I live in a small town in the center of the Blackstone Valley, a place that is also part of the National Park system and is considered a “National Historic Corridor.” What that means is that our quaint little towns and beautiful, if polluted, river has historical importance.
It was, in fact, the birthplace of the American Industrial revolution … which means that right around the corner, they started to build working mills, using the river and eventually a river and canal system, and finally, a railroad to bring American goods to the markets of the world. In the process, they did a lot of poisoning, but that’s the way industrialization has always gone as long as there have been ambitious humans. It seems that has been essentially forever, at least as far as human history goes. My town has not really accepted the new century. It never entirely accepted the last century, either. It crawled unwillingly along until the mid 1950s, and then dug its virtual heels in and said “Hell no, we won’t go.” And there we have stayed. A World War I artillery pieces sits next to our Civil War memorial and just a few feet from the World War II bronze and stone grouping. Vietnam never met it, nor any war since. Honestly, the Common isn’t that big and it’s getting filled up with all the memorials. They make a most interesting visual juxtaposition with the churches that surround the common on all sides. Guns and churches. At various times of the year, there are miscellaneous events on the common, also known as “the green.” The grass doesn’t care. It answers to everything and anything the same way. It just sits there being lawn-like.
We have book sales, rummage sales, cake sales and fair-like occasions that usually coincide with some national holiday or other. We have a Christmas Parade and our local version of first night, but we hold it so early in December that it always feels a bit odd and out-of-place. No, I don’t know why … Maybe all the good days had already been taken by other towns, villages and cities. There are other events: porkettas and pancake breakfasts, all intended to raise money for something and probably, they do. We used to have great local fireworks on the high school’s athletic field, but one year, we ran out of money and that was the end of fireworks. Other towns have them and I can see bits of them over the tops of our trees, and of course the private events staged by neighbors who’ve gone up to New Hampshire to buy fireworks that are legal in that state, but not in Massachusetts.
Most of the private events are more noise than show and scare the dogs out of their fur coats, but I guess someone thinks they are pretty cool. Other towns complain that Main Street has been destroyed by big chains like Walmart. We do not complain. We don’t have a Walmart or any other chain. If you want to buy anything other than hardware and lumber (Koopman’s sells that), groceries, or fast food, you’ll need to go elsewhere. If you want a decent meal, you will have to go to another town. If you want to see a movie, go bowling, see a play, hear a concert … well, you know, Boston’s not too far and Worcester is just up the road a piece. You can get to Providence in about 45 minutes. Depending on traffic. Whatever you want, you probably won’t find it in our town. We have a beautiful albeit underfunded public library.
It’s in an old, elegant building that has somehow managed to remain alive despite having its budget cut and cut again until it can barely keep the doors open enough to maintain membership in the public library system. And progress is encroaching, despite all resistance.
After 20 years of arguing about it — after allocating millions of dollars to upgrade the old high school and having funds vanish with nary a trace — our little town was told by the Commonwealth that we must build a proper High School or lose accreditation (which would make it tricky for our graduates to get into college). So we are building a high school.
Our taxes have gone way up, too. The town has been so fiscally mismanaged (swindled, might be more accurate) for so long that no one can actually remember it being any other way.
There is a mythos surrounding small towns. It stars James Stewart or someone like him, and a cast of caring local citizens (cue up “The Andy Griffith theme) who argue but really have the best interests of the town at heart. It turns out that the families that run this town are a little different. Using nepotism, threats, bullying, and a general willingness to make life unbearable for anyone who gets in their way, they have successfully maintained a stranglehold on the town.
They are not particularly concerned with the best interests of the town except insofar as it advances their own business and financial interests. They take what they want from the public till, refuse to answer to anyone for it, hire relatives and personal friends, give out contracts based on the best kickbacks and live a good life.
Town meetings often end in fistfights and horrific verbal brawls that create enough bad feeling to last into the next decade. I opposed the new High School. Not because we don’t need a new one. We definitely need a new high school. The problem is that to get it built, the same incompetent, dishonest bozos who have been stealing the town blind for the past 50 years or more will run the project. I figured that anything on which they set their hand is doomed.
They asked Garry to run for town council when we’d only been here a year or two. He was still an easily recognized figure from all his years on television, so despite his not being white in a town where he was still the only non-white resident, his color was less important than his celebrity. He could be useful. Garry declined the honor, explaining that it would destroy our lives. We’d have mobs in the driveway throwing rocks at our windows. I didn’t understand until years later when I worked for a local paper covering debates preceding town council elections. Good grief! The level of personal vindictiveness and venom was a wonder to behold! Where were the good guys? Each candidate was worse than the other, ranging from merely venal, through clueless, to possibly psychotic.
It was closer to Shirley Jackson‘s “The Lottery” than Andy Griffith. And yet, I do love the valley. True, I try very hard to not even think about why they do what they do and how they do it. The less I know, the happier I am. If my town were unique, it would be encouraging on some level, but all the towns around here are pretty bad. This place may take top prize for worst-mannered and blatantly dishonest government, but the other towns are close behind. They merely have slightly better manners.
There are so many genuinely wonderful people here: caring, intelligent, well-meaning people who would gladly help improve our town and this valley. Pity that most of them, like Garry, are unwilling to face down the reigning thugs.
And life goes on. White picket fences and green lawns. Big shade trees, lots room for children to play and safe streets. Only two traffic lights in town, one of which is probably redundant. It’s a pretty place to live. Just don’t get too involved. Things aren’t always what they seem. Think Chevy Chase in “Funny Farm.” Yeah, that works.
- The Watershed (teepee12.wordpress.com)
- Born On The Blackstone: America’s Other Revolution (teepee12.wordpress.com)