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Origins II

On the trip out to Portland from Atlanta, I made a point to pass through Venango, Nebraska, the tiny farm town where I grew up.

I've posted about Venango before, with a Google Earth view of the house I lived in. This time, I was able to pay the house a visit at ground level. zaiah and I spent about three hours wandering around with a camera, and it brought back some half-submerged memories.

We spent the night before in a hotel in Ogallala, Nebraska, the nearest town with amenities like hotels and restaurants. Ogallala is about an hour and a half from Venango; I remember making the trip as a kid on those rare occasions when we wanted to do something like eat out at McDonald's.

One of Ogallala's features is this water tower, painted to look like a flying saucer. At night, a ring of lights around the walkway flashes. I'd entirely forgotten about this water tower, and was a little surprised to find that, thirty years later, it was still there. (And, from the looks of it, with a fresh coat of paint.)

There's something appropriate about this icon. In small Nebraska communities, anyone who hasn't been living there for several generations might as well be an alien. I can remember a kid I went to grade school with being regarded as an "outsider" because his family had only been there for a couple of generations.

As you can probably imagine, I blended in like a squirrel in a den of velociraptors. The notion that I was an alien was only made all the more stark because I didn't like football, wheat, or playing football in wheat fields.

Instead, I launched model rockets in wheat fields. I also had the only computer in town (an antique Radio Shack TRS-80 that was state of the art at the time). There was a guy in a similar small town about three hours away (Brandon, Colorado) who had an Apple II computer.

Needless to say, we knew each other.



This is Venango as seen from the main (and only) highway into town. The big white structure, for those of you who aren't farmers, is a grain elevator, where vast quantities of wheat can be stored before being shipped out by truck or rail.

The last time I saw these elevators was almost precisely thirty years ago. From the looks of them, they haven't been painted in that entire time. At least they're all still there; every so often, some damn fool walks into a grain elevator with a lit cigarette and blows the entire thing into low earth orbit (note to mad scientists on my flist: grain dust is explosive, yo).



This is the main street through the center of town. The grain elevators can be seen from almost every angle everywhere in town.

Normally, at this point in the post, I'd talk about some pleasant or funny little anecdote about growing up in this place, but I really don't have one.



This is where I went to school. This building housed everyone from kindergarten through high school.

In my memories, the schoolhouse is huge; the reality is quite tiny. The first thing you see when you pass through those double doors is an enormous, dark polished wooden staircase leading up. That staircase still, to this day, features in some of my dreams.

Not that anyone has passed through those doors in a while. When the population of Venango started to fall shortly after we left, the school was closed. It's been about fifteen years since the last time anyone has been there. The front lawn is still beautifully manicured, but nobody uses the building for anything. zaiah observed that an enterprising person who wanted to form an intentional community here could probably buy the place for a song and move in a dozen families or so, which would probably be the largest influx of residents in at least five decades.



The back of the school isn't as nicely manicured.

One of the eerie things about this pace is that there are no children. Anywhere. We visited on a gorgeous, breezy summer midmorning, and no kids. We saw people walking around the town, we saw folks working at the grain elevator, but no kids. Had there been any, anywhere, I've got to believe that some of them would use this playground, but nothing. Ours were the only footprints. The playground equipment is covered with a fine dusting of rust. Nobody plays here. You could film zombie apocalypse movies here. It was weird.

Just as eerie is the fact that the place looks like it was just closed yesterday. When we looked through the windows, we saw all the trophies still in the trophy cases, and the cafeteria had a deep freezer whose lid was propped open with a Styrofoam cup. It gives the uncanny impression of having been closed for the summer and then never approached again.

My father worked here as a teacher (K-8), and as the athletics coach, and as the bus driver. The number of trophies in the cabinet was always a little surprising, as Venango was infamous for fielding the worst teams ever seen in any sport; our football team, for example, scored a combined total of six points for the entire season the last year I was there. We barely had enough students to have a football team; if one guy was sick, they didn't play.



I swear this is the same mat they had in front of the door when I was a kid, now crumpled up beside the school and with weeds growing through it. Go panthers!

And speaking of team spirit:



This is, or was, the basketball court and football field behind the school. Each clump of trees you see off in the distance marks a house. The trees are planted as windbreaks and snowbreaks, to prevent wind-driven snow from burying the houses. Yes, I'm being serious.



The view from the front of the school toward the grain elevators. Everything in this town is centered on those grain elevators; without them, there's no reason for the town to exist.

In the last thirty years, the town's population has dropped from 242 to 167. Even with the grain elevators, one could argue that there's no reason for the town to exist.



This is the road I grew up on. The clump of trees on the right is my old house; we drove past it on our first attempt to find it, so this is the view back toward the highway from the road. And finally:



The house I grew up in. From here, I played with my computer, launched model rockets, flew kites, built a huge hydroponics garden that was eventually taken over by spider plants, and generally stayed the hell away from the other townsfolk and their football-in-wheat-field ways. Place looks a little worse for the wear; the past few decades have not been kind.

We didn't stop. I don't care who's living there now. I'm just happy it isn't me.


Comments

( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
jaime29
Jun. 29th, 2009 07:14 pm (UTC)
Wow.

i really, really enjoyed reading this, tacit. i mean, i like all your posts and always learn or find a new appreciation for something when i read your stuff, but this...

wow. If there was a magazine that specialized in nostalgic malencholia, i'd call you a fool for not submitting this.

Well done. Very well done.

*tips imaginary hat*
lunasmiles
Jun. 29th, 2009 07:33 pm (UTC)
I know of a few towns like this one back near my hometown in southwestern Minnesota. Fortunately my town is a bit larger, so it's still alive.

I'll be visiting there next month for an all-school reunion, so I'll be taking a similar tour of all the memories.

Thanks for this wonderful travelogue!
thenanerbananer
Jun. 29th, 2009 08:09 pm (UTC)
Wow, any of us who "didn't quite fit in" can find something to empathize with in this post. In my case, I was the opposite; the only "farm kid" in a school full of townies.

The small schoolhouses where I went to elementary school are now either gone or in one case, turned into a firehouse.

I don't go back either.
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cjhm
Jun. 30th, 2009 01:45 am (UTC)
Interesting post, and to hear the perspective of someone from small town. Having lived in the burbs, and the shadow of the city, all my life, I don't have the experience of small town life, but you've painted quite a picture with this, and your other referenced post.
Thank you :-)
delphinea
Jun. 30th, 2009 02:35 am (UTC)
Wow! I am so glad you escaped the creepy zombie apocalypse zone! Welcome back to the land of the living and logged in. (PS: Petri said to tell you he's been to Ogallala. Apparently there's an air strip there and he landed there on one of his solo flights during flight school.)
fallingupthesky
Jun. 30th, 2009 04:18 am (UTC)
My family would move every year, sometimes more than once a year. I don't even remember half the places we lived, and out of the other half, I doubt I could even find anywhere I lived before age 14 or so. So I don't have any formative "childhood home" to go back to. On the very rare occasions something which would represent a past home appears in my dreams, it's some random amalgam (different every time) of various places I've lived.
spiralflames
Jun. 30th, 2009 06:06 am (UTC)
excellent!! thanks for "taking us w/you" on your trek!!

Edited at 2009-06-30 06:06 am (UTC)
skorpionuk
Jun. 30th, 2009 09:26 am (UTC)
You're right, the UFO is a good icon: but in reverse. Every single one of those photos is utterly, utterly alien to me. I have literally no idea what the life in them is like, no experiences that could give me a clue.

Fascinating.
soocase
Jun. 30th, 2009 01:49 pm (UTC)
I also grew up in a small town, the african version. We didnt have to wear shoes at my primary school and many classes were held under the trees or in an old abandoned church. We spent our days playing in the veld, riding horses and climbing trees, with a few farmstyle chores thrown in. It was pretty much idylic for a youngster, but only because when I became a teenager, we were an hours drive away from a big city (Joburg) and I could escape the rural life when I needed to.

I was happy to leave the small mindedness behind however.. the racism.. the fundamentalism.. the "your daughter will grow up and date my son just like I dated you" mentality.

I live in that big city now, but "the plaas" left me with many stories to tell, and in some ways, a unique perspective.
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zaiah
Jul. 12th, 2009 01:46 am (UTC)
Powerfully. This.
quaryn_dk
Jul. 3rd, 2009 09:51 am (UTC)
Wow, shades of the stomping grounds of my childhood summers. My dad grew up in Brewster, where even in 1956, he *was* his high school graduating class.
jonnymoon
Jul. 6th, 2009 10:09 pm (UTC)
House is a shambles...but by ghod, they've got their satellite TV!
tacit
Jul. 7th, 2009 04:18 am (UTC)
Yeah, I noticed that too. Gotta prioritize, I suppose...
(Anonymous)
May. 9th, 2015 05:06 am (UTC)
where you here in 1985?
I was in the combined first and second grade class on the second floor of the school. I remember the kiln in the creepy boiler room and the underground gym across from the kindergarten classroom. I moved to Colorado in 1986 and all of the kids in our class got together and made us a giant painting on butcher paper. Thanks for the pics! I would love to see more.
tacit
May. 10th, 2015 02:26 am (UTC)
Re: where you here in 1985?
Nope! 1979 was my last year. In 1980, I started school in Florida.
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )