Friday, November 09, 2007


I am a muller. I like to mull. If you went to a movie with me, and you asked me, as we were leaving, what I thought of the movie, I would say “Hmmm…”

And then two or three hours would go by.

And then, quite suddenly, usually without prompting, I would start spewing forth on the film. Then the momentum of my opinion would be quite unstoppable. It just takes a little while to get started, is all. I guess it is the last remnant of my Hoosier reticence.

And so I’ve been thinking quite a bit these last couple of days about Nebraska, where my mom lives. I was there over the weekend with my sister. I flew into Denver, where sis lives, and then one six-hour drive with incredibly monotonous scenery later we were at my mom’s house.

You know how you know you are in the Midwest? When you ask for hot sauce at the Taco Bell off the interstate, and the girl behind the counter has to go ask where they keep it.


The best part is when she looked at my sister, who had not ordered yet, and asked “Are you going to be wanting taco sauce, too?” As if something about our (decidedly non-familial) resemblance to one another, perhaps our expensive eyewear, or the studied dishevelment of our hair, marked us as exotic condiment aficionados.

Somewhere in between the famous stubbornness of Iowans, and the “show me” obstinance of Missourians are the Nebraskans, who seem to me, at least in the rural areas, to have a unique talent for ignoring their own self-interest in the most perverse and infuriating ways.

I remember sitting watching tv with my stepdad several years ago, and there was a health alert on the local news warning people not to drink water from the garden hose, on account of the dangerous chemicals that leach into the water from the hose when it sits in the sun. “That’s ridiculous!” he blurted out. “Everyone I know’s been drinking outta the hose their whole lives. Nothing ever happened to them.”

I remember the moment like it was yesterday, because at the time, my stepdad had begun to take pills so that his stomach could digest food properly. It was a medical condition I had never heard of before, and yet there were several people living in his area that were all suffering the same affliction.

I’m sure they didn’t get it from drinking from the garden hose, and yet my stepdad’s attitude was a typical one, both for him and for most residents of Nebraska farmland: governmental health and environmental groups are big over-reacting sissies out to ruin their way of life.

No agency is more hated in that part of the country than the EPA, and the EPA is seen as an invention and instrument of the Democratic party. Farmers, and the myriad of economic systems that support the farming economy, are of the opinion that a man ought to be able to do what he wants with his own land.

That sounds like a fine and patriotic sentiment, except that in order to stay afloat, farmers will put just about anything on their crops in order to bring them in with a profit sufficient to keep them going. And if, in doing that, they also, say, poison the water table that supplies the entire community, their reaction generally is to stick their collective heads in the sand. The water table’s not poisoned, you sissies. We’ve been drinking out of this water table our whole lives, and nothing’s happened to us.

Nothing except that they’re all fucked-up physically. All of them. My stepdad died still sucking on the nebulizer that had kept his respiratory system functioning for years. And if you’d asked him, I’m sure he would’ve denied that it had anything to do with any of the herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, or other crop-enabling poisons that he handled over the years.

But there has been progress. My mom told me that, so far, her community had successfully kept a feedlot from opening less than a mile from where she lived.

“Hold on,” I said. “You just told me yesterday that if everyone went vegetarian like me, that Nebraska would be ruined. That the economy was built on beef. And yet, you don’t want a feedlot anywhere near you.”

But of course she doesn’t. Because it would ruin the value of her land. Because feedlots stink. They stink for miles and miles and miles. And if you think the chemical cocktails that farmers use are bad, you should see what a couple thousand gallons of cow piss per day will do to your groundwater. So of course she’s all NIMBY on that issue, but in a state like Nebraska, NIMBYism can be considered progress. Because at least they’re admitting that there’s a problem.

I am not from Nebraska. And it makes me sad, I will admit, to see my mom, who moved back to her family home after her children were grown, growing old in such a place. I understand why Nebraskans love their land, because it is so beautiful sometimes, like when the early evening shadows fall over the dales, that it makes my heart ache in my chest. But I couldn’t live there, not just because I’m too liberal, but because rural Nebraska is changing. No young person who goes to college ever comes back. And those who are not inclined or can’t afford to go to college are lucky if there is a job opening in one of the few remaining small-time meat packaging plants in the county. Mostly they become part of the service economy. They hold two or three jobs in order to make ends meet. They struggle. They spend a lot of money on medicine.

And like those gigantic WalMarts that obliterate not only local businesses, but also acres and acres of countryside, big agribusiness is turning Nebraska into one never-ending facility. Farmers die. The heirs sell the farm to the likes of Archer Daniels Midland. The feedlots grow from 5 acres to 500 acres each, and the way of life for those remaining dies a little each day.

Like I said, it’s sad. I hope my mom’s little corner of Nebraska stays mostly beautiful until her days on the land are done, but in the meantime, I’m glad she finally bought that water filtration system.


Anonymous said...

The thought of the cashier having to ask the manager for the key to the "taco sauce" cabinet is just too funny for words.

Most of my family still lives in central California, and they are facing many of the same enviromental health issues you mentioned. And yet, if you even mention the name Cesar Chavez in their presence, be prepared for a lesson in what a trouble maker he was. It boggles the mind.

Bro said...

Wow, here is my experience with that same man, that same piece of ground and a garden hose during a visit 24 years ago.

The tanks on the tractors carry an herbicide, real nasty one and everyone knew the name of it, I think it was atrozine. When the dilute it down they stick the garden hose directly in the tank. Al had warned me about the dangers of the hose, the tank and the herbicide.

The next day a man and his son where working their way down the road clearing brush. They came up and asked to get a drink from my mom. Half a minute later I look out to see the boy with the nasty hose instead of “tha drinkan hose” in his hand and was about to take a drink from the very hose that spends it’s time stuck in a herbicide tank.

You would have to have lived on that particular farm to know which hose was the one that was basically carcinogenic and which one was only carcinogenic if enough spillage had gotten into the ground water.

I went running out the door yelling, hoping that I knew what I was talking about. The man understood right away, “that the atrozine hose?” “yup” I replied in Nebraskan.

The relief on his face was obvious, and it wasn’t him that was saved from the drink but his son.

As a father I can only imagine what it would have been like to find out too late that my boy had just drunk from such a hose (that apparently every farm had one of).

dad said...

Vikki, You have really excellently captured a bit of Americana. I never will forget one of the first times I visited your mother's parents and we were watching something on TV, when Gerald jumped up and ran outside. Everyone followed. What was going on? A crop duster was spraying the fields about half a mile away.

And if the grandparents were coming for a visit, they ran to the frig to hide the beer so the grandparents wouldn't see it accidently.

I think the people there know they are deeply disadvantaged living there, but they deny it by making it something to be proud of. Being poor, being ignorant, being naive have been developed into badges of honor worn proudly and defended with repeated story telling. Romantics call them plainfolk. I too, am sadden to see their noble isolation being eroded away without a whimper.

Bush/Cheney destroyed the soul of the Republican party and they have no where to go because adapting to conditions and having a visions of the future is not their skill.

Distributorcap said...

what a great post viki
and you captured the essence of the center of this country

you can understand their stubbornness and their demeanor --- life is hard but good -- and you can even in a way understand their fear of govt

but i cannot understand their insulation and refusal to wake up to the changing world

thanks as always
you are class all the way

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

I know what you mean about farmers hating the government. Around here it used to be tobacco growing central and the farmers hated it that the gov't told them how many acres they could plant.

'Bubbles' said...

"They take lots of medicine." - good one! My sister lived in Nebraska in her younger years. She took lots of medicine, too. I believe she once referred to her town as a "medicine hub".

My SIL has family living in the "suburban area" of Omaha. Her family has done well there - real estate and medical professions.

I was born in Council Bluffs, so I think I should be able to claim being both an Iowan and a Nebraskan, I suppose. But my parents left the area in their mid-30's, when I was four, and never cared to return. All but one of the two sides of my family are dead. Except of a cousin, and that's a post!

Johnny Yen said...

One of my closest friends grew up in the rural Illinois town our college was in. It's surrounded, of course, by farms, and the runoff from the farms drains into the lake they get their drinking water from. He survived cancer in his twenties, and came to the realization that every family on his block had had a case of cancer.

It's funny how different the "government-hating" farmers feel about the the federal government when it comes times to accept crop subsidies.

Skylers Dad said...

Hi Vikki, it was great to meet you while you were in town!

This is a wonderful slice of the midwest, thanks for sharing it with us. I remember traveling to the middle of Kansas to visit some relatives of my mom many times. It sounds quite the same, except replace corn with wheat... They lived in a town called Plainville, can you believe that name?

dad said...

Hey bubbles, I was born and raised in Council Bluffs. My step brother was on the city council and ran for mayor (he withdrew). These two cities together represent the closest thing to urban living this side of Kansas City.

dad said...

Er My step brother was on the Omaha city council. Still lives there.

Jess said...

The town Jeff grew up in Illinois (Downers Grove... he calls it "Downers Grave") ALSO has a "cancer" problem. Pretty much everyone's family in the neighborhood has a person with cancer in it. "They" found some sort of cancer-causing stuff in the water years and years ago. It was a whole "Erin Brockavitch" thing that Jeff's mom is still trying to fight.

It terrifies the shit out of me in regards to Jeff. I'm always worried he's going to get cancer.

GETkristiLOVE said...

dadE - we already went through the Council Bluffs thing with Bubbles once on my blog, remember? I think we figured out that your mom probably knew her grandmother because they both worked at the same place at the same time, or something like that.

sis - excellent post. I'm glad she has the filtration system even though she makes me change those nasty-ass filters every time I'm there. It just goes to show you, she likes you best.

Grant Miller said...

I applaud your bravery for venturing into the Mid West.

deadspot said...

"Mostly they become part of the service economy." ...but they still won't know where to find the hot sauce.

dguzman said...

I love this post--it captures the two-mindedness of so many rural dwellers and farmers. They hate the govt telling them what to do, but they take every possible incentive and tax break they can get to keep their farms afloat. And they never seem to see the double-standard implicit in that life.

Lisa said...

Not to downplay all the very excellent points raised in this post, but....

I don't ask for hot sauce at Taco Bell because it ain't hot enough.

I fully expect to have no functioning taste buds by the time I'm 50.

SJ said...

I loved this post. And, like Pops before you, you have made me Wikipedia for the first time in a long time. Ah, NIMBY, how I love thee now.