June 9, 2004

Cross Country USA

TOPEKA, Kansas -- On Monday I became a trucker. I set out with a friend to transport a load from Hoboken, New Jersey, to Topeka, Kansas. We traded driving and cut a swath nearly halfway across the great continent in under 24 hours. It was exilharating to see the country that way. It had been a long time. The experience conjured up images of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty in "On the Road," or Hickok and Smith in "In Cold Blood." The latter association was extremely unpleasant, but kept intruding nonetheless. There is always that malevolent undercurrent in American life, especially when taking to the open road.

We aimed ourselves down the New Jersey Turnpike to Interstate 78 on the way to I-70, which we caught in Pennsylvania and rode all the way to our destination. Soon after passing Newark, the harshness of the New York metropolitan area gave way to the lush spring environment of the Garden State. Soon we were gliding through the vast forested mountain ridges of Pennsylania, with its sparkling rivers, fertile (and odoriferously fertilized) farms and cozy homes nestled into hillsides. By the time we drove into Ohio it was night time and there was little visibility. Increasingly as we penetrated the heartland, I was given an impression of a country in the stranglehold of huge, powerful corporations.

I must have seen 10,000 Golden Arches. This included not just those on the "restaurants", but also on billboards that lined the highways; on the top of poles that soared many stories into the sky so you would see them miles before any of the natural features of the area were visible; and even on highway signs, presumably financed by the state and created by inmates in the thriving prison system (a "growth industry", by the way).

In some places many of the giant pole signs clustered together in a slovenly crowd, presenting a battle of the logos that was almost comical if it weren't so atrociously ugly. I had the logos of 50 franchise system pounded into my head as if with a jackhammer: Burger King, Wendy's, Holiday Inn, Hampton Inn, Motel 6, Super 8 Motels, Best Western, Ramada Inn, Marriott Courtyard, and on and on and on.

In Indiana I discovered a brand I had never seen, Pilot Travel Stores. They were gas stations combined with "convenience stores." The garish red, yellow and black logo screams at you and once you are in the vicinity it confronts you from a thousand different strategically placed surfaces. Walking into the store, the air conditioning is cranked up to the max, creating icy conditions that make you shudder. The blue-white fluorescent lights blast with a nuclear white floodlight over countless counters, shelves and bins of miscellaneous merchandise, CDs, DVDs, VHS tapes, audio cassettes, soft drinks, liquor, grocery items, car accessories, calendars, newspapers. To some it would be consumers paradise, perhaps. But there was something terrifying about it.

The man at the check out desk was very nice -- so nice, perhaps excessively nice. Did I detect a jitter of desperation? It seemed as if we were all prisoners of these mad corporate machines. Should I have rescued him?

When the sun came up again, we were cruising into Missouri, the last state we would cross. It was a gorgeous morning, the sky was a deep blue, the leaves and grass were their richest high spring green. I took great pleasure knowing we were in Mark Twain country. But the exhaustion was catching up with us. We decided to pull into a rest area.

Missouri provides generous and beautifully kept rest areas and doesn't even put toll booths on the Interstate to make you pay for them. (Forgive the Missourians for Ashcroft -- they were onto him. They did defeat him, you know, before Bush resurrected him.) It was early and there were few people at the rest stop. I sprawled out on a bench in front of the building that housed the rest rooms and closed my eyes. At some point I became aware of a voice and a man in a bright orange vest with reflective yellow strips on it said, "The birds like to dive bomb that bench; you'd better be careful sitting there. You would be safer over there at the picnic table."

I thanked him and observed that he was a groundskeeper, walking around tending to things, and the place was so perfectly manicured I felt great appreciation for him right away.

Several people came and used the restrooms. They all seemed to hurry in and back out, as if they were afraid to encounter another human being. I wondered if that is what Americans have become, so frightened and alienated from each other that they avoid contact all together. Two of the people were the round variety of American, like donuts with legs and arms and blotchy skin, wearing huge baggy tee shirts. I was afraid they may all be like that, but then two others appeared who were trim.

After I had rested a while, I went into the restroom. After trying to stand in the right place to activate the automatic flush I walked out of the stall and encountered for the first time an "automatic hand washer dryer." And there was the groundskeeper. He was about 5 feet 4 inches and had graying brown hair, and gave off an air of cheerful benevolence.

He was cleaning the auto washer-dryers and motioned toward one he had just cleaned. "Use that one," he offered.

"This is the first time I've seen one of these," I told him.

"They're very good," he said. "But a lot of people don't like them. They just want the paper towels. But these don't use as many resources."

"But they do use electric power," I said, "so somewhere there is probably something burning, maybe oil, or maybe it's nuclear. If it's hydroelectric, then it really doesn't use many resources."

"There's a nuclear plant not far from here," he said, "It's ... uh. Oh well. I forgot. I lost my memory. I got shot." He wiped his hand by the side of his head to indicate that the bullet had grazed the side of his head."

"You got shot?" I repeated dully as I realized what he had said.

"Yeah, in Vietnam." He lifted his shirt and showed me a large red circle on his stomach, surrounded by amorphous red blotches. "And in the head," and he repeated the gesture indicating the path of the bullet. "I was a marine, a paratrooper." He described how he had been hit once, got back up and got hit the second time.

"I never knew why we lost that war," he said, looking confounded.

"Did you ever figure out the reason for it?" I asked.'

"No, it was just my military obligation. I don't know. I'll never have to do it again, that much I know. We did it so no one would have to do it again, but now they're doing it again, in Iraq."

"Yeah, it's a damn shame. One of my best friends was killed in Vietnam. I never figured out why. Did you get a pension?"

"Yeah," he said.

"Good, because you deserve it."

He told me he was taking some drug for some symptoms, but he was drinking too and they told him it would destroy his liver so they got him the job taking care of the rest stop.

"You do a great job taking care of this place," I said. "It's really beautiful."

"Thank you," he said. "I'm glad you said that. I didn't know anybody cared. They come in here and make such a mess of it. I'm glad you told me that." He put his fist on his heart. "That does me good."

I took a comment card and told him I would send it to his bosses and tell them what a great job he was doing. Then we bid our farewells.

It was just his military obligation, he said. They probably got him when he was young, and after the bullet to the head, he was never able to think that clearly about what had happened to him. He would probably always stay fixed at that stage, when he was young, brave, naive, easy to take advantage of. And now, like he said, it's all happening again.

June 13, 2004

Cross Country USA -- Part Two

HOBOKEN, N.J. -- It was a very strange week to be on the road. It was the week of Ronald Reagan's death and the country seemed to go into a state of timeless stillness. It seemed as if there was a blackout on all news except Reagan, Reagan, Reagan. Whenever you put on a radio or a TV, you tuned back into this eternal moment, the moment of Reagan's funeral. It seemed not only never-ending, but ubiquitous, in all places at all times. There were ceremonies in California, then Reagan's remains were shipped to Washington, D.C., for the state funeral and then I heard something about ceremonies in Dixon, Illinois, where he was born. I don't know where it's all supposed to conclude. I lost track. I don't even remember what day he died. It seemed to just go on and on day after day. Even today (Saturday after days and days of funeral broadcasts), AOL's lead story shows Nancy Reagan leaning over the coffin. The media kept describing all these scenes where people were supposed to be crowding together across the country to get a glimpse of Reagan's casket, which I have my doubts about. It had the feeling of the news media pushing very hard to try to get the most out of this thing possible.

Congress took the week off so they could just talk about how great Reagan was, as if they and the news media have nothing else to think about. It's more about them not wanting the people to think about anything else. What great garbage with which to occupy the public mind.

Even NPR was ... reverent (!) -- in its treatment of the Reagan funeral coverage. Day after day in this neverending morbidity and mythology fest.

Traveling back to the midwest of my youth renews my compassion for the misled and my understanding to the power of information control that is exercised in America. Few people have any clue that there is another reality beyond TV news. They've never been presented with an alternative. It's hard to know where to begin to tell them.

When I first walked into the room where my mother was, she was watching coverage of the Reagan death telethon. "Reagan died," she said. "He seemed like a nice man."

"Well, he wasn't," I said.

She looked up, a little startled. "What?"

"Well...." I said. "I know he seemed like a nice man, but that made it worse in a way because people believed him. He was actually a vicious man. His policies killed many people. He acted the part of this nice old man. But the man you know, the man they are all talking about this week, is a myth. He's no more real than Mickey Mouse. Reagan represented the triumph of image over reality in American politics."

I showed her the website of Democracy Now, where Amy Goodman was playing a program called "Remembering the Dead," and she wasn't referring to Reagan, but to the people Reagan killed through his policies of war in Central America. It played the voice of a Catholic priest and minister of the Sandinista government describing Reagan's Contra war against his country. The Sandinista government that Reagan called "communist" was elected after a broad coalition of popular movements pushed out the brutal and oppressive Somoza dictatorship that had ruled for half a century at the pleasure of the major corporations who were taking the country's resources. It was a reality my mother had never encountered. To hear the voice of an articulate Nicaraguan priest describing his version of events as the Contra terrorists (which Reagan called "Freedom Fighters" and likened to the U.S. founding fathers) destroyed villages and murdered women, children and the elderly across Nicaragua.

"Why don't people know about this?" my mother said.

"I don't know, why didn't the Germans know what Hitler was doing?" I answered. "The people who are doing these things don't want them to be known. People might rise up in outrage against them."

With some others who were wrapped up in grief over the Great Man's death, I didn't broach the subject of the myth versus reality. It was too much of a mountain to move.

I had to get the rental van back from Topeka to New York so I took off Thursday morning. I decided to stop in Chicago for one night and head straight east on I-80. I was planning to go through St. Louis, but Mapquest suggested taking I-35 north. So at Kansas City I went north to Des Moines, where I caught 80 and went straight east from there.

Whenever I have a prolonged encounter with the American landscape, I am bowled over by its magnificence. This is not something the European civilization that now dominates the continent can take credit for. It's something much older than that. Some of the developments complement the environment, some don't. Some of the present civilization is a hideous blight. The present Americans can say they haven't yet destroyed it, that's about it. Some of Bush's cohorts seem at times to be really trying.

Besides the physical landscape, a cross-country trip for me is an exploration of the radio landscape. All along the way I probed the airwaves, playing radio roulette with my finger punching the scan button whenever my interest flagged, or an ugly commercial intruded on my thoughts, or something set off my bullshit meter. From the sounds of the radio stations, you get a picture of the cultural landscape.

Driving functions are taken over by unconscious processes, and the mind goes into a meditative state. My consciousness was focused through the eye of a needle at a point of intersection between the visual landscape, the radio soundscape, the roar of the van cutting through the atmosphere, and a steady stream of dreamy thoughts. Hour after hour this continued as I crossed the continent.

There were many country stations, many Christian stations that maintained the oppressive feeling of the "leave me alone" types who celebrate their ignorance of the world. The famous pro-war song about "where were you when the world stopped turning," proclaims that "I watch CNN, but I don't know if I could tell you the difference between Iraq and Iran. But I know Jesus and I talk to God... " In the end it comes down to saying that the best thing God gave us humans is love. The song somehow twists these ideas into support for the attack on Iraq, which is a shame because people who believe in God and love and in defending the country against whatever happened on 9/11 have no reason to support the profane attack on that defenseless country.

Throughout most of the landscape there were good oldies stations that preserve the vitality of pop music through the post-World War II decades. And near the urban centers there were many kinds programs to choose from, from the sleepy, bored NPR talkers, to classical music, Biblific revival programs, jazz, hip hop, "Smooth Jazz" (which may be smooth but isn't jazz), "lite" music, the whole range. I even found Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now" in Kansas City on 90.1 FM.

Between Kansas City and Des Moines was the most solitary part of the country I experienced on this trip. For a while there were about five radio stations available, and two of them played the same programming as two others, so there were about three choices through much of that drive. There were times when I could only get one radio station.

There was merciful cloud cover through most of the trip, which kept it cool. The gray damp atmosphere accentuated the rich fertility of the high spring landscape. The landscapes of Iowa, rolling and green, are breathtaking spectacles hardly anyone ever sees. At any mile, you could be partaking of a sight that is worthy of a coffee table book, a show on the Travel Channel, but it doesn't even have a name. You come winding out of a turn and your eyes collide with a view that nearly knocks you down. It makes you want to just stop and gaze at the thing, just appreciate it. But there's another one just down the road. That is the natural beauty of the place. And in that place, the cultivation of the earth is very complementary to the earth's natural processes, relative to other forms of human habitation, like a chemical plant for example.

It rained off an on as I made my path through the midwest. Sometimes it poured so much you could barely see well enough to drive at all. Then you may suddenly find yourself in a patch of construction on I-80, that pens you narrowly between concrete barriers.

In western Illinois, the storms became furious. At times when it was not raining much, the sky would become so turbulent, with multiple storm systems overlaid upon one another, that it was like a drama going on all around. Some black cloud systems came down and enveloped me as though they were scooping me up with black whispy fingers. Systems of high energy motion appeared in various clusters of dark gray, malevolent looking clouds. I suddenly became aware that I was in tornado country in tornado season at tornado time of day and the sky was so active it felt that you had to keep scanning it constantly to make sure none of the tails that were whipping out of the clouds were developing into real funnel clouds.

I was heading east, and tornadoes move northeast, so the part of the sky I could see was not the part I really had to look out for. If I saw one ahead, it would be moving away from me. It was the ones from behind I really had to worry about. But it was a cargo van with no side windows behind the driving compartment, so I couldn't see much.

I was scanning the radio anyway, and gradually, weather notices took over the regular programming. A tornado watch until 7 p.m. in three Illinois counties. Trouble was I didn't know what county I was in. I looked at every sign I saw trying to figure it out. They said La Salle County just as I was going by a water tower, and when I came round to the letters on the front it said La Salle. Then the radio said they were changing the watch to a tornado warning because an actual tornado had been spotted in Tonica. It's moving northeast at 10 miles an hour. It is expected in Utica at 6:35. Just then I went by an exit sign for Utica. I looked at my watch. It was 6:20. The tornado was behind me, moving my direction. But it was going 10 m.p.h. and I was going 70. I decided to keep moving.

The radio station I was listening to played information about tornadoes, what to do. If you're in a car and you see a tornado, get away from your car. Get in a ditch or under a bridge and cover your head if you can.

Meanwhile, as I'm driving through Illinois, I hear something on the radio about Ronald Reagan's interminable funeral observances and it mentions Dixon, Illinois, where he grew up. At the services broadcast from the church he attended as a kid, they are saying his values represented what he learned in Dixon, and so forth, and then I drive by an exit to Dixon, Illinois. I had only gone by Dixon by chance because I took a route I got from Mapquest, and there I was, right there in Dixon, where all this stuff was reported to be going on. With all the stormy weather, the ceremonies must have been strange. For me to find myself right outside of Dixon during Ronald Reagan Funeral Week was just too weird. If I considered myself sane, I would have questioned it at that moment.

Then I heard the news that Ray Charles died, and that moved me. There was a really great American, who gave so much to this country and wasn't responsible for killing anyone. But even as much as I love Ray Charles, my thoughts were simply, Ahhh. Well, rest in peace, Brother Ray. You are an immortal and I love you. Even with Ray Charles I wouldn't have wanted to watch his funeral all week and bellow endlessly how great he was.

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