July 6, 2013
Back in the summer of 1945, we spent the month of August with my paternal grandparents who, after retiring from their leased farm, had moved into a nearby town of 300 souls in southern Oklahoma. It was in that small town that what my sister and I now laughingly call “the great snuff wars” occurred.
My grandparents’ best friends in that small town were their next door neighbors, Uncle Arthur and Aunt Lizzie Capps; the “aunt” and “uncle” being honorary, since they were not biologically related to us. All four of them were in their late sixties or early seventies at the time.
Several times a week, during that month, my grandmother would gather up my sister and me and make the short trek to their house. Occasionally, Uncle Arthur would me us out on the porch.
“Is Lizzie not feeling good, today?” Grandma would ask.
“Oh, she’s kind of down in her legs with that arthritis,” Uncle Arthur would answer, with a sad shake of his head.
“Well, you tell her I’ll bring something by later, so she won’t have to cook.”
Arthur would nod his head; he and Grandma would visit a few minutes, then we would make the same short trek back home.
Most days, though, Aunt Lizzie would be sitting in her old wooden rocker in the shade of the porch roof. After the greetings, Grandma would pull the straight back chair around, so she was facing Lizzie, and sit down. My sister and I would sit down in the shade at the other end of the porch and wait for the war to commence.
Both my grandmother and Aunt Lizzie dipped snuff. And before the war began in earnest, each would take pinch of the fine, dried tobacco power from the little metal tin in their dress or apron pocket and slip it between the inside of the bottom lip and the bottom teeth where it began to mix with the saliva and grow. Having armed themselves, the conversation would begin – usually concerning the state of their or a family member’s health, how the garden was doing, or a bit of local gossip or political jawboning. None of that was as interesting to my sister and me as the oncoming war.
Shortly after the conversing started, the growing lump of snuff would be shifted to the side of the mouth. The battle lines had been drawn.
I never did know whether there were unspoken rules as to who would fire the first shot. Perhaps they kept track mentally and took turns. Nevertheless, within a minute or two, one of the women would turn her head toward the side of the porch – always without a break in the ongoing conversation – and a little glob of snuff juice would be ejected into the petunia bed at the side of the porch. The battle was on.
The other woman followed suit, her shot equal to or exceeding by an inch or so the distance of the first. And both the conversation and the battle continued. The first shot to land in the grass at the outer edge of the petunia bed constituted a minor victory, but by no means ended the war.
The fight carried on across the thin strip of grass into the well-worn path that ran along the side of the house to the backyard, into the grass on the other side of that path, to the clothesline that ran along side it. And it was there, at the clothesline pole, the war was won or lost. For whoever fired the first shot to hit the pole became the unspoken, but bilaterally acknowledged winner and the war ceased.
The victor would lean back against her chair and say, “Well, I expect these children [or Arthur] are getting hungry. Best get some lunch on the table.”
We would all rise from our various seats around the battleground, say our goodbyes and depart into our respective homes, bringing an end, for that day at least, to the great snuff wars – knowing that whether the war had been won or lost, the friendship endured.
We sometimes idealize the past with such stories as a way of perpetuating our myths. We shouldn’t. At the time this story happened, my mother had spent the three months from April through June in a mental hospital. My parents were separated and on the verge of divorce; we four children were on our way to that Children’s Home while they struggled with what custody arrangements would be least damaging to all of us.
And, within that small town, there were other tragedies, other lives disrupted. World War II had just ended with families of that town – as others – left with the usual compliment of dead or damaged sons, husbands and fathers. Some of the townspeople had been through World War I, the Spanish Flu epidemic, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.
There were also the other “Snuff Wars” that went on in any small town. In private, the Republicans knew without question, Roosevelt and the Democrats were leading the country to ruin; the Democrats felt the same about the Republicans. The Baptists scoffed about baptism “lite” when the Methodists sprinkled their converts and the Methodists scoffed about the Baptists trying to drown theirs. There were also the usual assemblage of drunk husbands, loose wives and disobedient children to be gossiped about. But, by and large, both Republicans and Democrats voted their conscience without interference from the other. When the Baptist church burned down, the Methodists arranged their services so the Baptists had a place to worship until they all could come together and help rebuild. And friendships, for the most part, endured. Ugly, vicious incidents of racism occurred, yet I remember clearly my grandmother taking a basket of food to a black family in need. I don’t think she was the only one who did such things.
And amidst the gossip, wives and children of the drunks, husbands and children abandoned by loose wives and disobedient children around town were fed, clothed (or disciplined) as needed, by someone, because most everyone knew that “there but for the grace of God …” Sometimes, if the tragedy was big enough, they even came from surrounding towns and areas to help meet the challenges.
We are sure, these days, we’ve lost all that. Big government has taken over, creating a culture of dependency that has destroyed our ability to empathize and care for one another. But over the last fifty years of living in places large and small, I have not found it so. In fact, I’ve been surprised how like small towns – with the good, the bad and the ugly – neighborhoods even in cities as large as Chicago, where I lived for three years, really are when trouble hits.
All the big problems we face today are basically problems of Empire which, frankly, we can do little about. It seems to me these problems are so intertwined, they will inevitably bring each other down. What interests me more is what happens in these towns and neighborhoods and states and regions among the ordinary people who do not make up, and have increasingly little control over the machinations of, the Empire. And what I see, amidst the “snuff wars”, the gossip, the drunks, loose women and disobedient children, is that ordinary people tend to set aside their differences and step up when tragedy hits. Even when the Empire fails us miserably as it did on 9/11, as it did in Katrina and Sandy. As it will do increasingly often as it declines and the problems it has ignored come back to haunt it and us.
Even the world can act as a neighborhood. While the Empire and its global allies have often failed to keep promises in tragedies here and around the world, or used them to advance their own agendas, millions of ordinary people around the world step up and give what they can. Does it solve all the problems? No, it never does, but it can give some breathing space to the ordinary people of those countries so that they can pick up the pieces and help themselves.
Some people won’t step up. Some people will fail despite the help given them by people who do step up. Those were fact of life in my grandmother’s day; they’re facts of life today. It doesn’t relieve us of our responsibility to act humanely toward one another.
We have an Imperial court, aided by an Imperial media, that loves to whip up anger over our differences in an attempt to hold on to power by “divide and conquer”. I live, as a libral atheist who has gay, Black, Hispanic, Muslim neighbors and friends along with religious and conservative friends and neighbors in a very conservatively religious area of a red state. With all the media hype over issues of politics and religion around election times, you’d think the whole state, and country for that matter, teetered on the edge of chaos every day. Yet, I’ve never felt afraid for my life from one of my conservative, religious neighbors. Politicians? Yeah. Neighbors? Nope.
Yes, we humans are capable of ugly acts of bigotry and hatred, as individuals and in groups. But what I see most of the time, as I look underneath all the hype and propaganda, are the same “Great Snuff Wars” that Grandma and Aunt Lizzie engaged in and, in times of tragedy or disaster, the same ability by most people to set them aside and step up. It is in our nature. In the years ahead, it may be that choosing that aspect of our nature will be our only hope of survival.