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A Road Trip in Wartime
[My thirteen year-old son and I drove from New York to Memphis and back during the first week of the war.]
Thursday, March 20.
We will see almost no TV, get most of our news from local papers in the towns we pass through and from the radio. We can bring in National Public Radio stations almost wherever we go, including the long stretch of Highway 81 that cuts south through Pennsylvania Dutch country. NPR’s coverage of the war is intelligent, exhaustive, and very carefully modulated. It reminds me of the prose in the higher-end garden catalogues or on the packaging of gourmet foods. The overwhelming impression is that a smart person is talking; so much so that you forget, sometimes, that they’re trying to sell you something.
This first day, the news is mostly about the war not going according to plan. There’s been tactical bombing of Baghdad instead of “shock and awe.” The NPR journalists keep repeating that the military is not following the script; isn’t it odd they’re not following the script; what does it mean that they’re not following the script? It’s raining hard and the landscape is brown and gray, except for the hex signs painted on the barns.
In Roanoke, Virginia, there’s a peace vigil at the downtown war monument. Most of the people holding candles are gray-haired, but there are some teenagers, too. It’s the 20 to 40 year-olds who seem to be missing. A woman tells us that, yes, the city is probably mostly pro-war. Still, about but one out of five cars honks or waves their support. There are no hecklers, no police, and none of the tingling sensation I’m used to at a demonstration about to get dangerous –just thirty or so people standing among the marble slabs engraved with the names of Roanoke’s war dead.
Our motel clerk is a black woman in her twenties. She checks us in with a cell phone cradled by her ear; someone’s on hold. The war comes up as she hands us our key, and she is adamant. “We should get out of there. We got no business there.” Does she have friends serving? “Friends of friends. And we got no business there.” It’s not only clear to her, but it’s a position she’s ready and willing to volunteer to strangers.
Friday, March 21.
We’re below the Mason-Dixon line and climbing through the mountains of West Virginia to Tennessee. My prejudice is to expect the South to be adamantly and visibly pro-war. On empty hilltops over the fields where cows graze, the owners have often erected three plain wooden crosses, the middle one painted white. And there are military bases all through this area. But the American flags are few and far between, much fewer than after 9-11. There are “Support Our Troops” signs here and there and yellow ribbons, but not many.
Bristol is where the famous Bristol sessions took place: the first commercial recordings of country music including the Carter Family and the singing brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers. If you cross Main Street from the side with the antique shops filled with confederate flags to the side with the amateur geek show that includes a chick with two heads in formaldehyde, you’re crossing from West Virginia to Tennessee. Today, the streets are busy with trailers and motorcycles pulling into town for the NASCAR race on Sunday.
On the Tennessee side of the street, there’s a repair shop with a line of antique jukeboxes, pinball machines, and some video games in the window. The owner’s a lanky man with gray-hair and glasses, probably in his seventies. He asks how things are in New York. I’m cautiously non-committal: folks are worried. “I’m worried we’re going to end up looking like Hitler,” he volunteers. I can’t quite believe he’s said that –not on this sunny Main Street in this quiet store. He goes on that he served in World War Two: 1943 in Italy, 1945 in France.
He can’t understand why France isn’t supporting us: “We spilled more blood there than they got red wine.” But he also doesn’t understand what we’re doing there, and he’s most worried about what’s going to happen after we win. “Everyone’s going to be blaming us, they’re gonna want to get back at us, and what’ll we have gained?” He shakes his head.
We get to Nashville at dusk, and it’s packed with tourists for the NCAA basketball game. Here, among the well-fed and slightly tipsy crowd, there are some “These Colors Don’t Run” t-shirts. We overhear a middle-aged man with a shaved head tell his friend, “Just because I have this haircut doesn’t mean I’m a bigot.”
The radio tells us that the first strikes may not have killed Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, the video of him on Iraqui TV doesn’t prove he’s alive. The local paper profiles families with sons and daughters in the military and editorializes for supporting the troops. There are also good-sized articles covering the anti-war protests both here and overseas. Nashville has the largest Kuwaiti population in the U.S.
Saturday, March 22
We’ve been stopping at little towns all along the way, wandering through flea markets where folks are selling their children’s toys, used clothes, old records. Now, we drop into Jackson, Tennessee, and the main street is empty but clean. It’s hard to judge the economy from the outside, but there are lots of trailer parks and small factories, and the car washes are busy. The downtown pawnshop is full of stereo equipment, guitars, toolboxes and power drills.
NPR interviews various experts, from retired generals to people from think tanks, and they all agree on the good news that the troops are progressing faster than expected towards Baghdad. We are progressing to Memphis and arrive there early enough in the afternoon to tour Graceland. It’s a small house.
Tonight, outdoors, to a crowd of some 1200, George Clinton and P- Funk play a long and inspired concert. The Memphis crowd comes ready to party. There are young white professionals, drunk and feeling each other up; middle-aged black couples doing the funky two-step; here and there a blitzed freak jumping up and down in place. Clinton wanders out an hour into the set. He’s a big, gray-haired man who lets his dreadlocks grow down to his shoulders.
As well as singing, cueing the band, and signaling for solos from the fifteen or sixteen musicians and singers who drop in and out, he seems most interested in the crowd’s hand clapping. He calls for it, sets the beat, and then listens attentively, his sunglasses pushed up on his head. It’s as if the clapping were the true measure of the music. Among his many chants is “Free your Mind and your Ass will follow.” The power of the groove to do that — to free people — is apparently best gauged by hand clapping.
We don’t know how long the concert eventually lasts, but as we get ready to leave –3 and a half hours into the music –the band bumps into “One Nation Under A Groove,” and it really does seem that way. P-Funk’s crazy-ass dream to unite us around James Brown riffs, throaty girl-singers and wailing guitar seems to have worked. The open air space just off Beale Street moves as one kinky, thousand-piston machine. Clinton announces, “This is America,” and we believe.
Sunday, March 23, 2003
West Memphis, Arkansas at noon is the exact physical manifestation of a hangover. It’s sleepy and flat with boarded-up yellow-brick buildings and hand-painted signs announcing barber shops and discount meat. The radio says we’re experiencing setbacks. Again, NPR’s experts seem mostly shocked, almost angry, that the assault isn’t going forward according to plan. One of our own, a black Muslim sergeant, has apparently fragged a tent full of his fellow officers. Iraqis capture an Army maintenance unit with twelve missing or captured, and citizens in the southern cities instead of welcoming our troops are resisting. As we cross the Mississippi, headed back east, NPR runs a long piece on the history of Iraq.
Asked what most surprised her in doing the research, the reporter says she wasn’t aware how much Saddam Hussein was created and supported by the U.S.
We drive up through Tennessee and into Kentucky. It sounds like many of the captured and the dead are either from around here or were stationed nearby. The parents of a missing woman soldier explain that she joined the army after high school because she couldn’t find any work in her small Kentucky hometown.
In a motel run by a Pakistani couple (their daughter practices cricket out on the driveway), we watch the Oscars. We count the number of celebrities who speak either against the war or for peace. Then Michael Moore wins and begins his speech denouncing the election results, shaking his finger into the camera, and shouting “Shame on you, Mr. Bush” as the music rises to drown him out.
It’s offensive. I’m a little surprised at my reaction, but it’s offensive. Moore looks big and soft and self-involved: a man who is always talking about himself no matter what. Part of it is the contrast to what we’ve been seeing. From town to town, most of the people we’ve talked to seem thoughtful and quietly concerned. They want the country to be a decent place, believe it is, and can’t quite fit this war into that picture. They aren’t “radicals” or liberals; they’re worried. And everywhere there seems to be a sadness. There’s no sadness in Michael Moore’s speech, only Michael Moore.
Monday, March 24
A long day’s drive through Kentucky and West Virginia to Maryland. At some point in the dry hills, we switch over to AM radio and get G. Gordon Liddy’s program. He is lecturing his listeners on the right way of dealing with the anti-war protestors in San Francisco. He recalls with approval how, during the Vietnam War, the Justice Department was prepared to defend its building with machine guns. His rant seems as out of place as Michael Moore’s was. The Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead features a lot of Judgment Day scenarios: bright red devils pitchforking sinners into hell (a brightly painted tire rim). But fierce and absolute as much of the art is, it’s filled with humor.
Now, the radio says that the cities we had captured in southern Iraq aren’t actually secure. A sandstorm has slowed troops outside of Baghdad. Instead of the single news event –a war –it has become a series of complicated stories. The experts are still eager to give their opinions, but you can almost hear them running out of certainty. It hasn’t been a week yet, and the war’s gone on too long.
In a bar in Frostburg, Maryland, CNN is playing on one television set while a sit-com plays on another. A thin, unsmiling girl (21?) tends bar. All of her customers are men. They talk about the pick-up they’re selling, the motorcycle they’re racing, the loan they’re trying to take out on the house. One guy keeps feeding quarters into the pool table, playing by himself and rolling his eyes at the ceiling: “I ain’t been able to shoot anything since yesterday.” Every once in a while, when the announcer’s voice gets more insistent, people will look up at the news. It’s mostly a clip of two American prisoners of war, repeated over and over.
Occasionally, there’s a tank on a desert, lights flaring over a city, a woman in a veil. But nobody’s bleeding, nobody’s dead. The men look for a moment, then go back to talking and drinking. Draft beer is fifty cents.
Tuesday, March 25
It’s stifling in the Pennsylvania Dutch family restaurant, and we leave before ordering. “Smells like old people,” my son says. Instead, we eat sandwiches by the bank of a stream in Bloomsbury, New Jersey. We’ve stopped listening to the news much, shifting to a books-on-tape “Spoon River Anthology.” My son’s favorite part is where an old woman goes crazy and burns down their house, dancing on the lawn as the flames leap up.
At home, we’re road numb and glad to be back. We’ve covered something close to 2500 miles.
Six day’s worth of e-mails includes lots of denunciations of George Bush: pictures of him looking simple, jokes, messages from friends saying he’s various kinds of idiotic. Maybe I’m just tired, but I skip over a lot. The president seems mostly beside the point: a face on which to hang a policy. It’s the country we’re talking about.
DANIEL WOLFF lives in New York. He is the author of You Send Me, the acclaimed biography of the great Sam Cooke and Memphis Blues Again, an exquisite collection of Ernest Withers photographs of Memphis and its streets, people and musicians. He can be reached at: email@example.com
Watch Their Lips
Shock But Not Awe
Winning Hearts and Minds Bush-Style
The Beautiful Face of America
Buckets of Blood
POWs, Torture and Hypocrisy
The Coup That Didn’t Happen
April Hurley, MD
A Doctor’s Outrage in Baghdad
Reema Abu Hamdieh
The Smell of Death Surrounds Me
Website of the War
Iraq Body Count
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