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Big Ten Elegy

You Are Who You Thought We Were

Michael Davis Photography

Ohio is the provinces. Gas is cheap. Land is plentiful. Crops abound. Football is king. Wrestling is deified. Women and children are average in all respects. The men are unremarkable and paunchy, or will be soon. If the county has a cow in it, the vote goes Republican without fail. Primer is an acceptable color for a car. We built Big Butter Jesus and burned him to the ground. Most everyone knows someone who has, at one time or another, eaten hamloaf with a smile.

Make no mistake, I’m not offering these observations to condemn the Buckeye state or its citizens. Quite the contrary. These are my people. I know my roots, and "blood tells" as my grandmother was known to remark. A man can try to outrun Ohio, but he won't have much luck because he’s a Midwesterner and thus aerobic exercise does not suit him.

Your opinion of Ohio and those who call themselves Buckeyes depends upon your point of entry, direction of travel, and tolerance for adult novelties. Your thoughts on coal and opioids may factor in as well, to a lesser extent.

Ohio is a quilted panoply of abhorrent industries. Once upon a century, the southeast tier of the state took great pride in clawing coal from the earth with gleeful abandon. Nestled against the bosom of the eponymous great river, generations of soot-faced hunkies and Black Irish shipped coal out as fast as the barges would take it.

Farther north, Akron's pre-Lebron contribution to the world was rubber and a couple blimps. Car tires are important and worthy of praise. Nevertheless, in proper Midwestern fashion we decided to get really lazy about them until the Japanese came in and did it better. That’s how the rust belt works, you see. You either pull a Kodak and pretend the future isn’t coming or you pull a Big 3 and refuse to admit your flaws until the money runs out.

Cleveland set a river on fire. Thirteen times, if we're being honest. The mighty Cuyahoga was once described as a river in which "one does not drown, but decays." The last flaming estuary incident led to the Clean Water Act and the creation of the EPA. You're welcome, everything that breathes air. Another Ohio invention that makes your life better. Just like Superman, the stoplight, the airplane, and modern beekeeping.

Heading west from Cleveland, the main industry is turning things that oink/moo into things that sizzle, and dying. We can't forget dying. The number of hospice signs on U.S. 20 alone is staggering. Out-of-towners must think Ohio is America's funeral home. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. America’s funeral home is obviously south Florida and its branch office, Scottsdale, AZ. Plus, anyone heading west through Ohio is likely from Pennsylvania and thus even our most bleak sights are an improvement from their perspective. Pennsylvania’s meager brush with culture can be seen in its entirety from the Schuylkill Expressway, and the rest is West Virginia with smokestacks.

Folks in Ohio aren't itching to die—not until Ohio State wins at least one more national title, at least. We're just appropriately fatalist about it. Once you get to feeling poorly, you pack up your pertinents and such and head to the hospice. Don't make a big fuss. You weren't that special anyway. Go on and make room for those still healthy enough to shovel the driveway.

If you do find yourself bombing west across the northern shield, you'd do well to turn south before you hit Toledo. The Glass City wouldn’t make the cut as a Chechen suburb, and that's on the good days when the sun glints off the decay just so. All you’re apt to find in Toledo is two well-known human irritants: fiberglass insulation and Jeeps. If you’re ever given the choice to climb inside 3000 lbs of either, stick with the Pink Panther. Jeeps are for tasteless posers and the insulation will actually last.

If you’re in Toledo, you're damn near in Michigan. Think Ohio is bleak? Southern Michigan will make you lock the doors, snap the handles off, and drive into the lake. Speaking of the lake: it's full of E. Coli. Don't go in it, unless your other option is Michigan. Then by all means. Aside: I don't know if eating the perch will kill you, but if you've ever had a good perch sandwich it's worth the gamble.


Beware the danger of heading south: Cincinnati. That's a city where chili is made with cinnamon and spread over spaghetti. Imagine an entire metro area taking pride in a culinary achievement that looks the same going in and coming out. At any rate, the average Ohioan assumes Cincy is part of Kentucky and never bothers to venture that far. After Les Nessman captured the horrific turkey drop incident live on WKRP, Cincinnati had run its course. Take a lap, Queen City.

Ohio is most certainly the provinces, and Columbus stands alone as our gleaming city on the hill: the mecca of football in Delany’s empire. For the great unwashed across this state (the key to the American electorate, mind you) there is no finer catchment basin for our hopes and dreams than Columbus on a fall Saturday. To that end, there are no finer gladiators than our beloved Buckeyes. That is not only a function of the grim pride this Midwestern life—of the same variety that made soldiers go "over the top" at the Somme—but also because our professional teams are literally terrible at sports. If not for Lebron, well, it would be nothing but grandfathers waxing eloquent in honeyed tones about 1948, Bob Feller, and the AFL.

The greatest punchline in all of this is that regardless of whether you want to believe it, this all applies in form and structure to whatever bleak part of the Midwest you hail from. Change the names, swap a dead car factory for a dead farm or a dead state government, and voila. It’s the elegy for your neck of the woods. You don’t want to believe it, and you’ll bleat that this doesn’t apply to the view from your Midwestern front porch. You have to, because otherwise that punch lands a little too close to the solar plexus of your own pride.

The bright side, if there is one, is that every bit of malaise herein beats the pants off life in the deep South (or “Dixie” if you’re trying to church it up). I’ll take an existence among empty factories bombed out by free trade over spending my life in a sauna where wistful memories of chattel slavery and treason bubble beneath the surface as tacitly acceptable white male fetishes. Virtually everything west of Colorado shy of the Pacific Coast offers similar measures of distaste, albeit of a more Ted Nugent persuasion. If nothing else, we’re no worse off, per se, than about 80% of modern America. What then, can we hang our hat on?

Failing all else, we have all the fresh water we can drink and the land upon which to drink it (disclaimer: does not apply to Flint, Michigan). Say what you will about the past 50 years, what with the creeping malaise and intransigence that doomed the once great cities of the Midwest to their hollowed-out fate. The next 50 years are what matter, because time only runs in one direction and storied memories of yesteryear are the currency of Wolverines and far-right populists. The earth is warming, the ice is melting, and the generations that have mobbed the soon-to-be-shrinking coasts will suddenly find that a home in Columbus or on some other high ground (Terre Haute, if you will) is a damn good plot of earth to have.

The Midwest has had its revenge, in a perverse way. We pumped out a century of carbon in trainloads of black lumps and chrome-dipped-stroked-and-bored V8 sex, but got gutted in the process. We left ourselves high and dry, and in the end those twin traits will be our literal saviors.

Tomorrow, we’ll close out B1G 2017 with some Ohio State hate, which always morphs into scattershot insults at the greater populace and the fanbase it largely comprises. Much of it won’t be true and the rest will apply to a wide swath of the B1G—the parts of it that even move the needle, that is. I welcome it with open arms. After all, we’ve heard it all before.

When the dust settles Ohio will still have football, and Ohio State still be better at it than the lot of you.