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Always A Small Town Boy

I was born in Mason City, IA, in 1945, but I consider my hometown, the place where I grew up, to be the small town about 30 miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota called Watertown. During the years when I was there (1947 to 1963), the population of the town was around 900. Today it has grown to around 4500, so it seems destined to remain a small town. And I am very happy about that since my heart still lives there.

While unlike the mythical village of Brigadoon, Watertown did not fall asleep every hundred years only to wake up for a single day, it certainly had that sleepy, wispy essence to it and I loved it so. The gently blowing alfalfa fields, the endless corn fields and the white farm homes with red dairy barns, all seemed to be joined in their joy of isolation from the nearest big city, Minneapolis. The water tower siren, for example, set up to alert the fire department volunteers of an emergency, hardly ever broke our serenity and, when it did cry out, more likely than not it was a test just to make sure it was working. And if I ever had to call home it always involved a warm greeting from the switchboard operator who knew everyone in the town by name. The conversation would go like this:

"101 please."

"Hi, Keith, how are you? Is everything okay?

"Yes, Miss Ward, I just need to talk to my mom for a moment."

"Okay, I'll ring you through. And say 'hi' to Audrey for me."

And if memory serves, I believe we were that last town in Minnesota to go dial.

Now, of course, I have read countless stories of those who, having grown up in a small town, can hardly wait to get out, but that was not my case. Honestly, I never wanted to leave. Destiny, however, had its own plans and, after graduating from high school in 1963 and in the middle of completing my first year of college in the Twin Cities, the phone rang in my dorm room and the conversation went like this:

"Hi, Keith, it's your dad,"

"Dad, is everything okay?"

"Oh, sure, but I just thought you might like to know I can't take another winter and I'm moving the family to California."

And that was pretty much it. I would learn later that almost any significant, life changing conversation I ever had with my father (this move, my mother's cancer and eventual death in 1983, his second marriage and my father's announcement of his own cancer) began with the phrase "I just thought you might like to know." It must be in our Norwegian DNA.

But the following summer I suddenly found myself, along with my parents and four younger siblings who were already there, in a place so completely different from Watertown that it still amazes me - Southern California. It could just as easily have been another country or continent and, in a way, that's exactly what it was. Los Angeles/Orange County, a place of such disparity to what I was accustomed that it took months, and years, before I somehow made the adjustment and came to terms with such things as five and six lane freeways and angry, maniacal drivers, none of whom seemed to understand that it was possible to drive with kindness. My first time on LA's Hollywood Freeway, trying to obey the speed limit (a futile cause) while glancing at a Thomas Brother's map (no GPS then), only resulted in the driver of a black, four door Mercedes honking furiously and passing me with the now, all too familiar middle finger "Welcome to California" sign. But I, eventually, survived and thrived in a way that totally changed my life. I even found it transforming. My parents, however, deeply religious to the core, never experienced that transformation with the same enthusiasm. They could only stand and watch as I began to question nearly everything in life: my faith, my government, my upbringing and all things in between. In my first year at Fullerton Junior College, for example, I was suddenly surrounded with fellow students who had actually tasted alcohol, had sex, smoked cigarettes (and other more illegal things) and who generally thumbed their noses at every opinion from an age group 40 and above. I was confused, I was in culture shock.... and I was in heaven, all the while still trying to figure out if wet dreams, in God's world, were even permissible!

What never left me, however, was the boy who grew up in a place where there was no stoplight, and if you wrote me a letter all you needed was my name, my town and the state, because nothing more existed. There was no house number on the front of our house, there were no street signs on our gravel road and it was at least 20 years later that I accidentally stumbled across an old map of Watertown and discovered that I actually had lived on a street with a name and a house with a number - 304 Franklin Ave. SW. For all my youth I had simply lived in a house that was "go a couple of blocks through town, turn right by the canning factory, up the hill a couple of blocks, turn left at the big white house and you'll see a yellow house on the left with a curved sidewalk. That's my house." It worked just fine.

And where else but Watertown could my 1st grade teacher, Miss Olson, have also taught my father? Or in what other universe could I, in my senior year, have been able to look up from my locker at my father's graduating class? With his picture as class salutatorian? And in the evening, if there was any trouble, we would simply call the night operator who, in turn, would take the information, and from her downtown switchboard activate a red light attached to the top of the water tower and our policeman (just one) would either call in or stop by the telephone office to find out what was going on. Usually it meant that someone had discovered a turned over tombstone in one of the three cemeteries, although I never quite figured out what the discoverer was doing in the cemetery at that hour. And I'm still pretty sure our policeman never carried a gun.

Or my first job unloading and gasing up milk trucks at Quinn Transfer? I was twelve then and not nearly old enough to drive. In fact, I could barely see over the dashboard. But as I carefully backed the trucks into the garage for unloading and then parked and readied them for the drivers in the morning, if the cop would drive by and see me, I would wave at him, he at me, and as long as I stayed off the main city streets there was never even an issue. Afterall, I was already behind the driving age curve since most of my farm friends had been handling anything with a clutch since their feet could first touch the floorboard.

And the hamburger at Linda's Cafe, the only cafe in town? It cost .25 cents and remains, to this day, the best hamburger I have ever tasted! Even though my mother would always lovingly feed me before I went to work, on Quinn Transfer payday I would sometimes go to Linda's first, order a burger and savor that piece of deliciousness for nearly all of my two hour shift. Linda's Cafe was also the place where close to the entire student body would gather after a home football or basketball game. And somehow the owners, Owen and Linda, would serve all of us in a space about the equivalent of a New Delhi rail car with people hanging out the windows and dangling over the sides. Plus, after a game all the players would come to hear congratulations or condolences and there I could "accidentally" bump up against a beautiful cheerleader like Lois Lueck or Ruth Harvath who, even after jumping up and down for an entire sweaty game, still smelled of allurement, innocence and Chanel No.5 and could cause my legs to go weak and my imagination to go places I was not supposed to go, but went anyway.

Of course, I can understand how some people would want to move to the 'big city' and away from the sheltering existence of a place that could feel as if it had paused in time. And I have to admit when, as a teen, I would find it intoxicating to go into Minneapolis and feel as though I was in another time. I was. There was the Tyrone Guthrie Theater where I somehow managed to scrape together enough money to see an afternoon matinee and a performance of "The Miser" with Hume Cronyn. I have never forgotten it. Or watching my first Minneapolis Lakers game (yes, they were the Minneapolis Lakers before moving to Los Angeles) with 6' 10" all-star George Mikan, wearing thick glasses on bad knees, at center. Or being able, long before 9/11, to drive to Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport, go into the terminal and just watch the people and planes come and go. I dreamed of being a pilot and it thrilled me no end to be part of that world.

But even as the years passed, Watertown, MN would remain in my world and in my heart. And once, in 2005, when I opened up a copy of the Carver County News (Watertown's home paper) and found a picture of my grandparent's home for sale - a beautiful, two story house with a porch over the garage where I had often stood - I wanted, with all my heart, to buy that place and move back. I settled, regrettably, for contacting the real estate agent to tell him that I knew who had built that house and found that he, in typical small town fashion, was almost as excited about that fact as I was. It ended up with the newspaper contacting me for an interview and an article about my memories. I was even sent an ornate but faded birthday postcard that had, over 50 years previous, originally been sent to my grandmother from one of her relatives in Norway. It was addressed, you guessed it, to just Gudrun Halverson, Watertown, Minnesota, USA. I guess they threw in the "USA" just to be sure it got to the right continent.The sellers of my grandparent's house had found the postcard behind a wall when they were remodeling and had saved it just in case they ever crossed paths with my grandmother or, in this case, one of her grandsons. I have the card to this day.

It has been said that you can take the boy out of the small town, but you can never take the small town out of the boy and I am living proof of that. For the 76 years of my life, I have lived in Iowa, Minnesota, California, Washington State and now back in California, but, in truth, I have never left Watertown. It is a place that lives in me as much as I have lived in it and, if plans fall into place, I will return to it once more around my birthday next year. It will have changed but, then, so have I and I have a feeling it will welcome me as though coming home to a place I never, ever left.


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