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GENERATIONS: HANK SLOTNICK: Why I like living in a small town

My sister once said that I didn't live at the end of the world, but you could see it from there. Please forgive her a lack of understanding of what small town life is like because she is, by her lights, is a city mouse. And by those same lights, I'm the country mouse. And she's right; I'd no more want to live again in a city than she would live here in Pima, Ariz. (her loss). Or in Bemidji for that matter (her big loss).

What does she miss not living in a small town? You or I could list all the usual things: Knowing your neighbors, having no difficulty figuring out who to call for help, kids being treated like nephews and nieces by neighbors rather than strangers' know all the attributes. And, yes, we do not need street signs because we already know where everyone lives.

Hank Slotnick

The trouble with defining small towns in these ways is that it misses the joys that come from small-town life, joys displayed most elegantly in humor. For example, consider the following:

My mother-in-law, Milly, received a dozen roses on Valentine's Day one year. When my father-in-law came home for lunch, she thanked him for his thoughtfulness, and because he knew how to deal with unexpected situations, he did his best "'aw shucks, it weren't nothin'" and then called the florist after returning to work.

"I think you sent my wife someone else's roses,' he said.

"No, Jerry," the florist replied. "I knew new you intended to get her some and I just sent them over. I've got the bill at the counter."

Something similar happened to me when I stopped at Juanita's in Pima to pick up burritos to bring home for dinner. I ordered my usual carne asada burro and a bean and cheeze burro for Mary Lou. The waitress looked up from the order ticket she was writing and asked, "doesn't your wife order lots of chopped onions for her burro?" The order was now totally correct and I wasn't embarrassed when I got home.

The last variant on this theme involves Paul, who's been maintaining our vehicles since 2001. Paul and I know each other so well that if I bring in a vehicle for an oil change, and he sees something wrong, he fixes it and tells me how much I owe for it and the oil change when I pick up the vehicle. This means I have to take in my vehicle one fewer time and he gets paid for the repair. The only loss to me is that I have one fewer opportunity to chat with Vonda, his receptionist, and shoot the breeze with him.

As noted earlier, small town charm often comes from people naturally wanting to be helpful. Several years ago, for example, my step-son Ken (who lives with his family in Franklin, an unincorporated suburb of both Virden, N.M., and Duncan, Ariz.) and I went halves on raising a calf. Unfortunately, the calf was ill-natured and difficult to handle. One day, for example, she busted out of her pen and disappeared. And so when Ken got home from work, he went up and down Franklin Road asking each of his neighbors if they'd seen the calf. "Ken," they each told him, "don't worry about it. She's off running with the cows in some rancher's back 40, and when he rounds them up, he'll recognize one isn't his and he'll pull up in your driveway with the calf in his trailer."

And, that's what happened. One afternoon, a rancher who Ken had never met drove up with the calf—now pretty much full grown—in his trailer. And since Ken wasn't at home, the rancher pulled the trailer up to the pen and guided the calf inside. When Ken later thanked him, the man said he was welcome and besides, it was no problem reuniting him with the calf.

The only thing to add to this story is that our granddaughter took to calling the animal "Mama Cow" because she'd apparently been running with the rancher's bulls as well as his cows.

In retrospect, and given how ornery Mama Cow was the whole time Kenny and I owned her, I wonder if Mama Cow had been born in a city.

My last small-town story involves the Federal Government in the form of the U.S. Postal Service. There was a yellow card in my mailbox, and so I drove to the post office to pick up my package to find that, since it was 4:35 p.m., the lobby was closed. I returned the next morning to claim my package. "You know," I told Kent, the postmaster at the time, "I got here just five minutes too late to pick this up yesterday."

"Why didn't you go around back and knock on the door?" he asked.

I recalled once going to a post office in Brooklyn, N.Y., to mail a package and having to wait for a bullet-proof window to open so I could hand in the package, watch the window close, and then watch the bullet proof window behind the package open so the postal employee could take it out and weigh it. Against this extreme of government protecting federal employees, the idea of going to the post office's back door was something I'd never considered.

"As long as you stand outside," Kent explained, "we'll get whatever you need and bring it to you. We're here 'til 5 p.m."

And that is exactly what happened when I show up after the lobby's closed. And I can now tell my sister that I received personal attention from smiling federal employee. I'll bet that's never happened to her.

Hank Slotnick is a retired UND professor who winters in Pima, Ariz., and, with his wife, summers in Debs.