My Redneck Umbra

Photo: © Sylvie Bertrand. All rights reserved.

My ninth Christmas. My parents gave me a high-caliber hunting rifle with a shooting scope, and, in my stocking at the fireplace, ample rounds of ammunition. I’d been using small caliber rifles and shotguns for a few years, and this was a step up. This rifle was powerful, and it made me happy. This rifle, and the love with which my parents gifted it, made me happy.

It was a happy childhood, as a child.

This was 1967, very rural Wyoming. I am the sixth of seven boys. Wild things all, then. An armed gang terrorizing the countryside. Adults were seldom around and when they were, they led the assault.

The folks in these parts weren’t overly concerned about affronting the impressive landscape. What they were concerned about was providing, about making it. To them, a bullet-riddled rambunctiousness was practice for adulthood, and if we dragged home an endangered species of animal for the pot, all the better. To them, a strip mine operation grinding away the rolling foothills until nothing was left but an immense, shallow pit, wasn’t destruction. It was a job. And a job meant potatoes to supplement the game meat.

Extraction of natural resources, mining or trapping or logging or hunting or any of the other ways that mankind reaps from nature, is what had always earned keep for the people in my part of Wyoming. It’s how they’d always lived. One way or another, off the land, which through the generations they had come to consider theirs alone.  No room for outside interference, doing fine on their own. One generation bestowing to the next, those who’d come before, teaching well.

Dominion was their birthright.

Correction: our birthright. My right, then.

I was fifteen when I first began to shed this upbringing, like a sweater, ill-fitting and itchy. My first real protest was guns. No more hunting for me, unfathomable to those who cherished their weapons, the thrill of the kill.

Hormones flood the hunter’s body after a successful shot. His face flushes pink, his breath quickens, each pant a puff soon lost to the Arctic air. His hands tremble visibly as he reloads the rifle, necessary in case the deer is still alive when he finds it. Energized, he bounds over the snow to the other side of this clearing, where he claims his kill. It is dead, a clean shot, the red stain slowly spreading over the virgin snow.

The hormone flush of puberty engorged my brothers’ sense of ownership of the land, but those hormones softened me.

I blame it on the gay. My gay. In a right-facing culture, my sensibilities veered sharply left.

I shot with a camera. The geometric red lines of willow switches against a background of snow. Or the testosterone-puffed visage of a very much alive mule deer buck when he first senses me in his snowy meadow, all of his considerable attention focused on my lens.

I left Wyoming soon after high school graduation, got myself straight to a city where I hoped to find gay people. I answered the call of the non-wild, and that was that. Saved by the gay.

I enrolled in college classes because that’s what everyone in my new world did. It was expected. This had not been the expectation as I grew up. Some boys in my part of Wyoming still grow up with those limited expectations. They expect they’ll work in the bentonite mines from high school to the grave. Period.

An education provided me with choices, options of who I could become.

I got to know African Americans, a new experience.  I also met confident women who taught me to value their contributions. Or else. I knew Muslims, and immigrants both legal and illegal. I met transsexuals. All were my teachers, my bosses, my peers, my friends, my loves. We were all different, yet in our day-to-day we were remarkably the same.

This exposure showed me that we are all one humanity. We all have the same needs.

Thirty years passed this way, me happily here, and Wyoming happily there, my origin reduced to a pastoral tagline in my otherwise urban life. My redneck umbra. The human connections to Wyoming faded, but the memories became more vivid in the telling.  Chicks swarming like downy bees beneath a clucking hen. The russet waves of swamp grass in late October. Alfalfa in bloom, sultry, or the smoke from a cottonwood fire, acidic.

Late nineties now, and something magical our way comes. Thanks to the internet, even the wilds of wildest Wyoming have access to all the knowledge of the Universe. Plus some. Exposure and education at everyone’s fingertips, and a method of connection across the vast and rock-strewn distance.

Brothers and I begin anew. Bloodlines reestablish. Family I haven’t seen in decades email photos of the homes they have built and the children they have made. They also email photos of beaming game-fed teens posed with their first kills, always so much blood-splattered snow, a dismembered body, a defiled mountain meadow.

These, I took with the rest. There is just no way to be part of this family and not see blood.

We set about peacefully and purposefully getting to know one other after so much distance and change. The internet still operated with implied rules of conduct then, and we kept things on the superficial, our goal to reconnect. Polite and careful. Mostly. Only a bump here or there, and every family has those.

Don’t they?

These, I took with the rest. There is just no way to be part of this family and not see blood.

In 2008, a brother sent an email with at least twenty attachments, all portraying soon-to-be President Obama in defamatory poses. Racist images. To my brother, comical.

The general message of my heated response was NEVER SEND AGAIN.

“Do you really support that n-word socialist?” came his response.  Only he wrote it right out, as if it deserved keystrokes.

This was our final communication. Ever.  Even during my mother’s funeral some years later, we didn’t speak. He avoided me and I avoided him, the two of us ghosting opposite sides of the room like we were opposite forms of contagious. Perhaps we are.

The rest of us managed to maintain civility through the Obama era. I visited every couple of years, eventually with my Brazilian husband in tow. There wasn’t much common ground to be found in conversation, but we made up for that in exuberance. Giving credit where credit’s due, the family eventually accepted the gay, and then the husband. Homosexuals had truly been socially normalized, I knew then for certain.

In the summer of 2016, my Brazilian in-laws visited the United States. It was important to me that the two sets of in-laws meet each other. The husband and I were now each part of another family, I thought, which by extension made us all one family. What could go wrong? We piled into a supersize SUV and took a road trip to Wyoming.

There, the language barrier proved to indeed be a barrier. The Brazilians couldn’t communicate with my clan, nor they with them. But my brother’s sidearm, strapped so obviously against his thigh like it was the most natural thing in the world to wear a pistol to a picnic, spoke volumes. The polite Brazilians turned wide-eyed tourists, and some asked to touch it. It was impossible to explain open carry laws in a different language, to people from a culture that doesn’t embrace guns.

After a small family potluck affair, on one of our last days in Wyoming, we discovered that four-hundred US dollars were missing from one Brazilian cousin’s wallet. A member of my family had entered her bedroom, opened her suitcase, rummaged through her wallet, and helped themselves. I was gutted. This time it was my viscera spilled over that cold, cold meadow.

The proverbial beginning of the end.

There was nothing to be done. We couldn’t know who did it, although all, even the Brazilians, had suspicions. I re-funded the cousin, and we left Wyoming.

Later that fall, Trump took over the news cycle and my family’s imagination. And then he took the Presidency. They stick to him like a cocklebur sticks to a shaggy mare’s mane.  They feel he speaks their language. I feel he emboldens their worst instincts.

Now, Trump. My proverbial last straw.

“We’re all doomed,” I posted on November 9.

“Now there’s giving him a chance,” my brother responded. “That’s some anti-American shit right there.”

“The electoral college answers to the republic, to stop an unfair majority takeover!” another chimed. He’d heard it explained on Fox News.

Days later, “Suck it up, snowflake. You’re (sic) side lost.”

“I am being trolled by my own family,” I announced to the husband. “I feel like I am fifteen again.”

I divided my Facebook into groups: public, family, everyone, the few. I would manage who could see my personal expressions, when. The project took a few hours, but was time well spent, I told myself. I hoped this restructuring would settle the issue.

Of course it didn’t.

Within minutes, one found me, leaving a grammatically challenged, spelling defying rant beneath a comment I’d made on someone else’s post. A stranger’s page.

I could have kept configuring settings, but I didn’t. Their doggedness was where I drew my bottom line. I carefully worded my demand, started with a positive, as I had been taught.

“I love you . . . but . . . if my stuff is not to your liking, simply scroll on by. That’s the way this works. That’s how I handle your anti-things-I-admire posts. I know you believe one way, and me another. Middle ground is not apt to be found. But you have to stop discounting every thought I express, or I’m out.”

Now, my bottom line. Their proverbial last straw.

One brother disconnected immediately. Other family followed quickly, some more gradually.

And the disconnection went both ways.

Months later, another brother said too many blacks are on the dole. He’s one of several of my Caucasian-as-chalk kin who themselves claim a questionable disability and collect a monthly payment. He was mentored in how to manipulate the government system by another, older, brother who’d done the same before.

“They should just try harder,” say both. They say it with a straight face.

What am I to do with that?

Recently, a young niece defended the white supremacist march in Charlotte, Virginia, and those marching with their tiki torches held aloft. It’s saddest with the youngsters. I so hope for the next generation. But this next generation niece compared those tiki torchers to Black Lives Matter. I had to disconnect from her, for the black people in my life.

The answer to gun violence, they all believe, is to arm everyone.

One by one, my familial connections have dwindled to a very, very few.

Now, an odd, sad relief.

We may be on the outs permanently, if I choose. Or if they do. Either is possible. For me, blood will always be blood, and I will always cherish my redneck umbra. But I am also something else now, something both thicker and kinder than blood. Now, I am here to fight oppression. Now, I am here to call for disarmament. Now, I shout in protest, demanding equality for all. Now, I do my part to preserve our collective environment, our climate, our wildlife, everyone, us, a snow-covered alpine clearing where a wary mule deer buck crosses, unharmed, to the other side.

 

by Jackson Lassiter

 

Jackson Lassiter.jpg

Jackson Lassiter originally hails from rural Wyoming (solid Trump country), and currently thrives in Washington, D.C. (Clinton by 92% in 2016). If conflict is the key to good writing, look for him to win a Pulitzer soon. He shares his D.C. life with his husband and two entertaining cats. His work has appeared most recently in Shenandoah Literary Magazine and Valparaiso Review, and he is thrilled to be included in Cagibi. See more at JacksonLassiter.com.

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