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Postmodern Village
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Deep Inside the Special KKK Olympics
By Not-So-Special-After-All Correspondent T.S. DeHaviland

In this place, the Missouri woods deepen into something more closely resembling Mississippi Delta swamp. The scrub locusts droop runners like vines from their canopy, creating a look half backwoods, half Hollywood backlot. The hollows and the ponds formed a thick fog this humid evening, bespeaking the eerie calm. A gravel road led us into a clearing, and already I could smell the hot dogs and the cigarettes and the cheap beer as their scents wafted through the open windows of the beat up F-150 we rode in.

I had been allowed to get this close to the Special KKK Olympics by gaining the confidence of a local, whose name has been changed to protect my life. Marcus McKabee, the local in question, was at the wheel. Stout of body and dressed in bib overalls and a DeKalb Feed cap, he guided the hard-sprung Ford along the curving road into a track that ended at a cattle gate which he promptly jumped out to open.

"I first became aware of the Special KKK after my brother's accident with a rabid sow," Marcus had told me as we met over coffee before the event. "Knocked him clear to the ground and onto a squeegee he'd been usin' to clean up wet shit. Squeegee handle went right up his ass and somehow broke his spine."

We drove into the field the clearing created, one clearly used for pasture under normal circumstances, and parked off to one side, next to about 15 other pickups, a few cars, and a smattering of RVs and fifth-wheel campers. Beyond this little mobile village rose some aluminum bleachers and, beyond that, a makeshift racetrack in the center of which several long, white wooden crosses lay on the ground, each of which was accompanied by a shovel. On the other side of the racetrack was a stout oak, purposefully drawn into the field of play with a line of white chalk. Next to the tree folding tables were set up upon which were placed several lengths of stout, nylon rope, buckets of firebrands, and a stack of pump-action shotguns.

That was where I spotted my first competitor, enveloped in the expected white, hooded robe, the tails of which drooped dangerously into the radii of his chair's wheels. I asked Marcus why, given that they were among "friends," the competitors still wore hoods.

"They're here as official members of the Special KKK. We're just spectators. Even though we all know who they are—and they know us—we've got a tradition to uphold. Anyway, the whole point of the competition is to test the skills of the competitors. If they're gonna' do it in a hood in real life, then that's how they've gotta' do it here."

Marcus went on to explain that his brother had actually been approached to be an initiate into the Special KKK while still recovering in the hospital. His inductor was a redneck-turned physical therapist. After sharing a few PT sessions mutually complaining about "them uppity nigras," Marcus's brother was committed to the cause.

Opposite the oak, a winners' stand with ramps up to the bronze, silver and gold levels was just being completed. Above that a Confederate flag hung limp in the dead air, and below that, in a smaller standard, drooped the black and red banner of the Nazi party.

McKabee and I took our places in the rickety aluminum stands and, accompanied by the strains of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" wailing from cheap PA speakers atop the concession stand, the contestants appeared. We all stood (as a sign of respect? of excitement?) as they rolled in, numbers pinned to their white robes, in wheelchairs both motorized and manual, on crutches, humping along on unsteady legs. I found myself unexpectedly and perhaps paternalistically worried for the welfare of the participants. Their robes flapped and hung loose enough to trip on or get sucked into wheels; the eyeholes in the hoods completely ruled out peripheral vision. But they train for this, presumably, I assured myself. Sure, they're not pros—they're racial terrorists, really—but practiced ones.

My worry was both proven and partially alleviated at turn two of the parade lap by a tremendous pile up of at least 15 chairs, one of which held the man who wheeled the Special KKK Olympic torch. The mass of robes, wheels, crutches, and useless limbs was soon alight, and, almost as soon, three self-appointed medics, one of whom wielded a fire extinguisher, swooped in to douse the flames and disentangle the mess. Oddly, during all this, the "official" anonymity of the contestants was maintained, despite the scorching and the shrink-wrap-effect of superheated Spandex sticking to skin. It's perhaps fortunate that many of the contestants had no feeling in the burned limbs to begin with, but none of the injuries were severe enough to keep the games from going on.

Traditional anonymity aside, spectators seemed to know for whom to root, even, presumably accidentally, yelling out the names of their favorites.

Indeed, like most traditions, it appeared that the anonymity of the contestants in the Special KKK Olympics was more of a formality than anything practical. Small town rivalries soon became clear as contestants were eliminated (there are losers in the Special KKK Olympics) and audience members shifted alliances to their next-nearest representatives. This way, nearly the whole South was reflected, as well as much of the Midwest, most of the Plains states, a good chunk of the West, and even a few states in New England, notably Maine and New Hampshire, with a single and quite successful fellow from Massachusetts. The last even brought along his own fan club with its own red, white and blue logo and title: Romney's Raiders. When I approached them inquiring about whether or not they were, in fact, a delegation from the presidential hopeful's campaign, and if their presence was, in fact, an attempt to improve their former Governor's stance among the extreme Right, the previously chipper bunch became silent, even a bit hostile.

But here again is another example of our muddled national relationship with our massive and ugly racist underbelly: everybody knows it's there, and we all compensate for its emotional and moral cumbrousness; we all know we're going to have to haul it around for a long, backbreaking time before we burn it off; but we don't want to talk about it, often refuse to acknowledge it is even there, puffing out, raw and white, spilling over our country's (bible) belt.

The contestants in the Special KKK Olympics, though, had no problem hauling ass around the racetrack. The track was packed red clay, wetted down to keep the dust from inducing asthma, and resembling that of a circle-track car competition. This race was quieter, except for the spectators, and the heats were divided between the two classes: motorized and, in the local parlance, "hand-pull." The motorized chairs had all been hopped up, modified for speed, and reached velocities of up to 50 miles per hour. The crashes of these vehicles were spectacular but without injury, the contestants being required to wear motocross gear beneath their robes, their helmets keeping them "anonymous" when they did go careening off the track. The "hand-pull" chairs were much slower, but the level of sportsmanship was higher.

About halfway through the first heat, my view of the track improving when the overweight Kentuckian with a hatful of plastic fruit shifted, I noticed that these races were actually run much like those at a dog track. A piece of "prey" was pulled along the track's course by a mechanical armature. Instead of chasing after a fake rabbit, though, Special KKK Olympians chased after a lawn jockey. Upon seeing this, I threw up in the back of my throat a little.

The next event was even more nausea-inducing, and this reporter is, perhaps, open to criticism for his lack of specificity about its outcome, as he spent much of it puking up a partially-digested hot dog and 16 ounces of warm, frothy Coke. The "game" involved timing the speed with which a contestant was able to tie a noose in one of the aforementioned ropes, hoist it over a branch of the oak, loop it around the neck of a mannequin, and, pull it up into a "hanging" position. This "speed-lynching" event was performed on a training dummy used for EMT and fire-rescue, 150 pounds in weight. But for "competition" it had been painted with black spray paint and a cheap "afro" style wig and been stapled to its head. The winning time, as nearly as I can recall, as it was hard to barf and take notes at the same time, was a little under 30 seconds.

The next competition was only slightly less physically revolting, but my stomach was by then utterly empty, and the dry heaves leave one less useless than full-on regurgitation.

Cross burning as sport involved carrying an eight-foot wooden cross through the center of the field of play--cowflop, chuckholes, grass, mud, and all—digging a hole to plant it in, soaking it in gasoline, and setting it ablaze. The winning time was under one minute, thirty seconds, a feat made even more disturbing by the fact that contestants who are not already blind must wear dark shades to simulate night-time and keep their activities under 80 decibels "so as not to wake the dark interlopers on the White Man's land," according to the Special KKK Olympics's official program. Going over that sound level results in disqualification, as does setting oneself or another contestant on fire, though several contenders for the cross-burning gold were still crispy from the luckless parade lap earlier in the day.

One of the contestants, in fact, was disqualified in this way, and I have to admit my earlier liberal paternalism had been cured in the intervening time. The contestant, number 11-11-11, hailing from Selma, Alabama, was forced by custom to remain robed all the way back to the hospital at Branson after two able-bodied bigots doused him and hauled him off the field.

The last "game" again had me heaving. It involved wheeling (or crutching) oneself through a course in the woods adjacent to the field, and, armed with a 12-gauge shotgun, firing at popup targets of inner-city youth dressed in hoodies or cut to resemble the profiles of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Contestants are judged for deadliness of aim and tightness of pattern as well as speed through the course. Being flipped backward and out of one's chair is not considered a disqualification in this event, and contestants are expected to right themselves and continue through the course should this occur, a near impossibility for those, like Marcus's brother, confined to electric chairs. These rules are why "coon hunting" is considered the most challenging and therefore the premiere event at the Special KKK Olympics.

The winning time for the winding, half-mile course was about 40 minutes, with one slight injury from ricocheting buckshot. After this event, especially, and after the braising at the opening, and with a little cooking in the cross-burning, the contestants, at the end of the day, looked a little—dare I say it?—black around the edges. But then, I often thought they doth protested just a bit too much in these parts.

The winner of the overall gold was a slump-shouldered Grand Wizard from Montgomery, Alabama, and, as the sounds of Lynyrd Skynyrd echoed off the piss-elms and the dogwoods choked with kudzu, I climbed weakly back into Marcus's F-150 for the ride back into town. He said his goodbyes to his brother, who collected a bronze for the motorized wheelchair race, and joined me at the pickup. By the time we got back to blacktop, though, with my strength rejuvenating slightly as we drove away from there, I felt the need and (the power) to close the journalistic distance. "You know," I said," Hitler would have exterminated all those gimps—your brother included."

The 20-mile walk back to Branson was a long and satisfactory one.

Notes

1) I have tried my best to change my guide's name in a way that reflects a difficult irony for me: his real name sounds Jewish. When I tried to politely point that out to him, he became defensive and insisted it was Scottish and that I was "a damn liar." [return]

2) Apparently, Barack Obama is not yet on the racist radar screen this far to the ideological Right. This is a phenomenon I've noticed before, especially in rural areas of the nation's South and midsection: Conservatives are about a decade behind the political times. I would chalk it up to simple provincialism, but the same tends not to hold true for the moderates and liberals of these areas. In this light, the "Sagebrush Revolution" of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s can be seen as a rural backlash against the counterculture of 1960s and 1970s and nothing particularly contemporary. Just like in Iraq, conservatives are always fighting the last war. [return]