For many years, from the beginning of the 1970s, my family and I lived in Peterborough, a town of about 5,000 in southern New Hampshire.
Thornton Wilder was in residence there when he wrote "Our Town," which used, unchanged, the names of the nearest mountain and river and exemplified the community's peace, modesty and common sense.Though we moved to Houston 13 years ago, we return to our old neighborhood every summer, to the secure, nurturing society in which our children grew up.
This is a town where shopkeepers still walk fearlessly down Main Street carrying their bags of cash-register money to the bank. Where a newspaper headline that read "Crack Found in High School" referred to the condition of its walls.
We continue to be devotees of the weekly newspaper, The Peterborough Transcript, which is mailed to our Houston home. Our favorite column has always been the "Police Log," which documents every call on its phone records and even reveals the ages of the recipients of traffic tickets.
Once, I remember, the log reported that someone had stolen a towel from the local motel.
This chronicle continues to bring us word of barking and biting dogs, sick raccoons who wandered into civilization, a teenager who missed his curfew and scandals like the "funny odor" coming from an apartment that, after the evacuation of the building, turned out to be "somebody's bad cooking."
A few months ago, the log reported that the police had been summoned to witness a group playing a noisy game of Pictionary and warned them to proceed with less fervor.
Of course the town's young people have discovered drugs. For adults in urgent need, Alcoholics Anonymous meets every night in an adjacent town. Physical and sexual abuse is gossiped about if not publicized. Relatively speaking, though, this place feels closer to Eden than to Sodom and Gomorrah.
But in the last year or two of reading the Police Log, we have noticed a turn to unwholesome imaginings by the citizens, who seem to have lost faith in their good fortune:
- An unidentified man was seen sitting on a bench at Adams Playground. By the time the police came to investigate, he was gone.
- The police received a report of a child in a van with two adults. The child was reportedly screaming, but when the police arrived they learned the child had been having a tantrum.
- A Central Street resident reported that someone in a white van called on her, trying to sell meat. When she said she wasn't interested, he pulled his card away abruptly and left.
Friendly neighbors once kept an eye on one another's kids and investigated possible problems themselves. Now, with a good deal less than provocation, they call the police. Often they don't leave their names.
There is no evidence in these columns of any actual increase in abductions, molestations or rapes or of a proliferation of con men preying on local residents.
This new wariness of strangers that we've found in recent Police Logs suggests that Our Town doesn't want to be left behind while a nation of victims nails up burglar protection bars and equips its children with Mace.
A rare horrific crime, like the abduction and murder of Polly Klaas in California or the kidnapping of Katie Beers in Long Island, carries far more potency today than the reality of 200 years of relative freedom from danger.
And since spring there has been a new nightmare to wake the sleepers in the Contoocook Valley, and it must be laid at the feet of those who detonated the peace of the so-called Heartland on April 19 in the name of American values.
Last month, the Police Log contained these two entries:
"A woman . . . said a man entered (an antique) shop and acted suspiciously. He reportedly took pictures down and examined the backs, then replaced them. The woman told police she was worried he might have planted a bomb. . . . Police investigated but found nothing unusual."
Then, after recounting some mischief concerning a BB gun and a petty robbery from a clothing store, the log continued:
"A Pine Street resident reported seeing a large smoke cloud . . . on Vose Farm Road. Police found nothing and theorize it was probably fog."
This unnatural terror, this poisoning of simple trust and calm, is a form of pollution that comes in under the door and seeps in around the windows in the peaceful valleys of the nation.
When even the "safe" places are no longer perceived as exempt from the possibility of mayhem, they are no longer safe.