Garrison Keillor said, “When a man lives in one place for most of his life, he doesn’t need GPS. He is guided by memories of boyhood bike rides, the ever-present Mississippi, and the undeniable power of rhubarb.”
Our town, Port William, had neither rhubarb or the Mississippi, but we did have bike rides, roller skates, plenty of homemade food on the table, and love in our homes.
Growing up during one of the best times in American history, we tend to treasure our small-town lives even more as we get older. A simple pleasure was to walk to the local restaurant and mingle with the farmers and townsfolk who regularly convened on the red and white stools at the counter, while high school students sat at tables drinking milkshakes and eating French fries.
Regardless if you grew up in Wilmington, Hillsboro, Washington C.H. or Xenia, the values and experiences were very much the same.
Nothing lasts forever, the only constant is change, and the change that swept through the small towns during that era were the intense winds of school consolidation. When the debate lowered its voice, the transformation swept through the soul of the towns, as the residents came to understand the State School Board had just cut out the hearts of their beloved community.
It wasn’t long before our old school in Port was gone, then the other grocery, Sanders Market, soon became a parking lot. Stephens Hardware removed the gas pumps, closed its doors, and the town lost a gathering place forever.
The school where the baseball diamond resided, and where kids spent the majority of their summers playing baseball, is now buried beneath mammoth bins filled with grain.
Last week, my sister Rita and I had the opportunity to meet with some old friends, those who also grew up in our hometown. There is something indescribable about friends who have been together, in some cases, for almost 75 years.
Rita wrote about those times and people in a new book titled, “A Place Called Port.” With each turn of the page, you can almost hear the cheerleaders chant, “We’re from Port and couldn’t be prouder. If you can’t hear us, we will yell it all the louder,” from the glory days of Port William High School basketball led by Donnie Fields and Donnie DeVoe.
She deftly captured the simple moments and people who made Port William unique over the years and reminds of us of a gentler time in our history.
Surprisingly, I learned many things about our own family I didn’t know. In a sense, our family was comprised of different families. Rita and older brothers Jim and Jack were born during our parents’ younger years. My brother Kevin and I were born later in life, after our older siblings had married and left home.
Rita recalled a story about one of her fun-loving classmates named Mari Jo Shadley, who was a prankster. According to Rita, Mari Jo was a new student at Port William and full of mischief. One day at the end of study hall, Mari Jo walked swiftly to the teacher’s desk and said to Mr. Johnson, “We forgot to tell you that we have marching band practice this period.”
Mr. Johnson, a new teacher, was trying to follow the rules, so he dismissed half of the class for marching band practice. You can imagine the outrage of Mr. Johnson when he discovered Port William High School had no marching band.
Another of Rita’s stories that caught my attention was about my mother, who was a 4-H leader, and the club’s annual visit to the Cincinnati Zoo, Coney Island, and a riverboat ride on the Ohio River.
The group began the trip at the zoo, enjoying boxed lunches under the shade trees just before it began to sprinkle rain. Just as the large group from Clinton County boarded the Island Queen on the river, a thunderstorm struck, scattering the group to cover. One leader didn’t seek cover soon enough and was soaked. When she arrived on the riverboat deck, her crepe dress began to shrink before everyone’s eyes, shrinking so fast her underwear became visible to all.
According to Rita, it was a story retold for many years in the Haley family, with my dad particularly liking to tell the story because the lady was a cousin to my mother.
Interestingly, I learned of these happenings only after reading Rita’s book recently.
Towns and the people in them come and go. As Thomas Wolfe said, “All things belonging to the earth will never change — the leaf, the blade, the flower, the wind that cries and sleeps and wakes again, the trees whose stiff arms clash and tremble in the dark.
“All things proceeding from the earth to seasons, all things that lapse and change and come again upon the earth — these things will always be the same, for they come up from the earth that never changes, they go back into the earth that lasts forever. Only the earth endures, but it endures forever.”
So do our memories.
Pat Haley is a former Clinton County commissioner and former Clinton County sheriff.