Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Ain’t Been Home In Years

When I moved to West Bend in June 2001 to take ownership of the house where I still reside, I was 36 years old. The move was the 24th time I had changed residences. I was already on house number 5 as kindergarten began and house number 8 as high school ended. I had 11 addresses in the 1990s alone, including an insanely turbulent 50-week period between September 1993 and September 1994 during which I moved from Milwaukee to Nashville to suburban Chicago and then back to Milwaukee all for the sake of a lousy management job with a now-defunct retail chain whose only saving grace was its willingness to cover my U-Haul bills.

I wouldn’t recommend my experience, and that sort of instability wasn’t something I wanted to inflict on my children. Ryan was just 2 years old when we arrived in West Bend, and Katie was only 8 months old. This is home for them, as my wife and I hoped it would be.

But it’s not home for me. I haven’t been home since August 16, 1976. That was the day my family pulled out of West Newton PA, bound for Charleston IL. West Newton had been my home for 6 years—more than half of my life at the time—and it was where life really began. West Newton had given me friends, school, bicycles, baseball, comic books, Hot Wheels, monster movies, Saturday cartoons, rock ‘n’ roll, and even the most hopeful and tentative introduction to romance. It was idyllic.

Of course, the needs of a child are relatively few and simple to satisfy in most places. West Newton wasn’t magical; it was magical to me. I was a nice kid with nice friends and we all were protected by loving adults. West Newton itself, like many Rust Belt towns in the 1970s, was in decline by almost every measurable standard. Had I stayed, I soon might have regarded it with contempt. The childhood I enjoyed likely would have given way to a bored adolescence with all of its pitfalls. In a way, my departure stopped time. The real West Newton continued to crumble and the people I had known there moved on with their lives, but my West Newton was preserved. No, not just preserved; it was mythologized. It was my Camelot and I was its Arthur, the once and future king. I could go back. I could do a lot of good there.

In recent years, West Newton has made a modest comeback thanks to the conversion of an old railroad line into a key section of the Great Allegheny Passage, a recreation trail that links Pittsburgh and Washington DC. West Newton has its own bike shop now, something I would have loved as a kid. We had a little BMX course on the banks of the Youghiogheny River. That wouldn’t fly with me now because it was set up without permission on private property. I know just where I would put a public pump track and skate park today, and I’m sure those facilities would get a lot of use. And I know I could squeeze a cyclocross course into Goehring Park to put West Newton on the map in the too-short ABRA season. And, boy, that 300-mile-long recreation trail must be nice.

But I am at least a decade away from retirement, so I am probably at least that far away from relocating for the 25th time. Still, when the time comes, West Newton will make its case. It may not win—I almost always side with reason over emotion—but for a long time West Newton appealed only to my emotions. Today it’s a place with low real estate prices, low property taxes and low crime rates … attractive attributes for the prospective retiree! The fact that it now is a place where I could continue to be a cyclist only strengthens its call for me to come home.

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