- 17 Sep 08, 09:36 AM GMT
In 1950 Ralph Edwards, the presenter of popular NBC radio quiz Truth or Consequences, set his listeners a challenge. If an American town were willing to rename itself after his show, he would broadcast its 10th anniversary episode there.
One sleepy settlement decided that it needed the publicity badly enough. On 31 March that year the citizens of Hot Springs, New Mexico, went to the polls. The change of name was approved by 1,294 votes to 294. On 1 April, Hot Springs officially became Truth or Consequences.
It sounds like the plot to some Frank Capra-esque feelgood comedy. But press attention gave the local tourist trade a much-needed boost. NBC also agreed to organise a Ralph Edwards Fiesta in the town on 1 May each year.
Though the residents had sacrificed something of their identity, their decision literally put Truth or Consequences on the map.
The story seemed to me to encapsulate the country's attitude to its heartlands. Americans idealise small towns - remember the reaction Bill Clinton received after his Place Called Hope speech?
But - as in the part of the world where I grew up - the encroachment of big chain stores has been blamed for snuffing out local identity. Now Truth or Consequences' 7,289 residents have their own Wal-Mart.
As the sun shone on Ralph Edwards Park I met Ed Irwin, 48. He was born in the town and had fond memories of growing up there. "It was great here when I was a kid," he recalls. "In the fiestas, you'd win things like entire encyclopaedias as raffle prizes. I got to meet all the big movie stars."
Now, though, he was worried that his way of life was being eroded.
"Our corporations, our government - they've lost all sense of individuality," he complained.
"That's what living in a small town is all about: doing your own thing. So I don't want no socialised health care, I'm going to take personal responsibility for myself."
He didn't like either of the main presidential candidates much, he said, but he was leaning towards McCain: "Sarah Palin's not some big-time politician. I think she understands people like me."
This very American preference for rugged individualism is one I've encountered already.
But Obama supporter Patch Rose, 42, offered a different take on what it meant to live in a place like this.
After having had a malignant brain tumour removed in 2005, Patch's insurance company had billed him for 10% of his medical costs: some $40,000. He was working to pay it back when disaster struck - the cancer returned.
"I couldn't afford to pay any more," he recalled. "I was just going to hold a big party and say goodbye to everyone."
But Truth or Consequences wouldn't let him. The town rallied round. Local painters donated artworks. The furniture store chipped in with a microwave and the golf club handed over a set of irons. An auctioneer - more used to dealing with cattle and goats - agreed to sell them at a special event.
The total raised - $13,000 - was enough to ensure he could have his second operation. Patch remembered the auction with amazement.
"We had cowboys, we had artists, we had Republicans, we had Democrats," he said.
"I think that's what small-town America is all about - that sense of community."
His wife Cookie, 51, said she didn't believe that her husband would still be alive if they had stayed at their previous home in New York.
"If we'd been back in Brooklyn, people would have been sympathetic - but I don't believe they'd have done anything like this," she added.
So is a place like Truth or Consequences all about individuality or community? I'm not sure. But it's possible that Americans value towns like this much because, ultimately, they want both.
- 17 Sep 08, 09:18 AM GMT
If small-town America really does offer a window into the nation's soul, I wondered if the local press might offer me a leg-up to clamber through it. If nothing else, the financial crash stories in the big city dailies were starting to unnerve me.
The Herald of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, didn't have anything about John McCain or Barack Obama in its pages. Even council and state politics took second place to heavy flooding in southern Sierra County and the forthcoming 21st annual Festival of the Cranes.
But at a time when the economy is supposed to be at the forefront of most voters' minds, I was intrigued to see how many column inches were devoted to environmental issues.
A half-page report told how a well-attended Bountiful Alliance Recycling Project meting had demanded a reduction in the town's landfill. A "walkability audit" had been conducted by locals to help those who wanted to walk rather than drive. And on the letters page, a representative of the local Sierra Club chapter called for action "to reduce our dependence on dead-end energy sources like coal".
We're warned that as the economy worsens, concern for the environment will increasingly be seen as a luxury.
But local newspaper editors know their readers well. Maybe green issues are going to be a bigger deal than the pundits think?
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