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Election Day

November 10, 1996
I live near--and vote in--a town so small it has no population count on its city limits sign. Sutherland Springs sits, usually quietly, on the intersection of state highway 87 and farm road 539 about 25 miles east of San Antonio, Texas. On one side of the highway is a Diamond Shamrock convenience store, on the other side is the post office, scattered around are a few houses, and over the intersection hangs a single flashing yellow light. If you aren't paying attention, you won't even notice going through it. The tiny community has a long and colorful history, beginning as a relatively famous health spa in the late 1800's, where people came from all over to soak in the hot sulpher springs on the nearby Cibolo Creek. The early decades of this century almost saw the end of the small town. A terrific flood wiped out the original town, burying the sulphur springs and thus ending its attraction as a spa. The survivors relocated farther away from the creek and rebuilt the town, leaving behind the hulking ruins of the original site. Then came a fire that almost did the town in again, and after that a smallpox epidemic.

These days the town is pretty quiet. About the only excitement we get is the occasional brush fire, one of which actually forced an evacuation of our neighborhood several months ago. Fortunately, the fire was controlled and no houses burned. And frankly, if that's the only kind of excitement we can get, I'd rather be bored.

Then of course there's the weather. Everyone talks weather. In a rural county with a population of less than 30,000 people, with so much land dedicated to farming, the subject of weather is drummed into you until it becomes almost instinctive. I walk out of church on Sunday morning and can see half the people glance up at the sky, a regular Sunday morning ritual that I doubt many of them are even conscious of. Then comes one of three or so possible statements: "Don't look like rain today," or "Maybe it'll mess around and rain today," or "We got three-tenths of an inch last Thursday."

And then there's politics. Democrats and Republicans both vote inside the same building in the primaries, so the people working inside always see who votes for which side, and since most people know most everyone, most people end up knowing who you voted for, at least party-wise. I voted for Lamar Alexander in the primary because I liked his choice of shirtwear, so I got a little stamp on my registration card that says, "VOTED REPUBLICAN." I suppose this means I'm a registered Republican. I guess that's better than being a registered Dachshund, but I have my doubts.

I've never voted in a big city, and I've never even seen a voting machine. It wasn't long ago that our ballots were just large slabs of thick paper in which you placed an "X" for your candidates of choice, then all the X's were counted by a team of volunteers and the results tabulated. Now the ballots are large slabs of thick paper in which you color in a little oval like you're taking an high school aptitude test, and later all the colored-in ovals are actually counted by machine.

So Election Day finally came around and I put on my best red-checked flannel shirt and headed into town. Across the new bridge over the now placid and nearly dry Cibolo, up the hill to the stoplight (it flashes red when you approach it from the farm road), across highway 87 and turn right into the parking lot of the Community Building. An old, drafty structure which must have been one of the first to be erected when the town relocated about 90 years ago, it seems to lean slightly and is in bad need of a paint job. Before I walk inside I glance at the voter count sheet thumbtacked to the wall. As of 2:00 PM, 150 people had voted. That's a lot better than the primary, when I was only the 30th-odd person to vote at that time of day.

It seems only elderly people work this polling place. An elderly lady checks my registration, another shows me where to sign, and an elderly man explains how to fill out the ballot. He sees my last name. "Peschke, eh?" he says, wrongly pronouncing it "PES-kee," which I'm used to. "You any relation to Mrs. Peschke over in Stockdale?" I say she's my grandmother. "So Betty is your mother?" No, I say, my mother is Shirley. My parents are divorced now and my mom lives over in Gonzales. "Oh that's right," he replies, "so Betty is your aunt." I say that's right. This is another ritual I've gotten used to over the years. So many people know who you are just by your last name. I have no idea who this man is and probably wouldn't even if he told me his name.

I walk over to a table and sit behind the big folding screen that hides my voting from any prying eyes. Besides myself and the three workers, there is only one other man in the place. The old man who asked about my mother is explaining to him how to fill out the ballot, reeling off the same thing he told me, word for word, the same bad jokes and everything. I take the oversized number 2 pencil with a point on each end and no eraser in my hand, draw a deep breath, and start filling in the little ovals.

I don't like to say who exactly I vote for, let's just say that when the local voting results come out in the county newspaper next week, I want to make sure the Libertarian column isn't all zeros.

I slip the ballot into the big strongbox and hand the pencil back to the old man. The screen door creaks as I go out and slams slightly as the spring whips it back closed.

I look up at the sky and it isn't any brighter, but it isn't any darker either. As I start my pickup I catch myself whistling the old Rush song, Circumstances. I won't repeat the cliché here.

Highway 87 rolls away behind me as I head for San Antonio.