I was born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a damp valley where the air doesn’t move. The city has made the national news at various times for its crisis-level pollution and then, once that got cleared up, for having really fast internet. Chattanooga is in the news again, this time because a sadistic coward and religious zealot murdered five United States servicemen, four Marines and a sailor, in a deranged, inarticulate frenzy before he was killed by the city police. You’ve heard about it.
A onetime railroad hub, Chattanooga is now a mid-sized stop on I-75, a convenient route for trafficking opioid painkillers up from Florida. Except for earthquakes, Chattanooga has suffered most of the same environmental and social horrors as Los Angeles: smog, gang violence, spirit-crushing traffic jams, and race riots.
The term “hooker” (for prostitute) was coined in Chattanooga. It’s always been a violent and grubby place full of transients, the aquarium and refurbished riverfront notwithstanding. With those relatively recent developments, there is some reason to visit, but almost no reason to stay.
The murdered servicemen had to stay; they had no choice. They were stationed in Chattanooga. Their names are Thomas Sullivan, Skip Wells, Carson Holmquist, David Wyatt, and Randall Smith. They deserve to be remembered.
The killer, whatever his name was (it does not deserve to be remembered), was educated at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC). I went to school there too and so did Hugh Beaumont. He played Ward Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver, a sitcom from the late 1950s that has unjustly come to stand for the vapid, mainstream conformity of the Eisenhower era. Beaumont also attended the Baylor School, a private boarding school in Chattanooga. I didn’t go to Baylor but some of my friends did, and with a couple of glaring exceptions they are fine and intelligent people.
The only other detail about the #ChattanoogaShooter that interested me was that he drove a Ford Mustang, a vehicle that, arguably more than any other, best represents American individualism. So, this gutless swine liked America enough to be educated in our schools and embrace our symbols of mobility and freedom, but still wanted to turn it into the toilet that he was born in. Some people are crazy.
I wrote an essay about muscle cars, and one candy apple red 1969 Ford Mustang in particular, and what they represent about the American character and our relationship to existential philosophy, which we all share to a greater or lesser extent, even if we haven’t read any Sartre or Nietzsche. This is it, baby. We are ultimately alone on the lost highway. That dark road leads to total freedom for those willing to undo the safety belt, stomp the gas, and go.
By the way, #ChattanoogaShooter wore body armor. He didn’t really want to die. He obviously had some doubts about the paradisiacal afterlife and all its young virgins.
My essay is called “Gone is My Co-Pilot” and it was published in June in a quasi skin mag called Delicious Dolls. It’s a great and surprising context for the writing, even though I didn’t get paid for it. Here’s an excerpt:
Cars aren’t a religion for me. I do however dig aesthetics and individualism. The spirit and possibilities of cars fascinate me. Noise and speed aren’t bad either. But cars don’t require that you be spiritual in order to make them work.
Democracy doesn’t require any spirituality to make it work either. If the sad recent events in Chattanooga have anything to instruct, it might be that manic religiosity could be a detriment to democracy. But, I’m happy to leave that discussion for now.
In the post-World War II Eisenhower era, one way that existential doubts about culture, progress, and the redemptive power of American institutions were expressed was in the cinematic style/genre of film noir. Film noir drew not only on existential philosophy but also on the downbeat, and often outright nihilistic, literature of the Depression by authors like James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Nathanael West.
I live in California now, a beautiful place where beautiful people can easily drift along in a protracted state of entitled adolescence. Recently, I picked up a collection of short stories by Raymond Chandler. The book is titled after one of the stories in it- Killer in the Rain. The stories are set in Los Angeles. Of course, it doesn’t rain in California anymore. We are in the midst of a drought that shows no sign of abating. The whole place is a dry, brown tinderbox, but day-to-day nobody seems to care. The sprinklers still come on at my apartment complex and half the spray ends up on the sidewalk. Such apathy is uncommon in Chattanooga, especially these days.