Updated: Apr 23, 2018
No American town was ever more quaint and unassuming than the one in which I grew up – Middleton. It had been a railroad stopover in the old days, and had been so named because it was but a minor stop at the point between two major stops in bigger towns. I never learned what those other towns were, and never cared. They were unimportant to me – nebulous metropolises on the hinter regions of my daily boyhood existence. But if I had to come up with symbolic names for them in a novel, I might be tempted to call them something like Pastville and Futureton. Middleton was surely suspended between the two. That was the early 1970s. The Viet Nam War was in full fury. Men had walked on the moon. Rock concerts were big and loud. But none of that seemed to touch our little town. The rest of the world had changed considerably in those last couple of decades, but Middleton, Idaho and its environs – hovering in some sort of idling time warp – had not.
The place was the stuff of calendars – those nostalgic ones featuring barefoot youngsters walking with fishing poles over their shoulders, old barns, and leaning fence rows enclosing pastures of lazy brown cows. There was a cornfield right in town. There was a water tower. There was a city park with weeping willow trees lining the banks of a stream. A footbridge crossed the stream and it was fun to drop stones into the chisel-beak fish that pooled in its shade. A Sherman tank sat in one corner of the park, reportedly driven to victory in Europe by a local hero during World War II. And there was a library made of thick stucco walls painted milk-green.
The library was run by a volunteer group of ladies who believed that literature was an important asset to the community, as long as it was of the wholesome variety. Approximately five hundred books made up the entire collection, and these were limited to the classics – books like Moby Dick and Treasure Island and Huckleberry Finn. Anything remotely offensive or progressive was never allowed through the door. Still, our town library was a boon. On the hottest summer days, one could step inside and instantly be cooled, almost chilled, as if stepping into a cave. The air inside was bookish and pleasant and hushed. The only sounds were those of rustling pages, and whispering ladies treading lightly over the creaking wooden floors.
The rest of the town was composed of the essentials. There were a handful of churches to fulfill one’s spiritual needs – Mormon, Methodist, and Baptist – and there was The Pastime Tavern for those who preferred to worship spirits of a more Bacchic persuasion. There was the feed store. There was the Farm Boy burger joint run by a man we all called Pops. There was the post office, postmastered by Lee Moberly. There was Manfred Coyle’s American Service gas station and Chuck’s Barbershop and Milt’s Market.
Milt’s had a deal going where a kid could buy a Lucky Sucker for a nickel. These beckoned like treasure in a big jar on the counter and came in the flavors of grape, cherry, and green apple. They left your tongue and lips corresponding colors of purple, red, or moss green. My cousins and brother and I used to walk to town from our grandparents’ house to Milt’s. Our route took us down the railroad tracks (where we would all attempt to make the entire trip walking balanced on a rail), and through the park, over the bridge and behind the library. We had suckers on our minds and carried our money clenched in our sweaty palms. If the sucker you purchased had a little slip of paper hidden in its wrapper, Milt gave you another sucker for free. “You Lucky Sucker!” everyone cried. And somehow this victory was enough to keep a kid happy well after the candy had been sucked down to its soggy paper stick.
The great thing about winning a Lucky Sucker was that it meant someone had an extra nickel or five pennies to use for something else. That something else usually meant taping the coins to the railroad tracks and then waiting for four o’clock. That’s when the Union Pacific freight train came through town. We would hear its horn blaring as it crossed the river bridge a mile away, and then we’d all crouch nervously in the bushes until it thundered past. (It was said that this was against the law, and so we knew we were all fugitives and needed to hide.) The coins would be smeared flat by the weight of the train. We would then scramble out and collect our bounty and drive holes through the copper or silver disks with a hammer and nail, hanging them from strings around our necks like medals. The train no longer actually stopped in Middleton, but it was still a presence in our every day. We liked to play catch with a baseball – a kid on each side of the tracks – throwing the ball over the train from one side to the other as it rushed past. A really daring move was to pitch the ball through the open doors of an empty freight car. But this was risky, and we lost a lot of balls that way.
It’s hard not to be wistful when remembering those days. It really wasn’t such a long time ago, and yet even then it seemed like a privileged existence from out of an old book. We were lucky enough to be granted a slice of Americana in its most unadulterated state. We inhabited our small town lives, blissfully oblivious to anything beyond our sheltered world.
Of course, it was destined to change. And this change, rather symbolically, matched in time with my own adolescence. Since my first memory, the sign on the edge of Middleton had read Population 423. But then one year a field was cleared and leveled across the railroad tracks, a complex of modern houses sprang up, and the population sign was changed to 729. It dealt a blow to the sheltered world of the village. More people moved in, and more modern businesses sprang up. The antiquated style of the town was usurped by the contemporary style of the day. The clash between these two worlds of the past and future was obvious and uncomfortable to watch, even if we went about our days as if it was all normal and proper. But inside I think we all knew that we had lost something irretrievable. Like our childhood, it was gone for good.
Middleton is now home to over 6,000 souls. Only the faintest vestiges of my childhood past can be found, and then, only if you know where to look. The tank is still there, sitting like an obsolete paperweight in a revamped version of the city park. And occasionally one will spy an old house standing next to a convenience store, or maybe a scraggled tree one remembers climbing as a kid, but the essence of the town I grew up in is long gone. The train tracks have been pulled up and a bike path has been built in its place. Smiling people on rollerblades and skateboards pass over the same place we used to smash pennies. I’m sure there are families living perfectly fine lives in our old haunts. They may even feel lucky to have landed in such a wholesome place on earth. But for me that capsule of perfect time has all gone away, leaving nothing behind but the fading echo of our childhood laughter, and the rumble of a distant train.
Photo credit: Patty Pickett