Small Towns, Big Stories
Saturday night I gave a speech to the Hillsborough, New Hampshire, Chamber of Commerce. It was their annual awards evening, where a business of the year and citizen of the year would be recognized, and generally a time when all the members could gather and sit at long tables in the American Legion Hall, have some drinks and pasta and pork loin and chat about their lives and their town. The night was bitterly cold, but the feeling inside the American Legion Hall was full of warmth and small town spirit. If you ever need an answer to what city people sometimes ask — “How could you ever live in such a small town?” — being there would have provided the answer.
Their citizen of the year, a woman who everyone knows as “Jenks,” received a standing ovation that only family could give, and it was obvious, in their affection for her and all the things she has done in that town, that she is family to all. She served on so many committees and town projects the person presenting her award ran out of breath and let out a sort of breathless cry, “I’m not done yet!”
The business of the year went to a local insurance agency and again you felt that the owner knew every single person in town, and probably insured everyone. He had everybody laughing when he told about how he was persuaded to pony up $2000 a few years back to sponsor a sign welcoming people to Hillsborough, only to find out a few days later that he couldn’t have his company’s name on it. It was funny in the telling, sort of a joke’s-on-me type of tale. All in all, Jimmy Stewart from It’s a Wonderful Life could have popped in and felt right at home.
I called my talk “Voices of New England” and because I was speaking to a chamber of commerce whose members owned the small businesses that keep the economy going for all of us, I chose stories of people I have met over my 30-year career at Yankee who had all come through hard times and persevered.
I told the good people of Hillsborough the amazing saga of Will Smith. When I met him he was 31-year-old Gulf War veteran. He was a student at Bowdoin College, captain of the basketball team, surrounded by 20-year-olds, and a single dad to his infant daughter, Olivia. Will couldn’t afford daycare, so Olivia accompanied him to class and basketball practice. Soon, the physical and financial strain began to take its toll on Will.
Will woke at 4 a.m. to squeeze in studying time. His Navy funds and financial aid didn’t cover the cost of living or caring for Olivia’s asthma. Will began skipping meals so his daughter could eat. He lost 17 pounds and nearly gave up hope. “My body was wearing down, my mind was wearing down, but Olivia never lost faith in me.”
The memory of his own mother, a single parent who had raised 10 children, and his love for Olivia inspired Will to reach out for help. “It wasn’t until I was able to accept the help I was given that things turned around.” Will and Olivia moved into the dorms, eating in the school’s cafeteria. The gym became her playground, his teammates her favorite babysitters.
He told me about the time when his car broke down. “She let me know then that the car, my grades, money didn’t matter. She was glad the car was broken because we could walk together. That kept things in perspective. The most important thing in my life is her.”
I was at his graduation, when Will became the first single father to graduate from Bowdoin College. And there was one special person on stage with him as he received his diploma, his roommate, Olivia.
I told about the Bachelder family in Epsom, New Hampshire. I called the story “Fire on the Farm” — about how, after a devastating fire, instead of simply shutting down their farm, selling their land and dairy herd, like so many hundreds of small dairy farmers in the past 20 years, they determined to rebuild, with the help of neighbors.
I drove out to the farm for the first time on a lovely Saturday. Keith’s mother, Ruth, proved a writer’s dream. She is a born storyteller, and it was as if she had waited to simply tell the story — not of the fire, but of the family, about her roots as a farm girl, about her courtship with her husband, Charles, all those years ago. “He was a farm boy. I was a farm girl,” she began. And I was hooked.
In her country kitchen she talked about the joy of working from dawn to dusk, fighting to keep a little farm going. I had not known very much about the plight of the small New England dairy farmer when I entered Ruth’s home. Until Ruth and her daughter, Sarah, talked to me, I had never realized how the huge corporate dairy farms in the West make it all but impossible for the traditional New England farmer to compete. There are dairy farms in Idaho, Sarah told me, with thousands of cows. She and her family were milking fewer than 40.
A hard life, Ruth said over and over, but one she would never trade. She talked about standing in the middle of the road on a spring evening and hollering that dinner was ready, watching her two daughters and two sons run from the barn where they’d been playing. And how all her children’s friends wanted to come for dinner because of the farm-fresh cooking.
I talked, too, about Ralph Thomas. We extol our multi-millionaire athletes, and sportswriters casually call them heroic. Consider this: In October 1977, Ralph Thomas, a Penobscot Indian from Gardiner, Maine, set off to run a marathon in Niagara Falls. He worked his shift in a broiler house hauling live chickens from 2 a.m. to 10 a.m. He showered and was on the road by 11. After driving alone to Rochester, New York, for 12 hours, he stopped and napped for about five hours, then set off for the race, arriving at 11 A.M. half an hour before his start. His time was 2:32, placing him 19th out of 2200 runners.
I told the story of Connie Small, one of the last of the wives of a lighthouse keeper. She died a few years back in Kittery, Maine. She told me about the time she blistered the skin off her hands when her husband, Elson, was away and the bell broke down during a storm. “I untied the ropes we used to ring the bell by hand when we saluted the lighthouse tender. I pulled for an hour and a half — I knew Elson was out there.”
She lived on Avery’s Rock — the most desolate lighthouse three miles out in Machias Bay. There was no earth, only a half-acre of boulders and a wooden plank leading from the house to the boat slip. She was 21. There was no phone, no electricity. Rain washed off the roof into cisterns stored beneath the pantry. She saw only Elson, and at night while she knit socks or sewed quilts or bedding or clothes, she’d twist the radio dial hoping to hear another voice, however faint.
Once, winching the boat onto the slip, she caught her arm under the clamper, crushing it beneath the cogs. “I walked the floor all night,” she told me. “Next day, Elson got me to shore. I had to take the mail team nine miles to Machias, while Elson returned to the light.
I spoke for half hour or so, talking about these people and many more. Sometimes I need a chance, myself, to remember how good people face hard times, and find ways to come through, stronger than ever. I imagine in that American Legion Hall on Saturday I could have found many stories of strength and character, if only there had been time to listen.