Saturday, October 01, 2011

You Can't Go Home Again

I recently learned it is true, you can’t go home again. I returned to the small mining town where I spent the first roughly twenty years of my life, where I attended all 12 years of my initial schooling, and of where I have so many memories, pleasant and unpleasant, strange and commonplace, intense but fading. I found I could not go home again because what I knew as “home” no longer exists. The physical location is there, of course, squeezed into a tiny valley surrounded by forested mountains, and most of the downtown buildings are still there, each one now on the national historical register, but almost all the people I remember are no longer there, many of the buildings are vacant and for sale, there are no longer brothels, and the myriad bars are also mostly all gone. The businesses I remember no longer exist, having been replaced by antique stores and shops selling cheap Chinese junk to a limited number of tourists. This I found sadly true even of the pool hall where I spent most of my adolescence and began to learn what it was to grow up and become a man.

When I grew up in this mining town it was a boom town, the county seat of an area that produced more silver than any other site in the world. Silver dollars were the standard currency and we virtually never saw a dollar bill. There were, I believe, approximately 30 bars and road houses, five brothels, wide-open, if illegal, gambling in the back rooms of some of the bars, and drinking on a rather massive scale. I recall seeing literally piles of silver dollars on the blackjack and poker tables. The population of the city was probably barely four thousand, but when all the miners and lumberjacks came to town on weekends to drink and fight and whore there were many more. We had two banks, two small grocery stores, two butcher shops, a fine bakery, a J.C. Penny’s, one fairly substantial department store, several gas stations, an elementary school and a high school, a fine old Carnegie library, two small movie houses, three or four hotels, a couple of hardware stores, a furniture store, a “five-and-dime,” and a number of not very distinguished restaurants. There were also a number of churches as well, but they were not exactly integrated well into the wider community. Indeed, many of the housewives were uncomfortable even walking to the movies as they had to pass the brothels, about which they often complained. Periodically the town was shut down by the bluenose powers located in the southern part of the State because of the various illegalities, but the shut down rarely lasted more than a day or two as the mine owners immediately complained their miners would leave the district.

It was an exciting place to grow up. We played cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, and spent many days in the woods making lean-twos, carving whistles and toy swords, making bows and arrows and trying to make arrowheads out of the abundance of rocks that seemed to be everywhere. And we fished and tried to hunt with our bb guns and single-shot .22 rifles. And there were sports, football, basketball, and softball (our field was too small for real baseball as they could too easily be hit into the “Lead Creek.” The small river that ran through town was so fouled by mining waste as to be totally unusable for anything other than dumping your unwanted kittens and puppies, old tires, refrigerators, and other unwanted garbage. The only good change that seems to have happened is this unhealthy eyesore has been cleaned up and now runs clear. The current population of my “hometown” is now approximately one fourth of what the permanent population was when I lived there. Most of the mines are now closed, timber is no longer of much importance, unemployment is rife, and it appears that about every third house and business is for sale.

While many parts of the little city are degenerating, unrepaired, boarded up, and even falling down, the better parts of town are still remarkably well kept, many freshly painted and repaired, even though most of them are at least a hundred years old. The people are friendly and do not seem to be particularly unhappy or depressed although they are of course well aware of the overall deterioration of the their little city, once described as “The biggest little city in the world.”. If you ignore the worst parts of town and look only at the surroundings it is still a remarkably beautiful place. There is a truly fine Mining Museum, very up to date and computerized, and a couple of other museums that are not so much. In an attempt to have an identity they have declared the town to be “The Snowmobile Capital of the World” and apparently during the winter you are allowed to ride snowmobiles on at least some of the city streets. I understand there are also miles of snowmobile paths in the surrounding mountains. As I abhor snowmobiles I do not find this an attraction but many do. I am unable to think of anything they might do to attract more permanent residents. They advertise the place as historic and it is remarkably historic, but that may be one of the problems. Maybe if they advertised it as beautiful and a fine place to live it might make a difference. I found my visit a sad one, it is certainly no longer my hometown, nothing will ever make it “boom” again, I’m not at all certain I would want it to be as it was, but I wish something would happen to keep it going as it can’t thrive for long just selling souvenirs and history.

"It is very difficult to know people and I don't think one can ever really know any but one's own countrymen. For men and women are not only themselves; they are also the region in which they are born, the city apartment or the farm in which they learnt to walk, the games they played as children, the old wives' tales they overheard, the food they ate, the schools they attended, the sports they followed, the poets they read, and the God they believed in. It is all these things that have made them what they are, and these are the things that you can't come to know by hearsay, you can only know them if you have lived them."

W. Somerset Maugham

When the “Place” from whence you came, the place that shaped and made you no longer exists, how profound is the loss you experience? Strangely, I think, not as much as you might think, it is rather like the expected death of a long-suffering friend, internalized and residing there mostly in your subconscious.

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