People dread the story that begins, “Back when I was a kid.” And with good reason.
You’ve been warned.
I grew up in a backwoods burg of a few hundred people. Known now as the first place the Corps of Discovery met the Nez Perce Indians, Weippe, Idaho was a timber town, back when timber was king. My childhood friends had fathers who worked in the woods, felling and bucking the trees that shot down the flumes into the nearby Clearwater River. I remember when the last log drive in the continental United States was shepherded down the river by hardy loggers with caulk boots and black, stagged-off jeans held up by red suspenders.
That was 1971. Before the first oil crisis. Before the Iran hostage crisis. Before broad knowledge of many planetary crises. Before globalization ruled our lives. Simpler times, for sure. Just about everybody in Weippe was an FDR Democrat, dedicated to strong workers’ rights and a decent social safety net.
Not all the good old days were good, of course.
Just a year before the last log drive, when I was 10 years old, I was walking the three blocks to school when I had an eerie feeling (or perhaps heard a noise, subconsciously). As I walked, I looked over my shoulder to see one of the town bullies pointing a rifle out his bedroom window, aimed at the base of my neck. If memory serves, he was 13 at the time. I kept walking, knowing enough to hide my fear. I thought so little of the incident I didn’t tell my parents for a couple decades. It just never came up.
Such were the consequences of being a bit weird in a redneck town in the early 1970s. Far worse things happened to really “odd” people, including hippies, Jews, and people of color. And there were no gays or lesbians, at least not in Weippe, in full view.
What made me odd? Mostly, I suppose, I was odd because I was the principal’s kid. As a result, I was one of the few youngsters in town who was often reminded that education might serve me better than a Hobbesian life in the woods. Mom and dad were both educators, so I read voraciously. Real trouble was hard to find — the meth labs hadn’t moved in, yet, and the country’s cultural revolution never actually arrived in Weippe — so I played outside and, when it rained or snowed, I read books. It rained and snowed a lot.
After a few visits to the town library, I clearly remember believing I would read all the books. And not merely all the books in the tiny library, but all the books. This fantasy died when I visited the stacks at the University of Idaho library. The bittersweet memories return every time I catch the musty whiff of old texts.
I graduated from crappy state universities and I work at one that’s the worst of the lot. And yet, despite poor educational institutions and serious swimming in culture’s main stream, I saw the world.
Actually, the world is spectacular. It’s the humans in the world I find disappointing, disturbing, and — to quote Nietzsche — all too human. Weippe is an excellent example. Overnight, all those FDR Democrats became Reagan Republicans, dedicated to growth for the sake of growth. They’ve traded in tomorrow for today by adopting the ideology of neoconservatism (and the cancer cell). And they, along with the rest of Americans, continue to memorialize the world as we destroy it.
But seeing the world, and experiencing its wonders (and its books), led to learning. And that has made me even more odd, in the eyes of most people, than when I was an odd 10-year-old. Now I’m not merely odd — I’m downright wacky, sheer terror to neocons everywhere.
A little education goes a long way. Education was my ticket out of Weippe. But I should have stopped at knowing a little about forestry instead of a little about humans, ecology, economics, and limits to growth. I’d be a happy neoconservative, rather than an informed — and haunted — liberal. I wouldn’t know our culture is violent, diseased, broken, irredeemable.
Ignorance is bliss. I need to get me some.