Smalltown USA

Lindsay Brown, Havre Daily News, shooting the July 4, 2013 town picnic

Lindsay Brown, Havre Daily News, shooting the July 4, 2013 town picnic

I drove 1600 miles to Havre, Montana to celebrate the July 4 holiday and found the North Baltimore of my childhood there.  Havre (pronounced like “have ‘er” in the phrase “You can have ‘er, I don’t want her”) is a town of approximately 10,000 located in north central Montana on U.S. 2, also known as the hi-line.  My daughter, Lindsay, is a photojournalist for the Havre Daily News. 

On first glance, Havre and North Baltimore share the similarities of being located on an active railroad line and along an important regional highway.  Both towns are surrounded by farmlands.  The main streets boast buildings constructed during the same era.

On the other hand, there are significant differences between the towns.  Havre sits between two Native American reservations.  Also located nearby are communities of Hutterites, a communal branch of Anabaptists who, like the Amish and Mennonites, trace their roots to the Radical Reformation of the 16th century.  There are many faces in Havre that look nothing like the North Baltimore of my childhood.

On July 4, Lindsay’s assignment was to photograph the town picnic so I tagged along to the community park.  Lindsay shared that one of the townspeople, who we had met at the lunch diner the day before, raises enough money to put on a July 4 picnic each year. 

As soon as I jumped out of the car, I knew this picnic was something special because there was an incredible energy in the air.  In the course of Havre community events, this is one of the year’s biggest happenings.  There was a long twisting line of people stringing across the park waiting to get a free hot dog, hamburger, slice of watermelon, brownie and a can of soda.  Never being one to pass up a free meal, I joined the line and found it full of smiles, laughter, and neighborly banter.   The talk was about fishing, camping, and upcoming work trips on the railroad.  Families were picnicking.  Children were frolicking with a huge inflatable ball.  On a small bandstand, townspeople were taking turns sharing their musical talents.  There was a shiny new bike being raffled by a local agency.

As Lindsay worked, I sat down with my plate of food and was overcome by a feeling of déjà vu.  Here I was surrounded by strangers, some from very different cultures than my own, but I had never felt more at home.   For me, the Havre picnic had recaptured that old sensation of North Baltimore’s July 4 fireworks of years past:  the delight in seeing friends who lived in the country for the first time since the last day of school, the simple joy of many generations gathered in one place sharing food and conversation, and the relaxed sense of belonging. 

As I enjoyed the picnic, I realized that I had stumbled upon the heart and soul of a small town community:  a social group that shares common values and experiences.  Havre is still a place where folks need to bond together to survive in a fairly isolated location.  This creates a strong sense of family, and like any good family, there’s always room at the table for one more guest.   In essence, the Havreites invited me to break bread at their community dining room table on July 4.  I enjoyed the free hot dog and soda but received a far better gift: a surprise visit back to memories of my childhood in North Baltimore, to special times when we joined together to celebrate the heart and soul of our community, to a time when we all seemed like family, to the very essence of the North Baltimore of my childhood.

If you want to learn more about Havre, Montana, you can follow it on Facebook:  Havre-Hill County, MontanaHavre-Hill County, Montana or   Better yet, have a chat with Gregg and Ann Glamm who lived in this area early in their careers.


Summertime Friends

Bathing Beauties circa 1971

Bathing Beauties circa 1971

As George Gershwin famously stated in the opening aria for Porgy and Bess, “It’s summertime and the livin’ is easy.”  I absolutely love summer in Ohio:  fresh sweet corn and tomatoes, sunlight until 9 p.m., lightning bugs, campfires, and best of all, warm days spent swimming with friends.


During my childhood, one of the first rites of passage was the swimming test at the Wixom Quarry.  Once a swimmer could swim two lengths of the outside rope, she was allowed to swim in the deep end of the quarry.  The deep end had many benefits:  the little diving board, the high diving board, and best of all, the raft. 


The greatest thing about the raft was its isolation from adult supervision so it was home to many adolescent shenanigans.  Always, there were the occasional cannonballs aimed at other swimmers. Also, boys clad in cutoff shorts for swimwear would dive to the bottom and bring up seaweed and snails to throw at the girls.  Sometimes while the boys were deep diving, they would “accidentally” unhook the raft from its anchor at the bottom of the quarry.  Once the lifeguard finally realized that the raft was drifting farther out, a whistle and raft evacuation would follow.  That is the time when the ability to swim two lengths of the quarry came in especially handy.


While fondly recalling the sunny days spent at the Wixom Quarry, I remember an eclectic group of kids being there.  At the quarry, we laughed and frolicked together, but once school reconvened, we often circulated in different social circles.  Yet on a warm sunny day on the raft, it didn’t matter if were friends during the school year; we were just happy to be together enjoying summer.  It seemed as if we were a big rambunctious summertime family.


Fast forward forty years and now I belong to a neighborhood pool in Findlay called Canterbury Club.  Sure, there are newer, nicer pools in Findlay, but I’ve stayed at Canterbury for over twenty years because of another summertime family.  We are a mashed up collection of folks from different generations, careers, and walks of life.  On weekends during the summer, we spend hours together reading magazines, sharing snacks and talking in the pool, but once Labor Day comes, we return back to our separate lives only occasionally crossing paths with each other.  We promise to get together, but rarely do.  It doesn’t matter though because on then following Memorial Day, we will all be together again, chatting like we had never been apart.


I feel especially blessed to have had the easy summer friendships throughout my life, first at the Wixom Quarry and now at Canterbury Club.  Since so much of life is complicated and busy, it is nice to have good friendships that require so little maintenance.  I am holding tight onto my Canterbury summertime family and what I wouldn’t give to have just one day back at the Wixom Quarry with that previous summertime family.  I’d have to practice my swimming though so I could make it back to shore when the guys unhook the raft!

Ghosts in the Graveyard

Finally, at the end of a very busy work week, I am sitting in my lawn chair on the back porch relaxing.  Tonight is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.  It is a very peaceful, calm evening.  As dusk eases in, some of the first fireflies of the year appear; the rich aroma of a neighbor’s campfire is in the air; and I hear a sound from my childhood: the laughter of children playing outdoors long after their school year bedtimes.  My mind wanders back to similar evenings on Beecher Street in the late 1960s.


Dale Peterson is sitting in a lawn chair on his front porch at the corner of Beecher and Walnut Streets listening to the Detroit Tigers on the radio.  In 1968, the Tigers won the World Series so it’s a great time to be a Tigers fan.  The announcer is Ernie Harwell, who would later be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.  Ernie is sharing some of his favorite lines like “He stood there like the house by the side of the road and watched that one go by” or “A great catch by the fan from St. Clair Shores.”


The usual gang of kids is outside:  Ron, Rhonda, and Randy Bean; Shari and Steve Peterson; my brother, Gary Slaughterbeck, and me.  Once the streetlights come on, we know that our time to play is limited, but we also know that it is time for one of our favorite games:  Ghosts in the Graveyard.


We decide who is “it” and the rest of us scatter to find the best hiding places.   Soon, the person who is “it” begins the countdown.  “One o’clock and the ghost’s not here.”  “Two o’clock and the ghost’s not here.”  This is the time to put the final touches on one’s hiding place: to wedge in behind a row of bushes or crawl behind a neighbor’s shed.


The countdown continues and anticipation builds until the person who is “it” says “Eleven o’clock and the ghost’s not here” and finally shouts, “Twelve o’clock and the ghost IS here!”  Now it is time for the hiders to try to scramble back to base without being tagged by the person who is “it.”  My personal tactic is to try to bolt right back to base and hopefully avoid the person who is “it.”  Others trust their hiding places and stay hidden longer and strategically sneak back to base later.


The Beecher Street base for Ghosts in the Graveyard is always the porch where Dale is listening to the baseball game.  One of the best things about my approach to running back to base quickly is the chance to chat
with Dale while the rest of the kids find ways to slink back to base.  Dale is always smiling and happy to talk even if Ernie Harwell’s voice is animated and Dale might really rather be listening to a Tigers’ rally.


As the Ghosts in the Graveyard game winds down and the very last hiders come back to base, there is a flurry of action as “it” tries to tap the hider before he touches the base.  Dale comes in handy then as he sometimes has to act as referee and decide whether the tap happened before or after the hider touched the base.


The Beecher Street version of Ghosts in the Graveyard is always short-lived because it never starts until the streetlights come on.  Soon, one of our moms shows up and says it is time to come home.  We say good night to Dale and walk home surrounded by twinkling fireflies, tired from a fun-filled day on Beecher Street.