A Blue State Christmas at the Chattanooga Choo Choo

Patrick O’Heffernan

I had to sit down one night this week and let the memories flow as a I opened Christmas ornaments and found frosted white globes with an old- time steam engine and the words Chattanooga Choo Choo” on them. My family spent Christmases in the ‘90’s at the Choo Choo Hotel built in the stately old turn-of-the-century railroad station in Chattanooga. We loved its magical Christmas world with a tree so tall you had to crane your neck to see the angel on its tip, trains in the frosty garden, and the Elf “tuck-in service” for our children in the Victorian Pullman Car rooms.

Before checking in, we would visit the Tennessee Aquarium, whose twin-pyramid design rivals even the Monterrey Aquarium. After a stroll through the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame where we goggled at the ingenuity of early truck builders, we would head to Rock City. Advertised on barns throughout the South, this mountain wonderland sounded hokey to my sophisticated San Francisco ears until I saw the shine in children’s’ eyes as they raced through the painted rocks and played hide and seek around the plaster Mother Goose figures.

The hotel staff often blessed us when we registered and there were prominent lists of local churches and even the occasional offer of directions to a Sunday service. But the blessings and the directions were presented with generosity, not superiority. Other guests I talked with in the dinning car spoke easily of the approaching birthday of their Lord, Jesus Christ. Their spirit was welcoming even when we talked politics from different sides. There was no animosity, even when I spoke of my brother-in-law singing in the San Francisco Gay Mens Chorus or my Buddhist beliefs. We disagreed on some things, but felt the same magic of Christmas and the Choo Choo.

How different these memories are from the lies I hear today from the Alliance Defense Fund that pubic schools have banned Christmas symbols. How different they are from Bill O’Reilly falsely telling his Daily News audience that store clerks not wishing customers “Merry Christmas” is a plot to force gay marriage, partial birth abortion and legalized drugs on everyone. How different they are from Newt Gingrich charging imaginary Liberal zealots with turning Christmas into a godless shopping day.

The Right Wing message machine has done deep damage to American democracy. It has fooled the media into believing that its version of “morals” – one based on oppression of gays and women – is the only correct one, and fooled us into believing that is why Progressives lost the election when polls say otherwise. So we are now building our own message machine to reframe morals as Christ – the object of the season’s celebrations regardless of one’s beliefs – intended them, that is, the obligation to care for our brothers and sisters. We are repairing the holes in the wall protecting church and state from one another. We are expanding our constituencies, building new leaders, and taking back our nation.

But as we do this, we must appreciate the values of the staff at the Choo Choo who offer blessings even to unchurched Northerners, and the families enjoying RockCity after worship services, and the pride of Frank Thomas, Manager of the Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame, in showing people daily life in simpler times. We must appreciate the people of Chattanooga who dared to build one of the nation’s finest aquariums in a declining steel town after the Federal government abandoned them. And we must listen to Fred Denson of the Tennessee Military Department , who welcomes even liberal trial lawyers as volunteers to fight corporations denying returning troops their jobs back.

The Right Wing propaganda machine has damaged them also. It has taken their values of hospitality and neighborliness and turned them into tribalism and suspicion. It has robbed them of their open hearts and tried to slam shut their open minds. And it has stolen their jobs, their security, and their futures while it gives them only false hopes and promises of Armageddon in return.

But it is hard for Progressives – and Conservatives – to see our common humanity in the face of the daily damage being done to us both by the radicals running the Right. The 2004 election was a brutal battle in what appears to be an unending ideological war. But unending war is democracy’s worst enemy. Somehow, while we are fighting the Right’s leaders to take back our nation, we must learn to celebrate our common values with the people of America’s heartland, with people in places like Chattanooga. We don’t yet know how to do that, but Christmas at the Choo Choo is a good place to start.