Being an American: Three experiences

Posted 8/1/19

You can't get much more American than an empty, wide-open road. by Hugh Gilmore Part I: St. Kitts, BWI During the time I knew him, this fellow Richard was either on leave from or had temporarily …

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Being an American: Three experiences


You can't get much more American than an empty, wide-open road.

by Hugh Gilmore

Part I: St. Kitts, BWI

During the time I knew him, this fellow Richard was either on leave from or had temporarily escaped from the mental hospital on the island of St. Kitts, BWI. He was a thin, very dark-skinned man who always wore black trousers and a blue dress shirt that he kept buttoned, and a shiny green tie. His feet were usually either sandaled or bare.

I was there to study wild monkeys, and I’d be in a ravine among the wild, giant undergrowth and come around a bend and see him sitting beside the trail. We’d greet and he’d then follow me around on my rounds and we’d have great conversations. To me it was an exotic trek – to him, a backyard ramble.

Though I studied wild monkeys, the St. Kitts research center had been set up by three American neuropsychiatrists who wanted to study the primate brain, preferably out of the braincase. They paid local people to catch wild monkeys, then put the monkeys in a stockade for a month to “observe their behavior” and afterward took them to the lab, anesthetized them, and removed part of their brains – say, the amygdala. Then they returned the monkeys to the stockade to “study their behavior” again. If, post-surgically, an animal behaved differently, that might be an indication of what the removed brain part used to do. Aggressive behavior? Ah! The amygdala must restrain aggression!

The Kittitian people suspected something weird, like Mystery/Science Theater 3000, was behind this. Richard had told me one afternoon that he’d been offered electroshock therapy but had resisted it. He’d seen the original “Manchurian Candidate” movie in the town of Basseterre at the Apollo theater. He suspected the new utility towers on the island had been added to boost the electromagnetic fields the mental hospital could use to control him. He just wanted to go back to being a school teacher. He was a very nice fellow, as I said, with a gently trusting nature.

One night, near my cabin I met him on the path. There was a full moon and lots of clear stars.

Richard said, “You know, the local people do not believe the United States has sent a man to the moon?”

I looked up, and said, “Why not?”

“They think it is a hoax to make us think they are powerful and can control us.”

I said, “What do you think?”

He said, “I think the United States did send a man there.”

Then after a pause, very reverentially, like he was saying a prayer, he softly said, “Science,” his voice trailing off. He shook his head slowly side-to-side and looked up, smiling.

Part 2: The Nairobi Cinema

During the 18 months I spent studying backcountry baboons in Kenya, East Africa, I couldn’t tell you what I missed most. Sometimes I wished for more music tapes. Other times, especially if I got down to Nairobi, or up to Nakuru, and ate a real hamburger, it was ketchup. One day, about halfway through my research stint, I went to the movies in Nairobi.

To get there, I’d driven 15 miles over corrugated, back-jolting, dirt roads. Then 75 miles on a very narrow two-lane blacktop, the major road to Nairobi. Most of it had no shoulder where it ran along the Great Rift Valley escarpment. Down below, the smashed hulks of cars told of drivers who’d made bad judgments. Or been pushed off the road by crazy, bold lorries or buses swaying out of their lanes.

I forget the name of the film that day, but I remember I nearly drooled as I watched the hero’s car wind smoothly along a four-lane, well-paved highway out in the American west. I’d forgotten how wonderful that could feel, driving along a long, wide, smooth road. Just step on the gas and cruise along. I got a little homesick watching those scenes. Even more than mustard, ketchup, music and mail, that was what I missed most about America that day.

Part 3: Books for Peace

My world-wanderings over, I opened an old bookshop in Chestnut Hill, where I kept a sidewalk table with $1 books outside. All kinds of people came by and browsed. Someone bought a single book once with a fifty-dollar bill. Another time a guy asked me to give him a call if I ever moved a certain dollar book over to the FREE box because he’d been eyeing it for a while. A college lit prof once bought 53 books in one visit. But most of the time life was just ordinary. Someone browsed a while and either walked away or bought one or two books. Just a pleasant adjunct to bookstore life.

One day, a pretty young woman with straggly hair came in and sneezed almost at once. I blessed her. She put three books on the counter. She said, “Tank you,” and sniffed and rubbed her runny nose with the back of her hand. Soon we were in a pleasant, but stilted conversation.

She was from Russia. She was going to study here for a while. What a big, strange new world this was for her. Full of surprises. Her nose ran constantly, she rubbed it. I offered her the tissue box. She took one. She smiled. She asked if the books really were just $1 each. Yes. She smiled and began rummaging through her purse, which took a while. Out came a wrinkled, damp-looking dollar. She sneezed on it. She rubbed her nose again and dove in her purse. Eventually she found two more wrinkly dollars, but I ultimately decided to tell her, "It's OK. No charge."

Surprised, she brightened and said, “Really?”

Bowing courteously, I said, “Welcome to our country.”

She beamed a full 50-ruble smile at me and tucked the books under her arm. In a fond, appreciative way, she softly said, “America” bending the word into a sigh, and waved goodbye.

Hugh Gilmore is a former anthropologist who now lives and writes in Chestnut Hill. His “Enemies of Reading” column has run in the Local for 13 years.


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