THINGS AREN'T ALWAYS THE WAY THEY SEEM, EVEN PRETTY LITTLE VILLAGES.
By Jim Kittelberger
My eyes were burning, so I opened the car window to let some fresh air in to circulate in the hopes it would revive me enough to keep me going maybe another fifty miles. The final trick, if the fresh air doesn't do the job, is to turn the a/c on to coldest, until I get so darn cold, any thoughts of sleep are frozen out.
I like driving through the night on my business trips. I seem to think more clearly with darkness all around me. I have also convinced myself that the darkness helps mend frazzled nerve endings caused by trying to do too much, too fast.
A single flickering light appears in the distance, breaking the total black of the pre-dawn night. As it gets closer, it loses it's 'out of this world mysteriousness', and the single light becomes two as the approaching car closes the distance between us quickly. Another sojourner in the night breaking the speed limit, as I am also guilty of doing. He, believing as I do, I suppose, that we are solitary beings in a time warp of darkness that will cover our crime. The lights are starting to bother my eyes and I'm all out of tricks to stay awake, so I know that my solitary time is about over and I start thinking about breakfast.
The sun rose quickly this morning, changing the horizon I was driving into from deep black to charcoal gray with strands of red and yellow. Which, if you believe the old saying:
Red sky at night, sailors delight
Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning, or something like that, promised a bumpy day.
The village, which was the first community I came upon that looked big enough to have a restaurant, was of medium size and quite pretty with small, clean, tidy streets, and a town square of grass and trees and benches. It was indeed square, bordered by nicely maintained vegetation. But food was on my mind.
The streets surrounding the square were red brick. On the opposite side of the street from the square were small businesses. Most of the facades were in the Williamsburg style and presented a unified look from the outside. There were some, though, that spurned the look of the majority and presented the patrons of their business an independent look. Perhaps, thinking that it was more eye-catching being different. In fact, one did catch my eye. It presented to the community two plate glass windows with the entrance in the middle. On the window was the logo I was looking for. "HOMETOWN CAF", followed by "You'll think your mama's doing the cooking." I was sold.
I straddled a stool at the counter thinking that I'd get faster service here than the usually slower service at a table. Finding just what I was looking for on the much-used menu, I ordered. Quantity and speed were my two basic requirements for breakfast. As I sat waiting to see if my simple criteria were to be met, I sipped on a cup of hot Earl Gray tea and glanced at the restaurants advertising emblazoned on the mirror behind the counter. It announced the ordinary kind of things you would expect to see there. The special of the day, a request that you remember that this is the place of the most famous milkshake in town, and the Hometown Cafe logo with the words-SINCE 1935 THE PLACE TO EAT AND MEET. Everyone seemed to be acquainted and the talk seemed friendly and animated, which left a stranger at the counter pretty much on his own, so I grabbed a morning paper and read until breakfast arrived.
"Damn", I said aloud.
"I'm sorry", the rather skinny man two stools to my right said.
"Oh, I beg your pardon", I said. "I must have spoken out loud, I didn't mean to do that."
"Hey, that all right, sometimes I get so mad myself that I want to throw the paper on the floor", he replied, smiling understandingly.
"I usually don't speak to myself out loud, but this article really ticks me off. This crumb kills two people, gets eighteen years, and then he's back out on the street. This is not right. They give repetitive dope users life in prison, for crying out loud, and they're not hurting anyone but themselves. It just boils my ass; I'm sorry, now listen to me, I'm cussing out loud."
My companionable counter-mate smiled to himself. "Do you ever get so angry that you'd like to stand up and tell it like it is?"
"You bet I do", I said, "but who listens to us? You have to be somebody to talk and have someone listen these days."
"Well, my friend, that's not necessarily true. Did you take a look at that poster on the mirror there?" he asked, pointing to a red, white, and blue poster with American flags bordering the top and bottom. The message between the flags proclaimed our right as citizens of the USA to speak our piece. It also stated that the next gathering of opinion-ators would be today at high noon in the public square.
"What exactly is that all about? I asked.
My skinny friend turned on his stool to face me. "You've heard about the English allowing anyone who wishes to get up on a soapbox in Hyde Park in London and spout off about anything that's on their mind?"
"Yes, I have, but is that still going on?"
"Well here in the village we have the same sort of thing, with a little bit of difference," he said with a small smile.
"Tell me about it." I said interested.
"We believe that differences of opinion can cause dissension, which we have found is bad for the village. So from time to time we hold a town meeting, which the whole village attends. We allow the dissenters to speak their piece. The problems are ironed out forthwith and we can then go forward together."
"The whole village?" I asked surprised and becoming just a little skeptical of what I was hearing.
"The whole village," he repeated, "We villagers live closely together, and have very few secrets from one another. The town meetings foster a closeness, and any problems are quickly identified, and we are better able to fix any problems then and there."
He paused, and then continued. "In the towns square, free speech and thought are the rule. It can be fun and it would be good for you to get some of the things that are eating at you, like what you read in the paper, out of your system. It'll do you a world of good, it'll purge your soul of bad thoughts, and your mind will be cleansed of all the rottenness that goes on in this world today."
I listened to him, not knowing if I had run into an itinerant preacher, or maybe just a nut, or maybe what he was saying, if it was true, might be a hoot. I could afford to take the day off, and then get back on the road tonight if I could get a little sleep.
I agreed, and my skinny friend said to meet him at the entrance to the restaurant at 11:55, and he would accompany me across the square. We shook hands and parted, which left me some time to kill until then.
I decided to see what else the little village offered, and started walking around the square on the business side of the street. The businesses were the normal service type stores as in most towns, a hardware stood next to the restaurant, followed in succession by a men's clothing shop, a women's clothier, a toy store, and a book store completed one side of the square. On another side were city offices and the local police. On the third side were amusements, a movie house, a small bowling alley, a bar, a video rental store and a pizza shop. On the fourth side of the square were the bank, a loan company, an antique store, and finally, a computer/office supply store. Not unlike any small town in America, and in fact, maybe a little bit better than most, with the essentials required to keep the populace happy and home.
In a popular and civilized move, the city fathers had also switched to vertical parking, instead of parallel, with two-hour meters for a nickel, but only on this side of the street. There was no parking on the town square side of the street. Strange, he thought.
At exactly 11:45, on the sidewalk directly across from the Hometown cafe, a man dressed much like an English castle guard appeared, and began patrolling the sidewalk this side of the square. On each of the other three sides, the identical event was taking place. I thought to myself that perhaps they were taking the 'English Hyde Park' analogy a bit too far. The square itself was completely devoid of people; not one person was anywhere to be seen.
"This is really strange", I thought, almost like a pageant timed and choreographed to the second. A make believe headline ran through my head, "MAYBERRY AND PLEASANTVILLE TEACH CIVICS, FILM AT ELEVEN". I smiled at my small joke, although a slight feeling of apprehension had crept in, but I shrugged it off, thinking why ruin the experience. I'd have a great time repeating the story over and over again to my wife and coworkers.
At exactly 11:59, my skinny friend appeared and we walked together across the street. The 'patrolman' nodded to my skinny friend and at exactly noon, we entered the town square.
It was incredible. It looked like the entire population of the town was assembled around the bandstand that stood in the exact middle of the square.
"It looks to me like everybody in town must be here." I said, still amazed by the turnout.
"That's a very accurate guess," my friend said, "as I said before we take these gatherings very seriously and it would not be good manners to miss one." He continued as he looked toward the bandstand trying to catch someone's eye. He caught a man's eye standing near the bandstand checking names off a clipboard. "Excuse me," he said, and left to confer with him.
I stood, looking around at the crowd. Something seemed odd to me, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. The men, women, and children were standing in separate orderly groups, which seemed a little strange. The females all wore pale blue dresses, which seemed really strange for today's women. But then I figured out what it was that seemed most odd. Each separate group was standing at what we called in the military, at ease. At ease is not exactly at attention, but also not at rest, and they all stood quietly, that's what it was, the quiet among so many people.
"Weird," I thought it's almost like I was beamed down in the middle of an Amish community, but not exactly. Something seemed chilling about this wonderful show of civic awareness and uniformity.
Then to my surprise, skinny-man appeared on the bandstand, and everyone went completely silent.
"Citizens of the new way, our beloved country is in crisis. We have become an amoral society. The freedoms that we so cherish have become freedom to slide into moral corruption. Drugs pervade our great country and we stand by seemingly unable or unwilling to control that which leads our young to degrade themselves in depravity and license. The ideals that we have strived to attain have been trashed as old fashioned, not worthy goals. In their place we celebrate excess. Our hero's are nonexistent. Why is this happening? I say to you, it is because we have no leadership, or leadership too weak to make decisions that might hurt someone's feelings or step on a freedom that perhaps, no not perhaps, a freedom that should be abolished for the welfare of the majority. The new way has the answer and the backbone to do what is right. The new way is the right way, it is our way, and in the future our example will lead the way for the whole country."
He stood back, put his hand over his heart, and stared with those cold eyes seemingly at each person there. The eyes imbedding in each the righteousness of his words.
The crowd erupted with the chant "so be it, so be it, so be it," their eyes glistening with love and hope for this man for whom they have waited all their lives.
They continued until he stepped forward and raised his hand for silence.
"The new way, the way of promise for the future, also has the humility to know that new idea's are welcome and indeed solicited. With the thought that we are all responsible for our actions and words, we begin."
"Citizen Will Gunther."
"As you all know, I'm a man of few words," Will began, "and I don't much like to complain, but I have to tell you that what I pay to have my garbage hauled is outrageous, and it should be lowered." "So there, I've said my piece and what say you?"
With the words still in the air, the applause began, and thumbs throughout the crowd turned upward as the crowd shouted and showed their approval.
Two other men quickly followed. Subject one was cleaner streets, and subject two was the suggestion they needed more jails. Both were given thumbs up.
Speaker number four, Citizen Joseph Miller did not meet the same fate. He climbed the steps of the bandstand and stood front and center, stuck his chin out and began.
"You all know me," Miller began, "and I don't complain much, but there comes a time when what's right is right, and individual choice should be a man's right." He paused as shouts here and there among the crowd started up.
"I know that's not a popular belief around here, and I usually agree with the majority and go along, but maybe I've been wrong." Now the crowd was becoming angry as one of them had the audacity to suggest that an individual's right was as important as the majority, or indeed, that he had any individual rights not allowed by the town.
Will ignored the shouts.
"It's my right," speaking over the dissension, "to paint my house whatever color I want, whenever I want, without having to get approval from anyone."
The shouts began to drown out Miller, and a sea of down turned thumbs showed throughout the crowd, which threatened to become a mob.
The skinny man, off to the side of the speaker's platform, nodded to several very big men who proceeded to escort Citizen Miller off the bandstand and hustled him into a small structure partially hidden by large trees. When the doors closed, the unmistakable sounds of a beating could be heard. The crowd expecting just that clucked their approval, and talked among themselves that he got what he asked for.
"This would teach him the lesson he had been aching to get."
"How dare he even think such things, let alone speak them out in public." "Unthinkable."
I stood toward the side of the speaker’s platform, literally feeling shivers go
up and down my spine, and my legs felt weak. Perhaps, taking poor, brave Mr. Miller away and beating him was just an elaborate staging of this grotesque play for my benefit. No, I was sure it was not. If it was staged, it was certainly not for my edification, I was not of any real importance to what was going on here. The lesson to be learned was for the gathered assembly standing before me. My guess was they got the message. As I was gathering myself back to some semblance of sanity, Skinny man stepped forward to the speaker's platform.
"A moment of clarification to a recent visitor to our town, I believe is warranted. I wish to explain to him, and all assembled, that Citizen Miller is in no real danger and will be as right as rain after a brief period of re-indoctrination and rereading of the town charter to which all citizens must adhere. Citizen Miller has always been a troublemaker, so it could be said he brings all his trouble upon himself. Now, we will say no more about it."
Whereupon the crowd broke into applause and chanting of "so be it, so be it, so be it," endorsing and empowering the leaders words and thoughts, until he raised his hand for silence.
"As I promised our visitor, he will get his opportunity to address you today on any subject he wishes. I want you all to treat him as an honorary, temporary citizen of our town."
"So be it, so be it, so be it," again chorused up from the assembled, filling me with the fear of many throughout history, the fear of impotence against power, one against many. I felt repulsion for the acceptance of the unthinking people as they endorsed wholeheartedly whatever their leaders espoused. Because I knew of no other recourse besides turning and running away, I started for the steps that led to the platform.
"What the hell am I going to say up there?" I thought. The proceedings of the afternoon in this strange town with these strange people had stifled my thought processes. My brain was filled instead with feelings of astonishment, fear, and bewilderment.
"I wasn't worried about making a fool of myself in front of these descendants of other mobs, from other times. Although, I must say, the feeling that I was jumping into a Roman arena with a multitude of unfriendly gladiators, and awaiting the verdict of the bloodthirsty spectators did not completely escape me."
I made my way to the center of the speaker's platform, and grasped the podium, trying to still the quivering in my legs. Off to the right, but in full view, stood the leader. His presence dominated everyone by a force unique to only a few in each century. What is it that allows these few to twist the thoughts and actions of a group or a nation to his will? The physicality of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, was not awe-inspiring. If they had any common feature, maybe it was the eyes, dark, cold eyes, and the complete absence of feeling for the human race. The Citizen Leader, from my short acquaintance of him and this village, had all the earmarks of a budding despot, despite his less than commanding physical stature, and yes his eyes were cold and dark even as he smiled his welcome to me.
I wish I could say here that I took command of the platform, and gave a speech second only to Martin Luther King's 'I had a dream' speech, and that I swayed them all in the direction of justice for all. That I convinced them that Citizen Miller was right, and he could paint his house any color he wished; but I can't. I stuttered and I stammered and finally I apologized for not being prepared and awkwardly made my way off the platform, feeling like the coward I was.
My only thought was to get out of this village as fast as my cowardly feet and high-powered automobile could take me. But as I was about to make my way out of the square, I was stopped by several of the leaders large henchmen, who informed me that The Leader would like a few words with me before I left, if that was convenient with me. To save my pride, whatever was left of it, I said certainly and followed them.
I was led to the same small structure that Miller had been taken to. Maybe I wasn't going to get off so easily after all. I had no other choice but to enter as the large men surrounded me offered no chance of escape. So I acquiesced again to the meeting and entered. The inside of the structure was Spartan with furnishings, a wooden table and two chairs. Dark stains on the floor, reminders of Citizen Millers visit, and others before I am sure, gave me much discomfort, as I thought I might also be adding some blood to the grisly decor. The Leader, already seated at one of the chairs, motioned for me to sit at the other. I did.
"Before you leave us," he began, "I want to make you aware of a few facts. One, what you see here is only the beginning of a new and better form of government. As you have seen, we have a village without problems, without disagreements, that is progressing forward arm in arm to achieve an ideal society. We think alike, we work together, and we succeed together. We believe that freedom for all in all things only creates babble, not unlike the Tower of Babel, too many voices, too many opinions only creates division and despair. The way to success and achievement is through one voice, one direction for the common good."
"Two, what you see here is only the beginning. In the next state election, I will run for and win the governorship, and what is good for this village will be good for the entire state. Then the entire country will see and compare and it is my firm belief that they will choose the new way."
"Three, if you find enough courage in yourself to inform your fellow countrymen of the new way, you will find that this village speaks with one tongue, and that voice will deny everything you say. You will be just another crackpot, your story will have a shelf life of one day, and your life will be ruined. So don't waste your breath, just keep looking at the news, and someday we will meet again citizen."
He smiled at me, but those eyes, those dark evil eyes, told me more than the smile ever could.
I was nearing the town’s edge, and was wondering if I would ever again be able to drive through the dark nights believing all was right with the world, or I wouldn't be stopped just up the road for a security check. These thoughts and many more were coursing though my head as I glanced back and read the sign that proclaimed I was leaving the sleepy village of Munich, Ohio, Please come back.
I floored the accelerator and trembled.
Jim Kittelberger 2001. All Rights Reserved.