Robert (gurdonark) wrote,
Robert
gurdonark

the long sail home



I took one of those on-line quiz things at findyourspot.com, which, after a detailed set of questions, purports to tell one where one's ideal towns in which to live would be. Not surprisingly, my ideal towns were all places in Arkansas, Louisiana (including Opelousas), and inland California. I'm a bit surprised that none of the places were in Texas or in "my part" of Arkansas. I've always noticed, though, that lots of good places are overlooked by such promotional devices. It always seems to me that "resort towns" get a big promo, while perfectly nice places to live down the road exist, entirely unheralded, featuring lower prices, a more down-to-earth feel, and outdoors activities which are less crowded.

I think that the sense of home matters a great deal to me. So far, I've lived in but three states--Texas, Arkansas and California. Once upon a time, before I moved to California, I felt that I would never want to live anywhere in the US other than the south. I felt that only the south, and possibly the rural UK, would "fit" my personality. When I did a Summer in London after my junior year of college, I felt that I could live there forever, which, I suppose, broadened my horizons a bit. I used to love to just wander on Sundays there, drinking in how different the place was than Arkansas. I'd walk for miles and miles, experiencing "life as travel log". I always feel, somehow, that I'm a tourist in life, almost anywhere I go.

I was born in Texas, but my stints in San Antonio and Amarillo were done by the time I was five, as my father left the Air Force to set up practice in his native south Arkansas. My parents were in the same class in high school (he the co-valedictorian, she the saluatorian), and wanted to move home to be near their families. My father's first private practice was in a small town called Sparkman. My first memories of next door neighbors there was Mr. and Mrs. Amos, an elderly childless kind couple whose fireplace mantle had an ornate small cuckoo clock, from which I do not believe a cuckoo bird emerged, but instead a woman standing on a circular platform circled about. We didn't stay in Sparkman very long--it was just too small to support a physician--so I have limited momentoes of that time. One souvenir of that era is a picture of me at four in a dark suit, standing next to my "date", a contestant in the Little Miss Sunbeam pageant. The next reminder is between my index finger and the middle finger of my left hand--a set of stitches from a flawed game of "drive the kitchen knife through the sponge". I love to run my other index finger over the stitches, covered over for thirty nine years by skin, and somehow think "this is who I am".

When I was five, we moved to Gurdon, Arkansas. Gurdon was a town of about 2,000 people, deep in the pine forests. Like a lot of towns in these necks of the woods, Gurdon was founded in the late 19th Century by the railroad. It was named after the first name of a railroad executive. Gurdon is in south Arkansas, which is the less picturesque, non-Ozarks part of the state. It's a place of rolling hills and pine trees and river bottoms. The blues legend Jimmie Witherspoon is from Gurdon, although his main civic contribution was to leave as soon as he could get gigs elsewhere.

Gurdon was no Mayberry, but my sixties childhood had a lot of small town charm. Friday nights the town turned out for football games featuring the beloved purple and gold Gurdon Go Devils. Sundays, nearly the entire town was in church. We shopped at the five and dime, we rode our bicycles up Bowen Hill so that we could glide down, and we collected old coke bottles to sell for pennies each to Mr. Austin (Austin was his first name), who owned the local grocery store. We had one restaurant, Earl's Cafe, and a hamburger place called the "Daisy Queen". Almost everyone's dad worked at the local pineply mill, or as a logger. There were exceptions--our dad was a country doctor, my friend Charles' dad owned a hardware store, and one of the kids a class or two below us had a dad who was the town moonshiner. Gurdon was in a dry county, where sales of alcohol were forbidden, so we had those curious southern institutions, the moonshiner (who makes home-made alcohol for the consumption of the drinking public, in violation of local law) and the bootlegger (who runs countraband alcohol from other counties to the buying public, in violation of local law). We all read a weekly paper, The Gurdon Times. If you wanted to be "published" as a writer, you could always write for the Times. They pretty much published everything.

Gurdon had its problems. The blight of racism marred the way the town worked for years. Some people were pretty poor. Perhaps there were a few more potholes than other towns. But it was a great place to live in many ways. Crime almost did not exist. People said "hello" to you on the street. There were tons of places to play and run and just be a kid. Although Gurdon was in the Bible Belt, kids lived an exuberant, not at all repressed life. Most of the kids were Missionary Baptists, with a certain fun fervor. They prayed with a vengeance on Sunday, and they played with a vengeance on Friday night. Older folks seem to me now like relics of a bygone time. Some men were known by the name "Dub", others by names like "Red". For that matter, I grew up with a "Stony", a "Tiger" and a Cloud. Everyone could fish, not because we were great outdoorsfolk, but because that is what people did. Many folks hunted deer and squirrel, though I really didn't. The Gurdon Public Library stocked things to read, and the school playgrounds were open to the public.

When I was sixteen, my folks opted to move to Camden, their home town. Camden was HUGE--16,000 people. It was not materially different in some ways from Gurdon, being only 40 miles down the road. It was a paper mill town, so a sulphurous smell was always in the air. "Smells like money to me!" was the local refrain. But that little difference in population allowed for things like high school social cliques that we didn't really have in Gurdon. My folks live in Camden still. They bought an old southern Greek Revival two story home in the mid 1970s, which had seen better days. Shortly after we moved in, my folks discovered that the walls were literally sagging apart on the home. Huge trucks with cables had to come and "pull the house together", like some curious thing from a Dr. Seuss book. The home had been built in 1857, and occupied by invading Union army folks in 1864, during the Civil War. Although the Civil War was no laughing matter, the Union occupation of Camden, during the ill-fated "Camden Arkansas Expedition", generated some rich folksy history. It's said that when one family was being hassled by enlisted Union soldiers, the local Union captain placed his hat on the family piano, to advise folks that the family was "under his protection". I want to say that my folks paid virtually nothing for it, even in today's money adjusted for time value. When I was home for Easter, the azaleas were blooming pink and red all around the huge front porch.

Camden was one of a number of small towns which Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins used to play, but during my 1970s high school years, no musical stars came to visit. My brother and I during our high school and college years tended to play lots of sandlot sports, do fishing and outdoors activities, and gather to play chess and Risk with good friends, while listening to LPs by Jethro Tull, U2, UFO, and David Bowie. I still feel very much at home in Gurdon or in Camden, though neither has been my home for over twenty five years.

What made them home? Good friends, perhaps, and a sense of place.
I was nobody in Gurdon or in Camden, but I knew who I was. I sang (off key) in the church youth choir, the Share Singers, and I got to spend time at our grandparents' home in the woodland on the outskirts of town. The paper mill pulled out, to move to places where they could pay even lower wages than Arkansas wages. The town is losing population. But it has been around since the early 19th Century, and will, I believe, be around in the 23rd Century.

I went to college in Fayetteville, at the University of Arkansas.
I had a miserable first two years in college. I didn't make many friends, and I seemed to inexplicably gather a few enemies, who imagined that because I was "different", I must be gay. Homophobia was rampant, and kids hassled me a bit. I was not insightful enough to develop a social consciousness about this at that time. But it was a curious experience to be entirely straight, being attacked as if I were entirely gay. I think it gave me a sense of "otherness" I find useful even today. It also gave me a renewed sense of people's inhumanity to people that perhaps colors my thinking in less positive ways.

As my college years went on, this all subsided, and by my senior year I felt I owned the place, in an eccentric, non-possessive, non-popular way. I took a physics degree, with a curious minor in English literature. To my knowledge, I was the first and only graduate of that school who combined those two discliplines. The physics building was a pastel cinderblock structure. It "became" the physics building when they decided to no longer use it as the HVAC (heating and air) plant. The food at the Brough Commons cafeteria was great, and the dorm had better hot water showers than our rather old house at home did.

Fayetteville is in the northwest corner of Arkansas, in the gorgeous Ozark mountains. It's a place I would go to visit or vacation any day. But Fayetteville could never be home to me. Northwest Arkansans are not *that* different than the southern ones, although there are subcultural differences between the mountain folks and the south Arkansans. But Fayetteville lacks that "home feel" for me. Why is that? That's the puzzle I'm not sure this post can answer.

I had a lot of things going for me in Fayetteville, people to date,
good friends, a lovely place, but I decided to go to law school in Little Rock instead of in Fayetteville. I figured I'd study better with fewer distractions, and I considered that law school might exceed my grasp. I never regretted this choice, which was a very wise one. I loved Little Rock from nearly the first moment I lived there. It was large enough to have restaurants and movies and stores,but so very small in so many ways. I could drive half an hour away and be in the middle of the Hot Springs National Forest, on back roads nobody travelled. I could drive twenty minutes from my apartment and be at Pinnacle Mountain State Park, where one could climb a tiny mountain in a matter of minutes and gaze out at the gorgeous Arkansas River Valley. Law school kids were older and more mature as a rule than collegians by a good bit, and I made many friends. I loved Little Rock, and thought I'd live there for life. I was home.

But my last after-school job was with a law firm headquarted in Dallas, some three hundred miles away. For Arkansas folks, Dallas is a "normal" migration place, because it has so many more jobs. Dallas is kind of an adopted part of Arkansas for Arkansans, and an adopted part of Oklahoma for Oklahomans. For Texans, who concede no such foreign claims, Dallas belongs just to them. Arkansas just did not have the same job opportunities. There's a saying about Arkansas--"I love it so much that I'm going to retire here someday". The job offer I got in Dallas paid about 40 % more than comparable jobs in Little Rock, and the work was fascinating. So I moved to Dallas in 1984.

I loved Dallas from almost the moment I moved here. I took long drives on foggy fall mornings past Lake Ray Hubbard. On the day I finished the bar exam, I drove out to Dinosaur Valley State Park, where footprints of critters are in the Paluxy River bed, and just lay on a huge rock and stared up at the sun. I'd take long drives through country towns, and see incredible bands at curious clubs with names like The Theater Gallery and the Prophet Bar. I bought a little house within a year, and settled in, eschewing a plan to go east to law grad school in order to "make a go" of success as a lawyer.

But a funny thing happened on the way. My firm got a huge Los Angeles case. Eventually, I found myself commuting to Los Angeles for this case every week. I took the California bar in 1988 and passed it. I was soon practicing, in effect, in two states at once, shuttling back and forth between Dallas and Los Angeles. I met my wife, who lived in California then. Although we settled in Dallas when we married, we soon had to move to Los Angeles. I was needed there full time, on a temporary assignment. We stayed ten years. The first three were largely miserable. We lived in Los Angeles proper, in apartments. I missed having countryside so close to us, and found the urban thing a bit uninspiring for me. I did find some good places to fish in the ocean, and some good places to play chess. But overall, we found Los Angeles quite stressful. We lived in Westchester and then in Westwood. They were not home. They were far from home.

I was a moderator (section leader, they called it) on a Compuserve Califonia forum. Somebody posted a message board post asking about the cost of housing in inland neighborhoods. I called a local realtor in La Canada to help out, by asking about rental prices. She had a rental house available in nearby Montrose, for about what we were paying for rent in our "everyone is in the entertainment industry and unfriendly except us and the accountants next door" Westwood place. We went to see it, and rented it instantly. Our dog, long cooped up in an apartment, loved having a doggy door again. We loved the place, which was within walking distance of the charming Montrose downtown, with restaurants, a book store, a newstand, and more community feel than an episode of "Leave it to Beaver". We were twenty minutes from the Angeles National Forest, and ten minutes from the gorgeous Descanso Gardens, where a huge camellia forest bloomed each winter, and deer could be seen daily if one went to walk the garden at dawn.

When Los Angeles' housing market crashed, we could actually (barely) afford a little place in nearby La Crescenta, up in the foothills. We were so happy there. The Crescenta Valley is like its own little place. We had good friends, a good church, good times and lots of good fun. We were home. But home was 1400 miles away from our family. Moreover, the time had come for me to start my own law firm. On Thanksgiving Day 1999, as we ate dinner at the Flintridge Inn, in La Canada, we made our plans to escape.

We opted to move back to the Dallas area, because it was so much more affordable than California, and because I had some business contacts there and an understanding of its legal market. I set up my law firm with an old friend in an under-served suburb, which is now almost three years old. The housing market had boomed in Los Angeles, so we sold our cute little house for a profit that is too frightening to journal, and eventually bought a much larger and much cheaper home in Allen. We have friends here, and places to walk and restaurants we like. We are definitely home now, even if I do miss Descanso Gardens and hiking the Clear Creek Trail in the Angeles National Forest on Thanksgiving mornings each year.

We definitely are home now, and we even talk about retiring here someday. I could live in a world of other places, I'm sure, and they would be home, too. But it's curious that feeling, that sense of "home". It's not a place exactly, though place does figure in. It's not necessarily friends, though that matters. It can be away from other family members, though that matters, too. It's a spiritual thing, I guess, or to be less grandiose, a strong feeling. I don't know what it is, but I call it "home".
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