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Growing Up in the Middle of Nowhere

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Salem, MIssouri, is situated at the top of a plateau in the Ozarks. When you’re in the center of town, you’re actually at the peak of a naturally-formed roller coaster. Drive south, and you enter the winding roads of southern Missouri. The span of road that connects Salem to Eminence, Missouri is known to launch some stomachs into full-fledged nausea.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503Salem literally is in the middle of nowhere. Though there’s not much to it, there’s even less around it. Drive in any direction and you don’t encounter a town of any size for at least 20-30 miles, and that depends heavily on your definition of “any size.” On summer nights, the stars are so close it looks like you could reach up and grasp a handful. I know that sounds cliche, but it’s more idyllic, really.

Until you get to know the town better.

As it turns out, Salem is a lot like a country song. The beer-guzzling, hades-raising, cheatin’, cussin’, spittin’ subculture is alive and well. Did you hear the joke about what you get when you play a country song backwards? (Your dog back, your truck back, your wife back, etc.) That joke describes at least a quarter of the population, estimating conservatively.

salemFor all it’s faults, though, Salem is also all the good in a country song, too. I witnessed it first-hand. People may play hard, but they work hard too. And they care about one another. Dudes in trucks raise two or three fingers off the steering wheel when they pass one another on a country road. Church pews are pretty packed on Sunday, and most folks actually want to be there. Violence is rare. Handshakes still seal a lot of deals. Salem is the collective personification of the so-called “good ol’ boy.” It was in this humble hamlet of about 4,500 that I was mostly raised. Normally, kids from small towns don’t fully appreciate that experience until much later. I always loved Salem, and I still do.

Some people think growing up in a town such as Salem is like being raised in a prison. As soon as they’re able, they bust out. For my money, I wouldn’t replace my upbringing with any other situation. Salem is by no means a perfect place. But it was a perfect place for me to become who I am.

For that, I am nothing but grateful.

dent_countyI’ve done a lot of speaking and a lot of writing in my line of work, and time after time my desire to impress a truth on a crowd leads me to some story from childhood. There were the hot-tempered basketball coaches who taught me life lessons in between tirades. There were folksy farmers who at times seemed like geniuses in bib overalls. There were patient teachers who did more than teach me about subjects in text books–they helped me to compose the text of my life. There were preachers and Sunday school teachers who pointed me toward Jesus. There were friends and acquaintances of every variety, many of whom I recall with great fondness despite falling out of touch through the years. They’re the voices in my head that I can’t shake.

Whether I flip through an old yearbook or just scan my memory for highlights, there’s plenty to recall. Generous gifts left on my family’s porch during hard times. Story after story being embellished in Mr. Jim’s Barbershop on Saturday mornings. Whistles screeching their disapproval at a team’s effort. The strange combination of scents at the county fair–livestock and funnel cake and chewing tobacco. Hazy, smoke-filled diners with greasy food rotating in and out of business almost annually. Cardinals baseball on KSMO. Avoiding cross-country coaches by hiding in the woods or criss-crossing through side streets in town for no good reason other than laziness.

Girls I thought were cute.

Guys I thought were cool.

Figuring out in high school I wasn’t that cool or cute. Realizing I was “more of a friend” material. Realizing ten years later that was actually preferred status. Sure, there were imperfect times and I made mistakes. I dodged a few embarrassing moments. I dedicated a song on the radio to a completely uninterested girl my freshman year of high school. I was sternly corrected by a sixth grade teacher for saying something uncharacteristically cruel to a classmate. I suffered through detention once in high school, though it was only for tardies. Nothing major.

My sister and I, in all our Jr. High glory.

My sister and I, in all our Jr. High glory.

I suppose my experience was not unique. I graduated with about 180 others who could say mostly the same things. Sometimes it feels like we survived it all. Sometimes it seems like it survived us. At times it feels like yesterday. Other times it feels like it never really happened.

For me, always, I miss it.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I wouldn’t want my present existence to be any different. I love my wife, I love my kids, I love where I currently live and serve and all the neat experiences along the way. I’ve been to New York City and Chicago and Los Angeles and Portland and Atlanta. I’ve been to Mexico City, Mexico and Santiago, Dominican Republic and Delhi, India. As an 11 year old living in a rented underground house in the 65560, I don’t think I ever thought I’d do any of that. God had other plans.

A disturbing representation of how I might look had I stayed put. Disturbing if you ask my wife, that is.

A disturbing representation of how I might look had I stayed put. Disturbing if you ask my wife, that is.

Recently while squatting on a dirty path in a remote village in India my mind flashed back to Salem. I was quite certain that no one else from my home town had stepped foot on that piece of earth. Then I thought of how many of us had scattered about and wondered where life had taken us all. We are preachers and teachers and engineers and biologists and a hundred other things. We’re feeding the poor and healing the sick and raising families and closing deals. Salem has had its fair share of sons and daughters sent into combat. Individually, no one had stood where I had stood. As a group, we’ve seen the world and left our mark in every corner of it.

Meanwhile, some stayed put. They work hard and, occasionally, play hard. They bail hay and feed cows and mop hallways and manufacture charcoal and cut timber and drive school busses. They’re working at the banks and restaurants and motels and car dealerships in town. They have an acre or two outside of town where they can scoop up stars and smell fresh cut grass and there isn’t an interstate humming constantly for thirty miles or more. I’m more than a little envious of those folks, sometimes. I’m jealous of the greasy diners and rusty pick up trucks and curvy state highways and churches that still have hymnals and ubiquitous Black Angus cattle herds and getting my hair cut at Mr. Jim’s on Saturday mornings. I miss it all. Sometimes I miss it quite a lot.

Not because I don’t like where my life is ended up, but because of my great affection for where it all began.

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61 comments

  1. I’m from a small farming town in rural Pennsylvania and, although I’ve never been to Salem, MO, after reading your post I feel as if I have been there and as if you were describing my hometown and my experience since leaving it. I just wanted to let you know I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Keep up the good work.

  2. I KNEW there was a reason we have lived here longer than anywhere else. We’ve stayed 20+ years. It’s home. I’m glad our paths crossed here. Of all the good things you mentioned and additional special blessings germane to our family, the “Titus” connection ranks right up there at the top. Oh … something else … your writing style continues to amaze.

  3. I grew up in Salem… I currently reside in Florida and work at a migrant/title 1 school as a teacher. I have been all over the world, and like you, never dreamed I would leave the comfortable confines of my home town. I have not been back in years… Salem made me who I am.

  4. Great piece! I also grew up in Salem. Live in the Saint Louis area now. Nothing is like getting back to Salem and feeling everything slow down again. You did a great job capturing life there.

  5. Good ol’ Salem. Matt and I still live here. We teach in the local schools. Often, my mind wanders back to those days and all the lessons we learned, hard but good lessons. Wouldn’t change any of it for the world. Glad you wrote this Titus. 🙂 Thank you!

  6. I really enjoyed your post. You described Salem perfectly. I have lived here all my life, growing up in the rurals and plan to be here thru retirement. It is definitely home.

  7. Titus, I am proud to have been part or your growing up in Salem. Your success is what makes my job worthwhile. Love you always. Mrs. C

  8. I live in rolla, one of the towns within 20-30 miles. Salem is quaint but hardly friendly. My hubby and I ride through the beautiful rolling hills on our motorcycle. So we have stopped in Salem alot and as we roll through I never see a finger raise to say Hello. Maybe I was too busy looking at the amazing scenery. I’ve worked from time to time with people from Salem. All I can say is their a different breed for sure. Some are good, some not so much. This I feel, is like every town though. I can say that if your not from there, you really don’t wanna be from there. Only my thoughts🙂

  9. I am a transplant from Iowa, After my husband retired from the Navy we deceided to retire down here, Imogene Jackson showed us and sold us our home down at Montauk. I knew the minute i saw that area , that is where I wanted to be. My children finished their education here
    and 2 of the 3 are still in the area and one in Columbia. I moved from Montauk about 10 years ago, but I still get that special feeling going up the Montauk hill. Have made so many special friends down here and its a good place to finish out my days

  10. I can totally relate to the yearning of growing up in a small town Titus. My graduating class was a whopping 72 classmates. I often find myself missing the Villiage of Grass Lake, Michigan. Like you, it is not because I am unhappy where I am in my life, just that GL holds such a speical place in my heart and the people whom I know there. Being a child of a single mother raising the last two of eight children on her own posed an excellent opportunity for the community to show their grit and help raise The Rose twins. Valerie and Vera. I am eternally grateful for the warmth, support, correction, and love that was poured into our lives there. Life in Grass Lake was always easy, slow, and endearing. I get back there every few years and it makes me feel like a child seeing the same older folks sitting in the pews at church, at the Post Office, Cafe, and school. It really takes me back to a much more carefree time. Fall/winter is especially diffficult since I miss the colors and playing in the snow. I hope you get to visit Salem soon.

  11. I was pretty much raised, give or take a few years, in Salem. I went to Oak Hill R-1 from K thru 8…except for the year or so from 6th to seventh grades that we moved closer to the city to be with my Dad who worked at Boeing/McDonnell Douglas then.
    After 8th grade we moved back up north. When I got old enough, I moved back to the Salem area.
    I currently live in Licking but work in Salem at the hospital. I love Salem….it will always be my hometown.

  12. I love Salem… All of my brothers and sisters moved away and I swore I’d raise my kids in a town where they could always be around someone they knew. Now they’ve moved away for better jobs but when they come to momma and daddy’s house for the holiday’s ( Salem is home) My grandson is out in the back of the land today sharing a new hunting experience with his pa pa and someday I hope he looks back as we have and can say. This area is my home, I keep the land clean, I work hard, I appreciate the beauty of the clear streams and what God has given us. Thanks for sharing

  13. I really enjoyed this piece. My family is from Salem – if you’re old enough to remember the 80s or any time earlier you will know the name – and I fondly remember visiting for Christmas or Thanksgiving over the years. The indie folk/rock musician Jay Farrar spent much of his upbringing in the area, and he wrote a lovely song, mostly for his father, called “Dent County” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TEyaBINKt9g .

    That said, unless things have changed, Salem still doesn’t have a single decent restaurant.🙂

  14. I was raised in Salem, proud of it too, i live now in Oklahoma, really enjoy going “home” for family reunion’s, alot of family still live there and always will.

  15. Hi! I don’t know if you know us but my husband is Robert Stagner & his family has lived in Salem since the late 1800’s! We both know Salem has always held it’s charm! We too, have traveled & lived in extreme places but we always appreciate to hear words like you have spoken for hopes of returning someday!

  16. Great piece! I grew up in the backwoods nearby, a little closer to Steelville, but have many fond memories of going to Salem as a kid to sell walnuts at the old MFA. My brother and I would have my parents’ 1973 Dodge pickup loaded with burlap sacks full of walnuts we had picked up on the farm to sell for money to buy Christmas presents. That was many years ago, since then I became an engineer (thanks to some grueling years at Rolla) and have been to many other places. I live in Colorado now and have a whole different life, and love it, but your poignant prose captures my sentiments exactly: I wouldn’t want to change where I am today, but wouldn’t trade growing up there for anything and sure it miss it at times, sometimes a lot.

  17. As the wife of a Salem native, I’ve come to love this little town. Since we started dating 14 years ago, it’s been our haven and the place we go to to get away from our busy lives. Sadly, the time came this year for my mother in law to move closer to us in NC, and I will greatly miss our visits.

  18. I loved this piece of writing. You perfectly evoked the feeling of small-town life. My family on my dad’s side has lived in the country outside Salem since the late 1800’s. I lived there for my early childhood until an accident made it necessary to move away. I always considered “the farm” as we called it, my home. It makes me smile to see all the comments posted of people who feel the same.

  19. Titus, that is truly beautiful. We share the same memories since we were growing up here at the same time:) Coach Schu was a fixture, and I think it disheartened a lot of folks when he retired. It’s still a town where kids can actually ride their bicycles without fear of kidnapping. Mr. Jim? Oh, how do I miss that guy.
    The best part about Salem is the storytellers, Like Mitch Jayne. I remember going to the OLD middle school and on warm days, we would all go outside and sit on the side where the playground tires were, under the shade of the trees, and Mitch would tell stories to a completely enraptured audience as we were. One of what he called an “oakin” tree, which was an oak tree that grew pumpkins, due to him cramming a pumpkin seed inside an acorn and planting it. Yup, the town is full of characters and they’re full of stories.
    I also have been everywhere, but there was always something, one little thing about each place that just didn’t set right with me, so I moved on. It wasn’t until years later did I realize that these places simply “weren’t Salem”. It’s little, it’s weird, but it’s mine, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  20. Titus I am from salem born and raised there and still have family and friends there but it was not all that great to me when you were treated like a freak or an outsider like I was you would know its not all that great and I hope that I never have to live in this one horse town again . just my opinion

  21. My mom grew up in Salem and most of my kin are still there. (Bierbowers) I have visited and I think it is an amazing town.

  22. Grew up in the Salem area. Graduated high school from Salem. Such a pretty place with lots of memories. Disappointed the last time I was there to visit. The older part of town is getting so run down. The older houses are needing some tender loving care. Hope the community bands together to bring the area back to its lovely cared for look. It is the perfect rural town with a special area to be cherished.

    1. Charlotte you would not no me .I grew up on a farm .Bill will remember being my corner man when I boxed in high school.My name is Jess Stephens I could not wait to get away from Salem ,I have 20 years of military service every were I went I was looking for something that looks like home. I am retired living in Salem.I came home on leave dated Shirley Farrar we were married one year later .She went home to be with the lord a year ago so Salem is not the same.

  23. I remember you and your sister when you came through the junior high in Salem. Both of you were excelent students and well thought of by students and faculty. I taught in the junior high and retired from the district several years ago. After I retired I moved to the Kansas City area to be near children and grandchildren. We make it back to Salem every now and then, and it is always nice to see old friends. I miss those folks, and I miss Salem for the very reasons you mentioned. The peacefulness and beauty cannot be surpassed! I enjoyed reading your blog, Titus! It was like being back home again.

  24. This is a well-written piece and very enjoyable read! Salem and Jadwin Missouri are my “adopted” hometowns as I married a Dent County boy over 4 decades ago. (My paternal grandparents lived near Darien so I knew the other before I met him).

    I now live in the Pacific NW in Washington state and you do miss Salem and Dent County more after you leave it! Still a great place to return to and visit!

    Best wishes in your continued writing…….

  25. The story of how everyone loves everyone in Salem is a myth, perpetuated from one generation to another. What they don’t discuss openly is how if you aren’t from “that place” for at least 3 generations they don’t care about you. And if you can’t help them they aren’t going to help you. When someone says those from Salem are their own breed they have no idea how perfectly they have described them. This coming from a man who lived there a large chunk of his life. I wish no ill-will towards the town or its inhabitants, but this façade of how wonderful it was growing up there is nauseating, it’s a community driven by judgment, biased behavior, racism, and hypocrisy. But I will agree with the author when he speaks of the beauty of the land. I remember laying on the hood of my parents car looking at the stars and being stunned by their vastness, or driving the gravel back roads deep into the country and marveling at the simplistic artistry of the land.

    1. Hey Mike! Thanks for reading. I wanted to reply just to let you know I approved your comment because I’m not afraid of the dissenting view. As the other poster said a couple days ago, you’re not the only one who doesn’t feel the way I feel about Salem. I am, of course, just speaking of my experience there. I did not envision that thousands of people would read it nor did I intend to universalize my experience.

      Salem does have its warts, flaws, corruption, and challenges. Like any town–small or otherwise–not everyone will have the warm fuzzies like I have about the place they call home. So I don’t mind the disagreement at all. I wanted to respond just to let you know I edited one word in your post without editing the meaning. Sorry for doing that, but I just try to keep the site clear of certain content. If you want to continue the dialogue, you can feel free to contact me via e-mail: titus.j.benton@gmail.com. Thanks again for reading and for the interaction.

      Blessings.

  26. I grew up, went to school, graduated, worked, got married and raised 2 kids in Salem. We don’t live there now, because Salem has changed and is not what it use to be. I miss the “old” Salem. The Salem I grew up in is described a lot like the way you described it. I loved summertime the most I think. Going to the river, driving around on dirt roads, playing outside for hours and our parents not having to worry about us. My brother and I would walk from our house in Adams Subdivision, to what then was known as “Ziske’s Lake.” (now called Shawnee Mac Lakes). We would pick blackberries as we followed the path that led us through the woods to the lake. One of my friends lived on Iron Mountain Road, and I would walk from my house to her house and we would walk to town and buy a bag of Doritos, Dr. Pepper, and a pack of Hubba Bubba bubble gum. Friends made in Salem become like family. You never forget them and hold a special place in your heart for them. For me personally, that will last a lifetime. I am very happy to say I grew up in Salem. The beautiful starry nights, as you mentioned are beautiful beyond words.

  27. Wow. What great memories of Salem. I also grew up there and felt I “broke out” to go to college. That “break out” perspective was only then…now, 30 years later I think that Salem wasn’t the “horrible” place I once thought. I live in St. Louis now and do miss the slower pace of life and the ability to “scoop up” those stars. Thanks for sharing.

    1. As a fellow former Salemite, I would’ve written this same thing almost exactly. Sincere and real. I’m following you, my man.

      I always think of Salem as a spiritual oasis. Sort of a forced mystical experience that you don’t realize til you go somewhere else people aren’t so nice.

      We were too bored to be mean. Forced kindness. Without distracting culture, you need friends. Good ones, to run from the monotony together on summer nights and gravel roads. It’s a lesson I’m grateful for every time I meet a rude person from “civilization.”

      But we’ve all got our hang ups, I suppose. My friends from L.A. tell me mine is my accent (never knew I had one of those)!

      I thought I was the redneck intellectual type. Ah well, once a hillbilly hipster always a hillbilly hipster, right?

      Keep writing, sir. Like McDonald’s across from Moser’s, I’m lovin’ it.

      P.S. – I plan on being the second kid from Salem to ever go to India!😀

  28. Great article, Titus. I too am from Salem… born and raised, my family moved away as I began High School. While I didn’t graduate from Salem High, it is the people in that class who I stay in touch with because I grew up with them. I still have family there and will always consider Salem home. You did a great job capturing Salem for those who have never been. Oh, and Mr. Jim’s Barber Shop is where I got my first haircut! I have proof too because it made the paper!

  29. Great Comments on Salem. It really took me back and actually energized me this morning. I do miss that place, every now and then there is a sense, a smell, in the air that takes me back to my childhood. I moved there in the sixth grade (Mrs. Lasater) and then joined the Navy and never returned…I miss the people and the place. I have tried to wave at folks driving as I am driving down a small street and you should see some of the looks I get, made me smile reading your piece. Thanks

  30. A grad of Salem in 1983, left for school and the Navy, never returned, sadly. I am now preaching in Mississippi and have used my “Mayberry”, “Leave it to Beaver” raising in Salem as a benchmarked for who I am and what I try to get back to no matter where God plants me. Loved playing golf in Salem, and fishing behind the house on Mr. Masters land. Thanks for taking me back this morning.

  31. Although I lived only one year in Salem doing an High school program abroad…..Your story makes me miss that great little town. I feel lucky to get to know it and coming back someday will surely feel a little bit like coming home.

  32. Well written my friend. I have been around and back, no place at this point I would rather be. Still don’t were bibs. It is the one place in this crazy world that welcomes their own back. A place like the old TV show cheers. Everybody knows your name. It has been a while. Good to here you are doing good.

  33. omg…..your name sounds familiar to me although I do not know you. I unfortunately grew up in Cherryville, Mo which I think you might agree is a tad bit more like middle of nowhere than Salem. I believe that the reason your name seems familiar to me is because I think that you may have been friends with my ex husband, who also grew up in Salem, Mo and graduated in 1999. His name is Johnnie Volner. We lived in Salem together from 2004 til we seperated in 2008. I miss Salem a little bit.

  34. This was great writing Titus… I love this little town where everyone almost knows everybody. I have lived here all my life and have always loved living here. You captured the esence of Salem perfectly.

  35. Hi I’m Clarkie Click and I’m from Salem. Graduated SHS 59′ I don’t think I have ever been in and around Salem Mo. that someone has not waved to me. I miss the good times I had there, my folks built a house next to the old Starlite Drive In theater. It was majic on summer nights. I go back for class reunions, and the yearly class picknic, love it. . I just wanted to say I thank God that I am a country boy.and that he picked out Salem as my place of birth. Thanks for the story it was great.

  36. Wow! I really enjoyed your words. You need to keep writing this and make a book out of it. I grew up in Salem got married and left. My husband spent 21 yrs in the Air Force. We moved back after he retired. Like any place Salem has its good and bad but the good out weighs the bad. I have such good memories growing up in Salem. They use to shut off what we called Bass Hill and we would sleigh ride for hours. We, (like every other teenager that grew up in Salem) use to beat a path out riding back and forth between Jack’s Drive Inn and Mooney Auto Supply. Your life is what you make it. If you want to have a happy life live a happy life. Don’t blame others if you are unhappy. Salem is a wonderful place to grow up in and wonderful to raise a family in. God bless Salem. You keep putting words to paper. Your beautiful words made me remember how blessed I am. Thanks

  37. I grew up in Salem and I feel exactly the same, I was so excited to leave after graduation. Though I moved to a big city years ago, I am now so fond of the place that helped mold me. I will remember my childhood there with happiness no matter where I may end up. What a blessing this artical was to me today. Thank you for writing so beautifully about our home

  38. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed reading this. Primarily because of how well it was written. Your talent was already evident when we had our “SOAR: sessions. I have lived in west Dent County since my parents moved us here in the late 40s. We went to St,.Louis County to teach for 15 years in the 60s and 70s because the salaries were better. However, we bought land and intended to come back as soon as possible. As a comment to the one gentleman who felt one had to be born here or at least a long-time resident to be accepted, I recall Mrs. Koeneman once remarking that after one had been here for 10 years that you should be allowed to take out naturalization papers so that you wouldn’t feel like an outsider. I guess he isn’t the only person to feel as he does. It’s hard for those of us who think the area is undoubtedly the best place in the world to live, grow up and raise a family to understand

  39. i too grew up n Salem. Very different experiences. In a small town, such as this, God forbid u should b a tiny bit different. There was never any acceptance. She likes horses & watching action movies, we must make her life a living hell. In a small town, when one or two people don’t like you, the rest will soon follow. I begged for home school. When I hear any politician say “small town values” I shudder. I also have been all over the country. Working on other countries now. I’ve been nothing but happy since I got out. I own property there that was left to me & if I could move it anywhere in the country I would. Though at least there is the current river. I usually try to go down it when I’m n the area in the off season when it’s not full of drunks. & it was nice having room for horses, but u know what? I worked on a farm 15 minutes from downtown STL & I could actually watch any movie I wanted or go to any restaurant I wanted. With friends!

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