“A Small But Thriving Community”

The New York Times reported that an Oxford-developed vaccine is being tested on rhesus macaque monkeys at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in … Hamilton, MT. After 28 days, all the monkeys remained healthy, possibly because they did not try to ingest bleach or Lysol.

It remains to be seen if this vaccine will work for humans, but one can but hope – unless you’re a scientist who doesn’t have to rely on hope, of course.

Not being a scientist and not being able to contribute, all I can say is that if this vaccine is successful, it will be way too good for my ego. Hamilton, you see, is my hometown.

I’m obviously not taking credit for the vaccine, not even in the spirit of a sports fan cheering for a hometown champion. Simply put, if the cure for this global affliction just happens to happen in My Hometown, it would reinforce my hidden assumption that the universe revolves around me. (Let’s face it; writing, or rather, publishing your writing requires at least a bit of ego, no matter how well you hide it.)

When I saw the Oxford/Hamilton/Vaccine connection, I naturally started poking around the Internet and remembering my childhood, especially because I recently wrote about summer days by the creek on our property west of Hamilton. I looked up the RML’s website, where I learned, somewhat to my surprise, that Hamilton is “a small but thriving community.”

Don’t get me wrong; it’s definitely small, and I suppose it could be said to be thriving in many ways. But really, what does “a small and thriving community” mean? It makes me think of a Donna Reed or Jimmy Stewart film, black and white (in many ways) and full of white picket fences, or maybe good old Mulberry, USA.

I think most people who leave their hometown tend to reflect on it from time to time, whether fondly, with disdain, or with simple confusion as to what happened and why. But no matter how anyone thinks of their hometown, I sincerely doubt they think of it as “a small and thriving community.”

So what is Hamilton? All I can go on, really, are my memories, and I have to hope they remain fairly true today. There’s a brick-built public library with attractive grounds that included a ditch and a bridge from which you could toss sticks into the water; a small and cozy Main Street that has so far survived the threat of the strip malls and Wal-Marts of Missoula, 42 miles north; stately homes at the core of the town and run-down trailers further out; a K-Mart; the county fairgrounds complete with a preserved teepee burner (a structure where leftover sawdust and other debris from a sawmill would be burned); river trails and parks for summer concerts; Crazy Days of sidewalk sales in the summer and Duck Derbies for charity (racing plastic ducks down the wide irrigation ditches that criss-crossed the town). It used to have a Dairy Queen, and now just has one of those Dairy Queen/KFC remix disasters. There was the Sundance Cafe and the IGA, and the ghost of Chief Joseph and the Big Hole Battlefield just to the east.

And the people. There were the school bullies and the teachers who saved me from my own crippling shyness (Hi, Mr. Roth and Mrs. Steele!). The bookstore owners who dabbled in theater. The scientists who played soccer and the soccer kids who became scientists. I played pickup soccer in the summer evenings with a scientist from Swaziland and the scion of a local nut-job militia family. There were the kids who called in bomb threats in 4th Grade and got their heads duct taped to a cabinet by the draconian old lady teacher. Eagle Scouts and angry ones.

Hamilton is kind of everywhere, literally. I work as a copywriter for a credit union in San Francisco now, and we started working with a marketing company out of Seattle. One of our principal contacts? A former Bronc soccer player whom I used to referee (Hi, Wyatt!).

It’s my home.

The barn in our fields and the Bitterroot Mountains

My daughter in 2017 at the bend in the river where I used to play

As for the Rocky Mountain Laboratories? It’s a rather unique force in the history of Hamilton. The Bitterroot Valley is full of people who might distrust government and definitely distrust science, but it also houses this quietly prestigious lab, founded in 1928 in a building that’s now the local community theater (where my sister made her big stage debut as Gypsy Rose Lee). RML is now a part of the National Institution of Health’s network, a biomedical research facility with a high enough danger level – that’s the technical term – that it only makes sense, from a cynical point of view, to house it somewhere with a “small but thriving” population count.

The Labs have always brought in a wide variety of inquisitive minds, scientists of all ages from around the world. I knew scientists who believed in both God and evolution. I knew scientists who formed the backbone of a thriving pickup soccer culture that I embraced for years (anyone could play, young or old). The Labs were a nexus of different perspectives mixing into a small Montana town.

I never worked there, never went there, although I know people who did, both scientists and aspiring scientists from the local school in the summer, my sister included. You can see the change over the years. When I was a teen, it was a fairly simple compound, a dignified multi-story brick structure but without what you would call blatant security. I would frequently ride my bike right past the front door on my way to visit a friend.

No one’s riding a bike past it anymore. It’s a much more secure compound, with the entire street fenced off with iron. It’s a whole new deal in the age of Ebola, COVID-19, and other biomedical ‘issues.’

So, does all of that add up to a “small but thriving community”? Beats the hell out of me, but it does add up to home. Hamilton will always be in my heart, even if I rarely get back there. It doesn’t matter where you’re from; good people and major changes can come from anywhere. What does matter is remembering where you’re from, whether it thrives or not.

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