Can an All American Town Survive the President?
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.