Vanderleun has some elegies to the American small town so many of us grew up in.
RAY: I was born in the late fifties into the same small Kansas town where my mother and father grew up.
My grandparents all lived in that same town. Everyone was basically German, with a smattering of other northern European ethnicities thrown into the mix. The Main Street had everything anyone could possibly need to buy, from groceries to hardware. There were several Protestant churches that were always packed on Sundays, and one Catholic church on the edge of town, as well. There was no crime to speak ofâ€¦ we had one policeman, who spent most of his time bringing groceries to shut-ins. (He was a friend of my fatherâ€™s, and my dad would joke about it.) We kids (and there were tons of us!) were outside from sun up to sun down, playing and fishing and riding bikes and building things. Every family had a garden out back, and sometimes a small orchard, and some folks raised a steer for winter beef, or kept chickens. That was in town! Every holiday was an opportunity for everyone in the family to get together and have some fun and good food. It was a warm, safe, sunny, idyllic way to grow up.
That all began to change in the seventies. People became much more materialistic, thanks in part to Mom taking a job outside the home and having all that extra cash. The new color television encouraged people to buy buy buy. Parents began divorcing and all my friendsâ€™ families disintegrated. People began staying inside from sun up to sun down. Where were all the kids? Inside, playing those new video games! The gardens went to weeds.The first black family moved into town. Hey, whereâ€™s my bike?
After college, I moved to another state for a job. When I returned home for a funeral last summer, I didnâ€™t recognize the place. It was like that scene from â€œItâ€™s a Wonderful Life,â€ when George Bailey gets to see what his small town was like without him in it. The streets had all been widened, there were cars everywhere, and the town had become mile after mile of shopping and fast food joints. Main Street was dead and boarded up. There was a new GIGANTIC shopping Mall, though. It had been built on top of the land where my grandparentsâ€™ farm had been.
I sat at a table outside of one of the Mallâ€™s restaurants, sipping a coffee and watching the people as they came and went. Most were fat, poorly dressed, and had a generally unhealthy appearance. They all looked so sad and stressed.
I thought of that YouTube video â€œNever Forget,â€ showing archival footage of daily life in a small town in South Dakota in 1938. A town filled with happy, healthy, well-dressed people. My home town used to be that way, too.
But now it is gone. The modern way of life is a curse, for sure.
DETER NATURALIST: We grew up in the same town, or nearby.
Your reference to Pottersville (Itâ€™s a Wonderful Life without George Bailey) is razor-sharp. My â€œhome townâ€ grew 800% since the mid-1960s and now looks like itâ€™s the back-lot where every single TV commercial is now filmed. In my old neighborhood literally every eighth 1950â€™s vintage house has been torn down, replaced by a â€œmansionâ€ whose walls extend to the utility easements.
I remember climbing a fire escape on a downtown building with Jr. HS classmates and watching a parade from the roof. Imagine trying that now.
I remember buying rocket engines and cannon fuse with cash at the downtown hobby store (rode there on my bike) at 11 or 12 years of age. Imagine trying that now. We launched rockets at an open field near a grade school and a college. No one bothered us. When I tried to launch rockets at a county-owned field with my kids 15 years ago we got hounded by a deputy sheriff.
When I was a kid my home town had TWO stoplights. When I moved out 30 years ago it took literally 45 minutes of stop-and-go to drive from a house on the south edge of town to the north edge of town on a Saturday morning. How many â€œnew Americansâ€ have joined us since then?
An ice age cometh.
And he links the more hard-line Alt Right perspective of Chateau Heartiste.
I find it amazing sitting here, aged 70, looking back, and realizing that the whole entire active, complicated, functioning-in-a-lot-of-ways-better-than-today’s-America small town world I knew as a boy is as dead as Nineveh and Tyre. Who could have imagined this would happen?
When I was young, my small town was already a provincial relic, home to an industry in its final death stages. The coal was below the water table and post-WWII environmental regs stopped them from pumping out the water anymore.
A lot of people had already left to find work in the modern, economically thriving America of cities and suburbs, but a lot of people, too, clung to home and church and family, and their small town middle class status. Moving to the city involved an instant demotion to the bottom rung on the social and economic ladder. Moving to the city also involved the loss of ready access to the out-of-doors, and hunting and fishing were like religion to people like us. Families were close. Everyone showed up for weddings and funerals, and you were in touch with grandparents and aunts and uncles all the time. People who moved away lost all that.
But alternatives to moving away ended with my parents’ generation. I and my contemporaries grew up feeling confined by the narrow intellectual horizons and thoroughly conscious of the lack of opportunities of small town life. We were eager to get out and take on the great big outside world. Only losers and criminals stayed behind.
A lot of this had to do with the vast 20th Century growth in personal and social mobility. I had an uncle, born in 1910, who was an all-around able and intelligent man, with natural dignity and a sense of style. He had to leave school after third grade and go to work. He was stuck as a coal miner all his life. If he’d been born 40 years later, he’d have taken standardized tests and scored well, and elite colleges would have been recruiting him.
In the old days, a small town was full of able and talented people. After WWII, social mobility dispersed all the competent younger people to the four winds, leaving behind the hapless and unlucky.
Nobody today, not even the hapless and unlucky, is willing to work hard to make a small living. The malls killed Main Street, and now Amazon is killing the malls. Costs and regulations have piled up, and starting a small business is much, much harder today. When I was a kid, there were barrooms and mom-and-pop little convenience stores on every block. The latter opened at 7 in the morning and closed at 10 or 11 every night. The kind of people living in today’s small town cannot be bothered to do all that. They’d rather take relief. Personal character has dramatically decayed and our society is sclerotic with regulations and red-tape.
We’ve gained a lot with mobility and economic growth, but we have also lost so very, very much.
On a damp Thursday morning in May 1938, hundreds of workers from Western Pennsylvania oil fields, given the day off to look for a missing girl, walked through the Allegheny Forest at armsâ€™ length. They traversed the tangled underbrush alongside police with bloodhounds, World War I veterans, Cornplanter Indians, coal miners, and assorted others whoâ€™d responded to the local mayorâ€™s call for 1,000 volunteers. They killed rattlesnakes and were careful not to drop a foot down into one of the hundreds of oil wells dug during the areaâ€™s petroleum boom in the 1870s.
But by nightfall, the â€œhaggard, sleep-robbed faces of scores of men,â€ as the Bradford Era newspaper described them, told onlookers the grim truth: another day had passed without finding the little red-haired four-year-old, Marjorie West.
Eighty years ago today, Marjorie vanished while at a Motherâ€™s Day picnic in the forest with her family. To this day she is the subject of one of the oldest unsolved cases recorded by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Her search was one of the largest for a child since the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping six years earlier. Residents of Western Pennsylvania and Marjorieâ€™s surviving relatives still hold out hope sheâ€™s alive. If she is, she may yet celebrate her 85th birthday next month.
It is a standard hazard of life in Appalachia that, in mid-to-late April, Ursus Americanus, the native, killed-off-by-the-pioneers-but-returned-by-the-conservationists Black Bear wakes up hungry from his winter slumbers and embarks on a temporary annual reign of terror, leaving no bird feeders or garbage cans left outside safe.
It must have been a young, apprentice bear who showed up Tuesday night. He could not bend the pole reinforced-with-rebar that holds up two feeders, and he was also foiled by the sturdy pipe holding the much-bear-destroyed-and-then-always-repaired ancient red feeder that predates our 30-year ownership of the farm. He merely bent down the un-reinforced, limber pole, pushed open the bottom of the tall, tin feeder with his nose, and inhaled its sunflower seed contents.
He must have taken bear lessons before he returned Wednesday. The rebar-reinforced pole was bent. The pipe pole was pushed so hard that its cement base was tilted out of the ground, and a piece of board from the bottom of the old red feeder was artfully removed. Every single feeder was emptied.
All this criminal activity on Tuesday and Wednesday nights took place discreetly late at night after the humans and dogs had gone to bed.
Last night was different. Karen and I were sitting here, around 9:30, watching a movie on tv. The ten-month-old Taigan puppy was outside exploring. Suddenly, the door flew open, in came the puppy who ran all the way across the room to a position of comparative safety on the stairs at the far end of the room before he began barking.
This puppy has been notoriously unperturbable. Nothing has seemed to intimidate him previously. Certainly, not me. Not even his older brother, Uhlan, who once sent him to the vet for stitches.
So, I got up, took the loaded Model 629 from the bookcase by the door, stepped outside and applied a little .44-caliber fumigation to the general vicinity.
Amusingly, both dogs were still leery and looking around carefully last night and again this morning.
There was one small (mildly appalling) denouement. This morning the puppy was out running around for the second time, and after a bit came trotting down the slope from behind the cabin with something black in his mouth. “He’s playing with another black walnut from last fall.” I thought. But, no, he sat down, and I saw it was too large. He had found himself, and was dissecting and devouring, a black bear turd.
We woke up to a chilly house. The winds roaring like a freight train overnight knocked the power out. Happily, though, we are in Pennsylvania and the lights (and the furnace) were back on at 9:00 A.M.
When our seven-month-old-but-monstrously-huge Taigan puppy came back from his first morning outing, he had something sticking out of his nose. Short little spikes? Some kind of burrs? Karen brought me some needle-nose pliers and held him, and I reached out and extracted three in one swipe. The puppy yipped.
On close examination, the little spikes proved to be tiny porcupine quills. It seemed strange that he had only three, right in the nose, and they were all short and about an inch long. Did he meet a baby porcupine? we wondered. Or did he just reach out and sniff one’s head?
But it was not to be quite so simple. A bit later, I saw in his profile view one more quill, bent against his nose.
Efforts to restrain this 75-pound seven-month Central Asian puppy failed. We could not hold him and keep his head still. He had to go to the Vet and be sedated, for one tiny quill.
Well, this morning the dogs were barking about something, when I got up. I looked out the back door and there was a full-sized adult porcupine sitting high in a tree about 50 yards or so from the back door.
I had Karen bring me a Winchester Model 1892 .25-20 Saddle-Ring Carbine (made in 1915) that I acquired in a recent auction and a box of cartridges. The trick would be figuring out where exactly you had to hold.
I fired a shot, which I thought went high. My second shot, held lower, seemed possibly to have struck. The porcupine seemed perturbed. Karen wanted to try her hand. She took aim and definitely hit him. The porcupine began trying to descend. I tried another shot, aiming distinctly below the varmint’s body, and that one really had an impact. The porcupine was hard hit and its paw was shaking in distress. I fired one more time and this last one knocked him right out of the tree.
The .25-20 is clearly an anemic round, not a lot more powerful than a .22 Long Rifle, but it is a good round for this kind of thing. It makes little noise and it took the porcupine a long time to figure out he was being shot at. Long enough for Karen and me to figure out the sights on an unfamiliar new gun.
So perish all our enemies!
(Porcupines are kind of cute but the injuries they can inflict on a dog are horrific. That last one quill yesterday also cost a hundred fifty bucks for veterinary services.)
Teresa Mull, like me, is a native of Pennsylvania Coal Country.
This winter, I went back to the woods. The backwoods.
My homeland is Central Pennsylvania, and I returned there to celebrate Christmas with the family and to help out with the coal furnace during the bleakest time of year (more on that later). Hunter S. Thompson spent a stint of his youth in my native neck of the woods, â€œin an abandoned coal townâ€ as he put it, and deemed it â€œbarrenâ€¦[where nobody else] was between the ages of fifteen and fifty.â€ He wrote to a friend of the regionâ€™s â€œmountains of coal dust, dirty old people, ancient wrecks of housesâ€ and said the experience was like â€œhaving a nightmare.â€
James Carville famously labeled the stretch of land between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as â€œâ€¦Alabama without the blacks. They didnâ€™t film The Deer Hunter there for nothing,â€ while also noting â€œThe state has the second-highest concentration of NRA members, behind Texas.â€ Others refer to it, both affectionately and derogatorily, as â€œPennsyltucky.â€
Thompsonâ€™s rural Pennsylvania gig was early on in his career, before, I think, his literary licensing and drug use were firing in full force, and I can attest that his descriptions are, even now, spot-on. As far as Carvilleâ€™s assessment goes, despite being a Democrat, heâ€™s not too far off either. Hunter safety class was a required part of my Catholic schoolâ€™s curriculum in the second grade. SECOND GRADE. And the first two days of deer season were always school holidays.
Central PA is indeed a forgotten part of the country, with tired, old mountains, dreary weather, a generally pessimistic populace, an overgrown, unkempt natural beauty, and archaic everything. But itâ€™s not completely charmless. It is home, after all.
Returning to Pennsyltucky during the winter months means enduring the Eternal Greyâ€”days youâ€™re not sure are really days exactly; more like sepia extensions of early dusk. One great cloud amasses its forces in early November and lingers over the sun until at least Easter, at which point it habitually snows.
The snow does make the Appalachian dilapidation very pretty, covering rusty, run-down, soggy, boggy, moldy things with a pure, clean blanket of white stuff. It doesnâ€™t last though. Like a Catholic fresh from the confessional, a day or twoâ€™s time is enough to gather a layer of grime. Growing up, â€œdonâ€™t eat the snowâ€ was a rule not because animals made it yellow (though they did), but because chimneys pouring out rich, black smoke left a layer of soot on top (and still do).
Hunting is a popular pastime here and camouflage is acceptable year-round and in all circumstances. Camo is seen at the gym (I know one regular who sports camo knee sleeves), at proms and weddings, on cars and in them. Camo, like guns, goes with everything. A billboard greets me on my way into town advertising camo coffee cups (if that isnâ€™t dedication, I donâ€™t know what is). Itâ€™s a wonder more people donâ€™t accidentally collide with each other!
Going to the gun store is another popular regional pastime, even when hunting season is still months away. Here you can meet the â€œbitterâ€ people Barack Obama referenced in 2008 who â€œcling to guns or religion.â€ The last time I was at my neighborhood guns and ammo shop, I overheard a gruff customer justify his purchase of another firearm to his wife by saying, â€œTrumpâ€™s not gonna be in office forever,â€ and then, apropos of nothing, â€œLIBERAL A**HOLES!â€
She’s right that the small cities and towns that used to be flourishing are all hollowed out today, their Main Streets abandoned, and the post-WWII brain drain to the cities is still continuing, but Central Pennsylvania is actually a nice place to retire.
The people are friendly. Taxes are low. The scenery is only slightly inferior to Vermont’s. We have the best trout steams in the East. The pheasants have gone extinct, but we have good grouse shooting, and plenty of deer and turkey. If you win the ticket lottery, you can even shoot an elk. And everywhere you look there are Trump signs.
We had hired a local Amish crew last Summer to install a new steel roof on the 1812 log cabin. Naturally, they finally showed up to work the day following our first six inch snowfall of the season, and even a bit of snow falling that day did not keep them from working.
We are both retired now, so we are finally getting to stay full-time out here at the 300-acre Central Pennsylvania farm we purchased as a vacation place thirty years ago.
The Pennsylvania Senate is advancing legislation to make the Eastern hellbender the official state amphibian, as researchers say its population is shrinking because of pollution.
The bill passed, 47-2, and heads to the House.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the hellbender is an aquatic salamander that can grow up to two feet long, making them the largest North American amphibian. They are nocturnal and prefer shallow, clear and fast streams with rocks to live under.
I am currently in residence at my farm in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountain in Central Pennsylvania. My neighbor, Bud, just stopped by to visit and chat. Like just about everybody else in these parts, Bud has been an enthusiastic Trump supporter.
Today, though, Bud seemed a bit discouraged by the ineffectiveness of The Donald’s campaign effort. When I inquired how he was enjoying following the campaign contest, Bud replied bitterly: “Who wants to watch a drowning rat?”
Allentown police confirmed local officials corralled an alligator around 7 p.m. Friday after hours tracking it through the Lehigh Canal. On Saturday morning, the reptile was on its way to a preserve in the Poconos.
Travis Benitez, 18, spotted the 31/2-foot gator while fishing in the canal. The teen said he’s been fishing in the canal since he was 7 years old and “never saw anything like that in my life.”
The gator prompted lots of activity. Police got a call around noon. City officials called for assistance from reptile and wildlife experts and tried to get the alligator to the bank. Keith Galvin of Galvin Wildlife Control of the Lehigh Valley tried to hook the alligator, which he says is a humane way to get the reptile out of the water.
“It won’t hurt him, he has alligator skin,” he said as he tried to capture the gator.
The rescue operation proved to be challenging because of the dense seaweed-like grass lining the water. Also, the alligator blended in with the canal with only its eyes rising above the water.
When a fisherman spotted an alligator in the Lehigh Canal in Allentown earlier this month, it made for a few tense hours as authorities tried to corral the carnivore. Keith E. Galvin Sr., of Galvin Wildlife Control in Upper Macungie Township, eventually was successful in hooking the gator and then turned it over to a reptile preserve in the Poconos.
A plastic crate, typically used to carry a large dog, was ready for the gator once it was corralled.
While Allentown won’t be confused for the Florida Everglades, there have been alligators captured in the waters of the Queen City in the past.
In September 2009, Allentown police, a city fire marshal and animal control officers captured a 6-foot alligator â€” believed to be the biggest ever found in the Lehigh Valley â€” sunning itself on the bank of the Jordan Creek
Not unlike the scene just outside our window last night.
Around 10:15 PM EST, Karen and I had just finished watching Vincent Price hamming it up in House of Seven Gables (1963), when our saluki (who had already had his last outside call for the evening) was found peering intently out the window.
Outside the window were three bird-feeders on poles standing in a small clearing and our dog had previously detected an opossum visiting at night to mop up fallen seeds lying on the ground. He had developed a real enthusiasm for that possum, and kept looking for him weeks after the varmint had been last seen.
Last night, though, Uhlan was looking out the window so intently that I suspected his beloved possum had finally returned. Karen went over to the window and looked, and saw that two poles were bent over and two rifled feeders were lying on the ground.
She retrieved the flashlight from the other end of the room and handed it to me. When I aimed the light out the window, the culprit was visible. It was a fully-grown black bear, sitting about ten feet from the house and looking guilty.
This was not the first time that bears had raided our birdfeeders. I had previously vowed revenge, and I had a .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson all ready for just such an occasion, sitting on a bookcase near the door, its first two chambers loaded with ratshot.
I reached for the revolver, but soft-hearted Karen intervened on the criminal’s behalf, saying “Don’t you shoot that bear!”
Sigh! What can you do? I’d been looking forward to applying a load of number 12 ratshot where it would do the most good, but wives are wives. I contented myself with opening the door and firing a shot out into the (empty) front field. The loud report and the flame (visible at night) issuing from the barrel naturally made some impression of Mr. Bear, who (as Karen who had been watching, reported) levitated out of the area in great haste.
Previously, one or another bear had absconded with two feeders, which were not seen again or found long afterward totally destroyed. This time, we recovered all the feeders fully intact, and one of them was even still full of sunflower seeds.