You Can’t Go Home Again, Part I

“You can’t go home again,” or so Thomas Wolfe told us in his novel bearing that title which was published posthumously in 1940. “I can never go home again” the musical group We Five melodiously assured us in 1965. I have no doubt that Mr. Wolfe was a very smart fellow, and heaven knows that I listened to and loved We Five’s album ‘You Were On My Mind’ album over and over again.  It was therefore with some trepidation that I pulled over to the curb and parked one day in 1987 right in front of the house in which I had lived in or been connected to for most of twenty four years. I had been thinking about this house for the entire morning, when I should have been paying attention at the conference in San Diego that my employer in Portland Oregon had sent me too. This was the first day of the conference but all I could think about was being back in the city where I grew up. Before long it became obvious to me that I would never be able to pay attention to speakers presenting on topics like “The Advance of Venous Duplex over Maximum Venous Outflow” or “Predicted Restenosis of Carotid Endarterectomy” until I put the distraction of being in my hometown behind me. The topics of the afternoon schedule did not apply to my practice, and so I checked out after the complimentary lunch and drove over highways and streets, some changed and some familiar, and soon found myself parked in front of the house in which I had grown up and wondering what to do next.

I could see at a glance that a good deal had changed in the ten years since I had seen the place. The postage stamp-sized lawn in front of the boxy stucco house was still there, but you could tell at a glance that it was not nearly the priority that it had been when I lived there. My father gave me the duty of watering and mowing the lawn every Saturday, complete with edging and raking and periodically spreading composted steer manure over the lush, green Saint Augustine grass. That grass, at least once the manure had been absorbed into it, made a soft surface upon which my brother Brad and I, and other kids in the neighborhood, would roughhouse. What I saw on that day would not be much fun to wrestle on. The ground appeared to be hard, the grass yellow more than green, and thin. Getting thrown on your backside in a game of ‘lawn football’ (invented by my friend Pat and I) on this grass would more likely earn one a trip to the chiropractor than the fit of laughter that more normally accompanied our games.

And the tree was gone too. We enjoyed a tall evergreen tree that grew on the property line between our property and our neighbor’s, or at least very close to it. I remember it to have been a pine of some sort, and we would spend a good many hours on any day of the year climbing to the top, or out as far as we dared to go on the big, spreading branches.  I would sometimes flee there to hide, such as the time that my brother Brad attempted to chop the head off of one of our chickens and only got the job mostly done.  We had purchased a dozen chicks and hoped to secure eggs from the hens.  Somehow we ended up with a dozen roosters (to this day I believe that we were scammed!).  Dad was determined that we should receive some benefit for our expense and efforts and decided, one day, that one of the birds would go into the stew pot.

The doomed chicken was selected an the neck laid against a big, rectangular block of wood that we had in the back yard. Brad raised the hatchet and down it came with a dull “Thwock.”  I have read that in some societies in the Middle Ages when a condemned prisoner was led to the block that he would give the axeman a small sum of money to ensure that the executioner would exercise diligence in completing his work with one clean stroke.  The chicken, unfortunately, had no small purse to offer and the stroke succeeded in only MOSTLY severing the head.

What followed was predictable.  The thoroughly dead chicken began to run around the yard ‘like a chicken with it’s head cut off’. Only it wasn’t entirely cut off.  Chicken blood was splattering hither and yon while the head flopped around madly, dangling from its tread of skin, until the bird ended its macabre gavotte and lay down in the dust, dead as a door-nail.  At least, that is how I am told that it ended.  I wouldn’t know.  Before the bird could lie down twitching its last twitch I has hiking my horrified ass up into the tree and climbing to the highest tip that would support my weight. I knew as a fact that the chicken was waiting around some corner of the house or behind a bush, and that as soon as I set foot upon terra firma it would be there to run at me, sling its head around on its bloody tether and peck me in the leg with its lifeless beak.  I stayed in that tree for hours, and Brad made himself scarce somewhere as well. Mom dutifully plucked and cooked the chicken, but Dad enjoyed a solitary meal that afternoon.  The next weekend the remaining eleven birds were packed up and given to a less squeamish family friend who lived in the country, where they no doubt came to a similar end, but one that I did not have to witness.

Now only a low, aging stump remained where that noble pine once stood. Our neighbor always feared that a good wind would one day put it down, turning her small replica of our house into a duplex. Dad didn’t care for the old harridan, but after we boys had grown out of climbing trees he slowly lost his determination to keep the tree, and finally caved in. I would have rather it had fallen on her, but then I would not have been the one to pay for the legal expenses, so I guess that I had no legitimate say in the affair. I had shortly become completely finished with the tree anyway, a story to which I will return later.

I stood on the sidewalk looking at the house, and debated what to do. I had seen it well enough that I should be able to declare that the itch had been sufficiently scratched and gone my way, but that stinking itch just wouldn’t go away. It became increasingly clear that I would have to go to the front door, knock, and if anyone should be home I would introduce myself and ask if it would be permissible for me to take a look in my old back yard. My mind made up, I strode up the concrete walkway that Dad and I had poured twenty years or more earlier, mounted the two steps onto the tiny porch, and knocked on the door.

The door had once been finely finished, well sanded and with many coats of varnish brushed it to protect it from the dry air of southern California. Now it was laced with myriad cracks, and the varnish was flaking and peeling.  I stood there looking at that door, remembering the pride that Dad placed in anything that he did and also thinking of all the times that I had burst through that door, ten thousand times at least, when at last I heard a locking mechanism turning and heard the hinges squeak slightly as the door swung slowly, partially open.

A small face appeared at the door, peered at me for an instant, and then turned back into the interior of the house and said “Mama, no sé quién es.” The door closed, and after a moment or two a larger version of the first face stared out at me from the small crack that the barely opened door afforded.  “Hello” she said tentatively.

“Hello” I replied. “My name is Glenn, and I grew up in this house. I’m sorry to be a bother to you, but I am only in town for a few more days and I would like very much to just take a look at the back yard. I have a lot of memories of growing up here and I would love to see what has changed and what hasn’t. I would completely understand if you are not comfortable with this, and if so I will not bother you again.” The woman said “wait a minute” and closed the door. No more than a minute or two passed but I was becoming convinced that this was a bad idea.  I raised my hand to knock on the door again, this time to tell the lady that I was sorry to have been a bother, when the door opened once again and the older, larger face reappeared. “Come around to the back, and we will meet you” she said.

Surprised and pleased, I stepped to the right of the door, through a small arched aperture which led from the porch down to ground level, a space of about a foot and a half, and on to the dining room corner of the house.  At that corner there began a low, gated chain link fence which stretched across the driveway; a fence that my father had put in after I had returned from Vietnam.  My eyes drifted over to a newer, whiter patch of concrete that stood out against the half-century old concrete of the rest of the driveway.  I chuckled as I saw that patch.

Dad had used a sledge hammer to pound out the three holes in the old existing driveway where he intended to set the poles which would anchor the two ends and the gate. I had just ridden my bike about twelve or thirteen miles from where I lived with several other people and smoked a joint along the way.  I enjoyed smoking marijuana in the most obvious of places because that is where people least expected one to do so, so after nearly exploding my heart by crawling up an almost vertical secondary hillside road out of El Cajon Valley into Fletcher Hills, I lit my cigar-sized joint and smoked it while I glided easily down the mostly downhill seven or eight miles that remained between me and my family home. I was going for dinner, which was certain to be a far tastier event than anything that I could whip up at the kitchen in our rented house.

When I arrived at my childhood home I asked Dad what he was doing. He explained his mission and then disappeared into the garage at the far corner of the lot to get something that he needed. With my well-addled senses I analyzed the holes in the concrete and somehow concluded that one more hole was needed. Perhaps because the two holes intended to hold the gate posts were clustered to one side of the proposed fence, far from the third  posthole which lay solitary and lonely at the other end, offended my seriously skewed sense of feng shui, or perhaps because there was some more elemental, bizarro caricature of common sense lurking in my Id that grasped at its opportunity to bask momentarily in the light of day, it seemed obvious to me that one more hole was desperately needed for balance, and I determined that I would step up to the plate and help Dad with his project.

The sledge was leaning against the house, and I picked it up and began whaling away at a spot I had somehow calculated to be the place where Dad needed one more hole in his driveway. In spite of my sketchy lifestyle I was twenty two years old and in pretty good physical shape. Therefore, by the time Dad returned I had a pretty good divot banged out of his driveway. “What the hell are you doing?” Dad asked me, more in amazement than annoyance. “Well”, I answered, “I thought you needed one more hole for balance, so I busted it out for you.”

If I would have done this before enlisting in the army Dad would probably have knuckled my head and given me a half-dozen nasty and annoying tasks to perform to atone for my sins. On this day he just laughed and told me to put down the sledge before I did any more damage. Dad explained the concept of gates needing posts but that the middle of a nine foot stretch of chain link fence did not need them so much.  In an instant I realized the idiocy of my act and apologized, but Dad said not to worry. “I’m mixing up concrete to pour around the posts, and I have plenty to patch that hole as well.” We retreated to the back yard and opened a couple of beers while the rented mixer turned Dad’s cement and sand and gravel and water round and round, until the slushy mess was ready to pour around the three poles, as well as patch the one hole that could not boast a good reason for being there. I thought of that day as I opened the gate of the fence that my Dad had set the poles for  sixteen years earlier.

The mistress of the house and two of her children met me at the back door and we walked together to the end of the concrete driveway which extended a few feet past the corner of the house. “We used to have a garage there” I said, pointing to an area of grass, dirt and weeds which proceeded fifteen feet or so from the end of the driveway. “My father wanted a bigger garage to hold the car and all of his tools, so he built that garage over there” – I pointed to the structure in the far corner of the back yard that opened onto the alley – “and we tore down the old garage which once stood here.”

That new garage was actually a source of angst for me.  My father had the foundation poured, but then he did every bit of the carpentry and wiring and roofing and siding, and everything else that one needed to do to build a functioning garage.  Dad had also done a lot of wiring and plumbing and other maintenance and remodel work on the house.  I had no natural ability for such things, and this was made worse by the fact that both Dad and my brother were very accomplished automobile mechanics.  I had neither the talent nor inclination to do these things but I certainly felt like less of a person because of that.  Dad didn’t help things when he told me one day “Son, when you grow up you had better learn how to make a living with your head, because if you have to depend on your hands you’ll starve.”  The really sad thing is that I spent seven of my adult years working in construction only to prove ultimately that my father was right.

“That was my bedroom window” I said, pointing to the window in the corner of the house that we had just walked around. “That’s my window” exclaimed the young girl who had initially answered at the front door.  “When I lived here we had a plant called a ‘night blooming jasmine’ that grew right there” – I pointed to a spot near the window – “and every night the flowers would open up and my whole room would smell like jasmine”.  “Oooh, I want a jasmine” the girl, who might have been twelve years old, squealed as she clapped her hands and bounced a little on her toes. Mom just smiled and mumbled “Maybe.” What I didn’t tell her was that the fragrance of that bush could actually be overpowering, and that I didn’t always like it so much.  It was nevertheless fun connecting over it with this new little resident of what I felt, just a little bit, was still my room.

I then walked over to a bench-style swing and set down on it. The swing faced west, towards the alley, and another swing much like the first faced back toward the house across a square wooden table top. The girl sat next to me, with us now being best buddies and all, while Mom and the younger boy sat on the swing facing us. “Let me tell you about these swings,” I began—.”

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One thought on “You Can’t Go Home Again, Part I

  1. John Barnett

    One further comment. Kudos for the “We Five” reference. I was immediately captured by “You Were On My Mind” in 1965 and it remains on my shortest list of favorite songs ever.

    Reply

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