We can’t kiss. Shouldn’t hold hands. Why not? I ask. I’m walking around tiny Faith, North Carolina with my new girlfriend during spring break from college. I think it’s me. It’s not me. It’s them. She points. “The town fathers are watching.”
I try to glance over casually in the direction she indicates. Sure enough, a few old guys sitting on some courthouse steps are checking us out. I thought Salisbury, North Carolina where I grew up was suffocatingly small and southern. But this town is a postage stamp with old vultures posted as moral lookouts under the glow of the town’s single street light to keep you from getting any kind of action at all.
“They’re not literally the town fathers. They’re just these old guys who keep a watch over everyone,” she explains. “That’s just creepy,” I say. “It reminds me of a Stephen King novel.” She nods. “It’s actually kind of nice,” she says. I don’t get it. But since I try to get along with women I’m trying to kiss, I don’t press my point.
It’s natural that I would mistake caring for fascism, especially when she uses the evocative phrase “town fathers.” There is an element of fascism involved in care giving. But you have to be a care giver or that rare emotionally mature person who respects the benefits of the presence of authority in your life to appreciate that.
It’s easy to do the right thing when the town fathers are watching. That’s probably why most young people from small towns in the south are dying to leave for somewhere far and big and anonymous. Their moral lapses will be reported to no one. Only tiny blurbs in the police blotter will announce their crimes if they are exceptionally wild and indecorous. Most of the horrible small things they’ll do will go unreported to any authority and unnoticed by anyone.
Another reason to flee a small southern town is that it never seems to fit right like a scratchy shirt. It’s tight around the neck. There must be a better fitting town somewhere out there. You start to itch to leave. And you’re not really sure about coming back to visit. Who knows? When you come back, you might end up turning into the person you were when you left. You’d hate to be that person again. That’s pretty irrational, but there it is.
Nothing much happened with the girlfriend. We did make out once in the back of my car during a double concert featuring Heart and K.C. and the Sunshine Band at Carowind’s Paladium. But it wasn’t a reportable offense that the would require an official citation from the Town Fathers on aged parchment.
I suppose we needed to travel to the border of South Carolina to escape their somewhat prudish glare to make out. But that was really the highlight for both of us. I found the whole idea that she actually loved her tiny town and its watchful senior caretakers a little unsettling. Of course, that didn’t stop me from kissing her as K.C. asked us to put on our “Boogie Shoes” or Heart played “Magic Man.”
Had things progressed, I suppose at some point I might have been introduced to the Town Fathers. I never had the right words for people with any kind of authority in those days, always fumbled and lost them when I needed them most. I’m sure whatever you’re supposed to say to a small group of old men charged with keeping the moral center of a town intact would have escaped me when the moment came. I would have been branded a hooligan not to be trusted. Who knows what shenanigans I might get up to?
Faith has a population of about 739 people today. That’s slightly less than the number of people living in my apartment building in New York City.
Here in this mighty metropolis, years later with my wife and son there are no town fathers. Just me. A father in a Big City. Whatever sense of moral duty and right and wrong that hang unseen in the atmosphere around my 15-year-old son has to come directly from me and my wife. We never sit on the courthouse steps. (Somehow I think that gave the town fathers a certain quasi legal stature. Just the location of their perch.)
We will just have to make do on our own with rules and punishments. Both sets of grandparents are back home in North Carolina. If we get in a situation that requires a disapproving scowl or an admonishing word, we’ll just have to muster it up from somewhere inside.
How easy it would be to have Town Fathers? How convenient? Their constant watchful presence an unspoken admonition for petty offenses and minor bad behavior. I don’t think it’s so weird anymore. I’ve come full circle now. Having never had them around as a kid, I kind of miss having them around now as a parent.
I doubt Town Fathers fade away. I picture them crumbling and cracking like neglected gargoyles with each tiny youthful offense. Falling to ruin as teens start french kissing in the street. Flaking and blowing away like dust as heat rises from a girl who is sexting on her cell phone to a boy in another town she has never met. Finally, all that is left is a pile of dust and a vague sense of disapproval lingering around the courthouse steps.