Friday, March 16, 2012

Small Town

I was born in a town so small I couldn't actually be born there. There is no hospital in Arimo, Idaho. Not even a doctor's clinic. (The closest thing we have to a hospital is any one of several barns which are occasionally used for the birthing of cows.) So, when it came time for me to be birthed, my parents took the 30 mile drive to the "city" of Pocatello.

The 1960 census listed the population of Arimo as 303. It dipped down to 252 in 1970 before rebounding up to 338 in 1980. It's been between 300 and 350 ever since. (In other words, there are probably more people shopping in your local Walmart at this moment than live in my entire hometown.)

There weren't a whole lot of businesses in Arimo when I was growing up. There was a gas station (with prices ten cents per gallon higher than stations in the city.) There was a grocery store, although classifying it as a "grocery store" is being generous. (It was probably about twice the size of a standard 7-Eleven.) There was the restaurant, which went out of business. (Every year or two, someone new would try to make a go of it. And fail. Then, a year or two later, someone else would try to make a go of it.) There was the grain elevator, where farmers haggled over selling their wheat. There was a lumber yard. (Until the fire.) And, there was the only business in town that could really be said to be thriving: the funeral home.

Throw in the post office, and that's all the businesses in town. (Unless you count the Avon Ladies or the people selling Amway or Mason Shoes.)

There were no traffic signals in Arimo. Just a few stop signs (that people would occasionally yield at), and a few yield signs (that were generally ignored.)

Arimo may not have many businesses, but we do have some mountains nearby.

When I was growing up, I had my own little measurement guide to determine the size of towns. If a town had a traffic light and/or a regional fast food chain restaurant, it was a "big town." (Conversely, no traffic light or fast food equaled a "small town.") If it had at least five traffic lights and/or a McDonald's, it was a "city." If it had more than three McDonald's, it was a "big city."

In Arimo, if we wanted anything we either had to drive 30 miles to the north to Pocatello (a "city,") or 30 miles to the south to Preston (a "big town.") Our dentist was in Preston, and we would go grocery shopping there every once in a while. (One memorable trip we did both, and after an unpleasant dental experience I threw up all over the frozen food aisle of the grocery store.) (Ah, good times!)

Let me emphasize that point again: I considered Preston, Idaho to be a "big town." Some of you may be familiar with Preston, Idaho as the setting for the movie Napoleon Dynamite. If you've seen the movie, you probably think it is one of the funniest or one of the stupidest movies you have ever seen. (There is very little middle ground.)

Either way, I'd ask you to think about the movie (or watch it again), and then try to wrap your brain around the concept that the town I'm from is so small that I consider the town from Napoleon Dynamite to be a "big town." (At a population of over 3,000, Preston is approximately ten times bigger than Arimo.)

I'm always amazed and amused at the way Hollywood depicts small towns. Recently, The Wife bought the television series Smallville for me on DVD. It's about how an alien baby arrives on earth in a space ship in a meteor storm, and how he grows up as Clark Kent in a small Kansas town and learns to become Superman. We enjoyed the show, but I often had to shake my head in disbelief.

Smallville is supposed to be a typical American small town. (A town so small they named it "Smallville.") And yet, in the first episode as the meteor shower hits with baby Superman in tow, they show a billboard at the entrance of town that says, "Welcome to Smallville, Population 25,001." 25,001!?! This is what they consider to be small? You could multiply Arimo by 80 and still not populate this "small town" of Smallville!

And then, later in the series, as Clark Kent is grown and leaves town for Metropolis, they show the billboard again, and now it says, "Welcome to Smallville, Population 45,001." 45,001!?! That would put Smallville in a fight to be the second biggest city in all of Idaho! There's not much "small" about this Smallville anymore. (And that's not even considering how it could gain 20,000 in population despite the seemingly hundreds of deaths/murders perpetrated by meteor freaks/Superman villains.)

But, Smallville isn't the only show that doesn't quite understand how small a small town can be. Even Hazard, from The Dukes of Hazard, and Andy Griffith's Mayberry don't get it right. Both of those towns would be considered, at the very least, "big towns" by my standard. Not only do both towns have a sheriff, but they are big enough to afford a bumbling deputy, too. Arimo does not have any police force whatsoever. (We've got a mayor, and that's about it.)

I realize, of course, that this is all a matter of perspective. (I'm not stoopid.) Salt Lake City was a two-hour drive from Arimo. We would go there once or twice a year, and in my mind it was very much a "big city." (It was so big that it had stores with escalators and elevators in them!) (This was very impressive to an eight-year-old me.)

But, there are those from real big cities who would consider Salt Lake a small town, (despite all of its escalators, elevators, traffic lights and McDonald's.) And there's not much I can say to dissuade them from that opinion. All I can do is tell them what life is like in a real small town. No Starbucks. No McDonald's. No traffic lights. No traffic. Just 300 of your closest friends.

"I was born in a small town." That's what John Cougar Mellencamp sings. What does he know? His "small town" of Seymour, Indiana has a population of over 17,000 people (50 times bigger than Arimo.) They have a hospital, several traffic lights, a sheriff, and a deputy. (Whether the deputy is bumbling or not is not for me to say.) And, they have not one, but two McDonald's. What's so small about that?

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