"With rebellion, awareness is born." ~ Albert Camus
Driving down a gravel road with the windows open, dust billows out behind me like a thunderstorm. The road is open and straight and the trees in the fencerows form a tunnel to drive through. Nobody is in front of me, the way I like it, and nobody is behind me to make me nervous. I hold tight to the raised center, like a gymnast on the highbar. Gravel sprays out behind me. I like to drive fast, but I take my foot off the gas because there's something I want to see.
I see you, America. You are musical with wild lilies in your ditches and flocks of sparrows in your tangled apple trees. You are out of tune, America, with your dilapidated farm houses, falling-down barns, and burned-out landscapes, the product of ruinous farm policy inflicted upon you.
With the windows open, I can see into the ditch and beyond, and with the wind rushing through the car, I am struck by a queer sense of nostalgia for these fading rural areas.
I turn down a road I've never had occasion to go down before and pass a group of mobile homes set up for migrant workers who labor in the fields with their long-sleeved shirts and baggy trousers and big hats.
A sign by the road says, "Coon Hunters Association",
and I wonder at the incongruity.
Down further, I pass another sign that strikes me as small. Sign, sign, everywhere a sign. . . Here in white, rural, flag-flying America, militia signs dot the landscape promoting freedom to do whatever one wants, but theirs is an insular rebellion. These self-proclaimed rebels are afraid to venture outside their township, their state, their country. They abhor migrants though they would not do the work they do. Packing heat, they're afraid of strangers, afraid of their own shadows that stretch out tall in winter and shrink to proper size in the heat of summer. Proper small, their America.
I put small in my rearview mirror and drive on, looking for the cedar swamps of my ancestors and an unfamiliar road. I am looking for the scene of a story.
When America was eighty years younger with untraveled areas, there was a boy who worked in the cedar swamp, cutting timber with his father. One day he was riding to the swamp in the back of a 1935 Chevy with a group of other lean, sharp-faced boys. They barreled down the gravel road, dust flying. It was a dry, hot summer and even the grasshoppers stirred up puffs of dust as they escaped into the ditch.
The boys got behind a pickup truck and were swallowed by dust. They couldn't see a thing, but the truck was going slower than they wanted to go, and they were young and in a hurry, and the driver took a chance. On a dare? With encouragement from the back seat? The details are fuzzy. We’ll never know. But this much we do—he pulled over on the left to get around the truck and ran head-on into the invisible oncoming vehicle. The collision crushed their steel bumper, smashed the hood, and broke the windshield. It killed the driver.
The boys in the back were struck silent and shaken. One of them is still alive to tell the tale, with a trace of nostalgia for that hot summer day and the boy that could swing an ax, and the cedar swamp that is no longer there, and the friend he'd forgotten about.
When you sit down with someone born on the cusp of the Roaring Twenties, you never know what you're going to learn, what forgotten story you might hear. Sometimes they surprise themselves with all that they know . . . with all that they’ve forgotten.
My dad has forgotten more than I'll ever know, and it’s funny how he has repeated so many stories over and over as we roll our eyes, but this one made us sit up in astonishment. This one he had never told before.
Today, I want to be irresponsible and rebel against the expectations that others have of me. I want to drive down a country road with the windows open, or jump a train, or learn to sail. I want to make a story.