Red, White, and Blue
I am tired of rich urban white men fantasizing about the glory of rural white America. I grew up in rural white America. I was beaten, raped, verbally abused and humiliated in school. The oppressors were cheered on since I was “too much” of a girl. Conform or else. That was the constant message. When you glamorize the rural white American mindset, you glamorize that behavior.
David Brooks, possibly the most tone deaf and clueless white male pundit working, waxed on about the glory and charm of rural America in today’s piece in the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/21/opinion/nebraska-rural-america.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage
Of course, his America has no race problems because, well, to him and his ilk, only white protestant men would exist if he had his way. And no oppressed, underpaid, women, either. Because their husbands are stellar guys and make enough to support a household. And the townspeople are so kind to one another that the local plumber just breaks into your house after he hears the customer mention a clogged sink down at the local diner.
Lemme tell you, buddy, about what a year in the life of a Paradise High School student was like in 1979. I pick this particular year since Prop 13 was now in full effect and the funding cuts were just beginning to sink their teeth into us.
The first period of school at PHS was always freezing cold. Some shady land and construction deals blessed us with a high school designed for a desert climate, not the Sierras. We used to fight over the back of the room because that’s where the inadequate heaters were, not because we didn’t want to participate. At each change in class, we had to brave the elements. Paradise in a normal year gets 55″ of rain. Umbrellas were a status symbol. All of us wore boots not because we were horse people, but because it was cold!
Now how about that warm, friendly small-town ambience? Not this town. Sure, we had friends, and a strong community infrastructure that centered around sports, mostly, and an annual celebration of our Gold Rush roots. That made living there bearable. But the town was a retirement community that attracted some of the most selfish, hateful people I have ever encountered. I had friendlier neighbors when I lived in South Central LA and Columbus, Ohio. Those are two places not known for their welcoming ways.
During my school days, any attempt to build a gym adequate for the size of our rather large high school was defeated. Letters to the editor bemoaned how these people had raised their kids, and didn’t want to pay anymore. It’s rather demoralizing to see, in print, almost daily, that your very existence is resented.
Any attempt to put in things for young people to do were also met with resistance. Paradise didn’t have a movie theatre until 1979. We got two that year. Neighbors battled lighting the baseball fields for years. We had a bowling alley that burned in 1969 and we didn’t get another until 1979. I can’t tell you how much rending of garments occurred when we got a McDonald’s AND a Burger King. And then came Kmart! OMG, the town is RUINED! People freaked out when we had to put up a couple of stoplights. I left the city to get away from traffic lights, they’d whine.
So, we drank. A lot. It’s a miracle none of us wrapped a car full of ourselves around a tree and died. $2 would pay for a buy-in to a kegger somewhere on Friday or Saturday night. We also smoked a lot of weed, which some of us folks grew up in the high country. In fact, I got high at the prom in 1980 with the English teacher and his fiancee on the deck at California Park. A hot date was a 12 pack of Henry Weinhard’s beer, a .22 rifle, a spotlight, and a ride to the Stirling City dump to shoot rats. Or, since for some strange reason, Paradise had cable TV very early on, to stay in and watch HBO. Still charmed about small town America?
Poverty was rampant, hidden, and people were in deep denial about how serious of a drug, alcohol, and pedophile problem we had there. Starting with the basketball coach, who served time later for being a Peeping Tom. One of his own players punched him so hard it knocked him out, for making a pass at his girlfriend. There were other teachers, too, who crossed lines. Telling anyone went nowhere and got you labeled as a troublemaker or a whiner, so none of us would ever say anything.
I always laughed at the naiveté of recent transplants from Los Angeles or the Bay Area that said they were so glad to be away from all of the problems of drugs and crime. First, we had almost no police coverage in 1979. Prop 13 cuts dropped the number of Butte County Sheriff deputies on duty to two, for the entire county. Every crook in the universe knew this, so guess where they all went once they got out of the joint? Right, Paradise or Magalia.
The sole reason Paradise incorporated that year was to form a police department. The murder of a girl I knew who was babysitting one night on Foster road sparked the drive to incorporate. Our house and every house on our street was broken into and robbed that summer. Once we did get a regular police force, crime did go down.
Second, we had active motorcycle gangs openly living in the area running marijuana and meth to they Bay Area and beyond. But hey, there were our drug runners, so it’s all good. Also, it helped they were all white guys. One of them dated the sister of my boyfriend at the time and he would work on my car. One handy thing about that? I never had any trouble with any of the bikers like some of my friends dealt with.
A third dirty secret, is that Paradise had both active Klan members and an open Posse Comitatus group up there at that time. Stars and Bars are still on half the pickup trucks in the area. People used to brag about how they kept Black people from moving into the area. It is better now, well was before it burned, but not back in 1979. Growing up it was very clear to me the ‘big city problem’ these families were fleeing was people of color. When white people now wax poetic about rural America, they are waxing poetic about white America.
I was the scorekeeper for the basketball team. One game I sat next to the away team scorekeeper who was a Black kid. He was flirting very hard with me. It made me uncomfortable because I feared for his safety. At halftime I told him he’d best leave me alone or he’d get beat up. I took grief for a week about that at school, since I flirted back with him. I am ashamed now that I didn’t actually go out on a date with him and tell my racist classmates to go pound sand. Rural America demands some of the most strict conformity.
It wasn’t like the guys in our class would date any of us girls. They liked to go out with 8th graders when they were seniors. Yeah, that is totally normal. Even worse, most of their mothers treated us like we were all beneath dating their darling sons.
So, my experience with growing up in rural white America wasn’t all that pleasant. I found it hateful, bigoted, and narrow minded, and deliberately in denial of the harsh realities that many people in town faced. I have found most of small town America to be pretty much the same way. It’s a red, white and blue vision of Mayberry in their heads, but like Fox news, the facts are open to debate. The fear was constant and palpable, even though for the most part there is nothing to fear – except wildfire, and that has come to pass for Paradise.
Paradise had some good people and a very high–quality education system (the few bad pedophile teachers aside). I am forever grateful that my high school diploma prepped me to succeed at one of the best universities in the country. My two freshman roommates attended fancy prep schools and they struggled. They just didn’t have the background I did. If I hit the lotto tomorrow or pen a best-seller, I will set up a scholarship at PHS, or whatever comes next.
Another thing–I was much more worldly in ways that my suburban and urban dorm mates were not. I scared them when I talked about home. It never occurred to me that $2 keggers, and some classmates parents’ fretting about getting firewood, harvesting and selling a weed crop, and the necessity of bagging a deer before winter set in, weren’t normal things in life.
But please, not all the problems in America are urban. Quit pretending that they are. What rural America can teach us may shock the hell out of you when you look behind the counter at the diner. There are reasons kids leave a place like Paradise and never come back.