Friday, July 1, 2011

Westby Burning

Last night, after dropping my mom and the kids off post-swim trip, Laura and I were startled to see that a rather large change was taking place in downtown Westby. We'd heard that afternoon that someone had purchased two of the abandoned buildings and was planning to tear them down, but when we turned onto the main street we discovered they weren't wasting any time about it!
A large crowd, by Westby standards, was gathered to watch the demolition of part of the town's history. One building was in flames and the other was being ripped apart by a large tractor. From an unemotional standpoint, it was about time that something was done with the buildings. They were safety hazards full of rusted metal, broken glass, rotted wood, and feral cats. When I first visited the town I remember being surprised that they were allowed to sit there in that condition when there were foolish kids around town that could get injured there (read: Devon).

But in the year that I've lived here, I've come to better understand why things are left as they are for so long. Hard to explain, but I'll do my best. I moved several times in childhood, as did my grandparents during my parents' growing up years. We never had a PLACE, a homespot that cradled our family's history, at least not like if we'd all grown up in the same town, generation after generation.

As a result, we carry our memories with us. We lug around old movies, slides, photo albums, and mementos of times that have long since passed. But here people's memories are still standing in buildings where their family and friends, many of them gone forever, laughed, moved, and lived. As long as the buildings stand, crumbling and moldering though they may be, the memories live, too.

So last night, as the tractor ripped large chunks off of the old Chevy dealership, Randy didn't see a safety hazard going down, he saw his grandfather, who had built the building. He saw his boyhood, in the 60's Cold War era, during which the basement was the town fallout shelter. It was his history, his memories being demolished.

And as Irene, an incredibly spry 99 year-old woman, watched the old cafe burning, it wasn't some random building that had outlived its usefulness and must fall to progress. It was her girlhood, the young, beautiful woman she used to be, the people she loved, and the town she grew up in.

Now, I'm not arguing against progress. I like it as much as the next person. But I freely admit that there is no way any outsider can truly understand how much these old landmarks mean to this community. And I think it's important to acknowledge that, and not minimize the sadness that "progress" can sometimes bring.

That said, I think it was cool how the flames reflected in the doors of the post office across the street, giving the appearance of a raging inferno directly behind oblivious spectators.

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