Sunday, October 23, 2016

Small town

The entire third grade class of the Auxvasse School, 1959-60.
That's yours truly, third from left in the middle row

People who don’t know better think John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Small Town” is an accurate portrayal of life in a rural town. While it is accurate to some extent, it all depends on how one defines "small" because, when it comes to little towns, "small" is a relative term.

When Mellencamp was born in Seymour, Ind., in October 1951, his small town had a population of 9,629 according to the 1950 census. When, a month later, I made my grand entrance, my hometown, Auxvasse, Mo., had a population of 507, one-nineteenth the size of his. I wasn’t even born in my small town; it didn’t have a hospital.

Just how small is a town of 507? Perhaps the easiest way to put things into context for those who can’t begin to imagine a town that small is to start with the school. And no, I don't mean the schools. I mean the one and only school.

Last weekend while staying at my sister’s, I ran across the Auxvasse School yearbook from 1959-60, the year she graduated from high school and I was in the third grade.

The yearbook covered grades 1-12, which were housed in the same building. There were 20 high school graduates that year. The entire student body – I counted – consisted of 292 students. Most didn’t live in town; they lived on the farms that surrounded it.

The Auxvasse School had 13 teachers – seven for students in grades seven through 12. Going through the yearbook, I was amazed at how many teaching hats they wore.

Doyle Wood taught American problems, world history, as well as English and PE to seventh and eighth graders. Elizabeth Novinger taught journalism, speech, and English 1,2 and 3. (There was no English 4.) Don Foster taught citizenship, American history, physiology, health, high school PE and coached the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams. Agnes Ferguson taught algebra, geometry, general math, seventh grade math, and eighth grade math. Bessie Gottschalk taught seventh and eighth grade science, biology, home ec 1, and home ec 2. Virginia Carter taught typing, bookkeeping, seventh and eighth grade chorus, high school boys’ and girls’ chorus, high school band and elementary band. James Breen taught seventh and eighth grade social studies, general shop, advanced woodworking, mechanical drawing and driver’s education.

There were six elementary teachers, one for each grade. According to the yearbook, five graduated from Northeast Missouri State Teachers College in Kirksville and one from the University of Missouri.  

The year before, Auxvasse School had undergone a growth spurt in terms of enrollment. Up until then, African-American elementary pupils attended a one-room school on the west side of the GM&O tracks that separated the black part of town from the white. Black high school students were bussed 35 miles to Jefferson City to a school run by Lincoln University, a teacher’s college for African-Americans. The year I started second grade, the schools were integrated. Of the 20 pupils in my third grade class, five were African-American. 

The 1959-60 yearbook was made possible by local businesses whose ads appeared on the final pages. Most were purchased by businesses in nearby Mexico and Fulton, the county seat. The only ads from Auxvasse merchants were placed by the Security Bank (“Capital & Surplus of $75,000 and Undivided Profits of $450,000”), Divers Food Store & Elevator, the Chalet (“Your Favorite Eating Spot”), Dryden’s General Merchandise, Hunt & Moser Chrysler-Plymouth, LaCrosse Lumber Co., Maupin Funeral Home, Welch’s Tavern, Wilbur Foster Trucking & Ice, the Kingdom Telephone Co., Hape’s Locker (“Custom Slaughtering & Meat Processing”), Baumgartner’s Furniture & Appliances, the Auxvasse Review, Andy Briggs Real Estate, Bill’s Garage and Dr. A.H. Domann. There were a handful of other businesses – three gas stations, a café, hardware store, drug store, grocery store and a lawyer that, for some reason – probably economic – didn’t buy ads.

Auxvasse was so small it didn’t even have a conventional traffic signal. There was a blinking red light suspended above the intersection of U.S. 54 and the farm-to-market road, to keep travelers from speeding through the mile-long town in under a minute.

The Auxvasse I grew up in had no movie theater – it still doesn’t – though my brother and sister remember one that lasted a short time in the late 1940s. There was no bowling alley, community pool or skating rink either. Kids’ activities consisted of Girl and Boy Scout troops and two 4-H clubs, the Advancers and Crusaders. Most of the churches had youth groups. My church was so small that its youth fellowship group had to join up with two other Methodist churches from neighboring communities even smaller than Auxvasse.

Athletics were a big – make that huge – part of life in our small town. There was Little League in summer (I was relegated to right field and missed both pop flies that came my way during my short career), high school basketball in winter, and baseball and track in spring, even through the school didn’t have a track. Heck, the school didn’t even have a gymnasium until 1954. Before then, basketball games were played outside and there were no physical education classes.

There were no police in Auxvasse, but there was a night watchman who rode through town in his own vehicle, keeping an eye out for crime, but there rarely was any to be found.

Nor was there a fire department but there was a fire truck, a vintage model from the late twenties or early thirties that had been purchased third-hand from another small town. It had wooden-spoke wheels. Whenever there was fire in or around town, the siren went off and all the able-bodied men within earshot were expected to show up at the firehouse and follow the truck to the fire to fight it. One day when the alarm sounded, the men of Auxvasse rushed to the firehouse and found that someone had stolen the battery from the truck. Needless to say, the house they had hoped to save burned to the ground and the thief was never caught by the police because there weren’t any police.

The unequivocal highlight of my childhood was the day the Presbyterian Church at the end of our street burned down despite the best efforts of amateur firefighters from Auxvasse and the professionals from Mexico and Fulton. There were no fire hydrants, so the firemen quickly used up the water they had brought to the scene on their trucks.

Sometime around 1960, Tippy Cowan, the wife of the local hardware store owner, decided Auxvasse needed some culture and started a town library in a 10’ x 10’ room in the concrete block structure where the fire truck was garaged. My mother and Mrs. Cowan donated most of the books, the majority of which were from the Reader’s Digest Condensed series. The library was open one afternoon a week and I rarely encountered anyone other than Mrs. Cowan when I went to check out one of mom’s condensed books. Every two weeks the bookmobile from the Daniel Boone Library in Columbia came to town for an hour or so, but few people took advantage of it.

Auxvasse had five churches – the aforementioned Methodist, one Disciples of Christ, one Presbyterian and two Baptist, one for whites, one for blacks. The ladies of the African-American Second Baptist Church served a fund-raising lunch one Saturday every month and my father always bought plates of fried chicken, vinegary greens and slices of meringue-topped pies and brought them back to his store. The Disciples of Christ ladies were famous for the chicken potpie they served with raspberry Jell-O salad every Halloween.

The morning after Halloween, Auxvasse residents invariably woke up to find half a dozen or so outhouses – not everyone had indoor plumbing even in the 1960s – pranksters had hoisted onto pick-up flatbeds, brought to Main Street and set afire.

The highlight of Auxvasse’s social calendar year was the Lion’s Club Fair held in July. A carnival set up five or six rusty rides in the town park which wasn’t really a park – it was nothing more than a couple of acres of vacant land next to a smelly feed lot. Members of Callaway County’s many 4-H clubs brought cows, horses and hogs (which were always referred to as “swine”) to the fair for judging. Those deemed “best of show” were sold to the local slaughterhouse and the kids who raised them posed proudly for pictures that would appear in the Auxvasse Review just before the animal was led away to its doom. Woodworking, home canning and baking projects completed by 4-H members were displayed on the bleachers of the gym for all to admire and for judges to award ribbons of merit. The window box I made during my brief stint as a Crusader -- I’ll come clean here, my dad built it in about five minutes and he, if possible, was even worse at carpentry than I am today -- won a white ribbon, the lowest possible award.

The fair culminated on Saturday night with a dance at which some folks drank too much, wound up dancing with people who weren’t their significant others and/or got into fistfights, providing gossip fodder for months afterward.

My sister and I drove through Auxvasse last weekend. The only businesses remaining on the town’s block and a half business district are the bank, tavern and phone company. The rest of Main Street’s buildings are empty. Even though it was a Saturday afternoon which, when I was a kid, was the day farmers and their families came to town to stock up on provisions for the coming week, there wasn’t a soul to be seen. As we were looking into the window of what was once our father’s store, a car stopped at the stop light and the driver waved but we didn’t know him and he didn't he know us. That’s just the way folks are in small towns.

Wal-Mart pretty much destroyed businesses in Auxvasse and other small towns throughout rural America. There are Wal-Marts in both Fulton and Mexico, which, like Auxvasse, once had thriving commercial districts, businesses run by local merchants that provided good jobs for residents. Those businesses have shuttered their doors in large part due to the chain founded by Sam Walton who grew up in Shelbina, another small town about sixty miles north of Auxvasse. Most small town Missourians are proud one of their own founded Wal-Mart. I am not among them because Wal-Mart, more than anything, is the reason so many small towns in the Midwest and south have fallen on hard times. 

I spent 30 years in Wilton, Conn., a leafy, affluent, stuffy suburb of 17,000 an hour northeast of Manhattan. Its residents like to claim in letters to the editor of the local paper that they live in a small town, something this guy from an honest-to-God small town always found hilarious. Wilton has some of the highest-rated public schools in the United States and almost every student not only goes on to college but to graduate school. Whereas the bank in my small town had capital of $75,000, the town my kids grew up in was home of AIG Financial Products whose greed-induced downfall  – the US government had to put up $180 billion to enable the company to unwind its positions -- contributed mightily to the 2008 global financial crash.

Real small towns don’t have companies like that, nor do their residents work for hedge funds or investment banks as many folks in Wilton do. Real small towners don’t sip coffee at Starbucks, dine in Japanese restaurants, or hang out at wine bars eating tapas. Real small towners don’t have to visit a town-owned “farm” to see pigs and cows that are brought in for kids to pet once a year; they raise their own. Real small town high schools don't have ski teams or lacrosse teams nor will you ever sit next to anyone famous at your kid's school concert, sporting event or theater production.

Wilton is by no stretch of the imagination a small town – at least not to me. But, I suppose, to someone who grew up in Brooklyn or Long Island, as many of its residents did, it might be.

Like I said, small is a relative term when it comes to towns.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Adventures of Chicken Man

When: Last night between 7 and 7:30 pm.

Where: Three fast food restaurants along I-70 in Kansas City.

Who: Myself and counter employees of KFC, Popeye’s and Church’s Chicken respectively.

7:02 pm, KFC

Employee: What would you like?

TD: I want a two piece meal with potatoes and gravy and I’d like one of the pieces to be a breast – I’ll pay extra if I have to.

Employee: We're out of chicken.

TD:  What do you mean?

Employee: We ran out.

TD:  Let me get this straight, you’re out of chicken?  Isn’t this a Kentucky Fried Chicken?

Employee: No, this a KFC. And we're also a Taco Bell.  How about a chicken taco or burrito?

TD: No, I'm craving fried chicken.

7:14 pm, Popeye’s

Employee: Can I take your order?

TD:  I want a two piece meal with a side of mashed potatoes and gravy and I’d like one of the pieces to be a breast. I’ll pay extra if I have to.

Employee: We’re out of chicken parts, we only have tenders.

TD: You're kidding, right?

Employee: They’re really good. No bones. I just ate one on my break.

TD: I can't believe this. No thanks. 

7:30 pm, Church’s

Employee: Can I help you?

TD: I want a two piece meal with a side of mashed potatoes and gravy and I’d like one of those pieces to be a breast. 

Employee: Do you want original or spicy?

TD: Original.

Employee: Do you want our two-piece deal? It comes with a biscuit and a medium drink.


Employee: OK, that’ll be $6.89. 

(Two minutes later I am handed my order on a tray. I fill my soft drink cup from the dispenser, sit down at a table in the dining area where I am the only customer, and realize I need a fork. I get up and go to the counter where the condiments, napkins and plastic utensils are kept. The bins are empty except for knives.)

TD (to employee): There aren't any forks on the counter. Could you get me one?

Employee: We’re out of forks.

TD: Okay then, a spoon.

Employee: We’re out of those too.

TD: How do you expect me to eat my mashed potatoes?

Employee: Would you like fries instead?

TD: No.

Employee: We have mac and cheese.

TD: How would I eat that? With a knife?

Employee: I’m sorry.

TD: How long have you been out of forks and spoons?

Employee: Ever since my shift started at 5. Well, now that I think about it we were out of them yesterday too.

TD: Hasn’t anyone else complained but me?

Employee: No, you’re the first. Every else goes through the drive-through.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Watson for President

I woke up planning to write something funny about last night’s presidential debate but the more I think about it, there was nothing funny about it.

In one corner we had a megalomaniacal hypocrite who has amassed a fortune by gaming the system, making undeliverable promises and spewing meaningless rhetoric to appeal to uneducated voters.

In the other we had Donald Trump.

If Clinton or Trump were running for dogcatcher, I wouldn’t vote for either of them. 

Before last night’s debate, 60 Minutes featured a story about IBM’s Watson, the super computer originally created for Jeopardy, that has amassed knowledge from millions of data sources and has the ability to come to conclusions based on that data. Among other applications, Watson’s power is being harnessed to help doctors prescribe life-extending treatments for terminal patients for whom they have run out of ideas.

Maybe we should dispense with elections altogether and, starting in 2020, install Watson as president. Watson has never talked to Access Hollywood about grabbing someone’s genitals. He doesn’t go around making speeches and collecting massive fees, telling Wall Street fat cats one thing and his supporters something different. He has never denigrated anyone because of their ethnicity nor claimed to be an advocate for victims of assault except for those assaulted by his spouse. Watson has never established a foundation that accepts contributions from George Stephanaopoulos or countries that oppress women. Watson doesn't mock the handicapped, has never defamed the families of our fallen soldiers, or set up a private server to hide his political activities. Watson is articulate. Watson inspires. Watson represents the best of what we Americans can do.

The United States has become so complicated to govern that, frankly, it may no longer be governable by mere mortals. In an age in which all of us have unlimited access to information but aren’t able to process it because we tend to get it from web sites that reflect our own prejudices – and we, like the presidential candidates, all have them –  Watson can take data from any and all sources and create policies that benefit the common good.

Watson could make decisions about social issues, free of political influence. By interpreting data from doctors, hospitals and insurance companies, Watson, better than anyone, could set up a health care system that works. Watson could devise the best possible economic policies, save us billions by eliminating duplication, and devise a tax code that moves us forward and creates jobs. Watson could analyze every battle and conflict that has ever taken place and make projections to determine the best foreign and military policy, and could recommend Supreme Court justices by analyzing their decisions as lower court judges, based on their adherence to a nuanced Constitution that takes into account how America has evolved since the original was written.

I’d certainly vote for Watson, along with a Congress comprised of Apple-based computers running on software that represents the needs of their particular districts.

Wouldn’t you?

Whatever your answer, future generations probably will.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Clarification from the Trump campaign

To: The Media
From: Trump Campaign Press Room

There has been a great deal of negative coverage as the result of a 2005 tape released by the Washington Post yesterday in which Donald J. Trump was recorded having a private, off-the-record conversation with Access Hollywood reporter Billy Bush (who got his job only because he's related to those turncoat scum-sucking Bushes who spawned low-energy Jeb).

In yet another attempt to discredit Mr. Trump whom, we freely admit, is not always as articulate as we wish he would be, the media has taken one particular quote out of context. What Mr. Trump was actually telling Mr. Bush is that when he sees a woman holding a young cat in her arms who is about to step out in front of an oncoming car, he grabs the cat to get her attention and thus save her life.

“I never said I was a perfect person,” Mr. Trump said last night. “I’m ready to put this behind me and am looking forward to my debate Sunday night with that lying twat Hillary Clinton.”

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Go with the blow

As I write this at 11 a.m., Hurricane Matthew, a category 4 storm, is predicted to hit around dinnertime tonight. Forecasters say Matthew will either hit Florida’s east coast directly, somewhere around Palm Beach, or will hover just off it. It will then blow up the coast toward the Carolinas, packing winds in excess of 100 mph and leaving up to eight inches of rain in its wake. Though we live a mere 100 miles away, on Florida’s west coast, forecasters are calling for us to get less than an inch of rain and we have only have a 30 percent chance of experiencing hurricane force winds that last a minute or longer.

All that can change in a heartbeat of course.  

As a peninsula that extends nearly 400 miles into tropical waters, Florida is a sitting duck for storms like Matthew that typically begin off the coast of Africa, slowly churn their way west, picking up in intensity, and occasionally, by the time they arrive in the Caribbean, emerge as full fledged hurricanes rated anywhere from a “1” (sustained winds between 74 and 95 mph) to a “5” (winds in excess of 157 mph that will blow anything in your yard to Japan).

When we bought our first Southwest Florida house in 2005, the realtor proudly told us this part of the state hadn’t been in the path of a hurricane since 1960.  We were in the path of not one but four that year, including Wilma, which caused $100,000 in damage to the house we had just finished renovating. All but $5,000 of that was covered by insurance but it took six months to find workers and materials to make the repairs since there were hundreds of thousands of other homeowners in the same boat. When, at the height of the storm, Wilma blew the vents and the chimney off the roof, palm rats scurried up the side of the house and took up residence in the attic to avoid the wind and rain. By the time they were removed six months later some were the size of small raccoons.

Once the repairs were made, we sold that house and bought another, which we kept for nine hurricane-free years.

Two and a half years ago we bought our current house, which, unlike our previous homes, has storm shutters that cover the windows. Most are operated electrically. Others require a hand crank to lower and secure them. Four consist of huge, heavy pieces of corrugated plexi that screw into tracks above and below the window frames. Installation requires several people and a ladder.

Installing the plexi shutters would be a problem for me at this particular juncture because I broke my ankle last week. When people ask, I tell them I broke it helicopter skiing in the Andes but the truth is I mis-stepped on my own sidewalk. Dumb. As a result I am wearing a heavy boot to keep my ankle in place. I could hobble outside to crank the non-electric shutters but there’s no way I could get up on a ladder to install the plastic ones.

More worrisome, our yard – the main reason we bought this house – is dotted with towering palms, pines and oaks that could come crashing down onto the roof.

So, as many of my fellow Floridians are doing, I’m checking, the website of the National Hurricane Center, every hour or so, to see if Matthew is still on his predicted track, and am crossing my fingers it won’t be necessary to install the shutters because, of all the times for a hurricane to hit, I’m kinda powerless here to do anything but go with the blow.

I feel for the millions of folks on the other coast and in the center of the state who, forecasters say, may experience the full effects of Matthew’s wrath but that’s a risk we all took when we moved to Florida and, I suppose, the price we pay for living in paradise.