Life in Smallville
By Don Staheli

With mixed emotions our family received the announcement that a work transfer would take us to a small town in southeastern Utah. We were living in northern San Diego County at the time, and it seemed that we were going from a semitropical paradise to a dry wasteland of sagebrush and dirt.

Besides that, the biggest store in this little town would easily fit into one floor of the huge department store down at the mall. The nearest “civilization” was eighty miles away over a treacherous mountain pass, and “blue collar” best described the most prevalent forms of entertainment.

Our fears were only worsened by a supposedly well-meaning friend who somehow knew about this town. He likened it to various unattractive parts of the human anatomy and said it was the one place only a fool would go. Thanks for the encouragement!

Wasteland, isolation, and a cultureless society without malls. It sounded like a bad place to live. But loyalty, and a desire to keep bread on the table, motivated us to pack up the station wagon and wave good-bye to palm trees, gentle sea breezes, and California gentility for a trip into no-man’s-land. We took our time getting there.

Our first night in Smallville was no great introduction. We slept in a run- down motel with walls only a bit more thick than the paint. No cable TV. It didn’t exist in that area. Only the McDonald’s restaurant seemed familiar, so we spent a lot of time there.

We moved into a nice enough home in a newer subdivision, and it didn’t take long before the neighbors began to come over to introduce themselves and welcome us into their community. These were extraordinarily good people. They were well-educated or skilled in their professions. They laughed easily and seemed content, not deprived of the necessities of life. They brought hot loaves of bread and plates of cookies and offered to assist in any way we might need. Their children asked ours to come out and play and soon they had a great fort built in the backyard out of packing boxes and old lumber. We weren’t meeting the fools about which our friend had warned us.

Admittedly, there was no evidence of the kind of culture we had enjoyed in southern California. The only plays we saw were at the high school. The best jazz band in town was made up of junior high kids. The orchestra was directed by a local guy who taught at the junior college, a struggling institution of only somewhat higher education and no football team.

But wait a minute. Our oldest daughter played the lead in some of those high school plays. She was great! Our son wailed on his trumpet and learned to play some wonderful jazz pieces. My wife and I joined a group of singers and had a tremendous time vocalizing, even with the accompaniment of the orchestra on one occasion. It seemed all of our children and many of the neighbors were sharing their talents, making their own culture and really entertaining one another. This was a great place to be!

The gatherings in people’s homes or down at the church were the most fun. We had little else to do for night life, so we got together and played.

One Saturday, some enterprising souls transformed the recreation hall at the church into a replica of an elegant hotel lobby. Where had they found all that stuff? It looked like downtown Chicago. There was a huge front desk, a bank of key boxes complete with room keys, and couches and chairs and lamps.

Several classrooms in the church were decorated with posters and trinkets depicting a particular country, be it France or Mexico or England. When couples entered the hall and “checked in” at the front desk, they were assigned to a particular classroom for dinner. Volunteers recruited by the organizers were busy in the church kitchen serving up several different dinner menus to be enjoyed in the classroom-dining room decorated to match the ethnic cuisine. In the room with the Eiffel Tower poster, we had a wonderful meal of French onion soup and all the trimmings. As I recall, there was some sort of flaming dessert (topped with vanilla, I suppose, since liquor wasn’t necessary to make these get-togethers fun).

After dinner, we pushed back the couches and chairs in the “lobby” and a local group of ’60s-rock-band wannabes came in to really liven up the place. We danced, or watched as others did, to tunes we all remembered and enjoyed. I almost asked to step up to the mike when my favorite Beach Boys song was played. I wasn’t foolish enough to really try it, but I’m certain they would have welcomed me and cheered my effort, even if I cracked on the high notes. They were that kind of people. They were friends.

Well, we lived, really lived, in that little town for about nine years. Our kids pretty much grew up there. In that amount of time, the successful development of local industries strengthened the economy and caused new, larger stores to be built. The junior college more than doubled in size, and it was offering a very good educational experience and sending well-prepared students off to the university. The once meager holiday parade down Main Street even attracted a gaggle of Shriner clowns from the big city over the mountain. What more could you ask for?

When we were again transferred and had to leave our home, the roots were tough to pull up. I think some of them still remain in that sagebrush-covered dirt. A large part of our hearts and many of our most cherished memories are there.

I suppose it was a bad place to live. But it was a great place to be.

Happiness doesn’t depend on where you are, it depends on how you are.

Editors’ Note: This article is from The Principle of the Thing, a wonderful collection of short essays by Don H. Staheli. If you want to learn more about it click here.

2006 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.