When I was a child, I thought like a child – thanks to the encyclopedia my parents purchased. Or, more exactly, thanks to the one volume of the encyclopedia they didn’t purchase.
See, next to the Bible on our bookshelf were twenty-seven of the twenty-eight volumes of Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia. Growing up on the farm, we were poor, but my parents were believers – believers in the power of education to improve their children’s lots in life. So, the moment the checker at the grocery store handed them a free copy of Volume 1 and a full-color flyer informing them that “the purchase of Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia is an excellent investment in your children’s future,” they made up their minds to find the funds to buy the rest – one a week for the next twenty-seven weeks.
For the next twenty-two weeks, they kept that promise to themselves – and to their children. But then, somewhere early in the Ss, the grocery store suffered a mysterious shortage of Volume 23. The store, my parents said, had run out before they could purchase a copy. To make up for it, they said, the store had decided to substitute Funk & Wagnalls’ The Presidents – a collection of brief biographies of every Commander-in-Chief from George Washington to George H.W. Bush.
Because my parents had raised me to believe, as they did, that education could empower people to escape rural poverty, I read over and over the biography of Abraham Lincoln. The sixteenth president’s comprehensive campaign of self-education, which culminated in passing the bar exam despite never having attended college – let alone law school – inspired me to strive for academic excellence.
When I was a child, I trusted my parents implicitly, so it was only years later that I started to suspect that there had been no shortage of Volume 23. When I was a teen, I was deeply disappointed – and frustrated – to discover that volume was the one that contained all the entries related to “sex.” But, by then, my otherwise exhaustive knowledge of the lives of presidents had developed the fatal flaw that would allow me to one day be blindsided by deep disillusionment: In my mind, as on our bookshelf, presidents and sex did not go together.
When I became a man, I thought I had put the ways of childhood behind me. Out of loyalty to Lincoln, I had registered to vote as a Republican at the age of 18, and – a few weeks after that – enrolled at the only alma mater of a Republican president that had accepted me: Whittier College.
Presidential scandals, though, had left me feeling conflicted about both of my first two adult decisions.
The Republican Party of the late 20th century, I understood, was not the Republican Party of the mid 19th century. Then, I understood, its members had been motivated by desire to create racial equality; now, I had started to suspect, they were motivated by a desire to maintain economic inequality. But first the rumors, and then the revelations, about the sexual misconduct of Democratic presidents both past and present – I went to Whittier during the Clinton Administration – repulsed me on a visceral level. Literally: Those scandals drove me away from the Democratic Party I might otherwise have embraced.
Speaking of scandals, Whittier College – of course – is the alma mater of Richard Nixon, the only man to ever resign the presidency. But its proximity to Disneyland allowed me to worship my childhood hero on a daily basis as an enthusiastic cast member at its “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” attraction on Main Street, USA. And “attraction” was the appropriate term for it because, in a purely platonic way, I was attracted to Disney’s audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln, which – with its noble face cast from an actual life mask of Lincoln and its dignified address compiled from his historic speeches – seemed a perfect representation of the president I had idealized and idolized since childhood.
Ironically, it was there, at the “Happiest Place on Earth,” that I had the unhappiest moment of my life when – more than 125 years after his assassination – I was a witness to Abraham Lincoln’s first sex scandal.
“There’s something wrong with President Lincoln!” shouted the mother rushing her children out of the auditorium. “He’s making obscene gestures! And dripping fluids!”
When we went to investigate, the rest of the cast members barely suppressed smiles. I, however, was utterly unable to hide the emotion evident on my face at that moment: horror. For, there, in front of a spectacular painting of the U.S. Capitol, was my animatronic Lincoln – his right hand spastically pawing at his crotch. As more and more of his hydraulic fluid dripped onto the stage, his shoulder and elbow were starting to smoke from the exertion. I sprinted to close the curtains embroidered with the Great Seal of the President of the United States.
“Well, I’ll never be able to put a penny in my pocket again,” shuddered one of my fellow cast members.
Without thinking, I punched him. There, in that shrine to presidential dignity. There, where the only passion that had pumped through my heart – until that moment – had been a religious reverence for the savior of our country. Lincoln, who had won the Civil War. Lincoln, who had reunited the house divided.
I thought I had put the things of childhood away, but – as I inhaled the scent of Lincoln’s spilled lubricant – the childish chant of kids skipping rope consumed my mind:
I’ve been thinkin’:
What on Earth
Have you been drinkin’?
Tastes like whiskey,
Smells like wine:
Oh, my God,
Strangely, it was at that moment that I had my first truly adult thought: There is no perfect person. There is always something wrong with the wiring.
“Lincoln, Lincoln” was originally published by the Journal of Microliterature in 2012.