Life Amid the Suicide Machines

by Caleb Stegall on April 10, 2009 · 22 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Region & Place,Writers & Poets


JEFFERSON COUNTY, KANSAS.  In small town America, business owners get to sponsor everything from the high school wrestling team to the “pride committee” chili cook off.  One of the events my law practice regularly sponsors is the annual Jefferson County tractor pull.  It is a day-long shin-dig and offers a fascinating cross-section of rural decline in America, which is really American decline.  

The turn out is large and includes both my wife and I and our five sons.  Any observer could tell a lot about rural America from a day at the tractor pull.  One of the first things to strike me is that there aren’t many full-fledged farmers left.  I see some old men who have obviously lived in the fields.  They are, quite literally, weathered.  And they are easy in their weathering, like old oaks, bent in partnership with the prevailing winds, and pleased to be so.  

But the majority are middle-aged men who look battered and broken by the unnatural rather than natural elements.  They don’t smile.  If they farm it is likely done in the mode of warfare.  Chemical drops and moving tanks.  I can see that they have the accoutrements of an inherited yeomanry, but by and large cannot carry themselves with the easy competence of their fathers.  The exceptions to this are easy to spot.  These men are truly the life of these gatherings.  I see them dotted around the field, laughing easily and always drawing crowds of listeners.  

Then there are the teenage and younger boys.  A few sinewy, tanned youths who obviously work hard have begun to walk with that air of a freeman, humble and world-striding at the same time.  It is immediately attractive to anyone with sense about these things.  These boys will likely make it, though probably not here, which is a final failure of this place, and hard to bear, even in the anticipation of it.  

I am most disturbed, though, by the general class of youth—fat and soft, they face the world with an obnoxious arrogance born of deep incompetence and likely as yet undiscovered self-loathing.  I am imagining that they have spent the wealth of their days in front of the TV or video game consol, or in unruly mobs harassing the peace and good order of their bettors.  Sturdy beggars in training.  Their files will fill my office at the county courthouse in the years to come. 

Not nearly so many of the women as the men have given up.  They are busy with the food preparation, while a few of the men who remember how are roasting a giant hog.  Later, that meal will be a feast and a blessing King Solomon himself might have enjoyed, and a testament to all that has not yet been lost here.  This this knowledge carries its own special kind of sadness. 

And then, of course, at the tugging of my sons, I do see the tractors. Tractors of all sorts.  The middle age and younger set bring their hobby tractors.  These are hot-rod tractors or specialty tractors with interesting, flashy paint jobs and names like “Spare Change.”  They belch fire, roar, and pull hard and fast, but generally not too far.  The old guys who still farm just bring their everyday tractors.  Might be a 1950s model, or a more recent piece from the 70s or 80s. These tractors still have mud on them from work earlier that day.  They pull slow and steady and take home most of the trophies.  

I look around and notice the glut of machinery.  Not just the tractors, but the hayfield is chok full of dual rear axle pick up trucks.  Machinery like this has become a compensation for many failures in a rural economy that has passed these men by and has no more need for them.  

I imagine that in times past there would have been some down home folk entertainment with Uncle Johnny playing the fiddle while dad strummed the banjo.  But no more.  Now from a myriad of truck windows comes the only poetry left to most here: Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, John Mellancamp, and most of all, the Boss.  Springsteen seems to have special resonance here:

The highways jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive / Everybody’s out on the run tonight but there’s no place left to hide. 


 Well now I’m no hero, that’s understood  / All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood.

There is a poignancy to the hopelessness.  I sweat and watch the last labored breathing of the American dream in and among the “suicide machines.” 

This hay field I am standing in now strikes me as one of the more moving and tragic accounts of American brokenness, isolation, dislocation, disenchantment, and alienation that I have experienced.  And the Jersey Bard recalls to my mind his lyrical antecedent—the prophet of that robust New England Puritanism which set out to re-sacralize the entire universe—Walt Whitman. 

Springsteen is the obvious latter-day Whitman, the Evangelical who has  lost his faith.  He both embodies the iconic “Open Road” and turns it on its head.  While the Witmanesque road is full of expectation:

Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,  / Healthy, free, the world before me,  / The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose. 

Springsteen’s is a post-apocalyptic escape route, littered on all sides with the burned out husks of our ruined suicide machines: 

Chrome wheeled, fuel injected and steppin’ out over the line  / Baby this town rips the bones from your back  / It’s a death trap, its a suicide rap  / We gotta get out while were young / ‘Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run.


We’re riding out tonight to case the promised land, so Mary climb in / It’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win.

That’s what comes to mind, anyway, standing in this field.  But now my five year old is tugging my arm.  “Don’t you see the tractors?!  Come on!”  And I can smell the roast pork and cherry pies.  Someone laughs.

Mon enfant! I give you my hand! / I give you my love, more precious than money,  / I give you myself, before preaching or law;  / Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me? / Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Meg Garber April 10, 2009 at 5:22 pm

“…fat and soft, they face the world with an obnoxious arrogance born of deep incompetence and likely as yet undiscovered self-loathing.”

Wow! That is some description–scary and insightful (as well as the whole essay–thanks). Well, TV Turnoff Week is just ahead, April 20-26 ( just for a little awareness raising on one small facet of that condemnation.

avatar Jason Peters April 10, 2009 at 5:33 pm

In late September we block off the street, gather around a couple of fires set ablaze in these ridiculous portable outdoor fireplaces, put our pies and casseroles on a big table, crack open our beverages of choice, and remind ourselves that we don’t know one another well enough. Over the summer we’ve crossed paths at the farmers’ markets, chatted each other up at the Riverssaince Festival or the ball game or on our evening walks, but it’s all eerily ersazt. It’s the loop of the Clorox jug, not the loop of the clay jug. and the whiskey comes from far away.

Let’s hope these remnants of real community, to include life amid the suicide machines, are enough to help us reconstitute a living once the plump tit of cheap oil sags like an empty gym sock.

avatar Hans Noeldner April 10, 2009 at 10:10 pm

It would seem that a great many of us have forgotten how to play and amuse ourselves without burning gasoline, without an internal combustion engine between our legs, without making a frightful noise that forces everyone within a quarter-mile to pay attention.

Many see freedom to consume and emit without limit as a God-given right, and how dare anyone question it?

avatar mizze April 11, 2009 at 10:30 am

Let’s hope this wave of self-reliance catches on everywhere.

avatar D.W. Sabin April 11, 2009 at 12:23 pm

….”they are easy in their weathering, like old oaks, bent in partnership with the prevailing winds and pleased to be so”. Nice one Stegall. The interesting mating of the internal combustion engine and nihilism can make a lover of a 55 Buick Special or 60 LeSabre Convertible positively melancholy. There are an awful lot of disaffected males to be sure and I am no innocent in their condemnation but, there are also a lot of energetic young men who seem to have had their suspicions about modern America confirmed just in the nick of time by the current travails. Unfortunately, I see a disproportionate number of them in the building trades and they are the chief victims of the current infection. Government does not seem to want to take the lesson but Reality has a way with hoisting government on its own petard.

Mizze’s link to a local resourcefulness may be exactly what these young people need to take back control of their lives from the larger vampire-nanny culture. Whaddya wanna bet though, some Statehouse or local Inspector will soon appear on the scene and advise them of the 15 statutes and 27 codes they broke in addressing their problems without the proper applications. They’ll no doubt get a summons and a bill for punitive charges to boot. I hope there is a Youtube video of the Show Cause Hearing. That Bridge may need a little Dead Man ballast.

Now Peters, that crack about an “empty gym sock”..well, I was eating.

avatar ken mcintyre April 11, 2009 at 9:42 pm

I still love your work and miss the greatness of Pantagruel. I think that there is little that Whitman, who is a mediocre poet, has in common with Springsteen, who is an entertainer of suburban youth (including myself in the good old days). The point that I have taken, implicit in your article and like most of your best work, is not particularly sanguine. It is that populism itself is not particularly reliable about things like localism or ‘returning to the land’, and that most folks these days would prefer to shop at Wal-Mart and listen to prefab electronic Springsteen on the radio.

This seems to me to be one of the central issues of our little movement, and one reason why I have certain libertarian affections. (Sorry, Russell) What if the very folks that we would expect to be traditionalists aren’t overly concerned about ‘our’ concerns? If we are real populists, shouldn’t we treat their/our interests (i.e. truck pulls, nascar, getting drunk on saturday night) as very serious things? Just a thought. I’ve spent too much time thinking about what it means to be a conscious traditionalist or a traditionalist within an anti-traditionalist political community.

avatar Caleb Stegall April 13, 2009 at 7:45 am

Ken and all, thanks for the kind words.

It is probably gauche to admit it, but I have a certain wayward fondness for Whitman, Thoreau, and the other Puritan/Yankee Emersonian transcendentalists. Their dream ended in disaster — but what a beautiful dream!

avatar D.W. Sabin April 13, 2009 at 10:12 am

Stegall, Come now my fine Porcine bucketeer….What is gauche is being bashful about any fondness for Whitman, Thoreau and Emerson. These folks were independent thinkers and expressed the sentiment well. Life was a banquet to them and the niggardly satisfactions with conventional propriety as practiced by the supplicants to conventional wisdom were an anathema.

The best part is the dream has not quite “ended in disaster” because it aint ended. Not by a long shot. One can live it in full or part because the Great Edifice of American Mass Media and Entertainment is not really reality, even though it is accepted as such by an unfortunately large sector of boobs and opportunists in the lapsed republic. No, there are all types of transcendence left to us whether rubbing a pot roast on our chests like Whitman (or Zevon) or living simply while compounding the investment in beauty through studying the varying hues of moss in the spring awakening as Thoreau did or by seeking transcendence in all directions like Emerson.

Its all out there and one can break it off in fistfuls if you like. Happily, the curtain rod around Oz is also drooping and so one might actually hold that another era of transcendent possibilities is possible….after the brutes of the Bread and Circus Brigades exhaust their energy exacting revenge on whatever falls within their line of sight.

Things are about to go professional my friend, the disaster aint even hit second gear.

avatar Caleb Stegall April 13, 2009 at 10:29 am

You are my kind of man, Sabin. Just the sort of morning constitutional needed — wide eyed, nostrils flaring, snorting the free air — we will grok the universe!

But for all but the sturdiest souls it will end in disaster, which is the tragedy of it all. Like the beauty of Troy–thousands launched their ships upon it only to end up wrecked on a beach littered with dual rear axle trucks piping the tinny tunes of the Boss.

This is a central tension on this porch, I think, and deserves some discussion.

avatar mizze April 13, 2009 at 10:33 am

There was a glorious dawn on November 19, 2004, and, for a change, I got a running leap on the morning and saw the sun paint Hallelujah in the sky above Palmyra.

Thomas Love Peacock’s poem “Palmyra” is an address to the spirit of ancient times. Mankind’s passions, and the actions that result from them, are nearly the same in all ages and nations. All the works of man are subject to the same decay. Even those ruins will disappear from the desert.

Time and change have absolute dominion over everything terrestrial but virtue and the mind.

avatar Caleb Stegall April 13, 2009 at 10:48 am

Yes. I agree with the Greek tragedians that all things pass away and that this is what makes life sweet. I also agree with the Christian comedians that all things will be made new and that this is what makes life bearable.

So mourn the death of America and the demise of the beauty that she once was. Then cheer and work for the possibilities of rebirth. It was that complex of emotions I was struck with in the episode recounted above. Whitman is a good place to start from, circle to despair, and back again. “Mon enfant! I give you my hand!”

avatar mizze April 13, 2009 at 11:16 am

If you and/or Front Porch readers are not already fans of

The Man Who Planted Trees, by Jean Giono, then

I have the honor of pointing you to this wonder-ful story about an athlete for rebirth.

Part I

Part II

Part III

avatar D.W. Sabin April 13, 2009 at 11:47 am

ahhhhh yes, Disaster…or no disaster…which will it be? Given the kind of popular addictions to recreational disaster the public has willingly habituated itself too, one would think that a bloodcurdling disaster is a fait accompli. But, whenever I dissolve like a fizzing alka seltzer lozenge in my frequent cocktails of dyspepsia, I begin to simply do an accounting of the many people I meet on a day to day basis and I am reminded that it is a very fortunate thing indeed that the reality of my history with the cast of characters I’ve ricocheted off of has very little to do with much of the alternate reality put forth as the only reality by our vaunted popular culture. We seem to cart the messy laundry of it around in suitcases like we really do dress in the soiled garb but we really don’t. It would appear that we need to start traveling lighter. It is, I suppose the only intelligent recommendation of that great Paean to Kafka called the TSA: “Pack yer own bags” which also implies that one is better served by avoiding bags packed by others.

I would even be so foolish as to propose that even the most unmitigated bastards …or bastardettes….I’ve been forced to spend time with are better, for their reality and…most importantly….for their ability to keep piling kindling on the personal bonfire than virtually everything we listen to or watch on that vicarious agora that has pulled the largest Stockholm Syndrome on a people in the history of people.

Being a pessimistic follower of that old Olympic sport of getting one’s “exercise by jumping to conclusions” I really can’t say if , what Mencken called the Boobosie is going to pull out of the Dipstick Cavalcade our popular culture seems hellbent on ditching us into but, when the merde hits the flywheel, I am oddly optimistic that the old school amurikan will rear his or her head and rope the rodeo steer of self immolation toot sweet. Perhaps it is because optimism seems so declasse and it is simply another manifestation of my knee-jerk curmudgeonry. The cornucopia of nuts in this New World that never was new seem to show their best mettle when things get tough. I’d like to think the Pontiac will still turn over when the need arises.

That said, I have a Land Use Meeting to attend this evening and so it is possible that on the morrow, I shall have no faith in my fellow poison….whatsoever.

avatar D.W. Sabin April 13, 2009 at 1:37 pm

thanks for the great story of Elzeard Bouffier, acorn investor.
The story reminded me of a great book by Graham Robb entitled “The Discovery of France: A historical Geography From The Revolution To the First World War”. In it, he describes early journeys across the bleak province described in Bouffier’s story and the traveler seeing what looked to be giant spiders striding jerkily over the scrub landscape in the distance. On closer inspection, the alarmed traveler discovered that the locals were known to travel on stilts to reduce the distances between remote villages as much as possible.

Though scale and density might seem an insurmountable obstacle to rediscovering the landscape we’ve lost, it is far closer than we think it is.

avatar RJ Snell April 13, 2009 at 2:24 pm

You write: “Then there are the teenage and younger boys. A few sinewy, tanned youths who obviously work hard have begun to walk with that air of a freeman, humble and world-striding at the same time. It is immediately attractive to anyone with sense about these things. These boys will likely make it, though probably not here, which is a final failure of this place, and hard to bear, even in the anticipation of it.

I am most disturbed, though, by the general class of youth—fat and soft, they face the world with an obnoxious arrogance born of deep incompetence and likely as yet undiscovered self-loathing.”

I agree utterly with your description, but it does assume certain intuitions and a capacity to imagine free people doing free work. I suspect those intuitions and imaginations are not sensed or tasted by the youth fat and soft. So a question: absent the the work needed to form the “freeman,” how can the imaginations of the fat and soft be formed so as to see themselves the freeman and they ought to be seen?

I suspect argument won’t work. They are beyond satire. And their moral imaginations are corrupt. Now what?

avatar Caleb Stegall April 13, 2009 at 2:45 pm

RJ, I recommend a kick in the pants. Our military used to do a good job of this. These days the kick will most likely be vicious and come from the inevitable return of the Four Horsemen. Those who can be salvaged will be, and the rest …

avatar Josh Cooney April 13, 2009 at 10:12 pm

A much greater songwriter than the Boss, Jerry Jeff Walker, has, I think, captured the FRP dilemma.

Pack up all your dishes, make note of all good wishes
Say goodbye to the landlord for me, Sons of bitches always bore me
Throw out those L.A. papers, moldy box of vanilla wafers
Adios to all this concrete, gonna get me some dirt road back street…

If I can just get off of that L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught
Down the road in a cloud of smoke for some land that I ain’t bought…
If I can just get off of that L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught…

avatar Josh Cooney April 13, 2009 at 10:13 pm

sorry, FPR, not FRP

avatar Josh Cooney April 13, 2009 at 10:39 pm

Correction: L.A. Freeway was written by Guy Clark.

avatar Sean S. April 19, 2009 at 4:37 pm

Am I the only one who finds this whole article ridiculous? Fat and soft youth? Sinewy old men? And using Springsteen (who after all, essentially sang odes to American urban youth culture) as an example of the nihilism of modern day? And the comment about “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and “salvaging” people is more creepy than anything.

I get it. Idyllic rural life is no more, we all use big nasty machines to make enough food/products to be able to sustain the number of people we have living in this country. And that to a large extent this is game-changing situations that shifts the balance of life to urban, if not exurban, locales. And of course not everyone is happy, nor satisfied, with the overwrought consumerist trappings that we’ve built around us.

But plenty of people live satisfied urban areas, or even suburban areas. Potentially they could just be deluded, and maybe they are to a certain extent, but something obviously attracts them to it, and I doubt it has little to do with being “fat and soft”. This all reminds me a little too much of Deliverance, of emasculated, alienated middle-class men yearning for an authenticity which has passed them by, but is constantly beckoning them on like a mirage.

avatar Esmeralda_Pearl May 4, 2009 at 3:29 pm

[...]I am most disturbed, though, by the general class of youth—fat and soft, they face the world with an obnoxious arrogance born of deep incompetence and likely as yet undiscovered self-loathing. I am imagining that they have spent the wealth of their days in front of the TV or video game consol, or in unruly mobs harassing the peace and good order of their bettors. Sturdy beggars in training. Their files will fill my office at the county courthouse in the years to come.[...]

You got that right!

Farming has become so mechanized that legions of unskilled youth are no longer necessary to the rural landscape; except where “bend and stoop” labor is involved. That kind of work is generally filled by Mexicans…”legal” and “illegal.” (It’s true! They’ll do work that the idle and uneducated will spurn.)

Caleb, have you ever done an “informal survey” of how many of them are from “single parent” (as in “unwed mother”) households? How many of their parents are wholly or partially on the dole? It would be an interesting (or depressing) study.

Your description fits many of my former students like a glove. (I’m retired as a Social Studies/History teacher at a youth correction facility…The job was difficult but the pension was worth it.)

Disaffected rural youth…Hmm…DWI/DUIs, meth labs, domestic abuse and out-of-wedlock children…That would be my analysis. :(

Sometimes I think that “horrible’ sherriff in Arizona/New Mexico is onto something! ??? ;)

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