💫 I have a large drawing of the coal camp I grew up in (Page) hanging over my desk. An old friend (Reese) gave it to me, and I cherish the memories it triggers. It looks exactly as I remember it. When I make the yearly trek back home to visit family and friends, I always drive up to where that camp was (it was torn down in the late 1950s) and think about the people who lived there. My aunt Beulah is the only adult from that camp still living, and most of the children from there have lost touch with each other or passed away. I still stay in touch with many of my high school classmates, but very few from the coal camp I spent my childhood in. We were stuck between two mountains that only let the sunlight in for about 6-7 hours each day. Our fathers went to the coal mine each morning, and our mothers cleaned the house, washed clothes, and read a lot. We, kids, were always looking for a game to play or something naughty to do. Life, at least to us children, was simple: find someone to play with. My mother would send my brother and me out of the house after breakfast (during the summer) and instruct us not to return until lunch. She was cleaning the house and wanted it to remain that way until dad got home. If we wanted a snack, we snuck in the back door, grabbed a biscuit, and then dashed outside before being discovered.
I recall how slowly time passed during those summers and how eager I was for school to resume. I was also keen to become an adult and make my own decisions. Adulthood arrived quickly. I remember boarding the bus in front of our home in southwest Virginia, headed for San Antonio, Texas, and basic training in the US Air Force (1959). I remember looking out the window of that bus as it drove away and thinking that part of my life was over and a new life was beginning.
Now, I’m sitting here at my desk, looking at the drawing of the Page Coal Camp and reminiscing about my life of long ago. I see myself as a nine-year-old boy with a bag of coal slung over his shoulder, struggling up the hill to our house so there would be fuel for the furnace to keep us warm. That was back when all kids had work assignments, and no one was excluded from contributing to the family’s survival. Those assignments were always in addition to schoolwork and were accepted without protest. I never remember protesting to my parents about a task I was assigned. It would have had a minor effect and likely resulted in a severe tongue-lashing.
I recall telling my dad that I wanted to play high school football (9th grade), and his automatic answer (continually) was, “No!”. I immediately walked down the hall to the kitchen and implored mom to convince him to change his mind. In a few minutes, he called me back to the living room and said that I could play football, but “It damn sure better not interfere with your chores!”. I hastily assured him it would not. On a lot of nights, they were finished at 10 pm. No, I didn’t feel sorry for myself, that was just the way life was. I felt my father was justified in expecting me to carry my part of the family load.
So, I’m left wondering why I choose to think about “the good old days?” Maybe, it’s not because they were better than my life as an adult, but because of an inner need to believe that my core values were derived from that period in my life, that morals were better back then, people were more honest, friendships more lasting, religion more ingrained, and happiness was always just around the corner?
That certainly begs the question, would I want to return to that life? After all, moving back to my hometown has always been within my power. Why haven’t I done so if my life back then was much better than it is now? Of course, the answer has to be that life wasn’t really better; it was only so in my memories of that time.
Janet Malcolm said it eloquently, “The past is a country that issues no visas.” I agree with Janet, except to say that it issues large satchels of memories 😊.
💫 I was watching “Yellowstone” on TV the other night, and one character, a cowboy, told another cowboy, “We’ve all been thru things that other people will never understand.” That’s a pretty astute observation for a cowboy. I understand he was only repeating a line of the script, but someone thought that cowboy was up to making a point in that way. Most of us are guilty of thinking anyone with a cowboy hat and a horse is a genuine cowboy. Probably, some people walking around with just a cowboy hat on, never having ridden a horse in their life, think they are the real McCoy. The same could apply to a young man that drives a pickup truck, wears jeans, and speaks profanely, thinks he’s a “Redneck.”
Many of us go thru life wanting to be what we’re not. It could be the aforementioned cowboy/redneck, a sports coach, or the most essential, hard-working person in your office. Then the time for a layoff comes, and you are one of those included to receive the dreaded “pink slip.” If you’ve ever received that piece of paper telling you your company no longer needs your services or tells you the college you wanted to attend has rejected your application, then you’ve been thru something many people will never understand. If you call your father to wish him a happy 89th birthday and he says the doctor told him he has two months to live (that actually happened to my wife), you know he’s going thru something you will probably never really understand, unless something similar happens to you. That’s when you know you’re in over your heart. That’s when you feel guilty about acting like a nice person instead of being one, knowing you should get in your car and drive the eight hours to be with him during his time of need.
Thomas Wolfe said in “You Can’t Go Home Again,” “Something has spoken to me in the night… and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying: Death is to lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life, you have for the greater life; to leave the friends you loved for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth.”
Many of us go through life wanting to be important, achieving great things at work, being a good spouse or friend, and helping those in our lives who need us. Eventually, as we travel through life, we reach the age where we look back and recognize the folly of life’s many stages. Wanting to be a “Redneck” or “Cowboy” is undoubtedly a prime example of immaturity.
C. Adichie said it best, “I think you travel to search, and come back home to find yourself there.”