“Living in a small town...is like living in a large family of rather uncongenial relations. Sometimes it’s fun, and sometimes it’s perfectly awful, but it’s always good for you. People in large towns are like only-children.” ― Joyce Dennys
“Goddamn, it’s annoying to commit crimes in a small town”― Andy Weir
A DAY IN A SMALL SOUTH DAKOTA TOWN
Our urbanized and 24/7 connected world seems to long for a lost lifestyle, which in reality exists only in a sit-com fantasy of the mind. This longing is not new.
It’s kind of like a few decades ago when a group of fellow college students happily informed me two weeks before graduation that they were going to start a commune “and live off the land.” In an earnest “come with us” pitch, the ringleaders went on and on about the merits of living in harmony with nature and raising food as it was meant to be done. “No pesticides,” said one and “no machinery” said another.
My “are you insane?” response caused an immediate withdrawal of the invitation for commune membership. I found this to be quite distressing as a couple of the soon-to-be-farmer ladies were, as I recall, pretty hot.
A few years later I ran into one of the would-be farmers. After complimenting his tie, I asked what had happened to the commune. A sad tale of broken dreams emerged. The commune had fallen apart after only two summers. “We never had any money,” he related. He was candid in that their overlooking the detail of having to make money to buy the basics, which included food and adequate shelter, was an error in planning. The lack of using anything artificial, like pesticides or other technology, to protect crops and livestock was another grievous mistake. “All of our crops failed, and our goats died.” He looked off into the distance. “I really liked our goats.”
Worst of all, he then said, was the back-breaking, never ending work. “I left and went to work at a bank right after I spent two summers picking potato bugs off our plants.”
My initial and immediate “are you insane?” response to the commune invitation was generated by years of summer experience working with my Grandfather on his subsistence farm in South Dakota. The farm supported him, my Grandmother and six kids for some years, but Sweet Jesus, it was a lot of never-ending work. All the farmers I ever knew or met immediately embraced anything from machinery to pesticides that could ease their workload and enormous year-to-year risk.
Close by my Grandparents farm was a small town. This type of town is also now the focus of a lot of fantasy longing regarding rural communities. Small towns, especially small farm towns, now have a kind of social glow nostalgia, particularly with folks who have never resided in one and never will. But having lived in and around a small rural town for many years, I will say there was something…something there devoid and missing now for we urban dwellers. Things like knowability of your surroundings and cultural expectations, and neighbors having your back. Unfortunately, there were also things like a total lack of privacy and a deep void of up to date services and opportunity.
Now, the farmers that have survived there have done so through college degrees, ongoing stints of research and deep concern for the ecology of their land. They send their kids to college, engage on line, entertain foreign visitors and often relax with a wintertime cruise, something unheard of in my youth. Wind and solar power are beginning to rule. HBO and CNN pipe into every home, so the isolation and lack of exposure to “things not of the town” are gone, even in the smallest of communities.
The little South Dakota town I came to know so well and so long ago only had a single cop. Fred was his name. One day in a bar my cousins stole his gun.
Even in its heyday, that little town never had more than 500 folks calling it home, nor does it yet. Until hundreds of surrounding family farms went bust or were bought out by mega Agri-Corporations, its store and bars were busy. Then the lake sturgeon were fished out, the Corn Canning Factory shut down, and the small farms vanished. The little town’s main street became quiet and mostly shuttered, but the hard-core 500 stayed put and live there still. They patched their houses, did odd jobs to get by, and watched each other’s kids. They also drove me completely crazy. “Mind your own business” is not a phrase heard or practiced even yet, much less when I spent time there as a kid working my Grandfather’s farm just outside of town.
The “Muni” is still a functioning bar there. It’s a place where you can slam down a few, weave a half-dozen steps into what used to be an attached shed, and buy a six-pack or pint to go. Until the vets got together and built a huge VFW (Veterans Of Foreign Wars) Club in a field at the edge of town, the Muni was the place to go on Friday and Saturday nights. It was small, no dance floor, but packed with booths and tables. So it didn’t take much to fill it up with smoke, patrons, and shouting.
It was on one of those packed Friday nights that Fred the cop walked into the Muni. He wasn’t there to extract a drunk or stop a fight. He dropped in, rather, to see his friends which pretty much included everyone in the bar. Two of my cousins, brothers, were there that night and pushed people out of the way to make room in the booth for Fred, an old school chum.
One of those cousins, when sober, vigorously denies stealing Fred’s gun. After a few drinks, he always shakes his head when describing the event. “The holster’s snap was rusted shut, I think. If my brother hadn’t kept punching Fred in the shoulder and buying him beer, I’m sure he would have felt me pulling at it”
The rusty snap on the leather holster strap which held the gun in place clearly indicated a total lack of gun use in the line of duty. Or regular target practice for that matter.
“Hey.” Even a few on-the-job beers couldn’t erase the lack of holster weight. “Where’s my gun?”
“Gun?” said my cousin. “You mean this gun?” He held it up to the cheers of onlookers. Fred made a grab at it. At this point, my cousin passed it to his brother, who then passed it to another member of the crowd. The gun, being lunged at by Fred the whole time, made a circuit of the entire bar, held high overhead by one patron after the other. It’s strange no one was drunkenly wounded, but finally the ear-splitting hilarity was ended by the bartender who, receiving the pistol, handed it back to Fred.
Fred never lived it down, of course. Getting free beer for the rest of the evening and thereafter, plus his subsequent local fame due to this event, did not lessen his embarrassment. It was made worse a few weeks thereafter when, to an audience of some of the bar’s patrons of that night, Fred pulled his gun at the perceived threat of a rabid skunk. It was only then he discovered that his gun was empty, its bullets having been removed as it was passed from one Muni customer to another.
On Fred’s beat was the Cat Lady. The Cat Lady lived in an increasingly ramshackle house in a remote field outside of town. Someone came by to occasionally mow the grass, but otherwise she was left pretty much alone. Well not alone, exactly. She had countless cats, mostly feral. She left food outside for them to supplement their mouse and critter diet until the weather turned cold. Then, she would open her door to the frosty air, which allowed her cat family to eat inside. Almost immediately her cat friends were joined by a host of possums, racoons and other wild four-leggers who increasingly viewed her home as an upscale restaurant and cat food a gourmet treat.
The Cat Lady was one of a cast of characters that could only exist in small, rural communities like those fast disappearing in South Dakota. Neighbors and the town cop would look in on them from time to time and offer alternatives or help. But if someone chose to live alone with a menagerie, so be it. Small town acceptance of eccentric characters is a source of civic pride and yet another vanishing trait as the towns themselves disappear.
Besides, in her heyday the Cat Lady was “strong as an ox,” or so said one of my Uncles. When it came time to bring in hay for the winter, someone always hired the Cat Lady to lend a hand. At harvest then, hay was mashed into heavy, twine-string bound rectangles, referred to as “bales.” These bales would spew out one end of a tractor pulled, “baling machine” which, in addition to frequently breaking down, would leave heavy, bundled hay strewn throughout a field. These “hay bales” would have to be picked up one by one by hand and loaded onto transport for a move to storage.
It was hot, backbreaking work, but the Cat Lady did it cheerfully, usually outworking everyone else. I’m told that she was always sought after by one harvest crew or another. The only hitch was, her work attire consisted of bib overalls with no shirt or anything else on underneath. When she would bend over to pick up a hay bale, work would briefly stutter to a halt.
One day she retreated to her dilapidated farm house and her cats, emerging so seldom people started dropping by to make sure she wasn’t ill, or worse. She began asking people to bring her food and dry cat food. Her roof clearly had been trashed by the weather. The Cat Lady’s electricity was shut off, then her water then her gas. But she would not leave her cats.
One day she was just…gone. Rumors flew…she had been picked up by relatives, she died alone in a field….it was a source of anguish for locals, including one of the small town’s ministers. He chided himself long afterwards for breaching his responsibility to God by not looking in on the Cat Lady every single day.
As far as I know, no-one ever really knew for sure what happened to her. As the years passed and her house crumbled into a pile of debris, speculation ceased although the Cat Lady’s work attire remained a source of local legend. You drive by her property, to this very day cats will hopefully pop out of the weeds in the old front yard ditch.
Also on Fred-the-cop’s beat was a man by the name of Hezzie Styles. How he acquired that name, no one knows, but Hezzie had lived in an old chicken coop on the edge of a corn field for as long as anyone could remember. The owner of the field never demanded he leave. In fact, the field’s owner made sure Hezzie had running water from a tap on the farm’s irrigation pipes. The farmer also spliced power into Hezzie’s shack, almost certainly illegally, from the farmer’s utility system. The farmer, a dour, tight-fisted third generation descendent of a migrant polish family, would never respond to questions about his largesse except to say “wouldn’t you want someone to do that for you?”
When Hezzie collapsed on one of his rare visits to town, it fell to my RN Aunt to nurse him in the hospital. She never talked about it much except to say “the dirt on him was like scales on a fish. We had to use a stiff brush to wash him the first time.” In the hospital, Hezzie just kept fussing about his house, so much so that Fred the cop went out to take a look. He went inside, probably in violation of cause, and found stacks of old newspapers all about World War I. The furniture consisted of a sagging bed and a battered old table with a single chair. On the table were dozens of creased letters addressed to the European theater. They were falling apart as was the single photo of a lady who, in all probability, had written them. Fred boxed up the letters and the photograph and secured them in the jail. Hezzie only relaxed and let himself be treated when he was told his letters and picture were safe.
His farmer benefactor found Hezzie’s body in the converted chicken coop some months later. He made sure Hezzie received a proper burial. The farmer later expressed some astonishment at how many people showed up for the interment in the old Catholic cemetery at the edge of town, the same one in which my Grandfather lies. The farmer, I’m told, tried unsuccessfully for a number of years to find the author of Hezzie’s letters. In the end he bulldozed the old chicken coop and the inscribed stone he put there can still be seen, if you know where to look.
Notwithstanding nostalgic rumors to the contrary, actual people live in small towns and are subject to the full range of human foibles and bad behavior.
A very distant relative of mine drunkenly and sloppily licked my head one night at the VFW Club. I can let most things pass, but the red rage that burst at this action brought me up and out of my chair. A farm-hardened best-boyhood-friend cousin forced me back into a sitting position. He was so damn strong I think he could have forced a horse to sit. Not being a horse, I found myself back in a chair while my moist antagonist wandered back to his duties as bartender and club manager.
The town’s VFW Club, built by the area’s many military veterans, went up after the Vietnam War. Located on a sliver of donated cornfield on the very edge of town, it was built like a huge, tin, military building. The Club served not only as the bar where like minded people gathered, but as a wedding dance and fish fry location or a fund raiser site for folks hurt or sick. One such was the cousin who had wisely decided I was better off sitting than standing that night. Not long after that event, he fell while repairing a barn and shattered both legs. The community has always been comparatively poor, although no one there thinks so. My cousin had no health insurance, which was pretty much the case with everyone else. But hundreds knew him personally and more than that through his years of volunteer work as an EMT. The VFW club was packed the night of my cousin’s fundraiser. The thousands of dollars raised from a slice of every drink purchased and direct donations into a beat-up old bucket, paid the bills and stemmed off a family disaster.
The man who for reasons known only to sour mash decided my head was a lollipop, had saved the VFW Club I was later told. The Club’s volunteer Board of Directors, which included two of my cousins, noticed one day that there was no liquor or beer to sell to patrons. They also noticed there was no money either to buy more. Quickly realizing there should be money or liquor, one or the other but not a lack of both, they tried to do an accounting. The business was pretty much all cash, but it’s hard to do an accounting when the register drawer is left open when sales are made. This meant no receipt trail or balancing of sales against expense. But they really didn’t need it…the paid-for limousine service the then manager was running to squire folks for free to the new Indian casinos was a major clue as to where the Club’s cash was flowing.
They fired their errant manager and decided to keep the now broke club open, mainly because a potential new manager was in the wings; my head-licking nemesis. He drank a lot behind the bar every night, but he kept meticulous records and paid for every drink. He was uncompromisingly aggressive about keeping all other records as well. Within an amazingly short period of time the Club was in the black again with a cash reserve. It remains a valued local fixture.
The image of the wise, old country doctor is another chimera separated from reality, the product of longings for a “simpler time.” When it comes to medicine, you don’t want simple. You don’t want isolated medical practitioners removed from the latest developments being responsible for your life.
The little town’s only resident doctor killed the new manager of the VFW Club by way of a botched colonoscopy. He almost did the same to me as a result of treating me for a slipped filleting knife.
The “always cut away from yourself” advice my Uncles had repeatedly dispensed as I learned to clean fish was but a distant memory as I fileted some just-caught bluegills. When the knife slipped and stabbed into my hand I was unconcerned, totally dismissing the fact that prior to cutting me, the knife had been slicing fish innards.
I had read about fast-moving infections, but had never experienced the reality. I swear, by the second day I could actually see angry redness spreading throughout my hand, swelling it moment by moment. Pain throbbed increasingly with each heartbeat.
The sole town doctor hung his shingle at a small, local clinic. His house was next door. He’d been the town doctor for years and he seemed quite unconcerned. “We’ll do an IV with some antibiotic; that’ll do the trick.”
We had informed the doctor that I was allergic to penicillin. My wife Gloria, lucky for me, has not only the ferocious heart of a lioness, but a Ph.D. in molecular biology.
“What’s the name of the antibiotic?” she asked. When the doctor responded, she replied “That’s a derivative of Penicillin. If you put that into his system, it could kill him.”
“Nonsense,” responded the Doctor. “There’s only a 10% chance there’ll be a reaction.” He moved to insert the needle. Gloria stepped in front of him. “You. Will. NOT.”
Another totally different antibiotic controlled the infection until I reached a hospital by our west coast home. There they did surgery to cleanse the wound and remove troublesome bits. After a few weeks of hand rehab I had added one more scar to my collection, but otherwise everything was totally back to normal.
I still shake my head over other characters and events in that little town. Like Pete The Peeper who vampire-like stalked in the night for the sole purpose of looking in his neighbors’ windows. The community response was simply to warn each other to pull their shades in the evening and in the daytime to cut back any tree branches where Pete could nocturnally roost and gaze into bedroom windows.
The lady who was old even when I was young still bakes frosted sweet rolls at the one café left downtown. It’s sporadically open in the afternoons, but mornings any time after 5:00 AM you can drop in and there she’ll be, baking or chopping up things for fresh soup. The old tin ceiling is falling down, the round counter seats are ripped and the floor is worn through in places, but no one seems to mind. It was in her place that arguing politics, another farmer threw a glass of water into my Grandfather’s face. Although he was roaring like a bull, my Uncle, his son, sitting next to him would not let him out of the booth. Finally, my Grandfather used his foot to push my Uncle onto the floor. By that time, Grandfather had cooled off enough to only throw a pitcher of milk into his opponent’s face. Along with the pitcher.
As I went through school, I was wild to get away from that little town and everything it represented to me. And get away I did. I just couldn’t live there or anyplace like it, and I know that well. My wife and I reside in Colorado now after years in L.A. We’re near to Denver and the medical services so increasingly important to us as we age. We’re close in to the theaters and the type of life we love and need so much. We’ve knocked around Paris, Los Angeles, New York; we just couldn’t live in a small mid-west town. Intellectually I know that well, and on visits to where I grew up and came to hate, I get restless after a few days and want to leave. I know that. I know that.
That’s why I am quite perplexed at why I miss the idea of it all so very much, every single day.
Copyright 2019, Wayne D. McFarland. All rights reserved.