I really hate the term flyover country.
And yes, I do realize that I have often used that particular phrase here quite frequently in the many fits of my quarantined literary insanity. But that was intentionally conceived as my attempt to somehow reappropriate that offensive phrase, trying my best to gracefully redefine the once insulting connotations, and accompanying implications, that all the hard working people who choose to live in this part of the country are somehow second-class citizens, living hopelessly out of touch from the supposedly hip and happening world out on the coasts.
That is just some either-coast elitist self-aggrandizing bullshit.
Because so much real life happens here, every single day. And those over-indulged oceanside dwellers do not have even the slightest inkling of what they are missing by refusing to venture here into the middle part of this great nation, still hanging on though the grind of the pandemic raging.
There is a real reason it is still sometimes called the heartland.
It is a land full of endearingly charming small towns and villages and scrappy unincorporated townships, populated by big-hearted, genuine people usually so outstandingly generous, even though most of us are just “getting by”.
It is a place full of flag lined main streets filled with pride and quite little side streets with their neatly trimmed lawns, sometimes actually behind that stereotypical white picket fence. There are all the enchanting antique stores, the friendly shops with real wooden floors that creak along as you browse, and of course all the Mom and Pop cafes that still plate up made-to-order comfort food, often served with a free side of juicy and fresh local gossip.
There are the numerous one room brick school houses standing empty out on the outskirts of town, but still somehow filled with the ghostly whispers and innocent giggles of a former generation’s childhood passed. There are all the weathered stone churches, of varying denominations and faiths, standing guard over their hard working and faithful flocks from a gentle rise of an Indiana hillside, a well-tended graveyard so full of stories often tucked lovingly out back.
These little towns are where the Kiwanis boys, and the various lodge and club members, still gather in the weekly rhythm of dedicated fraternal unity. They are the towns sprinkled with seemingly endless VFW or American Legion posts, each filled with the captivating stories of aging veterans and surprisingly cheap beer. It is a place of honesty and hard work, even though the daily news might paint us in an entirely different perspective.
There are all the bright summer parades with their marching bands and paper mâché floats. There are festivals founded to acknowledge a somewhat famous person of local renown or lore. Or to celebrate the quirks of the local geology, be it river, waterfall, or field. Or sometimes, it is a festival thrown in honor of the local crops and let me tell you, you haven’t really been to a festival until you’ve been to a pickle festival.
There are often concerts in the park, or at the town square, almost always for free and always an enjoyable time. Sundays aren’t just for church services, because you can still catch the occasional ice cream social where everyone is welcome, a quirky anachronism dating back to an earlier time.
There are literally thousands of lakes, both big and small, conveniently located and seldom crowded. That bit of geological expression allowed me an entire childhood spent with my grandfather fishing, learning lessons far beyond just how to catch and clean “a mess of bluegill”.
There was enough room in this little flyover town that many of my summers were spent awkwardly playing in the Wildcat Baseball League on a countless rotation of ball diamonds, even though I was never particularly athletic. But I still clearly remember how excited we were when the season ultimately culminated at Mr. Mac Day.
It was a special day attended by hundreds of identically clad baseball youths from across the entire city, all scrambling for recognition and ribbon awards amongst the various baseball skill challenges. Looking back, I have to admit that it almost had the vibe of a Hitler youth Nuremberg Rally, but in a harmless, much less virulently anti-Semitic way. Because everyone was welcome on the field, regardless of race or skill set.
This flyover town unquestioningly provided me a solid foundation of fierce individuality and endless experimentation seldom found anywhere in the choking grind of the bigger cities. Especially when there was a conveniently shallow creek nearby in which to play and a somewhat abandoned railroad upon which any number of interesting, and sometimes property-damaging, experiments might be conducted when all the neighborhood kids were set free to roam unsupervised until “the street lights come on”.
Often, those dangerous experiments incorporated a sizable amount 3F black powder stolen from an unsuspecting father. No, he wasn’t some sort of bomb making radial hippie extremist, but rather he was one of the original Civil War reenactors in the 1970s. Back in the days when one could easily purchase tins full of delightfully explosive powder without raising so much as an eyebrow. Although admittedly, we did occasionally end up burning them off from time to time.
We somehow learned that “cat tails”, when diligently fluffed open to reveal the satiny fibers compressed within, and spread about a quarter of a mile or so down the occasionally used railroad tracks, are in fact surprisingly flammable. So much so that it can cause a mass defection of the guilty perpetrators, sending them scampering towards the safety of a strategically built “fort” constructed out of pilfered railroad ties and held together more by idealistic youthful determination, rather than some arbitrary OSHA approved building codes.
We used to wave excitedly at the conductors when the trains still rolled by behind the house, in the years when this small little flyover town was still a powerhouse of industrial manufacturing concerns. They almost always waved back, blissfully unaware that they were the unwitting co-conspirators in the destruction of legal tender. It was a magical summer Indiana day when we learned that if you tape copper pennies to a railroad track, and then patiently wait for a long freight train, rolling heavy with a full load to run over them, the parade of train wheels will smash several pennies together into one ridiculously long and thin uber-penny.
By choosing to fly us over, so many unfortunate souls miss all the magic of the many festivals celebrating the bounty of the fall harvest. They will never enjoy the rustic smells of woodsmoke and randomly roasting meats hanging heavy in the autumn air. They will never know the culinary delight of tasting fresh pressed apple cider, the apples taken from trees you can actually see and touch. They will fail to participate in the daunting gastronomical challenge of consuming a genuine Indiana fall festival tenderloin, which when prepared properly, should be just about as big as your face. And, they will never know the soul-soothing crunch of freshly fallen autumn leaves underfoot while walking alone through the quiet depths of an Indiana forest stripping itself bare in the face of the coming winter.
There is so much to be said for the quintessential Midwestern way of life, so bountifully full of truly good stories and earnest people still willing to till the land, proud people not afraid of getting their hands dirty for the sake of that next crop. Or to finish the job right, whatever it might take. Or sometimes to complete that next work of real art, whether on canvas, with written word, or lyrical song. And all of that still happens here, every single day, with a determined Hoosier regularity and a boundlessly passionate diligence instilled from childhood.
And while so much of that charm was already so dangerously close to the precipice of extinction on the great wave of the computer/phone/electronically raised “snowflake generation” cultural shift, I refuse to believe that this petty and virulent pandemic will be the final cause of its ultimate demise. Not as long as that little creek still flows and there are still kids willing to run free, instead of burying their face into a soulless screen.
If people are content to willingly fly over all the wonderful and amazing things to be found here, well, that is just fine with me. They probably wouldn’t have the slightest idea of how to catch a crawdad in the creek without getting pinched and they would probably scoff at the juvenile humor involved in accidentally setting an entire railroad on fire.
And honestly, those are the kind of people I can personally do without.