Friday, April 23, 2010



I love ignorance.

I think ignorance will save the world; will one day make curiosity and examination prevail; make peace win out over war; will inspire drivers of vehicles to signal and drive safely and otherwise pay attention to all their surroundings.

I mean it.

Ignorance used to be a nasty-sounding word to me, a militantly, cold-minded, closed-minded, hateful word, worthy of the darkest of dark ages and the bitterest of bitter scorn.

Was I ignorant? Yes, and no. I was stupid. Ignorance is innocence. Ignorance is a gift. All things are possible through ignorance.
I called other people ignorant without knowing what it was; without recognizing my own wonderful ignorance, let alone the wonder of anybody else’s.

Example: coastal people quite naturally introduce themselves to mountain people without explaining naturally their presence on the coast; without introducing the way they ate lobsters, drank cold beer, or, tossed Frisbees; or without describing the joy they felt running barefoot on the beach to the water.

And this to, “guests,” who never had seen a beach and could not even have yet imagined its soft texture and how wonderfully tired it could make you feel after you jogged a bit.

I bet I got caught up in that. “You ignoramus!” I might have said. “How could you be so ignorant?”

I was talking about what a person didn’t know. I wasn’t paying attention. How could we know, yet, what we didn’t know? That’s stupid.

Ignoramus. Somebody who is—what—a blank slate? Somebody to whom you could explain igloos or longhouses, or fishing traditions, so they would better understand your ways, the textures of your favorite garments, your passion for rattlesnake meat, or seal blubber, or blue-claw crab?

Or the way you parked your cars or drove on the opposite sides of the street or one-finger-saluted someone who offended you.

The fact that you ate muskrats in the Chesapeake, and I ate eels from Great South Bay, further North, and each of us thought the other was nuts. (Also, drunk, but we called each other, “ignorant,” for that, too, remember? What am I saying? Of course you don’t remember. You were drunk.).

That kind of ignoramus?

An incident forty years ago keeps me up nights. I don’t know if because I didn’t get it right away, or, worse, because I did, and didn’t always apply it.

The Suffolk Sun was a daily, morning newspaper begun in 1966, located in Deer Park, L.I., and charged by its Florida owners with competing with Newsday for circulation.

I had applied for a job writing stories for it, as I had at Newsday. A fresh college graduate in 1967, I had no journalism school background. My minor was in Education. Both newspapers told me to go teach.

I did, and went back to the Sun, I suppose obstinately, two years later, the father of two daughters. They hired me. I was too exultant to ask why (the paper had eight weeks of life left; that was why, and most everyone knew it but me.).

Come to think of it, what probably kept me from thinking homicidally in those pre-Newsday days, was Jim Bernstein. The Sun hired (Newsday’s) Bernstein a month after me from a paper in Florida. Sun editors must have been even surer the Sun was going to set, and they didn’t let on. I must have figured Bernstein had that much more reason to be angry.

My first assignment was a, “short,” a buried little announcement that makes the executive director and board of an organization uncommonly happy. A news release from the Village Officials Association said that they had invited Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to their annual meeting.
“Here,” said assistant editor Tom Moriarty. “Find out if he’s going.” I said, “Who?” He stared at me over the top of his glasses. I said, “Oh. The Governor…How?” He said, “Call him up!”

Of course. Call up Governor Rockefeller and ask if he’s got nothing better to do than attend the Long Island Village Officials Association’s golf outing.

I spent all day on it. He wasn’t.

That was my journalism training. The next day, I was sent to interview Alfred D. Hershey, a Cold Spring Harbor Carnegie Institute scientist who had just been announced to the world—to the World, mind you—that he was a winner of the Nobel Prize for medicine.

The late Earl Ubell, a former newspaper science writer for The Herald Tribune, and then a very big shot TV science correspondent, was interviewing Hershey on camera when I arrived. When he was done, Ubell asked Hershey if he could use Hershey’s desk. Hershey and I moved aside (me thinking, “What am I going say to this Nobel freaking Prize-winner?”), and, looking into his cameraman’s lens, now in Hershey’s chair, Ubell asked all the questions he’d just asked Hershey, nodding dramatically to nobody and leaving a pause between. I realized what he was doing: filming his questions as if there had been two cameras. Clever, if deceptive.

Then, as Ubell and his crew gathered up their equipment, I confessed to Hershey, “I know what the Nobel Prize is, sir, so I know I am in way over my head. I’m a junior high school English teacher on my second assignment as a newspaper reporter. By the way, I congratulate you, but I’m going to have to tell people what you’ve done, and I don’t know what it is, or why it is important. Can you help me out, please.”

Before he could answer, Ubell started aggressively apologizing for me, as if I were not there and were not already pretty humiliated, myself.
Hershey took his chair back, and said, “Thank you,” to all, and then proceeded to sit me down and give me a twenty-minute course about his part of the research done on, “bacteriophages,” viruses that infect bacteria.

My story was every bit as good as Ubell’s.

It was ignorance that saved the day.


  1. Ignorance, innocence, humility, and a sprinkling of honesty!

    Enjoyed the story, as usual!

  2. It's what makes babies and sages so wise....and a sage is simply a person who is recovering (or seeking to recover, or striving to retain) the wisdom of open-hearted frankness we come in with.

    Long time fan of yours...first (well, second, but the first was of mild consequence) time writing. :o) Joan

  3. "every bit as good as" Ubel's ?
    I dont think so, EdLowe..
    Im betting it was a hundred times infinity BETTER.. and I'll bet Mr Hershey believes this, as well..
    The reason being that you took the TIME to truly explore him, and find out what he was about. I'm thinking it is JUST that kind of thinking (and feeling) that has made you the classic you are today- and I'm not just talking about a classic "author"..
    You give unique.. a whole new definition.
    Kudos to you*
    g.carey, lindenhurst