“You can’t go home again,” Thomas Wolfe (the Look Homeward, Angel guy, not Tom of Bonfire of the Vanites fame) wrote some 80 years ago. I did, anyway. What I found was a thing of beauty, the perception no doubt enhanced by the sweet tincture of nostalgia. A deep, lush green layered the fields and pastures of central Iowa, trees of every variety embossing the landscape with their pregnant blooms.
I drove along the streets of Des Moines and Newton, mellowness tinged with sadness at the memories come alive after decades of hibernation. It was not quite the same, but enough so to transport me into a state of repose. Apartment houses where I’d lived had succumbed to the ravages of age. Yet one could discern the efforts plied to prevent them from crumbling, just as some of us take extraordinary measures to keep the flame of youth from extinguishing, to slow the enervation toward the inevitable.
In Des Moines, I visited the Drake University surroundings where I lived while working and studying, and went out of my way to see if the Waverly tennis courts were intact. They were as fresh as ever, and plumbed the recesses of my mind for the days when I returned from menial work at the Look magazine subscription department and rushed to the courts with my Bancroft racket to find a partner for a set or two. The houses directly across from the courts were not as lustrous, and I couldn’t recall which one had been occupied by Melvin Synhorst, Iowa’s then-secretary of state, an ornery fellow to whom I once delivered a serve that nearly caught him in the head.
On the way to Newton after two book signings, I detoured from Interstate 80 into Colfax, where I survived the first semester of ninth grade and returned to school in Newton. The sleepy old former mining town of 2,500, in the heart of Midwestern farm country, had a Mexican restaurant whose décor was authentic and absent the concessions to modernity, but served a delicious omelet. I drove through town to old, little-used U.S. 6, and veered onto a gravel road a couple of miles beyond, and thence along the bucolic landscape to the small farm where the family moved to when I was almost 15. I sat at the end of the long, curving driveway, soaking in the scene. The hog shed still stood on the edge of the property, though it was dilapidated. The pullet house also remained, in a spot not far from the original. The barn, crumbling even while I lived there, was gone, as were both corn cribs. The hill dropping off from the driveway to the well seemed shorter than I remembered, probably because I spent Sunday evenings hauling three-gallon buckets of water up it to the basement washing machine for my mother’s weekly laundry on Mondays.
A young woman finally emerged from the house. I told her I’d lived in that house for eight years through high school and summers home from college. She’d grown up in the house, which her parents had bought from mine. She and a young son lived there by themselves, and harbored three small gray horses that grazed in the adjacent lot. After a pleasant conversation, I continued on my way to Newton. Near the western end, I drove down the streets where for five years I’d carried Route 31 of the Newton Daily News. The Tunises, a couple from Italy who never gave me a Christmas tip in five years of never missing a delivery, lived here. Next to them were the Peterses. The dentist, Dr. Welle, was several houses down, and then there were the Westons. The names came flooding back: the Billingsley mansion; the Jepsons, who replaced the $2 Christmas gift that had blown away in the wind; the Caldwells; the Speases. Trees blocked the view of Mrs. Kendall’s home set back on a rise from the street. Children’s rumors that she was demented and dangerous caused me anxiety whenever I walked through the narrow gate and past the bushes to her door, and one night I was terrified. She went to retrieve the money for her bill, and as she approached, a wailing no doubt produced by copious amounts of alcohol, grew louder. I took off running. At the end of my route, I saw her walking down the street, searching for me.
At the Newton Public Library, I received a warm reception for a book signing. Similar treatment was accorded me at the other locations, mostly bookstores, where I appeared. The biggest came at my high school class reunion, where classmates were overwhelmingly welcoming and interested in my two novels, Breaking out and Murder in Palm Beach: The Homicide That Never Died. They bought a bunch of copies, and at the dinner, I was called to the stage to talk about the books. The key figure in a class whose accomplishments have been prodigious was David Jones, one of the country’s leading economists, a frequent contributor on public radio and television business channels. He nearly was appointed to the Federal Reserve Board. Sitting at my table was my good friend Merlyn Bruce and wife Ann, two superb human beings who live in Cedar Rapids. Merlyn was responsible for my appearance, having tracked me down 10 years ago.
On my final day, at the last of my eight book signings, I was bowled over when a troupe of relatives I hadn’t seen in decades walked into the Pella Public Library. They’d noticed a story in the Pella Chronicle, one of several central Iowa newspapers that granted me space, including my old employer, the Newton Daily News. They all bought copies of both books. Afterward, I strolled through the charming campus of Central College, much built-up over the decades since I spent three years there.
It would be hard to top the kindness, graciousness and generosity of my classmates, my relatives, the stores and libraries, the newspapers, and everyone else I came into contact with. “Is this heaven?” called the ghost of the legendary ballplayer in Field of Dreams. “No,” a smiling Kevin Costner hollered, “it’s Iowa.”
In the summer of 1893, Czech composer Antonin Dvorak put the finishing touches on his New World Symphony in the eastern Iowa town of Spillville. The Largo movement, with its wistful Going Home theme played by the English horn, expressed the longing for his homeland, to which he then returned.
You can indeed go home again, and I’m glad I did.
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