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In the end, political skepticism gives way to community spirit

TROY - The moose looked frantic, antlers flopping as he spun 'round and 'round, while the angel and the butterfly danced away in single file.

"Which way do I go?" cried the moose. "Where am I going?"

"Where are you going?" answered the tiny woman on the street. "What's that? You don't ask where you're going when you're in the middle of a parade. You just keep moving, keep moving, keep moving."

And the moose ambled off, a 20-foot-tall Indian close on his heels.

Left behind, dwarfed by the Indian and a giant sturgeon, was the tiny woman, who ran up and down the rows of papier-mache schoolkids Monday, keeping a loose rein on the chaos she had created.

"I've never done anything quite like this," she yelled as she ran past. "Nothing this huge."

While huge certainly does not describe Beth Nixon's physical stature, it does capture her infectious energy, which came whirling into the tiny town of Troy five weeks ago.

Nixon, a puppeteer from Philadelphia, was hired as artist-in-residence for Troy and Yaak, charged with building a community celebration from scratch.

"The whole thing is about joy, about celebrating community diversity," said Yaak resident Elizabeth Bass. "No matter who you are, no matter what your politics, this was a day for people to come together and find some joy in this place we all call home."

But joy is not always so easy to come by in this neck of the woods. In an area where the economy is sagging and changing, an area fractured and divided by arguments about logging and mining and environmental preservation, an area where opinions run as strong as the surging spring runoff roaring down the Yaak River, joy and community solidarity can be a tough sell.

A few years ago, April 15 marked a day of protest just a couple miles from here, a day for burning tax forms and the United Nations flag, a day when shopkeepers shuttered their windows, fearing that anti-government protesters - their neighbors - might become violent.

This year, April 15 represented a show of community spirit, a celebration of common reasons people call this place home. But for a while, at least, it seemed that even a children's puppet parade might whip up politics to rival those of the earlier tax-day rally.

The problem wasn't Nixon and her puppets, but rather the source of her paycheck.

The Yaak Valley Forest Council - a local environmental group - helped secure the grant that brought Nixon to town. The grant, administered by Duke University, came from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

And therein lies the rub. The Pew is a foundation known for its socially liberal politics, and it wasn't long before some folks started seeing shadows of a hidden agenda behind the facade of a puppet show.

After all, if the environmentalists had joined forces with the Pew to invade the local school curriculum, then who knew what the kids might be subjected to in their art class. To make matters worse, the East Coast artist-in-residence was asking the kids to work with only recycled materials in a town where loggers sit idle and out of work.

The local newspaper received a letter signed by 22 nervous people, containing what the paper called "concerns about … the liberal nature of the Pew Foundation" and a possible "hidden agenda."

Other letters took the project to task for not being "a truly engaging, educational and community oriented project."

So much for community joy.

But as the moose staggered, half-blind under his oversize, papier-mache head, and the trees twirled circles around the mountain, it was, in the end, exactly what Bass hoped it would be. It was all about joy.

Even the scowling naysayers broke a grin and joined a silly version of the "Hokey Pokey" because that is, after all, what it's all about.

"It's about being creative and letting your imagination run," said Terrel Jones, art teacher at Troy's junior high and high school. "And it's an opportunity to learn how to make great puppets and tie it in to a little history."

The history came in the form of Nixon's request that the 300 or so students craft puppets that told the story of the area's past, present and future.

"This got the kids thinking hard about place," said Bass. "They chose their own way to represent that place."

And after the parade, the puppets lined up at either end of the high school football field to tell the story of their place.

With hundreds of townspeople crowding the stands, two students held up a giant placard with the words, "Welcome to our abridged timeline of … HERE."

A second placard rose up, the words "AT FIRST" written boldly across the white cardboard face.

A gong rang out, creating an odd sense of drama with these two surreal groups of puppets facing each other like opposing armies, and a papier-mache comet streaked diagonally across the field. The sun chased not far behind, with clouds swirling about it. Trees and snowflakes emerged to take the field with a mountain - Mount Henry, to be exact - as flutes, rattles, slide whistles and a kazoo were joined by a trombone and a banjo in a rhythmic improvisational interpretation of the Beginning.

Another placard - "THEN" - another gong, and insects crawled out onto the field with dinosaurs, river monsters and a flowing red dragon.

Behind, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train rumbled by, whistle blowing, adding to the cacophonous roar with a bit of the decidedly "now" mixing with the "THEN."

A fourth placard - "AND THEN" - and another loud gong brought out fire, birds, animals, a school of fish following a giant sturgeon. Drums joined the kazoo and slide whistle, along with a rain stick and some bells. Moose, raven and wolf marched out, in step with the 20-foot Indian.

"NEXT," and another gong, and out came a giant logger chasing a tree. A miner, pickax in hand, joined the dance, along with cowboys and a "train" of kindergartners. The band shifted to a jumbled version of "I've Been Working on the Railroad."

"AND NOW," another gong, a guitar riff, and out walked a towering if not exactly lifelike version of Doreen and Tammy, the barkeeps at Troy's Home Bar.

"The Home Bar's been here forever," said a woman in the crowd. "It's the past, present and future for Troy."

With the bar came the entire town - houses, groceries, schools, churches, all in cardboard miniature, with a human-size packrat running amid the buildings. School buses and logging trucks and snow plows and bulldozers churned past the bar.

"STILL," another gong, and the clouds again swirled about the mountain, more animals, a wolf, snowflakes, another train.

"SOON?," the gong, a carousel horse, Troy college, lots of people, new faces in town, an angel over it all, the hopes of the next generation. Squeaks and squeals and drums and horns and bells kept a frantic rhythm.

"OR?," another comet, a beast from space, the Yaakness monster, rockets, little green men, all dancing to an electric guitar growling feedback through a too-close if futuristic amp.

And, finally, "LATER." Giant birds with streaming feathers took the field, flying with a flock of question marks, perhaps the most accurate puppets representing Troy's future.

The last placard, "TO BE CONTINUED (By all of Us)," brought cheers, as the schoolchildren shed their cardboard and papier-mache to dance together while the band picked up "When the Saints Go Marching In."

"It's just incredible that they got this together," said spectator Joan Mackey, watching as her fifth-grade granddaughter waved along with kindergartners and high-schoolers. "If this wasn't a great learning experience, I don't know what is."

And did the kids, in their fit of creativity, come close to defining their place in this place?

"It's not so much definition as it is an all-inclusive celebration of … something … imagination, I guess," Nixon said. "It's about who they are, and this place is a part of that."

Somewhere amid the chaos, as if to turn tables and teach their elders a lesson, a small group of kids had broken into an impromptu version of the "Hokey Pokey." They were laughing, smiling, singing together, all from different backgrounds, different families with different politics, and yet here they were, putting their right foot in, taking their right foot out.

Because, after all, that's what it's all about.

Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at (800) 366-7186 or at mjamison@missoulian.com.

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