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Touring the past

Food For Thought

A recent visit to my hometown involved my usual tour of former homes and other familiar places. This is a slice of pure nostalgia sprinkled with both dismay and amazement at some of the things that have changed since I lived there.
I drive into Knoxville on Highway 5 headed north from 92. On my right is the former home of Dessa Beard, who once lived next door to us. She had a chow dog named Ruff and she often treated him to the head of a chicken when she had killed one for cooking. Two of the neighbor boys took great delight in poking the eyes out with sticks causing me and my sisters to be both fascinated and queasy. As the highway passes the golf course, I remember climbing out the bathroom window of the house on Washington Street to watch the July 4th fireworks at the country club, and dragging our sleds cross-country in winter to take advantage of those lovely, long hills for sledding.
Next, just at the city limits, I pass the pretty little house my sister and her husband built on the lot our dad gave them for a wedding present, and then the site of the former miniature golf course our family ran every summer. I still marvel that my dad took me, then a mere 12-year-old, seriously enough to listen to my suggestion to build the golf course and to trust me to design and draw the plans for it. The miniature golf course (which I was allowed to christen Utopia) has long since been bulldozed and turned into a housing development. I turn left onto Washington Street, past the houses where classmates Tom and Rosemary once lived, and pause briefly at the top of the hill to admire my old home. It has been considerably beautified with pale blue siding and shiny black shutters which are a big improvement on its former stark, barn-like appearance. I never liked the chlorophyll-toothpaste green color that Dad had chosen to paint it (but, I remembered that he was colorblind, so maybe it looked good through his eyes). Between Utopia and the house, had been our garden and the orchard Dad had planted; both have long ago vanished.
I head uptown now, past the church where I sang in the choir, and to the Veterans Memorial Hall across the street from the old Marion Theater where we sometimes walked from school to see performances of high school class plays and imported entertainment, including a magician who failed to amaze me and who insisted that everything he managed to make disappear was “stuck on the ceiling with sealing wax,” a quip that I thought clever the first time he said it, but which soon sounded corny. The next block reveals our Marion County Courthouse, a graceful, castle-like structure occupying the center of downtown. Stores, restaurants, banks, offices and the Grand Theater occupy the four blocks surrounding the courthouse, but aside from the theater, none are the same as I remember from even a few years ago. Many of the town’s businesses have migrated to the junction of Highways 92 and 14 on the south side of town near the big Wal-Mart store and fast food places. A block north of the courthouse, I find the post office is still there but not the creamery where my mother once sold the extra cream from our two milk cows.
Heading west from the center of town, I drive past the house where I was born. Both the junior high and high school buildings that I attended were once across the street; both have since been torn down. Next I head south on First Street, past the house where we lived from the time I was 2 until the spring I finished third grade. Lots of childhood memories there. Learning to ride a bicycle, sledding down the long, sloping alley that went past our garage and garden, wading in rain-filled ditches after summer storms, sleeping on our screened front porch on summer nights, jumping out the upstairs window into Dad’s arms when he changed the screens and storms every spring and fall (his version of a fire drill). I remember reading comic books in Jackie’s tree house, the summer I had mumps and was quarantined seemingly forever. I can still name all the neighbor kids with whom I played those summer games of Sardines, Annie Over, Kick the Can, Hopscotch, Red-Rover, May I, Simon Says, and Red Light-Green Light. Just a couple blocks south the neighborhood turned into country, where we rode our bicycles down the dusty dirt road, waded in Competine Creek, and picked blackberries. It is now filled with houses, paved streets, mature shade trees.
Time to go. I double back to Washington Street, drive past the former homes of classmates Eleanor and Larry and the East Ward Elementary School which is now a modern new building and holds none of the memories of the six years I spent in the old red brick building with it’s high ceilings and tall windows. I drive once more past the blue house, Pine Knolls Country Club, and turn back onto 92, heading east.