He’d been in the city for 16 years.
A long time. Maybe too long.
“Maybe it’s time to go back to your roots,” a friend said. “Back home.”
Home. Where is home?
He had lived in the city for 16 years, longer than anywhere else in a nomadic life that began at age 5. A few years here, a few more there, never anywhere for any length of time.
But was it home? Time to find out.
As the U.S. Airways 737 banked over Tampa Bay and settled onto the runway, he wondered: Was this home?
It tried to start out that way, some 49 years ago. A father home from World War II, a new wife he met while stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, a young son, and the beginnings of a career as an electrician at the U.S. Phosphorus plant in Gibsonton, just south of Tampa.
But a careless fellow employee turned the power on an electric motor at the wrong time and the father was dead. His son was nine months old.
They stayed in Gibsonton for four more years, the young widowed mother and her son, before moving back to her home in Southwestern Virginia – a backwater town called Floyd.
As he turned the rental car into the cemetery in North Tampa, he wondered about the father he never really knew. It took 40 minutes to find the graves of his father, paternal grandparents, two uncles and an aunt. His father died at 28. His uncles bought it before 30. The aunt never saw 40. At 49, he had lived longer than any of them.
South on U.S. 41 to Gibsonton, where his father, uncles and aunt grew up. It probably would have been home, if his father had lived. But he didn’t and the memories of a four-year-old aren’t clear. This wasn’t home.
He started school in Floyd, Virginia. They lived in an apartment over an appliance store where his mother worked as a bookkeeper. For the first seven years of his life, his mother told him about his father. His father, she said, could never be replaced.
But he was eight when she replaced his father, marrying a man with three kids of his own. Suddenly, he had a stepbrother and two stepsisters, and a stepfather that an eight year old could never accept as a replacement for the irreplaceable father he had never known.
They moved to Farmville, Virginia, not far from Richmond.
He flew into Richmond, rented a car, and drove southwest to Farmville. He hadn’t been there in more than 30 years, but he drove right to the house where they lived in just outside of town. The huge yard was still there, the half-acre that seemed to take him and his stepbrother forever to mow. The drive-in theater that used to be across the road was gone. The kid at the convenience market that sat on the site didn’t remember the theater.
“Man, that must have been a long time ago,” he said.
He walked the streets of Farmville, past the movie theater where he used to watch Saturday serials. It was closed. So was the portrait studio where the owner encouraged a youngster’s emerging passion with photography.
But the offices of The Farmville Herald remained. He took pictures for the paper and had a paper route. Actually, it was a paper stop. Each Tuesday and Thursday, he would haul 75 copies of the paper down to the Brown Shoe Company factory and sell copies to workers who got off their shift at 3:30 p.m. The factory closed long ago, but the building lived on as an antique mall.
It took a while to find the Little League ball park where he played left field and hit his first (and last) home runs. The local radio station used to give away a free transistor radio to any Little Leaguer who sent one over their sign in right field. He never managed it.
Easier to find was the stream under the railroad trestle where he camped as a Boy Scout. At the time, it seemed like home, even with a substitute father he could never quite accept.
They had been in Farmville for two years when the county school board refused a federal court order to integrate. Instead, they closed the public schools and opened a private, whites-only private school. For the next three years, he and his brother and sisters went to school in church basements, an American Legion Hall and other makeshift classrooms.
The private academy made plans for a new school building right across the road from the Little League Park. A 10-year-old never really understood the politics and racism that led to the situation but he tried by interviewing his classmates and writing an essay. The paper published it – his first byline.
His mother and stepfather understood and the racial situation in Prince Edward County gave them reason enough to sell out the family sawmill business, sell the home, and move back to the stepfather’s family farm in Floyd County, Virginia.
In some ways, it should have been a homecoming, but he hadn’t been in Floyd long enough the first time to think of it as home. Even worse, they moved to a farmhouse with wood stoves, no indoor plumbing, and part of a working farm that meant getting up at 5 a.m. to feed cattle.
Floyd County was Appalachia: No Little League. No Boy Scouts. No paper routes. The bicycle went into the shed. He never rode it again.
He wasn’t happy in Floyd County. It wasn’t home. He blamed his stepfather for ruining his life.
As he drove out of Farmville, he realized — 30 years late — that it also wasn’t home, but simply another stop along the way. A relatively new U.S. 460 bypass now ran by the old family home outside of town, so he turned the rental car onto it and headed west to Roanoke, where he picked up Interstate 81 to Christiansburg, then Virginia Rte. 8 to Floyd.
He stayed on Rte. 8 South of Floyd, to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and turned on it and drove to Rocky Knob overlook. An older woman named Sandy taught him about sex at Rocky Knob and he used what he learned to bring a number of young women back to Knob to try and coax them into the back seat of his ’57 Ford. Most of the time, he failed, but the times he succeeded brought back memories and a smile.
Just south of the entrance to the Parkway was a restaurant where he bought beer without an ID. On a typical Saturday night, you picked up a six pack of cold ones, put them in the cooler and headed to the Knob to park and make out.
Back in Floyd, he walked the streets that branched out from the town’s single stop light (in fact, the county’s only stop light). Ruthrough’s Drug Store was gone, but he remembered the 25-cent milk shakes. Moses Restaurant was gone too, replaced by something called Oddfellas.
Handicraft stores and artsy-craftsy shops now occupied the old storefronts – an attempt to appeal to anyone who managed to wonder off the Parkway.
At Floyd County High School, he played a year of football (badly), ran track for one year (also badly) and tried to fit in, but he wasn’t happy about a life left behind in Farmville. He found solace as the school photographer, which allowed him to skip classes to take pictures. Instead of sports, he chased girls and trouble. He had little problem finding both.
He walked the halls of the high school, finding his old locker. What was the combination? He tried what he thought it was. It opened. Son-of-a-bitch. They never changed the combination.
He wanted out of Floyd County so much that he went to summer school so he could graduate a year early. It became an obsession. He left in the summer of 1965 and vowed to never, ever, return.
Back on the road, heading south on U.S. 221, past Willis, left on the two lane road that led to the family farm, but he didn’t stop there. He drove on to Buffalo Mountain Presbyterian Church, got out and walked into the small cemetery, to the graves of his maternal grandparents and his stepfather.
At nine, he built a kite and tried to fly it, but it crashed and broke. He cried. His stepfather spanked him and said: “Men don’t cry.” He didn’t cry from that day. He didn’t cry when hurt. He didn’t cry when each of his grandparents died. He didn’t cry when his stepfather died.
He brushed some grass off his stepfather’s grave and said softly: “You were a crusty bastard, but I never really did give you much of a chance, did I?” Then the sobs started, shaking his body in convulsive waves. He blubbered like a baby for 20, maybe 30 minutes.
When he got back into the rental car, he thought about stopping to see his mother, but didn’t. There would be a time to visit. This wasn’t it. He kept driving, past the farm, past Willis, past Floyd, and out of the county. He stopped in Roanoke for gas and a bite to eat, then turned East on U.S. 460 and drove to Richmond, turned in the rental car, and hopped a plane for the short flight back to Washington.
Leaving Floyd County didn’t bring stability. He lived here, then there. Even in the same community, he moved around a lot. During 11 years in and around Alton, Illinois, he lived at eight different addresses.
It wasn’t until he moved to the Washington, DC, area in 1981 that he stopped moving. After 16 years, he was still at the same address.
As the plane banked over the Potomac, he looked out the window and saw the familiar sites: the Washington Monument, White House and Capitol. He caught a cab in front of National Airport’s gleaming new terminal.
For once, the cabbie spoke English.
“Where to buddy?”
“Home,” he said, “Take me home.”
Postscript: Washington was home in 1997. It might have remained so but the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 changed the city we loved along with the nation. With my mother’s health failing Amy and I made the decision to move to Floyd in 2004. It wasn’t as much a homecoming as a move of convenience.
Now, eight years later, we face the inevitable loss of my mother and another decision time in our lives:
Are we home? Or does home lie out there, somewhere, waiting for us to find it?