By Stuart Meyer
The long days of the Summer of 1979 were waning and the August haze had softened the sun’s piercing rays in the Southern skies above. I anxiously hurried out the front door racing through the invisible cloud of humidity toward the family car. In the South, this was the time of year for which iced sweet tea was invented.
Earlier that morning, the local newspaper sat in a state of disarray on our round family breakfast table. As I glanced down at the pile of news, there sat a full-page advertisement partially blanketed by the Sports section. The black-and-white text of the ad heralded the three most dreaded words feared by any small town kid who roamed freely upon Mother Nature’s playground through those long Summer days… “BACK TO SCHOOL”.
As the youngest, I wrestled my way into the car and laid down on the coveted floor boards of the backseat rather than brave the smoldering aromatic blaze of the vinyl bench-like seat. Walking barefoot over fiery coals was no match for the backseat of a 1972 Buick Electra baking atop the driveway in the heat of a Kentucky Summer.
A little ways down the road, I re-surfaced from the depths of the floorboard and turned my attention to peering out the window at all the familiar landmarks as we made our way toward the courthouse square. As a kid, every trip into downtown was like a small town reunion as all main roads flowed into “the square”, much like the precious lifeblood which flows into the heart.
The Dixie Highway flowed in from one direction and Mulberry St. the other. The unique character of each original downtown building stood proud like a strong, yet silent actor quietly emitting its own unique story and history. A lone cannonball fired during the Civil War still sat lodged in the second story of a corner building just down from the town’s first movie house, the 1940s era State Theater. Just down from the square was a regular Farmer’s Market, where local farmers sold a little bit of their harvest to the community from the back of their pick-up trucks.
We arrived in downtown and I spilled out of the backseat onto the street along with my older brother and sister. I sometimes felt as though we were related to everyone in town as everyone seemed to know everyone. I stood there on the street for a moment and looked all around with wonder almost as if time had frozen for just a few moments. Our destination was the People’s Store and the Factory Outlet shoe shop of which we always came through the back alley entrance. A trip downtown to buy some new school clothes and a new pair of shoes was one of the cherished consolations of the collision course with Summer’s end and the eminent start of a new school year.
Over the many years of my life which have opened and closed like chapters of an epic American folk literature work, this particular “page” of my own auto-biographical volume of small town life has remained permanently imprinted upon my heart and mind. The collection of experiences and time spent in small towns throughout my first 27 years of my life followed by the past 12 years in the Chicago area have served as the inspiration for the web TV show I created, “Small Town Flavor”.
Small towns and their downtowns are like the “grassroots” of American life, firmly rooted as one-of-a-kind blades of grass in the rich and abundant soil of our American identity. Life has taught me that the essence of small town life may very well contain the secrets to happiness as measured above all else by the collective and individual relationships we share with each other. Interestingly, the scientific world is catching up as research has shown that fundamental happiness is rooted in the strength of our social connections.
In many ways, food has also defined our connection to each other throughout history. From the time when hunting and gathering food was the main business of the day to modern times in which we use our shared connection to food to strengthen social bonds. In small towns, local food culture is not just about subsistence, it’s ingrained in the identity, tradition, rituals and pride of the community.
I believe the next great chapter in American history is threatened by the decline of our relationships, our connection and our accountability as “neighbors”. While we all need money to make a living, the one thing we need most to make a happy life is each other.
For these reasons, we should celebrate our small towns, share their stories, their unique food culture and enrich our lives through the lessons we can all learn from the small town way of life. I like to think we either come from small towns or there is a little bit of small town living within us… on our streets, in our neighborhoods, throughout our cities, around our states and across our country.