They didn’t give him the finger


Gunter Kleist

Mike Metcalf

Mike Metcalf is a part-time instructor of political science who teaches American Politics and Government at NVU-Johnson.

You refer to yourself as a “Vermont Republican,” what does that mean?
Vermont Republicans have tended to be, especially recently, socially liberal and fiscally moderate to conservative, and I think of myself that way. There’s this bit about the government intruding into people’s private lives, and I don’t feel that the government has a need to do this. Now, there are people who feel very strongly that there are these traditions, this is the way things have always been done. I’m not interested in policing people’s private behavior. In my mind a Vermont Republican is probably a little more conservative on the fiscal side than absolute middle, but much less interested in having government say, “Well, these are the ways you have to organize your personal life,” so I think of that. But even on fiscal issues, Vermont Republicans are not as conservative as many in the party nationally.

How did you first get into politics?
I was 14 and I felt Richard Nixon would be a better president than John F. Kennedy, so I went and volunteered at the local Republican town headquarters on Cape Cod, where I grew up.

What would you consider your greatest accomplishment during your tenure as a state Senator?
I sponsored a complete rewrite of Vermont Special Ed Law back in the early 90’s. When I say I sponsored it, it was the work of the State Special Ed Board and the Senate Education Committee, of which I was a member, but I was the one who presented it to the Senate, and I went and helped talk the Education Committee of the House through it and ultimately it got signed into law. I think that was probably the best piece of legislation I did, as far as symbolic things.

What are your thoughts on the current political situation?
When I started putting together a syllabus for my politics and government class I wrote across the top of the page, “Resentment is not critical thinking.” I eventually took it off, but the resentment is real. There are people who resent, they don’t feel like they’re getting ahead the way they thought they should be, and the rate of change is such that we’ve reached a discontinuity. Technology and economy are changing tremendously. It’s the rate of change that has led to a lot of distemper, and in addition, there have been people who have played the identity politics card and it’s divided people. I hate to use the phrase postfactual, but we’ve got a lot of situations where people get to choose their own facts. There are different outlets that are very clear about the facts they want to present. It’s very easy to get groups on both sides of things and that’s helped divide us. There are groups that have reveled in that and increased the resentment.

You were one of 10 finalists to be the teacher aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. What made you want to travel into space?
I had been writing grants for a few years. I wrote a grant that got our town hall rebuilt in Greensboro, and I got some tennis courts built at the school where I taught with some federal, state and local money. So, I was looking for more grants to write, and on the faculty bulletin board I saw, “Teacher in Space, you have to be a US citizen and five years a teacher.” I was qualified since I’d been teaching for about 10 at that point, and so I wrote for the application packet. But honestly it was mostly because I was interested in grant writing.

What was it like seeing what happened to the Challenger knowing how close you were to being on board?
I was in my office at NASA Goddard, outside of Washington, D.C., and it was a corner room with the television set up on the wall. There was a clock right next to it, and I’d made notes when the solid rocket boosters and the main engines lit, and for liftoff. It was 73 seconds and we started seeing all those contrails, and I said very quietly, “That’s wrong.” One of my coworkers put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Are you okay, Mike?’ I was in shock, of course, as was everybody else.

When you were drafted into the military why did you decide to be a pilot?
I think I didn’t want to carry a long gun in rice paddies, that was probably it. After basic training I was assigned to teach English in Saigon. So, I looked into what it took to be an officer because it paid more. They said, “Well you have to fly.” So, I put my glasses in my pocket and said, “Jeeze I’ve always wanted to fly,” which I hadn’t thought of until that moment. But my depth perception is poor. I scored very high on the aptitude test, but I had to take the eye exam three times. My sight wasn’t really good enough to be a pilot, so I had to learn to land the plane very mechanically. After flight school, there was one flight to Europe and the plane was as old as I was, and I ended up flying that doing medical evacuations.

What is it like having both of your sons currently serving in the military?
On Aug. 6, 2003 at 6:45 in the morning, we got a call from Mosul, Iraq. “Mom, I wouldn’t call except the army’s going to later today. I got hit in the head with an AK round and I am fine.” My younger son was in a firefight and an AK round entered his helmet, delaminated, and punched him in the temple. He needed maybe one stitch and had a massive bruise and headaches. The round would have gone right through a helmet from my era. When he was home that Christmas we went to Newport where the helmet was made to thank them. They asked if when he got back to Fort Campbell, where the helmet was, if he take a picture of the serial number and send it to them so they could thank the exact crew that saved his life. When he was back at Fort Campbell he didn’t have a camera, so he went and borrowed one from the soldier next door, and that was how he met his wife. So not only did that helmet save his life, but it resulted in us having two more grandchildren. But, to answer your question, you really just don’t process things. My older son is in Kabul, Afghanistan right now. It’s just part of our daily life.

You’ve had many, many different jobs in your life. Which have you enjoyed the most?
I thoroughly enjoy teaching and I’d say that is my favorite. But I’ve enjoyed parts of every job I’ve ever had. I was a fish cutter, I was a printer’s devil, I was house painter, I owned a rubbish business for nine years, worked as a carpenter and sold firewood. Six or seven years ago I took a job driving a freightliner across the country picking up and delivering pianos and that was really cool. I served in the state senate for six years, served in the Air Force and for NASA. I just really enjoy new experiences.

How did you lose your ring finger?
I was in the woods with my three-year-old loading up firewood, this was 41 years ago next month, and he put his hands up and said, “Up, daddy.” So, I put my hand on the sideboard and jumped down, and my ring got caught and it turned the finger inside-out. We went to Copley Hospital and they said, “Oh, there’s a good hand surgeon who’s on duty at Fletcher Allen.” They sent me by ambulance over there and they said, ‘Well, we’d like to sew it together, we think it will all come together fine, but we’d like to keep you here until Thursday or Friday when we can tell when everything’s working. If it’s not then we can clean the flesh off and make an incision in your abdomen and sew your hand into your abdomen and you’ll wear it there for 8 or 10 weeks, and we’ll cut it out with new flesh and we’ll take skin grafts from your thighs.” I said “Listen, I’m not having any of that done, so if you cut it off will you let me go home?” They said yes, so I told them to go for it. They put a bunch of valium in the drip, so I was spaced when they were done, which was too bad because I was thinking that when they were done I’d be very polite and see if I could get the finger, so I could put it in a jar of formaldehyde on my mantlepiece just as a sarcastic statement.

What do you like doing in your free time?
My wife and I do a lot of hiking. My parents finished hiking the Appalachian Trail when they were 62 in 1980 and I grew up hiking it with them. At 72, we got a later start than them but I’m about three quarters of the way done the trail. It’s 2,200 miles long approximately and I’ve got about 500 miles left while my wife has another 160 miles on top of that. We’re hoping to finish before we’re 80. We’ve also hiked a bit on the Pacific Crest trail and we hiked the Great Glen Way in Scotland this past March, and a little in Britain, Germany and Austria. And of course, we’ve hiked all of the 4,000 footers in New England. I also write sarcastic letters that I don’t send, although some of them I share with friends. I’m a politics junkie. I read the Washington Post and New York Times online. It’s a little harder to get InfoWars now but I like to keep track of some of the crazy stuff that goes on there.

If you could have dinner with any five people throughout history, whom would you choose?
I’d want people to apply and see what applications were best, but I’m not sure they’d want to have dinner with me. So, I’d say probably Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, Ben Franklin and James Madison.

What do you want written on your tombstone?
I used to think I wanted it to note the various different things I’ve done. But now I think I just want, “Michael Metcalf: family, husband, father.” Those are the most important things we do.