August 15, 2011

Death of the Small Town


I grew up in a small Texas town just on the outskirts of the middle of nowhere. Although I didn't realize it at the time, being isolated there was a blessing that is daily oh-so-obvious as an adult. 

As a young boy, I thought my hometown would eventually die a slow, painful death because of its unwillingness to move forward. Now I look back and realize just how great a town it really was and how fortunate I was to begin life blanketed with its simple style.

I was aware of another world just past the county line because of the 6 o'clock news and the fuzzy and static-laden voices that verified its existence on my transistor radio. Those broadcasts and fleeting receptions helped my mind’s eye create the vision of what I thought life might be like in the big cities of Dallas and Fort Worth.

Riding bicycles unaccompanied by an adult from sunup until sundown all over the county was quite normal back then. My mother's only requirement as I pedaled out of the yard and pretended not to hear, was the stern and non-negotiable command of "you had better be in this house when that street light goes on." And that came out of her concern more for my getting into bed at a decent hour and not so much for my safety.

My friends and I would spend hours scouring ditches through the neck-high Johnson Grass beyond the shoulders of the road and behind restaurants and gas stations, searching for the glistening glass drink bottles that we would redeem at the local grocery store for a pocket full of shiny nickels. That was a dependable source of income for an eleven year-old boy not satisfied with the fifty cents allowance I received each Saturday morning.

Kick the can, riding bicycles without helmets and cooling off in a friends tank, never dwelling on the snapping turtles and snakes that swarmed just below the surface of the muddy water, were all rights of passage for young boys chasing down manhood along those dusty back roads.

With only a single movie available playing for the fifth Saturday night in a row at the local theater, endlessly cruising the mile-and-a-half, well-worn main drag  was the weekends entertainment.

We were on a first-name basis with the local policemen who would creep slowly behind us in their cruisers while we parked on the square under cover of night. It was almost like an episode of Mayberry, RFD — Andy Griffith and Barney Fife tending their civic duties by ensuring the children of local residents weren’t involved in something that would get them hurt or in trouble.

But now the hometown I once knew has now become unrecognizable to me and, ironically, it’s from the very thing I once thought would be its salvation from a plain, ordinary existence. I don’t know how to explain the different “feel” it now has. No longer does the naïveté hang on the breeze like the sheets on mama’s clothesline. It’s no longer a refuge or a place where I can run and hide when I get disenchanted by the world and all of its problems.

Now every country in this world is a neighbor. The small town is now a faded memory from another time just like ice-picks, typewriters or those bottles I spent the better part of my youth searching for. Even remote corners of this fragment of dust we call Earth are just a keyboard or mouse-click away. I'm not so sure that I like that or if I will ever be able to embrace it. So call me old fashioned and I'll just say, thank you.

I find myself, like many other people around this globe, mired in the age of Facebook,  texting, high speed Internet, and cable television and firmly planted in the electronic age.

But everything good and necessary comes with a price. Technology can be a good thing and the majority of our worldly "neighbors" would say it is necessary, but the by-product of technology has become a double-edged sword.

On the one edge the ability to do things bigger, faster and better has evolved at an incredible pace, freeing up even more time to cram something else into our time-starved lives. On the other edge, the innocence of the small town has been shattered and compromised because now, the entire world and all of its glories and its darkness is at the fingertips of unsuspecting youth from Hico to Hiroshima. Those outside activities I spent a childhood enjoying have now disappeared, long-gone with the small town. Now if it isn’t gigged, wi-fied, joy-sticked or hi-speed, it’s not an activity or an interest for kids.

Yes, the little map dot where I grew up has fully embraced the technological age, too. I don't even recognize it during the visits I take there now. The buildings are the same but just a bit more rundown than I remember and the school I attended is still home to the Fighting Indians and the kids still drive up and down the main drag, only now with a curfew. There seems to be a well-defined appetite for all things worldly, present and around every corner. Cell phone towers seem oddly out of place in once productive peanut fields that are now, empty, overgrown pastures.

Gang signs deface historic buildings and landmarks, young boys walk around with their “pants on the ground" and booming car stereos shatter the silence of once peaceful mornings. Like a favorite uncle I thought would never die, the town I came to love has succumbed to worldly influence.

Those timeless, enduring words of Thomas Wolfe — You Can't Go Home Againmake more sense to me now than they ever have.

But I often take time out of what has become a busy life and close my eyes. I pull an image from a dusty summer day in the past and pause to reflect on the simple tranquility of that place I once knew. Though faded through years and age, the images I recall helps me remember that deep in the heart of Texas, miles away from anywhere, but just a click away from everywhere, is that little place I once knew as home.


The Impulsive Texan



"Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it"...