By Sarah Van Harpen   Published Oct 14, 2002 at 5:27 AM

Michael Perry lives in a place where everybody knows his name. As a freelance writer, volunteer firefighter and EMT, Perry lives and works in the very tiny town of New Auburn located in northwest Wisconsin, and recently wrote a book about it, "Population: 485." OMC had a chance to talk with the disarmingly humble Perry about his book, his life and his thoughts on small-town America.

Published in magazines such as Esquire, The New York Times Magazine and Outside, Perry has a colorful history. Growing up as a farm kid in a town just north of New Auburn, he financed his way through college by working during the summers as a ranch hand in Wyoming.

"I never knew if they kept me around because I was a hard worker, or because I was their entertainment," says Perry. He claims he "wasn't the world's greatest cowboy," constantly tangling himself up in lassos or getting dragged across the coral.

While writing was something Perry always enjoyed, he got a degree in nursing from the University of Wisconsin -- Eau Claire and went on to work for a surgeon. Eventually, Perry moved to New Auburn, to be a freelance writer and stayed true to his roots by becoming a part-time volunteer firefighter (alongside his mother and several brothers) and EMT.

In his new book "Population: 485," Perry writes from his upstairs bedroom, looking down on the main street of New Auburn. He writes about his personal experiences as an EMT and firefighter in a town where chances are likely that he'll bump into a person at the grocery store who is connected in some way to the emergency call that he made the day or week before. Living in such tight quarters can be a very humanizing experience and as Perry met his neighbors, one by one, it began to give him a sense of place and community.


"Population: 485" is also about the town itself, and its ever-changing history. In recent years, many of the family farms in New Auburn have been forced to sell-off and local businesses have closed. But Perry isn't bitter and he doesn't believe that small towns like New Auburn are a dying breed. "Not dying, just changing," says Perry. "Things have been changing since day one."

Perry sites the many industries that have run their course through New Auburn, from bricks to pickles, wagons and even potatoes. "Everybody is looking for equanimity," says Perry. "But change is part of the comforting certainty of life."

Perry writes honestly about the business of saving lives. There are the times for absurdity and hilarity, like being positioned for a period of time during a rescue effort directly under the back end of a cow, or having onion-chunked projectile vomit hurled in his direction.

But fear is also an ever-present factor that Perry very candidly describes in his book. He talks about the tight rope that rescue workers tread lightly on, only a misstep away from disaster. And there is another kind of fear, the knowledge that often upon arriving at a scene what he will find is tragic.

"It isn't easy to deal with it in general ... I dread going through it, but on the other side you learn that it wasn't a function of anonymity," says Perry, "I see a person a year later smiling and think about how far they've come since that day ... It's not always easy. But that's life, and life's not easy."

Perry doesn't accept the title "hero" for this job, and hesitates to even talk about it. "I'm nobody special -- I just don't faint when I see the sight of blood," says Perry.

The book is also a tribute to the many funny, quirky and richly layered people in his town. " The characters in the book are fascinating, but very real," says Perry. "They are in every town. I was just lucky enough to get to write about the particular ones in New Auburn."

"Population: 485" is a not just about life in a small town, rather it's universal in its themes about history and people. "It's all about reconnecting with the community," says Perry.

And while this is true, Perry also captures the essence of the some of the small things that make living in a tiny town in Wisconsin a rich experience like taking a run outside after midnight, frigid cold air filling your lungs, moonlight lighting your way and a calm silence only heard outside of city territory.

"The book is a real mixture of humor, thoughtfulness and outright tragedy," says Perry.

Perry will be visiting the area for readings, 7:30 p.m., Mon., Oct. 21 at Village Books, located at N80 W14928 Appleton Ave., in Menomonee Falls. And at 7:00 p.m., Thurs., Oct. 24 at the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop, 10976 N. Port Washington Rd., in Mequon.