Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time

Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time

by Michael Perry, Mike Perry


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Mike Perry’s extraordinary and thoughtful account of meeting the people of his small hometown by joining the fire and rescue team was a breakout hit that “swells with unadorned heroism” (USA Today)

Welcome to New Auburn, Wisconsin (population: 485) where the local vigilante is a farmer’s wife armed with a pistol and a Bible, the most senior member of the volunteer fire department is a cross-eyed butcher with one kidney and two ex-wives (both of whom work at the only gas station in town), and the back roads are haunted by the ghosts of children and farmers. Michael Perry loves this place. He grew up here, and now-after a decade away-he has returned.

Unable to polka or repair his own pickup, his farm-boy hands gone soft after years of writing, Mike figures the best way to regain his credibility is to join the volunteer fire department. Against a backdrop of fires and tangled wrecks, bar fights and smelt feeds, he tells a frequently comic tale leavened with moments of heartbreaking delicacy and searing tragedy.

Tracing his calls on a map in the little firehouse, he sees “a dense, benevolent web, spun one frantic zigzag at a time” from which the story of a tiny town emerges.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060198527
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/08/2002
Edition description: 1ST
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.89(d)

About the Author

Michael Perry is a humorist, radio host, songwriter, and the New York Times bestselling author of several nonfiction books, including Visiting Tom and Population: 485, as well as a novel, The Jesus Cow. He lives in northern Wisconsin with his family and can be found online at www.sneezingcow.com.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Jabowski's Corner

We are in trouble down here. There is blood in the dirt. We have made our call for help. Now we look to the sky.

Summer here comes on like a zaftig hippie chick, jazzed on chlorophyll and flinging fistfuls of butterflies to the sun. The swamps grow spongy and pungent. Standing water goes warm and soupy, clotted with frog eggs and twitching with larvae. Along the ditches, heron-legged stalks of canary grass shoot six feet high and unfurl seed plumes. In the fields, the clover pops its blooms and corn trembles for the sky.

If you were approaching from the sky, you would see farmland neatly delineated by tilled squares and irrigated circles. The forests, mostly hardwoods and new-growth pine, butt up against fields, terminating abruptly, squared off at fence lines. The swamps and wetlands, on the other hand, respect no such boundaries, and simply meander the lay of the land, spreading organically in fecund hundred-acre stains. The whole works is done up in an infinite palette of greens.

There is a road below, a slim strip of county two-lane, where the faded blacktop runs east-west, then bends -- at Jabowski's Corner -- like an elbow. In the crook of the elbow, right in the space where you would cradle a baby, is a clot of people. My mother is there, and my sister, and several volunteer firefighters, and I have just joined them, and we are all on our knees, kneeling in a ring around a young girl who has been horribly injured in a car wreck. She is crying out, and we are doing what we can, but she feels death pressing at her chest. She tells us this, and we deny it, tellher no, no, help is on the way.

I do my writing in a tiny bedroom overlooking Main Street in the village of New Auburn, Wisconsin. Population: 485. Eleven streets. One four-legged silver water tower. Seasons here are extreme. We complain about the heat and brag about the cold. Summer is for stock cars and softball. Winter is for Friday-night fish fries. And snowmobiles. After a good blizzard, you'll hear their Doppler snarl all through the dark, and down at the bar, sleds will outnumber cars. In the surrounding countryside, farmsteads with little red barns have been pretty much kicked in the head, replaced with monster dairies, turkey sheds, and vinyl-sided prefabs. The farmers who came to town to grind feed and grumble in the café have faded away. The grand old buildings are gone. There is a sense of decline. Or worse, of dormancy in the wake of decline. But we are not dead here. We still have our Friday-night football games. Polka dances. Bowling. If you know who to ask, you can still get yourself some moonshine, although methamphetamine has become the favored homebrew. Every day, the village dogs howl at the train that rumbles through town, and I like to think they are echoing their ancestors, howling at that first train when it stopped here in 1883. Maybe that's all you need to know about this town -- the train doesn't stop here anymore.

Mostly I write at night, when most of this wee town -- except for the one-man night shift at the plastics factory, and the most dedicated drinkers, and the mothers with colicky babies, and the odd insomniac widower, and the young couples tossing and turning over charge card balances and home pregnancy tests -- is asleep. This is my hometown, and in these early hours, when time is gathering itself, I can kill the lights, crack the blinds, and, looking down on Main Street, see the ghost of my teenage self, snake-dancing beneath the streetlight, celebrating some football game twenty years gone. I was a farm boy then, rarely in town for anything other than school activities. I didn't see Main Street unless I was in a parade or on a school bus.

But now Main Street is in my front yard. On a May evening nineteen years ago I walked out of the school gym in a blue gown and left this place. Now I have returned, to a house I remember only from the perspective of a school bus seat. In a place from the past, I am looking for a place in the present. This, as they say, is where my roots are. The trick is in reattaching. About a month after I moved back, I dropped by the monthly meeting of the volunteer fire department.

The New Auburn fire department was formed in 1905. The little village was just thirty years old, but it had already seen its share of change. The sawmill that spawned the settlement ran out of pine trees and shut down before the turn of the century. Forests gave way to farmland and New Auburn became a potato shipping center. Large, hutlike charcoal kilns sprang up beside the rail depot. In time, the village has been home to a wagon wheel factory, a brick factory, and a pickle factory. There was always something coming and going. But then, in 1974, the state converted the two lanes of Highway 53 to four lanes and routed them west of town, and the coming and going pretty much went. We have a gas station, two cafés, a couple of bars, and a handful of small businesses, but the closest thing to industry is the plastics factory, which employs two men per shift, rolling plastic pellets into plastic picnic table covers. Most of the steady work, the good-paying stuff, is thirty or forty miles away. During the day, the streets are still. It is from this shallow pool that the community must skim its firefighters. If we get a fire call during a weekday, we are likely to have more fire trucks than volunteer firefighters to drive them.

During that first meeting, a motion was made and seconded to consider my application as a member. The motion carried on a voice vote, and I was admitted on probationary status. After the meeting concluded, the chief led me to the truck bay. He is a stout man, burly but friendly. By day he dispatches freight trucks. "Try on these boots," he said. "We've got a helmet around here somewhere." Someone handed me a stiff pair of old fire pants -- bunkers, they're called. A farmer in a bar jacket showed me how to shift the pumper, his cigarette a sing-along dot dancing from word to word. That was it. I was now a member of the NAAFD -- the New Auburn Area Fire Department.

Population: 485. Copyright © by Michael Perry. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Adrienne Miller

“This is a quietly devastating book—intimate and disarming and lovely.”

Reading Group Guide

Welcome to New Auburn, Wisconsin -- population 485. Twelve years ago, author Michael Perry left this place. Now he is back, living on Main Street and hoping to reconnect with his hometown. A month after returning, Perry drops by the monthly meeting of the local volunteer fire department and finds himself voted into the roster. Outfitted with hand-me-down gear and shown how to drive the fire truck, Perry -- an EMT and nurse by training -- begins answering fire and ambulance calls. After a particularly moving call, he writes, "I began to realize how this fire department was a means of reentry…a way to weave myself back into the fabric of a place…to accrete history and acquaintance…to meet my neighbors at the invitation of the fire siren."

Propelled by dramatic events, Population: 485 is also a thoughtful and frequently humorous exploration of an American small town. Beyond the blood and fire, much of the color is provided by the cast of local characters. Bob the One-Eyed Beagle is a visually-impaired butcher with one kidney and two ex-wives -- both of whom work at the only gas station in town. A scooter-bound woman named Ramona calls the ambulance to rescue her overheated goose. The local vigilante is a farmer's wife armed with a pistol and a Bible.

Perry's exploration of the human need for a sense of place unfolds from a series of offbeat perspectives -- an archive of village board minutes from the turn of the 19th century, the rubble pile left by the demolition of the Farmers Store, a patch of cattails in the middle of a swamp, the heart of a raging trailer house fire, a speeding ambulance. Tracing his calls on a map in the firehouse, Perry sees"a dense, benevolent web, spun one frantic zigzag at a time," from which the story of a place and its people emerges.

In the final chapter of Population: 485 Perry's younger brother and fellow firefighter Jed arrives first on an accident scene to find his wife of seven weeks in one of the cars, mortally injured. In telling his brother's story, Perry wonders if the power of place is sufficient to transcend this ultimate tragedy.

Discussion Questions
  1. Have you returned home after being away for an extended period? If so, what was it like? Was town the same as you remembered? Did you choose to stay?

  2. Does New Auburn remind you of your community or any community you have been to? While Perry highlights details intended to make New Auburn and some of its residents seem unique, is it possible that these details also make them more universal?

  3. What is the small town dynamic? How does it differ from life in bigger cities? How is the small town dynamic replicated within segments of larger cities? Perry has said he enjoys exploring New York City. Might there not be comfort in the anonymity of a larger place?

  4. Perry seems to deal with the notion of death and emergency situations very calmly and rationally. Are these abilities inherent, or can they be learned? How do you deal with similar situations? How did you feel when you read the line, "Puke is the great constant."?

  5. Perry explores the stressful aspects of fire and ambulance calls, but he also suggests that even the worst calls weave themselves into a sense of history and place that is ultimately comforting. How does the passage of time contribute to this process? How might it differ from person to person?

  6. Not everyone can go home or would want to. What is it in Perry's personality that draws him back to his hometown? Is finding your place in the community an active or a passive process?

  7. If you could share a bowl of piping hot deep-fried cheese curds with one character in Population: 485, who would it be, and why?
About the Author: Michael Perry was raised on a dairy farm in New Auburn, Wisconsin. He has worked at a variety of jobs including forklift driver, backhoe operator, truck driver, proofreader, physical therapy aide, and put himself through nursing school by working as a cowboy in Wyoming. His writing has appeared in Esquire, Newsweek, New York Times Magazine, Salon, and many others. To date, Perry is the only member of the New Auburn Area Fire Department to have missed a monthly meeting because of a poetry reading.

Customer Reviews

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Population 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 42 reviews.
DanDman8 More than 1 year ago
Could not put it done. You can tell when a writter loves the material. Write about what you know, Mike knows his material...his life. Very funny.
porch_reader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
We are reading Population: 485 for my real-life book club this month. In it, Michael Perry shares his unique perspective on the small Wisconsin town in which he lives. After being away for a number of years, he returned to his hometown and joined the fire department. As volunteer firefighter and first responder, he is called to help neighbors who he has known for years and even family members. While the book as a whole is a bit disconnected, there are passages that are beautifully written about his experiences as a firefighter and about the experience of living in a small town. I grew up in a town of just over 300 and currently live in a town of just over 2000, and I was impressed at Perry's ability to capture the experience of small town life.
sproutchild on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My favorite of his books. Loved the small town stories and pictures painted of the people who inhabit it. Reading Truck: A Love Story now, and not finding it to be as engaging.
helpfulsnowman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Good book about a man finding his way back home. After leaving, Michael Perry returns to small-town Wisconsin where he works as an on-call first-responder with the fire department. When I described the book to a friend, he was afraid it would dip into schmaltzy territory, stories of charming old folks on the porch and helmet-thumping firefighter pride. Well, it doesn't. It presents the magic of a small town without pushing it into talking about the good ol days or any of that nonsense. Personally, I prefer Perry's Truck: a Love Story, but this is a good one too and is of special interest to anyone involved in the medical profession.
ferdinand1213 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was an important part of my naturalization as a Wisconsinite. I would definitely recommend it.
HistReader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A great and interesting view into the volunteers who staff small town ambulance services. As a skillful author, Michael Perry will keep those unfamiliar with field medicine engaged.
omniavanitas on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I found the writing style a little hard to get into at first. It's a bit precious for my taste, but I did enjoy the book ultimately. He doesn't romanticize, but the stories are interesting.
courtneygood on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read this soon after I read Ambulance Girl by Jane Stern (which I highly recommend). Population 485 is Michael Perry's account of small town life and work as a fireman. It's very random, and pretty entertaining.
dawng on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I heard this author speak on Wisconsin Public Radio and fell in love with him. I wish I could say the same about the book. For some reason, I just couldn't get into it. I will try it again, someday.
crom74 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Definitely worthy of a read. This is a good book chronicling one man's (and one community's) ties and bonds over the years. As one reviewer stated, it is random, but I think random in a good way. You get a good view of various things that happen that are all interconnected. I love small towns.
KimHeniadis More than 1 year ago
This was a fantastic read, although I may be a bit biased since I live in a small village in Wisconsin. Michael Perry is a wonderful storyteller, and his those skills shine in this memoir. Even though this is a small town, I think readers will see many similarities with people in their own neighborhoods, even if you live in a big city. Perry often says that he stays a bit apart from the community, but the way he writes with such depth and emotion about the various people in the town, makes it feel otherwise. And how he incorporates local history, at just the right moment, is done perfectly. It never feels jarring to go from reading about one of his neighbors, to reading about how the local fire department was formed. For me, sometimes reading about history can be a bit dull, but Perry makes it interesting, adding a touch of humor to lighten it up a bit. Learning about first responders was another very interesting part to this book. I have never realized that they do so much. Besides being there while the crisis is happening, they also stick around afterwards to clean up the scene. And the fact that they are volunteers, making very little money, and still being on call pretty much 24/7, is amazing. They give so much to their community without asking for anything in return. Although some of the scenes are graphic, Perry doesn’t write them that way for shock value, and it made me think even more highly of the people who do this, and all they have to deal with. I highly, highly recommend this book. And if you have the time, encourage you to volunteer as a first responder.
LovesBooksMA More than 1 year ago
I am ordering this book! Michael Perry is a gifted storyteller; I've enjoyed his other books and looking forward to Population 485.
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Funny, thoughtful and insightful.
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Donna Huntress More than 1 year ago
this is one of my favorite books. you are tempted to readit outloud to your friends.
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Dollycas More than 1 year ago
Michael Perry returns back to his home town, New Auburn, Wisconsin. A town in Northwestern Wisconsin, Population 485. He left 10 years ago and landed in Wyoming were he worked as a cowboy and put himself through nursing school. Now he is home, has bought a house on Main Street and is happy to be closer to his mother and brothers. Both his brothers belong to the fire department and his mother is a first responder for the area. Michael decides the best way to reconnect with the community is to join the fire department and use his nursing training to study to become an EMT and his mother joins him in the class. This is your typical small town, everyone knows everything about everybody, and Michael thinks it's the perfect place to write. Using the emergency calls, grass and chimney fires, accidents and dinners as background for his stories he brings the little town to life on the pages of this book. Humor and tragedy, heartbreak and devastating heartache we meet Michael's neighbors one siren at a time. I LIKED IT!!!! I had several reasons for wanting to read this book. First, when I started this blog I challenged myself to read books written by Wisconsin authors or that used Wisconsin as the setting for the story. This books meets both those requirements. Secondly, I am from a small town in Wisconsin, a little bigger than New Auburn, but growing up there was pure joy and at that time, everyone knew everything about everybody. That town has changed and grown and is no longer the town of my memories. Also while growing up in that small town, my father was a fireman, later the fire chief, and when the fire department was in charge of the ambulance service he was the equivalent of what is now an EMT or First Responder. He even had the Fire Training School at Madison Area Technical College dedicated to him just 2 weeks after he died. The stories in this book were wonderfully told and brought back so many memories. It prompted a call to my sister who had also read the book some time ago and we spent an hour reminiscing about our dad, who passed away in 1988, some of the stories were so funny, we wish we could write a book. Thank you Michael Perry for writing this book and giving us our Dad back for a few minutes. Michael Perry has the gift of storytelling and anyone who likes to read about life in a small town, firefighters, EMTs, or anyone who believes in giving back will appreciate and truly enjoy this book. If you would just like to read a good story told by a fresh voice you will like this book. Note: This book was published in 2002 and new copies of this book may be hard to find but there are plenty used copies available at both Barnes & Noble.com and Amazon.com. This book was from my private collection. No compensation was received.
neccy More than 1 year ago
i expected much more from this book than i got..while the idea was great.i was expecting the writing to be (lets say) more small town..i sometimes felt as if i were reading about two different stories..one down to earth and the other written by a rhodes scholar who didn't seem to belong in a small town..it was a difficult book to finish...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My husband is a volunteer firefighter, and we both grew up - and now live - in a very small rural community. I can relate to this author and his anecdotes. I wouldn't say it's necessarily the most intriguing book I've ever read, but it made me laugh right out loud (honestly!) and also cry with empathy at some of his experiences. I think Perry is an interesting person whose writing style is enjoyable to read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago