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Portraits From Epsom

By Gabriel B. Eber

U.S. highways and the towns that line them have long since been eclipsed by the Interstate and strips of EconoLodges and Burger Kings. For modern cruise-control motorists, the fractured skeleton of the U.S. highway system has been relegated to the realm of the cultural archaeologist, a reminder of how Americans used to travel before the age of the jug handle and the clover leaf.

U.S. Highway 202 runs right through the town of Epsom, N.H., only half an hour from industrial Manchester and all its pre-primary hoopla. But the satellite trucks and microphone-wielding correspondents never found their way into Epsom, a town in which the police headquarters bears a striking resemblance to a gas station.

Epsom seems torn between the commercialism of the fast food joints on its rotary and the amicability of a general store where the man behind the counter greets customers by name.

The accompanying are portraits from Epsom, visual and written records of the politics of a small New England town long forgotten by the culture of the Interstate.

Sue Flagler and her mother, Helen Lord, are eating a late lunch together at the McDonald's on the rotary. Their conversation revolves around tableware, although their voices are often muffled by the birthday party of small children in the next room. Flagler works in special education at a public school in Keane, near her home in Richmond, N.H., just outside Keane. She describes her mother, a resident of Vermont, as a "dyed-in-the-wool Republican," although Lord says she will not vote for Bob Dole because the senator is too old.

"I really think that the Republican pack is no one that I'm interested in.... My family kids me that I'm a closet Republican 'cause I do have conservative blood running through my veins but I just can't get warmed up to any of the Republicans. Social issues, I think the Republicans are just too conservative, and I can't deal with the Christian right, they really just freak me right out.... Pat Buchanan I think is totally frightening. I think Bob Dole is too old. I think he's kind of a neat old guy, like if he was your father or something.... And I don't love Clinton, but I can't not vote.... I really like there to be a candidate to get excited about, and I haven't felt that way; you know, I've never felt that way since I've been voting--that's pretty bad. In 20 years I've never been psyched about anyone, never really excited."

Larry Nickerson is the proprietor of the Gossville General Store, situated just off United States Highway 202. A native of Nova Scotia, Nickerson moved his wife and two children to Epsom from Gloucester seven years ago. His son will soon graduate high school and hopes to attend Bentley College in Waltham. The Frito-Lay man, accompanied by his two daughters, walks through the door and past the sign in the window listing the fees for various hunting permits. As the guardian of the potato chip aisle attends to his business, Nickerson writes up the transaction without the assistance of a computer billing package.

"I'm leaning for Steve Forbes... My first choice was Pat Buchanan, but I think right-wing stuff there, the extremist groups kinda hurt him. And I think that he won't make it past Clinton. They'll vote for Clinton first. I think Alexander, $1 into $620,000, all that is just payoffs, so he's a typical politician....

"And Bob Dole, he's just an old washed-in politician, he's gonna make some changes but he ain't gonna make a lot. That brings you back to Forbes with his flat tax, I think the IRS is way out of whack. Nobody understands it, the little guy gets ripped off on that, the rich guy is always gonna be able to survive because he's smart enough to know where to put his money....

"Get somebody that's been smart at running a business. And I know [Forbes] had a lot his money inherited, but he's done a lot with it, he didn't just waste it and put it down. It seems like he's done a lot. He's stayed married for 25 years and all that good stuff, so, I don't know if that's good thing [laughs].... I'd best leave that one alone [laughs], oh golly...."

Kathy Holmes teaches kindergarten at a religious school in Epsom. She has been a volunteer for Lamar Alexander since last spring, and points to her checkered skirt as evidence of her commitment. A devout Baptist, she regularly attends church, where the pastor has been preaching on the Book of Corinthians for almost a year.

"Well, we're certainly not ambivalent. We're concerned that we have Clinton in the White House, and are hoping that a Republican will be able to remedy that....

"I wished [Alexander] would run for president, didn't think he would, then he said he would and I started to get excited, then John McLauglin said that he wouldn't be surprised if Lamar was the one, and then I got it in the realm of realness, and volunteered.... I stuffed some envelopes, went around some neighborhoods, I rode my bike around my neighborhood and dropped off some brochures. The other thing about him that I like is that he wants to push local control, and in New Hampshire we've certainly learned that that's the way to get rid of as much waste as possible. Because if you're right close to it, you see it, and if you're not there, how can you hope to grasp it?"

Brent Blackey, 21 years old, lives in Pittsfield, a couple miles up the road from Epsom. A veteran of the construction business, he now pumps gas at Getty for those who can afford the relative luxury of a full-service filling station. Married to a manager at the McDonald's located just around the rotary, his immediate goals include buying a house and raising his six-month-old daughter. A car pulls up to the pumps, and Blackey curses under his breath. The view from behind the nozzle isn't pretty:

"The Congress and the president, they're all, everyone's making a mess. We're the ones that suffer for it, the taxpayers.... Get rid of the Congress' salary, that's the first thing.... Get rid of the president altogether, he don't seem to do much if you ask me....

"Let the people run the country; whoever's got the biggest gun is the biggest man.... It's the way it oughta be, did fine back then, I don't think it would be bad now....

"I don't think many people would have the choice of being violent if they knew they were gonna end up dead.... Back in the Old West, whoever had the biggest gun was the biggest man. And then, they didn't have very much crime. Look at the crime we have now."

A few hundred yards from Larry Nickerson's store on Highway 202, Bruce Coutu sells antiques and hand-made copper items. The walls of his store are lined with shiny copper lamps and fixtures, and the table by the front counter displays a large assortment of New England firefighter's memorabilia, complete with coffee mugs and beer pitchers. A former employee of the Postal Service, he is now 59 years old. Bruce approaches the collection of colorful flags that rest by the front door, and selects his "recession flag," hanging it outside for all of Epsom to see. An old flier nailed to a wooden post announces a sale commemorating his marital difficulties, which culminated in what Bruce calls "the Great American Divorce." The radio by the desk plays soft dobro music.

"I'll vote for the person come election day.... I honestly feel that there's not one of them that can beat Clinton, not that Clinton's a shining star either....

"They all make promises, and they can't meet those promises that they make when they go to Washington.... They've all got a lost of good points, but you can't put 'em all in one guy, you know, and that's the problem....

"There's a lot of things that everyone's concerned about, whether it be welfare, and abortion's a big issue and all that, but I think more so is, you know, let's, you know, give America back to the Americans, I guess, no matter who they are.... We're a country in trouble...."

Two customers walk in.

"I'm running for president, I have the press here, I'm making a statement.... I'm better than all the others."

[Customer: You probably are!]

David Batchelder sits with his wife Rhonda in a Dunkin' Donuts on the rotary, where patrons openly complain about the no-smoking policy. He and his wife are enjoying a belated Valentine's Day date. Batchelder is locally employed as an electrical engineer. He is a graduate of ultra-liberal Hampshire College, which he now describes as a "communist country." Today he is a self-described anarchist and libertarian. He supports Pat Buchanan.

"I went over to the pizza place once and I stopped in to pick up a pizza, and I wasn't looking to talk to anybody, you know, I was just sitting down. I order my pizza and I'm sitting down at the table waiting for it to get done, you know. So this guy pulls up out front, this is a true story, and he had an old Volkswagen bus.... It was exactly the sort of bus that you'd expect to see Grateful Dead stickers and so forth on the back of. And this guy gets out and he looks like he's in his late twenties or his thirties and he's got long hair and he looks like a hippie, he looks like exactly the kind of person you'd expect to find driving an old Volkswagen bus, and he comes in and orders his pizza, and then just out of the blue this guy strikes up a conversation with the guy who's taking the pizza orders behind the counter about the menace of international communism. So that's the kind of thing that would happen in Epsom....

"It's a very strong individualist ethos here.... There used to be some folks down the road on Route Four they had had that big Trojan horse out on their lawn with a sign in front of it that said 'The U.N. is a Trojan horse in America. Get the U.S. out of the U.N. and the U.N. out of the U.S.' The gal who's most responsible for it's being there has since passed away, but I think they've kind of left it up there in her memory.

"The thing about New Hampshire I've observed is that politics is kind of like the state sport. There's no football teams or basketball teams from New Hampshire so everybody follows politics instead. It's kinda like, almost a form of recreation."

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