“The thing to worry about is meanings, not appearances.” – Michael Lesy, wisconsin death trip, 1973
I went back twice to find out what the coffin meant, but even though cars came and went in the driveway, no one ever answered the door. Halloween in June or a sign? Kitsch or warning? For a week since the first night of the hearings on January 6, I had been in the car listening to them on the radio while counting the flags. Not the American ones, but Trump’s. Trump 2024, two years ahead; and the red, white and blue of the Confederacy, the yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden. There are so many now. There’s also new folk art: hand-painted “Fuck Biden” posters, hand-made “Let’s Go Brandon” billboards, and hand-made “Never Forget Benghazi” banners. The towns and communities still brim with rainbow pride, their numbers are greater, but the ugly emblems tick past on many country roads like kilometer markers.
But what was the coffin? I was visiting friends in Cecil, Wisconsin as we drove by. They let me out to take a picture. “Be careful,” they said, and “we’ll get you back,” because they didn’t want to linger. They sped away, leaving me in the green light. I took my picture. I waited. I read on my phone or on Twitter that Wisconsin Republicans had blocked an attempt to repeal a dormant 1849 law that made any abortion — including for rape or incest — a crime. My friends returned, we fled. The verdict came the next morning: dobbs vs. jackson, what has fallen over Roe v. Calf, and Wisconsin became the only “blue” state where abortion is now effectively illegal.
In 1973, the same year the US Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that Norma McCorvey, “Jane Roe,” had a constitutional “right to privacy” that includes reproductive freedom – tennis champion Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs on the television show “Battle of the sexes.” Richard Nixon declared, “I’m not a crook.” Henry Kissinger received the Nobel Peace Prize. Also in 1973, a book entitled Wisconsin Death Journey. It began as a staple and, as a book, became an unlikely reflection of its time, despite depicting the last 15 years of the last century. History is sometimes like this, our belief in the forward movement of chronology suddenly evaporates. death ride was, on the surface, a benevolent album of seemingly ordinary photographs—portraits, patriotic depictions, happy youth—of a small Wisconsin town, Black River Falls, during the last decade of the 19th century. Interspersed are excerpts from the town newspaper Black River Falls Badger State Banner, and whispers about “town gossip”. In 1973, a year of crises as varied and violent as this year, most white Americans still pictured the past century as idyllic save for a brief interruption by a civil war fought for reasons beyond their control they considered “romantic”. Virtuous country life, bustling urban industry. American size. That banner spoke other truths. Epidemic disease consuming entire families; diphtheria, the formation of a “false membrane” in the throat; “amazing bank failure”; “arsonists,” arsonists who loved to see things burn; “Vigilance Committees”; “the private made public”; a woman, once a “model wife and mother,” who roamed the state smashing windows; Soul after soul transferred to the institution; so many suicides; a woman who died “of a criminal operation on herself” after failing to find a doctor who had the courage to help her. There was beauty in the book too, even the carefully arranged photographs of dead infants. That’s what you did back then when your baby died. If you had the money, you hired the town’s photographer to take the picture of the infant stuck in a small coffin with flowers, eyes tenderly closed.
Thirty years ago the author of the book, Michael Lesy, was my teacher. The book, his first, has been with me ever since. “You can get as philosophical as you want,” Michael said when I told him I was going to Black River Falls. He mimicked cheap gravitas. “‘From below grows the tree of life…'” Then comes the end, yours or worse, the end of those you love – “and no one likes it when it happens to them.” A death trip is a remember death is a reminder that everyone dies. If that seems obvious, consider the desperate denial embedded in the phrase “Make America Great Again”; the light-eating vanity of Trump; the madness of a golden brand that will shine forever. Consider this gloating post-roe Meme: “A millennial white boy summer begins today.” But nothing lasts forever, not even white boys. Meanwhile, a death trip calls us into the precarious reality. Not the myth of size. The Pulse of Uncertainty. The living as we are.
I got the message through a Wisconsin man I spoke to this morning who got it over the phone from his wife who heard it from her doctor who she had gone to not to terminate a pregnancy but to prepare for one. “Mary,” who told me her story about the newly required condition of anonymity, had been in the stirrups when the verdict was handed down. She wanted a baby, and this was the next step in reproductive technology she and her husband had decided on — until suddenly it wasn’t. After treatment with fertility drugs, Mary now had three mature eggs. The nurse stepped out to consult the doctor. But as the doctor entered the exam room, she said, “I’m holding back tears.”
“I do not recommend that you continue,” the doctor said. Three eggs meant a risk of multiple births. Twins that Mary could handle. She couldn’t have triplets. Not her finances and not her body. If she moved forward there was a tiny chance that all three eggs could be fertilized. An embryo may need to be removed. And that could be a crime on June 24 at 9:11 a.m. Central Time in Wisconsin.
https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2022/11/america-new-civil-war “Fuck Biden”, “Tread on Me” and a Wisconsin Death Trip for our time