U P D A T E !

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FYI, for those interested, “Yolanda and the King of Michigan, Part Two”, will be posted soon. Please let me know what you think of it.

Thanks!

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OPEN YOUR EARS: LISTENING TO RURAL AMERICA

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ALL  PHOTOS  BY CLAIRE  O’BRIEN

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I’ve watched so many parades all over the middle of America, that they have come to form a kind of map, marking the contours of the landscape I know best.  I always feel rooted when I see a parade, a banner strung across a remote Main Street announcing a parade, or even an arrow pointing in the direction of a parade, because then I know exactly what to do: document it as if there’s never been another parade like it – nor will there ever be again. That this is so exactly not the case is, in fact,  a large part of what makes my ” job” so important.

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This was a literally pressing and specific responsibility when I was a staff reporter, but even now that I’m just a freelance bum, there are times when I can’t avoid the sense that I’m on some kind of endless asaignment to cover every little parade I may encounter or – worse – have just missed. Fortunately, these bouts of delusion are tempered by the many hundreds of local newapapers who try hard to cover the parades of every ouyllying community.

I’m always unreasonably happy to see a reporter at a small-town parade.

It may not look like that reporter is doing much, but he’s actually working very hard – he’s keeping track of a dozen things at any given moment, and if he misses just one of them, he and his editor will hear all about it – in detail – about ten minutes after his newspaper comes out the next morning. Farmers will pull up chairs in the editor’s office, uninvited, and make themselves at home , as the reporter mentally pulls out small chunks of his hair  and rethinks his vow to boycott a career in PR or marketing.

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 These parades are not the substantial Frank Capra-like expressions of small town life that continue to maintain a fanciful grip on the popular imagination. In fact, they often seem to consist almost entirely of people on trucks, tractors, four wheelers, motorcycles, various little scooters, and open convertables. There are always resigned-looking horses, ridden by people in cowboy hats or pulling a version of a covered wagon, no matter how far East you get.

Over the past five or six years it has seemed to me that the parades I know have become less and less substantial.

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In fact, there is now something almost fragile about small town American parades. They
have begun to give a broad, non-specific impression of having been stuck together with Elmer’s Glue and multi-colored drinking straws from the Dollar Store. Often, I’m struck by the sensation that a strong wind could blow them away , leaving Main Street littered with limp balloons and handmade cardboard posters decorated with glitter.
But more often there’s no reporter at, say, a small parade celebrating a tiny town’s football season in a league where every kid in every school plays every sport, plus one or two band instruments,  and also volunteers to keep the cafeteria running, the grass mown, and the gym open. It’s not too uncommon to find entire K −12 school districts in one building – and overcrowding is not a problem.

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These communities go to remarkable lengths to provide students access to resources their districts can’t afford, begging distant symphonies for clarinets and trumpets, and hooking lone seniors up to paleontology lectures in Chicago via computer. They are obsessed with preventing consolidation, and squeak through each year with the state breathing down their necks: their schools are the absolute center of community life.

The coaches are volunteer working dads who just get to call in box scores to the nearest little newspaper, which may be two hours away. They’re so surprised and glad when a stranger with a notebook and a camera shows up and asked them to talk about their kids.

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Or, the town may be crowning the Chile, Soybean, Wheat or Corn Queen, usually an 11th grader sitting awkwardly in a open covertable with a sash draped over her shoulder, who also deserves to have a strange, real reporter approach her with pen and notebook in hand.

Somehow, it’s still my job to make sure that this is done right. Yes, of course social media –   in this case, meaning the residents themselves – is as capable as I of doing this. But its difficult to exagerate how densely intertwined small town lives are. Everyone really does know everyone else’s business, and they are all merciless gossips: this is actually more tiring than an urban person can know.

They don’t want to comment to one another. They want to comment to a stranger who asks the right questions, writes down their answers, and goes away. This is a part of a deep-seated sense of propriety re. documenting  what these community prioritize as their history. If I can’t always get it into a newspaper, well, at least a school district or a chamber of commerce has professionally written copy for its newsletter.

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 The vast majority of Americans live in metropolitan areas. If they give any thought to  the huge region dotted with small towns that is also America, they either romanticize it or imagine it to be homogeneous and intellectually deficient. This foolish attitude needs to go ASAP – not only because rural people are aware of it and pretty much despise the urban majority for it, but because urban and rural are too intertwined to permit such ignorance. Two years of drought in a row would effect urban lives; a third would make Brooklyn residents feel like our cousins.
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Rural America is not a white place, and huge masses of it never have been, particularly the Southwest and the entire South, where rural regions have practically been defined by African-American culture.  And the rest of it has been as transformed by Latino population growth as has urban America. Latino people are in every distant place you never thought of, reviving  everything from local industry to property values to the Catholic church. They don’t just work and go home. They build communities.
Indian and Asian immigrants run small motels in places said to be empty, such as the Oklahoma Panhandle. Black people began founding towns in the Great Plains in the 1870s. It has never been static out here in the middle of nowhere. But life, for most people, has always been hard.
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In general, people are worn out in rural America. They are trapped  and angered by the weight of a poverty that has become deeply entrenched, and at the very point by which they had been promised signs of a turnaround. As a group, Latino people remain the most hopeful – I can’t imagine why anyone would want them to leave.
Still, there’s just nothing more unmistakeable than a small community without jobs. Nobody’s bothering to fool anybody out here – there’s no one to fool.
Methamphetemine has cut a swath as wide and deep as the rural nation itself, where entire regions have been as shattered by the scurge of an insane toxin as any urban neighborhood infected by crack cocaine.
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For example sixty-five percent of the 7500 people in the New Mexico town in which I am currently parked survive soley on some form of public aid. BUT, an additional 15 percent who work full time receive food stamps. This includes many city and state workers. That’s 80 percent of the town!  And it’s just one town among many.
People go hungry in this town when their food stamps run out. There is no food pantry, aside from the small supply of canned goods at the food stamp office that disappears within a few days.
The entire police force seems to be under the age of 25, and these young patrolmen, supporting families on pennies,  food stamps, and Medicaid (for their children only)  are swamped by a methamphetimine epidemic. They earn $9 an hour.
 People shoot one another on a regular basis, the meth labs are continualy blowing up, and children taken to hospitals to have their entire systems de-toxified.
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Still, every day you can hear stories of beauty, forgiveness, endurance and hilarity that will make people with money bore you for the rest of your life.
I  guess I have come to think of journalism in this way: if your voice can be heard better than those who have a story to tell, then that’s the story you tell: if it’s a little parade, so be it, as long as you respect it.

If you can’t be heard beyond that, then you know that’s as far as you can go, whether for now or forever. So you make sure you give that sphere, however limited, that remains open to you everything you’ve got as a journalist and a person. If you have been knocked down and been silenced, as I was  for telling the unwavering truth,  you have to find one story that doesn’t get you muzzled and keep following every trail it leads to, no matter how innocuous. There is no such thing as no story, and no one can take away your ability to find and tell it.

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DODGE CITY REUNION

The reunion held up the parade, but as you can see, law and order is being maintained. I got my own gun and a giant Gunsmoke badge and a little pair of cowboy boots.

PARADE  TOMORROW!

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‘Legacy of Conquest’: a military fort on the Camino Real

Barracks, Fort Selton, Radium Springs, New Mexico / CLAIRE O’BRIEN 2012

  PREVIEW:    A great historian, Patricia Limerick, characterized the political culture of the American West in particular, and the United States in general, as a “legacy of conquest”. All the issues, from passionate to pragmatic, that informed the conquest of the West are, she wrote ” back on the streets and looking for trouble’. *

Tune into Electrica in the Desert tomorrow for a great look at a crumbling 140 – year-old adobe military fort built by African-American soldiers and the Latino people recruited and/or drafted to help them do it. The Colored Regiments were recently enslaved Civil War heros, termed ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ by the Apache peoples they had been sent to subdue.

So, be here tomorrow – or we’ll come looking for you.

* Limerick, Patricia.  Legacy of Conquest

MISSING FREEPORT, ILLINOIS: A FREEPORT BEAT REPORTER LOOKS BACK

MY JAW DROPPED WHEN I TURNED ON THE TV AND SAW FREEPORT, ILLINOIS PROTESTING ON MSNBC. SOMETIMES I HAVE TO TAKE A BREAK FROM THE NEWS FOR A COUPLE OF DAYS, SO I’D MANAGED TO MISS THE HEADLINES. I WORKED FOR THE JOURNAL-STANDARD NEWSPAPER IN FREEPORT IN 2008 AND 2009 – IT’S THE KIND OF SPUNKY TOWN A REPORTER CAN FALL IN LOVE WITH. FREEPORT HASN’T LOST JUST ONE FACTORY. IT USED TO BE A PROSPEROUS MANUFACTURING CENTER: IT’S LOST A BUNCH OF FACTORIES. I FELT SAD THAT THE WORLD GOT TO WITNESS ONLY THE LOSS OF THE LAST ONE.

I DECIDED TO SHARE THE KIND OF FREEPORT DAY I USED TO LOVE BY POSTING ONE OF THE STORIES I WROTE FOR THE JOURNAL-STANDARD. I LIKED TO JUST POKE AROUND, STICKING MY HEAD INTO VARIOUS SCHOOLS TO SEE WHAT PEOPLE WERE UP TO. SORRY ABOUT THE CAPS IN THE FIRST GRAPH – BLOGPRESS SOMETIMES TAKES OVER FORMATTING DECISIONS. THE DAMN UNIONS ARE PROBABLY BEHIND IT…

THE GREAT FOURTH GRADE OUTDOOR ADVENTURE

BY CLAIRE O’BRIEN, JOURNAL-STANDARD

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Photo Claire O’Brien / The Journal-Standard

Freeport, Ill — The day was cold and blustery, but the campers were prepared. They had pitched tents, built a campfire, lugged in sleeping bags and stocked up enough food for everyone. They wore warm coats, and carried notebooks and pens, ready to take notes and collect data.

Most importantly, the adventurers stacked a pile of newly sharpened roasting forks near the campfire, ready for marshmallows, S’mores and any other culinary option that might become available.

Although the fire provided enough smoke for distress signals, this strategy would not become necessary – because the campsite was surrounded by the familiar houses of the neighborhood surrounding Lincoln-Douglas School.

In fact, the campsite was right there in the rear of the schoolyard, within shouting, if not throwing, distance of the back door. Even if you closed your eyes, you just knew you were in school – mainly because there was school work to do. And that was the whole point of the great Lincoln-Douglas School camp out.

Teachers wanted to show the students – specifically, the fourth grade – that reading is a part of the whole of life, and doesn’t exist solely in the special sphere of school and library. You need words and language and reading everywhere you go in the world, even in the unlikeliest places – like a campground.

Following Directions

Reading directions, processing them and carrying them out in sequence is a skill campers need to have, and the Lincoln-Douglas fourth graders jumped right in.
Even though the students hadn’t actually put up those tents themselves (a few dads had done that the day before) teachers made sure the kids knew that the often tricky procedure required a careful reading of the instructions – followed by an application of them in the correct sequence.
Now that the fourth grade had trekked across the remote tundra of the Lincoln-Douglas playground, it had more sequence reading to do –  recipes.

The young chefs crowded around a picnic table, where teachers passed out recipe cards. The children read the instructions intently. S’mores have to assembled in a specific sequence, and campers had to know that their marshmallows would disintegrate if they were allowed to burn too long. They could burn them, but only very briefly. Things really did go a lot better at the campfire if you read the instructions.

Of course, it helped that principal Deb Kleckner is a Girl Scout, and was prepared – as only a Girl Scout can be – to solve any problem that might arise.

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roasting a marshmallow (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kleckner manned the campfire like a pro, adjusting sticks and logs, moving stray embers and insuring an adequete oxygen supply.

The same hardy dads who had erected the tents had built the campfire.
“But I could have done it,” Kleckner said. “I’m not a Girl Scout for nothing. And the kids did learn how important sequencing is to a campfire. We talked about the formation of the wood and kindling, what steps have to come first, how to leave room for oxygen – oh, it was nothing but sequencing!”

Dear Mom and Dad

After stuffing themselves with as much graham cracker, chocolate and marshmallow as supplies and teachers allowed, one hardy band of campers settled into a nearby tent, their writing supplies at hand.

Student teacher Cassie Busker filled the children in on their next assignment.
The entire fourth grade – all three classes – have been reading a book called “Firestorm.” The novel’s hero, a young boy named Axel, gets caught in a forest fire caused by a bolt of lightning while camping with his aunt and uncle.

Axel is a resourceful fellow, not unlike the Lincoln-Douglas fourth graders, and he directs his relatives to that part of the forest that has already burnt down.

Here, in relative safety, the family waits for the surrounding fire to move on. The fourth grade assignment: pretend that you have just been through Axel’s ordeal and you have found a way to get a postcard home to your parents. What will you write?

The children considered the question for a few moments, then hunkered down to write.
“Dear Mom and Dad” everyone began – and then the tent was quiet, save for the faint sounds of children breathing and the wispy rustling of paper.

Trouble in Forest Park

Letters home completed, the adventurers left their cozy tent and moved on through the wilderness, eventually arriving at a very large camper.

Encouraged by the welcoming sight, the travellers knocked on the door, which was immediately opened by … a teacher! No stranger to the fourth grade, Ms. Swalve ushered the children in with another book about camping.

Soon enough, the camper was filled with reading children, sprawled hither and yon, all following the adventures of the protagonist of “Trouble in Forest Park.”
The novel is designed as a “leveled reader,” one of three books using the same vocabulary words, but written at a different skill levels.

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Camp Old Indian – aerial view 1985 (Photo credit: linkerjpatrick)

For a good chunk of time, pages turned and noses periodically sniffled, as the Lincoln-Douglas wilderness readers learned how one intrepid girl proved to the boys that she was just as good at camping as they were – maybe better.

Eventually, the fourth grade sojourn in the big camper came to its inevitable conclusion, as all good things must. The children put away “Trouble in Forest Park” and trooped down the steps, heading toward the school.

Far away, they could make out their teacher, Mrs. Ludwig, beckoning them back to class. Their fourth grade room seemed strangely far away after so much time in the woods. Yet, there was the school, as familiar to the children as their own houses, with their classroom just down the hall.

And Mrs. Ludwig was suddenly right in front of them, telling them to step on it – they had fourth grade business waiting for them inside.

GO, PRETZELS!!

by claire o’brien/co’brien@journalstandard.com

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ALEC’S ENERGY PLAN HEADS FURTHER SOUTH

The Junior High School Press Association faces heavy sanctions for releasing photos of the toxic biohazards being cleaned up by thousands of Black prison inmates in an undisclosed 500 square mile location somewhere west of the Rockies.  This isn’t the first time the JHSPA has attracted the wrath of the American Legislative Executive Council, which has been granted expanded new powers to censor the media in the wake of an immigrant invasion of Arizona last August.

And it isn’t the first time JHSPA’S former Washington correspondent Tupac B. Wells, who took the photos, has received an serious blot on his permanent record. Wells, grade 8,  was recalled to  Frederick Douglas Junior High School in  Newark, New Jersey and demoted to the cafeteria beat shortly after the invasion for questioning ALEC’S  drone-based surveilence evidence of this drastic breach of our southern border.

Now, the 13 year-old reporter has been required to turn over all his photos to ALEC,  forbidden to leave Newark, and forced to write “I WILL be grateful to America” 1,000 times. Wells has been further demoted, this time to the afternoon recess beat, and his editor, Malcolm J. Baldwin, also an 8th grader, has been kicked down to the 7th Grade Society Desk. An investigation is under way to determine how Wells got assigned a national story when he should have been covering the cafeteria.

Baldwin has remained defiant in backing his reporter; meanwhile Wells  refuses to apologise to a New York Times correspondent whom he allegedly referred to as a cheap hack and an opportunistic tool.

The Times had no comment. Its reporter gave Wells the finger.

I.F. Stone’ Weekly continues to be banned.

READ POSTS DATED 6/8, 7/4, 7/19, AND 9/8 FOR BACKGROUND ON THIS CONTINUING STORY!

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2,151 HITS!

Electrica in the Desert is celebrating 2, 151 viewer hits. We (that’s the editorial ‘we’) meant to celebrate at the 2,000 hit mark, but we forgot.

Young tumbler, Dodge City, Kansas parade/Claire O’Brien 2009

I know it looks out of focus, but when you look at his shorts, you can see  (I think) that it’s not. Photographers: what do you say? I’d appreciate feedback.

Young parade performer, Dodge City, Kansas/Claire O’Brien 2009

A HAY BARN IN SOUTHERN NEW MEXICO

A desert hay barn / Claire O’Brien 2012

In the desert, many people build the cheapest barns possible, then just hope for the best.

I was driving south on New Mexico Hwy. 25 and spotted this little farm near mile 71. I got off at the next exit and pulled in. A man named Francisco beamed at me as he gave his permission for photos.

“I’m not the owner,” he told me. “But I’m in charge. Go ahead.”

Francisco disappeared on a tractor, leaving me free to poke around.

Don’t ever throw away an old tire.

Funny, how neither Richard Prince nor the Maynard Institute has anything else to say.

Richard Prince’s Journal-isms™

Reporter Who Exposed Racism Finds Herself Jobless

“It’s been a little over a month since Sam Bonilla, a Mexican immigrant opted not to go to trial in Dodge City, Kansas for killing a local man during a situation he claims was self-defense,” Marisa Trevino wrote Friday on her Latina Lista blog.

“Bonilla’s reason for not facing a jury was [reportedly] that he didn’t feel he could get a fair trial in Dodge City because he was Latino.

“Time will tell if Dodge City officials were as clueless to the racial tensions that exist in their town, as they claim, or they just didn’t like anyone pulling off the blanket and exposing how they always did things.

“No matter which way it’s looked at, the situation in Dodge City needed to be exposed. If it had not been for Claire O’Brien, the reporter for the Dodge City Daily Globe at the time, no one would have found out about Bonilla or Dodge City.

“. . . But not everybody was happy that O’Brien exposed Dodge’s racial undercurrents. In a bizarre show of unprofessionalism, the presiding judge in Sam Bonilla’s sentencing hearing, Judge Daniel Love, took over 10 minutes to publicly berate O’Brien, who was present in the courtroom, for stirring things up in town. He blamed her choice of words in her reporting to describe Bonilla’s situation. By the time the judge was done, it was clear he viewed O’Brien as a troublemaker ‚Äî yet, everyone else should have seen her as doing her job, and doing it well.

“However, in the hours after Bonilla’s sentencing, O’Brien found herself in a situation that no reporter should be in for doing their job. Within a span of hours, O’Brien lost her job at the Daily Globe, was uninvited to speak at a journalism conference, was ignored by the Kansas Press Association in her role for finally getting the Shield Law passed in Kansas and began a quest to redeem her journalistic reputation. . . . ”