by Christopher Green
It’s a kind of obituary I wrote when Jimmy Stewart passed away. I wrote it for The Downtown Tab where I was a writer. I thought it would be a nice touch for the holiday season.
There are a lot of people from Indiana, Pennsylvania living here in the Cleveland area. Located about 60 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, it’s one of those small towns long on heritage but, as it turned out, short on sustainable prosperity. Besides being a charter member of coal country, Indiana, Pennsylvania was also the self-proclaimed Christmas tree capital of the world.
Being the county seat, they had a stoic court-house built with coal money. They even had the obligatory statue on town square in tribute to those who served. It wasn’t a true company town, but damn close. Over the years change had come slowly to Indiana, Pennsylvania, but when the mines started to peter out, it happened quick.
My mom and Jimmy Stewart were trend setters. Back before the economic hemorrhaging started, when others of their generation were settled in for the long haul, they both left for greener pastures. Both wanted more out of life than the little town nestled in the Allegheny foothills could offer. Neither one wanted a life defined by coal dust or pine needles. My mother, well I think she left to rebel. Jimmy Stewart, though, left to excel.
Mom took off for Cleveland, a five-hour drive on route 422. Jimmy Stewart went a bit further, eventually landing in Hollywood. My mother won my dad, a hard-drinking, hard-working tool and die maker riding the crest of Cleveland’s industrial expansion. Stewart won an Oscar for playing a cynical wise cracking newsman.
Our house became a way station of sorts for the steady stream of Indianans trekking to Cleveland in search of opportunity. My dad would help find a first job at one of the hundreds of tiny machine shops tucked in every corner of every neighborhood. In those days, Cleveland was till a top ten city in population. It rivaled only Detroit as a manufacturing center.
Cleveland was the land of milk and honey to men from the country looking to make good. I’m sure Jimmy Stewart welcomed the stray friend of a friend who found themselves one day in California. It’s just the way people from Indiana were raised.
My recollections of Indiana, Pennsylvania are dominated by the slow pace of life. Nothing much ever seemed to happen. Compared to the 60’s in Cleveland, it was like stepping back to a gone away place and time.
Idyllic summer vacations would glide by like the lemonade commercials. Time wasn’t measured by clocks but by the lonesome whistle of the coal trains. They would lumber by on the tracks behind my grandmother’s house at least three times a day.
By the time I stopped spending my summers in Indiana, the train tracks lay fallow. When we buried my grandmother in 1981, the tracks and the working mines were gone forever.
I didn’t know until I read his obituary that Jimmy Stewart’s family had settled in the area around the time my mother’s father’s family put down roots. Since the 1780’s, the Dungeons and the Stewarts made a go of it in small town Pennsylvania.
Jimmy Stewart’s dad ran a hardware store. My grandfather was a dentist. They must have crossed paths hundreds of times in their lives. Both men probably respected each other and, more than likely were looked upon by their peers as civic leaders. Both men never made a big deal out of it, enjoying small town status the way it was meant to be, with quiet dignity.
Jimmy Stewart’s dad put his son’s Oscar on display at the hardware. I remember my grandmother taking me to see the Golden statue. When we got to the store, we silently looked at the icon of the dream world we would never be a part of. She seemed embarrassed by the whole thing. I think from guilt as we took up space in the store not intending to buy anything.
Stewarts hardware was already facing stiff competition from our final destination that day, the Montgomery Ward. The process of choking small town merchants was already well under way.
My mother brought her small town way of looking at the world with her and changed Cleveland ever so slightly. With Jimmy Stewart, anyone who watched one of his movies knew he carried it with him in almost every film he made.
Generations of moviegoers were influenced by the tall man from Indiana, Pennsylvania and years after his last film, we are still moved by his portrayal of an America ideal we all yearn for but know is gone forever.
We have come to measure the Christmas Season by the odyssey of one George Bailey in his search for the elusive wonderful life. Unfortunately, the Bedford Falls of Donna Reed and Zazu has drifted away forever to be replaced by a Chevy Chase vision of small-town America complete with Wal-Mart’s and mini vans.
Funny, people like my mother and Jimmy Stewart were willing to give up the mundane certainty of small-town America to chase a dream. Now people are desperate to escape the dream and chase the mundane.
One of the obituaries said Indiana, Pennsylvania was a lot like Bedford Falls, but they got it wrong. Bedford Falls was able to keep hold of George Bailey. Indiana, like movie lovers of all ages, lost Jimmy Stewart, and my mother, forever.