Jerry Nelson: A capitol experience
Everybody talks about the government, but nobody does anything about it. That statement has been true ever since the first barely-sentient creature slithered out of the primordial ooze and filed the paperwork to start a campaign finance committee.
Government is a mystery to many of us. It’s like the internet: we don’t know where it comes from and we don’t understand how it operates. But making a misstep with it can bring misery.
When I was in high school, I was required to take a course called U.S. History. My choice of study would have been The Lifestyle of Hugh Hefner but, sadly, no such class was offered.
A large portion of U.S. History dealt with how our government began and how it evolved from a simple, single-celled organism into the tentacled bureaucracy that it is today. It should come as no surprise that the public school that I attended was run by the government.
At mid-February it was decided that we U.S. History students should participate in a field trip to the South Dakota state capital to witness legislative democracy in action. The idea seemed to be that seeing how the sausage is made would elevate our collective opinions regarding sausage.
On the morning of our field trip my bleary-eyed classmates and I piled onto a school bus at zero dark-thirty. Most of us napped during the journey to Pierre. We were as excited as a herd of snails.
Pierre is a prairie town situated on the banks of the Missouri River out in the middle of nowhere. A town that happens to have a majestic, stone-clad Neoclassical capitol building at its center.
Linguistics are a major stumbling block to understanding government. “Capitol” denotes a particular building, whereas “capital” describes its city.
To confuse things even further, “capital” can also mean money. Thus, the sentence “Johnny the lobbyist went to the capital to distribute some capital at the capitol,” is perfectly correct.
The plan was for we students to organize ourselves into orderly groups and take in the goings-on as the state legislature went about its lawmaking business. Like all plans, it didn’t survive first contact with reality.
We quickly broke up into small disorderly groups and disbursed ourselves haphazardly throughout the capitol building. Some of us (ahem) tromped up and down the exquisite marble staircases several times before they discovered that there are elevators.
Other groups of high schoolers from other towns were also at the capitol that day. I randomly fell in with a disparate bunch of teenagers that included a pretty blonde girl from Woonsocket. I cannot recall her name, mainly because I was too shy to ask her what it was.
Our ragtag band roamed the ornate hallways, opening doors indiscriminately to see what was inside. Once, purely by accident, we entered a room that proved to be the viewing gallery for the Senate. We watched for a few minutes as some guy stood at the podium and droned on about something majorly boring such as wastewater debenture bylaws. We sensed that we were in danger of actually learning something, so we swiftly exited the gallery.
Gamboling down a corridor, we passed the governor and one of his assistants. I recognized the governor as a local guy who had previously operated a dairy equipment distributorship. It was nice to see that a small-town boy had made good.
The girl from Woonsocket said that she had heard there was a hidden stairway that led to the area above the rotunda and beneath the capitol’s copper dome. We decided to seek it out.
At length we discovered a small doorway that opened to a cramped set of wooden stairs. We climbed the stairs and soon found ourselves above the rotunda. The rotunda’s stained glass glowed softly from the lights below. A small window set in the massive dome afforded a commanding view of the Missouri glistening in the midwinter sun. It was not unromantic.
It was also very cold in that unheated space. We quickly decided that we’d had enough and went back downstairs.
Weary of the capitol building, we walked outside. We strolled past an artesian fountain that gushed hot water, creating clouds of romantic steam. I thought about holding her hand but was too nervous and awkward.
Then it was time to go. As I trudged toward my bus, I glanced back at the girl from Woonsocket. She tossed me a tiny wave and I waved back.
I didn’t learn much about government during that field trip. But I still wonder if I missed my chance to enact something – a bicameral or perhaps a filibuster – beneath that soaring copper dome.