"Big City Mentality, Small Town Mentality"



I was born in Peekskill, N.Y. For three years, I lived with my parents and my younger brother in an apartment we rented from my aunt Tina. We moved to Trumansburg, N.Y. (no, you don't know where it is, nobody does) after that, because living in Peekskill got to be far too expensive. Trumansburg was good for about a year, but at that point, the house was too small - with my sister Jessie on the way, we needed more room.

Call the truck again, we're moving to Enfield, N.Y. (You probably don't know where that is either, but it's sort of a suburb of Ithaca, home to Cornell University and Ithaca College.) This time, my parents opted to buy a house large enough for all of us - three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a big lawn for the kids, the whole shebang.

Enfield was in many ways the typical rural community: lots of farmers, only one store/gas station and two families. I'm exaggerating a bit on the last, of course, but I did have a friend from the area once complain that she couldn't date any locals because they were either all cousins or had a history with a relative.

Why am I wasting your time on my history? I have a good reason.

Last weekend, a group of Spectrum editors attended a conference where we heard a presentation from Bob Greene, a columnist with the Chicago Tribune. Greene spoke briefly about his latest book on a small town, North Platte, where the locals used to greet trains of World War II soldiers with food, flowers, gifts, you name it. The town kept the tradition up throughout the war, meeting every train - no matter how early - that entered the city's lines.

The spirit of those villagers had been all but forgotten - with the exception of the town's oldest residents. Stories like these remain alive in the memories of descendants, who grow up knowing the same vistas and the same families that their great-grandfathers had known.

I could tell tales of the area in which I was born - the stories my father used to tell me about the mountains around the Hudson, the way the city used to look when my father, aunt and uncle were growing up - but not the city I spent 15 years in. I have no ties to the area: all my relatives lived at least three hours away; my paternal grandparents, aunt and uncle stayed in the Hudson region; my maternal grandmother, aunt and assorted uncles all moved out of state, either to Washington, D.C. or to Florida.

All the kids I went to school with could have given you history of the area, dating back almost to the town's founding, probably. One of my schoolmates had a fifth-grade teacher who had taught her father when he was in school - a completely alien concept to me, at the time. I once took a "cultural quiz" on the history of Enfield and Ithaca - and flunked completely.

It's too bad that in the days when our world is becoming increasingly connected through the use of the Internet and e-mail, our connection to the places and people we live with are shrinking. It's a familiar theme. Since the days when people began to congregate in huge urban areas, there has been concern about the subsequent loss of identity and "aging" of the towns and villages where all the young men and women have left.

Towns like North Platte should remind us that history and acts of great kindness exist in every location, not just in cities like New York, L.A. or Miami. If people continue to drift across the continent, spreading families and family connections, we should make sure we take the time to stop and look at the place we land. Chances are, there's something worth knowing.