Thursday, April 24, 2008
My family moved to Mena, Arkansas in 1981, when I was a freshman in high school.
We were living in a "double-wide" in a mobile home park in Buellton, California. It wasn't a bad place-- no decaying cars on cinder blocks or mongrel dogs or broken screen doors. Instead there was a swimming pool and playground and a lot of quiet, old, retired people.
But it was a place full of bad memories. We moved there to be close to Vandenberg Air Force Base, so my dad, who was a World War II vet, could get treated for lung cancer. It didn't work; he got sicker and sicker and eventually, after almost two years of radiation and chemotherapy and even Laetrile, he died.
After a couple of years my mum decided that we'd be better off somewhere else; somewhere where we could afford to live in a bigger house, without neighbors ten feet from us on all sides. So, we ended up in Arkansas.
Mena was (and probably still is) in a dry, all-white county. Our movers (who were black) were genuinely worried about getting out of the county before sundown; I guess they wanted to go someplace where they could get a beer with dinner and not have to worry about getting lynched.
I remember being shocked on my first day of school there, when I saw two very-pregnant girls walking around during lunch recess. The designated smoking area behind the gym, for students 18 or older, was also something we didn't have back in my California high school.
Fighting was common. I saw this kid named "Rusty" hit another kid named "Red" (I swear I'm not making this up) in the face, knocking him down and winning the fight-- and breaking his wrist in the process. I'd say that Rusty was the overall loser in that exchange, but the general opinion around school was that Red was a loser and Rusty a hero.
We moved back to California after just a few months, but I think even if we'd stayed my life would have turned out mostly the same. Academically, the Arkansas public school wasn't a whole lot worse than the California public school-- at least, it wasn't worse for a straight-A student who spent all of his spare time reading.
It certainly gave me an appreciation for the cultural diversity of the United States. And a heathy skepticism for the notion that all cultures should be treated with equal respect.