January 20, 2018
Growing up in Louisa – It’s a Smaller World!
Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn
Usually the term ‘smaller world’ suggests the idea that between transportation improvements and the digital age, that communication and travel negate the disadvantages of distances, no matter how far. Even when I was in grade school at the foot of town hill, my teachers would delight in telling their class how airplanes have effectively made the world smaller. Air service was not available in Louisa, and except for one crash-landing I remember, no planes had visited the town. There was a time, which may have instigated the teacher to bring the subject up, when a son of our town flew his Air Force plane low to ‘buzz’ us. While I may have witnessed that, I don’t even remember if it was a jet or a propeller-drive craft.
My subject here today is about solid things we thought to be finite, might somehow become smaller over time. I’m not talking about my once mammoth bones, but rather the new perspectives we gain over time. No doubt part of the basis is that we grow so big things are relatively smaller, but to be clear I think that sometimes our memories aren’t to be trusted. Our memories are based upon mental pictures developed by us when we were little people. Those perceptions are not trustworthy now that are we grown. The scary part is that if our ‘true’ memories are not exactly ‘true,’ then what is our real foundation? Did we rise from the fairly-land of a quaint little town, or are we mistaken?
I think I first noticed this phenomenon and came to question my background during a trip home. I found myself standing in the center of Clay Street in front of a rather average-looking building that I remembered as my home during the bulk of my childhood. I had left town upon graduation to live in a starkly different environment. I so when I pulled up my memories of that ‘big white house’ on the corner, it had to be just so.
I remembered the porch on which I spent so many hours reading comic books or doing my lessons. I could even remember the ‘drip’ line next to the porch’s foundation that was created by the rain falling from the porch roof. That runoff made a little ditch full of gravel, which was a favorite place to run my toy trucks and to load the pebbles as if they were large boulders. I can still picture the area of grass between the porch and a hedge row I grew up having to clip and keep shaped. On my visit, that was missing. It had been between the porch and the sidewalk behind a small concrete curb that had been installed when the old house was built. After the sidewalk, the berm was next, and then the street.
I remember visiting with a friend in a car parked in the street in front of my house, but again, there’s confusion. You see, in truth there was hardly room for a car to park there and another car be able to pass. Spinning around I took note that the berm I remember as being four feet wide was now barely a foot. With the hedge missing and the porch somehow shrunken, I feared this was not ‘my house.’ Well, it was, but not the one I remembered.
What happened? We may recall the days when clothing was sold as ‘sanforized,’ meaning you could wash them without fear they’d shrink. Effectively, the fabric had been ‘pre-shrunk,’ even prior to being turned into a garment. Apparently, my old house, and for that matter, my old neighbor’s houses, had not been sanforized. Indeed, they had shrunk.
A tour of the town by car proved the whole town had the same malady. Streets were barely wide enough to travel and turns that were tight were everywhere. I had walked these streets, kicked rocks and cans down them, and ridden my trusty bike up, down and every street. They now seemed almost too small to allow a kid to turn his bike or ride in circles. How could this have happened to concrete streets? Well, first of all, Louisa’s streets were laid out long before the automobile. It was essentially a horse and buggy town that was becoming the county seat in the late nineteenth century. The Civil War was underway and the town was occupied by northern forces. With a notable exception of the major streets, the side streets were narrow but plenty wide for two horse-drawn carriages to pass. Madison, Main Cross, Main Streets, and parts of Lock Avenue were wider. Trucks, buses, and heavier vehicles traveling north or south were routed through the business district, crossing the railroad tracks twice. As a kid growing up I investigated every street and nearly every property and pathway in town. In doing so, I found many wonderful spots, met some very nice people, and never once thought anything was lacking in the world.
From the top of Town Hill, just down from the old ruins of Fort Bishop, I could see the whole town neatly laid out before my eyes. It seemed to go for miles in one direction and then miles in the other. In truth, the town was barely a mile from the locks upriver to the waterworks. I enjoyed watching the town from this vantage point, but the last time I tried to go there the area was inaccessible, or at least seemed so.
While my old house was a mansion in my memory, it now seems way too small to have housed my family. The basketball court we’d put in on the Franklin side of the lot seems now impossible to have used that way. The old Thompson residence behind our house now has an enclosed porch, but the place we neighborhood kids played on between the houses remained, even if too small to accommodate more than a couple of toddlers.
I also have memories of senior skip day when instead of being in school, I was washed over the falls at Fallsburg only to be saved by Stanley Brown and Johnnie Justice. I remember that for a moment, I hung at the top by my fingernails. I was fearful, knowing that the drop would be twenty feet or so into the swift, deep waters of Blaine Creek. I was a non-swimmer, so I wondered if this was ‘the end.’ When I made a trip back through there to show my family the famous falls it was an embarrassment. Those falls looked to be barely three or four feet tall. With my six-foot frame how could I have even hung on the edge? What happened? Have the rushing waters worn down those big rocks? If so, will it soon be a smooth ride for a kayaker going down steam? I’m guessing those rocks are not sanforized.
To me the old town was best described as a quaint little village with gingerbread trimmings. Idyllic, yes, but very busy along the main drag. Small grocers were sprinkled all about and every brand of gasoline could be purchased in filling stations at many of the intersections. It was romantic, inviting imaginations to soar giving hope to the families calling it home. No one really wanted to leave, but the economies, wars, colleges, jobs, marriages, and even deaths had that effect.
My wife tells me of her visits to her grandmother’s house in Princeton, West Virginia. She recalled a big stone that visitors used to use to begin their assent to the sidewalk that led uphill to the house. She recalls that as a child the stone seemed so very high and that it took a great deal of effort to make the steep climb onto the perch. In visits I have seen the stone. It is maybe the size of a cinder-block, but rounded and well-worn by decades of foot-travel. The point is that sometimes our memories are bigger than life. To a little girl with relatively short legs the stone seemed enormous. To me, it was hardly worth a mention.
So, the trustworthiness of memories is called into question. Not only does change happen, but it happens where we don’t expect it to happen. Our perceptions aren’t trustworthy. I’m still the guy that understands the childhood delight of playing with toy trucks. Today, as an old codger, the best I can do is provide toy trucks to the next generation. Reversing the model discussed, those toys are small things to me, but they look big to a kid.
Thinking back to school days, I wonder if we were really sports heroes, class leaders, popular, cool and debonair. Maybe not, or if so, in a small way. Still, let me bask in this dream world I invented. After all, it is all I have in these waning years. Just as depression can happen with a misleading thought, the foundations of optimism may be equally faulty. A better way may be to choose to live today as you understand it, and see yesterday as best you remember. Points of view determines what we see as truth, but maybe sometimes we’re standing in the wrong place. It’s okay to be a little wrong, but when you discover you are wrong, make the adjustments you must and press on. Looking back is fine, but remember things behind you may have changed. I’m wondering how small things will look from heaven. No worry. Maybe it’s the trip, after all. Regardless, it’s an increasingly small world.