Out of Ohio; Personal History

By Frazier, Ian | The New Yorker, January 10, 2005 | Go to article overview

Out of Ohio; Personal History


Frazier, Ian, The New Yorker


Recently I saw in a newspaper from Hudson, Ohio, my home town, that they were about to tear down the town's water tower. In principle, I don't care anymore how things I used to love about Hudson change or disappear. Each time a big change happens, though, I feel a moment of resistance before my lack of caring returns. The town's water tower, built in the early nineteen-hundreds, was its civic reference point, as its several white church steeples were its spiritual ones. The water tower was higher than they, and whenever you were walking in the fields--the town was surrounded by fields--you could scan the horizon for the water tower just above the tree line and know where you were. The cone-shaped top, and the cylindrical tank below it, gave the water tower the aspect of an old-time spaceship, though more squat. Its dull silver color and the prominent rivets in its sheet-metal side added to the antique Buck Rogers look. Or, to switch movies, the tower looked like the Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz." Two generations ago, water towers like this one could be found superintending small towns all over the Midwest and West. I'm sure the Tin Man was even based on them.

I lived in Hudson from when I was six until I was eighteen. Sometimes I try, usually without success, to describe how sweet it was to grow up in a small Ohio town forty years ago. As I get into the details, corniness tinges my voice, and a proprietary sentimentality that puts people off. I say the names of my friends from back then--Kent, Jimmy (called Dog), Susie, Bitsy, Kathy, Charlie (called Dunkie), Timmy, Paul--and they sound somehow wrong. They're like the names of characters in nostalgic mid-American movies or Bruce Springsteen songs, and I start to think of us as that myself, and a blurring sameness sets in, and the whole business defeats me. But then a friend from Hudson calls, or I run into somebody from there, or I hear the rattle of shopping-cart wheels in a supermarket parking lot, and for a second I remember how growing up in Hudson could be completely, even unfairly, sweet.

Most modern people don't belong anyplace as intimately as we belonged to Hudson. Now the town has grown and merged with northern Ohio exurbia, so it's hardly recognizable for what it was. Some of the old sense of belonging, though, remains. A while ago, I went back for a funeral. I took the bus from New York City to Cleveland overnight and then drove down to Hudson in the morning with my brother. We walked into Christ Church, our old church, now unfamiliar because of remodelling, and sat in the back. I saw not many people I knew. Then, over my shoulder, in the aisle, I heard a woman say, "I think I'll just sit here next to Sandy Frazier."

To return home, to have a person call me by name; and to look up and remember her, forty-some years ago, as a junior-high girl in Bermuda shorts at the town's Ice Cream Social, an event sponsored by the League of Women Voters on the town green, where I and my friends chased her and her friends between tables and chairs and across the lawn flicking wadded-up pieces of paper cups at them with long-handled plastic ice-cream spoons, bouncing the missiles satisfyingly off the girls as they laughed and dodged--

I should finish that thought, and that sentence. But the service had begun for Cynthia, a friend to my family and me. She was dead at sixty-seven of Lou Gehrig's disease. Back in the nineteen-sixties, someone climbed the water tower and wrote Cynthia's name on it, billboard-large, a declaration of love. It stayed there above the trees for a long time, until the town painted it over. When I was eight or nine, Cynthia made a point of coming up and saying hello to me in the basement of the Congregational church. I was there, I think, because my mother was helping with the scenery for a play. When I was just out of high school, Cynthia heard me telling my friends a story in her living room, and afterward she told me I would be a writer. …

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