Brain Cookies

Here’s the Thing: Dispatches from a Small Midwestern Town

Posted on: February 20, 2017

Thornton Wilder’s Wet Dream

My small town doesn’t have a lot of things. It doesn’t have a mall. There’s no movie theater. We have one restaurant and no bars of any kind. We don’t even have a Walmart.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter. Here, people find their own entertainment. Here, people find their own small pleasures. The mild isolation of a small town tends to select out the outliers, homogenize the flavors, distill the culture. You won’t find a Thai restaurant or a yoga studio. But you will find the following:

• High school basketball. It’s on the radio. It’s the topic of conversation everywhere you go. When there’s a home game, you can tell when it’s over by the steady stream of cars driving through our otherwise sleepy town. Often, you can tell who won by how much the cars are honking.

• Pick-up trucks. Almost all the basketball fan honkers drive these. I think there was a memo, because they’re all big tan Chevys.

• The Chicago Cubs. Not many Sox fans around here. Suits me just fine.

• Tractors. The older the better. You are not legally allowed to have a community event that does not involve a dozen 94-year-old farmers on their lovingly restored International Harvesters, Allis Chalmers, New Hollands, and Massey Fergusons. (Oddly, John Deere is a rarity.) In the 4th of July parade, they are a source of Tootsie Rolls and Jolly Ranchers. At the Winter Festival, they glitter with lights.

• Golf carts, ATVs, and other small motor vehicles. Small town cruise vehicles of choice. Excellent way to tootle around town so everyone can see you.

• Fundraising dinners. Head on over to the American Legion Hall on a random Saturday night, and you’re likely to come across someone selling food for some cause. It can be anything from pork chop sandwiches to kumla* dinners. Auction optional but recommended.

• Donald Trump. No comment.

• FFA. This is a farm town. The Future Farmers of America organization is far more active than I ever dreamed it could be. My daughter’s middle school classmates had livestock entered in the county fair, for goodness sakes. I just ordered a flat of strawberries that I have no idea how I’ll use before they go bad.

• Dogs. Everyone has a dog or two. Doesn’t really matter what kind: yappy mopheads are as acceptable as terrifying hellbeasts. And you must walk it as often as possible.

• Cheap beer. I’m talking Budweiser, Coors, Miller. Women drink Lite varieties of these.

• Chatting over a fence. Often, but not always, a literal fence. Pro tip: don’t start a conversation with your neighbor unless you have at least a half an hour free and your house has been vacuumed in the last fortnight. Because you will talk that long, and you will invite them in to see the new bathroom/cat/wallpaper.

This is based on my own limited experience over the last seven months. Some of these are probably common to many small towns; some, like the kumla, are almost certainly more rare. I imagine that visiting another small town would feel both comfortably familiar and excitingly different.

“Oh look, honey, there’s a crawfish breakfast fundraiser at the Moose Lodge!”


* Kumla is a traditional Norwegian potato dumpling cooked in ham juice and served with the ham, applesauce, and, for some reason, butter. I’d never heard of it before moving here, but that’s probably because I’m not Norwegian. Lots of folks around here are, though—there’s even a town called Norway just southwest of here.

Originally published at The Preterit Review

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