Serpent and the Snakepit: Some Things Are Trash

I have done it. Born an Indianapolis Hoosier forty-four years ago, I have finally been to the 500 Mile Race. Although I took in the qualifying trials two or three times, and in my brief career as a part-time reporter I met some of the drivers, never had I seen a race. But I am a loyal, if displaced, Hoosier, and not to have seen the Indy 500 is something of a disgrace. The 500 Mile Race is, as Flannery O’Connor would have said, part of “where I am frum. ” And so, when my dad proffered tickets, we took him up.

What we saw, however, was not the greatest spectacle in racing but as some wit declared, the greatest spectacle in raining. With rain in the forecast, we had suspected the worst but hoped for the best.

“Come on, Annie,” my Hoosier husband summoned me early race day morning. “Get up; we’re going to the old Brickyard. We’re on our way to see America!” Well, I, too, believe in Hoosier patriotism, and I, too, believe in my heart of hearts that Hoosier and American are practically synonymous, but I did hear rain.

“Do you know who won the first 500 Mile Race?” I asked him, showing off the only sports fact I have ever known and ever will know.

“No, who?” He knew but always lets me exhibit my lone fragment of information.

“Ray Harroun — in 1911.”

My folks were already up, and I could hear my dad in the hall clanking umbrellas and swishing plastic rain gear.

“Wear your old shoes,” my mother advised me. I am only forty-four, and so I still mind her.

My brother and sister-in-law arrived shortly, wearing their old shoes. They had brought along their oldest son and his buddy. We gathered raincoats, umbrellas, binoculars, and other gear and set off.

First stop was the Columbia Club on Monument Circle, the traditional Indianapolis bastion of Republican politics in Indiana. Here was the collection point for ten busloads of people who had arrived to eat their way through a groaning board of a breakfast buffet, pick up their box lunches and, leaving cars behind, travel trouble-free by bus to the Speedway.

Yet once aboard the bus, we did not leave. The 500 Mile Race, unlike other sports, absolutely shuts down in the event of a drop of moisture. Even a sprinkle, I was told, would send such high-powered, finely tuned cars skidding in every direction. Consequently the race, scheduled for 11 A.M., would clearly be at least two hours late getting underway. Anticipating a delay, many in the crowd, according to the police report, had stayed away and only now were setting forth for the Speedway. So we sat waiting for the police to hail our bus on toward the track.

I rehearsed an assortment of drivers’ names from past race days: Bill Vukovich, Sam Hanks, A.J. Foyt, Duane Carter, Tony Bettenhausen, Mario Andretti, Gordon Johncock, Roger Ward, the Unsers, senior and junior.

“STP,” sang my husband, “it’s the racer’s edge!” We decided that commercial was at least a decade out of date.

“Who was that fellow with the cowboy hat who owned all the cars?” I wondered. We hit upon the name of Agajanian. Or, no, maybe Freddie Agabashian. Or was Agabashian a driver? He was a driver.

The bus began to crawl. Out of downtown, past the medical center.

“There’s where you were born!” my parents called from the seat behind. “Coleman Hospital!” It looks like a county home from the turn of the century, but it is still in some kind of use.

Indy 500, I mused. Who invented this name Indy? In the olden days of my youth nobody called Indianapolis “Indy.” I do not think they called it anything. When I went to college in Greencastle, Indiana, I discovered out-of-staters called my city “Naptown.” And now people are supposed to call it “the amateur sports capital of the world.” I think I liked Indianapolis better when it was nameless, when the most exciting thing to do as a little girl was to go downtown with my mother, eat chicken velvet soup and an ice cream clown in L.S. Ayres’ tearoom, and pick a prize from the treasure chest by the cash register.

The bus was moving along Sixteenth Street. And now we were seeing — not the race — but the beginning of the greatest spectacle of the day. Trash. The most trash I have ever seen. Campers and RVs had been parked all night at their campsites at curbsides, in parking lots, driveways, gas stations, on lawns that had been rented out. People seemed to be grilling hamburgers, swilling beer, hanging out laundry, washing dishes, hugging and kissing each other, revving up motorcycles, twanging guitars, blasting out their radios, watching TV, munching donuts and French fries, chawing tobacco, taking a leak, or sitting in folding chairs and watching the procession of traffic. The amount of trash engendered by these activities looked staggering. Nobody knew about waste containers. Garbage bags were in evidence, but they were mostly torn up, spilling forth their trashy contents. And in the steady drizzle the trash glued itself into the mud.

Our bus parked with the other buses in a shopping center lot strewn with paper cups and cardboard fast food boxes disintegrating in the rain. We began to mill our muddy way toward the grandstand, where 400,000 spectators waited for an iffy race.

On the mile-and-a-half hike to our seats I paid attention. There was the buxom. braless maiden in tiny shorts and tee-shirt, rain-soaked, who knew well what was drawing the gleeful hoots from the fellows in black shirts inscribed with “Indy 500, ’86, the Snakepit. ”

As the crowd sloshed past I saw an array of things slipping down, falling off, hanging out, wetted down. I saw every kind of get-up. There was a nun in veil and black dress and oxfords. There was a bedraggled, cheerless girl shuffling along with her boyfriend. She was skinny enough to be anorexic; her figure was an ironing board. What nature had forgotten to endow in her bosom, however, was more than compensated for by the picture of a female chest au naturel emblazoned on her tee-shirt. The silk-screen artistry was done in alarming pinks and purples — a more vividly colored sight than any of the real thing I have ever witnessed. When I pointed out to my sister-in-law this unique garment, she told me that it was not unique; I could buy one at any of several concession booths.

Feminists would lose heart at the Indy 500. They are not taking over the world after all. Not judging by all the jiggles, wiggles, shakes, rattles, and rolls and accompanying squeals and hoots I saw at the Brickyard. It seemed to me the men and women pretty well knew who was who. They did not appear to be hankering after universal equality or a union of spirits but a hook-up of something more substantial — such as a pair of bods. Plato’s Symposium would not wash in the rain of Indy.

There was a brief time when the skies looked as if they might clear. Tom Carnegie, dean of Indy sports-casting for so long he must now be in a hall of fame somewhere, announced the track would be dried. A primitive operation, track-drying. It was simply a series of wreckers, vans, and pace cars, rushing around the oval, evidently with the intention of driving the track dry. After an hour or so of this maneuver, Tom Carnegie announced an antique car being driven around the track, a high yellow vehicle with a flaring aerodynamic appendage in the back. None other than Ray Harroun’s car from 1911.

“Same age as you, Grandpa,” my nephew reminded my dad.

Next came the parade of the 500 Festival Queen and her court, each girl perched on the back of a pace car convertible. Miss America was in the procession, too, dazzling in an emerald green dress. My husband suggested maybe I wanted to look at her through the binoculars. I said he could look instead.

“Forget it,” he said from beneath the umbrella, which was again necessary. “I’m too old.”

“Oh, it’s just that no girl under forty looks cute to you anymore. That’s it, isn’t it?” I said hopefully.

I never got a reply — because here came Linda Vaughn. Who is Linda Vaughn? By all appearances a bomb-shell with all the unabashed hootchy-kootch of a 1950s Marilyn Monroe cheesecake. NOW would blanch. Linda, in her yellow dress with her enormous fluff of yellow hair, sat atop a convertible. Every few yards the car stopped while Linda shook her voluminous front end, hitched up her skirt, and blew kisses to the men swarming around the car.

“And who is Linda Vaughn?” asked my husband, perking up. She works for some tire company, my brother reported. She does cheesecake publicity and sells tires. No navy blue suit with little print tie and briefcase for Linda.

It was raining again. The 500 princesses and Miss America and Linda Vaughn took their collapsing hairdos out of the public view. The Purdue band, which had played valiantly all day, beat a final retreat.

The crowd waited for an announcement that the race would be called. The announcement did not come. People sat and drank more beer or went looking for the inevitable necessary room after the beer bouts. More than one who never found the necessary room simply dropped trou under the grandstand. All spectators, however, added litter to litter as they waded through the mud-embalmed debris on their way to and from their seats.

One fellow, about out of commission, decided it was time to leave. He staggered down the steps from his seat but could not see where he was. His buddy, engulfed in a rain poncho, stepped into a folding chair. With his foot imprisoned, he waved weakly, “Help. Help.” After six tries he shook his foot free and lurched after his partner. The two vanished into the sea of people.

Entrepreneurs did not let the rain dampen their enthusiasm to hawk their wares. Their biggest item all day was the ultimate drinking hat, a plastic helmet decorated with a tangle of wires. On either side, over the ears; are brackets to hold beer cans. The helmet wearer attaches one end of a tube to the beer can and another end to his mouth. He gets a continuous guzzle and can even wire one beer can to the other, allowing him to run immediately from empty to spare.

After some hours of getting even more soused and soaked, the spectators finally heard the announcement: no race today. Another try tomorrow. Then came the trek back to the parking places, slogging through dark puddles and gooey slimes of spilled food and plastic wrappers.

When the buses rolled out, my last sight of the 1986 race scene was a young man who had fallen in the mud. From the top of his head to his feet, front and back, he was encased in ooze. Though he was not navigating especially well, he still was able to make gorilla gestures to a car full of girls.

I had reports of the race to make to two friends. The first friend knows a lot about theories of government. He has good-humoredly declared my idea of the nature of government to be Augustinian. My idea, he has pointed out, is that government is remedial. St. Augustine liked that idea, apparently, because he was so aware of original sin. Though it is true, says my friend, that the best government is the government that governs least, it is also true, as Aristotle and Aquinas said, that government should govern. In other words, says my friend, even if there were only angels, government would still be necessary. Since I am no anarchist, I do not dispute the need for government. Yet having been to the Indy 500, I have reported to my friend that Aristotle and Aquinas are much too genteel and trusting. St. Augustine must have got it right. It looks to me as if remediation is in order. Original sin not only is with us, it is highly original. Each person’s depravity, just as his virtue, is unique and individualized. There is no need, either, to blame flawed institutions for sin. One person is quite capable of making his own mess of things in his own original way.

My second friend called one morning, wailing, “I need to go for spiritual counseling!”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because,” she said, “I can’t stand trashy people. I ought to love them and see the humor in them, but I can’t stand to be around them.”

“Forget spiritual counseling,” I suggested. “You sound as if you are just becoming more normal. You’ve discovered original sin is not a myth. It’s the way the world is, and we aren’t supposed always to like it.”

We are not united in a paradisical, loving blend of protoplasmic mush. We are uniquely and sharply divided in our preferences for and understanding of the good. If we are commanded to love one another with our wills, we also need supernatural help to do that. Our original condition is such that there are some things we cannot stand. Some things are trash.

  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

We must raise $60,000 to fund our work and continue offering the most incisive commentary in the culture wars.

Will you please donate $25, $50, $100, $250, $500, or more today?

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Share to...