45 years ago a kid named Richard Johnson moved from this area to what I can still recall to this day was an address which ended “Oregon Side, Weiser Idaho”. It’s a memorable address. To me, the Oregon Side of Weiser, Idaho should probably be Weiser, Oregon, right? I’m sure it made sense to a letter carrier in 1974. Richard and I corresponded once or twice, as kids do, and then we lost touch.
As I contemplated my posts from last week and the back and forth it promulgated I spent a few hours contemplating and meditating about experiences I had as a child, as a teen, and as a young adult with respect not just to “place”, but to this place, as neighbors, friends, and family dispersed from Springfield heading south, west, or to the suburbs.
A short while after Richard left for Oregon, or Idaho, one of my two best friends in school, Mark Fortner, moved to the Carolinas, I can’t recall which one. Perhaps the northern side of the southern one or vice versa. By high school my other elementary school friend had moved to the suburbs. By the time I reached high school my brother had moved to Oregon with his wife and kids, and my sister was living all over the place, but mostly down south, with her husband who was in the Navy. (As an aside, in the decade after I was born Springfield had its Air Force Base shut and its largest federal facility, the armory, closed. What seems now an ever expanding American military’s one and only attempt at fiscal restraint! It just happened to decimate this area. Thanks, ‘Murica)
Of the 8 kids on my street I knew growing up: two moved to Florida, one moved to Utah, one to Kansas, and another to Washington state, two live in the suburbs, and there’s one of whose location I am not aware. This list isn’t unique, we are a mobile culture and I’m certain every one of my readers can make a list of friends and family who have moved away from them, or perhaps a list of people you have left behind having moved. Regardless of the universality of the experience, these were in fact my experiences and they marked me.
Another enormously important element of my youth which has clearly defined my understanding of my place was my religion. My parents had converted to Mormonism right about the time I was born so it was the only faith I had known. It created a duality within me: my ancestors arrived in Massachusetts on the Mayflower in 1620, but MY New Jerusalem was located 2,000 miles away in the desert southwest.
Going to church every week I came into contact with Mormon missionaries: 19 and 20 year old young men mostly from Utah, or Idaho who were there to make converts to the church, but also to remind young men in the church that they should be preparing to serve as missionaries as well. To further encourage that mindset older teens were given the opportunity to proselytize with them for a few hours here and there and even for weeks at a time during the summer.
From a distance these young men had always spoken glowingly and positively about the “mission field” in which they were called to serve, in Mormon parlance it was called the Connecticut, Hartford Mission. Its territory stretched from upstate New York and Vermont through western Connecticut and Massachusetts. When I began to spend time with these “Elders” up close it was clear that they h a t e d New England. Some weren’t used to the cold, few were accustomed to poverty, and none of them seemed to had ever seen a Black person or a Puerto Rican before. You see, missionaries aren’t very successful in wealthy places, rich people really don’t see any need to change. The poor on the other hand are much more fertile soil for “the message of the gospel”. As kids “back home” they lived where they lived and spent time with people like themselves, but out here they spent most of their time in places they never would have even known existed, to the degree they did, in their own hometowns.
That said, they made no bones about what they saw as the inferiority of New England to Idaho, or Utah. From a Mormon standpoint that makes sense of course, but from a larger cultural standpoint it borders on the ridiculous. As someone as steeped in the lore of my ancestors as I was in Mormon dogma I could only take so much. I started to hit back at jabs taken at my community. Apart from reminding them that both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were New Englanders, I reminded these universally patriotic conservative Americans that the struggle for independence began here. I asked them to name a single writer from the Mountain West to place in a list with Thoreau, Emerson, Melville, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Dickinson, or Frost. Where were the great inventions of Utah? What the great industries of Idaho? If worse came to worse I mentioned how hypocritical their remarks from the pulpit about “loving Massachusetts and its people” were.
I found, when I went to Utah, that Massachusetts, followed closely by New York, held special feelings of antipathy within Mormons. I found at the base of this hatred a profound inferiority complex akin to the American hatred of France. They loved to call Brigham Young the “Harvard of the West”; I don’t ever recall anyone at UMass striving to be called the “Utah State of the East”, or M.I.T. the “University of Utah of New England”. The average New Englander doesn’t think any more about Utah than they do about South Dakota.
Not true for Mormon kids in Massachusetts though.
This weighed on me. I felt strongly connected to my place, whatever the reason. I think that there was something about others criticizing it so freely, and abandoning it so readily that made me cling to it all the more. Somehow, in ways other people seemed to easily avoid, who I was was tied up with the place where I had been born and raised. When the center cannot hold things fall apart, and so I’ve lived at the center of my region from the moment I moved back here after college. I’ve never denied being a contrarian. Perhaps the ultimate move of a contrarian is to not just to stay where others insist you leave, but to place yourself at the heart of the storm, the center of the madness. My parents were like rocks. They never moved from the home where they lived when I was born. I never once heard them voice any thoughts of leaving Massachusetts, Springfield, or 97 Brentwood Street.
Wise or not, rational or not, I take it very personally when people leave this place having once lived here. In Mormon theology there is really only on true “Hell”: Outer Darkness. To be condemned to it one must have known the truth of the LDS faith and rejected it. If I could, I suppose I might condemn those who abandon this place to weeping, wailing, and the gnashing of teeth.