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November 30, 2017 | Nonfiction

Burning Man

Mike Nagel

Burning Man photo

Nothing has ever happened that didn't make perfect sense. 

Nothing yet anyway.

 

1. [The "Piece"]

When I told Tommy about a non-fiction piece I was "reporting" in Grand Saline, Texas--a piece, I told myself, that I was working on for This American Life--he said it sounded like the perfect kind of story for me. I said why's that. He said because it involved a spectacular death (a self immolation, actually) and communicated a pervasive sense of hopelessness about the world. "What can I say?" I said. "I'm a Schopenhauer-y pessimist with a soft spot for pageantry." We were eating dinner at Cane Rosso, a Neapolitan pizza place in Deep Ellum. It was early summer, a few weeks before the heat set in.  

 

The non-fiction story we were talking about revolved around Charles Moore, a highly educated and respected Methodist minister from Texas, who, three years ago, at the age of 79, drove from his home in Allen to a parking lot in Grand Saline and, after pacing around the parking lot for most of the afternoon, lit himself on fire. He wanted, he wrote, to send a message the world couldn't ignore. It seems he had no idea human-kind's truly heroic ability to ignore messages, no matter how pressing, or how spectacular the manner in which they're sent.

"But what's the story about?" Tommy said, as the waitress brought out our pizza, its surface still boiling from its three minutes in the eight-hundred-degree brick oven. 

"It's about how impossible it is to tell anybody anything," I said. "Or maybe it's about how nobody is listening."

"Sorry?" Tommy said, trying to pinch a slice onto his plate without burning himself.

                       

[]

 

My "reporting" began on a Saturday afternoon and involved me driving from my apartment in Dallas down US80 to Grand Saline, pulling into the Dollar General parking lot where Charles killed himself, and walking around. It was a brutally hot day in June, made even more brutal and more hot by the sun-soaked asphalt which was cracked and gravelly and sounded, when you drove on it, like it was punching a thousand holes into your tires. Next my reporting involved me walking into the Dollar General, buying a cold Mango Snapple, and asking the woman behind the counter if this is where the pastor had killed himself. I decided, at the last minute, not to use the more accurate phrase lit himself on fire since I'd noticed a 4-year-old sitting in the shopping cart behind me, hugging a box of Cheez-Its.

"Oh, I don't know," the woman said, trying to ring up the bottle, wiping the condensation off the barcode. "How long ago did you say?"

"Almost three years," I said. 

June 23rd, 2014, to be specific. The day before my 27th birthday.

"Well, jeez," she said. "I don't know. I sure hope not."

The woman couldn't get the barcode to read so she finally just typed the price into the computer herself. $1. I paid with a credit card and walked back out to the parking lot to drink my Snapple and stand on the spot where I believed, based on the articles I'd read, that Charles ended his life. First he slid a note underneath his windshield (a note I now have in the form of a .pdf), then he put down some padding for his knees, then he kneeled down onto that padding and soaked himself in gasoline. I pulled up the description of his death on my phone from Michael Hall's in-depth, expertly reported Texas Monthly article titled, cleverly, "Man on Fire." 

"Charles was instantly engulfed in flames," Hall writes. "As they burst ten feet into the air, he made a sound--not a scream but a low moan…like an involuntary physical reaction to unbearable pain...By the time the flames were out, Charles had been on fire for more than a minute. He lay on his back, knees bent and head off the pavement, moaning. Except for his socks and sneakers, all his clothes had been consumed. His nose was gone, his eyes were melted shut, and the bones in his hands were exposed." 

I'd read this description before, maybe half a dozen times. But there was something very different about reading it here, where it actually happened. As if the things we do rub off on the places where we do them. As if it matters where things happen.

          

2. [The Man/His Message] 

The message Charles tried to send with his death was the same one he tried to send with his life. A message I'm not entirely clear on to be honest. Something about repenting for racism and accepting homosexuals into the Methodist church. Both were causes he'd suffered for before. He once fasted for 13 days to protest the church's discrimination against homosexuals, earning The Austin Chronicle's "Best Gandhi Impression" award, but ultimately not changing anything about the church's homophobic policies. Maybe that's why Charles' stomach started to hurt ("In 2012 Charles began to suffer some severe gastrointestinal issues, and he grew convinced that he was dying of cancer," Hall writes). Maybe a man like Charles can only stomach so much. He titled his last letter--his suicide note--"O GRAND SALINE, REPENT OF YOUR RACISM." Then he got in his car without his cell phone or his wallet and headed east on US80, toward Dollar General.

 

After a lifetime of, as one of Charles' friends put it, "trying to do something," the people who knew Charles best didn't seem all that surprised that he'd ended his life by setting himself on fire. "If anyone would choose such a deliberate death," Hall writes (I've stolen gobs of info from Hall and plan to steal gobs more), "it was Charles." When the town heard what he'd done, the town said, "Well that makes sense."

 

3. [The Town]

Grand Saline is one of those small Texas towns you pass through on your way to somewhere else and think, if you think anything, who on earth lives here? The speed limit drops from 75 to 35 and you're forced to roll through town slowly enough that you might be tempted to stop for lunch, or fill up on gas, or get out and stretch your legs. But you won't because, while charming in the ways that all small towns are charming, Grand Saline is also creepy in the ways that all small towns are creepy: too inviting, suspiciously quaint, the place you'd least expect to be murdered and so the place you most expect to be murdered. Charles once saw a poster here that read: “N****r, don’t let the sun go down on you in Grand Saline.” On my drive in I pass a sign that says, "Jesus Welcomes You," and I wonder if I'm already dead.

 

It doesn't take much digging to find out there's more beneath the surface of Grand Saline than meets the eye. Specifically, there's salt. A lot of salt. Enough salt to supply the entire United States for the next 20,000 years. So I guess we're all set, salt-wise. One less thing to worry about. The Morton salt mine, where Charles's father worked (along with most of the town), is 57 stories below ground and produces almost half a million pounds of salt every year making Grand Saline the saltiest town in the country. You can lick the Chamber of Commerce building. And, according to one article I read, "nearly everyone does."

 

The day I drove in to do my "reporting" happened to be the day of the 42nd annual Grand Saline Salt Festival, which looked the same as every other small-town festival I've ever been to, each differentiated only by whatever vinyl sign happens to be strung across Main Street. There were carnival games. A corn on the cob stand. Booths selling local leather crafts and home-made jewelry. A large, empty stage with a countrified version of "They're Gonna Put Me in the Movies" playing between sets (followed, uncharacteristically I thought, by Daft Punk's "Give Life Back to Music"). The only thing missing was people. Where were the people? I counted twelve. Either I was a little too early or a little too late or this was the saddest festival ever thrown. So these are the twelve people Charles died sending a message to, I thought as I watched a little boy in cowboy boots lick the butter off a corn-on-the-cob like it was a popsicle.

 

4. [The Reporter Is Having a Crisis]

Back in Dallas I continued my "reporting," (which, by this point, having done a decent amount of "clicking around online," and then having seen the town in person--having walked around and taken it in--was starting to feel less like "reporting" and more like reporting, the prospect of which--the prospect, I mean, of doing something instead of "doing something"--scared me to death) by sending off a few emails and Facebook messages, all of which were immediately ignored, if still unread to this day. Next I decided to continue my "reporting" on the story by "thinking about" the story--internalizing its major themes and contemplating the ways in which they intersected with my own major themes and with the major themes of the "Human Experience" as a whole--while moping around Downtown Dallas, where I worked as an advertising copywriter, contemplating all the ways in which I had wasted the entire decade of my twenties, a decade that would end the day after the three-year anniversary of Charles' death and would feel, I felt, like a death itself.

More and more I understood Charles' frantic need to "do something." After thirty years of doing more or less nothing, I was feeling a bit frantic myself, wondering if I was ever going to do anything. In fact, I'd started seeing a counselor. "Why are you here?" she asked me on my first visit. We were sitting in purple bean bag chairs in her tiny 20th floor office on Pacific Ave. I said, "To keep from killing myself, of course. Why else?" It was entirely clear to me that I was wasting my life but entirely unclear how to not waste it, how to do something--anything--of value that might justify the excessive amount of paper towels I used to dry my hands or the amount of o-zone-eating fumes my refrigerator was emitting to keep my string cheese cold. The counselor, a pleasant black woman in what looked to be her 40s, with soft approachable features and bright, sober, every-morning-is-a-new-day eyes, explained that she was "here to listen, to really listen, in a way that our closest friends, or even our spouses, don't or won't or, for whatever reason, can't," a spiel I estimated cost me $7.

Charles got help too. He once spent a week in a Colorado psychiatric hospital to cope with his overwhelming depression. A depression brought on by his indecision about how to best follow God's calling in his life and his guilt over what following that calling had lead him to do so far, namely neglect his family. He would sacrifice two marriages, countless friendships, and his relationship with his sons in his pursuit of "doing something." And yet, at 79, on the brink of rounding out another decade, he would still feel like he hadn't done anything. 

"Is it possible to do things?" I asked my counselor as the sun went down and the windows in her office turned into mirrors.

           

[]

 

Part of my anxiety about turning 30 was due not only to the fact that I wasn't doing anything, but that I wasn't doing anything in a place where nothing was ever done: a city where the only memorable events in the past century were a presidential assassination and a historically deadly police ambush. When Kyle came to visit from California, he reminded me that there were a lot of places to live besides Dallas. Actually, he pointed out, of all of the places to live, most of them weren't Dallas. The vast majority, in fact. It would be very easy, he said, to end up in one of those places with even a minimum amount of effort. But even a minimum amount of effort was more effort than I was willing to give since, at the time, I was having a hard time doing anything more than whatever was absolutely necessary in order for me to stay alive: i.e. eating, drinking, sleeping, and writing Facebook advertisements for the Stanford Graduate School of Business. When Charles admitted himself to the psych hospital, he had been unable to get out of bed, a state I was fast approaching. But unlike Charles, who felt a debilitating sense of mission and purpose in the world, the weight of which pinned him to his bed, I felt a debilitating lack of mission and purpose in the world, the lack of which prevented me from getting any traction on my projects and plans, all of which were seeming increasingly unlikely if not impossible. In fact, I was beginning to doubt the point of doing projects at all. For years I had been writing and publishing short, strange literary essays in obscure, unread literary magazines, purposefully eschewing relevance or newsiness or even, sometimes, readability in favor of creating what I thought of as "art" and "literature." But now, after a half decade, the pointlessness of writing without readers was getting to me. I found myself withdrawing all of my essays from consideration as soon as I had submitted them, worried that they would all be rejected, or, worse, accepted and published for an audience of readers only reading the magazine in hopes of writing for the magazine, and thus contribute to the infinite circle jerk that was/is/will-always-be "Lit Mag Culture," god bless it. And so I had started to believe that the only way to make something of my life was to make something for This American Life, a radio story about a pastor who set himself on fire in a small Texas town, and a small Texas town that didn't seem to care that a pastor had set himself on fire. 

 

Near the end of his life Charles had trouble writing too. He couldn't get anything down because he couldn't see the reason for getting anything down. What was there to say? And what was the point of saying things? He--like me--was not onto something. "To not be onto something is to be in despair," Walker Percy writes in The Moviegoer. There comes a point when a person in this kind of despair will do anything if only to do something. Charles understood this. And I understand this about Charles because I understand it about myself.

 

5. [The Birthday/Anniversary] [Or: The Doing of Something]

I woke up the morning of my 30th birthday hung over in a Best Western hotel room off I20 near Grand Saline. I'd driven in the night before for two reasons. 1) I wanted to see what was going on in Grand Saline on the 3-year-anniversary of Charles' death. And 2) I wanted to fall asleep and wake up in Grand Saline as a way of getting to know the place. I felt like it was essential to my "reporting" that I sleep in the place I was reporting on, believing that its character and themes could only be absorbed unconsciously, the way our bodies learn how to ski as we sleep on the mountain. The only problem with my plan was that there was nowhere to sleep in Grand Saline. Nowhere except the Salt City Motor Hotel, which only had one review on yelp (one star), and which the waitresses at Salt Lickers, a dive bar on Main Street, would warn me against, implying, unsubtly, that it was a place better rented by the hour than by the night. So, rather than falling asleep and waking up in the town I settled for falling asleep and waking up near the town, the difference being minimal since all of this was merely symbolic anyway, a way of "really doing something," I told myself, a way of "taking my project seriously" and "getting my feet moving." This, I felt, is exactly the type of thing a This American Life reporter would do. So on Friday night I'd packed my small duffle bag with a change of shirt, a toothbrush, a Tascam digital audio recorder, and a bottle of Bulliet Rye bourbon, and I'd driven out of Dallas toward Grand Saline on the 3-year anniversary of Charles' death, on the eve of my 30th birthday, in the middle of a heat wave so severe they were grounding planes in Phoenix because the air was too thin to fly on.

 

On I20 I passed a half-dozen Christian billboards I hadn't noticed before, imploring drivers to repent for the Kingdom of God was coming. Even with all our modern advances in online marketing that allow us to hyper-target ads at precisely the people most likely to click on them, sometimes the best way to get a message across is just to put it up on a billboard and hope that the right people pass by. "Does advertising work?" people always ask me when they find out I work in advertising. And the answer, of course, is: "Sometimes."

There was grey smoke in the distance, not black enough to be a wildfire (I've driven through a wildfire before and remember how black its smoke was: black like ink) and turned out to be a controlled burn, probably because of the rising temperatures and the long summer ahead of us. Better to set it on fire now, on purpose, than to have it catch on fire later, by accident. (“He didn’t want to just die of some natural cause or get hit by a truck,” Charles' ex-wife said. “He wanted his death to count for something. He wanted his life to count for something.”)

I thought about these two images together--the billboards and the fires--as a kind of koan of this whole thing, whatever it was, whatever it was becoming. 

 

On the outskirts of Grand Saline I stopped into a small cemetery and walked around between the graves, unsure of where/where-not to step. It seemed like there were bodies everywhere. The grass was so dry and brittle it turned to dust under my flip flops. I wondered what you could learn about a place from the people who'd died in it. I wondered if Charles' grave was here somewhere (I didn't know where it was) but that seemed unlikely. Most of the headstones were more than a century old and had been rubbed blank from 100 years of dust and wind and whatever else wears rocks down to sand. 

 

I left the graveyard and drove to the Dollar General parking lot where I walked around until I felt suspicious. Then I went inside and bought a box of Club Crackers and a 6-pack of Shiner for the one-man birthday party I was planning for myself later that night in the hotel room. The woman behind the counter, an old woman who looked out at the Dollar General interior like she was looking across the plains, held my driver's license at arm’s length, squinted, then warned me that it expired tomorrow. I had, of course, neglected to renew it. Renewing my driver's license was one of those million seemingly non-essential tasks in my life that I couldn't, for whatever reason, bring myself to do. I had known it was going to expire, had done nothing about it, and now it was finally going to expire. 

"You try and buy this beer tomorrow, can't sell it to you," the woman said. "Won't do it." 

"But is the license expired tomorrow?" I said. "Or is it expiring tomorrow, starting tonight at midnight and continuing throughout the day until the next day when it is truly, finally good and expired?"

"Well I don't know," the woman said. She looked at the girl in line behind me, a girl who barely looked old enough to have a learner's permit, and asked if she knew if an ID expired on the day or on the day after the day, which the girl didn't know, of course, but they discussed it at length anyway while I zoned out and thought about the strangeness of my ID--my identification, my identity--expiring, needing to be renewed, as if after enough time I might stop being myself and might start being somebody else. Charles left his ID at home when he made his last drive to Grand Saline. Was he himself that day? Was he anyone? Is that what self-immolation is: A way of erasing yourself?

"Just don't let one of these small-town cops get you," the cashier said finally, handing me back my license, snapping me out of my head and back into the Dollar General. "They show no mercy out here."

"Really?" I said, gathering my bags. "Is that true?" 

She shrugged. "Who knows?"

           

I went back out to the parking lot and stood once again in the spot where I believed Charles had lit himself on fire, a crumbly corner of the lot near a grassy median where he'd crawled in his death throes before someone put him out with a fire extinguisher. The sun was going down and it was getting cooler but I could still feel the warmth rising out of the ground. A form of storage. A heat memory. I tried to feel something about Charles the way I'd felt something a few weeks ago. But I couldn't feel anything now, and I worried that what I'd felt before hadn't been Charles at all but my own thrill at being here, at "doing something." I noticed a woman watching me from her car and thought about all the people who watched Charles pace around this parking lot before he'd finally kneeled down on his mat. Now here I was doing the same thing, trying to get inside a man's head by mimicking the movements of his body. When we were kids we called this "The Shadow Game." It drove people crazy.  

 

I didn't know what to do next. Didn't know what to "report." There was nothing going on and nobody to talk to. There wasn't even very much to look at. Those were the main reasons I'd come here. To walk around, talk to people, and look at things. I hoped that after I'd done enough walking and talking and looking, I might understand something about the place and people Charles' died sending a message to, and, so, understand something about the sending and receiving of messages. All of this being essential to the theme and narrative of my radio story for This American Life, which I planned to pitch just as soon as I got my head around what it was I was trying to say.

           

I decided to get a beer. Getting a beer seemed like the thing to do. The one guaranteed non-suspicious-thing you can do in any town, big or small, anywhere in the world, is get a beer. If you're getting a beer, that makes sense. And because Salt Lickers Bar and Grill seemed to be the only place in town to get a beer, seeing as it was the only place in town that was even open on a Friday night, I walked into Salt Lickers, sat at the bar, and ordered a beer, which was served to me in a large see-through plastic cup. I made a note that this was the type of bar that served its beer in plastic cups. 

Out the window, I could see the ear clinic on Main Street which offered "ear washing" and "hearing tests." And next to it, in a building that looked like something out of a spaghetti western, The Cyber Shop, whose sign advertised "Computers. Internet. Networking." I was starting to panic a little bit. Where am I? I thought. And why am I here?

Apparently, I wasn't the only one wondering. 

"What brings you to Grand Saline?" the waitress behind the bar asked suspiciously, a young woman with Twizzler-red lipstick who would later joke with me about an old women in town who gave blow jobs with her dentures removed. When I told her I was here researching a pastor who'd killed himself three years ago to protest racism in the town, she said she'd never heard of him. Then she said that he was stupid. "You ain't never getting racism out of Grand Saline," she said. "Look around you."

I looked around. A dirty concrete room with dirty concrete floors. Walls covered in bright buzzy neon beer signs. Country music playing from a retro-looking juke box. And three of four families eating dinner, all of them white. Not exactly a telling demographic sample-size, I thought. But in a town this small, it doesn't take much.

Three years ago the waitress saw a sign at the edge of town that read: Don't Let The Sun Go Down on Your Black Ass. "At night you can still see crosses burning in Pole Town," she whispered, wiping the same area of the bar over and over with a dry rag.

"Why do you live here?" I asked.

"Why do you live where you live?" she asked back.

"I guess you just end up living somewhere," I said.

She clicked her tongue. 

"That's how it happens."

Another waitress was sitting on a stool behind the bar listening to us talk. She'd been flipping through Instagram, whispering comments to herself about her friends' babies and husbands. She spoke without looking up from her phone. "We're not exactly known for being friendly to other ethnicities," she said, pronouncing every syllable in the word "ethnicities" carefully, like it was a piece of hard candy she was rolling around between her teeth. 

"But don't worry," she said, looking up at me. "You'll be safe here."

           

If I was a real This American Life reporter I would probably have conducted more in-depth interviews with these waitresses. Gotten their contact information, asked them things like, "Is this on the record?" and "Can my editor contact you to verify these statements?" Then I might have met with leaders of local churches and organizations who could give me more telling insight into the effect of a man lighting himself on fire in a town. "Was the message received?" I would have asked. "Did the message get through?" I would have held my Tascam digital audio recorder at a specific distance from their mouths. I would have known what this distance was, having conducted many interviews like this before, being something of an expert at conducting interviews. I would have felt comfortable during awkward silences, knowing that after an awkward silence people tend to reveal "the good stuff." But instead, for the final phase of my "reporting," I left Salt Lickers feeling very "weirded out" and "confused" and drove ten miles out of town to a Best Western in Canton where I got drunk on Bulleit Rye and watched Mad Men on my laptop until I passed out sometime around 2am: a 30-year-old man in the middle of nowhere with an expired or expiring driver's license: a man about to be nobody. When I told Chris how I'd spent the last night of my 20s, the final phase of my "reporting," he said, "That sounds about right."

 

6. [The Shrug]

I would much prefer to go on living and enjoy my beloved wife and grandchildren and others," Charles wrote in an early draft of his suicide letter. "But I have come to believe that only my self-immolation will get the attention of anybody and perhaps inspire some to higher service.” Charles' death did get some attention, but not much. The story got written up in the Dallas Morning News, Texas Monthly, and Huffington Post--pieces that focused more on the strangeness of his suicide than the message of his death--before fading quickly from the news cycle and then from memory. 

“Reverend Moore thought this was going to be a whole lot bigger of a deal than it turned out to be,” Reverend Jeff Hood told the Huffington post a few months after Charles' death. Most people outside of Grand Saline would never hear about it. Most people in Grand Saline would pretend it never happened. Before I left Salt Lickers that night I did find one waitress who knew about the pastor who'd set himself on fire. "What do you think about that?" I said, dipping a chicken crisper into a puddle of ranch. She just looked down at her phone and shrugged. What was there to say about it? And what was the point of saying things?

 

7. [The Salt]

Underneath Grand Saline there is a mountain of salt as big as Mount Everest. This is the salt used on every pretzel in America. Have you ever eaten a pretzel? You've eaten a little bit of Grand Saline. I stopped by the salt museum on my way out of town, a small room-sized building at the corner of Main Street and Chris Tomlin Ave, a street named after the mediocre Christian songwriter who grew up here. It doesn't take much to be someone in Grand Saline. Maybe that's why Charles thought it was a good place to send his message: a place where nothing ever happens and nobody ever does anything. At first I thought it was strange that Charles picked this town. On second thought it made perfect sense. If you're going to set yourself on fire, you might as well do it Grand Saline, a town so flat and empty people could see the smoke for miles.

It was Saturday morning and I was the only person in the salt museum. The woman behind the counter shook a jar of salt crystals at me. I took one and examined it. It looked dirty and gross. "You eat it," she said. So I put it in my mouth. It was the saltiest thing I had ever eaten. Straight out of the ground. 99.9% pure, unrefined salt. My eyes started to water. "Nothing can grow on salt," the woman said, closing the jar and walking me around the museum, pointing to photographs taken inside the mine: spectacular cathedral-like rooms with 100 foot ceilings. "No germs. No bacteria. No plants. No nothing." Nothing except a town, I thought, nodding, my mouth burning and raw. "This building we're standing in is made of salt," she said. "Feel free to lick it on your way out."

Just then a family walked in. A mom and dad and two grubby little boys. White and bright-eyed and on their way to Tyler for the weekend. They'd passed through Grand Saline a dozen times and just now noticed the museum. "Well this little museum is sitting on a mountain of salt as big as Mount Everest," the tour guide said. "You ever eaten a pretzel?" She shook the jar of salt in their faces and they each took a piece, examining it carefully before placing it on their tongues like communion wafers and closing their eyes.

image: Aaron Burch


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