News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 18, 2009

The Off Season: Improving a social grade: Mr. Lunsford goes to town

By Mike Lunsford

I have no problem in admitting that I am not the most urbane man you will ever meet. I have only basic knowledge of the social proprieties, often fail to have my shoes polished, and have a hard time getting the part in my hair to come out straight. There’s no doubt that I prefer faded cotton to Armani any day.

But when I was asked to attend a conference at a swanky hotel in Cincinnati a week ago, I took it as an opportunity to improve my social graces a bit while getting away from my cornfields and deer-dodging and country living for a few days. I reasoned that the experience certainly couldn’t hurt me.

So, I packed a sport coat and a few pairs of socks, grabbed a good book for the quiet times when TV noise was not an appealing option, pushed my wife into the family wagon to help keep me out of trouble, and headed off to the land of complimentary soap and wake-up calls. We had, for the most part, a very good time.

It’s not that we were going to a snob convention; everyone we met there was gracious and kind and a bit travel weary, some coming to town from as far away as Arizona and Montana. Virtually all were educators, and we spent a good deal of time commiserating on the state of schools and the assaults on them that seem so popular these days. I left with a few ideas for my classroom, the names of several newfound friends, and with the satisfaction in knowing that I hadn’t dribbled coffee on my favorite blue tie or eaten peas off the blade of my knife.

As I said, I’m not exactly David Niven, but my wife and I together aren’t Ma and Pa Kettle, either.

I’d like to think that no matter where I am, no matter who I meet, and no matter what I am doing, I learn something from my experiences, and that I leave folks behind with a favorable impression of life in Parke County and the people who come from the place. Like Longfellow Deeds in Frank Capra’s classic, “Mr. Deeds Goes To Town,” I really do believe that most people are decent, and our trip to a big city proved me right.

If you’ve never seen “Deeds,” you should (Please, don’t grab the version with Adam Sandler by mistake). Made during the dark days of the Great Depression, the film tells the story of a bright but ingenuous writer of greeting card verse who hails from tiny Mandrake Falls. Deeds teaches us lesson after lesson in humility and honesty and charity as he wanders the streets of New York City. The film is Capra’s manifesto of common sense, simple living and American values.

The plotline is easy enough: Gary Cooper’s Deeds inherits $20 million from a rich uncle, leaves the cocoon of his small town to claim the fortune, but soon runs afoul of the press, money-grubbing relatives and shyster lawyers. Because he hopes to give his newfound fortune away to starving farmers, he eventually is hauled into court on suspicion of insanity.

Of course, I make no claims to be Deedsian, although I may have appeared in the role of simpleton in Cincinnati as I awkwardly hailed a cab or tipped a doorman or meandered into the right-hand turn lanes while more experienced city drivers politely honked their horns to remind me to get my turnip truck out of their way. Unlike most men, I suppose, I had no problem in asking for directions, and I tried to not appear too shocked when I was handed our dinner bill at a decidedly smart Brazilian restaurant a block from our hotel.

Actually, I like big cities; I have stood a good while along the Lake Michigan shore to look at the glow of the Chicago skyline in the evening, and I listened to the symphonic roar of its traffic and jets and wind. Whether it be St. Louis or Washington, D.C., Cleveland or Buffalo, Pittsburg or New York, itself, I have enjoyed my time in those places so far removed from my world in rural Indiana so much that I have never shied away from going back.

Although we couldn’t identify much of the finger food we ate that weekend, we gave it a chance, and as far as I knew, I managed to use the correct fork and spoon, and properly managed to hide a glop of gristle from my dinner companions’ view. I never referred to the hotel pool as a cement pond, didn’t ride the elevator for fun, and used only as much ice as we needed for our tap water. I refused, by the way, to spend $3.25 on a four-ounce bottle “left for our convenience.” As Deeds would have proudly said, “it just makes sense.”

Like all American cities, Cincinnati has its share of troubles. We were amazed — should I say, ashamed — at the number of homeless and poor people who were on its streets. For every magnificent and glassed downtown building, we also saw the trash, the empty lots and the burned-out shells of old apartments that plague most large towns. Those images stayed with us much longer than the stretch limos lined up near our hotel, or the laughing couples in the lobby who held their cocktails with their little fingers appropriately askew. At night, despite my sleepiness and a pillow pulled down over my head, I could hear the cascade of desperate sirens through the triple-paned glass of our hotel windows.

On our second night in town, we went to hear the Cincinnati Symphony, and despite needing an all-points bulletin issued to find the cab driver who couldn’t have known that I had left my glasses in his back seat, we settled into our balcony seats and soaked in the radiance of the gorgeous old Music Hall as guest pianist William Eddins played Gershwin’s “Concerto in F,” that all coming after Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.”

In the warmth of that place, there were no city slickers, no country bumpkins, just people who shared in the beauty of those few moments together. It reminded me that every man who has a place that he can call home, is lucky.

One more thing came to mind: A big city is a nice place to visit, but I don’t think I’ll ever want to live in one.

Mike Lunsford can be reached at, or by mail, c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. His second book, “Sidelines: the Best of the Basketball Stories…,” will be available soon. Visit Mike’s Web site at