This made me smile. Its a scene from outside the Jem Theater in Harmony Minnesota, where some locals assembled to protest the war. For many who see the story on LGF or Yahoo this will be the only time in their lives they think of Harmony. I hadnt thought of it in years, but I did tonight.
In 1994 the Post Office chose Harmony as the city where it would release the annual Holiday Stamps. Having Harmony as the postmark would be apt, eh? They cast around for someone to speak at the event, and for reasons I never learned they chose me. I was at a Bona Fide Big City Columnist, I guess. No money in the gig, but theyd pick up the hotel.
Of course I said yes. Id been back in Minnesota for four months after the tour of duty in DC, and a visit to a small town named Harmony was exactly the sort of thing Id hoped to do when I returned. The drive was sweet - first you get flat standard-issue Minnesota, then the land begins to roll and swell. The highway is edited down to a two-lane line, and youre likely to find yourself behind a farm vehicle doing 15 MPH. You pass when you can; you wave when you pass.
I had dinner and drinks at the Time Out, a sports bar dow
Its the sort of town that creeps up on you - a gas station, a new motel - then it states its case with a four-block downtown, hands you off to the other side of town, gives you a park or a church to note then falls back and watches you go. The states full of them. The nation is full of them. We think they dont exist anymore, but they do. The pictures of Harmony on Yahoo dont do it justice, and in fact they slander the place. Standard mote-speck city cliches: the tiny sad movie theater speaks of a shuttered downtown, the stark elevator that looks like the Oatmeal Container of the Gods, the dwarfish locals smothered in parkas. The absolute end of the earth, the terminus of an equator of cool that wraps around the globe and begins in New York.
I remember it differently. It was a warm October afternoon. The ceremony took place at the high school, was was larger than youd think a town this size would have - but of course its students also came from the surrounding farmland. You crossed a long green lawn spattered with fallen leaves, and entered 1958. Memory is never reliable - Loki is memorys patron saint, in my book - but I seem to remember rectangular glazed tile walls, the light wood, the details that speak of a postwar renovation undertaken with great civic pride. Familiar as it was, though, it might as well have been Calcutta. Every high school is a foreign country. They have their tribes and rivalries (Go Falcons!) their secret patois, their epic stories passed around a bonfire on graduation night and forgotten, stanza by stanza, as the years roll on. When adults flood into these halls were not occupying armies, or visiting dignitaries - were shades from another dimension. When you grab a doorknob you wouldnt be surprised to see your hand float right through it.
The whole town turned out for the event, it seemed; the high school gym was packed. The local VFW chapter presented the colors. Everyone stood and put their hands over their hearts. A Post Official official - nice guy, but he had City Slicker painted all over him - gave a speech that asked us to buy these wonderful stamps and keep them as heirlooms. I tore up my introduction after hearing that, and when I took the podium I said now wait a minute. You want us to buy these stamps and never use them? Isnt the point of stamps to be, you know, mailed? Is this how youre dealing with the budget deficit - showing up in a small town, issuing a stamp and hoping well buy them and never use them? The response told me that Id just said what everyone was thinking, and I had one of those wonderful moments in life when you just stand there and listen to the audience decide that they do indeed like you. I learned a few things that day:
1. Always rip up your prepared opening
2. Always apologize later to the guy on the dais you gave a well-intentioned zing. (He didnt care; he thought it was funny.)
Most of my public speaking jobs blur and fade, but I always remember Harmony. And not just for the fact that the speech went unusually well. At the end of the ceremony in the high-school hallway a tall old man came up and asked about my last name - he believed he'd served in WW2 with my father on the USS Block Island.
Indeed he had. I stood there astonished at this impromptu collision of history and family, how this old man in a random town heard my name and thought back fifty years to the deck of a ship in the Pacific. Nothing in my life ever etched the names of my peers that sharply into memory, and God willing nothing ever would.
I left town and drove north, back to St. Paul. Stopped en route at a Country Kitchen for supper. Sat in the booth with a magazine, a cup of coffee and a cigarette, waiting for a hamburger. The restaurant was on a hill, and you had a nice view of a trees and the cars below.
I sat there looking out the window, thinking, smoking, drinking that bottom-of-the-pot swill you get when your waitress doesnt drink coffee herself and doesnt realize that coffee dies and goes to hell after an hour on the burner. I figured my career was pretty much done. Yes, I was back at the Pioneer Press, but that was as far as it would go. Yes, I still had my national column, but that would come to naught. I had left the center of the universe and crawled back to the provinces. I was not going to be the National Success Id thought I might be when I left this state for the East Coast. For whatever reason - and I suspected my own deficiencies - I'd been found wanting. It wasn't going to happen.
But I was home, and I didnt really give a damn.
As for Harmony? Its right here, waiting for you.