From The Archive
Ben Metcalf
No. 11  June 1998

American Heartworm

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I.

I proceed from rage: rage at those whose ignorance, either God-given or self-consciously homespun, has excited in them a wrongheaded desire to peddle as the font of all that is virtuous and productive and eternal about our nation that shallow and putrid trough we call the Mississippi River. For generations we have suffered such fools to create unworthy riverside wetland areas and disappointing overlook sites and unventilated paddleboat museums and disturbing amusement parks on the theme of the American frontier; to form historical societies so that we might come to think a great deal more than we should of a rill no deeper in places than a backyard swimming pool and far less apt to hold its water; to lay bicycle paths along the levees so that we might crack open our heads within sight of chemical wastes bound for the Gulf of Mexico; to clutter the calendar with steamboat festivals and “Big Muddy” days so that we might pay a premium for corndogs and warm cola, and grow red and sullen under the Midwestern sun, and slap our children before a congregation of strangers acquainted with the impulse and approving of the act. Yet as much as I detest those who would pound the pig iron of history into the tinfoil of folklore, and despite the ease with which I could build a case against these people, and ascribe all that is trumped-up and harmful and loathsome about their region to a native failure to work the algebra of decency and taste, my hatred of the Mississippi itself is greater still, and conscience will not let me sight the lesser target.

For what manmade entity has worked more evil upon the land than has this accident of nature? What other waterway has been the seat of more shame, or has inspired us to greater stupidity, or has inflicted more brutal and embarrassing wounds upon our culture? Have not the basest qualities to be found in the people of the middle states been quickened by the river’s example, or by its seeming impulse for self-promotion? And have not these lessons been learned so well that the region now has little more to recommend it than the various log-cabin homes of Abraham Lincoln (hundreds of these), a handful of competing grain-based gasoline concerns, and the fat substitute Olestra? But I hardly mean to confine myself to generalities here: My grievances against the river are specific and they are personal, for so thoroughly have the ideals it teaches laid waste to the soul and imagination of my own family, the Metcalfs of southern Illinois, that a high degree of emotional suffering and moral decay has become almost a point of pride among its members as they walk life’s dreary dirt road.

II.

The Mississippi’s lessons are not “hard” in the familiar sense, wherein some touching bit of wisdom is had for a nominal fee, payable in humility and gratitude; they are hard precisely because, being wholly bad lessons, they exact a cost in wisdom, and because the river’s students pay a dear tuition in sanity and health and self-esteem for the privilege of learning that which can only harm them further. Moreover, history records an almost conscious effort by the “old man” to clear his classroom of all those who recognize bunk when they see it and to gather in those who do not, a task accomplished in large part through the importation of white men. The first of these, De Soto, saw the river in 1542 but was of a reasonable bent and did not think the discovery worth bragging about; the river killed him. One hundred and thirty-one years later came Marquette the priest (now a Wisconsin basketball power) and Joliet the salesman (now an Illinois prison), who canoed downstream despite being asked not to by the local Indians and who, along with La Salle et al., set in motion a process by which the hospitable natives of the area became first trinket wholesalers, then Christians manqué, and finally a market to saturate with whiskey and firearms. Once this last goal had been achieved, the Choctaw helped the French annihilate or enslave the Natchez, while the Ojibwa scattered the Sioux, drove off the Winnebago, and ran the Fox, already shot full of holes by the French, into the desolate reaches of northeastern Wisconsin, where the Packers now play. Then arrived the European smallpox in 1782, ably ferried from village to village by the obliging Mississippi, and what few natives the plague left breathing were thereafter loath to crane their necks around the bend for fear of what was coming to get them next.

He watched his father’s fortune blow away in the Oklahoma dust.

I imagine that after such a convincing bit of treachery only the stubborn or the foolish would not make some effort to get as far away from the river as they possibly could. One of those who stayed, or was born of those who stayed, was my great-great-great-grandmother “Grutch,” most likely a Chickasaw, who married Joshua Metcalf, a widowed southern Illinois farmer, and bore him a son, Frank, to complement the lot his dead wife had left him, and who died herself, along with the first wife’s children and those of a neighboring farm couple who had asked her to babysit, when at lunchtime one day she poured out tall glasses of milk laced with rat poison. The neighboring parents were never seen again, and it is assumed that they poisoned the milk and the children much in the same way that an animal chews off its own foot to be free of a trap, the trap in this instance being the river and all that it had cost them.

Young Frank did not fancy milk and drank only half of what was in his glass, enough to stunt and disfigure him but not enough to discontinue the line. In spite of his flaws, and his half-breed hair and features, the boy managed to secure a local farm girl for a mate and to avoid her outraged brothers, who had sworn vengeance not for the insult of the seduction but because a general by the name of Metcalf had once enthusiastically slaughtered their Irish cousins at the behest of the English crown. Frank tilled the soil in southern Illinois as had his father before him, leaving only briefly to make some ranching money in the Indian Territory (later Oklahoma) but returning when the Arkansas, a tentacle of the Mississippi, dried up one summer, as did the sum of his herd and profit.

My great-grandfather, Otto, was just a boy when he watched his father’s fortune blow away in the Oklahoma dust, and when he grew into manhood all the obstinacy of his forebears, and all the bitterness and disappointment this trait had sowed over the generations, took full root in him. Otto sought to revisit his father’s dream without leaving Illinois, without leaving the river, and because he could not afford the acreage required to graze even a moderate herd there, and because this circumstance served only to affirm his small place in the world, he made a habit of reversing the inevitable stampedes with shotgun blasts; all that could not be controlled in this manner he struck out at with his fists.

His firstborn, Max, tolerated these outbursts and the whippings because he believed, incongruously, that his place in the world was not small but large. He rode boxcars and flew cropdusters and caroused and married and in the end could no more escape the river’s gravity than had his ancestors. Max’s large place in the world had convinced him to people it as best he could, and with thirteen mouths to feed, my father’s wide among them, he was forced at last to take work along the river as a conductor on the same north-south freight trains that as a young man he had jumped and that a century earlier had killed off the steamboats, which had killed off the keelboats, which had killed off the flatboats, which had killed off the Indians. After nearly two decades of sitting idle in cabooses, catching sight now and then of the Mississippi and all the while smoking tobacco, trade in which the river had graciously abetted, my grandfather was stricken with cancer and found himself being driven, in what the clownish side of circumstance had arranged to be a De Soto, across the muddy water to a hospital in St. Louis, where, after a devastating operation, he would taste the painkillers that in time would weaken first his will, and then his heart, and then his earthly grip.

III.

In the mid-Seventies an aunt and uncle were part of a Ma Barkeresque gang whose sad tale ended one afternoon with a raid on a warehouse by local authorities and a standoff in which my pregnant, foul-mouthed, shotgun-wielding aunt used up what social credit was still being extended to the family in those days. My own father has said, with some regret in his voice, that he once passed up the opportunity to help rob the Denny’s between Charleston and Mattoon, Illinois. He had no moral qualms with the plan but could not find the energy to participate, or to do much else over the next twenty-odd years, once he understood how little a week’s take at the only place in the area worth robbing would improve his ability to feed and clothe his children.

What tripped up my aunt and uncle, and I suspect would have undone my father as well, was an irrepressible urge to brag about what had been stolen and to exaggerate its worth well beyond the bounds of good sense. The police might not have troubled themselves with the warehouse, which of course had been left unlocked, had they not been led to believe that they would find there countless stolen Cadillacs, bags full of laundered mob money, and stacks of Fort Knox gold. As it was, and no doubt owing to the truculent stupidity the river had bred into the Metcalfs over the generations, my aunt made her stand over a few brokendown refrigerators and a lone pig.

Most of America’s national resources, and the despoliation of same, have their mythic personifications: the Northwestern forests have Paul Bunyan, who, like the trees he felled, was immensely tall and who, if we are to believe the American lumber industry, created all that we now see before us; the Great Plains have Pecos Bill, whose bronco rides were apparently so intense that they whipped up the tornados that now regularly flatten trailer parks filled with Metcalfs; and I suppose all of America lays claim to John Henry, who represented the railroad, which has always wanted us to regard it as a natural resource. To this list the Mississippi adds an unmedicated schizophrenic named Mike Fink, a flatboat pilot who, to hear him tell it, was “half horse, half alligator” and could eat “you for breakfast, your folks for supper, and all of your cousins for a snack in between,” which is to say that the river is personified, and aptly so, by a stunted and belligerent liar.

I do not know exactly what led Walter to draw on Grandpa.

The damage done to my family by this monster Fink, and by Huck and Tom, those young liars Fink prefigured, is close to immeasurable. When my father speaks of a youthful altercation, he does not say that both parties were injured some, as is the usual way with fights; rather he says, “I hit that motherfucker so hard he actually complimented me on it later—said he was shitting teeth for a week.” When I hear the tale of how my great-uncle Walter threatened my grandfather with a knife, I am not told that there was some nod toward calm, or some recognition that Walter was mentally ill and needed to be dealt with accordingly; I hear that “Max had that silly fucker on his knees before he could blink and told him, ‘If you ever pull a knife on me again, you sonofabitch, I’ll stick it so far up your ass you won’t have to cut your meat come suppertime.’”

I do not know exactly what led Walter to draw on Grandpa. By all accounts Walter was a miserable drunk who spent his days whitewashing clapboard houses that eventually would rot because of the flooding and the humidity, and would collapse into sticks if a twister came near, but could not be built of stone or brick because the boy in Mr. Twain’s story had painted a wooden fence, and so Walter, who might have made a decent and sober bricklayer, was forced instead to cover house after wooden house with the whitest paint he could find, which contained an extraordinary helping of lead, which may or may not have given him the bone cancer that would eventually spread to his skull and torture him there until he died but certainly did not help his sanity or intelligence in the meantime and may have been a factor in both the drinking and the knife pulled on Grandpa. I do not know. What I do know is that Walter might have lived and died beyond humiliation’s shadow if the river had not driven him to drink, and Tom Sawyer had not poisoned him with lead, and Mike Fink had not encouraged him to pull a knife on a man three times as fast, ten times as smart, and fully twice his size.

IV.

I used to consider it odd that the word most often called upon by those compelled to describe their feelings for a river that had just washed away their crops, or their homes, or their livestock, or their neighbors, was “respect,” because to my mind a river worthy of respect put up a fight against the rain, and made some show of absorbing what fell, and did not run its banks at the first sign of darkening clouds and heat lightning. I did not know then that to the river’s victims, “respect” is but a theatrical means of invoking the notions “fear” and “helplessness,” and that so familiar are these notions to the river-warped mind as to render a more direct reference to them absurd.

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Fear in the Midwest bears relation not only to the river’s senseless attacks but to the flattened land beyond its banks, which promises the paranoid (and the river has made many of these) that he will be able to see Armageddon coming a long way off but reminds him always that there will be precious little barring Armageddon’s way. My father has said that when lazy old Basil Metcalf, my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, reached the Mississippi somewhere in the lower half of Illinois, he stopped there simply because it was the first thing he had encountered since leaving the East that could not be walked around or over; he intended to press on, the story goes, but perished before he could decide whether to head north or south. His son Reuben, an uncommonly bleak and wary soul, father of Joshua, in time would see a son taken away by the Union Army and would sit outside his farmhouse and scan the horizon until one morning he spotted what he took to be a visitor far across his fields and by evening held a note informing him that his son was dead, shot through the eye at Vicksburg, the body being sent upriver to Cairo. Reuben set off to claim the boy’s remains, sure now that fate and the landscape had conspired against him, and promptly vanished. He may have reached Cairo and kept going, having concluded too late that his father’s course need not have been stayed by such a petty obstacle, but more likely he was murdered somewhere along the river’s banks, a common occurrence in those days and not unheard of in these. At any rate, the river failed to make delivery on either corpse.

The Midwestern strain of helplessness is in part a function of the river’s exaggerated capacity, for although much is made of the fact that it attains a width of 3,000 feet (generally rounded to “a mile”) and a depth of 200 feet (also “a mile”), this holds true only if one attempts to swim across in the vicinity of New Orleans; upstream the soundings are less impressive. Above Cairo a shipping channel of just twelve feet is maintained, and above Minneapolis this figure shrinks to a mere nine. It is well worth asking what chance nine or even twelve feet of depth have against a flow of the sort reported in 1993, when eleven times the volume of Niagara Falls threatened St. Louis, and it is equally well worth asking what chance is afforded even inland trailer homes against a river so ill-equipped to contain the water, or to teach by its example anything more hopeful than that weakness and chaos are the natural law.

I do not think that the river’s purpose is “to get to the Gulf” so much as it is to cause the greatest amount of suffering on the way there.

The power of this lesson is made clear to me when I learn that a cousin of mine has burned down his high school because a bully told him to do so, or has molested a child for his own reasons, or has run off with his brother’s wife (but offered his own in recompense), or has deserted his pregnant girlfriend for a woman old enough to buy him beer, or has somehow managed to electrocute himself, or has tattooed an infant, or has been beaten so badly that her kidney was removed, or has not spoken to her aunt since her aunt married the man who ruined the kidney, or has rolled a car because his father never taught him to slow down on corners (and because the thought never occurred to him privately), or has attempted to run down his wife and her lover in a combine, or has been shotgunned in the chest at close range but is “too ornery to die,” or has been arrested for growing marijuana in the front yard, or has made no effort to pay the telephone bill and must now communicate solely by CB radio, or has become some sort of humorless Christian, or has been delivered of yet another child so that this jug band of woe might play on.

I can no more doubt that the river has turned and perverted my cousins’ lives than that it has done the same to its own course, at will and at random, over the eleven thousand or so years since it was brought into existence by what looks to have been an honest mistake on the part of a glacier. In his book The Control of Nature, Mr. McPhee writes that “southern Louisiana exists in its present form because the Mississippi River has jumped here and there within an arc of about two hundred miles wide, like a pianist playing with one hand…. Always it is the river’s purpose to get to the Gulf by the shortest and steepest gradient.” Although I concur with the notion that the river’s selfish meanderings have cursed us with southern Louisiana, I prefer the image of a drunken blind man carelessly whipping his cane back and forth in unfamiliar surrounds to that of a tasteful pianist. And I do not think that the river’s purpose is “to get to the Gulf” so much as it is to cause the greatest amount of suffering on the way there. Consider the river’s capricious disregard for the boundaries between our states: Arkansas has been forced to sue Tennessee on numerous occasions (1918, 1940, 1970) in order to retrieve land and taxpayers carved from its eastern flank by the river and handed over to the Volunteer State. Louisiana has sued Mississippi (1906, 1931, 1966) for like cause, and Mississippi has sued Louisiana, and Arkansas has sued Mississippi, and Missouri has sued Kentucky, and Iowa has sued Illinois, and Minnesota has sued Wisconsin, until the very identities of these states have been eroded, and the wisdom of entrusting their shapes to a slithering and deceitful border impeached.

This epidemic of strife and distrust has spread elsewhere, to other rivers and other states (e.g., Texas v. Louisiana, Missouri v. Nebraska, Nebraska v. Iowa, Indiana v. Kentucky, Virginia v. Tennessee, Maryland v. West Virginia, Rhode Island v. Massachusetts), and has so intensified our citizenry’s penchant for litigation that judges in many fluvial districts no longer have even the time required to perform a marriage or to entertain a bribe. In those areas directly scarred by the Mississippi, neighbors sue one another with a frequency and a fervor that belie the small gains to be had, having learned at the foot of the river hard lessons in desperation that have left them suckers for the bittersweet lies of the American justice system. I consider it a mere accident that to date, and to the best of my knowledge, no Metcalf has sued another Metcalf, and I do not doubt that this fact will reverse itself soon. Already the Midwestern milieu is such that involvement in a petty lawsuit is held to be the height of glamour and achievement and therefore suitable excuse not to hold down a job.

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My grandmother once spoke proudly to me of a cousin who had finally “growed up a little.” The cause of the improvement was not parenthood, for he was a father many times over, and by numerous women; nor was it some semblance of a career, for he was minimally employed at that time and, as far as I know, since. What impressed my grandmother was that he had found the gumption to sue someone (or to do something that got him sued; I cannot remember which, nor does it particularly matter) and at last stood to make a man of himself. He failed, of course, even on these terms. Petition lost, courtroom fees owed and unpayable, he ceded control to the panic that was his birthright and fled to Missouri, across the river but no farther from it, where I suppose he became, at least until the next chance to play the river’s fool[*] presented, a child again.

V.

There runs through this continent a river worthy at least of the praise heaped upon the paltry Mississippi; that drains 9,715 square miles of Canada without once crossing the border as well as 523,000 square miles, or fully one-sixth, of these United States; that rises up out of the Continental Divide in Montana and wends its way across the American heartland, flowing in places north and elsewhere east and in the balance south, having decided its course a long time ago and having for the most part stuck to it; that at 2,714 miles is without challenge the longest stream around and if allowed by mapmakers to claim its southernmost leg (that is, “the Mississippi River” below St. Louis) would reach 3,741 miles, a length bested only by those great rivers of the Southern Hemisphere, the Nile and the Amazon. I refer, of course, to the Missouri River.

As he saw it, both he and the boy were now eligible for unemployment. My parents did not disabuse him of the notion.

In addition to doing its own job, the Missouri drains nearly three-quarters of the upper Mississippi basin, leaving the rest not to the Mississippi, which is incapable of doing what by rights should come naturally to it, but to the Ohio, the Iowa, the Illinois, the Des Moines, the Wisconsin, the Minnesota, the Meramec, the Kaskaskia, and the St. Croix, fine rivers all. That they, along with the White, the St. Francis, the Salt, and the Rock, should be deemed “tributaries” of the Mississippi I can only regard as fraud of the highest order, considering that the Mississippi, which receives nearly half of its annual flow from the Missouri alone, and a good deal of the remainder from the Ohio, is but where these streams happen to collide and not, as is commonly supposed, the mythic force that draws them together or, more ludicrous still, created them.

The Mississippi is in reality a thin creek issuing from a nondescript pond in Minnesota and would likely trickle away to nothing before it reached St. Louis if on the way it did not loot every proper river in sight. Even availed of the extra water, the Mississippi is so wasteful with the stuff, and so fickle with its bearings, that only the constant attentions of the Army Corps of Engineers enable it to reach the Gulf at all. Unaided, it would pour off into the Louisiana swampland known as Atchafalaya and form a fetid inland sea. Should it therefore surprise us that the Mississippi’s pupils have developed a habit for public assistance unrivaled even by that to be found in our decaying coastal cities; that there is scarcely a household in my extended family that does not have at least one potential breadwinner sitting it out on some sort of “disablilty”; that there are stores in these people’s communities where a food stamp is met with less suspicion than a five or ten dollar bill?

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Some years ago an uncle made a break with family tradition and found work in the oil fields near his house, doing so not because he saw any need to improve himself or his situation but because the job allowed him to tell people he was an “oilman,” which he thought had a ring to it. He did not care much for the actual work, though, and began to send his eldest son out in his stead, a practice tolerated by my uncle’s employers only because they considered it unlikely that the son could be any lazier than the father. The boy soon opened their minds, and one afternoon he arrived home to tell his father, “We’ve been fired.” My parents visited shortly after the incident and found the entire household in good spirits. My uncle had been angry at first, and he did express concern that his son might never learn how to hold down a job, but now he believed that things might work out after all: As he saw it, both he and the boy were now eligible for unemployment. My parents did not disabuse him of the notion.

VI.

Having taught the Midwesterner to freeload, and to lie, and to steal, and to work violence against his brother, the Mississippi now rings its doleful school bell once more. My father heeds the call as he always has, emptying the family bank account and driving to one of several riverboat casinos tethered off the coasts of Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri, where he plays at blackjack and roulette until he has entirely lost what sum my mother has managed to save up since his last unfortunate visit. He goes not because he believes that the river will make a winner of him, for he surrendered that fantasy long ago, if indeed he ever entertained it at all. He goes because he believes, or needs to believe, that one day the river might look more kindly upon its son than it has in the past, and teach him some lesson not predicated on havoc and despair, and allow him just once to recoup the losses that have imperiled both his marriage and his sanity.

And of course it never will.

Ecce Mississippi. We might well ask how much longer the republic can stand with a worm such as this slithering through its heart.

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[*]Mr. Russell “Rusty” Weston Jr., late of Valmeyer, Illinois, and a small pied-a-gulch in Montana, who this past July allegedly took it upon himself to gun down a dozen cats and two Capitol Police officers before being shot himself, was so perfect an example of Mississippi victimhood that I wondered at the time of his spree if he did not have some Metcalf blood in him. Here was a man who had seen his town washed away in the 1993 floods and (stubbornly, pointlessly) rebuilt just a stone’s throw to the east to await the river’s next assault, who was terrified of television sets and satellite dishes (this is common even among Midwesterners who own and enjoy them), who believed that the president of the United States had sent a Navy SEAL to kill him (the SEAL is an unusual variation here, but the claim of persecution at the hands of the president certainly is not), and whose acute schizophrenia deviated so slightly from the Midwestern norm that his father thought it sufficient to offer the following gloss to the Miami Herald: “His mind doesn’t work real good.” More familiar still, and what finally locates Mr. Weston Jr. on the middle bands of the riverine behavioral spectrum, is his comfort with, and obvious flair for, the lawsuit. In addition to considering a suit against the Secret Service, who had questioned him regarding threats he had made against the president, Mr. Weston Jr. is known to have sued a pickup-truck dealer in Illinois and to have fought his eighty-six-year-old landlady, who he claimed had beaten him with a cane, all the way to the Montana Supreme Court, where, in true Mississippian fashion, he lost.

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