THE SIMPLE LIFE
By William Urban
I recently read a column about the sad decline of a once thriving small town in Texas. It was a very good essay. So much nostalgia wafted from it that I was almost ready to read one of Larry McMurtry ’s novels that describe how capitalism and modern technology destroy the Last Movie Show and his family’s hard-scrabble farm. Whenever I read McMurtry, I half-wish he had remained a dirt farmer. Out-of-sight, out of mind, out of his role as a darling of the eastern establishment that can’t tell a stallion from a gelding, much less cinch up either one..
I have similar memories of the depopulation of once flourishing towns where I grew up in Central Kansas. But I wouldn’t want to return to those days, even if that were possible.
I remember them as places with lots of people, lots of stores. Of course, 600-800 people was a lot then, and the county seat had only 2500. There were few trees to get in the way of town lights twenty miles away, and hardly any rural lights at all. Each town had a real main street lined with a variety of stores offering everything the simple life required. Social life centered on the community, the school and the churches. There was no television to distract anyone, and the radio offered only sports, the Lone Ranger and soap operas for after school and summer time. A fairness doctrine guaranteed that no radio station would host a talk show except about sports (where partisan opinions were tolerated), so we got to hear the top 100 (or twenty) hits of the day, Lawrence Welk, and plenty of country music (but no Elvis Pressley).
The first big blow to these small communities came in 1958 when the mail delivery was changed from rail to truck. The mail bags had been picked up on a Jitney (half mail, half passenger) that ran from Salina to Plainville, about 100 miles along Paradise Creek. I seem to remember going one way on it in the morning, back in the afternoon, but that is probably a quirk of memory. It is unlikely that it made more than one trip each way every day.
Still, it wasn’t a Big Auto that killed Light Rail — as Who Killed Roger Rabbit implied — but people wanting to go other places. Or go when they wanted to go. It was nice to meet people on the Jitney, but they were only women who could spend the day waiting in the depot and then watching the fields go by at thirty miles an hour. Everything in Salina was near the depot, and as long as the temperature was not too hot or cold, or the purchases too heavy, that was just perfect. Even the rails are gone now.
Similarly, the stockyards. For decades cattlemen trucked their livestock to the one down the block from my grandparents, but eventually they figured out that if they had to put the animals on a truck anyway, they might as well drive them straight to the packing house. It was the same for wheat, which once had to be weighed and stored at the elevators; when farmers built storage facilities right on their farms, why not cut out the middleman?
The second blow to these communities was the Land Bank, which returned marginal land to prairie grass. That was a good way to deal with dust storms, but it hit renters hard. My family ran a general store and a movie theater — and we lost good customers who didn’t pay their debts when they left. I can’t blame them. They just didn’t have the money, which was why they bought on credit. Many of their ramshackle homes had no indoor toilets, and they could not afford television or new cars. No wonder movies about the Kettle family were so popular that we allowed customers to sit in the aisles. No safety inspector, either.
The schools were basic firetraps, but as the number of pupils declined, consolidation eliminated the worst of them. I’ve written elsewhere about my positive experience with the combined 1-3 class, but I didn’t describe the depressing room upstairs that served as cafeteria, assembly room and community center, or the rough games we played. No grass on the play ground, but no concrete, either. I later became pretty good at marbles, with a circle in the dust indicating where we had to kneel, but I got my start here. Allergies were bad, but I didn’t know it. I just thought that nobody could breathe through his nose.
The schools were good enough for many students to go to college. Of course , after graduation, there was no work for them at in their home towns, so they found jobs in cities..
A dentist came through once a month, and an eye doctor, too. There was a hospital twenty-five miles away, but I never heard of anyone getting out of it alive. That was probably because nobody went in until far too late. Everything that is discouraged today was done then. Everyone smoked and drank except strict Protestants (and some of them did on the sly). Lonely farmers hanged themselves.
We drove forty miles to swim, not today’s ten minutes to the big dam. My grandparents lived in a town was about half Catholic, but the nearest Catholic church was twenty-miles away. I lived more often with my great-aunt, where the Baptists had so few members that she went across the street to worship with them. Once she was very discouraged by a fiery sermon about the evils of movies, drinking and dancing. Since her husband ran the movie theater, she sold tickets and got to know everywhere in the three county area; they also drank and danced, but not nearly as much as they did before the First World War or even during the Depression. Church members consoled her, “Stella, don’t. take it to heart. You were here before he came, and you’ll be here long after he’s gone.”
It was a nice life in many ways — especially the cook outs with fifteen or twenty guests, homemade buns, homemade pies and homemade ice cream. But few of those I hear extoll sustainable living should want those days to come back. A few winter visits to the outhouse or using the thunder pot takes the romantic glow off the simple life.
Review Atlas (August 22, 2013), 4.