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“Memories may be beautiful and yet…”: The Small Towns of American Digest Readers

[NB:Last April the item Small Towns: 2 Comments from the Chateau – American Digest unleashed a flood of memories by readers here about the Small Towns they lived in or wished they lived in. This is a selection from those comments.]

Dan Patterson April 15, 2019, 4:47 AM
Summertime, a long time ago.
I flew countless missions in my Dauntless/Hellcat/Corsair/Wildcat/Tomahawk sitting on the broomstick cockpit seat straddling a stretchy rope tied to a maple tree branch. When I pulled hard on the controls (rope) she would nose up sharply. Give ‘er the gun and she’d climb like a homesick angel ’til the air got too thin, then stall and fall off RIGHT ON THE TAIL! of the pursuing devil Zeke/109/190/Stuka. The maneuver, repeated ’til mom called us in for supper, took about 5 seconds on the clock but hours in kid dogfighting time.

3-to-a-team baseball with two gloves between us and a waterlogged lopsided ball. Calls of “invisible man on second” and “tie goes to the runner” and always “four fouls and you’re out”.

Summertime sweat and drinking water from the hose, unless somebody’s mom made KoolAid. A fist-fight once in a while, playing with each other again in 20 minutes.

Those kids, and that time of a long while ago, are gone forever. It is always that way and always will be, but I am beckoned once in a while by their ghosts staring through a screen door shaded by the porch – momma’s cooking supper so I can’t come out right now; see you later – I can see them clearly but they don’t see me. They were at that door this morning, but I am no longer that kid and their friend and playmate; that time was replaced in small stages by the present with all it’s own good and ugliness, and that kid by an old jaded cynic with scars and a hard heart. I know him; he shaves in my mirror every morning.

It’s gotten too blurry to write, for some reason. But in a distant place it’s a soft twilight and the robins and orioles are chirping happily, somebody just cut the grass and it smells like watermelons, fourth grade won’t be for a long time yet and I’m pleasantly tired from a good day in mid-June.

Rick| We spent a lot of time when I was little living with and then visiting my grandparents in a tiny, pop 400, NC mountain town and far from the VA line. 73 years later and my heart is still there, the town certainly but mainly the time. My grandfather was a dentist and tobacco farmer as was his father before him and yet my grandparents lived in what today we would call poor circumstances. My grandmother was head of the Selective Service and drafted most of the boys in town during WWII, including my Dad and Uncle.

Never but one car, one bathroom, no AC or washing machine, a fickle floor furnace for heat, old furniture, and a radio.
They never took a vacation except to go fishing down on Lake Murray once or twice a year. My grandmother went to the store almost every day because the refrigerator was too small to hold much and the freezer only had room for 2 ice trays. She spent a large part of every day fixing meals, all from scratch. What clothes didn’t get sent out she scrubbed in the tub with a washboard and Octagon soap.

Life was hard and they lived a block from the courthouse! Can you imagine what it was like for the tenant farmers on my grandfather’s farm? One family of 13 lived in a 2 room house up the hollow with 13 kids and got their water from a spring. The “big” house looked nice but was an oven in the summer and an icebox in the winter. Water came from the well across the back yard. There was no electricity until about 1965. There was a small Ford tractor but most of the tobacco cropping was done with the mules and sleds. The toothless, barefooted old men in worn-out bib overalls would sit by the barn drinking whiskey and feeding long logs into the fires day and night until the tobacco was cured.

  The pictures could have come from my home in the Texas Panhandle; some of the stories too. Dad ran the Five & Dime on Main Street; his dad, my Grandad, parked the old truck in front on parade days, and we sat on the tailgate and ate popcorn and cotton candy from the brand-new machine that the older cousins “got to” operate. It was gone before I reached the magic age.

Small-town nostalgia is mostly an artifact of us Baby Boomers, born in the post-War decade or two, when our folks were at least one-jump better off than their folks, and moving into the new prosperous times.
My Grandad missed being out on the ranch after they moved into town, but there’s no question his later years were easier than his father’s. My Grandpa was a very-small-town depot master with a “cow farm” of a few acres, but they lived very comfortably there with electricity and well-pumped water in the house.
My grandparents still had relatives “out in the country” that lived much the way Rick described, and I don’t think many of us are hankering after those good ol’ days — just the better ones we knew, that were halfway between the grinding poverty of the early decades, and the overdone materialism of the later ones.

I remember my dad picking up the phone (no dial or certainly no keypad) and saying, “Hello, Mildred, I need to talk to old man Jones, please?” and his call getting through in a couple of seconds. He also kept his rifles on an open rack he nailed to the wall in an unused bedroom, never worrying about us kids playing with them. Of course we did so, but didn’t dare mess with the ammo.

We also picked cotton and gathered soft drink bottles for extra spending money, walked all over that small south Texas town with no worries about being grabbed by some pervert.
Ranchers and farmers came to town and parked their pickup trucks by the curbs with their rifles and shotguns displayed in the back window rack. They took care of their business, whether dining or shopping, never worried about someone stealing those firearms.

DAN |  PARADISE was a beautiful small town, growing up there in the late 40s-thru the 50s. from a kids eyes it was truly heaven. don’t remember any poverty, mostly middle class working folks, mostly working in Chico, guess we were the original bedroom suburb.Nostalgia hell yes we had the best of the times, never to be seen again.

Terribletroy|   They still exist. I thank God everyday I found one and raised my children here. My son just graduated HS. I’m in small central Illinois town 10miles north of a urban shithole. Pop 900, demo 98% homgenous, working class incomes from the farms, related industries and the factories in the shithole.

My son enjoyed all the freedom(s) you have described in as close to a Mayberry RFD environment that you can imagine. Traditional America is still alive and producing good citizens. Shitbirds don’t last long here cause no one will put up with their garbage. I am originally from NYC and the Northern VA suburbs of DC. My family still lives out there and I can’t fathom why anyone would willing live like that anymore.

I’d have more materially if I had kept the corporate job, but the cost was too high on my soul. I truly believe living in too large a hive breeds insanity. There are probably 15 to 20 similar towns in the immediate region. The biggest negative is that we are in Illinois. The real state of Illinois and Chiraq are totally different places and I dream of a day where Illinois and Chicago have separate legislative bodies, but as it is, openly corrupt Chicago controls the state. I suspect that the future will bring the possibility of a forceful divorce, but who knows? In the meantime we are here and still producing quality young men and women with traditional values.

I didn’t grow up in a small town but I did grow up in a medium-small conservative city that I couldn’t wait to get out of. Now as I enter my golden years I wish I could go back but it’s true, you can never go home again. The simple city I grew up in is now just a smaller version of the large urban shit hole I already live in. It’s an enclave of progressive politics that favors all forms of diversity other than thought.
Like many cities under the guidance of decades of urban planners besotted with the notion of “smart growth” – that encourages the growth of dense urban cores – it’s grown larger and decidedly less conservative. It seems “dense urban cores” are just that.


 Small southern town, more country than town. On Sunday no stores were open except Sam’s Gulf station and the drugstore near the hospital. After church there was little car traffic. People sat on their porch…and all they did was sit there, talking and waving at the neighbors. I knew the names, children’s names, where they went to church and where they worked of 90% of those who lived on my block. From 10 on I had a .22 and ammo in my room and a pocket knife that had more blades than a kitchen drawer. Other than a few 8 tracks stolen there was very little crime. The radio station played the top ten of every chart: rock, country, soul, big band or crooners. You would hear the Rolling Stones, then dean Martin, then Ferlin Husky followed by Lawrence Welk…. And we listened.

Moneyrunner|   Dutch immigrant here. Grew up in a small town in Western Michigan, population 10,000. The place had a few factories making mufflers, pianos, bathtubs and refrigerators cabinets, machine shops. And there was the Coast Guard station that rescued boaters in distress and broke the ice during winter.

Turn-of-the-century Washington Street was five blocks long, sold everything you needed and ended at the river that emptied into Lake Michigan. The Carnegie Library was my home-away-from-home where I could read Flying Magazine (I wanted to fly) and Boy’s Life (I wanted to camp) for free and take out as many books as I could carry.

My best friend lived across the street and when his family got a B&W TV we went there every afternoon to watch the Mickey Mouse Club. Annette Funicello was every boy’s heartthrob and the Adventures of Spin and Marty was the serial for our cohort of the Baby Boom generation.

The beach had a drive, called The Oval, and people congregated in the summer to play and swim in unsalted, shark-free water. Tourists from Chicago came during the summer.
The few “rich” people never drove anything fancier than Pontiacs or Buicks. The poor – like us – bought new cars that were 15 years old and not too badly rusted from the salt that went on the roads in winter.
I spent my weekends and summers roaming the woods and dunes with my trusty .22. We walked to school.

Casey Klahn| 
On point, I think a change has happened that is…searching for a word. Millennial. We have kids that never go outside, and cannot write a thing down on a piece of paper. They thumb it into an electronic thingy.
It’s going to be a bumpy ride, now, for some time. I always knew the constant thing in life was change, but we just turned over the whole life. Welcome to the Information Age.

Snakepit Kansas| April 14, 2019, 6:32 AM
What a bunch of fun reads about growing up in various small towns. Small town Kansas for me. The all brick roads of the downtown area are wearing well to this day. The movie theater with neon lights built in the 30’s is still up and running although by some local group that has kept it alive. My Dad took me to see JAWS there when I was about 12. My Dad drove me to Wichita to see KISS in 1979 and I only bring that up because an unheard of guy names John Cougar was the opening act, and nearly got booed off the stage.

I grew up in a small city, one that was oft referred to, back in the 60s, as a big city on the idiot box’s most popular small-town sitcom. Today that city is not so small, with about seven times the population as in the year of my birth.

Can’t say I personally experienced much in the way of poverty, as the economy there has roared for many a year, and the place always has shown well on those “best places to live/work, etc. lists”, and on average educational attainment.
That said, I am related to a blue million country folk, and have spent no end of long, quiet evenings visiting relatives in little farm towns baking down on the coastal plain, or in little mill villages, running wild with a hundred cousins, days and nights that will always live in my heart.

scory| April 14, 2019, 8:46 PM
Have lived in small towns and large cities. Small towns are friendlier, cleaner and saner. The smallest town I ever lived in had a population of around 600. We attended a two-room elementary school – grades 1, 2, 3 in one room and 4, 5, 6 in the other. I have no idea where the older kids went – probably to the big town (pop. about 5,000) on the other side of the lake. One barbershop and one drug store. The drug store sold comic books and kept all the good EC books on a top shelf that the little kids I couldn’t reach but the barber had a few ECs on a small table and we could read them while waiting our turn. There was a real general store too that sold groceries, hardware, and soft goods. One doctor who ran his practice out of the front room of his house (I remember getting a cut over my eye stitched while laying on a couch – mom paid him $10). I still think about that place from time-to-time and contrast it to what I lived in since. That little town comes out on top every time.

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  • Casey Klahn July 10, 2019, 1:07 PM

    Going to visit the small town next month; we bought a 1965 Fireball camper trailer. It’s a beauty, and certainly a blast from the past.

  • Dirk Williams July 10, 2019, 2:07 PM

    We’ve been on a cross country trip for a couple weeks now, small town America is alive and well, traveled thru southern Oregon, across Idaho, into the bitterroot, literally small town America. What an awesome country. Children playing, working the farms, and just being kids. Lots of fishing the rivers and creeks of Montana, Wyoming , Idaho.

    Every stop was the same, wonderful, friendly locals whom are truly happy to see folks, share their turf, perhaps sell a trinket or two. Ain’t no Antifa, or anti Americans where we’ve been, and where we’re headed.

    The United States, is the people, not a place on a map. What a blessing to be an American, to have been raised here.


  • PA Cat July 10, 2019, 2:20 PM

    “Calls of ‘invisible man on second’ and ‘tie goes to the runner’ and always ‘four fouls and you’re out.'”
    The reference to “four fouls” reminded me of a classic baseball couldn’t-be-done-if-you-tried incident from 1992, when Dave Hulse batted four foul balls in a row into the same spot in the Angels’ dugout– forcing the team plus one beleaguered LA cop to the other end of the bench. What’s small-town about the episode is that the Angels and the fans kept their sense of humor; they gave Hulse a standing O after the fourth foul ball.


    And yeah, baseball humor is what I remember about growing up in small-town Pennsylvania.

  • Joe Mack July 10, 2019, 11:07 PM

    I grew up in a nice suburb of once thriving northern city, but take care of people from the rural south now. They are tough if they grew up before 1960. Worked on a farm, had soup beans, cornbread and buttermilk and don’t complain unless something is really wrong. We couldn’t be as tough as them if we tried our hardest. God bless small town rural America, the best soil for tough self reliant citizens.

  • Flyover July 11, 2019, 7:20 AM

    “…but the cost was too high on my soul.”

    Yes, indeed.

    I grew up in a city, 100,000 people, five high schools. Yet…Mom and I could walk the streets after dark in the cooler air, with no fear of being accosted. Kids could ride their bikes where ever , even to downtown, and be safe. Then the projects were enlarged and multiplied, until the cancer killed it.

    Before my dad passed a few years ago, I witnessed a drug deal in front of his house. The same house I grew up in. No one walks in the cool of the evening anymore, except criminals.

    Oh, yes. The buyer, in a hoodie, ran back toward the local Project. The seller, in a car, presumably drove back to Chiraq.

  • Terry July 11, 2019, 7:49 AM

    I was born and raised in a small town in the gold country of California in the year 1945. Sonora had a population of 2500 when I graduated high school. Current population is around 5000. My family moved from the east US and set up camp in Sonora and nearby Columbia in 1850. No actual towns at either location then. Just tents and picks and shovels.

    My great grandfather, William Gibbon drove stage coach for Wells Fargo from Sonora to another gold town, Bodie, Ca. (a ghost town now). He had to drive the stage over what is now Sonora Pass (9000 ft. elev.) on essentially a rock trail over the Sierra Nevada mountains. My grandmother (one of ten kids) read us kids letters from that era and the living was as tough as it gets. My grandmother was born in and died in the same house that was in our family for over 150 years.

    I miss my home town and all that we did there as kids growing up. I still have family there. Not the same now and I could never return and not be unhappy with the changes.

  • bfwebster July 11, 2019, 9:51 AM

    Not sure I ever lived in a genuine “small town”, but I did grow up during a very different era (born in 1953). Some of my childhood locations and activities:

    Kalayaan Naval Housing, Subic Bay, Philippines (1958-60, ages 5-7): I played in the jungle outside the housing area, including on at least one Japanese pillbox left over from WW2. My brother and I threw dirt clods at the fruit bats coming out of the jungle at sunset. At dusk, a truck would drive through the streets of Kalayaan, hauling behind it an industrial fogger spewing dense clouds of sweet-smelling DDT; we kids would run behind it, playing tag in the mist.

    Naval Housing, Astoria, Oregon (1960-61, age 7-8): our housing unit had dense forest starting 50′ from our back door. I’d wander through the forest, alone or with friends, catching snakes; my friend Paul & I once caught 26 snakes in one day. We’d pick and eat wild-growing berries of various kinds. Blackberries were especially prevalent; I’d pick bowlfuls of them, and my mom would make cobbler and muffins.

    La Mesa, California (east San Diego County; 1961-on, age 8 & up): we finally bought a house, on an acre of land with a lot of avocado trees. One quickly became my favorite tree to climb and sit in. Snakes were rare, but lizards were common, and I caught a lot (mostly catch-and-release). I freely wandered all over town on foot, including through all the storm drains and underpasses, scrounging for empty pop bottles to supplement my allowance. Went to the Helix Theater on Saturday mornings, paid my 25¢ (later 35¢), and sat through multiple showings of whatever cheesy SF/F film was showing. Stopped at the newsstand on my way home to buy the latest Marvel comics — and it breaks my heart to think of all the #1 issues and complete series I had before I lost interest in high school and sold or gave away them all. If I was especially flush, I’d stop by the hobby store to buy glassware and chemicals for my chemistry set, which I used with an open-flame alcohol burner, forever trying to get some spectacular reaction. (I did make the lower part of a glass test tube explode mildly once.) When I hit junior high, I would ride my bike from our home to the San Diego Zoo — a 22-mile round trip (https://goo.gl/maps/PzaqNdH1y6X4wBU29) — because admittance was free if you were under 16. As you might guess, I was a budding herpetologist and so spent a lot of time in the Reptile House, hoping to catch a glimpse of Dr. Charles “Chuck” Shaw, Curator of Reptiles for the Zoo and one of my childhood heroes.

    It was truly a different and now-lost era, and we shall not see its like again. ..bruce..

  • Casey Klahn July 11, 2019, 11:41 AM

    My compliments, Terry. Our ancestors lived fearful lives, but they did it with chin.

    idk why, but these stories give one hope.

  • Anon July 11, 2019, 2:12 PM

    The problem is things are too good. You don’t have to work if you don’t want to. Contrary to what you hear on the ads seeking donations there is so much food out there no one is going hungry (except in those families where mom and dad are so high they don’t feed their kids). Life is so good that the MSM is forced to lie about it when they need to make us feel bad or guilty. We went from the great generation to the spoiled generation to the WTF generation. The good (and bad) news is I think we are on the verge of events that will give us all the chance to experience the same things that made the great generation “great”. I’m not looking forward to it but I see it coming. I think the “toll” will be a lot worse than the last time…

  • Terry July 11, 2019, 3:08 PM

    I live in a small town now. This town has been at 3000 residents for around thirty years or so. Everyone here waves at passing cars and is friendly as could be. Reminds me of my home town. But this is in Idaho. Cali is history as a place to make home. Virtually no crime here. Cops eat donuts and don’t treat people like crap. Local paper is published one day a week. No political bent whatsoever.

    My friends, family and business associates ask why I have not retired at 74. Retirement would be death for me. I have worked since I was 14 years old. Even made it through SF State during the communist driven riots of the sixties.

    I appreciate what my forefathers did. They made it easy for me to live. And live well. My grandfathers both worked until death at old age. They did not need to work, just did. Socialism is death. No need to be productive at all. Just keep your hand out and let someone else do the work. Sickens me to see where we have gone as a nation in so short a time.

  • Allen July 12, 2019, 12:07 AM

    I was born and raised at Edwards AFB in the 60’s. The place was small and very tight knit. My dad would take us out by the flight line on occasion where we could watch all manner of strange aircraft take off and land. Years later, I moved back about 70 miles to the north. These days I don’t actually live in a small town but I drive to get the mail in a small town. Inyokern, California, Population 1100.

    It’s a strange sort of place to live, the world tends to pass across our doorstep. I have met a large number of movie and TV people filming in the area. A lot of car commercials are also filmed at Inyokern Airport. We get lots of foreign tourists headed out to Death Valley, summer seems to be the high season for the European travelers for some reason. During the right part of the year we get hikers from the Pacific Crest Trail passing through to replenish and rest.

    When we still had a LAX shuttle service flight, the Inyokern baggage claim was a table just off the taxiway. Baggage claim 1 was the right side of the table and Baggage Claim 2 was the left. There are hitching posts at various points around town, so when the mood strikes me, I saddle up the horse and ride into town. That damn horse of mine knows how to work people for apples and such, and it seems more people remember my horse’s name than they do mine. People do know the nature of one’s character though, as is true of most small towns.

  • Dan Patterson July 15, 2019, 5:44 AM

    What a treat to read these!