I was 19 the first time I remember it happening. I was cruising north on the 101, and it hit me like I'd just run into a 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. I'd always assumed Oregon was a liberal state. They were the first to legalize personal use of marijuana. I'd imagined a bunch of ex-hippies and weed farmers pretty much ran the place, as in the late 70s, the state was sparsely populated.
I don't know what triggered the knowledge, the absolute certainty that, at least, southwest Oregon was, in fact, a republican area, religious to the extreme, as was their conservative bend. I pulled off the freeway to get gas, up to the pump, behind a rusted flat bed truck with a rifle displayed in the back window of the cab. The sticker on his bumper was the Confederate flag with an AK47-type weapon across it, and confirmed my sense of the place. For the next 100 miles almost every vehicle I encountered had bumper stickers of bible quotes, supporting the NRA, anti-Gay and/or against abortion, 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 at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, back in the 1980s, when it was still a 'quaint' structure. This time it was easy to figure out what was wrong with the place. I got off the plane and into the terminal to find bullet holes all over the walls, with plaques under them, documenting this or that terrorist attack. I threw up in the bathroom before going to the ticket counter to get a flight out of there. I watched young solders, men and women, pass by with huge guns, and grenades on green belts, while the El Al agent explained to me why I couldn't afford to change my return flight on such short notice. A month in the Middle East, under the constant threat of violence, had me on my knees and kissing my clean hardwood floor upon my arrival home.
The internet, and Google Maps have given me a window to the places I've subsequently visited. Now, my impressions of places I go aren't that much different from my initial assumptions. Until the last bit of this summer's family vacation. My DH navigated, and I drove, as I had most of the trip from NJ, to Montreal, to Toronto, and then on our way to Alexandria, PA. We crossed the Canadian/US border at Buffalo in the middle of a drenching downpour. Just past the city I headed south on Hwy 90. 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 two teens in the backseat. “But it feels like we've just entered the deep South. Like Virginia, or Mississippi.”
“New York is a liberal state,” my husband said with certainty.
'Not out here it isn't,' I'd have liked to have said, but didn't, since I had absolutely no facts to back up my statement beyond the classic New England clapboard homes tucked into the thick foliage of the Allegheny foothills.
The further south we got, 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. 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 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.”
“No. 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. His dad, our kids' granddad, was a prisoner 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, literally,” another on the wall near my husband's head read.
I called our 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 219, the further south we traveled, the more ramshackle the passing homes became. Hidden in groves of pines, spruce and maple, most of the housing's 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, an ugly symbol of racism, created for the Civil war, as the Nazi flag was for Germany. Gettysburg is in PA, where thousands of their children were killed by Southerners too ignorant to understand they were dying for separatism that mainly served the rich plantation owners.
“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 the rich history of the South, and we have pride in our culture.” No one should be proud they were once ruled by people who found it acceptable to enslaved others, then sent the poor kids to war so the wealthy wouldn't have to pay taxes. Even the Germans know better than to puff with pride they were Nazis once.