Vol. V, No. 3, Winter 1992
By Robert Flanders
When I was a boy there were only two places in the Ozarks, "In Town" and "Out In The Country". Back in the Depression my father and grandfather together abandoned city life to go farming. Our relatives were dismayed. It was against history, a reversal of civilization. What would happen to their women and children?
Out in the Country in the Ozarks of 1939 was a very different place than I was used to. No lights, only kerosene lamps and lanterns; no running water (privy and water bucket); no paved road (dust); no coil-top refrigerator (icebox, and sometimes town ice), no gas stove (get-your-own stovewood), etc. The crank phone wasn't like a real phone; and anyway, it was so high on the wall I couldn't reach it.
The idea, it appeared to me, was a kind of perpetual camp-out, with a little old house instead of a tent, tame animals instead of wild, lots of strange smells and hard work, and my dad not driving to his office in a suit each day. We walked a lot more than in town, and country walking was dirtier--two miles of dirt road to school instead of three sidewalk blocks. (I was the only boy who didn't go in overalls. Not for school, my mother said.)
Most of the time it was either too hot or too cold. Summers were sweaty and itchy; winters, cooped-up in a tiny crowded house, broiled on the side of me toward the fire and frozen on the side away.
Country people always smelled sweaty, even in the winter. Things smelled different out in the country. Everything and everybody had a smell--the smell of wood smoke, coal oil, manure, old houses, old leather, dogs, horses, sour milk, and sweat, all blended together.
We went In Town Saturday afternoons if the old Dodge would run. I held my breath until its wheezy engine turned over. If we couldn't drive we couldn't go. Unlike some of our neighbors, we never drove a team and wagon to town. Certainly we never walked.
I loved to go in town--I and all of the women. Town was comforting and entertaining. Not only Gene Autry and Shirley Temple, cold Nehi and butter-grilled hot dogs (which together consumed the twenty-five cents this country boy contributed weekly to the town economy); but town was also, well, nice. Boys didn't talk so nasty in town as they did Out in the country. People in town dressed nicer too, and so did we when we went. Nothing was more important about town than being dressed up and acting nice. Town was cleaner too, which went along with dressing up. Indoors was nicer in town. Certainly indoors was bigger Tillery's grocery, Scott's drugstore, the "show" in the community building, the church. Those big rooms seemed cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
The electricity in town did many good things; but my favorite (next to the picture show, of course) was the radio. When I visited my town relatives I loved to play the radio and hear Fibber McGee and Molly and the Lone Ranger and Jack Armstrong, the All American Boy. Then once, when I was a little older, they played Brahms First Symphony. I had never imagined such a thing, never dreamed of it. Nothing in the movies was like it. I had already cried a lot in my life; but then I cried in a new, strange way.
In town, people seemed"better." I admired them more. They talked better, seemed smarter, and were more interesting. They had better manners too. They expected you not to let the screen slam, not to make so much noise, and not to leave the rest room door open. They ate better too. In addition to fried hot dogs and pop, the church suppers in town tasted very much better than our schoolhouse suppers.
People out in the country were nice too, but in a different way. They were kind, generous, easygoing, understanding and forgiving. They were good people and I liked them OK, even the kids, accepted me even though I was different from an them. We were friends. But country people poor, and didn't seem to care. My g they were lazy; but my grandmother said they just tired and probably didn't feel very well, especially the women. (Ladies were in town were out in the country.)
Country people knew something about everything--at least about everything out in country. How to grow stuff and raise animals to get ready for what would happen next season--things like that. They knew the planting signs followed them. (There were si did, and my grandfather read them all in the They knew special things to do about accidents--even how to get rid of warts with and certain words. Pretty much everyone country knowledge, even the kids. M, knew more of it, and took to it better, than my parents did. I tried to learn it so I would fit in. Like my grandfather I took it seriously; but like my father I was suspicious of it too. Country people were very self-confident about their special knowledge, even arrogant. They got mad if my father didn't accept it, which he didn't always. But I noticed sometimes they weren't as smart as they insisted they were. Once a neighbor castrated our bull calf for a dollar, said he could save us two dollars from the vet; but the calf died. The problem about what was true and what was not true out in the country kept me sort of off balance.
In town, what people knew and the way they knew it was altogether different. Just think of the doctor, who would never consider using string or chicken entrails or odd words to help people. Once at school I got my thumb jammed clear to the middle of the back of my hand. They were all country people at school, even the teacher, and none of them knew how to fix that. Instead, they were scared, and that made me really scared in addition to hurting so bad. When they took me in town the doctor knew exactly how to put my thumb back where it was supposed to be. He smiled at me and reassured me. I was not only better; I was impressed. I learned a lot from that. How to fix my thumb was just one example of the way people in town knew their special things. The doctor, the lawyer, the banker, the druggist, the mechanic, the miller, each had his own special knowledge, and a lot of it. Nobody out in the country had specialties like that. We went to town for all kinds of special knowledge, special tools and equipment and goods. But we had to pay money to get them. You couldn't trade work in town the way you could out in the country.
I knew about cities too, at least a little; but they were too far away and too expensive to do us much good. Trips were long and hot. Once we went to St. Louis, to the zoo and a musical play outdoors. We ate spaghetti and chicken a la king. It was wonderful but we couldn't stay because we didn't have any relatives there. I knew a few of the things that went on in cities. A lot of stuff was made there, like cars, and people dressed up even more than in town. But I couldn't figure out exactly how cities fitted into towns and the country in the Ozarks. Cities were not so much another place as they were another world. You wouldn't go there on Saturday to get a hot dog, pop, and a show for 25 cents. Cities were just not important to me.
My folks went in town on Saturdays for their own reasons. They went to sell our cream and eggs. A ten and a crate of eggs wasn't very to buy the things we had to buy, coal oil, gasoline, ice, sugar, and flour. (A of our neighbors, the oldest, poorest ones, of corn and wheat to the feed mill to into meal and flour for baking; but my that old-fashioned and dirty.) Shopping was exciting. Things bought in town were special, and store-bought food, when we could afford it, was the most special of all. Sometimes on Saturday nights after we got home, after the chores, we had baloney, longhorn cheese, white crackers, and Van Camps pork and beans. If we had also bought ice for the icebox and the buttermilk was cold, it was my favorite meal.
But buying things in town was scary too, because everything cost money, and our money ran out really fast. It was the same with all the country people. What if you made a mistake and bought too much, or bought the wrong things? What if the store prices were higher than they should have been, or the cream and egg prices lower? Country people worried about that. My father got really upset sometimes, and the little veins on his face would jump out bright purple (a few years later, when he was only 55, he died of a stroke). But we trusted the people in town, and made friends with them. What else could we do? Money was fun, exciting, and scary all at the same time. It all had to do with money.
Most of the money was in town, and it seemed to stay there. There was even money enough in town to pay for The Drawing.
Every Saturday at four o'clock in a weedy, dusty, vacant corner lot across the street from the drug store, a man would get up on a kind of rickety stage, underneath a gigantic sign. It was painted on the brick sidewall of a store building and said, "Welcome to Humansville--The Biggest Little Town In The World--Population 1007." I never understood what it meant to be the biggest little town in the world, but I was proud that Humansville was, and I pointed out the sign to visiting relatives. It was one of the main things in town.
The vacant lot would be packed with people waiting for The Drawing. The stores were deserted, nothing else would be happening. People filled the vacant lot, the street, and even spilled over onto the community building yard. They had been gathering for a long time before, maybe an hour or more, just standing there. I guess they wanted a good place.
When you bought something in town on Saturdays, if you could write your name you put it on a piece of paper and put it in a box. At 3:45 sharp all the names were gathered together into a big shiny lard can for The Drawing (in town people had clocks and did things on time). Then, right at four o'clock, the Man would climb up there under the sign. The crowd got quiet, their faces toward him and the sign. Kids threw their hands in the air and snapped their fingers, harder even than at school. The Man would point to one, and the lucky kid would slither through the crowd, clamber up on the stage, and reach into the shiny lard can.
"The lucky winner, whose name I hold in my hand, will receive these fine gifts," proclaimed the Man, pointing to a row of paper sacks at his feet,"generously contributed by the following Humansville merchants." Then he read the names of all the stores. Quieter than church. "The total value is---65 dollars!" A murmur of astonishment and approval rippled over the crowd.
He prepared to read the winner's name. I could scarcely stand it. It could be us. Sixty-five dollars equaled more cream and eggs, more milking and turning the cream separator, more chicken feeding and watering and egg gathering and all than I could imagine. "The lucky winner is--Mrs. Jess Eyre, of rural Humansville!" Another murmur, now of disappointment. But not too much. "Jess Eyre's woman," my grandmother would say later, "poor soul, she could sure use some luck!" Another ripple, now of applause, as the stooped, leathery-looking winner edged forward, expressionless face striving for dignity.
They must have had a lot money in town in order to put on The Drawing, over and over, every Saturday.
Mainly, I thought, people in town were just richer. I got the idea that the real difference between being in town and being out in the country was the difference between riches and poverty. No New Dealish notion of class differences had yet reached me; and I certainly didn't get such an idea from my father. I just figured it out for myself. To be in town was to be rich; to be out in the country was to be poor. After all it was true of our family. Hadn't we been rich when we lived in town? But now that we were out in the country, we were poor. In my childmind, the places In Town and Out in the Country accounted for most of life's puzzles. Though I hadn't a choice yet, I think I would have preferred town. Riches, comfort, beauty, truth, good food, and electricity.
I could not have imagined--to say nothing of the imagining of my father and grandfather--that fifty years later, the two Ozarks places would have become one. Out In the Country would have virtually disappeared; would, in a magic reversal, itself have become In Town. Not only would most everyone prefer town; they could and would miraculously become towns-people, with or without moving there. Distinctions of location would be inconsequential, at least as I defined them in my 1930s boyhood. Out In The Country isolation would exist no more. Not only would everyone be connected to the electricity grid; they would also be connected to the paved highway grid, the international telecommunication grid, the national socio-economy support grid--in sum, to the international cosmopolitan superculture grid. Fifty years after crank phones and coal oil and The Drawing, by 1989, the whole Ozarks would be In Town. Tourists would come looking for Out In The Country, but they wouldn't find it. Experts would search for its remains in order to make them historic sites.
Of course, town life, town culture, town people are not, never were as simple as I once imagined, but no matter. In Town is where we all are now, for better or worse. Anyone who is left Out In the Country 1930s-fashion might be considered not only exceptional, but likely eccentric and in need of care--i.e., to be In Town with the rest of us.
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