Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Civic Pride

I refer to the town in which I was born, moved away from, and eventually returned to, as my birthplace. The word hometown is just a little too cozy for me and I think it incorrectly suggests an affection that I do not have. My inability to purge that dumping ground of anguish and depression from my thoughts, conscious and otherwise, is more than disappointing. The dreams spurred by my contempt for that cursed town are always nightmares. I wake from them feeling beaten and raw. I imagine a skirmish with a giant cheese grater might produce the same feeling. I wear my hatred for that place on my sleeve. Those who know me best can only guess at the depth of the grudge that I carry. No casual conversation is immune from digression, no subject matter, however innocent, is safe from exploitation; I will find a way to slander the place of my birth. With few exceptions, I hate every person, animal (wild or domestic), building, street, blade of grass and gust of shit-filtered wind that blows through that loathsome burg. If my regularly scheduled program was interrupted by breaking news that “hometown” was being swallowed by an erupting volcano, I would consider it a prayer answered and grudgingly fulfill my part of the bargain by spreading the word of Gawd’s omnipotence. So, how about it Gawd, the ball’s in your court, shit or get off the pot I say.

I said all of that in order to avoid a misunderstanding. It must be clear that in this context, I have the same regard for civic pride as I have for fecal vomiting and gas gangrene. Now that we have an understanding, we can begin the torturous meandering that will ultimately lead to my point.


I am an insomniac. It is unlikely that there has ever been a historical documentary produced that I haven’t seen on late night television. It was during one of those history-channel marathons that something strange happened. Black and white footage from a circa 1950’s Civil Defense film dredged up a mess of unexpected memories, I was stunned by a wave of something along the order of pride for my birthplace. For decades, I had considered the possibility that… maybe… there was something not altogether evil about that place. It seemed unreasonable to believe that one small town could be as offensive and pathetic as I remembered it to be. Even so, all of my efforts to conjure up fond memories had fallen short, and now, as long buried notions of civic pride stumbled from the gloom like reanimated cadavers, I found myself leaning forward to get a more focused view of the degraded footage. There, rendered in varying shades of grey on the television screen were children with happy faces, heavily greased proto-pompadours, and pressed shirts with button-down collars, dutifully following the example set by Bert the Turtle to “duck and cover” in preparation for the approaching nuclear conflagration. It doesn’t take much to push my gastrointestinal tract into a downward spiral of inappropriate peristalsis. Not least among the pressures growing inside of me was an urge to… reminisce. Excuse me while I do just that.



My birthplace is located in a section of the country known as Tornado Alley. If I learned anything from the periodic tornado drills of my grade school days, it is this, no matter what dark force threatens to separate you from this earthly existence, lying on the floor with an open textbook held firmly to the back of your head will render you impervious to harm. It did not surprise me to learn that the textbook protocol would also ward off the undesirable effects of thermonuclear detonation and radiation poisoning. While the instructions provided by most public service announcements were laughable in their obvious inadequacy, the looming prospects for nuclear cataclysm sketched a credible picture of doom, especially considering that approximately fifteen miles west of our little three-room school, B52 bombers with their bays stacked to the hilt with nuclear weapons, were in perpetual rotation. Being a Strategic Air Command, or SAC base, swarms of heavy bombers flew unending circuits over the West Texas wastelands, their aircrews anticipating a one-way ticket to Soviet airspace at any given moment. In addition to the ever present B52’s, countless nuclear missile silos dotted the surrounding countryside, each programmed with the coordinates of a military base or population center in the Soviet Union. And so it was that our little nondescript parcel of terra firma was classified among the top ten targets in the world for a first wave attack by Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles. Even so, the aforementioned Civil Defense films were conspicuously absent from the roster of safety videos that were shown to us in school. I understood the logic. It was common knowledge we would likely receive no warning at all before the ground on which we stood would be wiped clean with nothing more interesting than globs of melted dirt and the odd bone shard to show for it all. Regarding the prospects for survival, the old-timers cut to the chase, “you would not want to survive.” Consequently, we never discussed emergency protocols for nuclear war. I never actually verified our position in the top-ten target list. In those days, it was no simple task collecting that kind of information, no internet after all. In any case, I believed that we were important enough to be among the first in the United States to have our skin ripped from our bodies, our eyes popped from their sockets and the whole shebang turned to ash. This knowledge instilled in me a twisted but powerful sense of pride.




There in front of the television so many years later, it seemed odd that I would experience pride in the notion that others would have to wait their turn for annihilation. That’s right, no cutting in line dude, we were here first. I’ve narrowed the cause of these hare-brained ideas down to two primary sources. One is the inclination to accept as normal something that has always been. I was born into the cold war, so it was the natural order of things. The other point of origination was a pear shaped man with stark features, a “widow’s peak” hairline, and a perpetual glower. A World War 2 navy veteran and a survivor of multiple sea battles in the Pacific, he ran our little country school like a battleship, tight and squeaky clean. This squat and oddly shaped man could outrun the fastest kid in school. He was a sight to behold, streaking like a comet across the playground in his black suit, tie and spit-shined black leather shoes. With his arms and legs pumping with logical efficiency and his head and torso held in a mesmerizing state of rock solid inaction, he ran with a wild grin affixed to his face like a man possessed, and he never lost a race. On my first day under his command, the beginning of third grade for me, the Commander plucked me from the middle of a schoolroom altercation and held me aloft by my left arm. In a state of levitation, I left the classroom and flew through the halls with my feet never touching the ground. I finally got a look at the Commander after crash landing on a wood bench that faced his very large and imposing desk. My first impression, the guy was clearly psychotic. While I was confident he was not authorized to engage in the type of violent activity I was accustomed to at home, I nonetheless was dismissed from the Commander’s office that day with the knowledge that I was neither the “king of the hill” nor the “queen of the hive.” We had an understanding, he and I.



Because the Commander would play a major role in building the framework of my attitude towards death in general, as well as the more important issue of how death was to be faced, it is worth the risk of setting this story adrift to get to know him a little better.

Periodically, during regular school hours, an assembly order issued by the Commander had all of the boys scrambling into one classroom. More often than not, these tense and perilous gatherings were part of the Commander’s investigation of some unsolved crime that occured within the boundaries of his jurisdiction. During one of these episodes, we young males were all marched into the boy’s restroom and paraded, single file, to the opening of one of the stalls. There, on the front edge of a bright white toilet seat rested a tiny little turd. For thirty solid minutes, the Commander ran us through the rhetorical ringer, exploring all of the scenarios that might result in such an affront to the honor and dignity of this man’s ship. In a booming voice, each word enunciated to the full capacity of his lungs, lips and vocal chords, the question was asked of each of us individually, “DID YOU LEAVE THIS DOO DOO ON MY TOILET SEAT? When it came my turn, I was sure that I was the guilty one. Never mind that I hadn’t crapped in that restroom…ever, I did my “business” at home. Nevertheless, had he lingered for just a few seconds longer, I would have admitted to stealing the goddamn Lindburg baby, such was the force of the Commander’s personality. It was under these conditions that, on this day, we fifth and sixth graders shuffled into that classroom for the first of several indoctrination sessions to come. Sitting straight and stiff jawed as the last of us took our seats; the Commander glared at each of us in turn and then buried his face in his hands. After what seemed an eternity of silence, I was only seconds away blurting out my complicity in Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spy scandal when the Commander drew his hands away like heavy curtains for the first act of Macbeth. I was used to this kind of treatment from the old man, most of my classmates were completely unprepared for the Commander’s bulging eyes, tight clinched teeth, and swollen blood vessels trailing up his forehead like knarled tree branches.



BOOM! Heavy guns were pouring fire onto the decks of enemy ships. Just like that, the Commander began recounting his experiences at the Battle of Midway. Anti-aircraft guns filled the sky with tracer and high explosive rounds. Enemy planes trailed smoke and flames, some crashing into the sea, others penetrating an impossibly thick shield of lead and shrapnel before flying headlong into his sister ships. Sailors worked as feverishly at pushing aside the human remains as they did at loading and firing the guns. Incoming rounds tore holes in steel and flesh. Bombs, he pronounced them “bums,” fell to the port and starboard, occasionally ripping holes and exploding below decks. The Commander took us through the battle in detail, and then the aftermath. He told us how, after the American fleet had defeated the enemy, the Destroyer on which he served set course for the enemy survivors, groups of them were now floating on rafts of oil soaked debris. We listened intently as the Commander described how his Destroyer plowed through the groups of enemy sailors floating in the water, dispatching many with the ships propellers. As a final act in the Commander’s bizarre play, he pantomimed a rifleman, holding his imaginary weapon in his hands as if leaning over the edge of the deck. He pulled the trigger and recoiled repeatedly as he finished off more of the oil soaked enemy, their bodies slipping past the hull, bobbing in the wake of his ship.
“This,” he said, “is your duty.” The Commander continued, “You will go to Vietnam and you will do what has to be done. You will kill the enemy.”



Cut to a room full of slack jawed, wide-eyed fifth and sixth graders. For me, it was self-evident. Of course, this IS what has to be done. I grew up with television news images of helicopter gunships, infantry scrambling back and forth, and body counts, the list of the American dead always countered with much larger numbers representing the enemy killed. As children, we played war, talked about war, and never dreamed that the war would end before we had our chance to make the Commander proud of us. In case you have ever wondered, that my friends is how you grow an army.
It was implicit in the Commander’s instruction that living in a primary target zone without complaint was a patriotic duty. We, my classmates and I, made jokes about Soviet missiles and repeated the mantra, “You wouldn’t want to survive anyway.” The statement, “You won’t feel a thing” was also very popular. The thought of moving out of the target zone, as far as I know, never crossed anyone’s mind. In a childish manner, we wore our disregard for the nuclear threat like a badge of honor. Contempt for Communism was icing on the cake. It all seems a little embarrassing now, but there is an aspect of that pride that I can still identify with, the idea of facing adversity head on.



There you have it; I found something good to say about my birthplace. In terms of tangible benefits, it barely ranks alongside those little wrinkles around a dog's butt, I’m not sure what the function of those wrinkles are, but they are good for a laugh every now and then.

33 Comments:

Blogger mist1 said...

I have a strange relationship with my place of birth. I loved it. I hated it. I love it again. I just avoid the people that I used to know. It's for the best.

12:34 AM, January 04, 2007  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hi Mist1, my place of birth is northeast of my present location. When I turn in that direction, my hair starts falling out in patches and I get a rash. Sometimes it even happens when I look to the southwest, that’s how much I hate that place.

1:58 AM, January 04, 2007  
Blogger elisantics said...

tl; dr. you know, if you were an @forumzer, i would've banned you already. no one reads posts that long except when i post them. i run @forumz, btw.

2:13 AM, January 04, 2007  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hi Elisantics, banned from @forumz? You would do that for me? Random acts of kindness such as these never fail to restore my faith in humanity. Do you think there is any possibility that I could be banned from your blog too? I can’t imagine what it would take for that to happen. It would be like getting kicked out of a jobsite port-a-can for crapping in the urinal, and I mean that is the best possible way. ;-)

3:30 AM, January 04, 2007  
Blogger mrtl said...

hey! visit my blog: mrtleff.blogspot.com!!! hy... thanks

5:26 AM, January 04, 2007  
Blogger Glamourpuss said...

Lovely writing.

And I wonder, civic pride or simply the pride of recognition - seeing something you know personally on telly?

I only ask because I feel much the same way about my birthplace, yet still bridle when it is misrepresented by the mass media as the home of sheep-shagging yokels with comedy accents.

Puss

7:34 AM, January 04, 2007  
Blogger Jazz said...

Geez, you have me thanking a god I don't even believe exists that I moved around so much in my childhood that I don't consider that I have a hometown.

7:47 AM, January 04, 2007  
Blogger Stucco said...

Hiya Slag, I was replying to this and it got lengthy, so I copied it an made a post of it instead. Doncha hate when that happens? :)

Cheers,

11:11 AM, January 04, 2007  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hola Mrtl, Estoy apesadumbrado que mi amigo, yo no habla español bien bastante para visitar su blog.

Hi Glamourpuss, thank you. I refer to cultural mischaracterization as the Gomer Pyle syndrome. Having been raised in the southern United States, the pressure to adopt a Midwestern accent for business purposes is a simple fact of life.

Hey Jazz, regarding your lack of a hometown, consider yourself lucky. On the god issue, I know I’ve said this before but give Zeus a chance. The old guy is hurting for supplicants these days so the membership dues are ridiculously low.

Hi Stucco, considering the length of some of my comments, I should probably follow your lead. I read your post… pretty damn funny. I actually found myself feeling sorry for your principle. Maybe what I’m feeling is remorse for the hell I put my teachers through.

1:02 PM, January 04, 2007  
Blogger Hammer said...

I wish I had a school administrator like your commander.

My era was filled with punks, bullies, stoners, untouchable jocks and impotent bureaucratic drones running the schools.

I lived in one of the top ten as well. I remember the air raid sirens being tested every saturday morning.

Thanks for the great story.

4:06 PM, January 04, 2007  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hey Hammer, in general, I don’t think people like the Commander would pass the psychological screenings required to hold those kinds of jobs, which could be exactly why public education has gone to shit. Btw, if it’s any consolation, with the exception of the impotent bureaucrats who will eternally infest every level of business and government, your tormenters are surely destitute, and suffering the karmic justice they deserve.

5:38 PM, January 04, 2007  
Blogger Anne said...

Slaghammer my dear, you seriously need to move. And BTW, congratulations on becoming a grandpa, you OLD critter, you! :D

8:41 PM, January 04, 2007  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Anne, ha!, I don’t live in that cesspool of a stinkhole anymore. Where I live now is the land of milk and honey, in comparison. And yes, I’m my own grandpa…

8:52 PM, January 04, 2007  
Blogger Crankster said...

It's funny--I think that I grew up about fifteen years or so after you, and my hometown was outside Washington, DC, but we had a similar sense of resignation about nuclear holocaust. My father worked in the Pentagon, and we used to talk about going down to the gazebo for a hot dog while we watched the missiles come in. Of course, there'd never be time to battle the traffic...


On a side note, I'm really blown away by that first illustration you used. Where is it from?

1:08 PM, January 05, 2007  
Blogger Judith said...

I think I have a few gripes with irish people rather than anything else.

Congrats on the grampa front. Im sure the baby will have a wonderful bedtime storyteller in you!

3:48 PM, January 05, 2007  
Blogger Scott from Oregon said...

I was born in Denver, but got to grow up in sunny and blissful Northern California in a really cool white suburban neighborhood with the greatest hills behind the house a kid could want.

I even had one of those principals that you wanted to invite home to Pops' BBQ's...

10:02 PM, January 05, 2007  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hey Crankster, I think that one came from BigStock but I’m not sure. It usually takes about an hour to write a post and four or five cumulative hours looking for the images. I’ve spent over two hours looking for just one image to in the past, trying to find one that says exactly what I want it to say. Some of the pics come from royalty free image websites like Istock, others from sites that gather and distribute free, personal art and such. I never log where I get them from because I’ve probably passed through a few thousand sites gathering bits here and there that I never use. Some are from news sites that I photoshop heavily. Many of the ones I end up using are royalty free but still cost a buck or two for a one-year license, I don’t mind shelling out a few dollars to support the budding careers of the photographers that contribute to those sites.

Hi Judith, I’m not sure they will let me tell bedtime stories, I have a reputation that precedes me.

Hi Scott, it sounds like you grew up in a 1950’s television show. Btw, that’s a mighty tidy looking port-o-can you have there. I frequented quite a few of those things in my previous construction career. The worst was a jobsite too remote for the crap-pumper trucks to make regular crap pumping visits. 10 days between pumpings, 100+ degree days, big jobsite, about 25 guys and nothing worth eating but Mexican food. It was the only jobsite I had ever been on where the port-o-can was topped off. I did my business in the weeds after the flies got so thick you had to keep your mouth closed and breath through your nose to keep from swallowing one.

12:55 AM, January 06, 2007  
Blogger Dr. Blogstein said...

I think "Johnny Cougar" has similar feelings towards his hometown, no?

Oh, and Slagger, "fecal vomiting"? Is that possible? I can't think of anything more disgusting than that!

12:10 PM, January 06, 2007  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hey Doc, fecal vomiting is real and it is to be feared in the same way we fear Rapturists. Read more about fecal vomiting here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fecal_vomiting
Btw, I’m not familiar with this “Johnny Cougar” of which you speak. Seems like I remember some guy named Mellencamp going on about his hometown, I’ll have to research that.

1:28 PM, January 06, 2007  
Blogger Tinne Fonseca said...

Hi,
I'd been looking for interesting blogs and I found yours...
Congratulation!!!
Tinne (I.)

9:28 PM, January 06, 2007  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hi Tinne, welcome to my humble blog.

9:41 PM, January 06, 2007  
Blogger Forbsie said...

Interesting. Got me thinking about where I come from and the various things that shape who we become.

I also really like some of the pictures. The first one makes me want to write something, so we'll see what comes from that.

Cheers!

3:37 AM, January 07, 2007  
Blogger Edukator said...

Thought I posted this already but it's not there. So if there are two similar posts that suddenly appear...no I don't have alzheimers.

I love this description:

"Fecal vomiting is a special kind of vomiting."

Special. Like a birthday or waking up to find a box of doughnuts on the kitchen table. Like walking barefoot through the grass on a early spring morn. Like that one toy you've kept since childhood. Like baking a cake for a loved one. Special.

Bababgenouche was also trained in the "textbook over the head universal defence protocol." I equate it to equally effective "the plane is going down fasten your seatbelts and lean forward safety dance."

4:52 AM, January 07, 2007  
Blogger Edukator said...

Oh yeah I forgot to ask... why don't you just move?

4:57 AM, January 07, 2007  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hi Forsbie, welcome to my humble abode. I think that is what this blog thing is all about, making you think. It’s amazing how many people out there have experiences common to mine, and then the people who have lives that would never, ever, ever, ever intersect with mine in a billion multiverse realities. It will be interesting to see what you write.

Hello Edukator, it is very special indeed. I actually know somebody who stood vigil over a dying family member and was unfortunate enough, both of them actually, to witness such an event, horrible.
I also equate the textbook maneuver to the ~5 degrees of movement you get when putting your seat in the upright position on the plane. It’s amazing how such a small reposition of a chair back can mean the difference between life and death.
Oh, and to answer your last question, I did move about eighteen years ago. That little snippet of reality ended up a casualty in a last minute editing session in a fruitless attempt to shorten an unbearably long post. As you might have guessed, every word is precious to me, I just can’t seem to let them go of them blah blah blah blah blah…

12:28 PM, January 07, 2007  
Blogger Laura(southernxyl) said...

I remember the civil defense films we had to watch, about Camille mostly, but also about building fallout shelters. Like the communists were going to nuke Podunk, MS, which didn't even have a McDonald's until the year I got married. I asked my dad about turning the crawl space under the house into a fallout shelter, stocking it with crackers and so on. He told me he didn't think nuclear holocaust was an imminent threat. On the other hand, he did think the bathroom floor might rot and the bathtub might find itself on the ground under the house at any time, and he would go under the house among the mouse crap and whatever to fret about it, but action was not taken; this did not fill me with confidence. As it happens, we never got the nuclear holocaust or the rotting bathroom floor, so all of the fretting was for naught. Eventually I discovered this quote attributed to Mark Twain in his old age: "I've had a lot of trouble in my life, and most of it never happened."

I still have my hick accent, and at age 46 I have no prospects for getting rid of it. Happily, I don't care.

8:42 PM, January 08, 2007  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hi Laura, the Mark Twain quote sort of hits the nail right on the head. Having lived all those years under the threat of nuclear annihilation, I find it hard to be whipped up into a frenzy as my elected officials would like me to be. They act like we’ve never had to consider the end of the world.

9:19 PM, January 08, 2007  
Blogger photo blog girl said...

Wow, I had no idea you spent so much time finding the photos. Well, it definitely is worth it - they totally make the blog experience on your page most excellent.

7:29 PM, January 11, 2007  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hey Photo Blog Girl, thank you. Whatever the opposite of “attention deficit disorder” is, that’s me. Anal doesn’t go far enough in describing the obsessive compulsive nature of my personality.

11:52 PM, January 11, 2007  
Blogger d. chedwick bryant said...

Great blog--fantastic photos too.

6:04 PM, January 13, 2007  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hi Chedwick, thanks for dropping by.

1:13 PM, January 14, 2007  
Blogger Belladonna said...

Zowie! As one insomniac to another, them's some powerful word pictures ya got painted there. I found myself getting so entranced by and entrapped in some of the sentences that I'd go back and read them again and again, losing all track of where they were leading. Fine words can be such delicious company in the long dark night.

2:15 AM, February 03, 2007  
Blogger slaghammer said...

Hi Belladonna, chronic insomnia, especially when it starts young and never goes away, has a way of interjecting a certain eccentric bent into personality development. It doesn’t come up often, but sometimes I mention it in casual conversation and when I happen to run into another insomniac, I’m amazed at how obvious it is. I say to myself, of course you are. By the way, thanks for your kind words.

11:59 PM, February 04, 2007  

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