Sunday, April 13, 2014

Hometown memories

I'm facilitating a workshop at Story Circle Network's national conference today. The topic is "Home is Where the Heart Is," and I've been thinking about the different places I've lived, the different homes I've had, and that thinking led to the idea that one's hometown is the larger home that we all share.

Songwriters have certainly used the hometown theme to evoke strong emotional memories. The first, "Home Sweet Home," was written over 190 years ago by John Howard Payne about his early life at his grandfather's house in East Hampton, Maine.

More recently, Eric Church's "Give Me Back My Hometown" is a bittersweet ballad of faded love and bright memories. The lyrics are emblematic of every small town across the south and southwest.

I was born on an Army-Air base in upstate New York at the end of World War II, but I grew up in Texas and call Huntsville my hometown. There is a state college and a state prison in my hometown. The college, a university now, was the first teacher-training school in the southwest United States. The state prison housed the electric chair where 361 convicts died between 1924 and 1964. Most kids' parents worked at one of these institutions.

My dad was hired to teach at the college in 1949 after receiving his graduate degree from Harvard University in teacher education. When a colleague who was showing him around found out he was Catholic, the colleague turned a stone ear to any more conversation. It was awkward, to say the least. My brothers and I were oblivious to this act of unkindness. As we each entered school through the next five years, we took our turn to pray over the loud speaker which carried the message through classroom intercoms. We were supposed to write a prayer, but sometimes I forgot and so I would say one I knew from memory. Looking back, I'm sure more than one teacher, most likely a Southern Baptist or a deacon in the Church of Christ, trembled and quaked when I began reciting "Hail Mary, full of grace...." But if anyone gave me even a disapproving look, I don't remember. God looks after the innocent children.

We lived in five houses, from 1949-1967, while I was living at home full time, or hanging out between college semesters.

Our first home was a rehabbed army barracks in a place called Country Campus, east of Huntsville on Hwy 19. It had been a prisoners of war camp during the war and turned into faculty housing for a time afterwards. Families came together for family picnics. I remember watermelon, iced down in galvanized tubs, and eating out the hearts. I remember spitting seeds or taking a few and planting them. I remember hand-churned ice cream parties and adding fresh peaches or strawberries to the mix. I remember dirt-daubers and honey bees, and I remember getting stung more than once while tagging after my brothers. Today there's an 18-hole golf course there, but nothing much else.

Our second home was in town. In 1952, we moved into a two-story brick house on 15th Street. My older brother talked my younger brother into jumping off the second story soon after we'd seen Peter Pan. Stone convinced Mark he could fly, but of course, he could not. Mark missed the concrete patio by about ten inches and because he was five and still growing his bones, he suffered only a sprained ankle. God looks after the innocent children, indeed.

Our third home was across town near the college. My dad was not ready to cash in his GI bill for a mortgage, so we stayed in what my older brother called the "slump," the combination of a dump and a slum. It was in the living room of this house where my dad offered me the humongous amount of one hundred dollars to read ten books over the summer between my third and fourth grade in school. It was in the living room of this house where my older brother gave me a black eye for turning the TV channel. It was in the living room of this house that my younger brother watched Saturday westerns while dressed in his fringed Roy Rogers cowboy outfit with his 6-shooter guns strapped on.

Our fourth home was across from Piggly Wiggly grocery store. It was my favorite. Maybe because Johnny Campbell taught me how to kiss in that backyard. Probably because several other boys kissed me in the driveway and on the front porch, but none was as loved as Jimmy Scott. Both Johnny and Jimmy were victims of Vietnam. Johnny's plane crashed in the Indian Ocean; Jimmy took his own life when he couldn't re-adjust to civilian life after his year-long tour, which consisted mostly of sending home the dead in body bags.

Our fifth home was an old Victorian house next to the Methodist Church. It had stained glass windows, mahogany sliding doors, wide wrap-around porches, 15-foot ceilings, and a staircase built by convict labor in the 1800s.  In 1971 I got married in that home. My dad was walking me down the stairs when he whispered, "We can keep walking, honey, and go right out that front door." I thought it was a bad joke, but I should have listened--the marriage lasted only 5 years.

Interstate 45 bypasses Huntsville, and the town has grown toward the freeway. The drugstore and clothiers around the courthouse have been replaced by "antique" stores, filled mostly with second hand furniture, Fiesta dishware, art decor perfume bottles, mismatched china, crocheted lace doilies, plastic dolls, wooden trains, and  Mexican pottery. My parents are dead and so are a number of my friends. Most of those who are still living have moved away, many to the suburbs of Dallas or Houston, but some live out of state, one as far away as Alaska. I'll return to Huntsville this summer for my 50th high school class reunion. I'm amazed, and heartened, by how many are coming. There is no doubt, we'll listen to the music of Eric Church, and through the fragments of our shared memories, take back our hometown.


Where is your hometown?