Friday, August 21, 2009

Change

If you are here for Friday's Feast, I am currently on vacation and am giving you an extra week to prepare something. To submit your contribution to the Feast, go here. But before you do— please give a nice warm welcome to Clark Kent (AKA: CK Lunchbox). I would like to thank CK Lunchbox @ Clark Kent's Lunchbox for today's post about change:


Change

To CaJoh and his readers, thank you for having me today while our host is away on his trip. I recently returned from a trip myself—my annual trek to my hometown in Western Pennsylvania. Compared to living in Houston where just this past week the highs reached 107, the temperate summer and lush greenness of my parents' place in the country was more than a welcome relief.

I'm proud of my hometown. It's the kind of place people inevitably deem as quaint. Despite its cliché connotation, I suppose the term is apt in a reassuring sort of way. There's a markethouse built over one-hundred years ago which is still operational today. Years back, my grandfather used to be a popular figure there, chatting for hours with patrons as they perused his assortment of garlic, peppers and onions displayed in old-style bushel baskets that lined his booth.

In the center of town you will find the city park protected by dignified oak and maple trees that stand with a patriarchal air as they shade a gazebo, a water fountain, and several traditional monuments commemorating the founding fathers and fallen heroes of past wars. Later that week I took my youngest son there for some one-on-one time, and like any rambunctious five-year old, he made a beeline to the old cannons where he could climb the pyramid of cannon balls stacked nearby.

Surrounding the park are the city's original high school, the library, and the National Guard Armory—home to the "Bloody Bucket Division" who earned their tough-as-nails nickname from the Germans during World War One. Four distinct churches—Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal and Unitarian—dominate the perimeter; several more are mere blocks away. Such an anomaly lead one visitor to famously quip that "this town must have many sins to atone for." The last notable structure, and town's centerpiece, is the courthouse which reminds you of the one in Philadelphia where our country's independence was signed.

Every time I exit off Interstate 79, I ease back on the gas to a leisurely speed conducive for taking in these and other landmarks that served as the backdrop to my life growing up. I took them for granted back then, which might be why I now take the long way to my parents', pointing out to my five children the significance of one place or another as if I were a tour guide in Hollywood. However, their zombie-ish "uh-hu's" tells me they are more interested in Spongebob's antics than in knowing President William McKinley attended college here, or that the oil industry was born thirty miles outside of town. That's okay. After the tenth or twelfth trip here, these facts will sink in for them eventually.

Still, for all my excitement over things like one of the country's oldest, operable wooden roller coasters being located nearby, and that John Wilkes Booth allegedly left in one of the town's hotels, clues of his intent to kill President Lincoln, there's a contrasting emotion that tempers this enthusiasm: sadness. The water from the park fountain gurgles in a laboring fashion similar to that of a terminally ill patient struggling in their last remaining days. The once exuberant roller coasters now naps under a blanket of cobwebs until organizers can wake it up for another circuit around its tracks. And the markethouse, universally viewed to be a symbol of the town's economic health, sees only a trickle of business underscoring the lack of money available to spend on such relics.

Before some soulless, corporate muckety-muck devised the concept of outsourcing jobs so my mother could argue with some kid in New Delhi over why Dell didn't ship her the right computer monitor from Austin, Texas, that park fountain spouted water ten feet into the air, that roller coaster whipped screaming kids along its tracks, and that markethouse bustled with vendors and buyers who spilled out onto the building's exterior walkways. To witness this past erode brings on a feeling of melancholy that's hard to escape. Like my parents and grandparents I would be prefacing childhood memories with the phrase, "there used to be." Things change.

Normally on these visits I don't have much of an opportunity to catch up friends, but on this trip I did, meeting a guy who was my best friend before the natural forces of adolescence channeled us down different courses as we entered high school. Before then we did the normal things boys do—build forts, fight bad guys, ride bikes. One time we snuck onto the bus our church used to pickup children for Sunday school and then proceeded to help ourselves to the best iced sugar cookies I've ever tasted. Problem was, those cookies were intended for the riders, usually poor kids from broken homes who rarely received such treats. Needless to say we were caught and paid the price for it.

I arrived at the predesignated restaurant before he did, unsure of what to expect. It had been ten, maybe fifteen years since we had last spoken, and then a few months ago, through the magic of Facebook, he found me. As kids, we had different temperaments: me, quiet and standoffish; he, energetic and always in motion—today they call it ADHD—so it made me curious as to who would walk through the door. That person turned out to be a mature, charming, and funny man. He had joined the police force, was a loving husband and a father of two. Our time sharing stories and laughs proved to be a highlight of the trip for me.

As got ready to leave, my friend congratulated me on my upcoming book, the mention of which compelled me to set some expectations for him on the topic. "Man, I have to say that the book…well, I'm afraid some of the people around here might be surprised—offended actually about some of the stuff I wrote." My friend and I grew up in a traditional God-fearing environment that emphasized clean living and Christian values, none of which I hold any particular grudge against. Yet, in sharing my experiences gained in a world far away from such a wholesome environment, it was sure to make for both good gossip and scornful judgment. Because people tend to remember you within the same context of who you were when they last knew you, such negative reactions concerned me.

An understanding grin spread across my friends face. "Oh, Ron, you don't need to worry 'bout that with me. I've seen or done pretty much all of those things they say you shouldn't. That just who we are." He shook his head. "And look at it this way, if we hadn't gone through some of that stuff we might not be with such wonderful wives and have such great families." My friend's words—simple and insightful—gave a peace that allowed me to reconcile the innocence of the past with reality of who I had become after leaving home.

We shook hands, and said our goodbyes. As I watching him turn the corner, a comforting thought occurred to me. When it comes to hometowns, some change—the kind that transforms those who were once so prominent in our lives into the best versions of themselves—is a good thing.

Photos: (Top) First Methodist Church, 1895, note the cannons and pyramid of ammo; (Middle) The Markethouse, 1840's; (Bottom) Diamond Park, 1910, those trees are now the mighty patriarchs referenced.

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