Friday, August 21, 2009


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:


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.


Anonymous said...

I don't mind change so much. But it can be a tad over-whelming, depending what has transpired since one's last visit(to an old familiar place ). I reference a trip back to a child-hood town where old haunts no longer exist; or have been transformed into something else...

Grumpy, M.D. said...

Good post, CK. I'm lucky enough to still live and work in my hometown, with my whole family here. I've seen it change, A LOT, but it's still home.

Unknown said...

Very nicely written CK! I think it is hard to go back to 'home' and see what changes have taken place. I know that I never want to drive past my childhood home anymore because the area has not prospered in the 15 years since my parents owned the house. I actually never visit my hometown as my parents moved 40 minutes away to another state. Even the place where my parents now live was one frequented when I was a child and it's completely different. It has gone in the opposite direction of your hometown. It's bustling, thriving and for me there is too much traffic, too many people, to much 'at your fingertips' for my liking. I much preferred it's sleeping fields and bright blue lake of old. Now it's become one of the top places to live and frankly that's when it became a place I never want to live.

Anyway, your perspective about going home was great. Just like we change so do the places we used to know best.

Debbie said...

It's always nice to catch up with old friends and find out that you still have things in common.

Deb said...

interesting. i wonder if you always knew you would move away?

we (sort of) did the reverse... from houston, we moved up here to northern virginia. we spend a lot of time exploring the small towns of the mid-atlantic/n.e. and they are so beautiful, but definitely in a sad, yester-year kind of way.


Just eat it said...

Well said. My husband is also from PA and going back always sends him into a weird place in his head. So much changes. Farms are replaced by subdivisions, factories close, etc.

The only thing that never changes is his extended family's ability to put down Tasty Cakes and cheap beer all day:)

Captain Dumbass said...

Good post, CK. My home town went in the opposite direction since I left. It's grown and grown and wouldn't actually be half bad to live in if it didn't get so damned hot in the summer and so damned cold in the winter.

Ron said...

@subtorp77 overwhelming is a good way to put it. feels like what was important to you back then is unimportant to everyone else now.

@Dr Grumpy, Thanks. Still there or living away, I'm glad to call where I came from, home. My family gets along great... because we DON'T live in the same home town.

@Andrea, thanks. My parents have lived in the same place for as long as they've been married. They keep talking of moving into some place smaller, but I couldn't even imagine them doing it. My dad and I drove by where he grew up, and the house was falling in on itself, but there was a Direct TV dish in the front yard. He didn't say anything, but I could see how sad he was.

@Debbie, it is, and I like to be surprised. It's nice to reconnect with the innocence of your youth.

@Deb, my sisters and I all had a sense early on that we couldn't stay--not that we were desperate to find a way out of our small town. It was more of belief that we could flourish in a bigger world. And that's what's happened--my sisters are amazing. Northern Virginia is beautiful, and much more so than Houston (heat index was 111 yesterday!)

@Just Eat it - yeah, that's kind of it - that weird place in the head. But Tasty cakes and cheap beer... ahhh.

@CPT - thanks. You bring up a good point. Would I feel the same if the town actually prospered? I'd be happy that they were thriving, but probably still sad to see those same places change.

And where is this place? I love cold and hate heat (111 heat index here today!)

Thank you again, Christopher and readers for having me here. It was a great pleasure reading the other posts and comments.

Keith WIlcox said...

I don't usually like to go back to a place I've already been. But, we're about to do just that. We live in Boulder Co but, we're moving back to Wisconsin next month to the same town we left two years ago. Strange feeling -- although it's nothing like an actual hometown feeling.

Vodka Mom said...

that was fantastic.

I grew up in a very small town, and enjoy my visits back. I knew I could never LIVE there when I grew up- but I admire those who are content to stay and make these tiny towns their own.

Ron said...

@Keith, Boulder and Wisconsin are both beautiful, but the ski scene may be a bit different. I lived in Wisconsin for a summer (Near LaCrosse). Absolutely loved it.

@Vodka, Thanks. I remember reading a lot of your posts talking about some of the things you did after high school. You seemed to have that need to experience the bigger world.

S3XinthePantry said...

CK, it seems like the best part of your hometown - a chance to reconnect with friends - is something that didn't change.
Looking forward to your book.

Ron said...

@Pantry, well said. And thanks about the book - news to follow.

Cajoh said...

Thank you again CK for your contribution:

I forget who originally said this, but "You can never go home again". I found it funny when returning home from college to have that need to break away. A friend and I used to comment that you don't want to be "stuck in a hole" in that you are stuck in your hometown with nowhere to go.

Still, even growing up in my hometown I noticed a lot of changes going on all the time. I found it exciting when I was there, but found it disturbing whenever I returned. Perhaps one likes to keep their hometown the way they remembered it.

Anonymous said...

Hi there-
I'm More Starwberry's husband. We love your hometown! We weren't there more than 15 minutes before we heard it was home of the zipper. I always thought that it was invented in Holland, but who knew?!? Thanks for the great post; it makes us more anxious to get there.

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