Over The Rails America

On a dead-end stretch of what was once U.S. 11 Route 22, in a small village with tacky-friendly billboards boasting “Genuine Dutch Cooking,” where old folks and even some of the young still scold their children or go a-courting or order scrapple and beer in Low German—in a veritable little oxbow lake cut off from the great River Time by a stubborn rock base of its own or by the sudden collapse of a cultural wall miles away—lies a tourist attraction called Roadside America.

I wasn’t eager at first to go there, but my father-in-law (a roadside attraction in his own right) insisted it was perfect for the children, so we went. It was, as I had expected, a bit cute and folksy and corny. It was also, as I had not expected, beautiful, a work of one man’s lifelong perseverance and devotion, a piece of art evincing real imagination and an unshakeable love for the lives and labors and festivities of the ordinary people of this land. It could not have been built today.

The story goes that Laurence Gieringer and his brother Paul, just boys, were sitting on Neversink Mountain one day in 1903 overlooking their hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania. Viewing the houses and the Schuylkill River winding its way among them far below, the brothers began to map out with their hands where William Penn must have rowed up and landed to make peace with the Indians and establish a settlement. It was then that the boys conceived the idea of memorializing their town and its history by carving wooden miniatures: to show, by the humble art that begins in whittling on a sunny day when one cannot possibly have anything better to do, what the lives of the people who lived in the valley were like.

And so they carved and painted. At first they created buildings: banks, schoolhouses, saloons; years later, trains and other motorized wonders, which Laurence duly set on tracks and rigged up to delicate gears and pulleys, so that the coal would go down the chute in the colliery or the horse in the stable would lower his head to the trough. And of course there were churches; in particular, one church fitted out with hand-painted glass windows recalling the designs of a church in the Swiss canton whence the family had come.

For the Gieringers were devout. The boys’ love for their native hills was the fresh overflow of their love for God who made the hills. Brother Paul gave up the hobby at age 17 to enroll in a seminary and begin his journey to become a Roman Catholic priest. In the meantime, Larry was encouraged by a wise teacher (evidently a woman who knew and appreciated boys) to pursue his unusual talent, so long as he kept his grades up to a modest level. The now-apprenticed carpenter did just that; there was at that time no sentence of dismissal to outer darkness for those who could not sit in their mental corsets and crochet the approved platitudes of the political day. School did not get in the way of Larry’s education, education did not get in the way of his art, and art did not get in the way of his faith. So he persevered. He produced a big Christmas display in 1935 and then in 1941 gathered his entire collection of miniatures under one roof, given him by a local fire company.

Larry Gieringer had a touch of mechanical mania, the whimsy of a boy builder. He came to excel in the crafting of machines, architectonically clever yet quite small, designed to produce delightful effects. Your child pushes a button and sees the farmer swinging a pitchfork, a miner hoisting an ax, square dancers whirling ’round a barn, a crowd at the ballfield sending up a cheer.

Yet the machines and the miniatures were only parts in the great working order developing in his mind: a hall where anybody could come to see all the creations on display, not one by one but in a coherent whole—from Indians in tepees beside running water with the crickets chirping to modern Americans, first in trains and trolleys and then in automobiles, all set in a kind of interlocking time-travel among the hills of Berks County. And there it stands yet, more than a miniature village: Roadside America.

It was once a hotspot for tourists, who in the 1950s came by the busload. The country was changing, though few people could have guessed how fast and how drastically. Then as now, on the half-hour, visitors were asked to gather at the back of the great room to watch a short film—a series of slides with a voice-over describing the greatness of America and the freedom and faith that made that greatness possible. Then as now, the backdrop for the slide show was a mural depicting Lady Liberty raising her torch above the skyline. Then as now, the image of Christ would be projected on that wall, with reverence, without embarrassment or apology. Then as now, the lights in the room would darken to yellow and then to a rosy red on the “horizons,” and lights would wink on in the towns and villages and a few stars would appear, planetarium-like, upon the ceiling. Then as now, the room would dwindle into darkness, and the lights in the houses would wink out as the good weary people went to bed, and the workmen and housewives and shoppers and children below would be replaced by the bright crowds above. Then as now, the narrator would come to the end of his sonorous tribute just at the first hint of returning twilight, and then as now, beside images of Jesus, and Liberty, and the American flag, the rousing alto of Kate Smith’s “God Bless America” would herald the dawn, as stars yielded to morning and houselights turned on again and then off, in the freshness of full day.

That was what people in Larry Gieringer’s day loved. He did not live to see his beloved land slashed and burned by the 1960s. His brave widow did, and she—his partner in business and art as in devotion—vowed to keep Roadside America exactly as Larry had left it, even insisting upon it as an iron provision in her will. Of course there’s a nice modern gift shop and there are a few billboards, and motors have to be repaired and chipped paint has to be touched up, but Roadside America is what it was. Therefore the buses do not come.

As I’ve said, it could not be built today. We have the technology, and then some; but in other matters, in the science of what is really important in life, we may as well have gone back to hand-axes and forked-stick plows. No boys, hands on knees and chin on hands, idle away an hour on Neversink Mountain. Those boys have never been conceived, or have been aborted away; and daycare, television, and school, those three know-no-evil apes of life, have taken care of all the genius in the rest. Such young males as exist do not whittle. Their teachers, ignorant of the intelligence of the hands and the wisdom of the impractical, assume that books hold the key to all learning, preferably books written at a grade level not too taxing upon the mind of the instructor. If you do go in for art, it is but trading one snobbery for another. Artists do not condescend to render beauty. They are beyond beauty; they are professionals. If Larry were alive today he would be moping in a dully verbal job or, if he were shunted off into the “creative” track, he would be displaying pointless mobiles at the city’s cultural center, called “cultural” because it expresses the phantasms of a few, and “center” because hardly anybody else ever goes there.

But not only could Roadside America not be built today—it would not be built. One critic has called it the result of its creator’s “hallucinatory happiness.” Allow me to translate: Laurence and Paul Gieringer, who served in one world war and lived through another, who did more hard physical labor in a week than most of us now ever do, and who suffered through the Great Depression (which in much of eastern Pennsylvania only ended to see the coal and steel industries go into decline), were too silly to know what real heartache was all about. We find the gaiety of Larry’s towns hallucinatory because we ourselves are in the midst of a bad cultural dream; we have been breathing bad air for so long, one wholesome breeze makes us sputter and cough.

To step into that room is to feel the embarrassment of hearing somebody else at prayer, somebody simpler and more childlike, and therefore more serious and interesting, than oneself. Why would we want to see miniature stained- glass windows, we who have removed the originals from our churches and, more to the point, from our hearts? Why should we want to see families at work and play, not singly but together, we who have reconceived the family as a “choice,” individual and therefore also lonely, like an accessory to that sad wraith called a “lifestyle”? Why should we want to see towns, we who live in the great Indistinguishable? Why should we want to see the careful memorializing of a Swiss Catholic village, we the rootless? Why should we stop to look at the roadside, we who use it only to change a flat as we go down that broad eight-lane highway?

But I veer into bitterness, and Larry never did so. I love my country, or I very much want to love it, and there I stood beside Larry’s life work, abashed in wonder as the words came rolling down the mountains to the prairies, to the oceans, white with foam. God bless Larry Gieringer and his brother, the good Father Paul, for their fine use of the one talent, for the shining city they built of cratewood, paper pulp, and sticks; poor potsherds, patches, matchwood. God bless them for the Land of Rest they awaited, peopled with citizens originally of similarly flimsy material, now immortal diamond.

And God bless America. With all our petty pimping sins that have made it what it is, God bless it and return it to itself; let there be light again in the houses and workshops and markets, and in the hearts of the people; let the trains run and the children play; and let the sun rise.


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