“All right, listen up!” the soldier at the front of the bus demanded. “My name is Lieutenant James Frazier of the U.S. Army Military Police. I’m in charge of safety on this bus. Our destination is the Patriotic Orthodoxy facility in Yellowstone National Park. We’re headed for the Northern entrance which is located in the state of Montana. The entire trip should take us about twenty-four hours.
“I am being assisted by two other guards. They are the young man and young woman, Private Swoboda and Corporal Wright, that you see seated at the back of the bus. Oh, and for your information, those are real automatic rifles they are carrying, and those guards do know how to use them.
“Now, your hands have been temporarily shackled to your seat and your ankles have been chained together. However, before we leave the Los Angeles bus depot your right wrists will be unshackled to allow some mobility. Your left hand will remain cuffed, however. This will insure that you remain in your seat. We do need to maintain order on this trip.
“This bus will stop every two hours for a bathroom break. Every four hours we will stop for a bathroom break plus food and drink. To use the toilets, you may leave the bus, but only in pairs, and always with an armed guard accompanying you. All refreshments will be consumed on the bus. Please remember, whether on or off this vehicle, each of you is a prisoner of the United States and you will be under constant surveillance.
“While we are driving through cities, you will keep your window curtains closed. This is for your own protection. Once we on rural highways, you will be permitted to open the curtains and look out on this great country of ours—the nation you liberals betrayed. Talking will be permitted, but only between seatmates—and only in a whisper.
“So, if there are no questions, let’s roll,” Lt. Frazier commanded.
+ With that the driver pulled away from the curb and carefully maneuvered through the crowded streets of Los Angeles. It was hard to believe, but it had been less than four hours since I was taken into custody, and here I was on an armed bus headed for a political prison in Montana.
“Hello, my name is Jane Mandel,” softly said the middle-aged woman seated next to me. “I’m a social studies teacher, grade eight, from the San Fernando Valley. Who are you?”
“Hi, I’m Mike Tenney from West L.A.,” I replied, “I work for the government—the Social Security Administration, not the Justice Department, so don’t blame me for this travesty. All I want to know what is going on?”
“You don’t know?” Jane said. “I assume it’s that horrible Patriotic Orthodoxy Act passed in Washington last night. The law turned the United States into a one-party, one-philosophy state. And that party is Republican and that philosophy is reactionary masked as conservative. I overheard two guards discussing how they’re arresting liberals all over country. As you must have noticed, we liberals here in Los Angeles are being sent to detention centers all over the West.
“Sure, I recognize the obvious,” I answered. “But I still don’t understand what’s happening to me and to this country. This is unique—unless, of course, you count the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, and maybe the brutal Long March inflicted on the Cherokee Indians in the 19th century. But this time it affects me! That makes it unprecedented.”
“We’re a dying breed, Mike. We’re the last liberals in America,” Jane explained. “Most everyone else converted to conservatism and Republican politics years ago. Now, our party is illegal; and the government thinks we can be brainwashed into becoming good right-wingers who vote Republican without a question.” She shivered a bit, and then continued, “I’m terrified to think what might happen to those of us who won’t convert. Do you think they’ll execute us?”
I tried to downplay the consequences. “Nah, I’m still liberal,” I remarked, “I can’t abandon my optimism. They’ll try to change us, but they’ll probably just take away our right to vote for a while. That way they’ll receive unanimous support in the next election, and that’ll justify this whole mess,” I quipped. “But think of the bright side; if you’re not on the voting rolls, you can’t be called for jury duty.”
Jane smiled at my strained attempt at levity. “I’m worried about what else they might do to us,” she answered. “What’s going to happen to my husband and children? Will I ever see them again? I’m a U.S. citizen, but I was born in Canada. Will they revoke my naturalized citizenship? Will they deport me? Can I own property anymore? Will I be allowed to teach in public schools ever again—or even private schools—if I remain a liberal Democrat? Can loyalty oaths and blacklists be far behind? What about simply exterminating us?”
As the pace of her dire questions continued, tears began to swell in her eyes. “This is all very scary,” she sobbed.
I tried to console my companion. Fearful, angry, and confused, Jane was working herself into frenzy. “Just calm down, Jane” I advised. “It’ll all work out. Maybe the Supreme Court will rule the POA unconstitutional. Maybe the government will see that it’s ruining the nation and rescind the law. We’ll be OK in the long run.”
“Fat chance. That’s not going to happen,” she responded through her sniffles. “This is the same Court that started this destruction when it stole the 2000 election from Al Gore and the Democrats. Bush II won by the margin of one right-wing vote by a Supreme Court justice, even though Gore had a half-million more popular votes, and he actually won Florida.
“Sure, we had two Obama administrations, but Obama couldn’t stop the rise of the reactionary Tea Party, the loosening of gun laws, the rise of private militias, the termination of social services: and all of it sanctioned by the reactionary-dominated Supreme Court. And then the election of John Birch III! No way will the Supreme Court overrule the horrid law passed last night.”
Jane appeared to have a firm grasp on the history behind the transformation of the U.S. into a one-party state. “Do you really think the Court is responsible for all this?” I inquired.
“No, no, the Court is just part of the problem,” she answered. “It’s been evolving for a long time—maybe since the New Deal. Remember your history books. Remember how the Republicans treated Franklin Roosevelt for more than twelve years? They didn’t just criticize the New Deal or offer alternative plans. They savaged the man. FDR was called a Socialist, a Communist, and even worse. They even accused his pet dog of wasting taxpayer dollars. Since then every Democratic president—and especially Barack Obama—has been vilified by conservatives.
“Don’t you remember?” she continued, “Truman was an incompetent bumbler. Kennedy was an immature rich kid, and a Roman Catholic to boot. Johnson was drunk with power. Carter was a wimp. And as for Clinton, well, he was a sexual deviate, a murderer, Satan in the flesh.
“But the modern version of right-wing power began with the inauguration of George Bush II almost twenty years ago,” she said. “He kept this country in a state of perpetual war and fear of terrorism during his two terms. And since Texas voters elected him the Senate last November, he’s remains a loud voice for right-wing policies. It was all those wars, all that dread of terrorist attacks, all that ‘we’re Good—they’re Evil’ moral posturing that attracted Americans, even liberal Democrats, to conservative Republicanism. Even liberal Obama kept our troops in Iraq, continued the war in Afghanistan, and even bombarded Libya.”
“But, how can you explain Barack Obama and the Democratic resurgence in 2008 and his reelection in 2012?” I interrupted.
“A glitch, a momentary stumble in the Republican rise to ascendency,” Jane said. “Obama was handsome, with an attractive speaking style and an attractive family. He made people feel good when Republican decision had almost bankrupted the country. And, besides, the Republicans failed to offer good candidates to challenge Obama. I mean, when a pizza executive and the host of a trumped-up TV reality-show were among your leading candidates, theatricality had clearly replaced substance.
“But the Republican propaganda mill kept up a relentless assault on Obama and the Democrats. Remember how they called their campaign Operation Roadblock? It was a rhetorical tactic to undermine liberals, even at the cost of destroying the nation. You must remember their tactic,” Jane noted, “if Obama said A, Republicans would say Z…if he said good, they said bad or not good enough. If Mrs. Obama spoke in favor of healthy nutrition, they yelled about Washington telling us what to eat, usurping our Freedom of Food. We even blamed Obama for increasing traffic accidents involving pedestrians because Mrs. Obama encouraged people to get exercise by walking more.
“They flipped everything on its head, and opposed whatever the Democrats supported. Healthcare became Obamacare, said with a pronounced slur in the voice. The president hesitated in foreign crises, they called for intervention; he intervened, they called him reckless. They offered a counterargument for everything he proposed—even if it meant taking a stupid position or opposing an issue they had championed before Obama took office. The goal was not to develop effective policies, it was to demolish the President and his liberal base.
“And look at the Republicans when they regained total power after 2016,” she continued. “We should have anticipated it when President Birch added disgraced Glenn Beck to his cabinet as Secretary of Information. Information? Hell, the President created a propaganda ministry and named loopy Glenn Beck, the king of dis-information, to the post.”
“Yeah, lots of us were upset by that appointment,” I replied.
“Do you remember Beck’s first brainy project?” Jane continued. “You must recall that belated Victory Parade he staged in Baghdad in 2017 to commemorate the first war against the Axis of Evil. Remember all those American soldiers, the tanks and other military hardware. And the flags: they were inspiring, even for me.
“Quite a spectacle,” I added. “Remember those Iraqi orphans throwing rose petals on the road as President Birch’s limo approached? That may have been orchestrated by Beck the spin doctor, but it was glorious theater. It even made me shed a tear or two.
“Of course, it was diminished a bit by the tacky corporate floats that were sprinkled between the military bands and the parading soldiers,” I continued. “The McDonald’s entry wasn’t too bad, but those from BP, Halliburton, and Xe/Blackwater were too commercial.
“But I still remember the Archer Daniels Midland float. It was unforgettable. A gigantic ear of corn decorated in daffodils and buttercups, with the inscription, ‘When Ethanol comes to the Euphrates, ADM will bring it.' It was in such bad taste."
“I agree,” Jane said. “I enjoyed the Victory Parade as much as you did. But don’t forget Sadaam Hussein. Everyone thought he had been executed, but we discovered years later that he had actually escaped that Baghdad prison during his trial. The Iraqi government executed an innocent look-alike rather than face international embarrassment. They didn’t get the real Sadaam until the second Axis of Evil War when he was found cowering with all those mullahs in a bunker outside Tehran.”
“That’s right,” I added. “Capturing Hussein during the Axis of Evil II sure didn’t hurt the Republican cause. Approval ratings for Birch rose to 98%, even higher than when U.S. troops publicly executed Osama bin Laden live on primetime TV last year.”
Our conversation preoccupied us for a long time. But it ended abruptly when the bus came to a stop. Suddenly, Lt. Frazier was on the public address system. “We are two hours out of Los Angeles. We’re near the edge of the Mojave Desert. Time for your first stop for a bathroom break. Please close your curtains until we leave the area.
“All those wishing to use the restrooms raise your hands so you can be escorted by the guards. Corporal Wright will take the women, and Private Swoboda will lead the men. Remember, finish quickly. There are others waiting behind you in line.”
Everyone wanted out of the bus. Some didn’t need to use the facilities. They simply wanted to stand up and walk around, even if it were only to stand in line for access to a toilet. Methodically, we were unshackled from our seats and allowed to leave the bus. We remained tethered at the ankles, able to walk only in small strides.
Outside, we were divided into long lines and paraded to the men’s and women’s toilets. When duty was done, we were herded back to the bus and chained again to our assigned seats.
The Lieutenant seemed proud of his team’s effort. Even before all the captives were back on the bus, Frazier was on the public address system boasting. “I’m pleased that everything is going smoothly. Remember this routine. It will be repeated each time we stop for personal relief and food.”
As he finished his self-congratulatory announcement, I could see through the driver’s window that there was a small commotion outside. A few prisoners were being pushed to the ground and loud voices were coming from the area of the men’s toilet. In the confusion, I saw one of the armed guards, Private Swoboda, running toward the bus. As he approached the door, Lt. Frazier quickly left the bus and conferred with him.
I nudged Jane’s arm and nodded toward the activity. “This is not in the playbook. I think a prisoner may have escaped,” I suggested.
After a quick conversation with his superior officer, Swoboda ran back toward the toilets and then bolted across an adjoining roadway. As I craned my neck to see, the soldier ran into the nearby clump of trees. A minute or so later, I heard the staccato of automatic-weapon fire that broke the stillness of the evening. Then nothing as silence fell both outside and inside the bus.
Soon, Swoboda returned, rifle in hand, brushing debris from his uniform as he approached the bus. He entered the door, spoke briefly with the Lieutenant, then walked directly to his seat at the rear of the vehicle. The bus quickly pulled away. Only the crunching sound of gravel yielding to the rolling tires punctuated the quiet. No one said a word about what had just transpired, but as I looked around inside the darkened bus, I spotted one empty seat.
The driver took the bus slowly down the access road and toward the interstate highway. The journey to Montana was on again.
A few minutes later the lieutenant announced that it was acceptable to reopen the curtains. Fortunately, the moon was bright and that allowed me to see a portion the countryside. What I saw out the window was, predictably, the topography of California as it turned from the semiarid populated areas to the parched barrenness of the desert. This dry monotony extended across the country until we reached the Rocky Mountains.
What an appropriate metaphor for the degeneration of American politics in the 21st century, I thought. What had been diversified, vibrant, and creative had now morphed into uninspiring sameness. Where was the tension from which comes invention? Where was the clash of philosophies from which new answers emerge? Where was the enthusiasm that emanated from the good and honest political fight? If everything and everyone were the same, then nothing would be different and everyone would be controlled. Do we really want to be like Japanese society where the nail that sticks up gets hammered down?
A few more hours on the road and it was time for a dinner break. When the bus stopped at a fast food restaurant it did so with curtains closed. This time, however, no one was allowed this time to leave the bus. Although a few people with smaller bladders complained, but there was no accommodating their discomfort.
There were no menus or waitresses during this first stop for food. Lt. Frazier simply exited the bus and returned shortly with dozens of hamburgers, fries, and soft drinks. It wasn’t healthy food, but we famished liberals made no fuss. Even the vegans among us didn’t object. The din of lips smacking and Cokes being slurped was the unmistakable sound of hungry people glad to be eating anything.
While I gulped down my meal, through a slight opening where the curtains were not completely closed I could see that there were about a half-dozen other buses in the parking lot. Most were older Greyhound Strato-Cruisers and from their marquees, I could see that they were headed for destinations from the high plains to the deserts of the Southwest. One bus was particularly striking because it was ringed by U.S. Marines carrying machine guns. There must have been a dozen soldiers surrounding that vehicle. That bus was bound for the Grand Canyon.
While I was looking through the crack in the curtain, Corporal Wright came collecting the remnants of the meal. “Just place your papers and uneaten food in this plastic bag,” she commanded. “Don’t try to save anything. Everything not consumed goes into the bag.”
In a short while the litter was collected and the bus to Yellowstone reentered the highway heading northeast. Jane and I did not resume our conversation. Somehow, we both knew that there would be plenty of political talk in the coming days and weeks. Furthermore, since the shooting of the would-be escapee at the first restroom stop, there was very little whispering on the bus. Recognizing the deadly seriousness of this experience, for once we liberal Democrats were without words.
Like most others on the bus, Jane drifted off to sleep. I soon followed her example. But sleep didn’t come easily. No one on board was relaxed enough for deep slumber, and those stops every two hours guaranteed fitful rest. Also detrimental to normal sleep was the throbbing pain that came from being bound to the seat of a bus.
It was mid-morning of Day Two of the POA, more than twenty-four hours since my life had been confiscated by the state. I gazed listlessly through the opened curtains looking at the dull scenery. There was not much to see from the bus: an occasional off-ramp, the odd hill, and lots of barren land and bushes. Was this Nevada? Utah? Wyoming? I really couldn’t tell. It was all so brown and desolate.
Still, something outside did capture my attention. It was those billboards containing public service announcements in support of reactionary politics and the new Orthodoxy Act. Here in the middle of nowhere, the billboards proclaimed the Republican Party triumphant. Several urged vigilant citizens to alert law enforcement should they see any liberals walking around free. One billboard proclaimed, “Beautify Politics. Stomp out Liberalism.” Another announced “Liberals Are Weak. Only Conservatives Can Bring Victory.”
The most ridiculous I encountered was the string of small red signs placed about twenty yards apart in the style of Burma-Shave advertising popular in 1940s. Each sign carried one line of a short poem:
“If you want your country to grow.”
It was early afternoon by the time the bus made its sixth stop for food and drink. This time it was in the parking lot of a KFC franchise. It would be the last food break until we reached our Yellowstone destination. A few of the prisoners were still sleeping, but most were awake, staring ahead as if in a fog. No one knew what to expect. Everyone was apprehensive about what was about to happen once we arrived.
“Better wake up,” I said to Jane. “Last call for alcohol. We’ll be home in an hour or so.”
Jane rubbed her eyes and laughed softly. “I better eat something. You never know what they’ll feed us in that place—maybe mad-cow burgers or roasted rats—worse, maybe nothing.” For now, however, she was eager to eat the fried chicken that Lt. Frazier and Pvt. Swoboda had just brought aboard the bus.
“Enjoy your last supper on the bus,” the Lieutenant blurted out. “We’ll soon be at our destination. There you’ll get three-squares a day—if you’re good boys and girls.” No one smiled at his sarcasm. Instead, those who were hungry ate from their KFC buckets. Others, however, preferred to sleep through the stop. Even the sound of teeth crunching extra-crispy chicken didn’t awaken everyone.
Soon the scraps were collected, and the bus continued its inexorable progress toward the national park. As we pulled away from the restaurant, Jane asked me the most fundamental question of this entire experience: “What am I going to do when they’re forcing me to accept conservative politics. I favor equal rights. I believe in reproductive rights. I am opposed to all those foreign wars. I support women rights, gay rights, civil rights, and civil liberties. I support Rights, not the right.”
She continued, “I think corporate criminals should go to jail. I approve of government programs that assist the poor, the sick, and the elderly. I favor universal health care. Call it socialized medicine, I don’t care, I’m for it. I believe that only government can and will clean up the environment. Polluters won’t, and citizens alone can’t handle the carcinogens and radioactivity that’s in much of our corporate trash. I want high standards met before anyone sells me a new car or a salad, or whatever. All this is necessary for the creation of a happy and tranquil society. This is what I believe.
“But what will I do if they starve me or beat me?” she asked me. “What if they threaten to rape me or kill me? Mike, tell me, what should I do?”
“I can’t answer you,” I replied, “I don’t even know what I would do in such circumstances. Maybe we should just play it by ear. In the 16th century, when King Henry of Navarre was offered the crown of France if he would only renounce his Protestant faith and become a Roman Catholic, he took the offer because, he said, ‘Paris is worth a mass.’ Maybe remaining an American—and, certainly, remaining alive—is worth a Republican mass. Will we live a happy life if we renounce liberalism and embrace conservatism? Who’s to say until we face that choice?”
Copyright © 2012 J. Fred MacDonald - All Rights Reserved.