No possibility whatsoever that I will ever successfully recollect how my Tuesday Happy Hour drinking chums and I got on this subject. It’s like that scene in “Inception,” where Cobb (Leonardo DeCaprio) is explaining to Ariadne (Ellen Page) one of the ways you can tell if you’re dreaming: You can never remember how you arrived at a certain place; you just find yourself there. Usually, when the subject turns, even tangentially (and even if that tangent is only occurring within the bowels of my own personal psychoses), to my high school years living on a fetid farm in the steamy heart of Tidewater, Virginia, I will literally or figuratively seek out the closest exit sign. But, for reasons that now escape me, I did not escape the conversational thread.
It must have had something to do with inaccurate political labels, about how very few thinking people are actually what we now call “conservative” or “liberal.” Anyone who is not inclined to march lockstep to the drumbeat of established doctrine codified by groups like the NRA, the Tea Party, the Sierra Club or IMBA, has certain beliefs that would fall into what we now call the “conservative” camp and certain beliefs that would fall into what we now call the “liberal” camp. Probably Farhad, my ex-patriot Iranian buddy, a math professor and staunch Ron Paul supporter (and the only one I know who will, time and time again, mix politics and alcohol, despite how many times we have all asked him not to), could not hold his tongue and blurted out something political that, for once, did not make us all scatter to the four winds.
Out of the discourse wreckage, somehow I began talking about the family farm, my stepfather and my upbringing there in the mosquito-and-poison-ivy-infested swamp country where America was born.
Now, my stepfather, who I have pretty much lost contact with, is an interesting fellow, a child of the Great Depression, spawn of humble lineage. Born and raised in Williamsburg, he spent his summers working on a dirt farm in the Piedmont Country. He managed to pull himself up by his bootstraps, joining the Air Force, where he became a fighter pilot, and graduating from the University of Virginia Law School. A successful attorney, he once served a stint as Commonwealth Attorney for the county where I went to high school, a situation that, given my inclination to find myself on the wrong side of the law every once in a while, was, shall we say, handy.
Anyhow, despite his high-class education and the fact that, via the military, he had visited many parts of the world, including such prime vacation destinations as Vietnam and Korea, my stepfather remained at heart a borderline redneck. His hobbies, appropriately enough, consisted on gardening, fishing and hunting. And despite his decidedly white-collar vocation, he could fix a tractor engine, replace a roof and wallpaper an interior like a professional.
Still, you can take a boy off the Southern dirt farm, but you can’t take the Southern dirt farm out of the boy. My stepfather to this day remains a sexist, a racist and a classist. I remember well when the Equal Rights Amendment road show was pitching camp on the capitol steps in Richmond. My stepfather, taking a giant logic leap backwards, slowly shook his head and said, “Could you imagine what life would be like if women ran the world?” Now, I was not the brightest or most-worldly adolescent, but even a pimple-faced nitwit such as myself could not help but to observe out loud in response to that statement how, at that particular moment in history, the U.S. was bogged down in Southeast Asia, the Cold War was as tense as it had ever been and the country was coming apart at the seams as political assassinations were rocking our society — so how the hell could women screw things up any worse, even if they were right then handed the keys to the White House, the Kremlin and the Vatican.
I was not allowed to have Black amigos over to the house, and I was told that, if I ever even considered dating a female from a race not my own, I would be sent packing (something that happened when I was 17 anyhow, though the actual incident had nothing to do with my personal dating habits; rather, the key to my joyous liberation from home life was, not surprisingly, drugs that my mother had found and, sadly, would not return, no matter how hard I asked). One of my best buddies on the football team was Thomas Griffin, a great, smart guy (we were both also on the second-ranked debate team in the state) who just happened to be, in the eyes of my stepfather, pigmentation-challenged. Whenever my stepfather saw Thomas and I hanging out on the sidelines together (Thomas was a guard; I was the quarterback), he would ask, “What, can’t you get any of the white guys to listen to your stories?” In his eyes, I would have far better served conversing on the sidelines with the biggest, dumbest grit in town, so long as he looked like a potential member of the American Nazi Party — this despite the fact that Thomas Griffin was a far better student than I was, came from a family that, unlike ours, was loving and fundamentally functional and who ended up going to a far better college that I did. I would not be the least bit surprised if my stepfather still routinely referred to Blacks as “jigs.”
OK, I think the picture is sufficiently painted.
The original subject was political stereotypes. Given the image herein presented of the man I sat across from at the dining room table every night, it might come as something of a surprise that those years and that place — time and space I used to lie awake at night and dream of leaving as quickly as possible (a dream I realized pretty much five seconds after graduating from high school) — accounted for the most environmentally friendly, least carbon-footprinted life I have ever lived. I was in high school long enough ago that the words we now use were not yet fully coined. But, had they been, if you had ever called my stepfather an “environmentalist,” he would have blown a fuse. Better to have called him a hippie homo or maybe even a jig.
We had the single biggest family garden I have to this day ever seen. My stepfather, upon arriving home from his office, would immediately remove his suit, change into his most ratty-assed duds, and he would head out into that garden with a smile on his face. He did not look at the act of nurturing edible plants to life as toil; rather, he looked at it the same way I now look at hiking or playing ping-pong. He loved gardening, and he was distressed that I never shared that love. (In retrospect, I believe it had as much to do with my inability to physiologically handle the hot-and-humid Southern climate as it did with my dislike of hoes and Rototillers.) This was not some “This Old House” image-based yuppie lifestyle-enhancement garden. It was, rather, a garden that provided a significant percentage of our caloric intake for the entire year. In the late summer and early fall, we ate a million times more fresh veggies that I have ever eaten since (even tough my mom, being English, generally cooked those veggies to the consistency of sludge). And, the rest of the year, we ate veggies my mom canned.
We also had orchards (apples, peaches, pears) and literally 13 large, high-yield Southern pecan trees in our yard. When berry season was upon us — as it seemed to always be in those parts — we went out and gathered blackberries, huckleberries, raspberries and muscadines by the barrelful, and, from those berries, my mom made cobblers, pies and wine.
In the fall, my stepfather hunted waterfowl, which we froze. We fished almost every weekend during the summer, and, let me assure you, there was none of this dilettante catch-and-release bullshit. We usually fished the saltwater Mobjack Bay and brought home sometimes 100 fishes (it was my unenviable task to clean them all), every single one of which was released into our gullets
We had more barnyard foul that you can shake a stick at: several species of chickens, geese, guinea hens, ducks and turkeys, which donated eggs and meat to the family nutritional coffers.
We also bartered. We traded feed corn for pork with a neighbor who butchered his own meat. We traded pecans with my mom’s best friend’s husband, who was a waterman, for crab, oysters and shrimp.
Then there was the interior life. We were always ordered to turn the water off while brushing our teeth. Showers were limited to five minutes. Lights had to be turned off when leaving a room, if only for a few minutes. The only time air conditioning was allowed was during canning season. I was not even allowed a window fan while trying to sleep through the humid summers, not because my stepfather was sadistic, but, rather, because of the impact having a fan running all night would have on our electricity use. We drove small cars and drove them till the fenders pretty much fell off. We consolidated errands when we went into town. We composted maniacally. When we tore down an old dilapidated barn, we used the salvageable wood for paneling in our den. When the corn was harvested, my sister and I were sent into the fields to hand pick every ear, every kernel, that was missed, because we used it to feed our fowl.
All this we did not because we were poor (though we were certainly not affluent at that stage of my stepfather’s legal career), but because that’s how my parents were raised to live. They could not abide waste, and, consequently, we wasted not a goddamned thing.
Of course — predictably enough — I HATED all that shit. I HATED the fact that, while my buddies in town were shooting hoops on Sunday afternoons, I was experiencing quality family time in the garden or out collecting blackberries in the tick-infested woods. I HATED my childhood so badly that, to this day, I would rather cut a nut off than garden, fish or gather berries.
Maybe I’m getting old enough that the psychic resonance of those memories — if not the memories themselves — has faded. I can at least resist the temptation now to run out of the bar on those rare occasions when the subject of those years on the farm arises.
I am now 55 years old, and I think it’s fair to say that I classify myself as an “environmentalist.” I would likely be classified by others as a “liberal,” though, if I must, I classify myself as a “green libertarian.” But that is less important than the lifestyle manifestations of those labels, or, in this case, a mortifying lack thereof. Despite my self-perceptions, I like many of my “mountain-lifestyle” brethren and sistren, feel like I am personally saving the world when I buy organic blackberries (imported from Chile) from the Silver City Food Coop. When I buy a carton of cage-free eggs at the Farmer’s Market, my smugness factor rises several notches. I feel entitled to some sort of Green Award when choose to drive only four miles to hike around Gomez Peak than when I drive 15 miles to more-appealing Cherry Creek. My vehicle will boast all the right bumperstickers when I leave tomorrow for the San Juans for some much-needed high-altitude R&R.
I try to not malign those who try to mitigate their environmental impact by bringing their own eco-bags when they go to Walmart to buy plastic items imported from China. I try to understand when we pack up our 4Runners to drive eight hours so we can ride our mountain bikes for five hours. I bite my lip when people drive across the state to protest the latest round of gas-drilling leases, or when people decry de-forestation while building dream homes made mostly of wood. For I too am one of those people.
And, the older I get, the more it feels weird to realize that the time I negatively impacted the Good Ship Earth less than any other time of my life was when I lived with a man who called Black people jigs and who lost his mind at the thought of women having equal rights.
But, in my mind, it just goes to show how much we are committing cultural suicide by stereotyping each other, by stereotyping ourselves, by letting ourselves be stereotyped by others and by letting externally applied labels define who we are. And it matters not one whit whether those labels are “conservative,” “liberal” or “green libertarian.”