By BOB VICKREY
I remember back in the 1970s how much I enjoyed humming along with Paul Simon’s captivating ballad “My Little Town,” until it dawned on me that his song was a rather scathing indictment of America’s small towns, and depicted them as narrow-minded places that meant virtual entrapment for their inhabitants.
“After it rains, there’s a rainbow
And all the colors are black
Its not that the colors aren’t there
Its just imagination they lack”
Even though Mr. Simon took a fairly dim view of small-town life, few of my peers in the 1950s and ‘60s gave much thought to feeling trapped within the lives into which they were born, and most of us considered ourselves downright lucky and grateful for the comforts of our working-class lifestyle.
In our industrial community of Galena Park, located along the shores of the Houston ship channel, our fathers worked in the oil refineries and steel mills that lined its banks. The red sediment from those factories and the noxious fumes their smokestacks belched were an integral and unquestioned part of daily life there.
Galena Park was designed on a grid of tract houses built primarily on 50-foot-wide lots in the middle of a dense pine forest that had pushed its way west from the Piney Woods of East Texas. The considerable proximity of your neighbors’ houses forged an alliance that created friendships, and quite naturally—an occasional adversary. In the early days of development, there were few fences built between homes, as ones’ daily life blended naturally with the neighbors’ on either side.
Many post-World War II families who migrated to city suburbs were leaving small Texas farming towns. For some, their move to the city represented the first generation that was given an opportunity of reinventing themselves and attaining a middle-class lifestyle. There was a certain dignity and pride gained in home ownership that surfaced during a family’s community assimilation. Our parents’ aspiration for their family wasn’t necessarily for more—but only for enough.
We thought of our 923-square-foot, two-bedroom house as our modest castle, and rarely complained about cramped quarters—except when all five family members required the use of our one bathroom at the same time. We did what numerous families did in those confining situations and converted the attached garage into a third bedroom. However, the remodel didn’t help shorten the line to the bathroom. (Only a college-bound older brother and sister would eventually help alleviate that problem.)
During the post-war baby boom, packs of children in our neighborhood gathered after school for unsupervised sports and games. On 10th Street where we lived, the Chambers’ vacant lot was broad and deep, and offered the space necessary for pick-up football and baseball games. There was also a basketball goal which sported a mesh cloth net—a rarity on neighborhood courts. We passed many contented hours there as we postponed homework as long as possible and awaited the inevitable call from our mothers at “suppertime,” which meant the fun had come to an abrupt halt for another day.
During those adult-free gatherings we learned about camaraderie, discipline and leadership. Predictably, someone emerged during those games as the organizer and leader. Squabbles ensued and rules were formed as we instinctively learned the natural convention of order. There was an education in the long hours spent on the streets and playgrounds. Small lessons in democracy were learned, even if we didn’t quite comprehend the full significance of those lessons at the time.
Small towns like my own became the great experimental blueprint of suburban communities during that era, and by-and-large, they created tight-knit places that were largely centered around schools and churches. My hometown was primarily white and Protestant. The church was the center of our family’s life and we were deeply involved in the activities there. It inevitably became another adjunct in building a community network.
In those days, we viewed the world through a narrow cultural lens and the segregation practices of the times offered a rather distorted view of the larger world in terms of social assimilation. The closest black community was several miles away, and had its own school facilities. There were a small number of Latino families who lived in our town and blended seamlessly into the community.
Only a few Jewish families lived in town and several of them owned prominent businesses. Dr. Joe Kahn, our family dentist, was one of the cornerstones of the community and was always a popular civic leader. “Dr. Joe” helped eliminate religious and cultural barriers by often attending various local church services, which inspired an ecumenical spirit that connected the many faiths that coexisted in Galena Park.
We began to read of racial unrest in Little Rock and Birmingham, but it all seemed such a world away that we went about our daily lives largely unaffected by growing reports of national civil discord. However, there would soon come a time when issues like integration, the Vietnam War, and the changing role of women would strain and fracture long-held beliefs—and ultimately test the mettle of many friendships and families in the process.
Whatever cultural diversification my community lacked back then was somewhat offset by the presence of a committed group of educators in our school system, as civics and history lessons were ingrained at an early age. The early seeds of a social conscience were planted within the context of those lessons which would eventually allow us to envision a larger world that lay beyond our limited horizons. Teachers worked in strong partnership with our parents in their mission of helping us become functioning adults.
There was no more unifying factor in small-town Texas life than a Friday night high school football game. Galena Park fielded successful teams for decades, and downtown businesses came to a complete halt just before kickoff. Civic pride soared on Friday nights when the stadium was traditionally filled to capacity as our team squared off with rival Gulf Coast teams. Neighborhood squabbles and political differences were put aside for one night as the whole town rallied around the local team’s efforts.
Our close proximity to one another required a certain civility that in due time created binding friendships and a community support system when problems arose. News of sickness at a local residence brought neighbors to front doorsteps armed with baked goods and covered dishes for dinner that evening. Often, the bounty was so plentiful that the supplies sometimes lasted the whole week. Neighbors offered their company and helped families cope in their darkest hours. The gift of their presence was often humbling and taught us lessons in humility.
Many of us felt a sense of permanence as we found our place in the heart of this community. We strove to attain the graces of our neighbors and possess a portion of their modesty and generosity.
But much of the innocence of that era was shattered at Dealey Plaza in Dallas in November 1963, when a young President was assassinated. John F. Kennedy’s tragic death was the first in a series of dramatic events in the 1960s that would eventually challenge the nation to reexamine the very core of its social beliefs.
Our lives would soon grow far more complex as many of those social issues, which had quietly remained unexamined, finally emerged as daily news headlines that forced us to alter and rethink the larger world we lived in. But the lessons learned from local community leaders and educators ultimately broadened our social perspectives and prepared us to reimagine and embrace an ever-evolving nation.
Of course, our town was far from idyllic, and was typical of any place where people were thrown together and asked to make their own rules and live in civil accord. The experiment of suburbia was always destined to be an imperfect one. The cycle of dispute and resolution was as much a piece of the suburban experience as were the strong bonds which made the community the mainstay of modern society that it eventually became.
But for the most part, it was rather extraordinary how well the experiment actually worked. We managed to find enough in common at the intersection of our neighbors’ lives that the weight of daily life was eased and made lighter.
I only wish songwriter Paul Simon could have visited us in Galena Park back then. I’m betting he might have reached a different conclusion about the folks who lived in “My Little Town.”
Bob Vickrey is a writer whose columns appear in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle and the Waco Tribune-Herald. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California. You can read more of his columns on his website: http://bobvickrey.net/