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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Oberholzer’s Rorschach
I. Why the FBI has my fingerprint cards

Dr. Morris H. Philipson, Director Emeritus 
University of Chicago Press, 1966-2000
Let me tell you why the experience I had when still a child gave me great satisfaction. Being fingerprinted by the FBI is not the kind of Christmas present that my relatives or friends my age could expect—which only made the satisfaction more valuable for being thoroughly unlikely. It happened that when I was 12 or 13, my family had the chance to celebrate between Christmas and New Year’s in Washington, D.C. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that I was feeling what people call something that sets one “on top of the world.”

During the week between holidays, school was closed, and since my father was a doctor he was self-employed, which makes it sound as if he paid his own salary, but it means he was free to make appointments to see patients at his convenience. And then there was his new car, well, family car. He had become an expert driver out of necessity, for in those days, doctors made house calls.

My father’s brother Robert was an accountant who had settled in Washington some five years previously. Accounting led to investing in the stock market in the early 1930’s, when, I learned later, people who had money after the Crash of 1929 made money hand over fist buying up properties at bargain prices. My uncle was successful as an investor at the right time, and he invited our family to visit with his family as a winter vacation. My brother and I would be out of school, our parents made their own schedule, and my father reveled in his new car.

Oberholzer’s Rorschach

II. What was learned at Cherry Lawn School

"The school was a surrealist combination of elements."
--Morris H. Philipson
The country was in its adolescence the way I was in mine. Things were just ripening to maturity as the country readied itself for accomplishments yet to be achieved. Col. Lindberg’s prize-winning Spirit of St. Louis hung suspended from the entrance of the old Smithsonian “castle,” but the anticipation of numerous further accomplishments to come justified the plan for a whole museum of its own for events in outer space.

A feeling of family characterized the attitudes of the citizens to one-another. For example, at about that time, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Mr. Mellon, behaved like a rich relative giving an enormous dowry when he built a museum for his personal collection of works of art as a gift for the nation’s front lawn. The modest tone of a family portrait album had been set by the founding fathers who had nurtured and publicly celebrated the national life down through the four or five generations.

The FBI had its role in creating this state of mind growing up in me. I became sensitive to the many institutions and organizations that made up the network of family-like connection that supported this interpretation. So I was ripe for the rhetoric of the representative of the Federal Bureau of Investigation when, taking the tour through J. Edgar Hoover’s current headquarters, a fine, upstanding officer on Hoover's staff gave my family the pitch that it would be a fine, upstanding, American thing to do to be fingerprinted then and there for the purpose of identification if, God forbid, some untoward event should make identification necessary from teeth or scars or deformities not yet available in order that people with such a need — for insurance policies, for example — would be able to identify their loved ones, solving an otherwise complicated mystery and averting the long suffering of family members.

My parents and my brother declined to press thumb to inkpad, but I went through the ritual, and as I saw the white lines on my hand turn to black, snakelike curves on the cardboard paper, I identified myself as a soon-to-be fully empowered voter in the national elections of this great republic. And my fingerprints on file at the Federal Bureau of Investigation would be, in part, my contribution toward keeping tabs on the national family for our mutual protection. It is to such lengths that the paternalistic benevolence of our government goes to contribute to the general well-being as well as our consideration for each other.

I am in awe to think I could have been so naïve. How was it that I somehow mistook this idea as reality — in spite of the environment in which I had been steeped at Cherry Lawn School?