Why I have decided to take up residence in my old hometown of Huntington, Indiana, population 17,000, isn’t entirely clear to me. After all, my family moved away from Huntington after I graduated from high school in 1960.
I had worked out what I thought was a clear enough reason: I wanted to discover for myself why exactly Hoosiers, especially those from the place where I was bred from the bone, were flocking to Donald Trump. Part of the explanation seemed straightforward enough: Trump had picked as his vice-presidential running mate, Mike Pence, the sitting governor of the state of Indiana. But I felt compelled to get on a plane, fly go Chicago, and drive across the state line back to my Indiana hometown to go onto the front-lines of American politics. I wanted to hear and see for myself what was being said in and around Huntington.
Trump’s choice of Mike Pence also resonated with me because Huntington is the childhood home of another vice president of the United States, Dan Quayle who served with George H.W. Bush. He’s best known for misspelling potato and being characterised by political reporters as an intellectual lightweight. I was often asked whether I knew Quayle. I said that I knew him as a kid growing up in Huntington. His father was my Sunday School teacher at the First Presbyterian Church in Huntington. He was also editor of the once thriving local newspaper, the Huntington Herald Press. He’d also been rumoured to be a member of the right-wing John Birch Society.
I confess that it galls me to drive into Huntington and be greeted by road signs proclaiming Huntington as Quayle’s hometown. At least his pictures no longer adorn the walls of the fabled Nick’s Kitchen, home of the breaded tenderloin sandwich and sugar cream pie. It’s also the gathering place of the “Table of Knowledge” that assembles every morning to pronounce on sports, politics, and local controversies. There is, however, a Dan Quayle Museum stuffed with Quayle pictures and memorabilia. Do I suffer from Quayle envy? It appears so.
It should come as no surprise to me that Huntington residents are overwhelmingly supporting Trump. After all, Indiana and Huntington are staunchly Republican. Yet I’m discovering in the few days that I’ve been here there’s no great enthusiasm for Trump the man. They don’t like him at Nick’s Kitchen. They’d have preferred someone else as the Republican standard bearer. Who else? Maybe John Kasich, the charisma-challenged governor of nearby Ohio. He was one of the last primary challengers to surrender to Trump.
I’ve only spotted a few Trump-Pence election signs around the downtown. One of those signs, wouldn’t you know it, was planted firmly in front of my old house on Cherry Street. I chatted with the owners as they presided over a yard sale. They were sitting in the open garage ( where I must have spent half of my childhood playing ping pong, bumper pool, and indoor basketball) They’re mid-30s. He’s an IT guy. She’s working part-time and looking after their two kids. They didn’t strike me as rabid Trump. But clearly his father is. He’d driven to nearby Marion, Indiana to collect the signs. Marion has the dubious distinction of being the site of one of the last lynchings in the United States. It took place in 1930. While I was there basking in so many memories of my Cherry Street, an older Huntington man, in his mid-60s, was far more specific about why he was supporting Trump. “I’ll give you 3 reasons: ” abortion, guns, and lying Hillary.” He then shared a conspiracy theory that was new to me. He said that what’s likely to happen if Hillary wins is that- get ready for it- Obama, yes Obama, would have his Justice Department indict her for corruption. But neither her VP Tim Kaine or next -in -line the House Speaker Paul Ryan would become president. Obama would then declare martial law and continue in the White House for another term. No, he didn’t get that from Fox News although he and everyone else I’ve spoken to do consider it their number one source of information. He got this on an unspecified website. He was eager to get a Trump-Pence sign.
But life beyond politics in my old hometown is proving very pleasant on these hot and humid dog days at the end of summer.
I’m enjoying all the comforts of staying in an historic Huntington mansion (1859) lovingly restored and converted to a bed and breakfast operation by the mayor and his engaging and hospitable wife. (www.purviancehouse.com) I’ve even got a bike at my disposal courtesy of the mayor, an avid cyclist whose hobby is collecting and repairing old bikes. There must be 50 or more that’s he’s working on in his garage.
Minutes away from where I am staying is an attractive Irish pub called The Rusty Dog. It can rightly take its place in American history as it was once owned by a Huntington lawyer who looms large in an 1866 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision known as “ex-parte Milligan.” Milligan and four others were about to be hanged after a military commission convicted them of conspiring to free Rebel soldiers who were POWS in Northern camps. But they received reprieves from then President Johnson and eventually were freed after the Supreme Court ruled they were unjustly tried in a military court, not a civilian one.
Did I know any of this growing up in Huntington? No I didn’t. Or was I aware of the historical significance of the Miami Indians or that Huntington was labelled one of 10,000 “Sundown Towns” according to historian James Loewen According to Loewen, Huntington, was not only inhospitable to African Americans but made it impossible to live here for any length of time. Locals I’ve spoken to claim no knowledge of this practice and challenge Loewen’s findings. More on this in a future blog.