Unfolding the Map
As we pull into Newport, Rhode Island with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM), do you feel a bit of nostalgia? Do you have some melancholy associated with a place that was, but now feels different? As I come home again, I feel it keenly, and will share some thoughts with you on the subject. If you wish to visit the years gone by, you'll only be able to do that in your memories. But if you want to see where Newport is located, navigate to the map.
"....I went on toward Quonset Point, the homeport of the ship I had been assigned to."
"....At the end of the road, a mile in, the big pier was empty. Nothing but rusting stanchions and bollards, and weeds along the railroad tracks. The whole bay stood open and vacant. The Champ, the Essex, the Wasp used to fill the sky with gray masses of hull, gun, and antennas. The great carriers were gone, and also tugs, tenders, big naval cranes, helicopters, jets; the shouts and hubbub and confusion of sailors and machines and aircraft, all gone.
"....I had lived and died walking off and on this pier and many times had dreamed of the day I'd come back as a civilian, free of the tyranny of the boatswain's pipe and his curses, free of working in a one-hundred-twenty-five-degree steel box. I felt cheated.
"Where the hell was the diesel oil of yesteryear? Where the drawn faces when we left, the cockahoop faces when we returned, the sailors kissing girls and lugging seabags, mahogany statues, brass platters, straw hats, and black velvet paintings of bulls and naked native women; trucks honking, the sailors on duty cursing down from the deck and offering services to the women, the sea wind snapping the flag from the jackstaff, the last smoke blowing grit on us from the tall stacks?...Christ. I knew you couldn't go home again, but nobody had said anything about not getting back to your old Navy base."
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 5
Newport, Rhode Island
It's often jarring when you go back to someplace that you frequented after an absence of a number of years.
While my absence from my home town hasn't spanned as many year as LHM's absence from Newport, Rhode Island, it still astounds me every time I go back and something has changed, landmarks have disappeared, and I am left sometimes with a profound sense of loss.
Of course, time moves forward whether we want it or not. But when one wants to capture something of the past, some marker that reconnects us to previous eras of our lives, and it is no longer there or has changed in some unalterable way, it can be a shock to the psyche.
LHM goes to Newport expecting to see something of the old Navy base out of which he served. When he gets there, what was once a huge industrial facility for maintaining ships of the fleet, including the big aircraft carriers, is now gone. All he is left with are the memories of the base and Newport as it once was. His reaction is one of shock and annoyance: why are there lobster fisherman where there once were the finest of the Navy. He even references Thomas Wolfe.
It may be that one can't go home again. I often say now that I'm "going home" to visit my mom, or to see old friends. In reality, home as it was in Fort Bragg, California has really ceased to exist for me. The house where I grew up has changed too much. Gone is the horrible brown carpeting, replaced with a durable wood floor. My room has become a guest room, with nothing left to mark my years of passage there. An acre of our big yard, where I used to play football with friends and where I constructed two holes of a six hole golf course, has been sold to the neighbor and now there is a shop and a bunch of his equipment on it.
The lumber mill where my father worked, and where I spent four summers as a worker and a security guard, is gone. When I drive down Oak Street toward what used to be the main gate, it still shocks me to see the ocean rather than the huge sawmill building that rose higher than any building in the town. Along the whole of the downtown, in fact, the only thing that separates the town from the sea is a vast tract of silent oceanfront property that once housed mills, drying sheds and what seemed like endless stacks of cut lumber stretching far away north and endless decks of newly cut logs that stretched far away south. Now, the steam-powered rattle and noise of the mill machinery, the revving motors of the forklifts and carriers, and the signature noon whistle that could be heard all over town are all ghosts on the ocean breeze.
All this is coming back to me now because it is the advent of my 30th high school reunion. Recently, on the trip home to attend that event, I learned that an old college friend had come out to California for a conference and decided to stay with some friends in the wine country. We talked a little about old times, but mostly we looked at each other and, at least for me, a certain wistfulness about the time that had passed and the changes in us. While much change has been good - for him, a debilitating disease in remission, a stable relationship, and a good job in Maine - one still cannot be unaware that time is marching and we've gotten older.
At my high school reunion, as I walked into the room I saw some people who I've kept in semi-regular contact with over the years, either by seeing them when I come home or through media like Facebook. Despite that, I saw a couple of people that I hadn't seen for those 30 years. A number of people I didn't recognize through the changes that time and experience had wrought. A number had trouble remembering my name. High school seemed to be such a huge part of our lives that it has grown out of proportion to many of our other experiences. A classmate that I spoke with put it in perspective. I went to school in a small town and was with most of my classmates all through my school years. He reminded me that all of my classmates, at the age I now am, were a part of only about a third of my life. Yet that period, and especially the three years of high school I attended, seem like such a huge thing. All of the successes, and all of the failures, have been magnified. All of the slights and praises from classmates, while hidden under the veneer of my adulthood, still rattle around in there if I choose to go back and remember them. I suspect that a small few of our alumni don't come back to the reunions because of the trauma they faced in high school from an equally small number of cruel classmates.
That's where I would modify Thomas Hardy and LHM. One can come home again, but sometimes one might not wish to. Home is in the past, and home can connote much that might be painful to relive. When I think of what was home to me thirty years ago, it consisted of a dysfunctional family, a tortured and negative sense of self, and a longing for something different. When I think of what is home now, it consists of a more positive sense of self, many accomplishments, and different family dynamics albeit with echoes of the past. The nostalgia of the past is often best left as a place to visit, at a time of our choosing, and not as a place to dwell in.
The song that best encapsulates the melancholy of the past, at least for me, is Bruce Springsteen's Glory Days.
If you want to know more about Newport
Next up: Westerly, Rhode Island