Olive Branch, Ill. — ''You see 14- and 15-year-old kids, sleeping all day long. Then you hear them talkin' about drugs all night. 'Course, there's nothing for them to do. We built a recreation center, but they tore it all up. No proper supervision. We couldn't afford to pay a salary, and parents get tired of volunteering. Anyway, all parents don't give good examples.''m
It's the kind of story you might expect to hear on the south side of Chicago or in the bario of New York. Not in a sleepy little place like Olive Branch, Ill., just up the pike from Dog Tooth Bend, right in the middle of the Canada goose's winter nesting grounds.
But it's a story that William Rouse, who has owned a store here since 1944, will tell to anyone who listens. One that Donna Cohen and her two daughters know all too well. And it's a story this reporter has heard echoed from town to town on a three-week journey along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.
Small towns, unable to provide much employment for young parents, watch high school graduates migrate elsewhere to seek jobs. That leaves a tax base - of retirees and families who cannot or will not move - too small to provide recreation for the children who remain.
The result? ''It's boring,'' says Willie JoAnn Cohen flatly. ''There's nothing for kids to do. We sit around in the yard and watch cars go by.''
That's just what Willie JoAnn, 12, and her sister Sheila, 17, are doing: sitting on their parents' station wagon, passing the time. ''Sometimes all the older kids get together in a car and go up to Cape Girardeaux (they pronounce it Ga-ra-dawith, a hard ''g'') and cruise up and down Broadway,'' observes Sheila.
''In a little town like this,'' Mrs. Cohen says emphatically, ''everybody knows everybody else. It's just like a family.'' Indeed, the baitshop proprietress down the road points out that neighborhood teen-agers come in to visit and look in on her, just to make sure she's all right.
None of this carries much water with 12-year-old Willie JoAnn, who wears a T-shirt with the faded slogan ''Single and Looking to Mingle.'' ''There aren't very many kids my age here. They're all her age,'' she complains, jerking her head toward her older sister.
Whatever their age, these children have few choices to make when it comes to how to spend their time. The main source of entertainment is the telephone. ''That phone's busy constantly,'' Mrs. Cohen observes ruefully. And then there's the new game room down at the filling station. But, Mrs. Cohen complains, ''it gets kind of a rough crowd down there.''
Rough crowds appear in other places as well. The schools, for instance, where drug problems have taken deep root. ''Yes, you see kids passing drugs around at school,'' Sheila says, adding that there are drug busts and shakedowns at least two or three times a year.
For all these problems and rumors of problems, Mrs. Cohen thinks her family is better off in a town of 700 souls ''counting pigs and dogs and cats'' than they would be in a larger city. ''I feel like I can let them go out here,'' she says. ''But when they stay in Alton (a small city just beyond St. Louis) with my aunt, they have to stay in all night.''
Meanwhile, Sheila and Willie JoAnn dream of large and distant places. ''I wouldn't mind visiting a really big city,'' Sheila muses. And they both agree quickly that this is not the kind of place to spend your whole life.
But they are surrounded by people who did make the decision, or had it made for them, to spend their lives right here in Olive Branch. Shopkeeper William Rouse has left a couple of times and then come back.
''I ran a store here from 1944-1975,'' he says. ''Sold it and left for Florida. Came back a week later, though. This is home base.''
There's some hope that efforts to attract tourism will make Olive Branch a town where one doesn't have to ''travel 20 miles for a pair of shoes, and a lot farther to get a job,'' Mrs. Cohen says.
But Sheila Cohen doesn't have that long. She's graduating from high school soon and wants to work as a nurse with the handicapped and disabled; and there's no job like that around here.
So she may just have to pull up her Olive Branch roots and move on.
Monday, Oct. 22: Cloverport, Ky.