Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Forty Years Later, a Reunion

I was a little nervous as I headed to the reunion dinner at the VFW, in the tiny western New York State town where I grew up.

My classmates and I were gathering from locations that ranged from an apartment down the street to a house in Thessaloniki, Greece.

I’m sure every one of us heading to the event felt a touch of the silly old fears that come with these gatherings. Then I spotted the big orange sign on the nearby bridge over the Erie Canal:

“WARNING: Emergency Scene Ahead.”

Logically, I knew the sign wasn’t put there as a caution against what lay ahead at my 40th high school reunion. But I worried that it might turn out to be an omen of some sort.
Would I say something stupid and hurt someone’s feelings? Would I still like these people? Would they still like me?

The cliché is that those who gather at reunions are, at least on some subtle level, trying to impress one another. But that doesn’t apply to most reunions in the small towns of places like Vermont and New York.

After all, my classmates and I had known each other from a very young age, in many cases since preschool. We’d attended Ms. Weidman’s summer program for kindergarteners and survived her overpowering perfume. We’d played Little League together, shared First Communion.

When you’ve known people that long, there’s no fooling them. Whatever polish your personality might have in midlife, they recall the little kid you used to be.

They remember what an idiot you were in junior high school. They have a vivid image in their minds of when you barfed up lunch in second grade. When you threw the interception that cost your JV football team an undefeated season.

They were there when you almost blew the entire Senior Play by drinking hard liquor in the girls’ locker room, minutes before you were to go onstage.

They haven’t forgotten the day when you tipped so far back in your desk chair, halfway through Mr. Jelomono’s 7th grade math class, that you fell over backwards in your chair and brought your desk thundering down upon you.

And the secret love notes that were in your desk? The ones that slid out for everyone to read as you lay there on the floor in stunned silence, trapped beneath the heavy desk and the onslaught of telltale papers?

They remember that, too.

Coming to an event like this, you don’t check your ego at the door. You had to check it years ago.

But that doesn’t mean nothing has changed.

For me the most heartening shift at this reunion was the matter-of-fact acceptance of a classmate’s gay sexual orientation. No one seemed to give it a second thought, even though the town remains somewhat insular and strongly Catholic.

Outside the doors of the cozy VFW, however, we could see that another, more disturbing change had occurred. Along with most of central and western New York State, the village has seen a slow decline in prosperity.

Some of the houses in which we grew up are in disrepair or boarded up. The once proud downtown -- where we shopped as kids and where, a century before that, Abraham Lincoln stopped on his trip from Illinois to assume the presidency -- is largely dormant. A few of its stately, mid-19th-century brick buildings are being sold to anyone willing to pay the back taxes.

Yet I take hope for the town’s future from several of my classmates and former high school teachers, who are helping to create a local renaissance through light manufacturing and Erie Canal tourism. Thanks to government stimulus money and a cadre of committed townspeople, the downtown looks noticeably better than it did just three years ago.

And anyway, the nostalgic human heart transcends it all.

Whatever traumas befell us as kids, however ragged the old homestead may look, most of us retain a strong affection for the small town where we came of age.

The place commands a tremendous loyalty from those of who learned in her schools, played on her fields, sipped a first underage beer in her back alleys.

I doubt people feel that way about the suburbs.

As a kid, I couldn’t go anywhere in town without being noticed. When I was 16 and learning to drive, I once illegally passed a parked school bus that had its lights flashing. Later that same afternoon, the bus driver paid a visit to my family’s house to tell me, sternly but without malice, never to do that again.

I could misbehave a mile from home and -- by the time I got back to the house -- my mother would know all about it. And when I occasionally did something well, I’m sure my parents heard about that, too.

Thanks to all those growing-up years, I have always found our Addison County towns – from Bristol to Vergennes to Middlebury -- to be both familiar and comforting.

And when I think of that phrase about how it takes a village to raise a child, I think of those towns.

And of a little place called Clyde, N.Y.

- 30 -

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Keeping It Weird in Vermont

Coming soon to a car near you, the latest in bumper stickers:

"Keep Vermont Weird."

It's a sign of how different Vermont really is -- and how disturbingly homogenized the rest of the country is getting -- that some of us have to proclaim the need to protect our uniqueness.

How weird is Vermont?

Some of the obvious differentiators are gay marriage, a socialist U.S. senator and locally, a spectacularly wrongheaded campaign to construct a monument in the middle of the new Middlebury roundabout. The two of these make Vermont delightfully different, and the third is just plain weird.

Beyond the obvious, though, sometimes you have to look a little harder to find true weirdness in the Green Mountain State.

Yet after a couple of weeks out of town on vacation, I can assure you that we are obviously quite different from our brethren and sister-en in other New England states.
My group’s travels late last month across northern New England began with an eight-hour trek to Mount Desert and the island country around Acadia National Park -- relieved only by a yuppie-style stop for overpriced premium food items at the Portland Whole Foods.

We arrived on Mount Desert the same day as the Obamas flew in for their brief weekend respite. Their casual drop-in at The Club was all the locals could talk about.
I confess I was a bit disappointed that neither POTUS nor the First Missus dropped by our place to say hello.

But perhaps it's just as well. Every time I have to deal with the Secret Service, they seem to dig up even more embarrassing information about my youthful indiscretions.
And because most of the Secret Service agents are a lot younger than I am, it takes a long time to explain to them that back then, sex, drugs and rock 'n roll were considered normal rather than aberrational.

Once the Obama's went back to World Domination and Saving the U.S. Congress for Democrats, we settled in for some serious relaxing.

Coastal Maine has to be one of the prettiest places on the planet. But it's vacation-spiffed exterior lacks any of Vermont's weird soulfulness. Everything but the lobster pounds is too squeaky clean. Top-Sider boat shoes and pink Bermuda shorts seem to be de rigueur even in the smallest towns.

Our group of 10 escaped the vacationing masses by sticking close to our waterfront abode, where the teenage girls in our party posed for photos and the sub-teenage boys played "War" by shooting plastic pellets at each other with disturbingly lifelike toy guns.
When those activities paled, we took to climbing some of the local mountains. We capped these trips by stopping for lobster rolls at dockside restaurants redolent with the smell of rotting crustaceans, punctuated by the buzz of flies and the roar of lobster boat motors.

The sun shone, the lobster was fresh. We were beer-buzzed and happy.

A truly gigantic bald eagle made several appearances in the little bay where our rental house was perched. One evening, two Windjammer schooners in the middle distance made their way toward Pretty Marsh Harbor.

But as Vermonters who are accustomed to a more off-kilter daily existence, we felt all too normal in Maine. Our house rental at an end, four of us exited for eastern Vermont, to spend a week house-sitting for a friend in her high mountain perch above the Connecticut River Valley.

The eastern edge of the state is one I've rarely seen, and it does contain some wonderful weirdness.

Perhaps the best part was the Tea Party activist farmer who has gone to a great deal of effort to spread his maniacal messages on the Route 25 exit of Interstate 91. The general import of his handpainted signs is that the Democrats in Washington are hogs and it’s time to get their snouts out of the trough.

The pièce de résistance were the 14 white plastic manure containers that he had spray-painted, each with an individual letter on it, to spell out, "Thank You Arizona."

Apparently illegal immigration on the Mexican border, 2,200 miles away, is a much greater threat to Vermont than most of us had realized.

Or one might simply conclude that this message of gratitude to Arizona was just an exterior reflection of what was inside the manure containers.

From our mountain vacation spot, our daytime excursions included spending way too much for blue jeans at a nifty dress shop in Montpelier, plus a foray into Live Free or Die Country, across the river in Hanover, N.H.

It says all you need to know about Hanover today, that the former home of the chabby-chic Peter Christian’s Tavern is now occupied by a burrito fast-food chain.

Descending those steps into the basement that once held that magnificently stylish dive bar – which in its time was second only to The Alibi in Middlebury -- I felt a pang of sadness at the passing of a Hanover institution.

But I was hungry, so I had a burrito anyway.

Hanover itself seems to have become the opposite of weird, such a bizarre facsimile of normal that it's become weird again.

You get the sense that Hanover residents who fail to cut their deeply green lawns at least once a week will be carted off to Preppie Jail, with their release contingent upon making a large donation to Dartmouth College.

At day’s end, I was relieved to make it back across the state line from Hanover into Vermont, to visit the general store in Fairlee where two black cats rule the roost of a creaky wooden porch.

The store’s used-book section has old Kurt Vonnegut novels for 50 cents, down the aisle from a slowly deteriorating stuffed bobcat and other replicas of dead creatures.

Just the kind of weird juxtaposition to make a Vermonter feel at home again.