I am starting to feel as if I am living in a Vandal state, perhaps on the frontier near Carthage around a.d. 530, or in a beleaguered Rome in 455. Here are some updates from the rural area surrounding my farm, taken from about a 30-mile radius. In this take, I am not so much interested in chronicling the flotsam and jetsam as in fathoming whether there is some ideology that drives it.
Last week an ancestral rural school near the Kings River had its large bronze bell stolen. I think it dated from 1911. I have driven by it about 100 times in the 42 years since I got my first license. The bell had endured all those years. Where it is now I don’t know. Does someone just cut up a beautifully crafted bell in some chop yard in rural Fresno County, without a worry about who forged it or why — or why others for a century until now enjoyed its presence?
The city of Fresno is now under siege. Hundreds of street lights are out, their copper wire stripped away. In desperation, workers are now cementing the bases of all the poles — as if the original steel access doors were not necessary to service the wiring. How sad the synergy! Since darkness begets crime, the thieves achieve a twofer: The more copper they steal, the easier under cover of spreading night it is to steal more. Yet do thieves themselves at home with their wives and children not sometimes appreciate light in the darkness? Do they vandalize the street lights in front of their own homes?
In a small town two miles away, the thefts now sound like something out of Edward Gibbon’s bleaker chapters — or maybe George Miller’s Road Warrior, or the Hughes brothers’ more recent The Book of Eli. Hundreds of bronze commemorative plaques were ripped off my town’s public buildings (and with them all record of our ancestors’ public-spiritedness). I guess that is our version of Trotskyization.
The Catholic church was just looted (again) of its bronze and silver icons. Manhole covers are missing (some of the town’s own maintenance staff were arrested for this theft, no less!). The Little League clubhouse was ransacked of its equipment.
In short, all the stuff of civilization — municipal buildings, education, religion, transportation, recreation — seems under assault in the last year by the contemporary forces of barbarism. After several thefts of mail, I ordered a fortified, armored mailbox. I was ecstatic when I saw the fabricator’s Internet ad: On the video, someone with an AK-47 emptied a clip into it; the mail inside was untouched. I gleefully said to myself: “That’s the one for me.” And it has been so far. But I wonder: Do the thieves not like to get their own mail? Do their children not play Little League? Do they not want a priest at their funeral? Would they not like to drive their cars without worrying about holes in the street? Or is their thinking that a rich society can cover for their crimes without their crimes’ ever much affecting them — given that most others still do not act as they do?
I know it is popular to suggest that as we reach our sixties, everything seems “worse,” and, like Horace’s laudatores temporis acti, we damn the present in comparison to the past. Sorry, it just isn’t so. In 1961, 1971, and 1981, city street lights were not systematically de-wired. And the fact that plaques and bells of a century’s pedigree were just now looted attests that they all survived the Great Depression, the punks of the 1950s, and the crime-ridden 1970s.
A couple now in their early 90s lives about three miles away from me on their small farm. I have known them for 50 years; he went to high school with my mother, and she was my Cub Scout leader. They now live alone and have recently been robbed nine, yes, nine, times. He told me he is thinking of putting a sign out at the entrance to his driveway: “Go away! Nothing left! You’ve already taken everything we have.” Would their robbers appreciate someone else doing that to their own grandparents? Do the vandals have locks on their own doors against other vandals?
There is indeed something of the Dark Ages about all this. In the vast rural expanse between the Sierras and the Coast Ranges, and from Sacramento to Bakersfield, our rural homes are like stray sheep outside the herd, without whatever protection is offered by the density of a town. When we leave for a trip or just go into town, the predators swarm.