Link to Chapters 1-4
The Little Town
The small town sat at the base of the hills in the valley of the brown ever flowing river. Yellow blooms on the sage brush and the cheat grass’s change to purple signaled the change of seasons. They grew on hillsides in every direction, lusher on the south facing hills than on the north.
Those northwest hills were very high leaving the valley in a shadow on the long summer afternoon. The little river wound it’s way from west to east toward the ocean in a round about way. The road that followed it was twisted and dangerous in the icy winters. Isolation marked the months from December until March. Towns people had no sense that any of the roads went anywhere important enough to draw them away from their daily lives. Yet there were five road that could take them away if they chose…forever. Mostly though they just left to visit family or to go fishing. For many generations nothing else seemed that important.
A railroad claimed the land next to the river and the yard held a round house that smelled of creosote and coal smoke. Black soot from idling engines would turned white sheet black if the wind blew just right. A turntable in the round house’s center allowed the trains to be moved from track to track with a simple turn of the huge round table. The railroad brought with it an escape from or even to the humdrum. A few crew members housed their second love in houses on the east side of the highway and pool rooms or saloons welcomed them through the night. Two hotels sold rooms by the hour so men that worked such irregular hours could rest before the railroad call girls came to wake them from their sleep. They would lift their heads from warm pillows and return the way they had come in the engine of a giant freight train or on the caboose. They talked of “siding out at Ensigna” or switching cars at some other remote location. It was a language different from that of the miners or those that ran the grocery store and bars.
The railroad, the five roads and the river were all symbols for their life.
The small town was situated south away from the river and the houses sat above each other on the hillside. The streets were dirt with pot holes and cutting rocks. The houses were built in another time. It seemed that the town reached a point where no new houses were needed and it was then that the people began trading houses or simply staying where they were, satisfied with walls and a roof. Most places had a green yard and the little park stood unused until July 4th. It was always faithfully mowed. A swing set aged not so much from use but from of disused and neglect. There were just enough sidewalks to get by with. A vacant lot stood empty for 50 years. Children played ball and the diamond was rutted into the earth. Young boys smoked behind the abandoned house in a corner next to the hillside. Old women lived their lives out in the small house where they raised a family. Their husbands generally died before them so they counted on small sewing circles and church for they social life.
The street called Jefferson started at the top of a hill on the west edge. The local rural mail delivery man lived in a farm house with a barn in the back. Hurley was his name and he drove like “a bat out of hell” they used to say. The man killed dogs and cats before he reached the first corner. Children were warned about his recklessness. He deliver the mail on time it was said but he also stole any thing that lay beside a field or in a front yard on his route. He delivered mail for over 40 years. He died at the age of 95 by the side of a road near a mailbox. After the funeral his widow invited everyone in the county to come to the barn and collect any farm tool or rakes they could recognize as their own. Cars lined up for a blocks. While they grieved his passing, everyone felt a little bit safer when he was gone. And most people then had two or three shovels.
Jefferson Street ran the full length of town, past varying sizes of houses that provided a home for many families. Children walked the sidewalk that came within a block of the school set on the east side of town. There was nothing behind the houses on the south side of the road and cattle pressed against the fences that surrounded a few gardens. When it rained the smell of sage brush filled the air and in the summer the children would play in warm puddles of water. When the sky cleared and the lightening had passed, people emerge to watch the rainbow fill the sky, usually in the east.
Main Street businesses lined the highway that passed through town. An ice cream parlor, dry goods store, gas station/mercantile, movie theater and a grocery stood near the road. Tourists and those that could climb off the passenger train for a bite to eat could chose between two restaurants. War time found troop trains stopped and small children ran for cigarettes or sandwiches for the men. Harry Truman came on a day in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s to give a whistle stop speech from the back platform of the train. He didn’t know where he was and spoke about the town further on the down the road. He and Bess waved and the train steamed away into history. People in the community may have voted for him but it was against their better judgment.
If there was a place where children could play out their fantasies in pretend forts or houses built of sheets on the clothes line, this little town could very well have been it. Youngsters slept outside on a summers night. They lived and played in innocence and safety. Parents filled in for each other and provided what their neighbors could not. It was not easy but it was a worthy life.
A river, a railroad and five roads each leading to a different destination, a multitude of cultures and a world of opportunities, eventually changed the town’s face. However, for those that grew to adulthood there during the middle of the twentieth century, the clock stood still. Morningside and the people that lived there during that time are a ghostly presence even today.