‘Just keep driving, and don’t talk to strangers’

Late last month, I drove through Gilead. OK, so maybe the trek wasn’t completely like the totalitarian dystopia envisioned by author Marg...

Late last month, I drove through Gilead. OK, so maybe the trek wasn’t completely like the totalitarian dystopia envisioned by author Margaret Atwood, but it was surreal.

I was in the Midwest, the American Heartland.

I went there to help move a family member. I’ve been through there before. I’ve also lived there. It’s scary, like in deep-red state scary.

I drove past billboards that declared “Holy Matrimony is One Man, One Woman” and “Find Peace, Surrender to Jesus” as if religion was some kind of do or die battle.

“Where are you going, Heaven or Hell?” read another sign.

“Hallelujah,” I yelled back, “I’m going to the state that gave us Mike Pence — Indiana.”

To be kind, Bloomington, Indiana, my final destination, is a great city — heavenly really. It’s a cool college town with a Northampton kind of vibe. But the rest of the region? I feel like a stranger.

I’m sure there’s plenty of people out in the Midwest who likewise feel the same way about us here in Massachusetts. But that’s America in 2021 — a divided nation of citizens who would just as soon be strangers to one another. We’re half blue, half red and never the twain shall meet.

At one point during a stop in Ohio, I drove through Mount Gilead, a town in Morrow County whose claim to fame beside being named after a biblical spot is having the best per capita record of war savings stamp purchases during World War I of any county in the nation.

But in this part of Ohio today, it takes quite an effort, like a Vax-a-Million lottery, to get people to sacrifice for the common good. There, only 32% are fully vaccinated for COVID-19. There, more than 75% of the electorate voted for Trump.

Speaking of Trump, about an hour away from where I was driving, he was at his first rally since leaving office and was hinting at another run for president.

“We will take back America, and we will do it soon,” Trump told thousands of cheering supporters at Ohio’s Lorain County Fairgrounds, none of whom appeared to be wearing masks.

Avoiding the area like the plague has special meaning these days. I kept driving. Not far past the exit near a massive 1.2-million-square-foot distribution center for the Dollar Tree company, I braked for traffic. A tractor trailer it seems collided with a large RV.

Minutes later, police, fire trucks and ambulances raced through.

After a half an hour in stop and go traffic, I finally came upon the scene and see that half the RV is sheared off — a smoldering shell of its former self. Another nearby billboard, this one for Chick-fill-A, proclaimed “Traffic Bad, Chikin Good.”

We’re a fast moving, fast food, and fast everything kind of country.

In the 1980s, a public service campaign warned parents to teach their children “not to talk to strangers.”

Before I left my happy valley bubble in Northampton, my wife gave me a similar warning. And knowing me as well as she does, she added a more adult caution for good measure: “Whatever you do, don’t give anyone the middle finger.”

I followed her advice. Well almost.

Just over the border into Indiana where I had to stop to go pee, I was mocked by a guy at a rest area for wearing a mask.

“We don’t wear masks here,” he said inside the men’s room while I was washing my hands.

“Praise be,” I replied. He smirked. I walked quickly away.

“Don’t talk to strangers, don’t talk to strangers,” I repeated to myself as I dashed back to the car and moved on.

These days, that’s all we seem to want to do — move on. And even when we’re deliberately told to slow down for our own safety, people don’t.

“Traffic fines doubled in construction zone” don’t carry much weight. Bikers with no helmets passed me. So did tractor trailers, including several FedEx and Amazon Prime trucks. So did a pick-up truck with a large confederate flag which weaved from right to left to right to pass other vehicles — the “stars and bars” flapping to and fro.

In one hour-long stretch of pavement, I counted more than a dozen signs for Phantom Fireworks, fast food restaurants and gun stores.

What a strange and scary place.

I think about a Sunday school lesson when I was a kid: Love thy neighbor, love thy stranger.

“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him,” reads a passage in the Old Testament. “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself.”

On my return home, I get a phone call asking me if I’m OK. Heavily armed men in tactical gear are on the interstate in Massachusetts, I’m told.

“Johnny’s in America,” belted out David Bowie on my Sirius XM satellite radio.

“I’m afraid of Americans,” Bowie sang in a 1997 song after he saw the first McDonald’s go up while traveling in Indonesia.

I’m afraid of Americans, too, I thought to myself. Just keep driving and don’t talk to strangers.

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a monthly column for the Gazette. He can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com.

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Newsrust - US Top News: ‘Just keep driving, and don’t talk to strangers’
‘Just keep driving, and don’t talk to strangers’
Newsrust - US Top News
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