The high school’s campus was far from sprawling.
All told it covered a rectangular plot of no more than a handful of acres. At the northern border, one of the short sides of the rectangle, there was a stripmall bookended by Qwik-Lube Auto Shop and Ottinger’s Hunt & Sport. The little concrete row of storefronts had ten decent businesses, all owned and operated by the Ottinger family, and a promise from the city to cover all curb appeal and power-washing bills.
Appearance around the school was important to the council and as far as stripmalls go, this one was pristine. The way Hugh Kreese saw it, if he was gonna be the mayor of a big football town, then everything near campus was gonna look dynamite. So footing the bill for potted plants, good signage and clean cement was a necessary expenditure. Maps of Palaver showed the school and the stripmall in the top right hand corner. Dragging your finger down and left on the same map showed a latticework of gridded roads interrupted by the occasional mom-and-pop or subdivision.
In the mid ‘50s, figuring it would make directions easier and future construction more orderly, the powers that be graphed out Palaver into left and right avenues and up and down streets. By 1958 the council doubled down. They made sure to only grant business permits to those willing to abide by the crosshatch pattern they were looking to uphold. They gave numbers to the roads running north to south and the good ol’ American alphabet for those moving left to right. If you needed your piano tuned, Cooper Bro.’s Music was at Avenue F and 13th Street. Looking to remedy a dull mower blade or buy some deck screws? Sharp’s Hardware was at H and 8th.
Homes and small businesses sprouted around Palaver High’s campus like crops in mostly even rows. Some of them, like anything touched by Tom Ottinger and family, took root and stuck around. Most were seasonal and changed face depending on whatever was in vogue at the time. What started as the old Pharmacy at D & 10th, for example, had been a vape shop, had been a tea room, had been a used bookstore, and was currently a coffee shop called Robideaux’s. Things and people changed uniquely in Palaver. Somehow both fast and slow. Folks were like the pharmacy: mostly the same on the outside their entire lives, but internally experimenting and throwing stuff at the wall to see what stuck.
The western border of town was split between two points: the old Burlington railroad yard at the top left hand corner of the map, and Saint Procula Methodist hospital at the southernmost tip of the city. In-between were scattered farms, a bankrupt denim mill, the Carmichael Cinema, and a mostly flat patch of arid land owned by the TVA. They’ve said for years it was the eventual site of an eco-friendly wind farm. The plan was to usher in the future over a few year’s worth of stages. It was a Green Initiative, and an official edict from the State Government. The first step was to get the public comfortable with what was coming. So the Tennessee Valley Authority sent a crew and installed a demo piece: One huge, lonesome wind turbine. Construction lasted 3 months and a town potluck was thrown to celebrate a job well done and the unveiling. It was impressively tall, everybody granted it that. The wind even kicked up fierce that day, east to west and then back again like a storm was coming. Storm never came, but the fan sure did spin and glitter in the light. The closer you got, though, the lonelier it looked out in that field by itself.
After chicken fried steak and collards, the TVA rep went behind this little podium and fielded some questions from the locals. Most of the town came that day. The Q&A is when it went south — turns out it wasn’t powering anything. It was a display piece only. Ninety days of work, a bunch of government cash, and all for what? One huge-ass, worthless, outdoor fan. The rep said it would be the first of hundreds just like it… Except the others would actually work. They’d be part of a system that would power the whole city someday.
Why, we were on the cutting edge, he said. Eventually, every decent city in America would have them. These weren’t your normal wind turbines, Christ no, this was state of the art “new tech.” Nashville and Atlanta had already broken ground on their own set of ‘em, he said. Sure it looked a little absurd, right now, sitting in a field that was supposed to hold a bunch of ‘em. But just c’mon and picture it y’all, what it would be. This was “progress.” He kept repeating that word like a mantra. Townies just smirked and went back for seconds on cobbler.
The nickname started a week after the TVA packed up and left. Somebody snuck out to the turbine on a Sunday night and spray painted one word in ten-foot-tall red-letters on the trunk of the fan. You couldn’t of done it without a Cherry Picker or a fire truck. Monday morning everybody woke up to see the word “PROGRESS” visible from almost every part of town. All of Palaver called it that now, as if the city had its own 200-foot-tall inside joke. Hell, even the Mayor laughed and denied the few requests he got to have it painted over. Hugh Kreese was in his first term then, a quirky young politician, ready to serve and thrilled about his hometown’s potential. He ran on a platform of Growth & Change. He made postcards out of the thing and what little tourism we got was to stop and take pictures with the fan. That was decades ago. As of this morning, the TVA hasn’t quite made it back yet. We still have just the one big fan. But Progress is really kinda pretty at sunset. And the spray paint still makes people smile.