Unfolding the Map
Another casualty of a changing America in the 1980s, the soda fountain, is the focus of William Least Heat-Moon's (LHM) attention in this post's starting quote from Blue Highways. In this post, I speculate how my life might have changed had my father realized his dream of owning a soda fountain in my hometown. To the right is the West Virginia state flower, the Rhododendron maximum. To find Sutton in the long geographical timeline of our journey, please see the map.
"In the frayed, cluttery hamlet everything - people, streets, buildings - seemed to be nearing an end. In one old survivor, Elliott's Fountain,...I drank a Hamilton-Beach chocolate milkshake, the kind served alongside the stainless steel mixing cup.
"The owner, Hugh Elliott, laid out a 1910 photograph of the drugstore when you could buy a freshly concocted purge or balm, or a fountain Bromo-Seltzer, or a dulcimer; although the pharmaceuticals were gone, you could still get a Bromo or a dulcimer (next to the Texas Instruments 1025 Memory Calculator)....what had been a spacious room of several bent-steel chairs and tables was now top to bottom with merchandise. What had been a place of community was now a stuffed retail outlet...
"....A crisp little lavendar-and-lace lady, wearing her expansion-band wristwatch almost to the elbow to keep it in place, sipped a cherry phosphate and pointed out in the photograph the table where her husband - dead these twenty years - had proposed to her. She said, 'You won't find me at the grave. Always feel closer to him in here with a phosphate.'"
Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 3
Sutton, West Virginia
In stopping in Sutton, LHM goes to a soda fountain to have a milkshake, and then uses his experience and the description of a lady enjoying a phosphate drink to again lament a disappearing America. "What had been a place of community," he writes, "was now a stuffed retail outlet."
One of the stories that I picked up about my father had to do with a soda fountain. My father's dream was to own a soda fountain in my hometown, in particular a soda fountain called The Green Parrot. He lost his mother at a young age, and during the Depression he had to work to help support his family. Along the way one of the skills he picked up was cooking.
World War II broke out in 1941, when my father was 17 years old. He knew that he would be drafted for the army, and went to talk with the owner of The Green Parrot. The owner told my father that when he came back from the war, if he had the money he could buy the fountain. My father went off to war and served in the Pacific, eventually rising to the rank of master sergeant. He served mostly on the island of Saipan, where his skills were put to work when he was given the duty of organizing and managing the mess halls. He dutifully sent portions of his pay back to his father at home, and had told his father to put the money into savings so that he could buy The Green Parrot.
When my father came home, he asked his father for the money so that he could make the offer for the soda fountain. His father told him the money had been put into a different investment, a 13 acre piece of property in the Irmulco Valley, about 25 miles distant. Gone was his dream of owning The Green Parrot.
You have read of much of the rest of the story in Littourati. My father went to work at the lumber mill, the main employer in my town, where he worked the rest of his life. He was unhappy and unfulfilled. He was a longtime alcoholic and may have abused Valium. He may have had depression. He was the anchor of dysfunction in my dysfunctional family. He sexually abused me, and to this day my family still deals with the legacy of his unhappiness.
But I'm not writing this to demonize my father or my family. Instead I'm writing this to speculate what might have been. What might have happened had that money been available to my father when he came home from the war? Would my father have been happy as a small business owner.
Would The Green Parrot have been my place of employment? Would I have developed a community there among the people who came in - the young, the old, the regulars, the out-of-towners? What effects might they have had on my life, outlook and aspirations? Would I have learned skills that would have had effects on my life? Would I have gotten to know a girl, fallen in love and stayed in Fort Bragg? Would I have taken over The Green Parrot after my father retired, and would I have attempted to keep it alive through lean times until fountains became retro and cool again?
Most importantly, would being a visible business-owning member of the community have made my father a different man? Would he have been more satisfied with his life being in control of his own destiny? Would his marriage and family have been successful? Would my family have been spared the pain of dysfunction, and would I have been spared the horrors of abuse? And would our constant exposure to the community in a type of place that, at their height, fostered community and caring in small towns, have served as a check against dark activities behind closed doors?
These are all just speculations. and I suspect that the my father's problems were deeper than a change of employment could address. The fact is that my father's life is what it was, and mine has been what it is. I have weathered the pain and horror of my family's problems, though I still have to deal with it sometimes. I have made my life into what it is which, like everyone else's, has been full of a lot of joys and opportunities along with some occasional setbacks, mostly of my own doing.
But when I think of how I did it, it was a lot of my own effort and in a feeling of isolation. Of course, there were people who helped me along the way and I am very thankful for them. However, at that time in the United States the concept of community was stronger than it seems to be now. People looked out for each other. My father's isolation took us out of a wider community, and the inability of my immediate and extended family to confront the problems within it made our problems worse. An extended community doesn't mean that all problems are immediately solved, but makes it more possible that difficulties and hardships affecting some of its members will be recognized and addressed.
Now, many of these establishments that encouraged community - the soda fountain, the neighborhood bar, the diner, the small markets and pharmacies, and the fraternal organizations have given way to chain restaurants, loud taverns where speaking is impossible, material goods are placed front and center over opportunities to mingle, and the world-wide web and social networks have replaced communal organizations. With these advances have also come reversals. I believe that there is more isolation, more discord and less opportunity to come to agreement. We see it on local levels in anger that boils over into violence, and on the national level in a polarized government.
And to be realistic, the world wouldn't have changed much had my father been able to buy a soda fountain in the 1940s. My world might have been better or worse, depending on unforeseen factors. But our country is always worse for a loss of community. It's telling that the lady in quote feels closer to her dead husband in the soda fountain, where the memories of her interactions with him and others in the community are strongest, than at his grave. I hope that the real sense of community that made America so strong and vital aren't someday marked on a symbolic gravestone with "Here lies America's community spirit, killed by modernity and progress."
If you want to know more about Sutton
Next up: Gassaway, West Virginia