Julianne Couch, a part-time resident of fictional Oakdale, Illinois, says an early farewell to the cornfield town that's now 30 seconds from Chicago and "The Islands."
Oakdale, Illinois, a small town of undetermined location and size, lies in the path of a television tornado. No one in Illinois will notice its destruction. Not unless they are fans of the CBS soap opera As the World Turns. Nine months from now, in September 2010, As the World Turns will disappear into the mist of cancellation, and Oakdale will be packed up into memory’s trunk and placed in storage forever.
I have been a quasi-resident of Oakdale since the late 1970s, when I started college. In that time I have witnessed explosions, poisonings, car wrecks, baby-switchings, serial killings, kidnappings and one head-shrinking. Almost everyone in town has been wrongly imprisoned at least once. One person has come back from the dead a half-dozen times.
I’ve also seen Oakdalians confront the same tough realities as real people in the three-dimensional world. They have faced breast cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, racism, alcoholism, HIV, depression, rape, divorce and miscarriage. Recently, they’ve come to accept a romantic relationship between a pair of gay teens, complete with on-screen kissing — a first for daytime serials.
Geographically, Oakdale started out in the corn fields somewhere in central Illinois. The town now has at least one hospital, a television station, three newspapers, a university, a fancy hotel (where characters unaccountably live for long stretches), a dive motel, and a police force. It has a convenient airport, with jets on stand-by if one needs a quickie divorce in “the Islands.” Like the town of Springfield, where the cartoon Simpsons live, it has whatever geographical features suit the story line. Oakdale is an easy drive to the mountains, New York City, and of course, Chicago.
When I first moved to Oakdale for one hour a day, Chicago was rarely mentioned. It might come up if someone sought an abortion or needed an organ transplant. But over the years, Chicago has become central to the lives of Oakdalians. Either Chicago’s suburbs are sprawling or Oakdale is snurching north. Oakdalians are Cubs fans but seem to have little interest in the Bulls or the Bears. They go to the Windy City for rock concerts or occasional shopping trips. They can get there and back in no time, unless they slide off the road and hit a tree or are kidnapped along the way. Hey, it happens.
Oakdale has some transient residents but was established by a few fine families. Chris and Nancy Hughes moved to town in 1956. He was a lawyer and she supported their growing family working as a school teacher. The Hugheses and their contemporaries, the Stewart family, have had a love-hate relationship since those early days, for the usual sordid reasons.
The Snyder family came on the scene not long after I did. They live on a farm in Luther’s Corners, which used to be quite a drive from Oakdale but now can be reached in approximately 30 seconds. They farm and seem to breed horses. Recently, the farm was to be sold and the land developed, but in a moment of crisis the family changed its mind and stayed put.
Demographically, Oakdale’s diversity is fairly limited. The dating pool is composed of about a dozen extremely attractive men and women in their late teens to mid thirties. Other than a few bi-racial children adopted and then forgotten, almost everyone is white. Every few years a new African American person comes to town. Typically that person is a neurosurgeon or a lawyer. They resist being paired up with the other black person in town, but eventually the magnetism is too much for them. Once a black woman attorney married a white (Scottish) castle owner. He moved the castle to Oakdale and rebuilt it there. The couple faced racism, even among the fine families of Oakdale. Those individuals worked through their prejudices and came to accept the couple. Eventually the couple had a daughter. The family spent a lot of time in Chicago and eventually the pair divorced. The daughter grew up about five years later and married a prince. They have since split up.
People in Oakdale wear designer clothing and always have impeccable hair and makeup. No one wears sweatpants or ratty sneakers. (When the Snyders muck the barn they dress better than I do most days for work.) No one vacuums. No one needs to use the bathroom before leaving the house. Most of the people in Oakdale are doctors, nurses, lawyers, police detectives, fashion designers, television news anchors, successful entrepreneurs, or international shipping magnates. Young people in search of direction start out working as hospital orderlies. One of these left Oakdale for six months and came back a pediatrician.
Nine months. In soap opera time, that’s long enough to get pregnant, give birth, and pack the kid off to boarding school. But will it be enough time to resolve the heartbreak among Oakdale’s first families? What will become of the stories that have been told five days a week over more than five decades, through the imaginations of scores of writers?
What will become of matriarch Nancy Hughes, now in her 90s, or her son Dr. Bob Hughes, fighting Alzheimer’s disease but still working as chief of staff at Oakdale Memorial Hospital? And how will Lisa Grimaldi fill her time if she cannot keep running the Lakeview Hotel, the Argus newspaper and Fashions clothing boutique? Perhaps she’ll go boldly in search of a ninth husband. Will Lily find out the truth about Damian and reunite with Holden, who are, after all, “a part of each other”? Will Katie make peace with Brad’s death and find a new father for baby Jacob? Will Jack and Janet part amicably so he and Carly can “find their way back to each other”?
There will only be so many tomorrows for tuning in, watching generations drink too much coffee together in comfortable kitchens, talking about family. Oakdale will go from feeling as real as any place I’ve ever been to a hologram town, a museum piece of ephemera.
“As the world turns, we know the bleakness of winter, the promise of spring, the fullness of summer and the harvest of autumn – the cycle of life is complete. What is true of the world, nature, is also true of man – he too has his cycle.” Irna Phillips, who said that about the community of Oakdale which she created, must have also known something about the cycle of the public’s taste. The days of complexity and depth in television storytelling have gone with the wind.
A game show will take the place of As the World Turns. That, my friends, is how to shrink a head.