By John Thomas Tuft

Culture is… Walking into a cocktail party on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with a literary agent chattering smirking platitudes to painted on smiles. Seeking a face to face with a ten-foot alligator, while steering the canoe away from the water moccasins hanging from the trees in the Okefenokee on the Florida/Georgia line. Waiting for the school bus on a chilly morning in the Crestas Terrace Projects of North Versailles Township in Pennsylvania to ride to the 90% white kids high school because you are told that is what you have to do. Sitting on the set at Universal Studios Hollywood while set dressers, electricians, sound engineers, actors and self-important higher ups nurse into being a scene of a snowy Christmas story set in New England while it is a sunny 80 degrees, filming for a show that ultimately is asking us to play “let’s pretend,” as all good stories are wont to do, even this one.

Culture is… Picking up a cell phone to tap in the letters that make up the words that spell out disdain, distrust, disgust, displacement, and disingenuousness. Or, a picture of your dog cuddling with you on the bed, memories, mementos of yesteryear. Laying back on an unfamiliar bed, settling into what is left of your life, in an assisted living facility, young Latinx aides handing out medications and changing adult diapers, doors to the outside locked, televisions blaring as others wail against the approaching darkness. While the video for “The Ballad of Cleopatra” by the Lumineers cycles endlessly through your mind. Culture is…gators and guns, girls and hopeful gestures, poems, prayers and promises. Filled and unfulfilled. And…

Too often, culture amounts to the transference of fear and reasons to feel anxious. My way is better than yours, because…and so… My skin color is better than yours, because…and so… My faith is better than yours, because…and so… My heritage is better than yours, because…and so… What I know is better than what you know, because…and so… My use of aggression is more necessary than yours, because…and so… My understanding of truth demarcates THE TRUTH, because…and so… Universal reality is out there somewhere, we hope. Science is science, not a way of life. Maybe if we dare to stand on our tiptoes and peek over the horizon or zoom up one hundred miles and peer down…

Dan and Tab and Bo are best friends in high school in 1970. Three awkward teenagers, daring the times to bend to their hopes and dreams. Dan wants to make more money than his dad does after he goes to college, Bo is protective of his single mom and little sister, while Tab wonders if prowess in track and field will amount to much more than some ribbons on the wall. Dan and Tab and Bo meet at the King’s Country Shoppe after a Friday night high school football game, a sacred rite in America Land.

Put three teenage boys together and it is a safe bet that the topic of girls will come up in the conversation. Dan is dating a senior, instant status. But he’s thinking about breaking up. Bo is dating a freshman, normally a status qualifier, yet she lives in Crestas Terrace. He’s scared to death that she might be pregnant. Tab, who lives in Crestas, flits and flirts between three or more girls, leaving the others secretly jealous. Being human can be a messy business. The democratic or tribal process of assigning right and wrong, truth or dare, success or failure tugs at and swirls around the Dan, Bo, and Tabs of this world, as it does us all. Universal reality is out there somewhere, we hope.

The three young men finish their meal and set out in one car. “Oh, the Devil is inside/you opened the door and gave him a ride…” is how some folks explain the events of that night. “Have a little faith in me…” is how others choose to view it all. About a half hour after they began their cruising, they rolled through a stop sign at Park and Fifth. The local police pulled them over in the parking lot of the local bank. When the officers spotted Tab, they ordered him out of the car and onto the ground. The brotherhood of teenaged boys grabbed their friend and sped away. The brotherhood of law and order gave chase.

“When you left this town with your windows down/And a wilderness inside…” About a mile east on the Lincoln Highway, outside East McKeesport, the boys turned onto Donna Jean Young Road. By now panicked, they could not make the sharp turn half a mile downhill… When officers reached the turn, the car, smashed against a tree, was on fire. Neighbors said they could hear the cries and screams of the boys as they perished, crying out for their mothers. They are buried together on a little knoll in Grandview Cemetery in North Versailles Township. Fifty years on, the culture of the land remains largely unchanged, its roots buried deep. Universal reality is out there somewhere…we hope.

Words are magic, and writers are wizards.

Song lyrics from “The Ballad of Cleopatra” by the Lumineers.