Slow meandering through a small town on the Mississippi

The only thing moving right now is the river. Steven Peck, a nine-year-old boy, sits athwart the broken railing of the long-defunct Victory Store, just watching the Mississippi make its unhurried way down among the lagoons and inlets in its ample skirts.

Across the road, eighth-grader Jeff Warmuth, his cousin Sara Lampert, and their mothers Gloria Warmuth and Elaine Lampert - sisters who live in trailers on their father's tiny tablecloth-corner of land here - are telling a visiting reporter what life is like for families in small-town America. And Victory, Wis. , which amounts to little more than a handful of weathered houses scattered like children's jacks in this culvert of land beside the river, certainly qualifies as a small town.

''Littlest town in America,'' volunteers Steven Peck, who is visiting from nearby Janesville. ''Feels like it anyway.''

What does that mean? What does the littlest town or, for that matter, any little town feel like? What's it like to go to school here? To while away an afternoon? To raise your children? What do you do with yourself for entertainment? Where do you go? Does this kind of life produce its own kind of child, its own kind of family?

The answers to these questions came gradually to this reporter during a three-week swing through towns along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, in which children and their parents candidly discussed the business of growing up rural and Midwestern.

This journey led from places like Victory, Wis., to New Boston and Olive Branch, Ill., to Cloverport, Ky., and Rising Sun, Ind., and to Moscow, Ohio - with stops in between. It led into corners of the middle-American landscape where life seems self-sufficient and where conversations spring up among strangers as quickly and unpredictably as sun-showers.

People who inhabit such places - people like Gloria Warmuth and her son Jeff - speak with ebullience and fondness of their way of life and what they think it has done for them. But they also look realistically at the shortcomings of a small world where children have to spend hours getting to and from school every day, as the bus meanders from one rural stop to the next; where little or no public provision has been made for children's recreation; and where access to culture is limited, to say the least.

''The nearest movie theater is 21 miles away,'' Mrs. Warmuth says. ''And we don't go there very often either, because of the contents of the movies. I don't care much for what they put in movies today.''

The local schools have just introduced computers; and they face special challenges: ''We get a lot of transient people in the schools, in-and-out people ,'' she continues. ''They come and go.''

''But I'd rather raise mine in a place like this, because of your crime in the big cities,'' her sister adds. Here, one knows every neighbor and generally has a clear picture of what to expect from them, she says.

Ask Jeff Warmuth for the population of the town, and he will pop inside the gray wood-frame house, from which you can hear the occasional crackle of a CB radio, to consult Grandpa LeRoy (Pete) Oliver.

''He doesn't think it's a hundred,'' Jeff replies, coming out. Later, Grandpa himself comes out to answer questions about local history, hands shoved in baggy overalls, trying to recall the origins of the name for the Bad Axe River, which flows into the Mississippi near here. ''I don't know,'' he says. ''Had an Indian battle up there. I guess that's what it was.''

Beyond that, they are stumped.

The way they look to him as an encyclopedia of life in these parts, the way they tick off the names of nearby towns, like Retreat and Romance and Red Mound, as if they were pages in a family snapshot album - all of it gives you a sense of the intimacy life takes on here.

''We used to have our own jail, you know,'' offers Elaine Lampert. ''Not any more. They pulled it down.'' A similar fate befell the local country school; now students are bussed in one direction to high school and another to elementary.

''I should show you the scores (from national tests). Most of them come out above the national norms,'' says Mrs. Warmuth, who teaches in one of the schools. Not bad, she adds, for an economically deprived area.

Her son Jeff, a round-faced friendly boy, volunteers that the schools are ''very sports-oriented.'' He adds, however, that the school ''brings in a lot of things relating to culture,'' and mentions occasional films and a traveling troupe of college players.

''We see the Delta (Queen River Boat) two or three times a week,'' Jeff offers brightly. ''Real pretty. We hear it, too,'' he adds, raising his voice over the wail of a freight train as it pulls along the riverside tracks. Then he launches into an articulate account of the fortunes that have befallen Victory as technology squeezed out the local small farmers. As he talks you catch a glimpse of a boy who reads the world around him the way many of his contemporaries read TV Guide. Asked what he does for entertainment, he jerks his head in the direction of his friend and says flatly, ''his house.''

''Get out of the road, Sarah,'' Mrs. Lampert yells to her daughter, her voice mounting the last syllable like a calvary commander getting on his horse. Then, she says, ''We swim the river, the ole 'Mrs. Sloppy.' Though, with all the high water we've had, it's filthy.''

They don't appear to lack for company, with the six cats, black dog, and assorted family in the yard. Over the door, a rustic sign reads ''Pete and Mae Oliver.'' They all talk, warm and open, to a perfect stranger. A neighborhood goat bleats over and over, and Steven Peck bleats back at him.

''I don't know if I'd like to live exactly right here when I grow up,'' young Jeff Warmuth muses. ''But I like country places like this.''

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