Over the Christmas holidays, I traveled to my ancestral home of rural Missouri. And when I say rural, I mean really, really rural. I mean the roads are all still dirt, just like they have been for as long as anyone can remember, and I mean that your nearest neighbor is a mile away, and I mean that “going into town” means you drive fifteen or twenty minutes to that accidental smudge on the map that contains a convenience store, a clinic, and a shut-down factory. And when the sun goes down, there is no more light, it’s Dark for Realz — a silent blackness uninterrupted by street lamps or head lights or city buses.
I love it.
And it’s another planet.
I had this moment when I was traveling when it suddenly dawned on me:
I’m not in Washington, DC, anymore — the protected bubble of progressive politics that I’ve grown accustomed to. (You call it a swamp that needs draining, a sore that needs lancing; I call it a protected bubble. Home.)
Welcome to the Heartland
I was sitting in the O’Hare airport when this thought occurred to me, charging my phone so that I could keep reading on the next flight, and I realized I could be surrounded by Trump supporters right now.
I glanced around discreetly. Which ones were they? The gate area was filled with mostly white people, many of them overweight and wearing things like Green Bay Packers hoodies and Cubs jerseys. They were middle aged and older, chasing their kids and grandkids around, trying to get them to behave while we all waited with some degree of impatience for the flight to board.
I’m a Midwestern-Southern hybrid, so in some ways, These Are My People. That heavy-set woman with the bleach-blonde hair who starts a conversation with me at random about needing to call her sick mother? Yes, I know her. She’s been my co-worker; she’s been my aunt; she’s been the person I stand behind in line at the grocery store. That grandpa over there, who looks like his aches & pains have got the better of him on this cold winter’s day as he leans forward, reaching for his grandson? Yes, I know him, too. I’m pretty sure I sat next to him at the last funeral I went to. He knew the deceased better than I did.
So these people in the terminal? Yeah. They are the folks I grew up with, the ones I sat around the dinner table with over the years, the ones who once-in-a-while like my posts on Facebook.
And yet they are so not my people.
They haven’t really been my people since my teenage years (or earlier), when it became apparent to everyone that all my tomboyishness wasn’t just a “phase” that I would eventually grow out of. They haven’t really been my people since I started shaving my head and they started looking at me askance, keeping their distance, and we both realized I was in their world but not of it.
We’re stuck with each other. We love each other. Sometimes we understand each other.
Dialogue and Divisiveness
I spend a lot of time thinking about things like the echo chambers we have all built around ourselves, the deep divides ripping our nation (our world?) apart, and the pressing need for us to start talking to each other again. I feel like if we’re going to heal these wounds, a conversation — a real conversation, with mutual understanding — has to happen.
I need to understand my family, even if I don’t always agree with them. I’m not going to presume to ask the same of them to understand me, but it sure would be nice if they’d at least try.
Hold on — before I go anything further, there’s something I need to tell you. Otherwise, I will feel like I’m throwing my kin under the bus.
Not everyone, but almost all of my immediate rural Missouri family voted for Clinton. Yes, you heard me. Clinton. Even the Republicans. From their point of view, Donald Trump was not Christian enough to vote for. And they won’t vote for someone who’s not a real Christian.
BUT this doesn’t change the fact that they are otherwise the statistical mean of a Trump voter. White. Working class. Conservative. Evangelical. Small town America. And it doesn’t change the fact that, although we both agree Trump is simply not a nice person, we still disagree greatly on politics and policies.
Make America Great Again
So in the interest of ethnography and mutual understanding, I want to share with you a snippet of conversation from Christmas Eve that happened while sitting around my aunt’s living room.
On the surface, this conversation had nothing to do with politics. Beneath the surface, it has EVERYTHING to do with what’s happening in the United States right now. Most of it is an anecdote told by a distant cousin (distant enough we could call him a “kissing cousin”) who’s in his early seventies. I wrote all this down the very night it happened, trying to capture the essence of the cadence and the yesteryear he connected me to.
Anyway, here it is:
Cousin: “I r’member, was one of the Bennett boys — cain’t remember which one now — anyways, we was all up in town for some reason or ’nother, and this Bennett boy, he was the youngest of the Bennett boys, he was up playin’ by the railroad tracks, an’ he got his foot caught in between the rails. And there was a train coming. And we was all standing there, watching him, watching the train coming, mouths all a-gapin,’ y’know, and here comes Blackie Boyd — Blackie Boyd, now, he was the town no-good. So Blackie Boyd, he runs up to the tracks, wraps one arm around the Bennett boy, and keeps runnin’ on across’t the tracks. And here comes the train, and they disappear on the other side o’the train, y’know, where we can’t see ’em, and so we’re all standing there, wonderin,’ ‘Well, did they make it?’ ’Cause we couldn’t see neither of ’em, ’cause of the train goin’ by.
“And then the train goes on past, y’know, and sure enough, there’s Blackie, still holdin’ onto the Bennett boy, and the Bennett boy lost his shoe but they was okay, and Blackie, he marches the Bennett boy back across’t the tracks, and he tells all o’us, ‘Now, I don’t ever want to see this boy playin’ up on them tracks again!’ And we all just nodded.”
Grandma (defending the Boyds): “George Boyd, he was the one who went to the navy, came back, finished out high school after he was done.”
Cousin: “Well, George Boyd, he was a sight different from Blackie. Blackie sure wasn’t the one what went to the navy and finished out high school after.”
They go on like this for a while, arguing about what was where when the town was fifty years younger — were there two grocery stores then? No, three. Remember? McFadden’s was down by the Missouri Farm Association. Was it? No. Yes. Maybe? That was where the pool hall was. Bucky Earls’ place. They called it The Cave.
“It had a grill, a lot of pinball machines, and one pool table,” my dad says of The Cave, laughing at what passed as a pool hall in the little town back then (and today).
Yes, they conclude at last that there were three grocery stores. Later, McFadden’s closed, and there were two. My own first cousin puts in that when she was in high school, there was only one, and then that one closed. Now everyone shops at Wal-Mart down in Marshfield.
But back in Cousin and Grandma’s day? Back then, there were definitely three. And a movie theater.
“A movie theater?” we young ones all exclaim. To think of a movie theater in C? No. Everyone knows the closest town with a theater is still Lebanon. A movie theater in C… it’s unimaginable, even to my native first cousin.
“Yes, a movie theater,” is what Grandma says, and there’s a hint of pride and satisfaction shining in her eyes as she takes in our disbelief. She tells us about the first movie she ever went to go see, something about a horse, and concludes with, “And I’ll never forget that,” as if this old horse movie in the early 1940s was a formative moment in her childhood.
And it probably was.
Later, there’s a long discussion about “the Pender boy,” as Cousin and Grandma try to come up with his first name. They go through a long list, crossing them off one by one —
“No, that was the name of his older brother.”
“Not that one, either. He was the one who married the Summers’s.”
“Then… Maybe it was Jimmy. Was it Jimmy?”
“Not Jimmy, no.”
— until finally they conclude that the memory is gone, and “the Pender boy” will henceforth maintain his anonymity, name lost to time and age.
Smart Phones vs. Party Lines
Somehow, and I can’t pinpoint the transition, exactly, we move from talking about the C of sixty years ago to today’s computers and smartphones and the age of the Internet. And Grandma complains about how she can’t figure out how to make a phone call anymore, while Aunt tells her impatiently (because you can tell they’ve had this conversation multiple times), “You just keep pressing the back button and it will take you out of it to where you can make a call.”
At which point, Cousin breaks in with another story, and it’s another long-winded one, this time about a young man finally returning to U.S. soil after his time away in The War (and you know exactly which war he’s talking about). The young man makes a phone call home, back to some nameless Nebraska town, and this is the ’40s, so he’s talking to switchboard operators all over the country as his call pings its way from New York City from station to station until it finally reaches his hometown.
The woman on the other end, she knows the sound of the young man’s voice, and immediately breaks into, “Well, hey! Are you home? Are you on your way back?”
And he acknowledges that he is, and he would be grateful if she could patch him through to his family, because he hasn’t spoken to them, hasn’t heard their voices in so long, but the operator tells him,
“Oh, none of them are at home right now. Everybody’s up at the ballpark tonight. You hang on a sec, lemme see if I can put you through to the ballpark.”
And Cousin concludes his story triumphantly, asking us young ones, “Now could a smartphone do that?”
There’s a brief moment of silence while we all process his story, imagining a switchboard operator who knows her neighbors’ movements so well that she can tell their long-missing son in an instant not only that his family isn’t at home, but also that they’ve joined the rest of the town for the high school baseball game.
Aunt is the one to voice the conclusion that the rest of us reached: “Yes, a smartphone could do that, because he wouldn’t have to talk to the operators, he wouldn’t need to wait a half hour for his call to be connected, he would just call his family and their phones would ring at the ballpark because their phones would be in their pockets!”
And there’s laughing and there’s arguing and there’s Cousin’s triumph slipping from his face as he concedes the point, but at the same time, I think we all feel it, even the young ones:
Something has been lost.
Something has been lost in our communities, in our small towns, in our rural America, and some of what’s been lost is McFadden’s and The Cave and the movie theater, but it’s also something more than that. It’s switchboard operators and the human touch over the impersonal, cold efficiency of cell phones. It’s the mom and pop grocery stores replaced by the affordable, processed food cornucopias that are Wal-Mart and Aldi; it is the nationwide chain of movie theaters that would never consider opening a theater in a town as small as C; it is the way that there’s no more ne’er-do-well Blackie Boyd loitering aimlessly outside the local drugstore, conveniently on-hand to rescue the Bennett boy the next time his shoe gets caught in the railroad tracks.
Make America great again.
Yes, I can hear it.
Make America great again.
It resonates here, for people drowning in the sea of this nostalgia, alienated and confused by their own smartphones, insatiably thirsty for the days when George Boyd went off to see the world with the navy, but eventually came home, finished high school, married his sweetheart, took over the family farm.
Because there are no family farms here anymore, no more than there are movie theaters or grocery stores. Which makes it understandable why the phrase “big league jobs” makes people around here sit up straight and begin to listen, or why the idea of a wall keeping out immigrants who would (seem to) compete with them for the table scraps urban, coastal America throws their way would be so appealing.
Building a wall isn’t about keeping out people — I mean, it is, of course it is, but it’s also much bigger than that. Building a wall is about keeping out change. “Immigrants” are simply the flesh-and-blood metaphor for a million other things that are turning their worlds upside-down at a pace that’s too rapid to cope with — Muslims and brown-skinned people are as unusual and confounding and exotic and intimidating as smartphones, the Internet, Facebook, Tivo, YouTube.
(Grandma, by the way, does not distinguish between the words “Internet” and “Facebook.” The Internet is Facebook; Facebook is the Internet. You don’t get online, you get on Facebook. I’m not exaggerating or constructing a metaphor here, I mean this literally.)
A Bunch of Questions Without Answers
When you are divided from the other side by so many factors — by generation, by education, by urban versus small town culture, by broadband WiFi versus a spotty, intermittent Internet connection that doesn’t even cope with streaming a short YouTube video, by comfort with diversity versus feeling threatened by it — how do you even begin to bridge the gap? Where do you begin bridging the gap?
People who voted for Donald Trump are not bad people. (Well, not all of them are. But to be fair, not everyone who voted for his opposition are good people, either.) They are people who feel that the world is moving forward without them — and not only without them, but without even acknowledging their concerns as valid and worth hearing out.
They want things to go back to the way they were before, when life moved at a predictable pace. And the changes that did come were anticipated ones.
How do we communicate to them that, regardless of what Trump and others have promised them, there is no going back? That smartphones will never revert back to switchboard operators, and Spanish will probably never stop being an important second language?
How do we communicate to them that that’s okay, and that Spanish is beautiful? (Far more beautiful than our hodgepodge creole of German, French, Celtic, and Latin, btw.)
And at the same time, how do we create a vision for a future that includes them? How do we acknowledge their needs and their importance as American citizens without rolling back the clock to the less tolerant, more claustrophobic 1950s America that they idealize?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but we all need to start asking them and answering them if we’re going to repair our broken (hearted) nation.
Photo Credit: Aaron Fuhrman Photography. Used without permission.