Cowboys and Indians and The Forgotten Majority

The Slipstream of media coverage is so headspinningly instantaneous that you may have already forgotten the incident last summer in Kalamazoo, MI when a driver in a pickup truck ran into a group of cyclists, killing 5 and severely injuring another 4.

The slipstream, as a writer, as a human, can make you wonder “why bother”? But this story went viral in me.

And despite getting lost immediately in the jet wash of the Orlando Night Club shooting, and other similar incidents of rampage-violence, I sense that the cyclist deaths incubate underlying issues that resurfaced in the 2016 election.

To the point, what is driving white male working-class sadness? What is the greater lesson to be learned?

And why did Charles Pickett of Battle Creek, MI lose his shit one summer day and plow into 9 cyclists with his pick-up truck?

As a cyclist who has tasted the pavement — when I saw the news from Kalamazoo I felt immediate outrage. As a person who has lost loved ones to acts of senseless violence; utter heartbreak for the families.

My first instinct was that it was an act of terror — another act of terror — on endurance athletes. The Boston Marathon bombing being the first.

But unlike Boston and Orlando (where the shooter referenced Boston), there was no statement regarding the Kalamazoo Driver’s motive.

No radical Islamic ideology.

Just Charles E Pickett, 50-yr old white male, apparently high on a cocktail of prescription and illicit drugs.

The fact is, he committed an act of terror, or at best, an unpremeditated mass murder.

Perhaps if we keep looking, we will uncover there is in fact a radical ideology behind the actions of Charles E Pickett.

First let’s try to understand why targeted the cyclists.

I picked up the sport in 2012 when my running dream evolved to include triathlons. I immediately found the wind and the freedom and the gearhead aspects of cycling all exhilarating.

But after a move forced me to ride on the roads instead of the safety of a bike trail. Despite State Laws that give equal roadway rights to cyclists, I began having run-ins with cars, ranging from relatively innocent to more sinister.

One time the driver of an enormous Diesel pick-up truck waited until he was right behind me to floor it. The sudden roar of his engine nearly made me shit my pants.

I know I swerved momentarily too, probably lucky I didn’t get myself side-swiped. I could see him laughing through the back window.

And then there was the crash, when I became the second kind of cyclist. It is not a badge of honor I wish I had.

I had to swerve sharply to avoid a speeding car, then hit a bad patch of asphalt and twisted my body and bike into a barrel roll that sent me flying through the air.

I landed on my hip bone so hard I bounced. I am thankful I avoided the car.

But I was convinced for the first two days that I had fractured my femur-neck. Broken hips are common cycling injuries. And if you break your hip and don’t want to be Bo Jackson, you require surgery.

I am thankful I didn’t. But the recovery was still long and brutal. And the incident has proven life-changing.

Imagine the gruesome scene on the side of the road. The peloton of cyclists turned into a blood bath of shattered bodies and bicycles.

Pickett’s beloved pickup truck is so damaged — from plowing through 9 human bodies and bicycles — that it is no longer operational.

And then there’s the comedic relief of this whole thing — The fat fuck got out and tried to make a run for it.

How far did he run before he fully grasped the limits of his endurance. Before his regret set in.

How long did it take him before he viscerally understood his Victims and the ambitions, the lives, he shattered?

As a cyclist who has crashed and been injured, I now know how hard it can be to remain safe on a bike. Sharing the road can feel like riding on a razor’s edge.

Your awareness that you are no longer invincible surfaces as anxiety concerning “the other”. You could probably further distill this anxiety to a general loss of control.

There are roads but no bike lanes, so the only option is to coexist.

But while “Coexist” is good for a bumper sticker, perhaps we’re realizing that it’s an over-simplification of things.

Which makes me want to know why middle-aged, rural, working class white men lose their shit? I‘m a white male, with rural working class roots, and I want to know if I should be seeing something coming?

Maybe Charles E Pickett was the canary in the coal mine. And maybe we all should have seen the next shockwave coming…

Donald Trump shocked the world when he won the 2016 Presidential election. Donald Trump also won Michigan.

The difference maker in Michigan and the 2016 election? “The Forgotten Majority”. Middle aged, rural, working class white men.

And because victors write History, the post 2016 Election jetwash has put this misunderstood demographic under the microscope.

How did we get here?

“When runners were numerous enough to be threatening, rednecks would curse and gesture obscenely from their pickup trucks; quite rightly as all rednecks are John Wayne at heart, and runners are Crazy Horse incarnate.” -Rob Schultheis, Bone Games

The dichotomy of Cowboys and Indians crosses my mind sometimes when I run country roads and feel the contempt coming from pickup trucks. I’ve felt the same when the cigarette smoke fills my nose after they drive past. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had heard the same punch line, “I don’t run unless I’m being chased.”

To an extent, I get it. Runners — sweating profusely in short shorts, bright shoes, often found alone in strange remote locations — are looked at as freaks by non-runners.

Cyclists with their tight shorts, diaper-butts, too-cool sunglasses and childish hobby are freaks to non-cyclists. Swimmers are definitely freaks, and I say that as a swimmer.

This tension between the endurance athlete and the non-initiated is only one cultural divide in a country founded on cultural divide.

In the wake of a Thanksgiving holiday, we know the game of Cowboys and Indians is part of our American origin myth.

In his 2nd book, “Lila”, Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) theorized that the quintessential Cowboy-American way-of-being is in fact adopted from the Native Americans Plains Indians writing, “The plain-spoken and lean language reminds him of cowboy speech, whether from real life or as portrayed in movies about the West. Then an inspired revelation: the Indians speak the dialect better than the cowboys because they are the source; the cowboys have assimilated the speech patterns of the Indians, not the other way around.”

In other words, all this time John Wayne was just doing his best Crazy Horse.

But the Cowboy, adapting to the land by mimicking it’s original inhabitants, was only part of the equation. What the Cowboy lacked was a Tribe. So did Charles Pickett.

In his book “Tribe” Sebastian Junger writes, “the appeal of American Indian tribes for some white settlers was so great they refused to be rescued; others simply disappeared into the forest, never to return. The appeal was the tribal closeness they found there.” They wanted to belong. So did Charles Pickett.

So while the American Cowboy assumed the American Indian’s personality, an element was lost in translation. The Cowboys who didn’t walk off into the woods to join the Tribes, were the forebears of that other American origin myth of “rugged individualism”.

But Junger calls that a sham, stating, “what we learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning. It’s about why — for many people — war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary.” And he continues, “Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”

That might partially explain why Charles Pickett plowed into a peloton of cyclists, and working class America voted Trump into office. But does that sound like radical ideology?

That sounds like basic human psychology to me. Could it be that the search for or defense of “the Tribe” may explain every issue we face as human beings?

Woodward and Bernstein taught us to “Follow the money.”

To that I add, “Follow the Tribe”.

Pattern recognition is the task of the Artist. This is the pattern recognition you’re looking for.

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