I remember my first demolition derby, years ago as a young parent. It was the thrill of illicit activity that drew me there. My parents—middle class academic types with progressive values—would never have dreamed of lending their support to such an uncouth spectacle; their disapproval would have been unconditional.
A theme of my adult life has been engaging with my parents’ judgment and disapproval, throwing out any part that seemed rooted in fear or ignorance, testing whether I wanted to claim any of it as my own. I have sought out diversity. I love rubbing shoulders with my African American neighbors, with immigrants from Southeast Asia and West Africa, with other white folks who value this kind of community. For many years I worked with Italian and Irish-American Catholic moms, slowly building relationships in those close-knit ethnic neighborhoods. It makes me feel safer to not be so separated from people who are different from me. I can get to know human beings, and have some protection from the trap of believing that those differences are too great to be bridged.
Yet here, on the day of my second demolition derby, at the fairgrounds in a rural county hours away from any big city, I realize how separated I still remain. This is an event that many locals look forward to all year. The road by the fairground is lined with cars and trucks, and the simple stands dug into the side of the hill are filled. Below us, eight old cars, windowless and battered beyond belief, are crashing into each other in a small enclosed place, vying to be the last one running.
With that first demolition derby, I went to face down my childhood. But I stayed for the excitement. This was a big, loud, outrageous world I had never even known existed. Just the fact that people were intentionally ramming into each other took my breath away. Then cars that looked like they could never move again, wheels askew or off entirely, back ends demolished, found a way to keep going, roaring in for another crash. At the end of the mayhem ordinary people stepped through what used to be the windshields of their mangled machines to accept the applause. We gasped and cheered. It was a totally memorable family outing. This time, with some idea of what to expect, and the illicit thrill factor less prominent, more of my attention was on the crowd.
We share a cabin in this county with six other families and have been coming up since before the boys were born. We know a lot about the land—our part of it in particular. We look forward to reading the county weekly. With the chatty local columns on who has visited whom, 4H Club news, police blotter announcements of the occasional broken window or car accident, photos of proud hunters with their prize turkey or bear, we feel light years away from the big city.
Reading their news aloud to each other in the comfort of our cabin, however, is different from joining much of the county in person in their entertainment of choice. Surrounded by buzz cuts, cigarettes, tattoos, flags, and cars smashing into each other, I was definitely out of my element. My parents’ disapproval hovered. Why waste so much energy on such needless destruction? What was the point? Surely people could find something more civilized, something quieter to watch.
But if I were taken to a popular local spectacle overseas, I would go with an attitude of respectful engagement—and that was the attitude I was interested in. These were my people, people I didn’t have a chance to rub shoulders with on a daily basis, but people I needed to know and value if I would claim them as fellow Americans. These were people who worked in our forests, farms and factories, loved their children, did their best. I could get to know them, learn about their lives, their strengths, their dreams, the things that they–like my parents, like myself–feared and judged. Some of them I would surely love.
Some might even enjoy other kinds of entertainment as well. But this was where we were together right now. So I gave thanks for the opportunity to be among neighbors I don’t always remember I have, and entered into the spirit of demolition.
A high point was watching a little green car in a heat of compacts. Not much to start with, it got smashed in more and more till it was unrecognizable as a vehicle. Yet every time we thought it was done for good, it reached deep and found wholly improbably new life, to not only move again, but go after other vehicles that still looked a little like cars. At the end, one of the last three still running, out the windshield opening came an unassuming young man, and we all gave a great cheer. It was good to be a witness to such skill, tenacity and enormous will to life, good to celebrate those qualities with my neighbors.