A tiny band of acne-cheeked guerrillas marches single file behind an abandoned high school. Making sure to give wide berth to a big house with a motion-sensing security light, they trace their way across a little footbridge pitched over a waterway known as “the shit creek” on their way to wreak havoc on the other side of town. Everyone is dressed in their darkest weather-appropriate clothes. One has a t-shirt wrapped around his head. A few carry lumpy backpacks laden with soap, eggs, and toilet paper. We are making war on Flora, Indiana.
Flora is a small agricultural town in central Indiana and it is very extremely boring to grow up in. It’s more or less a single square mile of wide, pot-holed streets surrounded by corn and soybean fields, with a single grocery store, a single (relatively massive) park, a library, a post office, two bars, about eleven churches, and two blinky red stop lights that don’t change colors.
It’s exactly the sort of small town America that Norman Rockwell fans blow their loads over and, not unlike one of his paintings, it seems more hollow and irrelevant every year. The reason small towns are small, after all, is that no one wants to be there. Watch a movie. Modern stories about small towns are always about crushing depression or horses. Every time I visit, there are more empty buildings. It’s not hard to see what’s happening. Without the benefit of some sort of nepotism, you’re unlikely to get a job in town. Instead, you have to drive a half-hour on the highway to Lafayette. Most kids graduate high school, move away, and never come back. Why would you?
Farm country here is an odious landscape in gold and brown, mostly. For a few months, everything is green but then all of that dies and stays dead longer than it ever lived. The smell of hog shit lingers on the whole year. A corn field in the late fall/early winter is a special kind of sadness, one that seems to crush you from the inside and outside at the same time as you realize that it exists in a 360 degree panorama. After the harvest, the corn stalks that stab up through the hard black earth at crazy angles look a lot like old broken bones. Happy Halloween, kids! You don’t have long before death comes. Please enjoy the hayride.
At night there are few sounds other than the air brakes of semi trucks, and hogs screaming. You could lay in bed listening to it. Slaughter, of course, is a major source of revenue. A friend of mine spent a couple summers working in his uncle’s meat-processing plant. Cole was a slender blond kid whose house we invaded nearly every afternoon to play video games and eat his mom’s Poptarts. He used to show us cellphone videos of pigs convulsing in their own blood. They really do sound like people when they scream. He was the Homecoming king in high school and is in the military now. We still talk sometimes.
I worked a couple agricultural jobs myself. The first was at a chicken house. It was the summer after fifth grade and for five dollars an hour my friend Robby and I unloaded carts full of chickens, grabbing the birds by their legs so they couldn’t scratch at us and unceremoniously jamming them into their cages in groups of six. Without any real oversight, some kids would put as many as fourteen birds in a single cage to ease their own workload. I can hardly blame them. The faster we were done, the faster we could get out of there. The barns we worked in were essentially just rows of catwalks with cages on either side, all suspended above a six-foot deep pool of chicken shit that spanned the entire length of the building. Occasionally birds would fall through the cracks and the acidic content of the shit pit would actually eat up their bodies slowly, or else they would asphyxiate in the thick cloud of ammonia long before they had a chance to starve to death. I still don’t eat chicken, not from any moral outrage but from the somersaults my insides do when I think of this job. It is probably the worst job I’ve ever had. At the time, there wasn’t much else and I went back the next summer for seconds.
The summer after eighth grade, I worked on my uncle’s dairy farm, again for five dollars an hour, but now for as many as thirteen hours a day. Most of my time was spent by myself literally shoveling shit. Cattle, not being the wisest of creatures, have a habit of eating at their troughs, turning around where they stand and shitting directly into their food. Cleaning out their troughs was part of my job. On the days when the troughs were decent enough to be left alone, I had the privilege of baling hay or straw: a job that at the time, most people wouldn’t do for less than nine dollars an hour. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, farm work is the third most-fatal field of work and I can see why. I knew a lot of farms where children and teenagers worked long hours with dangerous animals and machinery.
The mental toll this work takes is not as well recorded. To this day, if I hear the word “abscess,” I still find myself thinking about watching my cousin slit open a huge boil on a cow’s face with his pocketknife and the dog below eating the pus and bodily debris that fell out of it.
There’s also nothing to do. I remember my friends and I used to sit on the salt bags next to the pop machines outside the grocery store for hours on end watching the world slowly grind our town into nonexistence and drinking off-brand sodas you could buy for a quarter each. When we got old enough that someone had a car, we’d drive around town listening to the sort of music my current friends would make fun of me for and waving at all the poor bastards making the same miserable circle on foot. Occasionally, we’d drive over to the next town to get McDonald’s and then resume our patrol, sipping gigantic sweet-teas and trying to look tuff.
One way we occupied time was to coordinate a jailbreak. We’d sneak out of our parents’ houses on the same night and raise hell all over town. It all began with “ding dong ditching.” Next, we worked our way up to toilet-papering and soaping windows, which gave way pretty rapidly to those forms of minor vandalism that can actually damage property: eggs, bologna slices on cars, etc… I might never know why we felt compelled to harass all of the innocent, hard-working citizens of Flora, except for the simplest explanation that we were fucking bored and alienated and also because fuck everyone.
The other cool thing that happened was that we turned the smallness of our town to our advantage when we realized that relatively inexpensive walkie-talkies usually have a two mile range. This meant that as early as 2002 or 2003, my friends and I effectively invented a group chat for ourselves.
It was so exciting. I could lay in bed at night with my walkie-talkie and chat with kids all over town. There was a pair of sisters who were on almost every night talking to this dick named Blaine who was several years older and always creeping on younger girls. One night these sisters happened to be having a sleepover the same night I was. I don’t remember who all was at their house but what’s important is that Amy was there.
Amy was probably the most popular girl at school. In sixth grade, I had the hugest crush on her. A lot of people did. She had long brown hair and was very nice. Her eyes were slightly different colors because one was made of glass.
Her father had been caught in a scandalous affair. In accordance with all the most tired stereotypes, he had been sleeping with his secretary. I don’t actually remember if I’d ever met the guy, but when I picture him, he’s wearing dad sunglasses, a white button-up and khakis, driving a gold Sebring convertible with the top down, letting a maroon tie fly in the wind like in the advertisements. The exact same image comes to mind for me when I imagine a white-collar criminal.
Because Amy was so endeared to us and because her mother was a well-liked public figure (an English teacher at the local high school, which kids came to from five different nearby towns), we decided amongst ourselves that his betrayal could not stand. Keep in mind when I tell this story of crime and punishment that the actioners of this man’s fate were a group of maybe six 12-13 year-old boys. Some of these same kids went on to serially cheat on their own girlfriends and maybe still do. At the time though, because we were bored, because we all wanted to make out with Amy and maybe especially because we were still simply too young to share his guilt, we condemned him.
With Amy’s supervision via walkie-talkie, we hashed out a plan of attack. Her dad lived on the other side of the grocery store on a dark, curved street which had even less traffic than other streets in town. This made him vulnerable. We crept out my backdoor, retrieved the eggs and toilet paper we had stashed in the garage, and then moved out through the alley. We stuck to the shadows and sprinted around the corner to the old high school, which blocked us from the view of Main Street and then made our way down to the shit creek, over the bridge, up past the senior center, flashing past the library and grocery store to land on the railroad tracks in front of his house. The overgrown plant life that lined the tracks were the barricades from which we would launch our attack. Here before us in this tiny house was a man that we had decided had done wrong and deserved retribution.
I remember looking at everyone’s faces in the dark. John, Rick, Kyle, Brandon and Ryan. We were pink and sweaty, huffing with the exertion of our journey. I don’t love the term “best friend,” because it assumes a certain staticness in relationships that doesn’t exist, especially in high school, but John was often my best friend. He was pretty light-complected which only drew his dark hair and eyebrows into contrast. He was also one of the biggest kids around. We became friends when Cole offered me ten dollars to tackle John on the playground. The money was supposed to reward my bravery, but instead, half was used to pay John to let me tackle him and half rewarded my cheating. Rick was a heavyset kid with a grownup-sounding raspy voice that lived in the trailer park and really wanted to be a cop one day. Kyle was one of those kids that had a super-long rat tail haircut through most of elementary school and called drinking “getting fuckered up.” One time he and I slept overnight on a schoolbus together. I don’t remember why we did that, but I do remember spending part of the night talking about his favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd songs. Brandon and Ryan were there but were just sort of extra, not part of my normal crew but also sort of ever-present anyway.
I remember the heat lightning. We checked in with the girls on the walkies. The mission was a go. Toilet paper went flying, festooning the tall trees. Eggs splattered the roof, leaving bleached spots that you can still see today and then we were back in the bushes. We allowed ourselves a moment to survey our work, beaming with pride and alive with adrenaline. Parked in front of the little house, shiny and chrome even in the dark, was Amy’s dad’s motorcycle. It looked so pristine. It was the perfect idol of his midlife crisis represented physically in front of us. We shot out of the brush to kick it over onto the gravel. Well, we tried anyway, until we realized that the kickstand was actually on the other side. With a quick repositioning, we dropped the thing with a crash. Feeling contented, we sped back to my house, slipped through the backdoor where we debriefed and flirted with the girls over the walkies, and went to bed. (Ryan got his eyebrow shaved off in the morning and I felt really bad because he cried about it and told us through the locked bathroom door that he had family pictures that day. Whoopsie.)
After that, almost every campaign of micro-terrorism we waged was motivated by our reactions to what we thought sucked about our lives, which gave us a lot of options. We targeted teachers, mean parents, the rent-a-cops that stayed overnight at the county fair and even the real cops a couple times. That creepy kid Blaine? He took advantage of a friend of ours so we trashed his car one night when he was home from college. Fuck him. Bologna, eggs and mustard everywhere.
You’d never catch the middle-class kids out doing what we were doing. They actually had reputations to protect. We’d sit around and talk about how the “preppy kids” came to school on Mondays with nothing interesting to talk about because they were cooped-up under the vigilance of their parents who didn’t want them falling into a crowd like ours. As we passed our art onto younger kids, this semi-organized vandalism remained a decidedly lower-class phenomena, in part because it was mostly the kids in town who did it and the kids in town were often less wealthy. Call it a crime of convenience if you want, for me it was a crime of passion. I hated the world and wanted to make it pay.
Life really sucked in Flora. I imagine that it still does. When you’re going nowhere or, more accurately, when nowhere is coming to you, it’s totally invigorating to generalize that shittiness to all of the people that bring it to you. In a way, the impulse to trash that motorcycle at Amy’s dad’s house or creepy Blaine’s car is basically the same impulse that makes me so excited to see someone chuck a newspaper box into the street or roll a flaming dumpster at a line of cops, even if it’s just on the news. Everything is terrible and I don’t like it. What these midnight adventures in minor destruction gave me more than anything else was a chance to make being antisocial into a social activity.
I consider my hometown to be the end of the world. It’s a little funny. People think of small towns like this one to be sort of anachronistic and old-timey, and in a sense they are- but only as a knee-jerk reaction to the horror that tomorrow holds for them. The future can actually be seen clearly from here, only no one likes what they see: decaying buildings and empty houses, people guarding their property armed to the teeth, amateur nazis, black rednecks waving confederate flags, back-breaking labor for diminishing returns, a football team that only loses, the retraction of paved roads into pitted gravel, dried earth, poison water, and gangs of kids taking it out on everybody else, making war on Flora, Indiana, but from the inside.