We’ve had some memorable vacations, most notably more than a week off to visit San Diego in 2015. The 2017 version of a vacation was as much about taking a break from the grind as it was anything.
I recommended Springfield several months ago for a couple of reasons: 1. To satisfy the nerd in me with a trip to the vintage arcade 1984. 2. To revisit where I grew up: southwest Missouri.
I’ve mentioned a few times that I grew up a borderline hillbilly. Let’s just say one of my parents refers to me as “Ernie Bill” to this day. It was the best way the family came up with to differentiate between three people with the same name: Grandpa, dad and myself (Grandpa, at 6-foot-2, was Big Ernie, dad was Little Ernie and I was Ernie Bill, or E.B.).
Much of my brother and I’s upbringing was in the country. We rarely lived in town until high school. In between periods of living several miles outside of Neosho, Anderson and Lebanon, Missouri, we had a small house in the center of Joplin, on the edge of the large swath the F5 tornado left in 2011.
Though we often lived in the middle of nowhere, we were never bored. When we weren’t traveling across the Heartland with our parents on business trips, we were hunting, fishing and playing any sport we could on large, open pastures. I have fond memories of playing catch with my father, the hours of practice resulting in a pretty good Little League career.
I also remember growing up with good, old-fashioned country folks. These were people who worked hard and played hard. Virtually every weekend, there was a large fish fry, followed by a dance featuring a plethora of beer (for the adults, of course).
That part of our life came to an end in 1989 when mom and dad moved us from Lebanon, where we’d been for five years, to tiny Burlingame, just outside of Topeka. Our parents told us about the move just a few weeks before the end of school. A seventh-grader who was finally comfortable at Lebanon Junior High, I was devastated.
In the years after, I often wondered what my former classmates were up to. Sometimes, I wondered how things would have worked out if we’d stayed. Fortunately, social media has connected most of those dots.
As for my wife and I’s trip back to the homeland, I wanted to see how much the towns have changed in the 20 years since I last visited. As we drove around Lebanon visiting the schools I attended through seventh grade, hundreds of memories crossed through my mind: Little League games at Jones Park, dances at the junior high and the first crush.We drove by both places where my childhood homes sat. Both are gone now, one replaced by a plush new home, the other burned to the ground. The latter plot of land now serves as a dumping ground for dilapidated trailer homes, junked out cars and other trash. Gone are the basketball goal I shot on daily and the tree house my dad spent days building while my mom, brother and I were on vacation in California.
The more we drove around, the more I thought, “Things seemed so much bigger then than they are now.” It’s a shame that happens.My wife and I also visited Anderson, Missouri, where I attended kindergarten and first grade, followed by Joplin (second and third grade). We also visited my grandfather at the local cemetery. As my wife cleared off his headstone, I thought about the day he died in 1984. I was only seven, but I’ll never forget the devastation on my father’s face when he hung up the phone.
I realized as we were driving home that the trip was closure for me. In some ways, I never got over leaving Lebanon as a 13-year-old and losing several wonderful friends. But, as I looked over at my wife, I realized I never would have met her if we’d stayed. I wouldn’t have three great kids. I wouldn’t have the amazing best friend I’ve had since eighth grade, nor the hundreds of wonderful friends I met in Burlingame and in Topeka. I wouldn’t have attended Washburn University.
I finally came to the conclusion that going back it always good, but so is coming home.