When I was a young boy, my mom let me buy a book in the Scholastic book order and I bought Mickey’s Magnet, a story about a little kid who discovers the power of magnets after he spills a box of his mother’s pins. A cheap little red and gray horseshoe-shaped magnet came with the book and I was hooked. I spent hours in my room fiddling and fooling around with the magnet, seeing what it would pick up, yes to my father’s nails, no to my little green Army men.
I ultimately learned that the little magnet worked great on iron, nickel and steel, not so great on other things like aluminum, copper or even glass. I haven’t played around with that magnet in decades, but I’ve learned in the years since that my hometown has its own magnetic like properties.
It pulls me home.
When I’ve spent too much time overlooking a sea of cubicles and am tired and stressed-out, I feel the Central Pennsylvania community where I grew-up and spent the first years of adulthood, calling me home.
The community names come flying back to my mind in an alphabet soup flurry: Allensville to Belleville; Belltown to Burnham; Greenwood Furnace to Granville, Lewistown to Milroy; Maitland to McVeytown; Reedsville to Siglerville; Strodes Mills to Yeagertown, and a million other little small townships and boroughs. Throw in Centre, Huntingdon, and Juniata Counties and most of the memories I have between birth and my early twenties begin circling in my head.
My compass star
The call comes at odd times. It starts out simply enough like catching the cold or flu, but quickly spirals out of control. First comes a fever, than the sniffles, maybe a sore throat, and finally a harsh cough that shakes everyone around you. You fight it and fight it until one day you finally admit that you can’t fight it anymore. You admit to yourself that you need to take a day off from work, spent in bed, with the covers and pillows pulled high up over your head.
The same is true with my hometown. I’ll fight and fight the urge to play hooky and head home. I remind myself that I live two-and-a-half hours away. I have a family to take care of, work obligations, errands to run. I remind myself for the millionth time that I can’t just race back on a whim.
I remind myself too that it hasn’t been home-home for decades. I have family in the area who I love very much, but many of my friends have moved on as well. But eventually the body shuts down. I’ve had enough. I give in and race back home.
Country roads, take me home
I know it’s not true, but I’ve driven the road home so many times that it feels like the car can drive itself home. I know every nook, cranny, and turn in the road. When I get closer, I drive and think of a thousand different faces of former friends and acquaintances. Each turn I make, each bend in the road, a different memory comes to mind.
I think too of my family. No matter how short the trip will be, I’ll make an effort to stop in and spend some time with my mother. My mother sold the home that I grew up in years ago and that’s okay in my mind. I don’t have any desire to see the home, I simply want to see the area.
To the place I belong
I know a part of the return is thanks in part to the tried and true. I know the area. I love the nature, the picturesque farms, the local firemen’s festivals and fireworks. I know what to expect. I think in the end though that it runs deeper than that. I think a key part of my love of the area is the people. They’re willing to give you the shirt off their back. I find everyone says that about their hometown. But then I think of the cousin who supplies me with Amish whoopee pies every time I’m remotely in the area and who I still need to repay with some Southeastern Pennsylvania goodies. (If only I could transport a months supply of Geno’s or Pats cheesesteaks or a crate of real Philly pretzels, the kind you get hot right out of the bakery, without them spoiling.)
Writing about the place that calls me home:
—Missing the Big Valley Part II: Sending out my message in a bottle
And I think of the guy at the convenience store where I stop every time I get into town and then when I leave to fill-up on gas. I don’t really know him. He doesn’t really know me. I think we might have run against each other a couple of times oh too many years and fifty-plus pounds ago, when we both ran for different high school cross country teams. (I’m pretty sure I beat him, but I keep that little bit of news to myself.)
We nod. We do the guy thing: a smile and a knowing head nod. I pay for my coffee and he reminds me that the fair in town, raising money for some fire company or 4H group or a church, will run through the weekend. He talks to me like we’re long lost friends, giving me an update on everything happening in town over the weekend.
He didn’t have to say anything. He didn’t have to make small talk, but he did, anything to help his neighbors, to help his community. I think he’s just being nice to me, but I see him treat every customer that way, like they’re a family or a friend. He’s just that way.
And I think too of a former teacher of mine. It’s not that I see him on my visit. It’s just that I see his handiwork on the wall of the local mom and pop restaurant. I see a photo of him. He looks to be keeping busy coaching a baseball or softball team. In another picture, he’s the Bingo announcer helping lead some fundraising effort.
He’s grayer now than I remember and could be retired, living the easy life in Florida. He could be playing golf every other day or sunning himself at one of those swanky resorts where they have a swim-up bar and bring you tutti frutti, frozen drinks with little umbrellas. He’s put in his time, he’s put in the work, he’s earned his rest, but he keeps at it. The last time I saw him he said that he still had more to give.
So yes, I come back to my home town, because I miss the food (Hartley’s Potato Chips, whoopie pies, moon pies, chicken and waffles, and a million other things); the traditions; favorite locales; and all the old memories, but most of all because I miss the people.
In short, when my hometown calls me, I answer the call.