I have never had the privilege of visiting Vermont in person. But it is one state I would love to see, because of my experiences via the travel agent in my living room, my television set. I recall only two shows set in Vermont, but those two left an indelible impression on me, and Vermont has become one state I feel I’ve already spent considerable time in and must visit in person someday.
In the early 1980s, Bob Newhart introduced all us New England neophytes to Vermont when he took up residence as innkeeper of the Stratford Inn in a quiet nameless town, where the weather ranged from snowy to springy, with the occasional bout of glorious autumn. What was most striking about that town, and what made many of us long to find one like it, was the collection of eccentric inhabitants that made their way through the amusing daily routine of the Stratford. Even Dick’s beautiful wife Joanna, who began as a sensible woman, showed she’d been infected by dressing up like a Geisha because…well, you remember. In the end, Joanna was one of them. And we liked her better because of it.
Only occasionally did Dick Loudon venture outside the quaint walls of that refurbished 18th century inn, and when he did it was to encounter the eccentrics who hadn’t made it to his place. There was the French restaurant whose owner who threatened subtly to kill poor Dick just because he had inadvertently burned down the man’s prized bistro. And that’s where Michael had his nervous breakdown. Who could forget the TV station where Dick worked as host of “Vermont Today”, interviewing more eccentrics, such as the army Colonel who reported seeing dinosaurs in the Amazon and had a fuzzy picture to prove it. Or the “smallest horse” contest, where more eccentric Vermonters called in to say they had a horse smaller than the one Dick’s guest had brought in, whereupon they were invited to come down to the studio themselves; one lady brought her Bassett Hound. This left Dick with the look on his face we came to know and love, that of a man who is sure he’s the last sane person in the town, if not on the planet.
That town, which was shown briefly in the opening credits, looked like the sort of town many of us would like to raise children in. Small, generic, but somehow friendly. The dog running loose was a cause for concern, but the little mutt obviously knew where he was going, and it wasn’t out of town. There was a mall, too, so it wasn’t a tiny town, but this mall was not swarming with shoppers, so we could picture ourselves being comfortable there.
My impression of Vermont, just from the years Newhart aired, was that it was a state I could live in. I didn’t think all the inhabitants were eccentric, but they were surely every bit as likeable as Dick’s neighbors, so I was left with a smile on my face after spending a half hour a week with them.
Then there’s Lassie, in her late 20th century incarnation. Hudson Falls, Vermont, is the hometown to which Dr. Karen Cabot returns after her husband dies. With her, of course, is Timmy, one of the most likeable boys ever to grace the airways. How he finds Lassie and their subsequent adventures together made for a very relaxing 30 minutes a week indeed. I remember watching the original Lassie television series as a child and being comforted to know that there was no problem Lassie couldn’t help her people solve. All they had to do was follow her or pay attention when she barked, and everything was all right. When I rediscovered Lassie and Timmy, I had a feeling it all had something to do with where they lived; Vermont became a magical place and I looked forward to spending time there every week. It wasn’t only the place; it was the people who had chosen to live there.
The other residents of Hudson Falls were a combination of pleasant, funny, hard-working, sensible, and, well, eccentric. Besides Karen, Timmy, and Lassie, there were Doc Stewart, the retired Scotsman whose veterinary practice Karen took over, and Ethan Bennett, the old school chum who ran a sporting goods store and was most at home out of doors. And there was Jay Mack, owner of the Hudson Falls Cafe, a hard-working, practical man whose son Jeff is Timmy’s best friend. Then there’s Hollerin’ Hank Cranforth, owner of the junkyard who…well, you have to see Hank to believe him. But Hank could be forgiven anything, because he’s the one responsible for Timmy meeting Lassie. Rounding out the players in the small Vermont town’s cast of residents are Timmy’s other friends Murph, who whines about everything; Clark, the tough kid with a heart; and Natalie, Timmy’s puppy love interest. It all went together very nicely with the reputation of the state in which they were all supposed to have been born and bred. There seems to be something about Vermont that inspires loyalty and puts the lie to the old saw, “You can’t go home again.” Karen went home again and found what she needed. Timmy found Lassie. And Dick found it had all been a dream.
What did we find? That they lived where we’d like to live. Not just in a beautiful state of the union, but in a comforting and comfortable state of mind called Vermont.