A Yankee Notebook

August 15, 2016


MONTPELIER – Just forty years ago, in the summer of 1976, Hollywood released two outlaw road-racing films, Cannonball and The Gumball Rally. The latter, played as a comedy, was by far the better. Several hot sports cars, along with a gaggle of goofy, offbeat entries, raced as fast as they could from an underground parking garage in Manhattan to a finish line in California.

My favorite scene in the film occurs when the Ferrari driver, decorated with goggles and a flowing white silk scarf à la Alfonso de Portago, rips the rear view mirror from its moorings, tosses it over the side, and declares, in an ersatz Italian accent, “The firsta rule of Italiana driving: what isa behind me isa not important.”

I’ve cherished that sentiment ever since – urged along, no doubt, by a need to try to forget some things that are behind me. At the same time, I consider it critical that as many of us as possible have a factual grasp of what is behind us, in order to prevent the recurrence of some of it.

During the current political campaign, we’ve seen almost unprecedented boisterousness (shall we say) among the supporters of the Republican nominee for President. Shaking fists, screaming epithets, and often clad in red, white, and blue, they roar for the chance to “make America great again.” (The goal seems to echo a recent campaign in the Green Mountain State to “take back Vermont,” a slogan that grew out of the spirited debate leading to the establishment of civil unions and the subsequent legalization of gay marriage.) Motivated, probably, by the pain and fear of accelerating cultural and economic changes over which they have no control, they can easily be led by any mountebank who promises to restore them to their lost Promised Land.

The fact is, however, that it ain’t coming back. The America they remember as being “great” included racial segregation, the domination of white men and subjugation of women, and painful dentistry. Those problems, though far from solved even yet, are irresistibly disappearing. The struggles facing the first woman president of the United States will be as fierce as those that have faced the first African-American president, and for the same reasons. But it’s over. The toothpaste isn’t going back into the tube.

Way back in 1961 I had a part-time job conducting services at a pair of tiny Presbyterian churches in southern Ohio coal towns. Even then, 55 years ago, my wife and I could see that coal, as a way of life, was kaput. The local mines and tipples stood silent, operating only one shift a week. The towns reeked of the sulfur smell of coal burning somewhere underground; huge dumps of red dog covered the hillsides; the streams ran bright orange; upside-down cars, scavenged for parts, littered the yards. Coal was over even back then. Nowadays, driving across Montana, we can watch incredibly long black coal trains, one after another, crossing the yellow prairie headed for the electricity-generating plants. They invariably prompt the reflection that not too long ago – about 150 million years – other dinosaurs roamed these plains beneath the mountains.

Today’s displaced coal miners are a disgruntled bunch who routinely blame everybody within reach for their problems, and generally find the culprits to be the President and government regulations. But the recent rash of coal company bankruptcies is sending the message that nobody wants coal anymore. Ms. Clinton has promised to try to restore their fortunes through renewable energy jobs and retraining programs. But it’s a hard sell to a third-generation miner. At the moment they’re the equivalent of the legendary buggy whip manufacturer, done to death by the automobile. Another example: Probably because of our theocratic roots here in the New World, we oten still make moral issues out of practical ones. Now, we all know that, for dozens of pretty good reasons, kids shouldn’t be having sex. But the fact is that they are. Our default response has tended to be preachy; to whit, that kids should practice abstinence until marriage. But after years of experience with that idea, statistics indicate that the states endorsing it have the highest rates of teen pregnancies. Colorado, on the other hand, which dispenses free birth control and disease-prevention counseling, has seen a 40% drop in unwanted pregnancies, a 42% drop in abortions, and millions of dollars saved in public health costs. The state also realizes a tidy income from taxes on marijuana sales. Like it or not, that genie’s not going back into the bottle.

Does anybody remember department stores and elevator operators? “Third floor; ladies’ lingerie, children’s clothing and housewares.” As a feature of our lives, it’s dead as a doornail, with chains closing stores almost as fast as they can. It’s the same with shopping malls, once the wonder of the suburban world and the bane of the dying downtowns. Their slow death reminds me I once proposed that new shopping centers post a bond to pay for their demolition and the restoration of the land they were built on. They’re disappearing; the shoppers who used to find them chic now shop online: infinite choices and sizes, free return postage, no need to travel. Some may lament the changes, but they’re voting with their cell phones.

Casting off outdated stuff gets easier; it may be just part of getting old. Why lament what isn’t any more and never will be again? I still hang on to my church, but if it were a business, I’d try discreetly to unload my shares. Likewise, I’d never buy stock in a ski resort. I’d decline to invest in real estate in Louisiana, Florida, or the Jersey shore. It’s not that what’s behind us isn’t important, – as to the Ferrari driver – it’s just that if we use our heads and resist apocalyptic solutions to complicated problems, we might just have a great country here.

Photo by Willem lange