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Works and Days

Reflections on Small Town America

May 18th, 2010 - 10:28 pm

Government was to be well run, but to be kept small and local. Taxes were to be criticized but paid in full. Swedishness was revered, but not to the point of chauvinism. America was deified. (My grandfather fought in the 91st Division in some terrible battles; my namesake was killed with the 6th Marine Division on Okinawa (65 years ago today on Sugar Loaf Hill with the 29th Marines); and my father flew on 39 B-29 missions, the vast majority over Japan. I heard very little triumphalism — my grandfather liking the Germans ["good young boys” and “fine old men”] he took prisoner;  my father was still saddened about the loss of “Thumper” and other 29s that blew up over Tokyo, and so often he seemed confused that the bravest and most audacious in his war above Japan were often the most ill-suited to prosper in peace, as if their wartime skills did not merely not translate into “success” but perhaps were antithetical to it, being singular and predicated on risk and a sort of fearlessness that came as second nature.)

I recall two caricatures of the Kingsburg Swedes — “dour” and “dumb.” But I think both pejoratives, in truth, were not really so pejorative. “Dour” is perhaps shorthand for “the tragic view.” The Kingsburg Swedes understood that no one gets out alive, and that we must brace and endure with dignity the premature death of the good, the unforeseen hail at harvest that ruins the ingenious farmer and misses his less adept counterpart, the market collapse that ensures failure for the otherwise perfect harvest. This is not fatalism, but rather a gallantry in accepting our all too brief existences, rather than raging against the unfairness of it all and expecting “them” to “make it better — or else.”

“Dumb” also was a misnomer. So was “naïve.” Mostly, I heard that Swedes did not go into packing, brokerage, real estate, buying and selling. They sold their crops when they could have gotten more with tougher bargaining, and bought too high when they might have worn down the seller. They paid their taxes, when write offs were to be had. In other words, they never got rich, and assumed that their own amazing capability for hard work might give them leeway, some margin in which they might not otherwise have to be so brutal to others to survive. I remember my rather poor Swedish grandfather (he broke horses for a living and had a small dairy of about five or six cows) once berated as being “dumb” for selling a horse to someone who the next day  sold it for nearly twice as much. My  non-Swedish mother much later asked her father-in-law about that rumor — “I don’t care much for all that, Pauline. The price to me was fair, and that fellow was honest enough, and what he does with that well-broke horse is his business not mine.” She liked that. So did I (I think that’s why I just blew up a photo and mounted it in the kitchen, one I just found of him at 77, square-jawed atop a huge painted horse).

I go on too much here in efforts to fathom why Kingsburg is still different from the other small towns in the Fresno-Visalia corridor. The streets, as I said, are quite unusual — more like boulevards than of the usual small town type. The houses seem better kept; the downtown appears European, in the sense of small cafes, some with outdoor tables. In politically-incorrect terms, there is not an edge-city outside of Kingsburg, nor the level of dependency and entitlement that one sees in my  hometown or a nearby Parlier or Sanger.

In other words, some 130-40 years after a handful of Swedes arrived in the middle of nowhere, the fumes of their achievement linger even when their names in the cemetery are now known to almost no one.

Long may they run. And it was an honor to be among them last Saturday, both their descendants and the spirits still in the wind.

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