Prelude to a Trump: Recollections From a ’90s Kid About Small-Town America
Three giant crosses — a taller one flanked by two smaller ones — still smoldered the next morning as my mother drove me to school. I sat in the back of our blue Plymouth Voyager minivan, my head pressed against the cold window, watching thick strands of smoke slither through the valley, the residuum of a Ku Klux Klan cross lighting the night before.
I was 12 years old; my sister, 9. My father worked at the glass mould factory, my mother at the county courthouse. Our neighbors — they toiled in the coal mines and steel mills and chemical plants, built houses, drove big rigs, fixed telephone lines, trained at the Army Reserve, raised livestock, hunted game, pumped gasoline, bagged groceries, subsisted on welfare. It was the mid-90s in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and Bill Clinton would soon be re-elected president.
Our split-level house benefited from a vista of the rolling Appalachian foothills. Across the gravelly road, a family lived in a crumbling farm house, perpetually covered by a tarp. Down back, behind the woods, two vinyl-clad trailer homes were perched high above a creek. Farther away, a muddy rutted path led to a trailer park and my school buddy’s rotting domicile, where the toilet was twenty steps away, outside.
In the other direction, within the expanse of our panorama, another neighbor—Imperial Wizard of the splinter group White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan — accumulated military-style weapons and ammunition, detonating pipe bombs in preparation for blowing up an abortion clinic.
And in all directions, a subterranean neighbor: the coal companies. Invisible except to those who knew they were there, air intakes mysteriously shot up from mining shafts many hundreds of feet below. Occasionally, their presence was more conspicuous: a house hastily equipped with hydraulic stilts, succumbing to displacement of the ground beneath; a water storage tank in the front yard, where groundwater was no longer drinkable.
The ride to school was a circuitous one, marked by American history. Outside the boundaries of our township, we took the National, or Cumberland, Road. Along its route: the “S” bridge, traveled by countless wagons and stagecoaches amid the country’s westward expansion; the home of William McGuffey, creator of the first widely used series of textbooks in the U.S.; the former estates of budding steel barons with connections to nearby Pittsburgh.
Our destination was a tiny borough, population 800, where a now defunct segment of railroad passed between it and the interstate highway. Seemingly untouched by the march of progress over the past 100 years, it was not unlike many microscopic American towns, with a school, general store, post office, hardware store, firehouse, and not much else.
To a disoriented outsider who had taken the wrong highway exit, it must have appeared quaint, humble, innocuous — for the area’s melancholy backwoods were punctuated by an equal number of idyllic, semi-prosperous scenes of the American countryside. But under the microscope something lurked. Something even more ground-shifting than the coal mines, more influential than the Klan. Something that exists in its most concentrated form in very-small-town America.
W e sat in disbelief as the school board election results came in the next morning. The path to victory had seemed so clear, so logical… so imperative. To our horror, an unsavory contingent of local businessmen had handily defeated incumbents and the new guard of progressives who vied to join them. With no previous experience in matters pertaining to their new post, they foiled a well-fought effort to improve educational outcomes in our under-performing rural school district of nearly 1,700 students whose namesake was that of the revolutionary educator William McGuffey himself.
The opportunist victors were white natives, far-right leaning, of middle and old age, who enjoyed relative celebrity among certain townspeople. It was strongly suspected, although never proven, that at least one of them had been affiliated with the local chapter of the KKK, which had recently rallied at the entrance of the high school in protest against a nearby youth home for predominantly African-American boys. They were dabblers in wide-ranging areas, maintaining scads of unusual ventures and self-aggrandizing business facades, from all manner of construction to RV sales, driving range to wrestling center, self-help videos to dirt removal services. One of them would even have a cameo role to play in a movie shot in town.
The issue of vital significance that election season was whether to raise property taxes to fund the construction of a new high school. The existing school campus was a hodgepodge of structures in terminal decline. In the main brick building, whose floors were separating from the walls, with enough clearance to pass a small object between, exposed asbestos insulation had been discovered, prompting speculation that the EPA might force the school to temporarily close its doors.
In the rear of the campus, a series of classroom trailers, whose metallic roofs drowned out verbal communication between teacher and student during rain storms, supplemented the over-crowded main building. Vulnerable to temperature extremes, students donned heavy winter jackets inside, or, in the searing heat of late spring and summer, positioned themselves close to roaring box fans on the floor.
With more than just educational outcomes at stake, the pro-new school campaign appealed to residents on behalf of children’s health, comfort, and safety. “Your taxes would increase by only $0.50 per day. Aren’t our children worth it?” implored my father in one of several letters to the editor of the local newspaper, the cost of making a cup of coffee at the time. The opposition offered something else: a no-fuss, no-way, “No New Taxes” counteroffensive that tapped into strongly held feelings of skepticism and distrust. Emblazoned on signs and wielded in public debates, their new slogan was relentlessly repeated and duly reinforced.
For many people, there was magic in such incantation. But, to others, it was a tagline that conspired to conceal a much darker truth.
Above all, a great number of residents simply disagreed with the idea that a new school building would change anything, or that anything needed to change at all. “If it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for them,” had become the common, unrelaxed refrain of opponents who attended the school themselves. Indeed, one need only look at the entrepreneurial candidate alumni to behold the apogee of local success.
At best, this line of reasoning might have prompted them to ask, dubiously, How would a new school building have changed my lot in life out here? In its most lamentable form, however, it might have offered reassurance to some that their sons and daughters would not aspire too high — that they would not out-do them, develop new points of view, leave for other towns or cities, and allow the community to corrode and disappear into the silhouette of the missing train tracks that ran through town.
As more letters to the editor volleyed in, opponents roared back, frequently fabricating information in order to counter claims made by my father and many increasingly prominent advocates. School board meetings got louder, longer. New-school supporters decried potential foul play when deceased residents were found to have remained on the official voting registry, a claim that later carried substantial credence, particularly at polling locations were opponents had been in charge of the ballot boxes. Then the election finally happened.
Early that morning, sitting on the staircase, my mother received a call from one of the recently defeated candidates, who broke the disheartening news. Stupefied, we asked ourselves, how could these inexperienced know-it-alls have earned so many votes? How could such shadowy, dishonest people be put in charge of our children’s future? Where do we possibly go from here?
In the months to come, a cast of equally — if not more — unsavory characters emerged from the woodwork. Empowered to have their say, sycophants and aspiring opportunists emerged as a louder and more unyielding chorus than even the original gang who had preceded them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, an alternative proposal materialized from one of the board newcomers, the man with the mixed construction business, that would involve austerely refurbishing parts of the school instead — the motive for which had come to light when he proffered his own construction services.
School board meetings became toxic and ineffectual. Somebody’s car tires got punctured in the parking lot. A man in a large cowboy hat threatened to take somebody outside and duke it out. A woman sought to sue my father for, as she put it, knocking her over with a piece of paper (he didn’t). Bags of circus peanuts were passed around the room. Dilbert comics, whose characters bore an uncanny resemblance to the new board members, were repurposed to parody each meeting’s erratic series of performances. During a particularly combative session, a gentleman from the crowd stood up and turned his back toward the new appointees for the entirety of the meeting. Teachers, fearful of losing their jobs if they spoke out, relied on citizen surrogates to lead the charge on their behalf. Lawyers were retained on both sides. Uncertainty and trepidation hung in the air like a haze. Brought along for the ride, I was there to see it all.
The following Christmas, we received an anonymous holiday card — with a big middle finger scrawled inside.
Another school year had come and gone. We settled on the living room couch together, watching President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union address on TV. Promoting his plan for education reform and the modernization of school buildings, Clinton spoke of temporary classroom trailers being used in overcrowded schools by the thousands. “That’s us!” we shouted. But the Republican-backed tax plan, he later remarked, would make it impossible to pay for school improvements. His opponents believed that school renovations were best left up to local districts. The irony was not lost on us.
Time slogged on. As my sister and I grew older, fast approaching the threshold at which we would have to attend the decrepit high school, the consequences of the school board’s hostile takeover had grown too large for my family to bear. After years of vigorous advocacy and seemingly steady backwards movement, they pulled the emergency parachute, along with a couple other families, and enrolled us in a private school just across the border in West Virginia. The battle was over.
As our mother drove us to school each morning, we speedily passed the tiny borough on the highway. Its unremarkable appearance from the back seat of the car belied the extent of both its conflict or our lingering trauma.
We flipped the channel to a 60 Minutes broadcast, this one about the Klan. An unwavering FBI agent had gone undercover, rising through the KKK’s ranks. Only a short drive through the foggy hollows beyond our house, an Imperial Wizard of the White Knights, considered among the most militant in the Klan’s history, had been selling bomb components to a government informant. With his plan to blow up an abortion clinic thwarted by the FBI, who had infiltrated and observed local KKK activities for several years, the defendant was eventually indicted by a federal grand jury.
In good time, we had extricated ourselves from the greater community’s “blackhole of mentality,” as we were accustomed to calling it, and focused our energies elsewhere. But, costly as it was to attend private school, mom and dad were forced into overdrive. During a particularly grueling stretch, my father juggled three jobs, seven days a week, for six months unbroken, in order to help pay the monthly tuition bills.
Taking a break after his long work stint, he and I escaped the Pennsylvania summer heat to see a movie that had been shot in town, about the adolescent only-son of a coal miner and wrestling coach who felt the lure of a world beyond the mat. Unbeknown to us, a former school board nemesis played a cameo role alongside the film’s protagonist high school wrestler. Jaws agape, we turned and looked at each other in mutual astonishment.
Sitting there in silent meditation, the two of us were awash in a poignant realization: All these years our lives and our neighbors’ lives had imperceptibly assembled into a sort of documentary — one in which, by sheer proximity, we had been intensely familiar with what was taking place, with each others’ multitude of troubles and convictions — and now, like a cinematographer behind the lens of a camera, we had suddenly reached a level of detachment from it all. Ultimately, we had been granted a seat in the audience where we could continue to watch the agonizing story unfold safely from the outside.
Exiting the mall cineplex, we turned our heads to gaze at a roofless, red Jeep CJ8 Scrambler revving its engine. Accelerating in a sinuous, attention-getting formation, a Confederate battle flag the size of a picnic blanket unfurled from a pole in the back of the automobile as its three passengers — two young men howling in front, one standing tall above the roll cage — tore out of the parking lot and headed for the valley.