You Can Never Go Home Again

I have no idea where this adage originated but it appears in "The Guru of Malad" in "The Homecoming" by Jane Woods and as the title of a painting by Bianca Ruff. No matter who deserves the credit, it bears more than just a pearl of truth.

In a fit of nostalgia last summer, I decided to go back to my roots in search of memories from my youth. Psychologists would probably say that I was returning to the scene of the crime. At any rate, there was a gnawing hunger in my heart to experience those places once again.

Since my main mode of transportation while growing up was a bicycle, that would be the vehicle to my past. Instead of a heavy Winchester bike with a coaster brake and balloon tires, I took my Giant Sedona that I equipped for touring. I carried a tent, sleeping bag and cooking gear so I could camp along the banks of Cottonwood Creek like I had often done as a kid.

I more or less severed all ties with the town where I was born and grew up well over fifty years ago when I was drafted for the Korean War. I returned only on rare occasions, most notably to attend the funerals of my parents, both of whom died before I reached the age of thirty, and much later for the 50th anniversary of my graduation. The reunion was bitter-sweet since there were only two members of my graduating class of seven people present. Three had died, one refused to attend and the other one could not be found. Some of the names at the reunion were familiar but had no recognition of the faces. Most of them were born after I had left.

Even the school I attended is now nothing but a faded memory. The original name died when four adjoining districts were merged with it and to be politically correct, they changed the name to The West Texas School District so it wouldn't offend any of the students who had to move from other districts. They even removed and stored all the photos of past classes, trophies won in sports and even the bronze plaque bearing the names of students who had died in various wars.

The building in which I spent 12 years remains like a ghost of the past; now used only as a repository for broken desks, outdated books and dead computers. It remains standing only because the cost of removing the asbestos in it would be far more than locking the doors and forgetting it. Classes are now held in a sterile brick and glass box with no heart, soul or even style.

The entire Panhandle of Texas has been losing population for the past 50 years because the majority of kids raised there do the same as I did: leave as soon as they are old enough to make it on their own. Stinnett was never very large, but it's now less than half the population as when I lived there.

Signal_Hill.jpg (28787 bytes)I was actually born in a town called Signal Hill, located about six miles east of Stinnett. It was founded shortly after oil was discovered in 1926, grew to over 12,000 people, died and was gone by 1934 when the last building was torn down to salvage the brick. With such a short lifespan, the bank was the only permanent building ever there. Most of the houses were what was known around oil towns as "Tarpaper Shacks" which could easily be moved or torn down for the materials.

Signal Hill was founded as a location for the new oil rich to build their mansions, but the developer became a bit greedy and the lots were only 25' wide by 80' deep which made it rather difficult to build much of a mansion on them. Also, there was never a church or school built and the promised water and sewer system never came.  When the oil wells that were supposed to make everyone rich stated coming in as dusters, most of the people picked up what they could carry and moved on in search of the next big oil discovery. My dad, who was more cowboy than oil man, bought a section of land half way between Signal Hill and Stinnett so he could raise cattle.

The house in which I was born was moved to the small ranch shortly after my dad bought it in 1930, then into Stinnett in 1938. My parents both lived there until they died, after which it sat vacant and slowly falling down. The city finally condemned the place and declared it an eyesore about ten years ago. They let the fire department burn it down for practice and the remains were shoved into the old cellar and the lot leveled.          

I arrived in Stinnett at around noon, unloaded my bike, left my car parked behind the court house and set out on my quest. After lunch at the local Diary Queen, the only restaurant in town, my first stop was the cemetery at the top of the hill west of town to visit my parent's graves. Then after picking up food for dinner at the local grocery store, I headed east out of town for Signal Hill where it all began for me.  

The railroad that skirted past the east edge of town was abandoned and the tracks on which I used to place pennies to be flattened by the engine were pulled up perhaps thirty years ago. The old depot stills stands but pigeons now fly in and out through the broken windows. Such a waste to allow a landmark like that fall into disrepair, but I suppose that once the trains stopped running, it no longer served any purpose. It would make a neat home but with a third of the houses in town already vacant, remodeling the old depot would be out of the question. [see pictures of the old depot here]

I had no trouble in finding where our house was located on the ranch because the windmill tower that my dad built still stands. However, the wheel is missing and the tank which once held water for our cows is dry and filled with weeds. The barns and corrals are all gone.

I rode on to where a small bridge now carries the road over Cottonwood Creek. When I was a kid, cars would splash water high in the air as they gunned it so they would make it across if the engine was drowned out by the water. The creek, which was originally known as Foreman Creek because my ancestors had lived there for several years after migrating to the Panhandle in 1898, used to be a spring-fed stream lined by dense groves of cottonwood and willow trees. My mother would gather wild grapes and sand plums in thickets along its banks to make pies and jelly.

My dad spent many hours with me along the creek where he taught me which plants were edible and how to identify animal tracks in the wet sand. He taught me how to trap a rabbit or snag perch from the stream. My cousin and I spent many days camped out in shady nooks among the trees and basically lived off what the creek had to offer. I was disappointed to find the stream now dry and the trees all gone. The underground aquifer dropped and the springs dried up when they began drilling irrigation wells on the plains north of there. What was once a lush stream is now nothing but a bare, dry arroyo.

A rough dirt oilfield road, nearly grown over with grass, meanders across the hillside where Signal Hill was located. It leads past concrete pump bases which stand like lonely grave markers. Rusty, six inch steel pipes poke out of ground where no grass will grow because it's so oil-soaked. I guess the EPA hasn't gotten around to forcing the oil company to clean up their leavings -- or else no one knows who is responsible. I could find no signs that a town had ever been there, not even the concrete slab floor of the old bank.

By this time the sun was sinking toward the western horizon over which dark clouds were marching in my direction. It was time to look for a place to pitch camp, but there was nothing that provided any shelter. I could see lightning bolts flicking from the clouds so I decided that a motel room would be a far better idea. I rode back into town and checked into the small motel at the north edge of town. The lady behind the desk remembered another cyclist, Mark Boyd, having been there.

I was rattled out of a sound sleep at around midnight as a roaring thunderstorm pounded through the area, reassuring me that I had made the right decision when I abandoned the idea of camping. I loaded my bike after breakfast and left for home. I suppose it's true; you can never go home again.

Related Story: The Graduation

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Copyright 2002 by Jim Foreman