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Letter from Michigan, ’22 (when “normal” maybe isn’t so normal)

Locations: Columns, Opinion Published

Hello again, fellow Bondalers and Valley dwellers, from verdant, humid southwestern Michigan! Bonnie and I made it to our old stomping grounds a little later than usual but in time for a mostly great July 4 weekend here (see below).

I can report that during the journey east through the Great Plains and Midwest things seemed basically back to normal this year, other than higher prices for everything. Plenty of semis on I-80, maybe not as many RVs and campers as before. Even one of our favorite bookstores, Prairie Lights in Iowa City, was back to its pre-pandemic hours.

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The Midwestern corn and soybean crops generally look good. Here, locally grown green beans and cantaloupes are at the fruit stand. Peaches and blueberries have arrived. Sweetcorn season is just starting and will be full-blown soon. Ah summer!

The Lake Michigan water level is down again from last year and considerably lower than the record highs in 2020 that caused so much beach erosion. The water is warm and clear, and our nice wide beach has returned. It looks like sand is piling up again at the base of the shoreline bluff, hopefully rebuilding the washed-away foredunes.

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Even a late spring-early summer regional dry spell that folks around here called a “drought” (more accurately qualified as “incipient drought” by a longtime Chicago meteorologist) has now been broken by rainstorms that have included occasional heavy downpours. So now it’s warm and sticky — typical for this time of year — but at least our skin has plumped up again.

On the surface, things seem almost routinely normal here this year. So why don’t they feel that way to me? Maybe it was the fellow’s t-shirt I spotted in a southwest suburban Chicago convenience store that said “Locked and Loaded” and depicted the image of an American flag with assault rifles for stripes. Possibly it’s the flag I saw while riding on a lovely Michigan backroad that read “F**k Biden”, with the third character being the Stars and Stripes.

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Certainly, the ongoing hearings of the House Select Committee on the Jan. 6 insurrection are contributing to the sense of unease — mine and almost everyone I know, anyway. Endless revelations of the extent to which high-level individuals in the Trump Administration and their allies strove to overturn a legitimate election and undermine our democracy have been shocking and extremely troubling but, sadly, not surprising. Still, these events were an assault on our country unprecedented since the Civil War; I hate to say it, but a significant percentage of our populace seems alright with that. What a difference from the response to Watergate a half-century ago!

Oh, and I can’t forget the end-of-term rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court that included nullifying a New York state law on concealed-weapons permits and the biggie, overturning Roe v. Wade, the almost 50-year-old ruling that had constitutionally allowed women the right to an abortion. The majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, dismissed the premise that the Constitution includes an inherent right to privacy (the equal protection clause of Amendment XIV), which had been the justification for Roe and subsequent previous court challenges. Clarence Thomas, in a concurring opinion, went further, wondering if other similar privacy-themed rulings allowing gay marriage, homosexual relations or contraception should also be overturned. However, he didn’t include interracial marriage on his list (Thomas, a Black man is married to a white woman); apparently, some things still do qualify as private to him.

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And then there is the continued litany of mass shootings in this country — hundreds so far this year and counting. The most awful ones linger in the news, like the racially motivated shoot-up of a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, or the horrific massacre of children and teachers in Uvalde, Texas. There, it has become known, the authorities hesitated for more than an hour to stop an active shooter.

But the one that’s really hitting home for me was the unconscionable mass shooting — not 75 miles across the lake from where I sit right now — at a Fourth of July parade in a north Chicago suburb. That could have been the parade in my old town in Chicago’s western suburbs that we used to go to with our son. Or the one several years ago in La Porte, Indiana, where our great niece was marching with her band. Or any of our wonderful parades in Carbondale, for that matter.

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Highland Park is one of several largely affluent suburbs called the North Shore that stretch along Lake Michigan for miles toward Wisconsin. It is predominantly white with a sizable Jewish population and generally (even now) has been considered one of the safest places in the Chicago area. The city is home to Ravinia, one of the country’s premier summer concert venues.

I know people from Highland Park, and, possibly, some of you have encountered folks from there visiting the Roaring Fork Valley. One of my oldest aikido friends is a long-term resident of the city. He didn’t know any of the victims but did remember the father of the alleged gunman (who has already confessed to the police). The man once owned a convenience store that my friend and his family frequented. My friend says the man was “friendly and quite popular;” he has been troubled, though, by the disturbing news reports about the shooter’s troubled family life.

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Two of our neighbors here in Michigan lived in Highland Park for decades before moving out in 2001 and still have many friends there. His old office was directly across the street from where the 21-year-old gunman stood on a rooftop spraying bullets into the crowd below with an assault-style rifle. She wrote in an email, “We knew one of the Highland Parkers who was killed. Our kids knew one of the people who was injured. There could be more that we haven’t learned about yet. We’re heartbroken about this.”

Illinois, like Colorado, has enacted some of the country’s most stringent gun-safety regulations, including a red-flag law. In 2019, the alleged shooter had two encounters with police, one involving concerns that he was going to harm himself and the other that he was threatening family members. Nonetheless the authorities did not pursue a red-flag order, he was able to obtain a gun permit and, later, two high-powered rifles (one was used in the attack). No motive has yet been given for his actions.

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I heard this the other day from my sister-in-law: “The Second Amendment proponents have taken away our First Amendment right to free assembly.” Case in point: After the shooting, with the gunman at large, all of the surrounding communities canceled or shut down their Independence Day observances (he wasn’t apprehended for several hours).

Postscript:

Recently, several of us went to a nearby municipal beach, where “Taps” has long been played at sunset on summer nights. At the appointed moment, a gentleman with an antique bugle began the familiar melody. We all stood, facing the lake and the fading light. Men doffed their caps, children were silent. Undoubtedly, some folks among our small throng disagree with me on many issues. But, for just that spontaneous and solemn moment, we were unified.

As the last notes drifted away, we all applauded and slipped off to our cars. Only later did I realize that the direction we were all facing — northwest — was toward Highland Park. Had it occurred to me then, I probably would have burst into tears.

Tags: #Highland Park #Ken Pletcher #Michigan
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