I grew up in a small mid-western town. It was the world to me then. In many ways it still is. It’s more than a place of recollections. This place challenges the adage “you can never go home again” as it is not about romanticized memories but about shared ageless ideals. I return for visits whenever I can.
It is the quintessential small town. The courthouse sits majestically in the center of the town square surrounded by the pharmacy, the barber, the diner, the bank, the local insurance agent and the post office. A small college of note is a major employer and the local industrial park has significant regional and national businesses. The town’s location, less than an hour from a metropolitan area, make this rural setting within reach of big city amenities an attractive place to call home.
On one of my visits to town this past summer, I took an early morning jog at the city park. It’s located a couple of miles outside of town. It’s a thoughtful place. There are a limited number of structures and lots of open spaces with rolling lands to walk at leisure. The once busy swimming hole is evidenced by the diving tower remnants that preside over today’s calmer waters.
As a youngster our family visited the park just often enough for it to remain a destination. On occasion we gathered at the park pavilion with Dad’s faculty colleagues or family friends for potluck cook-outs. Being from a large family I was accustomed to big holiday meals with relatives but I was always amazed at the number of burgers and weenies on the grill at a college function.
At gatherings like this men become self-appointed chefs. Whenever an outdoor grill is in play a culinary supervisory gene is stirred.
Apparently a portion of the genetic code is activated whenever men get near an open flame and red meat is present. They readily don aprons and take over flame control with a wonder similar to that of their ancestors who first discovered fire. You would rarely find these same men cooking at home but then modern conveniences have greatly reduced the incidence of open flames in the family kitchen.
My favorite park pavilion events were the cider and glazed doughnut evenings. The faculty scheduled a get together in mid October at the park. All the elements of a traditional Midwestern autumn event were in play – the aroma of burning wood, the taste of the sharp fresh cider from Floyd’s Orchard, sticky glazed or sugar donuts and seasonal attire that included a comfortable sweatshirt.
We rarely had glazed donuts at home and really, why should we, the college was going to have an event at the park pavilion in six months anyway, so we kids could just wait. Sometimes we could find glazed donuts on the college quadrangle where a bonfire drew in a crowd for a pep rally. The added plus of glazed donuts on such an occasion was that the stickiness on little fingers would add to your grip if you managed to be last on the crack-the-whip line that snaked around the campus.
But this was a story about the city park and here are a couple of closing thoughts.
The park manager lived in what, as a child, I saw as a large home with a huge porch overlooking the lake. What a dream place! You were steps from the swimming hole, across the street from the swings, and in the summer months the walk out basement sold Cracker Jacks, Grape Nehi and wax lips. For July 4th celebrations yellow bug-repelling child-attracting lights were hung to signal the concession stand was open.
The house today, through adult eyes, reflects more closely the Cracker Jacks they sold – it’s tiny. But back then I was attracted to this seemingly impressive structure as the building’s design could easily be replicated with my favorite toy – American Building Blocks. These unique no-longer-available sets of plastic bricks with functional windows and doors provided hours of creative fun. I would often construct a model of this home with its cantilevered porch design and once displayed it for Show-and-Tell in Mrs. Hentze’s second grade class.
This photo (above) of the manager’s residence also marks the exact spot where I learned the meaning of the words “couple” and “several”. It was the annual Fourth of July celebration and the community gathered at the swimming hole hillside to watch the Jaycees Club put on the fireworks display. I asked my dad if I could have some money to buy some Cracker Jacks – they had a free prize inside so you were really getting a snack and a toy for one low price. He gave me some money – maybe fifty cents – and told me to buy a couple of boxes of the snack. In my mind that meant to buy as much as I could for the money. I followed the yellow lights to the concession stand and found fifty cents would actually buy three boxes. How thoughtful of me – I could share with more people. When I returned to my dad with the few cents of change he scolded me because I had bought “several” boxes not a “couple” as he instructed me to do. I was just a little kid and grateful to have learned this difference in meaning but now figured I’ll likely be waiting until the faculty cider and donuts night this fall before I get another free sugar fix.
Small town parks are living statements of what we value as a community. It takes a lot of money to maintain and improve them but they pay big dividends. Take your kids and grand-kids and a “couple” of boxes of Cracker Jacks to your city park and observe it through their eyes.
The city park will always be a destination for me.