Death, ‘progress’ end simple joys
I recently read a Facebook post that said, “We need more Mayberry and less Jersey Shore.” I about broke my arm pushing “like.” It was an accurate summation of how I’ve been feeling since my friend and Fairfield icon Jack Taylor died two weeks ago.
I lamented to my husband the other night that pretty soon, there will be nothing left of the Fairfield of my youth except the collective joy-filled memories of those of us blessed to grow up here. The cruel reality is, it won’t be long before the legends who made Fairfield great will be able to hold a reunion in a phone booth – that is, if we still had phone booths.
In this fast-paced, technological world of instant gratification we’re living in, even the landscape of small-town America is changing, morphing quickly into something I barely recognize and am slow to embrace. I wonder what my children will remember about their hometown. I’d like to think it won’t be disputes over train whistles and water meters.
The fact is, my kids have grown up deprived. They have never clung to their mother’s skort, bravely navigating the crowded sidewalks of Fiesta Days, scoring bargains at Young America, Perry Clothiers, Inez’s, Seifert’s, Gobble’s or the Shoe Den. They have never plopped down, hot and sweaty from shopping, onto a swivel seat at the Maid Rite and had Hootie serve them up a loose-meat sandwich, nor have they left the sandwich shop cloaked in an aroma so distinct that everyone they bumped into after knew where they’d been.
My kids have never experienced a pingpong ball drop in Central Park. The mere mention of the glorious pingpong ball drop reminds me of the year my mother – Lord only knows what she was thinking – made my brother and me dentist appointments for the morning of drop. I was hysterical. What if the appointment ran long and we missed the drop? How could I win the TV if I wasn’t present to snag the winning ball? And how could we enjoy the hoards of candy being shelled out if we’d just had flouride treatments? Everyone knows Dr. VanTassell won’t let you eat or drink anything for a full hour after you’ve gagged on the trays the flouride. (If anything hasn’t changed in Fairfield, it’s that.)
Worse still, my children will never purchase a super ball or a plastic parachute man at Harrison’s or Places. They will never ride their bikes to the Handy Pantry for cotton candy and candy cigarettes, the forbidden fruits of my childhood that had to be eaten behind the bushes at the Fairfield Municipal Swimming Pool so Mother wouldn’t see. They will never dine with their grandparents at Scotti’s or enjoy a Tutti Frutti ice cream cone at the Tastee Freeze while they wait, impatiently, on their mother to get her hair done at Evonne’s.
When I was growing up, every kid in our neighborhood gathered in the street almost every evening for a game of football or kick the can. My best friend’s mother, Pat Funkhouser, used to ring a bell when it was time for her children to come home for supper. Similarly, my dad had a signature whistle. We ran when we heard it.
I don’t have to summon my kids in for supper at night. We rarely eat together unless it’s in a moving vehicle, we aren’t close to most of our neighbors, and quite frankly, my kids don’t like to go outside. That would require turning off the Xbox, something my son, Zane, in particular, is not inclined to do.
Besides, running the streets isn’t safe. Even in Fairfield, the list of registered sex offenders is lengthy. It would be irresponsible to let the kids chase lightning bugs unattended.
When I was a kid, I’d never heard of a neighborhood watch. We didn’t need one. Everyone knew every kid in a five-block radius by name and if any of us did something that even one of our mothers believed we shouldn’t have, news of our transgression beat us home.
Those were the days.
Last Christmas I spent hours combing eBay for an aluminum Christmas tree just like the one our neighbors, George and Betty Brown, placed in their front picture window every year. Every time I delivered their newspaper I would stop in front of that window and gaze dreamily at the tree, ever-changing because of the spinning color-wheel of light being cast upon it. I vowed that someday, when my writing career took off, a similar tree would adorn my home.
“Why do you want one of those?” Zane asked, looking over my shoulders as I perused eBay and wrinkling his nose. “They’re ugly.”
Zane does not comprehend nostalgia. How could I expect him to? He has never stood clutching his father’s hand in front of the doughnut case at the Fairfield Bakery trying to decide between the cake doughnut with sprinkles or the cream-filled Long John. The poor kid doesn’t even know what a skate key is. It is impossible for him to understand that I want an aluminum Christmas tree for the same reason that I still eat Bottle Caps and candy necklaces; they take me back to a time when life was simpler, slower, safer and more secure.
When our children all ditched us on the Fourth of July for more sophisticated social engagements, my husband and I went to the fireworks show alone. We held hands as we watched from a bench in the cemetery, and when we got home, we shot off a whole bag of contraband I’d picked up in Memphis, Mo. – just the two of us. We even wrote our names in the air with sparklers. Our kids were astonished.
“You mean, the two of you, alone, did fireworks?” Zane asked. “Why would you do that? You’re old.”
Maybe Zane’s right. Maybe I am old. Certainly, I’m symptomatic. Last fall, I downloaded a weather app on my phone so I can monitor the temperature, barometric pressure and weather radar at all times. I’ve started watching Wheel-of-Fortune fairly faithfully. I’ve had a colonoscopy.
But even with the shawl of old age now draped, however loosely, around my shoulders, there is a part of me that will always be that scrawny, loud-mouthed little kid who got stuck in the sewer main on Taylor Avenue.
Brandon Routh said there are things about growing up in a small town that you can’t necessarily quantify. He’s right. To grow up in Fairfield was to grow up in a magic kingdom that cast so great and illusory a spell over us that I still consider succeeding Marni Mellen in The Ledger newsroom making it big.
I’ll be honest. I didn’t want Walmart – the first one or its successor. I don’t want any new-fangled water meters, not because I care a lick about what its emissions might do to my brain, but because I want to cling to the comfort of seeing someone I know walking up and down every street reading the old meters. I didn’t want the Off Broadway Grill to close, I didn’t want Jack Taylor to die, and I don’t want a dadgum quiet zone. I like the sound of train whistles. I relish lying on my bed, hearing the train whistles blowing, and wondering why in the world someone would board a train and leave when we have everything you could ever possibly want within the Fairfield city limits.
What I would like is to finish this column and head over to Martin’s Pharmacy where I could have some hot roasted nuts with my Grandma Frances, chat with Ruth Schneider and Bettye Bruey, and share a pop with Tom Smith at the soda fountain at the back of the store.
Death, “progress,” and an annoying and potentially lethal tree nut allergy developed late in life have conspired to ensure I’ll never again know such sweet a bliss.
No matter how loudly I object, time marches on. Nobody gets to be 10 years old forever. No town is the same today as it was 40 years ago.
“You can’t go back,” my friend Margo says.
Maybe not, but there is nothing that will ever prevent me from wanting to, and I find deep solace in knowing I’m in really good company.
Staci Ann Wilson Wright teaches special education at the Fairfield High School; she is a Ledger summer staff writer.