Before cities grew so large as to emmanate gravity (drawing the lumpen mass into their orbit) most people lived in open space; perhaps two or three, even a dozen miles from their nearest neighbors. This country was dustily crisscrossed by rutted dirt and gravel roads, all seemingly winding nowhere.
Beyond that, and before Ike’s vaunted national self-defense corridor (highway system), were nothing but county and state roads.
Most of those ran as straight and narrow as a minister’s thoughts, parting endless miles of nothing from nothing else. Laid down as two lane tarmacs, barely wide enough for oncoming vehicles to pass without one edging out onto the shoulder, these roads were nearly empty save for the occasional farmer headed into town. You were more likely to crawl tortuous miles behind a tractor trundling at 20 MPH back to its barn than to spot another passing vehicle.
At night cars full of laughing teenagers would hurtle down these roads in a hurry to arrive somewhere, anywhere, before first light. The back lanes, pull-offs, side roads and even cattle loading areas hosted slower custom; cooling, ticking engines; windows fogged; occupants concerned with one precise still moment on a near horizon.
There was a whole lot of in-between back then.
Wide open spaces wasn’t just the opening shot in yet another Hollywood oater, it was where one lived, it was the view one stared off into while imagining a different life. Space not only encompassed the world, it was the world.
That space also spawned the Other.
Corn silk haired Nebraska children might not recognize ancient Medea but would instinctively draw away from Almira Gulch; Garcin’s translated utterance of…l’enfer, c’est les autres, while all too recognizable as the price of small town life, would have served equally well as a warning that Duane Pope might casually end your life early one summer morning as you lay face down on a cool bank floor.
The late evening, side road neckers? At one point not a teenage couple in America was ignorant of the story about a lucky couple parked for a make-out session when they heard a radio bulletin about an escaped killer (who has a hook for a hand!) in their vicinity. The young girl is too scared to press on so the young man begrudgingly drives her home…where they discover a bloody hook dangling from the car door handle!
The stuff of legend of course.
Except perhaps to their parents, who remembered the spring of ’46 along the Arkansas-Texas border and the Phantom Killer.
Charlie and little Caril Ann’s road trip (after a proper farewell for her family) is part of our culture – movies, books and a Springsteen song.
More recently George Hennard shot 23 people and wounded another 20 in a Luby’s cafeteria in Killeen, Texas. A decade before him James Huberty killed 21 and wounded 19 at a MickeyD’s. Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 and wounded 17 at Virginia Tech.
In our pre-Internet, pre-cable, pre-24 hour hours new cycle years, the Other held more sway over our imaginations. We paid closer attention. We kept vigil. And we responded.
We notified the authorities if so-and-so was burning kittens 1; we went and talked to our neighbors if little Johnny Rotten was a violent prick or, worse, ‘bothered’ young girls 2; we encouraged better behavior from our ourselves, our neighbors and even total strangers; we looked out for each other and thought nothing of it.
Because, yes, there has always been the Other.
Which seems to be the most persistent argument against banning assault weapons and tightening gun control; these defectives have always been among us, it’s not likely we’ll quit spawning aberrations in the future – just deal with it.
And that logic has a certain “passes the ol’ gut feeling” attraction to it. But it would be worse than dishonest to deny that banning and rigorously enforcing the laws against assault weapons and Rambo magazines wouldn’t put a serious dent in a) the number of mass murders in this country and b) the subsequent number of victims. Which would be a good thing, right?
What it comes down to is that we as a society don’t want to be bothered.
We don’t want to look after our fellow wo/man. We certainly don’t want to intercede, especially if the situation cries out for it. We don’t want to waste any of our precious time. Hell, we don’t seem to have time for our own children, much less the gumption to correct a stranger’s child. And certainly not in public where people might look askance at our audacity.
We don’t want to get involved; too much risk, too little reward.
Harlan Ellison once wrote a terrifying short story, based on an actual event, of a brutal murder that took place in the open courtyard of a New York tenement building. The assault on and eventual murder of the woman took well over a half hour and it was thoroughly documented that 38 people watched the entire event.
None of them lifted a hand to help. Not a one.
America has become those 38 people. We know the right thing to do, we just don’t want to.
Which is just another way of saying we’ve become a nation of cowards.
It’s another way of saying the Other has won.