Small Town America

Let me warn you up front: I don’t pretend to have the answers here, and if the question is too disturbing, or you’d prefer to chase butterflies through greener pastures, well, I don’t blame you. But we DO have a problem and it DOES need a solution.

Let me tell you a story about a little petty larceny — the larceny of memory, not of dollars. There was a man who served in the Civil War. He served with the 74th Illinois and was wounded in the first skirmish and cashiered out. Later, he would take advantage of Mr. Lincoln’s Homestead Act and move with his family to Nebraska. There, he did all right for himself. He was a prominent enough citizen that he was elected county commissioner, and Andreas’ History of Nebraska lists him as “prominent in the GAR.”

The Grand Army of the Republic was quite a political force in those days, and, until past Teddy Roosevelt, their approval was a pre-requisite for the Republican Nomination for President, which was tantamount to being elected President, which Democrats only managed when the Post-War Republicans had grown so blatant and egregious in their corruption that they elected Grover Cleveland, a Police Commissioner noted for cleaning up New York.

Now, this Civil War veteran wasn’t much different from the other “prominent” citizens in a new country, and one is assured that many a gray eminance of Nebraska politics of the day carried a multitude of sins in their closet, but America was a place then, as before the Revolution, where you were judged by your new start.

The temptation for a soldier lost in the first battle to quietly ignore his personal history and focus instead on his unit history must have been enormous, and rather than tell the inglorious truth, he capitalized for many years on the reticence of the veteran, and only occasionally whispered, when someone was too injudicious to inquire “Who did you serve with?” simply and humbly replied “The Seventy-Fourth Illinois.” And then, he pooh-poohed it being any big deal, which, as a good politician, he understood made it MORE of a big deal. Why? Well, take a look at the 74 Illinois Regimental history at the Civil War Archive:

74th Regiment Infantry
Organized at Rockford, Ill., and mustered in September 4, 1862. Moved to Louisville, Ky., September 28-30. Attached to 30th Brigade, 9th Division, Army of the Ohio, to October, 1862. 30th Brigade, 9th Division, 3rd Corps, Army Ohio, to November, 1862. 1st Brigade, 1st Division, Right Wing 14th Army Corps, Army of the Cumberland, to January, 1863. 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 20th Army Corps, Army of the Cumberland, to October, 1863. 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, 4th Army Corps, to June, 1865.

SERVICE.–Pursuit of Bragg into Kentucky October 1-16, 1862. Chaplin Hills near Perryville October 6-7. Battle of Perryville October 8. Lancaster October 15. March to Nashville, Tenn., October 16-November 7, and duty there until December 26. Wilson’s Creek Pike December 25. Advance on Murfreesboro, Tenn., December 26-30. Nolensville, Knob Gap, December 26. Battle of Stone’s River December 30-31, 1862, and January 1-3, 1863. At Murfreesboro until June. Reconnaissance from Salem to Versailles March 9-14. Operations on Edgeville Pike June 4. Middle Tennessee or Tullahoma Campaign June 22-July 7. Liberty Gap June 22-24, and June 24-27. Occupation of Middle Tennessee until August 16. Passage of Cumberland Mountains and Tennessee River and Chickamauga (Ga.) Campaign August 16-September 22. Guard supply trains over mountains in rear of Bragg’s army during battle of Chickamauga. Near Chattanooga September 22-24. Siege of Chattanooga September 24-November 23. Chattanooga-Ringgold Campaign November 23-27. Orchard Knob November 23-24. Mission[ary] Ridge November 25. Pursuit to Graysville November 26-27. March to relief of Knoxville, Tenn., November 28-December 8. Operations in East Tennessee until February, 1864. Moved to Chattanooga and thence to Cleveland, Tenn. Duty there until May. Atlanta (Ga.) Campaign May 1-September 8. Tunnel Hill May 6-7. Demonstration on Rocky Faced Ridge May 8-11. Buzzard’s Roost Gap May 8-9. Demonstration on Dalton May 9-13. Battle of Resaca May 14-15. Adairsville May 17. Near Kingston May 18-19. Near Cassville May 19. Advance on Dallas May 22-25. Operations on Line of Pumpkin Vine Creek and battle about Dallas, New Hope Church and Allatoona Hills May 25-June 5, Operations about Marietta and against Kenesaw Mountain June 10-July 2. Pine Hill June 11-14. Lost Mountain June 15-17, Assault on Kenesaw June 27. Ruff’s Station July 4. Chattahoochie River June 5-17. Buckhead, Nancy’s Creek, July 18. Peach Tree Creek July 19-20. Siege of Atlanta July 22-August 25. Flank movement on Jonesboro August 25-30. Battle of Jonesboro August 31-September 1. LoveJoy Station September 2-6. Operations against Hood and Forest in North Georgia and North Alabama September 29-November 3. Nashville Campaign November-December. Columbia, Duck River, November 24-27. Spring Hill November 29. Battle of Franklin November 30. Battle of Nashville December 15-16. Pursuit of Hood to the Tennessee River December 17-28, Moved to Huntsville, Ala., and duty there until March, 1865. Operations in East Tennessee March 28-April 19. Moved to Nashville, Tenn., and duty there until June. Mustered out June 10, 1865.

Regiment lost during service 5 Officers and 78 Enlisted men killed and mortally wounded and 3 Officers and 116 Enlisted men by disease. Total 202.

But he wasn’t one of them. He’d been cashiered out after Perryville and evidently recovered completely — although later he would put in a claim for his wounds to secure a pension payment.

Now, when you consider the 74th Illinois, that’s a pretty damned impressive service record even if you don’t know a lot about the Civil War, and back in those days, evertbody did. Even in the homestead country of Eastern Nebraska.

1718 Map of Nebraska

The fellow lost in the first skirmish of the unit’s service found far more success in the Grand Army of the Republic than he ever did in the Army of the Cumberland.
And that is the small larceny — not a larceny that is uncommon or even particularly frowned upon. (I will not reveal his name out of respect for his family’s mythology, but his daughter was my Great-Great Grandmother.)

America has always been a “big town,” where all your actions are NOT known, and you are judged for how people know you, and not for the skeletons of the past. In the case of the Grandpa in the Illinois 74th, he successfully built a fine life for himself within the G.A.R. and the Territory and then State of Nebraska.

America has always been a place where you can get a fresh start after screwing up: for all I know, he left Illinois to escape the shame of having served in only the one engagement and perhaps having never fired his musket in battle. It’s certainly likely, and if that had been the reason, he wouldn’t have been a unique case.

Grand Army of the Republic Badge

The point is only to say that we’ve always considered the “fresh start” more valuable to Americans than the hounding of Jean Valjean by some implacable Javert, to whom the law exists only to apply, without any sense of the gray areas of human existence.

In some cases, it’s controversial, although few would argue unwarranted in this famous case:

Demjanjuk Convicted for Role in Nazi Death Camp
A German court sentenced John Demjanjuk to five years in prison on Thursday for his role as a Nazi death camp guard.
By JACK EWING and ALAN COWELLPublished: May 12, 2011

MUNICH — In what may be one of the last major Nazi war crimes trials, a German court sentenced John Demjanjuk, a former autoworker in Ohio, to five years in prison after he was found guilty of taking part in the murder of 28,000 people while working as a guard at the Sobibor concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1943. […]

The verdict comes after decades of legal proceedings in three countries involving Mr. Demjanjuk. After losing his United States citizenship in 1985 for lying about his past, Mr. Demjanjuk was deported to Israel and accused of being a particularly brutal guard known as Ivan the Terrible at the Treblinka camp.
But an Israeli high court overturned the conviction and death sentence in 1993, ruling that Mr. Demjanjuk was not Ivan even though it appeared he had been a guard at Sobibor, which was in Poland.

Mr. Demjanjuk returned to the United States, but after more years of legal proceedings he was deported to Germany in 2009 to face trial.
The long legal battle made Mr. Demjanjuk one of the most well-known war crimes suspects, even though he was said to have ranked low in the camp hierarchy. Victims said that did not matter. “He is a very small fish,” said Rudie S. Cortissos, whose mother was killed in Sobibor. “But whether you are a whale or a sardine, someone who went wrong this way should be punished.” …

There is a tinge of Javert in this last, whether one agrees or disagrees with the outcomes of this bizarre First-Reagan-Term story that has gone on and on and on ever since. Were the charges and crime not so monstrous, the pursuit WOULD be.

An unspoken “Tenth Amendment” right, like privacy the ability to start over is tacitly acknowledged in our statutes of limitations (which do not cover such crimes as murder and treason): keep your nose clean for (traditionally) seven years, and the law has no problem with you. You are judged for your life now.

For a long period of American life, the cloisters of the small towns were our life, and those who lived all their lives in those small hamlets were forced to carry their embarrassments publicly to the grave. Did something stupid in high school? The boys down at the gas station are still razzing you even while they read the newspaper with their reading glasses. Some horrible scandal, like going to the altar pregnant? Still whispered about at the Fiftieth Wedding Anniversary celebration in the basement of the Methodist Church.

In the twentieth century, Americans increasingly preferred the anonymity of the big city to the gossipy karma of the small town, and by the Year 2000, the majority of Americans lived in big cities, or “urban areas.”

Because everyone has their deep, dark secrets. If they didn’t Lifetime Network would be out of business, and no soap opera would have ever taken to the airwaves.
And then things shifted again, with incredible data storage and instantaneous access to databases: the old small town ethos was back. Your “permanent record” became, in truth, your “permanent record.” Your financial history is tracked by not one, but at least three credit agencies.

Your records are increasingly available to anyone willing to pay $40 bucks for a detailed background check — where you lived, if you’ve ever been arrested, where you went to school, all legal documents, marriages, liens, property transactions. Virtually anyone can find your phone number, your driver’s license number, and, if they succeed in obtaining your Social Security number, all things are revealed to them. (OK, it takes a bit of skill, or just hiring someone who has that knack.)

But something fundamental has shifted. Now, we are all Jean Valjean, unrelentingly pursued by any Javert who has a keyboard, and even if not, by the mechanical Javert that we have created to “protect” us from drug lords and terrorists.

There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of surveillance cameras everywhere — IIRC, the average American is photographed or videoed 16 times a day by robo-snoops.

And that creates a fundamental, tidal shift in American awareness and way of life. We ARE a nation of immigrants, true, but, generally the places we left were not uninhabitated after our ancestors’ exodus. We are, virtually, all humans emigrants since we left Africa some tens of thousands of years ago, but in the U.S.A. we have embraced the new start, the refugee, the Italian chauffer eloping with the Baron’s wife he used to drive in Milan.

And now that is threatened in a profound way. As I said, I don’t have any answers here. I know that America the Beautiful is preferable to America the Snoop. But I don’t pretend to have the solutions. I only know enough to posit the problem.

Somehow, we have arrived at a worst-case scenario wherein the Regime of the Small Town Beauty Parlor now enwraps all the citizens of the formerly anonymous cities, without any balancing advantages, the worst of all possible worlds, not the best of them.

Let me tell you one more story. It was recently in the news, and I am stripping the Ononymity of it, rather than name names and invite the snoopocracy further.

A young man visited a city park.

Evidently thinking himself alone and having a degree of privacy, he manually gratified himself.

A surveillance camera spotted the offending behavior, by looking at the tapes after a Small Town Beauty Parlor denizen complained.

The man was arrested. It was revealed that he was a school teacher.

Willie Nelson busted for pot in Texas, 2010

He was instantly fired, was given some jail time and a fine and required to REGISTER AS A SEX OFFENDER FOR THE REST OF HIS LIFE.

He will never teach school again. He will be required to notify authorities of his status, technically, for the rest of his days.

Oh, and it is highly unlikely that he could ever escape the Database, even were the court to reverse its decision and order the conviction overturned and all records sealed.

(You would be astonished at how many crazy things are “sealed” under court order in settlements and judgments of cases. It is the last bastion of American Privacy, but do not expect to see it last.)

Now, I don’t know whether he would have been treated the same way, legally, had he urinated for an equal amount of time in that selfsame park, but one doubts it.\

Clearly, this is the polar opposite of the John Demjanjuk case, but I wonder if we really want the Demjanjuk precedent applied to cases of inappropriate acts of unintentional public exposure.

We may welcome the exposure of the truly dark episodes of politicians’ lives, or the exposure of celebrities beyond the pale of public morality and decency, but it is a two-edged sword that we would scarcely want applied to ourselves. And we need to think about that. Think hard and long.

There is a vast gulf between War Criminals from the Holocaust and park bench wankers — and I don’t think anyone would argue that they ought be treated exactly the same –but as this glacial movement to end all privacy moves forward, we need to summon some of that outrage from revelations of the peeping of the News of the World journalists. And not just the late British tabloid, but its engendering, thuggish culture. (If there were such a thing as a psychic terrorist, Rupert Murdoch would be Osama bin Laden.)

And we need to ask ourselves a question:

Is this the world we want? And, if not, how do we stop it, a-borning?

Oh, and Happy Bastille Day!



A writer, published author, novelist, literary critic and political observer for a quarter of a quarter-century more than a quarter-century, Hart Williams has lived in the American West for his entire life. Having grown up in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, a survivor of Texas and a veteran of Hollywood, Mr. Williams currently lives in Oregon, along with an astonishing amount of pollen. He has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his blog.

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About Hart Williams

Mr. Williams grew up in Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico. He lived in Hollywood, California for many years. He has been published in The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, The Santa Fe Sun, The Los Angeles Free Press, Oui Magazine, New West, and many, many more. A published novelist and a filmed screenwriter, Mr. Williams eschews the decadence of Hollywood for the simple, wholesome goodness of the plain, honest people of the land. He enjoys Luis Buñuel documentaries immensely.
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