A 118-mile car ride across southern Indiana from Terre Haute to French Lick became a wonderful opportunity to explore the everyday lives of everyday Americans – their fears, their frustrations, and their heartbreaks.
FRENCH LICK, Ind. – Life is lived at two speeds in this quaint southern Indiana town: slow and slower. Truth is, the fastest thing ever recorded in French Lick may have been the fleeing of townsfolk after the economy crumbled four years ago.
There are stories here that warm your heart, soften your heart, and break your heart. Coasting down a hill to the corner of Wells and New York Streets Monday afternoon in this lunch bucket and beer town, I happened upon a story that crushes your heart.
Sputtering out of gas as I coasted onto a gravel driveway across the road from a dizzying array of 24 campaign signs, I asked a woman on her wooden porch where the closest gas station might be. Kristin Stalker grinned and pointed toward the bottom of the next hill where this classic tale from America’s heartland would come full circle an hour later.
Stalker, her husband and two little girls – “Our angels,” she calls them – moved from the Pacific Northwest to southern Indiana 10 months ago so she could live closer to her younger sister. Kristin’s husband, Will, has been out of work for a year while she works full-time as a front desk agent at the French Lick Resort.
“That place has been a real life-saver for us,” Stalker said between peeks at her playful 5-year-old daughter, Totty. The presence of a casino in French Lick has slowed the exodus of residents and generated tens of millions of dollars in revenue.
“It’s also meant our family can have the insurance benefits we need to take care of our daughters,” said Stalker, who chokes up whenever she sees her husband feeling depressed about dead-end job searches. “Will and I have been together for 13 years, I love him, and we’ll get through this.”
Tough challenges and tragedies that can drain the human spirit litter French Lick like all those color-clashing campaign signs – two dozen of which totally overshadow a fresh flower memorial with a rotting wooden cross directly across the street.
“Zach Beyers. All that poor kid did was go out for a ride on his scooter and he gets killed by a dump truck,” said Ariana, Kristin’s sister from down the block who saw the two of us talking on the porch. “My husband is good friends with Zach’s dad and…” her voice tailed off as she stared across the road.
Zachary Nathaniel Beyers never had a chance. He and a pal were just riding around that same corner of New York and Wells three years ago when police say the scooter slid into the path of an oncoming truck.
Even facing her second battle against ovarian cancer at just 29, that flower-covered cross seems about the only thing capable of making her warm smile disappear. “It really hit me hard because our 12-year-old son is about the same age Zachary was when he died. I can’t imagine what his dad is going through.”
Maybe that’s why Ariana refuses to shed a tear over her cancer. “I cussed when the doctor told me I had a tumor in my ovary the size of a softball,” she said. “But actually I’m very lucky because it’s not that bad. I believe in a higher power. I’m just not sure anyone can really say what that power is. I’m more spiritual than religious, but make no mistake, politics is religion around here.”
It’s impossible to imagine any town in rural southern Indiana being more resilient than French Lick. Weary of being known only for having the high school where Larry Bird began forging his basketball legend, this town adjacent to even tinier West Baden (Bird’s actual birthplace) takes great pride in its remodeled town square, fairly low crime rate, greener appearance, and terrific tourist-magnet casino.
All that revenue and all those jobs have been a boon to this town that otherwise wouldn’t be home to the Stalkers. Right across the road from the casino are two abandoned rail cars that look like they’ve been there since railroad’s glory years. Peering between those rusting railcars in the afternoon heat, I couldn’t help but see what former presidential candidate John Edwards once called our “two Americas”: the very rich, and “everybody else.”
Back on the Stalkers’ front porch, Ariana hugged her big sister goodbye. Their hug was as long as it was tight. These young women are willing warriors in an unforgiving fight against our new economic reality, the pressures of raising two children, and a natural fear of the unknown.
After waving goodbye to little Totty, her mother, and her aunt, I got in my rental car and hoped there would be enough hill to make it to the station. Waiting there was Steve White, owner of the only full-service gas station in town.
“French Lick is an awfully tough town,” said White, a registered Democrat only because his late father had been one his whole life. “I wish the Tea Party would just fold up its tent and go away, but I vote for a lot of Republicans like [incumbent U.S. Senator Dick] Lugar. I vote for the man and what he stands for.”
White said he remembered a Democrat who long ago ran for Sheriff and wound up losing because he switched to become a Republican – assuming he’d win by a landslide with about two-thirds of voters being Republican. “He lost and lost big,” said White. “People around here don’t like phonies.”
Tough to read at first, White and I found common ground in our small-town upbringing. He spoke of being a councilman in West Baden where he lives. He spoke of progress, resilience to the recession, the character of people who live along this stretch of County Road 56, and of his dear friend Bennie Beyers.“You just do what you can to get through every day,” White said of little Zach’s father, who knows the worst of all pain – the loss of a child. “I know I can’t imagine it. I have two boys of my own and have no idea what that must be like.”
White, an “old school” attendant who washes every window before dutifully removing the nozzle and placing it back in its perch, extended his hand and wished me well. “There’s a beauty to an American small town, isn’t there,” I said.
White nodded and welcomed another customer slowly pulling into the station he bought back in 1992. A moment later he was chuckling, raising both windshield wipers to clean every last spot on the glass, moving around the car as if it were his painting, doing what he loves to do best.
Living life slowly with a warm heart, a soft heart, and – for his friend Bennie Beyers – a broken heart.