Rolla Journal

by Jay Nordlinger

Am headed to Rolla, which is in south-central Missouri. Why do they call it “Rolla”? There are several guesses, but the best, apparently, is that people were spelling “Raleigh” phonetically. That is, they were spelling “Raleigh” as they heard it and said it.

Makes sense.

Rolla is halfway between St. Louis and Springfield — Springfield, Mo., I mean. There are lots of Springfields about, including in Illinois.

In Rolla, you have a university known as “S&T”: Missouri University of Science and Technology. Before, it was “UMR”: the University of Missouri at Rolla. Before that, it was “MSM”: the Missouri School of Mines — more formally, the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy.

Under the wing of S&T, you have an explosives camp — yes, Explosives Camp, where high-schoolers learn how to use explosives. Can such a thing exist in modern America? In our Oprahfied society?

Oh, yes. I regard it as a minor miracle (and maybe not so minor).

Anyway, that’s where I’m headed — to Explosives Camp. You will find a piece in the next issue of National Review. But you don’t mind an online journal of some extraneous things, do you?

It is a typical summer day here in Missouri, a friend tells me: “hot and muggy.” Yes. I’m from Michigan, and people from around the country, and world, say, “Oh, that’s a cold state, right?” Well, there can be some cold winters. But what’s little known is that it can be brutally hot in summer.

I drive from St. Louis to Rolla. Missouri is replete with interesting and pleasant place-names: Vienna, Lebanon, Cuba. Pacific is nice too: Pacific, Mo.

On one sign, there are indications for two towns: Union and Jefferson City. This prompts a question, at least in me: If Jefferson and the other Revolution-era Virginians had been alive in the early 1860s, where would they have stood? With the Union they created? Or with the breakaway states?

I’m sure there have been many books and papers on this subject . . .

In one plaza, there are various eateries — also a Circle K. That’s a kind of eatery, I guess, as all convenience stores are.

“Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.” That is one of the great lines in the history of the English language. Right up there with “To be or not to be” and “Drink to me only with thine eyes.”

(You will find the Circle K line, as you well know, in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the 1989 movie.) (I’ll tell you about my encounter with Keanu Reeves some other time.)

One of the things I most dislike in all of life is complaining about fast food, American eating, American bodies, etc. But I must say: The medium drink at the Burger King? Damn, is it big. Jumbo. And it’s the medium.

Behold, a nectar of the gods, or a food of the gods: the S’mores Blizzard at Dairy Queen. Holy Moses.

In the DQ, a mother is feeding her adult child, severely handicapped. It may not be pretty. But it’s a definition of love.

On the road, I see a familiar bumper sticker: It’s Not a Choice, It’s a Child. I wonder if the other side has a counter-sticker: It’s Not a Child, It’s a Choice.

On the radio, there’s the most delightful commercial: It’s for the Missouri lottery. Very clever. And, at the end, they tell you that proceeds from the lottery go to education. So, “when you play, you pay it forward.”

These people make you think that buying lottery tickets is an act of good citizenship. You’re a philanthropist, a benefactor. Why, you should probably feel guilty if you don’t play!

Isn’t that typical? Something terrible dressed up as something good. As old as time.

If a government is going to run a lottery, it might as well hand out crack in the streets, as far as I’m concerned.

I reach the motel in Rolla. The friendly young woman behind the desk eagerly tells me about the free drinks I’m entitled to: wine, Scotch, what have you. I think, “Throw in some porn, and what more could a red-blooded American citizen need?”

The main drag in town has a business called The Lord’s Library: “Your Full Service Christian Store.”

The summer camp — Explosives Camp — is just outside of town. There is an experimental mine, established in 1913. Just up the road is Joe and Linda’s Tater Patch. I’m told it is a favorite restaurant of the mining department.

I don’t have the opportunity to eat there. This is maybe the biggest disappointment of my stay.

In this column, and elsewhere, I have often remarked on the diversity of this country. A staggering diversity. I remember when I went to Greenville, S.C., in 2000, to look in on Bob Jones University. (I think it was 2000. One of the most moving reporting trips I’ve ever had.) I thought, “A person may think he knows America. But there’s so much of it, and such huge variety, he can’t possibly know it all.”

New York is an American city and Paris is a French and European city. But they have more in common, I think you could say, than New York and Rolla. One could elaborate, but let me keep going, with these ditties . . .

One staffer at the camp is a young woman from Cheyenne — an undergraduate at S&T. I believe we can say there’s a western type: open, friendly, direct, self-confident, capable. Unafraid. Unfussy.

It seems to me there are many fewer neuroses in the West than in other parts of the country. I would think that Cheyenne would be a bad place for a psychiatrist to set up shop.

Maybe I’m wrong (I feel compelled to say).

Another staffer is a young man from Louisiana, Mo. — there’s another great place-name.

He takes me on a tour of the mine. And before we go in, he gives me a hard hat to put on, as well as safety glasses. It seems obvious what way to put the hat on. There’s a label and everything.

But he says to me, “Let me fix that for you, pilgrim” — and turns the hat around.

It’ll probably be a while before I forget that (though, I must say, the hat is much more comfortable, the right way ’round).

I meet a camper who’s a delightful and brainy girl. We talk about society and its hang-ups — relatively recent hang-ups. When boys are rambunctious, they’re labeled sick and disordered, plus given pills and initials. (Everyone has initials — some disease or disability — attached to him these days.) The camper decries the abolition of recess. No one has a chance to let off steam, she says.

I say something like, “Boys have always been rambunctious.” And she says — I swear — “Yes, and girls have always spaced out.”

Inwardly, I grin, big-time. Maybe outwardly too, I’m not sure.

On the main drag, I see a little Statue of Liberty. What’s she doing there? She’s holding a lamp — a working lamp — in a parking lot. I then see that the lot belongs to Manhattan Plaza. All the stores have gone, save one: Signature Loans, the King of Kash. On a faded sign, I see “Cupcakes and Cartwheels.” Sounds nice.

(Cartwheels?)

A pair of cute girls are riding a motorcycle, their hair flowing in the wind. I’m told the law doesn’t require a helmet here. It may not be all that safe — but that it looks cool, I can’t deny.

I walk through a park, with a substantial pond. “Attention, Anglers,” says a sign, before giving the guidelines on fishing. On a ball diamond, a father is playing with his children: ground balls and so on. There’s a martin house (I think that’s what it is). There’s an enormous American flag. It’s twilight.

I think, “This looks like America, to me. A lot of things look like America, in this hugely diverse country. This is one of them, for sure.”

Rockwellian.

Amazing that, at twilight, it can be 90 degrees. Good thing it’s not humid, though. (That’s a joke.)

The camp takes a field trip, deep into the Missouri outback (though I know you can go a lot deeper). A camper says to me, “Do you hear banjoes?” Takes me a second — I have never heard it before. But, naturally, I get the Deliverance allusion . . .

On the last day of camp, there is a fireworks show — the grand finale. It happens to be June 21, the longest day of the year, I believe. You have to wait a long time before nightfall.

Our director is Dr. Paul N. Worsey, a mining engineer, an explosives engineer, at S&T. He is an English-born American; so’s his wife, Gillian. He’s from Staffordshire; she’s from Essex. They met at the University of Bristol.

The big day for fireworks in Britain, says Paul, is Guy Fawkes Day — the day that commemorates the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605. That’s on November 5. Lovely day for fireworks. The weather is cool, and night falls early — so the little ones can see the fireworks and then get tucked in.

But July 4? Man, is it hot — certainly in Missouri. The greatest danger to a pyrotechnician, says Worsey, is heatstroke. He has set up shows in 106-degree weather. In his view, the American revolutionaries should have declared independence on the Fourth of May or the Fourth of June.

I hear him.

The young engineer from Louisiana, Mo., tells me something interesting: When you’re a pyrotechnician, you and your buddies at first measure the success of your fireworks by the amount of applause they receive. But then you come to expect the applause — the oohs and ahs.

So how do you and your buddies start to judge your fireworks? By the number of car alarms they set off.

Just a little pyrotechnician’s-world intel for ya.

All of my life, I’ve heard how fat Americans are. I’m sure you have too. We hear it from our “progressives” and do-gooders, and we hear it from the Euros. (Between our “progressives” and the elites of Europe, there’s basically no difference, which makes the former group happy and proud.) I despise hearing this: complaints about American obesity.

This is not to say, however, that the SOBs don’t have a point . . .

I don’t often see people smoke — I mean, here in America. On other continents, yes. A lot. And in Rolla, I see many people smoke, including young people.

Someone says to a guy, “When are you going to quit?” He shoots back, good-naturedly, “I’m not a quitter! No quit in me . . .”

On the road back to the St. Louis airport, I hear some good lyrics. For example, a woman sings a song about how her man had better marry her. “I might be cheap, but I ain’t free.” In another song, a man sings, “Kiss me, honey, but take your time.”

An ad says, “You’re missin’ out on some great Branson-quality shows at Steelville prices.” I love the phrase “Branson-quality shows” — even better with “at Steelville prices.”

Thanks for joining me, friends. And if you can catch that piece in NR, on Explosives Camp, I think you’ll enjoy it. A phenomenal slice of the American pie. I’d like to leave you with a letter — from a dear friend of mine who grew up in Australia, and who happens to be there now. I wrote her to tell her what I was doing — Explosives Camp and all.

She wrote,

Oooh, that does sound like fun. If you want to see kids who are not wusses, you should make a trip to Australia. They have a surf lifesaving program here where little tinies (some as young as five) rush into the surf (they are already good swimmers) and learn how to handle surf boards, rough seas, and rescue techniques. (Those are for the older ones.) The kids are called “nippers.”

Children here are less rolled up with cotton wool than in the U.S., though of course it depends on the family. Country kids in the outback are really tough and know how to take care of themselves in pretty difficult situations — snake bite, horse kick, spider bite, etc.

I shot a charging boar off the back of a horse when I was ten in outback NSW (New South Wales — east-coast Australia). The tusks are in our N.Y. apartment with the date of the incident. My school friend Annie and I would ride out for hours and take our lunch tied to the saddle. Her parents would just say, “Did you have a good day, girls?” when we returned in the afternoon.

We swam in the billabong near the house never thinking of the critters in the water. No crocs in that part of NSW, but lots of snakes. People were really tough way back then and that mentality still prevails here — similar to what I should think one would still find in the Middle West and the western mountain states of the U.S.

Much love . . .