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OPINION | MASTERSON ONLINE: Our changed nation

by Mike Masterson | April 30, 2022 at 2:57 a.m.

More than 45 years have passed since I packed up a 24-foot Coachman motorhome, bolted a Honda Civic to her rear, and set off from Hot Springs to spend a year writing about the mood of the people along America's highways.

I'd been fortunate enough that year to among the five journalists to receive a Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellowship, which meant an expense-paid year of travel and study on a chosen topic.

My proposal had been simple: To do much as John Steinbeck and his pet dog had done years before with his classic 1962 travelogue, "Travels With Charley: In Search of America."

It was the bicentennial year, which seemed both a timely and relevant competitive proposal.

Thankfully, the judges that year, who included Washington Post executive Editor Ben Bradlee, women's activist Gloria Steinem, UPI veteran Helen Thomas and "Fire in the Lake" author Frances FitzGerald, interviewed the 12 finalists following a foundation luncheon in Manhattan, and unanimously agreed this cowlicked, mid-20s Arkansas journalist badly need to broaden his horizons for the sake of his readers.

So it came to pass on an August morning that we were off, headed east with no specific destination in mind. We only knew we would drive until we were worn out. then find an RV campground.

We wound up that evening in then-notorious McNairy County, Tenn., where I spent two days researching and writing an article about the late Sheriff Buford Pusser of Hollywood's "Walking Tall" fame. What I discovered and wrote was far different than the film's erroneous version.

Afterwards, and with the passage of decades, the remainder of that year on the road became pretty much a blur. We stopped and visited so many places and met so many people, I could never remember them all by the time we'd wrapped up our odyssey in 1977.

In reflection, however, now I certainly see many fundamental differences that have unfolded in our nation from right here in my hometown of Harrison. Most of the changes are sad, shocking and disappointing when it comes to unraveling our once United States and the overall welfare of the country.

Here are several that leap to mind.

In 1976, there was never a question about the biological differences between females (XX chromosomes) and males (XY chromosomes). To even have suggested otherwise, or surgically alter minors' natural genders, would have been unheard of and invite widespread ridicule.

While major cities had ample crime in 1976 (thankfully we never were victims), it still felt largely under control. In 1976-77, there would never have been serious discussions over defunding as opposed to beefing up law enforcement. Furthermore, those caught looting and burning various downtowns, including even police stations and federal buildings, would have been arrested and likely imprisoned.

The elected prosecuting attorneys in major metropolises for the most part fulfilled their sacred responsibilities to fight and actively prosecute crimes. Compare that with the shocking reversal of that obligation we are witnessing today in cities such as Los Angeles where big campaign contributions can influence policy.

Walt Disney's theme parks were devoted entirely to wholesome family fun, rather than embracing a radical cultural agenda pushed by one political party. Disney wisely chose not to become involved in political matters.

Men in competed athletically against men, period. Women did likewise within their own gender. Anyone suggesting biological males(who believed they were females and therefore entitled to regularly beat up on them in supposedly fair competition would never have been allowed and would instead be recommended for counseling.

In 1976-77, there was no Internet yet, or its politically biased social media platforms that today allow strangers to anonymously heap vitriol, resentments, hatred and smears against others who hold different worldviews and beliefs.

The term "racist" was largely reserved for those who actually were, rather than a simple-minded spewing at political foes.

Today's nonsensical term "woke" still sounded less acceptable than "awakened" and meant nothing to Americans. Today, many not only shun, but actively resist, this intentionally divisive notion inspired by politics.

Gas for the motor home was only about 59 cents a gallon. Many gas-station attendants did the pumping, checked the air in our tires and washed the windshield. No need to review the bad shape we are in at the pumps today with no service and the highest prices in decades, if not our history.

Inflation over the past year has soared to record highs, raising the cost to everything from those pumps to food, vehicles, utilities, clothing, appliances, you name it. In 1976, inflation (triggered by having too many bucks chasing too few goods) wasn't a problem; $1 was the equivalent of just over $5 today.

I never met a stranger along the highways. Well, they weren't strangers for long, having stayed in the driveways of a friendly Detroit truck driver met over the CB and an aging Maine potato farmer who invited us into his five-generation farmhouse. Americans then generally were more friendly, rather than untrusting, even hostile, to strangers.

In 1976-77, shopping malls were thriving in their social and lucrative heyday. Today, many have shuttered and stand empty thanks to the convenience of Internet shopping. Part of that may be due to the covid-19 pandemic.

My weekly dispatches, "Our America: One Family in Search of a Nation's Spirit," were created on a typewriter, and I developed black and white negatives inside the coach by using a correspondent's black bag. I'd rely on the goodness of newsrooms across the country to make prints that would be mailed to New York along with my weekly stories that would be circulated by the foundation to about 33 dailies that freely carried my articles. Today, I could achieve all that over my laptop, saving considerable time and money.

Along those lines, pretty much everyone I knew and met in 1976-77 displayed a strong work ethic and a desire to pursue the American Dream. Today, amid a bazillion help-wanted signs (at businesses everywhere), I'm not seeing the same drive or widespread work ethic. Are you?

Yes, valued readers, so many more aspects of life have changed dramatically in these United States since that Patterson year. I'd give anything to sit here and assure you it's all been for the better, but that wouldn't be honest. And you'd know it.

Who do I feel most sorry for as a result of our ongoing cultural and political slide? That would be my children, your children and theirs. Who do I fault for the mess we are in today? Many say politicians focused on serving their own agendas and party interests above their responsibilities to our entire nation.

So, anyone believe we are better off overall as a society than we were 45 years ago?

Students of history might recall President George Washington specifically warning in his farewell address against this very thing happening for the very reasons we are now experiencing. Clearly we weren't paying attention.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at

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