We are born crying
For in the gift is knowing
How it all turns out
That haiku sort of sums up my seventh summer. It began with a tonsillectomy. In my ether-induced slumber I imagined death, a big-eyed, long-fanged grotesque who resembled the love child of Count Dracula and Betty Boop, entering the operating room. He stuck his long slimy arm down my throat, knocked out my two front teeth and yanked out my tonsils, my adenoids and my soul. I woke up in a sweat, for the first time feeling the real meaning of time. It was later than I thought.
My mother decided to soothe me with ice cream and milk shakes. She also distracted me by allowing me to watch our new television set during the day. And so I discovered Hawkins Falls, Population 6200, the first successful American TV soap opera. Actually it was called “a television novel that tells the story of life in small town USA.” It was broadcast live from Chicago. Or, as announcer Hugh Downs said at the end of each episode, “This program has come to you from Hawkins Falls — by way of Chicago.”
Hawkins Falls was supposed to be some place north of the City of the Big Shoulders. At the time I was living in Chicago’s North Rogers Park. My neighborhood was the Midwest version of something out of Elmer Rice or Maxwell Anderson. What Carl Sandburg called the “stormy, husky, brawling” city seemed escape-proof. Hawkins Falls, Population 6200 had an appeal for the child I was. This was my first hint of Vineyard life — and my first lure.
In short order, the nightmares about death were replaced by reverential dreams of small town life. Some day I hoped to climb down from those big city shoulders and breathe refreshing sighs of relief in a softer setting. I thought living in a small town was on a par with eating comfort food while wearing comfortable shoes.
If you look at our literature, our theatre and film history, you’ll see I was not alone in my attraction to a smaller life. Just think of our classics: Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio; Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, which snakes through Illinois; Thornton Wilder’s Grover’s Corners, N.H., home of Our Town; Frank Capra’s Bedford Falls (possibly in New York), home of It’s A Wonderful Life. The small-town ethic is embedded in our culture from Tom Sawyer’s St. Petersburg, Mo. to Andy Hardy’s Carvel, Calif., to Marty McFly’s Hill Valley, Calif., to Homer Simpson’s Springfield, Wherever (allegedly Oregon).
By the way, Capra’s co-writers, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, rented from time to time in Vineyard Haven. Wilder was also a familiar guest on the Island.
I guess in some regards the fuzzy feelings about small towns are universal. “The nice part about living in a small town is that when you don’t know what you’re doing, someone else does,” philosopher Immanuel Kant observed about village life in Prussia more than 200 years ago — when he wasn’t mouthing off about pure reason.
So you might imagine how I felt when last year we moved full-time to the Vineyard. I inhaled the sea air and exhaled romantic notions. Felt like home.
There are many benefits to small town living, and one of them is the true meaning of time. Time, a commodity everywhere in short supply, can be treasured, structured and preserved in an environment that refuses to get too big for its britches or its shoulders.
The topography of small town life here allows me to save time. I love that. Thanks to my car and the proximity of the shops, I can get groceries, dog supplies, hardware, mail and even handle my banking within minutes.
What makes the Vineyard different from other small towns, besides the fact that it’s actually six small towns (plus Chappy)?
For starters, there are not that many wonderful small-town-America places that are surrounded by beaches and the deep blue sea.
“In Vineyard Haven . . . mostly I love the soft collision here of harbor and shore, the subtly haunting briny quality that all small towns have when they are situated on the sea.” So said Vineyard Haven’s William Styron.
Adaptation and reinvention are two primary paths for living here. Just about every Islander born and bred has creatively turned supply and demand into the battery terminals of their livelihoods. Every washashore I’ve met was someone else before landing here. True, some retire here, but some allow their inner children finally to pursue a thwarted art and some provide an expertise to their towns in some helpful way.
You never know to whom you may be talking. That person at the board of health could have been a medical school professor. That person renting you a car could have been a computer analyst. That EMT giving you CPR could have been a high school guidance counselor. That carpenter could have been a police officer. That sculptor could have been a tax attorney.
It’s what makes the Vineyard’s small township all the more special.
Apropos of absolutely nothing, I’d like to close with my favorite comment about small town life — from Mary Sue Terry, former attorney general of Virginia: “(My town) was so small that our school taught driver’s ed and sex ed in the same car.”
Arnie Reisman and his wife, Paula Lyons, regularly appear on the weekly NPR comedy quiz show, Says You! He also writes for the Huffington Post.