|Rolfe Alumni Essay|
15 Salmond Street; Belfast, Maine 04915
Rolfe High School Class of 1971
There is a photograph I keep on my desk in my home in Maine. It is a picture of St. Margaretís Catholic Cemetery in Rolfe, taken on a late October morning in 1998. The distant cornfields are harvested bare, and the yellow grass matting the foreground seems as dead as its precious undercargo. Through the middle of the photograph runs a railroad - once the Des Moines & Ft. Dodge, whose junction at the Toledo & Northwestern in 1881 raised Rolfe on this hallowed ground.
Here in St. Margaretís Cemetery you can see the neighborhood I left behind: gravestones bearing the names of Ranney, Loxterkamp, Schoenberger, Tiernan, Zeman, and Biederman. It is as if Elm Street had been rolled up and caissoned to the other end of town. Like old Elm Street, there are no Elms here, only a few feeble pines braced against the endless breeze.
Over the years I have grown comfortable with the dead. As a child I heard tales of Old Rolfe, and bicycled there to visit its last remains - a few weathered stones on the knob of a hill. As an altar boy, I rode regularly with the funerary procession. We would circle the tent, park ourselves firmly against the yawning abyss of the freshly dug grave, and net stray souls for God. And as a member of the Rolfe High Marching School Band, we trailed the American Legion down Garfield Avenue every Memorial Day, Ďround Railroad Street to the Clinton Township Cemetery, where a poem and rifled salute recalled the sacrifice made for us marchers, those of us still breathing the clean Iowa air. Finally, in 1966, I rode in the family car on that sad and surreal Memorial Day weekend when my daddy was put below.
About all that connects me to Rolfe now are the memories. Among my favorite are the Saturday afternoons I spent among the comic books in the back of Calliganís Sundries (formerly Webbís Drug Store), grooming myself for the Greater Rolfe Days, walking in the 1963 Rolfe Centennial parade, shooting hoops at Sroufeís or Winkleblackís, playing summertime baseball, listening to Harry Carey on the radio during the pennant years of the St. Louis Cardinals, folding newspapers on Wednesday night at The Rolfe Arrow (and discovering there - through mildewed stacks of papers - Rolfe in its hay day), walking the rails to morning Mass at St. Margaretís, sponging the town gossip at Rollie Mannís Barbershop, searching for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve (who had inevitably just flown by Dickís 66), thawing my toes after a long skate at Thompsonís pond.
There are harder memories, too. Growing into my big ears. Being adopted. Losing my dad. Learning how alcohol looses and amplifies a familyís anger. Discovering how a single-parent home becomes even less when your mom returns to work and the familiar social networks collapse. A certain fatalism set in. The trajectory of family life began its final descent and the mood turns dour and depressed, though you never really know this until the eye-opening day when you finally see your parental home from the outside in.
Rolfe, like any childhood setting, was perfectly self-contained. It was a world of limited variety and finite options, for we could only imagine what we could see - as one biology teacher often said - with the "neck-ed eye." It was a world that stressed the importance of fitting in. It was a world where we knew each otherís business, but parents looked after other parentsí kids, and we were eager to help a neighbor in need. Rolfe was a safe place, by and large. The doors were never locked. But we also faced great tragedies together: the cancer deaths of my classmates, Johnny Fetro & Steve Schott; the farm and construction and highway accidents; the Unsolved Murder of Mamie Sime.
What I carried away from Rolfe is what I had longed to escape: its smallness, its intimacy. The titan figures of my childhood taught us critical lessons about human relationship. They bred in us a deep sense of loyalty, born of the realization that in a tiny town everybody counts. Honesty became a fact of life because you KNEW that everyone else would know sooner or later. We wore our self-confidence with an awareness that there was no one better, or no one else, to do the job. We learned the value of stability and patience in a community where oneís livelihood comes from the soil and oneís recreation from the seasons. And long before the shopping mall and virtual reality overtook the national psyche, we balanced local sports, romance, and Hollywood with a heavy dose of farm chores, school work, and a sense of family.
Rolfe proves the point that still waters run deep. For those of us who no longer live there, it is place supersaturated in memory, drenched in longing and nostalgia. Memory, you see, is a fishery to be harvested, a resource to be caught, cleaned, fried up and served to a table of old friends. One of the friends who still sits at my table is Bob Ranney, a neighbor from Rolfe. These days we share crab cakes and Rancakes (the famous Ranney pancake) more than anything else, but we strive to keep up. More importantly, we go back. It was Bob and the other Ranneys who, on that fateful day in the Spring of 1953, peered expectantly from the window at 807 West Elm Street as my parents drove me home from the orphanage to 808 West Elm.
Forty-three years later I returned to Rolfe, for the last time a "dutiful son." My mother, Rosemary, had just died. We came to bury her next to her husband, Ed, and the neighbors she knew so well. On street corners, in the bank, at the funeral home I heard kindly remarks. Some were made in charity. Most were expressions of sincerest gratitude that forced me to revise the old assumptions. They helped me lay down the burden of memory, which is the habit of holding on to a world created in the eyes of a child and the refusal to let it change for fear of losing it altogether.
But the world changed anyway. Rolfe isnít the same as we remember it, but then again, nor are our daily routines, our economy, our crazed culture. Each generation is given a chance, a fleeting moment, to inherit and remake the world according to its own rules. If, in my own life, I have done that well, I have done it with a model of Rolfe in mind, and a picture of St. Margaretís Cemetery on my desk.
For me, greater Rolfe days will always be the time when my parents, neighbors, teachers, classmates roamed the northeast corner of Pocahontas County. I appreciate that those who live there now have created a new Rolfe, their own Rolfe. To the extent that I know some of them and recognize the farm silhouettes and creek beds and street names that orient their lives, it makes the world a little smaller. A little more intimate. They are the keepers of our fishing hole. We are the ripple that remembers its source.