Jim is currently lost somewhere in the Panhandle of Florida. It’s 90 degrees and the sun is blazing. He has been repeatedly informed that it’s “winter” here and that his shorts and T-shirt and unending references to sweat-soaked heatstroke are offending the sensibilities of the shivering natives who shuffle about bundled up like Nepalese Sherpas on the snowy flanks of Mount Everest.
I am indeed a stranger in a strange land.
As I mentioned previously here and on various social networking sites, I’m travelling for the next few weeks and observing the human condition from this altered perspective.
At the moment, I'm deep in the deepest of the Deep South, lost somewhere in the moldering alligator infested swamps of the Florida Panhandle, teetering on the line between feverish reality and Alabama.
This is a place where they grow cotton and peanuts and rich golden fields of raging xenophobic paranoia. People hereabouts know Jesus personally and have him over for dinner on a regular basis. Imminent invasion by Red Communists is entirely possible and could happen at any time, though I suspect that any such intrusion would be rapidly stymied by large loud women in very tight pants waving cigarettes around like florid Jedi slashing about with light-sabers, the preponderance of giant flying cockroaches (them’s palmetto bugs, Sugar!), and this area’s secret weapon, “bolled” peanuts – which, if I was forced to speculate on the flavor of Satan’s fromunda cheese, I would use as a reference taste note.
They don’t take to strangers or Yankees or Alaskans, whom they view with the same distrust and suspicion as the aforementioned red communist horde.
The people hereabouts don’t seem much bothered by the strange and perplexing cognitive dissonance of life in the Panhandle.
My wife sent me to the gas station to pick up a newspaper for my father in law.
The store was a tiny ramshackle affair slowly decaying beneath a massive load of moss and vines. It was surrounded by the jetsam of decades, not quite a junkyard and not quite anything else either. There was a snarling three-legged red-boned hound on the sagging porch and a woman of indeterminate age and pedigree behind the cluttered counter. She looked at me, a stranger and obvious outsider, suspiciously but called me “sweetie” anyway – which as I learned later, means absolutely nothing, she calls everybody sweetie and would have addressed me as such even if she decided to put me down with the shotgun she keeps under the counter.
On the customer side of the counter was, well, a cliché.
He was in his 70's or so, grizzled and worn and none too clean. Rough woolen pants and a shirt the color of dirt and sweat that was likely made during the Eisenhower administration hung on him like wash on a line. He sported a pair of suspenders and knee-high well-worn leather boots. His ragged gray beard snaked below his waist and a shapeless floppy leather hat that looked like it might have been stitched together from various road-killed varmints perched forlornly on his head – least I be accused of stereotyping the prototypical Panhandle denizen, note that if you replaced the sun cured tobacco in his roll-your-own cigarette with greenhouse grown weed, he’d be indistinguishable from any of a dozen characters you’re liable to meet on the streets of my own Alaskan town. But I digress.
My entry had obviously interrupted a conversation – probably about the pending invasion by Red Communist Cannibal Death Nazis of Death.
They looked at me. I looked at them. Time passed. I began to suspect they thought I was the vanguard of the coming invasion.
Turns out that the newspapers were kept behind the counter and you have to ask for one.
I did – and then out of reflex, I pulled out my debit card.
Now, I eventually paid cash, just to be sociable and to prove I really wasn’t a red communist death Nazi cannibal from the dark side of the moon. And, funny thing, it turns out they did actually accept Visa, but only after the old guy who looked like a refugee from a ZZ Top concert explained how he doesn't hold with that credit card stuff because "y'all know them gobermin can foller y'all and that Obomer's CIA snoops thru y'all's bidness to fin out whatcher'all doin'."
Despite having travelled in these parts before and knowing better, I cracked wise and replied that if the CIA had nothing better to do than track my reading habits, well, I’d lead them on a merry chase.
I don’t think they were in a joking mood.
After explaining Obama's secret plan to read our minds via the CIA’s newspaper data mining, ZZ Top shuffled out on the porch while I got my change.
When I left, he smiled knowingly and waved like he was swatting at a fly.
He was talking to somebody on a shiny brand new Android smart phone apparently oblivious to the astounding irony.
Despite the fact that this area is one of the poorest in the nation, awash in poverty and lack of opportunity, they are nearly one and all conservatives (of course, there are exceptions, but they are a lonely few), firmly convinced that their enduring misery would be lifted if there was only more Jesus in the government and the schools and less black people in the White House.
The less they have, the more firmly they are convinced that the Obama is coming to take it away.
Fox News blares like an air raid siren from nearly every TV in the area, bleating red tinged panic twenty-four hours a day – seriously, I’ve been forced to listen to Fox for a week, the screen flashes continuously in the colors of panic with the word “alert” scrolling across the bottom in an endless loop, the talking heads scream about Obama in a unending flow of hysterical panic, punctuated only by commercials from equally crazed SuperPACs warning about the end of America. When they don’t have anything else to show, they run footage from Benghazi on a continuous loop filling the screen with flames and smoke and terrorism. If you watch Fox News, you might think that the attack on our embassy in Libya was pretty much the only thing that’s happened in the entire world in the last month, hell, you might be given the impression that it’s happening right now.
I was walking out of the Pace Home Depot and a man in the parking lot was screaming angrily into his phone:
I don’t care if they come in an hour early and leave an hour early! I don’t care if they take a couple of breaks during the day! But you make sure they understand that just because I’m flexible with the work hours I ain’t running no damned liberal shop!
Local business owners complain bitterly about having to “pay for socialism,” i.e. Obamacare, and how they built their own business.
The advertising company behind this message specializes in this particular sign. They’re all over the area, each with a different local business owner. What those businesses spend on these signs in a month would pay the ACA tax for their employees’ healthcare insurance for a year (And yes, never mind the fact that President Obama didn’t actually say these people didn’t build their own business, which is readily obvious if you watch his speech in context. But truth means nothing in the face of hysteria and panic).
They claim they’re going broke because of Obama, but they’ve got the money to waste on signs like this.
Yes, again with the irony.
Speaking of signs, there are plenty of signs filled with dire warnings about Angry Jesus and his imminent return, they sit in yards and church lots next to Romney/Ryan banners, warning of hell and damnation and homosexuals.
The intersection leading to Whiting Field is papered with posters that say “Keep America Free, Fire Obama!”
On the other hand, the only Obama/Biden signs I saw were stacked in a pile behind the Florida Democratic Party tables at the state fair. The table was hidden away behind rows of religious booths offering salvation and threatening damnation, behind people hawking insurance and storm windows. The lonely man behind the table seemed grateful for my attention – and the fact that I was from the far north and not a confrontational local come to make obnoxious comments and threats – which I gather happens frequently. When I asked him how business was, he sighed and said that he suspected that those who picked up an Obama sign were mostly putting them in the middle of their neighbor’s yard at night, just to piss people off.
I watched the debate at the Milton, Florida, VFW.
Or rather I watched the patrons of the bar watching the debate.
Through clouds of cigarette smoke and the miasma of cheep light beer, one thing became apparent: patriotism depends on the size of your American flag lapel pin and the color of your tie. The bar patrons spent long minutes on both, with some calling Romney’s much larger flag pin proof of his superior patriotism and others seeing it as the sin of Pride. Despite a profound disinterest in anything outside of their tiny little hamlet, the rednecks hollering from the end of the bar were one and all self-declared experts on embassy security, Syria, and how many 1960’s era ships it took to defend America from Vietnam (Answer, a lot, like maybe a bazillion, or a thousand, or five hundred or something).
Funny thing, they hated Obama – that was obvious right from moment I walked in, but they apparently hated Romney just as much. From the comments, I’d guess they’ll spend election day clustered in same place they were during the debate, drinking and smoking and complaining bitterly about everything.
See, if they don’t vote they can bitch about the government in equal measure no matter who wins the upcoming election.
Why was I in the Milton VFW in the first place? Well, I’m a member of the National VFW organization and I was meeting some folks and that was a convenient location.
A day later I sat in a local restaurant, the two old gentlemen in the booth behind me were talking desultorily:
Guy 1: You watch the debate?
Guy 2: Naw. But I heard Romney sure put that spade in his place.
Guy 1: I didn’t watch it either, but y’all got to wonder about a president who hates the military like that.
Guy 2: Yaw, he sure hates the United States. They all do you know. They hate this country. They hate us. And I don’t know how we’re supposed to win all the wars without a navy.
Guy 1: I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard that. He’s getting’ rid of the navy. We’re gonna be down to maybe fifty ships if that Romney feller don’t win.
Guy 2: I heard Obama didn’t even know we still use bayonets.
Guy 1: And this guy is deciding how many ships we have? Sad. He’s got no respect.
Guy 2: Yay, the Russians will jus walk in here and take over without no navy to stop ‘em. Stupid damned Obama. He don’t know nutin’.
Guy 1: Well, sir, I tell you, them Russian ain’t gonna take my land without a fight.
Guy 2: Amen to that, Brother…
I guess the fact that it’s Congress who decides how many ships the navy has escaped these two geniuses.
The navy asks for a certain number of ships over a certain amount of time, Congress typically funds anywhere from half to two-thirds of that list, and adds in bunch of stuff the Navy neither needs nor wants but makes the voters happy. It takes years, decades even, to design, purchase, and complete shipbuilding programs.
It’s the same with all large weapons programs, from ships to stealth bombers to tanks.
And as the President said, it’s not the numbers, it’s the capabilities.
A single B-2 bomber today equals hundreds, sometimes thousands, of World War Two B-29s.
A single Arleigh Burke class Aegis Destroyer is equal to an entire squadron of Vietnam era cruisers and destroyers, and then some.
A single platoon of M1A2 Abrams Main Battle tanks with OTHT drone support could have destroyed Patton’s entire 3rd Army before they even knew it was there.
A single soldier today is far, far more effective than an entire World War One platoon.
This isn’t a secret. Anybody who watches The Military Channel would know it. Anybody who paid attention over the last ten years would know. Anybody with a decent grasp of military technology and knowledgeable advisors would know this.
But that’s the thing with these people. To them it’s not the lead in the pencil, it’s the size of the pencil itself.
If only it were that simple.
If it was up to me, I’d load the guns with grapeshot made from Panhandle boiled peanuts.