Saturday, October 15, 2005

Heart of Darkness

I was a little nervous about venturing into the deep south last weekend. It's not just that it's red state country; after all, I was in Indiana two weeks ago without any severe repercussions. But that was a trip to a college town and Indiana doesn't call the Civil War, the "War of Northern Aggression." It's not that Georgia is the most backward state in the nation, at least not while we allow Texas, Mississippi and Alabama to stay in the union. I just think, as a nation, we would have been better off, if, while Sherman was burning his way to the sea, he would have rounded up the rebels and shipped them back to Europe instead of passing their cussedness on to us to have to deal with. Lester Maddox and Newt Gingerich, themselves, are enough to get the state kicked out of the union. (And I realize that Jimmy Carter is a Georgian, but as commendable as his activities as an ex-President have been, I would admire him more if he could have been an ex-President without ever having to go through the four years of not being an ex-President.)

We did not have an auspicious start to our trip to Atlanta. We flew out of the airport at Bloomington, some 50 miles northwest of Champaign because I could save $100 a ticket. (If I had known, when I bought the tickets, that gasoline prices were going to be nearly $3 a gallon, I would have just flown out of Willard Airport in Champaign.) We got to the airport about an hour ahead of departure time, with our boarding passes in hand, thanks to Northwestern's system of letting you print out your boarding passes from the internet up to 24 hours ahead of time. All of our luggage was carryon, so we headed for the gate. Rosalee decided to make a last-minute stop at the used bookstore at the airport, but ever the worry wort, I did not want to risk missing the plane because for some reason they decided to leave early. I went on with my stuff towards security so that I would be at the gate, ready to go at any moment.

I am a seasoned traveler, so I didn't have to be told to empty my pockets and put my keys and change, along with my cellphone in the bucket and put my luggage on the conveyer belt. I was ready to step through the metal detector, when the guard asked, "Do you have any I.D.?" I was tempted to pretend I was a Georgian and say, "Bout whut?" but as I opened my wallet and looked for my driver's license I realized this was no time for joking. I didn't have my driver's license. I knew immediately where it was. It was in my sweat pants on the floor of my closet at home. (The story about why my license was in my sweat pants on the floor of my closet is too long and uninteresting to bother with.) I quickly realized that I didn't have time to drive to Champaign and back in time to make the flight. I asked the guard whether a credit card would do, and he said it had to be a picture I.D. As I pawed through my wallet, hoping something would turn up, it did. I found a pass issued by the Champaign County Sheriff's Office allowing me to bypass the courthouse security gate, and it had my picture on it. That satisfied the guard and I was permitted to pass through the portal into the land of waiting.

Those of my readers who have been with me from the beginning of this blog know that 1) I am not comfortable flying; 2) I am particularly uncomfortable flying on Northwestern Airlines while all their mechanics are on strike; 3) I paid $100 for $1 million each in flight insurance, just to make sure that if our planes to and from Europe went down, our sons would be able to afford really expensive grief therapy and 4) the odds won; we got back safely and our sons are still poor. So, although we were flying on Northwestern again and their mechanics are still on strike, I decided not to bet against the odds this time and save the hundred bucks. Anyway, all I need to do is set aside the $300 we saved in airfare and flight insurance and after another 7,500 trips, I will have $2 million to pass on to my sons anyway.

Atlanta was still receiving the tail end of tropical storm Tammy when we flew in on Friday, so our plane was about an hour late. We picked up the rental car, and since I was without a driver's license, Rosalee was going to have to be the only authorized driver. Although we had reserved a mid-sized car and I had a coupon for a free upgrade, we wound up with a PT Cruiser, which I thought would be okay because we both like the looks of the PT, and I had thought that when Rosalee's car wears out, that might be a nice small car for her to drive around town. As she hit the accelerator to merge onto I-85 for our 60 mile drive from the airport to the small town of Hoschton where our hosts lived, Rosalee said, "What's wrong with this car? It won't go." I didn't know that she had gotten that addicted to eight-cylinder acceleration. She also had trouble with visibility, there being obstructions in the back and on the right side. So there won't be any PT Cruisers in our future.

The traffic was awful. We got out on the freeway about 5:30, apparently close to the peak of the rush hour and had to go through the downtown area to get to the north of Atlanta where we were going. Rosalee has gotten used to driving to the loop in Chicago, but the Dan Ryan Expressway is a breeze compared to the Atlanta traffic, which was more stop, stop and crawl than stop and go.

We finally got to my cousin, Milt's house, long after everyone else had gotten there. Milt and I go way back; back about as long as I go back with anyone other than my now-deceased parents. Milt is a few months older than I am. When I was born, my parents and his parents were living on the same farm, although different houses, and I think that's where we lived for two years. Our parents had the opportunity to buy the farm while we lived there, but they needed help from my grandfather, who refused, because he said $250 an acre was way too much to pay for central Illinois farmland. Although that farm didn't have the best soil, it would probably still go for more than $4,000 an acre now, nearly 60 years later.

Growing up, Milt was my best friend. From the farm where I was born, we moved to my grandfather's farm, and Milt and his parents moved to a river bottom farm on the Kaskaskia River. There was gravel on Milt's parents' farm, and his father developed a gravel pit, so there came to be lots of ponds where we could go swimming. We also fished in the Kaskaskia, although at that time it was so polluted from a chemical company upstream, that the fishing didn't amount to much.

The uncles and aunts and cousins would often gather at my grandfather's farm, and Milt and I developed a game, which we called "Ottmuth," a combination of our last names. I don't remember the rules, but it involved dividing the cousins up into two teams which chased each other around in the darkness and tried to capture members of the other team and hold them in a "jail," while their fellow team members would try to free them.

Milt was smart and got good grades, but his parents made him quit high school after his sophomore year to help with the farm and gravel pit. Formal education was not highly valued among the Amish and Mennonites at that time, but I was lucky because my parents let me finish high school instead of making me go to work full time when I turned 16, as many of the young people in our generation had to do. (Not that I was allowed to do much sitting on my duff, reading literature. I worked at an implement store from the time I was 13 years old, before and after school and every Saturday, until I graduated from high school.)

When it came time to be drafted in 1965, Milt and I went off to Flint, MI together, he a few months before I did, to work in alternative service as conscientious objectors. There, we met Marv, a former Amish boy from northern Indiana, and Earl, a Mennonite from Virginia, and the four of us became good friends. Milt and I were roommates until he got married and then Earl and I were roommates until we moved from an apartment to a house, where Marv joined us. We (well, Earl, Marv and I) played guitar together and we chased English girls together (well, Earl and I did; Milt was either engaged or married most of his time in Flint and you didn't chase a girl if Marv had his sights fixed on her because there was no contest; he got her.) I first went bowling with these guys; I first went to movies with these guys; I first went to concerts with these guys, and we stayed up all night playing Rook, at least once at Milt's two-room apartment with his poor wife, Mary, trying to get some sleep on the couch behind us.

In 1968, we went our separate ways. I went to Virginia for college; then back to Flint to work at the newspaper, then to Ann Arbor for my law degree. Earl went to Virginia for a year of college a year after I did, then to the University of Michigan for his civil engineering degree, then worked for a civil engineering firm, then to Purdue for a master's and then to Oregon and New Mexico to teach surveying. Marv went to Stanford for a business degree, then managed a travel trailer factory in Texas, then owned a travel trailer dealership in Texas and is now in Oregon selling travel trailers. Meanwhile, Milt didn't waste time going to college. He got his GED and then got trained in computer programming, and started working for a small start up company that specialized in hospital software, in the early days when computers still used punch cards. Milt didn't get paid much in cash at first, getting mostly stock options. The company grew and grew, then got taken over by a larger company and that company got taken over by a larger company. By the time, I was ready to start paying on law school debts, Milt had already made a fortune with his computer stock.

So, after leaving our modest home in Champaign at 8:15 on Friday morning, flying, hanging around in crappy airports, fighting Atlanta traffic, we finally pull in about 7:30 that night (about an hour longer than it would have taken us to drive there) into the driveway of Milt's country mansion, a five-bedroom; four and a half bathroom house, with, under construction on an adjacent lot, a brick garage almost as large as our house.

This was not the first time the four of us and our wives had gotten together. A year ago, we met at Marv's house in Oregon, and had such fun we vowed to get together annually. Although each of us had stayed in touch with the other three on an individual basis, we had not been together for 26 years until last year. In many ways we had changed; in all of the important ways we were the same. We had all grown older; all of us except Marv had grown heavier. I was the only one, however, who had grown wiser.

In 1965, we were all Republicans. We grew up in Republican families. My grandfather was a staunch Republican, although he would remark after praising Republicans, "But that Roosevelt saved my farm." In my high school in 1964, I was one of only a few people supporting Barry Goldwater against Lyndon Johnson. The high school yearbook's 25 year prophecy had me managing the campaign of a conservative candidate for president. It didn't take me long to see the light. By 1968, I was for Shirley Chisholm, the black Democratic congresswoman for president. I don't remember who I voted for in that election because I hated Hubert Humphrey almost as much as Richard Nixon. In 1972, I voted for George McGovern; in 1976 for Jimmy Carter; in 1980 for Ronald Reagan because I was so disillusioned with Jimmy Carter, and then in every election since then for 25 years, I have voted for the Democratic candidate.

Meanwhile, my buddies are still Republicans. Marv, Milt and I are on an e-mail group in which we argue vehemently, and often scatologically about politics. Bush (or The Lying Turd, as I prefer to call him) has, in my opinion wrecked the country in every way possible. My friends think he is God's gift to the world. While Earl is not part of the e-mail group, he, too, is quite conservative. So, it was with some trepidation that I went to Oregon last year, thinking I would be outnumbered in the late night arguments. It is a tribute to the character of my friends that the subject of politics never came up.

This year, politics came up obliquely, once, when I spotted some portraits of Ronald Reagan in Milt's office and said, "Oh, I didn't know you played darts," and Milt replied, "That's my altar." Other than that we did not discuss it. I'm not sure, if the numbers were reversed, and the liberals outnumbered the conservative by a three to one margin that I would have the grace not to try to convert the misguided one, or at least tease him a little.

So, maybe I'm the one with the heart of darkness.


TrailMaster said...

Georgians would gladly accept Jesse Helms, (one of his generations greatest Americans) as one of our own, but he was born in and served as Senator for the great red state of North Carolina. Rest assured though we are always suspicious of anything that starts with "North".

Amishlaw said...

I realized yesterday that I had made a mistake and was planning on changing Jesse Helms's name to Newt Gingerich, but didn't get to it. You caught me, but the blog is being corrected now.