Saturday, March 24, 2018

Blue Mountain and a Bucket or Rocks

Well, get ready for the anti-rural Pennsylvania pile-on.  I just read the story about the school superintendent at Blue Mountain High School suggesting that having each classroom equipped with a bucket of “river stones” to throw at potential school shooters is somehow a valid defense against this ongoing wave of semi-automatic, schoolhouse genocide.

The really strange part of this for me?  You need to be from there to gather this (and I am from Schuylkill County).  Blue Mountain is, by far, the best school district for miles around, in county or out.  I didn’t go there.  In fact, I often disliked kids from Blue Mountain when I ran into them my two years at the Penn State branch campus in Schuylkill Haven.  (Blue Mountain is to Schuylkill Haven as Cinderella is to her sisters.)  There might have been Catholic schools that rivaled Blue Mountain for academic excellence, but this was a public school.  They were always the best high school in the county, and they still are now.

Those kids would carry around a sense of entitlement on campus, and it was irritating.  Actually, the Pottsville kids, too.  (Pottsville is the county seat, and I would guess the largest school in the county.)  It was that “south of the mountain” smugness.  (Schuylkill County is divided in half by the Broad Mountain, with the general concept that the north half is a bunch of factory-working rednecks, and the south side the more refined “upper class” of the working-class county.  There really is no comparable community or school on the north side to Blue Mountain.  Then again, there are south-side towns like Minersville, St. Clair and Pine Grove, among others, that are virtually identical to “north of the mountain” towns.  It’s possible the dichotomy exists because of the infamy of Shenandoah, the north-side town permanently known for its well-earned, rough-and-tumble image. Call it the antidote to Blue Mountain.  That ‘Chendo toughness embellishes the entire “north of the mountain” image.)

Some of the Blue Mountain kids would carry themselves around with that “Big Man on Campus” vibe.  They were from the best school district, and the Penn State branch campus was in their backyard, on the edge of Schuylkill Haven, just down the road on Route 61 from their tasteful country homes, usually helmed by two college-educated parents.  The thing is, when I got out of high school, I was hoping to ditch that vibe, anything to do with one bunch of kids seeing themselves as superior to all others, a malady that made high school such a shit endeavor.

I recall one English class, reading some forgotten passage out loud, and two kids from Blue Mountain snickering at me for my Coal Region accent.  I would later befriend these guys, but they came off like James Spader in an 80s teen flick when I first met them.  Never mind that I left that place with a 3.9 grade average, one of those guys flunked out and the other muddled through on the six-year party plan.  In their minds, I was a redneck because of the accent and where it indicated I was from.  (As it turned out, my eclectic taste in music, particularly all those great 80s indie bands, cemented our friendship.)

In my book, I get into being on the golf team, and how we always got out asses horrendously whipped when we played at the prestigious, much-harder golf course at the Schuylkill Country Club.  This was Blue Mountain, and those kids were raised playing that course.  Us playing there was like the scene in Caddyshack where the caddies take over the country-club swimming pool for the afternoon.  We didn’t belong there, in more ways than one!

Moving on to the main Penn State campus, then the world in general, then New York City … I look back now on that whole north/south of the mountain divide and laugh.  It is laughable in the overall scheme of the world, but I’m sure, is still a very real thing for the people who live there.  It might be a matter of degrees, but it matters.  That’s why I was mildly surprised to see Blue Mountain in this news story about the “bucket of rocks vs. AR-15 assault rifle” insanity.  If the story had said Tamaqua, Schuylkill Haven, Shenandoah or any other town around there?  Yeah, that would have made more sense in my mind.  But Blue Mountain?  The gem of the county?  I suspect people not from there think that school superintendent is some Li’l Abner caricature, running around in bib overalls and a jug with XXX on it.  Not realizing that’s an extremely smart individual running a highly competent school district.  How this bucket of rocks thing entered his mind, I don’t have a clue!

It’s not fair to say I hate it when people dump on rural Pennsylvania.  I do it myself sometimes.  And I think about it all the time.  The people in cities who dump on places like this, who aren’t from there, I can see, these people often don’t know shit about life.  They think they do, but this vast blind spot concerning working-class white people, when they are white, too, tells me so much more about them than anything else that will come out of their mouths.  It bothers me much more when people who are from there, who know that environment, dump on it, unapologetically, all the time, no looking back, fuck that place, fuck those people, I’m in a much better place, thank you very much, look at me now, so much better than all those dumb hillbillies.

No.  Just no.  You can’t reject your roots: know who you are.  I probably entertained those kinds of thoughts straight out of college, in my mid-20s, but I quickly came to realize, there’s just as many bad, shitty aspects of life you run into no matter where you live, particularly cities, with their own special brands of darkness and stupidity.  We’d all be wise to erase this upper-middle-class, suburban world view from our lives.  It’s sterile and reeks of all the false values I’ve come to reject in my adult life.  It’s permanent high school and the rigid caste system that ragged, immature way of life implies.  (Of course, I recognize this is America now and will go on being this way for a long time.)

As for guns and Pennsylvania – guns and any rural area in America – don’t get me started.  I’m all for anyone in America having hunting rifles, antique guns, even hand guns or a shotgun for home protection.  Let’s make another constitutional amendment to protect every American’s right to always own this level of weaponry if he so chooses.  But let’s get rid of everything else.  If you’re worried about “the government” breaking down your door and taking you prisoner all because you’re not toting semi-automatic weapons and semi’s converted to machine guns, you don’t need to find yourself another country.  You need to find yourself another fucking planet.  If the “end times” come, the survivalists are right, and these armed-to-the-teeth militants are the only ones surviving in their bunkers?  Ask yourself if you want to live with these folks.  I’d rather go down fighting hand-to-hand with the killer cyborg robots, winged skulls and nuclear mutants.

The last few years when I’ve visited Pennsylvania, I’ve noticed something alarming.  In terms of gun ownership, I’m not crazy about one man owning dozens of guns.  It suggests a level of fear and constant state of paranoia that seems debilitating.  But I can surely live with that.  I have to – it’s the way things are in America for a lot of frightened, deeply intimidated men.  (This is the greatest ruse, something I learned boxing: self defense is fear.  Maybe fear that is entirely justified.  But fear nonetheless.  When you can admit that to yourself, that’s when the lightbulb goes on over your head.  It’s all right to be afraid.)  I can live with the outrageous levels of gun ownership, but I’m having a hard time living with the open-carry law.

I wouldn’t mind this so much if the few times I saw people carrying guns in public they were staunch, dependable, John Wayne types.  But that hasn’t been the case.  The first time, my brother and I were getting ice and hot coffee for the road at a Sheetz in Cressona, PA.  Somebody called out my brother’s name, we turned to see a chunky dude in a camo hooded sweatshirt and pajama pants approaching him … with a .38 special holstered on his hip.  Apparently, this was one of my brother’s former coworkers.  He had been fired for exceeding his absence level at work (which takes some doing), was known as a bit of nut.  I really needed no background on this.  I could see in his eyes, no one was home, much less hearing him speak and realizing this guy had mental problems, surely not enough to be institutionalized, but enough for daily meds.  And he’s openly carrying a hand gun in public?

The handful of times I’ve seen this since then, while I didn’t have this level of direct contact with the person, I wasn’t overly enthused to see some hard-edged, scowling, middle-aged dude sporting a holstered hand-gun on his hip … in the St. Clair Walmart parking lot … walking down the main street of Ashland … coming out of a Dunkin Donuts in Shamokin, etc.  Like we were in the Old West, and this guy was going to have to draw on a cigarillo-smoking desperado in black.  You can read me off all the statistics you want.  This is way out of bounds and totally unnecessary.  I’ve lived in New York since 1987 and lived in a crack-ridded neighborhood in the Bronx from ’87 to ’97.  If I put myself in the mindset of these dudes openly carrying guns in a comparatively safe rural area, I would have been walking around with a flamethrower those 10 years.  It wasn’t unusual to hear gunshots in the distance at night in that neighborhood, and there were a few notorious murders in my neighborhood.  You learned fast what to do and what not to do to avoid trouble.  Your mind was your greatest weapon, developing the traits and abilities to avoid meaningless, violent confrontation.  Not a gun.  (Granted, there are situations, urban or rural, where a gun could save your life, but they’re surely not an every-day aspect of existence, and something I’ve thankfully yet to encounter.)

So, think about the superintendent and the bucket of rocks in Blue Mountain.  If anything, this is the antithesis of our gun-crazy culture, albeit more than a bit nuts.  Biblical in a sense, like Davey slinging rocks at Goliath?  Only in this case, I’d rather not go up against some deranged 15-year-old with an AR-15 assault rifle … with a bucket of rocks.  I don’t like those odds!  Nor do I like the concept of arming teachers.  Teachers don’t strive to obtain their degrees and dedicate their lives to broadening the possibilities for children with the thought of one day gunning them down in a crisis situation.  The concept of armed teachers is the antithesis of education: it’s more like prison.  And the few teachers I knew in high school that would have been comfortable handling guns in school were people who scared me nearly as much as the thought of some unhinged kid on a shooting spree.

Then again, there’s a lot I no longer understand about high school and this horrible, dark strain of shootings that has somehow become normal in our society.  We used to have fire drills.  The bigger end of the baby-boom generation, those kids would have nuclear-attack drills, hiding under their desks when the alarm went off, waiting for Russian warheads to rain down on them.  Kids are doing the same thing now, only they’re hiding under their desks when the alarm goes off, waiting for a psychotic American teenager with a semi-automatic weapon to kill them.

A few years back, when we were staging our 20th high-school reunion, I went back to the high school for an informal tour.  (The concept was to gather as many people as possible the Friday before a Fourth of July weekend, but I was the only person who turned up!)  I hadn’t set foot in the high school since graduating.  Approaching the front door, I was shocked to realize it was locked down (even in July).  There was a camera on the far wall overlooking the far-left door, which appeared to have a buzzer/intercom set-up.  I pressed it, announced who I was and why I was there.  The woman at the front desk in the office buzzed me in, then escorted me to wait for the principal.

The tour went fine.  It was amazing to walk through that place again and have the teacher guiding me grasp that not a lot had changed culturally there in the past 20 years.  But that front-door buzzer stuck with me.  Back in the 70s and early 80s, you just walked right in or out.  There was no need for lock downs, shooter drills or armed guards.  Then again, at that point in history, there were relatively few, if any, school shootings on record, and only a handful of mass shootings serving as templates for what would become societal norms decades later.  Is there something wrong in our society that horrible scenarios are now the norm?  Obviously.  And the concept of dozens of people, particularly kids, being murdered, would be a lot harder to envision without semi-automatic weapons.  (Imagine what Charles Whitman would have done in that tower in Austin in 1966 if he had one instead of a hunting rifle.  Then again, you don’t have to, as Stephen Paddock did just the same in 2017 in Las Vegas, killing 58 people and wounding 422 others.)  A bucket of rocks doesn’t seem any more or less sane against those kind of numbers.