Thursday, June 20, Gillette, Wy. – We are back on the tit of Corporate America, suckling like starving babes. We’ve been gone so long, it’s almost good to be back. I keep hearing Band songs on ambient sound systems. Seven in the past 24 hours. Something strange and wonderful is in the atmosphere.
This journal is shamefully in arrears. Sitting here in the postmodern comfort of the Gillette Starbucks off Highway 59, surrounded by McDonalds and Walmart and Albertsons and Burger King and KFC and Dollar Tree and Family Dollar and AutoZone and Famous Footwear and too many familiar friends to name, I am nearly two months and more than 3,000 miles behind.
My mind reels back to sixth grade, when spring cast its balm upon Paoli, Pa., meaning it was time to turn in our year-long journals for Mrs. McAlister’s English class. Mine? Barely started. For the next week I sat in my room, feverishly trying to make up for lost time while my friends ran wild in the suburban sunshine. It was so sad.
It is, as our assiduous clichemakers like to say, what it is. What else could it be? We left Berwyn, Pa., more than three months ago. The good news is there’s no shortage of stories to tell, should I again become animated by the combined wrath of Mrs. McAlister and my suffering parents.
On Monday, we did laundry in Spearfish, S.D. We extracted the stinking mass of our entire wardrobe from the Behemoth’s bathroom, which is little more than an oversized hamper. It had been nearly a month since we’d washed our clothes in Ben Davis’ Treme Laundry, deep in the heart of old New Orleans. Put another way, we’d traveled more than 1,600 miles since our last run-in with a laundromat.
The journal of this odyssey is in worse shape than our laundry was Monday morning. It fell apart somewhere in the vicinity of Weeki Wachi Springs, Florida. So many places and characters have illuminated our lives since, starting with the wondrous Williams family of Tallapoosa, Ga., where we stayed 11 days. I never thought they’d let us leave. Since then, the unwritten travelogue has piled up to foreboding heights. Three vanished steamports. Five days in New Orleans. Four in Kansas City.
Ninety-six-year-old Miss Nettie Greer. Ninety-year-0ld Miss Jessie Varnado.
Miss Nita Givens at 39th and Jackson. Ron and Lucille Schneider inviting us into their car and taking us on a tour of the Nebraska Sandhills along the Niobrara River.
Junior ranger badges soaring into double digits. Father-son battles. Me becoming the parent I never imagined, goading, driving, shaming Max into completing his requirements. I got so frustrated at Pea Ridge I punted his junior ranger booklet across a cannon-laden field. This is the kind of scene you’d laugh at in a movie, but it’s no template for real life.
This is real life.
I must stop it. No longer will I wallow in my weakness for procrastination. It’s time to get on with the show. Starting with yesterday, when we ran across a wayfaring family in the parking lot at the Trading Post beneath Devils Tower.
I first noticed the Pennsylvania license plate. Ah, kinsmen! Brothers from home, met on the far-flung road. Then I saw the New Cumberland firefighter plate beneath the front bumper. Sweet serendipity, you are my faithful muse.
I thought of Lauri Lebo, perhaps the blog’s oldest and greatest friend. Her mom lives in New Cumberland. Her husband, Jefferson Pepper, likes to tell people he’s from New Cumberland. She likes to correct him, mostly in the interest of geographical precision. She tells him he’s from Fairview Township.
Before I could insinuate myself into my fellow Pennsylvanians’ narrative, I noticed other things. First and most ominous: the “Don’t Tread on Me” bumper sticker, complete with serpent. Damn. My new friends are Tea Partiers. Also, a Marine Corps sticker. The NRA was represented, too, I think.
When we drove up, a young man sat atop their trailer, which was covered by a blue tarp. He gazed through binoculars at a mysterious something on a nearby hill. His father stood nearby, his eyes shielded by dark sunglasses. He was clad in black T-shirt emblazoned with the “Pain is weakness leaving the body” Marine Corps mantra.
Enough already. I get the point. You are a Marine and could kill me before I might conjugate a verb, much less get off a complete sentence. I get it.
Put off, I debated for 15 minutes whether to strike up a conversation. With Becky and Max plugged into a wifi hotspot at a picnic table outside the store, I decided to walk into the fearful breach.
And so I met the Moors, who recently left New Cumberland, Pa., for a new life in Lewistown, Montana. Their 2-year-old kitty, Skittles, was somewhere on that hill with the rattlesnakes and other menaces. Jiri Moor told her husband, Jonathan, about the baby buffalo on the far side of the hill, guarded by a wary mama.
I was up against it. But I had made myself a promise. Back in Vicksburg, I had the good fortune to meet an old riverboat captain and Alabama offensive lineman on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. He was great, save for his subtle but unmistakable jibes against government workers and union employees.
That Saturday morning I decided I’d politely and sweetly demand that people not to sully our chance conversations with the visceral discontents they’d taken to heart after learning of them on talk radio, television or the Internets.
And so, armed with nothing but a sweet and agreeable skepticism, I unleashed a charm offensive on the Moors. Normally I bathe in humility, but damn it, I am one charming S.O.B. They had no chance.
Jesus, guns and babies wouldn’t help them today. This is what Jiri actually said. She’s a Christian and wears it on her sleeve (and on her hat, too!).
It’s her mantra. Jesus, Guns and Babies.
This she also said: Traveling the country, she has learned that a lot of people are unhappy with where this country headed. It’s in the wind out there, whistling through the prairies and howling down mountainsides like ghost trains. Change is a-coming.
The thing that binds all good people together, she said, is liberty. A belief in freedom.
She had picked the wrong guy to tell traveling homilies to. I’ve been around this troubled country a bit, too.
Beware of “freedom,” I pleaded. It is the new serpent in the American garden. It is the opiate of the masses.
Freedom! It is the favored rhetorical cudgel of demagogues from sea to shining sea. Give me endless war. Give me round-the-clock surveillance. Give me the gulag and throw the key down in the hole with habeas corpus. But goddammit, give me liberty!
I didn’t say all that crap. I told Jiri I never talk politics with people unless they bring it up. Who cares what I think?
I didn’t mention mystic chords of memory. Whatever Lincoln was on about, they are strong. Stronger than the veneer of ideological difference which pits us against one another at our collective peril.
I told Jiri it’s rare for strangers to inject politics into our discussions. I said hey, I’m no fan of President Obama, either. Our reasons might not match up, but hey, it’s something.
She confessed she’d feel less ill-disposed toward Obama if he were born in this country.
C’mon, I said. I said it with a smile.
Before long Jiri was tripping all over herself in an effort to find common ground. It was awesome.
I asked if they were gonna get the goddamn cat off the hill. She’d told Jonathan she’d queried a woman in the store who’d said they weren’t permitted to go onto private land to get their pet.
I said this was bullshit. I said I’d go up there if I had to, rattlensnakes and buffalo babes be damned. I’m an unapologetic cat-lover. If this makes me a pinko, so be it. I think this shamed them.
Soon Jonathan found out Jiri’s story full of white lies she invented to protect him from the prairie rattlesnakes.
So Jonathan climbed up on Rattlesnake Hill and got Skittles back. It was beautiful. Here was a true American hero in action.
You should’ve seen him cradling that cat as he came down off that hill. Sweeter than a McDonald’s frappuccino. Beneath the bumper stickers and the martial bravado and the sea of polemical horseshit, Jonathan is a cat-loving sweetheart.
I cheered him on, and his family followed suit. We stood on common ground at last.
God bless America!
Sure, he thinks the government is reaching into his pocket and taking his money and applying it to all sorts of stuff he doesn’t agree with. Turns out one of the things he doesn’t like is the gulag at Guantanamo.
See, we’re not that different. We agreed Obama is just a cog in the machine. We agreed a lot of people out there hate him because he’s black.
And it turns out Jonathan and I have even more in common. We are fellow journalists of one kind or another.
He’s out of the Corps now. Has a job in the middle-of-nowhere, Montana, working in public affairs for the Bureau of Land Management.. The Moors will arrive there before the week is out and begin a new life.
Perhaps our beliefs are different as mountain and valley. Beliefs are invidious bastards.
The Moors want to outrun the long arm of government. Perhaps they will find peace in the Montana vastness. I reminded Jiri about the we-the-people thing. We are the government. Government is not inherently evil.
She smiled and agreed. Nonetheless, she craves a sanctuary from the madness, a place in the middle of nowhere far away from the masses.
People are all you got, Jiri. You’re gonna need ’em. Anyway, sorry for pontificating. They have a house in Niagara Falls. She said they pay $4,300 in property taxes a year.
“For this, you get drugs, prostitution, gangs and giant potholes,” she said. “In Montana you can get 40 acres and pay just $700 a year in taxes.”
There’s at least problem she won’t get away from when she lands in Montana. And it’s a doozy.
Brennon, her eldest, is 18. He just graduated from Cedar Cliff High School in Camp Hill, Pa. He was a classmate of Adam Breneman, a football star bound for Penn State. When Adam Breneman is catching passes for the Nittany Lions, Brennon Moor could be catching hell in some dusty outpost of the American empire.
You see, I asked Brennon about his plans. By now, you can guess.
He wants to follow in Daddy’s bootsteps. He wants to join the Corps.
Now Jiri and I stood on common ground. Funny how that happens.
This, she said, is a sore spot.
By the grace of God, she said, they somehow survived Jonathan’s two decades in the Marines without him seeing combat. Now, bam! Brennon wants to join the madness. She’s been robbed of her relief.
What is to be done? Foolhardy machismo is the province of youth. He’s 18, and he’s not going to listen to his mother. He’s immortal.
She knows this, and it kills her. There’s nothing she can say, and her heart is breaking by degrees.
Prayer, she said, is all she has now. Hell, I’m not much for prayer, but it’s as good a logic when applied to the whims of an 18-year-old boy.
Jiri’s read a lot. And not just about vaccines causing autism. She’s read about the horror of post-traumatic stress. She’s read about American boys going off to fight in our imperial wars and coming home broken young men. She’s read about idealistic 18-year-old boys left fucked up by war and forgotten by a broken VA system. Forever. Not to mention the ones who don’t make it back.
“I just hate to see the boy I worked 18 years to put together get taken apart by the Marine Corps,” she said.
The conversation nearly brought her to tears. She told me Jonathan has signed over his GI bill so Brennon can get four years of college courtesy of Uncle Sam. She reminds her son he once promised he wouldn’t leave home until he completed four years of college.
“I was 5 then,” he said.
That hit me in the nuts. Five now, I know Max will be 18 in the blink of an eye.
I wouldn’t presume to proselytize, but I told Brennon I was with his mom on this subject. Outside, he was all mirror sunglasses and teenage machismo. The tough-guy act was just that. He said wanted the rattlers to get Skittles. He said he wants to join the Marines.
I don’t know, but I suspect he’s as much a soft-hearted guy as his cat-rescuing father. He seemed to appreciate our conversation, almost as much as I did.
I looked him in the sunglasses. “You’re a better man than I,” I said.
I don’t know if this is true, but I do hope something distracts him from his date with combat. Before it’s too late. He’s a good kid. That much was easy to see.
And no kid, good or otherwise, should be thrust into war. Ah, but now I’m sharing my personal beliefs.
The Moors were ready to head north toward Little Bighorn. We all shook hands, exchanged good-luck wishes and I started to walk way.
I got about 15 steps toward my family when I heard Jonathan’s call. He hopped out of the driver’s seat and ambled toward me.
He suggested I check out usajobs.gov. Said he’s seen lots of writing and editing jobs posted there. This angry-looking, Tea Party malcontent with the dark sunglasses and Semper Fidelis belligerence had thought about it and decided he didn’t want me, a rank stranger, to get away before he could offer a word of encouragement.
As I talked it over with him, Jiri popped out of the car. She handed me a torn piece of paper with a name and email address scrawled on it.
“When I make dinner,” she said, “I promise there’ll be no talk about politics.”