April 11, 2008
Small Town America, home to Tom and Huck, was always home to me, even as I grew up in “the city.” I couldn’t wait for summer to arrive when my parents would send me “back home” to Grandma in Tennessee.
Surrounded by strangers, I was instantly embraced by aunts, uncles and cousins…and all their friends. Before we arrived on Sunday, the Baptist preacher knew more than my name. And when I missed church one week with an upset stomach, he made a personal visit that same afternoon just to let me know I had been missed.
Life was safe. Eyes followed me wherever I went, a circle of protection that allowed us kids freedom to walk and ride bikes across the town, back and forth, in all directions. Sweet red slicing tomatoes, fireflies, honeysuckle, goats and calves, watermelon at family picnics…I loved it all. But most of all I loved the people, the people who loved me back.
Thirty years later, nothing had changed when my husband and I were able to spend four months in Tennessee, introducing our two children to Small Town America. Standing at the high school counter, enrolling them in the fall semester, the principal walked out to meet us for the first time…calling us by name and asking us how we were adjusting to life away from Phoenix, the big city. He already knew we were renting a mobile home from Ruby and spending time with my Uncle Jimmie. He invited us by anytime, directing us to his farm just past the turnoff to our own home. Any niece of Mr. James was family, not just to him, but to the grocery clerk, the post mistress and the hair dresser.
In Small Town America, you are known for who you are. Pure and simple. Handshake deals still exist for people who have seen character proven over the years.
If you want to get back to basics, there is no better place than in a small town. Down to earth graces are the foundation of reputations. Parking a Jag at the grocery store will certainly draw attention, but it won’t compensate for rudeness, for arrogance or for meanness.
The “law of the farm” is still the rule of small towns. Even when lottery tickets hang on the fridge promising future riches, small town people still treasure friends and family. Hard work matters. Keeping your word, sitting at the bedside of the ill, a warm casserole, an invitation to church…these are the riches of small town life that can’t be purchased or won.
Pretense is impossible. Hypocrisy is hard to disguise in a small town. Your church life, your work life, your family life are woven into an indivisible whole, a summation of your values and character that precede you into a room and are left behind when you depart.
It all comes together in a small town where people save family fortunes to send their precious first-borns off to college and a “better life” in the big cities. Moms and dads will brag about the accomplishments of their distant children, and friends will share their pride. But the child is finally measured not by the degree earned at Harvard, but by the humility of knowing her roots, of her ability to remain grounded in the truths learned back home where a diploma is just a piece of paper.
Obama has revealed a serious lack of judgment. Truly, provincial isolation is no less possible in ivory towers, in the power complex of Congress, or in the hallowed Harvard halls where Obama has spent his adult life. Surrounding oneself with sameness, a big town dinner table crowd can convince an up-and-coming Senator that partial-birth-abortion is a sophisticated humane response to pregnancy. As such, he certainly will be joined in his derision of pro-life people as hicks who “don’t get it” because of their boorish religious fanaticism.
One suspects that Obama is not unaware of how to sing the politically correct praise of small town people. It is easy to picture him standing presidentially in front of the grain co-op shaking hands with the locals, telling them they are the “people who make America what it is.”
But Obama has now been caught in the games that are no longer possible in Big Town America, hiding with our double lives in mass anonymity. Saying one thing to friends, but on the other side of the tracks, singing a different tune, he has revealed his contempt for the very things that make Small Town America great.
From the one side of his mouth, Obama is certainly quite capable of throwing a compliment to the small town crowd. But what comes out of the other side of his mouth should concern us all.
The character of a man is revealed when both sides speak a single truth. More than that, the highest and best character, when it is revealed, is grounded in the values that make Small Town America great.