Notes from Freedom County

By

Some days in late August at home are like this, the air thin and eager like this, with something in it sad and nostalgic and familiar. Man the sum of his climatic experiences Father said. Man the sum of what have you

William Faulkner  – “The Sound and the Fury”

Here is a thing that I don’t remember. In a small town in America, a couple of high school kids burned a cross on the front lawn of some black folks. A black family, the father was a preacher, moved into the nicest neighborhood in town. A couple of kids got drunk and decided to show them how the town really felt. We are tired of this story by now; it has been told and retold, imagined in movies and in books and on TV, but no version that I have read happened in Washington State and in 2003.

I grew up in a town small enough that any mention on the evening news from Seattle provoked an involuntary smile, even if it was just the weatherman reading high and low temps. I am pretty sure that no one smiled when we made the evening news that night, but I couldn’t tell you. In 2001, I graduated from high school and left. In 2003, I was a sophomore in college in Minnesota. In 2003, I did not even come home for the summer. I don’t remember how I learned about all this, but it must have been in a phone conversation with my mom. We almost always talk about the weather and about food, and somehow it seems like talking about the local Klan – was it the Klan?  Was it just some kids? – would not fit into these conversations. I feel like it should stick out, differentiate itself in my memory. All this happened, it is a matter of public record, but I don’t remember how I know. It just seeped in; it was just something that I knew had happened or would happen back there, back home.

Arlington, Washington is something like 50 miles north of Seattle on the I-5 corridor. I-5 itself is the major artery of the West Coast, heading more or less straight from Mexico to Canada. The northwest portion of Washington State is defined by dramatic geography. Mountains and water. The coast on the Pacific Ocean is met by the Olympic Peninsula. There is a mountain range on the peninsula, the Olympic Mountains, and a deep sound separates the peninsula from the rest of the state. Look at a map. Across the sound sits Seattle and its suburbs. East of Seattle is the Cascade Mountain range, which runs east of I-5 from BC (Whistler) to Washington (Mt. Baker, Mt. Rainer, Mt. St. Helens) to Oregon (Mount Hood) to northern California (Mt. Shasta). These are mountains with glaciers and white caps year-round.  In the northwest corner of Washington State, except in the winter when low clouds eclipse the landscape, the Cascades are always looking down on you.

My family moved to Arlington in 1986 when the population was under 4000. By 2000, Arlington was home to 11,713; in the 2010 census, the population was 17,926. Arlington was, in my childhood, a small town and a poor town. Today, the town motto is, “A small town atmosphere in a rural setting, yet convenient to the larger metropolitan interests.” It seemed that sometime in the 1990s, Arlington woke up and realized that it was less than an hour from Seattle.  It might not ever be a suburb, but the city was encroaching, whether we liked it or not.

We lived north of town and every morning I would drive over a two-lane bridge into Arlington proper. On the flood plain, before the bridge, there were dairy farms, you could smell them before you saw them. In the morning, the fog tended to sit down on these lowlands after the sun came up. The northwest was green year round, and these fields were no exception. This is how I remember home. It is forever 1999 and I am 16 and it is morning and I am driving my beat-up car to school and in the fall and the sky was blue and there would be fog clinging to portions of the fields that stretched to my right, dotted with cows.

*         

Well I’m from a map dot

A stop sign on a black top

I caught the first bus I could hop from there

But all this glitter is gettin’ dark

There’s concrete growin’ in the city park

I don’t know who my neighbors are

And there’s bars on the corners and bars on my heart

I’m gonna live where the green grass grows

Watchin’ my corn pop up in rows

Every night be tucked in close to you

Raise our kids where the good Lord’s blessed

Point our rocking chairs towards the west

Tim McGraw – “Where the Green Grass Grows”

*

Reflection Israel taught me how to throw a punch.  It must have been my sophomore year. I remember the place better than the time. We were in the French classroom on the second floor of the main building of my high school, which was constructed in 1936 as part of the New Deal and always smelled like mold and sweat. He was a big kid, Reflection, at least a year older than me. I was short and a serious late bloomer. My voice had probably just started to change. I was fed up or maybe angry. I wanted to be able to defend myself not using the tools most comfortable to me – my words – but using the language that boys in small towns seemed to understand the best. I felt the need to know how to speak with my fists.

Reflection taught me never to put my thumb into the middle of my fist.  That’s how you’ll break it. He told me that the strength of the punch doesn’t come from the arm. You have to use your body, turn into it.  You gotta keep your hands up, at the ready, to protect your face. He let me practice punching his out-stretched palms like something from a boxing video. I don’t remember where the teacher was. I got better in the ten minutes we trained, if you could call it training; I stopped just using my arm from the elbow down, I turned my body before contact, I used both my left and my right hands. Those brief minutes of companionship with an older dude, a bigger dude, a cooler dude, made me feel like I might not have to fight. Oddly enough, knowing how to throw a punch gave me the power to choose not to. To this day, I’ve never punched anyone in my life.

I will not tell you that Arlington makes sense. I will not attempt to connect the dots. It has taken me years to be able to write about it. I have wanted to tell these stories since I was a kid, but I couldn’t make any sense of it then, and I hadn’t found my voice. I could never put the pieces back into a whole. The stories are funny, some of them. Others are violent. Maybe the funny ones have their own type of violence. I grew up in a weird place. If we could make any sense of it, I am convinced it would tell us some truths about America, about the world, about people, about us. About me. But it still doesn’t make sense to me.  Maybe no place does, not to the people from there.  Maybe that’s the only truth to be found.

*

I hear her voice, in the morning hour she calls me

The radio reminds me of my home far away

And drivin’ down the road I get the feeling

That I should have been home yesterday, yesterday

John Denver – “Country Roads”

*

 When I was in middle school, a small group of Arlington citizens tried to secede from the state of Washington. They were fed up with taxes (sales/income/land) and gun regulations and they had had enough. They filed legal motions with the state, set up a new county seat, a local anti-government, which hoped to override all state and federal laws in the northern half of Snohomish county.

They called their new home Freedom County, and Arlington was its capital.  They had weekly meetings at their new town hall, the Rome Pizza Parlor, one of the seediest bars on the downtown strip. According to internal figures, they numbered in the thousands. Every few months they would rent a bus and drive down to the state capital with petitions in hand. They filed motions with courts. They felt that they weren’t even getting a fair shake in their attempt to secede. Yet again, big government was suppressing the free will of the citizens.  The elected Sheriff of Freedom County went by Fnu Lnu. All this I remember.  Fnu Lnu stood for First Name Unknown, Last Name Unknown. The Freedom County folk had a special brand of paranoia; Fnu didn’t want anyone to be able to trace him, to know who he was. Ironically, Fnu Lnu had once actually worked for the government, the CIA perhaps, or maybe it was the FBI. Back in Arlington in the 1990s, he was the duly elected Sheriff of Freedom County.

I tell the story about Freedom County often. In conversational lulls, I use it on first dates. It usually provokes disbelief. How long ago? How far from Seattle? When I first started graduate school, I told the story to a friend and colleague in my program. He was obviously bright in the self-assured way that comes from having an English accent and having two parents who were professors and having gone to Cambridge. He simply would not believe my story. You’re exaggerating, he said. It’s not possible, he said. I knew that it was true, I lived it, but later that night in the empty silence of my new apartment in this big, flashy city, I saw his point. It seemed outlandish in that light. I was young when it happened, maybe there was a seed of truth and the rest of it was filled in by the imagination of a lonely thirteen-year-old who only got three TV channels on a clear day. Maybe I wove into more than was there by my need to have stories to tell, stories about myself, stories about home. I looked for validation, and I found it.  There was an article – a long, detailed article – by the Southern Poverty Law Center about 1990s far-right white-supremacist and secessionist movements in the American West.  It focused on Freedom County in Arlington, Washington.

I learned new things, too, thanks to the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Fnu Lnu actually drove his car to the office of the Sheriff of Snohomish County to tell him that there was a new Sheriff in town. An old-west show down. You just know both men were armed, don’t you? The Sheriff told Fnu Lnu to get out and not to do any policing unless he wanted to end up behind bars. I also learned that Freedom County had an official county seal. It was a man with one leg up on a plow, a laptop computer open on his leg and a rifle over his shoulder. Fnu Lnu’s real name was Robert Victor Bender, and he worked at the FBI, not the CIA. He died in 2004.

I learned that Freedom County was first imagined in 1993, when I was 10, but Fnu Lnu didn’t enter the fray until 2000, the year before I left for college. I learned that nearly 13,000 people signed the original petition that called for the secession of half of Snohomish county and the inception of Freedom County. In an extreme display of unintentional irony and a lack of self-awareness, the libertarian patriots behind Freedom County asked the United Nations (!) to intervene on their behalf, claiming their rights were being infringed upon in apparent violation of international treaties (!!!!!). They requested that the U.N. impose economic sanctions (!!!!!!!!!!!!). The head of Freedom County attempted to redeem 38 million dollars worth of “public wealth rebate notes” at a local bank claiming they were repayment for illegal government seizures. This same man sent letters to the governor and others, threatening to personally seize their homes if they didn’t recognize the sovereignty of Freedom County. I don’t remember any of these things, but none of it is surprising. This type of paranoia and aggression was normal back home.

I might laugh at the ridiculousness of Freedom County, the inconsistent ideology and the legalese ramblings of a few hundred right wing wackos, but I understand them. Despair and anger were normal back home, a diffuse anger that was difficult to aim and so easy to misdirect. There was a sense of dispossession from a life that was already too difficult.  We had prided ourselves on being tough, on being fighters, but we didn’t know who to punch, we couldn’t find anyone to blame.

People were fearful of the government, of the future, of change, of outsiders, of themselves, of others.  Arlington was, in the 1980s, a town largely untouched by the outside world, fueled by family farms and logging and small manufacturing. The late 80s and early 1990s were rough years for those industries and people weren’t wrong to blame the government. Remember the spotted owl controversy? It changed the logging of old-growth timber in the northwest. The railroad that used to carry logs out of the forest and to mills in Everett, through Arlington, stopped running. Small family farms became economically unsustainable. Government subsidies of the farming giants didn’t help. Some were lucky to sell their land early–their land was close enough to town to be worth something.

The Arlington people, the original people, weren’t rich; they worked hard, they believed in American narratives of hard work, they liked what they did even if it wore them to the bone, they liked where they lived partially because it seemed untouched by outside forces. They came home with dirt on their hands.  They resented the city folks who moved in and wanted to live in cheaply-made houses around a shimmering green golf course. Perhaps they were right to be fearful of outside forces; when they did come, with their McDonalds and their Costco and their outlet malls, it meant the end of lives and livelihoods for many. And this was cowboy country. People wanted to fight back. I wanted to fight back, too. I chose my own ideology and demons to battle. Most days my fights seem less quixotic than the Freedom County folks, but I feel for them, I feel them, and we really aren’t so different. We just chose different windmills. I might think they’re ridiculous. I laugh when I tell their story. But I’m a radical queer academic/scientist living in New York City. I am my own set of clichés. I’m sure they are laughing at me, too.

 *

 

Around here we break our backs just to earn a buck

We never get ahead but we have enough

I watch people leave and then come right back

I never wanted any part of that

I’m proud to say that I love this place

Good ol’ small town USA

Justin Moore – “Small Town USA”

*

In 10th grade, I fell as deep as a 16-year-old can for a girl. She was smart and funny and unassuming. She was sarcastic and clever. She was very Arlington. She grew up on a dairy farm and showed her cows in 4H. In her senior year, in high school, she was the runner up in the Washington State Dairy Princess competition, which is exactly what it sounds like. A beauty competition for farmer’s daughters. The WSDPC made the national news in 2011 when a high-profile participant (her three sisters had won previously) from a family who had run the same farm for 150 years admitted to being lactose intolerant.

For once, it actually seemed like my girl liked me back. She flirted with me. She even would touch my arm when we were talking. The problem was that she was engaged. Jennifer met her fiancé at 14, they started dating at 15 and were engaged by 17.  He lived in a town further north, an even smaller town. He was going to be a farmer.

When I was young, I used to profess my love for girls straight out. I would sit them down and tell them that I like-liked them. I would work myself up for a week, a month, until that one big moment when I always hoped that the girl would break down and admit to like-liking me too. That never happened, not once. At 15 and 16 and 17, it is fair to say that I had no game. Jennifer did like-like me, I could tell. I never sat her down – the possibility of reciprocation, the weight of her engagement, made that feel impossible. I told her that I like-liked her on AIM. I told her that on one of the days when we were out wandering her farm, I had wanted to kiss her. Like really kiss her. It was that time by the creek.  Back home people pronounced that word ‘crick’. She told me I should have; she said she would have liked that. It was a punch in my gut. It was, I think, the first moment in my life that I knew the real meaning of the word regret. She waited.  There was a five-minute pause with no new messages, the screen frozen. Then she said it. She liked me, I was important to her, but anything romantic was impossible. She was engaged. She was sorry.

The next week I was sitting next to her at the football game. Back home, high school football games were events. It felt like a thousand people were packed in the bleachers. Jennifer and I were in the band together. That’s how we met, two self-designated band geeks. One year, as a joke but only kind of, we were voted ‘Best Couple’ of the band’s spring tour. We had been inseparable and flirtatious. That night at the football game we acted like things were normal.

She said, Hey, about the other day. I looked over to her; this was the only time she ever brought up that AIM convo again, and I certainly wasn’t going to talk about it. She told me that we reminded her of a song. It was loud in the bleachers: the sounds of hundreds of people talking and laughing and intermittently cheering, the sounds of the game, the cheerleaders, the buzz of the lights out over the field. I reminded her of a country song, she knew I wouldn’t know it, about a man and a woman meeting at a high school reunion.  The story was that she had broken his heart, but he was happy for it later in life.  She wouldn’t have been right for the man that she knew he would become.

Listen to the song, Jen said. She handed me a CD that she had burned herself. I was 16 and being broken up with by an engaged girl using a country song at a high school football game on a Friday night. Like so much from back home, like so many of these stories, it seems too fantastical to be real. But I remember it. Another punch in the gut. I cried for her, but only when I got home. I wonder if she was right, if the message in the song was true. She has kids, a house. A real life. Whether that song was right or wrong now seems critically important. I think I know the answer most days, but sometimes it shifts depending on the hour, the relative sorrow and the imagined joy and the longing; the momentary loneliness, the lost, the found.

*

Lord I need that little woman

Like the crops need the rain

She’s my honeycomb and I’m her sugar cane

We really fit together

If you know what I’m talkin’ about

Yea, we’re two of a kind

Workin’ on a full house

Garth Brooks – “Two Of A Kind, Workin’ On A Full House”

*

People from New York talk about changing neighborhoods. They call it gentrification, they might be from Harlem or Bed-Stuy. They remember the ‘80s and ‘90s in NYC, before things got real Disney, when Times Square wasn’t a sex shop, when street art wasn’t selling for millions, when drugs and crime were too real. They talk about how their home has changed, has become unrecognizable, the bodegas and empty lots replaced with gourmet French restaurants and German Beer Gardens, and this is uptown, this is Harlem, this is Brooklyn. You couldn’t have imagined it a decade ago. Geography is in four-dimensions; we often forget about time.

When I go home now, I do not always recognize what I see. People moved into Arlington. Different people, city people, suburb people. People not from there. For generations it had been a town mostly of people from there. Then there came a suburb-like housing development. It became the most desirable neighborhood in town; cookie-cutter cheap-ass houses, but they were built around a golf course. That denoted class and prestige; that was the 1990s.  Then there came a McDonalds. There was outrage. Arlington folks didn’t want a fast food restaurant. Arlington folks bought frozen vegetables at the local Thrifty grocers.

arlingtonfarmAfter I left, they built an outlet mall called something like Seattle Outlets. Seattle is geographically not that far, it only used to feel far existentially. Then came Costco and Target and the associated chain restaurants. All this in Arlington, just one exit south of downtown.  At least Main Street hasn’t changed much: a two-lane road, a bowling alley, a movie theater, and a hardware store.  But the real world had encroached. We never once called it gentrification.  People weren’t necessarily displaced. Only the spirit was gone.

I went to school with Cambrielle Jensen, who was as close to Arlington royalty as you got. Pretty and blonde and an athlete; rich by our standards. Her family sold their acres in the 90s; their land became a housing development and a massive Safeway and that McDonalds. That is the change I witnessed, that is the spirit that is gone: land that was once the Jensen farm became just another housing development and just another supermarket and just another fast food chain. The farm, that was Arlington; what came later could have been anywhere.

 *

New York City ain’t no kind of place

For a country girl with a friendly face

I wish I had my old fishin’ pole

And was sitting on the banks of the fishing hole

Eating green apples and waiting for the fish to bite

Life ain’t as simple as it used to be

Since the big apple took a bite out of me

-Dolly Parton “Tennessee Homesick Blues”

*

I remember the parking lot of my high school with a unique clarity. I always drive through it when I go home, even though it is no longer a high school. The buildings are now mostly empty shells. The social dynamics of my school were played out on that asphalt rectangle. I remember boys with jacked-up pick-up trucks that had CB radios with external speakers. I remember these boys playing country music after school let out while they sat in the cab and talked shit. I remember them teasing me on the speakers of those CB radios, amplified for everyone to hear, but I don’t remember what they said. There were confederate flags on trucks and cars, mostly bumper stickers. I remember rolling my eyes at the flags, even at 14. We were in Washington, this was the west, this wasn’t the south. It made no sense to me then. I remember pulling my ’82 Mazda GLC into that lot after school for tennis practice on the two courts that sat just above the roofs of the cars at the northern end of the lot. I remember folks streaming past, out and away from school, walking in traffic, blocking the way. I was usually late, and I would drum on the black rubber steering wheel with my two thumbs as I waited for folks to get out of my way.

*

East of town, on the high plateau leading up to the Cascades, lived the Israel Commune, led by Love Israel. They had begun as hippies living together in Seattle in the 1960s but were more or less kicked out. The Israel clan did not believe in private property; when you joined, you gave up your name and your possessions. Including your land. Love, as proxy for the family, ended up owning land in Washington and Oregon and California and Alaska. When they were kicked out of Seattle, the remaining Israels relocated to a 300-acre plot in Arlington.

The Israels were reclusive, but the kids all went to my school.  I knew they lived in cloth yurts, and every year they had a large summer festival, the Garlic Festival, with live folk music and garlic themed food, including ice cream and loads of pot. Love Israel dictated that everyone in the commune should share a last name and that their first names should be positive attributes. I went to school with Reflection and Peace and Serenity and Caring. The Israel kids were mostly not hippies – they, like most teenagers, tended to reject their parents’ aesthetic.  Most of them wore clothes from the GAP or Old Navy, like everyone else.

Some people called the Israels a cult and made jokes about mass suicide on New Year’s Eve. I only knew the kids, but I always thought they were just kids. Some of them were assholes. Most of them were decent. Some were funny, others dorky, and most of them were smart.

The IRS repossessed the 300-acre farm sometime after I left for college. I don’t know what happened to the yurts, but the land is now used as Camp Kalsman, a Jewish summer camp run by the same organization that funds the Birthright program. I haven’t been home enough lately to tell you how they’ve been getting on.

 *

Well, I wonder how the old folks are at home

Well, I wonder if they miss me when I’m gone

I wonder if they pray

For the boy who went away

And left his dear old parents all alone

     You could hear the cattle lowing in the lane

     You could almost see the fields of bluegrass green

     You could almost hear them cry

     As they kissed their boy goodbye

     I wonder how the old folks are at home

The Carter Family – “The Homestead on the Farm”

 *

The river that comes together in downtown Arlington is named after an indigenous people, the Stillaguamish. The northwest was dotted with many small tribes of American Indians. The Stilly reservation was a two-minute drive from my house, a few hundred yards from the top of the hill where we would beg my mom to turn off the car and coast home.

After I left home the tribe voted to turn the land into a small casino. A major casino had been installed a few miles up on I-5, one of those massive buildings with flashing lights and a hotel and about 10 stories tall and a square mile of parking lots because, out west, we don’t lack for space. It was a building that towered over everything else and shouted out into the expansive and empty landscape in a deep neon glow 24 hours a day. The casino closer to my house was small. I’ve been once, a few years back, with some friends from school. The laws that forbid smoking inside in Washington State didn’t apply, and the large main room was layered with cigarette smoke, which managed to make me nostalgic for cheap beer in college bars. They served fried salmon and chips for two dollars and beers for three. The median age in the casino was at least 65, there was barely any conversation, just the repetitive motions of the serious gambler.

When the casino opened, the neighbors complained. None of the white folks liked living out near the reservation. There was talk of a casino even back in my high school years. I remember a friend whose property touched reservation land. They were terrified of a drop in property value. That’s what everyone was worried about. A hundred years of white angst distilled into one phrase.

When the casino opened, the neighbors companied that crime rates went up, essentially that the casino was drawing in all the local riff raff. I remember riff raff from long before–poor white kids getting high and ripping shit off, a wallet taken through my dad’s broken truck window.

A family friend who lived in the housing development adjoining the casino had a security system installed. According to my mother, it was after a couple of break-ins already, probably just kids trying to get some money for dope. Arlington is deep in meth country. One afternoon, the system was tripped. It automatically called the cops, but Arlington is deep in cowboy country, too.  This dude got in his pick-up and raced home, and found a kid in his house. He beat the cops there. I am not sure all these details are right. I got them third person through the eyes of this man and his wife and my mom. The kid ran. Our family friend chased him.

It wasn’t until an hour later that he shot the kid in the back as he was running away. My mom’s friend’s husband had been driving around the neighborhood looking for the kid when he bolted from the gutter where he had been hiding from the cops that he (the kid) knew were coming. He was running away, that much is certain, because he was shot in the back. You can read that much in the papers. It’s a matter of public record.

A teenager had been ripping off the house and now he was dead.

arlingtonplaneMy mom’s friend’s husband is in jail. His first trial was a mistrial, the second jury found him guilty. Two weeks before he was sentenced, he got in a small plane with a buddy of his. He didn’t tell his wife or anyone else where he was going. Arlington has a small airport and a summer festival for small-plane enthusiasts. He could have made it to Canada easily. But he wasn’t running, he just wanted to be able to look down on the town, to see if from above. It was August, it was summer, he wanted to see the hills and the mountains, the Puget Sound and the two-lane streets. He wouldn’t get to see his kids graduate from Arlington High School. His family was essentially without half their household income. But the kid that he shot dead spent the last hour of his life hiding in a ditch, breathing hard, afraid to stay put and afraid to run.

* 

Sing a song about the heartland,

The only place I feel at home.

Sing about the way a good man

Works until the daylight’s gone.

Sing the rain on the roof on a summer night

Where they still know wrong from right.

Sing a song about the heartland

Sing a song about my life.

George Strait– “Heartland”

 

*

I just hit her up on Facebook. I wanted to know what song it was, the one she used to tell me, show me, that it was better that we never kissed. We haven’t spoken in years. I message her, promising an awkward question to come, and she answers right away. I tell her that I’m writing this, that I am writing about home. I tell her that I’m writing about her, and I ask if she remembers giving me a CD after I told her that I liked her.

“I know what song you’re talking about.  I have to think.”

At least I didn’t make it up. While she’s trying to trace her memory to a song, that song, we make small talk about life and family. She has two kids with her husband; I admit to squealing at her pictures of them whenever she puts them online.

She says her life must seem boring compared to my life of all my schooling and New York, right? I tell her that I am dying to have kids, and she says that some days she would happily give me hers. I say that I would take them. We make fake plans to send them to New York for a week or two. We’re both kind of telling the truth. We talk about my work and life and New York and more about her kids, their personalities and ages.

We never once mention her husband.

Or the fact that I have a boyfriend.

She posts a picture of her youngest, just up from a nap, while we’re talking. The kid is blonde and adorable and is staring out the window “at her daddy mowing the lawn.” But she never mentions him (the daddy) to me.

In the end, she didn’t give the song to me at a football game; the song was about a football game. I misplaced the memory, took the song too much to heart. Jennifer and I promise to keep in touch. I wish we would but know we won’t, not really. Twenty minutes later, I am on my bike riding down 5th avenue past Central Park and more museums and monuments than I care to list.  Jennifer claims her life is boring compared to this, and I guess it might seem that way. But I’m still not convinced that she was right. I’m not convinced that the big city and biking past The Met, that trying to reckon with complicated truths and ugly geographies with black words on a white page have made me happier or better or more complete or fulfilled than a house back home and a wife and some kids might have done. Jennifer and I were maybe both wishing just a bit for the other’s life, maybe regretting our decisions just enough to feel nostalgic and lost and a little sad. Or maybe I should only speak for myself.

 * 

She wasn’t quite the angel that I remembered in my dreams

And I could tell that time had changed me

In her eyes too it seemed

We tried to talk about the old days

There wasn’t much we could recall

I guess the Lord knows what he’s doin’ after all

Garth Brooks – “Unanswered Prayers”

*

I was fatalistic as a child. I worried. The more I learned about the horrors of history the more fearful I became that these things would return. I was convinced as a child that World War III was coming – and that I would have to rise to its occasion, whatever that meant. One of the advantages of living in small-town America is that you get to feel insulated from global affairs. Arlington, Washington did not seem like some place that was going to get bombed come the onset of World War III. We were not Pearl Harbor. We would be safe. I was terrified of the draft, hysterically afraid, and I sent in a letter of conscientious objection with my draft form, but I was pretty sure that, if war did come, bombs would not be dropping on my doorstep.

Just to the east of Arlington were the Cascade foothills, a series of rolling green mountains that lead up to the high white peaks of the cascades. On one of these hills were a series of red lights. Twenty-four hours a day these lights blinked down on us at odd intervals, never quite synchronizing. You could see them from most places in and around town. You got a good look at them from the top of the hill near our house. Driving at night, in the dark, they welcomed us home.

The series of red blinking lights came from, in fact still come, from the Jim Creek Naval Radio Station. You can learn a lot from the name.  Jim Creek is a very low frequency radio transmitter. Radio waves already have a long wavelength, from millimeters to kilometers. Yes, kilometers, miles. Long wavelength radio waves can travel great distances and withstand major barriers (partially why AM radio, which in the USA transmits on longer wavelengths, can travel further and withstand barriers better than FM, which transmits on shorter wavelengths). Jim Creek is used to transmit one-way orders to deep submarines in the Pacific. We had no idea what orders were being transmitted; we were blind to the words being sent out from just above our heads.

It is funny what memories stick with you.

I remember coming home in the car one night, I think it was just me and my mom, and it was dark, and we had just crested the hill leading up to our house where we always would beg my mom to turn the car off to try to coast home. The foothills were dark black against a gray and blue sky, an outline barely distinguishable. I mentioned to my mom that at least we were safe if anything happened, out here surrounded by trees and mountains, at least if a war came it wouldn’t hit us, not here. I remember seeing the series of lights, a half dozen maybe more, blinking red at different intervals.

I remember my mom saying that if a war came we would be one of the first places hit. I remember her saying we were probably already on a list somewhere, that any enemy would want to take out communications with the Pacific subs, that they would bomb Jim Creek. It made sense to me. Maybe against the cheery demeanor she wore outside, my mom was fatalistic too. She worried. The red lights did not stop blinking down on us. I remember driving home in silence.

 *

I tell everyone these stories, because I don’t make any sense without them. I suppose in writing this down in black and white, I am trying to make sense of myself as much as the place. It is so easy to conflate ‘where I was from’ with ‘who I was there.’ It’s ugly to admit, but it probably begins and ends with me.

The way I see myself depends on this place. It was rough where I grew up and we weren’t rich and a lot of folks were really poor. Arlington is way more important to me that I am to it. It lives in me. The kid that I was there is not quite dead. People move to New York to forget their past, to reinvent themselves.  Small town kids seeking anonymity or fame. I never wanted to divorce myself from who I was back home. I might not love how that kid dressed, I might not be proud of all his self-effacing awkwardness, but I need him. Without him, I am simultaneously no one and everyone. Without him, I am generic. Without him, I am a white man in America. Without him, I am a subdivision and a Safeway and a McDonalds.

 * 

There’s a man who walks beside me

He is who I used to be

Jason Isbell – “Live Oak”

*

Justin Hebert comes back to me in flashes. Every time I see him he is smiling. I cannot remember what his voice sounded like. He had a gap between his front two teeth. Most flashes of him are of the same image. We were probably 14 and we were outside and he was wearing a blue soccer jersey that was a little too old and a little too small. We were standing on the field waiting for our turn at a drill. I think it was sunny that day. I remember him smiling and waiting and laughing at something one of the jokers on the team said. When I think of Justin Hebert, which I admit is not often, this is what I see.

The Justin Hebert I remember was slightly overweight and laughed easily but wasn’t particularly gifted on the soccer field. He got teased a lot. I got teased a lot too, and without even being slightly overweight. You might think that the kids who got picked on would band together, but we didn’t. I was never friends with Justin. I was mostly friendly to him, but without putting in any work, without really trying. I probably laughed with the other kids when they teased him. I don’t remember teasing him myself. I never really thought that I would see Justin again when I got up and out of this town, but I never could have imagined that the possibility wouldn’t exist.

We called him Hebes.

Justin was from a tiny community, Silvana, a few minutes from my house. When I go home I always drive through Silvana at least once. My trips home, perhaps because they have become so rare, involve a lot of driving in and through places I once knew, trying to remember them and to remember myself there. Silvana is on a low flood plain and so it is dramatically flat. You can see the mountains from Silvana, both the Cascades and on a clear day even the Olympics across the sound, and there seem to be hundreds of old abandoned barns that are being overtaken by blackberry bushes. One summer, when I was visiting home with my girlfriend, we stopped on a drive through Silvana and picked two gallons of blackberries in a half-hour, so we could make a pie for dessert.  We pulled off the side of the road next to a barn, so old that its red paint had turned brown. Blackberries had grown over more than half of the structure. They scratched my hands and arms and my fingers turned purple with juice. I’ve driven on this same road a dozen times since, down onto the plain, past the farm where my friend Katie grew up until her dad got sick and they had to sell the place to some big company, down further past that barn and out around the bend, past the river and back into town. When the rivers get high in the spring, during a big thaw, this entire area would be under water. I remember kids from Silvana getting sent home early from school when we were on a flood watch, the buses rushing them back as the waters rose.

I used to think that Justin was one of the first Americans killed in the war. This turns out to not be true. He is just one of the Americans killed in the war.  Maybe the first from my hometown. When I Googled his name last night I saw that he was killed by a grenade in 2003. He was buried in the tiny Church on the Hill in Silvana. The church is old for the American west, one of the tiny white one-roomed building dating back to the original settlements maybe 150 years ago. It was built on a hill and on a clear day from the church parking lot you could see above the flood plains and the farms to the sound and to the mountains beyond. The church looks West. I used to drive up there to take pictures of the building, of the land below, when I would go home to visit. I had no idea that Justin was there with me.

We graduated high school together in 2001 at the end of the Clinton years, the beginning of Bush II. It was just pre-9/11. My paranoia notwithstanding, the 1990s seemed a decade of relative global stability. No one imagined a war coming, not seriously. Not many people back home had money for college. Pretty much everyone back home viewed college as the way out. Out of the lower-middle class. Out of Arlington.

Writing this, I feel like I got out cheap.

When the US wants to strike with precision, she uses drones and missiles.  When the US wants to bludgeon, she still uses her poor people. In 2001, we did not imagine a war was on our doorstep. In 2001, going into the army seemed a decent way to get 50 grand for college. These kids, and we were kids, had no idea what they were signing up for. They figured they’d be in for three years and out with money for school. In the newspaper articles about his death, his family said this much. He just wanted to go to college. He and his best friend wanted to go to college, but they couldn’t afford it so they signed up for the military, and now one of them was dead after he was blown up by a grenade across like three oceans, and the other one is admitting humbly that he cried at the funeral even though he didn’t want to.  He wanted to seem strong.

There is another way I picture him when I think of Justin.  In the Safeway in town, the one on the old Jensen farm, on the wall facing the check-out stands there are a series of portraits of local boys (they are, if I remember correctly, all boys) killed in the wars. Global affairs had encroached on Arlington. I suppose wars always have touched small towns. I can see Justin in his portrait. Still the same smile but without his teeth showing, no gap; still a kid but now in a uniform that fit his body just right but seemed incongruous with the smile I remember. I prefer to remember him that day on the soccer field. I want to imagine that I am laughing with him. I want to forget that I laughed at him. I want quite simply to remember his smile and to wish the world and I had not viewed his life as expendable.

None of it makes any sense to me. You?

 

***

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Frank Bell is a New York based singer/songwriter. You can find his music at http://www.mtv.com/artists/frank-bell/. You should also check out his YouTube videos because they rock, hard.

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Joseph Osmundson is a scientist, writer, and educator born and raised in the rural Pacific Northwest. His research focuses on protein structure and function while his writing explores identity and place and sexuality and class and race and all sorts of messy, complicated stuff. His work has been published on Salon.com, The Feminist Wire, and Gawker, and he will have essay included in the upcoming anthology The Queer South (Sibling Rivalry Press) due out in the Fall of 2014. He has taught at The New School and Vassar College and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in Systems Biology at New York University. You can follow him on Twitter at @reluctantlyjoe. More from this author →