Oct/Nov 2006 Salon

Culture Wars

by Stanley Jenkins

Photo by Jim Gourley

I returned from Idaho the night before last. Visiting the mothers and fathers I am bound to honor. As the plane landed at LaGuardia, New York rose up to greet me like a torch-lit parade. I imagined banners, great jubilees. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Romance revealed again.

The city welcomed me like a prodigal son. And didn't ask me no questions.

There was a sense of relief, of coming home. (The passengers--shuttle from DC, last leg of a long journey--clapped when we touched down.) Out there (Idaho) they are choking on the gristle of expired myths. The frontier smells bad. Sorta like a paper mill.

I took the yoke off. I stripped myself naked. I turned my back on my father--whom I love--turned my back on him like Francis of Assisi, and I got off the plane. And you know what? It felt good.

I feel like a man shucking his shackles. The ghost of Big Bill Haywood has left the old mining camps. He's come east to be with me and my own. The wobblies have all ridden the rails backwards. Mother Jones lives in Queens. I got Rockies in my backyard.

Out there. I mean. They're just doing their level best to become cartoons.

Wesley Jenkins, my grandfather, rode the rails looking for work during the depression. He came from some hard scrabble farm in Missouri. Tended sheep in Hells Canyon. During the second world war, he was 4F because of flat feet, so he worked his way through college and became a county agent. Friend of the farmer. Met Len Jordan and became his partner in a Ford dealership in Grangeville on the Camus Prairie, where Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce lived and capitulated for the good of the women and the children.

"I will fight no more forever."

And Wes did good for himself, selling trucks and cars, and for his son and his wife Orpha, who grew up in the lava flats around American Falls, Idaho, having lost a father who was working for the railroad when his wagon hit a rock and he was thrown and caught between the wheels and his chest was crushed and the railroad crew found him after several hours of groaning and calling out for someone to put him out of his misery and they took him home and he just died in a company store cabin. And he just died. Leaving nothing but debts and a hope.

And about a year after Wes and Len went into business, Len got called upon by men in suits who thought it might be Len's business to serve his fellow man, and convinced him to run for Governor. And what do you know? He won. And then later was elected a Senator. And he refused to run again long about '72 because... well, don't tell nobody, but he just didn't think the Nixon crowd had the country's best interest at heart.

I remember Idaho as a kid. You'd go back there like on a pilgrimage. It was pristine. Original. It was the next best thing to Eden after my Dad left and immersed himself in midwestern suburbs like they were mining camps or just some place where you happen to be while you are making your fortune and fulfilling your destiny and becoming fruitful.

And Idaho was always the place you started from. It was clean. The folks, mother and father, are retired, and they went back to Idaho. Living in Lewiston because Grangeville... well, it's only got 3300 people, and there was a reason my Dad left in the first place.

Idaho was always the place you started from. (And now it's the place the family ends up.)

So I came back to New York, and the city was on fire. It didn't care anything about myths of origin. And it knew all about fiery swords cutting off the approach to the gates of Eden. And there was sin. And impurity. And there was a babble of voices and a cacophony of longings. And it just felt like home. It just did.

It smells bad out there. In Idaho. They are rotting in isolation and resentment. Somebody stole Eden. I don't quite know who to blame. But that's the thing. They woke up one day in the Promised Land--in Idaho--and Eden had departed.

And New York rose up to greet me. And it welcomed me home. And I took all the ghosts with me, so I wouldn't be lonely. And the plane touched down, and I knew Ms. Mary was waiting for me, more present than any obligation or ghost.

Idaho. I just can't go your bond anymore. A man must leave his father and his mother and cleave unto his life. Flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone.

Eden is burning. I am a citizen of the city of New York. I am a citizen of the Kingdom of God. And I just ain't in no mood to apologize for it. I'm home. In America, where my wife and stepson live. And if it's going to happen for me at all, it's just going to happen here. Yeah.

And thus I honor the mothers and the fathers.


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