ONE TOWN OVER
Anything that would be considered youth culture happens in Smith Center, and it’s divided by gender. The girls in town lucky enough to get and keep the gig work for Merry VanderGiesen at Jiffy Burger on Route 36, and the boys who practice hard enough play for the fabled high school football team, the Redmen. VanderGiesen has owned and operated Jiffy Burger for 33-and-a-half years. She guesses in that time she’s employed 400 to 500 girls. Inside the diner, walls are peppered with photographs of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, and the booths are ’50s-style two-tone vinyl. There’s even a Ms. Pac-Man machine in the corner that fits perfectly within the restaurant’s strict color palette, pink and white.
VanderGiesen’s employees are always female, mostly high school age, and all wear pink T-shirts at work. “The girls come and they apply and I start ’em,” she says. More than any other place in the county, Jiffy Burger is alive with the sound of gossip and laughter. One of the girls has just had her wisdom teeth pulled, and she’s carrying a picture of the aftermath. “Merry, do you want to see my teeth?” she asks. “No, I don’t. That’s gross,” replies VanderGiesen, both of them laughing now. “Go home, honey, you’re tired.”
Everybody gets a kick out of Merry, especially her girls, but more than a comedian or a boss or a cook, she is a source of guidance for young people in town. “You know, I truly get some girls here that, I mean, they’re not neglected at home, but in today’s society, most parents have to work,” she continues. “These girls have no one there when they get home from school to tell how their day was, blah, blah, blah. So where do they come? Here.”
If you want to know about Smith Center, the book Our Boys is a good starting point. Written by Joe Drape, in 2010, it outlines the small-town heroics of the high school team, who this year are already 3-0. On Friday, September 18, the Redmen traveled 90 miles south to Hays, the largest city in north Kansas with a population of around 21,000, to take on Thomas More Prep-Marian, a Catholic high school. It was TMP’s homecoming, and the game drew such a large crowd that the event was moved to Fort Hays State University’s field. The Redmen won 40-0, but at halftime TMP crowned its homecoming king and queen under the bright lights of the stadium. Parents and fellow students snapped pictures during what was a perfect Midwestern ceremony.
For visitors, this type of storybook Americana, with its pristine landscape and heartfelt displays of small-town camaraderie, is magnetic. The region is quintessential Great Plains farmland—“God’s country,” if you will. The mostly Christian folks are spread thin over flat expanses of beautiful earth. Teenagers peel out of parking lots in pickup trucks, then drive around for hours, listening to music and smoking cigarettes. Somehow, in the face of this seemingly immovable Middle American standard, Smith County left the door open for the unexpected, and in walked the utterly weird.