He grew up in a small dairy-farming town, the stranger did, and though he has lived in cities of a million or more for the past decade, he still liked to think of himself as a bit of a hick. He was headed toward a small town in the Pennsylvania Appalachians — the heart of Nixon country, so he had been told — and he assumed it would be very much like the small town where he collected salamanders as a boy and chased cows with a cap pistol. He remembered fishing in the lakes, and cruising East Avenue with the Coasters blaring out of the car radio. And there had been a time — now long gone — when he admired Ayn Rand and thought of himself as Classic Liberal, which as nearly as he could remember translated out into a political position somewhere between Barry Goldwater and an ACLU lawyer.
So there was a distant empathy. Conservatives he could talk to. Small town folk he liked. But Nixon supporters… in the spring of 1974? He was at a dead honest loss as to what that was all about. There were certain elements to work with, of course. Stuffy righteousness, pious decency, tax talk, bowling, bombs…. No, the pieces wouldn’t fit together. It was going to be a very strange week, he concluded, in Lewistown, Pennsylvania.
The stranger rented a car in New York, outside the ratbag 42nd Street hotel where he had been holed up, writing, for the last few weeks. The junkies, the prostitutes, the sleazy peep shows… the stranger had a bad case of urban dread. A trip to Lewistown would be a healthy, mind-clearing dose of decency. The plan was to see how folks in a small, prosperous town feel about the goings on in Washington. Lewistown is a Republican stronghold that went 2.5 to one for Richard Nixon in 1972.
But the stranger had picked Lewistown from all the nation’s similar small towns for another and very specific reason. The small central Pennsylvania borough (pop. 11,098) had been chosen an All American city by the National Municipal League, an organization whose purpose has been to “recognize citizen accomplishment” since 1949. The borough had been one of the ten 1973-74 winners, and the stranger felt its story was by far the most inspiring of the ten.
In late June of 1972, Lewistown and the entire central Pennsylvania region had been devastated by the most damaging flood in its history. The deluge had been a $250-million disaster, but Lewistown rebuilt. Less than three weeks after the waters subsided, another and more far-reaching catastrophe hit the town. The American Viscose Company, the borough’s main — indeed almost its sole — employer closed its doors.
The Viscose manufactured rayon, and Lewistown was a borough that rayon built. Even during the Depression, Lewistown folk worked at the Viscose, and the town prospered in comparison to nearby towns dependent on the railroad. With the bankruptcy of the Penn Central, other central Pennsylvania towns deteriorated while Lewistown sat on its middling successful status quo.
In the middle and late Sixties, demand for rayon fell to alarmingly low levels, and the factory management, hit by stringent antipollution measures yet to be implemented, used flood damage as an excuse to close its doors. Two thousand people, nearly ten percent of the county’s work force, were thrown out of work. Most of the 2000 had never worked for another employer.
And yet, Lewistowners being the people they are, and necessity being the mother that she is, the town reared up on its hind legs and changed. Fast. The day after the Viscose closed, labor organizations, state and local officials banded together to form the Area Industrial Recovery Committee, which produced a film and a nationwide ad campaign inviting industry to settle in Lewistown.
Most impressive (and this from John Connelly, president of a local bank), the people of Lewistown “showed their pride by getting jobs in areas as far as 80 miles away, but they retained their residence in Lewistown. An anticipated increase in the welfare rolls failed to materialize…. People helped each other…. Fifteen thousand people, organizations and businesses contributed $250,000 to the United Fund.” Such a figure had never been reached before.
Today Lewistown shows no external effects of the flood and boasts 11 new industries. In all, the new industries have brought nearly 2000 new jobs to the Lewistown area. So the stranger, whose mind was a tangle of hopeless cliches, saw the Lewistown story as a real-life John Ford film. On the six-hour drive from New York City, he imagined the proud and dedicated citizens of the borough working through endless days and sleepless nights to rebuild their beloved town. He saw clearly the conclusion of the film: strong men in shirtsleeves carrying tools, tall young women with children in their arms, hardworking teenagers — all of them standing proud on a sunset hill surveying their bright new town while a single angelic soprano hummed a stirring “God Bless America” in the background.
Such cornball cliches were not beyond the stranger, and yet he had a mordant side, of sorts. He didn’t, for instance, like the tranquil Pennsylvania countryside. He lived in the West, liked the big sky, the ocean, the towering redwoods. To the stranger’s eye, on this drizzly spring afternoon, the land seemed squashed under glacial gray skies.
The stranger also had read — a high school teacher once told him it was the mark of a truly second-rate mind — the supernatural horror fiction of a half-century past. Knowing that there were scattered pockets of resounding poverty and monumental ignorance here in the Appalachian range, the stranger had a Lovecraftian vision: In these stunted, ghoul-haunted woodlands he would find things beyond his ken, terrible things he would be better off not to know. A century and a half of inbreeding would have produced a hideous common deformity… and on nights of the full moon, drooling hordes would descend on the town’s central edifice, a great looming cathedral with an ebony spire… and there things too horrible to be written would be chanted, drawing from the very bowels of the earth a terror of unspeakable evil…
Drooling hordes. The stranger repeated the words aloud and decided he liked the way they sounded.
Less than an hour after he reached Lewistown, the stranger found himself at the Saturday Kiwanis Club Ladies’ Night Dance. Here is what he saw: A large room in a graceful century-old hotel. Many tables, a dance floor, a bar off to the side, a raised platform for the band which played instrumental Dixieland versions of “Sweet Gypsy Rose” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” several hundred clean, well-dressed, apparently sober persons engaged in an inspired “Home on the Range” sing-along.
Initially, the stranger seriously considered the proposition that he had stepped into a time warp and was now locked into some late 1950 television serial. That distinguished fellow over there in the pin-striped suit, wasn’t he Mr. Honeywell from My Little Margie? That happy sober couple — the good dancers — he knew them. They lived in a white two-story home with a gabled roof and had two kids named David and Ricky who were forever bursting through the door shouting. “Hi Mom, Hi Dad.” The hearty fellow in his early 60s at the far end of the bar, he was an announcer for the Jack Benny show.
The stranger ordered a double Jack Daniel’s over ice, drank it quickly and had another. Thus fortified, he began work. To the single gentleman to his right, he explained that he was an out-of-town writer looking to assess the political mood in this All American city. The gentleman, the manager of the town’s largest discount store, explained that he was a Democrat and would be pleased to have his opinion recorded. He said:
“I think this country came as close to a police state as it ever has with Ehrlichman and Haldeman. Nixon — should I be blunt? — I think he’s a fucking crook. I’m sorry about the language, but look at those transcripts and tell me he didn’t know about the cover-up before he says he did. The best thing for this country would be to put him away. And I say, thank God for our free press.”
This, the stranger reflected, was not precisely what he had expected to hear. “How many people here share that opinion?” he asked.
“How would I know that?”
“But don’t you know some people who support the president down the line?”
“Ah, some hard-core Republicans. Maybe.” The discount store manager’s voice suggested that he felt such people were moral cretins. He looked down the bar and waved to Jack Benny’s announcer. “Hey, Bill, c’mere a minute.”
As it happened, Bill had never worked for Jack Benny at all, but was a mortician, indeed the fourth generation of Lewistown morticians. He was a life-long Republican and he drank white wine over ice.
“Listen Bill,” the store manager said, “this fellow is doing an article. Are you still with Nixon?”
“Well, I think…” The mortician shrugged helplessly. “I think that the transcripts show that Dean may not have told all the truth.”
“C’mon,” the store manager insisted, “Nixon’s a crook.”
“I don’t know about that. Maybe he is. I’ll tell you what I really resent about all this though. It’s the effect on the kids.”
“Do you think,” the stranger interjected, “that Nixon is the kind of man who can inspire the kids?”
The mortician looked pained. “No,” he said, as if the word hurt him.
The discussion continued through several more drinks, all of which the mortician bought over the stranger’s protests. Sometime toward 2:00 AM, it occurred to the stranger that he was doing a double Jack to each of the mortician’s glasses of wine, and that this was not an entirely good idea. He excused himself and wandered off to his motel in a stupor.
The next morning, Sunday, he was up at the crack of noon, the stranger was. The immediate plan was to find coffee. Maybe aspirin.
Lewistown is laid out along a wide meandering swath of the Juniata river. A wide, high-banked, newly built highway separates the town from the river. Main Street parallels the river. At the far south end is the exclusive South Hills district or Pill Hill, so called for the high density of, doctors. There one can see large comfortable homes, circular graveled driveways, a collie on the lawn, a Mercedes or two, but mostly Toronados and Ford Squire station wagons.
Down on Main, barefoot kids were Huckleberry Finn-ing it down to the river with fishing poles. The street is lined, for the most part, with white frame homes in the $30,000 to $40,000 range. The entire ten-county ninth congressional district has a median family income of $8124, but Lewistown’s families seem to make considerably more than that.
Further up Main, past the high school, there is a low-lying, flood-prone area along the Juniata tributary of Kish Creek. Here there are older buildings, soot-stained and uncared for… and yet, this wasn’t real poverty, in the same way South Hill wasn’t real wealth. There are few great extremes in Lewistown.
Main leads into Monument Square, so named for the great columnar bird-stained sculpture that fronts the city hall and commemorates Pennsylvania’s volunteers to the Civil War. Off Monument Square there is a bright wide expanse of newly laid pavement and sidewalk sporting an urban development project consisting of a single-story savings and loan building, a ladies’ apparel shop and a shoe store. Around the corner on Third Street, there is a long row of churches. Several dozen of them are scattered about this steeple-ridden town. A quick check of the phone book shows 43 listings for churches and only 18 for bars or taverns. Such things say much about a town.
Cruising Lewistown’s tree-lined streets, the stranger found that the bright spring sun stung his eyes and that he was in no mood to count churches. On the car radio — the local station — a radio preacher invited his flock to pray for the handicapped and seriously ill. The stranger counted himself among the latter. “Our leaders,” the preacher proclaimed, “are under tremendous pressure,” a circumstance he construed, no doubt correctly, as a sign from on high that all was not well with the world.
The spit-shined McDonald’s where the stranger had his coffee was the cleanest he had ever seen. It was located on the outskirts of town, past some several trailer courts. Just past noon, the place was packed with church-dressed families. Unshaven, hung over and disoriented, the stranger took a seat beside a family perfect enough for a dogfood commercial: Here’s Dad in his best suit, Mom in her Sunday finery, Sis in gingham with white pumps, and Junior with his lopsided put-on grin. Perhaps they had been to the Presbyterian church and heard a sermon called “The Key to Church Revival.” Maybe they were Lutherans and had just come from hearing about how it takes money to buy a house but it takes a heap o’ lovin’ to make a home. The best guess was that they were United Methodists, since there are 12 churches of that flavor in town. The stranger, however, liked to think that they were Catholics, that they had all received communion and had dashed off to McDonald’s to follow up the Body and Blood with a Big Mac, an order of fries and a large Coke with plenty of ice, please.
Back at the motel, feeling considerably better, and dressing for a meeting with Bob Ford, the Democratic candidate for the ninth district, the stranger happened to catch General Alexander Haig tell Sam Donaldson, on ABC’s “Issues And Answers,” that Watergate had been overemphasized except by “people in the country.”
Bob Ford turned out to be a short, engaging man of 34, the former state Selective Service director. “General Haig,” Ford said, in answer to the obvious question, “is a military man. He has been in the service for the better part of his adult life. How dare he speak for people in the country. I think it is an insult to say that we have a different set of values than people in the big cities. What they seem to be saying, by implication, is that we are not intelligent enough to understand what goes on in Washington. And that is an insult.
“I resigned my directorship — a $30,000-a-year job — to run for this office. Since that time I have traveled over 4300 miles of this district and I can tell you that I find disillusionment with politics on all levels, federal, state and local. It used to be that people would make jokes about crooked politicians. That joke isn’t funny anymore.”
Ford said that he had been a Marine, a rodeo cowboy and a bartender before deciding to take advantage of the GI Bill at the age of 27. Ford, who says that he roughed it a bit through high school, didn’t have the slightest idea what his college counselors were talking about when they mentioned “poli sci” or even “liberal arts.” But Ford did make it through Penn State, and he took plenty of vets along with him. “I found that it was a matter of playing a game, like the service, only with different jargon. I began telling guys that if they made it through the Army, they could make it through college.” Ford was hired to head the Pennsylvania Program to Administer Veterans Education. His program was copied in other states.
Just after Ford graduated, the 85-year-old director of Pennsylvania’s Selective Service System resigned. Governor Milton Shapp secured Ford’s presidential commission to the post. There he doubled the number of blacks on local boards, named some 60 women and 200 people under 30 to other boards and appointed the nation’s first 18-year-old to a draft board.
But for all his post-college success, Ford faces a long uphill battle against incumbent E. G. (Bud) Shuster (43), the handsome, semicharismatic “Gentleman Farmer from Bedford County.” In Lewistown, where candidates traditionally campaign in the public square shaking hands and talking about how they alone can get the potholes fixed, Shuster came on like a minor-league Bobby Kennedy or Ronald Reagan. His was the first high-pressure, total media saturation campaign the ninth district had seen: There were newspaper ads, TV and radio spots, even a red, white and blue “Bud Bus” blaring marching music and carrying Shuster directly to an estimated 400 homes a day. In ’72 Shuster took the district by a massive margin of 36,000 votes.
In his first year and a half in office, Shuster has compiled a conservative voting record (he voted against cutting off funds for the Cambodian bombing, and against ending HUAC). Contacted at his office in Washington, Shuster said that yes, he did think Watergate had been overemphasized, but “by that I hasten to add that I don’t mean it should have been swept under the rug.”
On the question of impeachment, Shuster has taken the position that “I am going to wait until all the evidence is in before I make my decision. When I vote I will vote not as a Republican, but as an American.”
Of his constituents’ feelings about impeachment, Shuster said that it was his gut feeling that “there are those who think that he should be impeached and those that think that he should not. And this is quite divided. There is a feeling of ‘let’s get on with it.’ Where there is a feeling of impeach or don’t impeach, it is a very strong feeling. At this point, those are my feelings in relation to the district.”
Shuster, voted president of his 46-member freshman GOP class, is considered unbeatable. If Ford is to make any inroads on his opponent’s immense popularity — and if Shuster is right about the serious-minded nature of the people of his district — they will probably come from the young Democrat’s greater willingness to speak directly to an issue. And though both candidates say that Watergate will not be a major issue in ’74, Shuster’s brand of charming evasiveness may not serve him well in dealing with the matter–especially in the face of his opponent’s outspoken disgust with the entire sorry scandal. Ford has no compunctions about saying what he thinks: He strongly favors impeachment.
The stranger chose 40 people of voting age at random from the street and from the phone book: 22 out of 40 said they voted for Richard Nixon in 1972; 18 out of 40 voted for McGovern; 11 said they would vote for Nixon today; 29 would not vote for Nixon; 5 favored resignation; 2 would welcome impeachment and conviction by the Senate.
Of the 11 who would vote for Nixon today, six said they had serious doubts about his integrity. The remaining five, the hard-core Nixon loyalists, interested the stranger and he asked for more extensive interviews. One man became belligerent and refused to answer any more questions. “You bastards will just twist anything I say to make it look bad,” he snarled, and lurched off to molest children. The remaining four loyalists were woefully inarticulate:
“I think he’s done a real good job and people like you should just get off his back.”
“How do you know I’m on his back?”
“Oh, now you’re trying to trick me.”
It was unfair, the stranger concluded at last, to represent Lewistown’s Nixon supporters in the words of a handful of mental defectives and tottering seniles.
He set out on what proved to be a somewhat difficult search for a single articulate man or woman of voting age who could support the president in all particulars. Someone suggested he call Gary Mowery, a Lewistown high school teacher of mass media, who, before the release of the transcripts, had written a letter to the Lewistown Sentinel supporting Nixon. “Actually what the letter said,” Mowery explained, “was that regardless of how you feel about a man, he is innocent until proven guilty. That isn’t to say I’m not disturbed about certain things. I’m disturbed about the president’s income tax. I know I pay plenty, and it hurts.”
Mrs. Helen Buffington was vice-chairman of the Mifflin county Committee to Re-elect the President. The stranger had already talked to Mrs. Buffington’s 18-year-old son, David, a Lewistown high school senior, a member of the National Honor Society, the editor of the school paper’s news staff, and an influential member of the state’s teenage Republican party. David had campaigned for Nixon in 1972, but had gradually become disillusioned as the Watergate scandal deepened and had withdrawn his vocal support for the president on that Saturday night last October when Archibald Cox was fired. “Whether Nixon has been guilty of anything criminal,” Buffington said, “I don’t know. I would think that he probably is, but I would leave things like that up to a court of law. The problem is that anyone who says ‘give Nixon a fair trial’ is automatically branded as someone who supports censorship of the press, and that just isn’t so.” David Buffington described his mother as “a real hard-core Republican.”
The Buffington home was a neat, two-story affair, surrounded by a carefully tended lawn. There was a “Women For Nixon” sticker on the front door, Mrs. Buffington, looking fit and trim in coffee-klatch attire — a bright flowered blouse and lime slacks — ushered the stranger into the dining room, sat him beside the Motorola color console and poured him a cup of good coffee. The furniture was Pennsylvania Dutch, immaculately clean. On the mantle there was a Bible, above that a picture of Christ.
“I think,” Mrs. Buffington said, “that we have moral decadence everywhere. Why not in politics? Had Lyndon Johnson — or anyone — been president, we would have gone after him. We are looking for a national scapegoat.
“I talk about decadence: I see it all around us. I go to many conventions all over and most of the speakers feel a compulsion to tell off-color stories. Well, that is a form of decay. There is a decline in the mores of youth. The other evening my husband and I were at a convention and there were Rotary Fellows [scholarship students] and foreign exchange students there also. There was a hotel dance with one band for the old folks upstairs and one for the young people downstairs. Well, my husband and I felt a responsibility to the kids, so we went down to their dance. There was a girl there in a miniskirt, dancing. She was very hot and she sat down and what does she fan herself with?”
The stranger shrugged and said he couldn’t imagine what the girl fanned herself with.
“Her skirt,” Mrs. Buffington exclaimed. “Which was up to here to begin with. I said to my husband, ‘I don’t believe what I’m seeing.’
“Anyway, the point is that you have people feeling that if you get rid of the president, you will have purged yourself of all this and the nation will again be good. This is a fallacious idea. He is our president and I feel that if Richard Nixon is impeached, there will be mass suicides, mass nervous breakdowns, and total demoralization of the country.”
Mrs. Buffington paused to sip her coffee. The stranger considered her remarkable statement and stared out the window.
“I think,” she said, “that the office is more important than the man.”
Mrs. Buffington met the stranger’s eyes. Her voice tightened as it tends to do when someone says something he deeply believes — or deeply wants to believe — and a lump is forming at his throat.
“It’s better not to search for truth,” she said. “What good does it serve to find that a man in that position is immoral?”
The stranger couldn’t resist an obvious glance at the mantle with its Bible and Christ painting. “Isn’t it the truth that makes you free,” he asked with what he recognized as a tinge of smugness.
“I question whether it is important,” Mrs. Buffington said, and the stranger found he couldn’t truly believe she meant what she said.
“You seem,” he said softly, “very tight and nervous. Shall we change the subject?”
“Oh no, it’s quite all right. My son tells me I sometimes get shrill.” She forced a light laugh and they began to talk about the flood.
“We left the house and stayed with friends,” she said. “A few hours later, I walked back to a spot where I could see the house. I had seen houses almost filled with water, but I was shocked as I watched the water running up the porch steps and into our front door. My husband wouldn’t come with me to watch it. I got very irrational, standing there in the water with my umbrella in the rain. I thought. ‘Ours is a brick house, very well constructed. It is going to fill up with water like a bottle. There is no place for the water to run out.’
“My daughter wouldn’t let me go alone. I stood across the street from the house and thought about wading or swimming over to open a window. People kept telling me over and over that water seeks its own level. And then, in an instant, I understood that they were right and I was wrong. I realized that I had been irrational.”
The stranger nodded. At that moment it occurred to him that there was a parallel, however tenuous, to be drawn between the Lewistown flood and the way Watergate came to the borough.
On June 23rd, 1972, the flood waters began to subside. As they did, they left silt and debris. Oil had escaped from damaged drums. Some sewage systems had failed. Everywhere on every street, river carp lay gasping in the brown iridescent goo.
Some homes were flooded to the second story. Filth covered the walls to the water mark. As much as three inches lay on the floors; it covered sofas, tables, pianos, stereos. Many people didn’t bother to salvage even their most prized possessions. The sewage plant had been under water. The sewage plant! There was no evidence that any of the excrement had escaped, but the thought sickened Lewistown. It was as if some malevolent force had come to dump tons of stink and putrescence in their neat, tidy homes. That’s what bothered Lewistown the most: the stink, the slime.
In November of 1972, Lewistown went 2856 for Nixon, 1105 for McGovern — a margin that dwarfed the national landslide. Over half the registered Democrats did not vote for their candidate. Lewistown was a peaceful, out of the way, middling prosperous borough. Law and order, racial unrest, drugs: These were not big issues. But a majority of Lewistown’s citizens are concerned with decency. They are concerned about pornography, though an X-rated film may pass through town once every three months. They are concerned about alcoholism. They are concerned about the kids.
In the last few months, Lewistown residents have found themselves increasingly concerned about corruption in government, agonizingly so. With the agony there is a sense of betrayal. Richard Nixon, the work ethic, prayer, honesty, starchy righteousness: All these things were supposed to go together like a meaty, middle-class stew.
“There are some die-hard Republicans,” one is told, “who support the president down the line.” If that is so, they are not walking the street or answering their telephones. To be sure, there are many who basically stand behind the president — a minority, by the stranger’s count — but there are almost none who say they have no doubts at all about his integrity.
The scandal came slow to Lewistown. People rebuilding after a devastating flood had no time to study the national media, and the local paper was understandably caught up in local concerns. It was best to trust the president.
By late 1973, the scandal was rising slow, swollen and ugly like the waters of the Juniata. Two high school juniors polled 100 typical citizens at a shopping center and found that if the presidential election were held again that crisp fall day, Richard Nixon would win, but only by a hairsbreadth. A week after the poll, Archibald Cox was summarily fired as special prosecutor.
It took a year and a half for the flood of Watergate to reach Lewistown. The psychic waters rose slowly: They were lapping at the porch steps before many cared to admit that they were there. With the flood came a gangrenous odor of corruption. That’s what bothers the decent, hard-working people of Lewistown the most: the stench. It is as if some sinister force had come to dump tons of moral sewage into their clean, tidy lives.
The principal didn’t mind and the teacher thought it was a fine idea, so several hours after his chat with Mrs. Buffington, the stranger found himself speaking to a class of high school seniors. He took a quick straw vote and found that: 16 out of 20 would have voted for Nixon in 1972; 6 out of 20 would vote for him today; 4 out of 20 favored resignation; 3 out of 20 favored impeachment and conviction.
For the remainder of the 40 minutes he talked about writing, newspapers, Jack Anderson, floods, rock stars, music, and the truth. “I just finished talking to someone,” he said, “who told me that there is sometimes a higher good in not telling the truth. She was talking specifically about the president and any possible evidence that he might be guilty of something big in this Watergate thing. I wonder what this class feels about that.”
A fellow with a fledgling moustache said, “I don’t think she’s right.” There were some nods around the room and the impression the stranger got was that these seniors felt that the truth was pretty much all right and that he had asked a witheringly dumb question.
Later the teacher shook the stranger’s hand, said he personally thought they ought to impeach the son-of-a-bitch, and invited his guest to stay for another class. “These were good kids,” the teacher said with real affection, “but they aren’t verbally aggressive. The next class is college bound, and I think if you talk to them, you’ll get a good cross section of opinion.
Of the college-bound seniors: 10 out of 20 would have voted for Nixon in 1972; 0 out of 20 would vote for him today; 8 out of 20 favored resignation; 4 out of 20 favored impeachment and conviction.
And the teacher was right, they were more verbally aggressive. By the end of the class, they were interviewing him.
“What do you think of Lewistown?” someone asked.
“I think it is a pretty, tranquil place. Probably a great place to live if you like things slow. I checked your crime rate and found that in the last two years you had two robberies, one homicide, and one rape. You can see that much crime walking across the street in New York.
“I like the way the town refused to die after the flood and especially after the Viscose closed down.” He told them about how he saw the whole thing as a true-life John Ford film, complete with the angelic soprano humming “God Bless America” in voice-over. The class found his vision good for about 60 seconds of laughter.
What he didn’t tell them was that he was completely serious and that he had an absurd faith in such cliches. He didn’t tell them about his talk with Donald Krepps, a big pleasant-faced 53-year-old with massive biceps and huge, hammy, callused hands. Krepps had lost his box-tending job when the Viscose closed down. Rather than accept welfare to support his wife and three boys, Krepps had taken a poorly paying job in Lewistown. Later he found a better job 45 miles away and recently he accepted a position with one of the new Lewistown industries. Hustling up three new jobs on an ascending pay scale is no mean feat for a 53-year-old manual laborer.
“There’s lots of reasons why I didn’t leave,” Krepps said. “I like the river, except when it’s flooding. I like the trees and the mountains. I like the people here. They are some of the finest people in America.”
Krepps sings bass with a choir that tours local churches. “And I mean low bass,” he boomed. He’s partial to power spirituals like “The World Is Not My Home.”
During the flood, Krepps’s Kish Creek-area home had taken seven and a half feet of water. On Saturday morning, he came down from his brother-in-law’s highland home to check out the damage. There in the brown ooze of the kitchen he had found an eerie pattern of bare footprints. Krepps spent the next few weeks cleaning up the filth and sleeping alone, upstairs, in the stench of his own home. The stranger didn’t like to think about what would have happened to any looter who set foot in Donald Krepps’s castle.
Such men affirmed the stranger’s faith in cliche, but he didn’t mention this to the high school class. He was enough of an entertainer to be content with a good laugh.
“What do you think of people our age here?” another senior asked. There were a number of things he thought. He knew, for instance, that there wasn’t really much to do in Lewistown. If you were young enough you could get a box of crayons and work up something for the Penn Electric Company’s annual safety poster contest. If you were older you could go down to the high school dance and put on the rent-a-cop.
To be between 18 and 21 in Lewistown is to be exquisitely bored. Too old for high school, too young for the bars, the only thing left to do is haul around town in the car. Jobs are scarce for young folks: Lewistown is still working on its older unemployed. It takes a while, but the young people tend to leave Lewistown. The borough loses nearly a tenth of its population every decade.
So the stranger had a theory about the big cars making the circuit on Market and Third. It was, he told the high school class, as if the cars were planets or satellites attracted by the hometown gravity of the square. The circling was a process of working up centrifugal force. One by one, the big cars would veer off on a tangent toward Penn State, or Harrisburg, or New York.
“How many people here,” he asked the class, “expect to leave this town and live somewhere else after they graduate from college?”
Eighteen of Lewistown’s brightest raised their hands.
It was odd, the stranger reflected, the slippery way he had gotten aced out of the Rotary luncheon. He had intended to take the same poll he had taken at the high school. One of the officers had seemed enthusiastic, but said that, of course, he would have to confer with the other officers. It had seemed routine. The man returned with news that there was a full program that day and that they couldn’t make room for him.
“All I need is five minutes,” the stranger argued.
“Gee, I’m sorry. There’s just no way we can find the time. I’ll make sure they introduce you to the meeting, though.”
In the end they didn’t even do that.
A few hours later, back at the motel, the stranger found a letter waiting for him. It read:
Dear Mr. Cahill:
After running down a copy of Rolling Stone and feeling as I do about “decadence,” I must insist that not one word of anything that I said to you do I want printed in your publication. You’re a personable young man, and I appreciate your pursuit of truth, as you interpret it; however I find the graphic journalistic style of you and your contemporaries offensive. I will not defend my standards more than to say that; nor do you need to defend yours to me!
Since chatting with you, I’ve read portions of the transcripts of the Watergate tapes and am convinced more than ever that President Nixon is innocent until proven guilty… and that he need not nor should not relinquish the tapes per se. At this point he and we will have to let the judicial process try him. I’m certain, though, that he will be exonerated if given a fair trial by the judicial system rather than by the public media.
I hope and pray that the present disenchantment of the majority of society with human beings will be replaced by faith in and love for one another. Until we reach this point, we’ll have chaos — everywhere!
I’ll pray for you and President Nixon.
Signed: Mrs. W. E. Buffington
That’s it, the stranger thought. Fuck John Ford. Here he had come into town prepared to let these turkeys stand around in a soprano sunset with their tools and babies and they treat him like a lurching leper. All American town? Maybe in an H.P. Lovecraft novella. The place was filled with geeks and cretins. No wonder they couldn’t keep any kid who could count past ten in town.
Thus absorbed in thought, the stranger found his way to the nearest bar and was not considerably cheered to see that the only other patron was the Republican mortician with a taste for white wine over ice. “I hear they wouldn’t let you talk at the Rotary this afternoon,” the mortician said with what the stranger took to be a snide smile. Well, of course. It had been a conspiracy. Mrs. Buffington’s husband had been seated at his table. No doubt he had alerted the others to the stranger’s propensity for graphic offensiveness.
“They had a full program,” the stranger said. “The other speaker told a lot of terrific jokes about streakers.”
“He sure did,” the mortician said. “And they were talking about Lenny Moore. Remember him? Used to play for the Colts. I’ll tell you, there was a gentleman. Not like some of his kind.” Here it comes, the stranger thought. Geeks, cretins and bigots to boot. According to the mortician, certain black athletes become superstars; their egos swell up like blighted watermelons, and they come around “making pronouncements.” The mortician shook his head in wonderment. “They ought to be grateful,” he said. “Where else can they make that much money?”
“Isn’t that precisely the point,” the stranger said, looking for an argument. “Where… else… can… they make… that much money?”
“That’s what I say,” the mortician said. “Say, what are you drinking? Chester, give him another. And another white wine over ice for me. Listen, let me ask you something. Can I ask you a personal question? Are you a church-going man?”
“No,” the stranger said with what he hoped was flat graphic offensiveness.
“Ah-ha.” The mortician’s face lit up like a giant pink fluorescent bulb. “Hang on,” he warned, “because I’m going to convert you.” Followed here a convoluted tale involving early indiscretions, a falling away from the church, and a job selling insurance out of an office in Altoona. “I used to drink a little too much and I didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself,” the mortician said, “but now that I’m back in the church, I have all the confidence in the world and things, are going well for me.”
“Boy, that’s really great,” the stranger muttered. The two words “drooling” and “hordes” kept clanging together in his mind.
Several days later, in a hotel in New York, the stranger decided to give Mrs. Buffington a call. The lawyer said that he could legally use any of the interview material and he had a vengeful urge to rub it in. He sat by the phone for several minutes, savoring the coming conversation. It would be best to start gently, say that he had built on her interview and that it would spoil a week of his work if he couldn’t quote her. She, of course, would refuse categorically. He would smugly explain the concept of prior consent. She would react angrily. He’d blast her with some adjectives that would turn her green and curl her up at the edges. He worked on a few burning zingers. How about, “Lady, I don’t want any of your prayers. You better save them for Nixon, because they’re gonna toss your boy in the clink with a screaming gang of rabid buttfuckers.” No. A bit heavy-handed, that one. He was sure that when they got to the screaming part of the call, she’d goad him into something inspired.
Mrs. Buffington answered on the second ring.
He began to tell her about how Important her material was for him, but she interrupted on the second sentence. “I wasn’t sure I did the right thing,” she said. “I mean after I sent the letter. I’ve been thinking about it and thinking about it. If you have to, you go ahead and use all the quotes you want.” Mrs. Buffington laughed lightly. “My husband is sitting in his chair calling me an old wishywashy. But that’s OK. I’ve made up my mind. You use what you have to.”
“OK,” he said, “but listen…” He found himself unarmed by her friendliness, unable to work himself into the proper rage. “Listen,” he concluded lamely, “what story of mine did you read that you found so decadent?”
She mentioned a long one, some 10,000 words. He thought about it and couldn’t remember anything particularly gamy in the piece.
“What, uh, what bothered you about that one?” he asked finally.
“Well, at the end someone tells you to ‘get your ass’ out of his office.”
“My son David thought it was an excellent article. I’m not sure I understood it all.”
The stranger was befuddled, speechless. What was going on here? He was going to scream about buttfuckers to this nice lady who really seemed to want to like him and his writing? Had he, perhaps, overreacted somewhere along the line?
“Anyway,” Mrs. Buffington said, “what did you find out about our town?”
“I, uh…” He hadn’t really thought about what he found out. “I couldn’t find a Democrat with a good word for Nixon. I’d say the majority of Republicans I talked to no longer trust the president. In the end I guess what I was doing was looking for the one articulate person who was completely loyal.”
“I’d have to say I didn’t find that person. Everybody had some doubts about the man’s integrity.”
“What are you going to write in your article?”
“To tell the truth, I haven’t thought about it yet. I think I’ll probably concentrate on the people who seem most deeply hurt by the scandal — the hardworking Republican party regulars like yourself. I sense a feeling in them that their values have been betrayed. I thought — pardon me — that they were confused and somehow anguished.”
“I think that sounds right,” Mrs. Buffington said. “Especially the word anguish. And very perceptive. Well, thank you very much for calling, and I wish you luck on your article.”
The stranger hung up. Suddenly, in spite of himself, he felt rather good about the citizens of Lewistown. Eleven floors below, the New York City traffic thundered up Park Avenue. Well, what was wrong about living in a graceful little place like Lewistown? One could, oh… collect salamanders and chase the cows with cap pistols.
Alone in his hotel room, 3000 miles from home, the stranger drifted into a sappy reverie. For a moment he imagined that he heard a single angelic soprano humming “God Bless America,” and with that he got his ass down to the bar and had a drink.