I grew up in a small town.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. I grew up way out in the country, on a farm, but the town closest to us was the one we considered “our town.” It’s where we went to shop at the Houchen’s Grocery store, and do laundry at the Wishy Washy on Saturdays. When people ask me where I’m from—you know, when the conversation is not the kind where you say, “I grew up on a farm about 8 miles out of town, in a community called Glens Fork, in Adair County…”—when the conversation is brief and you’re just making nice, that town is what I say.
It had a big red brick courthouse in the middle of the town square. The kind with double doors on opposite sides of the building, so you could enter from either direction. The courthouse had a tower with a clock at the top. That clock never was right.
When I was a little girl, there were benches outside the courthouse doors, and old men would sit on those benches and tell lies and whittle.
There was a pool room down a side street. Y’all know about that pool room because I’ve blogged about it before, in the blog about ice cream. The town also had a little café tucked into a corner of the square, and a Ben Franklin store.
Ben Franklin was every kid’s dream before Toys R Us came along. There was also a Western Auto, with gardening tools, wheelbarrows, rocking horses, and a little red wagon in the front window. That’s where my dad bought some of my best Christmas presents ever. My Play Family garage. My electric train. That’s where he bought my first guitar. And that changed who I was forever.
I know I talk about my town a lot. I guess it’s because it’s such a part of who I am, and it’s a part of who I am not.
Nowadays I live half way between two towns. It’s ten miles north to the bigger city, which has a university, gobs and gobs of restaurants, and is building a new performing arts center. If you turn right out of my driveway, you go to that big town.
But if you turn left out of my driveway, ten miles the other direction is…..a small town. One with a courthouse and a square a lot like “mine.” If I have a choice, I always turn left.
And last night I did turn left, and drove to the small town to get something I needed. I noticed as I drove through, that there was a big crowd at the Frosty Freeze. My husband, Steve, wasn’t feeling well, so I decided to pick up something to eat.
Frosty Freeze is a little glass and concrete box in the middle of a parking lot. There are two big trees out front, and several picnic tables arranged under the orange-ish street lights. I angled into a space at the side and got out. I walked up to the window and got in line. When it was my turn, the girl took my order. Two barbecue sandwiches, a small vanilla malt with extra malt, and a small pineapple shake with extra pineapple. Oh, and a funnel cake.
I paid, then I sat down on the curb to wait. All the tables were full. School is out here, and high school kids moved back and forth, hovering between parked cars and around the beds of pickup trucks. A couple of farm boys climbed out of one truck and came around the front to place orders. But more high school kids hung out at the tables and around by the bug zapper, and they weren’t ordering anything. They were just hanging out.
I watched the dance of awkward wanting, and was swept away—back to my teenage years, cruising through the streets of the place where I grew up. I was swept back to the essence of all that is small town.
My town—the one where I grew up-- had the carcass of an old movie theater on one corner of the square,with a neon marquis out front that read Columbian theater in big vertical letters that reached almost three stories high.
But that marquis never lit up when I lived there. I got to see one movie in that theater when I was a small child. It closed down later that fall. The drive-in, further out on the edge of the city, was closed long before I was born. There was no roller rink, no professional or semi-pro sports team, no wave pool or museum.
There was absolutely. Nothing. To. Do.
So on Friday and Saturday nights, the kids from the farms and the suburbs, such as they were, drove into town and cruised. They circled the square, went down the big hill on Jamestown street, out toward the parkway, made a big circle around Sonic, then went back toward the courthouse, where they'd circle the square and repeat. All at about 15 miles per hour, so they could stick their heads out the windows and talk to the cars they were meeting. Sometimes they'd take breaks and hang at Sonic or Dairy Queen, or in the Pizza Hut parking lot.
This town where I sat at the Frosty Freeze is a little better off. They have an actual working drive in (refurbished) that shows first run movies. And they’re only 20 miles from the bigger city, so they can get to the mall, the arcade, and the minor league baseball games the larger town offers.
And yet it was the same. The smell of barbecue and deep fried yummy goodness. The sound of the shake mixer. The ziiiiip-pop of the bug zapper in the back, and the low rumble of big pipes on a farm boy’s pickup truck.
Parents murmuring to their children as they helped little fingers with ice cream cones, just the way they did at Sonic and Dairy Queen when I was a young girl. Bright colored bows in pony tails. Softball uniforms. Bare feet, brown with dirt from playing outside in the yard all day. Swimsuits under t-shirts. High school rings wrapped with rubber bands. A pretty girl's long hair blowing in the warm evening breeze. Tan skin and young love. The banker’s daughter and the poor farm boy. It’s the stuff romance is made of, for me.
I determined, last night, that some things time cannot change because the reasons for them don’t change. My evidence was standing right there at that window, ordering barbecue and a small chocolate shake. Even though there is more to do in this small town, there they are, just the same as we were, cruising up and down Main Street on a perfect summer night. Hanging at the Frosty Freeze.
The girl came to the window with my order, and I walked away with my white sacks of un-politically-correct food. But I also walked away reminded of who I was, to a degree. Reminded that although I love certain things about big cities, I will always be a small-town girl at heart. An artsy girl who still gets a thrill from the growl of a diesel pickup truck engine, broad shoulders and a farmer tan. All just three blocks down from a big red brick courthouse with a tower and a clock on the front.
The only real differences are that I’m a lot older, on the outside looking in now, and those farm boys stroll right by without a sideways glance.
Oh, and their courthouse clock is right.
So, Bandits and Buddies, tell me about the place where you grew up, and what said "summer" to you when you were young.
Were your summers in a small town, or a big city?
Where did the kids hang out on those long, hot evenings? Was there a movie theater? Any chance there was a drive in?
Did you ever cruise main street on Friday and Saturday nights?
Have you ever ridden in the back of a pickup truck?
Do any of y'all remember Ben Franklin or Western Auto stores?
And do you like to read small town love stories?