Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Town in the Heartland

The trip continued southeast. The road was smooth, the surroundings peaceful and still lush in the early fall. There was quietness here in the land in the middle of the country and it was nice to have the opportunity to enjoy it. I was in no rush and the people around me seemed of the same mood. Maybe it was the new fall and this week, which is more like one of the summer that has been lifted from elsewhere on the calendar and placed here for us to enjoy that has made us all a little pensive and quiet.

I have moved through rich farm country, passing through the small towns that delighted me. Those of us who have "done our time" only on the Left and Right coasts tend to forget that just how beautiful it is here. It seems without as much pretention — except about high school football. In towns like McAlester, Hugo, and Atoka, there are stadiums that seat 20,000, far beyond the town’s population. It is the world of Friday Night Lights, decribed so well by H.G. Bissinger in 2003 when he chronicled the season of the Permian High School Panthers in Odessa, Texas. The heartbeat here is sports, the children, and the church not necessarily in that order. It seems no one who grows up here, or stays here, ever stops caring of those things.

Part of my vague plan for this trip had been to find a small town and spend a day or perhaps more just talking to the people. It wasn’t more than vague because it wasn’t entirely clear to me that they would want to talk to me. The one that sort of chose me had a population under 5,000, if you count all the outlying truck farms, and one day it may be a suburb of somewhere. It is not yet. It has some industry of its own. It was founded as an agricultural society, now is supported largely by truck farming, livestock, dairy products, and an industry of tin cans. It was settled by a large group of Bulgarians who emigrated here in the 1920's looking for fertile ground and freedom. Here they found both.

I found myself in a coffee shop on Main Street very early in the morning listening to the conversation of the place that gives you the rhythm of life in many towns of this size and watching the town go to work. There were odd looks from some locals at the stranger among them and I always worry in places like these that I might be sitting in someone’s “regular place.” Many of us are creatures of habit in the early morning and I didn’t want someone starting the day off badly because someone that didn’t belong here was at their table reading an out of town newspaper. The people looked as harried and sleepy at this hour as New Yorkers or people anywhere. In the coffee shop and on the street, there were those dressed in the "old" style, and the merely old, who wore straw cowboy hats and jeans and a T-shirt with a name of a farm product on it. New Balance cross trainer shoes seemed to be the footwear of choice, at least for the trip to town. Not many wore boots. Some had no doubt been up long before the sun doing whatever one does for or to livestock at that hour. Others were the "new" crowd, the thirty and forty something "yuppies" of the town. They drove the obligatory mini-van or SUV and some had likely just dropped kids at day care. They hustled through the McDonald's drive thru lane down the street. They get L.L. Bean and Land's End catalogues here too, so they look as if they could be part of any town—or even you.

I wandered down the street after some brief and seemingly guarded talk, my fill of coffee, and lots of overheard conversations. Note has been taken of La Coachasita’s license plates although she is parked on the side street two blocks away. I know that because the waitress that took my money asked what part of California I was from and when I had left. She was pleasant, a professional waitress by her demeanor, but interested in this strange man and his van and likely wondered whom he had come to visit here. If I told her all, she probably wouldn’t believe me, so I stuck to the where and the when and left.

Down the street, as I mailed off some pictures, the conversation in the Post Office was about the weather here and where I had been and the current state of Main Street outside the door. It was, to be kind, so dug up it looked like mortar rounds had been dropped on it. It was down to the raw earth in places and no one seemed about to do anything about it this morning. The street was for now one lane and one way. The few customers in the Post Office, who laughed about it when I asked the clerk and then gave my description, clearly were hoping for it to be finished. My interest in all this got me directions from the clerk to the Mayor, who had a real life job as a Pharmacist in the middle of town and served as a part time, nearly voluntary Mayor.

The Mayor was a man with owlish features who looked younger than his years, with a muscular build and not carrying any excess weight. I told him what I was up to and he seemed pleased by the diversion and didn’t say my mission was peculiar, but was curious as to why I would want to do it. He had been born and raised elsewhere, but settled here with his wife after studying Pharmacology because her “people.” were here. We talked of the town and its "progress." The state government and its influence here as well as the federal one at Washington came up more than once. He didn't have much use for either if one judged from his tone. I asked where the funds have come from to pave the street, since it was a project of sufficient size that it was clear it was not just the tax dollars of the town's citizens. He allowed that resources from the entities he spoke ill of had been needed and grudgingly admitted that the local Congressman and the State legislators from this area had been very helpful finding the money. He supposed they weren't bad fellows, really. They seemed to care, but he just wasn't sure about the rest of them, those from other parts of the state or country. There seemed to be a lot of them who were more interested in themselves and taking pleasure at public expense than in the good of the whole state or the country. Obviously, this was not a liberal Democrat, or a tolerant Libertarian with whom I was spending part of the morning. He genuinely cared about “his” town, which seemed to me what mattered, not what he thought of the peccadilloes of elected officials in Washington or the state capital. After all, you don’t have to like them to work with them for the good of the town.

It was his hope (and mine, for those who drive it) that at least the gravel base would be laid on the bare earth now showing before there was rain. He told me the merchant’s were losing patience and were concerned now as they looked out on the orange cones and detours. In an almost reverent way, he showed me the plans for the pedestrian mall, the storefronts, and the way in which they would remain faithful to the small town atmosphere when it was done. He was clearly proud of his town, glad that he could help keep life on Main Street. His hope was that the businesses would not leave it for the highway and the two strip malls already being built and charging less rent. The town is something of an antique center and he clearly didn't want to see all that business end up outside the town jurisdiction five miles away on the highway. Some had already made the migration before this project had begun. I did not question his motives, but the collection of business taxes within the town’s limits was clearly an issue he and the town council had thought over.

We talked of other improvements planned and he stressed that he hoped to keep the town as it was, but admitted that the new turnpike being built to the north and the improvements made to keep the town from flooding when the river nearby crested would put pressure on it to become a "bedroom" town as time went on. As we talked, it seemed he did not comprehend how difficult it would be to keep the town "values" as he called them if or when that happened. He spoke as if trying to grasp what it would mean. I have heard others in similar circumstances speak this way. Even the small amount of industry that has moved here recently has caused a whole new neighborhood to be built. He saw that as good for the town since it improved the tax base but had no answer when asked what it would be like if three times that number of people moved into town and new schools, police, and fire protection was needed. Surely, downtown could remain charming, but just as the antique businesses had led to mall building, could Walmart be far behind? He said he hoped not, but didn't seem like he had thought much about it either. As we talked on the corner of Main and Lester, it was easy to forget the larger world beyond, to retreat into the small town. It was hard to imagine it will still be as it is in five years if the police and fire needs have grown exponentially. He said he didn't know, but he hoped it wouldn't be bad.

He answered many more questions about the town, its history, and its' people, who, as he but it "care about their neighbors.” I am still having trouble understanding small towns, particularly ones like this that may soon become big because they are close to an oncoming Turnpike and seem to be inviting it to happen. I worry that the Chamber of Commerce thinks it a good idea despite what most of the people who live there may think. They are being told that this will bring progress and jobs and that will bring a better quality of life. Well maybe. Maybe that is not how they define it. There will be capital and salary outlays they have not even thought about, and failure to police properly and prepare for it all will bring the less desirable suburban and urban ills. Will that be a better quality of life? Have they thought about whether the quality they have now is worth preserving? I am conflicted by these islands with only tenuous connections to larger places now but which will change sooner than I will be able to get back to look. Is this the good life, or merely a small place which for now is filled with well-kept homes with pictures of grandmother on the mantel? I do not know.

I asked of the industry and the lives of the children. He answered pleasantly enough. I left him with the sense that there was more and the conversation I just had might have been with George F. Babbitt’s great grandson, a true visionary, or a man without a clue. This means, I guess, that I left after talking to someone who was a politician as well as a pharmacist. I asked if he thought I could look at the high school and perhaps talk to someone there. He said that “Janice,” the principal, would be glad to tell me about the place and in fact when he went back in he would call her and tell her I was coming over. I thanked him for that. He was being very kind and said he hoped that this helped solve my puzzlement over small towns.

I left to see the rest of this place, the school, churches, and homes of the town. Right now, I wanted to talk to the children if I could. As we parted, the Mayor told me to be sure to blow the horn just past the gas station up the street as I left if it was before dark. He lived in the house across the street and I might see him, his father-in-law, and his son in the wiffle ball tournament they had started last spring. When I asked if he knew of a campground anywhere near, he said I should talk to “Wally.” Wally was the Police Chief and he knew about such things. The Police Station was just beyond his house and the aforementioned gas station.

I stopped at the school and asked in the administrative office if I could speak to Janice. The receptionist first ascertained that I was not a salesman. I told I her I wasn’t and she came to the apparent conclusion that I was but a curious man on what she clearly thought was a bizarre mission, and agreed I could speak to “Janice” in a few moments. I went into the hall to watch classes changing. The children there all seem to want to be partially blond this fall, and most are. They smiled at this strange man in their midst. They seem no different, if perhaps less threatened, than your own.

Janice expected me. She surprised me because she was a striking woman of forty and certainly better dressed than the severe tight hairdo types that were principals in my youth. She smiled easily, thought my interest in her school, the children, and the town amusing and perhaps a bit odd at first. She had gotten the Mayor’s version of my story and when we got past the teasing and “why are you here, really” stuff, she relaxed and spoke easily and with pride about the place. She was not from here. She had been here only two years. She had grown up in New England near Boston. There was a vague reference to following someone or something here, but she seemed as reluctant to explain it, as I was to ask, so we left it there. She spoke proudly and easily of “her” school and the children. She laughed easily, told wonderful stories of her first year here, and spoke of this place so far removed from the urban ills of Boston with real fondness and a firm belief that it was where she belonged. When I asked of the growth here recently she became serious and seemed concerned about it since a different sort of child came with it. Unlike the Mayor, she seemed to grasp the complexity of the task of taking a small town to a different status. The new children were not trouble or less educated for their levels. They acted, in her word, more “privileged.” I asked what she meant. She said she thought the children who had been here all their lives resented the newer ones because they seemed different, and while no more affluent, seemed “above” them in a way that seemed not good to her since they didn’t mix well. There had been a few problems, nothing serious yet, but she seemed to think that it would be. She apologized for not being clearer, but said that was all she had time to absorb so far and with a chuckle offered me a tour of the school, and a chance to talk to a few of her “pride and joy.”

It would have been hard not to like Janice. She seemed committed to this place and its children, a person of spirit and intellect who saw this as enough for her, a good place to make a difference and call home. As we passed among the classes, the children obviously liked her as well. She greeted many by name. There was respect in her voice that was returned. When we stopped in at a study hall, she introduced me, told them what I was up to, and let me ask some questions. The children seemed relaxed in her presence, certainly more than I was as a teenager. I asked them about the town. I took a poll as to how many thought they would stay, go to college, come back, marry young, win the game next week, become President. It was my usual nonsense. They laughed easily, although none would tell me why most had only some blond hair this year. They were curious about me, my trips especially, and why I was here and what I was learning. They really wanted to know and I tried to explain because there was no artifice in their questions. They had no hidden agendas. They laughed at stories of things done and places visited. I liked them and hoped they felt the same.

The people of this town clearly had a special place for these children. Perhaps it’s true of all towns where you can know most of them. They were part of the conversations I had heard from the farmers and construction workers in the booths of the coffee shop this morning. It seemed as if they were all related, or at least to the ones on the football team. Some of them probably were. It took some serious eavesdropping to assure myself that they were not all from the same families. The Wilson boy who was such a good student with “good soft hands,” and the Burleson kid, who, to hear them tell it, might be the best football player to come out of that part of the world since Troy Aikman--probably the second best quarterback that ever played professional football in Texas--graduated high school just down the road.

I left Janice to her day much sooner than I would have liked, but I told her I thought I understood the place a little better now. She said to come back anytime I wanted to talk to the children. I moved on then to tour the town and its homes. There was a new neighborhood. The faux “Mc Mansions” and the pretentiousness of their newness is my dominant remembrance of these homes with sculptures in the garden. These were the homes of the “privileged.” I wasn’t sure I saw anything that made these people different. A new house does not bestow privilege. Surely some of the older restored houses I had seen in town were larger and more expensive. I guessed, like Janice, I would have to think about it some more.

Noon still found this day lying softly on the still green land. I returned to Main Street where I had not been forgotten. When I stopped to eat again people were more willing to say hello and share a few words with this strange man amongst them. A policeman came looking for me. In a pleasant way he related that Wally said I should stop and see him before four. I thanked him and people seemed to relax even more. After more talk with Patti and William, who owned the restaurant, and a few of the people there who seemed in no hurry to be somewhere else, about the good old days, I went to see the churches. They were Lutheran and Baptist and a very small and old Catholic Church that seemed interesting. It was apparently the first built. The Cemetery next to it had tombstones dated from 1920 so I suspect it was done by the agrarians who migrated from Eastern Europe. The Lutheran one must not have come far behind since graves there bore similar dates although the building was larger and newer.
Near four I left to find Wally, deciding the surrounding truck farms would wait until tomorrow. I saw the Mayor and his son on the lawn as I drove out. The boy may have been six. He seemed to be having a wonderful time. The three of them were there. Grandpa was pitching and the Mayor was running the ball down, doing pratfalls in the process which made his child laugh. I blew the horn and they waved as if a good friend were passing, instead of a confused man from California who asked a lot of questions. I was grateful for that.

When I entered the station, Wally, a large man, was tilted back in a chair that looked ready to quit next to a desk. He greeted me with a nod and a quiet, neutral, “How ya doin?” Except for the trace of a smile he seemed almost ominous, and not just because of his uniform. He asked what I was up to next. I said I thought I was pretty much done for today, but had seen his officer and gotten his message. He sat and looked at me for a time. I judged him to be in that nether world of the “somewhere in his 50’s.” His hair was grey, he was heavy set and dark, but with and open and honestly curious face. His eyes were an intense blue you noticed when he turned them on you. Finally, he rose in what I came to know was his ponderous way and walked to the door. Eyeing my van for several minutes, he turned and asked if I was “that thing was self-contained,” an RV term for those which park anywhere for at least one night and still uses all the facilities. I said it was. He smiled and said it was the tiniest self-contained he’d ever seen. I said I’d be glad to show it to him and asked if there was a campground or RV park near here. He turned, smiled, and said not really, but what the hell, since I found this place so interesting I might as well stay in the lot next to the station and then I would know what the place was like after dark.

We talked about how small the van was and yet it how it seemed to have everything, he leaned against the wall and his manner became more relaxed and animated. He was a fisherman with a travel trailer of his own, a revelation that didn’t surprise me. We talked of good places to fish, where I had been, and where I was going. He too, wanted to know why I was here. I tried to explain it as best I could. I think he got it and said that it was “an interesting idea” and asked if I thought I had missed anything. I said I was sure I had, but I had my impressions now and they were good ones and I would settle for that. He said it was a hard town not to like right now. As we talked it was clear he wondered too what would happen when the Turnpike got here and the box stores tried to move in and the rest “of that crap.” I said I hoped he’d never learn. He just snorted and said something about that being a dream.

As I thanked him for the hospitality and made to go he said he’d show me where a good level place was near the lawn and run an extension cord to the van so I’d at least have power. I thanked him, said it wasn’t necessary, but he waved me off and said if I had problems that Charlie would be here all evening, the county sheriff covered them at night, and to be sure to come in for coffee with him in the morning. Once he had me plugged in and parked where he wanted me to be, he said he’d be back after I got settled. I had the feeling by the practiced way he went about all this that I wasn’t the first camper he had accommodated.

After I was parked, set up, and sitting out enjoying the warm evening in this quiet place, he stopped and sat for a while on his way home. Police chiefs are a wealth of information about the places I go and I have often stopped at stations to ask of places in town. In this case, Wally added some to what I knew when asked, but seemed to enjoy asking why I liked his town and asking if I had seen specific things or met specific people. He did tell me he grew up here, left, went in the Navy, and had been station in San Diego so some reminiscing was required. He said he came back because he didn’t find anywhere else that “suited him so well.” When it was time for “his supper,” he rose and I thanked him again. He just shrugged and said he hoped I had enjoyed myself and if I had time, we’d talk some more in the morning and he could point me to some of the more interesting outlying places. I said I’d like that and he was gone.

I spent the next hours thinking about what I had seen and heard today. It was one more unusual experience for me on my unusual trips, but one I was glad I had. It occurred to me that it would be nice if we could all live in a place where so many people seemed concerned and proud of their town and its people, particularly its children, take the time to play a game after work to make a child laugh, and maybe let some itinerant camper park in the police lot overnight. The town wasn’t as I thought it would be, but I was glad it was as it was. Until it got dark and I moved inside as the chill came on, most people in the cars that passed found a reason to wave. I suspect that many already knew I was there. I went to bed feeling that I had learned something important, although not yet sure what, and secure in the knowledge that this was a fine place to be tonight and thinking of things to ask Wally over coffee in the morning. My puzzlement over small towns is not yet gone, but I believe I understand some about this one.

Note: The town does exist. The people in the narrative here do as well and these are there real first names. I have chosen not to name the place because I believe they prefer it. This trip was taken two years ago. I have not yet returned. I hope to this year.

© 2009


  1. What a marvelous place and wonderful people.
    It reminds me of my small home town. Although in this day and age, I am not sure they would have let you talk to the kids the way they did. But you seem to have a way with people and they trust you.

  2. Reamus, I don't know why, but I'm really intrigued by the idea of a week from one season being picked up and set down into another season.

    Ok, I have to regauge the town-o-meter in my mind. To me, a town of 5000 would be a "big" town, especially if it had a McDonalds, but that's because I live out in the country and "small" towns of 600-1000 residents are what surround me. But, I can regauge them to "villages" or "tiny" towns while considering the "small" town you write about here.

    I'm happy to hear the town has some industry to provide decent-paying jobs. Its worrisome when an industry moves in and doesn't pay a decent can leave a town in shambles. Its bad when chain stores are allowed in simply for the sake of tax revenue for a city, not because the merchandise is needed. In some cities the thought is that residents should never be more than 5 minutes away from giant supermarkets and big box stores. All that STUFF sitting there....such redundancy. I hope you won't find that the case when you return to this town you wrote about.

  3. And, I forgot to say.....your photos add just the right visual addition to your descriptive writing.

  4. Well, that was small for me, particularly in the sense of the "town" itself. It is alot of people. I never did see the full plat of the town so the outlying incorporated area may have been large.

    Thanks for reading...

  5. I look forward to the narrative of your return visit. I suppose it is selfish to hope that "progress" doesn't spoil these small towns so that we can enjoy them on our way through.

    I once subscribed to the newspaper of a small town in NC, thinking I'd like to get away from "progress". After a few months I was disenchanted - quite a lot of pettiness lurked underneath the charm ,and apparently the only jobs to be had were in a hosiery mill or chicken processing plant. But still, there is kind of a siren's call to a place where everybody knows your name. This piece had me hearing it again. Thanks. You really do have a way with words!

  6. Anon,

    Thanks. I "get" what you mean. It is part of my conflict. I am glad you enjoyed the piece.

  7. Hi, Reamus. I enjoyed this piece immensely because it reminded me of the small Texas town I grew up in fiftymmmpph years ago. When I moved to it in the second grade, the city limit sign said population 775 from a census taken eight years before. When the new census came out, the sign was changed to 979. The next census said 1,073 or something like that. Everybody knew everybody else. Now that little town is a "bedroom community" of 50,000+ folks. I have lived in greater Atlanta for nearly 35 years now, and I knew it was a place of tremendous growth, but even I was shocked to read in this past Sunday's newspaper that suburban Gwinnett county's school population had grown from 38,000 in the 2001-2002 school year to 157,000 this year. That's the SCHOOL population.

    Our class had its 50th reunion last summer, and a great many of the 46 original graduates have known each other since first grade. It certainly wasn't ideal, but I remember with fondness the town where everybody knows your name....

  8. Hello RWP,

    Its sounds a wonderful place...once...with all the baggage that comes with that, but it is nice just the same to know there are such places. This place I fear will suffer the same fate as your "little" town one day soon...I do hope to get back on my way east this year and see what they have wrought.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  9. M.
    Have a marvelous journey. Please stay in touch, post often, and take care of yourself.