Infamy in a Small Town

In a small town there may be one (at most two) people who are impressed with you because you’ve written NOVELS. Fair enough. Why should they be impressed? After all you did get the Donkey Basketball  fundraiser cancelled when you wrote that thoughtful letter to the school superintendent questioning the idea of people humiliating donkeys who probably would rather not be laughed at and kicked up and down a slippery gym floor. You think it a bit much that the teacher who organized the event called you a bitch to her high school class (she doesn’t even know you and your step-daughter was in the classroom at the time and almost died), but you forgive the teacher–the event in past years made a lot of money and it was her claim to fame.

No one cares if you’re a writer when you are the second wife of a Navy man in a small town because the first wife is a native daughter with a, let’s say, talkative way about her and a talent for spinning sad stories of her own. At the bank they called you “the second wife” in derisive whispers, but they’ve warmed up to you a little since they see how often you make banking mistakes.

025And they all know about the time you were in a hurry to attend a parent/teacher meeting, swung into a parking spot and barely touched the car next to yours (a teacher’s car). You panicked, went home to bring a child back to ask this child if he saw any marks on the teacher’s car, went home again to get cleaning fluid, came back to leave a note, took away the note and never even considered just going into the school to tell what happened. A few days later the school called and you gave a tearful apology. Luckily there really was no damage to either car, but still, things like that–and the fact that you drive a white minivan with a CUBS license plate–stick with people.

Your husband counts down the years until his almost grown children will no longer sing in school chorus programs, but you quite enjoy the band and some of the songs (though not the theme songs from Disney movies). The Navy guy always sits way in the back of the auditorium so he doesn’t have to see his ex-wife. On this night you have along with you a lovely though fragile foster kid. She’s excited. She wants to feel grown-up and sits a few seats down. When the auditorium gets crowded and a student on stage asks for quiet you whisper to the girl to move closer. She pretends  not to hear you so you whisper louder and more imploringly. This triggers a secret horrible memory of her abusive mother who had a fondness for electrical tape. The girl whispers your name with big eyes and confesses she’s scared. Before you can do a thing and as the first nervous notes of a student soloist hit the air the foster girl screams your name–at least three times as you head for the door.

The show is stopped. The room is silent. Everyone recovers their senses. The show begins again, but you’re outside trying to calm the kid down. She’s having none of it and runs away. The Navy guy says let her run or she’ll keep stealing the show. It gets dark. The concert ends, and we’ve been searching for over an hour–with the police. Each car that leaves the show is stopped to be shown a picture of the little girl. The drivers glance over to see the Navy man answering questions about the girl in the squad car. What must they think? Someone says what they think: I saw that girl being kidnapped from the concert!

037You drive towards home but turn around thinking she couldn’t have made it this far. You turn around again because you really have no idea what to do and 8 miles from the school, nearly at your front door you see a small girl running in the distance with a coat over her head for safety. She’s run in flip flops along a highway and made it over a narrow unlit bridge spanning the Hudson. It boggles the mind. The cops are notified and everyone is relieved–or embarrassed. The Navy kids’ phones are blowing up with chatter and sympathy. Some EMS workers are a little disappointed they didn’t get to do a full-scale search through the fields surrounding the town.

You thought junking the minivan and buying a black SUV would allow you some anonymity, but no. Your name though hardly known for a novel you wrote will live in infamy at the school auditorium.

PS~I actually love my small town life and the people I meet, most of whom would give the shirts off their backs to help in times of trouble. I found the entire run away episode really funny–especially since unlike me my husband is a very private soul. Seeing him in the squad car will be a priceless memory for our family, and once the little girl was found we all laughed a lot. BTW, the policemen were wonderfully supportive, too!

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Books I’ve Known And Loved

An explosion at the DuPont Company black powder yard courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library
An explosion at a DuPont Company black powder yard courtesy of
Hagley Museum and Library

“The patriotism of the people who worked in the powder mills during the war was only exceeded by the front line soldiers.”

On the day of the final explosion  Helen remembered her mother at the sink. The tree-lined village with its substantial homes and churches lit by new stained glass sat chilled by a March wind off the river. The men were at the powder mill. Some men worked there because they had to, but some came for the excitement of working a dangerous job. And dangerous it was.

The powder necessary for guns, signalling devices, whaling harpoons and later for movie making filtered into every shirt pocket, every wrinkle of a man’s skin with each tiny particle ready to explode from the smallest spark, the tiniest mistake of a worker. The mill made the town and the town devoted itself to the mill. Children delivered lunch pails to their fathers but only at a safe distance (though no place in town was truly safe when the mills exploded as they occasionally did).

Windows shattered, dishes crashed to the floor and hearts froze when the mill whistles blew signalling danger, yet on most days the townsfolk lived happy, productive lives either at peace with life’s inherent dangers or unable to really imagine that one small spark could take their lives. Other people died young–a man with young children, camaraderie at the mill and lazy evenings spent chatting on the porches of his neighbors’ house in the beautiful Hoosic Valley of New York could fool himself.

Not me. Not mine.

Jump in the river. This was the advice when sparks flew. The amount of powder at the mill, in the crevices, on the window sills, in the men’s hair determined the extent of the damage.

Back to young Helen watching her mother at the sink in their neat kitchen just after breakfast. Some tried to describe the look of a blast–towers of flames through billowing smoke, silhouettes of friends suddenly gone in a flash as the lucky men shivering in the river looked on.

Helen’s mother froze as the whistle droned on and on. Women and children lined the streets waiting, some fainting. When Helen’s father wet and dirty came through the door and collapsed into a chair at the clean table, he wept for his friends–the ones he and his surviving coworkers would have to gather the pieces of in the mill yard–a hand here, a foot with a shoe there. They picked up the pieces in a basket and covered them in a red handkerchief.

Funerals began on St. Patrick’s Day. Helen’s mother had knit her a perfect green sweater for the saint’s special day. But March had remained a lion and winds down Powder Lane where the children sledded in winter spoke the mood of the people. Springtime and green would come again, but for now life was cold and charred.

A retelling of Anne Kelly Lane’s informative and heartbreaking little book dedicated to her mother’s memory The Powder Mill Gates Memories of a Powder Maker’s Daughter.   

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