“Such, such were the joys…” George Orwell
A young man from Minnesota was arrested recently in connection with a number of pipe bombs placed in rural mailboxes across America’s Heartland. According to reports, his ambitious and imaginative plan included leaving bombs in the pattern of a gigantic, multi-state smiley face, presumably as observed from outer space. He left messages along with his bombs, messages containing the delusional ramblings one associates with anti-government residents of remote compounds stocked with automatic weapons, ammo, and freeze-dried rations.
Having grown up in the region, this richly-nuanced bit of Heartland Americana just naturally set me reminiscing.
There were the hot summer nights spent in a cinder-block chapel at Camp Sycamore (not its real name). Here, every night, an evangelist with greasy, swept-back hairdo and heavy black-rimmed glasses, a la Buddy Holly, shouted and sputtered, spewing beads of sweat and saliva visibly into the stage-lighting, trying his hardest to scare a bunch of thirteen-year olds half to death in an effort to win souls for Jesus.
It didn’t matter that most of the kids were already church members, because in the Heartland there never was too much of a good thing. And clearly, judging by how intensely the topics were seized upon, the end of the world and crazed tales of hell were good things. They were closely associated in my mind with the air-raid drills we experienced each week in elementary school. Both served to keep the fear of hell vivid. The sirens wailed over the city every Tuesday morning, and the kids were marched out into the hall to crouch near the walls. That was how we were going to survive a five-megaton blast.
Apart from Camp Sycamore’s long, sweaty service each evening, there were crack-of-dawn devotions, a prayerful flag-raising, two long classes every morning on subjects along the lines of what awful things you can get from loose girls and the benefits of cold showers, bedtime devotions back in the cabin, plus an ostentatious grace over every serving of spaghetti or “sloppy joes” with Kool-Aid.
The experience at least taught an observant young man a good deal about the methods and purposes of tyranny. It was a few years later, after reading Allan Bullock on Hitler, that I realized that the Buddy-Holly preacher at Camp Sycamore had more in common with Adolf than Jesus. And all that panic-laden, nuclear-attack stuff at school owed more to Goebbels than concern for public safety. Still later, I understood that there is a connection between the fundamentalist obsession over the destruction of the world and Hitler’s Götterdämmerung-destruction of Germany when his bid to rule Europe had failed. Nihilism is a common thread.
The local churches paid for this delightful spiritual experience, supposedly a treat for city kids, the camp being located in some woods near a small lake away from the hubbub of the city.
My local church, despite a large, neon-outlined “Jesus Saves” sign over the entrance, was occasionally stirred by events other than preserving souls from eternal damnation. I remember when a single black girl quietly started attending church. There was a good deal of whispering and one deacon felt that someone should speak to her about being more comfortable going somewhere else. When John Kennedy ran for president, quarter-dollar coins with a dab of red fingernail polish suggesting a Catholic cardinal’s cap on Washington’s head circulated.
When Timothy McVeigh put Oklahoma City on the map by trying to erase it, there were many editorials and columns opining how such a terrible thing could happen in the Heartland. The Heartland: that mythical place of cherry pie, gingham dresses, honesty, and big-hearted neighbors. Dorothy’s Kansas. Little House on the Prairie. I detected a certain feebleness of insight in these pieces. There was nothing to be surprised about.
Despite the definition of “America’s Heartland” being a little vague (of course, that is the secret of all good advertising slogans, to suggest attractively without the concrete of facts), I did think, at first, it was stretching things a bit to locate events in Oklahoma on that mythical real estate. The Midwest was the Heartland, but perhaps that identification was just residual chauvinism.
The fact is that the Midwest has always been more accurately pictured by the brutality of bloody Kansas just before the Civil War than by the schmaltz of Dorothy’s Kansas, for even though the “Wizard of Oz” is a parable about American politics, its popularity has nothing to do with that fact. Crazed gangs, violent racist attitudes, and a dedication to choking your views down the throats of others are just some of the cultural landmarks that never make it into sugary television shows or Hollywood movies about the place.
However, when it turned out that the bomber was Timothy McVeigh, a young man whose high ambition had been to join that gang of professional killers, the Green Berets, a veteran of the Gulf War who reportedly demonstrated considerable enthusiasm in using his anti-tank gun on submissive or retreating troops (Oh, how I remember the American pilots, strafing and incinerating lines of Iraqi troops retreating from Kuwait City, caught chortling on the radio about how this was “Jus’ like shootin’ fish in a barrel!”), and someone who grew up in the area around Buffalo, New York, I accepted the usage as appropriate.
Buffalo, while not properly part of the Midwest, is definitely a close spiritual relative. Not just in its treasury of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan buildings, Frederick Law Olmsted parks, and location on a Great Lake, but right down to its flat-vowel, nasally accent and many colorful cultural attitudes.
Ted Kaczynski, the Unibomber, grew up and got his start maiming and killing around Chicago. He moved on to pursue the greater part of his career from a remote cabin out West, a fact which may reflect the early formative influence of a place like Camp Sycamore.
When I was growing up, Chicago had a colorful local personality named George Lincoln Rockwell, Fûhrer of the American Nazi Party. It might seem a little odd to outsiders that a band of grown men would dress up in brown outfits with jackboots, cross-belts, and armbands and tromp around with riding crops during the 1960s, but that only proves how unfamiliar outsiders are with the ways of the American Heartland.
A friend of mine through some years in school, a young man of above-average intelligence and with many well-informed views, someone whose father was a Russian Jew and had experienced the horrors of the Eastern Front, fell upon the hobby of collecting Nazi memorabilia. It started innocently enough with an Iron Cross or two but eventually grew to something that might furnish a small museum with armbands, SS insignia, helmets, special medals engraved with Hitler’s signature, officers’ daggers, bayonets, and Mauser rifles. I do believe that the American Midwest is one of the few places on earth where you could find such a jumbled cultural oddity.
Recently, the remarkable English journalist Robert Fisk wrote a piece on why Hollywood actor John Malkovitch wants to kill him, something the actor, upset over Fisk’s reporting from the Mideast, apparently ranted about in a speech on a visit to England. But I think Fisk is likely unaware that Malkovitch comes from the Midwest, actually the Chicago area, or he would not think there is anything unusual in his behavior. People do threaten to kill people there because they don’t like there views or their color. It’s just that kind of place.
One of my most intense Heartland-memories is of a young man I had known in elementary school. In high school, we rarely saw each other as our interests were different. Walking home one day, I caught up with him, and he invited me to his apartment, somewhere I had never been.
It was a very handsome apartment, and I thought how nice it was that he had his own room. He suddenly asked me whether I could keep my mouth shut if he showed me something. Of course, I replied, having no idea what he was talking about but also being rather intimidated by his sudden manner.
He opened a drawer and showed me a “zip gun,” basically a gadget with pipe and a handle and a rubber-band-powered mechanism for firing a bullet chambered in the pipe. I couldn’t understand why he was showing it to me.
But he went on to describe how he took it with him when he and some other guys would pile into a car on a Friday night and drive to the black ghetto for some fun. With weirdly gleeful eyes, he explained how much fun it was trying to run down “niggers” crossing the street at night, watching them run for their lives in the headlights.
I went home feeling frightened and sick, unable to understand why anyone did such things or bragged about them. This was one of the events that later riveted my thoughts when Lyndon Johnson decided it was a good and patriotic thing to go over and kill countless Vietnamese so that those left standing could enjoy the blessings of Coca-Cola and cheeseburgers. It was so painfully easy to put a face to the guys that were going to have a good time carrying out the orders.
Later, not long after leaving high school, there was a young cop who used to do some extra work acting as a guard in the department store where I worked. He was a beefy figure, perhaps ten years older, with pock-marked face and almost washed-out blue eyes. He would sometimes pause a few moments and talk to me. As a tall, skinny teenager who read books and drew pictures, I was somewhat fascinated with him and experiences I could barely imagine.
Once I asked him whether he had ever used his gun. Sure, he quietly said, proceeding to describe answering a call for a robbery once and cornering “this jig kid” with something in his hand. The kid wouldn’t respond to an order to drop it, so my friend the policeman shot him in the face, killing him. He told the story with no emotion.
But hatred and violent stupidity weren’t just on one side. When I started elementary school, we lived in a very poor neighborhood. The local school was almost all black, and I walked to school reading the ominous graffiti left by the Blackstone Rangers everywhere. But it wasn’t just graffiti. Every day I was intimidated, shoved, laughed at, and knocked down on my way to school or in the school yard. Years later, that’s why I would understood exactly how a little black girl in Selma felt trying simply to go to school.
Yes, the Heartland is full of unusual stories. It is a mysterious, fascinating place, one that leaves an intoxicating spell on you many years afterward. Of course, I remind myself, it could have been worse. I could have grown up in the South.