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More on Ellensburg, Washington

Memories of Main Street

When the flag is hoisted up the flagpole, we idealize these little towns. - Image by David Diaz
When the flag is hoisted up the flagpole, we idealize these little towns.

Early summer, a coastal town in Washington state where houses in good repair on corner lots were selling for $11,000 and jobs in the cranberry bogs paid four an hour. Over breakfast in a steamy cafe, we listened to a sheriff’s deputy kid the waitress, fresh out of high school, about some boyfriend she’d had who’d gotten a new girl.

Insulted when we praised his county as "real peaceful and quiet,” the deputy tucked his chin in tight to his khaki chest. “We got crime,” he said. After he stood down off his stool, he studied us hard, then stuck out a hand to shake ours. “Wherever you’re headed," he said, “good luck.”

The four-block-long Main Street lay in sun-struck somnolence. We walked on swept clean sidewalks next to buildings one and two stories high, red bricks mostly, with windows taped where glass had cracked. Female mannequins sat in demure postures. They wore print dresses whose styling made me think that up in the hills above us there must be a factory still sewing the clothes our mothers used to wear.

Inside Roger’s Appliances, a hammer hit metal, each hammer strike rang, distinct in the air. A woman stepping out of the bank’s revolving door said, “Hi, Ed!” to the man stepping in, and Ed tipped his cap. Outside Ace Hardware, an aproned clerk smoked a cigarette and gazed up at the hills and beyond to one of those bright blue skies about which The Today Show's Willard Scott waxes poetic.

All the stools at the tavern’s long bar were filled. On television, an East Coast baseball game was in progress. Out of the tavern's open door, the beery smell dropped heavy in clean air; the blues and greens (sky and ballpark) off the TV screen flowed out through the dim room like a moonlit river.

We drove down streets named after U.S. presidents where pre-World War li bungalows and postwar Ramblers sat behind cedars and tall, spikey Doug firs. Children stopped on their bikes and stared at us. Dogs barked.

Along alleys, growing over rusted car hulks, camper-tops, a busted wooden rowboat, were brambles studded with ripe blackberries. An old man was plucking off the berries and dropping them into the John Deere cap, whose brim he held loosely in his hand. I wanted to call this little town home, to say to someone, “I lived here before, remember my folks?”

Back in the city, where I’ve not lived all that long, I felt sick with regret at having left the town from which I’d come.

Walking past ragged babblers camped in doorways, I longed for a guy like Ed who’d tip his hat. Wanting to dwell vicariously in little towns’ picture prettiness, I gathered up books — new books — that reflected upon small towns.

For someone who wished to indulge nostalgia, and I did, my first choice couldn't have been better: Charles Champlin’s Back There Where the Past Was (Syracuse University Press, $18.95). Los Angeles Times arts critic Champlin lived for the first 16 years of his life (1926-1942) in Hammondsport, New York, a town famous for its champagne and famous too as home to hydroplane developer Glenn Hammond Curtiss.

Hammondsport still calls itself the “Cradle of Aviation,” and a local museum sells T-shirts that ask, “Wilbur and Orville Who?” Although Champlin has not been resident in Hammondsport for 50 years, he goes back as often as he can.

He confesses (and which of us, come to the big city, hasn’t felt this?): “I think of myself as being on a kind of temporary assignment from Hammondsport to the larger world.” To this day he keeps money in his boyhood savings account: “I've kept the account alive all these years, adding a token sum every January as a hostage to my own fates.”

Remembering his home town as it was, Champlin fulfills our fondest fantasies as to pre-World War II small-town life. He gives us the Pulteney Park band shell (in which the town band in summer gave concerts every Saturday night), the noon siren (the siren also blew on patriotic holidays and on every Armistice Day at 11 in the morning), the movie theater, barber shop, the Park Pharmacy,

the place in town that sold magazines, from comic books to the New Yorker and all those extinguished voices like Delineator, Liberty, and Colliers ... the Park had six wide shelvesful of pulp magazines. G8 and His Battle Aces, Secret Operator 5, Dime Detective, Dime Western, Doc Savage, The Shadow: it is curiously thrilling just to write down the names these decades later.

In Hammondsport the past does not fade to an abstract “long ago” but continues through generations of residents to be carried forward into the present. Noting that he and his mother had the same teachers for first, second, third, and fifth grades, Champlin writes:

The past was not somewhere else. It had persisted into the present so that there was a kind of commingling of yesterday and today on these elm-lined and maple-shaded streets. You could hardly escape a strong awareness of generations succeeding each other and building on the patient labors of the past.

English oral historian Tony Parker’s Bird, Kansas (Alfred A. Knopf, $19.95) had its origins in Parker’s refusal to believe that television’s Dynasty and Dallas accurately portrayed American life. Parker arrived in Kansas — “the great flat land, the big blue sky” — looking for the ordinary town where ordinary citizens live out their lives. He settled in Bird (a pseudonym), population 2000. Although Bird was surrounded by farmland dotted with barns and grazing cattle, it otherwise looked much like the town I visited in Washington. Along Main Street there was on one corner a red brick church of the 1920s and on the other corner a 1960s First National Bank. There was a filling station, hardware store, library, Agricultural Credit Union, Ace Video Rentals (in the Washington town I visited, I saw two video rental stores) and Dorothy’s Cafe, Harris’s Flower & Gift, Gover’s Supermarket, Loretta’s Ladieswear. Bird's newspaper editor said: “You sure couldn’t get much midder than us.”

For six months, Parker tucked fresh batteries in his tape recorder and visited Bird residents. He learned that old-timers had never gotten over the Dust Bowl: “It was like the whole of the state of Kansas was blowing right away,” said the postmaster, adding, “I can tell you, life was tough as a boot.”

Second-, third-, and fourth-generation farmers and professionals, many who fled cities to live in Bird and work in a larger town 40 miles away, told stories that illustrated the small town’s happy aspects — neighborly helpfulness, limited crime, a tendency among townspeople to treat one another as extended family. The majority from this group spoke to Parker in ways that suggested they led lives of deep contentment. Wilbur Oliver, a farmer in his 70s, summed up that contentment: “We’ve always done good and got by.” His wife added: “We’ve been hungry and there’s been days we didn’t know where our next meal was coming from.

But it's like Wilbur says, we’ve always got by.”

What Bird’s postmaster liked about Bird, Parker would hear echoed by most long-time residents: “Everybody knows me and I know them.” What residents didn't like they tended to keep to themselves. “I don't want to criticize,” said one woman. Another allowed as how she didn’t “want to be negative.”

An elderly man told Parker, "On the television you see some mighty fine places: you say to yourself you'd like to visit them if you had the money you could afford it. But I think if you think too much like that, after a while you only make yourself unhappy. So I remind myself of all the blessings I've had in my life."

New arrivals were more critical. A couple in their 30s — Greg and Fanny, the husband a petroleum engineer who drives the 40 miles each way to work, had moved to Bird two years earlier. Although they’ve been happy in Bird and “like the feel of the town,” Fanny admitted:

"... because the place is small the outlook of the people who live here, it makes that small too. This is their world and they're not too concerned with what goes on outside it. I guess the answer to that's why should they be, it doesn’t make a difference to them how people in other places look at things, so why should they bother?”

We think of America’s Birds as home to those rocked in their cradles there, yet a surprising number are recent arrivals. For poorer newcomers, Bird is only one stop in an as yet unsuccessful search for the good, or at least tolerable, life. Carrie Jones, 40-something, waits tables at Mickey’s Diner. She lives with her 12-year-old daughter in a “rent house" off which white paint flakes.

Married twice, divorced twice, she moved to Bird after her second husband left her (Parker does not note whence she came or why she chose Bird). She works a nine-hour day, her pay just enough for food, rent, utilities, and clothes. Jones’ statement to Parker was typical of poorer migrants.

"If I was 20 and could start over, maybe I could try and shape my life differently. But I don’t see how I can start now, not the way I am. I'm not ever going to have a proper hold on my life. I’m just going to be the one who stands there and waits till she’s told what to do.”

In Bird, women’s lives have changed less than in cities. An upper-middle-class housewife, trying to put her finger on the source of her vague dissatisfaction: “My husband, well, he’s got something outside of himself, he’s got his job.” The same woman observed that she’d bumped into friends at the grocery store and thought, “Oh my God, we’re just like those Stepford Wives. Only not as good looking.” She explained to Parker that The Stepford Wives was a film in which men living in a small town turned their “womenfolk into obedient little dolls... without minds of their own.”

A teenager said she didn’t want to get married. “Least not till after I’ve done lots of other things. I don’t want to be one of those women who by the time she’s 20, she's got a husband and two kids and what she’s looking at out the window is the end of her life.”

For all that, Bird boasts a female judge, female county attorney, a recent graduate of Yale Divinity School who is the Congregational church’s second woman pastor, and a woman who followed in her father’s footsteps to become a veterinarian.

In group discussions with six high school seniors, all six decried the lack of jobs in Bird and admitted they’d not likely stay after graduation. Said one: “I think it’s a kind of a place you like coming back to when you're not here: but if you think you’re going to be here for good, it’s more a place you want to get away from.”

Daughters and sons return to Bird to see parents and grandparents. One woman reared in Bird, who makes her home in Los Angeles, visits every summer. She told Parker that she sometimes thought people in her old home town “had their ideas and everything preserved in a museum: maybe they have in a lot of ways, but that’s not to say it’s all bad. Some of it’s very good, museums preserve old things because they’re valuable to us.”

Bird, Kansas opens to readers a museum in which small-town talk is preserved. When we imagine people sitting on a porch swing, sipping lemonade and idly rocking, idly talking, Parker’s tape-recorded gleanings are the best of what we’d hope to overhear: talk that surprises even its speakers with the depth, sonorous beauty, and wisdom of what they've said.

In Granta's spring 1989 issue, I’d read an excerpt from Bill Bryson’s Lost Continent, Travels in Small-Town America (Harper & Row, $19.95). This excerpt contained Bryson’s notes on the “sensationally overweight” Iowa women, "clammy and meaty in their shorts and halter tops, looking a little like elephants dressed in children’s clothes.” So before I got silly and started packing for the return to the town I left, I walked to my local cafe with Bryson’s book.

Thirty-six-year-old Bryson, born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa, has lived for a decade in England, where he is a journalist. As a youngster, Bryson grew enamored of the old movies shown on Des Moines’ WHO-TV — The Best Years of Our Lives, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It Happened One Night.

Writes Bryson,

The one constant in these pictures was the background. It was always the same place, a trim and sunny little city with a tree-lined Main Street full of friendly merchants ... and a courthouse square ... There was always a paperboy on a bike slinging papers onto front porches, and a genial old fart in a white apron sweeping the sidewalk in front of his drugstore. .. Even in the midst of the most dreadful crises, when monster ants were at large in the streets or buildings were collapsing from some careless scientific experiment out at State U., you could still generally spot the paperboy slinging newspapers somewhere in the background.

An expatriate suffering a season of rain heavy even for England, Bryson conjured sunny American towns. He realized, however, that he’d never actually seen the towns that so attracted him to old movies. Surely, thought Bryson, this town must exist. “In this timeless place Bing Crosby would be the priest, Jimmy Stewart the mayor, Fred MacMurray the high school principal... and somewhere at an open window Deanna Durbin would sing.’’

Back in the U.S., Bryson borrowed his mother’s Chevrolet Chevette and set out upon a 38-state quest to find one town that is “an amalgam” of all the towns he'd encountered in movies. What Bryson finds in Carbondale, Illinois, he finds again and again: “The town had no center. It had been eaten by shopping malls.”

Traveling further, Bryson finds himself in Bryson City, North Carolina (no relation). Bryson City’s nightlife being nonexistent, Bryson repairs to the A&P to comfort himself with “foodstuffs from my youth.... It was almost like visiting old friends — Skippy Peanut Butter, Pop-Tarts, Welch’s Grape Juice, Sara Lee Cakes. I wandered the aisles, murmuring tiny cries of joy at each sighting of an old familiar nutrient.”

At the cafe, I sipped iced latte and laughed out loud. For after Bryson pats grape juice and cheesecake, he turns-to panty shields. “I would never have guessed ... that there were so many panties in Bryson City that needed shielding.” At the very moment Bryson picks up a packet of New Freedom Thins, with the trademarked Funnel-Dot Protection, he notices that from the aisle’s far end, the manager and two assistants are watching him. He imagines that it would be just his luck “to pull a five-to-ten stretch for some unintended perversion."

The woman at the table next me said, “Must be funny, your book.”

“But funny and sad, poignant," I said, and read to her Bryson’s account of a drive to Minneapolis.

... one long, shimmering stretch where I could see a couple of miles down the highway and there was a brown dot beside the road. As I got closer I saw it was a man sitting on a box by his front yard, in some six-house town with a name like Spigot or Urinal watching my approach with inordinate interest. He watched me zip past and in the rearview mirror I could see him still watching me going on down the road until at last I disappeared into a heat haze. The whole thing must have taken about five minutes. I wouldn’t be surprised if even now he thinks of me from time to time.

“Funny and sad,” the woman agreed, and went on to tell me that she grew up in a small town. After church on Sundays, her father would “treat” her mother by taking the family to lunch at a Holiday Inn on the edge of town. In the parking lot there would be cars with license plates from New York and California and in the dining room, people from those cars. “Sometimes I would see kids my age, girls with makeup and clothes like girls I’d see on American Bandstand. I’d stare at and study them and when we got home they’d still be on my mind.” She laughed. “That was 20 years ago, and I can still remember what some of those girls were wearing, and how they lined their eyes like Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra and wore their hair teased out.” She closed the book she’d been reading, said, "If you want a heartbreaker about just what we’re talking about, buy a copy of this.”

“This" was Martha Bergland’s first novel, Farm Under a Lake (Graywolf Press, $16.00). The narrator — Janet — grew up on an Illinois farm, left home for college, came back home after graduation, and married Jack, a home-town farm boy who more than anything wanted to be a farmer, to till his family's soil. There was no money in farming and no jobs in the small town that serviced the farm community; Jack and Janet left Illinois and moved to Wisconsin. When the story opens, Jack and Janet are in their 40s. Jack, who has never long held any job, is once more out of work; Janet is nurse/companion to an elderly woman. She is to drive the woman to Illinois, where the woman's daughter Ina lives in a small town not far from where she, Janet, grew up.

Janet arrives, gets her elderly charge settled in with Ina, her daughter, then takes a walk. "I saw right away that Ina did not live, as I at first thought she did, in a settled and secure old neighborhood that would always be this way. At the end of her block was a convenience store, a gas station, and on the next block a feed mill whose smell of rotting soybeans was overpowering, she said, when the wind was right 'or wrong.'

Many of these big old houses were at one time rooming houses and now were divided into apartments, but still some were pretty and there were lots of families with children. We had to step around a Big Wheel on almost every block, and little children, who had worn the grass off the yards just like chickens do, came off the porch to stare or smile at us. I liked it here and found myself wondering which of these places Jack and I could live in when we lost the condominium.”

Janet explains to Ina that her husband Jack, who for the past 20 years has tried without success to make a life for himself in cities, is “a man out of context, away from the place where his people are, a man separated all his adult life from doing the work he wanted to do, living the life he wanted to live.”

“ ‘It’s terribly sad,’ said Ina, leaning forward, ‘and these days — all these damaged men — it’s awfully common.' ”

Janet drives toward her old home. On the road in the dark at midnight,

"I felt them around me. All those damaged men. Men driving alone. Men sitting in bars constructing atmospheres with beer and talk. Men awake alone in kitchens. Men watching movies on TV. Men damaged by war and work and no work and work in the wrong place for the wrong people. Men working for the wrong reasons, to take care of the wrong women. Men — and women, too — out of place, out of time, out of luck, alone."

Farm Under a Lake meditates upon men and women in transition between life on the farm and life in the city. I closed the novel, chilled by the doom to which its characters seemed destined. Even then, the book on a top shelf, Janet stayed on, an unwanted guest in my mind. I watched her — “out of luck” — unpack boxes in one of the apartments in that old rooming house, watched her cross the sidewalk, stumble over a Big Wheel.

Bobbie Ann Mason’s short story collection Love Life (Harper & Row, $17.95) did nothing to cheer me, nothing to banish Janet. The present-day Kentucky towns about which Mason writes are towns on whose surrounding cornfields and wilderness, the strip malls and suburbs platted for houses and double-wide trailers have metastasized.

Mason, 46, grew up on a western Kentucky dairy farm whose 54 acres began ten years ago to be surrounded by a subdivision, an industrial park, a major highway, and the feed mill of a chickenprocessing plant. In a Village Voice interview, Mason said she writes not about the world into which she was born and raised but about what is happening to that world now. Her characters, she said, are

... still plain knocked out by the American dream. They’re still ■ excited by things happening that more sophisticated and jaded people or more urban people might find distressing. Like if a new factory comes to town most of them would welcome it and not be upset at the destruction of the landscape.

These characters, she continued, are

... moving from the country to town, and from their agricultural heritage to a kind of new middle class.... So they’re a little more prosperous and things are looking pretty good, and so they're wondering why the kids are leaving home and why their marriages aren't working.

In Love Life's title story, Randy stands in a parking lot in a small Kentucky town talking to Jenny. She’s been living in the big city — Denver — and has recently moved back home. “We’re not as countrified down here now as people think,” says Randy.

Randy, who has “a boyish, endearing smile, like Dennis Quaid,” owns a real estate agency and drives a Cadillac. He's dividing up a 60-acre farm into “farmettes.” He’s had a road bulldozed into 400 acres of woods that he plans to break up into acre lots. Jenny sees on his office wall an award for the fastest-growing agency of the year.

I don’t think I’m reading too much between the lines to suggest that in her story “Hunktown,” Bobbie Ann Mason shows how she feels her characters are affected by the

move from an “agricultural heritage to a kind of new middle class.” In “Hunktown,” Cody, in his 40s, wants to take what seems his last chance at becoming a country singer. To do this will mean he and his wife Joann will have to leave their home, which was Joann’s family’s, and move to Nashville.

Soon after Cody announces his decision, Joann is buying sweet potatoes from a farmer.

The man measured the sweet potatoes in a half-bushel basket, then transferred them to grocery sacks. When he packed the sweet potatoes in the basket, he placed them so that their curves fit into one another, filling up the spaces.... The man was saying, “When you get home with these lay them in a basket and don't stir them. The sweet will settle in them, but if you disturb them, it will go away."

Several pages later, Cody is back from Nashville, where he paid $500 to a studio to cut an album. “In bed, they lay curled together, like sweet potatoes. Joann listened to Cody describe how they had made the album, laying down separate tracks and mixing the sound.” These two sweet potatoes — Joann and Cody — are about to be stirred. The sweet won’t settle in them, it will go away.

Reading about small towns began in my desire, through the vicarious pleasure that books offer, to extend a happy weekend. Now I recognize, too, that this visit to the Washington town had caused me to ask myself if I “did right” by moving from town to city. I did. When the flag is hoisted up the flagpole and we dwell nostalgically on America as place, small towns are, of course, what we imagine. In our mind’s eye and in our hearts, we idealize these little towns. In fact, the “sweet” of which Mason writes began in the 1920s to be "stirred.” By World War ll’s end, you could kiss that sweet goodbye.

The timeless American places for which, in his exile in England, Bill Bryson longed, where Bing Crosby was the priest and where “at an open window Deanna Durbin would sing,” will nestle now only in a green valley hollowed out in the hopeful imagination. I’m afraid the Bird, Kansas, teenager had it right, when she said about Bird, “ ... it’s a kind of a place you like coming back to when you’re not here: but if you think you’re going to be here for good, it’s more a place you want to get away from.” □

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When the flag is hoisted up the flagpole, we idealize these little towns. - Image by David Diaz
When the flag is hoisted up the flagpole, we idealize these little towns.

Early summer, a coastal town in Washington state where houses in good repair on corner lots were selling for $11,000 and jobs in the cranberry bogs paid four an hour. Over breakfast in a steamy cafe, we listened to a sheriff’s deputy kid the waitress, fresh out of high school, about some boyfriend she’d had who’d gotten a new girl.

Insulted when we praised his county as "real peaceful and quiet,” the deputy tucked his chin in tight to his khaki chest. “We got crime,” he said. After he stood down off his stool, he studied us hard, then stuck out a hand to shake ours. “Wherever you’re headed," he said, “good luck.”

The four-block-long Main Street lay in sun-struck somnolence. We walked on swept clean sidewalks next to buildings one and two stories high, red bricks mostly, with windows taped where glass had cracked. Female mannequins sat in demure postures. They wore print dresses whose styling made me think that up in the hills above us there must be a factory still sewing the clothes our mothers used to wear.

Inside Roger’s Appliances, a hammer hit metal, each hammer strike rang, distinct in the air. A woman stepping out of the bank’s revolving door said, “Hi, Ed!” to the man stepping in, and Ed tipped his cap. Outside Ace Hardware, an aproned clerk smoked a cigarette and gazed up at the hills and beyond to one of those bright blue skies about which The Today Show's Willard Scott waxes poetic.

All the stools at the tavern’s long bar were filled. On television, an East Coast baseball game was in progress. Out of the tavern's open door, the beery smell dropped heavy in clean air; the blues and greens (sky and ballpark) off the TV screen flowed out through the dim room like a moonlit river.

We drove down streets named after U.S. presidents where pre-World War li bungalows and postwar Ramblers sat behind cedars and tall, spikey Doug firs. Children stopped on their bikes and stared at us. Dogs barked.

Along alleys, growing over rusted car hulks, camper-tops, a busted wooden rowboat, were brambles studded with ripe blackberries. An old man was plucking off the berries and dropping them into the John Deere cap, whose brim he held loosely in his hand. I wanted to call this little town home, to say to someone, “I lived here before, remember my folks?”

Back in the city, where I’ve not lived all that long, I felt sick with regret at having left the town from which I’d come.

Walking past ragged babblers camped in doorways, I longed for a guy like Ed who’d tip his hat. Wanting to dwell vicariously in little towns’ picture prettiness, I gathered up books — new books — that reflected upon small towns.

For someone who wished to indulge nostalgia, and I did, my first choice couldn't have been better: Charles Champlin’s Back There Where the Past Was (Syracuse University Press, $18.95). Los Angeles Times arts critic Champlin lived for the first 16 years of his life (1926-1942) in Hammondsport, New York, a town famous for its champagne and famous too as home to hydroplane developer Glenn Hammond Curtiss.

Hammondsport still calls itself the “Cradle of Aviation,” and a local museum sells T-shirts that ask, “Wilbur and Orville Who?” Although Champlin has not been resident in Hammondsport for 50 years, he goes back as often as he can.

He confesses (and which of us, come to the big city, hasn’t felt this?): “I think of myself as being on a kind of temporary assignment from Hammondsport to the larger world.” To this day he keeps money in his boyhood savings account: “I've kept the account alive all these years, adding a token sum every January as a hostage to my own fates.”

Remembering his home town as it was, Champlin fulfills our fondest fantasies as to pre-World War II small-town life. He gives us the Pulteney Park band shell (in which the town band in summer gave concerts every Saturday night), the noon siren (the siren also blew on patriotic holidays and on every Armistice Day at 11 in the morning), the movie theater, barber shop, the Park Pharmacy,

the place in town that sold magazines, from comic books to the New Yorker and all those extinguished voices like Delineator, Liberty, and Colliers ... the Park had six wide shelvesful of pulp magazines. G8 and His Battle Aces, Secret Operator 5, Dime Detective, Dime Western, Doc Savage, The Shadow: it is curiously thrilling just to write down the names these decades later.

In Hammondsport the past does not fade to an abstract “long ago” but continues through generations of residents to be carried forward into the present. Noting that he and his mother had the same teachers for first, second, third, and fifth grades, Champlin writes:

The past was not somewhere else. It had persisted into the present so that there was a kind of commingling of yesterday and today on these elm-lined and maple-shaded streets. You could hardly escape a strong awareness of generations succeeding each other and building on the patient labors of the past.

English oral historian Tony Parker’s Bird, Kansas (Alfred A. Knopf, $19.95) had its origins in Parker’s refusal to believe that television’s Dynasty and Dallas accurately portrayed American life. Parker arrived in Kansas — “the great flat land, the big blue sky” — looking for the ordinary town where ordinary citizens live out their lives. He settled in Bird (a pseudonym), population 2000. Although Bird was surrounded by farmland dotted with barns and grazing cattle, it otherwise looked much like the town I visited in Washington. Along Main Street there was on one corner a red brick church of the 1920s and on the other corner a 1960s First National Bank. There was a filling station, hardware store, library, Agricultural Credit Union, Ace Video Rentals (in the Washington town I visited, I saw two video rental stores) and Dorothy’s Cafe, Harris’s Flower & Gift, Gover’s Supermarket, Loretta’s Ladieswear. Bird's newspaper editor said: “You sure couldn’t get much midder than us.”

For six months, Parker tucked fresh batteries in his tape recorder and visited Bird residents. He learned that old-timers had never gotten over the Dust Bowl: “It was like the whole of the state of Kansas was blowing right away,” said the postmaster, adding, “I can tell you, life was tough as a boot.”

Second-, third-, and fourth-generation farmers and professionals, many who fled cities to live in Bird and work in a larger town 40 miles away, told stories that illustrated the small town’s happy aspects — neighborly helpfulness, limited crime, a tendency among townspeople to treat one another as extended family. The majority from this group spoke to Parker in ways that suggested they led lives of deep contentment. Wilbur Oliver, a farmer in his 70s, summed up that contentment: “We’ve always done good and got by.” His wife added: “We’ve been hungry and there’s been days we didn’t know where our next meal was coming from.

But it's like Wilbur says, we’ve always got by.”

What Bird’s postmaster liked about Bird, Parker would hear echoed by most long-time residents: “Everybody knows me and I know them.” What residents didn't like they tended to keep to themselves. “I don't want to criticize,” said one woman. Another allowed as how she didn’t “want to be negative.”

An elderly man told Parker, "On the television you see some mighty fine places: you say to yourself you'd like to visit them if you had the money you could afford it. But I think if you think too much like that, after a while you only make yourself unhappy. So I remind myself of all the blessings I've had in my life."

New arrivals were more critical. A couple in their 30s — Greg and Fanny, the husband a petroleum engineer who drives the 40 miles each way to work, had moved to Bird two years earlier. Although they’ve been happy in Bird and “like the feel of the town,” Fanny admitted:

"... because the place is small the outlook of the people who live here, it makes that small too. This is their world and they're not too concerned with what goes on outside it. I guess the answer to that's why should they be, it doesn’t make a difference to them how people in other places look at things, so why should they bother?”

We think of America’s Birds as home to those rocked in their cradles there, yet a surprising number are recent arrivals. For poorer newcomers, Bird is only one stop in an as yet unsuccessful search for the good, or at least tolerable, life. Carrie Jones, 40-something, waits tables at Mickey’s Diner. She lives with her 12-year-old daughter in a “rent house" off which white paint flakes.

Married twice, divorced twice, she moved to Bird after her second husband left her (Parker does not note whence she came or why she chose Bird). She works a nine-hour day, her pay just enough for food, rent, utilities, and clothes. Jones’ statement to Parker was typical of poorer migrants.

"If I was 20 and could start over, maybe I could try and shape my life differently. But I don’t see how I can start now, not the way I am. I'm not ever going to have a proper hold on my life. I’m just going to be the one who stands there and waits till she’s told what to do.”

In Bird, women’s lives have changed less than in cities. An upper-middle-class housewife, trying to put her finger on the source of her vague dissatisfaction: “My husband, well, he’s got something outside of himself, he’s got his job.” The same woman observed that she’d bumped into friends at the grocery store and thought, “Oh my God, we’re just like those Stepford Wives. Only not as good looking.” She explained to Parker that The Stepford Wives was a film in which men living in a small town turned their “womenfolk into obedient little dolls... without minds of their own.”

A teenager said she didn’t want to get married. “Least not till after I’ve done lots of other things. I don’t want to be one of those women who by the time she’s 20, she's got a husband and two kids and what she’s looking at out the window is the end of her life.”

For all that, Bird boasts a female judge, female county attorney, a recent graduate of Yale Divinity School who is the Congregational church’s second woman pastor, and a woman who followed in her father’s footsteps to become a veterinarian.

In group discussions with six high school seniors, all six decried the lack of jobs in Bird and admitted they’d not likely stay after graduation. Said one: “I think it’s a kind of a place you like coming back to when you're not here: but if you think you’re going to be here for good, it’s more a place you want to get away from.”

Daughters and sons return to Bird to see parents and grandparents. One woman reared in Bird, who makes her home in Los Angeles, visits every summer. She told Parker that she sometimes thought people in her old home town “had their ideas and everything preserved in a museum: maybe they have in a lot of ways, but that’s not to say it’s all bad. Some of it’s very good, museums preserve old things because they’re valuable to us.”

Bird, Kansas opens to readers a museum in which small-town talk is preserved. When we imagine people sitting on a porch swing, sipping lemonade and idly rocking, idly talking, Parker’s tape-recorded gleanings are the best of what we’d hope to overhear: talk that surprises even its speakers with the depth, sonorous beauty, and wisdom of what they've said.

In Granta's spring 1989 issue, I’d read an excerpt from Bill Bryson’s Lost Continent, Travels in Small-Town America (Harper & Row, $19.95). This excerpt contained Bryson’s notes on the “sensationally overweight” Iowa women, "clammy and meaty in their shorts and halter tops, looking a little like elephants dressed in children’s clothes.” So before I got silly and started packing for the return to the town I left, I walked to my local cafe with Bryson’s book.

Thirty-six-year-old Bryson, born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa, has lived for a decade in England, where he is a journalist. As a youngster, Bryson grew enamored of the old movies shown on Des Moines’ WHO-TV — The Best Years of Our Lives, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It Happened One Night.

Writes Bryson,

The one constant in these pictures was the background. It was always the same place, a trim and sunny little city with a tree-lined Main Street full of friendly merchants ... and a courthouse square ... There was always a paperboy on a bike slinging papers onto front porches, and a genial old fart in a white apron sweeping the sidewalk in front of his drugstore. .. Even in the midst of the most dreadful crises, when monster ants were at large in the streets or buildings were collapsing from some careless scientific experiment out at State U., you could still generally spot the paperboy slinging newspapers somewhere in the background.

An expatriate suffering a season of rain heavy even for England, Bryson conjured sunny American towns. He realized, however, that he’d never actually seen the towns that so attracted him to old movies. Surely, thought Bryson, this town must exist. “In this timeless place Bing Crosby would be the priest, Jimmy Stewart the mayor, Fred MacMurray the high school principal... and somewhere at an open window Deanna Durbin would sing.’’

Back in the U.S., Bryson borrowed his mother’s Chevrolet Chevette and set out upon a 38-state quest to find one town that is “an amalgam” of all the towns he'd encountered in movies. What Bryson finds in Carbondale, Illinois, he finds again and again: “The town had no center. It had been eaten by shopping malls.”

Traveling further, Bryson finds himself in Bryson City, North Carolina (no relation). Bryson City’s nightlife being nonexistent, Bryson repairs to the A&P to comfort himself with “foodstuffs from my youth.... It was almost like visiting old friends — Skippy Peanut Butter, Pop-Tarts, Welch’s Grape Juice, Sara Lee Cakes. I wandered the aisles, murmuring tiny cries of joy at each sighting of an old familiar nutrient.”

At the cafe, I sipped iced latte and laughed out loud. For after Bryson pats grape juice and cheesecake, he turns-to panty shields. “I would never have guessed ... that there were so many panties in Bryson City that needed shielding.” At the very moment Bryson picks up a packet of New Freedom Thins, with the trademarked Funnel-Dot Protection, he notices that from the aisle’s far end, the manager and two assistants are watching him. He imagines that it would be just his luck “to pull a five-to-ten stretch for some unintended perversion."

The woman at the table next me said, “Must be funny, your book.”

“But funny and sad, poignant," I said, and read to her Bryson’s account of a drive to Minneapolis.

... one long, shimmering stretch where I could see a couple of miles down the highway and there was a brown dot beside the road. As I got closer I saw it was a man sitting on a box by his front yard, in some six-house town with a name like Spigot or Urinal watching my approach with inordinate interest. He watched me zip past and in the rearview mirror I could see him still watching me going on down the road until at last I disappeared into a heat haze. The whole thing must have taken about five minutes. I wouldn’t be surprised if even now he thinks of me from time to time.

“Funny and sad,” the woman agreed, and went on to tell me that she grew up in a small town. After church on Sundays, her father would “treat” her mother by taking the family to lunch at a Holiday Inn on the edge of town. In the parking lot there would be cars with license plates from New York and California and in the dining room, people from those cars. “Sometimes I would see kids my age, girls with makeup and clothes like girls I’d see on American Bandstand. I’d stare at and study them and when we got home they’d still be on my mind.” She laughed. “That was 20 years ago, and I can still remember what some of those girls were wearing, and how they lined their eyes like Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra and wore their hair teased out.” She closed the book she’d been reading, said, "If you want a heartbreaker about just what we’re talking about, buy a copy of this.”

“This" was Martha Bergland’s first novel, Farm Under a Lake (Graywolf Press, $16.00). The narrator — Janet — grew up on an Illinois farm, left home for college, came back home after graduation, and married Jack, a home-town farm boy who more than anything wanted to be a farmer, to till his family's soil. There was no money in farming and no jobs in the small town that serviced the farm community; Jack and Janet left Illinois and moved to Wisconsin. When the story opens, Jack and Janet are in their 40s. Jack, who has never long held any job, is once more out of work; Janet is nurse/companion to an elderly woman. She is to drive the woman to Illinois, where the woman's daughter Ina lives in a small town not far from where she, Janet, grew up.

Janet arrives, gets her elderly charge settled in with Ina, her daughter, then takes a walk. "I saw right away that Ina did not live, as I at first thought she did, in a settled and secure old neighborhood that would always be this way. At the end of her block was a convenience store, a gas station, and on the next block a feed mill whose smell of rotting soybeans was overpowering, she said, when the wind was right 'or wrong.'

Many of these big old houses were at one time rooming houses and now were divided into apartments, but still some were pretty and there were lots of families with children. We had to step around a Big Wheel on almost every block, and little children, who had worn the grass off the yards just like chickens do, came off the porch to stare or smile at us. I liked it here and found myself wondering which of these places Jack and I could live in when we lost the condominium.”

Janet explains to Ina that her husband Jack, who for the past 20 years has tried without success to make a life for himself in cities, is “a man out of context, away from the place where his people are, a man separated all his adult life from doing the work he wanted to do, living the life he wanted to live.”

“ ‘It’s terribly sad,’ said Ina, leaning forward, ‘and these days — all these damaged men — it’s awfully common.' ”

Janet drives toward her old home. On the road in the dark at midnight,

"I felt them around me. All those damaged men. Men driving alone. Men sitting in bars constructing atmospheres with beer and talk. Men awake alone in kitchens. Men watching movies on TV. Men damaged by war and work and no work and work in the wrong place for the wrong people. Men working for the wrong reasons, to take care of the wrong women. Men — and women, too — out of place, out of time, out of luck, alone."

Farm Under a Lake meditates upon men and women in transition between life on the farm and life in the city. I closed the novel, chilled by the doom to which its characters seemed destined. Even then, the book on a top shelf, Janet stayed on, an unwanted guest in my mind. I watched her — “out of luck” — unpack boxes in one of the apartments in that old rooming house, watched her cross the sidewalk, stumble over a Big Wheel.

Bobbie Ann Mason’s short story collection Love Life (Harper & Row, $17.95) did nothing to cheer me, nothing to banish Janet. The present-day Kentucky towns about which Mason writes are towns on whose surrounding cornfields and wilderness, the strip malls and suburbs platted for houses and double-wide trailers have metastasized.

Mason, 46, grew up on a western Kentucky dairy farm whose 54 acres began ten years ago to be surrounded by a subdivision, an industrial park, a major highway, and the feed mill of a chickenprocessing plant. In a Village Voice interview, Mason said she writes not about the world into which she was born and raised but about what is happening to that world now. Her characters, she said, are

... still plain knocked out by the American dream. They’re still ■ excited by things happening that more sophisticated and jaded people or more urban people might find distressing. Like if a new factory comes to town most of them would welcome it and not be upset at the destruction of the landscape.

These characters, she continued, are

... moving from the country to town, and from their agricultural heritage to a kind of new middle class.... So they’re a little more prosperous and things are looking pretty good, and so they're wondering why the kids are leaving home and why their marriages aren't working.

In Love Life's title story, Randy stands in a parking lot in a small Kentucky town talking to Jenny. She’s been living in the big city — Denver — and has recently moved back home. “We’re not as countrified down here now as people think,” says Randy.

Randy, who has “a boyish, endearing smile, like Dennis Quaid,” owns a real estate agency and drives a Cadillac. He's dividing up a 60-acre farm into “farmettes.” He’s had a road bulldozed into 400 acres of woods that he plans to break up into acre lots. Jenny sees on his office wall an award for the fastest-growing agency of the year.

I don’t think I’m reading too much between the lines to suggest that in her story “Hunktown,” Bobbie Ann Mason shows how she feels her characters are affected by the

move from an “agricultural heritage to a kind of new middle class.” In “Hunktown,” Cody, in his 40s, wants to take what seems his last chance at becoming a country singer. To do this will mean he and his wife Joann will have to leave their home, which was Joann’s family’s, and move to Nashville.

Soon after Cody announces his decision, Joann is buying sweet potatoes from a farmer.

The man measured the sweet potatoes in a half-bushel basket, then transferred them to grocery sacks. When he packed the sweet potatoes in the basket, he placed them so that their curves fit into one another, filling up the spaces.... The man was saying, “When you get home with these lay them in a basket and don't stir them. The sweet will settle in them, but if you disturb them, it will go away."

Several pages later, Cody is back from Nashville, where he paid $500 to a studio to cut an album. “In bed, they lay curled together, like sweet potatoes. Joann listened to Cody describe how they had made the album, laying down separate tracks and mixing the sound.” These two sweet potatoes — Joann and Cody — are about to be stirred. The sweet won’t settle in them, it will go away.

Reading about small towns began in my desire, through the vicarious pleasure that books offer, to extend a happy weekend. Now I recognize, too, that this visit to the Washington town had caused me to ask myself if I “did right” by moving from town to city. I did. When the flag is hoisted up the flagpole and we dwell nostalgically on America as place, small towns are, of course, what we imagine. In our mind’s eye and in our hearts, we idealize these little towns. In fact, the “sweet” of which Mason writes began in the 1920s to be "stirred.” By World War ll’s end, you could kiss that sweet goodbye.

The timeless American places for which, in his exile in England, Bill Bryson longed, where Bing Crosby was the priest and where “at an open window Deanna Durbin would sing,” will nestle now only in a green valley hollowed out in the hopeful imagination. I’m afraid the Bird, Kansas, teenager had it right, when she said about Bird, “ ... it’s a kind of a place you like coming back to when you’re not here: but if you think you’re going to be here for good, it’s more a place you want to get away from.” □

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