What Once Was

Small TownIt had been almost five decades since the old man left his home and the quiet country town he grew up in.  He was born, went to school and got his first job in that town of nine-hundred people.  He remembered thinking life was too slow and boring there.  He dreamed of someday leaving that old town and seeing what the rest of the world had to offer.

Not long after leaving high school he got a job at the local hardware store.  A few of his high school friends went off to college but most found jobs at local stores and farms.  Just when the young man began to believe he would never leave the town, something happened that would change everything: His parents were killed in a senseless automobile accident while traveling on one of the winding country roads.

The, then young man, was bitter and blamed everything and everyone for his loss, and for some unexplained reason he blamed the town itself.  Not long after his parents death he made a decision.  He would sell the family home and leave the small town.  He would go to a big city and start a career.  That was forty-eight years and more big cities than he cared to remember, ago.

The old man was well into his late sixties, now and had grown tired of the overpopulated smoke filled cities.  He had no use for neighbors whose names he didn’t know.  He missed that greeting from merchants when he entered a store.  The old man wanted to go home to the small town he grew up in.

The then tired old man drove down the familiar country two lane roads he remembered so well.  As he approached the edge of town he saw something he didn’t recognize.  It was a large facility, cold and with no character whatsoever and the many buildings were industrial in their appearance.  As he came closer he saw a large sign with a corporate name and a smaller sign that read “Now hiring”.

He recognized the facility as some sort of manufacturing plant.  The people coming and going were oddly dressed and most assuredly not the sort he would think of as locals.  Their appearance and mannerisms were certainly not characteristic of those he remembered from his childhood.  He wondered what, if anything, else had changed.

The old man’s eyes darted from side to side as he drove onto Main Street.  This was not the welcoming strip of concrete he remembered.  Many stores were vacant and the exteriors were in need of repair.  Where was the hardware store in which he had bought his first baseball glove?  A vacant building now stood where the Five and Dime once offered for sale everything anyone could need.  Bud’s Café, where he and his parents had enjoyed Saturday evening dinners together, was now painted red and displayed a sign written in some unknown language.

The now disillusioned old man drove onto the quiet street where his boyhood home would surely still look the same.  He felt a sense of anticipation as he neared the corner where the house stood but he grew nervous as he came closer to the place where he and his parents once lived.  He didn’t recognize any of the houses on the street, and it was difficult to imagine that some could actually be lived in.  Windows and doors were missing, old dilapidated vehicles rested on cinderblocks in the yards and patches of dirt took the place of once grassy yards.

When he finally came to the crossing of the two streets, he stopped and stared in disbelief at his childhood home.  It was painted a dark color and had obviously not been cared for.  How could the current inhabitants have allowed it to come into such a state of disrepair?  The yard was nothing more than dirt piled on top of debris. Clean glass that once filled window panes was now replaced with thin dirty strips of plastic.  The old man didn’t remain in front of the house long and after only a few minutes drove off.

The old man harbored no ill feelings for the diverse hodgepodge of factory workers as these people from other faraway lands had brought their families to this country in search of a better life.  However, the old man couldn’t help but feel a twinge of animosity toward the large factory as he wondered if greed had been the overriding factor in the company’s decision to locate the foul odor emitting metal and concrete monster in his small, once pleasingly unsophisticated hometown. That plant, at least in his mind, didn’t belong there and was offensive to him.  The old man wanted to remember the town the way it once was and he ached to remember the pastoral landscape created by green leafed trees, family owned farms and freshly mowed pastures.

Before leaving town he stopped to fill the car’s almost empty gas tank.  He didn’t know the person behind the convenience store’s counter but asked about the town and the manufacturing plant.  The store clerk said the plant opened about thirty years ago and began employing people from other countries, many of whom spoke little or no English.  The town began to change, eventually becoming what he now bears witness to.  The clerk jokingly remarked that whether or not that was progress was a matter of conjecture.  The saddened old man didn’t talk about his memories of the small town and what his expectations had been that day.  After paying for the fuel he drove away from the town, never again to return.

The old man eventually settled in another small town.  There were no large factories and the stores were owned by the people who lived there. He moved into a small older home on the edge of town, much like the home he grew up in.  His neighbors dropped by to welcome him and he spent several nights at their homes enjoying home cooked dinners and getting to know their families.  The neighbors wanted to get to know him but they didn’t ask prying questions but rather wanted to feel comfortable around him and him around them.

The merchants greeted him with a smile and after a time they came to know him and called him by name.  Some businesses were open at night and people walked on the Main Street sidewalks and said hello with a smile when they passed.  After the townsfolk came to know him they stopped and talked about their lives and his.  People sat on sidewalk benches and watched all the evening’s activities while they talked and laughed.

The old man occasionally thought about his parents and the old town.  He sometimes wondered if anyone thought the town was a better place now than it had been in the past.  He knew, at least through his eyes and in his thoughts, it was not a better place. On mornings when the first light of a new and promising day appears and the golden sun peeks at the land from a place just beyond the horizon the old man awakens with thoughts of his hometown and what once was.

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