|It’s My Home Town
BY CRAIG STROUPE
SPECIAL TO THE FLAMBEAU
"It's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my home town....”
This month, archeologists from Florida State University will finish their third and final season excavating a now-famous hole in the ground in Titusville, Florida, my home town.
They have removed thousands of prehistoric human bones, the oldest woven cloth found in the Western Hemisphere and 7,500-year-old skulls, some with unusually well-preserved brain matter inside. Now, the scientists will shut down their lO5-gallon-a-minute pumps, let the ground water return and leave the Windover Site, as the dig is called, just as they found it--a small, boggy, unlikely-looking pond.
Like any small town, Titusville has taken the dig to its bosom as a new source of civic pride, much needed now that things are so quiet at the Kennedy Space Center, just across the Indian River. Titusville is a proud little town with only these two claims to greatness. Imagine if Lake Wobegon were both the home of radio comedian/writer Garrison Keillor and the headwaters of the Mississippi. But Titusville itself can't claim much credit for either of its distinctions.
“It’s a town full of losers
We're pulling out or here to win.”
Mark Twain once said that a man's public opinion of mankind is really his private opinion of himself. The same can be said of a person's feelings about his or her home town. It may be an object of disdain, yearning or belly laughs, but no matter how far away you go, there is often something left "back there" that is unresolved.
This haunting quality in our own hometowns is precisely what makes other people's so funny and charming. Every Saturday night, millions of people who wouldn't live "back there" tune in to A Prairie Home Companion on Public Radio to vicariously enjoy host Garrison Keillor's narrative visits home to Lake Wobegon, "the little town that time forgot and the years cannot improve."
Unlike many of his listeners--generally younger, affluent types drinking Heineken and having Saturday evening barbeques on townhouse patios--Keillor is old enough to forgive, more or less, his home town for being no more than itself. "Lake Wobegon, whatever its faults," Keillor says in his book Lake Wobegon Days, "is not dreary. Back for a visit in August, I saw Wayne 'Warning Track' Tommerdahl stroke the five-thousandth long fly ball of his Whippet career. 'You move that fence forty feet in, and Wayne could be in the majors,' said Uncle Al, seeing greatness where it had not so far appeared."
"Right here in River City!"
-sung by R. Preston in the The Music Man.
For the time being, greatness in Titusville resides at the Windover Site, and so while I was there for the holidays, I went out to take a look.
Less than a half-mile east of 1-95 on Highway-50, I turned south at the Space Shuttle Fuel and Convenience Store and followed Windover Way around a couple curves. The site came up on the left, a fenced-in area about the size of an empty Christmas tree lot and about as impressive. It sits in a spacious neighborhood of newly built, tentatively-occupied ranch-style homes. Their rich green lawns often don't meet, and they stand out as distinct as throw rugs on the brown stubble that passes for grass in Brevard County.
The Windover Site is one of the most important finds in the hemisphere. It will make the March 1987 issue of National Geographic in an article called "Peat Bogs of the World." It is a media star, and yet I stood at the fence, fingers in the link chair, looked down into that shallow, forlorn hole and thought, "Why here?"
Why did these prehistoric Native Americans bury their dead 7,500 years ago in this peat bog? Why does this particular pond have the right combination of minerals in the water to miraculously preserve tissues? The scientists have actually found bugs from 5,000 B.C. with wings that are still iridescent green.
But how can this happen in my or anyone's own home town, a few hundred yards from the parking lot of the Best Western Motel?
"Trying to learn how to walk like the heroes
We thought we had to be.”
Anyone raised in a small town has asked the same questions a million times--but about a miracle of another kind: Why here? How did I come to be born into this place?
In Titusville, almost every kid I knew growing up wanted to be a singer on the radio, or marry a singer on the radio, or be an actress, or an NFL quarterback. Some hadn't the slightest idea what they wanted to be, but they still harbored a sneaking suspicion that they were destined not just for success, but for stardom.
"At that age, " writes Keillor, America's quintessential small-town kid grown up, "you're no skeptic but a true believer starting with belief in yourself as a natural phenomenon never before seen on this earth and therefore incomprehensible to all others. You believe that if God were to make you a millionaire and an idol whose views on the world were eagerly sought by millions, that it would be no more that what you deserved."
Indeed. And what has kept us all from being understood, from finding the destinies that are no more than we deserve?
Our home towns, of course.
Think about it: you can choose your dreams--whether you reach them or not--but a home town? That sucker gets issued to you. It's part of your heritage, like a family tendency for skinny legs, or nearsightedness, or a certain hair-trigger temper that has always made members of your family blurt out things they later regretted.
C'mon, admit it. In your heart of hearts don't you blame your home town for every single one of your faults? Isn't that where they started? Wouldn't you be a much better person today if you had miraculously appeared on earth as a high school graduate moving away from there? Maybe with a nicer car?
"My home town
Is the greatest place I know.”
- song from an old episode of The Andy Griffith Show.
In 5000 BC, the climate in my home town was drier and cooler than today, more like that of present-day Virginia. The pines around the Windover Site in Titusville were oaks then. We know because the unusually non-acidic waters of the pond and the rubbery peat beneath them have preserved the ancient leaves. Though the pond is now only a mile-and-a-half from the Indian River, these early Titusvillians had to travel a long distance to the beach; the Ice Age had occupied some of the water from the oceans, and the peninsula of Florida was twice its present size. The broad, shallow Indian River was a wide savanna dotted with mammoths, mastodons and buffalo.
Of all things, this tiny, miserable-looking pond has survived. One of the more intriguing discoveries to come from it is the remains of a pre-teen child, known to diggers as the Sick Kid, who suffered from spinal bifida, a crippling and often fatal birth defect that weakens the body's defenses against disease. His survival after birth shows that the tribe cared for him many years and carried him on their travels, though he could never benefit them in any practical way. Climates have changed, the oceans have shifted-and yet this small act of compassion has come down to us buried in the pond with the oak leaves.
It's ironic, maybe, that we can sympathize with Garrison Keillor's self-effacing admission of his childish dreams of greatness since in his case they came true. He was destined for stardom. But to find it, he didn't escape from Lake Wobegon (or, actually, Anoka, Minnesota) so much as eventually embrace it. In his freshman composition class at the University of Minnesota, he never once considered writing about what would later become his great subject and fortune;
"I didn't venture to write..." he says in Lake Wobegon Days, "about the old home town. Mr. Staples told us to write from personal experience, of course, but he said it with a smirk, suggesting that we didn't have much, so instead I wrote the sort of dreary, clever essays I imagined I'd appreciate if I were him."
The answer to the problem of the home town is maybe only a small matter of time--and a bit of compassion. Compared to the Windover Pond, the ideas of a town, of nature, even the most basic notion of "a place" are as transitory as we are. As the Sick Kid was to the tribe, a home town is something that seems useless, and yet we cannot put it down. We carry it along with us, at first perhaps out of obligation but eventually out of something more basic, a good that may even survive us.
The prehistoric Native Americans at the site who have been found buried in their original positions were all tucked into the fetal position, lying on their left sides, every one of them facing west. In this way, they patiently waited for 75 centuries until 1982, when progress in the form of a backhoe finally caught up with them.
History will make stars of us all.