There is a tradition in these parts that has endured for going on three centuries now. Every year at the tail end of winter, right around the time people start tapping maples the good people living in the towns and villages of our state gather together for the annual town meeting. They say that the date was chosen because at the end of a long winter you could count on people having had enough of being shut in by the drifts and since the roads hadn’t gone all to mud yet from the thaw, they’d make the effort to travel however many miles they had to go to get to the meetinghouse just so they could talk to someone other than the house cat or the milk cow. There’s telephones now and almost no one has a milk cow these days, but that doesn’t change the fundamental desire of a New Englander, normally taciturn and close mouthed, to step up to the podium and let everyone know exactly what they think. This year our town has been embroiled in a rather heated local election between the new guys who are supported by one set of folks and the old guard who are defended by another. I have found myself caught by the scruff a few times in the past month or two either at the town dump or the post office, our centers of society around here and told who I should vote for and why. I always listen patiently and with a sense of gravity while trying to keep warm at a standstill in the sub-zero temperatures that have been the single constant of the past season. Eventually I will look for a pause and then extend my hand to shake, a universal sign that the conversation is over, and head back to the farm without having made any promises one way or the other.
Yes, I still vote in local elections despite my stance on democracy (I’m agin it). My eldest son is only a couple of months into legal emancipation and has promised to go with me, but I can tell he has less interest than I did at his age. Much like adults humor children with their fantasies concerning tooth fairies and the like, he does the same for me and my bitter clinger belief in forms of government that have long ago ceased to function as they were intended. The truth is that while virtually no one agrees on much of anything anymore, we all need the roads plowed when it snows. And the town dump.
The morning of the town meeting was the first day since November that the temperatures climbed above freezing. As soon as I walked outside to do chores I was greeted by the plonk-plonk-plonk sound of sap falling from the business end of the spile into the empty tin buckets that hung from the trees in the yard. It was clear sky above, but for the vapor trails left by a jet passing thirty thousand feet above the farm and with a full day ahead I made plans to stop by the town meeting regardless of how my day went. The meeting is held these days at the base lodge of the local ski resort, a spacious room filled with vintage ski gear and black and white photographs of what appear to be the first skiers on Earth, dressed like alpineers, smiling and hopeful. It features a ham and bean supper before festivities kick off, followed by home baked cookies and pies. The crowd is split into two camps, those who come for the meeting and those who come for the food. The night before was the election, and at the meeting we vote, using cards held aloft in our hands, on warrants. A warrant is a motion crafted by the town selectmen during the previous year that outlines expenditures and proposed regulations for the following year. The laws stipulate that while anyone may take the podium to discuss the warrants and make any comment they like in support or against, they may not be altered and nothing other than the warrants may be discussed. Some people look forward to having their say all year, while others dread the open ended timeline of a verbal free-for-all, but it is what it is and it is the closest thing to a real plebiscite left in America. To miss it is to miss an ancient tradition and the widest selection of baked beans ever assembled in one place.
I drive to the meeting dressed in my work clothes; Carhart overalls, red flannel shirt, ball cap and muck boots. I am not the only one. In other places people dress up for public functions, but around here people dress down. There is a deep sense of puritanical thrift that defines how people appear, but beyond that there is another layer, a way of stating that you are not a ‘summer person’ or ‘masshole’ — the other half of our tax base that may vote on warrants even if they aren’t registered to vote in elections as long as they maintain an address in town or own property. These folks are rarer then hen’s teeth, but you can see the out of state plates in the parking lot if you look for them, fastened not to pickup trucks and 4WD Subarus, but to Escalades and Volvos. These folks tend to dress like Ivy League professors and over represent the people at the podium, but they have their rights like anyone else, even the hardscrabble farmers and retired librarians that make up the rest of the crowd. The crockpots of beans and the ancient platters depicting toil de jouy covered in sliced ham line the tables at the back of the room and the town cops — both of them — stand with rictus grins at the end of each keeping an eye on the crowd for any signs of — what exactly? Heart attack, nodding off? Who knows what a crowd of shut in AARP’ers might get up to if the votes don’t go their way.
I try and eat my meal — delicious and filling — from a six inch paper plate balanced on my lap. I take my seat at the back row not because I am shy, but because it offers the best chance for an early exit undetected if things go south or go on too long. People I know stop by and shake hands or exchange pleasantries and the word gets out about the election results from the previous night, that one of the people I voted for get a seat and the other didn’t while the school budget — not a warrant item — was approved. Before long they allow us to come up and grab our voting paddle giving everyone a chance to grab some brownies or chocolate chip cookies and begin the show by reading the rules and the agenda. Each department head speaks a little bit about their warrant article, the town manager gives his talk, the moderator her warnings and then the process begins. The biggest items this year are set asides for a new plow truck and front end loader, both easy wins with 99% majorities and proposed expenditures for a feasibility study for a new firehouse. Our fire department is all volunteer and with our experience losing the barn a few years back I am disposed to give them whatever they need. I know a lot of them on a first name basis and respect the service they provide. The risks they take, the hours they put in for nothing more than their love of community allows them a wide, if not unanimous margin in their appeal and the warrant passes. The one I waited for came last and while it wasn’t of any earth shattering importance, it was an issue of principle to me. In New Hampshire fireworks are both legal and ubiquitous. Last year some folks got to complaining about the noise they make, how their dogs got upset and how it might trigger PTSD in veterans. It was time that somebody do something and sure enough a proposal made it’s way onto the agenda and the limits were to be set if it passed. I belong to the local veterans group along with a dozen or so other men and during discussion we had about the fireworks limit it was discovered that no veteran — at least known to us had ever been approached or questioned about adverse reactions to fireworks. None of us could imagine any kind of scenario short of being attacked with fireworks that would provoke any kind of reaction beyond “Ooooh! Aaaaah!” Whoever cared about fireworks and veterans forgot to ask the veterans. The people who did speak to the issue were mostly owners of skittish lap dogs and I offered, under my breath of course, that there was money to be made in soundproofed dog crates if the motion failed, which it did, resoundlingly.
I was able to sneak out as planned just ahead of the rest of the villagers and head home with some of my rights still intact, knowing that while I have little or no say in how my country operates, at least I would have plowed roads next winter in my town.