The Duncan Banner

September 22, 2013

You can go home again, just be by yourself

Jeff Kaley
The Duncan Banner

DUNCAN — It’s been over 10 years since I moved out of sports writing and began writing a column for the editorial page. Every so often this year, I’m rerunning a piece from the first year of the transition. This column first appeared in The Duncan Banner in July 2003.


He’s one of America’s great authors, but Thomas Wolfe was wrong about one thing — you can go home again, as long as you have realistic expectations.

Mr. Wolfe was a Deep South member of the “Lost Generation” of authors who thrived between WWI and WWII. You Can’t Go Home Again made him revered as a novelist.

But contrary to the book’s theme, going back home is all about perspective, attitude and companionship. I realized that during a visit to the corn, soybean and oil fields of southeastern Illinois from whence I sprang.

Most of my first 33 years on the planet were spent in Robinson, Illinois, a town of about 6,300 about 12 miles west of the Wabash River.

Robinson is the home of the Heath Bar, one of the world’s best-known candies, and of James Jones, another great American author, not the weirdo cult preacher in Guyana.

Robinson was a marvelous place to grow up in the 1950s and ‘60s, and my family has roots there that extend to the 18th century.

I pulled into town a couple of weeks ago bursting with nostalgic bliss, for two reasons:

First, come November, it will be 20 years since I left Robinson. That anniversary needed to be commemorated by pilgrimages to the local “shrines,” the spots that have some deep meaning to me.

Second, this time I could visit the old haunts without input from the nattering nabobs of negativity.

See, when I’ve taken the family on past visits to Robinson, it’s been hard to maintain the perspective needed for a nostalgic romp. On previous visits, I’d take Karen, Anthony and Chris on insightful, fact-filled drives through the town and countryside, but they seldom shared the emotional and historic importance of these tours.

Knowing it was important to me, Karen would try to act interested. But after driving around a while, regaling in my past, she would eventually start reading something, pausing every so often to acknowledge my travelogue by saying, “Yes, dear, that’s nice.”

From the back seat, the reaction from the sons was less diplomatic. I’d hear comments like: “You used to play for hours in that field? Uh, there’s no field there. The building says it’s the Robinson Community Center. When did you play there ... during the Crusades?”

Or: “Yeah, that grove of trees and an outhouse is way cool! Are you sure this is where Grandpa Vaughn and his brothers were grew up? Didn’t they have a HOUSE?”

Or: “We drive by here every time we come to Robinson, and it still looks like a car lot, not a movie theater!”

Less than 15 minutes into what I thought would be a bonding experience, one of the boys would whine about being car sick.

On the recent solitary trip, however, it was much different.

If I wanted to sit in the bleachers at the Babe Ruth diamond in city park, with my head filled by visions of a skinny shortstop fielding a grounder, I could.

If I wanted to stop on a gravel road and walk back into the woods where a snot-nosed kid found his first morel mushroom, there was no resistance.

I drove to where my grandfather had a camp on the Wabash and had unfettered flashbacks of a pack of urchins playing on the muddy bank of the river.

I sat in the car watching construction work on a new Robinson High School and got misty-eyed remembering things that happened in the old building.

I spent some time at family graves. I walked around town square and could see the women’s shops, the Woolworth, the bars and soda stands, Freddy’s Shine Stop and a dozen other businesses that once encircled the courthouse.

I did all these things, and the memories — their clarity and their warmth — proved Thomas Wolfe was wrong.

You can go home again. You just need the right mindset — and you need to be alone.