JIM DODSON: The Town That Asphalt Forgot
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It was a golden Indian Summer afternoon last Friday when I drove up to Vass to poke around and see what was happening there.
Truthfully, I've been a little worried about Vass, a classic water tower town, as I call such places -- communities that dot the American landscape but increasingly find themselves isolated as the flow of commerce and "progress" bypasses formerly thriving places.
Last month, while stopping on old U.S. 1 to gas up for the 15-hour jog home to Maine, I casually asked the clerk how the little town of 800 souls was holding up commercially since the new stretch of highway opened a year or so ago.
"I don't think so good," she replied. "Traffic's down and so is our business. I know others around here are feeling it, too."
I wondered if $3 gas might be part of the problem.
"Could be," she agreed, "but you just don't see people on the street here the way you did just five or 10 years ago. Go have a look at Seaboard Street, and you'll see what I mean. Not so long ago, you couldn't get a parking space on that block. Now you might have 10 cars a day parked there."
Of course, hers was just one opinion. I knew other folks from Vass who maintained that the little town is doing just fine, thank you very much -- is, in fact, a more accessible and friendly place to locals now that you don't have to cope with 5,000 strangers a day whizzing through on their way to someplace else, stopping only to gas up, flush a toilet, or grab a quick burger.
A friend from nearby Wood-lake, for instance, claims she never ventured into town at peak travel hours because of the heavy commuter traffic. But now she's actually thinking of opening the town's first coffee house.
In any case, whichever view one holds, I think fondly about Vass and other little towns of its ilk every time I head north to Maine to see what my own smalltown high schoolers have been up to lately.
For what it's worth, they would probably be painting our town water tower electric pink out of sheer boredom if we had one, but a water tower in Maine would just be a recipe for a jolly big popsicle on a stick, come winter.
In vivid contrast to Vass' situation, our formerly quaint Yankee town -- which, incidentally, also lies along the same "old" U.S. 1 and used to be called a "village" -- has doubled in population in just the past five years, explosive growth directly attributable to a new bypass that was carved straight through the heart of our once quiet community.
Everywhere you look these days, as a result, is a gaping hole in the ground where a new Best Buy or Super Wal-Mart is about to be plunked down. Neighbor-hoods are being bulldozed to make room for new and wider roads. Sidewalks are vanishing, old trees are giving up their turf.
Planning Board meetings have become rousing horse operas of legal threats and finger-pointing. Every restaurant but one breakfast joint now belongs to a national or regional chain, and the mom-and-pop stores have all vanished -- taking local color and characters with them.
I sometimes feel as if I could be living in a northern suburb of Boston or Hartford. Or Houston. Or Des Moines. It doesn't really matter where because we're homogenizing the smalltown American landscape at a frightful pace, turning here into everywhere else with the same 30 stores.
Stepping Back in Time
So with a tale of two bypassed towns in mind, I slipped up to Vass to see what's happened there since the highway went someplace else.
I found Helen Edwards, Vass' 82-year-old matriarch, sitting serenely in a lounge chair by a display of autumn bulbs on the sidewalk in front of Edwards Hardware.
A young black cat named Buck was curled in her lap. Exactly eight cars -- including a vintage Rambler I instantly coveted -- were parked along Seaboard Street.
The fading red brick facade looked like a landscape by Bob Timberlake or Bill Mangum.
"How you doin', sweetheart?" Helen Edwards said, greeting me with a pleasant drawl, not knowing me from Dick Cheney's housecat.
I said I was fine, took a seat on the hardware store's stoop beside her, and explained I was just snooping around to see if rumors of Vass' demise were premature or something I should worry about.
"Oh, we're doin' fine, honey," Edwards said. "We never had much trade from that old highway, anyway. Those people rarely stopped to shop. The locals make up our business. They support us like you wouldn't believe. Tell you what, you go inside and have a look around and judge for yourself."
She nudged Buck awake. "Better yet," she declared, getting up, "I'll show you, myself."
For the next 20 minutes, we made a walking inventory of Edwards Hardware, which was like stepping back in time to a general store from my own rural Southern boyhood. We looked at onion sets and bluebird houses, brimming nail bins and sacks of deer corn, stove piping and fence wire. Indeed, the cozy, cluttered store seemed to have anything you'd find at your local Home Depot, and then some.
'Everything Was in Vass'
"Look here at this," Edwards said, showing me a framed newspaper clipping that was yellow with age but showed a pretty war bride and her slyly grinning soldier.
"I think that's from The Pilot," she said, squinting to read the fine print, "which used to be here in Vass along with The Sandhills Citizen. I'll bet you didn't know that, did you, sweetheart?
"Everything was here in Vass back then. There was a fine depot just down the street from where the First Bank is now -- that's where the old Charmell Hotel used to stand -- and the Seaboard train stopped here several times a day. They used to toss off a large sack of mail and a man named Bill Muse would collect it and deliver it with a little mule wagon. After his mule died, why, old Bill kept on pulling that wagon on his own until he gave out, too. Mail delivery was never the same. Now the train just goes by without stopping."
"That's a fine looking bride," I said, studying the girl in the frame. "Who is she?"
Helen poked me playfully in the ribs. "That's me, of course! And that's Max. The date was July 7, 1951! I'll never forget that week. Brother, it was hot. Max was stationed up at Camp Picket in Virginia, and I went to see the preacher and order the flowers in Aberdeen that Monday, not even knowing if he would even make it home for the wedding. He got home that Friday, and we got married at Lakeview Presbyterian on Saturday night. The next day, he had to hitchhike back to Camp Picket."
"You naughty kids. Where'd you spend your wedding night," I asked, braving another poke.
"Some fancy hotel in Southern Pines," she said. "I forget its name."
I'd just met Max up at the front of the store. He was hauling in more bags of deer corn and autumn fertilizer, expecting a strong weekend foot trade.
'Land Time Forgot'
Max suddenly materialized beside us, still grinning slyly at age 78, offering another framed and yellowed news item.
"Here's a poem I wrote and sent her about the time we got married," he explained. I read the first stanza of "Camp Pickett Blues" aloud.
"Just down the road a piece Camp Pickett marks the spot
Where we are doomed to spend our time
In the Land that Time forgot."
"Nice poem," I told Max. "Maybe you should be poet laureate of Moore County."
"No way," laughed Helen. "He doesn't have the time to spare. After we got married, see, we ran a feed mill and then opened this place in 1964. In 1978, we opened the variety store two doors down. Then came the dime store. All we've done since getting married, in fact, is work every day except Sunday. Come on, I want to show you something."
I dutifully followed, wondering where Vass' matriarch got all her energy. Maybe it was something they put in the water tower.
She walked me down the block to the Variety store, where she tried to give me a pair of nice-looking denim painter pants and served a customer buying some infant clothes. Next we moseyed along to the Edward's Edwards 5&10, which was already brimming with Halloween and Thanksgiving supplies.
"This used to be a grocery store run by Max's older brother, A.G. My younger brother Buddy McRae ran another grocery just a few blocks over. People sure loved Buddy. I don't think there was ever a more Christian fellow."
She tried to make me take a ghost on a stick. When I explained that reporters weren't supposed to take payola, she frowned and said, "It's not payola, sweetheart. It's a gift from one neighbor to another. I al-ways give things to my customers. That's just good business." Then she handed me a new Farmers and Planters Almanac for 2007 and a scented votive candle for my wife.
"You are married, aren't you?" she wondered.
"Yes, ma'am," I said. "My wife is a school teacher up in Maine. She works much harder than I do."
"Doesn't every woman!" Helen cackled. Then she tried to make me take some excellent No. 2 school pencils.
Holding Its Own
On the stroll back to Edwards Hardware, I asked if Helen was worried about Best Buy or Wal-Mart eventually muscling in on her turf. For the time being, Vass indeed appeared to be doing just fine, holding its own, retaining both its hometown commerce and local color. On the other hand, it seemed like only a matter of time until the big boys discovered the cute little town that asphalt forgot.
"I'm not one bit afraid of them," she said feistily. "Bring 'em on. Besides, I've got the nice people from Woodlake."
Back at the hardware store, in fact, one of her Woodlake loyalists, David Lain, had dropped in to pay for a picture frame.
"I was in here the other day and wasn't sure if it was the right size," Lain explained. "She told me to just take it on home to see if it fit before I paid her for it." He laughed, shaking his head. "Try finding that at Wal-Mart."
Helen Edwards vanished to the back of the store. A moment later she was back, handing me a Ball jar of homemade pear preserves.
"Here you are, sweetheart. Give this to your wife, too," she said. "Tell her it's from the people of Vass. Tell her to come see us sometime."
Jim Dodson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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