Monday, December 10, 2012

What Do You Miss?

Finding the house of your youth disfigured on YouTube? Horrifying.

THE MISSING THING. We've talked about serendicity before. Here's the chronology. I did a piece the other day about the ordinary losses associated with time. You get older and certain things go away. I mixed the topics of Jersey tomatoes and snack foods. I was attempting to cheer people up in my odd way. Some of that sense of ongoing loss is reminiscence, nostalgia, and some of it is pique -- good things done in for no reason that just might be revivable.

I was moved by those who chose to respond. They tilted heavily toward nostalgia, even in some cases toward nostalgia for times not even experienced. Joe kind of pierced my heart.

Many things I pine for were dead or dying before I was even born. I would have loved to live in a time when children tried to dress like men, rather than the other way around. I would like to be able to wear a tailored suit and a homburg or a fedora without someone asking me if I'm preparing for a production of Guys & Dolls. I would like to be able to drive a massive car with tail-fins, without getting glares from the hybrid drivers and being made to feel like I am dooming the world to another ice-age because I like my car.

He doesn't remember these times. He just longs for them, the way future generations will long for a great America they've heard about but never known. Others, just as affectingly, knew precisely what they could never get back.

I grew up in the 1950's in a very small town in northeast Kansas (population about 400). In the summertime they would put on a weekly band concert. The band was made up of adults in the community as well as high school musicians. My best friend's dad played trumpet. They put on these concerts right in the middle of the main street and all the stores stayed open late. In those days the railroad had a depot in the town. The railroad employed a fellow to deliver freight which he delivered by putting it on a cart when he pulled by hand. He had a helper at times to help push the cart and make the deliveries. Neither of them were educated and were probably quite limited intellectually. Nonetheless, I considered them my friends. When it was time for a band concert, they would pull their cart down to the city auditorium. In the basement of the auditorium was the railing and the chairs for the concert. They would haul the railing and the chairs and the music stands up and load them on their cart and pull it to up to the main square of the town and set it all up. And I would help them. When the concert was over, I would help them tear it all down and haul it all back to the auditorium and put it back in the basement. For this effort I would get a half dollar which made me rich for a couple of days. During the concert my friend and I would sit on the curb and listen to the music or run all over town, climbing up on the building roofs or maybe go to the drugstore and have a rootbeer. I miss a lot of things from those days (1950's), but I think I miss the band concert nights most.

My mother was from Ohio, and I lived in Ohio. I know something about the band thing. I felt like I had taken too shallow a cut at the "What Do You Miss" question. So I set about correcting the error and explaining myself.

I still live in the country. Much of what is only a memory to most is still alive here. I can get real tomatoes, for example. People grow them in private plots and sell them at roadside stands where the honor system remains in force. There's a tackle box with a slot in the top and you put the money in for the tomatoes, beans, and canteloupes because the proprietors aren't there. Multiple customers are a luxury because they make change with each other.

We have a Market Day once a week on the main street of my town in summer. The farmers come to sell their produce, and people wander back and forth across the street visiting and gossiping. We have Cowtown Rodeo, written about here before, where people bring their kids and actually police their behavior in consideration of other folks, and everyone helps out with making sure no kid wanders too far from his parents.

We have a real annual county fair with all the lost trimmings: Four-H competitions, kids standing proudly by their healthy heifers, rabbits, pigs, and goats. Innocently boastful posters too. A music tent featuring local talent. Dog agility contests, funnel cake entrepreneurs, antique tractor exhibitions. Young hellions without tattoos compete in equestrian events.

Our asparagus, sweet corn, and pole lima produce remains the best in the country.

A lot of what others miss I don't have to. Why I felt guilty. So I dug deeper. Truth is, I miss all kinds of things that will never come back. I've written about a huge whole bunch of them here. But there was one, well, multimedia sensory experience that will be no more I wanted to cop to in honor of the commenters. I wanted to share the experience of August in South Jersey tomato country, a mile long line of tomato trucks, like a train riding on muddy tires, chugging sonorously as it inched toward toward the three tomato factories in town -- Heinz, Ritters, and Hunts. A city boy would probably call it a reek. A town of 30,000 (then) overpowered by the intense. rich. earthy but sweetish smell of tomatoes loaded by the millions in palisaded trucks stewing in the late summer heat. And, yes, it was hot back then too, long before rumors of global warming. Definitely and absolutely something lost that can't be brought back again.

I was going to link it to my own youth by tracking down the first tomato canning plant in Greenwich, New Jersey. You know. The place where it all began. Where I began.

Searched YouTube, because the physics of posting make YouTubes easier than jpg's anymore. When I stumbled on my own home address. Yeah, it's still less than 20 miles away, but I've avoided it for years because I didn't want to know. Now I do.

Good God. The YouTube up top really is a current rendering of the house I grew up in. But it's not the house I grew up in. It's a grotesque fake, a pretentious fraud, an inflated museum monstrosity that makes me physically ill even to see.

We didn't have a numbered street address when I lived there. We were just RD#3, meaning part of the third rural delivery route. I recognized it first from the outside view (huh? What? Can't be...) and then, definitively, from that wide fireplace with the dutch oven.

I spent the first 14 years of my life in that house. It wasn't a fake then. It was part of the great American story, one generation giving way to the next, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. It was a living body of American history, good and bad. I played my own part in it. My part was a small part, now erased, my father's larger, now camouflaged and turned fraudulent, and I am compelled to say that what I miss most is ordinary human history.

If you want, I'll tell the story. The difference between the house in the video and what I remember. If you don't we can talk about all the other stuff you miss. I'm laying no special claim. Just offering a serendicitous moment.

Otherwise, I'll proceed as before.

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