Fond memories shot through with holes

I had an uncle who once shot his television set. I don’t know if it was a symbolic gesture involving his existential angst at the overwhelmingly nonsensical zeitgeist of late 20th-century de-culturalization, or if he was just ticked off because “Bonanza” had been canceled, but he put a couple of slugs through the old Philco.

Lately I have begun to relate to “where his head was at.” I don’t watch the news, I don’t watch the talk shows, and I don’t watch any prime-time network shows. I watch baseball games, and old movies. And I read. A lot. Slowly, but often.

It seems to me that politics, especially at the national level, have become more and more the playground of powerful special interests, pouring gazillions of bucks into the two major parties. That’s not news, but it is compounded by the new paradigm of how we get our information. The Internet and cable TV programming have infected popular culture in ways that have bottomed far past the “lowest common denominator.” In public discourse, we generate heat, not light. We generate ratings, not thoughtful discussion. And that genie, I fear, ain’t goin’ back in the bottle.

So I find solace in reading. I caught up on the Rappahannock News today. It seems to me that the neighbor who had a “hot day” experience at Sperryville’s Burgers N Things might want to remember that we all have bad days, and it is even hotter over a grill than it is outside. I’ve always had good experiences there, and the Butlers have it all over the McDonald’s and the Wendy’s when it comes to burgers and fries and shakes and, uh, things. But you know, it would be a good idea for all businesses to put out a large water bucket for the four-legged family members. It is summer in the South, and the South is where the expression “dog days” come from. And as a rule, the pups don’t carry cash.

It took me half a morning to read Mr. Ron Maxwell’s interminable piece about whatever it was about. He seems to be saying that he really misses “the good ol’ days.”

They were destroyed, he tells us, by “automobiles,” “Big Government,” “urban renewal,” “progress,” “affordable housing” and, of course, “politicians.” With 20-20 hindsight, he describes a Europe that has developed in wiser, more traditional ways. He does not, however, mention that Europe blew itself up in the 20th century and was rebuilt in large part by the Marshall Plan, one of those “gummint spending deals” that we all decry when we are not the beneficiaries.

I am older than Ron Maxwell. I don’t remember the “good old days” as he does.

I remember good times and bad times, good people and bad people, good and pretty towns and mean and tough towns. I found his column to be one of exaggerations and generalizations, of little fact and much fancy.

America’s post-WWII prosperity made the automobile affordable for just about everybody, and President Eisenhower’s interstate system was an economic boon for more than just highway contractors.

As the “Chicago School” might say, this unprecedented growth and expansion was all “market driven.” Folks wanted to get out of the cities and breathe good air, and (voila!) Levitttown appeared. And as the family farm dried up (that old market at work again) the kids moved to the burbs where the “action” was. Urban industries moved South, where things were cheaper and unions were less potent. America was indeed corporatized, infested with generic malls and fast food franchises, and everybody was chasing their tails after that old pot of gold. It seemed to be working great until all the industry left, following the bottom line to Southeast Asia and South America. Adios, good ol’ days!

As you may have noticed, anybody can do generalization and simplification . . . .

Ah, the good ol’ days. When I was a kid, black folks in Virginia couldn’t sit in the front of a bus, couldn’t drink from a public water fountain, couldn’t eat in a restaurant, get a room in a decent hotel, couldn’t go to good schools, and couldn’t get a job with equal pay or opportunity. It took some “social engineering” to make that right.

The railroads, having happily gotten out of the passenger business many years ago, are doing quite well these days. And the only way that rail travel is being restored in America is courtesy of the taxpayer’s dime, something to which I am happy to contribute. Yep, that ol’ social engineering.

Now about Rappahannock: One reason our county has maintained its traditional rural character is that the folks of Rappahannock refused to let a railroad in here. You can look it up. That was before your time, before my time, and even before Judge Rayner Snead’s time. But it happened and it has made all the difference.

(By the way, did you know that “Rappahannock” is an old Manahoac Indian word? Loosely translated, it means “Where the heck did all these Yankees come from?”)

* * *

This past weekend I did a gig in Dyersville, Iowa. And just outside of this little farm town, which hasn’t changed much since the early 20th century, is a farm with a ballfield. Yeah, that one, the Field of Dreams, the very place that wonderfully magic movie was made. When I drove out to the field I entered a living shrine to all that is good about America.

There is no admission fee there, no parking fee. But before me was the field and the white farmhouse, and the big red Iowa barn, and the perfect dirt diamond, and the green fresh outfield, and the July corn all about. And there on the field were kids of all ages playing ball, fathers and sons and mothers and daughters, and granddads with grandchildren, hitting fly balls, fielding grounders, running bases, and just “playing catch.” The license plates in the parking area were from all over the United States and the players came in all sorts of colors and sizes. I wasn’t dreaming.

And I got to thinking that maybe things aren’t so bad after all.


  1. Self described in his own remarks Ron Maxwell seems to be the living embodiment of
    a memorable fictional character invented by Chuck Jones in the 20th century.
    “That makes no sense, and so do I.”

    Daffy Duck.

  2. Self described in his own remarks Ben Jones seems to be the living embodiment of a memorable fictional character invented by Voltaire in the 18th Century.

    “Master Pangloss taught the metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology. He could prove to admiration that there is no effect without a cause; and, that in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and My Lady the best of all possible baronesses. “It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings. Stones were made to be hewn and to construct castles, therefore My Lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Swine were intended to be eaten, therefore we eat pork all the year round: and they, who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best.”

    Or, as our modern day Pangloss has stated above in so many words: “It is demonstrable that things cannot be otherwise than they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the roadway is paved, therefore we drive cars. High rise buildings exist, therefore people are destined to reside in them. Railroad tracks have been torn up, therefore who needs trains? Stones were made to be hewn and to construct parking lots, therefore we have magnificent parking lots in every town. Open land was intended to be developed, therefore we have developed the open land. Chroniclers of human folly like Mr Maxwell do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best and that this is the best of all possible worlds and could not have been otherwise!”

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