Thursday, October 15, 2009

Five Days in the Homeland

Thomas Wolfe said you can't go home again, and maybe he's right.  But we do--or try to--even knowing nothing is the same anymore, nor perhaps would we actually want it to be.  Memories locked in our heads confronting the reality of the Now can be disorienting, unnerving--two conflicting scenarios attesting to the inevitability of change. We go back, on nostalgia trips, trying to recapture, if only briefly, those 'other' times, those other important parts of us not so visible anymore.

So there I was again, in the town where I grew up, after many years' absence.  In 1910,  almost 5,000 people lived here.  Today, there's only around 1,200.  Where did everybody go? 

I went swimming for three mornings with my sister in the pool in which I had first learned to swim. How they taught us how to swim was, they took us down to the "deep end", tied a rope around our waists and made us jump in.  I don't remember there being a slow, introductory process leading up to this; for years the image I retained in my mind was that of being thrown into the pool to either sink or swim--but of course that can't be true; no instructor in their right mind would ever do such a thing to little kids, it would have been traumatic.  I do remember flopping and splashing around with the rope tied round my waist trying to practice the doggie paddle, which is a complete waste of energy and just makes you very tired--until I learned one could float. Which I later perfected (the hands-at-the-sides float, the hands-behind-the-head float, the hands-on-the-stomach-twiddling-the-thumbs float--that latter one to show off to people who simply couldn't float, no matter how hard they tried; but that's the thing, you can only do it if you don't try--you have to just let go.  Not everyone is capable of just ... letting go and trusting it will happen.

I learned to swim like a frog, tread quietly like a snake, even get from Point A to Point B with one or both hands held behind my back, as if swimming armless, and then with just the arms propelling me through the water, as if legless.  I thought knowing how to do that might come in handy if I were, say, kidnapped one day and tied up but could escape if there were a body of water nearby.   I even tried swimming as if without arms or legs, but didn't get very far--only plogging mobility and a mouth and nose full of water. It's a great exercise workout, though, if one were so inclined. 

This is the old cemetery on top the hill at the bottom of the hollow where my mother grew up.  There's no  path on this hill but as it's closer to their graves than driving all the way up the road and walking all the way back the length of the cemetery to get there, I chose to climb straight up the hill--which was steeper than I'd remembered it.

Here we are at the top.  These are the gravestones of Dedo and Baba (my grandparents) and three of their infant children, buried together, who didn't make it very far in life ( the middle grave).

Turning to go back down the hill again, I met this wonderful tree, bedecked in red, a splash of color in the otherwise solid green folliage.  The shoes I wore that day were hardly suited to climbing.  Barefoot, it would have been a piece of cake. (It's a matter of knowing where and how to place the foot, rather than the type of shoe.  I do better in snow climbing.)   My loafer-type shoes only made me slip and slide.  Coming down proved harder than going up.  The pictures don't do it justice--the part I climbed up was straight up. Losing my balance and hurtling down headfirst was not an option. So I sat down and slowly slid downhill, one bumpy push at a time, till I reached bottom.  You can take the girl out of the mountain; not so easy to take the mountain out of the girl.  Or something like that.  It wasn't very dignified. Should've just simply taken my shoes off but the ground was wet and cold. (No, says that naggy inner voice ... you should've waited and walked there the Normal way, like everybody else.  Not climb up like you're some mountain goat or something.)  Talk about reliving one's childhood, ha ha.

This is the creek that runs alongside the hollow.  The water's pretty low and some sections are completely dried up. My grandmother, who when my mother was a child, kept a cow in the field at the back of her house, used to draw water from this creek.

At the foot of the mountain is a little natural spring, from which townspeople collect fresh water--a very good thing to have during the eight or so years that the people on the other side of the river have had to boil their water because it was undrinkable due to severely eroding pipes that couldn't be replaced for lack of funding.

This is an old brewery at the foot of the hollow, no longer in use.  What stories its stones could tell!

My mother, as a teenager, used to climb up and peek in the brewery window, for which, I believe, she was roundly scolded. I think at one time they used to hold dances there, or at least that is what she once told me.

This is what's left of the town's former public high school, a massive three-storey building that once commanded the entire lot.  After they built the new school down the road outside of town, this one fell into disuse and began being dissassembled for parts: first the roof, then the beams--which of course caused it to collapse.  It sat like this for years.  Finally someone was contracted to remove what's left of it but he absconded with the funds, leaving it like this, and his working crew and the fence rental people unpaid.

There was a festival in town this weekend and the highlight of the day was the annual parade. 
People were putting out their chairs on the sidewalk two days beforehand, to secure their viewing place.

The Scottish band, with bagpipes and drums, march through the borough.
They are always such a pleasure to watch and listen to.

Parade watcher with her iguana perched on her back.

He poses for a close-up shot.

Barbequed chicken wings to go.

Invasion of the Zombie children

The children's "zombie" dance group performing in front of the judges' stand. 
I'm told they won First Prize

Not everyone in town that day was thrilled with President Obama.  These vendors at the big outdoor flea market flew Confederate flags and sold baseball hats, plastic guns, and signs and bumper stickers showing Obama in a turban and calling for "Palin 2012"

In the local dollar store.  Jesus socks.   :)

The bridge across to town.

The West Branch of the Susquehanna, late afternoon.  Periodically it floods the town.  In 1889, the river overflowed and swept away the town's Opera House, taking with it five other homes.  In 1936, a major flood covered 75% of the town.  In 1942, its waters rose to 19 feet.  There have been at least 11 major floods here over the years.

On the way halfway up Hyner mountain 

View from the top.

You can go hang gliding from up here.
Click here and here, and here, to see what it's like.

A little path if you want to hike back down.  Last year 700 hardy souls took the "Hyner Challenge" and ran up to the top of the mountain and back down again.  (Or was it run first, and then hike up and back down again?)  I think it takes something like two hours (if you're in top shape); more, if not.

It is beautiful here.  The mountains completely surround the town; they look down from every possible vantage point.  You are in a valley enveloped by millions of trees.  Hunters are welcome.   It was bow-and-arrow season last week. (Take note, deer and bear and turkeys!! )  There are scores of ponds and mountain streams to fish for trout, and quiet, peaceful stretches of forest where you will never meet another soul.

The town itself does not have much.  They have no doctor.  (One came but didn't stay long.  He went to lunch one day and never returned.)  Last week a pharmacy opened.  They had been without one for over a year, I'm told.  I think there is only one radio station, and cell phones don't work there. No reception.  There are no taxis and  only one traffic light. The recreation center (with the large, heated swimming pool, which only a handfull of people use regularly, may close for lack of funds to keep it operating.  The Catholic Church bulletin announced last week that the diocese is asking parishes to count attendance at mass, intimating that perhaps not enough people means it, too, may be forced to close one day. 
Driving through town, one sees abandoned buildings, their windows all boarded up, or houses blackened by a fire, uninhabitable, waiting for rehabilitation or demolishment.  A small, unused church just outside the town collapsed last week.  The railroad yards--once the lifeblood of the town--have long since closed down. This week they were auctioning off about 82 railroad cars.  What would one do with a railroad car?  I've seen some turned into funky gift shops.  It could, I suppose, function as a camp, if you were into serious restoring.

The movie theatre that we used to go to for Saturday matinees in my youth, no longer exists.  My high school (the other high school then in town)--gone.  You could buy one of its bricks as a memento; there's nothing there now but an empty lot.  Our favorite ice cream parlor, gone.  The local newspaper, printed once a week, runs about 4-5 pages.  There is no veterinarian, dentist or funeral parlor in town.  You have to drive 28 miles to buy hair color.   Many houses are still heated with coal.  There is no industry here, there are no jobs.  Unemployment is at 9.80%.  Rents are cheap, though, compared to other places.  You can rent a two-bedroom apartment for under $350; people have bought homes here for as little as $1,200.

A paradise of nature (except for the occasional flood).  It's only an hour and fifteen minutes' drive to Penn State, a thriving mini-mini-metropolis whose campus has over 43,000 students.

We visited there, too, one afternoon, kind of a nostalgia trip for me.  I hadn't been back there for decades. A building in which I once lived, has disappeared, replaced by a real estate office and condos.  Scores of cafes and bookstores and restaurants and boutiques, and massive new dorms proliferate--nothing like the quiet little burg it was when I once lived there.   It was a little disorienting.  The memory I carry in my head, still intact, like a photograph, is unchanged.  They're all gone now though, everyone, everything ... it was another life. Happy Valley, it's called.  And it was, in a sense--the happiest and most significant events of my life happened there.

Wolfe said you can't go back. But I did. I just had to see it again.  I hesitated posting some of these photos and comments--personal family gravestones, an economically depressed little town in decline, its citizens struggling to survive in uncertain times, etc.  It's what's happening to a lot of little towns in America today.  What hit me most here, though, was the loss, of all that was poignantly familiar, remembered, and cherished. Some things haven't changed:  At three o'clock one morning I was awakened by the loud, whining sound of an air raid siren and jumped out of bed to look out the window--not at the sky but over towards the town across the river.  It's used as a fire alarm; the number of times the siren wails tells you where the fire is located:  five wails, it's on Fifth Street; seven wails, Seventh Street.

Another thing that has not changed is the friendliness of the people, their pride and love of the area, despite the town's problems, that brings people back, after years of living elsewhere, to spend the remainder of their lives there.  My two sisters, seven cousins, niece and nephew and their children all still live here, so visits back are also family reunions.  You catch up on what's been happening (or not happening) with the town, you find yourself remembering not only the good but the Great times.  Great childhood pastimes like:

-- Swimming in a river whose waters were so pure and so clear you could see Every. Single. Tiny. Pebble.
-- Diving off the big rocks at the eddies and scouring the river bottom to retrieve fish hooks.
-- Finding Indian arrow-heads and remnants of ancient homesteads of the settlers here before us.
-- Swinging from the "monkey vines" on the mountainside, catching bees in our hands, then letting them go ("whiteheads don't sting; yellowheads do" -- I don't know if this is actually true or not, but we acted on it then.  Whiteheads never stung us.)
-- Riding down the river on an innertube, waving to people on the bridge above as you floated by underneath (that bridge is no longer there)
-- Going Halloweening to every house on the block and getting apples or quarters sometimes instead of candy (do kids today get fruit in lieu of chocolate in their Halloween cache?  Does anyone ever give them loose change?  I doubt it, ha ha).  We didn't buy our costumes then--we climbed up to Grandma's attic and rummaged through the mothbally coats and floppy shoes and ribboned velvet hats to dress up like hobos or "fancy ladies" or just plain ghosts (sheet over the head, two holes poked out for vision).  Who still does that today, I wonder.

We must learn where we came from.   This is where I came from.  It is part of me, though I am no longer physically part of It. It was and is still my town. But there have been others, too, ones I've chosen and wholeheartedly became part of.  They are still my towns, too. 

What exactly do we mean by "homeland"?  I don't think, in the end, it's a matter of the land (place).     Places change.  The sense of at-homeness does, as well.  Sometimes you go back and find maybe you no longer feel at home there anymore.  "Home" is a state of mind.  I found other mountains to be at home in again--in Vermont, for example; other lakes and rivers, like Lake Champlain, and the mighty St. Lawrence, equally capable of drawing me like a magnet, the way the Susquehanna did.  (And still does.)  But nowhere have I ever found an experience equivalent to swimming in those pristine waters (now polluted), or felt the joy of those early days exploring the mountains and creeks, or lying in bed wondering what was on the other side of all those mountains.  (The answer:  Other mountains!!!, ha ha). (That old song, "The bear went over the mountain...." comes to mind.  It's true, by the way.)

Van Wagner in his "North of 80", pretty much sums up what it's like there in northcentral Pennsylvania, what it was and how it is today. I give homage to these mountains for launching me, for giving me a memorable childhood, for reminding me of all who came before and what they taught me.

So this was my town.  I'm at home with the memories, and am elsewhere, making new ones.  But I put it all down here, to revisit from time to time.  A mini online scrapbook page, accessible at the touch of a keyboard, from anyplace I happen to be.  And it'll almost be like being there again, when I might not otherwise be able to.

Salut encore, mes montagnes!!

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