Candi Strecker ©1998
I landed in Ohio this summer with the oddest sense that I'd somehow used this place up. In past years, my annual trips had had a secret purpose: as research for a magnum opus I planned to write on rural midwestern life. Ordinary shopping trips to the Farm&Fleet store were opportunities to study its merchandise, drives through the countryside gave me a chance to note the latest quirks in lawn goose dressing, and even while just sitting in the backyard lawn chair, I could mentally work on finding new ways to describe being drenched in sweat. But now that I'd turned all that stealth observation into the contents of the latest issue of the SSQ&CPM, I felt empty-headed, devoid of drive and purpose. Was it possible to simply spend four weeks here "doing nothing," to merely experience and enjoy? It was. And old habits die hard: even without pursuing them, more odd anecdotes and observations of rural life here began to come my way. Page by page, I began to fill the empty pocket notebook I'd brought along with me.
Perhaps because I wasn't setting myself up as a skeptical outsider observer, this year I "went native" surprisingly quickly - - by my fourth day I found myself making a "vegetable casserole" that contained one cup of sour cream and one can of cream of celery soup, and reading Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend, by the author of Bridges of Madison County (Waltz is an embarrassing, maudlin male self-aggrandizing fantasy, vastly inferior to Bridges, and not very sexy either.) Still, I could only go so native - - watching REALITY BITES on TV, I automatically thought, "Oh look, people who dress normally and talk normally!"
The weather this year was so picture-perfect that I'd wake up each morning and announce, "Another goddamn beautiful day!" Aside from two or three days when it was humid and in the 90s (Murphy's Law of course dictated that these would be the days involving the most car travel and the trip to an amusement park) the temperatures seldom went above 80, the humidity remained crisply low, and each night cooled off for pleasant sleeping. The weather was as optimal for crops as it was for humans, and the surrounding corn (it was "a corn year" at the house we were staying at) had already shot up over our heads when we arrived in early July - -about a month ahead of the usual schedule.
Finding acceptable reading material takes extra effort out here. At one point, desperately seeking anything readable at a horrible chain discount drugstore called The Pharm, I found myself contemplating a magazine rack that contained the following mysterious periodicals:
Speaking of magazines, I believe I have discovered what may be the normal-est magazine in the world: BIRDS AND BLOOMS, from Reiman Publications of Greendale, Wisconsin. Talk about being "about nothing" - - this magazine addresses the extremely Rural Non-Farm topics of gardening and bird-feeding, with a lot of emphasis on what I call "garden crap" - - squirrel feeders, goofy mailboxes, birdbaths, statuary, benches, gazebos, decks, and ponds.
It was a great summer for wallowing in home cooking ... sweet corn, sautéed yellow-squash, my mother-in-law's amazing homegrown green beans, as meaty as portobello mushrooms. (We recklessly smuggled a few pounds of them back home with us, in defiance of the California agricultural sanctions.) The wholesome midwestern notion of having a "vegetable dinner" in the summer when you're drowning in good garden produce. Hand-crafted beef jerky from a small local butcher's shop. Trying to decide between fried mush and home-made biscuits for breakfast. Pepperidge Farm's cinnamon swirl banana nut bread. More hamburgers in one month than I eat the rest of the year. Ballreich's Marcelled and Martin's Kettle-Cooked potato chips - - worthy champions in the respective categories or Rippled and Plain. Chicken pot pie (a hearty noodle dish that neither contains, nor dwells within, a pie crust.) One restaurant meal stands out in my mind - - the heaping mountain (who eats these whopper servings?) of bowtie-pasta salad at Bob Evans' chain restaurants, with turkey, "caesar dressing," a few bits of lettuce sprinkled about like "for-show" parsley sprigs, and about six slices worth of crumbled bacon. Man, was it tasty, but ...
Speaking of food, here's something that drives me absolutely crazy: that people don't turn off the ceiling fans over their home's dining-room tables during mealtime. In the time it takes to settle into your chair and pick up your fork, you've got ... stone-cold food!
One major purpose of this summer's trip was to attend Matt's 25th high school reunion. I was there as a stranger and a spouse, so the event was alternately intensely fascinating and excruciatingly boring. Still, it could have been worse - - since Matt's graduating class was so small (48) I had at least heard of almost all these people over the years. Biggest shock: how many of them were grandparents. Second-biggest shock - - hearing two different people innocently use what I think of as Hank Hill's trademark phrase, "I tell you WHUT," in conversation.
Radiowise, pickings are sparse out here. College radio is not an alternative - - I actually heard the University of Findlay's radio station playing "Rosanna" by Toto, which may be a first by any college station in America. (But I begin to doubt: are they lame, or are they just ahead of the curve??? Is exotica "over"?!) Still, I had plenty of opportunity to indulge my hankerings for weird talk radio. Doctor Laura was everywhere - - due to the vagaries of various stations' scheduling of her 3-hour show, I was able to make the 6-hour drive from Findlay to Pittsburgh while listening to her every mile of the way. A less pleasant radio experience, on a later leg of the trip, was being trapped in RUSH LIMBO: driving through the endless farm country of western Ohio on I-75, with few stations to choose from, we found ourselves in a sort of audio Bermuda Triangle in which every AM station we could receive was simultaneously broadcasting Rush Limbaugh's show. The effect was particularly scary if you set the radio's controls to spin thru the dial in an endless "search."
I may have spotted a potential successor to the lawn goose: the five-flowerpot snowman! (Stack five same-size flowerpots in a column, starting with an upside-down one at the bottom and alternating as you go up. I suspect these pots are either glued into position or strung together on a dowel. Paint them all white, then paint on facial features and glue on beads for buttons and hat pompom.)
From the Police Log in the Findlay Ohio Republican Courier:
"A Rawson woman filed a complaint Wednesday claiming a village juvenile had pulled the eyelashes off of her dog. The matter was referred to the dog warden."
Overheard: "So how's that new airconditioner you put in your RV?"
(Proudly) "Hang meat in it."
I keep thinking about The Kid In Elf Boots. He was maybe eight or nine or ten, waiting in line at a hamburger restaurant with an elderly grandpa or even great-grandpa. My suspicion is that he lives with, and is dressed by, his grandparents. He was wearing a t-shirt, tucked into elastic-waisted shorts that had been hoisted up well-nigh to his armpits, just like gramps'; navy blue nylon socks; and brown leather "elf boots," those no-lace pull-on beatle-boots with an elastic gore on the side. Every item of his clothes seemed to have been carefully chosen to place him out-of-synch with contemporary styles, to place the equivalent of a giant KICK ME sign on his back. I swear it was the saddest sight I saw all summer.
As always, I spent much time and effort this summer avoiding swimming. Personally, I'd rather go to the dentist's - - it's air-conditioned, you get to keep your clothes on, you don't have the sun in your eyes, and the chairs are much more comfortable.
A previously unnoticed aspect of the Rural Non-Farm lifestyle: Tank trucks are used to deliver the water to fill people's home swimming pools at the beginning of the summer. Because, if you rely on a home well, you'd drain it dry by taking out that much water at one time.
Pious banner running across the bottom of the TV screen during the Ohio Lottery's nightly number-pick broadcasts: PLEASE PLAY RESPONSIBLY.
A tip for country living: when you hear five different vehicles shooting past your rural home in the middle of the night with sirens blaring, it's not five fire engines responding to a really big fire. After all, there's nothing out here THAT big to burn. What you are in fact hearing are five individual members of a volunteer fire department converging on a fire, each in his or her own siren-equipped personal car.
There was thrift-store and yard-sale shopping of course, though not NEARLY enough to satisfy me: my haul included six map-of-Florida dish towels, 10 rolls of vintage wallpaper borders, 2 tin doll plates, Peapod the rabbit (the handmade polyester-double-knit stuffed-animal sibling of Miss Tenpenny the cat, whom Nicola had acquired a few years earlier as her free bonus for visiting Findlay's emergency room), an Avon men's cologne bottle shaped like a four-inch-high red-plaid Thermos, another Freddy the Pig book, another Stratton-Porter book, a copy of the WPA Writer's Project guidebook for Ohio, a 3-books-in-1-volume of Annie Dillard's nonfiction which provided good reading throughout July, a Bicentennial Kennywood mug, and a fondly-remembered Alice-and-Jerry primer from my childhood called The Five-and-a-Half Club. Also picked up a toy I'd been seeking for months, a Fisher-Price cash register, and spent the rest of the trip hunting (and finding) more fat plastic coins for it, though I'm still seeking "dimes." Plus numerous penny-ante purchases of yard-sale clothes and shoes and storybooks for Nicola, though now that she's five it's weird how the available supply is drying up. How is it that there are tables and tables of used "baby clothes," but almost nothing in sizes over 4T?
Pat Clark of Pittsburgh first pointed out this cryptic signage, and soon I was spotting it everywhere too: admonitory road signs reading
Nicola's new specialty at age five is the postmodern, minimalist knock-knock joke, which she'll compose ad lib endlessly, especially on long road trips:
Nicola's first-time-evers this year included petting a baby wild rabbit (a county mowing tractor had shooed it out of the roadside brush and up onto grandma's porch); being a passenger on a riding lawnmower; witnessing a backyard bonfire; eating beef jerky; drinking an entire Slurpee; holding a toad in her hand; and bouncing on her cousin's trampoline (as she's a naturally bouncy girl, this experience was nearly heaven.)
One of my favorite parts of this trip was getting to hear Al Hoff's long-awaited "NASCAR lecture." Like a good participant in an EST seminar, I GOT IT at last, and spent the rest of the summer closely reading motorsports news accounts and spotting new examples of the pervasiveness of this sport - - completely invisible in SF - - in normal America. (I also got obsessed with LPGA golf due to the string of wins by Korean phenom Se Ri Pak, including winning a Toledo tournament called the Jamie Farr / Kroger Open.) Al and Pat further indulged Nicola and I during our side-trip to Pittsburgh by taking us to thrift stores, to the wonderful Kennywood amusement park, to the Church of Beer (a brewpub fitted within a giant old Catholic church, with the big tank where the altar goes) and to Primanti Brothers, the famous dive that puts the fries and slaw inside the bun on top of your meat for an all-in-one sandwich treat. It works, too. Like my mother always said back when I was a picky eater, "It all winds up together in your stomach anyways." We also got to take Al's two chihuahuas for walkies in Pittsburgh's grandest old cemetery, among the mausoleums of the robber barons. Another moment that sticks in my mind: scattering Pop Rocks in their backyard grass on a humid evening, listening to them gently fizz and pop like a bowl of Rice Krispies.
Oddest product spotted: a line of nut-flavored carbonated bottled waters - - pistachio, hazelnut, banana nut, and PEANUT.
In Massillon, my hometown, a sight that is now indelibly engraved on my memory as a perfect symbol of local entropy: a house where the window air conditioner was propped up, on the outside, by a pair of crutches.
I heard two interesting superstitions on this trip. From Matt's mom, the belief that if the hem of your dress accidentally gets turned upward, "kiss your hem and you'll get a new dress." From my mom, the more complicated belief that the first time you take a newborn baby out "visiting" to someone's house, "you bring another baby along with it" - - in other words, your visit will cause that household to be the next to be visited by the stork. So, she explained, you must be very careful whom you pay that first visit to, preferably choosing someone past childbearing age, like the baby's grandparents. I found it interesting that in my mother's phrasing, pregnancy was cast as a fearful misfortune instead of welcome good luck. There's a world of social history in this remark, the way it precisely pinpoints her own childbearing years in the 1930s, 40s and 50s - - years when people wanted modern smaller families of two or three children (unlike their farmer parents' families of eight or ten), but could only achieve this by relying on risky pre-Pill contraceptive methods.
While I normally scorn all products created specifically as "collectibles," on this trip I actually bought one, and may buy more in the future. They're called CAT'S MEOWs, little 2-D wooden representations of old-timey buildings, especially midwestern small-town ones (they're manufactured in Wooster, Ohio.) In their defense, they're about the most tasteful, un-kitschy collectibles I've ever seen - - my description is, "If the Shakers had made a line of collectibles, this is what they would have come up with." On the other hand, they have all the repellent drawbacks of Beanie Babies and other popular collectibles, with the limited-edition releases and discontinuances of specific items stage-managed to drive up scarcity and prices and inflate the secondary market. (Priced around $10 new, some early ones made fifteen years ago now sell for $1000 to $2000.) You can see some on the Web (I bought the one shown at the top.)
Back home again, Candi