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by Bruce Patterson, July 17, 2014
“Beat?” the rail-riding snake oil salesmen cries while bouncing between nightriders astride galloping horses circling under a midnight moon, the flames of his burning joy wagon licking his ass every time he comes round. “I ain’t beat,” he hollers. “I’m just tarred and feathered.”
— from the book/movie, Little Big Man
* * *
One nice thing about getting my second book, Turned Round in My Boots (Heyday) published, was that it got me re-connected with a half dozen of my old army buddies. All but one had been my compadres in GIs United against the War in Vietnam, Fort Bragg, NC chapter, 1969. During our phone conversations and e-mails, it was very reassuring and refreshing to learn that, even though we’re now deep into our Declining Years, we’ve remembered what we’d learned. It was easy for us, really, since it gets down to a question of personal “Honor,” as old-fashioned and “inoperative” as that word sounds today. Too much blood had been spilled lightening up our sorry young asses for any of us to have forgotten the ABCs. Too much blood has been spilled ever since, too, what with one great American “re-invention of war” blossoming like napalm into the next great American “re-invention of war.”
As a mass society, it’s like we’ve been struck blind by our own Shock and Awe. Call us White-eyes eyeless in Gaga. Or maybe we’ve got Stockholm Syndrome and we can only think like POWs. Who is freer than a prisoner who accepts his guilt and welcomes his punishment? Who is freer than a soldier marching in parade? Submission is freedom: freedom from the future, freedom from the past, freedom from common sense, backbone, heart and conscience.
Most of us have managed to convince ourselves that all the violence done in our names is righteous violence; exceptionally righteous violence seeing how we’re an exceptionally righteous people. Besides, our violence is justified because we’re surrounded by enemies—enemies foreign and domestic, enemies in places high and low. Judging by how we “invest” our tax money, it’s obvious we’re convinced that we owe our “freedom” to our “invincible” and “heroic” militaries (foreign and domestic). Captive to a machine of our own makings, we thank God Almighty we’re safe at last.
Another nice thing about publishing that book was reconnecting, via e-mail, with my first wife, a woman called Sam I’d written about some (she’s back home in Carolina now). Poor White Trash who’d taken it upon herself to get a Yankee-like education, Sam had rescued a little GI me like I was a stray puppy. And then, four years and a couple hundred thousand miles later, Sam cut me loose. I disappeared into the San Joaquin’s tule fog and Sam won a scholarship to UCLA.
It turns out Sam has published a book, too, which didn’t surprise me much. Sam could make sense out of Carl Jung and William Blake, for two things. Anyway, her book deals with the physical and sexual abuse she went through while growing up barefoot and living place to place. Of course I’d never heard a word about any of that sexual stuff. While I knew Sam was, like me, damaged, hand-to-mouth, rent-check-to-rent-check poverty damages everybody. It’s very difficult to have to get up the money to subsidize your slumlord’s lifestyle, and even more difficult to accept the superior attitudes of most everybody stuffed above you inside the Income Pyramid. You’re Trailer Park Trash — no shit? How many names did the well-off have for the “great unwashed masses” before, all across the USA, mothballed travel trailers got planted in flood zones as rent producing shanty towns? How many names for the unwashed beasts before the inventions of Dial soap and electric toothbrushes?
It was natural that Sam would keep such things secret from me. We were young and flat-out out-of-order, and we had what seemed like our whole futures ahead of us to fashion as we damn well pleased. Sure “talk therapy” can be useful if you think you “have everything” and still feel hollowed out, alienated and demeaned. Perhaps there are unresolved conflicts in your past that, once resolved, will take some weight off your shoulders. More power to you.
Yet, if you have real horror stories to tell, why bother? Why not let those sleeping dogs lie? If you’re a writer revealing personal horrors, then seeking catharsis ain’t enough. That’s because there’s a difference between setting a table and spilling the beans. Were there saints in this benighted world, I believe they too would rightfully take some secrets to their graves. So any narrative must have, as Sam’s has, what’s called “redeeming social value.” While, like pornography, that’s impossible to adequately define, astute readers know it when they see it. It’s the stuff they remember.
* * *
One of my old army buddies (he’s “upper-class” and out of East Texas) lives over the mountains in Medford. Recently, over beers, he looked me in the eye and announced, “You’re the most pissed off dude I’ve ever met. I mean it. I’ve spent my life in politics and journalism and still I’ve never met a dude as pissed off as you.”
I gawked, we laughed.
Afterward, pondering what he’d said, at least I knew he was being sincere. His father had been a country doctor. His mother had been his father’s nurse, bookkeeper, receptionist and personal secretary. In Vietnam my friend had been a spy/translator with military intelligence, and he’d seen some real shit up among the Montagnard tribesmen along the Laotian border. Yet my friend had been successfully raised up to become a genteel Southern Gentleman—to be the imagined opposite of poor White Trash, more precisely. His mind is disciplined and focused, his manners impeccable, his motives above question.
I, on the other hand, was brought up to survive in the big city shark tank: to arm myself with a wicked mind, crooked bones and a mostly clean nose (committing crimes is dangerous). As a kid I never did get to know many cultivated boys or girls, not the least because I was drawn to the feral. A couple of my childhood friends grew up to be cold-blooded street killers, and that taught me some things about human nature not too many young gentlemen get to learn. During my three years in the Army Infantry, and ever since, I’ve gotten to know a fair number of cold-blooded killers, including at least three during my nearly 40 years living in Anderson Valley. I’ve met a whole slew of wannabe killers, too, having once been one myself. Then all my adult life I’ve known that there’s hardly anybody on earth more cold-blooded than the senseless collectivity known as The American Taxpayer. You can tell a whole lot about a people by watching how they spend their money over time. And yet, given the Taxpayer’s lifelong habit of writing blank checks, obviously they’re not malicious. They’re sincerely oblivious is all. Theirs is not to reason why…
Having spent my working life swinging like a monkey between society’s multi-colored bottom rungs, I’ve met a whole bunch of people who were a whole lot more pissed off than I am. Although that’s at least partly because, seeing how nasty, self-loathing and self-destructive our politics and policies have become during my lifetime, I’m too damned scared to stay pissed off for long. Like I know we’re all crazy and armed to the teeth but, come on now, let’s not get too carried away. Millions of affluent old white men of my generation feeling put upon and besieged? How’s that for turning reality on its head? Why the very idea is enough to curdle a bowl of cottage cheese.
Still, I’ve got a lot invested in this country, you know? I’ve got a wife and sons, friends and relatives. So I’m in till the end. It’s too late for me to fold my cards and I ain’t surrendering the pot. You want the pot, you’ve gotta show me your cards. Bullshit walks.
* * *
Inside the soundproofed and air-conditioned cab of a towering D-17 AE bulldozer, a peach-faced West Virginia coal miner scrapes off a mountaintop. The surplus dirt he pushes into his great-great-great grand daddy’s hollers and fishing holes, rickety handmade homesteads, sideways corn patches and bumpy graveyards.
“Why not?” the young miner thinks while massaging his joystick with his fingertips, his trusty Smart phone singing by his side. Where else a fellah gonna make the kind of money King Coal pays? Why old grandpa he’d fill with pride knowing what a success he’s made of his young self, him punched out work and kicking up dust in his brand new ram-tuff pickup truck and chick magnet. Unlike ole grandpa with his picks, shovels and caged canaries, he ain’t gotta worry about getting himself blown to pieces or buried alive neither. No more getting real old, real quick, neither. No more company store and company chit—no more goons. What with your wife and children looking on, no more getting strangled to death by Black Lung.
No, you add it all up and the boy ain’t ashamed of nothing. To the contrary: if grandpa could see all the progress they’ve made up in these hills these last 50 years, he’d curse his luck for having been born too soon.
So the poor boy thinks, anyway. Yet in fact it’s he and his generation, and all generations to come, that were born too late. The environmental crimes he’s committing are being committed virtually everywhere in about every way possible, the results being poisoned air and water, poisoned lands and oceans: global depletion of everything starting with clean water and wildlife. Unless you’re willing to argue against, or ignore, the last half century’s worth of accumulated scientific facts detailing the profound and irrevocable damage we’re doing to the natural world that underpins our “civilization,” you know the young miner is likely doomed to a mighty sorry future to say the least. By attempting to live as his parents and grandparents (and the schools and the TV) have taught him to live, the young miner is the instrument of his own destruction. He’s like I was when I was young and I volunteered to help make the world a better place.
Since human time began some 200,000 years ago, countless tribes, religions, kingdoms, nations, empires and whole civilizations have come and gone. Just over the last 2,000 years, more than enough civilizations have come and gone to prove that, when forced to, people can start again. By breaking loose of old and worn-out habits of thought, people can make something new out of the ashes of the old.
Except, in 2014, we’re in the process of leaving behind, for human purposes, a global wasteland. No generation before us has ever had the power to do that. Yet having such power is like living under the thumb of a vengeful and pitiless master. Were we put here on earth just to prove that the human soul can in fact perish before the body? If so, it’s not enough.
After WW2, when the USA mothballed its arsenal of firecracker atomic bombs in favor of thermonuclear hand grenades, Albert Einstein remarked how Industrial Civilization is like a toddler in diapers locked in an empty room with its floor covered with loaded shotguns. Since no society in history has ever needed revolution (“spiritual awakening?”) more than ours does right now as in yesterday, I think Einstein’s imagery is instructive. Stop being babies. Get rid of the shotguns, haul in some furniture, paint the walls, hang some pictures. Think ahead.
“End.” The reason for being; final cause. — Webster’s