Our Lake Wobegon joins new and old

Every week on his radio show “Prairie Home Companion,” Garrison Keiler gives the news from Lake Wobegon, “Where all the children are above average,” he wryly intones.

His cast of small-town characters quarrel, doubt and despair while we in the audience smile knowingly-and sometimes tear up. His Lake Wobegon is every town with more than one church and a Chatterbox Café.

Keiler has the freedom to share the soul of a rural community-its eccentrics, family dramas, congregational life and the most private of all conversations and the even more private inner thoughts of his characters and display them for the entire world to hear.

Garrison Keiler is both a public Christian and privately a devout Episcopalian. But he is neither a moralist nor a romantic about small community life. His Lake Wobegon is a microcosm of the broken world in which we all live.

I envy, to the point of rage, his freedom to tell stories. For his Lake Wobegon is a fictional community. He can share its secrets without fear-no real people were injured in the telling of his stories and his texts have no terror or danger of exposing real people to public ridicule or creating controversy.

I thought of Garrison Keiler when I flew from Chicago to spend Easter with my family. After missing my flight in Chicago and spending hours waiting in O’Hare, I flew in a little United Airlines jet to Wichita.

After hours of struggling to find a seat at O’Hare, my first thought in Wichita was that the airport was closed-its long corridors seemed so vacant.

(Actually they tell me the Wichita airport is booming-they could have fooled me.)

I rented a black PT Cruiser and felt like Clyde of Bonnie and Clyde riding into Hillsboro. There was a record heat wave in Kansas, but I was the only one not complaining-my Chicago bones finally thawed out from a Chicago winter.

My short visit was a blur of coffee drinking. Sitting on the deck and watching a sunset with my sister she tells me, “Kansas and Hawaii have the most beautiful sunsets in the world.”

“I understand tourists go to Key West, Florida, just to watch the sun set-and they believe that is the most beautiful sunset in the world,” I argue.

“That is because they haven’t been to Kansas,” she explains in her matter-of-fact tone.

The Chatterbox Café no longer exists-the farmer’s table at McDonald’s, with a discount for senior coffee, is the modern substitute. In three days, I hear discussion about rural zoning, the wonders of Brazilian energy self-sufficiency and the impact of Japanese beef-importing policy.

Easter services are held in the high school gym since the old church had burned down. The cathedral of sports was only half transformed into a worship center-I almost expected a buzzer and a halftime show.

There was enough electronic equipment to please a rock star or staff a corporate conference center-PowerPoint projectors and cables for musical equipment. The music of Bill and Gloria Gaither blended with the hymns of John and Charles Wesley.

Two items of food were wonderful. My sister serves me Peabody liver sausage on roasted zwieback. Add a few capers and this would be a gourmet appetizer worthy of the finest restaurants in Paris and New York City.

This should be marketed as Pate a la Peabody.

My niece, Diane Messinger, served a salad of spinach leaves with fresh strawberries and a red wine vinaigrette dressing. This modern-world dish was offset with a Jell-O salad with whipped cream on both the top and bottom. I had seconds-maybe thirds-on both dishes.

Visiting Hillsboro is always the best of both the new world order and the oldest traditions. And I suspect the innermost thoughts and dramas of its residents are not so very different from Lake Wobegon.

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