Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Small Town

When I tell people up here in Central New York that I’m from a small town of about 77,000 people, they just look at me funny. There’s no way that 77,000 people is a small town. Fabius, with only 1974 people, is a small town. East Orange is not.

But you have to consider where East Orange is. In addition to telling people that I’m from a small town, I also tell them that I grew up 20 minutes from New York City – at 2.00 in the morning, when there’s no traffic. Compared to Newark with 281,000 people, Jersey City with 242,000, Elizabeth with 124,000, and of course the 8 million people across the river in NYC, East Orange was a small town.

Then there’s size. Neighboring Newark was 26 square miles. Nearby West Orange was 12, and Montclair was 6. East Orange was barely 4 square miles. I could walk it from end to end in less than an hour, and since I was usually on a bike, it took even less time. While it’s true that you could fit the entire population of Fabius into my old high school, the town itself is a whopping 47 square miles. So who’s from a small town?

Obviously, my perception of East Orange as being a small town was based on its size, but there’s something else. My father grew up in East Orange, and I went to the same grade school and high school that my father went to. I just barely missed having some of his teachers as my teachers, but I did have kids he grew up with as teachers. I also went to school with the children of kids he grew up with. Kids he grew up with were police officers and firemen. Not only that, by my grandmother was a beautician, and it seemed like between her and the other three “operators” in her shop, they knew everyone else in town.

With all these people knowing my family, and knowing who I was, if I got in trouble on one side of town, the news got home before I did. But it wasn’t just a case of these people waiting to report on my misbehavior, they were also there to help if I needed it.

Isn’t that what a small town is all about? Isn’t it about the librarians knowing you by name, or the teacher who lives across the street from you giving you a ride to school every morning? Isn’t it about the local pharmacist calling your father to report that he almost ran into you as you were riding your bike, and then taking the time to talk to you about it himself when you went in to buy candy? Isn’t it about the school nurse saying that your grandmother left in the middle of doing her hair when your mother went into labor, and the guidance counselor being one of her bridge playing partners?

Isn’t it about being able to run into people you know when you went grocery shopping, no matter whether you were at the Acme around the corner, King’s or ShopRite on Main St, or Good Deal across town on Central Ave?

If this is what a small town is all about, then isn’t East Orange, with its 77,000 people every bit as much of a small town as Fabius with its 1974?

If it is, and I believe it is, then I am from a small town.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veteran's Day

On the way back from the 6th grade class trip, I saw our bus driver’s reflection in the rearview mirror, and in that reflection, I saw the word on his hat: Vietnam. This got me thinking about how horribly many people treated the soldiers returning from over there 30-odd years ago. It also got me thinking about why they treated them so horribly.

Vietnam was a different kind of war from anything that the American general public was used to. Our reasons for fighting World War I and World War II seemed very clear to most people. In addition, the people we were fighting tended to fight according to the “European” rules of engagement that we were used to. Both sides understood that it was about taking out the ball bearing plant, or the refinery, or all the bridges across a certain river so that the other side couldn’t fight anymore. Despite the fact that there was always collateral damage, the battles and the bombings were generally always about the people in uniforms and the supply lines to them. Both sides understood the difference between combatants and civilians. Both sides had a minimum age for combatants, and would never send a child into battle.

And when our soldiers came back from those two wars, they were treated like heroes.

Vietnam was much less clear. Not only was the average person not really sure what we were doing there, but we were fighting an enemy that didn’t follow our rules of engagement. When that last ball bearing plant, refinery, or bridge had been destroyed, they would send children, people we would consider innocent noncombatants, in to attack us, or use them as decoys.

But that could only happen so many times before we caught on, and regretfully changed our rules of engagement to match theirs. Not that we’d send our children into battle, but we would shoot at theirs. And not fully understanding what the other side was doing, many of us at home naively referred to our soldiers serving over there as “baby killers.” Unlike the heroic return we gave to our soldiers from WWI and WWII, we treated our soldiers from Vietnam like pariahs. They were so often spat at by people that many of them refused to wear their uniforms in public.

It’s been almost 30 years now, and I’d like to think that we’ve all grown up. I’d like to think that we understand just what a complicated situation Vietnam was. I’d like to think that we understand just what hellish conditions our soldiers over there often worked under, and that they weren’t happy about having to shoot at children carrying bombs.

The fact that our driver, and many others, could wear a hat that said “Vietnam” in public, shows that things have indeed changed, and that we quietly recognize them as heroes, even though they never got their parade.

I’d like to say that I stopped to thank our driver, not for the ride, but for serving, but I didn’t think about that until much later. But the next time I see someone with one of those hats on, I will.