By Clay Coleman
VANDALIA—My headlights play off the water as I race past Vandalia’s side streets. I was tired. I had been driving all day. When I hit Missouri, I had to remind myself how to drive around deer. You watch for the light to reflect off their eyes, as they stand there waiting, ready to jump in front of you. Through the dark that came with the rain, I couldn’t see enough to form a first impression of the town. It was wet, and the only light was a single fluorescent bulb on a telephone pole lighting up her house, and the grey that I suspected came alive during the day lingered on as she opened the door.
The next morning, I look out her window and notice the rain had stopped. It was cloudy outside, and what little light reflected off the white homes and the gravel swept roads, gave everything in town a grayish hue. Abandoned houses lay side by side and in neatly organized rows. One had a roof that was beginning to cave in. Another had vines escaping from the inside. Off in the distance, I can see what appears to be a partially built tower rising high above an old factory. It looked like an abandoned project, cast aside, then forgotten about. It reminds me of an invisible water tower.
Fast forward one month, and I’m sitting with a group of people planning on doing something about that, about the city’s blight. Vandalia’s Chamber of Commerce was meeting over lunch to discuss ways to revitalize the town. Armed with ideas, the group was determined to wash away what had been forgotten about. Wipe clean what had been forsaken. Help people get out of their homes.
I watch the group as they order food and laugh among themselves. Townspeople walk up to their table and offer small talk. A waitress scrambles to fill everyone’s orders. The noise from the room makes it difficult to hear; yet that doesn’t bother the group. Like a set of twins, they complete each other’s sentences.
A man suddenly stands up, and the group settles down. Short in stature, wearing closely cropped blonde hair and glasses, he raises his voice and addresses the group. Holding a single sheet of paper, the man talks about Christmas. He is the president of the Chamber. He also owns a funeral home in the town. He speaks about the city, like a man consoling a loved one.
The group discusses how the children will have pictures with Santa at the elementary school. They need someone to hand out Dairy Queen gift cards, the man asks. They talk about the tree lighting ceremony and that the fire chief has already approved the fire pit. Who was bringing the lights? A local bike club is donating hotdogs and buns. They go down the list of events for the community, and not one time is money mentioned. They were giving back to the community. The group was offering up an escape route to the town.
After the list is exhausted, the noise rises to a crescendo as the people say their goodbyes. I pay for my meal and talk to the owner where we had lunch. It’s for sale, she says about the restaurant. They were open only part of the week. I tell her I’m sorry as I walk out the door. I can feel the good times that were had there.
Driving back to the newsroom, I look for my invisible water tower hidden among the trees and buildings. It’s nowhere in sight. I realize that first impressions are not lasting ones. How a group of people who have faith in a town, in its people, can alter the landscape around us. So about that invisible water tower, is it there? Yes. Is it ugly? You bet it is. Does it matter? Not really.