Rural people are self-sufficient. They keep to themselves. They don’t have block parties, because they don’t live on blocks. They are patriotic and fiercely respect everyone’s right to freedom and privacy. They don’t care what you do, so long as you respectfully leave them alone. They are also pretty much universally armed so you’re better off leaving them alone. My neighbors were friendly and would wave hi as our pickup trucks passed each other on the road. People hardly ever borrowed anything, but if you saw your neighbor struggling in the field with a job, you asked if he could use a hand. This was pretty much the extent of social interaction.
The exceptions were school and church. If you had kids in school, then you had a common bond with other parents. However, since people were pretty far flung, it was unusual to meet except at school functions like PTA, sports, chorus concerts and the like. The more likely interactions with neighbors came each Sunday at church. The churches in our area tended to be in small villages. The closest town to us was Yukon, a small mining village about six miles away. The population of the town was 677 consisting of about 60% widows living in former company housing from the now-closed coal mines. There husbands were long since passed, and you could see them sitting in the front pews in the Roman Catholic church, Our Lady of the Seven Dolors (dolors being Latin for sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary). Most were either second generation Polish or Italian, and several still spoke the mother tongue. I have a soft spot for this church as it’s the place where I married my lovely wife, Denise (she of mylifecookbook fame).
All these church ladies had two things in common, they were excellent cooks, and they were extremely competitive. Parish picnics and pot-luck dinners were excellent battlegrounds for perogies, haulski, halupkis, home-made sausage, all manner of pasta. Also, no small amount of the home-made wine known locally as dago red was trotted out on these occasions. This is why our parish priests came to town fit and trim, but left rather portly.
There were several other churches around Yukon, but we had little to do with them. There were the Methodists up in Madison, the Lutherans in Hunker, and the Presbyterians in West Newton. We didn’t dislike them, but simply kept to ourselves like rural folk are wont to do.
All that changed in 1997 when the Ku Klux Klan decided to buy a field to the west of town and hold a big rally.
It made the national news, of course. Our little town was to hold a meeting of the Grand Dragon and his bunch. We weren’t too happy about it, but it’s a free country I guess. Our church had a new pastor, Fr. Dennis. He replaced the extremely popular Fr. Vince who was sent to rescue a troubled parish a ways south in Brownsville. Fr. Dennis had his work cut out for him as everybody had loved Fr. Vince who rode a motorcycle, and adopted a stray dog who he named Harley. I remember a warm spring Sunday where they had kept the back doors of the church open for ventilation. Harley had gotten loose, and right at the climax of father’s sermon, up the center aisle of the church trotted Harley with tail a-waggin’. Fr. Dennis was a bit more subdued, so it was a tough transition.
When he found out about the KKK rally, something snapped in Fr. Dennis. He was not going to sit back and let this happen to his town. He organized a meeting of the pastors of all the area churches, and they all agreed to hold their summer picnics together on the same day as the rally. The local Lion’s Club maintained baseball fields on the east side of the town near the old mine slag heaps. There were picnic pavilions there and everyone was invited to show solidarity. And, of course, all the local widows were encouraged to bring their favorite dishes. This was going to be special, since not only did they have to out-do their fellow Catholics, they had to out-cook the Protestants as well. It was on!
The rally was on a Saturday, and the weather was glorious. Every Pennsylvania state trooper for about 100 miles around was in our town. About half of them were on the other side of town at the KKK rally. There were national news teams there with bused-in protesters to chant against the 100 or so robed KKK’ers. The other half were assigned to our side to make sure that we didn’t somehow march against the rally. These poor guys had literally nothing to do except watch kids play ball, and adults eat and drink too much. First, there were probably a hundred police cars around the fields blocking all access to the rally which was about a mile away. Second, everybody was having such a good time, that there was no thought of causing any trouble in the least. The local beer distributor had dropped off a couple of kegs, and the dago red flowed, well, like wine. And then there was the food.
Everything was awesome. The widows were in top form. The cooking shows weren’t on cable TV back then, but I think Chef Ramsey would’ve had a tough time picking a winner. As you walked through the buffet line, you had your choice of 12 different kinds of perogies, each with the widow who made them from scratch standing right behind. I did the smart thing and took one of each. All manner of salads, deviled eggs, things I couldn’t pronounce, but which tasted wonderful. And then there were the cookies. Home-made ladyfingers, nut rolls, eclairs, literally thousands of cookies. There was probably ten times as much food there as anyone could eat. Since our church was the de facto host for the event, our widows shined the brightest. But it was nice to get some variety from the Protestants.
Fr. Dennis gave the first speech. It was to the point. Our community was stronger than hate, and the fact that everybody had showed up was evidence of it. The troopers fidgeted. The other pastors gave shorter, but equally upbeat talks. I have never been part of anything that felt quite as good as that picnic. I was glad that my kids were there with me.
Meanwhile, the poor state troopers were lined up along the fence surrounding the fields. It was hot and there was no shade. I talked to a few of them, and it was obvious that they knew now that there would be no trouble from us. It was only a matter of time until one of the widows loaded up a plate and shuffled out to the fence. She handed the plate to a trooper who looked nervously at his sergeant who nodded his head slightly. Somebody else handed the trooper a cup of wine and the sergeant gave a slight shake of the head. The cup was replaced with lemonade which was deemed okay. Then the rout was on. All the widows were filling up plates and literally running out to the troopers. I saw one 80 year old muscle a much younger (72 at least) woman out of her way. Then the men started bringing out standard issue folding wooden chairs from the church basement. Before long there were 50 troopers sitting down to eat while the widows went back for the cookies. The troopers then told me how glad they were to be at our end of town as their buddies got nothing to eat from the Klan.
We made the national news. They had a 20 second blurb about the rally, and about 10 seconds about locals having a peaceful counter demonstration focused on hope. Somebody burned down the klan’s clubhouse a few months later, but not much of an investigation was done. The Klan got the message and moved on elsewhere. We were never plagued by them again.
Unfortunately, our community never had such a show of solidarity again, either. And I’m sure the troopers never ate so well on the job again. We all had a feeling that we’d done something fundamentally good. It’s been said that the only thing needed for evil to triumph is for good people to stand idly by. We did not stand idly by, and the Klan is now just an ugly memory.
Day-Tripping with Rick