CHICAGO - It was Miss Bates, the old schoolteacher in a tiny South Dakota town, who revealed the treasure of small-town living.
"It is good to stick around a place long enough to see that those two boys you thought were absolutely, totally worthless turned out to be pretty good additions to the human race," she said.People do stick around. America clings to its small towns, even as the towns are wasting away.
Traveling across the country, one feels the tug of them, the inviting coziness of a Main street without a traffic light. To slip the hold of the city, one need only surrender to the ways of a small town.
It is a fine duty to have to chat with the farmer about the weather for a time before getting to the business at hand.
In a drive three-fourths of the way around the country to talk politics, one finds that America looks different from the inside out, from its rural soul.
In the politics of small-town America - Democrat or Republican - there is a suspicion of the big cities and the crowded coasts. There is the desire to keep the country ways.
Whether they blame the Republicans for the farm policy or believe that the Democrats will take away the shotguns on the rack of their pickup trucks, the people here will vote the way they live.
It is a political vigil of love and fear: love of the character and pace that have made small-town life the symbol of our better side, and fear of becoming like the cities. It applies to those with long rural roots, and to more recent arrivals who have fled the woes of the cities.
"There is an anti-urban bias," said Professor Alvin Sokolow, a political scientist at the University of California at Davis who has studied rural towns. "In this campaign, it may give Vice President (George) Bush a slight edge, to the extent that (Michael S.) Dukakis is seen as a big city leader.
"But I would not say it's the dominant factor," he added. "There has been a nationalization of politics. The small towns are not as isolated from the mainstream of American opinion as they once were."
Change is swallowing small towns, heedless of the earnest oaths of politicians who vow to save rural America.
The foundation of farming has been swept away by economies of scale. Fewer farmers are needed because they are so good at what they do. The towns that survive are made up of people who have found other business or who commute to work. Less than 8 percent of rural Americans work in an agricultural trade.
The election will not be decided in the small towns, anyway. We are too much a country of cities now.
But to understand small-town America is to know something of the political roots of a country where just two generations ago one in four Americans lived on a farm.
And it is to know why Judi Curtis is cheering from the refreshment stand at the elementary school football team on the field in Mazomanie, Wis.
It is a glorious autumn Saturday morning. The Wisconsin Heights "lights" team (under 110 pounds) is locked in a fierce, scoreless tie with visiting Stoughton on a field surrounded by dairy farms.
Not many years ago, there would be no game today, no elementary school team. "The kids would have been on the farm doing chores. And the parents would have been too busy to bring them here," said Barbara Flanagan, who is helping Mrs. Curtis dish out hot dogs, cider and homemade cookies.
But now, many of the picture-book farmhouses that ring the school are just shells encasing retired farmers who no longer run dairies. Their land sits idle in a federal set-aside program, or it has been bought by a corporation and is farmed by a stranger.
Many small towns are unable to survive, even as commuter bedroom communities.
Throughout the country, the story is much the same. Small towns have been withering since the nation turned from farms to the factories. There were 31 million people living on farms in 1930, but by 1970 there were only 10 million. And now there are 5 million.
The farm crisis of this decade was a final blow to many towns. The slap of the auctioneer's gavel heard on so many farms now echoes on main street in the closed farm equipment store, in the boarded-up seed and fertilizer store, in the town bank now insolvent.
But there has been a resurgence of pride among those who have stayed, said Hilda Hill, who works for the Soil Conservation Service in rural Mississippi.
"You would be surprised to go into a rural home. They have hot tubs, and pools, and a TV in every room, and VCRs. They have things," she said. "When they got money, they wanted something that was new and shiny."
"Now, family pieces are coming back. People are saying, `This was my grandfather's hoe' and they will hang it in the living room," she said. "There was a day that hoe would be in the shed. They were ashamed of it. Now there's a lot of family pride."