Thursday, February 23, 2006

Country Boy

A few weeks back, I watched with rapt attention the PBS series Country Boys.

Although the series was interesting, I couldn't help but think that it just ain't the "country" if (1) you can walk to town or to school, (2) you are offered four years of college on a silver platter, and/or (3) your family life is violence-free. The stories of the kids profiled in the series were compelling, but not as "country" boys per se. The stories were compelling because they presented different snapshots and outcomes from the tribulations of adolescence in this "therapeutic" but violent beginning of the 21st century. The fact that these tribulations were set against the context of a small Kentucky town was incidental, but not integral, to the series.

Today, I was reminded of the series--and many other things--as I retraced some of the paths from my childhood. I am in Michigan for a few days, and decided to rent a car and drive around the lake I grew up on, including the dirt road my family lived on before we moved to the lake. I took a drive along the path my school bus took me each day, and was surprised by how much farmland that bus traversed. I even decided to take a stroll through my old high school, and was saddened to see that not a single teacher or administrator remains from the late 70's.

The overriding impression I had of this trip down memory lane was how "sophisticated" my old rural haunts have become. On the dirt road of our first home, new houses have sprung up--smack dab, no less, in the middle of one of my father's favorite patches of hunting land. Not ramshackle double-wides, mind you, but nice country homes. I inched down a long driveway of a very nice ranch with barns and vineyards, perched on the edge of some land my father used to own. I noticed a deer stand he had built, now fully weather-worn and of no use to anybody. It was like seeing an accidental footprint of his in some old concrete.

Driving around the lake, I was surprised by the "NO TRESPASSING" signs festooned on about every tenth tree, creating essentially the same effect as the owner might create by standing on his land and giving each passerby the middle finger. We are talking about desolate land whose main resources are jackpines and scrub oaks, not oil or streams filled with specks of gold. Nevertheless, from all appearances, "TRESPASS" has become a major social ill in the last couple of decades. I couldn't help but wonder: are these people trying to be jarring?

During the walking tour of my old high school, the primary effect I could not shake was that these kids are getting way too much "support". Guidance and college brochures abounded. Every flavor of self-esteem claptrap peppered the bulletin boards--Stewart Smalley would have been proud. Most distressing of all, the library I worked in my senior year looked exactly the same, and still contained the card catalogue I helped create, with one minor difference: the library barely contained any books. Like Sartre's cigarette, they have disappeared. Perhaps most surprising of all, I didn't see a single kid who looked stoned (not, of course, that there's anything wrong with that...). I may as well have been in a real high school.

No wonder PBS' Country Boys didn't act like Country Boys--there may be no real Country Boys left. Which led me to think: I am glad I was a Country Boy when being a Country Boy wasn't cool.