I remember the presidential election between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. My Pop hated Mondale. That was 1984, and I was seven. I’ll come back to that after a brief digression.
I grew up in rural Indiana. Shortly before I was born, my father, my mother, my aunt and my uncle, went in together on 120 acres of land, mostly woods, on a little jelly-bean shaped lake called Fish Lake. It had all the small mouth bass, bluegill and catfish you could eat, if you knew where they were biting. We gardened for sustenance and from August to November we canned, canned and canned some more. My father was and is a conservative, a Viet Nam veteran, a gun collector and somewhat of a survivalist type. We always had a freezer full of venison, we ate fresh rabbit, and raised chickens and had our yearly hog (a snorting compost pile all spring and summer) that we butchered in the early winter. You get the idea. Once we even raised a few calves for beef.
My mother raised me in a liberal Brethren/Mennonite tradition, that is, pacifism, community involvement and simplicity, but my father never went to church. He stayed home, cut and ranked wood for the woodstove.
And so it was 1984. When I asked my father why he was so rabidly anti-Mondale (in seven year-old terms), he replied, “Well, boy… . the Democrats want to take our guns away.” I nodded, and went off into the woods or to the barn to play. As I recalled and obsessed on my father’s words that day (they were and still are very important to me, despite the fact that I can see his worldview being manipulated now by a presumptive media and a neo-conservative narrative), I almost went into a panic… . take our rifles? I had had no introduction to gun violence at all. Firearms were tools with which we hunted and acquired food, and on rare occasion, used to convince people who hunted on our land without permission that this was not where they wanted to be. So there I was, in the woods, whittling a stick or something, in a panic that if Mondale got elected, we would be confronted by police that requested my father give them his guns. Knowing my father well, and his response to this hypothetical(all too real in seven-year-old terms) was also what threw me into this panic. So I went back to him for a bit of clarification.
“Pop? What if Mondale gets elected, and guns are outlawed and some people come to take them?”
My dad tensed his lips, then decided to grin, looking up at me with a sparkle in his eye, the little creases around his eyes telling me he loved my question. In a response I wonder if I would give a seven-year-old, he said:
“Open fire, boy.”
Okay, so this response makes tears come to my eyes. Not then, but now.
If I thought I, at seven, was nervous before, this made me downright upset. I knew my dad was right, and I still know he was right, even though now we disagree quite a bit on exactly which institutions are most oppressive and their intentions. I have spoken to him at length on institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, the Council on Foreign Relations, Trilateral Commission and so on. I have had discussions with him at length concerning the Federal Reserve, and how money is expanded and contracted and the game of economic musical chairs we are forced to play, and who is usually left standing in poverty with no place to sit. I have discussed with him his own views, and what that would mean if he were not in rural Indiana raising berries, grapes and goats now, but in the occupied territories of Palestine, even though he sees only “radical Islam” in that resistance instead of a proud tradition of anti-colonialism and self-determination.
My father taught me self-reliance, and the importance of personal sovereignty. He taught me how to grow things and my mother taught me how to preserve them. I was taught how to raise animals well and consciously, and with respect for their natures and gifts. But he also taught me fear. “They” hate our way of life. America has “enemies”.” Liberals” want to take your firearms. You know, the typical tea party shit. To be fair, I find him to be much more conscious and critical thinking than that movement, but he still buys into a neo-conservative narrative with earnest at times (he believes Fox News is liberal, which to me, shows the mastery of propaganda behind NewsCorp!). But he taught me how to fear very well. Outsiders were not to be trusted. They can gain your trust, sure … but make sure they think like you … er, like us.
Our family was insular. My dad and uncle married my mother and her sister. All of our cousins on the 120 acres had only two sets of grandparents, who lived a quarter mile in either direction and farmed, too. My grandpa was a WW2 veteran, despite being a Mennonite. He was a farmer and factory worker. My other grandpa drove a school bus and farmed. My grandmothers were craftspeople. One, an extraordinary chef and gardener. She taught me that arrowroot, instead of cornstarch, is the only way to bake a pie. The other grandmother was a florist. She raised and arranged flowers, and eventually bought a store that my mother now owns, since Grandma died.
As should be clear, I have always been raised in a radical tradition, of sorts. My father raised me with the fear I mentioned, but also left me to play in the woods, to tend to the chickens, and to fish the lake and observe its patterns. My mother taught me community involvement, pacifism and forgiveness at all costs. My grandparents taught me that the Great Depression was only the beginning, and that the way “town people” lived was going to make it very hard on those of us who wanted to use land sustainably (not their words). But it was all within a conservative — and later, neo-conservative — framework.
I was taught this framework and lived it, much like the lines you learn for a play your parents come to see, and you perform it to the best of your abilities and you make your parents, who undoubtedly love you, proud. You make them understand why they love you. Don’t be an outsider, Daniel. Outsiders are not to be trusted.
Years later, after one of our heated conversations that begin with a passing comment about the West Bank, or Bill Clinton or some such, it became obvious to my father that I wasn’t — and couldn’t — think through the narrow window of dualism. Politics were growing increasingly irrelevant, economically speaking, the American Dream was not panning out, and it confounded him that while I spat at the neo-conservative ideas that the Republicans were spewing, I could not align myself with Democrats, either. I began using the term Corporatist in place of both, thinking it more accurate. My speaking about the evils of our sugar-coated imperialism (globalization) didn’t fit in with what he had learned. Using American, conservative, and self-determinate ideas to apply to the situation in the West Bank and Gaza really gummed up his gears. He knew, after all, if he were a Palestinian, he would be a leader of Hamas. If he were a Colombian farmer, or a Basque separatist, or a factory worker in Sarajevo, he would act only in solidarity against Western influence. Were he Afghan, he would be growing poppies with an AK-47 over his shoulder to protect his crop and selling his opium resins for the highest price to feed his family, not be welcoming occupiers as bringing freedom and globally-produced goods, and he wouldn’t smile up at the predator drones. But to any of these things he couldn’t and still cannot bring himself to admittance.
One time, exasperated and angry with me after one of these conversation, he asked, “Who taught you this shit? Why do you think the way you do?”
I remember I felt really sad, depressed, for a moment. My father was not proud of me. He did not approve what I stood for or what I would continue to stand for and it felt like an ultimatum that could never be satisfied. Like a heart-wrenching breakup you see coming right at you, but can do nothing to stop. It felt like our last conversation. I was in silent tears at this point and almost sobbed aloud, into the phone. But I didn’t. I didn’t because I remembered that I had the answer to his question. I could answer him when he asked “who taught you this shit?” I took a deep breath and said, “Pop, you did. You made sure we had acres of untouched forest to hunt in and creeks to splash in, a lake to fish out of, an apple orchard and a plot of garden to love and watch grow. You taught me seasons, and appropriate ways to prepare for them. You gave me a chance to connect with the dirt and the sky and the water. And you also impressed upon me the need to defend those things.”
I held my breath and waited for his response. He was sure to be angered, as you never used my Patriarch’s own words against him. Totally taboo. I braced.
“Boy, I sure don’t know where you learned this stuff, but I love you. Boy, I love you.” I could see the creases at the corners of his eyes and his twinkle through the phone, on his voice.
Open fire, boy. Open fire.
Danny Showalter is a writer/student/activist living in Portland, Oregon. He is currently working to bring ideas of true sustainability to academia, where they are not yet wanted, and to the streets of Portland, where they are not yet heard. He can be found on his days off muttering Blake and Milton passages to himself in his garden and greenhouse. This essay first appeared at the Danny’s blog.