Vantage Points
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Vantage Points

Why I Left Oak Ridge¹

I left the town of Oak Ridge in October, 1997, and although I have been back a few times since, I’ve never returned, at least not spiritually or emotionally. There were many reasons for it. But first and foremost, it was because I never really fit in, and I knew if I didn’t escape, I might get trapped there forever.

We cannot choose the place or the moment of our birth; that is chosen by God, through our parents. A man can no more change his native birthplace — the town, city, state or country — than he can change the pigment of his skin, hair, or eyes. I was fortunate enough to have been born in America. I could have just as easily been born in some third-world place with little hope or prospects.

In addition to being born in the United States of America, I was also lucky enough to be born in a state that was set, both geographically and metaphorically, right on the border between east and west, right at the gate where the south begins to turn into the west, so neither my home state nor I could ever be branded “Southern, “ or “Western” in the traditional sense of those words. The state and I were our own special brands of America; neither could be labeled so easily with such monikers.

For the most part, these facts allowed a great deal of independence for me individually, in both theory and practice. But I could tell someone anywhere in the world that I was a native of that state, and they formed an immediate opinion about me before they even had a chance to get to know me.

But it also had the strange condition of making me feel like an outsider when I was in other parts of the country, even just across the border in a neighboring state. Indeed, when various characteristics of my environment and heritage were mixed together — being a native of that state, having Scot-Irish blood in my veins, and being raised and molded by a father who stood like a titan in my eyes and methodically developed me to always take up for myself and my family, a personal characteristic that led me to welcome the inevitable confrontation with those who might be unfortunate enough to challenge either one — the results could be volatile.

​That’s probably why the Marine Corps appealed to me so much and why I found in it what I couldn’t find anywhere else.

I often had discussions with fellow Marines on this topic. Did the Marine Corps make us the way we are? Or did we seek it out because we were already that way, and the Corps simply valued, drew out, refined and rewarded those characteristics? Perhaps it was a bit of both.

So I went out into life with this predisposition, although it wouldn’t be perfectly complete until years later. It made for some harsh, if not unjust observations. I was already like this when I turned 21, and the Marine Corps only reaffirmed these rough edges to my character and forged them completely into place in my psyche, polishing and smoothing down the edges. It made me have high standards, not only for myself, but for everyone around me. But I would come to learn that in some places there were people who had a much different set of standards, and those standards had very little to do with honestly, integrity, or ethics.

And so it was with the place where I had gone to college and first chosen to live my life, this hinterland of hills and deltas.

Once a haven for me in my youthful naiveté, it would become a place corrupted by some sinister type of force.

Maybe it had always been that way. But there were times when I felt like it was infected with some sort of disease, like a stifling plague disseminated by modern-day Pharisees, people who held themselves out as pious, yet treated others in very strange ways. It was like an insidious virus with a long incubation. It was as if it stole into the air, indeed, the very soil on which I walked and in which the vegetation grew. It was an affliction that remained hidden, but always seemed to manifest itself in the end in the same ways.

In Isaiah, God told the Israelites He had forged them in a “furnace of affliction,” and that’s how the place made me feel, almost every time I lived there — in college, graduate school, my first few years out of school, then finally after years of being away and returning.

The symptoms of this strange affliction? Somebody would get envious, or insecure, or intimidated, or threatened, or angry, and never give any explanation. People were very quick to judge, though they wore a mask of piety and claimed not to do so. They were always nonconfrontational, passive-aggressive types who would say one thing in your presence, but subvert and talk about you behind your back.

I’m not kidding when I say the contagion was in the very soil on which I walked, in the air I breathed, and in the water I drank. It was a descendant strain of the virus that spawned American slavery. That mental illness that made one-man think he could own another until brute, scalding, lethal steel and fire ended it. The less overt, yet no less insidious version made one-man believe he could control another one.

These people were obsessed with making you conform, and the non-conformist was viewed with suspicion.

If their schemes couldn’t bring you to heel, it threatened them. Such men mistrusted anyone they deemed to be an “outsider” or not subject to their daily whims. This affliction, I’m sure, was not limited to Oak Ridge and the state in which it was located, but a most ancient and virulent form was there. After all, the quality and character of a place are directly related to the character of the people who inhabit it.

​I admit I did not always feel this way. There was actually a time when I loved the place. At least I think I did. When it was all new and I was a naïve college student, it seemed a veritable oasis where I could escape the boredom of my home city.

But after reality hit home in later years, and I would return for the occasional visit, it was always the same. Every time I came back I went through what Thomas Wolfe must have experienced after he published Look Homeward Angel and went back home to Asheville, North Carolina. It was those experiences that formed the basis for what became You Can’t Go Home Again. That book was so ensconced in the American literary heart the title had become part of the lexicon — a saying that people used to describe their feelings about returning home or to another once-familiar place long after they had left; it was what I felt when I went back to Oak Ridge.

Although I was from another city in another state, I had so fallen in love with Oak Ridge in my youthful adulthood I had adopted it as my hometown. Now, two decades after this youthful exuberance, when I would go back for the obligatory visit, I would always leave telling myself I was never going to return. Then after some period of time, I would find an excuse to go back. After my parents moved there to be closer to the family, I had yet another built-in excuse to return. Every time I did, though, I would experience the same love-hate emotion.

But that feeling was the love of things long since passed, of cherished memories of the good things that had happened there; the sports victories I had been a part of, meeting my wife in grad school, getting married, and the birth of our first child. And then there was just simply the physical environment itself, the landscape and the seasons that mixed together to form something I had seldom, if ever, experienced before and have seldom seen since, especially in the fall. The perfectly crisp October air, the brilliant, azure sky containing high, wispy clouds; the rich reds, oranges, and yellows in the trees, that all combined to intoxicate me.

The air on days like this in October and early November seemed almost electrically charged; you felt as if you could do anything you set your mind to and have energy to spare.

There was not much I could compare to a Friday in that season, when as a student-athlete I would walk to and from class the day before the Saturday afternoon game and seeing the campus slowly fill up with people wearing our school colors. At times, I almost felt like a king; like the world belonged to me.

And even long after my time as one of the kings had passed, whether I was a law student or walking to meet my wife for lunch on the square downtown as a young lawyer, I would still drink in these bright, fall Fridays, with just a twinge of wistfulness; although my playing days were done, I didn’t need to play to revel in the environment. So yes, there were some qualities to love about this small town in the hills. And neither negative experiences nor narrow-minded people could ever take any of that away or make it less special in my mind. The memories were always there, and they were what made part of me love Oak Ridge.

When you considered it deeply, you wondered how you could ever come to hold animus for a place like that. How did the feeling steal its way into my heart? Where did it come from? Was it the place I disliked, or the people who had wronged me? Had they really wronged me, or did I just perceive they had?

What was it that made me walk into our home one day and announce to my wife that we were leaving Oak Ridge and never coming back? That we were quitting two perfectly acceptable, albeit low-paying jobs when we had a child that had just turned two?

What was it about Oak Ridge that made me volunteer to put myself through what was — for me — a searing cauldron in Quantico, Virginia, that forged my mind and body in a way that made football two-a-days forever seem like a joke in comparison?

What was it about the prospect of having to go back to Oak Ridge that terrified me so much — a possibility that seemed so depressingly hopeless and bereft of opportunity — that I would push myself beyond any reasonable human breaking point and come to believe that serious injury or worse was something I feared much less than going back there?

What propelled me to embrace the unforgiving minute and damn the consequences? There were times during long, ridiculously-paced “hikes” carrying 80-pound rucks when I fell and was on all fours, gasping for air, sweating so profusely I could not see, pain shooting through my body like a burning hot knife, and my primary tormentor and motivator, Gunnery Sergeant Banks, would appear out of nowhere and lean in and whisper in a smug, mocking tone, “Are you gonna quit now? Yeah, you’re gonna quit.” And some internal voice within me would scream, “Where the hell are you going to go?”

The answer was definitely not back to Oak Ridge.

And so I would somehow always get to my feet and push on, and finish every event, to Gunnery Sergeant Banks’ guttural barrage of, “That’s what I’m talkin’ about! That’s what I’m talkin’ about!!!”

Over time, my love for Oak Ridge faded, turned to ambivalence, then eventually turned to disgust. It was a combination of things that caused it.

It had first come to me during law school when I detected a sort of Animal Farm quality to things. “All are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

I was able to make friends with most of my classmates, but there were some people who just did not like me. My transgression? I was a former student-athlete. I had been successful. This offense would come to haunt me in ensuing years — inside the state. There were also a few professors who did not like me for the same reason. Their pettiness was easily overcome, but the experience dismantled my naïve notions that everyone was essentially fair and objective.

But it was after law school that my education truly began in the strange land that was Oak Ridge and the state in which it was located. Mark Twain said, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” And my schooling did very little to prepare me for the education I was getting outside the classroom.

In the short span of three years, I learned that someone could be your employer or supervisor and be completely incompetent; a person with a high school degree could have a hand in controlling your future; leaders of multi-billion dollar corporations could flout the rules and never be held to account; people who paraded themselves as pillars of the professional community were capable of the most base forms of discrimination, hypocrisy, outright pettiness, lies, even childishness; it was not often what one knew, but whom one knew that got a person ahead; and one’s politics mattered probably more than anything else.

It didn’t take hard work or experience to get ahead here; all you needed to do was marry into the “right” family and you could purchase positions everyone else had to earn by proving themselves. We had a saying for this in the Marine Corps: Just because you’re standing on third base doesn’t mean you hit a triple. These same self-righteous folks would line up though every Sunday morning in the first few pews at church, ensuring that everyone saw them all decked out in their best duds.

I knew better though, and I was onto them.

In a bigger city, a person could be independent and make their way, regardless of most of this. But not in Oak Ridge. At least not in my chosen line of work.

When your wife’s employers paid her less than her male classmate who worked in the office across the hall from hers, you were expected to keep quiet about it; she was just “a girl” anyway. You better show up for the appropriate social gatherings. And by goodness, you would attend the pregame parties and football games on Saturday with all the tailgate pilgrims.

You would make a paltry salary and be glad for it; if you hit all the ephemeral wickets you needed to guess about and existed not on paper, but in the flighty minds of the local lucky sons, you might be brought into the inner circle, you might make a decent salary someday after you turned forty and slaved 60 hours a week and half the day on Saturday (unless of course there was a home game and tailgate party being thrown by a lucky son that day). You had to look at the favored party’s bumper sticker logic all day long, never tell anyone what you really thought, and listen to the local self-avowed big fish in the small pond apologists whine about “partisan politics.”

The essence of it was this: Social and cultural progress had all but stopped in Oak Ridge; it was as if the last three decades had passed the town completely by, and I no longer wanted to live in a place that was lost in the year 1963.

And the decision to leave the place behind and take a different path would make all the difference for us.

¹ Oak Ridge is a pseudonym. All names are also pseudonyms.

Glen Hines is the author of five books, including the recently published Of Time and Rivers, and the highly-regarded Bring in the Gladiators, Observations From a Former College Football Player Who Was Never Able to Become a Fan, all available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. He is the writer and producer of the book and podcast Welcome to the Machine, available on most podcast platforms. His writing on military service, sports, current events, the outdoors, and the bright and dark sides of American culture has been published in various outlets, such as Sports Illustrated, Task and Purpose, the Human Development Project, Amazon, and Audible.

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Glen Hines

Glen Hines

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Fortunate son. Lucky husband. Doting father. Marine Corps Veteran. On a writer’s journey. Author of the Anthology Trilogy & Bring in the Gladiators @amazon.