They love where they live, no bones about itDecember 3, 2019
By SCOTT SAALMAN
We visited my old hometown, Tell City, for Thanksgiving.
Prior, I had been back frequently to see my folks, but for some reason, during all those re-entries into the town limits of my boyhood past, I never really paid attention to the town’s welcome sign before. I guess I have just taken it for granted that I’m welcome there.
It took Brynne, an outsider, to really notice it.
“You should get a picture of that sign,” she said.
I glanced, saw two words in red on the billboard-like structure: TELL CITY.
Big deal, I thought. I know where we are.
Then we were on the other side.
“The sign says, ‘We love where we live,’” Brynne said.
“The sign is next to a cemetery.”
I made an illegal U-turn. It’s hard telling how many people, particularly out-of-towners, have made illegal U-turns here just to reface the sign front. You’ve heard of speed traps? This would be the great location for a U-turn trap.
Sure enough. WELCOME TO TELL CITY. WE LOVE WHERE WE LIVE. And to the sign’s left: a cemetery.
I laughed then to catch up with my wife’s warped humor.
Seeing the cemetery compelled me to dig up old memories.
I remembered as a child going by this same cemetery with my parents and saying, “People are just dying to get in there.” It was a joke recently told to me by my neighbor, Billy. I was excited to find the perfect time to steal it. Mom and dad laughed. I liked how that felt, to make them laugh. It was an early seed for a humor column. I never told them it was Billy’s joke. Likely, Billy stole it from MAD anyway.
The cemetery had been there for as long as I can remember. I have relatives who died to get in there. A baby sister, for one. For another, my Uncle Dave, who I watched “Take the Money and Run” with on TV when I was in grade school and he was undergoing kidney dialysis. I loved hearing Dave laugh during the movie, especially the scene involving the ill-fated soap gun. I wanted to make Dave laugh too. Eventually I did. He was still alive to read my first published columns. I watched him as he read them —more so, I listened. Sometimes he’d laugh. Other times he didn’t, as if he was reading the obituaries instead. It was the equivalent of crickets in a comedy club. Once Uncle Dave told me, “They’re funny, but they’re not always funny.” The critique burned, but it eventually made me better, my stories funnier.
I got out of the car. I aimed my cell phone camera, tried to capture both the sign’s words and the gray headstones in the composition, the pseudo symbolism of this curious combination not lost on me. Simon and Garfunkel’s “My Little Town,” came to mind: “Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town.” Paul Simon penned these lyrics from the viewpoint of a protagonist happy to escape the hometown he loathed growing up in. Luckily, he didn’t pen the words for Tell City’s sign, or it might have read: WELCOME TO HELL CITY. WE LOATHE WHERE WE LIVE.
Having lived in Tell City fulltime the first 19 years of my life (1964 to 1983), I have the right to poke a little fun at my little town, from the perspective, of course, of someone from long ago now looking inside from the outside. The welcome sign seemed to welcome me to give it my best shot, to aim a humor arrow at the ripe, red apple resting atop my old hometown’s head William Tell style. I released a few quivers.
I guess WE LOVE WHERE WE LIVE is better than say:
• Ronald Reagan once visited here.
• Creepy, long-ago mothballed, monolithic GE plant still standing after all these years; soon to be sinister site of future “Stranger Things” season.
• That’s not us you smell, it’s the paper mill across the river.
• Remind us again why barefoot skiing shouldn’t be an Olympic sport?
• Home of the hardest pretzels in the world—and busiest dentists.
• Welcome to Tell City. People are just dying to live here.
• You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.
• HUBER FUNERAL HOME WELCOMES YOU TO TELL CITY. STOP BY FOR A COFFIN SIZING. FIRST ONE’S ON US.
• Hey, at least you’re not in Cannelton—yet!
• Suburb of Troy.
• Seriously. It’s the paper mill.
• Birthplace of Scott Saalman. We’re sorry.
Before driving away, I winked toward Uncle Dave’s final resting place, and my mind time traveled to the 1990s: WTCJ aired Simon and Garfunkel’s melancholy “Scarborough Fair” as I drove slowly through the precipitation as part of Uncle Dave’s funeral procession.
WELCOME TO TELL CITY. WE LOVE WHERE WE LIVE.
It’s a nice message, really. A prideful sentiment that just might make you want to visit. That is, if you squint just right to blur out the boneyard so it doesn’t tickle your funny bone.
The humor of having a cemetery by this sign would not be lost on Uncle Dave. He seemed to love where he lived. He died in his hometown way too young. I still try to make him laugh though. Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.
Scott’s humor collection, Column Writing is Not Pretty, is available at Chocolate Bliss. $10.
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