Much of the time the world beyond our immediate experience seems like a vague intrusion, a series of flickering images we can turn off at will. Then there are times when the outside world is too much with us, when external events take on emotional freight, not only because of what they are but also because of what they might portend. Last week was one of those times.
One after another, like a series of timed charges, major events detonated through the week. Each seemed to end with a disquieting question mark, because each suggested powers beyond personal control: unhinged economic forces, irrational foreign crises, undetected illness. The stock market went into a panicked free fall. Iran launched a Chinese-made missile from Iraqi territory that hit a Kuwaiti tanker that was flying the U.S. flag in the Persian Gulf to protect, in part, Japanese oil supplies. Amid this babble of conflicting national interests, any American action, however justified, promised to inflame unfathomable hatreds. And the man with the responsibility for authorizing any retaliation was shouldering a more personal but no less worrisome burden as his wife entered Bethesda Naval Hospital for a biopsy and then a modified radical mastectomy. Nancy Reagan's plucky words on initially hearing of the cancer threat -- "I guess it's my turn" -- only underscored the randomness of life's lottery.
But another story was playing itself out last week as well, one that at first tugged only lightly at the fringes of the nation's attention, then seized it with surprising force as it inched toward a climax. For more than two days late in the week, Americans were gripped by the plight of little Jessica McClure, 18 months young, who tumbled down a well while playing in her aunt's backyard. Trapped underground for 58 desperate hours, the child seemed doomed. Yet a down-but-determined West Texas town rallied round and literally clawed its way to her rescue. The drama offered the ultimate counterpoint: the dark currents of world events shared the screen with the whimpers of a helpless toddler crying out for "Mommy."
William Blake's "Auguries of Innocence" speaks of seeing the world in a grain of sand. Just so did Jessica McClure, bravely humming verses from a Winnie-the-Pooh song, tap the wellsprings of humanity. In a confusing week, it was the plight of this tiny girl that was most readily comprehensible, and best conveyed Blake's message that small things, and the life of an individual, are what really matter.
The ordeal began with every parent's nightmare: small children, unguarded for a few moments, tumble into tragedy. Jessica's teenage parents Chip, 18, and Reba, 17, live in a blue-collar section of Midland (pop. 100,000), a drilling center hard hit by the oil slump. Chip McClure is a house painter, and Reba helped baby-sit at the home of her sister-in-law Donna Johnson. It is still unclear how Jessica managed to fall through the 8-in. opening, partly covered only by a flowerpot, in the Johnson backyard. But suddenly last Wednesday she was wedged in a dogleg in the shaft, 22 ft. beneath the surface.