The plane had arrived from Washington, D.C., on the Thursday evening preceding Memorial weekend. So I wasn’t surprised to see a notable Vermont politician coming through the gate. But what dazzled me was spotting three of them, a bonanza of these rarified creatures. I confess to being somewhat starstruck.
First was our senatorial delegation, the honorables Bernie Sanders and Pat Leahy in tandem, gabbing away. As they parted ways, Sen. Leahy said, “See ya, Bernie,” just like one regular person to another. I was impressed. Five minutes later, ex-governor Jim Douglas came through — a Vermont Republican. Most of our indigenous Republicans, I enjoy telling visitors to the state, would probably qualify as liberal Democrats in the context of current national politics. Sometimes it seems to me we really are living in a separate country up here in the Green Mountains, and I’m not complaining.
A couple minutes later, my customer approached, responding to the sign I held with his name — “Norman Rafi.” His destination was the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, where he had been booked to deliver a talk on energy issues at an industry trade-group meeting.
While we stood around waiting for Norm’s bag to arrive, Sen. Leahy was doing the same thing. A young couple approached him, the father holding in his arms a baby so tiny that her time in this world was probably measured in weeks rather than months.
“Can we take a picture of you with our baby?” the man asked, wielding his cellphone.
The senator graciously agreed, and the mother and baby bunched up with him as the father clicked a few shots. Leahy’s famously gigantic bald head, I couldn’t help but notice, was bigger than the infant.
Norman’s bag came around quickly, and we were off to Stowe. The night was unusually cold, the start of what turned out to be a pretty dismal holiday weekend. Cruising along the interstate, I asked my customer how he came by his expertise in the energy field. He told me he worked for a law firm that represents energy companies.
“You know what?” I asked, feeling slightly impish. “I’m friends with Bill McKibben.”
This was a slight exaggeration, a vice to which I am prone. The fact is, I’ve driven Bill a few times between his Middlebury home and the airport. I think we hit it off real well, but we’re not exactly scheduling sleepovers.
“Who’s Bill McKibben?” Norman asked.
I was incredulous — stunned, actually. For a moment, I considered whether he was putting me on. Regaining my composure, I replied calmly, trying to tamp down any emotionality, “Well, he’s probably, at this point, the world’s foremost environmental writer and activist. His groundbreaking book, The End of Nature, was published about 25 years ago — amazingly, when he was just in his twenties — and he’s considered one of the first to take on the issue of global warming.”
“It sounds significant,” Norman said, nodding his head. “I’ve got to pick it up.”
I really am a babe in the woods, I thought, laughing to myself. I’m naïve enough to believe that a person, a lawyer, whose professional life involves arguing for the positions of the fossil-fuel industry, would possess at least a passing knowledge of the other side of the equation. Particularly the work of the environmental movement’s arguably most articulate and respected spokesperson.
I said, “I guess the big energy companies at least formally acknowledge the reality of human-caused global warming. Am I right about that?”
“Absolutely,” Norm replied. “The science is beyond dispute on this point. The issue is, of course, what are we going to do about it? Because the fact is, mankind has gotten used to a certain standard of living, which is based upon the burning of oil and gas. And there’s no way politically we can give it up.”
“Really?” I said. “How about this? Let’s say you regularly ate a food that you found out was going to kill you in a few years. Not merely bad for you — like, for instance, fatty meat — but totally deadly. And let’s say this toxic food was a mainstay of your diet. Would you keep eating it? I mean, out of habit?”
Norm chuckled and said, “Point taken. You should be a lawyer.”
“Nope, I doubt that would suit me. But thanks, I think.”
A Beatles tune came on the radio, which had been playing quietly in the background during our great energy debate. We both listened in silence. When it ended, Norm said, “My wife and I recently saw Paul McCartney in concert. He was so good, truly amazing at age 70 or so. Hey, didn’t I read that your Senator Leahy was a Grateful Dead fan?”
“He sure is. I think one of his kids turned him on to the band. He’s also a big Batman geek. I believe he even had a cameo in one of the movies. In his big scene, if I’m remembering correctly, he stands up to a terrorist, or something like that.”
“Vermont has some interesting characters,” Norm said. “I once was at a conference where I heard Ben from Ben & Jerry’s give a talk. What a great story how they got started from a single ice cream stand.”
“Yup,” I said, “I guess the Ben & Jerry’s story qualifies as Vermont lore at this point. But the ice cream stand is totally true, anyway. I can personally vouch for that.”
I enjoy every one of my visits to the Trapp Family Lodge, an extensive, exquisite property nestled on an alpine field, and reminiscent — if The Sound of Music mirrored reality — of the family’s Austrian roots. As we drew close, visibility deteriorated and I slowed down. The landscape appeared as if transformed into an English moor, the trees, fields and buildings cloaked in fog and mist.
Norm, as I thought about him, wasn’t an evil person; in fact, he was friendly and engaging. The reality that the mission of his job was helping the fossil-fuel industry in its headlong quest to clean up financially while destroying the Earth as we know it — well, that was just one of life’s many paradoxes. Though clarity would be nice, the bad guys don’t always wear black hats. They might not even be bad guys.
“Hey, make sure to check out their Austrian-cuisine restaurant if you get the chance,” I advised Norm. “They feature some world-class Wiener schnitzel. I mean, if you like Wiener schnitzel.”
“Are you kidding?” he said with a smile. “Who doesn’t like Wiener schnitzel?”