Spiked News Story

Bill Burkett
7 min readMay 25, 2023

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(The editor didn’t want to annoy the Nixon administration so he “spiked” my story)

Brave New Security, 1971

Harrisburg Federal building. WikiMedia Commons image

THEY ARE CITIZENS of another time and place, very ordinary citizens for the most part, of what history is beginning to assert was an extraordinary time and place. When they confront the time and place in which the rest of us live, as exemplified by the smoked-glass-and-steel tower of the Harrisburg Federal Building in this year of 1971, they just don’t understand what they find.

What they find is security.

Not Social Security — that’s what some of them are coming to this building to see about — or Medicare, or veteran’s benefits, because those kinds of offices are in the building.

They encounter what the military calls “physical security.”

That means armed, uniformed guards and doors locked where they have never been locked before during business hours; and sign-in registers; and having to tell the guards your business.

Each federal structure in the land has become an armed citadel, like a beleaguered embassy in some faraway place with a strange-sounding name and hostile natives.

Federal building managers, whose worries used to be tornadoes and leaks in the roof and keeping the central air and heat working properly, have put on another hat — “my cop hat,” the federal building manager here calls it, with a twist to his lips.

They schedule their new armed forces for small-arms training and sessions in arrest takedown procedures, and anticipate the arrival of a special flying squad of heavily armed shock troops that will be on call very soon. The phone number of the bomb disposal squads is at the top of their personal address books.

But older citizens, who were being born about the time Wilbur and Orville Wright were trying to fly box kites with motors down in Kitty Hawk — and who, at about age seventeen, went to Europe to fight a war to end all wars, or waved goodbye to the ones who went — can’t seem to grasp this thoroughly modern world.

They climb the low steps to the wide entrance — four big glass doors wide — and fumble at the heaviness of the doors, realizing only belatedly that they are all locked. Sometimes they try to peer through the artfully darkened glass. Sometimes they keep trying until they find the one that the security guards have decided to leave unlocked for that day — on a rotation known only to them.

Sometimes they simply turn and trudge away, evidently deciding that their government is closed for the day.

“You see that a lot,” says a guard wearing the unfamiliar new General Services Administration uniform. He mans the check-in booth that has become a permanent encampment in the wide open lobby, whose architect never penciled in checkpoints. He sits right by the register you must sign now to enter the building.

“They just never learn,” he says, peering through the wide glass windows at the bright day outside, invisible to anyone approaching the building. He says he thinks it peculiar that they won’t keep trying until the find the open door.

He frowns at a ventured observation that they are just confused because a government of the people, for the people, and by the people, that built a building with four wide doors so a lot of those people could get in to see it, has suddenly decided to lock three of them, to try to make sure that some people don’t.

Most of the elderly finally catch on, like others, to the musical doors setup. It’s called “movement control” by the security-conscious. Once inside they are invariably flagged down by a man wearing an unfamiliar blue uniform with a brown Sam Browne belt.

Invariably, because they walk right past him as if he is invisible and head for the elevators, as if they owned the place. Once — not that long ago, really — citizens felt that way about federal property, constructed with taxpayer dollars.

“Got some identification?” the guard challenges brusquely, irritated by being ignored by every oldster who comes in.

Brusque or sometimes polite, the challenge draws the identical blank stare from each oldster submitted to it for the first time. Almost as if the wall had spoken, or the carpet.

Ever since these rare citizens can remember, they have gone unchallenged about their daily affairs with a personal freedom the pharaohs might have envied, but the Roman Senate would have approved. More than half a century of it, longer than some totalitarian dynasties survive, freedom to go about their private business as an ordinary daily experience.

Ended now. Movement control, now.

They just don’t know what to make of it.

The little old lady was incredibly tiny, bundled in heavy winter clothes to her ankles, hair like spun silver. She just looked at the towering muscular guard, not comprehending. It may have been the first time in the fullness of her years that someone had doubted that she was herself.

“Your Medicare card, show him your Medicare card,” said the old lady’s companion — a woman with plenty of iron stippling her own dark hair.

“Oh.”

The little old lady, still wondering what it was all about, began to fumble in her purse.

“Now, what about you?” the guard said to the younger woman — old enough to be his mother.

“Oh, I’m not going to see the Medicare. I’m just along for the ride.” She took the old woman’s arm and started off.

“You don’t get in, you don’t show some identification,” the guard said, stepping in front of them.

“But I’m just along for the ride!” No matter. Rules are rules, orders are orders, and the guard is just following his.

She could have a purse full of plastique or a Bren gun under her bulky overcoat, after all.

She shows him her Harrisburg Library Card and he makes a judgment call: good enough. Searching by the guards is so far reserved for packages and briefcases. On some special occasions, for women’s purses, which is another whole culture clash by itself.

But on a day when the Nixon Administration’s court-room war against the antiwar left is on hold, the metal detectors are not turned on and there are no body searches. Just the drab routine of challenge and identification.

“Where you going, lady?”

The blank stare again. Another four-foot-tall little old lady, who looks like everybody’s great-grandmother. “The social security,” she responds slowly. Then, the words tumbling over herself as if she fears that she has committed herself irrevocably, “No, no, the revenue. The revenue.”

“Internal Revenue Service?”

“The revenue.” She nods impatiently, now that she’s got it right. “The revenue. Listen, I got my return and it didn’t…”

“Lady, I’m not the Internal Revenue.”

“You’re not?” She regards him with obvious distrust. “Where are they then?”

He gives her a floor and room number.

“You go up the elevator,” he says.

“I don’t like elevators. Where are the stairs?”

“You can’t go up the stairs.”

“It’s okay. I’ll just go up the stairs.”

“You can’t go up the stairs, the doors are all locked. Regulations. You got some identification?”

“I’d rather go up the stairs. I don’t trust those elevators.”

“They’re all right. Could I see some identification, please?”

“Stairs are still better,” she says, and starts for the elevators.

“Anything you have,” the guard says. “A social security card, driver’s license, anything.”

“Young man, I don’t have a driver’s license. I don’t drive. Never have. I don’t trust automobiles. Why should you want to see my driver’s license if I don’t have one?”

“Anything you have,” the guard says doggedly.

She is still walking toward the elevators. As the guard follows her, another older woman comes briskly in off the street and heads for the first-floor cafeteria, just off the lobby.

“Whoa, whoa!” the guard calls. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“To get a cup of coffee,” she says, as if that is the most obvious thing in the world.

“Well, you can’t.”

“I can’t? Why?”

“Rules. You can’t just come in off the street and go in there. You gotta have business in the building. You got business in the building?”

“I want a cup of coffee.”

“Go somewhere else. You can’t get it here.”

He turns his back on her outrage and catches up with the little old lady headed for the revenue at the elevators.

“Social security card, anything,” he says.

Finally she comes up with her Internal Revenue Form for 1971. “You see, it doesn’t make sense…” She holds it toward him.

He scans the form for her name, nods officially, and goes back toward the door, where younger, more socialized citizens have dutifully lined up to sign in and show their drivers’ license or whatever. Then he remembers and turns back.

“You gotta sign in, Lady.”

“What?”

“You gotta sign your name.”

“I thought you weren’t with the revenue.”

“Lady, just come back here and sign your name and it’ll be okay,” he says. She follows him back to the entrance. “Just sign in right there. Here’s a pen.”

She signs, head down, finally cowed. “Is that all I have to do?”

“That’s it, that’s all. You can go on up there now and get it all straightened out.”

She heads back for the elevators and a bystander asks her what she thinks of all the new security precautions.

“The what?” she asks. Then, “Do you trust elevators?”

“What do you think about — you know, all this signing in and all?”

She wags her head. “I just want to see the revenue and get it straightened out, that’s all. I wish you didn’t have to use the elevators.”

From a short story collection. Available at Amazon Books

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.