Small Towns and their Secrets

I’m tunneling back through time to tell how I arrived at the claustrophobic culture of Cherapee, North Carolina in Where the River Runs Deep (WTRRD). Though I grew up on a farm, I spent much of my time in the hamlet of Freeland Park, Indiana. My grandparents lived there: Grandpa and Grandma Handy lived in a 12-room house, once owned by the founder, Antoine Freeland. My maternal grandmother lived a block away in a smaller house, surrounded by flower gardens.

The town once had aspirations because people thought the railroad would pass through. Buildings were constructed: grain elevators, a brick school building for grades 1-12, a bank, hotel, barber shop, grocery store, gas station, post office, Presbyterian church. The telephone office was in someone’s home. A town block was set aside out for a park, which had a swing set, barbecue pit, and baseball diamond.

But the railroad went through Fowler, Indiana, ten miles east, crushing the dreams of Freeland Park promoters. By the time I was born, the hotel and bank had become private residences. Soon after, the grocery store, barber shop, and gas station closed.

Town inhabitants were white, mostly of English, Scottish, and German heritage. Four Roman Catholic families lived on the east side of town. The rest were Protestant—some went to church in the Bethlehem Presbyterian Church, where I was baptized; some spent their Sunday mornings reading the funny papers.

Family connections were everything. Strangers, as you might guess, were not welcomed—unless they were preachers, come to save souls. Strangers were suspect. What was their intent? Were they planning to take something? If their skin was a different color, if their lipstick was too red, if they spoke too fast and were not auctioneers, they were strangers. Sometimes a farm boy would go away to college and come back to visit his parents. He’d bring his wife or girlfriend to church and we would stare at her, keep each article of her clothing in memory, not knowing when we would see the likes of her again.

Our public education was basic; no frills like higher mathematics or foreign languages. The library in our school was five long rows of old brown books encased in glass and a 5’x 8’ wooden bookcase that was filled at intervals by Fowler public library staff. We had no discussion groups. New ideas had to slide in and set awhile to make sure they weren’t some malevolent force that would permanently disrupt our lives.

There was a dark side to our community—evil-doers lived among us. Criminal acts, like the attempted rape of young girls and the savage beating of disobedient children, rarely reached the ears of the sheriff. Things were hushed up. Instead of calling the sheriff, some people called my father. He was an ombudsman of sorts. I learned people’s darkest secrets because somebody would be parked in our barn lot, asking Daddy for help. Or I would hear my parents talking in hushed tones, afterward.

My father believed in protecting his neighbors. No reason to destroy a man’s good name if he planted his rows straight or put his machinery in a shed when it rained. Why did the young boy, whose cognition would never be the same after repeated blows to his head, not do what he was told and what was the girl thinking of, tempting men? Daddy would shake his head. “So-and-so has a hell of a temper” or “So-and-so just got drunk and that’s why he did what he did.”

Secrets. Everyone had secrets. In Cherapee, North Carolina, the mists and fog are metaphors for concealment. I grew up with fields of corn and people surrounding me like a fortress, which presents a different metaphor: something oversized that keeps you in and others out. Both settings can result in claustrophobia.

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