Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Rest of America… or, a Report From Flyover Country

Recently Uncle Sam sent me to Altoona, Pennsylvania, to attend a week-long course on pistol, rifle, and shotgun repair. It was a class that I needed to take because guns get a lot of hard use (at least, they do where I work), and from time to time, they break and need to be repaired or worn parts need to be replaced.

This wasn’t the first time I had been to Altoona, and it won’t be the last, but this is the first time I have made an extended stay in this blue-collar town in the midst of rural Blair County, Pennsylvania.

While the subject of firearms repair is interesting, it isn’t quantum physics, so it didn’t consume my evenings with study. This gave me plenty of time to take a good hard look around at a part of America that coastal guys like me aren’t terribly far from, but rarely ever see.

The Altoona area has been settled since the middle of the 18th century, but the Pennsylvania railroad is what put Altoona on the map. By the middle of the 19th century, the railroad system was how people and goods moved about the country in large numbers. Since railroads were becoming so important to the economy, railroad centers became important regional centers. Altoona was one of them, and the population exploded, subsuming another town, Juniata, into itself. What was a newly incorporated borough in the mid 1850’s was an incorporated city by 1868. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the end of the steam age and brought in the diesel locomotives of today, and after the end of World War II, Altoona had seen it’s population at it’s high-water mark.

Altoona continues to be the regional population center, such as it is, but with the decline of the railroads as the way most people travel long-distance, it has fallen on hard times… or so I thought.

When you drive through Altoona, it strikes you as a classic down-at-heel mill town… sort of reminiscent of the town that the Robert DeNiro, John Savage, and Christopher Walken characters in “The Deer Hunter" lived in. Old houses that had their best days many years ago dominate the central part of town. It appears, at first glance, that the local area high school, and its well-kept athletic fields, is the focal point of the community.

The people of Altoona, if what I saw was accurate, are a religious lot… and if you don’t believe me, you should see how many churches are in this town. The people of Altoona are a patriotic lot as well, the area's Army and Naval reserve and National Guard units having served in all of America’s wars. One of the ladies at Wendy’s has a son that just joined the Army. She is worried about him, but is proud of her son’s decision. As a matter of fact, nearly every man that I spoke to while I was in Altoona was a fellow veteran.

Altoona also has a minor league baseball team. I drove past the stadium and wished that I would be in town for a game, but alas, the season was a week or so away, and I wouldn’t be there that long.

Another thing you will notice in Altoona (well, if you are me, anyway) is that everyone looks the same, which is to say, that I was in town 2 days before I saw any black people other than the guy I always see in the mirror when I shave. It was rather odd when I walked into the local Wal-Mart and was met with open staring. One woman actually bumped into her husband while she gaped, open-mouthed. The ice was broken when I laughed and told her to try not to hurt herself. The Instructor for our course (a crusty old former Navy SEAL), remarked on the first day, that our class had drastically, if only temporarily, changed the demographics of the town, where, as he put it, “die-ver-sit-tee” ain’t Altoona’s strong point, men”. He wasn’t kidding. There were 12 men in the class and 6 were white, 5 were black, and one was Latino.

Lest you think this is going to be a discussion of rural Pennsylvania racism, I urge you to read on.

The people of Altoona that I encountered (referred to by one of their own as “Altoids”) were mostly very friendly and cheerful people. The ladies at the Wendy’s restaurant, where we ate lunch a few times, were eager to chat, and were very solicitous about our comfort while we ate our three-dollar burgers (and yes, I did have fries with that).

Determined to find out what Altoona was all about, I spent a fair amount of time just driving around looking at places as well as a fair amount of time sampling places to eat. I had dinner at three different Chinese buffets while I was in Altoona, all of which were along Plank road, which is Altoona’s economic jugular vein. One of them (across the street from the Veteran's Hospital) was REALLY good, the other two were quite unremarkable… but the people were nice. I also went to a place called CiCi’s Pizza (located next to Wal-Mart… also on Plank road). CiCi’s is a pizza buffet, which I wasn’t really in the mood for, but it was getting late, and I hadn’t eaten in nearly 8 hours (hungry Gunfighter means CRANKY Gunfighter... Cranky Gunfighter... not good), so in I went. “WELCOME TO CiCi’s!!” the teenaged girl behind the counter bellowed at me, almost causing me to beat a hasty retreat. The pizza was fair; the atmosphere was a cross between Sizzler and your high-school cafeteria. I read while I ate my dinner and then quickly made for the door. Before I could put my hand on the push-bar, the barely-out-of-her teens manager rushed up to me and bellowed (bellowing is obviously a big thing in Altoona) “Thank you for dining at CiCi’s! We’ll See-See ya later!” (“No you won’t, I thought to myself”).

So, let’s recap, the people were nice, the streets were pretty clean, the town isn’t terribly diverse, the young folks like to bellow… ok, moving on.

I was saving the highlight of Altoona’s retail pleasures for my next to last night in town, and THAT was the local mall… on Plank road, next to K-Mart, which I visited the night before. The mall had all of the standard stores, the jewelry stores, a skate shop, several athletic shoe stores, the obligatory cellular phone kiosks, etc… but the place was devoid of any sort of soul. Even Sears was rather lifeless! Damn! My yardstick for many places is how much I like the local mall. Well, Altoona failed miserably in that respect… but I have to give the place a break, since it is kind of unfair to make a comparison to a mall in that area to any of the myriad malls in the DC suburbs.

The next evening, my classmates were going to go to a local place for dinner/drinks… I went to the regional library instead (on 17th street, NOT Plank road, thank you, very much). On this beautiful spring-like afternoon, as I was about to enter the library, I met a lady named Judy. Judy works at the county Senior Services Center... a delightful, silver haired, 61 year old with whom I chatted about politics, social issues, our mutual dislike of the current occupant of the White House, our sorrow at the waste of lives that our war in Iraq is producing, and saving the world. Judy is married to a retired Coast Guardsman, and is the main reason that I decided to write about this place, for reasons that I hope to make clear, below.

You see, Judy made me realize that Altoona, and by extension, other places like it, is a different place than perhaps we metropolitan east and west coasters think. Often, we derisively call places like Altoona “flyover country”. It isn’t fair, and it isn’t right. We hip, urbane, in-the-know people think that since we live in major population centers and work in finance, government, or the widely-distributed media, that we have a better grasp on things happening in this country. We don’t.

We liken people that live in places like Altoona to be backward hicks. They aren’t. They are the population of what I call “The Rest of America”… people that spend their days working to raise families and live their lives… lives that started and will likely end very near where they live today. They have views and opinions shaped by their experiences, and those experiences, like my own or your own, make them think and believe as they do. Their experiences may be different than ours, but the opinions and views that are shaped by them are no less valid than our own.

I spent nearly an hour talking to Judy, and was very pleased with our conversation. She had spark and vitality that I smugly wouldn’t have thought to find in a place “like this”. When we parted ways, I decided people had to know, or at least that I had to tell someone what was on my mind.

I know that not all who read this live in or near major metropolitan areas, but rest assured that there is at least one person in my America that isn’t ignoring you and doesn’t think that you are any less worthy than someone that does.

I promise to pay more attention in the future.

1 comment:

Clare is Reading! said...

They're also bigger than we are. Well, maybe not bigger than you.....But a lot bigger than me.

It's true, though, a lot of dis-service is paid to the workers in the "middle" states.