Fire and Seeds
The town is divided into the visible, reputable, upper-middle class and the less visible, but far larger, class that isn't. The better people for the most part work in middle or upper management at one of the several huge, multi-national services companies in town. Everyone else gets by. The layoffs at the big factories on the outskirts of town have left a quiet wasteland of older people trying to find work and younger people trying to find a future.
The bright kids from the right side of the tracks go to the state university, or they leave town entirely. The rest of the kids find work where they can, and many of them stop by the community college on their way to adulthood. They join the ranks of older people taking classes because they, like the youthful students, believe that the key to a joba real job with permanence and benefits and meaninglies in education. Many of them, young and old alike, vow to go on to the state university to complete four-year degrees. Most won't.
The people who attend the community college are, for the most part, trying to lay patches on a shambles of the education they have already received. Young and old together find the task terribly difficult. Studying productively hours at a time is just not in their nature and not in their backgrounds. Attending classes every day isn't either. Showing up for exams is not an absolute. Cheating is not a matter of ethical proscription; it's just a matter of not getting caught. The community college sells them all a bill of goods, and some rise to the challenge, but others simply cannot. At best, though, from this place will come some graduates who will go on to the state university or to a technical school and eventually get a job that pays a marginally living wage.
Between the old and new wings of the main building where classes are conducted is a big smoking area. There, the people gather; and there, the conversations among the students paint a broad canvas of the lives these people have and the lives to which they aspire.
So much of what the young men talk about is war. Many are already in the Guard, or they are about to enlist, or they're back from a tour of duty. They talk about other things; but a great swath of what animates their conversations has to do with war. With their culturally acceptable crew cuts and they're almost uniform-like clothing, they go on and on about war.
Three young men are talking out there, and the one young man, who's just enlisted, says, "Fuck, yeah. I'd fucking shoot 'em. They shit on themselves! Did you hear about that?they shit on themselves when you lock 'em up!" The other two are snickering and nodding their heads in agreement.
Another young manevery bit the square-jaw, flat-top, muscles-on-top-of-muscles Marinesucks hard on the butt of his cigarette while he grumbles about the female soldiers in his company having sex with their superiors, then refusing to do any work, and no one will punish them. He gets off that subject and starts talking about how the Marines don't do bad things and screw up all the time like the Army people do: Marines are disciplined, trained warriors; and Army people are nothing but a bunch of worthless junk that never thought they'd actually have to do anything for their weekend-warrior paychecks and college grant money. His eyes brighten when he's asked about weaponry. "You guys didn't have the 'Saw' back then, did you?" he grins. A little prompting gets him to describe it: sort of a cross between an M-16 and an M-60. "It's sweet."
He doesn't even make it to the final exam before his unit's called back. An early, hastily written final gets him the "A" he probably didn't quite deserve.
A slightly older student is always out there before and after class. He's a full-fledged veteran. As the semester goes on, his struggle to find a job takes a more and more noticeable toll on his demeanor. He stops talking about what he wants to major in when he goes to the state university. He talks more and more about how good it felt to be out in the field, to be among his buddies, to be among weapons with their awe-inspiring power. By the end of the semester, he's gone to the recruiting station to cut a deal to re-enlist.
Another veteran isn't too talkative. Outside in the smoking area, he stays mostly to himself, but sometimes he'll talk about his truck and his new son. He chain smokes while he sits, leaning forward with his hands on his knees, staring out across the corn fields beside the campus. At one point, after all the other kids have gone inside for their next classes, he takes one last draw on his cigarette, and he mutters something about what a couple of young, loud pups were saying.
The culture of these males just oozes a deepening affinity to what the neo-conservatives have done to re-tool America into a war nation. The economy is failing them, the world of high and broad knowledge is pretty much unavailable to them, and the prospect of a country at peace is uninteresting to them. But despite all that should be telling them to fight for change, to insist upon and demand a civil society that provides abundantly for its people, these men line up to embrace the very mentality that sets upon them the boot of want and despair.
This time of war is what gives those young men their meaning, their hope, their focus. It's all an abstraction to people of better means: it's flag-waving nationalism for America on the march, or it's wholesale revulsion at the lies breeding the monstrosity of it all. But for the kids there at that community college, it's the way out of the slow stew of economic and social Hell that awaits them in lives that promise to otherwise go nowhere and mean nothing.
There's some of this at the state university, too; but there's something else going on, and it's even evident in small ways at the community college. It's very much like the mid-1960s: most of the kids wear their hair butch-cut short and talk a fairly hard conservative line while doing a whole lot of unconservative things. At first blush, everyone looks just about the same as everyone else.
But then, there's that fringe group.
Looking closely at the young people scurrying between the buildings, shock of all shocks, long hair on a few young men is making a comeback. So is that avoidance of the tough-talk boy groups in the smoking areas and the hallways. So is that almost cautious, imperceptible excitement of engagement when they realize that the professor is unapologetically and unrelentingly chewing into the dominant media's perspectives on what's happening in the world.
Once in a while, they'll even let a professor in on their political activism: underground newspapers, blogs, the coffee shop where they get together. They don't talk too openly, but they know what they're doing. They're dabbling in all things counterculture: anarchism; Marxism; strangely defiant music; variant art and comics; and even deconstructive intellectualism, that thing to which they were denied exposure throughout their entire educational experiences. They're exploring themes and people and places and ideas that no one in their entire lives told them existed; and the more they learn, the more their alienation is channeling. Yes, some of this has been going on all along; but now, the faint smell of critical mass is in the air. It's still a long journey from here to where the open clashes start to come.
But come they will. And they will be every bit as nation-wrenching as the last time the kids got sick of the lies and did something about it. All the older people can do is sit back and choose a side. Or maybe be a professor who shows up at the coffee house to listen to them as they become the hope of a better future.
And about what that quiet veteran muttered, the one who didn't talk much except about his truck and his new son: he'd been listening to a couple of young men nearby blabbing excitedly about their recent enlistments and going over to Iraq. What the veteran muttered was, "Dumb-asses."
So it begins. And we all know where it ends.
The Dark Wraith has spoken.