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Revised 26 December, 2009
I grew up in the midwest in a small village which was tucked away in a forgotten corner of Iowa. There were 500 people in this metropolis, assuming everyone was home when the census taker went through. It was a typical country berg that fit the apt description that...."a small town is a place where everybody knows what everybody else is doing, but where they read the paper to find out who got caught." Yep, that was my home town to a tea.
Our town had two grocery stores, two churches, two egg hatcheries, two little cemeteries and five saloons. . .that should give you a idea of where their priorities lay. The entire downtown area was only two blocks long and each year at Christmas, they held a huge decorating contest of the downtown area and the local chamber of commerce would decide who got the prize. It was great fun and simple pleasures, uncomplicated and unspoiled by the complications of life.
My memory of that time are vague, at best. I do recall that the favorite "haunted" house in town was an old abandoned furniture store, slash, egg hatcherie. The building had been abandoned for many years. The owners had, over the years, stored the remains of whatever business tried to operate in that store in the basement. It had been a dress-makers shop, a mortuary, and many other failed projects in its lifetime.
The local girls would initiate the newcomers and younger generation into town life by daring them to go into the basement of this store by themselves in the dark. I doubt any of us lasted more than a few minutes because that basement was full of old, unused coffins and dress maker's dummies that made it look like the dead had come to life. I think my favorite story in this regard involves a young lady who stepped on a cat's tail during her soujourn into the cellar. It is questionable who came out more scared and at a faster fly---the girl or the cat....at which point our parents banned us from going in there again on the premise the place was dangerous, but not before the entire town heard about it and had a good laugh at the girl's expense.
In our little town, there were two churches......the Danish Lutheran church and the Baptist church. Since the Lutheran church services were only held in Danish and I did not speak the language, I grew up in the Baptist Church. We loved our little church as it was probably about the only social outlet available in our town----TV having not yet been invented. Our particular church had an old foot pedal pump organ in the Sunday School and the teacher had to rush to class on Sundays, otherwise she would catch several silly little children taking turns sitting on the pedals to pump the air and playing rocket ship sounds with the keys by placing our arms, elbows and whatever else was available in body parts to make the most horrific noise we could muster. Charming children we were indeed.
As small as this town was, there were many favorite places to explore for a small child. I loved to go into the shoemaker's shop and explore the wonderful smells of newly tanned leather and cat's paw glue. (an early form of glue sniffing?) and loved to watch the man at his trade. Being a future cowboy at heart, I particularly lusted after a wonderful set of handmade, fully tooled, cap gun holsters that appeared in his window one day. For days, I would be found with my nose pressed against the glass, checking out this holster set in its fullest details, much to the delight of the shoemaker. I cannot tell you how stunned I was to wake up one morning and find that holster set waiting for me to wake up....bearing each of the fancy studs I had so admired and holding a beautiful set of matched Hopalong Cassidy cap guns in its pockets. It was a set that a cowboy could die for and I was the envy of all the little boys in town for months to come. You have no idea of the crash of reality that hit when I finally was told that I was a girl and that girls do not grow up to become cowboys.
As you walked up the street, you soon came to the plumber's store. It was full of pipes and gaskets and gadgets of mystery. I wish I remembered half of what the owner told me as to their uses and designs. All of the shop owners knew me, of course, as I regularly made my rounds and asked enough questions about what they did and how they went about their business to choke a horse. They never hesitated, though, to answer my questions and seemed pleased that I was interested enough to ask. The only store I rather avoided was the egg hatchery. Not because it was not interesting, but because they "candled" the eggs there to make sure there were no surprises for the buyer of baby chicks in the eggs when they cracked them open for the morning breakfast. Unfortunately, they also had the task of pulling the rotten eggs out of the batches, which eggs were frequently thrown out into the waste barrels and allow to sit and mellow for hours before being carted away. The smell was not something one would forget any time soon, nor was it an odor one willingly pursued.
I guess, with the exception of the town library, where I read every book I could get my hands on, my other most favorite place to haunt was the local barber shop. Our town barber loved children and children loved him. He was generous to a fault where children were concerned and frequently bought tickets to the circus for the entire town's children, or, when learning of a sick child who's parents could not afford treatment, was known to pay for their medical needs in secret. It was through his generosity that little Bobby, the child who suffered from polio at a very young age, was sent for the surgery that was needed to help his legs continue to grow so that he would not grow up malformed. Our barber also owned a recording device that allowed us to sing into a microphone and create our very own records. My sister, my step-brother and I wanted to surprise my father with a gift for his birthday, so we recorded "cruising down the river" as a questionable trio. My father was duly delighted, but in retrospect and in hearing it in later years, it really was awful. My sister and I had that record for many years and it ultimately ended up in her collection from whence it has since disappeared into the mists of time, which is probably just as well.
As you can see, it is easy to open the floodgates of memory and almost impossible to close them once opened. Those who grew up in the cities no doubt have memories of their own that they treasure. Having had the best of two worlds, living in both the city and in a small town in the course of my childhood, I have to admit, that boring as it seemed at the time, the quality of life for a small child growing up in a small town is exactly what the doctor ordered. It gave me time to see the closer details of daily living and time to reflect on my realities. I would not live in a small town now, but in retrospect, it is the greatest place in the world for an unsuspecting and impressionable little girl to experience the wonders of young life and given a choice now, I doubt I would have had it any other way.