment deeply involved in pushing NATO troops out of the country. But we found out when we got to the French border. The border guards offered us two alternatives: Pour out that cheap, untaxed American gasoline, or turn around and go home. To heck with Paris, we said. Instead, we drove to Belgium.
Which is where french fries were invented. (Why we call them "french" fries when they were invented in Belgium is another story, but most authorities agree that Belgium is where they first showed up, in the early 19th century.)
Which brings us to Congress.
And "freedom fries" and "freedom toast."
You know the story by now. Last week, the House of Representatives struck back at France for refusing to support our plan to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime and democratize Iraq.
The House's weapon of choice was its menu.
Henceforth, the decree went out, on the bill of fare in dining rooms and cafeterias in all House office buildings, the choice would be "freedom fries" for lunch and "freedom toast" for breakfast.
The AP reported that the French Embassy had no comment, other than to point out the real origin of french fries.
Is this complete and utter silliness or what?
The late Sen. J. William Fulbright wouldn't have been surprised. "We have the power to do any damn fool thing we want to do, and we seem to do it about every 10 minutes," he said back in 1952.
Mark Twain had even less respect for the august body that makes its home on Capitol Hill: "It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress."
What's next? Freedom poodles? Freedom letters? (You may need some age on you to understand that last one. If so, ask your grandfather about "french letters." Make sure your grandmother isn't around when you do.)
The world situation being what it is, if Congress has enough time and enough inclination to focus its attention on the menu as a way of striking back at the French, it makes you wonder if ever so briefly whether we should call them all back home and give them a good talking to.
Rep. James Moran, Northern Virginia's voice on Capitol Hill, needs a good talking to.
He's still trying to get out from under his ill-considered remarks about Jews. On March 3 in Reston he said, "If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this." The fireworks that followed were predictable by everybody except Moran, of course. He was roundly condemned and forced to apologize, not once but twice.
Henry David Thoreau would not have been surprised. "If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonal experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among the nations," he wrote in 1849. Considered opinion doesn't seem to have changed much since then.
The country faces some serious problems right now, difficulties that may even persist to plague our children. Focusing on what to call items on a cafeteria menu doesn't strike sensible people as the way to fix things. And bigotry certainly isn't the answer, either.
But that's what we're getting.
I have a friend who proposes that we change the way we pick our representatives in Congress. She favors adopting a lottery. We couldn't possibly be worse off, she contends. If we set up a few minor qualifications, such as barring the criminally insane and requiring IQs roughly approximating room temperature or higher, we could probably improve the pool to some extent.
It seems to me that with each passing day, it's harder and harder to muster the arguments to prove she's wrong. S
Don Dale is Style Weekly's TV critic.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.
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