Crimes and Punishments in a Small Town
By Bret Bradigan
Marc Welch and I were leaving Sunday school and heading home through the drifting snow when we spotted a glimpse of gleaming chrome in the towering snowbank outside Chum’s Sunoco in our tiny town of Forestville, New York.
The gleaming chrome turned out to be the cylinder of a checkered-grip .357 Smith & Wesson Magnum, a popular and powerful revolver. We discovered that the pistol’s cylinder was full with six squat copper-jacketed cartridges. We had to make a tough decision – turn in the pistol to the police, or keep it for ourselves.
As we were either 10 or 11 years old at the time, we hit upon the genius idea of splitting the difference. We decided to turn in the pistol, but only after we had fired off all six rounds. The closest, safest place we could find as a makeshift shooting range was the waterfall on Walnut Creek, a half-mile away or so up and down and across the snowy fields and frozen stream to the falls, a series of cataracts spilling over sandstone-and-slate ledges, ringed with 30-foot cliffs and, most importantly, icicles that ranged from the rim to the pool below, like jagged teeth in the maw of a nightmare monster.
We took turns, three shots each, and it was a great spectacle to watch those icicles crumple in slow-motion sequence beneath the booming power of the pistol shots. The pistol had serious recoil, but we braced each other and got off accurate shots, though the noise alone might have been enough to shatter those freakish ice formations.
It was the echo which got us undone, the noise echoing around the entire neighborhood. Everyone within a mile heard those six shots. Gunfire wasn’t uncommon in our community of hunters, but usually not within the village limits.
We decided to return to the scene of the find, at the gas station, and turned over the pistol to the gas station attendant. We learned that there had been a robbery the previous night — a stickup man cleared out the cash register then apparently tossed the pistol into the snowbank. We expected that was the end of it. We didn’t tell him that we’d blasted off the six rounds. He didn’t ask.
Of course, the decidedly underdeveloped executive function of our young brains failed to consider a few consequences; foremost that we had tampered with evidence in a major crime, and that the charges against the perpetrator would be much, much worse if a firearm was discharged during the commission of the crime.
By the time we each got home, through that mysterious small-town telegraph that tom-tom drummed every bit of news and gossip into parents’ ears before we kids could even ‘fess up, mine had learned of our misdeed. To their credit, they weren’t angry, the most common emotion to accompany my many mischievous misadventures. They were concerned. Which felt worse.
The detective who came to our house from Buffalo was kind and understanding, but he definitely did lecture us on obstruction of justice and tampering with evidence and the other crimes we committed, however unintentional. Marc and I were worried that the robber might seek us out as we had made the newspaper, though we weren’t named.
The gas station burglary was a blow to Forestville’s self-identity as a crime-free, bucolic community far from the crime waves that plagued urban centers like Buffalo, some 50 miles away. But it was an anomaly, the local police blotter was soon back to reporting lost pets, angry drunks and domestic disputes, often all in one call.
I’ve lived in small towns by far the majority of my life – there is something familiar and welcome about the sturdy social infrastructure of a place where everyone knows your name. In his important book, “Bowling Alone,” sociologist Robert Putnam measured the advantage in happiness and opportunity that resulted from small-town life at about 20 percent. That book came out in 2000, so as our communities becomes atomized by the internet and subsequent retreat from the public sphere, the advantage of living in a small town has likely decreased. But not entirely. And certainly not in Ojai, because we work at it, supporting, at last count, 190 nonprofits.
There are few if any trolls in small towns, because the things you can say on the internet, you don’t dare say to someone’s face. People are at their worst in the anonymous fever swamps of Facebook, Twitter and blogosphere.
People are at their best in the everyday circumstances of small-town life. I learned that at a young age — even if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can bet someone else sure does.