Fly to Kansas City International Airport (MCI).
Rent a car.
Take I-435 to I-70.
Head east on 70, toward St. Louis. (Don’t go to St. Louis!)
Drive for an hour.
Take the exit at Concordia. Take a left at the end of the exit ramp, driving under the highway you’ve just departed.
Drive north on State Highway 23.
After seven and a half miles, as the wraps to the right on a mild descent, note the silver, peak-roofed water tower. “ALMA” is painted on its side in a large sans serif font. Note the gravel road on your right. It’s the first entrance into town—but don’t take it. Note the sign on your left—“Welcome to Alma: The Cleanest Little City”—just as 23 passes under a railroad bridge.
Let another road pass on your right. This is the blacktopped second entrance into town.
Continue as 23 ascends gently and bends back to the left.
On your right, note the field planted with, depending on the year, corn or soybeans. Beyond the field, note the long brick building with “HOME OF THE CHIEFS” painted on it—that’s the back of your high school.
Come to a stop at the intersection with the blinking red light.
Turn right onto State Highway 20. You’ll pass the newish (in the last 20 years) gas station on your left, just down the hill from where the Stolls’ house was erased by a tornado a few years back.
Follow 20 up and over the hill. Take your next right.
Nod at the 25 MPH speed limit sign and the small green rectangle beneath it:
Welcome to the center of the universe.
Amateur politicians staffed local government. Claxton Joy was the janitor at my elementary school (Trinity Lutheran, 100 students, grades K-8). He was also the mayor. Both of these positions were retirement gigs. Silver-haired with wire-rim glasses, Claxton patrolled the tiled halls with a pushbroom and a large potbelly straining at his polo shirt preceding him. His uniform at City Council meetings was the same, sans broom.
The man who cut my hair—and my brother’s, and my grandpa’s—was Harlan Mieser, though everyone called him “Mouse.” He was and, as of this writing, still is, one of three Lafayette County Commissioners.
It was something like an understaffed community theater production; everyone played multiple roles. Bob Kurth was president of the Alma Bank. A Navy veteran who’d seen much more of the world than many of his fellow-townspeople, Bob smoked Marlboro Reds and drove a beat-up Chevy truck. His dad, Homer, was the long-time pastor at Trinity Lutheran, and Bob has been the choir director since before I was born.
Alma Kiehl (always both names, so as to differentiate her from the town itself) was the cat lady.
Alma Kiehl’s tale, as recounted by the elders, was a cautionary one. According to Grandpa, she’d gone “to New York and pickled her brain on dope.” She walked everywhere in this town where people drive if they have to cover more than half a block. But from her paint-chipped white house next to the railroad tracks (one classmate heard there were fifty cats in there, someone else heard a hundred and fifty) she ventured out on her daily rounds: post office, grocery store, and sometimes the restaurant. For 50 years or more, there’s only been one restaurant in town, though in different iterations. Lately (read: the last 30 years) it’s been Cathy’s Country Restaurant and before that it was called D’s Cafe and before that it was Poodle’s.
Cathy’s was the only place she might be confronted—and then only if she just came in to chat and not to order—as the ever-present scent of cat urine was bad for business. In my memory, she wears a fraying, long brown overcoat year-round, plus a tattered old hat. (Although as I re-read this recently I recalled a summer when she might have had her hair tied up in a red bandanna). If Alma Kiehl chanced to address us directly—“You coming from school?”—we followed the lead of our parents and mumbled vague agreements to our shoes. Her difference was dangerous.
The way she dressed up to venture out, her sad attempts at vanity, the way people’s embarrassment for her led to feigned indifference which led to behind-her-back scorn. A poignant figure, ridiculous and sad. But at the same time one who, as the object of gossip and speculation as to her history, revealed less about her and more about a community’s own fears and preoccupations.
Here’s a story: one night in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s someone tripped the alarm at Alma’s general store on the town’s main drag.
The store isn’t there anymore. It closed years before I was born. So did all six of the town’s saloons that, legend has it, once thrived on railroad traffic. Passenger trains would let travelers off for a pit stop on their way across the state. No one alive remembers the saloons. You can get a beer at Cathy’s, but she closes at seven, sometimes eight. Trains still stop in town every now and then to take on a load at the grain elevator, but there are never any passengers.
There aren’t a lot of businesses in Alma, is what I’m saying. The building that housed the general store had been empty for years when, in the mid-90s, it was torn down to make way for a new post office.
Anyway, very late one night or very early one morning in the late middle of the 20th Century someone tripped the alarm at the general store. Wilbert Fiene, the store’s night watchman, investigated, whereupon he surprised two Ozark hillbillies mid-burgle. The would-be felons fled the store and jumped in their truck, speeding south on a gravel road out of town. Wilbert followed only to find his hot pursuit thwarted before it’d begun; they’d let the air out of his tires. The night watchman’s next step was to rouse Renata Limback, the town’s telephone operator.
Of course, there were no cell phones or 911, and even had there been the town has only ever had a part-time police officer, and that position often goes unfilled. What the town did have—what it would have until the mid-70s—was a party line. To get someone you’d pick up the phone and say “Renata, ring Virgil Beumer [BAY-mer] please. And then Renata would activate the line Virgil lived on. This would cause the phones to ring in Virgil’s designated pattern (two shorts and a long, say) in every house along the line. (This was great for snooping and gossip, as you didn’t have to hang up. You could listen in to any conversation happening along your line). If you’ve seen enough episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show” you’ve seen this in action. The phones worked just the same in Mayberry.
So Wilbert woke Renata, who rang all the houses to the south and west of town, rousing sleeping farm families to let them know miscreants might be headed their way. A lot of these farmers—this story goes—went down to the ends of their lanes with rifles or shotguns, looking to get in a pop or two at the bandits’ truck as it sped by. It was probably Ronnie Rist who got one of the tires, which forced the burglars to abandon the truck and make their way on foot.
By now the rousted farmers had coalesced into an informal midnight posse and were tracking the fugitives with their dogs. The dogs were not practiced at tracking humans, but their baying would have been heard by the Ozarkers (whom I always picture as barefooted, overalled cartoons, like the animated Hatfields and McCoys from Warner Bros. cartoons), which would have added to an overall ominous sense of being, ahem, hounded.
At some point the burglars doubled back toward town. They were found separately. One was discovered curled up at the bottom of someone’s cellar steps. The other was sprawled flat atop something called a self-feeder in the middle of a hog lot surrounded by some very disturbed sows.
My grandfather, Erwin Stockman, (who went by “Dick” so as to differentiate him from his brother Albert, whom everyone called “Pete”), was a dairy farmer. Every morning he drove into town to drop off the freshly-squeezed milk at the creamery and his only child, my young father, at school. The Stockmans lived about five miles out of town along the party line that had heard so much action the night before, so father and son left a little earlier than usual that morning to see the results of the fuss.
Of course they went to Poodle’s, site of the town’s early-morning farmer kaffeeklatsch (as D’s would be after it and Cathy’s is now). Instead of the usual four or five men trading monosyllables over weak coffee, the Stockman boys found a lively scene of backslapping along with a loud rehashing of last night’s manhunt. And, sitting there in a booth, they found the manhunt’s targets.
There was no city jail, and really no other place to put them, so the accidental vigilantes hauled the hillbillies into Poodle’s to hold them until the Sheriff could make his way down from the county seat. As Dad recalls it, the posse was treating the captured crooks to breakfast—out of a sense of hospitality and maybe in gratitude for a night’s excitement.
Dad’s vague on many details—like his age at the time. But this is the kind of story I grew up with. It’s the kind of story that allowed me to watch “Andy Griffith” reruns growing up and see not a lampooning but a slightly-heightened version of rural small-town life.
I sat summer nights on the patio as Dad drank beer and grilled. We’d listen to “A Prairie Home Companion” and wait—through the “Powdermilk Biscuits” jingle and the Ketchup Council ads, we’d wait as Garrison Keillor insisted on joining his more-talented musical guests for a number or four. Then, in the last quarter of the show, Dad would pat me on the knee and say, “here we go” approvingly as Keillor introduced his signature bit: “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown, out on the edge of the prairie.”
We might hear of a character who left Lake Wobegon, went East, only to return like Alma Kiehl—abashed, chastened, diminished—and in the process confirm all the Wobegonian priors about the outside world and the folly of venturing forth into it.
The real treat came when something in the Keillor story reminded Dad of a piece of local lore—The Night of the Ozark Bandits, say. Ignoring the closing number, he’d tell me about the time Uncle Pete and “Fat” Limback got an entrepreneurial hair and set up a still at the old King place—which I knew only as a bare spot in a field, where a tiny family cemetery plot sat next to two grain silos, just barely visible from our seats at Dad’s house, over on top of the next rise.
Anyway, Fat and Pete went around to the barn dances to peddle their efforts and liven up the proceedings. But, as Colonel Schuette once quipped, “They never had quite enough product, as they were assiduous about quality control.”
This is how, not quite 30 years later, after Keillor’s retirement and disgrace, I arrive at nostalgia for nights spent with a radio program whose subject was nostalgia for a place and time it fetishized, but one that, as far as I could tell, I lived in. The News from Lake Wobegon wasn’t, for me, the self-consciously old-timey, humor-adjacent nostalgia trap most people take it for. In my pubescent cultural firmament it was … the news. News from a place where, because everyone is cousins, most trespasses could be winked at, forgiven.
Everything except leaving.