Searching for a Way Home
Shortly after the war with Iraq began, I waited in line at my local post office. Ahead of me stood a man holding a large parcel. He wore a scraggly beard, un-styled hair, and faded Levis. He was around fifty. One of my numerous faults is to label people without sufficient information. The kid with the hat turned backwards and the baggy pants dragging on the ground must be gang-affiliated when, in fact, he is on his way to an advanced physics class. The African-American men approaching me on the sidewalk are threatening gangsters, but they ignore me, instead lost in conversation about their residencies at the hospital. The man with the southern drawl has got to be a white supremacist. Instead he runs a mission for minorities.
Maybe it was the beard—a rarity in this farming town, except for the Amish who live a few towns over—but I decided the man with the box at the post office was a former Vietnam demonstrator and probably a current anti-war protestor. I even went so far in my imagination to think that he had, like me, lived at one time in the Northwest. Maybe we had mutual acquaintances and lived in the same dead-end mill towns. My characterization of this man made me feel better. Virtually no dissent existed in this farming town, although in the nearby university town pro-peace rallies occurred daily. Yellow ribbons were tied around ancient sycamores and oaks, and flags flapped loudly from mini vans. The man’s presence, his relaxed dress, chipped away a bit of the loneliness I’d been experiencing.
"How is your son doing?" the clerk asks the man. "Is he still on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln?"
"Yes. He’s fine, anxious to get home. His outfit just set a record for the longest deployment in the history of the Navy. They’re just doing circles in the Gulf of Oman."
The postal clerk and the father of the sailor talk for another ten minutes about families, local gossip, and the weather. I wait patiently in line. In a small town you learn to wait.
When the father of the sailor finishes, he turns around and looks me over. There is no recognition. For the hundredth time I feel that odd, lonesome feeling of an alien or an intruder. "I hope your son comes back safely," I tell him. He thanks me and I move to the front of the line feeling like the outsider that I am.
After three years in the farm belt I am restless. Even though I’ve kept up my volunteerism at the nursing home, I’ve taken to passing on the simplest of good citizenship duties: donating blood and voting. In my weak defense, the Red Cross phlebotomists are brutal with the needle (I’m always left with bruises) and most local candidates run unopposed on the Republican ticket. I don’t blame the town for my restlessness: a place is neutral and as I’ve already shown, we mostly live in our minds anyway. Topography is also not a factor. Flat land doesn’t annoy me particularly. Forest trails are just a ten-minute drive away and a river keeps the herons and ducks flying overhead. If you deduct the speeding tickets and DUI’s, crime is nonexistent. You can walk anywhere at any hour of the night. People are generally friendly and welcoming. The mythical town of "Pleasantville" has nothing on this white-fenced, wood-framed housed slice of Americana. But like the James McMurtry song, "I’m not from here, I just live here."
I keep my bags packed and my exit doors unobstructed. Nine states fill my life resume, destinations like Bark River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where I raked barley in fields surrounded by hardwoods. Astoria, Oregon, where I planted trees on treacherous hills in relentless rain. Tucson’s skid row, where I drove an ice cream truck and lived across the street from the blood donor center, Northern California, where I made tofu for more than two years and was paid $135 a week. Money was never the goal. The objective was romantic, if not altogether vague. Once I had a taste of motion and the inspiration of landscape, I was hooked.
I’ve hung my hat in log cabins, unheated trailers, leaky tents, and sleeping bags under the stars, ranch houses, apartments, highway culverts, strangers’ basements, and friends’ couches. But before long, in every place I’ve dared to call home, I always began dreaming about the next new destination. I still scour maps, looking for the most obscure passage, or the longest stretch on the atlas without a road. Where can I go to initiate that addictive sense of magic and wonder; that delicious two-month long disorientation and discovery period, when one finds the best two-egg breakfast and the friendliest waitresses; the meanest dogs; the loveliest houses; and the best-stocked libraries? Where is that undiscovered American town, that slice of authenticity, a place that doesn’t yet know all the slick ways to pretend to be unpretentious?
At first I wore my restlessness like a badge. Jack Kerouac’s "On the Road" was my bible. "Now, Sal," says crazy Dean Moriarty, "we're leaving everything behind us and entering a new and unknown phase of things. All the years and troubles and kicks—and now this! So we can safely think of nothing else and just go on ahead with our faces stuck out like this, you see, and understand the world as, really and genuinely speaking, other Americans haven't done before us...."
But I am not a fictional character.
Transience comes with consequences. You can never really be a "local," even in the youthful West, where a two-year residency elevates you to "native" status. The real community—the enviable, agrarian one that revolves around life and death, planting and harvest, cemeteries, granges, church potlucks—will always be out of reach. Now that I am nearing fifty, there are not even the required years remaining to sink roots deep enough into this black Midwest soil. Even if I endure a twenty- to thirty-year residency in this close-knit town, I will always be viewed as a newcomer or, at most, the husband of my wife, who was born in the area and has most of her relatives here.
I accepted that status when I came here, thinking I could stave off the inevitable migrating ache in my heart. In the dark winter and the humid summer months I can manage. But when the redbuds bloom in the spring and the snow geese fly over in the fall, I begin to plot my escape. Nights are the worst moments. Reoccurring dreams about tearful reunions with old friends jolt me awake. I walk around the dark house in an attempt to come back to the present, but then a momentary sensory trigger stops me in my tracks. How is it, from a living room in the Midwest thirty years after the fact, that I can suddenly smell juniper berries or feel the exhilaration of a moon rising or remember a dream about black bears? Whatever walls exist between the past and present disintegrate and I would pay dearly to control that uncontrollable urge to cut and run. But run where?
I write down these words and yet they are lies. I know better than to sink to the unhelpful level of apathy. For a place will grow on if you let it, if you begin to live a life outside yourself. I keep thinking back to August of 2000, three months after my wife and I have moved back to Illinois. I won’t go through all the details of my father-in-law’s struggle with skin cancer. Most of us know how horrible cancer is. Melanoma is particularly evil. So check your moles and wear sunscreen, and pray.
Anyway, the long week’s vigil at the hospital has ended. Cancer has won. Howard has just passed away and we stand there surrounding his still body in the hospital bed: Betty his wife of 55 years, his two daughters and his son, and me, the newest member of the family, at about seven years. We have cried, held hands, and prayed over his body; we have allowed the doctor to come in and pronounce him dead and we have called the undertaker. Phone calls and arrangements have to be made. I stand across from Betty, trying not to be noticed, and let the family have their space to mourn. But she finds me, looks me in the eye, points a finger at me, and says, "And you, you will write and deliver the eulogy."
It was an offer I could not refuse, a request from which I could not run.
So on a hot humid August morning in DeLand, Illinois, another American town on life support—population either 450 or 350 depending on which direction you enter the town—I put on Howard’s clothes, his light blue summer blazer bought at Delbert’s, an Amish Big Man’s store over in Arthur, I tied his flowered tie around my neck, buttoned up his short-sleeve dress shirt. All of the clothes were too big, too symbolic, and I knew there was no way I could ever grow into them. I stood at the altar in the small Methodist church, where most Sundays the congregation numbers twenty, and almost all of the congregation is over seventy years of age and windowed, and where in three more years the church would close.
I stood there as Betty asked me to, in front of people connected at the roots like the oldest stand of oaks in the county; these people who had known everything about Howard and each other for more than half a century. I stood, a newcomer, trying to sum up in a few pages what this man’s passing meant. In the front pew his wife Betty, daughters Beth and Jan, and his son Steve, still farms the home place. They all listened. Here’s part of what I said:
"Howard’s life spanned a
period of time covering most of the history of Illinois agriculture—plow
horse to thresher to combine. He was an innovator and took pride in his
crops. He served on so many boards and committees, from the Deland-Weldon
School Board to Goosecreek Township Drainage Commission, and every board
in between. He served because that is what you do with life—you immerse
yourself in it, and for Howard, such a social and talkative man, the
boards were very rewarding. He lived through world wars, watched the
freeways unfurl across the country, and through it all he stayed in this
community he loved so dearly.
Then we carried the coffin out to bury in the country cemetery. The cherry wood coffin was too heavy for one man to bear, so six of us sweating out the humidity, carried Howard down the church steps for the last time. I was the only man under the age of fifty to be a pallbearer.
Halsey, Howard’s best friend and a man of few words came up to me as I was leaving and said, "Nice words." That’s all he said. It was enough.
During that first harvest with Howard gone, I saw the ramifications of what his passing meant. Riding with his son Steve in the combine cutting corn, I noticed he was consulting a worn pocket notebook with tiny perfect script: odd numbers and fragments of sentences with under linings and scratch outs. These were Howard’s combine settings for corn and soybeans. And there in the golden September harvest light, the words and numbers were fading before his eyes.
"Do you want me to copy all those notes down on computer, Steve?" I asked.
"No, this is fine. This is OK." And he was right.
I am trying to be at home in this new place. I am trying not to live another lie. Close the backs doors. Seal the escape hatches. Try to be like my father-in-law. Drop the pose. Be an asset. Contribute to community.
I run each afternoon through the city cemetery, past Veteran’s Hill, past century-old oaks and headstones, past the fresh graves with the fresh flowers scattered on the mounds. Slowly the names are becoming more familiar. The obituaries in the weekly newspaper have meaning now. The fuzzy images focus. Vast flat fields reveal themselves to be a way of measuring worth and value. Slowly, in the time I am blessed to have remaining, this place will someday be home.
One of the headstones reads: "Life is temporary, Love is forever."
Perhaps this is what endures.