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Of mules, taxes and rare heroes

Down on the Suwannee River a few years ago, I heard a fellow talking about his best friend, a mule. He bragged about the way that mule would demand an apple before it would work. The man admired that. Most people don't get paid until after they complete labor.

The man was young enough to enjoy dramatically cursing small irritations, but old enough to worry about the consequences of such sinning.

"Con-jim it," he said, which is how they respectfully curse in the country. The words have a satisfying flavor to them, and they sound almost like real "cussing," but they're not sinful.

"Con-jim it, that mule knows he ain't as good as a tractor. Knows it. But he bargains anyway. Won't do a danged thing until I give him an apple. I know he ain't no good, too, but I give him the apple anyway.

"Me and him has got a lot in common _ 'cept he gets more apples." The man smiled. "He's a good 'un."

That story naturally comes to mind in an election year.

The country is broke and the cupboard is bare, but suddenly almost every politician in the country wants to go borrowing again and give all us mules a tax cut. Maybe we are mere mules in a competition dominated by tractors _ Japanese-made _ but we can vote and this year that is enough.

Florida, however, is different _ as usual. Our governor is not offering us any apples. Gov. Lawton Chiles is suggesting instead that Florida has been overrun by population growth that came on so fast that the state support system could not keep up because the tax system was not geared to make the growth pay for itself.

In effect, he is suggesting that taxes subsidized growth until the taxes ran thin. He is saying, as I interpret it, that the state made up the gap by letting the quality of life decline, letting the protective public services get spotty. He wants to do something about that.

In effect, he wants to get some apples in hand before he starts giving any away. Some of the old mules don't like his con-jimmed attitude and are making noise. It is remarkable, sometimes, how difficult it is to tell the warble of a mule from the bray of a jackass.

More taxes to pay for the accumulation of problems brought on by the addition of 3-million citizens in the 1980s? Outrageous. Just because Florida for the past 30 years has averaged absorbing each year the equivalent of another St. Petersburg proper means that the tax structure should adjust to that? Hee-haw.

It has been fashionable for many years now to lament that there no longer are any heroes, or very few. I disagree. It is a matter of perception. Our values have changed more than the character of the exceptional ones among us.

Once, a person who sacrificed his or her well-being for a greater good was greatly admired for lofty standards. Now, such a person is merely considered stupid. Someone willing to forgo money or status or pleasure for an ideal is considered a sap, not a hero. Today it is not smart to be a hero, and so heroes are less admired than studied as archaic curiosities. They are as likely to be considered psychologically awry as they are to be role models.

The governor clearly does not have all the answers. No one ever does, and no one without the mentality of a mule ever expects that. He is still struggling to articulate his ideals, but meanwhile he is not borrowing apples to give away. He is rearranging the direction of state government, doing unpopular things for what he sees as a greater good for Florida. Politicians hardly ever do things like that anymore.

In the context of national politics today _ when even a biblical villain like Pontius Pilate who, if he delayed a decision three times, symbolically washed his hands each time for the TV cameras and finally just sidestepped responsibility altogether, might look statesmanlike _ Chiles and Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay are taking measures that raise the suspicion of heroic intent.

Things are looking a bit ragged in Tallahassee right now and we run the risk of being disappointed, but out here in the boondocks _ where we old-fashioned folk like apples and hate taxes as much as anybody else, maybe more _ we like his con-jimmed attitude.

He looks like a good 'un to us.

Al Burt is a Florida writer who lives near Melrose.