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Paul Christensen: The Cornhole Tournament

It’s been overcast for several days now. Fall came in with a pile of slate and built a canopy over our little town. You hardly know whether it is early dawn or some fragile, lavender-colored species of dusk. And to give weight and substance to the gloom, a light drizzle continued to soften the ground and swell the creeks. Hardly anyone is about. A lonely place, like a winter day in Warsaw, Poland, one that would keep you in your cramped Stalinesque apartment rather than brave the sooty, coal-scented afternoon.

My wife, who loves anything vaguely resembling a parade or festival, tells me there is a “cornhole” tournament in progress on the edge of town, where a newly created drive-in theater was put up for showing old films on summer week-ends. A cornhole tournament, for those of you who don’t know, is a competition to sink the most beanbags (originally filled with corn kernels) through a narrow hole in a tilted board about fifteen feet from where you stand behind a chalk line. She raised the issue of this event as code for wanting me to take her to it, right there in the drizzle, in the murky soup of this chilly Saturday afternoon. She’s from the midwest, the Queen City of Cincinnati, where she grew up and attended every 4th of July celebration, and would stand on a curb waving her flag and admiring all the lumbering floats as they creaked by. It is a moment of exhilaration wound around her DNA and is indestructible, even against the snorts of an old cynic like me. She can’t pass up a fireworks’ display, no matter how paltry, if it promises to evoke the thrill of those exploding chrysanthemums she remembers from her childhood. Her memories are intense and they keep her young, and I wouldn’t change a thing about her. I am dragged along to all her nostalgic quests and almost think I fell into a time warp standing beside her.

This tournament was to raise money for the volunteer fire department in town. The men were short, stocky types used to climbing ladders and forcing open doors; their wives were cheerful, gregarious women in jeans that were being tested severely against middle age spread. All were enjoying the New England version of barbecue beans, pulled pork, cole slaw, and the local beer. It wasn’t to my taste after eating the real thing in Texas all those many years of my working life; but in Vermont, however pale the version might be, it was a delicacy to be eaten with ravenous appetite.

The men who tossed their bean bags were actually pretty good, even skillful. One tosser was a bit sallow-faced, but he was expert at sinking most of his throws. The woman opponent beside him made faces as he scored his points, and was cleary the favorite of this crowd, with her long hair, rather pretty face, and wild gestures. She played the crowd perfectly. Her squeals of joy at making a point got everyone at her bench clapping loudly and hooting. She was having a great time, but was eventually eliminated with her partner at the opposite end of the court. No Trump signs anywhere, I was happy to see. But the men were likely from military backgrouds of one kind or another, not too expressive in their manner, many of them serious and determined to win the prize, whatever that was. I didn’t stay around to find out.

It slowly dawned on me that these people were no longer in the main stream of American life. They worked in warehouses, garage repair shops, served as line men and installers of satellite dishes. You know the sort. Decent, ordinary souls in t-shirts and blue jeans, oblivious to the cold, damp air we stood around in. Advertising ignored their kind; you would never turn a page and find a photo of one modeling the latest stye of athletic shoes, or sporting a hunting jacket from a big retailer like L.L. Bean or Orvis. The women had passed beyond the consciousnesss of most TV sponsors, mere spouses living harried lives raising their kids, or slogging away at part-time jobs.

The sun had set on them, and left them in a strange sort of anonymity that drove them to invent their own communal ethos. A generation before, they would have inherited the dairy farm, or a saw mill, perhaps a herd of sheep to tend to. They were the first to wander into a desert after agriculture had faded here; their lives were fragmented by vast forces that had made them redundant. They were the survivors of this profound transformation of work in America, no longer needed in the factories, the steel mills, the mines, the assembly plants. They took up work on the fringes of the tech revolution, and plied trades that still used their hands but not their ingenuity or stubborn individuality.

Instead, they tossed a beanbag into a cornhole with grace and skill, as if their hands remembered a better past and were showing off to their own kind how much of their agility remained. No one seemed to notice my wife and me sitting there at a picnic table with a beer and a plate of food. We were invisible to them. Perhaps it was how we were dressed, from another way of life, another class, even though we were both white-haired seniors. It must have been how we sat, how we held a sandwich, how we talked quietly without drawing attention to ourselves. My wife is very sociable and managed to get a woman behind a food stall to talk a little – about how the men were all volunteers and that they were dependent on donations of money from fund raising to keep their equipment in shape. Community mattered, and she seemed to imply that there was a responsibility of men still in their prime to offer what they could of their abilities.

But these were the fodder of our exteme politics. It was clear to me that the Democrats had found their voting base among the tech workers, who had disposable income and were keeping an eye on the fierce debates in Congress and at the White House. They had a future that depended on who came to power. But in the next class down, the one that meandered around us now, there was a muted sense of malaise, a faint despair noticeable in the eyes that occcasionally gazed at us. Republicans saw an opportunity and switched their allegiances away from Wall Street to Main Street, and found these millions of discarded lives eking out peripheral livelihoods. A few visits by some smooth-talking hard-liners might just convert some of these once faithful Dems into newly minted rightists. It just happened in Italy, with a majority of voters there pulling the lever for a hard-right candidate that made the ultra-nationalist Marine le Pen of France seem almost reasonable. This winner of the vote, Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy that included other hard-right fanatics like Berlusconi, had been bashing the European Union, migrants, the sanctions against Russia, and was now reaping the whirlwind of her acid rhetoric. Someone around here might well stumble upon a gold mine of new voters if he or she could fine-tune a speech that might suggest some sort of love song to these abandoned souls. But we are in blue country up here, and maybe the old Southern rhetoric of the Republicans is not quite the anthem they would succumb to.

But what happens when a large segment of a population finds itself displaced, bullied off the bench by college kids who opted to study coding and not history, who graduated and marched through the shiny new doors of corporations sellling a glorious future in computers, an age of electric cars and smart phones, of houses run entirely out of a program to set thermostats and pay bills, and all this coming off the drawing boards of twenty-somethings with masses of new money to spend in their off hours. The blue-collar world was an era behind; the kids did their math on tablets now, and the parents watched TV and were of little help. The price of food was going up, their gas-powered cars were shortly to become obsolete, their houses were difficult to hang on to as taxes rose. I felt it, even if I didn’t know exactly what their lives were up against. But the game before them absorbed their interest and their competitiveness.

A man with a microphone cheered them on, teased them a little, tried to predict who might make it to the finals. Everyone was preoccupied with the moment, not really paying attention to the sound of the man’s voice, though he was speaking to them in their own jargon, reaching down into their hearts no matter how dead-pan their expressions remained.

I had grown up among such families in my childhood in Philadelphia. I knew that culture when it was still living in the lime light of national favor. They were part of the great migration coming home from World War II, taking up the jobs that women had punted for them, now ready to raise kids and buy a new car. It was their moment, a time of rebuilding and expanding of the old cities. They were the last generation to enjoy a blue-collar affordable way of life, and couldn’t see the storms forming over them. Now the new order was coming as fast as climate change, as powerfully as the sexual revolution and women’s liberation had loosened old restraints and social roles. It was too much to absorb in a single generation, and here they stood, bent over to focus on the tiny hole in which to drop a beanbag, as if it were a lottery ticket that might possibly win something, if not the future, then a momentary triumph over gravity.


Copyright 2022 Paul Christensen.

Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.

One comment on “Paul Christensen: The Cornhole Tournament

  1. Barbara Huntington
    September 30, 2022

    And when I visited a yuppie Denver suburb, the rich neighbors moved expensive SUVs to make room for expensive corn hole boards, drank their special beers an wines, and some of them praised the orange the. president and somehow the world has turned upside down

    Like

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This entry was posted on September 30, 2022 by in Personal Essays, Social Justice and tagged , , , , .

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