I was raised on a farm in Kansas, where Id slopped the hogs and helped harvest the wheat. What did it mean to be country?
What it means to be country has changed in the few decades of my lifetime, I think, from an experience to a brand cultivated by conservative forces.
Once, when I was about 30, I saw a boy from a small town wearing a T-shirt that read pro-God, pro-guns, pro-life. I was shocked. In my experience, there was no evangelism about my familys Catholic faith in the 1980s and little overt cross-pollination between our church and our politics. There was, that I can recall, no resentment toward people in cities with more formal education and money. Im suspicious when I see these tropes trotted out proudly to represent the rural, working-class experience, often by people who have things my family never could have afforded.
Id never heard of Carhartt, for instance, the popular workwear brand sometimes worn as a class-conscious fashion statement, until I was well into adulthood. My choring coveralls were 20 years old with a big corduroy collar and holes in the lining, and I slopped the hogs while wearing old tennis shoes as often as I did in boots.
Grandpas trucks were small Toyotas bought used, not big Fords or Chevrolets jacked up a foot above big tires to look tough. Those trucks tend to look too clean for a machine thats done any work. The big flags flying off the back of them wouldve scared our cattle. The people who drive them often live in suburbs and have big, clean garages full of all-terrain vehicles that they call toys next to a row of shiny helmets, a very good option I didnt have as I drove three-wheelers from one pasture to another with buckets of feed.
Grandpa would have chuckled at a man with a cattle guard on the front of his truck driving to and from an office job. He would have laughed, too, about designer jeans yellowed with a wash meant to evoke the dirt that was under his fingernails, or the shabby chic decorating trend of new furniture meant to look like it had weathered decades in our barn.
My family found stuff like that funny rather than offensive, maybe because it was so poorly executed. When affluent urban men in plaid flannel shirts let their hair grow wild and unkempt across their face and necks to affect a laborers style for doing laptop work in coffee shops, I think of my dad immaculately trimming his beard every morning before dawn to work on a construction site. The men closest to me took meticulous care with their appearance whenever they had the chance.
Mom, too, presented herself like her main job was to be photographed, when it was more likely to sort the inventory in the stockroom of a retail store. Her outfits were ensembles cobbled together from Wichita mall sale racks, but she always managed to look stylish. My favorite was a champagne-colored silk pantsuit that was cut loose and baggy. She wore it with a scarf that had big, lush roses on it like the satiny wallpaper she had glued and smoothed across our hallway. She had married a farm boy but had no interest in plaid shirts.
For me, country was not a look, a style, or even a conscious attitude, but a physical place, its experience defined by distance from the forces of culture that would commodify it. That place meant long stretches of near-solitude broken up by long drives on highways to enter society and then exit again.
Owning a small bit of the countryside brought my father deep satisfaction. The state had seized some of his dads farmland through eminent domain in the 1960s to dig the reservoir and move water east in underground tunnels for the people of Wichita. Sometimes Dad would park his truck on the shoulder of the two-lane blacktop that ran along the lake dam and take my brother and me up the long, steep concrete steps to look at what would have been his and then our small inheritance, now literally underwater. We couldnt use the water ourselves; it was for Wichitans to access by turning on a faucet. We thus had dug a private well right next to a giant reservoir on what once was our land. Its an old story: pushing poor rural communities out of the way to tap natural resources for cities.
Witnessing this as a child had affected Dad deeply, and he shared Grandpas attitude toward the value of land: They dont make any more of it. He had plans to buy the bit of land north of the house and build an addition when my brother and I were older and needed more room.
Mom was less sure of these plans.
Some evenings, Id watch her curl and tease her dark hair at the vanity mirror that my dad had built next to their master-suite bathroom. She smelled of hair spray and Calvin Klein Obsession perfume. She left in the darkness and turned her car wheels from our dirt road on to the highway for Wichita.
When Mom went to a George Strait concert at the small Cowboy Club in Wichita, when Strait was newly famous, Dad sat at the stereo next to our brick fireplace, listening to a radio broadcast of the show on a country station. George would pick a woman from the audience to join him on stage, the man on the radio said. Dad held his breath, worried that Mom would be picked and swept away by a handsome celebrity in tight Wranglers and a cowboy hat. The men I knew more often wore ball caps stained through by the salt of their foreheads.
Dad didnt even like country music. Too sad, he said.
In college, I began to understand the depth of the rift that is economic inequality. Roughly speaking, on one side of the rift was the place I was from laborers, workers, people filled with distrust for the systems that had been ignoring and even spurning them for a couple decades. On the other side were the people who run those systems basically, people with college funds who end up living in cities or moving to one of the expensive coasts. Its much messier than that, of course. But before arriving on campus, I hadnt understood the extent of my familys poverty wealth previously having been represented to me by a friend whose dad was our small towns postmaster and whose mom went to the Wichita mall every weekend.
Even at a midwestern state university, my background agricultural work, manual labor, rural poverty, teen pregnancies, domestic chaos, pervasive addiction seemed like a faraway story to the people I met. Most of them were from tidy neighborhoods in Wichita, Kansas City, the greater Chicago area. They used a different sort of English and had different politics. They were appalled that I had grown up with conservative ideas about government and Catholic doctrine against abortion. I was appalled that they didnt know where their food came from or even seem to care since it had always just appeared on their plates when they wanted it.
There was no language for whatever I represented on campus. Scholarships and student organizations existed to boost kids from disadvantaged groups such as racial minorities, international students and the LGBTQ community. I was none of those things, and professors and other students often assumed from looking at me or hearing me speak that I was a middle-class kid with parents sending me money.
To pay my room and board during my freshman year at college, I worked as a tutor for poor middle-school kids in nearby Kansas City and Topeka in the afternoons, as a stage technician for a performing arts center in the evenings, and as my dorms front-desk attendant overnight. During spring break, I was the trail boss for an environmental cleanup crew. I waited tables, too, late-night shifts worth a 45-minute drive to Kansas City because the tips were better there. I knew other kids with jobs but not many who had no choice but to work.
There are many complicated reasons why so few people cross a socio-economic divide in any lasting way, but one of the reasons is simple: it is a painful crossing. Those were the hardest years of my life.