Feb 27, 2017

Taxi Cab Lessons

By: Tony Blando

I'm pretty sure I'm the last writer to finish my column for every issue of Badger Sportsman.

God bless our editor in chief, Ms. Christy Larsen, for putting up with my tardiness.  Sometimes she threatens me with bodily harm as I get dangerously close to my deadline - which is usually much later than everyone else's.  I won't relate the specifics of these threats but I will say they sometime involve the removal of certain body parts. 

In all seriousness, the main reason you receive this exceptional magazine in a timely manner is because Christy works her tail off to make it so.  If you ever run into her I recommend you give her a hug, thank her, and say, "I'm so sorry you have to put up with guys like Tony - but you do an awesome job on this magazine." She will appreciate it and you might enjoy the hug.

For each issue, Christy asks me to write about a particular topic - usually related to one of the abundant and varied seasonal activities we are blessed with in Wisconsin. For the last issue she said, "Tony, please write about the deer gun season."  I said, "Yes ma'am," and although I didn't write specifically about hunting deer with a gun, I at least wrote something about hunting in general that gun hunters could maybe relate to.

I usually come close to what Christy wants, but I'll tell you up front that this one is going to be a real stretch. Christy asked me to write about ice fishing, since this is the January/February issue. I love ice fishing and I enjoy writing about it, but at the risk of losing some body parts, I simply can't do what Christy asked me to do - and I'll blame it on an Ethiopian cab driver. 

I'm guessing that right now you're thinking, "Well, this ought to be interesting." I serve as chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, and we just completed a grueling re-election effort. Ron proved the pundits wrong by working harder than anyone else, telling the truth, and winning.  

So I again find myself making regular trips from Appleton to Washington. It was there on Dec. 1 that I drafted this column, shortly after an enlightening cab ride.  I take a lot of cabs in D.C. and although they usually cost more than Uber, I'm happy to pay the extra fare because of the wisdom I gain from the Ethiopian, Eritrean, Somali, Sudanese and other mostly East African immigrants who cart me around our nation's capital.  

I am not a huge fan of federal intervention in Wisconsin's classroom.  In my opinion, teachers, administrators, school board members and parents are generally far more capable of running their districts and educating their children than bureaucrats 879 miles away in Washington.

But, if I were king, I would mandate that every middle and high schooler in this nation, as part of their curriculum, drive around for at least one full day per year with a D.C. cab driver. If they did, they'd have a much better appreciation for America with all its good and not so good - including our divisive election process. I have found that these immigrants have a far greater understanding of, and appreciation for, our form of government and political system.  

During my last cab ride I was driven by an Ethiopian gentleman who apologized twice for missing certain turns that extended the ride - and of course the fare I would pay at the end.  But I didn't mind one bit as I listened to his fascinating tale of escape from an oppressive regime fraught with danger to the land of opportunity called the United States of America.

He told me that in Ethiopia he always worried about having enough food and water to survive.  He worried about getting killed during the border war with Eritrea.  He said he never had electricity and at night, if he walked somewhere in the dark, he worried about getting bitten by a poisonous snake or eaten by a lion. In Wisconsin we just worry about deer ticks.

But then he said something that made me realize just how fortunate we are to be Americans. He told me that he had recently returned from Ethiopia, where he was visiting family.  He said that, although many of the same dangers still exist, he now believes the biggest danger facing his Ethiopian family was one he never realized until his most recent visit.  He said that he spent a lot of time in his parents’ house with only family members and that never, not once during the entire visit, did anyone in his family, except himself, speak freely about their thoughts on anything related to politics, the military or anything else remotely related to the government or political system. They were simply too afraid to do so. 

Juxtapose that with the election cycle we just endured, one that may have been one of the most divisive since independence.  Our airwaves were bombarded with nasty discourse, and families and good friends fought in homes, in bars, in the workplace and every other place humans gathered.  And although members of some families may not be on speaking terms right now, at least NO family I know of in America ever held back from speaking their minds for fear of reprisal from our own government or military.

My new Ethiopian friend was effusive in his praise for many of the things we take for granted. He was not at all put off by the presidential race and, instead, marveled at the election process and the freedom we enjoy to speak our minds about candidates and the issues being debated.

We are Americans and we can and should speak our minds in our own homes.  We can and should speak our minds in the workplace.  And we can and should speak our minds in the local gin mill, school, shopping center or wherever we find ourselves in dialogue with other Americans who, by the First Amendment, are guaranteed the right to peaceably assemble and the right to petition the government for the redress of grievances.  We are "created equal, and are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."  Unfortunately, my friends from the aforementioned countries in East Africa and other places throughout the world are not blessed with those same rights in their home countries. To a person, they love America,  do not take her for granted, and truly appreciate our unique freedoms.

So in order to inoculate myself, in some small way from Christy, I'm going to bring this back to ice fishing. Winter is a time to be still and contemplate the past and the opportunities of the future.  It's a peaceful time to reflect on who we are - and how we can be the best version of who we want to be. I can think of no place better to do this than sitting on a five-gallon bucket for hours and days in the middle of Lake Winnebago jigging for walleyes or waiting for a trophy sturgeon to swim through your ice hole.  

Perhaps we could all use some quiet time to contemplate this past election cycle and its ugliness and divisive nature. And, perhaps, taking a page from an Ethiopian cab driver, we should embrace our chaotic system and the unique freedoms that come with it - and we should never take it for granted.

All while catching a limit of walleyes or spearing a trophy sturgeon.