The Critical Mass

A very strange conversation

Seen from an airliner window at 30,000 feet, the Earth is a beautiful work of art. Especially the Rocky Mountains, spectacular precipices that fall away to deep canyons, brown and gold terrain unexpectedly giving way to red. This is what the surface of Mars must also look like. In fact, we know this is what Mars looks like. NASA Scientists examining the first photos sent from the Martian rover Curiosity this week described Mars as “Earthlike.”

So I was in California last weekend, a five-day excursion ostensibly about a wedding, although the trip evolved into a reunion with old college buddies, a driving trip through the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Santa Barbara wine country, a few hours tramping through an old Spanish mission, a re-connection with a long-lost cousin and the near-total news blackout that I’ve made my practice whenever I travel. I don’t want my anthropological studies of the natives to be distracted by the generally irrelevant chatter of TV and newspapers. Meaning my few glimpses of the Olympics, the week’s spree shootings and the increasing lunacy of Mitt Romney came through the filter of barroom TVs.

Americans have widely divergent views of their country, of what it should look like. In central California, I stumbled across a quaint village named Solvang. Built by Danish immigrants,  it’s a tidy tourist trap of windmills, half-timbered buildings, Dutch doors and business signs decorated with ruddy-faced Vikings. The store shelves are stocked with ridiculously useless gewgaws. The restaurants serve pickled herring and open sandwiches with slabs of liverwurst, although guests who feel uncomfortable in the midst of unfamiliar food experiences will find that the menus do have an “American” section.

A perfect American town. And one where I had one perfectly strange conversation.

It happened in the Tourist Information Office, where I stopped in search of information on some of the local wineries that had appeared in the film Sideways. The office was staffed by a pair of elderly people. The woman was very helpful, pointing out on the map the Fess Parker Winery – that’s right, the fellow who played Daniel Boone in the old TV series. The infamous Sideways scene where Paul Giamatti’s character drinks from the spit bucket was filmed at the Fess Parker Winery.

Then I turned to the old fella, seated in a chair like a heap of laundry. “Has the movie helped business at the wineries here?” I asked innocently.

“I’ll tell you one thing, it’s increased our DWIs,” he grumped. “All these power drinkers driving around like idiots.” Then he told me about how the wife of a friend of his was killed by a drunk driver.

I was sympathetic. But then, he went on.

“The guy who killed her was sentenced to 25 years,” he said. “And my friend told him, ‘When you get out, I’ll be waiting for you.'”

“What did he mean by that?”

“Well,” he said, “I suppose he meant he’s gonna shoot him.”

I shook my head. “That’s talking the law into your own hands,” I said. “This isn’t a country of vigilante justice. What’s worse, a drunk driver or a crazy man with a gun?” I don’t even know if there’s a proper answer to that question. But I was thinking of the shootings in the Aurora, Colo., movie theater.

“I’d rather have a gun,” he said.

“Good luck with that,” I replied, and walked away. Less than 24 hours later, a White Supremacist walked into a Sikh Temple near Milwaukee and shot dead six people. Me and the old fella, we have completely different views of the country.