Growing up in West Texas, as I did, I acquired the habit of looking down over the railings every time I drove over a bridge. The reason why, of course, was to see if there was any water in the arroyo or canyon or streambed or riverbed below—because more often than not, there wasn’t. If you did see some water, it was like a pleasant little surprise, something always to be remarked upon as you drove past. In Ohio, of course, there’s always water under the bridge, but it took me many years for my subconscious to pick up on that, because I was always looking.
My fiftieth excursion had been a long, nice day and I was ready to go home. But though I was already heading south for home, there was one stopping point left, as long as the light held out: Steubenville, Ohio. Steubenville is south of East Liverpool, also on the Ohio River, and also a struggling Rust Belt town.
When I was in high school, I was a member of the Math Club. Yes, you heard me correctly, I did not lose my virginity in high school. One year we traveled to Monahans, Texas, about 250 miles away, for an academic competition. It was probably more than just a math competition, because we went in a school bus. On the way back, after a long day, I stared out from the bus into the darkness of the west Texas desert, listening to Simon & Garfunkel’s Concert in Central Park on my Walkman knockoff. When the song “Homeward Bound” started playing, I was suddenly swept up, listening to the lyrics, by a feeling of incredible melancholy. To this day, when I hear that song, especially when I am traveling, I still feel those strong emotions—there is something in that song about a desire to be rooted, to be anchored, to belong somewhere, that to me is very powerful. It may speak to me so strongly because it sometimes seem to describe my entire life rather than merely an episode in it.
Once upon a time, before thumb drives and smart phones, people actually had to remember things. Do you remember that? No? Look it up on your smart phone; I’ll wait. The ancient Greeks and Romans sometimes used a technique called the Method of Loci (i.e., places). It’s more commonly called a memory palace. The idea behind a memory palace—an idea stolen by the movie Inception—is that you create in your mind some sort of reality, like a house or museum or row of shops—or a palace. When you want to remember something, you “store” it in a particular place in this mindscape. For example, you may remember your locker combination by “storing” it inside the disgustingly pink vase on the mantel over the fireplace in the living room of your mind mansion. It is the combination of the item and its virtual surroundings that create a memory connection for you. It’s kind of like a mnemonic only in space rather than via words or sounds.
I often think that being a child consists largely of being oblivious to the world around you. Children live in a world within a world, seeing all sorts of things, but comprehending or even noticing only a few. Children often have no idea why parents make certain decisions, for example, unless those decisions are explained to them. Things just happen, or don’t happen. My childhood was certainly this way. Many reasons and significances I only learned years later, or not at all. I’ll give one example. When I was around 12 or 13, my father, an inveterate hunter, took me deer hunting for the first time. Every year he went deer hunting near Caballo Lake in New Mexico with a family friend and relatives of that friend. This time he took me with him. It was very cold, up in the desert mountains in November, but I had a lot of fun (though I did not get to shoot at any deer). I kind of assumed that this was simply the first of what would be a long series of annual deer hunting trips I would now go on. But things did not work out that way. My father never took me again. Not once. To this day, I have no idea why. Had I somehow embarrassed him in front of his friends? Had I done something wrong? If I had, I never realized it. But that was the first and last time I went deer hunting.
In which our intrepid hero gets to dwell on dwellings…
Are you a home orphan? By that, I don’t mean homeless, but do you no longer have ties to the home in which you grew up? Some of us can easily go back to the home of our youths, because other relatives, typically parents, may still live there. You can revisit your old room, for example. But not me. My parents sold my childhood home in 1988 or so, the year I graduated from college and moved to Ohio.
I grew up in a house on 2624 Hawick, El Paso, Texas. This was a subdivision with streets named on Irish themes built in the late 1950s. My house was built in 1959. It was a tiny house, three bedrooms but only around 1,000 square feet or so. My mother was from El Paso, my father from Pennsylvania. They lived in Pennsylvania after getting married but in 1970 they moved back to El Paso. I was four years old. We stayed at my grandparents’ house until my parents bought the home on Hawick.
In which our intrepid hero encounters some bad noose…
This year I “celebrate” my 20th year of studying extremists in the United States, something that began as a completely unplanned and odd little outgrowth of my dissertation (which had nothing to do with extremism or, for that matter, the 20th century). By January 1995, I was spending a lot of time looking at domestic extremists and the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing essentially changed my life forever, causing me to focus on extremism and terrorism, first voluntarily and soon professionally. I’ve done that ever since. But my very first encounter with extremism occurred decades earlier, when I was a child.