Yesterday, I may have given the impression that the remarkable collection of essays, Off Main Street: Barnstormers, Prophets & GatemouthÃ•s Gator (compiled after his acclaimed Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time) by Michael Perry is just funny, redneck tomfoolery. And there is some of that; Perry is laugh-out-loud funny at times, and is often nicely amusing. Who else can wax on about the joys of small town water -towers, and end up interviewing a guy who removes water-tower graffiti for a living? He does have his rural jokes and has an affection for bus and truck drivers and country music. A couple of these pieces originally appear in No Depression, the alt-country mag.
So, heÃ•s clever and heÃ•s rural. But I did not adequately convey just how insightful and smart he is, how seriously lovely his writing is and how important some of these essays are to me.
To remedy this, I want to type in a bit of one of his pieces, composed when Hope magazine asked for submissions about 9-11. It is from an article called Taking Courage which is a chapter in Off Main Street. Perry starts out with wonderful prose that puts you right in his wilderness cabin, a place he sometimes goes to write.
I wonder what we know now. Now, the moment you are reading this. The tumblers have been set in motion. Every second is a forking path. As I write, the woods are dark, save for the pale daubs of lantern light angling out the cabin windows. It seems like Earth might be rotating around this coordinate. It is stunning to think of all humankind made contiguous by the globe. It is difficult to think in terms of governments, of manÃ•s inhumanity to man. It is earthen and peaceful here.
Where I live, we were looking east all day. That Day. Through the television, over the Web, with an ear to the radio. We peered through the smoke and the flags and began to get a sense of magnitude. In a faraway city, skyscrapers were fallingÃ‘would the tremors reach our little township. Where the only structure over two stories is a four-legged water tower?
Our volunteer fire department met for training the following evening. There are twenty-four of us, amateurs playing at a game in which the professionals regularly get their tails whipped. Flipping through Firehouse magazine before the meeting, I saw that 102 firefighters died in the line of duty in the year 2000. One rumbling instant in New York, and that number was eclipsed. The last burning structure I crawled into was a trailer. We were looking for a guy who turned out to be gone. Until courage meets circumstance, there are no heroes.
Tell me: How is the nationÃ•s resolve? Very few volunteer firefighters quit the department at the sight of big flames. They quit when they realize the bulk of the battle is a back-breaking slog. Hours spent burrowing and hacking through soggy debris to extinguish intransigent little hot spots. You begin a warrior and wind up a drudge, rolling hose, cleaning equipment, restocking the rigs. The September 11 attacks were nationally iconic. Our response was equally so. United. Strength. Charity. But the battle will not always live up to the telethon. Resolutions of substance generally require heavy lifting and extended attention to the mundane. I reckon IÃ•m a pickup-truck-coveting blue-collar capitalist, but this talk of preserving the nation through the wielding of credit cards and the acquisition of king cabs at 0 percent APR makes me snort. ItÃ•s hard to know what moreÃ‘if anythingÃ‘will be required of us. IÃ•m not overly worried. My neighbors have already crawled through fire with me.
An East Coast friend said she figured IÃ•d be hearing a lot of rural tavern talk of how it was time to kick some towel-head ass. Well, sure. ThereÃ•s always some loudmouth eager to swab the flag around like a World Wrestling Federation banner. But I have heard equivalent sentiments expressed on NPR and CNN, refined only in terms of diction and dress. Bigotry and extremism have commonality: Both are difficult to eradicate; both respond poorly to benevolence; and both are an embarrassment to those impugned through putative associations, whether we wear NASCAR caps or turbans. The battle for civility will outlast all others.
After a few other good paragraphs, he tells of arising the next morning, going for a hike. He finishes with this finely-crafted and important paragraph:
By morning, the woodstove is dead cold. It takes a little internal dialogue to get me to unzip my army surplus sleeping bag. I stow the Smith Corona under the bunk and shoulder by backpack. When I come out of the woods, I hear Osama bin Laden say there is fear in America. So be it. Courage does not arise out of comfort.
Excerpted from: Off Main Street: Barnstormers, Prophets & Gatemouth’s Gator Michael Perry (HarperCollins) $13.95