I grew up in Chicago at a remarkably happy time: WWII had just ended, and there was a universal sense of joy as GI’s returned home and started living their dreams. These dreams arising from their growing up during The Great Depression and maturing as they manned bunkers, fox holes, airplanes and ships during the war.
It was a great time for me to grow up, too. I was 3-years-old when my parents began living the American Dream by (with help from the GI Bill) buying a small home on the South Side in a neighborhood populated by other GI’s and their families -- all of them in the process of realizing their dreams, too. It was wonderful.
How does this relate to little towns? When Pa waited at the bus stop heading downtown to work, he was frequently picked up neighbors also heading downtown. He loved each generous offer of a ride, the pleasant conversation -- and it was more comfortable than a crowded bus. When I was old enough enough to appreciate it, I thought that kind of spontaneous generosity was wonderful, too. I now understand this was but one example of small-town friendliness that appeared in what was then the second-largest U.S. city.
But as I grew, I became aware of the poverty I saw when I headed downtown. I saw houses made of used doors jammed together to protect the poverty-stricken folks sheltered inside. I still recall how that rattled me as the elevated train I rode passed over these homes. I now know there is poverty everywhere -- whether large city or small town. You just see it more in big cities.
When I finished my schooling, I had a series of jobs moving from Denver to Syracuse, N.Y.,, to Washington, DC, to Grand Forks, N.D., and finally retiring in Pima, Ariz., population 3,300. And the kind of small-town friendliness my father (and the rest of the family, too) enjoyed seemed to appear more often, and in a greater variety of ways, in the smaller communities where we lived. Bottom line? This big city kid loves life in smaller towns.
Why? When I first moved to Grand Forks (then about 50,000 people -- a small town by Denver, Syracuse and Washington standards) I went to the bank and closed on our new home, opened a checking account (I was told my personalized checks would show up in 10 days) and asked where I might buy four sleeping bags. Why sleeping bags? Ours were stolen when our car was broken into on the way up from Washington, and we’d planned on using them until the moving van arrived.
I was directed to a camping store where I located the oldest person in the place assuming he was either the owner or the manager. I explained my situation adding I’d just moved to town, I had only counter checks until those with my name and address showed up, and I didn’t have a North Dakota driver’s license.
“Well,” the man said, “we have lots of sleeping bags, but I can’t help you at all with the driver’s license.”
I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Here was someone who’d known me for less than a minute helping me figure out how to make my family comfortable at an unsettled juncture in our lives.
How could a guy not love small towns when things like that happen?
Hank Slotnick is a retired UND professor who, with his wife, winters in Pima, Ariz., and summers in Debs.