A Walk through My Hometown in the Late 70s and Early 80s
My kid had her third temper tantrum of the evening last night, and so I wordlessly put on my shoes, shooting her dad the implied “you deal with her” look and went for a walk by myself. I’d spent my “day off” doing housework, cooking, and writing pornography scene titles for my second job (another story for another time), and I wasn’t playin’ anymore. Just shutting down and walking away, my coping mechanism as of late, is likely passive aggressive and counterproductive, but I don’t give a rat’s you-know-what. It’s what works for me to avoid jail time.
Anyway, as I was stomping down the smooth suburban sidewalks, looking at the squat office buildings in the distance and through the windows of all-beige vaulted condos at close range, I got to thinking about what going for walks was like in the late 70s and early 80s as a kid in a Midwestern town with a population of less than 200 people. Unlike today, I didn’t go for walks then in a futile effort to lose weight or to burn off some steam; I took walks because there wasn’t much damn else to do when your parents’ wouldn’t let you watch TV and you’d just assembled your last jigsaw puzzle.
First off, I think the entire town had about 22 feet of sidewalk combined, and so we just tread on the gravel and dirt roads that ran through it. I’d pass by the shaded property of these two elderly German twin brothers, and could often hear them squabbling in their native tongue. In retrospect, they could have been featured on one of those hoarding intervention shows. I remember their shotgun shack house, numerous outbuildings, and long-shuttered church were stacked to the ceilings with old newspapers and broken bits of metal and warped antiques. On a particularly humid day, you could smell the decaying wood, dust, and moldy paper from inside their buildings all the way out to street, and I recall that as bad as that all sounds, it wasn’t an unpleasant blend of smells. I remember the story about them getting into a fist fight on the roof of their house when they were well into their 70s. It was usually a slow news day in my hometown.
Then I’d pass the peeling blue ranch house of an old widower. Like the old twins, my dad used to mow his lawn on a pretty regular basis, since he was usually bent over at a 45 degree angle and didn’t have anyone else living nearby to help him. I remember he had us over for dinner once, and that old man made a mean baked chicken. And even though he was 85 if he was a day, he was always singing or humming a Rolling Stones song. He made me this wooden turtle step stool thing in about 1980, and my daughter sits on it now.
Then there was the giant brick monstrosity on the corner we commonly referred to as the old schoolhouse mansion. My dad went to school there in the 50s when it was a junior high. It had since been converted to some pretty swanky living quarters with its miles of highly polished woodwork, box beam ceilings, and the basketball court still downstairs. We had bottle rocket wars in that back yard one summer, using trash can lids as shields. Several years after I moved away, one of the old town’s family members was murdered there in a drug deal gone awry, apparently getting his bludgeoned body dragged all over those pretty floors. Wasn’t a slow news day that time.
Some days out on my circular travels I’d stop in at my grandparents’ house to say hello. I’d walk into a fog of coffee, Winston reds, and fried potatoes, with Grandma usually doing needlework while Grandpa and between one and five of my uncles, fueled on caffeine and/or alcohol, getting red faced arguing politics. Then one uncle would play his latest Styx album for me while another uncle waited his turn to play his most recently acquired disco LP. The Styx uncle is now a born again Christian, while the disco uncle, if he’s still alive, is sequestered somewhere out east, most likely battling AIDS after a couple decades of swinging, cruising bath houses, and shooting intravenous methamphetamines.
Sometimes I’d also stop into the town tavern to buy one of those two-tone powdered lollipops that made the inside of your mouth raw, or a pack of purple Hubba Bubba bubblegum that was rumored to contain spider eggs. The place smelled of 40 years of spilled beer, cigarettes, and burned hamburgers. I remember my dad blowing a gasket when their cigarettes went up to $.65 a pack. I’d hang out for a minute or two during the wintertime to watch the bored old farmers play cards and trade jabs and drink their own body weight in coffee in the mornings. Last I heard, the new generation of farmers stays home and plays video games during the winter, and the smokes in there are now $7 a pack.
The town had a feed store, bank, and post office at the time. We used to buy those old fashioned Cokes in the bottle for a dime from a vending machine at the feed store after playing in the park and scalding ourselves in July on that rickety old metal slide. Or finding a large dead bull snake in the brick outhouse and chasing each other with it. The bank and post office have long closed, but now there’s running water and a kitchen in the town hall where we used to roller skate and celebrate shotgun weddings. Ah, progress.
I’d walk by houses built mostly between 1910 and 1960, more than a few of which had seen their better days. About 75 percent of them are still standing, although they’re now completely dwarfed by those giant metal sheds. For some reason over half the town thought it would be a good idea to put a 1500 square foot tin box in their front yards to store their lawnmowers and ATVs. And, if some of the stories are true, their meth labs.
There was usually smoke from the wood burning stoves everyone had in their basements curling out the pitted chimneys in the winter, filling the frigid air with the sharp tang of hickory and coal. The rich blue exhaust from Plymouths and Chevys would hang especially thick in the cold winter afternoons, along with the gasoline from the chainsaws at work dispatching a blizzard’s latest damage and replenishing the woodpile. Then you could look up or down any given snowy hill and see the bright colored parkas on the kids engaged in a sledding frenzy, no doubt shredding the nylon on those nice puffy coats when they’d hit a barbed wire fence hidden in a snow drift at 20 mph.
Then I’d pass a thoroughly mangled snow drift in a ditch where someone had gotten drunk two nights previous and plowed their truck into it. Driving drunk into a snowdrift, intentional or otherwise, wasn’t a hanging offense in those days. The local guys would just laugh and round up the biggest vehicle they could find and a couple of chains and pull out the errant truck, swearing and sniggering and backslapping until the job was done, and then it was off to find more beer and no harm done.
Winter was also a good time to crunch our way about a quarter of a mile on the inch of glazed ice layered over the 6 inches of snow covering the fields to this anemic little creek. It seemed like a good idea at the time to break through the ice on the water, just to hear the noise and have ice shards to use as projectiles. We never paid attention to those first little warnings of frostbite or hypothermia as we schlepped our soaking feet and mittens back home to be unceremoniously dumped on the linoleum right inside the doorway.
Summer walks were best near or right after sundown once the heat of the day had already peaked. You could usually hear a tractor off in the distance, competing with the sounds of Boston or Led Zeppelin pouring out of someone’s open car or bedroom window. Sometimes I’d walk a little out of town on this moody dirt road, listening to the cows lowing in the nearby pastures and grasshoppers clicking and buzzing under a sky where you could see every last star during a new moon. Alfalfa and manure would always tickle the nostrils, sometimes getting usurped by a bad tempered skunk or road kill. Then you’d have to skitter off the road halfway into a ravine when a teenager in a muscle car came barreling over the hill, spraying you with gravel and dust clouds that would float in the air for several seconds before gradually settling into the ditches that were always festering with nettles, chiggers, and sticky milkweed.
When the roads got boring, we’d walk the railroad tracks that split the town instead. I loved the smell of the tar on the railroad tracks getting even gummier in the yellow summer sun. I never had the guts to put a penny on the tracks, and I used to get irritated that there never seemed to be a caboose on the trains. And I used to wonder how far I’d have to walk along those tracks to end up somewhere interesting.
Now most days I’d kill or die to be back in my pre-adolescent body, when nothing ached or was especially tired, and just spend an hour skulking around that dying old town mired in alcoholism, suspected domestic violence, and that brass ring just hanging way too effing high. Sure, we were the representation of the lowest common denominator a lot of the time, but the history and character of that dysfunctional little settlement would bleed up right from the old green glass medicine bottles you’d find in the gravel. At least I didn’t have to walk past 30 identical gated mock Aspen lodge townhomes or trust fund hippies in their $300 windbreakers that couldn’t regurgitate an interesting personal history if their BMWs depended on it. But, like most people, I spent my youth wishing I could get older faster and just be somewhere else, anywhere else, and my middle age wishing I could, at least occasionally, regress to my much younger years with their accompanying semi-rural surroundings and complete lack of responsibility. Life is always greener, eh?