I Went Back
......but, Couldn’t Find Myself

It is summertime, and for a few Sundays both Carlene and I are free of responsibilities that keep us home. It was last week that I suggested we go to Mountain City on the upcoming weekend and attend church. I expressed a desire to let son Brad see the church I attended throughout my teenage years.

Sunday came, and the weather for the trip could not have been more beautiful. The sky was an autumn blue, even though it was only July, and white clouds bunched on the sky like mountains of snow. There was no summer haze. The hills in the foreground and the mountains in the distance were razor sharp in detail and the color of fields, streams, and mountains were the purest. Even though this was a familiar landscape it took on a storybook feeling. We were not making a trip, we were going back into the past.

We arrived at the church a few minutes early, so we walked the church grounds and admired the flowers and shrubs. We strolled upon the newly laid brick sidewalk and paused before a small brass plaque that read. “In memory of Roby J. Eastridge and Lillian O. Eastridge.” These were my parents in whose memory the walk was laid.

The stroll back in time failed me from the beginning.

It was time for the service to begin but there was no pealing of the church bell. In my years of growing up, every Sunday morning service was announced by bell-ringing from all the churches of the town. Although there was no schedule for tolling, giving assurance that the bells would not ring at the same time, each church pealed in turn with its distinctive sound. This morning, no bell tolled over the silent town.

We walked into the church. I had not been inside the church more than three or four times over the previous fifty years. That was about the time I had left home for college. Home visits on Sundays since then were extremely rare. My most recent visit to the church occurred about five years ago when I returned for my mother’s funeral and, by the nature of my being there, I paid little attention to changes made inside the church. This Sunday was different.

I first felt estranged when I noticed the remodeling of the sanctuary. The windows were the same, the pews were the same, but little else seemed familiar. Who were these people? There was not a recognizable face until one boyhood friend came from a back pew to shake my hand. Later, the lady sitting some distance from me on the same pew sidled over to ask if I were Vance. On confirming it, she gave me her name. I knew the name, but not the face. Her face had aged by fifty years. She was a teenager when I saw her last. As we sat waiting for the service to begin, I whispered to Brad the location of the pews on which my mother and father had sat each Sunday, pews separated by the width of the church. They never sat together. I always sat with my mother. They were not estranged. By custom, the men bunched on one side of the church while the wives bunched on the other side.

We walked from the church when the service was over. There was no familiar person to greet. Of those present, everyone under fifty years of age had been born since I left. Those middle-aged or older at the time of my leaving were all dead or home fast. Of those my age, most had moved away as I had. It was a church of strangers.

Immediately across the street from the church was the high school building from which I had graduated. The beautiful spacious (to my memory) lawn was now cut up by buildings and parking grounds fronting the street. Limpid air conditioners hung from the windows, backed by vents reaching skyward from the windowpanes like birch saplings. High school classes had long since been transplanted to a sprawling campus located on the outskirts of town. There would be nothing inside the building here that would have preserved the past. However, my mind projected many things. It was on the stage of that auditorium that I had been offered a role in the senior play. I was to be an English butler who had only one line to speak and it occurred in the opening scene. I was to approach the master of the house who was working a crossword puzzle. On being asked for a word to fit into the puzzle, I was to answer, “It’s isis, sir, i-s-i-s.” After two rehearsals I dropped out of the cast for fear I would forget my line. The fact that I remember it after all these years is pretty good assurance I would not have forgotten it. It was here in the science lab that our lab instructor, acting in ignorance of what would be a major factor in later years, dispensed to each student a capsule of mercury to play with. We entertained ourselves by breaking up the ball of mercury into increasingly smaller balls, often using our fingertips to do so.

Equally vivid in these moments of recall was an incident I have shared and laughed over many times. It was while I was a student in the elementary school that sat on the campus immediately at the rear of the high school building that we were marched over to the high school auditorium to join the high school students for a special program. The Great Depression was not yet over. The government had set into play many social programs to create and preserve jobs. The high school gymnasium which separated the high school from the elementary school had been built from WPA funds and workers. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was busily enhancing the environment. In the world of the arts, where a lack of jobs and money practically curtailed all opportunities for artists to pursue their profession, (an example of which was stage actor, Robert Porterfield’s ensembling a group of out-of-work actors in New York to come to Abingdon, Virginia, and make use of the auditorium of the city hall to stage performances where admission would be exchanged for farm produce, thus taking the name of Barter Theater), a subsidized program to preserve the arts was enacted. Classical artists were employed to go into the culturally deprived Appalachians and introduce fine arts. On this day, as I recalled from the past, we students were marched over to the high school auditorium where an operatic duo was to perform. The extent to which most of the students seated in the auditorium had been introduced to music was the Grand Ol’ Opry, broadcast by WSM in Nashville and the National Barn Dance, broadcast by WLW in Cincinnati, Ohio, the only two superstations to reach into these mountains. Probably no student present had ever heard a classical artist sing. When the two began to sing an aria, there was a pronounced moment of silence and then the auditorium burst into uproarious laughter. The laughter refused to subside while the two performers stood, dazed. To these overall-clad children of the depression, an operatic aria was hilarious.

While we stood in front of the church looking at the high school building, I envisioned the entrance hallway where large frames on the wall displayed pictures of graduating classes of previous years. I wondered about the frame that held the pictures of the twenty-eight members of my graduating class. It was I who had framed the pictures for my class and had lettered the information within the frame. Whether the historic artifacts had been preserved elsewhere or had been destroyed, I would never know. My emotions were quickened as I remembered the occasions when the high school band would fall into formation on the high school lawn while the most recent inductees, drafted into the army, would board a bus and be carried away to fight World War II. Banners would appear in parlor windows in the homes of the community with blue stars on a white background numbering the fighting men and women from that home. Sometimes, with tears, the flag with the blue star would be replaced with a banner bearing a gold star. There would be two blue stars in our window.

The name of the high school annual, of which I was editor the year of my graduation, was “The Arcadian.” The name was chosen to embody the meaning of the ancient Greek region which signified a region of simple pleasure and quiet. The name was appropriate.

When my family moved to Mountain City in the depth of the Great Depression, it was to a village that looked somewhat like a western frontier town. The main businesses located on Main Street and Church Street were housed in large two-story framed buildings. Some wore fake facades to exaggerate their size. Main Street was lined with large trees which shaded the unusually wide street. On a back street was a small frame building which housed the city office and a celled room. It was referred to as the “Calaboose,” Atop the calaboose was a bell which tolled each evening at eight o’clock to announce curfew. Following the tolling of the bell no one under the age of eighteen was allowed on the streets. Curfew was enforced. Newer buildings on Main Street were built of brick. One of these buildings was the barber shop where twins, Buster and Shine Crowe cut hair from barber chairs placed side by side. After they were drafted into the army they were sent to England to become camp barbers to the soldiers. Famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote about them in one of his syndicated columns. It was their fifteen minutes of fame. A short distance from the barber shop was the Strand Theater. Here, three movies were shown in the course of a week, the week-end movie always being a western movie. The Monday and Tuesday showing was usually a musical. My favorites were Betty Grable and Kathryn Grayson. My preferred seating in the theater was next to the outside wall on the back row. Here, Jean Grayson and I missed many lines of the movie’s dialogue.

With the coming of World War II prosperity returned and the Great Depression began to fade. With prosperity’s emergence, progress began to be seen. Trees that had lined main street for generations were all cut down to be replaced with sidewalks and parking meters. Wooden buildings were replaced with brick. The architecturally-beautiful tower-crowned courthouse was razed to give place to an enlarged squat office complex which emblazoned on the front, ”Johnson County Courthouse”. With the courthouses’s demise went the arrow shaped stone marker which had been placed on the courthouse lawn to mark the trail Daniel Boone had followed. Neon signs began to appear. The second neon sign to be installed was in front of my father’s store. The sign proclaimed proudly, “Pianos a Specialty.” This is how Mountain City looked when I went away to college so many years ago.

If the ‘Arcadian’ was an appropriate appellation for the high school annual, Mountain City had now earned an unclaimed nickname, ‘Auburn’, as Goldsmith had described as the ‘loveliest village of the plain’. Now, as we made our pilgrimage back, the parking meters had all disappeared from Main Street and the concrete sidewalks had been replaced with brick walkways. The overhead power lines had become subterranean and antique lampposts rose above main street. It was as charming a village as one could find anywhere. A nearby golf course, rivaling any golf course in environmental beauty, joined with the newly developing village as creating an ideal setting for a premier resort. Mountain City was emerging from a caterpillar into a butterfly.

We had gone back into the past but I could not fine ‘me’. The old familiar places were changed or gone.

Shakespeare said that ‘all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven stages:
At first the infant.....
And then the whining school boy.....
And then the lover.....
Then a soldier.....
And then the justice.....in round belly.....
The sixth age shifts into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon
...with spectacles on nose and pouch on side...
Last scene of all
.....that ends this strange eventful history is
.....second childishness.

We play many roles in a lifetime. That’s true. But I discovered last Sunday that when we attempt to reprise a previous role we often find only a barren stage except for the scenery, much of which has been replaced.

I went back but I couldn’t find me.