When I headed to Lebanon in Wisconsin’s Waupaca County, it was already late when I got to the nearby city of Clintonville.
Judy, from Clintonville, Wisconsin. She’s a cook and waitress at a local restaurant, operated by the owner, Matthew, and her, where I stopped to eat on my way to Lebanon. When she was 14, she was a dish washer at a nursing home where Matthew worked. After the nursing home got sold and they were both laid off, he opened the restaurant, taught her how to cook, and they’ve been running the place for 36 years. She’s of German descent, loud, brash, and very funny. One topic she opened up about stuck with me as it’s a matter that is currently being widely debated in America:
“I used to pay $425 a month as my part for health insurance. So when Obamaca.., nope, I don’t want to call it Obamacare. Only people who are against it call it that. When the ‘Affordable Care Act’ went through, I signed up and I was paying $205 a month for health insurance, and that was great. Last week I got a letter from the insurance company saying that, as of January 2017, I’ll have to start paying $650 a month. I can’t do that. And if I opt out of the system, I’ll have to pay a penalty and I don’t know how much that is. So now what? But anyway, why aren’t you eating your damn sugar snap peas? Eat your damn vegetables!”
Matthew, owner of the restaurant:
“I’m originally from Canada, Northern Ontario. This is me in the drawing behind when I was in the semi-pros. That was when I still had hair… Yeah, hair is overrated because you have it, a**hole… I broke my leg in three places and it was over. I came here to Wisconsin, taught Calculus at the school, and coached Curling part time. Then I worked at the nursing home where I met Judy. After the place was sold and the owner ripped me off, I started this place. Thirty six years, seven days a week, fourteen hours a day. Last vacation I had was when I took a half-day on Christmas… I don’t want to retire. I’ll retire when I’m dead in a couple years… No, I’m not being morbid; I mean when my wife kills me after she discovers my many girlfriends. Just messing with you. But really, I’d love to visit Croatia, where my grandfather came from.
All my children were born premature. When my daughter was born, third to two boys, she was put in the incubator but she was healthy. One day I got a call from the doctor to come to the hospital. She was blue and on life support. He told me there was a breach of procedure; the nurse scratched her by mistake while holding her and she caught an infection. There was no chance of her getting back. We pulled her off life support, but my wife baptized her first. I was told flat out that I could sue the hospital. But I don’t believe in that. Why should I get rich off someone else’s mistake? And ruin the young nurse’s life who obviously didn’t mean any harm? No, not for me.”
He cautiously asks me about politics, and I cautiously give him a murky answer.
“Look, I’ll tell you straight. No, I did not want Hillary to win, but I also sure as hell didn’t want this a**hole to win either. So I voted for her. What kind of talk is this him telling that lady (Fox News’ Megyn Kelly) about blood coming of her whatever? Anyway, look, no you don’t need to worry; that’s bulls**t. Just believe in the good in people.”
Here he insists my dinner is on the house, and I keep declining. He yells: “Look, f***er, don’t argue with a crazy Canadian. This is my place and I’ll do whatever the f**k I want.”
Judy yells “Shut your mouth and listen to the crazy Canadian!”
I end up listening.
Arriving to Lebanon
For as long as I could remember I’ve always felt happy around the smell of cow manure. This naturally elicits mockery from those who don’t see animal waste as something to rejoice about. But that is how I felt, despite not having any logical explanation for it.
When I finally arrived to the town of Lebanon, I parked my RV in a church parking lot for the night. I woke up at dawn the next day and I stepped out of the car, and that’s when I had my Proustian moment. But instead of the taste of a Madeleine cake stopping time in its tracks for the narrator in the novel, it was the sight of the early light and smell of manure that did so for me.
Back in 1989, when the Lebanese Civil War was still raging, we had been cooped up in the bomb shelter for longer than I wish to remember. Our next door neighbors were from a village called Terbol in the Beqaa valley, and it was peaceful there. When the bombing turned even more intense than it already was, they wanted to flee Beirut to the village, and we being as close as family, they asked us to come with them to spend time there. I don’t remember the escape route anymore. But I can vividly recall the week we spent in the Beqaa, where all of us kids would run wild across the cow pastures and beet fields, from dawn till dusk, playing dare games in the cemetery, stealing grapes off the vines, and running away laughing after the owner would start chasing us.
The smell of cows had a different meaning. It was the smell of being free and unafraid, as opposed to the terror and screams inside a shelter and the stench of gunpowder and charred remains.
My road trip across the Lebanons of the US always had another goal other than it being a leisurely photographic adventure. It was a simple search for what it meant when people say “I am from Lebanon” and not know what war or its horrors were. I stayed in that church parking lot — alone — for three days for fear of leaving this peaceful remembrance behind.
Last month I was reading about the children in Aleppo who are stuck in the city and are now simply waiting for death. Thinking about them and imagining being in their place meant going back to a time that is too soul-crushing to bear. Some people get over living through a war; many don’t. As Charles Aznavour’s song says, war children are no children at all. I was fortunate enough to survive the wars and to be able to derive a fleeting peace of mind by reminiscing about fecal matter. Most of these kids in Aleppo won’t. I do hope there is a heaven somewhere; it’s too cruel a thought to imagine that there isn’t a better place than this world we live in.