A couple weeks ago I went “home” to Maryland to help my father and siblings pack up the house he and my mother bought in 1959. I place the word home in quotation marks because I haven’t considered the place my home since 1977 when a woman friend and I bought a Greyhound ticket a couple days after Thanksgiving and headed west. The ticket took us as far as we could get for twenty-five dollars. That happened to be Mobile, Alabama, where we ate some catfish, drank some Dixie Beer, and stuck out our thumbs for California. A week later we were in the Promised Land, but that’s another tale for another day.
I took the train from Vermont to Baltimore on this most recent trip. Despite what the naysayers in Congress say, the Amtrak train was several cars long and pretty much filled with passengers the entire trip. About three hours into the voyage, I ran into an old friend whom I hadn’t seen since a rock concert last summer. Naturally, we caught up on the news and had a few beers. A brother-in-law picked me up at the station when the train arrived.
The next morning, my father and I headed up to a place in western Pennsylvania he and my mother bought a few years before she died. About an hour and a half northeast of Pittsburgh, the house is nestled into the mountains a few miles away from the site of the Flight 93 plane crash that occurred on September 11, 2001. You know the story: the passengers forced the hijackers’ hand and caused the crash. So goes the story. I believe it.
After the drive, which took almost four hours, we stopped at a couple stores in the closest town to buy supplies and headed into the woods. The town was typical for that part of the country. In between an old economy of farming and industrial mining/manufacturing and a new economy based on ski tourism and retired people, the smell of fracking exploration is present in the air. The weather turned cold overnight and the next morning we were greeted with snow flurries while we took care of various chores that needed to be done before real winter set in up on the mountain. Mowing, splitting wood, cleaning gutters, etc. That night we sat in front of the fire, drank beer, and conversed.
The difference in our political views has remained the same over the years. My father is what might be called a Reagan Democrat; although I think the only Democrats he might have voted for were Bill Clinton the first time he ran and maybe Obama the first time around. He defended Nixon until that final wave on the White House lawn in August 1974. He thought Ronald Reagan was a true patriot and only wondered why he put up with Oliver North. (My dad was in the military for thirty years and had no use for opportunistic clowns like North who used the military for their own agendas and by doing so, “shamed the uniform.”) Simultaneously, he believes the income cap on Social Security contributions should be lifted and that Medicare should be expanded to cover everyone.
The conversation turned to his new friends up in Pennsylvania. A devout Catholic, one of the first places my father looks for when he travels is the nearest Catholic Church. Consequently, many of his first acquaintances are members of that church. I asked him much time he spent with his new crew and he responded with a chuckle, telling me that he got together with them once or twice a week at a local diner where they drank coffee, ate breakfast and told tall tales. Typical old fart behavior was how he described it. He continued, telling me how much they hated Barack Obama. I asked him what their opinion about George Bush was. He replied by telling me that they thought he was an idiot but believed him when it came to terrorism and war. My dad, who considered the Afghan invasion to be poorly managed and the Iraq debacle to be military folly, disagreed with his new buddies on this topic. He also told me how much they hated unions, despite the fact that many of them were retired steel workers from the region and many were collecting a union-negotiated pension. When the conversation shifted to NSA, we agreed (for different reasons) that those who are surprised at the Snowden revelations are either intentionally naïve or just ignorant of how Machiavellian world politics really are. Of course, given his first career as a military operator within NSA, he thinks Snowden should be locked up forever. I just hope he is able to live a long life outside of prison.
We returned to the house in Maryland on Wednesday. My siblings had removed a fair amount of the stuff that was in the house, but there were still several more days of moving left. A house can accumulate a large amount of things over fifty years. The memories accumulated are even greater. My siblings dealt with the removal of the things in different ways. Unlike me, most of them had stayed in the area after they moved out of my parents’ house. This created a deeper connection to the structure than that felt by me and a couple other siblings who had moved away. There were a few discussions that grew a little heated over whether a certain item should be given away to Habitat for Humanity or kept. I stayed out of those discussions.
While one of my brothers and I watched the second game of the World Series with our father snoring on the neighboring couch, I asked him about his new job. Until 2012, he had been working with another brother doing home remodeling and cabinetmaking. After the crash of 2008, the business dropped off and it eventually became pointless to continue. So, he got a job as a carpenter at the University of Maryland. Besides the slow pace of the work, he had no complaints, but given his anti-union stance (developed over years of self-employment), he had to get a couple digs in against it. I told him that when I attended that school, the pay for carpenters was below union wages. He acknowledged the union did make sure he was fairly paid for his skill level as a master carpenter.
The house was almost ready for its new owners when I left Maryland the next Saturday. My journey “home” was more than just another visit, given that it marked the end of our family’s residence in the family home. However, the element that struck me the most was the combination of anger and apathy that greeted almost every conversation of a political nature. Anecdotally, it seems that people are angry at the undelivered promises of Obama, yet refuse (or are unable) to see that his actions are merely a continuation of a political/economic process over which any resident of the White House has little control over. If Mitt Romney had won the last election, things would not have turned out much different, would they? If Hilary runs and wins in 2016, more of the same is to be expected. Indeed, no matter who wins, more of the same (or worse) is expected. Sisyphus’s task seems almost simple when compared to the chore of creating social justice in the world of today.
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com.