Dateline: In West Virginia, at my parents’ house.
My mother finally retired about a week ago, which meant the end of the almost year-long situation in which she spent the weeks in Silver Spring and the weekends in Elkins, making an approximately 300-mile drive most Fridays and most Sundays, with some variations. Once the Silver Spring house finally sold, she was staying in the basement of her friends’ house in Silver Spring – a nice basement, no doubt, and a nicer living situation than in a house “staged” by real-estate agents for selling, but a basement and what felt like an imposition, nonetheless. Now she’s finally, totally a West Virginia resident but still hasn’t gotten used to it. In fact, she’s just been recuperating the last week, finding her balance, acclimating first to retirement and second to being in one place and finally getting to just stand still.
My brother and I arrived on Friday in the afternoon. Given my upcoming move to Montana, this is probably the last time I’ll visit Elkins for a while. It was nice to partake in the regular daily rhythms of a functioning household that isn’t in the process of being put into boxes: walking the dogs, eating a leisurely dinner, watching a movie. (Robert Altman’s California Split, which I’m not going to have time to say much about here but which is really worth seeing: 1970s film about two men who let the temptation of the gaming tables loom a little large in their lives, but really it’s about life expectations and hope and the lies we tell ourselves, and I enjoyed the hell out of the meaty, real-feeling portrayal of human characters, not to mention the scene where Charlie is fighting the tall mustached guy in the racetrack men’s room and they crash into a stall that is already in use and the guy sitting on the toilet can’t think of anything to say except “Get the hell out of here!”)
I was up early on Saturday and took Hannah, the German Shepherd, for a run. This was something she used to enjoy back when she first joined the family, but I have to remind myself that that was almost eight years ago, which makes her a senior citizen now. I took it slow and tried to engineer things so that she was running on grass as much as possible, but, by the end, she was dragging behind me and even seemed to be forcing stops more and more often, ostensibly to pee, except nothing really seemed to be coming out, leading me to wonder just who was really in charge in here. I took a zigzagging route through the residential streets near my parents’ house. Mostly these streets were sleepy, just a few early-risers out and about, except down in the city park where dozens of classic cars were being directed into position as part of the Independence Day festivities that the county would be observing this weekend. I had the thought that, in Germany, or maybe just in the novels of Ursula Hegi, there is a superstition that celebrating one’s birthday early is a mistake, a jinx along the lines of counting one’s eggs, etc. Given how many localities in the country have probably been doing this for a while now, maybe this is why the nation seems vaguely cursed these days.
After a breakfast of poached eggs and waffles, we piled into the Element and drove to Blackwater Falls State Park, where we once skied as a family about two decades ago. As I recall, it was a warm spring weekend when some skiers were wearing shorts (and got bloody knees as a result), and the lodge was nearly empty of guests, it being so late in the season. I guess the state parks must have had a policy of hiring the handicapped to maintain its facilities at the time, because nearly staff member was either retarded or in some other way (oh, what polite, careful way is there of saying something like “deficient”?).
This time we just took some short hikes, first to the falls (this “hike” took us down wooden steps the whole way) and then through the woods at the edge of Pendleton Lake, which was really more of a large pond than a lake. At overlooks and other suitably photogenic places, I was struck as always by the amount of photographing going on. At the falls, as we approached on the wooden walkway, a twentysomething man and woman were there ahead of us. She was struggling, making some sort of adjustment to her camera, while he snapped away. After a while he walked back to where she was still fiddling and I heard him say, “never mind, I got it.” Fifty feet below the platform where we stood, a stuffed yellow Pokemon doll lay spreadeagled, face down on the rocks.
We drove home through the town of Thomas and stopped for lunch at the Purple Fiddle, another of these casual, sprawling places that don’t quite have table service and where the vegetarians aren’t disappointed. Massive carved bears hefting mugs of something or other stand watch over the outdoor seating area, while the walls inside are covered by quilts, Bluegrass posters, built-in shelves brimming with board games and coffee-table books, and, yes, a purple-painted fiddle or two or three. As we made the drive back to Elkins, the wind turbines on a far hillside loomed into view, out of scale and alien, like the tripods in War of the Worlds.
Back at the house, there was a point in the afternoon when everyone was sitting around either reading or talking or dozing and I was about to suggest that we walk over to the park for a look at the classic cars, which I’d been assuming all day that we would do. My next thought was wait, why would we want to do that? And so I kept my mouth shut and we just kept reading and talking and dozing.
We ate dinner on the river at a restaurant with a deck and a train car (we on the deck), to a folk/string/”old time” music band’s serenade. Then it was just a matter of killing time until the fireworks display scheduled for the evening, about twenty feet over from my parents’ house, on the campus of Davis and Elkins College. As we whiled away the hours, we could hear the amplified echoes of the talent contest we were trying to avoid, a talent contest consisting entirely of would-be country singers. We thought the fireworks were scheduled for nine p.m., although this turned out to be a mistaken impression. We arrived and spread our blanket (my brother pointed out that we seemed to be some of the only people not sitting on these luxurious folding camp armchairs everyone has now; well, my dad had one, but the rest of just stretched out on the blanket, and it was true that there didn’t seem to be many others doing so) on the fringes of the crowd at about 8:45 and then sat through nearly two more hours of the talent contest before the fireworks started at ten thirty. (Is it really talent if everyone has some?)
It was an interesting but eventually not particularly enjoyable spectacle, although I’m always fascinated to see How People Live and all that. The event was hosted by some local country-music-station DJs and sponsored by various local businesses (who definitely got their money’s worth, as the DJs listed their names almost as often as they said any other words in the English language) and Colgate toothpaste, leading to the bizarre spectacle of a toothpaste giveaway to children in the crowd at one point that just went on and on. It was strange to hear the DJ refer to the standard jokes that are made about West Virginian dental hygiene as the giveaway progressed, although I’m not sure if his point (that these allegations were being disproved by the toothpaste enthusiasm in the crowd) was underlined or -mined by the surging river of children who came running down the hill toward the stage to receive their toothpaste: if they had some at home already, would they have been quite so excited? But I guess it’s always exciting to get Something for Nothing, and maybe these children’s enthusiasm spoke more to their awareness that they live in households where dollars must be stretched.
Notes on commerce: there wasn’t much, and that surprised me for some reason, although it was a relatively small event, with a crowd of no more than a thousand. All you could buy were root beer floats, various sodas/lemonades, etc., hot dogs, popcorn, and snowballs. There was no beer truck, but the house was only twenty feet away, so were adequately supplied.
The fireworks themselves were a modest display, nothing to be ashamed of but not quite as overwhelming and coordinated as those I’ve gotten used to in the Inner Harbor. While the rockets glared redly, etc., the DJs played a soundtrack of the pop-country songs that must probably at this point be considered “standards” at events like this one. The first one was the Brooks and Dunn number “Only in America,” a blandly inoffensive paean to this country’s alleged equal opportunity (although studies now show it’s not so equal after all):
Only in America
Where we dream in red, white and blue
Only in America
Where we dream as big as we want to
We all get a chance
Everybody gets to dance
Only in America
(As a side note, I wonder if Brooks and Dunn intended the distinctly Buddhist “let go of desire and ambition” sentiment at which the song gestures at one point: “They just might go back to Oklahoma/And talk about the stars they could have been.” No, I guess probably not.)
And at this point, it wouldn’t be the 4th of July without “God Bless the USA,” which was followed by a sort of electronic/muzak version of “God Bless America,” sung by a singer who didn’t sound like she quite meant it. All well and good, but frankly the evening ended on a sour note with a song that I hadn’t even known existed but which seems to me to Explain A Lot. I’m just going to reprint the lyrics below, without comment, except to wonder (1) just how many people’s worldviews are shaped by this sort of thing and (2) why all copies haven’t been retracted by the artist and burned at this late date in the 21st century. (I mean, I don’t need to actually point out that he gets it all entirely wrong, right?) It’s by Darryl Worley, if you want to run out and buy a copy.
I hear people saying we don’t need this war
I say there’s some things worth fighting for
What about our freedom and this piece of ground?
We didn’t get to keep ’em by backing down
They say we don’t realize the mess we’re getting in
Before you start preaching
Let me ask you this my friend
Have you forgotten how it felt that day
To see your homeland under fire
And her people blown away?
Have you forgotten when those towers fell?
We had neighbors still inside
Going through a living hell
And you say we shouldn’t worry ’bout Bin Laden
Have you forgotten?
They took all the footage off my T.V.
Said it’s too disturbing for you and me
It’ll just breed anger that’s what the experts say
If it was up to me I’d show it every day
Some say this country’s just out looking for a fight
After 9/11 man I’d have to say that’s right
[repeat CHORUS 1]
I’ve been there with the soldiers
Who’ve gone away to war
And you can bet that they remember
Just what they’re fighting for
Have you forgotten all the people killed?
Yes, some went down like heroes in that Pennsylvania field
Have you forgotten about our Pentagon?
All the loved ones that we lost
And those left to carry on
Don’t you tell me not to worry ’bout Bin Laden
Have you forgotten?
Have you forgotten?
Have you forgotten?
Thankfully, the crescendo of fireworks explosions at the finale drowned out the final stanza or two of this song, but it had done its damage to my mood. Up until that point I had enjoyed the show and feeling of community, but now I felt sad and alone. As the last fireworks faded from our retinas, they played “The Star-spangled Banner” (a bloodless, “country” version, i.e., the singer drawled in a slight southern accent over music that might as well have been created by computer program and a drum machine), and everyone stood up, but mostly just to fold their chairs and blankets and start to leave. I was certainly in no mood to salute, not for some crappy muzakified version of the national anthem included in the same playlist as the song I reprinted above. I was struck by the fact that the crowd didn’t seem impressed either and was pretty much just filing out, not exactly the sort of anthem-related behavior that stereotype might lead one to expect in a small town in West Virginia. But at least no one was going to take our own lack of observance amiss, it appeared.
We folded our own blanket and trudged back to the house, in depressed and thoughtful silence.
But all in all it was good to be with family, not least after my mom broke out the Irish cream.