The strikers cheered as the tractor dragged the ancient Chrysler Newport in front of the main gate. Virgil Stemler, his long skinny arms straining with the effort, sloshed gasoline all over the car from a dented metal can. Mack Sanders followed closely behind him, jittery and playing to the crowd as he tossed a lit match onto the hood, then another, then another, jumping backward with each attempt, until whoosh
, the rusty car burst reluctantly into flames. Sanders threw the matchbook to the ground and whipped around to accept our applause as the fire swelled behind him. There was something scary about his enthusiasm, and I wondered how many were like me, clapping only because I didn’t want Sanders to pick me out of the crowd. Tom and I watched, along with half the population of Borden, Indiana, as a streak of greasy black smoke climbed straight into the sky, almost high enough to be seen beyond the heavily wooded walls of the valley that surrounded us.
Tom and I, both fourteen years old, pedaled around the edges of the crowd on our dirt bikes. It was August 1979, the second week of the strike, just before the start of ninth grade and high school. Like almost every other kid I knew, my dad worked at the plant, but I had somehow up to that point been unaware of the tectonic forces that had pulled and pushed us into our respective roles that summer. My ignorance met its end at about the same time that doomed Chrysler did. Before the summer was over, I would learn the differences between management and labor, scabs and thugs, and see the most amazing gunshot of my life.
My best friend’s full name was Thomas Jefferson Kruer. I’m Andrew Jackson Gray. That’s not as strange a coincidence as it might seem outside the valley; I had many friends named for the heroes of democracy. I also knew an Elvis, an Aron, and a Presley, a smattering of John Waynes, and two grown men who went by "Peanut." I couldn’t remember a time when Tom and I weren’t friends, and we had been around each other so much that I often knew his thoughts, and he more often knew mine. That’s not to say Tom couldn’t surprise me. Frequently he would suggest an idea so crazy or so dangerous that I would stare in disbelief as he grinned and waited for me to come around to his way of thinking.
Tom and I wheeled around the outside of the crowd to get a better look, popping wheelies as we went. There were quite a few other kids from school there. I waved to Steve Koch, a classmate whose brother had died in Vietnam when we were all in kindergarten. I remembered him proudly showing us a set of dog tags in the cafeteria. Steve was laughing and wrestling Mark Deich, who was tossing Steve around like a rag doll. Mark had for some unknown reason a droopy, half-paralyzed face, but despite that affliction he was the undisputed strongest kid in our class, and one of the happiest.
With a start, I spotted Taffy Judd at the edge of the crowd, as always in her faded Pink Floyd T-shirt, the one with the rays of light coming out of the prism. I wanted to get a better look at her, but she was moving quickly along the perimeter of the crowd, almost as if she didn’t want anyone to get too good a fix on her location. Taffy and I sat next to each other in second grade, and were for a time madly in love with each other. When we were given an assignment to write about what job we wanted when we grew up, I guaranteed myself weeks of unmerciful teasing by scrawling in crayon that I wanted to be a doctor, with Taffy as my nurse. Taffy agreed with that vision of the future, and drew a neat picture of herself in white holding hands with a smiling Dr. Gray. Our brief romance ended the next week when she caught me sharing my sandwich with Theresa Gettelfinger and hit me in the head with her lunch box. As brief as it was, my friends still occasionally gave me shit over Taffy. That was one of the reasons I tried to be subtle as I watched her.
As we got older, Taffy got harder and harder to spot in a crowd, lingering in the background as she did on the picket line, elusive and on the edges of the action. She lived in a trailer on a sliver of swampy land between Muddy Fork and Highway 60. Her dad, Orpod Judd, worked at the plant when he wasn’t faking workmen’s comp injuries or doing time for some variety of drunken mayhem. Poverty was easy to hide in Borden, where even the very few of us who were certifiably middle class chose to live simply. Taffy had all the telltale signs, however, even beyond the limited wardrobe and the run-down trailer home: she didn’t have to drop change into the pie plate for her school lunch every day, she seemed to fight the same cold all winter without a doctor visit, and in the school directory she shared a phone number with all the poorer kids of Borden. It was the number of the pay phone in front of Miller’s General Store, the common phone for those in the nearby trailers who couldn’t keep one of their own turned on.
"It’s already junk," Tom said critically of the burning car, snapping me out of my thoughts about Taffy. It was true. Even as they reveled in their unfamiliar roles as labor fire-brands, my flinty German neighbors would no sooner destroy a functioning automobile than they would torch a church. Besides, along with strawberries and Christmas trees, junk cars in Borden were always a surplus crop. I followed him up to a rough-looking trio of older strikers in lawn chairs, all with Local 1096 ball caps and bulges of Skoal in their lips. They used the sticks of their picket signs to push themselves noisily backward as the fire grew too hot.
"Why are we burning a car?" he asked them. His directness impressed me. I was afraid to admit that I found the whole ceremony a little mysterious. Like me, Tom was shirtless, tanned to a dark brown, and wearing shorts made from last year’s jeans. His young body was on the verge of carry ing knotty, showy muscle like his father, and he looked athletic and efficient, his body honed by exploring every corner of our valley with me every day, on bike and on foot. His hair was bushy and long, not because that happened to be the fashion of the moment, but because his mom couldn’t get him to sit still on the front porch for the twenty minutes she needed to give him a proper trim. His eyes were bright and alert, more so than mine, a giveaway to the reasonably perceptive that he was the smarter one of our pair. Other than that, on those rare occasions when we ran into strangers, they often thought we were brothers. So I guess we looked alike.
"Why are we burning a car?" Tom asked again. The old men looked at one another, almost as if for a moment they couldn’t think of a good reason themselves.
"That Sanders kid is nuts," said one of the men in what was not quite an explanation.
"He ain’t been right since … the accident," said another. We all took a moment to be thankful for our intact testicles.
Tom persisted. "So why are we burning a car?" "To keep the scabs out!" said the third man, as if the official answer had suddenly dawned on him. He looked to his friends for affirmation and the bills of their caps dipped in agreement. I didn’t know what a scab was, but it didn’t seem to me that we were in any danger of being overrun by them. The parking lot of the Borden Casket Company was empty, except for the old Ford truck that belonged to Don Strange, the plant’s general manager. I presumed he could see the car’s flames from somewhere inside the empty factory, though we could not see him.
Tom was fascinated by the vocabulary of the strike. He shared with me each term he picked up—that morning he had explained "cost of living" to me. He knew by heart his father’s shifts on the picket line as well, six hours every day and a half. I couldn’t help but feel the sting of being left out when he talked about that. For reasons that had not yet been explained to me, my father was never on the picket line.
"Will the sheriff come?" he asked. I was curious about the same thing. Sheriff Kohl was famously stern—he once ticketed New Albany High School’s basketball coach for cursing during a sectional championship game. I, too, was surprised that he would allow car burning in broad daylight along our busiest road. At the same time, the sheriff was a mysterious source of tension inside my home. I would not have brought the matter up on my own.
The striker threw a gap-toothed leer to his friends at Tom’s mention of the sheriff. He leaned forward. "Ain’t you Gus Gray’s kid?"
"Yes," I said.
"The sheriff won’t come here. Don’t you worry about that."
He was right. That old Newport burned right down to the wheels and Sheriff Kohl never came.
I was well into adulthood before I realized just how isolated we were up there in Borden, deep in the Hoosier Valley, at the edge of Clark and Washington counties. The rest of Indiana had been scraped clean by an advancing glacier during the last ice age, leaving the land geometrically flat and ready to divide into rectangular fields of beans and corn. Right at the Washington County line, the glacier stopped and retreated, so the primeval hills to the south were spared, all the way down to the Ohio River. Like parallel rows of barbed wire, the hills wrapped us up tight in protective layers of rolling, incon ve nient geography that kept road-pavers and subdivision-builders at bay. When I doubt it now, and think that the isolation was some figment of my imagination, an idealization of a rural childhood when the size of my world was limited by how many miles I could ride my dirt bike, I remind myself of some of the creatures that Tom and I used to trap, shoot, and pull from the floating snares we made out of milk jugs and treble hooks. There were critters in Borden you just wouldn’t see anywhere else.
Silver Creek wound back into the hills across giant banks of freshwater mussels. I don’t mean one or two lonely shells clinging to rocks; I’m talking about sheets of the things, thriving generations crusted on top of one another in porous layers that the water ran through with a distinctive, high-pitched sizzle. At Indiana University, in Bloomington, not all that far from Borden as the crow flies, I read once that freshwater mussels were endangered. I laughed out loud right there in the Main Library—Tom and I used to fill our backpacks with the empty shells and pretend they were money in our games. Downstream from the mussel banks, Silver Creek widened and slowed, and on still summer days freshwater jellyfish paraded by, almost invisible to the untrained eye—they looked like pieces of Kleenex drifting just beneath the surface. Boys at school brought giant caterpillars stuffed into Mason jars for show-and-tell, behemoths as big around as Coke cans, with orange horns and elaborate fake eyes imprinted on their backs by the Creator. Between our steep hills sat small, deep, wedge-shaped ponds, home to croaking amphibians we called "mud puppies," and slime-covered primitive fish with twitchy, stunted legs. My parents had spent good money, they periodically reminded me, on the set of red junior Encyclopedia Britannica
s in my room. They stood in regal alphabetical order above my Springfield M6 rifle in its gun rack, my two most valuable possessions displayed on the same windowless wall. Those encyclopedias showed in exquisite color plates the grotesque Sargassum fish from the Red Sea, and Hawaii’s beautiful Moorish idol, but none of Borden’s local wildlife. It was too exotic to be included.
The strange biosphere continued below our feet. The valley was riven with limestone caves. Some were roped off, domesticated, and turned into tourist attractions for the Louisville families not worn out by their daylong harvest of what ever U-Pick crop was in season. Each had its own unique attraction. The tour of Marengo Cave finished in a chamber where visitors were encouraged to throw coins straight up, where they would stick in a muddy ceiling sheathed by years of captive pennies and nickels. Wyandotte Cave featured the footprints of prehistoric Indians leading to cold fire pits. Most spectacularly, Squire Boone Caverns contained the bones of Daniel Boone’s brother, Squire Boone, who had asked to be interred in the cave he had discovered. Every year of grade school we field-tripped there, where somber teachers warned us in vain to be respectful as we passed the dusty coffin. I’d made the trip so many times I knew Squire’s epitaph by heart: My God my life hath much befriended, I’ll praise him till my days are ended.
What Tom and I had discovered during the summer of the strike was that these weren’t isolated, distinct caves, each with its own exit turnstile and gift shop. The whole thing was a system, a giant network of caves that ran wild throughout the region, connecting the tourist traps, the National Forest’s caves, and the pristine caves opening in the middle of the woods that only Tom and I knew about. There was really just one giant cave. Inside it lived a community of giant white crickets, albino crawdads, and even eyeless white fish, creatures mutated to complete blindness by eons of dark isolation. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them.
Exploring the caves had become a passion of Tom’s that summer, and he seemed to find something almost magical in the way they could lead us from one end of the valley to the other. When the Chrysler began to smolder, and boredom returned to the picket line, he suggested we head underground. The thought of that cool, dry air was tempting, and he had a theory he wanted to pursue. I turned to get a last look at Taffy as we left, but she was gone.
Excerpted from Over and Under by Todd Tucker.
Copyright © 2008 by Todd Tucker.
Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.