A lot has been written about life in a small town, about the good and the bad, and most of what I’ve read, though often contrary, is true. It is good that everyone living there knows you, but as a result there can be little personal privacy as everyone who cares to, knows what you are doing. Community bonds are real and people care about their neighbors, but it is impossible to avoid the people who you don’t like and not everyone is, let’s face it, someone you really want to see every day. There is no escaping the familiar, at least as a child.
These were the days before K-mart and Walmart, and most people did their shopping in the small towns close to where they lived. Our village (now, a city) of 1,200 people was a service hub for the farms around it. We had a newspaper, two department stores, two grocery stores (when I was very young there were three – Hanson’s, Johnson’s and Peterson’s), two lumber yards, two implement dealers, one selling green iron and another red (farm kids will understand), implement repair shops & welders, two car dealers, machine shop, cobbler, hardware store, municipal power station, furniture store, post office, jeweler, feed mill, grain elevator, egg plant, municipal liquor store, bowling alley and two bars. The majority of these businesses closed within 20 years of my leaving home. Most that survive today, 50 years later, have relocated from the main street to the highway that at the time formed the south border of town.
Although a small town may not be where you want to live your life, and it wasn’t where I wanted to spend mine, it was a good place for me to grow up. Small town neighbors will look out for you, as a kid. We were surrounded by people who were not only watching with a phone in their hands ready to call our parents if we stepped out of line, they also would step up if it looked like you needed help. A small town is a harder place for a kid to screw up, and this is mostly good. You can still do things and get away with it (I did), but only if you’re smart, or determined. And if you were caught quickly and corrective action was taken to ensure better behavior in the future, well, you weren’t going to make it on the shady side of life then, anyway, were you?
When I reached college, and compared notes with my dorm mates about the high school activities we had been involved in I realized another difference between city and village life. This became obvious in considering the large number and range of school activities I was involved with, in comparison with my college friends, most of whom had grown up on the East Coast or in the Chicago suburbs. The difference in activities was dramatic and there was a reason for it – each of us was needed.
Each child able to keep time with a beat in our small town was needed in the band to fill a chair and play an instrument; I don’t exclude the tone deaf, as there was the percussion section to consider. My high school class consisted of 56 students and we all were needed to staff the production of the Yearbook, to sing in the choir, and to write or edit the weekly school paper. There was a place for you in the science club and national honor society if you had the interest and the grades, and even I was needed to come out for football because they needed everyone who could put on a uniform to be there just to field a team. We sang in the school musical, or played in the pit band if we didn’t get cast in a part. No one had to be especially good or highly motivated for any of it, we just had to show up for practice, and for games or performances. Science fair, declamation, yearbook, current affairs, choir rehearsal, varsity games; something was happening every night during the school year. I don’t recall that doing nothing was an option that I was given, but being needed and being busy were good, and a way to mostly stay out of trouble.
My parents, like parents everywhere, I think, were strong believers in our never quitting anything that we started. This was a problem when I came up against the things I couldn’t do well, including virtually all high school sports. I had terrible eye-hand coordination until at least the 10th grade. Poor coordination meant I didn’t play baseball after the 6th grade. I could neither hit, nor catch a fly ball until I was a junior at least, and my top front teeth are still indented thanks to a missed baseball throw from Glen Hanson at dusk when I was about 12.
I tried to play basketball but I was just awful despite playing it steadily from 4th grade on through 7th grade or so. I participated every year at school and at the Saturday basketball program run for us at the small community center downtown but I was never able to manage running and dribbling at the same time, let alone pass on the run or execute a pick pattern. As if. I was a terrible shot, and anyone who tried could easily steal the ball from me. The team’s strategy to cope with this was obvious: I didn’t often get the ball. The second or third time I stepped on the ball in attempting lay-ups during Saturday basketball practice, and this time somehow chipped a bone in one of my “piano” fingers (x-rays were taken by the local dentist), my mother was finally convinced that she had better let me quit immediately or my music career would be imperiled.
Individual sports were more attractive to me and I began track & field every year beginning in Junior High School. Indoor practice started after basketball season ended in March, and when the snow was gone from the ground we moved outdoors. I gave everything a try, hurdles, broad jump, high jump, etc. and filled out relay teams at early season track meets, but I dropped out every May before ever getting in shape to work at the cemetery, as soon as there was enough grass there to mow. I managed to avoid a great deal of public humiliation this way.
I excelled at swimming as did all my brothers and sisters, and at least 4 of us worked as lifeguards or/and swimming instructors. I took up tennis in junior high school and grew to enjoy it greatly. I bought myself a new tennis racquet with the first non-Cemetery Association paycheck I received, money earned lifeguarding at the nearby state park the summer after my Junior year in high school.
I was good enough at football (or needed badly enough) to play during junior high school and part of senior high school. I took 9th & 10th grades off because I was too skinny to take the punishment on the line from the older (and larger) players. I still recall the smile on Harlan A’s face as he ground me into the dirt, over and over. I returned to the team in my junior year when my high school math teacher, who was the assistant football coach, asked me to come out for the team again and I played as a starter my senior year, earning a letter in the sport. That felt good. The school was small but we played 11-man rather than 9-man ball so most everyone played for 60 minutes, on both offense and defense. I wasn’t the fastest runner on the field but I always recovered quickly between plays which was important when you played the whole game, and by the end of the season I had proved respectable enough playing defensive half back, and left end on the offense.
My math teacher’s name was Gerry Pederson and he had an effective coaching style with me, basically watching me and yelling a lot to let me know he was watching. When practicing kickoffs, he would follow me down the field and yell at me to run faster, over and over again. “Be the first down the field, contain the play, and don’t let anyone get outside of you”, he told me, repeatedly. “Be the first!” It got me into the middle of the action on the field when my inclination was to hang back, and nearly got me concussed more than once, but the stars that were pasted onto my helmet recognizing the tackles and assists I made, gave me the feeling I was capable and pulling my weight on the team.
Knowing a coach was watching me and being told he expected me to be first made an impression. I was a mediocre team athlete, as I’ve said, and this was one of the few times I had a coach focus on me so I still remember it – it’s amazing what the attention of a coach can do. The head coach, Mr. Algren, was also inspirational in showing me what passionate dedication in a leader can look like.
While I think my home town was a good place to grow up, it was not idyllic. There was unaddressed hardship around us, children who were dressed in ragged clothes every day and surely were underfed. Religious prejudice was real – the Lutherans looked down on the Catholics as well as just about everyone else, which was probably inevitable in this monoculture. Visiting other churches as part of Confirmation didn’t necessarily expand people’s thinking about this. The 1960 election brought a lot of attention to the seeming chasm between our denominations; I was amazed to find out in college that the Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran sung liturgies were virtually identical, note for note.
Racial prejudice was subdued but present in the form of negative attitudes and derogatory remarks about Native Americans, few in number locally, and also towards the migrant Mexican workers who came every summer to work the rich bottomland of the Red River Valley 10 miles to the west of us. My grandmother said horrible things in her living room about Blacks, Native Americans, Mexicans and “the Jews” (they were in league with the international bankers to control everything, don’t you know), which is probably a major reason my mother so actively discouraged us from spending time with her. Within the town and at school there I recall the use of racial slurs was discouraged in public as a form of impolite or vulgar speech, not because it was wrongful and pernicious.
In addition to these problems, some of our teachers were bullies. I can recall at least one student being bodily thrown across the classroom, scattering desks, and throwing books onto the floor. This teacher was also prone to jerk and painfully squeeze students’ hands and fingers, even my own (I always followed orders in Mr. T’s classrooms), just to make a point that he could do it. Another teacher, by consensus of students of the time I have spoken with, was at least someone who had way too much interest in adolescent boys, if not a pedophile, and it seems in retrospect that he was protected in his position by people who should have known better and done something about it. I recall my father asking me, awkwardly, if I had been inappropriately approached by this person because he had heard stories from people he worked with at the post office. This was not Andy Griffith’s Mayberry.
Growing up in a small town left an indelible mark on me. When people ask me where I am from I don’t think of Minneapolis, I sometimes think of Minnesota, but always I think of my small town, Hawley, and the village of people that raised me until I left for college at the age of 17. My parents and teachers opened my eyes to the world, set high expectations for me, pushed me when I needed pushing, accustomed me to being active and involved with others, fostered my reading and my learning, cheered my successes, and buffered me from the hostility that sometimes was visited on an unathletic, bookish, nerdy, curious kid standing on the outer edge of the social groups around him. It worked.