ECHOES FROM OTHER HOBOS #4: Autumn in America by Joe O’Brien

Smells like burning wood, my wife notes as we roll through Gettysburg in our little gray Honda Fit, a third of the way between Brooklyn and Louisville. Not sure if it’s the homey aroma of autumn hearth-blazes, or maybe a burgeoning forest fire.

Gettysburg Cannon, photo by JPO'B

Gettysburg Cannon, photo by JPO’B

Seven score and ten years ago, Union soldiers blasted back the Confederate tide here in Gettysburg, thundering cannonballs upon the Rebels who charged up the steep, knotty-grass slope of Cemetery Hill. History says this was our Civil War’s deadliest battle, and a crucial episode in our country’s eventual reunification.

Back in the present, Republicans in our House of Representatives have been charging up their own steep, knotty-grass hill, flailing against a bulwark known as the Affordable Health Care Act. They’ve chosen to shut down government operations because Senate Democrats would neither delay nor de-fund this citizen-supported, Congressionally-passed, Supreme Court-approved legislation. It’s all that the newspeople in this country can talk about lately. CNN’s got two clocks ticking in the bottom right corner of its screen: One counts up the length of the shutdown not just to the hour and minute but to the very second; the other clock counts down the days left before this shutdown would cause the country to default on our debt.

Most of the states that’ve been voting for these Republican politics are the same states that elected to secede from the Union a century and a half ago rather than promote the abolition of slavery. Back then, though, the Republicans were Lincoln’s party. Today’s Civil War is also fought, for the most part, over how to deal with a vast class of impoverished and exploited people. Although today those people have skins of all shades, and while they aren’t slaves, in many ways they’re not unlike indentured servants.Today the war at home is brutal, but the violence is less physical than psychological. The artillery isn’t made of iron or steel, it’s made of information and disinformation, both of which can travel at lightspeed and bury themselves deeper than any bullet ever could.

We can’t visit the Soldiers’ National Cemetery today because, as part of the National Park Service, and therefore an agency of the government, its gates are currently locked. Instead we visit the independently operated Gettysburg Museum of History (as seen on TV’s American Pickers). We view relics from the borough’s historic battle– rifles, uniforms, bones from amputated limbs– as well as pieces of Hitler’s furniture, one of Marilyn Monroe’s bras, and the gun Elvis shot at his television.

Later we wander the battlefield among a dozen other tourists and snap pictures into our phones. One woman uses her phone to yap about some office business that apparently can’t wait until she’s somewhere else. Yet the atmosphere’s so heavy with holy hush, and the view atop the hill’s so idyllic, not even a cellphone yapper can puncture the mood. Tough as it is to picture this lovely patch of nature littered with 50,000 soldier corpses, it’s easy– nay, unavoidable– to feel its magnet-like gravity buzzing my marrow.

I’m tempted to say the place feels haunted, though officially, I’m agnostic about ghosts. My hunch is, if ghosts exist then they’re everywhere, floating around gas station mini-marts and suburban strip-malls, not merely spooking sites of terrible tragedies. Gettysburg, however, seems utterly convinced that it’s extra-haunted. Of all the American towns I’ve seen, perhaps only New Orleans seems more convinced of its own extra-hauntedness than Gettysburg does. Or, Gettysburg simply knows that a lot of out-of-towners with disposable income are convinced of Gettysburg’s extra-hauntedness. Or, those out-of-towners are simply willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of few spine-tingles sprinkled into a history lesson. Whatever the reasons, there’s so many different “Ghost Tours” advertised around here I quickly lose count.

Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, photo by Ashley O'Brien

Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, photo by Ashley O’Brien

Halfway between Brooklyn and Louisville lies Weston, West Virginia, home of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum (as seen on TV’s Ghost Hunters). When we arrive at the hospital, opened in 1864, its austere Gothic architecture is under-lit against the full-dark sky. Giddy anticipation and Lovecraftian dread tango around my guts.

Outside the old tuberculosis ward, a guy with yellow eyes and blood-splattered clothes warns us: Don’t even think of taking pictures… If you take your cameras out, the kids will smack them out of your hands.

There really are kids inside. Kids so young they shouldn’t be up this late on a Wednesday in October. Some of them leap out of dark smoky corners, growl like feral drifters, and stalk us like we’re prey. Some wail in agony, trapped in abysses of trauma. Some sing nursery rhymes like they’ve just been lobotomized– a cliché, maybe, but still creepy as hell.

Then come the clowns on stilts. Their breath’s soaked in grape bubblegum. Feels like we’ve crossed the threshold into waking nightmare. We scream, and then we laugh.

Thirty minutes later we shuffle through the exit, utterly exhausted and yet blessed by a marvelous catharsis. All that’s left for us to do tonight is to drive a few miles over to the Holiday Inn and get a room.

Except we soon discover there’s no vacancy at the Holiday Inn.

Same with the Super 8 and the Days Inn across the street. And the Sleep Inn, and the Best Western up the road.

We have to drive another 15 miles before we find an available room at a Red Roof Inn. Their last remaining available room.

On a Wednesday night? In the middle of West Virginia?

I hate to sound like one of those myopic New Yorkers, but what the hell’s going on here?

The next day we drive through the town of Philippi, site of the Civil War’s first organized land battle. We’re hoping to see the so-called “Mummies Of The Insane,” the cadavers of two former asylum patients currently on display in the bathroom of the Barbour County Historical Museum. But when we get there, it turns out the museum’s only open on weekends, if volunteers are available.

We stroll along Main Street, but not much is open there either. Half the storefront windows display nothing but empty space; more than a few houses are boarded up. Which reminds me: it’s still awfully hard to make a living and find a home in this country these days. And suddenly, last night’s hotel room scarcity makes a little more sense.

As we zip along rural roads flanked by cornfields and crumbling barns, flipping around the FM airwaves, sometimes we’ll stumble upon a station playing muddy bluegrass ditties, or old-timey radio dramas about crooked prospectors. Alas, such stations tend to disintegrate into static before very long, and our options are soon reduced back to plain old Country, Christian, Classic Rock, or Top 40.

We keep hearing a song I’d never heard before this trip, a fairly recent track called “Redneck Crazy” by Tyler Farr. It catches my ear not because of any inspired melodies, witty wordplay, or unique arrangements, but because it seems to provide the ideal theme song for this shutdown we keep hearing about. The song’s sung by a guy who’s angry and sad because he’s just learned his woman’s been cheating on him. Now, under normal circumstances, I’d sympathize with such a person. However, in the case of “Redneck Crazy” I’m inclined to believe, by the end of the first chorus, that the narrator’s actually a stinky, gaping butthole who deserved to be cuckolded:

Gonna drive like hell through your neighborhood

Park this Silverado on your front lawn

Crank up a little Hank,

Sit on the hood and drink

I’m about to get my pissed off on

Gonna aim my headlights into your bedroom windows

Throw empty beer cans at both of your shadows

I didn’t come here to start a fight,

but I’m up for anything tonight

You know you broke the wrong heart baby

and drove me redneck crazy

First of all: Leave Hank out of this, dude. Hank sang some sad songs, but I never heard him sound this petulant or clueless. Tyler Farr sings “Redneck Crazy” as if acting like an immature stalker is a noble pursuit rather than creepy, criminal behavior. Where songs like The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” or Stone Temple Pilots’ “Sex Type Thing” radiate a palpable darkness that seems to acknowledge their narrators’ demons, “Redneck Crazy” seems content to wallow in the pale-brown muck of self-righteous self-pity.

I’ll admit to chuckling later in the song when Farr sings of his romantic rival, “Nah he can’t amount to much/ by the look of that little truck.” In a way, that lyric captures how heartbreak and jealousy can bring out our catty sides. Although I’m pretty sure Farr’s protagonist is only mocking the other guy here, not himself.

The sore-loser attitude, the cognitive dissonance, the insecure pseudo-machismo, the misguided ridicule, the misappropriation of good ol’ boy Americana– that’s why the song reminds me so much of the Ted Cruzes and John Boehners I keep seeing every morning when I click on the news. The American People are like Tyler Farr’s ex, falling into the arms of the saner, more moderate brand of Democratic politics. And instead of taking the loss like a man, doing some serious soul-searching, pondering how they might improve themselves and win back our hearts (or at the very least, our respect), Republicans can’t think of anything better to do than sulk and throw empty beer cans at us from the hoods of their pickups.

Of course, the day after we get back to Brooklyn, the shutdown’s over. The Republicans caved, ostensibly due to their plummeting approval ratings, and they have little to show for their tantrum.

We fought the good fight, John Boehner says, but we did not win.

And yet, they’re going to keep fighting The Affordable Health Care Act anyway. The truce is only temporary. They may shut down again in a few measly months if they’re not happy. Somehow, this crushing defeat was not their Appomattox Court House. It might not even be their Battle of Atlanta. It’s still Autumn in America, and the cozy, menacing scent of burning wood still hangs in the air. And from now on, my wife and I will book our hotel rooms as far in advance as possible.

Joe O'Brien

Joe O’Brien

Joseph P. O’Brien’s short fiction has appeared in Matchbook, The Alarmist, and The Rusty Nail. He blogs about storytelling at Popular Fiction (PopularFiction.wordpress.com), and he’s the editor of FLAPPERHOUSE (flapperhouse.com), which will launch its first issue in March 2014. He lives in Brooklyn with his lovely wife Ashley and their adorable dog Sprocket.

1 thought on “ECHOES FROM OTHER HOBOS #4: Autumn in America by Joe O’Brien

  1. Pingback: Autumn In America | Popular Fiction

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