It’s summer! So what better time to announce the first ever Last Chance Democracy Café road trip! Horace, Tom, Winston, Zach and Steve have, in the words of that wonderful Simon & Garfunkel song, “all gone to look for America.” Starting in Denver — the details of why are in this episode — they are traveling cross-country on a journey that is to end at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.
We will be following their journey for the next “several” episodes. In today’s edition we meet Fairweather, Missouri, a deep red town with plenty of reason for feeling blue.
The Last Chance Democracy Cafe
Episode 67: One town’s burden
by Steven C. Day
We were a road-weary bunch as we pulled into the parking lot of the Best Western in Fairweather, Missouri. We had spied the motel from the road earlier, but Tom insisted on trying to find a place with more local character. A quick drive through town turned up only one other motel, however, a nondescript place called the Peacock Inn. And given that it didn’t look like it had received a fresh coat of paint since the Civil War (and there were no cars parked out front), we beat a hasty retreat back to the Best Western.
Crawling out of the van, the five of us hobbled into the motel office, where a 50ish looking man with intense brown eyes and a name tag that read Ben rented us three rooms — the minimum number that could accommodate a party of our size, he insisted. On the wall behind the desk hung a full sized American flag and a picture of three young men, each proudly wearing the uniform of the United States Army. The familial connection was unmistakable.
Ben eyed us suspiciously, seemingly perplexed by what five men — three elderly, one middle aged and one college aged — would be doing driving across central Missouri. He appeared to think we might be up to no good.
“What you folks doing in town?” he asked with the studied nonchalance of the trained investigator he wasn’t.
“Just passing through,” I replied with a shrug. I suppose I could have told him the whole story. If he’d known we were on the way to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — that Horace’s son was one of the names on the long dark wall — he might have been friendlier. But to be honest, it didn’t seem worth the effort. I was dead tired and didn’t much care what he thought.
Zach bunked in one room with me, Horace and Tom in another and Winston got the third to himself. There was talk of drawing straws, but ultimately everyone agreed that given Winston snores louder than a diesel engine with a respiratory infection, it only made sense to sequester him.
We decided to meet in 20 minutes to find something to eat.
Zach threw his duffel bag down and turned on the television in our room, as I looked out the window at this ever so ordinary — and ever so dying — small American town. I had to laugh.
I mean, if anyone had asked me the day before to name the one place in the world where it was most unlikely I’d be standing one day hence, Fairweather, Missouri (had I even known it existed) would surely have been near the top of the list.
* * *
It had been a mere 12 hours since we’d all been sitting in the airport in Denver, Colorado, waiting to take the second leg of our flight to a weeklong antiwar conference in California. Going to the conference had been a spur-of-the-moment thing. We decided to take the trip when I discovered that 125,000 frequent flyer miles I’d racked up back when I was practicing law were about to expire. My wife and kids were leaving for a long visit to her family’s cabin in Vermont, and the crazy thought struck me that going on a trip with The Three Wise Men and Zach, all of whom were free for the last part of the summer, might be an experience worth having.
The antiwar conference, which just happened to be scheduled at the right time, looked interesting enough: no doubt it would be full of good ideas for how America might extricate itself from the disaster in Iraq. To be honest, though, as I sat there in the airport, the thought of attending it left me feeling sort of empty.
Just that morning the Pentagon had announced the deaths of another eight American soldiers. The same old story: we keep talking and protesting, and they keep dying. The truth is that lately I’ve grown a little weary of going through the motions of opposing this war. What good is it doing? We complain, we protest, we write Op-Ed pieces and Internet posts: but the killing doesn’t care: it just marches on and on.
Our flight was delayed, of course — something about the weather in Chicago preventing the connecting aircraft from taking off. Or maybe they said it was a maintenance issue or a problem with air traffic control. To be honest, I don’t pay much attention to the excuses anymore. Flying these days, in that sense at least, has become a little like the Iraq war — we can bitch all we want, but in the end we’re all just cattle being herded by the powers that be.
“Welcome to air travel in America,” I moaned to Zach, who quickly reminded me he’d already done a fair amount of flying. Kids today fly more than in my day. I sometimes forget that.
So, with nothing better to do as we awaited the wisdom of the flight gods, the five of us started talking about some of the places we’ve visited in our lives. Zach talked about his trip to Europe, Tom about the time he went to an economic conference in Australia and Horace regaled us with stories of his 50 years of near constant travel, first as a civil rights activist, then later as a trucker.
I didn’t talk much. Most of my business travel back when I practiced law was the fly in and fly out variety — always in a hurry. “How’d you like Philadelphia?” my secretary would ask as I hurried past her in route to the huge mound of papers waiting on my desk. “All I saw was the airport and the hotel,” I’d respond, almost with pride, breezing by without breaking my stride.
I pissed away a lot of chances to enrich my life back in those days.
The gate agent — the one with the I’d just as soon kill you as look at you glare on her face — had just announced another two hour delay in our flight, when Horace made what would prove to be a fateful comment: “You know, of all the places I’ve been in my life,” he said almost nostalgically, there’s only one I’d really like to go back to before I die, Washington, DC.” Then his voice became softer, not sad exactly, but reflective. “I was there with Reverend King in the 60s, but I’d like to go back to see the Vietnam Memorial . . . to see Lester’s name . . . you know.”
Winston seemed surprised. “You’ve never been to the Memorial?”
“No, I’ve always planned to, but . . . no, not yet.”
“Then we have to go.”
“Maybe we can do that some day.”
“No, we have to do it now.”
“We have to rent a car . . . or whatever and drive to DC.”
It was nuts, of course, but I took an immediate liking to the idea anyway. What better way for Zach to learn about the costs of war than a journey to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Besides, if we really wanted to know what it would take to end the war, a cross-country road trip would be the perfect opportunity to take the pulse of the nation.
And so just like that it was decided. It wasn’t until later that I thought, Crap, what am I going to tell my wife?
By the time we got the van rental worked out, it was late enough we spent the night in Denver, heading out early the next morning. We followed I-70 east across Colorado and on through Kansas — surely one of the most boring stretches of roadway ever created: mile after mile of nothing, interrupted only by the occasional tourist trap like “The World’s Largest Prairie Dog” and by the odd tumbleweed blowing by.
As we approached Kansas City we decided to get off the main highway. “We won’t see any of America blowing down the interstate at 70 miles per hour,” suggested Horace. So we took back roads through central Missouri, reaching Fairweather at six in the evening, where, more or less at random, we decided to stop for the night.
* * *
As we finished our chicken-fried steaks, cooked to greasy perfection at Mary’s Café in Fairweather, we decided to check out the town’s nightlife. There was one bar in town, we were told, at the other end of the block, called Stan’s Place. Judy, our waitress at the café, told us with a laugh, “Make sure Stan gives you one of the cold beers. He sometimes tries to stiff the out-of-towners with the warm stuff from the front of the icebox.”
Judy was wearing two yellow ribbons that said “support the troops.” The same message could be found almost everywhere in Fairweather: virtually every car in town had one and they were affixed to the doors of many houses. The billboard above the boarded up old hardware store had the same message.
Across the street from Mary’s Cafe, located in the town square, was a war memorial, with the name of every town resident who’d died in combat going all the way back to World War I. We had visited it while walking to Mary’s Cafe. “In Faithful Memory,” read the message above the names. In a town that seemed in every other respect to be slowly crumbling into dust, with boarded up buildings, cracked sidewalks and homes desperately in need of painting, this spot was perfectly maintained: the grass was mowed, the flowers well tended and the park benches freshly painted.
At the very bottom of the list of names were two you could tell had been added recently: William Collins and Trevor McDaniel — both killed in Iraq.
Judy, who looked to be in her mid-forties, had graying black hair she kept tied back. She wore a bit too much red lipstick that tended to exaggerate her ever-present wide smile. Pinned to her blouse was a picture of a young man in an army uniform.
“Your son?” asked Horace.
Judy’s smile grew wider. “Yes. He joined up right out of high school. We’re so proud of him.”
“Has he been to Iraq,” asked Zach, without considering, so far as I could tell, that this might be a sensitive subject.
“He’s there now . . . his third tour. Like I said, his father and I couldn’t be prouder.”
“You should be,” Horace smiled in return. “But I’m sure it’s a worry.”
“Oh, heavens, I haven’t slept in three years,” laughed Judy. “But I guess that’s a mother’s burden.”
Then with a note of finality she said, “So, can I get you folks anything else?” The message was clear: she was done talking about it.
“No, but thanks for the great food and service,” said Horace as we made our way toward the door.
* * *
Walking down the block to Stan’s Place, it was agreed that we would limit ourselves to one drink, since we planned to get an early start again the next morning.
“You hear that Winston,” said Horace in his best schoolmarm voice, “just one drink.”
The sun was setting now, leaving behind a sky streaked with bands of yellow, orange and red. Across the street, an old man was retiring the colors for the night at the war memorial site — every step of the ceremony preformed with solemn dignity. At that very same moment, of course, in cities all across America, flags put up by businesses anxious to show off their patriotism, were left to flap in the wind through the darkness, but not here. In Fairweather, the flag was still something sacred.
Zach commented matter-of-factly, “Boy, the folks in this town sure seem to be into the military. We probably better keep our mouths shut about Iraq.” Then he chuckled, “They might lynch us if they knew we were against the war.”
“Don’t count on it,” said Winston with a voice betraying a touch of irony. “Recent polls show that traditionally Republican rural areas are turning against both Bush and the war in a big way.”
Horace spoke up. “Your first point’s right on target, though, Zach. Rural communities do tend to have a special kinship with the armed services . . . Kids growing up in rural areas join the military service in much higher numbers than city kids.”
“Part of it’s economic,” said Tom. “Small towns like this one are on a slow death march all across the country. The Fairweathers of America came to life in the era of the family farm: and this new era of corporate farming is killing them. There just aren’t many jobs in much of rural America anymore . . . sometimes the army’s the only option young people have.”
Horace said in a slightly defensive voice, “But, Tom, there’s a lot more to it . . .”
“Oh, I know . . .”
“. . . than that. There’s a tradition of military service in rural America and it often goes back in families for generations. The pride rural communities feel over their young people defending this nation is something very powerful.”
“And they’ve paid a heavy price for it,” nodded Winston in a wistful voice.
Zach asked, “What do you mean?”
Tom, who, of course, always knows the numbers, answered. “One study I remember found that of the first 3,095 Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, 825 came from rural America. What that works out to mean is that 27 percent of America’s combat deaths come from rural communities, while only 19 percent of Americans live there.”
“Damn,” said Zach
“You said it, friend,” Horace put his hand on Zach’s shoulder. “Small towns like this one are paying a huge part of the freight for George W. Bush’s dreams of glory.”
* * *
Stan’s Place could have been any one of the millions of small town bars you encounter from coast to coast. The lighting was dark, making the hand full of regulars clustered around the bar barely visible. There were only a few small round tables near the front and two pool tables in the back. The only drinks in sight were cans of Budweiser.
The sign on the door read, “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service.”
We took an empty table across from the bar.
“What can I get for you folks?” a big Santa Claus of a man I correctly guessed to be Stan effused.
“Buds all around,” I said quickly, secretly fearful Winston might try ordering something like a strawberry daiquiri just to embarrass the rest of us.
“Coming right up.” As Stan bent over to grab the beers, he asked. “So what brings you boys to town?”
“We’re just passing through,” said Horace with a smile. But this time he didn’t stop there. “I lost a son in the Vietnam War and my friends here decided that it was time for me to visit the Memorial in Washington, DC so I can . . . well, you know, look up his name. So we’re working our way out there.”
I reached for my wallet as he dropped off the beers, but Stan waived me off. “In that case, the drinks are on the house.”
“Thanks for the kindness,” smiled Horace, “but I don’t want to accept your hospitality under false pretexts. It’s true my son died in the service, but you also ought to know that before we started out for Washington we were on our way to an antiwar meeting. We’re all strongly against the war.”
Stan nodded solemnly. “Don’t sweat it. So am I.”
I asked him if he could take a short break and join us.
Stan hollered out, “Al, Carl, Wally . . . you guys okay? You need anything?” They were all watching a Saint Louis Cardinals game on the TV above the bar. It was the 7th inning with the Cards up by four runs. Sounding happy, the boys at the bar all said they were good.
Stan pulled up a chair. With a large roundish face, a full white beard and the biggest teeth I had ever seen he was someone you instantly liked.
Horace, after taking a sip of his Bud, wasted no time in getting to the heart of the matter. “So what do people around here think of Bush and his war, if you don’t mind my asking? I mean, I assume that this is Bush country in general.”
“It used to be, alright. He won the county almost two-to-one both times. But now . . . well, a lot of folks, like me, have had just about enough of him. Although I’ll have to admit it took some of us long enough to get to that point.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“You have to understand, to people around here defending this country is a sacred thing. Take Wally over there. He has three kids in the service, two boys and a girl, all three of them are in Iraq or Afghanistan right now. Carl, sitting next to him, lost his older brother in Vietnam. I spent 10 years in the Navy myself back in the 80s and my son, who’s career military, just started his fourth tour over there.”
Horace ran his hand across his forehead. “That’s a lot of national service to have sitting in just one small tavern,” he said in a respectful voice.
“Then September 11 came. And when our president called us to arms, we were ready to answer . . . hell, we were excited to answer. And when Bush said we needed to invade Iraq, most of us here . . . not all, but most of us, were with him all the way. It seems so stupid now, but I remember how we made fun of the French, bitched about protesters being traitors . . . the whole deal.” Stan shook his head sadly. “But then it turned out that all the talk about weapons of mass destruction had been bullshit and everything we did over there seemed to turn into crap, and a lot of us started having second thoughts. Then Bill was killed . . . and later Trevor . . .” Stan started to choke up.
“It’s hard, I know,” said Horace softly.
A few tears were running down Stan’s cheek, something that clearly embarrassed him: we all pretended not to notice. “The deal is, in a small town like this everyone knows everyone. I coached Trevor in baseball when he was 9-years-old. Bill actually dated my daughter once for awhile. I taught them both in Sunday school . . . watched them both grow up. Everyone here did. And now they’re gone. Just like that they’re gone . . . and for what?” Stan’s voice was becoming angry. “What good has come from it, can you tell me that? Can someone please just fucking tell me that?”
“I wish I could.”
“And it isn’t just the ones who’ve been killed and hurt, there are all of the others too . . . men and women from here in the service who are still alive, but whose lives are falling apart from the endless rotations. Their kids never see them. A lot of their marriages are messed up. People here are fed up. And I don’t think it’s just here . . .”
“You’re right,” said Tom. “People all across the country have turned against both Bush and the war in a big way.”
Stan sighed. “But that hasn’t stopped the war, has it?”
Horace sighed in return. “Not yet, my friend, not yet.”
* * *
I lay awake for a long time that night at the Best Western, listening to Winston snore in the next room. Zach was tossing and turning in the other bed in my room, but it sounded like he was asleep. But it wasn’t the noise that was keeping me from falling asleep.
I just couldn’t get the faces of Fairweather, Missouri out of my mind: Ben, the suspicious motel manager, whose underlying rage I now felt I understood, with the pictures of his three sons, all serving this nation in harm’s way; Judy, the waitress in the café with the bright lipstick and the brighter disposition, wearing her son’s image pinned over her heart; and Stan, the Santa Claus of a barkeep, his son also walking the dusty ground of Iraq, knowing every second that fate in the form of a sniper’s bullet or an IED might be waiting for him in the next block.
I wondered: were all of these loving parents lying awake at this moment too, thinking about their children, wondering where they were, what they were doing and whether they were safe.
And I wondered about the parents of William (Bill) Collins and Trevor McDaniel, the honored dead of Bush’s folly: might they also be awake, counting the hours of their loss.
And I wondered when, at long last, they will finally know peace.
* * *
* * *
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 27 years. Contact Steven at .
© Copyright 2007, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001