Sunday, September 27, 2009

Small Town Moments, Hometown Life

This week was a doubleheader for small town moments and hometown life.

It was Fair Week here in Delaware. Delaware is the county seat and the fairgrounds are right here in town, about four blocks away from our front door.

When I was a kid, the fair was a Big Event. For me, it probably ranked right up there with Christmas. The big draw was Horses, especially the draft horses that filled the horse barn for part of the week. Never mind the quarter horses or the sleek Arabians. I was enamored of the Percherons. Back then, you could get right up next to the horses and pet them any time at all, and I always had my favorites that I would make a beeline for and talk to while stroking their improbably soft noses.

The County Fair is still a Big Event, not as robust as it was 40 or 50 years ago, but still a force to be reckoned with. One of the country high schools still shuts down on Monday and Tuesday so the kids can show their cattle and their goats and their horses; those kids still bunk out in the fair barns during that time. Midweek, major harness races take place, and the fair attendance swells to over 50,000. Thursday and Friday, the city schools shut down - the first day to keep the kids home when traffic is so bad (because of the races), the second day because, after all, it's the fair!

Warren and I are not big fairgoers. Not having small children in the house, there is not quite the same impetus to get up there and look at the pigs. We lack the desire to roam the exhibits picking up free pencils and whatnots that kids seem to collect. And there is no one small enough to wave at on the merry-go-round or put a steadying hand on after one too many throw-up rides (my favorite name for them).

All the same, late Tuesday evening, we walked up to the fair- grounds and strolled around for an hour, taking in the sounds and sights. It had been raining earlier and with school the next day for all schools, the preteens and teens that normally clog the Midway were absent. The lights were just as bright for the few riders as for the many. We bought some waffles, looked at vegetable displays and quilts, and then walked home.

I came home from the fair with full hands, one holding Warren's hand and the other holding a bag of fair food. It was a small town, hometown kind of moment.

Warren's daughter Elizabeth is in the marching band of the small country high school she attends. Last night her band performed in a Band Festival in a small community less than 20 miles from here. I urged Warren to attend for two reasons. First, we don't often have the chance to see Elizabeth perform anything anywhere, due to problems with her mother. This being Warren's weekend with his daughter, that was not an issue. Second, I love marching bands. I used to march in high school and thought marching band was the highlight of the band year. (Contrast that with Warren, who was lukewarm at best about marching and saw it as something to be endured before concert season started.) My son Ben marched for two years in high school; I happily sat through my share of marching shows and competitions, big and small, when he did.

Last night's festival didn't disappoint me. There were only five bands, the smallest with less than 20 kids in it; the largest barely over 50. The bands were from small rural schools; one even had 7th and 8th graders in it to help fill the thin ranks. There were lots of shako hats with shiny plumes. There were flag corps and even a baton twirler or two.

There were lots of parents, including us, sitting in the bleachers at the football field; there were lots of little kids and grandparents too. The little kids liked to barrel up and down the steps, which, being metal, clanged loudly at every step. The Athletic Boosters had the concession stand going, with the local specialty item being chicken and noodles. Veterans from the local American Legion were on hand to present the colors; one shouted "hey, stranger!" at me beforehand and turned out to be an old family friend when I looked around in surprise.

Those of us in the stands clapped con- tinually. We clapped when the bands marched onto the track to take their field positions for the opening. We clapped after the combined bands played "The Star Spangled Banner" and the local scout troop raised the flag. We clapped for the silly intermission games. We clapped for soloists. We clapped for local sponsors - the pizza shop! The bank! The Mini Mart! We clapped for the twirler who threw her baton high and then did a cartwheel before catching it again. We clapped when our school's fight song was played. We clapped when every band received its trophy, and then we clapped them all off the field.

Afterwards, Warren and I beat the buses back to Buckeye Valley. Sitting there in the car, dozing a bit while we waited, I remembered all the times I waited for the buses to come in after Ben's performances so long ago. When the buses came in, we got out and went to the band room, all abuzz while the kids put away instruments and hung up uniforms. There were jokes and shouts and dramatic exclamations as only teenagers can muster and everything was a wonderful hubbub of noise and movement.

It was a wonderful small town, hometown kind of night.

Sinclair Lewis is remembered for his biting works about life in small, Midwest towns. In Main Street and Babbitt, he savaged the intellectual, artistic, and emotional restrictions that he felt small towns forced upon its residents. He won a Nobel Prize for literature - the first American so honored - on the strength of those earliest novels.

Ten years after Main Street, Lewis wrote a novel that softened the condemnation he had so liberally heaped upon small town America a decade earlier. Dodsworth today is rarely read except by Lewis scholars, yet is considered the equal or better of his earlier works. In it, the gentle Sam Dodsworth, a retired automobile manufacturer, leaves his comfortable life in small town Ohio and goes traipsing across Europe with his singularly selfish, shallow wife who is on the hunt for the "culture" and the "good life" that she feels entitled to and knows America cannot begin to offer her. Sam's musings about the America he loves and has left behind - including its small towns - are in truth a love letter Lewis wrote with a swift and sure hand.

I left my hometown when I graduated from high school and stayed away, more or less, until I was in my mid-30s. I had lots of reasons for doing so, including a shared belief with the author of Main Street that small towns were dead ends of hypocrisy and bigotry and shallowness. When I returned to this one, my hometown, it was willingly and gratefully. It was where I wanted to be, where I wanted to raise my sons. Like the author of Dodsworth, I had come full circle in my view of this small town, my hometown.

Tomorrow marks 19 years since I came back here. In those 19 years, I have watched my boys grow up, navigating the same streets and institutions I did decades earlier, and I have watched them leave as I knew they would one day. I have gone to fairs and footballs games, concerts and council meetings, funerals and weddings. I have watched parades and fireworks. I became more of who I was and less of who others thought I should be. I even got to marry the guy who decided a long time ago to stay right here in this small town hometown of ours.

My days are full of small town, hometown kinds of moments. Those moments shape my life. It's a wonderful one.

1 comment:

Sharon said...

Oh how I wish I lived in a small town...perhaps even where I grew up. Seems I'm "stuck" here, thanks to the economy. My husband has a good job that pays well, but it's just not "home" to me. Glad you are able to enjoy your hometown...sounds WONDERFUL to me!