Bumper stickers and the politics of rage

  "You’ll be lucky to get out of South Dakota alive," the professor said, looking at one of my bumper stickers. He smiled, adding, "I may be kidding."

This was not my first warning that this bumper sticker might be dangerous. Leaving that small college campus, I was thoughtful.

My cars have carried the same message for years, with replacements from an organization that provides every possible political view in bumper stickers, pins and posters. I have given extra stickers to bank tellers, gas station attendants, fast food servers — anybody who asked for one.

On long road trips, I read bumper stickers as entertainment, a way of sharing a joke with a stranger. One of my all-time favorites is "Pass with Care: Tobacco Chewer," spotted on a pickup in Wyoming. For that, I was paid $50 by Playboy magazine, one of my first writing sales.

Surely, I thought, no one takes bumper stickers seriously enough to kill over. In South Dakota, neighbors have known me for 50 years, know I pay my bills and contribute to charity. A bumper sticker doesn’t tell anybody’s whole story. But lately, in city traffic, drivers behind have honked, shaken fists; one even bumped my car. I mumbled nervously, "Go ahead; hit me and I’ll sue you."

One driver screamed that God would punish me, and waved his hand, with a particular digit upraised. Another howled that God loved me even though I obviously was worthless. By mail, I’ve received photographs of my car; no message, no return address. Last year, a thousand miles from home, another driver hailed me in a parking lot and said, "I recognized you by your bumper stickers."

Then a woman from Tennessee called to tell me her friend’s teenage son was killed on his bicycle in a drive-by shooting. Police investigated every aspect of his life and finally concluded that maybe he was killed because of the slogan on the T-shirt he was wearing: The same words are on my bumper. Could that happen in the West? I wondered.

My bumper sticker reads "Born Again Pagan." As a writer, I know the word "pagan" is Latin for "country dweller," a term originally applied to folks who lived too far out of town to attend church regularly. It referred to their location, not to their religious orientation. Writers have to be picky about word usage, and I consider the sticker to be a signal that I am not giving in to the sloppy thinkers who define ‘‘pagan’’ as one who opposes religion. Worse yet, some folks associate the term with Satanism. The word’s meaning has nothing to do with my church attendance, which is no one else’s business.

The slogan is also particularly appropriate because I am a rancher, a person who prefers to live in the country. In our household, there was always tension between my churchgoing mother and my father, who frequently mentioned that he had a ranch to run, even on Sunday.

He believed God would be pleased that he was taking care of His creation even on Sundays. My mother and I usually went to church alone. As a writer, my work centers on these ranching roots, and my deep concern for the landscape on which my family makes our living. Like my father, whether I go to church or not, I have always assumed that I might please God by my concern for the only world we have.

Once I moved to a Wyoming city, the message took on ironic meanings. I had been reborn to a new city life, but could hardly wait to be born again by going back to the ranch. So the bumper sticker seemed to fit the unique circumstances of my life.

If necessary, I am perfectly willing to die defending some of my beliefs and the things I love. But I’m not ready to be shoveled under because some moron judges me by my car bumper. So "Born Again Pagan" is gone.

I still have my T-shirt. And my car still announces "My Other Car is a Broom." Do you think we have enough sense of humor left for that one?

Linda M. Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She divides her time between a South Dakota ranch and Cheyenne, Wyoming.

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