It seems as though spring is reluctant to come to Gasconade County. There have been a few warm days. It has been windy and cool mostly and the other night water froze on some watering troughs.
There is a restlessness about the season. The winter wasn't as hard as last year but it was long and unpleasant and there's a hunger to have it over with. Almost as if to wish it here, there's talk of turkey and fishing season, tomato plants and gardens, summer vacations and the year's hay crop. Business is strong, almost everyone has a job and while one can strike up a conversation about Jimmy Carter or energy or Middle East peace, there's no preoccupation with anything much beyond the borders of Gasconade County.
People here seem content to let today come, and tomorrow, and to face those things they can do something about - and the issues which make the headlines or television specials seem remote and unchangeable.
"There's plenty of people to worry about them things," one Owensville resident said, "so I just go about my business and hope they do a good job."
For Hooky and Rosemary Basham, their own problem is especially tough. They've fretted for weeks over whether they should invest in a new rig for Hooky. He drives over the road, she works as a bookkeeper; together they own a farm and rent another.
For Joe Gaska, who works at the Conoco gas station, there's no gasoline shortage, probably just a rip-off, but he couldn't care less right now. He's getting married on Saturday.
Last week, I went to work for a couple of days in Joe Voss's hardware and furniture store on the corner of Washington and First Streets. In Washington and Dallas, I am a vice president of The LTV Corporation, 23rd on the Fortune 500. In Owensville, nobody asked who I was because it was obvious. I was the new clerk at Joe Voss's hardware.
I sold a woman a vacuum cleaner and she said to me: "Young man, put it in the car." Nobody looked at me sideways or anything else. It felt good, being with these people, free of the fixed roles and expectations of the capital. In washington, we are bombarded with opinions and reactions from our leaders, both inside government and outside. For a change, I wanted to listen to the unfiltered opinions of other people, people who do not live or die on Washington headlines.
Owensville sits near the middle of Missouri, surrounded by rolling farmland, pockmarked with clay holes, a generally undistinguished little town (population, 2,416), sliced by Route 28, dusty and decrepit downtown, neat and well tended in the residential areas.
But the quiet, firm manner of its townspeople produces a special atmosphere. There is a strong German strain in the community, a sense of family, a desire not to be far away. It is all-white, blue-collar, middle-class: no big homes, little poverty, unchanging and seemingly unwanting. The desire to stay here, no matter what, is so strong that many commute 60 or 80 miles to work each day.
It is a community unmoved by and unaddicted to television. The movie theater is falling apart; few subscribe to the St. Louis dailies; there is no radio station. Tom Warden is the talented editor of the 3,000-circulation Gasconade County Republican and he delivers all the news they really care about.
There is good industry here in a few small factories and more is coming. Clay mining from "holes" - as opposed to strip mining - is a source of income as well as blight. Farming covers the surrounding countryside and is big business but it is also marginal. The land is lovely to look at, greening now and rolling, some heavy withtimber. But only the creek bottom land is good for cropping. The rest - and most of it - is for grazing and hay and feeding hogs.
For Jack McQueen, the auto dealer, this has been a good week. He won a hard-fought, three-way race for the first ward councilman's seat. He polled 121 votes.
For Ray Homeyer it has been a particularly fine week. He bought a new John Deere tractor from the MFA Co-op and it is like Christmas on his farm.
Joe Voss moved here from Cuba, a small community down the road, when he was a young boy. Elmer, his father, runs the Sinclair station. Joe is married to Rhoda, a very pretty blond woman, and Amy, 4, is a carbon copy of her mother. Rhoda is the county nurse at the health department.
Business was good. We sold chain saw blades, hunting licenses, nails, light bulbs, trailer hitches, a halter, paint, a vacuum cleaner, hammers, hinges, light switches - the variety seemed endless. Customers expect Joe to have everything. He gives advice, he shows them how to rig things, or he tells them where they may find it elsewhere.
Joe is a remarkable young man. He thinks about life and the future and says that being in business has educated him.
"It wasn't until I realized how poor some people really are. I never saw that before."
He voted Republican last time, probably will again, although he thinks it is best to vote "the man" now. He admires Lyndon Johnson. Johnson created good programs, he thinks, to cure some of society's ills. Joe Voss likes a creator as opposed to a reformer.
"Sure there are a lot of abuses," he says. "I see it every day. There are too many incentives not to work. But you can't throw out everything for the cheaters."
Joe wonders about the presidency.
"Sometimes I think we don't need a president. I guess we do, but we seem to focus on one person and our system isn't like that. I guess what I am saying is that the president isn't everything today as I thought the president was a while back. And it doesn't matter anymore what party you belong to. People are going to vote the man. I am."
Owensville is not typical and it is not different. It is simply a small town in mid-America, wrapped up in its own living. It neither ignores the rest of America, nor is it overwhelmed by it.
At 6:30 a.m., much of this town begins the day by meeting at McKinney's on Washington Street, where the coffee is fresh and donuts and cakes are being pulled from ovens. There are three tables there and one doesn't have to ask if it's okay to sit down. You carry your coffee and donut and you read a paper put there also to be shared.
"Damned if I know why everyone gets stirred up about things," a coffee drinker said the other morning. "There's so much scurrying around, but what does it all mean? Well, I'll tell you - you listen to those people in Washington and if you think about or worry about what they're saying, you might just go batty. If you think about it, there's all that talk but nothing really changes much. It's gonna be the same next year."
People here seem to feel more and more distance between their reality - today at McKinney's - and everything happening in Washington and Bonn and Cairo. The day after the president's energy message, few brought it up, few seemed to care. At Voss Hardware later that day, only one customer mentioned it.
A driver for Empire Gas summed it up for our table at McKinney's: "He didn't tell me nothin' I didn't know."
For the elderly at the district nursing home, what is important are the townspeople. The building is not quiet; it is busy with visitors, neighbors and strangers making calls, reading, writing letters, helphing out. The residents are mostly from nearby communities - Rosebud, Gerold, Drake, Cuba - but Owensville has taken them to heart.
"They cover us with love," someone said.
If Owensville were measured by the ordinary scale of excitements, one would have to score it dull. The food is undistinguished, although Merk's daily $2.25 special is passable, and the youngsters complain about "nothing to do" except bowling at Kegler's Kove.
But the townspeople actually talk about being "too busy all the time." There's church, quilting, Lions, Jaycees, school activities.
Tom Warden jokingly notes that there are 12 churches and 12 taverns - "a nice balance, wouldn't you say?" And someone else notes that they drink more beer here than in, say, New Haven up the road, but no as much as in Hermann, the county seat.
It is a badge of honor to proclaim "conservatism" here. It is conservative fiscally and thoughtfully. The town is strongly Republican, although it shares a Democratic congressman. Jimmy Carter didn't do well, would not today. Ronald Reagan was once popular, seems to have slipped. There is no fear of recession - i t is hardly mentioned - and predictions such as recession or energy shortage go disbelieved. While President Carter isn't popular, many say he tries hard and he's honest. Middle East peace is "okay" but "won't last." For that matter, "neither will all this China stuff."
Joe Voss says, "People are conservative, sure, and skeptical."
Bill Griffith, who runs the IGA grocery store, puts it simply: "You're born here, you finish high school, you go off to work if you have to, but you come home every night to be near the family, even if the job puts you on a bus at 3:55 a.m. Some people call that giving up something. Not around here."
Chuck Patterson moved here when he got fed up with big business ("a pseudo-government") and he doesn't need his master's degree in mechanical engineering to run the Ben Franklin store.
"People are fed up with big business and big government," he says. "Carter is big government to people around here, whether he likes it or not."
To Patterson, "Maybe this [town] is the way America was 20 years ago. Or maybe it is the way America is right now."
The radio station, KWRE in Warrenton, is filled with Kenny Rogers and Mel Tillis and Johnny Cash. Angie Humphries is singing "Someboy Wake Me Up, I'm Having a Bad Dream" and Tramisol tells us about a new hog wormer and hog prices are down and cattle is up. Ben Heidland, retired now and living on one of the prettiest spots in Gasconade County, blames "the unions and high wages" for the country's ills.
And then it is Palm Sunday. First Baptist Church, Route 28. Pastor Claude W. Stevens, born-again, colorful, evangelical, listened to intently by a full congregation. Pastor Stevens wears a sporty tan suit with flap pockets.
He prays. "Troubled times." Head bowed. He prays: "Oh, Lord, for the leaders of our country." A murmured "Amen" stirs the congregation.
Outside, the sky has grown dark again and a light rain begins to fall. The wind is chilled. Spring won't come again today. CAPTION: Picture, Author Scheer (center) with Rosemary Basham and Joe Voss. By Bill McKee for The Washington Post