Friday, January 1, 2010

This Old Town

'This old town shoulda burned down in 1956, that's when the twister hit, And all our hopes were buried, Beneath the boards and bricks...' So goes a folk song on a Nanci Griffith recording, enumerating all the reasons why that little town and its inhabitants should pack it in, decamp, head for greener pastures. The verses record the tribulations of the twentieth century, from drought and dust to war to any of the other natural disasters we in the Midwest are subject to. And then the bridge: 'when my children's children ask me why I didn't go, I say the heart of any town are the people that you know.' I don't think the grammar is quite correct but the sentiment is one that we should print out on a big sign on our city limits in day-glo green in even larger letters than the superb records of our athletic and academic teams.
Several times over the course of holiday get togethers, I've heard the opposite opinion voiced. This person or that person is dissatisfied with our little town (another song about small towns, this by Paul Simon). These folks want to follow those city lights, I guess, assuming that the folks you know "somewhere else" will be notably better than the folks you know "here." One of the ways I've maintained sanity lo these many years is by acknowledging that people since the time of the Fall have been no better and no worse excepting One. As a result, I've never felt any particular longing to escape this home for some better home elsewhere. Even when we faced years of disheartening drought or over production or wind and hail or bugs or loss of customers, I never felt like heading down the road in a search for a better outcome. I remember one summer when the weeds began growing through the cracks of route O, the roadsides went unmowed and more and more farm houses seemed to be empty. But we drove back and forth with our water wagon and still shot off fireworks when there was a heavy dew on the 4th. I don't know if there was a more discouraging winter than the one when the college closed. Yet that March the kids rallied the whole town with an appearance in the final 4 at state basketball. This old town.....
Main Street isn't pretty. I have copies of old photos of Tarkio hanging in my house. I wish there were still storefronts of haberdashers and shoe repair and stationers. I believe brick is more picturesque than ribbed steel. On the other hand, we are not the first Main to move to the highway...if that were true, there would be no malls of any kind. Not every town takes the tough step to admit defeat on that front while attacking the problem with grass roots action by its citizenry to make the ugly stuff go away. I applaud the paradox of community improvement via creative destruction. Go Tarkio Renewal!
I'm not Pollyanna. I don't believe that every day everything is always getting better and better. Hope and change were blah, blah, blah to me even before the last election. I'm conservative about nearly everything as clearly evidenced by my daily existence. We strive to be creative enough to be able to stay just where we are. But any businessman knows, as does any physicist, that to stay put is to lose ground. I remember learning the word 'entropy' as a freshman in high school. Boy, did that explain life to me! If you aren't working, you are falling behind. My interpretation: in order to preserve 'life as you know it', you'd better be willing to accept some of that 'change'. Why do I think there might still be a Tarkio High for Aaron, Lizzie, Gabe and Abbie to attend? Because of wind and pigs. Because we have the raw materials to feed those industries. We are a smaller place than we were 40 years ago...shoot, 60 years ago. But we aren't gone yet.... this old town.
I found a firm selling cds of county histories before Christmas and bought Millie one that has lots of old county maps and a county history in great detail from 1912. It did my heart good to look at that history; you don't have to be raised in Tarkio to recognize the similarities of the names from the turn of the 20th century to the turn of this 21st. And I know that between 1912 and 2010, there have been cataclysmic events in our county on par with the draconian population loss we've experienced the last generation. But some of those old names have the staying power that only serious stubborness can impart. I have a real vested interest in 'this old town' for reasons that carry beyond children, grandchildren, parents and grandparents. We cannot expect glory days; but no one rooted to land and weather in this neck of the woods ever will. But we can continue to be stubborn and relish our small victories. 'When my children's children ask me', I want them to ask me for more chocolate milk, or to play trains, or any of those other commonplace requests that I can grant, here, in this 'old town'.

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