I do not even recall if I ever placed in the poster contest. After all, a young color blind kid who did not have an artful bone in his body stood little chance of winning an art award. But still, I recall entering every year in elementary school even if the odds were stacked decidedly against me. I think the problem was I could not recall what a fire truck even looked like, and few people were going to be very impressed with my green, brown or orange truck. Every September, the call would go out for entries as part of Greenfield's Fire Prevention Festival. This annual event, now entering its 22nd year, always had the typical parade and carnival. The medevac helicopter would stage a grand entrance on Front Street in front of the volunteer fire department, and there would be more church group chili than the small town of 2,000 people could ever eat.
I have not been to a Fire Prevention Festival well over a decade. Back then, the stores on Front Street may have been struggling, but they were at least (for the most part) still in business. The last time I spent any amount of time in the town, the business district had printed small signs on copy paper asking visitors to please support the few stores that were left. Still, there is nothing like a festival in small town America. It seems like every city within a 100 mile radius of Greenfield has one. It may not be lower Broadway on a Saturday night, but these folks are still having fun while celebrating a way of life that I don't think many folks that I encounter everyday would really understand.
It is a bit amusing that only a few weeks before this annual tradition kicks off, national headlines talked about what happened outside of a town 30 miles to the north. A man's house caught fire, and the city fire department did nothing about it. Well, those are the general facts of the story. You see, the man had not paid his rural fire subscription fee, so the fire department in effect was not obligated to put the fire that would ultimately destroy his home (and kill his two cats). They only started fighting the fire when it caught his neighbor's house on fire. They did that because his neighbor did pay his rural fire subscription fee. The airwaves and internet were filled with very vocal opponents of the fire department's actions, and even folks who supported what they did. Like most things, the incident suddenly morphed into a larger allegory for our national government and a rally cry for opponents of privatization.
I have no interest in the hyperbole that one man's house burning down lays bare the ills of a capitalistic society. I also strongly disagree with the judgment call to let let the fire destroy the house (let's not forget about the cats) just to make an example of him. The mayor of the town essentially said that there would be no incentive to pay the subscription fee if everyone knew the fire trucks would come anyway. But let's back up a bit -- why is the fee there in the first place?
Plain and simple, it comes down to money. The city cannot afford to respond to calls outside of the city limits without additional funds, and a fire subscription fee is the easiest way to justify the expense. Think of it as a fee that you have to pay for the peace and quiet of living miles away from anything and still not having to pay the city's property tax. If every city in rural America had huge budget surpluses year after year, the gentleman whose home burned to the ground would have been able to practically run down the road to the freshly built fire station that served less than 20 households in a five mile radius. The good news is that only the fire departments run into this issue -- if you call 911, a sheriff's patrol will be there in about half an hour, and an ambulance in about the same amount of time. Several west Tennessee residents actually buy special "Life Flight" insurance so that a helicopter can come and airlift them to a major metro area in the event of an emergency.
I guess what it comes down is the constant battle of compassion versus the bottom line. The guy living in a farm house out on a back country road is feeling the pressure of the economic downturn far worse than you or I may ever know. That $75 a year fire subscription fee notice probably sat on a corner table next to his phone that he couldn't keep connected. For him, it is not a matter of taking the risk or sticking it to the man -- it is about balancing the checkbook. These are the kinds of areas where you heard about one in four people being without work and even more working hard for little pay. The city and county government feel these strains, too. A high poverty rate weighs down on the schools and other public services, and makes it an even less attractive area for industry to invest. They consider themselves lucky to be able to keep the doors on the fire station open for city residents, let alone those outside the county. Federal money from the stimulus package helps, but like most things it takes a bit longer for funds to make their way off the beaten path. There may be bailouts for Wall Street and Main Street, but Shades Bridge Road (which goes near an area nicknamed Budweiser Hill on the way to Skullbone, Tennessee for those keeping track at home) is surely not seeing much of it.
A man's house burned down. Two cats died. The fire chief was sucker punched by one of the man's relatives. We can just call it another day in life on the outskirts of Small Town America.