Thomas Wolfe wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again” in the 1930s as the Roaring ‘20s grew into the Great Depression. The book is a classic about the everchanging way of life as a young boy grows into manhood.
Wolfe contends “you can’t go back” to your childhood, your dreams, your aspirations, the old systems, the safety, the familiarity that you once thought was everlasting… because life doesn’t stand still. You can not re-capture youth!
The theme is universal. We all have a base of reference. A hometown. A street. A secret hiding place. Something to cling to… that perhaps is only, as Wolfe maintained, a fleeting glance at what used to be.
I went home last week to test his theory.
Our old house was still standing, but the yard looked so much smaller. The big side porch had shrunk three sizes. And a strange vehicle was parked where our ’51 Chevrolet sat for years.
But I could still hear the laughter. I could smell those hand rolled biscuits coming out of the oven. My left knee began to swell over a fall I took on those front steps in 1954…
We pulled over, reverently, in front of the Williams’ house at the top of the hill. Jim - Mr. James and Miss Ivey Nell’s oldest son - passed away less than a month ago. Mr. Wolfe is correct, time stops for no man. But time cannot erase the memories.
Jim Williams was three years older than me. He was as friendly, nice and intelligent as they come. We played every sport known to man in every field or side yard in town and he would talk music with you literally till the cows came home! I remember he treated me more as an equal than a young punk following him around.
You have no idea how important that was to a timid boy trying to prove that he belonged.
Over the last couple of years I was privileged to spend a few days with him at his house near the college we both attended. Our conversations didn’t “waste time” on the present state of affairs - we leaped immediately to the characters of our youth. We remembered the people, the games, the slower pace, the vitality and the richness of those blessed days.
Maybe we didn’t go back. But we got pretty darn close!
Just a tick up Stonewall, on the opposite side of the street, was a vacant lot where the old elementary school once stood. I wondered what happened to all the chalk boards. I could see, hear and feel Miss Carolyn Blades as she loved those ABCs into us.
We drove up Woodrow Avenue to the opposite end of the block. Parking spaces now covered the ground where I attended McKenzie High School. I shook my head in amazement. Nothing was left to show where learning once abounded. Is Thomas Wolfe right? Is the past gone forever…
Without warning the prologue to the Canterbury Tales began to tumble out of my mouth. I could hear Jane Hill clear as a bell telling me I could have any locker in the building… just as long as it was not next to hers!
I ducked spitballs flying across the Latin classroom. I heard Leon telling Miss Polly he already knew more English than he was using. And, like it happened just yesterday, Mr. Carroll Smith’s somber voice came over the loudspeaker on that fateful November day, “The President has been shot… “
I drove up Broadway Street but I didn’t see The Ben Franklin Store, Lindsey’s Rexall Drugs, The House of Furniture or Wrinkles Hardware. I set on a bench in the square and wondered how many movies I had attended at the Park Theatre. I read the names on every brick in the Veterans’ Walk of Honor. Gosh, I knew almost every one of them!
I rode down Cherry Street past Bobby Brewer’s house. The little shed where we operated on various critters was gone. I remembered the day Bo Booth got new carpet in the house next door. And the Bouldin house across the street is where we held those Golden Glove boxing matches.
I rode past Ricky Hale’s place. And Buddy Wiggleton’s. And Pam Collin’s. And Ruth Ann Wiley’s… I’m telling you, every street in town held a five-star memory!
Maybe Thomas Wolfe was right. He was the famed, award-winning author. I couldn’t write a story about starting a fire with a cord of kindling hanging out of my mouth.
But I did go back home. And I enjoyed it all over again. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the precious people, the special memories…
You can’t outgrow how you became you!
This article originally appeared on The Star: Hunker Down: Wolfe didn’t grow up with Jim Williams