Heartland not as homogenized as some may think
There he was, just bold as brass, sitting on the steps of a hardware store on East King Street in Shippensburg, Pa.: a Yankee soldier. Not the kind of thing I see every day back home.
As I walked farther along, there were more of them. The buildings I passed dated to 1863 and earlier, and some had displays in the windows evocative of the period. Three young men in Union blue lounged against a storefront, but straightened and answered me with “sirs” when I asked about their unit and its intentions. (You’d have thought I was General Meade.) They did this even though I slipped and addressed them as “y’all.”
They were getting set for a commemoration that local folks call the “March to Destiny.” There was no major battle here, but this small town makes a huge deal of the fact that Confederate troops merely passed through the town on their way to the collision at Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863. The entire top half of the front page of that day’s Shippensburg News-Chronicle was devoted to this.
The towns of rural central Pennsylvania practice historical preservation with a vengeance. But they don’t fixate purely on 1860-1865. The downtown area of nearby Carlisle — home of the U.S. Army War College — is just block after block of intact, 18th-century buildings still in active use. Historical markers don’t let you forget that here lived “Molly Pitcher,” and on that corner, George Washington assembled militia and led them forth to crush the first attempt to contest Federal authority with force — the Whiskey Rebellion.
I saw this repeatedly when personal business took me through that area last weekend. And in Gettysburg itself? Glenn McConnell would never make a profit from memorabilia against that kind of competition.
I’ve lived and traveled all over the South and spent a spell or two out West. But except for a few days in New York and the occasional stop in a northern airport to change planes, I had not been north of the Mason-Dixon line since the 1960-61 school year. And even then (I was in the second grade), I never got out of the Philadelphia metropolitan area.
Big cities — and their suburbs, and especially the retail strips — tend to look all the same. But get out into the country — miles from the nearest Barnes & Noble or Bed, Bath & Beyond — and you find the real flavor of a region. It is there that you can be startled by the ways things are different back home (and sometimes, by the odd ways in which they are the same):
Architecture: Houses, especially in the older areas, are built right on the road. Like tenement dwellers, people are much given to sitting on their stoops to watch folks go by. If they lack stoops, they pull a folding chair onto the sidewalk and sit there. This suggests a variant of sociability to which I am not accustomed.
Culture: Carlisle is a place of contrasts. It is home to Dickinson College, the first college chartered in our newly independent nation, in 1783. (Distinguished Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, helped found it.) In the same town, you find Carlisle Events, a place that was holding a huge car show (which filled every motel room for many miles). It featured a car once driven by Dale Earnhardt. It was like Darlington in a parallel universe.
Cuisine: We ate at a fairly nice place in Shippensburg where I had the largest pork chop I have ever seen in my life (not just thickness, but length and breadth). I had to struggle a little to decide what to have with it, as there were at least five varieties of fried potatoes alone on the menu — regular, shoestring, home, steak and sweet (and I’m sure I’m forgetting one). That doesn’t count mashed and baked. We had a filling breakfast at the decidedly unMcDonaldesque Middlesex Diner, but did not have the nerve to order scrapple. Nor did we try the grits advertised on the menu; I did not trust that they would know how to fix them.
Traffic laws: The speed limit on Interstate 81 up there changes with dizzying frequency. And good luck getting onto 81, as they don’t believe in giving you room to get up to speed and merge. In fact, some on-ramps actually had stop signs at the points where they joined freeways. But the very oddest things I saw were the “no parking” signs in Carlisle, distributed seemingly randomly along the curbs: “No Parking 3:30 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. Thursday,” or “æ.æ.æ. 8 a.m. to Noon Wednesday,” or the same time Tuesday or Thursday. The only one that made sense was “No Parking Anytime,” accompanied by “Prohibido Estacionar,” just in case.
Liquor laws: There is no beer or wine in convenience stores. None. I asked a clerk about it, and in heavily accented English he said if I wanted a beer, I should go to a bar down the road and ask for takeout. I think he was serious.
Retailing: For that matter, there aren’t many convenience stores/gas stations. One night, driving all over town and up and down the interstate, I almost despaired of finding one open before running out of fuel. Could this be related to the fact that they don’t sell beer? Could that make such businesses that much less profitable? Is the connection between drinking and driving that pervasive? Could this help explain fatality rates in South Carolina?
Manners: While I got honked at several times when I executed truly stupid maneuvers because I didn’t know where I was going, on several occasions I ran into driver behavior that was so considerate and deferential it was downright odd. My wife and I stood on a curb on the main drag of Shippensburg, looking up and down and wondering whether we wanted to cross there, and a truck stopped — right in the middle of the block — to let us proceed in front of him. The exact thing happened twice in Carlisle — once when we were on foot, once when I was about to pull out of an alley. The cars clearly had the right of way, but stopped dead. It was so odd as to make you suspect a trick of some kind. But they were just being helpful.
It’s almost enough to make you think there are ways in which folks up north are more polite than we are. Almost. One wouldn’t want to get carried away on such thin, subtle evidence.