FOR FIVE weeks this spring, thanks to the Census Bureau, my aging compact and I bounced along on an odyssey of 2,400 miles -- all within one Maryland county -- to explore the lifestyles of the very rural.
For the government, my regional enumeration was merely part of a vast bureaucratic undertaking. But for me, it was a romantic experience, a voyage of discovery with social and humanitarian benefits. Maps don't make it clear, but these pockets of rusticity are dense with opinion, quirks and originality. And you want to hold a better census? Just ask these folks.
My $6.50-an hour-assignment as a census-taker was a section of the Eastern Shore where the census collected its data by driving and walking door-to-door rather than asking people to return mailed questionnaires. On the surface, the "country method" is archaic and hopelessly inefficient. Moreover, we were all temporary workers equipped with only five days' training, unwieldy maps often outdated and unreliable. We had to travel down every street, highway, country lane and driveway, stopping at every structure to inquire about possible occupants. At every sixth dwelling, we conducted half-hour interviews and asked a number of highly personal questions.
How outrageously naive! Yet the system worked. These countryfolk gave me a 98 percent completion rate -- far better than that in metropolitan areas.
Often I felt like something between a circuit-riding preacher and a U.S. marshal bringing a message to those on the frontier. What was the message? At the very least, the census says that everyone counts. Obvious, perhaps, but more than one of my 200-plus respondents seemed to feel their value confirmed by the visit or call. There was a lilt of pride in their voices as they answered that they owned the house free and clear -- or simply in giving their name, address and age.
Such pleasant rapport was a surprise at some homes, given the ominous greetings at their front gates: "Keep Out," "Private Property," "No Fishing, No Hunting, No Trespassing," "Posted" in large type over a long list of prohibitions in letters too small to read, or the ever-popular "Beware of Dog."
But I soon learned that my terror-filled images of gun-toting homesteaders eager to scare "the feds" off their land were unfounded. Though I was a complete stranger to them, almost all offered friendly greetings. Finally, I asked one why he posted such signs. "That's to keep out troublemakers," he answered -- as if the signs would frighten only intruders with unworthy purposes.
Friendliness did not insure cooperation in completing the census form, however. I represented governmental red tape to many people. Some couldn't understand why the census simply didn't get its data from files of the IRS or other agencies. One man griped his way though all 58 questions of his interview because the county had stopped him from digging a new well.
There were three outright refusals of the "long form" after word got around, via a radio talk show, that it took close to an hour to complete if two persons in a household earned income. In perhaps six or seven households, individuals refused to reveal their income. "He doesn't tell nobody that, not even me," said one woman of her husband. An elderly woman -- ambiguous as to whether she co-habited with or was visiting the man of the house -- kept secret her social-security income, probably in fear her payments would be cut.
"What is your ancestry or ethnic origin?" struck many respondents as pointless, especially given governmental efforts to insure equal opportunity without regard to race, creed or national origin. About 10 percent of my respondents insisted they were strictly American. One answered, "Pure Maryland, although one of my granddaddies was from Virginia."
I improvised an explanation for the items about commuting to work -- means of travel to work, time of departure, travel time. "I think these questions will help the government decide if an area is ready for some form of mass transit," I explained. I didn't want to appear simply nosey.
The most varied, quixotic and unreliable answers came in response to Question H6 on both the short and long forms, the one that dealt with the bastion of Everyman's dreams -- the American home: "What is the value of this property; that is, how much do you think this (house and lot/condominium unit) would sell for if it were for sale?"
Five people refused outright to make estimates because they feared their valuation would somehow get back to the tax assessor's office. But perhaps three times that number insisted -- candidly, I felt -- that they had no concept of the value. Many had inherited an older house and surrounding acreage and had no intention of moving. "If I decided to sell, then I'd study up on what land is bringing," said one. An equal number made ridiculously low estimates. A widow with a modernized bungalow on several dozen acres valued her property at what it probably was worth 20 years ago. And there were a few respondents whose pride in their homes led to apparent exaggerations of their values. The owner of a six-figure ranch seemed almost oblivious to the trailer home on an adjoining property. In the end, I felt like attaching a letter to my completed records warning the bureau that these data do not provide a fair approximation of actual property values in 1990 -- that they are merely what people think their homes used to be worth, or hope they now are worth; in other words, a fantasy.
There was also gentility in some unexpected places. A tall, lanky widower who lived alone at the end of a quarter-mile wooded lane was tilling a garden when I pulled in. He worked the next row toward me before stopping to find out who I was and what I wanted.
"Won't you come in? You know, I don't get much company," he said in a friendly tone as he strode past the mounds of split pine in the rear yard. I identified myself as the census-taker and followed him into the shingled farmhouse. Thin and faded throws covered all the living-room seating, and there was no place to lay my master register. He suggested the kitchen table straight ahead. I felt a rush of warmth as I entered the room. The oven door was open, the burners on top were solid metal, which meant the stove probably burned the pine stacked outside.
"Now, if I were out there doing your job, I'll bet I'd get a bit hungry about this time," he said. I mentioned a packed bag lunch in my car, but he went into an adjoining room and returned with a heavy, covered saucepan containing a layer of mashed potatoes and two pieces of very brown chicken. "I don't think this is enough to fill you up," he said. "I've got some bread and rolls and crackers, too." It looked like plenty to me, and it was certainly better than my bag lunch.
My host apologized for the sooty dust on his kitchen cupboards and began talking about his late wife, who used to keep the place so much cleaner. He appeared to be getting tearful, so I changed the subject to the garden. He listed an impressive array of crops soon to be sown -- from limas to cantaloupes and corn. He used to farm the entire 90 acres. Did he rent the power tiller? No, it was his; he had pushed a wheeled cultivator for years, but his wife finally insisted that he buy the power machine. She had died several years ago. She was only 75.
Pushing aside my empty plate, I finally mentioned his census form. "Sure, got it right here," he offered and with age-limited alacrity brought it from another room. I opened it to find it completely blank.
"Well, you know I am really stupid," he said without emotion. "I went to school only one week -- it was in the second grade. Then my daddy got pneumonia and I had to quit." I pointed out a list of names and telephone numbers taped to the wall. He confirmed that he had taught himself to read a few things, and I said surely this proved he wasn't stupid. He smiled and appeared to blush.
His list of recent operations and illnesses made me worry for his health and wonder aloud why he did not accept the offer of a home with a nearby daughter. But he preferred to stay on his own as long as he was able.
I said a lengthy farewell, thanking him for his generosity. He was equally cordial and ended his adieu by saying, "I think so much more of you for taking what I had to offer."
I returned to my car and deducted a half-hour from my timesheet for lunch. Then I sat there several minutes wishing that a census form somewhere had a circle to fill in for "Memorable experience beneficial to both respondent and enumerator."
Linda Weimer is a free-lance writer in Pocomoke City, Md.