Knock, knock

The sun always pushed through the mini-blinds to early for my taste. In the summer after my first year in college, I slept late as often as possible. I’d bury myself under a pile of blankets and hide until my stomach rumbled for lunch or my summer job beckoned me to the video store counter. In those early days, the Bohemian life was a good one.

It was May 1993 when my mother shook me awake by my shouders. I muscled through the ubiquitous college girl dreams and tried not to look startled when I opened my eyes. Tears were climbing over my mom’s eyelids and getting ready to spill on top of me.

In the years before and years since, I’ve come to know this particular kind of wake-up call. It hasn’t always been my mother shaking me awake, but it’s almost always been really bad news. Usually someone is dead.

This time, though, the news was something far different.

“Your brother is in trouble,” she said, finally losing it and breaking into real tears.

I didn’t start laughing immediately, but it was a ridiculous proposition. Brother Otis just didn’t get in trouble. He was an A-student, a starting football player, and just about anything you would want as a son and brother (Actually, it was sort of annoying for me, because I was more of an A-/B+ student, who was never very good at football, and in my earlier years had a thing for anarachy and chaos theory).

But as Mom continued to cry, I realized there might be a bit of a problem.

In the moments before she stormed in to interupt what must have been a fantastic dream about the girls who lived on the seventh floor of Laws Hall, two sunglassed men has knocked on our front door and asked to speak to Brother Otis.

“He’s at school,” Mom said.

“We need to talk to him, ma’am.”

As Mom related the story, I began picturing some Joe Friday-ish characters and it made me giggle. It was just silly.

Before she was done telling the story, I was laughing through her tears. I was not a very good son.

Despite my laughter, there was burgeoning issue. Dad was on his way to pick up Brother Otis from school and take him to the local office of the Sunglassed Men.

In the days before we could all blog at will (or can we? That story in just a moment), the beginnings of the Internet were filled with BBS boards. Brother Otis, a young Republican at the time, was very active in several BBS communities, including a thread of jokes about Bill Clinton’s first term as president. At the close of a series of of jokes, my naive little brother included a phrase that wasn’t very smart. For fear of incurring the same trouble as he, I won’t repeat what he wrote. But it wasn’t very nice, it wasn’t very smart, and it drew the attention of the Sunglassed Men.

Within a couple of hours, the family attorney, my father, and Brother Otis satin the office of Sunglassed Men, where Brother Otis was questioned at length about his BBS post and the motivation behind it. He was made to give his fingerprints and a handwriting sample. He was told he would be monitored for the next five years if he was within a certain mile-radius of our nation’s leader.

Eventually, the rest of the family thought it was as funny as I did. To my knowledge, Borther Otis has never even been in a fight. He’s about as non-violent as they come. But, he’s got a file now. In short, my little brother got a really good taste of Big Brother.

Now that a decade has passed, it’s a fun story to tell at parties or to make fun of my brother during a poker game.

Back in the day, I figure Big Brother had an easier time of monitoring the Internet. These days, there are so many people writing that tracking down an innocuous comment on a blog must be sort of labor intensive…

Now, that’s a naive thing to say, isn’t it.

Just ask Annie Sewell-Jennings…

Like many other young people, 22-year old Annie Sewell-Jennings of Charleston, South Carolina spends a lot of her time online. She’s active at LiveJournal and runs a blog there. After the last Presidential debate, she wrote what she thought was a satirical entry. Annie and her friends are not big George Bush fans. So her and her friends engaged in some foolishness about praying for an aneurysm or mass suicide.

Tuesday night came a knock at the door. It was the Secret Service with some advice about threatening the President. The FBI had received a report and passed it on to the Secret Service.

Annie told me, “I think a lot of people take the Internet to be completely anonymous and separate from their real lives, and the fact of the matter is that’s just not true.”

“They were very considerate and polite,” she said of the Secret Service agents, “and they understood that what I said was a joke but warned me not to say anything along those lines again. Believe me, I certainly won’t. Lesson learned.


If there’s one thing the Otis clan learned it is this:

We live in a country where you’re free to say just about anything. For instance, I think diving isn’t a sport. It’s atheletic performance art. Olympian? Bah.

However, there are certain words we can’t say and certain people we can’t talk about.

Is that right or wrong?

Well, that’s not for me to say…

At least it’s not for me to say in a place where the Sunglassed Men might be reading.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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