Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Bill Sparkman

Back in 2000, in late winter and early spring, I was employed by the United States Census Bureau. I worked for a couple of months going door to door in rural parts of central Massachusetts for the Constitutionally directed enumeration of the population, which must take place at least once every ten years. As a family genealogist, I was interested to experience the work of an enumerator. I had blessed many an enumerator over the years for their A+ penmanship; as well as cursed many an enumerator for hen scratching and sloppy transcription of my ancestors names! But as it turned out, the most interesting aspect of the job was heading up and down dirt roads - including traversing a rickety bridge in one direction which was declared impassable by the time I tried to return - and seeing all the ways people lived their lives. The sociologist in me rose to the surface as day after day, the overriding impression I got from most people was a deep desire to be rooted somewhere. Whether it was a mobile home which rightly would be classified as a trailer, a modest wood-framed structure or an elaborate estate, people wanted their patch of earth to leave wild and unkempt or manicured to within an inch of its life. They wanted home - whatever house and home meant to them.

As I went house to farm to trailer, there were many empty homes, but just as many without people, but with dogs left outside guarding their master’s castle. I became quite adept at sizing up the canines and learned that extending my canvas barn jacket covered elbow, out the door of my little two door hatchback, gave any dogs that charged the car a chance to sniff me and catch the lingering scent of my English Springer Spaniel. I was never bitten and never driven off by any dog, but I was nose-butted in the back of the legs all the way back to my car by one determined mutt who had reached their limit with the stranger.

I found mostly cooperative, friendly people in my work. More than a few times I encountered elderly folks who were obviously lonely. After I asked my brief questions, they often were reluctant to have me leave. I was another human being, a friendly face and a change of pace. A few folks worried about me. They would cluck that the weather was getting too harsh for me to be out in, or I should be careful all alone on the back roads. Some folks were cranky or rushed or a little fearful of a stranger - even a 41 year old woman with a identification badge around her neck. I was always surprised when the downright rude people felt so comfortable to be insolent right to my face. And I was never surprised when the arrival of my willing ears led to the unbidden tumbling out of personal stories.

During the census training we were warned about what to do if we encountered violent opposition to our work. We were told it would be unlikely. That there were areas of our nation where there could be and had been problems. But it still came as a shock when one of my fellow enumerators reported having been run off a property at gunpoint. He was unharmed, but it changed the feeling of the remainder of our work. Coincidentally, shortly after that incident, with less than a week to go in our work, an editorial ran in a local paper disparaging the activities of the Census Bureau and claiming government intrusion into the lives of the citizenry. After that editorial ran, I encountered enormous resistance to the enumeration process. A remarkable number of people were cold and taciturn. I returned home at the end of long days weary, not from the detail oriented work, but from the social hostility.

Today I learned that a 51 year old man named Bill Sparkman was found hanged from a tree in Kentucky, with the word “FED” scrawled on his chest. Bill Sparkman was a part time field worker for the United States Census Bureau. Door to door Census interviews have been suspended in Clay County while the investigation into Mr. Sparkman’s murder continues. Bill Sparkman is survived by his mother and his son. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke described Mr. Sparkman as “a shining example of the hardworking men and women employed by the Census Bureau.”


Anonymous said...

Nice piece. Well written.

tinycaesar said...

It is unfortunate that newspapers and other media maliciously whip up fear and suspicion among the uneducated about what is a routine of governments as far back as Christ - Mary and Joseph went up to Bethlehem to be counted in a Roman census and so fulfilled the prophecies about where the Saviour would be born.

Sue said...

Shew, that's h-e-c-t-i-c!!

dancingmorganmouse said...

Someone was killed for taking the census? I can't believe this. Whatever happened to "no thanks, I'd rather not"?
What horrible news.