From Coal Dust to Red Dirt

“Joyce is right about history being a nightmare—but it might be the nightmare from which no one can awake. People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”    James Baldwin, Stranger in the Village

            In less than a week, I’ll be moving back to Oklahoma for the third time, a place where I once said I wanted to leave before I died there. No, I’m not near death nor am I going there to die. However, if I stay there for the next fifty or more years, whatever my maker has sketched out for me in They’re Book, that’ll be alright with me. I have now lived there long enough to have history there. I have now lived there long enough to have friends I consider my logical family. I have lived there so long, that my own hometown and the people I left behind there, are foreign to me.

            Last week, I spent the weekend with family in my hometown as a way to say goodbye to them one more time. While there, I heard news about people I once knew, former teachers and neighbors, estranged family members. Most of which I hadn’t thought of in years, some I couldn’t remember. I learned that a former teacher from the high school, a man I’d heard of but never had a class with, was now ensconced at the old folks home next door to my niece’s house, where she worked. She said he writes a poem in his journal almost every day. On days when nothing special happens or he’s not feeling well, his entry for that day simply reads, “Nothing.”

            I don’t keep a journal or a diary. I never have. I tried once but found myself boring and figured other people would too, so I stopped trying to record my thoughts that way and stuck to writing poems. I still find myself boring most of the time, and I doubt very strongly I will ever do something so egotistical and narcissistic as to write my memoirs. Part of the reason is that for any and all moments in my life I could choose to write about, I already know how the story ends, so I have no motivation to start writing it. Sure, I could lie like some do and change the facts, but what good would that do? I’ll still know.

            Every time I go home, I also look at the things in town which have changed in my absence. This time, I was lamenting, yet again, the loss of the A & W drive-up restaurant that used to be on the northern edge of town. The restaurant left during my childhood and another business took over the building, until, eventually, the building itself was gone and now a gas station and convenience store set on that spot. On the other end of town, across from the Catholic school, is a CVS, which I supposedly saw last Christmas because we drove right passed it, but I have no recollection of it and don’t remember seeing it at all. When CVS came in, they drove out the last remaining family-owned drugstore, and now my niece has to go to the next town over, more than sixteen miles away, to get her insulin because CVS won’t take her insurance.

            I didn’t get a chance to see much of the town while I was there, as my niece lives on the north side, near the route we would take out the next day. I had been hoping for one final glimpse of the Main Street. Growing up, I had always loved the architecture of the buildings on that street, and often found myself looking up at them, wondering what they had once been, who had owned them, and what was sold within. Many of the buildings which are there now have been there since the early 1900s, and they still bare the marks of that time when there was more attention put to detail, and things were built to last. When I was growing up there, the local paper, which came out once a week, on Thursdays, always printed a picture from the early days of the town. More than anything else, I would poor over these pictures. I would try to discern the outlines of the modern town as I superimposed it in my mind’s eye over the printed photo. One of my favorite photos, however, wasn’t of the buildings at all, but of the old town square. The square is no longer there. Instead, the library and municipal buildings sit on that space now. But, once upon a time it was a park, with benches and trees and lighted paths to walk. The ladies would walk through on Sundays in their best dresses, carrying umbrellas, usually in groups of three of four, their gentlemen following close behind. This is what the picture showed. Years later, when I knew of such things, it would remind me of a Seurat painting, albeit, a small town midwestern version.

            I’ve never been one to care much for world history. This was something I never questioned, thinking history, in general, was just never going to be an interest of mine. Then, some time ago, I realized that I’m always fascinated by local history of wherever I’m living. Once I’m connected to a place, I want to know how that place came to be. Who gave the town its name? Who were the families behind the names of the streets? And what was so special about this spot that someone had to stop and say, “Here I will make a town?” In grade school I was told the story of how the name came to be and I think that was the beginning of my fascination with local history. As the story goes, in the 1800s, when the town felt they were ready to make it official, they filled out the paperwork to become incorporated and sent them off to D.C., naming themselves after a man who had bought land in the area with the sole purpose of making a town square. When the paperwork arrived in Washington, bearing the same name as the name of a town in Virginia but spelled differently (but correctly as far as its namesake was concerned), the postal worker who received the paperwork thought that those Midwesterners couldn’t spell, and changed the name on the paperwork before he approved it. Meanwhile, back in Illinois, the locals of the new town decided it was too much bother to try to change it, so they kept the spelling, but pronouncing it the way it should be for many years to come, until over time, the stress on the vowel hardened to the way we pronounce it now. The myth around this change claims that it changed from a soft “a” to a hard “a” due to the accumulation of coal dust in the throats of the locals.

            This was not the only town I lived in growing up. In my memory, we lived in seven different towns, sometimes making moves within the town during our time there, or moving away for a year or so, then moving back. We moved so much, that I called my father the “Master Mover.” No one could play moving box Jenga like my father. The reason for the moves was either to find more work, to find cheaper housing, or to move closer to work. The moves occurred so frequently throughout my childhood that I rarely spent more than one year at a school at a time. Making friends was next to impossible and getting attached to a particular place was just not thought of. From the fifth grade through high school graduation, my family moved between two neighboring towns four times, until finally settling in the town where my niece now lives when I was a sophomore in high school. After I went to college my parents moved several more times, but that’s a story for another day. Finally, after all that moving around, I was able to attach the moniker “hometown” to a specific place. Now, when asked where I grew up, that’s the town I will name. Of all the places I lived growing up, it is the one I know the most about. I would never claim that I love it or that I long to see it. However, the history of the place is trapped within me, just as a portion of mine is now trapped within its city limits.

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