River town blends rural backwardness and gracious living

You know you're approaching the small-town, southern heartland when you arrive in La Grange. You know it by the rising air of a luxuriant evening, and by the pillars on the housefronts, reminiscent of broken statuary in the Old South. But mostly you know it when you get invited home - wife, children, and dog - by someone you met 10 minutes earlier on a playground.

''Do you ever get much chance to visit with a family?'' asks Nancy Casper, a young mother clad in T-shirt, blue jeans, and sandals, whose tousled red hair and casual manner give her the look of someone taking the summer off, which, as a schoolteacher, she is in fact doing. ''We only live a couple minutes away.'' And it isn't long before she's unraveling the intricacies of family life and family budgeting in a small town like this one.

''La Grange is just a friendly town,'' she says. ''In many small towns, you'd have to be born there to be a part of things. Here it's different, though - maybe because it's a river town.''

Indeed it is. La Grange butts up against the flowing Mississippi as if trying to bathe in its dark currents. Many of the people in town make their livelihood from the river, including Mrs. Casper's husband, William, who works as a foreman in a tugboat maintenance shop.

But while the river may bring work, it doesn't necessarily float prosperity into La Grange's lap. The riverfront main drag of the town looks on the dilapidated side, or as Mrs. Casper says, ''really junky.'' The rest of the town mingles, in its hills and hollows, rural backwardness and gracious living. It's a town William Faulkner would have felt comfortable with.

The Caspers' rambling American-original house lies toward the gracious side of La Grange's architectural-demographic profile.

Not that things have been particularly easy for the family. ''Bill and I went through a six-month squeeze,'' Mrs. Casper recalls, settling into a large chair and momentarily ignoring the happy free-for-all of television and boisterous children playing around her. ''He was laid off, and I was pregnant with our third child. But Bill is the kind of guy who can do about anything. He's versatile, and he kept us going.''

Still, the experience taught her something about the way a lot of people have to live in La Grange.

''Employment is way down here,'' she observes. ''And for a family of four or five, if you have a gross income of under $20,000, you'd have to watch yourself very carefully here. Bill is in the $20,000 to $24,000 a year bracket, and we could make it on his income. When the second child came along, and our finances looked secure, I thought I could stay home. I stayed home for 15 months. But the way things are anymore, I feel more comfortable with both of us working, so if anything happens to one or the other (of us) we could still stay afloat.''

Feeling ''comfortable'' in La Grange, Mo., means living on a wide street flanked with ample houses, saying hello to the town banker's wife as she passes by on a stroll, and sitting on the front porch to gaze out on a world that offers much to reflect upon.

''You get the feeling people here have a different insight. ... They tend to reroot. ... Their father knew the other guy's father, and they grew up together, and they will just continue.''

As she talks, her children make liberal use of a moment out of her sight, tearing through the house, occasionally running down the front walk to look in on the conversation or attempt to read a reporter's scrawled notes.

''The high school here has only 700 kids from grades 8 through 12,'' she continues after mentioning that she herself will teach fifth grade this year.

''The kids aren't going to run into prostitution, but there are drugs and things, ... dealing, running around.'' Earlier, in the playground, she had to explain to her 18-month-old that he couldn't play on the slide because it was covered with shattered glass. ''This park is used for partying,'' she explained apologetically.

''I would think that, living where we are living, it will be easier to stay together as a family. I think the bonds will be stronger than they would someplace else.'' She doesn't quite know how to square this secure feeling with the fact that ''even in a town this size, I can name you five couples right off the top of my head that are divorced.'' Except to say that the world in general is mixed up and that the world her children will grow into will be ''even more mixed up.''

''I want to think that Bill and I will (stay together),'' she says quietly. ''I think faith has a lot to do with it. You make the best of what you are given in this world. You cope with what you've got, and you make the best of it.''

She's quiet for a moment. Then another neighbor passes by, and they exchange greetings. ''I guess that's one of the things I like about living in a small town: You get to know everybody.'' She stands up and starts pointing out the houses and giving a small history for each of her neighbors.

It's a neighborhood of highly individualized houses in a town built on wooded hills in the middle of a sun-drenched Missouri countryside, all peaceful and full of endless distances.

''Am I happy?'' she muses out loud, glancing back at her home. ''Yeah. I think so. I enjoy my family, I enjoy my work. ... If we ever left La Grange, it would probably be for a job. We like it here.''

Monday, Oct. 17: Olive Branch, Ill.

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