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Essay: A Storehouse of Memories, A Trip Back in Time

Michael J. Kearney
An aerial view of Clinton, Iowa.

Lake Effect essayist Jim Spangler has lived in Wisconsin for a while now. But while he calls the state home, he does not think of Brookfield as his hometown.

Nearly 80 years ago, John Steinbeck wrote “The Grapes of Wrath” about the uprooting of farmers from the dustbowl to the promised land of California. Time moves on, things change. The Model A Ford has been replaced by the airplane and the moving van, and migration is now corporate relocation. But the basics are still the same, to follow the economic crops across the country in search of a better life.

Carol and I should know for we’ve lived in six states, which is a lot to some but not so many by other standards. I know a couple who bought and sold 11 houses in as many states. Another friend bought a house before his wife even saw it. At last report, they are still married – to each other I think. But no matter how many places we’ve lived, or where we live now, we all have a hometown and even the guy who moved 11 times still talks about his.

On a recent trip to my hometown, I was struck, not so much by the changes, but by what had stayed the same since those days in the early 60’s. Then I was an impatient young kid who couldn’t wait to live any place but in my hometown of Clinton, Iowa.

The Methodist church is still there on the corner of Third Street and I’ll bet young boys still squirm and fidget on those hard oak pews. Buell Elementary School still stands, but it is now vacant, having been replaced by a more modern version a few blocks away. And across the street from Buell is the house I grew up in. It has been well-maintained by its current owners. Dad would be happy about that.

The geography of otherwise common places can have uncommon meaning in a hometown. A two-block stroll took me down a familiar street. That’s where I walked my first girlfriend home every summer night from the ice cream store where she worked. The store is still there, but the girl is long gone. Around the corner and down a block is the spot I shot an arrow into the side of my neighbor’s nearly new ’57 Chevy. How’d that happen you ask? Let’s make a deal. If you don’t ask any more about the arrow in the car thing, I won’t press you about your teenage indiscretions.

Every hometown has something that makes it unique. Think about yours for a minute. For mine it is the river, the mighty Mississippi that flows just five blocks from my boyhood home. Good times and bad come and go. My high school classmates are no longer kids but senior citizens. We change, but the river never does. And in that never-changing way it gives character to Clinton and all the other river towns from St. Paul to New Orleans. Young boys still seek catfish from its banks. Old men still sit on benches in Riverfront Park to supervise the barges navigating the Chicago and Northwestern drawbridge. Ducks circle and land in slow water sloughs with a pattern set eons ago.

Gerald O’Hara, Scarlet’s father, urged her to return to Tara in “Gone with the Wind.” “Land is the only thing that matters,” he said. “It’s the only thing that lasts.”

Maybe that’s what makes a journey back to our hometown so memorable. It is our own Tara, an anchor in what can be the anchorless world of here today, gone tomorrow.

For a return to our hometown is a return to our youth. A visit triggers a storehouse of memories frozen in time. The junior prom, our first solo with the car, our favorite pizza spot, our first romance – did you forget about yours? I didn’t think so, and all the rest.

For those who never left, it is a city of their present which blurs the memories of their past. For those of us that did leave, it is a youthful flashback in a way foreclosed to those who stayed.

Time can’t stand still? Oh, yes it can, when I return to that place I once couldn’t wait to leave – my home town.

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Jim Spangler comments on the life experiences we all share, drawing on a 40-year newspaper career in Human Resources and labor relations, following a business degree from the University of Iowa and a stint in the Marines.