It’s unseemly for anyone born and raised in Ohio to criticize any other place on earth. But I recently passed through Oklahoma.
Starting from the adopted home base of Killadelphia -- city of descending tough guy mayors like Frank Rizzo, MOVEabomber Wilson Goode and, now, raccoon-killer Michael Extermi-Nutter, a city where the pedophile priests and NAMBLA-pamby football coaches roam and the streets overflow with the cheapest narcotics (Philly cheese steaks), a city where the homeless and their outdoor nuisance feedings are now “raptured” out of sight from the brand new Barnes Foundation building and where Christian forgiveness is reserved for dogfighting millionaire quarterbacks (so long as they convert on third and ten) -- I drove 2700 miles to San Diego.
The Pennsylvania turnpike, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois were all uneventful. But somewhere in southern Missouri, towering over the puppy mills (and really blossoming in Oklahoma), the Intercontinental Ballistic Crosses (ICBCs) started to appear -- gigantic symbols of the Lord, having nothing to do architecturally with the churches they dwarfed, just proudly smiting the earth amid funny church signs and the dubious morality of the “Kum & Go” convenience stores. I imagined that people woke up one morning and found the ICBCs erected overnight, unaware that they were actually defused Russian ordnance from the Cold War. I think when Gorbachev found his marbles and went home, he changed the targeting a few degrees and, in a kind gesture, fired the empty crosses where they would be most appreciated.
Ohio is just as religious as Oklahoma but you won’t see these showy crosses along the highways of the buckeye state. The reason is that Ohio is very poor and if these crosses weren’t secured really well they’d end up torn apart and sold for scrap or tinkered with in somebody’s barn -- some crafty person might take a blow torch and tin snips and fashion them into howling wolves, grizzly bears, soaring eagles, coyotes wearing bandanas and other iconic symbols of American freedom that nobody in work-till-you-drop Ohio has ever actually experienced. Or, whole ICBCs might be laid out in the parking lot of the Caesar Creek Flea Market just like any other self-defense weapon we have a God-given right to carry -- whether we can carry it or not. A mechanic from Donnelsville might turn the tiniest ones into formula one crosses and race them at the Kil-Kare Speedway in Xenia. So long Akron Soap Box Derby, hello Crucifix 500.
(It may surprise you to learn that should there ever be a revolution in America, Ohioans will be at the forefront. This is because Ohioans understand that laws are bullshit. The first step of revolution is lawlessness because anything lawful you can do is totally ineffective and anything effective that you can do will soon be outlawed. For instance, no one in Philly will ever -- again -- lead a revolution because they all think it’s normal to sit obediently in traffic for two hours. In Ohio, if there’s a wreck on I-70 and people have to sit for longer than ten minutes, you’ll see cars backing two miles down the shoulder to get off at the previous exit or pick up trucks driving over the most broken down fence they can find through somebody’s field. And the cops know to mind their own business which is not the people’s business. “Waiting” is for rude loud REMFs from New Jersey, whose state bird is the tufted nowherefastgoomba. People from New Jersey think they’re whip smart but they don’t know the answers to the simplest questions -- like: What’s the difference between a hillbilly, a briar and a briar-hopper?)
But don’t imagine that God is troubled by the uses that Ohioans might find for crosses. God loves Ohio’s hillbillies -- that’s why He didn’t ruin our lives with money. I didn’t even know I was a hillbilly till I moved to Philadelphia several years ago. Then I found out I have a drawl and that I operate on “Ohio time,” meaning I’m slow as agave nectar. Apparently, East Coasters can see their entire lives pass before their eyes before I can get the next word out. We Ohioans know that hillbillies, proper, are from Kentucky and we make all kinds of fun of them.
Where does that put Tennessee, you might ask? For the answer, I recommend that you stand high on Route 449 in the summertime, just entering Pigeon Forge, and look at all the booths and shops and stalls and shelves and tables that line both sides of the road, a downhome Magnificent Mile, the people let outside and doing their business on God’s creation, the beautiful junk sale of America all tamped down by a bosomy haze, said to be fog but really just smoke from round the clock gun blasts. Like a lot of sanitized American history, they don’t teach you in school that this area was originally called the Great Gunsmoky Mountains. Then have one more cup of coffee before you go to the valley below, onward to Dollywood where you will bounce off the sweltering human wall paper of sexist t-shirts, rebel flags, hunting caps and, unlike any other amusement park parking lot I’ve ever been in and for no discernible reason, white guys walking around with shotguns and rifles. (It’s OK, Dolly, the Thunderhead coaster makes up for everything.)
What’s Alabama like, you persist in asking? It’s like this: Once, on a roller coaster trip, a friend woke up from a nap and saw I was driving his brand new company car 100 mph in a 70 mph zone. “What the fuck are you doing -- slow down!” he shouted. And I said, “Go back to sleep, everybody’s passing me, they’re pissed off I’m going so slow.” See, Alabama might have some revolutionary tendencies.
But I digress. Back to Oklahoma.
Interspersed with the funtasmal play of crosses and Kum & Gos there are also large highway signs noting five Oklahoma people treasures: General Tommy Franks, Toby Keith, Garth Brooks, Will Rogers and Mickey Mantle. (WARNING: two first names = trouble ahead.)
Right away I don’t like these signs because 40% of the people on them either directed (Franks) or vocally supported (Keith) America’s monstrous wars of aggression and racist occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. I didn’t have a permit to carry my paranoia, negativity and vengefulness into Oklahoma but, being an unlawful Ohioan by birth, I did it anyway, and I found these signs to be jingoistic, probably racist, probably expressing a certain (highly crappy) political viewpoint rather than some innocuous list of meritorious Oklahomans, and all probably geared toward reminding us white people the required every five miles and every five minutes that we’re still on top, goddamit, whether it’s kicking dark-skinned ass across the ocean or making it magically disappear in the “homeland” -- like the African-American author of “Invisible Man,” Oklahoman Ralph Ellison, who’s probably in line to get his name on a sign right after a Toby Keith roadie.
I can see Will Rogers being on this list. And Mickey Mantle, too -- although if I wanted the greatest American athlete of the previous century, according to a 2001 ABC Wide World of Sports poll, it would be Sac and Fox Nation Jim Thorpe. And although I don’t like “new country” music, I understand putting Garth Brooks up there because, wake up and smell the tofu chicken fried steak (yeah, Brooks and wife Trisha Yearwood are now vegan): Brooks has sold more records than anybody except Elvis and the Beatles -- more than Sinatra, Dylan, the Stones and Johnny Cash. But if I chose an Oklahoma musician it would be the communist Woody Guthrie. Brooks ( let alone Toby Keith) will never have the influence on other musicians or the country as a whole that Woody Guthrie continues to have. Guthrie wrote the most communistic popular song, “This Land Is Your Land,” that American school children are still joyously belting out, and he’s famous for having a sign on his guitar which read: “This machine kills fascists.” If Gen. Tommy Franks was a troubadour his guitar would say, “This machine kills women and children” and, with every strum, white phosphorus would blow from the hole as he sang his greatest hit, “Lord, I Don’t Do Body Counts.”
So I called the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to find out what’s up with these signs. What I found out is that my carefully considered thesis was wrong because these signs went up in 1994, way before the Bush/Cheny attack on Iraq, and I mean the 2003 George W. Bush/Cheney attack on Iraq, not the 1990-1991 George H.W.Bush/Cheney attack on Iraq which, actually, Tommy Franks was also part of, though not in the “starring” role.
America, I know you can forgive me about being wrong about this because you forgave Condi Rice scaring the bejesus out of you talking about a nonexistent “mushroom cloud” and Colin Powell talking about Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and Dick Cheney talking about the nonexistent Saddam/al-Qaeda connection. You know, all the mass murder that your nonexistent empathy leads to.
Still, to show what a tussle God and the Devil go through in Oklahoma I give you, in this corner, ruling class gangsters like General Franks, neo-con CIA spook Jim Woolsey and gay-bashing Family Research Council director Tony Perkins.
But in the other corner, punching way above his weight: a young gay Oklahoma man, a peace hero, a working class hero, the kind of stand up and be counted person that America always says it loves, let’s hear it for Private First Class Braaaaaadley Maaaaaanning who, if he actually did release the classified documents of American war crimes to WikiLeaks, is a great patriot and that most rare specie on earth, an American CITIZEN -- someone who believes in an informed and engaged populace, who believes that America’s misleaders should be held accountable and taxpayers should see how our money’s spent, who believes that the Geneva Conventions and the Nuremberg Principles matter more than the emetic decrees of Baracchio Obama whose ears get bigger with every promise he breaks -- presumably, all the better to “listen” to us in his panopticon surveillance state. (Right on, Big Brother! Disempower to the sheeple! Gimme five -- no, no, hold up, not five years in prison, not five bucks an hour, not five more tours of Ragheadistan, I don’t want your reelection platform, just gimme five -- oh, you wouldn’t understand...) And Manning not only believes in being a functioning American citizen but is willing to go to jail for it, possibly for the rest of his life.
(Cartoon intermission. Here’s how fractured this fairy tale is: Baracchio, formed by his creator Goldman “Geppetto” Sachs, has morphed into Dumbo the Republican elephant while Pinocchio at least changed part-way into the Democrat’s symbol, the jackass. Can’t Joe Biden give a blowhardy speech to all the insects on the White House lawn in the hope that a Jiminy Cricket hops forward to give Baracchio a little conscience?)
Contrast Manning’s courage and self-sacrifice with the video game drone killers bombing people from 7,000 miles away or the silence of Baracchio’s vacant liberal lambs, who had such a blast trashing the Texlexic bumpkin (before war crimes were cool), and whose racist floodgates are now officially open to “get tough on” and slaughter people of color around the globe just like their secret idols, the right wing fascists. Manning is not a “good German” -- guess we should update this to “good American” -- but he’s a great Oklahoman.
To better honor Gen. Tommy Franks I suggest that Oklahoma have a million crime scene silhouettes painted on the roads representing the Iraqis that Franks is partly responsible for killing and erect four million minaret-shaped reflectors along the shoulders representing the Iraqi refugees he helped make. The whole state could be haunted, just like this entire country needs haunted until it stops its savage destruction of other nations. The American military has every advantage in the world but is still getting kicked out of Iraq and Afghanistan, despite trillions spent and despite hundreds of thousands of American soldiers wounded, maimed and mentally destroyed and over 6,400 killed. And Bradley Manning gets put in a cage -- this is all that the world needs to know about the in-your-face evil rot that is America. And what have the “good Americans” done -- aside from their children baking cookies for the troops in the beginning? Nothing -- they’re more immature than their children: they won’t fight the wars, they won’t end the wars, they won’t even pay for the wars -- that’s on their kids’ dime. They lost interest in the broken Iraq and Afghanistan toys a long time ago. KMAG YOYO indeed.
Oklahoma has never produced a leader, a president, of the white settler nation of America while Ohio has produced eight of them. And this white settler nation has never had a woman leading it, unless you count Eleanor Roosevelt. Oklahoma, however, has produced the leader of a nation, the Cherokee nation and a woman to boot, Wilma Mankiller. Oklahoma, you have leaders and heroes, maybe you just don’t like their color, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or political beliefs. Jim Thorpe, Bradley Manning, Woody Guthrie, Ralph Ellison, Wilma Mankiller ..... shhhhhh. You might as well have roads signs that say: Leaving the MediOKre State -- Please Drive Through Like Hell Again.
The real problem with Oklahoma isn’t the ICBCs or the lack of recognition for many of its heroes and leaders. No, the real problem is that Oklahoma conquered the world, starting in the 1930s. I knew the world was conquered, and I unfriended it a long time ago, but I didn’t know exactly how it got conquered until recently.
Back in the 1930s the zeitgeist was buzzing like flies on shit in Oklahoma. Wiley Post became the first person to fly around the world in 1931 and he designed the pressurized flight suit in 1934 (he later died in the same plane crash as Will Rogers.) And in 1935 electric guitar pioneer Bob Dunn made one of the first recordings (western swing) of the electric guitar for Decca.
And, for our purposes, several Oklahoma visionaries wandered alone in the flat dusty non-wilderness, unknowingly creating a great and powerful new religion that would rapidly eclipse and make all others seem really boring: engineering professors Holger Thuesen and Gerald A. Hale invented the parking meter (1935), Sylvan Goldman, owner of the Oklahoma City Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain, invented the shopping cart (1937) and police officer Clinton Riggs first conceived of the highway yield sign (1939). These prophetic Oklahomans understood that modern Americans and their wheeled contraptions needed to be rounded up, tamed and organized for the coming religion of Stuff -- their innovations helped the faithful forage for it more safely, haul it more efficiently and wait our turn for it more fairly. The streets of heaven were to be paved with... more pavement, lots of pavement, and the purpose of life was revealed to be buying and spending and acquiring. Goldman, in particular, stands taller each day because his ingenious shopping cart is now the home on wheels for millions of Americans, but without the pollution and waste of resources associated with a motor home or the upkeep of the stationary kind.
And it all led inexorably to the temples of Oklahoma-based Walmart, the pointy end of late monopoly capitalism’s spear, where the believers, though speaking in tongues, can be understood to say: “I saved 5 cents on the knife used to cut my own throat! Hallelujah!” And if you need further proof that this religion has arrived, (i.e., they’re fighting about it), attend the Black Friday service or the midnight madness prayers where the lumpen shoppetariat tramples and pepper sprays other worshoppers to “save” and get “saved” the most. As a kind of Crackerjack prize, there’s also self-flagellation but it doesn’t happen on the pilgrimage -- it happens 30 days later upon opening the mail, at 23% interest compounded anally for however long you can take it.
This land isn’t my land and it’s not Woody Guthrie’s land. Oklahoma, this land really is your land. It’s a Piggly Wiggly world.
I’d like to thank the people at the Oklahoma Department of Transportation who answered my questions about the highway signs, though one did wonder, “Where are you going with this, Randy?” As you can see, as with most things in life, there’s never really anything to worry about.
published 5/11/2012 at counterpunch.org under the title "Driving Oklahoma"