Seniors were still engaged in reversing their beavers, humoring their parents, and writing down the addresses of acquaintances they would never correspond with. The campus was still dripping with rain. Ears and fannies were still throbbing from the length, bombast, and irrelevance of the aural assault-and-battery committed by last year's Commencement speaker, then-Congressman Les Aspin PhD '66.
And across this moist, reversable, humored, and throbbing campus, a passion was beginning to echo: faintly at first, a crisp, whispered annoyance, indistinguishable from the crickets getting peed on in the bushes outside several fine ILGs. But as anger it gathered momentum and volume, as the student body realized that it had been had\/, building to a dull roar of fury as they realized that their Commencement speech had had nothing\/ to do with them or their Great Day, so long and costly in the making.
As a tidal wave of white-capped rage, it churned and swelled, smashing against the walls and halls of this House of Pain.
A posturing policy-wonk had stood up on his hind legs here? To audition for a cabinet post? Had hijacked THEIR Commencement? For a speech he could have cut to five minutes and slipped in between the questions any Sunday morning on the Sam, George, & Cokie Show? Our Day? OUR DAY IN THE SUN? Rained out, washed out, and used, USED by this... this Thing with a Tongue? How DARE they?
Revenge bloomed like shower curtain mold in the damp convolutions of a thousand betrayed hearts. Plots. Fiendish clever thoughts of exquisite payback, malignant seeds planted by the clumsy hands of indifference and political arrogance, sped through foul gestatation as diplomas were tucked into station wagons and black gowns stripped off.
Then, of course, over long-distance calls to Grandma and dinner at A Nice Restaurant, the coursing Stygian flood of hate crested, retreated, shrank to a small pool, and was push-broomed down a drain in the central parking lot by an alert member of the physical plant staff. Deprived of this vital juice, the sickly-green shoots of vengeance withered to dust and splinters, lifeless, forgotten.
Now the verdant season of renewal is once again upon us. Soon both the snow and the seniors' painful, horrid memories of their days here will melt and shrink, leaving only the occasional unpleasant, sooty-topped piles in out-of-the-way corners of both the campus and their psyches. The balmy zephyrs of May will do for the former, while the latter, hoarding its frigid heart, will not squander its icy venom against youthful spirits still strong and fortified with not-yet-blighted hopes. Golden sunshine will pour down like Zeus, begetting, if not demi-gods, at least delight, and only the classically educated among us will pause to wonder at the faint sensation of having been screwed by Powers beyond their understanding. Joy will reign.
Into these salad days this author would like to shoot the name of a vegetable. No ordinary leaf, root, shoot, or fruit, but the Queen of the gardener's art, that ruby globe of evanescent perfection, the ripe tomato.
No one who has ever plucked a warm, vine-ripened tomato and held it heavy upon the palm, redder than blood and pulsing with life's fire; who has bitten into it (worship and sacrilege, damnation and blessing, all at once); who has tasted that fierce sudden essence of Summer, can forget that wild, pagan communion, that echoing hint of Eternity, that whispering ``Now! Taste! Savor! This moment! Wake up! Pay Attention! Don't think! Taste! Enjoy! This will pass in a instant! Taste! Now!'' (There is a legend that Adam and Eve tasted, not an apple, but Eden's first fat ripe tomato. According to this legend, the couple maintained to their dying day that, knowing all that followed, it was a bite they'd bite again with no regret.)
It may be that one of the failings of an MIT education is that, while all of its graduates can perform calculus, so few of them have properly tasted a true ripe tomato. Whether or not this is so, it is not the taste of the tomato that is my theme, but rather its utility in another field: the art of public speaking.
The use of ripe fruit as a projectile expression of audience opinion has a long and honorable history in the elocutionary arts. In an earlier day, before the tomato's first fateful trip across the Atlantic, the classical civilizations around the Mediterranean made use of the pomegranite for this noble and glorious purpose.
The magnificent Iliad of Homer, say experts, still bears in its rhythms the traces of its oral origin. And those same experts have recently begun to realize that it was not by accident that the Blind Bard, after any particularly bad pun, makes reference to fruit, usually as an offering to the gods. Both poet and his works were clearly influenced by an audience that knew what they liked, and how to use a basket of past-their-prime pomegranites to get their point across.
Even the Bible shows the splotches of hurled fruit: from Moses' reluctance to begin a career in public speaking, to the pomegranates decorating the pillars and porch of Solomon's Temple (as a reminder to the entering priests to keep it short and snappy?), to the doleful verses of The Preacher who pointed out that, ``To everything there is a season... a time to eat of the fruit of the earth and a time to throw it...'', to Jesus' ``Let him who is without sin cast the first vegetable''; the theme of airborn produce arcs across the Holy Scriptures like a rainbow.
Ancient Greece and Rome were famous for their orators, but the flying fruits that refined their skills are seldom credited. Who remembers that Demosthenes began his peculiar training, not with sea-stones, but with an involuntary mouthful of pomegranite seeds? And who now recalls that the immortal Marcus Tullius `Chickpea' Cicero received his nickname from the handfuls of soggy garbanzos flung at him by his early audiences?
During the Dark Ages of Western Europe, an occasional turnip or mangel-wurzel might have been hurled, but, for the most part, crops were eaten, and oratory waned. Although it was not until the tomato reached Europe's shores that popular grocery-honed eloquence reached its height, it well might be that legends of fruit-tossing, recovered from Arab and Classical sources, were the catalyst that sparked the Renaissance. Public speakers, writers, musicians, artists of every kind received public praise, a patron's support, or a volley of fruit as their work merited. Shakespeare, who spoke of ``judgment ripe'' certainly ducked or caught his share of offerings from the groundlings. Could it be an accident that an Age named ``Enlightenement'' followed so closely upon the tomato's arrival?
If, occasionally, a crowd's enthusiasm for pitching produce overwhelmed its artistic judgement, the results, though picturesque, were not long-lasting, and great works survived such baptism. The premiere of Rossini's wonderful Barber of Seville , for instance, not only was a fiasco, it was the very origin and definition of the word. ``Fiasco'' in Italian means ``flask'' or ``basket'', and baskets indeed, large and small, brimful of rotten veggies, were what Rossini's detractors carried into the Teatro Argentino on that opening night. They came, they listened, they flung. And yet, when the seeds cleared, the opera went on to success. Not every gathering of critics was so benign: directly across the street from that very theater is the site of the ancient Curia of Pompeii, where, in 44 BC, Julius Caesar had his final run-in with his detractors. By comparison, then, the befruited Rossini got off easy.
Crop tossing spread early to these shores. (Indeed, some say that it was already wide-spread practice within the great Iroquois Confederation, perhaps even an integral part of that vibrant democracy that so amazed the first European arrivals.) This nation's greatest public speakers learned their craft under the eyes of a citizenry proud of its heritage, its agricultural abundance, and its aim. Mark Twain spoke fondly of his early ``fruitful'' days on the lecture circuit, and his trademark white suit became an emblem of his skill in sending audiences home with their hearts unburdened and their tomatoes untossed.
Even presidents had to graduate from this school of soft fruit and hard knocks. Washington bore it with good grace. Andrew Jackson reveled in it. Tomato tossing, alas, fell into disrepute in political circles after that fatal night at Ford's Theater. A foolish reaction: Lincoln himself had attributed his oratorical skill and ready wit to the love-apples lofted by the Illinois audiences of his youth. (And, after all, had Booth wielded only a Dixie Delicious instead of a derringer, his ``Sic Semper Tyrannis'' would have been no less appropriate to the occasion, Lincoln's plans for sectional and racial healing might have succeeded, and Lester Young might have been the first saxophone player to win the White House. But I digress.)
Although aerial edibles continued to play a role in the development of the American theater, their exclusion from the political arena gave them a disreputable aura, and despite a brief final surge in the 1920's, the hardships of Dustbowl and Depression saw the end of the tomato as an expression of the popular taste. As Mencken put it, ``When vaudeville vanished, the violent vegetable veto could not long endure.'' The rise of movies and, later, television, distanced the politician and the performer from their audience, as did the zealous squads that surrounded ``public'' figures on the increasingly rare occasions when they actually had to encounter the public. Thus, lamentably, in recent years, the title of ``Great Communicator'' was bestowed on an amiable dunce without the ability to extemporize a single-sentence greeting to his own cabinet, let alone a complex address before a skeptical audience.
However, while oratory has withered to extinction in this country, it has flourished elsewhere. This year's Commencement guest, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari of Mexico, is reputed to be a fine speaker, capable of delivering an excellent and inspirational address, even without the motivation that bushel-baskets of Jersey Wonders can provide when arrayed blood-red across a sea of black gowns. It is reported that your Mexican politician, in his youth, must still learn his craft the old-fashioned way, before crowds that know what they want, and have the produce to back it up. Perhaps Our Sunny Neighbor to the South has something more to offer under NAFTA than lax environmental regulations.
Certainly, though, it is far too late to hurl tomatoes at Secretary Aspin and his ilk with any hope of success, and this author neither suggests nor advocates that he be so pelted by the student body en masse, should he return to campus. The reader is also, in the spirit of multi-partisanship, admonished to forgo the nearly irresistible pleasure of pitching a pulpy pineapple at Senator Bob Dole's pugnacious puss. And though it is difficult to see how it could do lasting harm to either his looks or his intellect, bouncing a coconut off Ross Perot's noggin is likewise contra-indicated. To do so, however satisfying it might be, would be a violation of applicable federal statutes, and, more to the point, a sad waste of time. The vapid, bloated, windy speaking style of our current crop of leaders is, regrettably, immutably settled by time, custom, and disposition.
But do not despair. All over this great land of ours, thousands of young politicians are doctoring their resumes, buying blue suits, applying to Yale Law School, or running for their first offices: alderman, city council, school board, selectman, mayor, state representative, and so on. Among these, then, are our future senators, congresswomen, supreme court justices, cabinet officers, presidents, and yes... Commencement speakers.
You, my fellow citizens, you can wield with your own hands the tools that might shape American oratory for generations to come. If not for the sake of the art of oratory in general, if not for the sake of the public good, if not for the sake of future generations of MIT students, then for your own welfare. Some Spring day, perhaps, while you sit upon a flimsy folding chair, your own child will be turning the anal pore of a river rodent out towards a hopeful world. As you think of the millions of dollars you have spent to afford him that privilege, some man, woman, or droid of note and consequence will approach the podium.
This hired larynx will take a moment to gaze upon the assembled crowd, and then, he, she, or it will begin to speak. Will it be wonderful? An address of power, wisdom, elegance, and relevance? Will your child's future open before her eyes as Experience imparts to Youth some words of utility and inspiration? Or will the flat, stale breath of indifference, corruption, and ineptitude spread out from the podium to smother all idealism, all hope of striving to improve the world, all faith in the future, all chance of your sitting through a graduation ceremony without your legs cramping up and your butt falling asleep?
The choice rests, as warm, as ripe, as heavy, as ready in your hand, as a single perfect tomato.
Thank you, and God Bless You.
Godfrey Saran-Crowley plans to run for Congress in 1994. He is currently developing a disposal, plastic, three-piece suit for use during his campaign.