Route 666 to the Home of the Gatling Gun

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October 21st 2003
Published: October 21st 2003
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Route 666 & the Home of the Gatling Gun

I started out my journey in Suffolk, Virginia, with plans to cross the North Carolina border on my way to the Quaker Meeting in Woodland. I spent some time looking at my maps, trying to figure out a route that would keep me off of Route 58, a rural, 4-lane divided highway filled with trucks. I patched together a path that took me through cotton and peanut fields along paved roads devoid of painted lines and traffic. I saw more horses along my route than cars, and enjoyed the peaceful solitude of farmland that had been worked for hundreds of years. As I rode past quiet white farmhouses I imagined what a vivid shock the invasion of blue-coated soldiers into this countryside must have been a century and a half ago. A land that had provided a bounty for its inhabitants was stripped bare by a pillaging, occupying army.

As I had been planning my ride for the day, I realized that I had the opportunity to ride Route 666. I couldn’t help but hum AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” as I traced out my route. As it turned out, the road was aptly numbered, because it was filled with logging trucks- westbound trucks roared by with their cargo of freshly cut trees, and empty eastbound trucks bounced along even faster. I found myself ever-vigilant, as trucks would often converge upon from both directions at the same time. To compound my experience, the wind kicked up from the southwest, and seemed to hinder almost all progress. Whereas I could normally ride at 13-16 miles per hour, I was struggling to keep my bike above 11 mph, and I could not seem to figure out why my cold had returned and I could not catch a full breath of air.

While the cotton fields were beautiful around me, with white cotton balls hanging starkly on brown branches devoid of leaves, I found out from my host that what I had taken for a natural occurrence was actually artificial. As Lloyd Lee said to me, “cotton defoliation is an application of a military development.” Prior to harvesting, the cotton fields were sprayed with a defoliant similar to the Agent Orange chemical used in Vietnam. As I rode through the fields, I was breathing in an herbicide, and I was one of the thousands of persons suffering respiratory reactions that have been deemed “acceptable” by the Environmental Protection Agency. It takes roughly one-third of a pound of pesticides to produce a cotton t-shirt.

I crossed the state line into North Carolina and continued my struggle into a head wind. With relief I stopped for a break in Cumo, North Carolina, the home of Dr. Samuel Gatling, the inventor of the Gatling gun. As the historical marker in front of a double-wide mobile home notes, Dr. Gatling also patented dozens of agricultural devices. But it is the eponymous gun that headlines his historical marker. Like Dr. Guillotine, Dr. Gatling is remembered not for the world of good that he did, but rather for the tool of destruction he invented.

The Cumo, NC Volunteer Fire & EMS Department proudly showed the Gatling gun on their sign, beneath the caption “Home of the Gatling Gun!” It struck me as slightly contradictory that an organization dedicating to preventing property damage and saving lives would celebrate a weapon that has destroyed countless lives and homes. How many paramedics have labored in vain to stop the bleeding caused by the Gatling gun? How many firefighters have failed to extinguish the blazes ignited by Gatling gun bullets?

After riding 50 miles into a headwind, and seeing a road sign declaring that I was still 9 miles from my destination, I was relieved to see my host Lloyd Lee pull up next to me in his car and ask, “Want a tow?” With nary a second thought, I unhooked my trailer and tossed it into the car trunk. With 50 pounds less to tow and significantly less wind resistance, I was able to make it to Woodland in a little more than half an hour.

After a sumptuous dinner, we traveled over to the Quaker Meetinghouse, where I spoke to a few Friends gathered together about the School of the Americas. I found myself thinking back to the SOA instruction manuals that were released under the Freedom of Information Act a few years back and translated from their original Spanish into English. The manuals were repeatedly reprinted for the school through the 1980’s and 90’s, and advocated counter-insurgency techniques that included kidnapping, torturing and murdering such “insurgents” as student leaders, union organizers and priests. And I was again struck by how un-American the SOA was. In America it has been almost a century since we sent the Army out to solve a labor dispute. Today we solve labor disputes through negotiation, strikes, lockouts, legislation, judicial orders and presidential decrees. But we no longer kill union members when they demand a fair wage. Why then do we as Americans pay our Army to instruct others to act in a manner that we no longer tolerate in America? After the disclosure of the training manuals, Congress officially closed the SOA, but opened up the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security and Cooperation in its place. The late Sen. Coverdell told the Columbus Ledger-Inquirer that after the name change, “the School of the Americas would still be able to continue its purpose.”
And that worries me.


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