It’s the end of the novel. George Webber has been to New York, Paris, Berlin. He’s spent the entire novel searching for his childhood, for what he lost when he moved to the sophistication of elsewhere.
He says, “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame…back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”
I went home to Midland recently and I became, for a few hours, George Webber, the protagonist of Thomas Wolfe’s brilliant novel, You Can’t Go Home Again.
It’s been a tough year and I needed to get some distance and just…play…for a while. I’m not going to crybaby about how hard it is to be Trey R. Barker ’cause I got a pretty damned good life, but I did need some downtime.
So that last morning, before I drove north to Lubbock, I spent nearly three hours driving through my childhood.
The three hours put me in mind of not only George Webber, but also Leonard Cohen’s song, Tower of Song. “Well my friends are gone and my hair is gray, and I ache in the places I used to play.”
Webber was right; you cannot go back to that childhood. I knew that, intellectually, but I don’t think I did in my heart. Maybe my heart was in a different place than it was three years ago when I visited. Maybe my head was in a different place. I know for sure my soul was…it’s been a long three years since that last trip.
When I was growing up, my neighborhood was lower middle class at best. There was some money toward the end of the early 80s oil boom, but Mama and I never lit cigarettes with $100 bills. She worked incredibly hard and I started working when I was 10 years old.
But now, every street of my childhood, every house and business, was steps below where she and I had been. So many houses were tired, in desperate need of paint, their breath less a second wind than a rattling, hopeless exhalation. Cracks spidered some windows, some storm doors hung crooked or stood open, other doors had holes in them just about the height of a swung foot.
Every lawn, and I mean every single lawn, was a sea of dead grass or had already given up completely and let the blowing dirt take over and return those lawns to the very picture of what greeted visitors 150 years ago even before Midland was called Midway.
Midland has been in the midst of a harsh drought for better than three years and some projections have it going until 2020. It is horrifying enough that people are talking about turning sewage into potable water. Add to that a town that is dead center of the current oil and gas boom, a town that has swollen to 120,000 on an infrastructure built for far fewer than that, a town that cannot even begin to handle the vehicle traffic and transient workers, a town that cannot house everyone it needs to work its industry.
But my sadness was because there was no color, literally or figuratively. I saw were houses that, when painted, were painted the same color – tan, beige, sandstone, eggshell – as the surrounding desert. They seemed to disappear into the dirt, the sand and caliche.
When I was a child, my world was afire with color.
“Sure, Trey, but back then, you had no responsibilities.”
Straight up. I had a job early on and we were poor but my only real responsibility, other than baby sitting my younger brother and terrorizing him, was to be a kid. To the degree she could, Mama made sure of that.
Every house had color. Ours was a charcoal gray and I remember at least two greens, at least one chocolate brown, a kind of pink thing, and for some reason, I want to say a kind of orange thing…though I might be making the last one up, and a few houses roofed with red shingles.
Every yard was green and Saturday mornings were like freakin’ Grand Central Station with people outside up and down the street. Working in their garages or on their yards or walking the dogs, nearly all of us kids playing tackle football in the street ’cause a little blood was cool, right?
But when I drove down those streets on that Saturday mid-morning, past the houses where I could still hear each kid’s voice and remember damn near every kid’s name, they were empty. No one outside, no dogs barking, no TVs or stereos blaring.
Nothing except the color of the desert. None of the vibrancy of my childhood. None of the color of my childhood.
It’s possible that my childhood haunts hadn’t lost their color. It’s possible that seeing them through eyes brimming with adult responsibilities and bills and dreams not broken but certainly redirected, had stolen the color that I remember.
“You can’t go back home to your childhood…back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time….”
So said George Webber, or Thomas Wolfe if you prefer, and maybe they were both right.
On the other hand, the trip home was effing awesome and exactly what my soul and heart and head and love needed…with the exception of three lonely hours on a Saturday morning.
Come back in a few days, kiddies, and we’ll talk to drunks and cops, we’ll see the aftermath of a cop getting shot multiple times, we’ll do some shooting, we’ll have our flight canceled and we’ll eat at all the best places.
Best…by my definition.