Tuesday, September 04, 2007

My Hometown

Even though I've been in Cincinnati since high school, I still consider Harriman, Tennessee my “home town”. I was born there in 1956, and lived there until 1970. In recent months I've been increasingly aware how that town continues to influence me at conscious and subconscious levels. Many of these influences have no “good” or “bad” label attached to them – they just are filters applied to my perceptions, mental images, and expectations. For example when I read a book who's scenes remotely have parallel environments, my first involuntary inclination is to place those scenes in the neighborhoods or wildernesses of that area. When I go hiking, my standard against which I measure the current trail is usually one of my childhood hiking experiences. Indeed, when we bought our home in Fairfield we first fell in love with the sense of “living in the mountains” that the location gave us, and Deb has continued to say that you can't get the mountains out of the man.

No one has a “perfect” childhood. My own was largely colored by the “life in the fishbowl” sense I had as the son of one of Harriman's more prominent ministers in one of the more prominent churches. (Harriman had around 10,000 people, and 27 Baptist churches alone! You couldn't get away from church no matter where you went.) When you combine this fishbowl with my natural introverted temperament and religious beliefs that at an early age (10 or so) tended more toward atheism, you had the recipe for a somewhat isolated childhood. But I never doubted the unconditional love of my parents, a great gift that should never be taken for granted.

In addition to family and a few friends, the strongest images I have from those years are of the home and neighborhood where we lived for most of those years. We always lived in a home owned by the church where my father was employed. When I was 4 years old, the church was given an enormous house (4700+ sq feet I have recently learned) by one of the prominent lawyers in town. He had built a new home high on the ridge that overlooked the town – a place where we often visited. I don't know any of the background or motives for this gift – all I know is that this house and neighborhood have played a huge part in my life. My love of books and reading began here, and I was only 3 blocks from the local public library funded partly by the Andrew Carnegie Foundation. (We actually walked places “back then”.) I delivered newspapers and had several other door-to-door “business ventures” throughout the neighborhood. And I was free to roam the town business district as I wanted – spending my hard-earned money on records, photo supplies, and other hobby gear. The house itself had enormous rooms, including my own bedroom with a walk-in closet big enough to play in. And the multi-level basement provided the perfect environment for my increasing scientific curiosity. I was able to lay out my chemistry sets, microscopes, and electronic kits without worrying about leaving a mess around the house. The huge, terraced and partially walled yard was also a place of many childhood "adventures".

Fast forward to this Labor Day weekend. Deb and I visited East Tennessee, and I felt some strong urges to visit Harriman. In particular I wanted to walk around the old neighborhood and take some photos. It had been 10-12 years since we had visited Harriman. The last I knew our home on Walden Avenue had been turned into a multi-family dwelling of some sort, and many houses in the neighborhood had been in some stages of decline and abandonment. I don't recall being inside this home since we moved some 37 years ago.

Not wanting to alarm anyone, I decided before snooping around the yard that I would at least ring the bell and tell whoever answered why I was taking pictures. Answering the door was someone clearly without the expected southern accent. To make an already long story somewhat shorter, turns out the current residents, Michael and Donna, had grown tired of living in Florida, began traveling through the southeast (at least North Carolina and Tennessee), arrived in Harriman, and stopped their search when they found this house. They are two years into the task of restoring/reviving this home to the spirit of it's 1923 origin. Michael is a nuclear systems analyst and Donna is a professional photographer, and Harriman has become home to them. It was amazing to see a place as familiar as Harriman and this house through the eyes of newcomers who had chosen to be there, versus those of us who's birth had placed us there.

We spent the better part of an hour touring the house, with them showing the updates they had made, and asking me what it had been like when I had lived there. They had discovered the race car wallpaper under some other layers of paper in my old bedroom. Michael is a Maserati collector - in fact, is president of the North American Chapter of The Maserati Club, and is building a garage in the huge back yard to house his collection - so he seemed especially excited to have found the wallpaper. And I enjoyed showing Deb around. I had told her many tales about this house, and she agreed that I had not exaggerated its size and character. The house is just on the edge of the “Cornstalk Heights Historic District”, which has facilitated placing as many as 150 homes and buildings on the National Registry of Historic Places. There are still a number of empty homes in this tree-lined district, but apparently a number of local and out-of-state residents have decided to call it home and dedicated themselves to the long process of revitalization.

At age 14, I couldn't wait to leave Harriman behind. “Bigger is better”, the appeal of cultural opportunities and educational options were already taking hold of me. At age 51, I can't seem to detach myself from that town, and indeed don't really want to. I am fascinated by the general growth and development that occurs during early years among all of us – even more so as my own patterns and influences become clearer to me.

The rear view.

A nearby house where some childhood friends used to live.

1 comment:

brian said...

Fascinating post Chuck... Glad you had a good trip. It's always fascinating to reflect on the influences that make us what we are today.