"I'm not sure where we went wrong," says Ellen McCormack, nervously fondling the recycled paper cup holding her organic Kona soy latte. "It seems like only yesterday Rain was a carefree little boy at the Montessori school, playing non-competitive musical chairs with the other children and his care facilitators."
"But now..." she pauses, staring out the window of her postmodern Palo Alto home. The words are hesitant, measured, bearing a tale of family heartbreak almost too painful for her to recount. "But now, Rain insists that I call him Bobby Ray."
Even as her voice is choked with emotion, she summons an inner courage -- a mother's courage -- and leads me down the hall to "Bobby Ray's" bedroom, for a firsthand glimpse at the psychic devastation that claimed her son.
She opens the door to a reveal a riot of George Jones CDs, reflective 'mudflap mama' stickers, empty foil packs of Red Man, and U.S. Marine recruiting posters. In the middle of the room: a makeshift table made from a utility cable spool, bearing a the remains of a gutted catfish.
"This used to be all Ikea," she says, rocking on heels between heaved sobs. "It's too late for us. Maybe it's not to late for me to warn others."
Pandora's Moon Pie Box
While poignant, Ellen McCormack's painful battle to save her son is far from isolated. Across coastal America, increasing numbers of families are discovering that their children have been lured into "Cracker" culture -- a new, freewheeling underground youth movement that celebrates the hedonistic thrills of frog-gigging and outlaw modified sprint cars. No one knows their exact number, but sociologists say that the movement is exploding among young people in America's most fashionable zip codes.
"We first detected it a few years ago, with the emergence of the trucker hat phenomenon," says Gerard Levin, professor of abnormal sociology at the University of California. "At first we thought it was some sort of benign, ironic strain. By the time we realized the early wearers really were interested in seed corn hybrids and Peterbilts, it had already escaped containment."
Levin points to 'Patient Zero,' who in 1997 was a 23-year old graduate student in Gender Studies at San Francisco State University.
"During a cross-country trip to New York, he stopped at the Iowa 80 Truck Stop in Walcott, Iowa, and bought a John Deere gimme cap as a gag souvenir," says Levin. "Within a year, he had dropped out of graduate school, abandoned his SoMa apartment, and and was working at a drive-thru liquor store. Today he is a wealthy televangelist in Bossier City, Louisiana."
The contagion of 'Patient Zero' would prove devastating. Soon trucker hats were appearing throughout trendy coastal neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Park Slope and Portrero Hill, often accessorized with chain wallets and 'wife beater' t-shirts. A new alternative youth movement had emerged, rejecting the staid norms of establishment NPR society and embracing the 'tune-in, turn-on, chug-up' ethos of the Pabst Blue Ribbon underground. Before long, it would broadcast its siren call to an even younger generation -- one whose parents were woefully unequipped to recognize it.
"It was one day last spring," says Ellen McCormack. "My life partner Carol and I were in the garage, working on a giant Donald Rumsfeld papier mache head for the Bay Area March Against the War, when Rain walked by. I thought he looked kind of strange, so I stopped him and looked closely into his eyes. Then I realized the truth -- he was wearing a mullet. I was shocked, but he swore to me that it was only ironic."
"After a few months, it was clear Rain had lied to us -- that hideous Kentucky waterfall was completely earnest," she adds, choking back sobs.
Her 18-year old son would soon exhibit other signs of disturbing changes.
"I was driving past a McDonalds one day last summer, and I thought I saw Rain's bike outside. He had told me earlier that he was going to a friend's house to stuff envelopes for the Dennis Kucinich campaign. I pulled a U-turn and headed back," she recalls. "When I confronted him in the parking lot, he started giving me a lame story about how he was only there to protest globalization, but I could smell the french fries on his breath."
McCormack says that Rain's erratic behavior would also come to include excessive politeness and deference.
"Everytime I tried to talk to him it was 'yes Momma,' and 'no Momma,' when he knows damn well my name is Ellen," she says, anger rising in her voice. "It was like I didn't even know him anymore."
McCormack tried an intervention with friends from the Anti-war community, but to no avail. In October, Bobby Ray packed up his Monte Carlo and left for basic training at Camp Pendleton.
"I have no son," she says in a barely audible whisper.
Across the country In toney Westchester County, New York, Jim and Sandy Vandenberg describe a similar tale of family grief.
"We are people of faith who keep the sabbath," says Sandy, a curator in the Dada collection of the Museum of Modern Art. "Even when she was a toddler, we made sure Emily got up early every Sunday morning to read the New York Times Book Review. Sunday morning was our time, until..."
"Until those damned Jesus bastards stole my little girl," interrupts her husband, barely containing his anger. Once a Freshman honors student in Lacanian Deconstruction Theory at NYU, their daughter is now better known as Lurleen McDaniel -- reigning Princess of the Tulsa Livestock Show and Rodeo.
In Bainbridge Island, Washington, single mom Jane Michelson says she began suspecting that her son Brian was in trouble after he started hanging with a new crowd at school.
"These weren't normal kids, neighborhood kids in Che t-shirts who want to drop a couple of hits of X and chill on Radiohead," she says. "They would talk in a sort of strange code language, like 'Roll Tide!' and 'Gig 'em Ags!' and 'Piiiig Sooieeee!'"
Signs of trouble would soon multiply.
"One day I got into my Volvo and hit the stereo preset for Pacifica Radio, and then I heard this obscene 'Save a Horse Ride a Cowboy' song coming from the speakers," she recalls. "The very next week, the maid found a tin of Skoal in his Wranglers. I told him him right then -- it was either me, or his tobacco-spitting friends."
Now known as Randy Dale Cash, her estranged son is a starting linebacker for Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas.
Jane Michelson is not alone in her story. Throughout coastal America, school adminstrators and parents are reporting an alarming surge in 'Cracker' cliques on campus. Also known as 'Y'alls' or 'Neckies,' officials say the groups thrive by attracting outcasts and misfits from the student body.
"We try hard to engage all of our students in fun, healthy activities like Progressive Eco-Action March and Rage Against Intolerance Week," says Lawrence DiBenedetto of Patrice Lumumba Magnet School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "Unfortunately, there are going to be those who fall through the cracks, into a life of bass fishing and stockcar racing."
It appears those cracks are widening. In one recent three-week period, fourteen high school students in Portland, Oregon were suspended for distributing pork rinds; a Burlington, Vermont high school was briefly closed for decontamination after janitors found a bible hidden in a restroom; and forty-six undergraduate coeds at Swarthmore were expelled for staging clandestine Mary Kay cosmetics parties.
"We became suspicious after several heavily made-up students arrived at a Katha Pollitt lecture in a pink Cadillacs," says Swarthmore Dean of Students Geraldine Marcus.
Some say the craze threatens even the nation's most exclusive prep schools. At Exeter, Andover and St. Albans, rumors abound of secret societies where initiates are steeped in the black arts of restrictor plate cheating and satellite descramblers. Washington's elite Sidwell Friends School was nearly forced to close after scandalized parents learned that several students were openly touting Sams Club cards.
The Eclectic School Aid Hayseed Trip
To better understand what attracts young affluent students to the subculture, I spent a recent evening interviewing a group of self-described 'Neckies' from exclusive New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois. Like countless other Friday nights, the close-knit group had made the 80 mile ritual journey to rural Belvidere, Illinois, to cruise Steak 'N' Shake and hang out at the Mills Fleet Farm parking lot.
"Y'all, check out these new mudders," says 17-year old 'Dakota,' proudly displaying the gigantic knobbed tires under his radically lifted 4x4 Audi Allroad. "I'm fixin' to get me a winch and Tuffbox fer it next week."
Not to be outdone, friend and fellow Neckie 'Duane' sounds 'Dixie' on the novelty horn of his jacked-up BMW M3. An early graduation gift from his parents, Duane has turned the expensive German coupe into an homage to the Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee, complete with orange Stars-and-Bars paint job and spit cup on the console.
"Grandma gave me some money fer a summer study trip over ta Paris, but I thought the paint job was cooler," laughs Duane. "Hell, she thinks I'm over in the Sorbonne right now, studying Foucault and all that shit."
"I'm a-fixin' to put in a nitrous system on the General Lee, so I'ma call Grandma up and aks her for some book money," he adds.
Like most of their classmates, these North Shore Neckies were once bound for some of the top universities in America -- Yale, Duke, Stanford, Northwestern -- until they succumbed to the allure of the Downhome slacker lifestyle. Now some openly talk of dropping out, learning TIG welding, waiting tables at Waffle House or draining oil at Jiffy Lube; some even hint of enrolling at Iowa State. What drives privileged teens to such seemingly self-destructive behavior?
"I guess you might could say we're rebels," says Rachel 'Tyffanie' Stern, 17, lighting a Merit Menthol 100. Once destined for Vassar, Stern is now living with friends after her parents kicked her out of the house for spending her bat mitzvah money on a bass boat. Last month she became the youngest Jewish female to win an event on the Bassmasters Pro Tour.
Pausing for furtive glances, several of the teens share sniffs from a bottle of Harmon Triple Heat deer scent.
"Wooo-eee, shit howdy, that's gonna bring a mess of them whitetail bucks," says 19-year old Wei-Li 'Lamar' Cheung. A former Westinghouse Science Award winner, Cheung has devoted his chemistry and biology skill to building a fledgling hunting supply business.
A first generation Asian-American, Cheung says he was drawn to the group by their acceptance of minorities. "Hell, I kept tellin' all my family and teachers I wanna play fiddle, not violin," he explains. "The 'Necks accept me the way I am."
African-American Kwame 'Joe Don' Harris agrees. "Just because I'm black, teachers were always pushing me to go to Spellman to study Langston Hughes and Thelonius Monk," says the 17 year old. "These ol' boys here never laugh at my dream to be a crew chief for the Craftsman Truck Series."
If there is one aspiration that unites them all, it is the dream of moving to Branson, Missouri. Long famed for its laid-back attitude toward religion, country music and the military, Branson has become a Mecca for radical young Neckies seeking an escape from the stultifying conformity of their coastal hometowns.
"Shit, y'all, I heard Branson's got like four Wal Marts, and more $5.95 all-day breakfast buffets than Glencoe has Starbucks," enthuses Dakota, adding quickly that "pardon my French."
"Plus it's only a short drive up to Fort Leonard Wood," adds Tyffanie.
Talk arises of Branson's 'Summer of Bubba,' the upcoming hedonistic hillbilly festival of music, hog calling and nightcrawler gathering expected to draw millions of Neckies from as far as Santa Monica and Ithaca -- even Europe.
"Y'all, I heard them Swedish 'Necks are hardcore," says Joe Don. "They digitally remastered all the original Jerry Clower albums."
A live-for-today attitude permeates the group's ethos, with little concern about consequences. I ask Justin 'Jim Rob' Borowski, 18, what motivates young men and women to abandon promising academic careers in Gender Theory and Critical History to take a wild ride in the dark world of roofing and drywall contracting.
"My daddy was sorta mad when I tolt him I was gonna skip Columbia Journalism School for a plumbing apprenticeship," he answer philosophically, popping a plug of Red Man into his lip. "I tolt him that journalism is important, but the world needs plumbers too."
"After the toilet backed up, I think he got my point."