I recently made a trip to my hometown of Independence (Kansas, not Missouri) for four days to play in an annual golf tournament.
With the passing of Dad in 2014, this is the only trip I now make to my birthplace. I still have many friends who live there, but it’s a rather long trip to visit for a day and then come home.
I’ll always have a huge spot in my heart for “The Big I,” as my friend Mark Palmer calls it. It’s not really that big anymore, as the population has decreased by about 2,500 from when I grew up, as Southeast Kansas has become perhaps the most depressed area in the state, as its plight has spilled over into towns like Coffeyville and Parsons.
Every June that I make my trip, I make a point to take a tour of the town with my best friend Craig Dancer, who comes from Tennessee to be my partner in the two-man tournament. It’s our Thursday night ritual to grab a meal at a local greasy spoon and then drive around to all the places where we spent time hanging out and trying to stay out of trouble. Anybody who knows Craig and I will agree we weren’t exactly choir boys in our formative years.
One thing we do notice, when we were in high school Penn Avenue was a steady stream of cars as we liked to “drag” the main street on the weekends. Gas back then was about 32 cents a gallon and we could go up and down all night and then put about $2 in the tank and my Dad never knew (unless he checked the odometer, which I’m sure he did).
Now, Penn is like a ghost town. On Saturday night as we returned to our hotel, we didn’t see a single car at 9:30. I would say on a given night there would be 30 to 40 cars in our day and we would spend time honking at each other. I’m sure the residents didn’t appreciate it that much.
One of the first places I check out is the home I grew up in. When my sister and I put Dad in assisted living and later the nursing home, we wound up selling the place we called home for more than 50 years. Once Mom passed away in 1995, Dad never really did much updating and the place stayed the same for the nearly 15 years he lived following her passing.
This time when I drove by the West Beech Street house, I noticed the family that bought the house was having a garage sale. Since I had a little time on my hands, my curiosity nature took over.
I asked the young lady who was conducting the sale if she lived there and she said yes. I then asked if I could take a picture of the house and she immediately got a quizzical look on her face.
I explained it was our family home for more than 50 years and immediately her face lit up.
She couldn’t have been more kind. She had many questions and she talked about the changes she made. Once she realized I wasn’t some type of crazy person, she said I could look around if I wanted.
I was flabbergasted. The woman and her husband had obviously put a lot of work into breathing new life into the old place (starting with changing the color of the house). All of the carpet had been ripped up to expose beautiful hardwood floors that I never knew existed. Our TV room had been split, half made into a laundry room and the other into a small bedroom. That made the 1,300 square-foot-house four bedrooms, though they’re pretty tight.
What pleased me most is how excited the woman was about the closet door in what was my bedroom. She thought it was neat that on the inside of the door were pencil markings, which depicted my height. My Dad used to measure me to see how much I grew every year and I noticed the final time was my senior year in high school. Did that ever bring back memories because I always pushed Dad to measure me, since I was always the shortest kid in my class and I was hoping I would somehow start to sprout up because it was no fun being the shortest as sometimes I was teased about it.
I then went to the backyard and lo and behold my old basketball goal that Dad put up in 1967 was still there. It obviously had not been used, because if it had the wood was so rotten that the first bank shot would have shattered it. There was nothing left of my makeshift whiffle ball diamond that I had in the backyard, as the grass had grown in where I had made a pitcher’s mound and batter’s box. My Dad used to get somewhat perturbed with me because I had worn out the grass in those areas, not to mention the grass where I used to shoot baskets even on those cold November and December days. He prided himself on keeping his yard in top shape.
The woman also told me they had found some old pictures in the attic. When we closed on the house, neither myself nor my sister really wanted to climb the stairs and go up there, given we were both in our 50s. I’m sure there’s some memorable pictures and I told her if she would put them together, I would be back next year.
All the way home, I was thinking about that house and the changes made, some for the better. I kept getting visuals of every Saturday night sitting around the 19-inch TV in the family room, with Mom and Dad having steaks and my sister and I having hamburgers. We would watch Jackie Gleason and Lawrence Welk and spend quality family time together. I wonder how many families do that today.
I do miss that old house and the memories, but life does go on. But there’s still no place like home.