On Being a Hoosier

Before I went to Sweden I considered myself an American from Indiana. Since returning home, I realize that instead I’m a Hoosier first.

By will of birth I entered this world a Hoosier.  By will of death I will probably leave as one, too.  For most of my life I never thought that much about being a Hoosier.  Actually, for most of my life, I never thought about it at all.

On second thought, that’s not exactly true.

In the college sense, I thought about it all the time.  Growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80’s, that was all any of us could do.  I was born in Lafayette, and both of my parents were Boilermakers at the time.  Those are a different sort of Hoosiers.  They spend a lot of time dwelling on science and math.  They also used to send brave souls to the Moon and great quarterbacks to the NFL.  If you ask them, they’ll tell you they’re witty people, too, and a few of them are.  A few of them.

Fans who grew up singing along with Martha the Mop Lady went to their graves firmly believing that Bob Knight was a stern but loving mentor who taught his players how to be responsible men in later life.

State Identity on the Hardwood

Regardless, thanks to my parents, I grew up in this little fortress of black and gold surrounded by entire neighborhoods proudly sporting cream and crimson.  A few folks, like my parents, picked a side because once you’ve trodden upon your school’s cobblestones for a semester or two, you’re tethered to the place for the rest of your waking life. 

It’s a strong loyalty, stronger than marriage for most of us.  When the Purdue board of trustees handed over control of Mom and Dad’s beloved school to the whims of a mean little man, they remained true to Old Purdue.  Even in my own case, when my own alma mater, Indiana State, handed over control to a mean little woman, I too remained loyal to my Sycamores.  That’s just how it works.

Students and alumni, however, were the smallest pack in that college, statewide fight.  The rest of the devotees—a teeming horde of millions—adopted the teams their parents rooted for.  They did it without conscious thought.  Somewhere in the fog of infancy the little red-and-white rattle became a child’s hoodie.  Then it transformed into the dangling pennant in the bedroom beside the Heather Thomas poster.  By middle age, it had become a row of matching barstools next to the basement kegerator. 

Entire world views were shaped in those cribs as well.  Fans who grew up singing along with Martha the Mop Lady went to their graves firmly believing that Bob Knight was a stern but loving mentor who taught his players how to be responsible men in later life.  Their rivals, who spent their own youths humming along with Tuba Man in his dusty attic, grew up convinced that Knight deserved nothing better than a jail sentence for his behavior.

...most of the people with whom I share this land, are not people who share my values. As an American I can ignore them. As a Hoosier, I can’t do that.

A Hoosier in the Broadest Sense

During all of that time, time spent up to my eyeballs in college rivalry melodrama, I didn’t think that much about what it meant to be a real Hoosier.

And after all the college drama fizzled.  After Knight got fired…  After Gene Keady “retired”…  After the NBA style offense ruined whatever was fun about college basketball to begin with… After all of that, I still thought of myself less as a Hoosier and more as an American, who happens to have lived all of his life in Indiana.

This is a significant distinction, I think.  And it was a distinction that never occurred to me until I finally hopped on a plane and flew somewhere else. 

I only spent six days in Sweden, and last year I wrote quite a lot about that week on the other side of the water.  And as smitten as I was with the convenience of their trains and the fluid beauty of their language, I think the thing I most envied was their innate comfort with their sense of identity. 

My American conditioning, I realized had also skewed the way I looked at Europe.  I had always thought about them both in a continental sense.  Just as I saw myself at home, I arrived in Växjö feeling as if I were around a city full of Europeans who happened to live in Sweden.  But I figured out very quickly that the good people going about their day under those perpetually gray skies, and walking to and from work in that permanent winter humidity which surrounded them… I realized that those were folks who were proud of their birthright.  They were Swedes, who happened to live in Europe.

I saw that pride in every golden, Nordic cross hanging inside of the hundreds of flags adorning every street corner.  I saw it in every mid-morning fika session, in one coffee shop after another.  And I saw it in the energy swirling around our hotel on the night the national soccer team squared off against Spain.  It was an international energy every bit as comparable as the interstate energy in, say, an early ‘90’s showdown between IU and Kentucky—when rabid fans assigned the balance of their emotional capital on the fate of Damon Bailey’s three-point shot and Jamal Mashburn’s moves under the basket.

Since my return to Indiana, I see my state differently.  It’s a difference that comes with its own set of complications.  Over the span of three decades we have all traded our heated arguments over a Bob Knight for an even more hostile fight over a new tribal leader.  The old Sunday feuds after an Oaken Bucket game ended by dinner, with a grunt or a shrug, and the certainty that next year awaited.  But now, instead of belonging to the Boilers or IU, we now belong to the Elephants or the Donkeys.

The difference in that identity shift is stark: Now we really hate each other.  We very much distrust each other. We are all Hoosiers in the broadest sense, but we value our tribes much more than the state lines which ought to unite us.  We are one.  We are “us” and “them.”  It’s a frustrating paradox.

I certainly wasn’t in Sweden long enough to know how passionate citizens sort out their paradoxes as they metaphorically swaddle themselves in the blue and gold of their flag.  As someone who almost always votes for the side that loses in this new rivalry, I have found that metaphorically wrapping myself in the blue and gold of my homeland’s flag comes with the complicated acceptance that most of the people with whom I share this land, are not people who share my values.  As an American I can ignore them.  As a Hoosier, I can’t do that.

If you’re a real Hoosier, you don’t gripe about the winter. You buy good boots, a warm coat, and you enjoy the muffled wall of silence conjured up the flakes which are blessing your homeland.

Right now, however, I can take a break from the hostility.  Right now, the weather unites us.  Standing in my driveway, shovel in hand, I took my mind back across the Atlantic.  Sixteen months after traipsing across southern Sweden—almost a foot of snow is falling on the Hoosier earth in my yard.  I suppose that’s one thing we have in common with the Swedes: if you’re going to live somewhere where the winter always comes, you either embrace that winter and savor the quiet that comes with a thick snowfall, or else you curse the cosmic dice that birthed you here, instead of Florida or California.

Well, let it snow.  Every few winters or so it happens around here, and if you’re a real Hoosier, you don’t gripe about it.  You buy good boots, a warm coat, and you enjoy the muffled wall of silence conjured up in the flakes which are blessing your homeland.

Author: Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches English to a horde of bright and lovably obnoxious high school seniors in a small college town. He has written in the past for Indiana on Tap and STATE Magazine, and is an occasional contributor to NUVO, Indy's alternate news website. Since picking up the guitar three years, he can now play a dozens songs while singing them quite badly.

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