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Jack Simpson: Memories of small-town life linger on

Jack Simpson

Jack Simpson

When you think about it, there is a lot to be said for growing up in a small town. I did, and I'm glad. I suppose being a resident of a place like New York, a person might frown on Podunk as a place with few cultural advantages, few specialty shops, restaurants and theaters.

My small town in Pennsylvania had a population of about 3,500 people. For a while, we had no community swimming pool, no fancy restaurants, no theaters. Oh, sure, there were bars like the ones at the American Legion and VFW Posts where old veterans hung out swapping war stories. They had their bingo games and Saturday night dances. Young people had the Dairy Nook, a mom-and-pop place with a jukebox and big band music for dancing while you snacked on burgers and fries and downed a chocolate milkshake.

The town was located in the Appalachians, and residents were miners or lumbermen, or owned their own small businesses. Local roads were not expressways and were not built for people in a hurry. Houses and businesses were built up close to the roads. When riding by, neighbors usually waved at you from their wicker rockers or porch swings. Everybody knew everybody else, and those porches were special places for relaxation, places to sit out of the rain and look out upon the local scene. Great places to sip a cold lemonade on a hot summer day.

We had a one-room lockup at the local jail and occasionally on a Saturday night you might find a local drunk in residence. There wasn't much crime and the one-man police force had little to do but walk the streets checking doors on local businesses. We didn't even have locks on the doors of our homes, and if we did, we seldom locked them.

The family mostly ate their meals at home. Grandmother and the ladies of the house cooked, and each had a special dish you would kill for. The hunters in the family provided meat and fish from the nearby forests and grandmother had her garden. Depression days were tough, but everyone pitched in to make a contribution to our food and shelter. When we did eat out, our fare usually was burgers or pizza. Anything fancier required a trip to a nearby larger city. This included clothing. If the two local stores did not have your size or desired color, off to the big town you had to go. Of course, there was the Sears & Roebuck catalog. You could always send off for a Sunday go-to-meeting suit from there.

The Depression years were lean and few of us had cars. We walked to church, school and everywhere else we wanted to go. I found walking in a small town to be a lot of fun. Going from the house to downtown or to school, we passed house after house where residents were sitting on their porches. We stopped to visit, get the news of the day, hear some stories, sip a soda or pass on some gossip.

Our dog Spider got to where he was as bad as people about enjoying a walk along Chestnut Avenue. He had his regular stops. People invited him in for some leftovers and enjoyed giving him friendly pats on his head. A little boy named Bruce was crippled and had to get around in a wheelchair. He was very fond of Spider and looked forward to each visit when the dog climbed up into his lap to kiss the boy's cheeks. On days when the family pet didn't show up for his walk, you could count on an inquiry from Bruce: "When's Spider coming to see me?"

Growing up in a small town, I guess I never really thought about how short life is, how time flies, and that those I loved wouldn't be around forever. I never viewed life as a tragedy with all of us mere spectators until our time to act our part in it.

Ah, those were the days so many, many years ago. Nearly every single family member and former neighbor and friend has passed away. Still remaining are the fond memories of our love, friendship and of their contributions to their community.

Wouldn't it be wonderful again to be able to enjoy a hug, a smile, a handshake from so many old friends or family members -- or even a tail wag from Spider, the friendly neighborhood ambassador?

Jack Simpson is a former educator, veteran, author and a law enforcement officer. His column appears each Friday.