“How’d you find Watsontown?” asked one of my 111 high school classmates after Stoic and I ended up there as we drove home from Niagara Falls last month. She, incidentally, is among the handful of us who didn’t stay there after graduation.
Well, as a vaudeville comic might say, with great difficulty. I think because of road and bridge construction we crossed the Susquehanna River six or eight times that horrid afternoon. I lost track, thought we might be forever living out “Groundhog Day” in Shamokin, PA, rather than Punxatawney.
But eventually, there we were, gliding down Watsontown’s Main Street which hasn’t changed much if at all in the half century since I’ve lived here. The Blue Diamond where I was never popular enough to be comfortable is gone. The Watson (movie) Theatre still stands, but it looks like the last picture show was in 2009. I remember my mother arguing with the ticket seller to the effect that I was large but not yet old enough to have to pay the adult ticket price of 50 cents.
I was large in a town, in a culture, that valued little and cute in girls. I might have been one or both before my 2nd birthday but never after. I also loved to read and study and eagerly answered questions in class, and I never learned how to pretend I didn’t enjoy and value a life of the mind in an age when women were wives in pearls and nylons.
My best friends were food, books and movies. I’m still trying to add people to that short list.
When you’re young and living in a tiny, rural town, pop. 2500 — okay, two miles outside that town! — it seems like the world. A claustrophobic world where everyone knows everyone else’s business and paycheck. What comes across as snuggly fleece on “The Andy Griffith Show” is more like a wet rag, daubed with ether and held over your nose and mouth.
We knew where the police chief’s car was parked at night. We knew why someone’s fourth child didn’t look much like her first three. We knew which kids were adopted almost before they did. We knew whenever we were downtown, we’d see the father of the most popular girl in school (not just in our class), drunk and plastered to a bench by the red brick Mansion House on the square. (And looking back, what hostility he must have harbored to be so consistently visible — hostility toward both his daughter and the tiny, stylish ex-wife who had a career before that was cool.)
The First Presbyterian church has stood along Main Street since 1875. The first minister I remember was Tom W. whose hats always sat on his ears. He had a huge model railroad town carved out of a closet in the manse, and he had to leave the ministry (and the manse) when his wife left him.
Rev. August W. came to us from a leper colony and liked to wave the pinkie finger gnawed by the disease. He ranted from the pulpit against Catholics. I think one Catholic family lived in town and worshipped in nearby Milton.
The only people of color I ever saw were the migrant workers brought in every summer to pick tomatoes by Chef Boyardee, also in Milton. The only Jews I ever talked to –– until I went to Boston University where four of my 5 freshman year roommates were Jewish girls from the “Fame” high school in Manhattan — ran the single area deli in Williamsport (15 miles north along the Susquehanna).
One of those roommates (her father had been Toscanini’s first violinist in the NBC Symphony Orchestra) came to visit one time, and we went to the movies in Sunbury. As we walked from inside the theater into the packed lobby, she said, “Everyone looks the same.” Indeed they did. White, worn out, style-less.
Which is how Main Street looks to me on this steamy August afternoon. A few of the huge old “Meet Me in St. Louis” houses look as though someone’s taking care of them. More don’t.
My classmate who asked about Watsontown describes this section of rural Pennsylvania as the Alabama between Philly and Pittsburgh. I don’t think it’s ever recovered from the disappearance of the timber that fed the cabinet making plants. A Danish friend said the rocks along the Susquehanna reminded her of Switzerland, but what did people do here?
I’ve thought and talked about our retiring back here, mostly, I think, because of a fantasy that it would be some kind of sheltering home. Stoic refuses to shovel snow. I like the idea of returning to a time when everything was ahead of me and possible, but like I said, fantasy. I couldn’t wait to leave for college in 1962, and I’ve no reason to think I’d be any happier there now.
I’m reading Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014) and at the point where the young hero, Tess, is riding on the New York subway and thinking about her tiny Irish village. “…she contemplated an alternative life back there. A pall grew, a feeling of ennui, at the thought of the daily mundane, the restraint, the stasis. The feeling of things closing off, closing down.…It seemed to her now to be a place without dreams, or where dreaming was prohibited.”