Yet again, I arose far earlier than I intended this morning, getting out of bed about 3:30. A couple of cups of coffee and too much web-surfing later, I sit at my computer wondering why. Not just why I woke up early. Why, in a more general sense?
Some of my internet meanderings this morning took me back to the town of Viroqua, Wisconsin, a place I stumbled on several weeks ago while I was in search of a setting for a story. I began writing it but, to date, haven’t finished the tale. I doubt I will; I’d have to spend time in Viroqua and neighboring Soldiers Grove to write the story properly and I don’t see myself taking up residence in either place in the near term, though I will be in Wisconsin soon (but not close enough to either place to warrant a detour).
When I stumbled onto Viroqua a few weeks ago, I fell in love with the place. Or, I should say, I fell in love with the idea of the place as it then existed in my head. I fell in love with its large and successful food co-op. The small-town sense of place I saw in my mind’s eye captivated me. I pictured a tight-knit community of artists and farmers and progressive thinkers who would welcome outsiders willing to leave their biases and hard-edged skepticism about the goodness of human nature at the town limits. In short, I invested in a fantasy utterly unrelated to any real, hard data I had about the town; I wanted Viroqua to be something it’s probably not. This morning’s treks through the streets of the town using Google street view revealed a town that could be Anywhere USA: Pizza Hut, Wal-Mart, Tractor Supply, Walgreen’s, the Viroqua Food Cooperative (information about which helped propel my fantasy about the town), and a large sign proclaiming Republican Headquarters. The last bit, suggesting not progressivism but intolerance (yes, I realize I’m biased), made me delve a little deeper into the town.
I learned that one of the founders of the Share Our Wealth society, Gerald K. Smith, hailed from Viroqua. He moved to Louisiana, where he met Huey Long and the two of them advocated for a new social and political contract (Share Our Wealth, aka Share the Wealth) that seems, to me, to have been rooted in populism with socialist underpinnings. According to a website dedicated to Huey Long, the key planks of the Share The Wealth platform included:
- Limit annual income to one million dollars each (about $12 million today)
- Cap personal fortunes at $50 million each — equivalent to about $600 million today (later reduced to $5 – $8 million, or $60 – $96 million today)
- Limit inheritances to five million dollars each (about $60 million today)
- Guarantee every family an annual income of $2,000 (or one-third the national average)
- Free college education and vocational training
- Old-age pensions for all persons over 60
- Veterans benefits and healthcare
- A 30 hour work week
- A four week vacation for every worker
- Greater regulation of commodity production to stabilize prices
After Long’s assassination, Gerald Smith took over the project and ran it into the ground. Smith was a miserable bastard, it seems, an advocate of white supremacy and a demagogue of the highest order. He advocated for the release of Nazi war criminals and was publisher of The Cross and the Flag, a monstrous rag that claimed the six million Jews killed by the Nazis had actually not been killed but, instead, had immigrated to the United States. I found intriguing that Smith, after a failed right-wing political career, moved to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where he raised money to build the Christ of the Ozarks statue, which was to be a centerpiece of a religious theme park that never materialized.
So, my brief trip through a magical kingdom built in my head, populated by people I would like and admire, disappeared in a burst of hissing, foul-smelling steam expelled by people whose very existence makes me question the existence of “good.” But that’s true about almost everywhere I go. And it’s true about nearly everyone I meet; I want everyone to be that magical human who gives me reason to think the ugliness all around us is a tiny and temporary blip in history, soon to be relegated to memory and replaced by light. Alas, it doesn’t happen. That having been said, I do encounter many people I consider good, decent, kind, exceptional people; a lot of them. Just not enough. Notwithstanding that downer of an attitude, I’ll go on pursuing my dreams (if I can identify just what they are) and continue my lifestyle of wishing for a world that doesn’t exist, never did, and never will.