Finally, someone who comes from an even smaller hometown than mine! Michael Perry tells the story of coming back to his hometown (New Auburn, WI) and working as an EMT and volunteer fireman in Population: 485, Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time. As a small town girl myself, I could relate to a lot of the stories Perry told: the gossip, the feuds and alliances that go back generations, the small town pleasures and the particular lack of privacy you have when everyone in town knows you, your parents, your car, your house and your date for the Junior Prom.
Michael Perry went away to college, got a degree in nursing and became an EMT, working in several Wisconsin towns. When he finally came home to New Auburn, joining the volunteer fire department was more than a part-time job; it was a way to reconnect with his neighbors. It gave him a point of entry, and even for a hometown boy, that’s important. Small towns can be closed systems and if you’ve been away long enough, it can be harder than you’d imagine to get back in the loop.
The book is full of characters. There is a whole chapter is devoted to Beagle, the most senior member of the VFD. He’s cross-eyed, with one kidney, a fu manchu mustache, a big plug of chewing tobacco and two ex-wives, both of whom work at the town’s only gas station. His brothers, his mother, the other volunteers, it seems like everybody in town makes an appearance. Some of the stories are funny, some are tragic, but they are all told with love and respect for the people involved. It’s a book about what it is like to work with – and sometimes on – your friends and neighbors.
I’m a small town girl myself, from Mantua, Ohio, population 1,050. We have one stoplight in the center of town, and the McDonald’s is still pretty new. Reading this was interesting: I was spending a couple of weeks at one of my company’s labs, in Pico Rivera, CA. The edge of Los Angeles – very urban, lots of concrete, smog and traffic. Thank heavens my hotel was on the edge of a golf course; I would have gone into withdrawal without some greenery. Trading stories with my colleagues, many of them from the LA area, had made me a little more conscious of my smalltowness than usual. These stories reminded me of the ones I had so recently told my co-workers.
Being an EMT is not for the squeamish. Blood, broken bones, vomit – better get used to them; as Perry says, “Puke is the great constant.” We do not tend to be at our best when we need their services. And it is definitely different in a small town. You are almost certain to run into the guy who had to perform CPR on your mother at the next fire department Turkey Shoot. You can’t help but wonder what stories they could (and possibly do) tell about you and your neighbors. There is a certain intimacy to working on your old football coach, the minister who baptized you or the woman who owns the laundromat. Perry does a good job of capturing that awkwardness and the fierce protectiveness that comes with this job.
I’ve read a number of memoirs like this, and Population: 485 falls into a common pattern. Perry works hard to prove that he’s authentic – just check out the author photo on the back cover, unshaven, complete with flannel shirt and hunting cap. But he doesn’t want us to forget he’s a writer, so he pulls out some fancy vocabulary that doesn’t ring quite true, the descriptions get a little too flowery, or the obscure quotes come out. It’s okay, really; it seems to happen in all of these memoirs, whether the subject is EMTs, tattoo parlors or gourmet dining. It’s a tough balancing act, but it doesn’t detract in any major way from the story. Anymore, it just makes me chuckle.
I enjoyed these stories immensely. They were reminiscent of my own stories about my childhood home. You can check out more of Michael Perry’s writing at his blog, SneezingCow.com. Population: 485 is an older book; in the newest, he is married and has a baby on the way, so I guess I’ve got some catching up to do. If I were you, I’d order the book right through Perry’s website, but it is also available on Amazon.com.