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smalltown, USA

1951. I was in my fourteenth summer in smalltown, U.S.A. Somewhere in the future an H-Bomb would explode in The Pacific, George Jorgensen would morph to Christine, and Elizabeth would be crowned England’s queen. The wars Korean, Viet Nam, and Desert storm were yet to be fought. The Twin Towers, Mad Cow disease, and the beheading of a man named Berg were as yet unthought. Reagan was still among the living. If you didn’t look too closely, things were good back then in my small town, population 1,001. The elms grew stately, lilacs and babies flourished, and the Andrew Carnegie Library was a stone’s throw from our house, down the cinder-strewn alley, near the town square. Kids walked then. To a fine pool for swimming, to the Rialto Theater for Saturday matinees with a stop later for lime phosphates at Honeyman’s Drug Store. No gunshots ripped the night, for guns were reserved for target practice at the rifle range, primarily to make the males sharp shooters during squirrel hunting season. Violence was kept at bay, except, of course, in the pages of Life magazine, where WWII was brought to our door via black and white photos. If you wanted to hate people with slanty eyes, there was plenty to see during the Bugs Bunny propaganda cartoons at the Rialto. In 1912, a terrible slaughter shook our valley when eight sleeping were slain with an axe. The dastardly deed gained national fame, and though no one was arrested, several suspects (dark skin, eyes narrow and gray) were hauled in. And why not? Dark skin was a curiosity in a town populated by Germans, Swedes, Irish, and a scattering of Scots. We were God’s chosen, glad to open the back door a crack for bums wanting to work for food. Our churches (four) had unlocked doors, and south a bit, the Burlington RR station provided a section specifically for blacks. “But,” smirked a tight-lipped lady at our 2004 class reunion, “no blacks were allowed in our town after dark.” If you lived on the other side of the tracks, regardless of the hue of your skin, you were considered outside the pale of proper folks who resided to the north. The train station is long gone, reduced to a few bricks of red, stacked in a neat pile. Free for the taking, if you want a memento. In 1951, no one understood the “gentrification” concept. The mayor’s house was fancy enough, and Lord knows if you flaunted wealth, you’d be asked to contribute more at Sunday church services. Newer lights and paved roads simply meant things were moving along just fine thank you. Nor did we care to embrace “diversity.” What we sought was sameness: houses (some with Victorian trim) all in a row on streets lined up just so. Everything led to the town square, the heart of our town. Drugs? Not a problem. Except, the drug of drink taken at the pool hall. If you knew the right doctor, a shot of morphine could be had to smooth out the pot holes and get folks through the bad times. Suicides? Those were hushed, and air-brushed with “died unexpectedly” reports in the weekly newspaper. For instance, the ticket taker- a woman!- found hanging at the Rialto. Wrists slit for no apparent reason. A fatal shot to the head by someone in a distant barn. Despair? What reason for that? As for the poor, well, they got their comeuppance for having too many brats, too much hooch, and no self-respect. The baskets of food distributed by our churches were a form of cotton batting designed to protect the blessed (us) from the unsavory — them. And woe be to those whose kids had head-lice. It ranked among the Original Sins. In 2004, a website touts my town as 98.7% White (darn near Ivory Soap’s percentage of purity), and 0.7% American Indian. Germans, Irish, English, Swedes, and Scots have held the fort. An odd statistic of 0.9% identifies the “Foreign” born. The population of 1,344 boasts 614 males and 730 not. No mention of gays or lesbians. Those with a bachelor’s degree or higher is significantly below the state average. Fourteen miles down the highway is the Mental Health Institute. In my day, it was laughingly known as “The Crazy House.” A mentally disabled sister of a childhood friend ended up there following a gang-bang (boys will be boys!) by local swells. She paid the price. They never did. The current yearly operating budget for the Andrew Carnegie library is $42,219. The elms are gone. Honeyman’s is boarded. The old bank is a sometimes restaurant, busy only during class reunions. A chicken processing factory, purported to perhaps save the town’s dead economy, never did arrive. And about the aforementioned infamous Axe Murder? I see on the site that two filmmakers from Los Angeles are touring around the Midwest with a documentary of the grisly deed. Fatly funded by the Iowa Historical Society, the indie flick debuted in Des Moines. A few years back, my brother and I visited our town. He wore his favorite tee-shirt, emblazoned with “Reagan is a Vegetable.” It was a political statement, set down long before the late President’s Alzheimer’s took hold; nevertheless, eyebrows were raised when the two of us strolled by for a nostalgic look at smalltown. The house where I lived recently sold for $35,000, right around the average price for what’s left there. The new owners (“white trash,” a former schoolmate says) ripped out the backyard garden, tore out the picket fence to make room for their pickup trucks, and installed Astroturf on the front porch. To my eyes, the final insult was a giant flag pole plugged into the front yard. President Bush was quick to intone that the best is yet to come for the deceased. A fitting prophecy for a white guy born in the Midwest don’t you think? Ms. Moriarty’s Fairytale exhibit is at Voss Books through August.