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.
Salem 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.
For 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.
I’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.
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.
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.