According to the latest U.S. Census figures, for the first time in 125 years the population of Blue Rapids dropped below 1,000. For residents of the second largest city in Marshall County, this was big news, distressing news, news that many felt was the harbinger of things to come. Vocal doomsayers knowingly wagged their heads as though they alone had been privy to this latest demographic downturn, and sneering “It’s all downhill from here” ignored the fact that with the notable exception of 1980 it had been downhill since 1890 when the population had surpassed 1,000 as our fledgling settlement took hold on the banks of the Big Blue River.
There had been something reassuring about the one grand mark, as if possessing quadruple digits ennobled the city somehow or magically guaranteed its survival when so much of rural America continued its long, slow slide into forgetfulness. And suddenly that was no longer the case. Talk on the street was that we needed to pad the census with unborn babies or pets with human names, and more than a few voiced their opinion that cats and dogs and chickens should be snuck in, yet, as was pointedly made clear, chickens are banned within city limits by decree, an act over which reasonable folk still seethe and consider idiotic if not heretical. The population decline even played a role in the last mayoral election when one candidate vowed to elevate the population back to its former status. While it was a worthy goal, indeed, one shared by many fellow denizens, he failed to clarify whether its implementation would be accomplished through personal application or from, shall we say, a collaborative effort. He lost.
I don’t see his rejection at the polls as an act of fatalism on the part of voters, nor do I sense even a shred of apathy. If anything, I’d describe it as an act of weary acceptance, grudging, to be sure, and not a little worrisome, but short of launching a procreative campaign to boost our numbers or importing migrant workers—not that we have enough housing, a shortcoming familiar to most small towns—there really isn’t much we can do about it other than adapt. And we’re good at that. It’s got us this far and it will get us through the next 125 years, if we try hard enough.
But numbers only tell part of the story. When taken as a whole they tend to blur distinctions, to marginalize the individual integers that comprise the sum. Our minds can easily envision one or two or a handful of people, but a thousand? Never. They become a faceless, nameless mass. And that summation doesn’t describe Jack, who died last week, or Donita, who also died last week, and though Jack was a longtime resident of our city and Donita was a resident of Marysville, she was nevertheless part of our community, by which we mean our rural sphere of influence.
Jack was, well, Jack. A tireless jokester and self-promoter, his deeds lived up to the hype. During WWII he crossed the North Atlantic 38 times under the Air Transport Command, and following the war he settled down with his new wife, Maxine, to farm and operate a television and appliance business. His list of sub-careers included securities and real estate broker, heavy equipment operator, technical engineer at a local radio station and home contractor. He was involved with virtually every organization from the Lions to the Masons, served in city government, and was responsible, either in part or whole, for the Blue Rapids community center and the creation of Alcove Spring historic park. But mostly he loved baseball.
He was also one of the first people to welcome us when we moved here from Denver. For him it was an opportunity to regale us with stories about Jack, something he excelled at it. To hear him tell it, Blue Rapids wouldn’t exist without his many deeds. He’d cap the end of most of his tales with an incontrovertible “And that’s the truth,” punctuated by the jabbing of a long bony finger and a mischievous grin, and in most ways it was. He only knew two types of jokes—corny or scandalous—but his repertoire was endless.
Much like Jack, Donita always wore a smile, even during her worst bouts of chemo treatments. She was bright and brilliant and witty and always made the best of any situation no matter how deplorable it might be. When her hair fell out she donned colorful scarves or crazy hats, as if making fun of the cancer that would eventually kill her. Life wasn’t a game to her, but she saw no reason to take it so seriously. I imagine she was still smiling when she closed her eyes for the final time, and while ours dimmed and faltered, it was only a temporary setback. To remember Donita was to smile.
And so we do. Call it adaptation, call it weary resignation, call it survival mechanism, call it what you will, but it’s important and it needs to be done. Life is short. We have less time than we think. Our communities are small and growing smaller. Hold on. Smile. We are never, ever alone.