Mars, Pa., is a world away from here

September 17, 1996|By Susan Reimer

I HAVE BEEN to Mars and back, and I can say for certain that there is life there.

It is not the single-cell, microbiotic life scientists think existed 3.6 billion years ago on the hot rock that is our next-door neighbor in the solar system. It is the kind of life you find in a small town.

Mars, Pa., is 18 miles from Pittsburgh, and my sister discovered life there 20 years ago. She and her young husband stumbled on an affordable house in Mars, beyond the suburban sprawl that continues to grow out from the city.

The children born to her there are in full adolescent flower now, and she says she would fear them growing up anywhere but in the atmosphere of Mars. "I know they are missing out on some things here," Ellen says. "But I wouldn't raise kids anywhere else."

They are missing out on Playstation, my son declared, as we settled in for a week with Aunt Ellen. The next generation in video game technology had not made it to Mars, he said, confounded.

"They don't know about lettuce spinners, either," I said to him in a stage whisper. I discovered that when I sought a small hostess gift for my sister's kitchen.

But Mars has a flying saucer in its tiny town square, spray-painted silver and looking like something out of a bad 1950s movie.

"Mars likes to laugh at itself, doesn't it, Mom?" said Joe as we walked each morning to the grocery store to buy the fixings for that night's dinner. (No check-cashing card required. The women at the checkout know everyone who lives in Mars.)

Joe was right. Mars does have a sense of humor about itself. The midget football teams are named the Martians, the Astros and the Rockets. The high school team is called the Planets. The motto of the Mars Bank is "Our service is out of this world," and it is stamped on each check near a logo of a planet ringed with swirling gases.

"When I worked in Pittsburgh in the 1970s, I couldn't cash a check," my sister remembers. "They'd take one look and think it was a gag."

There is only one Mars, though the atlas lists a couple of Venuses and a few Jupiters. Some say that it was named by the wife of the town's first resident, Samuel Parks, in 1873. She was a student of astronomy. Others say it is named for Samuel Marshall, a judge who established the community's first post office.

Mars -- the small town -- is discovered again every time the red planet makes the news. When the Viking satellite landed on the planet in 1976, the town sold thousands of red soil samples for $1 each, dug from the brick yard near town. Tens of thousands of letters were mailed to Mars that year, requesting a postmark. T-shirts, bumper stickers, caps and postcards sold wildly.

When this latest news was announced -- that primitive microscopic life may have been found on a meteorite that came from Mars and landed in Antarctica 13,000 years ago -- People magazine and the BBC discovered Mars again.

But you have to stay in Mars longer than it takes to get a sound bite or a gimmicky picture to enjoy the "Andy of Mayberry" quality of it, to feel your pulse slow to the pace of life there.

When Interstate 79 made its way north, it had a Mars exit for a time and the residents of Mars, shrunk now to 1,700, thought for sure they would be overrun by colonizing city dwellers. But the name of the exit was changed and Mars drifted back into its anonymous quietude.

In Mars, residents still pick up their mail at Judge Marshall's post office in what serves as downtown. City fathers won't allow home delivery, fearing the heart of town will stop beating if people do not have to visit it.

That is hard for anyone who has eaten at Howard's cafe to imagine. Howard likes to cook, and so he is at his grill every morning at 4, putting together his $1.99 breakfast special. And nothing tastes as good for lunch as Howard's hot roast beef sandwich with french fries and gravy. $2.25.

Mars is not big enough for a stoplight, though it has a blinking red one. You can hear the whistle of the CSX train at 5 a.m. and again at 5 p.m. A rabbit takes the same path through the neighbor's yard and into my sister's garden every evening at dusk. My sister knows that because, in Mars, you spend the evening on your front porch sipping coffee while the kids race around on their bikes or draw on the street with chalk.

People leave their car keys in the ignition overnight and their front doors open for a midnight breeze in Mars. No one distrusts his neighbor. I have a sister who locks her doors when she takes a shower. Ellen only locks her doors when she leaves on vacation.

On her 40th birthday, Ellen's husband painted a huge sign for her and stuck it right in the middle of downtown Mars. "Happy Birthday, Ellen" was all it said. But throughout the day, the people of Mars wished my sister a happy birthday. They knew who "Ellen" was.

"Rudi just laughs at John," Ellen says, speaking of the differences between our street-smart, city-boy nephew and her son. "Rudi wouldn't trust a stranger with his real name. John would trust a stranger with his wallet."

Joe, too, is city-wise. On one of our evening walks, he saw a little boy playing with a puppy while a little girl rode a swing nearby. "Oh, Mom. This is too much," he said. "I don't believe what I am seeing. In our neighborhood, it would be some guy walking a pit bull with a spiked collar."

"Joe," I said, laughing. "You exaggerate."

"OK. Maybe not that bad. But I feel like Aunt Ellen lives back in time."

No, Joe, I think. It is like she lives on another planet.

Pub Date: 9/17/96

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