It’s after 9 p.m. now on Memorial Day 2011; the grill is put away, the porch lights are out and the dog has gone to bed. It’s the end of another pleasant evening in my hometown, and the start of another summer.
It was warm today, 90º or so, with a nice breeze until it died down in the darkness. My favorite weather is warm and breezy, especially in May; the heat isn’t oppressive in the springtime, with the humidity fairly low. So I did what I always do on a night like this; grilled a little food, sat on my porch and watched absolutely nothing happen.
Now by “nothing” I don’t mean to misrepresent the facts; a car went by, a big silver Buick, one of those vehicles that makes you think, “Well, there’s an old man’s car.” Or it could have been an old woman.
A bald, heavyset man in a black tanktop drove down Iroquois Drive on his John Deere lawnmower. Five minutes later he drove up Iroquois Drive in his golf cart.
I don’t think he actually mowed anything; I don’t think he actually went anywhere. I think he just likes driving around.
I saw four groups of children; two high school boys took turns on a skateboard while deep in conversation. (It is strange to think that there are still high school kids here; more on that in a minute.) A pair of middle school girls walked down the street; one was brown or black, but I don’t think that figured into what they were talking about. A family of little girls went the other direction; three girls in pink shirts and cutoff jeans, close enough in size to make me wonder if they were triplets, followed by two moms and a fourth girl in a hot pink dress. They may have been Mexicans—but they were unmolested in my hometown.
I’m proud of that. Welcome to Indiana Nice.
When I was a child growing up here, lo these decades ago, it was an all-white town. I never thought it was because we were prejudiced, I thought it was because there really wasn’t anything to attract nonwhite residents. We’re just farmers here; there are African-American farmers, of course, but none of them ever found their way to this town. There’s a whole colony of Black folk just across the state line in Illinois and up 30 miles in Hopkins Park; their corn grows as high as ours does, but they seldom have any reason to venture here.
Now I’m happy to say, Kentland, Indiana is racially mixed. Once I was at Murphy’s Supermarket and saw Blacks, Whites, Mexicans and Asians, all in the store at the same time. That was a little jaw-dropping—though it’s the way of the world and about time we got a little culture here too.
I’m proud of this town. There are a few racists—they make it known with their stupid Confederate flags and crass remarks—but by and large I think we’ve just been neighborly.
We’ve even got a few Gay people, who don’t buy billboards announcing themselves but don’t hide either. I’m proud of that, too.
I grew up here, age 13-17, and it wasn’t a great place then to be Gay. Conformity was worse then; we weren’t diverse at all.
Many of us knew that wasn’t good for us, but we didn’t have any way to attract new residents. Now, somehow, they’ve found us on their own.
It’s a tolerant place; I always thought it was but I’m glad to see it now. Some communities let themselves get torn apart by differences in race, ethnicity and sexual orientation, but we’re not like that. If you’re a nice person we really don’t care where you’re from. We’re glad you live here; we like being friends.
The culture of this town, this county, this part of Northwest Indiana, is very important to me. Maybe outsiders think we don’t have any culture, but we do. (Every place does.) I sum it up with that phrase “Indiana Nice,” but it’s hard to describe; Minnesota Nice is more famous, but I’m sure they acknowledge that they didn’t invent it. It’s Midwestern; it’s rural—but you can even find traces of it in Chicago, though it’s completely unknown in New York.
When people live in the country, a mile or two from neighbors, they learn quickly how dependent they are on the next folks up the road. If the barn catches fire, or Grandma gets sick, rural people have to count on each other because there’s no one else around. That fact of mutual dependence starts dictating some other things, too; honesty is prized, because if you say something untrue everyone’s going to know it. Your reputation is the only thing you’ve got. Just as one bad deed will lead others to doubt you, one good deed will lead to ten more. That’s just how we live, and we like it this way.
We raise children here because of it. We grow old here, after we’ve been to Par-ee. I sat on my porch and nothing happened; the only noise was a hundred birds singing. The wind ruffled my evergreens, the spike plants waved their fronds over the impatiens, and Luke was really eager for the chicken to get done, but he waited as patiently as a rat terrier can.
Yesterday I got a phone call from a classmate of my brother Steve’s; she’s planning a class reunion next month. I haven’t talked to Margaret Zell in 45 years, but I remember her well, the epitome of Indiana Nice though it would probably embarrass her for me to say so. She and Steve were both in the last graduating class of A.J. Kent High School in 1966, before consolidation wiped out smalltown high schools. My mother taught Steve and Margaret chemistry that year, even though my mother was a pharmacist and not a teacher; it’s hard to attract science teachers to smalltown classrooms, so Mom filled in, and Steve got the privilege with Margaret and 20 others of learning something from my mother.
I bet Mom was hell on wheels, but also fair and nice.
Steve died in 2003, and Margaret’s decided to have a class remembrance of their fallen schoolmates. She contacted my nieces, Steve’s daughters, in southern Indiana, and they led Margaret to me.
She’s married to a musician in Columbus, Ohio; she’s done some social work. She goes to a Vineyard church, a kind of megachurch denomination I don’t know much about, but she’s no fundamentalist dummy. She called me by my former name, which I was very happy to hear again—but did not pressure me at all to explain why I was no longer that guy Tommy.
Once again, Margaret was being considerate.
That quality of thinking of the other person, sparing their feelings if need be, identifying with a friend, is how you know Indiana Nice when you see it. Margaret was this very cute girl in high school, with short dark hair that made her look tomboyish in that age of giant teased beehives; but sharp, smart, funny. I think I was probably attracted to her, which is strange to think of now; I remember her at the swimming pool (which she thought she owned), rather a nice body. Never at the top of the A-list (she played the trombone, which is instant disqualification), but a great girl all the way. My mother liked and respected her, when an ordinary person never made it far with Mrs. Moore.
I wrote up a little blurb for Margaret’s reunion. I’m proud to speak of Steve with his classmates.
Still, when they gather to gossip 45 years later at Stan’s Tap in Earl Park, I’ll find myself wondering what they were thinking about in 1964, ’65 and ’66. Those were pivotal years in U.S. history—and at least one classmate, John Paar, left bucolic Indiana to protest the Vietnam War.
I like to think he put Indiana Nice into action; his faith, his belief in this country, calling us to a better way—considering the other fellow’s feelings.
Nothing about John Paar suggested in high school that he would become a serious activist, but he did. I guess he had to go away to college to get his head together. (Didn’t we all.)
I know what I thought about in ’64, ’65 and ’66; Black kids denied the right to go to school; old ladies denied the right to vote.
They say what you think about when you’re 14 is what you’ll think about for the rest of your life. It seems to be true in my case; I was too young for the Freedom Rides and great demonstrations of the Civil Rights Era, but at 22 I was marching on Broadway for Gay people. And I still am in my way,
I don’t know what demonstrations Margaret might have gone on in later years—but I’ll bet anything she was watching the news, thinking about her role, putting on the other guy’s shoes.
That’s what we do here. There’s more to Indiana Nice than just nice; we are responsible for each other. We gave more men per capita to the Civil War than any other state in the Union.
So it’s Memorial Day, and Luke is full of grilled chicken, thinking he’s a lucky dog. I give thanks for those who have died, I remember my parents and teachers (including that difficult Steve), and I sit on my porch in quiet elation, listening to mindless, chirping birds and watching nothing happen. A guy goes up the street on a John Deere, and comes back again in a golf cart. He’s not going anywhere; he just likes driving around.++
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