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In Praise of Flyover Country

The best thing about small towns? Everyone knows you. The worst thing? Everyone knows you.

by
Burt Prelutsky

Bio

June 7, 2008 - 12:23 am

There are, as I see it, two kinds of people. There are those who love to travel — people who would sooner let their drivers licenses lapse than their passports.

And then there’s me.

When I was younger, it was usually writing assignments that forced me to pack my suitcase. Now, between those airport security lines that remind me of the endless serpentines at Disneyland and airplane seats that seem to have been designed for the transporting of sardines, long distance travel has lost whatever small allure it ever had.

In fact, of all the trips I have taken in my life, trips that included such destinations as Japan, Yugoslavia, Brazil and Spain, the most memorable one took place about 20 years ago. The locale was Oxford, Nebraska. The purpose was to meet my in-laws for the first time.

Oxford is a town of about a thousand people, located in the southwest part of the state. For someone who was born in Chicago and raised in Los Angeles, it was more exotic than Osaka, Japan. When you live in a big city, it is possible to go a very long time without ever knowing your next door neighbor, so it is a major culture shock to spend a week in a town where you’re the only stranger.

Because my wife and I were staying at a motel in a town about 12 miles away, we had to rent a car. One dark night, on our way back to the Bide-a-Wee, our car suddenly broke down in the middle of farm country. Being closer to my mother-in-law’s house than to our motel, we left the car parked on the shoulder and started walking back. After about five minutes, a car headed in our direction slowed down and stopped. There were two elderly women in the car. They offered us a lift. When I asked them if they weren’t the least bit nervous about picking up strangers in the dead of night, the driver said, “We saw your car, so we knew you’d broken down, and we knew we’d come across you sooner or later.” I sat there thinking, “Toto, we’re not in California anymore.”

It turned out the good Samaritans didn’t live in Oxford, but they knew my mother-in-law, Juanita Boe, and they dropped us off at her front door.

The next unusual thing that happened is that one of my sisters-in-law immediately phoned the owner of the auto agency where we’d rented the car and chewed off his ear for sticking us with a lemon. It was past 10 p.m.. For all I know, he was already asleep, but this was Nebraska, where there is apparently no rest for the wicked.

Another night, we were a little low on gas. Because there was only one gas station in Oxford and it closed up at sundown, I was a bit concerned. But there was no reason to be. My mother-in-law checked the time and told us where the local patrolman was likely to be making his rounds. It seems he had the key to the padlock on the gas pump. Sure enough, a few minutes later, we found him driving down by the ballpark, exactly where he was supposed to be. A few minutes later, I had a full tank of gas.

One afternoon, I walked to the local grammar school to shoot baskets with my 11-year-old niece-in-law. I asked her what was the best thing about living in such a small town. She thought about it for a while and then said, “Everybody knows you.” I then asked her what the worst thing was. This time she didn’t have to think about it. “Everybody knows you.”

The girl’s mother worked part time at the local newspaper. She asked me if I’d mind being interviewed by the editor-publisher. Apparently, if a town is small enough, even a TV writer is something of a visiting celebrity.

So the next day I wandered over to the newspaper. While I sat in the editor’s office waiting for him to get back from lunch, I had a few minutes to check out my surroundings. When he showed up, I asked him if he lived four blocks up and two blocks over. He said he did, and he wondered how I happened to know that. “The other day,” I explained, “I was taking a walk when a cocker spaniel came down the driveway and started barking at me. I thought I recognized him in that family picture you have on your desk.”

So when I tell you that Oxford is a small town, you now have some idea just how small it is.

It was a very nice write-up, by the way, but I guess the guy wasn’t a big fan of Jack Webb, though, because he kept spelling “Dragnet” “Drag Net.”

My most vivid memory of Oxford, however, involves turkey. My wife had told me that her mother was a wonderful cook and had even run her own catering business for several years. Well, the first dinner we had was a beautiful roast turkey. When we returned the next day for lunch, we had turkey sandwiches. That evening, we had turkey for dinner.

The next day, we had turkey for lunch. Also for dinner.

By this time, I could see that we were getting close to the bone, and I was already anticipating a change of pace.

However, when we showed up the next day, I beheld a brand spanking new roast turkey.

By the end of the week, I half-expected to sprout feathers and wattles.

It so happens that I like turkey as much as the next guy, but it was obvious that, after praising her mother’s culinary skills, my wife was at a loss to explain the turkey festival.

Only after we returned to L.A. was the mystery solved. My wife got off the phone with her mom and explained, “My mother knows you’re Jewish and she knows there are lots of things Jews aren’t supposed to eat, but she figured turkey was safe.”

If only my own mother had been as thoughtful. That woman, knowing how much I dreaded salmon patties and barley soup, made the one every Tuesday night and the other every Friday night for as long as I lived at home, and never — not even on Thanksgiving — made turkey.

Juanita Boe passed away almost 10 years ago. If she got a gig in God’s kitchen, I can’t help wondering what’s on the menu.

Television writer Burt Prelutsky is the author of The Secret of Their Success: Interviews with Legends & Luminaries.
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