Sunday, January 07, 2018


His first adult job was with Headstart, that progressive, effective, idealistic attempt to bring all children into a living culture that valued them.  Since he was in Michigan, many of the children were Anishinaabe (or Anishinabe, plural: Anishinaabeg) is the autonym for a group of culturally related Indigenous Peoples in Canada and the United States that include the Odawa, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Oji-Cree, Mississaugas, Chippewa, and Algonquin peoples.”  They occupied a social niche that was sometimes rez-centered and sometimes not.  If white people thought of them at all, most folks vaguely considered them “French.”  

Michigan was one of the succession of frontiers in America and since the white people quickly exhausted the valuable timber but left forest and waterways behind, the original people were not exterminated as they were on the prairies, but learned to be shadowy and useful, moving in and out as needed, just “there.”  So his early friends and adult lovers (he was innocently gay) often came from that nearly-hidden reservoir of survivor life.

It was right after World War II and the Interstate Highway System was just being created.  Tom Lewis, in his book “Divided Highways”, says “The highways became a stage on which we have played out a great drama of contradictions that accounts for so much of the history of the century.  On this stage we see all our fantasies and fears, our social ideals and racial divisions.”  The TV series “Route 66” was an enduring account of the river of life.  The work of Jack Kerouac guided young men.

This giant construction project consumed gravel, leaving gravel pits across the landscape.  Just as the quarries of New England became swimming holes, the scenes of sex and death, so the gravel pits filled with water that attracted young people into a night time moonscape of adventure and escape.  The other reciprocal phenomenon was the auto industry in the cities, assembly lines turning out those vehicles that would leave rubber and fumes all across the continent, ways to hit the road and portable bedrooms to park on lovers’ lanes.

Social consequences of this aspect of the industrial revolution were profound.  Escape was easy, long-distances called, family or a criminal rap sheet were easy to escape.  Car dealers -- from the humble empty lot, flying pennants and promising bargain cars that would actually run -- were at one end of a spectrum while high end symbols of luxury, especially from Europe which veterans thought they knew and respected, were even more important than the big houses that used to signal the status of country people.

The young and the defiant, no longer on horseback, took to motorcycles, so now “Easy Rider” was the archetype, and driving directly into the wind and darkness was an irresistible trope .  Like their fathers’ respect for German engineering and big powerful engines, the motorcycles graded out into layers of status.  Those who could maintain them, skillfully ride them, smash the quiet and order of rural America, were the new desperadoes.  The new shootists wore black leather, combat gear, partly for protection and partly as symbolism, harking back to wartime.  It was so hard to give up wartime.

Meanwhile, back at the farms along the rivers where the roads weren’t paved, much less engineered, the men discovered that by commuting to work in the big city automobile industries, they could make money that by-passed driving tractors or even McCormick reapers.  Leaving the uneducated and the “French” to do the ag work, the men double-timed their lives into being either line workers with a union or engineers with expertise that gave them unchallengeable prestige.  It was a kind of mathematical aesthetic, those beautiful cars almost like space ships.  Drivers, especially in the  Midwest, felt like astronauts speeding through sky, and some were even prosperous enough to acquire small planes, sexy but practical in a place that had more space than anything else.  Some farms had landing strips, or one simply arrived on grassy pastures, barn-storming.

For decades the structure that persisted through the transition from farms to cities was that of families.  In the rural days a family was a kind of self-defined mini-kingdom ruled by the man in a patriarchy sustained by wife and kids, maybe part of a genealogical and legal network of people who had lived there long enough to develop a pecking order based on how much land one owned, how well one managed it, and the respect acquired from others.  Sometimes that meant helping each other, but “hardness” was a valued quality, both between farmers and within families.  Men ruled their families the same as their hired hands.  Sex had less to do with marriage than contributing to the family business, a form of production.  Men were the CEO's but also the owners and engines.

Children were capital, useful for small labor of which there is an endless need on a farm if only to run errands, and school was meant to make them smart enough to keep books and make investments.  If they got so smart that they left for college, that was a problem because it might amount to emigrating — never coming back.  No need for humanities which might seduce them into airy-fairy stuff that had no use, might even persuade them to be gay.  

Sports were an ideal kind of education, preparing for teamwork (maybe political), teaching toughness and strategy, and providing a source of pride.  Kingdoms need knights, a flag, rivalry to spur achievement, the Game of Thrones.  If that meant concussions and blown-knees, well, so did farming.  But practices with good results for a man running a farm turn out not to work very well in terms of modern corporate industry in a city.

Nor does industrial-style, high-volume, high-capital farming support either long-term land fertility or a coherent many-children family with a participating wife.   Automobiles cancel topography and homogenize life, shifting many people into cities where — ironically — cars mean congestion, gridlock, pollution, and long-distance crime.  One can rob a bank in Seattle and be in his mama’s house in LA in a matter of hours.  If your car becomes identifiable, it’s an easy matter to discard it and steal another one.  Car chases through streets have replaced the cross-country folk stories of “Route 66.”

Today automobile technology is at as high a velocity as cars on the road: GPS tracking, constant internet monitoring, airborne surveillance, roadbeds with embedded sensors.  But the motorcyclist, maybe defiantly foregoing leathers or helmet, still bites the wind and evades the systems, escapes from the patriarch who beats him up in order to own him out of love and need of the old for the young -- for them to be just the same as their parents.  Marriages don't last and young men are driven out of their homes by step-parents.

On the Interstate of Oregon, the two directions of the divided highway are separated by hedges of blackberries and other shrubbery that can stop a runaway vehicle.  Occasionally there is a reason to mow down the bushes.  Often they find, deep against the roots, the skeletons of boys with their bicycles.  Runaways from broken abusive homes or maybe just overreaching adventurers. 

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