Some characters just fit a small town
I’ve met a lot of small-town people in Missouri and have noticed that the ones from really small towns give the size away in a conversation: They say “the grocery store,” “the barber shop” or “the gas station” in such a way that you know there is only one of each. These little towns are wonderful places for humor, with such small populations that people really observe each other, the way families do, and have an eye out for characters.
A woman from Bunker, Mo., population 525, put this in perspective for me years ago. She said, “We only have one stop sign, but that’s because we all know where to stop anyway.” There is an advantage to knowing everybody’s families, history and, sometimes, driving habits.
I got a letter awhile back, sent by Earl, an old friend from one of these tiny Ozark places, with a story about his Aunt Hattie. He said that the old lady, now in a rest home in a bigger town, had called to say that she had finally decided after some 40 years to visit the grave of her long dead husband, Oney. Everybody knew Oney hadn’t been much of a husband, and Earl was surprised that the old lady wanted to make the trip. But he picked her up and off they went to find the graveyard, which turned out to be pretty much scattered out, neglected and overgrown.
Earl said Aunt Hattie had brought along a bunch of flowers, but had to use both hands, parting the brush to peer at the almost illegible stones. He said his aunt got hot and exasperated, and after an hour, stood up, put her hands on her hips and said, “To hell with it! He was always out-of-pocket alive, in a one-horse town. What made me think I’d find him just because he’s dead?” Ed said she retrieved the flowers, for herself, got back in the car and “chattered like a squirrel all the way home.”
This was my favorite small-town story until today, when I heard from Brian Barnett, who told me about Gates, Tenn.—a town with one store, a cotton gin and 150 people. Brian said that one of the town boys fell in love with a much older town girl who had already earned herself a bad reputation. Much to the consternation of his dad, the boy had asked the girl to marry him. As Brian told it, he and some friends had stopped by the boy’s house to pick him up for a teenage ramble, when the boy’s dad followed him out on the porch to continue an argument that had begun inside.
“Son,” his father shouted, “that girl has been with every man in Gates.” To which the son shouted back, “Well maybe so! But Dad, Gates ain’t a very big town.”
From November 2003. Mitch Jayne 1928-2010 was a celebrated Ozark author and long-time contributor to Today’s Farmer. We reprint this in his honor.