The Character of Places

I was 19 the first time I remember it happening. I was driving north from L.A. to Seattle, and it hit me like running into a brick wall when I saw the Welcome to Oregon sign— something was wrong with the place.

Not wrong, exactly. But not what I thought it would be since I’d never been there. I’d always assumed Oregon was a liberal state. They were the first to legalize medical marijuana. I’d imagined ex-hippies and weed farmers pretty much ran the place.

I don’t know what triggered the awareness, the absolute certainty that, at least, southwest Oregon through Grant’s Pass was a hard-core conservative area. I pulled off for gas and up to the pump behind a rusted flat bed truck with a rifle on a rack in the back window of the cab. His bumper sticker was the Confederate flag with an AK47-type weapon across it, and confirmed my sense of the place. For the next 250 miles more than half of the vehicles I saw along I-5 had bumper stickers of bible quotes, NRA, anti-Gay, anti-abortion propaganda, and mirrored the sentiments on the billboards along the highway. Almost every radio station was proselytizing Christianity—rock music to talk forums.

It happened again a year or so later at the old Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. I was disembarking the plane, navigating the staircase down to the tarmac when it hit me—the slight breeze like a hard slap to my cheek—something was wrong with the place. A few minutes inside the terminal played out my flash of perception outside. Bullet holes riddled the walls, with plaques under them, documenting this or that terrorist attack. Military police were everywhere, young soldiers, men and women, passing by with huge guns on their shoulders and grenades on their green belts. A tension-filled month in the Middle East, under the constant threat of violence, had me on my knees and kissing my hardwood floor when I got back to my apartment in Santa Monica.

Getting an instant impression on the character of a place happened more and more as I traveled. Cairo to Athens to Grand Junction Colorado, each area had a flavor, a common thread connecting the people living there I was [generally] able to discern almost instantly upon arrival.

On a recent family vacation we did a road trip up the east coast from Florida to Toronto. On the way home at the end of the trip we crossed the Canadian/US border at Buffalo in the middle of a drenching downpour. Just past the city we headed south. Fifty miles into western NY it hit me. Something was wrong with the place.

“I don’t have a clue why,” I announced to my DH and our two teens in the backseat. “But it feels like we’ve just entered the deep South. Like Alabama, or Mississippi.”

“New York is a liberal state,” my husband said with certainty.

‘Not out here it isn’t,’ I almost said, but didn’t. I had no facts to back up my sense of the place as we drove past well-kept, classic New England clapboard homes tucked into the thick foliage of the Allegheny foothills.

The further south we drove, the more prevalent my sense we’d entered ultra-conservative territory became. But when I saw the Welcome to Pennsylvania sign on the side of Hwy 219, I suddenly was acutely aware that the inhabitants of the areas we were passing through were on the opposite page of most everything I believe in.

“New York may be liberal, but I guarantee you Pennsylvania is not,” I announced.

My son, the family historian, reminded all of us that PA was on the Union side of the Civil War, backing his dad’s position my perception was faulty.

We stopped for lunch at a roadside bar/restaurant near Ridgeway, sat two to two on the stools around the sticky table, and after ordering looked at the menagerie covering the walls. A huge Confederate Flag was pinned over the dark wood bar that ran the length of the place. A moose head, and the head of a buck, both with full antlers, were mounted on either side of their array of liquor. Pics of hunters by their kill, holding their rifles on the carcass of lions, tigers, rhinos to crocodiles were sprinkled among the mostly text posters of sayings like, “Alcohol is the cause of, and the solution to, all of life’s problems…” a la Homer Simpson.

“What’s this symbol mean, Mom?” My daughter was examining a small tarnished emblem, hanging on a red and black stripped ribbon, mounted to the wall next to her.

“It’s a German cross.”

“What’s the double-X thing in the middle.”

I focused on the small circle in the center of the memorabilia, and though I saw it clearly the first time, had to do a double take before answering her. “It’s a Swastika, the Nazi symbol.”

My DH and I quickly exchanged glances. His father’s family was murdered by the Nazi’s in 1939. His dad, our kids’ granddad, was a slave in Auschwitz from 13 to 18 yrs old.

We all focused back on the walls of the bar. I spied several more ‘medals’ where the Swastika was prominent. But even more disturbing were the small, framed texts: “What’s the differance between a catholic wife and a jewish wife? A catholic wife has real orgasms and fake jewellery!”(And no, it’s not my spelling errors.) “Life without women would be a pain in the ass, literaly,” another on the wall near my husband’s head read.

I called our White, blond, blue-eyed waitress over and asked for our order to go, paid the check then left the bar and went outside to breathe.

“We should have just left, not paid the check, not bought their food, and just left.”

“That’s not right,” my DH said upon joining me at our car. “We already ordered it.”

Back on Hwy 219, the further south we traveled, the more ramshackle the passing homes became. Hidden in groves of pines, spruce and maple, most of the housings’ wood-planked siding was rotting, or missing. Many seemed as if their foundations had shifted, and the entire house was tilted. And a reoccurring theme on most all of them— they were flying the Confederate flag. It hung from dilapidated porches, as a curtain to a second-story window, as banners in storefronts of the small towns we passed through.

Quite frankly, I was horrified. Pennsylvania fought against the South. The Confederate flag was once hated here, a derisive symbol of division created for the Civil war, as the Nazi flag was by Germany for WW2. The Battle at Gettysburg was fought on these hallowed grounds.

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the universe,” Einstein ostensibly said. (And no, he wasn’t Jewish. He was a self-proclaimed Atheist.) Displaying the Confederate flag anywhere is a proclamation of ignorance, proven by justifications like: “It’s part of our rich history in the South, and we have pride in our culture.” No one should be proud their ancestors found it acceptable to enslave others, then go to war for wealthy land owners looking to avoid paying taxes. Even the Germans know better than to puff with pride they were once Nazis.

I don’t get what cues me up to the character of places upon seeing their Welcome signs. When I was young, I’d frequently see the future before it happened, so my perception of an area upon arrival might be connected to that phenomenon. I don’t know, and don’t really care. What strikes me as the odd bit is the intent of my perceptions—always a warning, an impending threat to what I know to be right, moral, and in the interest of the collective well-being.

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