Douglas Adams and the Vogons at my School
Douglas Adams was my friend. He was one of my best friends in high school and remained a wonderful friend for many years after. No, I never met him, or corresponded with him in any way, but I still consider him to be one of my very best friends ever.
I discovered The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy around the time that I was suspended from school for going to get my lunch before the bell rang.
One day, after dance class, I was sitting in the locker room with everyone else waiting for “the bell” to ring so I could go to my locker, get my lunch and go sit up on the bleachers by myself and have some peace and quiet. I had gotten dressed quickly and there were still about five minutes to go before the bell, and it suddenly occurred to me just how stupid it was that I was sitting here waiting for a bell to tell me that I could get up and go to my locker and get my lunch.
So I just went. It wasn’t out of any sense of rebelliousness or wanting to cause trouble or anything at all like that. It was just the stupidity of it. I couldn’t reconcile myself with the stupidity of what I was going along with.
I had almost gotten as far as the next building when one of the gym teachers caught up with me. She ordered me to go back to the gym and wait for the bell. I told her I was going to my locker. She told me I couldn’t until the bell went off. I told her that was stupid and continued on to my locker. She called out after me that I was going to be in big trouble.
After lunch, I was summoned to the Vice Principal’s office, where I was told that I was in big trouble. I was told that I was to be suspended for a day and that my parents would be called in to discuss my transgression.
So let me tell you a little bit about my parents: Around the time I was born, both of my parents were into the beginnings of what is now “the liberty movement.” They were into Ayn Rand until my dad was kicked out of his statewide study group for asking the wrong kinds of questions; my dad taught at the Rampart Institute; and in 1964 he was a delegate for Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. It was that experience that taught him that trying to bring about liberty through electoral politics was a complete waste of time. My mom, likewise, was a “free thinker.” She grew up in a small midwestern town where everyone goes to church on Sundays, and pretty early on decided that she didn’t believe in God.
My parents were, in short, anarchists.
So we went in the next morning, the three of us, to meet with the Vice Principal, to discuss my wrongdoings. Looking back, I don’t think the meeting went quite as she had planned. The Vice Principal told my parents what I had done and explained why it was Very Very Wrong. My parents nodded politely and listened. The Vice Principal explained that if I continued to refuse to obey the teachers and administrators, I would be kicked out of school and sent to Juvenile Hall, which was like prison for children. She explained that it was so important for everyone to follow all of the rules because otherwise it would be like people ignoring traffic lights and we would all die.
And then it was my parents turn to talk. They explained that they were proud of me for not being blindly obedient to authority. They agreed with me that it was stupid that kids had to wait for some bell before they could go anywhere, and added that it was just training them to be mindless drones who would do anything those with power over them told them to and would never learn to think for themselves. Nazis were mentioned. The Vice Principal went very quiet after a certain point. My parents told her that because they were so proud of me, they were going to make my day of being suspended a fun day and we were all going to go out to a museum and then lunch or something. I don’t think much was said after that and we all left.
I should interject here that I really did not have a good relationship with my parents back then. For various reasons, we didn’t get along very well at all. But in that moment, I was very very proud of who they were.
It was around this time that I started reading Hitchhiker’s Guide. And the experience was very much like Douglas’ own experience of reading Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker:
“It’s like throwing open the doors and windows in a dark and stuffy room… Dawkins brings a flood of light and fresh air…”
This amazing little book wasn’t just funny. It revealed to me an entirely new way of seeing life. The world suddenly seemed a much bigger place, a wide open place with limitless possibility – including the possibility of laughing at the things that distressed me.
When I read the part where Ford Prefect tries unsuccessfully to reason with the Vogon guards as they drag Arthur Dent and himself away to throw them out into space, and the guards can only repeat that “resistance is useless”, I knew that someone else saw what I saw. Because it hadn’t been the evil of the Vogon regime at my school, or even the sense of personal violation that had enraged me. It was just the stupidity of it. And for the first time in my life, outside of my own crazy family, someone else saw it too.
But rather than get angry at it or rage against authoritarianism – as was the practice in my family – Douglas just laughed at it. And somewhere in my mind, that created a spark of hope that maybe one day, one day a long time from now, we – all of us, humanity – will be able to look back and laugh at what we all now recognize to be a very silly part of our troubled path to maturity.
That year of high school was a tough year for me. People would ask me why I didn’t stand for the flag salute at assemblies, and so I started telling them. I started talking about my political beliefs and I started getting into a lot of heated arguments in my classes. There was a pair of Vogon students who would follow me around humming the “Internationale” because in their world, a person who doesn’t believe in Vogon government can only ever possibly be a communist.
And I learned that the system of discipline at my school – where a student could be sent to Juvenile Hall for walking through the hallways before a bell had rung – had absolutely nothing to do with keeping kids safe or maintaining “order”, but everything to do with demanding obedience at all costs. It was a very stressful year, and a pretty lonely one. But I had Douglas.
Douglas died on May 11th, 2001 at the age of 49. His death came far too early and was, by any imaginable stadard of right and wrong, undeniably wrong. It left a huge, gaping hole in the universe where many more years of his insights, wit and unique way of seeing things ought to have lived. There is nothing anyone can ever tell me that will convince me that his death was in any conceivable way OK.
I’ve read almost all of his work, and I am currently reading The Salmon of Doubt – a compilation of some of Douglas’ published and unpublished work that was released posthumously. It is filled with brilliance and hilarity, and I am reading it very very slowly. I have the first four books in the Hitchhiker trilogy in hardcover because I got them as soon as they came out. But I didn’t get the final book, Mostly Harmless until much later, and I still haven’t finished reading it. My husband laughs at me for being such a huge fan but not having finished The Trilogy. But I don’t want to. I don’t think I can bear to get to the final page of that book, read the final words and then close it, knowing that now there is no more.
I can’t even begin to tell you how much I miss him.
Fiction and commentary about the beauty of civilization and the evils of the coercive state