Friday, July 07, 2006

Small Town, U.S.A.

What is it about small towns that intrigue me so much?

If you really survey the people around you, very few have actually been exposed to life in a small town for any real period of time. I mean a really small town. 5,000 residents. 3,500 residents. 700 residents. Most of us have lived in cities of some size. Me? Helena, Montana certainly wasn’t a metropolis, but it was large enough to support two large high schools, three movie theatres, an arts scene, a mall, and a host of other organizations and enterprises that you would find in any capitol city. Living in Denver exposed me to the wonderful variety and offerings of the Big City. Cities do not come any more vibrant or energetic than Austin. And, in terms of land mass, Oklahoma City is the second largest city in America, for goodness sake.

As a nation it makes sense – we go to the cities for jobs, education, opportunity, options and entertainment. Historically, we’ve become less and less an agrarian country so the small rural towns have tended to dry up and close down. It’s like they’ve lost their relevance in our rush for the industrialized and the modern.

But thanks to mom and dad’s roots, I’ve spent lots of time in small Texas towns with grand parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, and now the Last Stop. Cisco. Throckmorton. Woodson. Walnut Springs. And the best Small Town of them all, Eastland.

I have been intrigued with these places from as far back as I can remember. It was equal parts curiosity, envy, and disdain, all rolled up into the overriding feeling that we were very different – me and these Small Town People. It’s almost like I viewed my interactions in these Small Towns like one might experience the discoveries they make during a safari….

“Look! Over there! It’s the old-fashioned drug store on the corner complete with authentic soda fountain and pharmacist who delivers bottles of pills right to your front door!”.

“Let’s join the Small Town tribes people as they partake of their local delicacies called Ken’s fish and puffs, and yellow meat watermelon.”

“On your right, you’ll see the hallowed ground where little Small Town boys with “ie” names like Ronnie and Freddie shot Japs and ate Moon Pies, and on your left you’ll see that most famous of swimming holes where fearless little native girls called Tom Boy Taylors jumped in from high in the sky with no fear of the certain death-by-water-moccasin waiting for them in the murky depths below.”

“If you look closely, you’ll see that right there is a teeny tiny hospital, and over there is a teeny tiny courthouse and now we’re approaching a teeny tiny school house…”

My point being, I had all of these unique experiences and good times in these Small Towns, but it always felt like some sort of an adventure. A vacation. It was like visiting an exhibition similar to a zoo or a living museum. It certainly wasn’t “real life” because these places were just so different. The people were different. The mindset was different. The pace was different. The offerings were different. No one could REALLY live there, could they?

It’s only as I’ve become an adult that some of these small towns – okay, really only one of them - has started to feel more and more real to me. Like it could be a genuine, viable alternative to city life. I’m certain my change of mind has come about because the Last Stop is now home, but it might also be because I’ve gotten to know, and like, a few of the natives, I’ve realized that bigger is not always better, and I really enjoy the cottage industries that have built up, namely antique stores, flea markets and restored historical sites like the Majestic Theater! Then again, it could be because I spent time in the Eastland County penitentiary and now suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome where the hostage begins to identify with their captor. But whatever has changed, I now feel less like an “observer” of Small Town life, and more like a “participant”. In reality, I doubt I’ll ever be able to act as a full-time “native”, but I’m becoming comfortable being a “seasonal resident”, if that makes any sense at all.

There are still some issues and attitudes in these Small Towns that I don’t understand, or agree with, but I’ve become a little bit less judgmental about them and a whole lot more open minded to the good.

It’s been so interesting watching the evolution and de-evolution of these Small Towns in my life. Eastland is an example of a thriving community that has built itself up over the years – it’s a real credit to their civic leaders that they have been able to adapt well to change and encourage investment in their town. It hasn’t hurt to be the county seat, a home to Wal-Mart, and near a major interstate, either. Eastland seems to be restoring, reinvigorating, and reinventing itself right and left – and, SO FAR, they have retained their Small Town charm. However, for the record, I am convinced that it is a sign of the apocalypse that a Starbucks has come to town. But, for now, I’m going to think of that as a good thing because I do like my café lattes and chi tea.

On the other hand, some Small Towns I know are truly depressing. They breed dysfunction and gloom and I can’t imagine living there. Examples of de-evolution at its finest. Get out. Run fast. Move to Eastland.

I’ve been wanting to read a new book I heard about written by John Schultz called “Boomtown USA: The 7 ½ Keys to Big Success in Small Towns”. He really examines the root differences between those little towns that are finding their uniqueness, attracting new residents and visitors and are thriving, and those that are dieing. It seems to me that as more and more baby boomers retire, they’ll do just exactly what mom and dad did and move back to the small towns of their youth, so it will be interesting to watch the changes (and growing pains?) that some of these towns will experience in the coming years.

My fondness for Small Town Eastland was really solidified last Saturday evening when Mom, Aunt Betty and I enjoyed the Fourth of July program held on the steps of the court house in the town square. It was charming and heart warming without being hokey. You could tell that some individuals really put a lot of planning, thought and labor into making that event happen – a historic fashion show where the models were dropped off in vintage cars, a really good brass quintet playing John Phillips Sousa and Glen Miller, and a patriotic musical/dramatic reading performance put on by the community choir led by an energetic, talented director. You could also buy homemade ice cream from the Red Hat ladies or lemon aid from the Methodist Youth Group. Soldiers were honored and God took center stage during the entire performance. Combined with the perfect (not hot!) weather, it made for a most enjoyable celebration.

It felt American. It felt Small Town. It felt great.


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