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.”