I journeyed last weekend to my home state of Missouri to visit my octogenarian parents. It was a trip into the heart of a battleground state — and into the heart of my family — fraught with nostalgia and memories, good and bad. Herewith, a few notes:
Interstate 55 runs flat as a carpenter's dream through the bootheel. Billboards, talk-radio stations, and political yard signs make it clear this is "red" country — Limbaugh-Land. The accents are Southern with a dollop of flat Midwestern tones. At a gas station, I see a cap for sale with a "Yankee Hunting License" on the front. Yeehaw.
Just south of Cape Girardeau, the eastern edge of the Ozarks merges with river-bluff country to give the land the feel of New England. The blue hills roll into the distance. The leaves are turning yellow and red. Pumpkins are everywhere. You can buy jugs of apple cider at the highway mini-marts.
Around St. Louis, Obama signs and billboards begin to appear. The local NPR station is easy to find, and I forego the country music and right-wing talk that has accompanied me for 200 miles. Never has the divide between rural and urban seemed more pronounced.
My hometown is small and rural, smack in the middle of the state. A new sign greets me at the county line: "The Bio-Fuels Capital of Missouri." Who knew? When I was growing up, we were "The Firebrick Capital of the World." The brown clay of Audrain County was somehow perfect for building kilns for steel mills. My father worked for one of the brick plants and often traveled to Pittsburgh on business. Now the brick plants are gone, just like the steel mills.
Much else has changed. There's a brisk new bypass around the town. No longer do you drive past the Wreck-O-Mend auto repair or the 'Bout New car lot. In fact, the 'Bout New car lot looks to be 'Bout finished. There are a Wal-Mart and a McDonald's where once was a soybean field. McCain-Palin signs are back in vogue here.
But as we gathered around the family television to watch the valiant Mizzou Tigers get their butts handed to them by the evil Texas Longhorns, nobody snorted at the Obama ads, like once might have happened in my longtime Republican parents' home. Even with their set-in-stone politics, my parents were bothered by McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. They weren't scared of Obama. This I take to be progress.