The Last Picture Show
As a kid in Vermont, I wasn't familiar with the notion of choice. Cows had to be milked twice a day. Horses had to be watered down at the stream behind the barn. The pigs and Angus had to be grained. Fences had to be checked and fixed. True, corn could be planted early or late (if you plant too early, the seeds can rot), and haying does involve decision making, since you don't want mown hay to be caught in a hard rain. Calvin Coolidge probably summed up a farmer's view of indecision pretty well when he said, "When you don't know what to do, do the work in front of you." I've spent most of my life following this simple dictum.
Just last summer I had to purchase a new pickup--the flatbed of my old Ford was rotted out, the brakes were gone, and it was leaking oil. So I took a trip down to the Ford dealership in Greenwich. Did I want a crew cab or a super cab? Did I want the deluxe Lariat or the King Ranch option? Did I need the towing package? How about roof lights, sideboard lights, and what type of sound system did I require? Was I interested in the 150, the 250, or the 350? I could even get a Harley-Davidson limited edition pickup, all in black, with a special monogrammed bed liner.
When it comes to eating out, I have grown quite fond of church suppers, not just because one gets to visit with neighbors but because there is no choice involved, except when it comes to dessert. The church in Pawlet has been raising money for its new spire, and we have been attending its monthly pork dinners. It's $9 for adults and $4.50 for kids under 12. The menu usually includes coleslaw, red Jell-O (as a side dish), mashed potatoes, rolls, applesauce, green peas, stuffing, pork, and gravy. You can drink coffee, lemonade, or iced tea, and for dessert you sometimes get a choice. Last weekend it was yellow cake with a whipped pineapple frosting or chocolate cake with a fudge frosting. (Our family voted in a block for the chocolate, although the pineapple cake seemed to be more popular with other folks because the frosting was thicker.) And you can always depend on the crowd. We'll see our town's last farmer, Charlie Bentley; Valerie and her son, Charles; our minister, Rev. Bort, and his wife, Joan, who plays the organ and sings; Jean and Jack (our neighbors across the valley); Roy and Jane Gatlin; and, of course, Gerald Ennis from Salem, who shows up at our farm from time to time just to see what's going on. Standing in line, looking at the sea of faces, you can still pick out the real Vermonters, the ones who look wary and a bit out of place in a crowd, as if they were afraid of being hunted.
I'm not suggesting that country living offered no choices. Old country stores had quite a lot to offer. You were likely to find None Such Mince Meat, I. D. Gilmor & Company Celebrated Biscuits, Fine Quality Pressed Hops, Slade's Assorted Marjoram, and Bird's Eye Diamond Matches. A good store also carried large displays of colored threads, penny candies, poultry remedies, a dozen brands of tobacco, tea, coffee, fabric, and almost anything you might want in the way of dry goods. And, if old-fashioned country stores were anything like ours is today, you could find just about any type of gossip you might want, from who is jacking deer out of season to the darkest speculation about marital infidelities.
But, on the whole, there was plenty of work to do, not much cash money, and little time to spend it. In fact, when I was a kid on the farm, money didn't seem to have much currency. The things that were prayed for included good weather, deliverance from sickness, and a bit of luck in love. When a new pickup was purchased, it looked just like the old one--the same model and color--so it was no cause for celebration. In fact, life didn't offer many choices: One simply got out of bed and went to work.
Today, in our mountain town, things haven't changed much. If we want to see a movie, we head down to Hathaway's Drive-In. Unlike a multiplex, there is no choice--it's two movies for six bucks, and they don't start until twilight. Last July I took the kids down to see a double feature. We got there a few minutes early. Two young boys were throwing a football, a 5-year-old started playing on the metal supports for the screen as if they constituted a jungle gym, there were plenty of army and air force T-shirts, a young couple sat close together in a green Mustang, and the station wagons were parked backward so the families inside could sit and look out through their open hatchbacks.
The movie started, and my kids had moved out onto blankets, eating Milk Duds, fries, and popcorn. I was alone in the pickup, sitting in the same spot I had with my parents 40 years ago. Since that time, I have made a lot of choices, not all of them good ones, but I have had enough sense to know where home is. Pickup trucks, candy wrappers, the enormous night sky, french fries, ice cream cones, a bottle rocket hissing upward, and Hollywood two stories high--that's home to me. It's easy to fall for the promise of the big screen; maybe there is something better in the next town. But there is something to be said for knowing every inch of a place where the rain falls on farmhouses that hold no secrets and where there is nothing old-fashioned about hot fries and a $6 drive-in.
After a bit, mosquitoes drove the kids back into the pickup, I wondered if, in another generation, some of my kids would return to Hathaway's with their children. My season would have ended by then and it would be their turn. Or maybe they would make other choices and end up on the far side of the world. But perhaps Calvin Coolidge was right. If we are confused by a sea of choices, we ought simply to do the work in front of us. Then we just follow the path ahead, one step at a time, the path that leads to a summer night, the hopeful flicker of the big screen, and then the drive home to a high mountain valley and a farmhouse at the end of the road.