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News From America

Odd People Here

The United States is a huge country, much too big for the nightly news. Our series continues where one of our editors randomly calls people in small towns around America to find out what’s really going on.

John Baeder, Club Charm, Paterson, NJ, 2009. Watercolor on paper, 21 1/4" x 28 7/8".

The other day a local boy wandered into the Salem Clock Shop in Salem, Ore., surprising everyone there by actually buying a clock. “A gift for his mother’s birthday,” says Debbie G., 65, an employee there, adding that the clock was decorated with dolphins. “He looked maybe about 13 or so? Yeah, that’s the only sale from the past few days that I can think of. Mostly we’ve just been busy with all these repairs.”

“What kind of clocks do people usually bring in to get fixed?”

“Well, hmm, all the kinds you’d expect? Cuckoo clocks, generally. But sometimes grandfather clocks and musical clocks.” Debbie’s tone is courteous but guarded, like she isn’t sure yet what to make of me—this random man calling her in the middle of a Thursday, asking so many questions. She hesitates. “Why do you ask?”

“I guess I’m trying to get a sense of the atmosphere.”

“Right, well, we have a lot of clocks lying around. There’s some atmosphere for you.” Debbie laughs. In the seven years since she began working for the shop, she’s never seen them quite so backed up. “We’re piled up to our armpits! Right now we’ve got a two-month waiting period from the day you bring it in. Dave can barely keep track of them.”

Dave Berchtold is the owner and official clockmaster of the Salem Clock Shop—a 56-year-old native who’s handled repairs there for the past 30 years or so.

“I just run the front counter, mostly,” Debbie says. “He’s back there with his giant binoculars and everything.”

When asked about Salem itself, Debbie doesn’t exactly swoon. “I suppose it’s beautiful in its way, but you get pretty used to it,” she says, alluding to the famously scenic Willamette Valley that surrounds Salem. “And they’re pretty behind here, to be honest, compared to a lot of other places. And I don’t mean just with fashion. Odd people here. Odd enough that I don’t like to shop much in town. It’s hard to explain, I guess.”

Debbie and her husband were both born and raised in Salem, she goes on, which might account for why she’s getting tired of it. They met as teenagers in the nearby farming town of Lyons, and didn’t move back until about 10 years ago. “My husband, he used to install X-ray machines,” she says. “Hospitals, doctor’s offices, orthopedics—oh yeah. That took us all over. Nevada, California. Then when he retired we came back here to take care of our parents. Still working on one,” she adds.

“I guess a lot of things have changed since you grew up there.”

“People still using clocks,” Debbie says.

 

There’s like this whirlpool that seems to draw people in. I like to call it ‘the Sandwich vortex.’

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the New Hampshire town of Sandwich. “Quarter of a millennium,” Adam Nudd-Homeyer, 37, director of the Sandwich Historical Society, tells me with pride. “To put it in Roman Empire terms.”

Adam is soft-spoken and strikingly articulate, ready and eager to expound on the town’s rich history. “Sandwich, as far as we can tell,” he begins with very little prompting, “was not necessarily a Native American fixed settlement. But it was certainly at the very least a trade route that saw a lot of movement between populations. European descendants didn’t settle here until about the end of the French and Indian War, when the Wild East, or so it was called—the wild and wooly frontier, at least from the white person’s perspective—really opened up for British expansion. All of a sudden a host of town charters went out in the lake regions and beyond in New Hampshire. This was around the middle 1700s or so.”

“Are there any sandwich shops in town? Playing off the name of the town?”

“Uh, not really, no,” Adam says. He sounds a little thrown. “To our credit, I’d say. But we do have a number of great restaurants. The name actually was in honor of the Earl of Sandwich, who was an acquaintance of the regional governor Wentworth at the time.”

“Ah.”

Adam was born less than 20 miles from Sandwich, but spent the bulk of his life in Texas and elsewhere in southern New Hampshire. A former shop teacher and a professional metalworker, Adam says he was drawn back to Sandwich in part by its robust community of craftsmen.

“Sandwich is where the home industries movement started in New Hampshire back in the 1920s,” he says. “So there’s a rich heritage of local homespun regionally based commerce. We have many crafts and trade people still in town, and many outlets for them.”

What’s the town itself like?

“Sandwich is off the beaten path. The main highways don’t come through it, and so we were spared a lot of development. We have two nationally registered historic districts in town, and many white Old Cape-style and Greek Revival-style buildings. Population is only about 1500. It’s just this little pristine New England village. A perfect place to raise children.”

Much of Adam’s work at the Historical Society involves helping other people recreate their childhood memories. “A few times a year, we’ll get people who just seem to drop in with these great anecdotal stories. People who’ve been gone for almost all of their lives. One fellow was recreating a hike he’d done with a camp group from years ago. Things like that.”

“An interesting energy in this place.” Adam adds, laughing. “There’s like this whirlpool that seems to draw people in. I like to call it ‘the Sandwich vortex.’”

 

At Napa Auto Parts in Beatrice, Neb., cashier Greg P. answers the phone just like this: “Napa.”

“Not really much to talk about,” Greg tells me in a low grimace. “We did a brake job this morning, but that’s about it.”

Greg is 53 years old and has worked at Napa Auto Parts since 1980; he has never in his life worked anywhere else.

I ask him about the brake job. He says, “I couldn’t really say who they were or what kind of car it was. I’m not one to really remember things like that.”

One thing that’s special about today is that Greg’s fellow cashier is out sick with the flu. “There’s more work when you’re by yourself, obviously,” Greg says. “Anyway, I can handle it fine. Still, I’m hoping he’s back tomorrow—for his sake.”

When asked about Beatrice, Greg sighs grandly, as if he’s spent his entire life answering this question. “It’s a good town. Town of 12,000, a river town, 90 miles from Omaha. Nice school system. I’ve got two teenaged girls, so that’s pretty important to me—the schools.”

“Must be a great town if you never left,” I say.

“Yep,” Greg says, yawning. “Never had much reason to.”

“OK, well, anything else you maybe want to add?”

Greg inhales sharply, as if he might be about to share something. “Nah, that’s it,” he says.

 

“I love the surrounding country. I don’t think I could ever handle living in a big city or anything. Still, it’d be nice to get down to Florida or something. Hopefully this year I can finally make that happen, but we’ll see how things go.”

If you’re selling a used couch in Sparta, Tennessee, your best bet is to turn left off Main Street onto Bockman Way, walk into The Expositor newspaper’s building and talk to a 23-year-old named Britney P. She’ll be at the front desk, and it’s her job to place all the personal ads for print.

“Some people use the internet, of course, but lots still just walk in,” Britney says. “We’ve a pretty convenient location, just across from the courthouse.”

Britney has always lived close to Sparta, and though she’s travelled a bit around in nearby states—Kentucky and Alabama, mostly—it embarrasses her to admit that she’s never seen the ocean. “That’s my plan this year is to see the beach. I don’t care which beach, I just want to see the beach.”

Which isn’t to say that Britney doesn’t love Tennessee. “No, I love it. I love the surrounding country. I don’t think I could ever handle living in a big city or anything. Still, it’d be nice to get down to Florida or something. Hopefully this year I can finally make that happen, but we’ll see how things go.”

“I hear they have manatees,” I mention.

“Oh wow!” Britney says, sounding genuinely surprised.

Britney started out wanting to be a cosmetologist, but quickly found that she couldn’t handle the coursework while also working full-time. Before the Expositor, Britney worked a number of jobs, most recently for the Oreck Company in nearby Cookeville, where she sold vacuum tubes and air purifiers over the phone. “No, that wasn’t really for me,” she says. “I’m much happier where I’m at now.”

“Anything exciting happen lately in Sparta?” I ask.

She has to think about that one for a while. “Well,” she says, “there was a tornado. Does that count?”

“A tornado? Yeah, I’d say that counts.”

“Well it didn’t actually hit us,” she clarifies, laughing. “But it almost did.”

There are often tornado warnings in Sparta, Britney says, but that she hardly takes them seriously. This time was a little different. “My husband, who’s a volunteer firefighter? He got a page saying to be ready in case they needed him. That got me scared.”

“Did you go down into basement or anything?”

“We were supposed to, but no. So I guess I wasn’t really that scared. But I was listening for the sirens, all right.”

“Has a tornado ever hit Sparta?”

“They’ve touched down in surrounding towns,” Britney says. “But not in Sparta, at least that I can remember from living here.” She takes a long breath, thinking about it. “And I’ve lived here a long time.”

biopic

TMN editor Matt Ray Robison lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. More by Matt Ray Robison