Into the trenches

The light was absolutely blinding, strange odors hung in the air and a sea of confusing color lay before me. Different channels, almost canyon-like in appearance, headed off in each of the cardinal directions. Feeling more than a little overwhelmed, I briefly shut my eyes, closing out the harsh brightness.

When they reopened, the chaos and intensity increased. A metal cart passed on my right, another on my left, and I heard shouting not far off. My pulse quickened, my breaths came in fast and shallow bursts, and I started running through the maze, lost and panicked. Suppressing a cry for help, I turned the corner and help appeared from a most unlikely source.

“Are you alright, sir?” a man in a blue vest asked, smile stuck to his face.

Leaning in a little closer, he added, “You look a little lost. Can I help you find anything? Something in ‘automotive,’ maybe?”

Then it dawned. I was trapped in this mess looking for something – a new car seat for my daughter. Unable to do anything else, I turned my fate over to the man in the blue vest, officially in the helpful hands of Wal-Mart.

It should come as no surprise, but I’ve never had a good relationship with Wal-Mart.

Sweatshop labor, damage to local economies, discrimination against female workers and subsidies aside, something has just never felt right about the store. That hollow environment always seems to capture a little bit of my essence whenever I’m forced to pay a visit. I always leave the checkout line feeling reduced.

However, I saw how the other half lives not too long ago. Rachael and I witnessed the smiley faced corporation’s real power over America when a family from the East Coast paid us a visit. The trip was supposed to be their great Western odyssey, and they wanted to try it all – mountaineering, flyfishing, rock climbing – take in the full Colorado menu.

We happily obliged, taking the couple and their two pre-teen sons down the Animas on our raft, bringing them to the base of Engineer Mountain during peak wildflower season and showing them the remains of the Anasazi. But somewhere along the line, we failed. Throughout these adventures, the two boys, pudgy from too much orange soda and time on the X-box, always made the same request of their father.

“Dad, can we go to Wal-Mart when we’re done with this?” the older of the two would plead in diplomatic tones and between mouthfuls of Ho-Ho.

“Yeah, we wanna go to Wal-Mart. We wanna go to Wal-Mart,” the younger would add more directly, Ho-Ho already devoured. “We’re tired of waiting.”

Finally, the good-natured dad relented and passed the request on to his chauffeur. “Would you mind driving us out to Wal-Mart?” he asked me. “The boys need to pick up some supplies.”

In hindsight, I should have mentioned the smiley syndrome that strikes every time I pass those hallowed doors. I should have recommended a smaller box, a little closer to home both in terms of distance and ownership. But instead, I followed that family of four inside the big box for a little late-afternoon recreation.

Not surprisingly, the blinding lights and mosaic of labels and “rollbacks” had a decidedly different impact on the two boys. While I was crawling inside my skin, the pimply-faced twins exhibited the first real signs of life since their arrival. Hands groping the entry displays and feet pattering on the white linoleum tiles, they looked to their dad to flash the “OK.” Seconds after the “go ahead boys,” they were off like a pair of thoroughbreds, vanishing into an aisle between ladies garments and discounted snack foods.

Less than two minutes later, the pair was back, hyperventilating, red-faced and grasping onto one game cartridge each. “Buy these for us, dad. Buy these. Come on. We haven’t gotten anything on this trip. Mom, please make dad buy these. Come on.”

Their father took one look at the games, one look at his wife, dug into his father-knows-best arsenal and answered, “Nope.”

The boys responded with a double meltdown, complete with a flurry of held breath, stamping feet and gritted teeth. By way of climax, the two vanished back down the aisle. And, they didn’t come back.

We combed the Durango Wal-Mart for those two lost souls for a half an hour. There was no sign. They had just vanished, and I was forced to again seek help from a man in a blue vest. The loud speaker then called the boys’ names out for another 20 minutes. An endless stream of “ … please report to customer service desk … please report to the customer service desk …” stopped only when another blue vest found the two miscreants secreted away in a store room. Luckily their pockets were empty.

The parents responded to the infraction swiftly. The dad grabbed the youngsters by their collars, the mother snatched the two video games away from the boys, and the four marched to the front of the store. “You two are going to get it for this,” the mom shouted aloud, before adding, “when we get back home.” Faint sniffles issued from the little criminals.

In a single motion, the mother then snatched a $100 bill from her purse and passed the two cartridges to the checkout clerk. The two games were dropped in a blue bag and change was passed back across the counter. Yet another blue vest handed us the bag and flashed us a smile. “Thank you for shopping at Wal-Mart,” she chirped. “See you soon.”

– Will Sands