Russ Ringsak


April 20, 2007

For what it's worth, I've been told that "y'all" is singular. The plural is "all y'all." We're going to Columbus, Georgia, next week, and I understand that for travelers it's good form to try to speak, if even in just a few small snippets, the native language. I'm looking forward to it. Hoping to pick up a few more words.

Anyway, I took all y'all's advice and went around central Chicago on this last trip from the East Coast. I had called Tom Gohman about it and he said I-290 and I-294 were still under construction and the choice was simple: sit in low gear and be miserable downtown or slide around to the suburbs and sit in low gear and be miserable out there. Either way it's toll booths and miles of brake lights ahead of you.

He was right. But the change of scene was good anyway. Tom drives for T J Potter, an outfit that hauls heavy and oversized permit loads — bridge assemblies and construction equipment and giant air conditioners, the stuff that requires escort vehicles and flashing lights — and they'll skirt Chicago entirely by dropping down to US 24 at Fort Wayne, Indiana, head west to I-39 in Illinois, go north and catch I-90 into Wisconsin. It's 134 miles longer and with 22 small towns along the way it just doesn't seem like the timesaver we're looking for. Our answer is maybe more likely to be found in the truck songs of Bill Kirchen, from Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen.

Once free of the Illinois Tollway — which is like struggling out of a massive concrete overcoat — it was an easy trip back through the Wisconsin woods. East of Osseo at about milepost 92 I saw a black pickup on the right shoulder and a man in the ditch beyond: faded coveralls, black hair down to his butt and black beard down to his belly. I couldn't make out exactly what he was doing. Seemed to be searching and then reached down and pulled at something in the dead weeds. I was struck by the deep hermit look about him, a few degrees beyond the usual floppy old Deadhead look. He moved in a hip-heavy way, as if he had been lifting logs for the last forty years.

Fifty miles later I made a pit stop at the rest area west of Eau Claire. Bought a paper and took a short break to bring my log book up to date, in case the public servants in the Minnesota chicken coop ahead might want a peek. When I rolled out and geared back up to highway speed a black late model Chevy pickup, a big 4x4, moved into my left mirror and came humming on at over seventy. "Nice truck," I thought, and then saw that the driver was that same hairy guy in the coveralls. As it passed it showed a Wisconsin plate and a bumper sticker that read: PAGAN AND PROUD.

Now there's a noteworthy contradiction, I thought: What's with the thirty-thousand-dollar pickup? Aren't you supposed to be driving a wagon or something? Don't you dance around a fire at night?

When I got home I checked my eleven-pound Random House and found that 'pagan' is one of the rubber words. The first meaning is a person observing a polytheistic religion, like the ancient Romans and Greeks; the second, more contemporary, is stretched over everyone who is not a Christian, Jew or Muslim. It can also mean hedonistic (another rubber word) and it can mean an uncivilized rural peasant. So there are varieties of paganism out there, although an uncivilized urban peasant would presumably not be considered a pagan. I expect the bumper sticker man would place himself in the second variety, but that's only a guess. It's of course possible that he worships Venus and Mars, both as heavenly bodies and as deities. None of my business, but he did offer it out there now didn't he.

I can't say I get that far into zealotry myself. If I were required to carry my theological outlook on my back bumper it'd read something like NOT MUCH OF A CHURCHGOER BUT NOT ALL THAT PROUD OF IT EITHER. I feel sheepish about getting a free ride on the work the churches do, not only with the funerals and weddings but also in promoting a civil and sensible discipline; especially to people who might not get that stuff at home. Lord knows they don't get much of it in school any more.

And as warm and woolly as paganism might feel, driven by the wisdom of the ancient intuitive peoples and all that business, one cannot buy a late model pickup built by a pagan society. You can drive a vehicle built by a free society, one that allows any old belief at all (as long as it doesn't promote killing disbelievers) but pickup trucks aren't a direct product of paganism.

Pickup trucks, and the complex adhesives that bind bumper stickers to them, originate with and are financed by conventional folks in suits. They're assembled in huge buildings by robots and ordinary people in work boots. They don't come from shaggy outcasts in shady little vine-covered sheds. Stock Harleys might be changed into choppers that way, and a lot of those guys could be pagans, but you don't build fleets of 4x4 three-quarter-ton trucks that way. It takes mainstream industry to build trucks, and it seems silly to own one and claim to be primitive.

But that's all just my personal stereotype talking. The confrontational nature of the message, which was NOT LIKE YOU AND PROUD OF IT, kind of tweaked my crank a little. Opposition to everyday thinking is a good thing, but this seemed personal, in the same vein as the juvenile YOU SUCK.

But it was Wisconsin, and I wouldn't be surprised to find out this guy is a big good-natured joker, just out pulling people's chains for fun. He could be a happy easy-going pagan and not an outcast at all, and he could be self-employed and a big fan of modern capitalism. He did buy a top-dollar truck somehow. And it might even be that most of the suits at GM headquarters and in the financial industry actually are happy pagans who just like business suits and short hair, instead of greasy old coveralls. And beards were not uncommon among the early captains of industry anyway.

What got me going on all this was the amount of anti-rich grumbling I've read and heard lately, and people can grumble all they want but they should at least have some grip on reality along with it. Last week at a party it was the 'gas gouging' and the usual 'obscene profits' and 'obscene salaries' routines. I pointed out that when I was working in construction in high school and college, back in the good old days around the fifties and early sixties, a union laborer made $1.50 an hour, enough to buy five gallons of gas, and the average car made about 16 miles to a gallon. An hour's work would get you eighty miles down the road. Today the same guy gets about 15 bucks an hour and can buy five or six gallons of gas with it, and the average car gets 25 miles to the gallon. An hour's work now takes you a hundred and twenty-five miles down the road. So Earl, I said, I don't mind the complaining; I do enough of it myself. But couldja just try to complain about something that makes sense?

Sure, Earl, the rich make money. So do you. The head of Exxon, who does not set gas prices and who is everybody's favorite whipping boy, he made 48 million last year and his company made 39 billion, on revenue of 371 billion. He got paid just over a hundredth of one percent of revenue for being top dog. What manager of anything do you know who takes one hundredth of one percent of sales? If your little business took in a hundred thousand dollars in a year, would you settle for a one-dollar-a-month paycheck?

On top of that, what's the big bad CEO gonna do with his 48 mil? If he buys trinkets like yachts and planes and mansions it gets right back down to the folks who build'em, and if he invests it in the market that's just more capital available. It's not like he's gonna take it in cash and hide it under the bed. I just can't buy into all this whining about success. Except it's what people do, I guess. It's in style these days. You should see all the web sites howling about it.

So a good portion of the public is like Earl, living a fairly prosperous life and still disgruntled, and not because they know too much but because they can't put it in context. The rich folk don't bother me at all. I don't hang in that circle, but I'm happy it's there. Somebody has to be in charge, and you don't want to be the last one in town to figure out the world isn't fair.

But I'll guarantee that if you say at a party in Minneapolis that you like the churches or that you don't mind the rich you will get a rise out of somebody like Earl. I'm not all that disgruntled myself, at least not about prosperity. About stuff like that, I'm fairly gruntled.

© R.Ringsak 2007

(Commentary, gruntled or dis, can be sent to R dot Ringsak at visi dot com.)

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