People are united in a civil compact and we know it, even if we don't talk about it. This compact is powerful in the Midwest, and when we midwesterners travel to New York or London or Paris, we wonder: if we were struck by a car and lay bleeding in the gutter, would people stop and help?
One morning three years ago, I heard a shriek from upstairs, a long high-pitched primeval wail, and there was my wife on the landing, holding the stiff body of our little girl. I dashed up and took Maia in my arms and Jenny went to call 911. The child was unconscious, her breathing shallow. She went into convulsions in my arms and her body stiffened, her mouth clamped shut. I thought she was dying. Sheer silent terror on a pleasant spring morning: my four-year-old daughter dying. And in about two minutes the St. Paul fire department paramedics arrived at the door. They came in, four of them, and lifted her out of my arms. They laid her on the floor and tended to her, took her temperature (she was running a fever), put an oxygen mask on her face. One of them began explaining to me about febrile convulsions, how common they are in small children, which Jenny knew about but I didn't, and then I noticed that I was still in my underwear. I pulled on a pair of trousers and we rode off to the hospital and in short order she was okay again.
The rescue squad can get to you anywhere in St. Paul in four minutes or less. That is official policy. These folks came racing up the hill from downtown, about a mile away, but there are EMTs or paramedics at eleven of the sixteen fire stations in the city and they do about eighty runs a day. The EMTs have taken a basic course of 250 class hours, the paramedics a two-year course of more than a thousand, and they know what they're doing. They work alternate 12-hour days for a week -- then take four days off, then alternate 12-hour days for another week, then six days off -- for an average workweek of 56 hours. They start at $38,000 a year and after three years become journeymen and jump to $50,000. The shift starts at 8 a.m., but most of them come half an hour early to sit around and drink coffee and get ready. When you call and the dispatcher sends the alarm, the paramedics are in the truck and out the door in thirty seconds. The 911 system went into service in the Twin Cities in December 1982, paid for out of the state's general fund. But the paramedics and EMTs are St. Paul city employees. And the four-minute-or-less response represents the nature of our civil compact here in St. Paul: if you urgently need help, someone will be there before panic sets in. In the suburbs, thanks to Republicans and their code of personal responsibility, the coronary victim will have time to read the entire Gospel of St. Mark before help arrives. There is a message here: if lower taxes are your priority over human life, then we know what sort of person you are. The response to a cry for help says a lot about us as human beings. You're at a party late one night and there's a scream from out on the street, and some people stick their heads out to see if there's trouble and other people don't bother. Maybe they'd rather not know.
A Democrat knows that the leaf turns and in the human comedy we are one day spectators and the next day performers. The gains in life come slowly and the losses come on suddenly. You work for years to get your life the way you want it and buy the big house and the time share on Antigua and one afternoon you're run down by a garbage truck and lie in the intersection, dazed, bloodied, your leg unnaturally bent, and suddenly life becomes terribly challenging for six months. In the Prairie Home office, one summer evening a woman walked out the door to go home and was swarmed by wasps and staggered back into the building, bitten so badly that her air passage was swollen half shut. She was almost unconscious, going into shock, and collapsed in the hallway. Luckily, a colleague had stayed late at work and she called 911, and in came the St. Paul paramedics to save Deb's life. Every day at work, I see a bright capable charming woman whose memorial service I might have attended had circumstances been ever so slightly different.
Two blocks from the office lived a brilliant young professor of Middle East studies who had given birth to a little girl with Down syndrome who could not nurse and needed to be fed through a tube stuck down her nasal passage. One morning, the mother, depressed though already on antidepressants, feeling hopeless, broken-hearted at the child's misery, exhausted to the point of derangement, cut the infant's throat with a butcher knife. The mother was arrested and put in Ramsey County Jail where, a few weeks later, she managed to get a plastic garbage bag, place it over her head, tie it tight around her neck, and suffocate herself. This happened in St. Paul, Minnesota, two blocks from the office where I sit and write silly songs and Guy Noir sketches. In St. Paul, people could not get this tragedy off their minds for a long time. Long after we stopped talking about it -- what more could be said? -- it haunted our consciences, these two souls who had slipped through our fingers and plunged to their deaths. Somehow we could have saved them. What else, dear Lord, should we have done?
The fear of catastrophe could chill the soul but the social compact assures you that if the wasps come after you, if gruesome disease strikes down your child, if you find yourself hopelessly lost, incapable, drowning in despair, running through the rye toward the cliff, then the rest of us will catch you and tend to you and not only your friends but We the People in the form of public servants. This is a basic necessity in a developed society. Men and women make love and have babies in the knowledge that if the baby should be born with cerebral palsy or Down syndrome or a hole in its heart and require heroic care, the people of Minnesota and of St. Paul will stand with you in your dark hour. If you are saddled with trouble too great for a person to bear, you will not be left to perish by the roadside in darkness. Without that assurance, we may as well go live in the woods and take our chances.
This is Democratic bedrock: we don't let people lie in the ditch and drive past and pretend not to see them dying. Here on the frozen tundra of Minnesota, if your neighbor's car won't start, you put on your parka and get the jumper cables out and deliver the Sacred Spark that starts their car. Everybody knows this. The logical extension of this spirit is social welfare and the myriad government programs with long dry names all very uninteresting to you until you suddenly need one and then you turn into a Democrat. A liberal is a conservative who's been through treatment.
Garrison Keillor is an author and host of public radio's "A Prairie Home Companion." Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from "Homegrown Democrat" by Garrison Keillor.
© 2004 Star Tribune.