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    Vaccinated Visit with Dad: Nosh & Chat about Authoritarian Tactics from 1955 to Present

    By Louise “Lou” Fischer–

    In 1990, when I moved from the Northeast to San Francisco, I assured my Jewish parents, “California is only a plane ride away; I’ll visit all the time.” For the most part, I kept that promise—until the pandemic. 

    While my mother passed away in 1999, my father, although still lively and active, is 91 years old. After missing two years of Thanksgivings, birthdays, Passover Seders, and other milestones, I “studied the science” and recently booked a trip to New York/Connecticut to visit with him and other family and friends. I planned to spend three days in New York, take a rapid COVID-19 test, and then head up to Connecticut to spend a few days with my father. While rapid tests aren’t 100% accurate, at least they are better than nothing.  

    Oddly enough, it wasn’t hard to be mostly “COVID-safe” in New York City; the vaccination rate is high, bars/restaurants actually check your vaccination record, and masks are required in the subway and public places. While it seems counterintuitive, somehow a city of 8.4 million people figured out a way to be socially distant. Maybe being in the first-wave of Covid destruction contributed to their collective compliance. 

    Whether it was luck, kismet, or just “New York,” on my last Dunkin’ Donuts coffee run in Lower Manhattan, I spotted a pop-up COVID-19 testing station that did both the rapid test and the “gold standard” PCR test. While there are no guarantees, at least I had two negative tests and felt less likely to be the “Typhoid Mary” of the senior living community center of Greater New Haven in which my father resides.

    While my father is in good shape mentally and physically, visitation activities are limited to the usual options for elderly Jews: talking (about family or the weather) and going out to eat at 4:30 pm but “no more than 10 minutes away, what, we should sit in the car for a long time?” Sticking to the script, we went to dinner at nearby restaurants and discussed the big storm that was coming (it was huge and caused flash flooding). For the “talk about family” component, with my Dad’s help, I sorted through his notes, records, and pictures, and together we updated parts of my family tree at Ancestry.com.

    In addition to seeing some interesting pictures (my grandmother was a flapper?), my father was particularly proud of the speech entitled “Freedom, Education and Security” that he delivered at the Harvard University 1955 Commencement. According to a congratulatory letter from the Dean of the Medical School, my father was the first medical student to compete for and win the coveted “Commencement Part,” which is the fancy term for first big speech after the procession, prayer, and anthem. 

    As Harvard University was founded in 1636, I wondered why it took 319 years for a medical student to “win” this honor. According to my father, it was because he was the only applicant willing to speak out against McCarthyism and write a speech without using the actual words “McCarthyism” or “communism,” because, after all, Harvard men (yes, they were mostly all men in 1955) were smart enough to know what the speech was about.  

    Reading his speech in 2021, I’m both awestruck and at the same time concerned—and disgusted, repulsed, and scared for our future—at the level of prescience in his speech and that, despite the passage of 65 years, his warnings still ring true today.  In what may well be the first “father-daughter” column in San Francisco Bay Times history, below are snippets of my father’s speech from 1955 that give meaning to the phrase “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they stay the same).

    Source: “Freedom, Education and Security” delivered June 16, 1955, by David S. Fischer, Harvard University Commencement at the Tercentenary Theatre, Cambridge, Massachusetts (sections were edited for brevity and clarity) 

    “Confronted as we are externally with a powerful enemy and internally with the danger of subversion, it is not at all surprising that we should be concerned with our security. What is disheartening is the way in which we have reacted to the threat. I need not remind you of the antics of publicity-seeking fanatics, elected and otherwise. What is more disturbing is the acquiescence and participation of many sincere Americans in a multitude of silly and dangerous practices … . It is these practices, among others, that seriously challenge our freedom.

    The college graduate, once widely respected, is now suspect by virtue of education … some of the most able men in our nation are now declining government service [don’t troll my Dad; he’s a good feminist who raised three strong daughters, the use of the word “men” in this discourse was appropriate for 1955]. Career diplomats have been demoralized and many have resigned. Scientists have left by the score and our public officials have not yet learned that ‘when you lock the laboratory doors, you lock out more than you lock in’ … . These patterns of activity, far from making us more secure, make us more vulnerable.  

    The role of education in a free society is to prepare an unshackled mind to follow truth wherever it may lead. Of course, truth is spelled with a small ‘t’ because no one has ‘Absolute Truth,’ not in religion, not in science, not in politics … we can deal only in relative truths, and cannot guarantee that our way is the only or the best way … .

    Now leaving [Harvard] to take up our separate activities, we have learned to have a healthy respect for all informed viewpoints regardless of their divergence. We deplore those false patriots who exploit security as a weapon for personal gain. We … are obliged to carry our heritage of free thought and speech to our future endeavors and to defend this freedom whenever and wherever it is challenged.

    We know that a secure nation without liberty is less than worthless. A free and educated society can work out its destiny without surrendering to either unreasonable fear or blind adherence to security. Her future is protected by the devotion of free men.”

    Re-reading this speech scared the daylights out of me. I can only hope that in 2055, my four nieces and nephews aren’t saying, “Wow, look what Grandpa Dave wrote 100 years ago. It’s still true today.”  

    Louise (Lou) Fischer is a Former Co-Chair of the Board of Directors of the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club and has served as an appointed and elected Delegate for the State Democratic Party.  

    David S. Fischer, MD, is a medical oncologist at Yale University in New Haven, CT. He served as an Assistant, Associate, and then Clinical Professor of Medicine from 1967 to the present. He has published 30 papers in peer-reviewed journals and has received many awards, including the Award for Teaching, Service and Leadership, the Physician Honoree for the Leukemia-Lymphoma Society, the Richard Blumenthal Patient Advocate for Life from the Connecticut Hospice, and most recently, the Yale Cancer Center Award for Lifetime Achievement.

    Published on September 9, 2021