Journal of a Trip Acknowledging the Original Thomas Wolfe, Part I

“All things change.”

As we were driving through my home of Lebanon, Tennessee, she said that, a modification of what i’ve said frequently for the past…oh fifty or so years ago.

I would have said, “The only constant is change.”

She said it as we were driving to our place to stay when we came back home almost two weeks ago.

That too was a change: this “home” thing. It ain’t the same. Never is. Thomas Wolfe knew it and wrote about home and change in his home and in the guy who left that home. No, not the Thomas Wolfe called Tom who got all gussied up in white suits and claimed his dress was “neo-pretentious” and created or impacted the New Journalism, which i’ve never quite bought into because it turned my love of print journalism upside down and allowed inuendo and subjectivity into old style fact based news reporting. Upside down. 

No, the Thomas Wolfe i’m talking about was the big North Carolinian who wrote on the top of his refrigerator (i’m sure his refrigerator was not the gargantuan things we have today and may have even been an ice box where you went down to the ice house to get your block of ice and tied it to the bumper and drove home and carted that monster up the stairs and put it in the insulated ice box when most of your food was stored, home-canned, in the root cellar out back). Old Thomas wrote wheelbarrows full of words on legal paper on top of his refrigerator or icebox, which even when pared down by the editor, produced long, long novels called Look Homeward, Angel, something i have done since heading for the Navy in sixty-seven, and You Can’t Go Home Again, which i thought i had done since then up until this trip back when i realized as i drove through what i had once known like the palm of my hand that in many ways, i had not come home but to a different place.

Oh, the folks who stayed have lived with the change, and it’s still home to them although they recognize it’s different. They are good folks, good friends, solid stock, good citizens, don’t seem to have changed very much except we are older now. I can pick up conversation with them from years past without missing a beat and often reflect what it would have been had i returned after my first hitch at sea and lived here, this home of mine for the rest of my life and not thinking about the change of home but the change of me. And when our conversation moves to maladies we and other friends of our generation have endured back home, it’s natural, but the talk underlines the change.

We had dinner with four of the closest friends who stayed home one night last week. Two are Brendas, Callis and Harding. I was in the Harding Brenda’s wedding, and actually thought then i was pretty sure i really had come home. This Brenda is a perfect fit for Henry. It is wonderful to watch them together.  Brenda Hankins and i go way back. My father was the mechanic for Brenda’s dad and later became his partner along with HM Byars. Eddie is the maestro for the class of 1962, both Lebanon High and Castle Heights townboys. He and i did not go to school together: Eddie went to Flat Rock for elementary school through 8th grade, and i went to McClain, then Lebanon Junior High, and finally Castle Heights. Still, Eddie and i have become close friends. But of course, just about everybody who knows him considers Eddie a close friend.

As much as i have spoken of change, there is one thing that has not changed. George Henry Harding, IV.  Henry. He was born three months after i was born. We were christened together on VE Day. We went to church with each other. I practically lived at his house. Even though we went to different high schools, we remained close, doing just about everything not high school related together. When we email each other, talk on the phone, or meet face to face, the dialogue simply picks up where we left off through seventy-seven years. He claims when we are together, i always get him in trouble. i suspect the perpertration is just about equal.

To me, he hasn’t changed except he looks just a wee bit older.

Then there’s this place where Maureen and i stayed this time around.

You see, since i went to Navy OCS in September 1967 and when i came back home it was to 127 Castle Heights Avenue and then 312 Castlewood Lane in Deer Park, an over-50 condo development two blocks from where my parents lived for 62 years. But my parents have gone on. When i was growing up Castle Heights Avenue ended at the campus entry on West Main and ran out somewhere around Franklin Road — my father once told me when they moved into their new home on Castle Heights Avenue in 1942, everything just past Spring Street was farmland, and Hartmann Drive wasn’t even around or not large enough to be noted for the larger part of the time i lived there. Now, they are major routes around the city. Houses everywhere. Apartments everywhere. 

This time, by chance, we stumbled across a bed and breakfast inn called Cedar Grove Inn (not Cedar Grove Cemetery) run by Kim and Rich Papineau who moved from Michigan, 2009, i think it was. The inn is about five miles north of the square on Cedar Grove Road off of Hunter’s Point Pike and i don’t care if you call it US 231 North or North Cumberland, to me it will always be Hunter’s Point Pike, just like West Main becomes Nashville Pike about where the old rock quarry was located. The couple and their family are delightful. The breakfasts are incredible, and i, being the earliest riser in the world except for farmers, would sit on the back porch with my coffee in the early morning and talk with Rich of old times when my “Papa” would wake this drowsy young boy in the dark of night and the two of us would go to the south pasture while Aunt Corrine would be in the chicken coop about twenty yards from the back porch and she would collect the eggs from the nests, cradling them in her large white apron and at the fence, Papa would call the cows with a call that resembled “sooey” for calling hogs but wasn’t and those bovines would follow us to the barn where Papa would milk about four of them while i would induce about three squirts in the bucket which would produce a week twang on the bucket’s tin sides and Papa would laugh and we would head  back to the farmhouse where i loved when it rained  because i could fall asleep listening the sound of raindrops hitting the tin roof and we walked past the root cellar to the screened in porch with cotton balls filling the holes in the screen and on wood tables with rough white linen covering the food stuff on the tables there and sit at the table in what seemed to be a cavernous kitchen and eat sausage made from the hogs and eggs from the coop and grits from…grits, and drink buttermilk from the churn and all the world was waiting for this lad and his Red Ryder BB rifle and afterward he would walk through the fields trying to be as stealthy as the indians before “native american” was part of our lexicon and hunt the game and feel as if he were in the wild west and be stupid enough to try and rope the calf in the barn which bolted and blistered the palms of his hand with the rope burning as the calf carried it away.

But that was long ago and Rich needed to feed the chickens and check the garden and so in the afternoon, i would sit there and the chickens and roosters, about 100 of them were allowed to run loose in the afternoon before being cooped for the evening and the morning — oh, i wondered how you might herd chickens into the coop but didn’t ask, deciding they followed the food in the evening — for out on Cedar Grove road, the chicken hawks are on the fly but not in the afternoon when the chickens and especially the roosters would join me on the porch and peck away at the floor and i would remember there apparently was no concern about chicken hawks on Hickory Ridge Road across town years ago ’cause chickens and roosters were everywhere on that farm running wild, clucking and crowing.

And the inn was restful for me, good to be back home even though it was changing.

Like it was when we went to the  Wilson County Memorial Garden to visit our folks of generations past and tend to the gravesites and go across the old Murfreesboro Road which began at the cemetery, known as South Maple until it reached the cemetery and then was rerouted and known more as the 231 South, but that was a long time ago.

And across the road past the old stone fence in the city’s “Cedar Grove Cemetery” (not the inn), the maternal family’s plot was pristine, and parked a couple of hundred feet from us were three city pickups where nearby about a half dozen workers in lime green safety vests had their weed whackers whacking around the monuments and i laughed remembering how the cemetery was manned by Mr. Bill and Dub along with two summer helpers of which one of those was me and we mowed the cemetery’s land and trimmed with hand clippers and lively lads and dug the graves with pick and shovel, no backhoes then but bushwhackers pulled by tractors were assigned to the larger boys and i, this smaller jock wannabe, was too small to run a tractor and bushwhacker and thus was assigned to digging graves (and i never could figure out that reasoning).

So i laughed when i contemplated that change.

Things change.

It seems Heights buildings are fewer and the grounds give away more to new buildings. McClain, the bastion for young academicians for many generations, including my father’s and mine is gone, gone, gone. Cumberland University is spreading like wildfire.

Then there’s the Square, once the center of life and the county, or at least the center of the city father’s running the whole shebang. Then the courthouse was moved; then the strip malls became the thing; then the floods because those folks long ago built the framework and poured concrete over two creeks to make the square square and subjected it to floods just as soon as a good rain took those creeks over their banks, which was often. Now, it seems to be making a revival of sorts: boutique shops — temporarily relocated while the permanent lodgings are being restored after…yep, another flood. And in the southeast corner next to the arcade is a really nice down home restaurant called the Town Square Social where i had a grilled pimento and cheese sandwich on Texas toast, and ordered a “Hippies and Cowboys” IPA, i swear, but it was so popular the keg was empty and while we ate i remembered my mother’s story of when she was about eight, Granny ran out of thread and sent Mother to the sewing shop in the arcade for another spool and Mother taking along her friend, Jeanne Rousseau, i think, who rode behind Mother on the family pony for the one-mile ride into town, and watched the pony tied to the steps leading to the second floor of the arcade where the pony pooped while Mother was buying the thread and when mother returned the girls laughed, jumped on the pony and rode as fast as they could away with the faint hope of not being recognized as the perpetrators of the event but to their dismay discovering Granny knew even before they returned from their ride.

There are fewer friends my age there now. i only saw the four at dinner and Mike and Gloria Dixon at lunch at Five Oaks Golf Club (another change), a lovely venue that was farmland when i grew up. But what a view. The four of us talked friend things and with Mike, whom i played with in more sports contests than any other person, the talk went to baseball, basketball and football. That doesn’t change.

Then there are things i’m told are going to change. Sunset Restaurant sits on North Cumberland just before the I-40 overpass, about a dozen years before the latter was built. The family has been serving the best meat and three ever anywhere since then. i mean their food is so good, my Southwest corner wife raves about their turnip greens; coleslaw; pinto beans with onion and red chow chow; cornbread; fried okra; mashed potatoes; roast beef with gravy; and…well, pretty much everything they serve and when she asked the waitress to save a piece of their coconut cream pie if they were running low, our waitress, who has worked there for twenty-two years went into the kitchen, grabbed a piece of the greatly desired pie and put it on our table before she took our order, and i remembered Daddy and how that pie was one of his favorite desserts of all time not considering the ones Mother made.

But i was told, second hand, the original owners are giving it up and their children aren’t interested and another change the next time. That change is going to hurt.

One morning, Maureen and just rode around my memories. The newly reinvented Lebanon Museum is in the basement of what was once Castle Heights Main, not the city administration offices up on that hill. It provides a short tour of Lebanon’s history. Change upon change upon change. With time left, we drove past the old lake cabin out Denny Road along Barton Creek about a mile from the Cumberland as it fades from Old Hickory Lake back into a river again. The current owners, the Everette’s, have done a great job of keeping my memories alive. The stone walls of the cabin are now part of the patio, the old concrete picnic table still sits in the backyard, and the dock looks like it did thousands of years ago. 

And if you are as old as i am, you can’t discuss going home without weather. Weird. The whole thirteen days. Weird. It rained. It wasn’t cool, but it wasn’t hot. I remember June as hot with a little rain. This was more than that. In a way, i was glad. My Southwest corner wife was better off with not so hot June.

Memories. Change.

Nashville is a lot like home. Much closer now but the distance hasn’t changed. Metro keeps creeping closer and closer to Lebanon. Going to make it someday. There’s this guy still there, one of the few of a gang of simply wonderful human beings i haphazardly came upon almost sixty years ago. Maureen and i sat with Billy Parsons near our old stomping grounds of Vanderbilt for about two hours two Saturdays ago. “The Agent” is one of the nicest of our group. We checked up on friends whereabouts and what they were doing and, being older, everyone’s health, and engaged Maureen with tales of antics back when. Somewhere in the middle of all that, it hit me Billy Parsons has the best chuckle of anyone i have known: makes you feel comfortable.

At least for the time being, there are three things that haven’t changed: Henry, Parsons, and James Cason. James is at Sammy B’s up on the hill in what used to be Castle Heights superintendent’s house next to old main. In that Victorian wonder, my sister played with Colonel Ralph Lucas’ younger daughter Kay, whose older sister Ann broke my mother’s scoring records at Lebanon High School twenty-five years later. But James is a treasure, a legend, a don’t miss if you get to Lebanon, and don’t miss asking him about the Goat Man because James and i have wowed many a bar denizen with our tales about the Goat Man. So as long as i can go home and James is still bartending, it will feel like home.

So old Thomas Wolfe, maybe you were right; maybe you were wrong about You Can’t Go Home Again.

Yeh, it’s changed, changed a lot. But for about four days last week, i was home again.

Another long accounting of the rest of the trip is pending.


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