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A John Glenn childhood

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WASHINGTON -- When we walked into the White House Tuesday afternoon, the military pianist in the grand foyer was playing Bob Dylan's Don't Think Twice, It's Alright as a gentle, flowing ballad, oddly denaturing the lament of a lover on the cusp of being unloved; a man who, as Dylan himself once wrote, "gazed into the grey mist with tear-blinded eyes and made up songs that floated in a luminous haze."

Milling on the polished floors, under full-length canvases of Clinton and Reagan and Carter and First Bush, were blasé cabinet members and awestruck Girl Scouts, rabbis in yarmulkes and marines in medals. (Second Bush would unveil his official portrait here two days later.) Then we jaded hacks were herded in.

I never had seen the East Room so crammed with photographers and television crews and correspondents. Dozens of journalists were crushed against the eastern wall, and duly credentialed vandals perched and trampled on a rolled-up carpet, straining for a fractional view of the ceremony to come.

I imagined that it must have been like this when the martyred, murdered Lincoln lay in this very salon, 28 presidents ago.

"How fitting it is," I laughed to myself, "for all these people to assemble at the White House to celebrate my daughter's seventh birthday."

Indeed, it had been seven years to the day since our Lizzie made her début at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto and -- coiled in a Onesie and wailing like a Fury -- on Page 1 of the National Post. Now she was a Maryland first grader with a huge mess of curls, respectable grades in reading and arithmetic, a beagle puppy, a telescope and compass and a secret clubhouse in the backyard.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" I had been asking her recently, and her answers had been, in order, (each blossoming for about a week before wilting): a magician or "girl wizard;" a mineralogist digging for gold nuggets in Pennsylvania while living with her friend Brenya at Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater; "a kitten trainer;" a turtle rescuer; and, most recently, a paleontologist so that she might unearth a specimen of the gigantic therapod dinosaur Spinosaurus to replace the only complete set of bones of the creature ever discovered, those having been destroyed in a British bombing raid on Munich in April, 1944.

So that was what it was like to be precisely seven years old.

At the White House, now, Barack Obama was going to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a dozen heroes and heroines -- dead and living, American and alien -- of medicine, letters, civil rights, music, astronautics, the judiciary, diplomacy and basketball.

The recipients, their designees and their descendants were introduced and seated. Among them were: Toni Morrison, the writer; John Glenn, the astronaut; Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state; an epidemiologist who helped to eradicate smallpox; a Polish diplomat who brought to Franklin Roosevelt proof of Hitler's death camps; John Paul Stevens, the former Supreme Court justice, and the widow of Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi, the University of Edmonton professor who, as a young man in Washington State in 1942, defied the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war against Japan.

Then, lastly, mute, expressionless, still "the Buddha in European clothes," wearing a tuxedo and sunglasses and a whisper-thin moustache: Bob Dylan.

The president chimed in, beaming.

"No one ever picks up a guitar, or fights a disease, or starts a movement, thinking, 'You know what, if I keep this up, in 2012 I could get a medal in the White House from a guy named Barack Obama,' " he said, and everyone laughed.

Pressed against the tapestries, I wondered what the dreams of the honorees had been on the day they turned seven.

Seven-year-old Toni Morrison, then a first-grader named Chloe Wofford at Hawthorne Elementary School in Lorain, Ohio, in 1938, little estimating that one day there would be a Nobel Prize for literature, or a Toni Morrison Elementary School dedicated in the same town.

Seven-year-old John Glenn, at school in New Concord, Ohio, in 1928, in a luminous haze he fondly would remember decades later, saying, "A boy could not have had a more idyllic early childhood than I did."

Seven-year-old Madeleine Jana Korbel, the daughter of a Czechoslovak diplomat who had escaped the Nazis, growing up in wartime London in 1944, being used in a propaganda film to solicit donations for refugee children, turning seven in the same week the Lancasters obliterate Spinosaurus and her own grandparents, and thousands of other Czech Jews, go bravely singing -- such is the legend -- to the gas chambers.

("Once, at a naturalization ceremony, an Ethiopian man came up to her and said, 'Only in America can a refugee meet the secretary of state' " Obama related. "And she replied, 'Only in America can a refugee become the secretary of state.' ")

Or seven-year-old Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minn. -- "you couldn't be a rebel, it was too cold" -- a Jewish boy with a dad stricken by polio, suiting up as a Roman soldier in breastplate and helmet as an extra in the visiting company of the Black Hills Passion Play of South Dakota.

Sixty-four years later, we waited for Dylan to utter a word -- any word -- but he travelled right past all of us, on the dark side of the road. The ceremony ended.

By the time I got home from the White House, the birthday party already had begun in our grand foyer, with the neighbours' twins pounding on the piano, Mom icing a chocolate loaf with puréed strawberries and Lizzie tearing open gemology and rock-hounding sets, relics of what had been her deepest passion just a couple of weeks ago.

I looked at my girl and hoped we were giving her a John Glenn childhood, and I wondered if she would orbit the planets, heal the afflicted, inspire the voiceless, be a leader of nations and receive public honours to wear with the private, unseen scars of life.

Then I gave my daughter seven kisses, and I prayed that she forever would see in her father, as Morrison wrote in Love, "kind eyes that promised to hold a girl steady on his shoulders while she robbed apples from the highest branch."


Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 2, 2012 J6

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