I was born in a small town in the Midwest. Grandpa Wilderness owned one of the two grocery stores in town and Grandma owned the "movie house." My Mother sharpened her piano skills playing for the silent movies in Grandma's theater. (Yes, I'm talking a long time ago.) As a matter of fact, the whole family worked together in various endeavors including the store, the theater and a family dance-band. In the late 1940's after Grandpa passed away, Grandma closed the theater sold the building and moved out West. We followed a little later; I was twelve years old at the time. A couple of my Uncles stayed on and ran the store while the rest of the town discussed how we were cavorting with the devil in that evil place called 'Cali-for-ni-a.'
There I was, a teenager in California in the 1950s, could life be any better? Surfin' USA, California girls on the beaches, The Beach Boys and Credence Clearwater Revival blaring out of every lowered and chopped Chevy that went by. We didn't know it yet but in a few years "The Eagles" would warn us that "you can check out any time you like but you can never leave."
Now fade to fifteen years later, I'm in my thirties and planning a business trip to the "Windy City", Chicago. I call my Uncle in the old hometown, tell him I'll be nearby in a week or two and he insists I come stay with him for a couple of days and wander around the old homestead. It sounds like a great idea to me.
After taking care of business I get in the rental car and on the road toward an earlier time and a fondly remembered place. An hour or two later I'm slowly driving into the "Town that time forgot." It looks older than I remember and really, really a lot smaller. I remember Uncle Louie's home is right behind the old store. The store is gone and there's a 'dinner house' (tavern) and storage area where it used to be. Grandpa's name and the year he built it (1905) are still on the front of the building. I knock on Uncle Louie's door but there is no answer. Luckily, I have his son's telephone number so I call him. Cousin Bobby tells me Uncle Louie was admitted to the hospital yesterday. He says Uncle Louie will be okay but won't be home for a couple of days, he still wants me to stay at his house and I'll find the key under the mat.
I spent an uneventful night and in the morning found my way to the only coffee shop in town. Like most of the other storefronts on the street, it's quite old and in need of a coat of paint if not replacement. There are a few cars out front so it seems popular. Like I said, it's the only place in town so there isn't much choice.
As I open the door I can hear the din of laughter and conversation. The whole town might be in there! It seems like everyone is having a great time and then I step in and two things happen; I am immediately swept back in time maybe twenty or thirty years. I see farmers in bib overhauls wearing baseball caps with John Deere emblazoned on the front. There are shopkeepers in white shirts and ties, wearing baseball caps with John Deere emblazoned on the front; and there are a couple of retired couples smartly dressed with . . . well, you know. These people have been sitting here since I was ten years old, just waiting for me to walk in that door. They have been talking across tables and across the room, discussing the weather, the price of corn and how that woman down the street is spending a lot of time in the next town lately.
The other thing that happened was everyone in the place, as if on cue, stopped what he or she was doing and looked at me. Not a sound could be heard except the squeak of the door as I closed it. I thought I had been transported to a class 'B' western movie set, the cameras were rolling and the stranger, covered with dust and wearing a black hat has just ridden up and walked into the town saloon. I was immediately faced with a choice. I could leave, get in my car and go back to California or I just keep going. It really wasn't much of a choice. You see, I knew something they didn't know; I had been gone for many years but I knew I belonged here. This was my town. Although I didn't bring it off very well, I assumed my best John Wayne persona and walked across the floor (wooden I might add) to the counter. I could swear I heard my spurs jingling but knew I had left them back in California in case I ran into Roy Rogers again.
Clump, clump across the floor I walked, this must be the biggest room in Illinois. Every eye in the place followed me every step of the way. I should explain now that my middle name is Keith. Yes, Wilderness Keith Wally. Anyway, my family and the kids I went to school with in this small town were the only ones who ever called me by that name. When we moved to California I lost the Keith bit except for my Mom, Dad and Sis. Not that I disliked Keith, it's just that "Wilderness" is so much more... California-ish.
At long last I finally make it to the ever-retreating lunch counter and sit down. The waitress walks up and says; "What'll you have?" I told her I could use a cup of coffee right now and a couple of eggs, hash browns and toast when you get to it. Oh, and tell these people to quit staring at me! Well, I didn't say the last bit but I sure wanted to.
She started to walk away and then turned and said; "You're Keith aren't you?" My mouth fell open and I just sat there. I hadn't been here in fifteen years! How the heck did she know my name and who I was?
Without moving my head, my eyes looked left and right for the 'candid camera' that surely must be hidden nearby. Then, with a look of shock on my face I said; "Yes I am." She then finished me off by saying; "Your Uncle Louie is in the hospital you know!" I just sat there for a minute and looked at her. Somehow I finally managed "Yes I know, I spent the night at his house and I'll see him today."
It was in that instant, as if on cue, that everyone in the place went back to where they were when I walked in the door. Conversations continued like nothing had happened at all. Forks that had remained suspended somewhere between the plate and the mouth continued their journey and I think I saw a couple of people finally swallow the mouth-full of coffee they had been holding since I entered the room. The noise quickly built to a crescendo and soon it was as though nothing had happened at all. I looked around the room and people smiled back and nodded their heads as if to acknowledge they hadn't seen me since yesterday. It seemed as though now, they knew who I was and that I belonged there.
If you haven't grown up in a small town, a small town anywhere but especially in the heart of America, you might not understand. Yes, everyone knows 'everything about you, there is no privacy. There is no memory-loss either, if your second cousin on Aunt Ruth's side had a baby out of wedlock 45 years ago, believe me, everyone in town remembers.
But they also remember the great depression when Grandpa gave half the town's people groceries out of the store and never did get paid. Many also remember the kid that left for that evil but magic land out west all those years ago, whose roots are solidly planted in a small town in the mid-west. They look out for each other and each other's children. They are the heart and soul of America.
People say you cannot go back but I think I did and, more than that, I truly believe I still could!
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