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Monday, December 29, 2003

The Long And Winding Road

The last two days of the long holiday week were a vast improvement over the prior three, although it required both a cunning plan worthy of a WWII POW camp escape, plus fortuitous circumstance in the form of a $20 bill tucked into a Christmas card by Someone Who Should Have Known Better. The result being that TBSofA (see below) finally staggered in at around 1:00 a.m. Saturday morning, thus facilitating my silent, surreptitious departure at 6:00 a.m.

Although I spent a large portion of my childhood in and around Portland, and still have many relatives living there, I seldom get down to visit, so when the opportunity arises it's always a treat. At Christmas it's particularly significant, with all the emphasis on family and renewal. For me, driving across the bridge between Washington and Oregon is like traveling down a tunnel to the past.

The weather was it's normal chilly, wet self, but off in the distance the West Hills were capped with a whipped cream topping of snow clouds. The weather light on top of the old PG&E Building was a steady red, indicating inclement conditions. The White Stag sign at the west end of the Burnside Bridge lit up like a giant neon welcome mat. Regardless of where else I've lived, or for how long, there's a physical sensation I get whenever I see these things that resonates through every atom of my being with the sound that things make when they've come home.

I wasn't scheduled to meet up with my grandmother until around noon, so I had a good five hours to kill beforehand. Plenty of time to trek a bit south to Lake Oswego, where I lived for about four years, or nearly half my life by the time I left to live with my mom in February, 1971. Whenever I can, if I have the time, I make a point of going back, just to have a look around. I don't know anyone there anymore, but there's a certain comfort and satisfaction in being able to retread old familiar paths, if only to keep the memory of the steps fresh in one's mind.

Take SW Macadam from downtown until it turns into Riverside Dr, then follow it along the Willamette River, twisting and winding past Riverview Cemetary, Elk Rock, through Briarwood until you hit the north end of State St. Keep driving past the old Lake Theatre, where I spent innumerable Sunday afternoons watching double-features and Three Stooges shorts, past storefronts that I stare at through the rain spattered windshield while visualizing names that haven't existed on their marquees for more than 30 years: that bank used to be the Burger Chef, which TBSofA in the innocence of his infancy used to mispronounce as, "Bugger Chef"; that dry-cleaners used to be the A&W drive-in; Lakewood Elementary, where in third grade Kip Carson would crack us up during "heads down" by arranging his Cub Scout kerchief and glasses Janus-like on the back of his head, where in fourth grade my dad coached us in the finer points of rebounding off the backboard during YMCA basketball league, and where at the age of nine I fell in "like" with a girl -- Amy Bright -- for the first time. Only the movie theatre and the school still exist more-or-less in their incarnations of three decades ago, and by a happy twist of fate, the school now serves as the town's performing arts center.

Take the right leg at George Rogers Park, where I played pee-wee soccer in a similarly drenching summer rain, and sat in my dad's VW beetle after practice listening to The Archies sing "Sugar, Sugar" on the am radio (KISN, "Home Of The Good Guys!"), and where I spent seemingly unending summer days running through the woods playing "Land Of The Giants" or army or any of a dozen other childhood games with kids whose faces have blurred into indistinct shapes with the passing of time, and most of whose names have become similarly unrecognizeable. Cross the bridge next to the dam where the lake outlets into Oswego Creek, and there on the left is the old house, 755 Maple St., barely recognizeable with it's new two story solarium. I don't feel a need to stop, just the need to know the place where I used to live is still there.

I keep driving for another quarter mile, then turn around and head back for the park and get out for a bit of a leg stretch in the freezing drizzle. As I walk, I'm drawn further back in time by each familiar signpost: the old concrete play sculpture, looking like the calcified skull of some prehistoric dinosaur; the old stone foundry further down the trail; the rotted pilings along the riverbank where we used to pull up rocks during the low tide summers to look for crawdads underneath.

Just the thought of some of those times is enough to take a bit of the chill off, but not quite enough. As the rain desperately tries to transform itself from a liquid to a solid state, I head back up the trail to the relative comfort of the bus and drive back to the city, back to the present.

They say, "You can't go home again". But, the truth is you can -- up to a point -- so long as you accept the fact that sometimes "home" is just a handful of trinkets stored away in a little wooden cigarbox your grandmother gave you for your seventh or eighth birthday. Or that "home" may simply be a pulsing of electro-chemical energy stimulating a few hundred million neurons in a part of your brain that serves the same purpose. The place itself may change, become unrecognizeable, even disappear completely, but so long as you still have the cigarbox and whatever treasures are kept safe within it, you can make do just as well as if it were the real thing.

Posted byCOMTE on 3:48 PM

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