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THE THOROUGH crime reporting of Keith Epps--I envision him, pen and pad in hand, right behind the G-men as they kick in the door of Mad Dog Coll's hideout--suggests a pronounced tendency of young males in this area toward drunken fisticuffs. In the lingo of the hills, they are "bad to fight."
Few moons pass without headlines announcing a fracas at some joint in Central Park, downtown Fredericksburg, or those parts of Stafford where a necktie is a thing your lawyer wears. One of the out-of-town proprietors of F.W. Sullivan's, the subject of recent police attention, told me in exasperation, "We never have this kind of thing in Richmond."
As a former resident of the Holy City, I can confirm the owner's declaration. People of all ages drink there without bodies being thrown through plate-glass windows, bouncers dancing on the heads of downed drunks, or patrons engaging in mass mêlees reminiscent of Day 13 at the Alamo.
When I lived in the Fan, I often walked to Joe's Inn for dinner or drinks. I never saw a punch thrown or heard a voice raised in anger. Between the long mahogany bar and the wall shelves of bottled booze in gay circus colors, no barkeeper had to call down an unruly customer.
So what's wrong with us?
I place the local tendency of single males to cap nights out with a busted head and a visit to the cooler under my Unifying Theory of Too Big Too Fast. This describes the growth rate of Greater Fredericksburg during the last few decades, when swarms of Northern Virginians and other aliens (ich bin ein come-here), drawn by cheap digs, descended on a small city and its adjacent rural counties and upended traditional living habits.
Outsiders move to Richmond, too, of course, but at a pace at which they can be assimilated. Around here, immigration was diluvial. Hordes of newcomers put down stakes far from their extended families and with no community ties. So we became a collection of strangers with few shared interests, thrown together almost by chance. Think of our region as a vast military base, without the discipline.
The dustups at local watering holes illustrate the absence of restraint that comes with a weak sense of community. When an indigenous culture is overwhelmed by a motley flood of humanity, all that survives by default is the popular culture--the one, laden with violence, rudeness, and imbecility, that comes to us via our TVs, iPods, and other drek dispensers.
Thus we live in a place that lacks broad refinement and an instinctual preference for peaceableness. It is like what Wellington said while looking over his troops before Waterloo: "I don't know if they scare Napoleon, but by God they scare me."
This is not to say that all my experiences in clubs, dives, and joints elsewhere have been totally irenic. Two stories.
(1) One afternoon in an ill-lit hole in Spring Hill, W.Va., I took a seat at the bar and ordered a beer. I glanced down the bar. On the end stool sat a wrinkled old woman with stringy hair and the kind of concave mouth that means no teeth. I was 190 pounds and just out of the Marines. She wouldn't have weighed 90 pounds carrying a sack of bowling balls. She looked at me, scowled, squinted, and said in a slow, deliberate voice, "You say one word to me and I'll knock you off that stool."
(2) My introduction to this area came during training at Fort A.P. Hill. One evening a few of us drove down Route 2 to a Caroline pool hall. We were tolerated by the locals but nothing more.
At the next table sat a family--two or three grown sons, a daughter-in-law or two, and a large, ruddy older woman who looked like she could take a bronze in the hammer toss. All at once, the old lady slammed her beer glass on the table and glared at one of the young men. She began to shake, then, rising from her chair, hollered, "I'll kill him! I'll kill the [most obscene word in the English language]!"
Hands were on her shoulders. "Now, Ma. Sit down, Ma."
We drove to the safety of the Enlisted Men's Club.
Paul Akers is editor of the opinion pages of The Free Lance-Star.