The Freak Show

Posted: 2011/08/12 in Serenity, Stories
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I was born in the United States of America in the mid-20th century.

I only remember one house, in an old suburb of a big city. I walked and biked to school, and in the summer my buddies and I roamed the neighborhood largely unsupervised, catching crawdads in the drainage ditch, playing various sports in the vacant lot, and flying (and wrecking) various kit-built and homemade model airplanes in the parking lot behind the Baptist church at one end of the street. There was a Methodist church at the other end; that was where we went until I was about 10 and my father decided that Sundays were better spent at the beach! It’s parking lot was smaller than the Baptists’ and had trees, making it unsuitable for our aeronautical adventures.

My parents loved me. Though my father was strict and had a temper, he also had a fantastic sense of humor (which some say I inherited) and went out of his way to create happy memories. If it was fun, inexpensive (free counts), and legal, we probably did it. We went on a family driving vacation every summer. We went fishing. We went to lots of baseball games. He took us to the stock car races and the wrestling matches. Many evenings at dinner were punctuated with all of us laughing so hard about something that had happened at work or at school that we couldn’t stop. My parents are still married. My mom was a gradually retiring nurse, loving but no nonsense.

My wife and I are in our third decade of marriage, the first for both of us. Her parents are still married too. We’re a genuinely happy couple. We like each others’ company more than just about anything else in the world. We each genuinely enjoy too-seldom times with our in-laws and other extended family. We’re both pretty healthy, and we have a wonderful adult daughter who’s moved away but calls a couple of times a week.

Even for an American, I’m the freak show.

Growing up, a couple of times a year we’d make the 250-mile trip to grandpa’s and he’d really take us fishing, because he had a boat. He also took us for rides in the back of his old pickup, hurtling down country roads—my brother and I and our dog. Grandpa and my dad also taught us how to handle guns safely. I could legally buy and keep a gun if I wanted to, but I don’t feel like I really need one and I don’t hunt, but a lot of my friends do.

Nowadays, my wife and I live in a sturdy, fifty-year-old house with five rooms, in another oldish suburb of a medium-sized city. My wife and I each have a car to drive. We have a gas-fired furnace that heats the whole house, and an air conditioner that cools it. We have electricity in every room, and it’s very rarely unavailable, and we have running water, cold and hot, and a flush toilet, and our own automatic clothes washer and dryer. The neighborhood is safe. If there’s trouble, we could call the police and they would be here within 10 minutes, or the firefighters, who would also come with an ambulance if one of us were injured or seriously ill. There’s a hospital about a mile away and it’s one of the best in the state if not the whole country.

Our city is surrounded by fertile farms—some of the best land in the world! Our country has good, safe highways, so there are fresh fruits and vegetables from other parts of the country, and even around the world, even in the winter. Years ago, a visiting academic from another country wanted me to take his picture in front of the meat counter at the local supermarket. He said they wouldn’t believe him otherwise. I’ve never wondered where my next meal was coming from. When I was working summer jobs in college—did I mention that I got to go to college?—there were times when I kind of had to buy cheap food and make it last until the next paycheck, but I’ve never gone hungry or wondered where I would spend the night.

I’ve only been out of work once, and started my own small business after a couple of months of looking. I don’t have to pay any bribes or protection money to anyone. I don’t make as much money as I used to, but I’m still able to help our daughter with her college and we’ve been able to put some money aside. People complain about the government, but the laws are obeyed and fairly enforced, at least for white people like me, and most of the tax money goes for what it’s meant for rather than into someone’s pocket. Some of what it’s meant for is stupid if you ask me, but there’s another thing. You can complain, and even be downright insulting, about our government officials and not get in trouble, at least not with the government. It’s practically a national pastime. And it’s safe to vote, and the votes are mostly counted fairly. And the loser packs up and moves out on schedule, even the President.

I did not serve in my country’s armed forces. When I was of military age, we were at peace and not even registering young men for conscription. I was taught that it was my duty if it came to it, but it didn’t. I would have been scared but I would have served, and I would be proud of having done so. A lot of people who have served say that it was tough but a positive experience. Just yesterday I had lunch with a former Marine. Talk about respect!

Unlike my father, I decided that church was important, so I go every Sunday. We have a really nice building to meet in. Not everyone agrees with our religion, but we’ve never had to worry about people attacking us or the government harassing or jailing any of us, not even our pastor. We try to show people that God loves them by helping them, whether they believe like we do or not.

It’s the United States of America. Just being born here when I was is like winning the 50-to-1 prize in the lottery, and even for Americans, I’ve had it really, really good.

I’ve traveled abroad a few times, including some long car trips in Mexico and a couple of weeks in a big city in southeast Asia. So I’ve seen some things. Nothing too bad, just open sewers, and huts with sheet-metal roofs and lots of dirt, and chickens and livestock wandering around, and laundry hung out to dry. The few people with our kind of wealth lived in houses with concrete block walls around their little plot of land, with a single door, and broken bottles cemented to the top. The food markets were outside, and there were flies and smells, especially where there was meat. Especially in the evenings in Mexico, there were a lot of people out though, enjoying the cool of the evening, and a lot of laughter and music.

But there were also rules to be safe that went beyond common decency and respect that we owe anyone when we are a guest in their community. Stay together, especially women, and especially at night. Park your car out of sight but where you can keep an eye on it. If someone asks you for money to keep an eye on your car while you’re gone, it’s a good idea. Don’t have anything to do with or mention anything even remotely political, and do nothing that would attract the attention of government officials. Crossing the border was adventure enough. And when the Sanborn guide says of a hotel or eatery, “Not for you,” or “For locals only,” believe them. Mexico is a beautiful country.

Growing up, I also saw poor Americans, mostly Negroes, around where Grandpa lived. They lived in better houses—“shotgun houses”—than poor Mexicans, but they didn’t look as happy. I guess it’s harder to be poor in a rich country than to be even poorer in a not-so-rich one, especially if you’re also on the short end of bigotry. I still see poorer people, and I feel sorry for them and a little bit guilty that I don’t do more to help. But people from big American cities laugh when they see the “bad neighborhoods” in our city.

There are a lot more places like Mexico than there are places like the United States in the world. And even in the United States, there are a lot of places that are more like what I saw for a few weeks than what I’ve lived in for fifty years. Some of the people in them are probably content if not downright happy, and some aren’t. I think it would be easier to be content if it was the way things had always been. That’s why I call this the Time of Icarus. We have an awfully long way to fall. I would like to think I could be content too, so long as it wasn’t physically dangerous.

But what would I know about it? I’m the freak show, after all.

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