If you had been the third person with us in the car as I was driven to the Wisconsin-wide Elks Constitution test, you probably would have found it to be an uncomfortable ride. The man drove a Karmann Ghia made by Volkswagen. This car was produced for a dozen or so years as VW’s version of a sports car. The newspaper auto columns I read had taught me disdain for this vehicle. It did have a beautiful body, but the auto writers told me that it was built on a VW Beetle chassis with a VW Beetle engine and steering. In other words, it was really a VW Beetle with a nicer look but no more acceleration or better handling. It was the car for people who wanted to look like they owned a sports car but did not really want or could not afford to own an MG or Triumph. And my companion looked like he fell into that category—a more than middle-aged, much overweight man who tried to talk to me often as if we were the same age. Well, he at least did not wear driving gloves. (Carmen Ghia is a character in The Producers. The movie version was made when VW was still producing the Karmann Ghia, but it had been long discontinued when the musical play came out. I wonder how many theatergoers got the reference.)
I can tell you almost nothing about the exam. I don’t remember in what building it was held or how long it was. I have no memory of whether it was multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, or essay. I don’t know what areas of the Constitution were tested. This was not that far after McCarthyism and school desegregation. Did it stay away from these controversial topics? At the end of the day when I got home, I mostly forgot about it.
But then two or three months later, I was told that I had placed third. This meant money. The winner got a $600 scholarship. My third place was worth $400, and prizes went down to a $100 scholarship for sixth place. By then I had been accepted for college and had received a scholarship from the school, which also included a required job of waiting on tables. I had also received scholarships from other organizations. They would send the money to the university which would administer the funds.
The national Elks organization provided the money for the top three prizes. The state Elks handled the next three winners. The national organization would send the funds to the university. The state, however, sent its checks directly to the student. However, the university, when informed about my $400 prize, told me that I could not accept it. Apparently, they had some formula that indicated that I had maxed out on the amount of scholarship money I could have. When I learned this, I realized that if I had finished in fourth place, I would have had a check sent directly to me without the university’s intervention, but by then I could not figure out a way to finagle a lower finish. (I never got the money, but I would have thought that I would have received some sort of plaque. If so, I don’t remember that honor, and I know that I would have rather had the money.)
(Yes, I know what many of you are thinking. He is just writing these stories to brag about his illustrious high school career. Your mind moves to Springsteen’s Glory Days; if he brags about those long-ago days, he must have nothing to brag about since. How sad, you may be thinking, but perk up. Life has been good since then. For example, at my small tennis club, I once won the Men’s B doubles.)
Graduating from high school, I was already confident, with good reason you can see, that I understood the Constitution, but even so I deepened my knowledge. I took Constitutional Law courses in law school, and I studied various constitutional provisions in my academic career. Not only have I read the Constitution may times, I have read the Federalist Papers and what are called the Anti-Federalist papers. I have read histories about the background to our Constitution, and its drafting and adoption. I have read commentaries on the Constitution. And I have studied many Supreme Court decisions interpreting the Constitution. Even so, I now find myself often confused about governmental powers. The basic structure of our federal government, I had learned, is that Congress makes the laws; the President enforces the laws; and the Judiciary interprets the laws. However, the Constitution is more complicated than that.
(continued June 10)