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Published: October 27th 2020
In the posthumous Thomas Wolfe novel You Can't Go Home Again
the protagonist is George Webber, a writer ostracized by his home community because of his unflattering portraits of the people of the town. The real-life background was more complicated. Wolfe's first novel Look Homeward Angel
was one of the most thinly veiled autobiographies masquerading as fiction. The fictional town was Altamont, but the real-life hometown of Wolfe was Asheville. In his second novel, Of Time and the River
, the people of Asheville were not included, and they were even more miffed at their exclusion. Wolfe did not go back to Asheville to visit family for 8 years after the publication of Look Homeward Angel
, and barely reconciled with the town before his premature death from neurotuberculosis at age 38. Toward the end of You Can't Go Home Again
the protagonist George Webber realizes his inability to return to his youth, reminiscent of Marcel Proust.
"You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which
once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory."
One might reasonably ask, then, what has all this to do with my day-trip to the Cumberland Gap area of Virginia/Kentucky/Tennessee.
For many years, I have looked back on the two years we lived in Harrogate TN, while my father taught at Lincoln Memorial University, as some of my happiest. It was a simpler time then. TV was just becoming available. While at LMU, we lived in a small apartment, and the only TV was in the apartment of the Livesays. On one night of the week, I think maybe it was Wednesday, we were invited to their apartment to watch the Lone Ranger on the only black-and-white TV in the two adjacent apartment houses. Merita Bread was the sponsor. As a social outlet, my parents joined a square dance club, and my Dad learned to call square dances. I still have a metal case with records he used, a couple of his written calls, and a memory of him sitting at a table with four different pairs of buttons, moving them as he wrote the call to
be sure the instructions to the dancers got everyone back to their original partner and place at the conclusion of the dance. The kids watched, then got to get involved with B-I-N-G-O and the Hokey Pokey. We traveled throughout the local area to square dance meets, going to Norris Dam State Park, Bartlett Park at Middlesboro, and other venues. The square dance clubs were great equalizers, throwing together in a common interest such varied people as coal miners, business people, and college professors.
Life on the college campus was idyllic. It was a community of similar interests with a high level of intellectual capability. Many of the men played on a summer softball league team. In good summer weather, large sheets were hung up from trees and movies were projected for free, including the two I remember which were Houdini and The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T. The school operated a working dairy farm, and once a week we would place an empty milk pail outside the door, and the next morning would retrieve a filled one with a luscious thick layer of cream on top, which we often turned into butter.
At Christmas we went out and
cut down a tree which we brought back and decorated. My mother collected wild watercress. A wonderful and raucous family with multiple children lived in the adjacent apartment building, and I fell in love with their only daughter. Love at age 5 is special. Of course, I was an old hand at this, a veteran whose first love had been at age 3 with a young blonde named Melanie, with whom I sang Three Little Fishes on the radio in Knoxville. I think maybe the press of fame drove us apart.
On Saturdays we would go grocery shopping. The trip was a 6 mile journey through the small town of Cumberland Gap TN, past Cudjo's Cave, and on through the corner of Virginia into Kentucky. On the way back, there was a side road that we would turn down. The kid who had been the best behaved would get to sit on my Dad's lap and steer the car as he drove it down the deserted side road for a few hundred feet. Of course, during strawberry season, this activity was curtailed because the obvious best reward for good behavior was to get the first choice from the strawberries.
Family at Norris Dam
Visit for square dance
I don't seem to be alone in looking back with nostalgia on early youth. I see friends connecting on Facebook with old friends from childhood. Memes pop up continually asking us if we remember this or that. I am still not sure just what makes us so interested in a past times, but it appears to be a powerful draw.
I am currently working for a while in Kentucky about an hour north of Harrogate, so with the weekend upon me I decided to take a trip down Memory Lane. On Saturday my time was somewhat constrained by a desire to watch the OU football game, so I drove down to Norris Dam State Park, then back to my hotel. On Sunday I spent most of the day rambling over the byways near Harrogate. As expected, everything was changed, and things had been lost probably forever.
I started with Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. Although attempts to establish the national park go back to the early 1900's, congressional approval was dependent upon donation of the land for the park. This was finally accomplished in 1955, and the park was officially opened in 1959. In 1992 the park
purchased the land around Gap Cave (also known as the previously mentioned Cudjo's Cave), and then aided in construction of a new tunnel under the mountain, closing the road past the cave which had been the route we took to buy groceries. The road paving was removed, and it now is the Wilderness Road Trail. When we were here a few years ago we hiked part of that trail, but currently it is closed. I have photos of visits as a child, and one in particular of my brother and I sitting with my Dad on a rock upon which Confederate soldiers had carved their names and dates. It is nowhere to be found now. I suspect it is still there but the people in the visitors' center could not tell me where. I suspect it was either defaced by visitors, or that its location is no longer advertised to avoid vandalism. The cannon from the top of Pinnacle Mountain has been relocated to the front of the visitors' center after repeated acts of vandalism. One of the common square dance venues of my youth was some sort of lodge building which my Dad documented as being in Bartlett Park
in Middlesboro. Bartlett Park is now the main picnic area for the national park, and there is no lodge building there now. The little town of Cumberland Gap is geographically constrained, and appears to be little changed from days of yesteryear. The highway to Middlesboro formerly went right up the Main Street, and that street is now the haven of a bed and breakfast associated with an old water mill, as well as the usual collection of crafts and antiques shops.
The town of Middlesboro has grown greatly. I asked one of the women in the national park visitors' center about the Kroger store, since some of my parents' closes friends were the manager of the Kroger store and his wife. I was assured that the Kroger was right where it had been "forever". I don't know where the old store was located, but clearly the relatively modern structure in a strip mall is not the old building.
Heading south through the tunnel. you immediately arrive at the town of Harrogate TN. I had not realized until today that the town was not incorporated until 1993. The LMU campus would be unrecognizable to my parents now. When we
Easter sunrise service 1955
Arthur community near Harrogate
visited a few years ago the old apartment building in which we had lived was still there, converted into a sorority house. The adjacent apartment building had been torn down. Now both are gone, replaced by a raw maintenance yard. The old spring house is unchanged. The large concrete letters on the hillside that you can view from the highway have been restored and look unchanged. Dr. Livesay (he of the Lone Ranger TV) later became president of LMU, and he is memorialized now in a newer middle school nearby.
My first year of public school was the first year of existence for Ellen Myers School. It was a small country school, and first and second grades were in the same classroom and taught by the same teacher. Because my kindergarten teacher had taught me to read and write, my wonderful teacher assumed I was in the second grade, and the error was not discovered until the year was over. I got to do second grade twice.
So in many ways you can't go home again. Home may no longer be there, or may be unrecognizable. But in a deeper sense, maybe you can return. Roaming around LMU
Square dance 1954
Bartlett Park near Middlesboro
I found things missing, but the Norway maples are still there, and the huge gingko tree, and the TN champion northern catalpa. The spring house still commands the hollow where it has always resided. And the covered entrance to Ellen Myers still awaits the arrival of children. Standing there looking at it I remembered my time there. Some time during that year the gymnasium was used to perform a mass administration of Dr. Salk's killed virus polio vaccine. Most of the children had never had a shot of any kind and it was a scene of chaos. I also remember a fund-raising effort for the new school. My Dad came up with the idea for selling tickets to get in to see IPTA in the auditorium. There was an extensive word of mouth and poster advertising campaign, suggesting that something amazing would be revealed. Once in the auditorium, the audience was shown a single projected image of the letters IPTA with the text under that saying "It Pays to Advertise", and they were thanked for their contributions to the well-being of the school. I remember playing "Shooter-of-Birds" in the first grade play based on a small tome called Stories of
Square dance 1954
The kids get their turn
the Red People. I remember going to a sorghum boil where raw sorghum juice was boiled to produce sorghum molasses, sort of a southern equivalent of a New England sugaring off.
I stood outside the school for some time before turning away. For a few minutes at least I had gone home again. And maybe that is what going home means, a return to the memory haunts of a far away time and place. Perhaps you can't take anyone else there, but just maybe you can go home again. And with luck it is a happy place like this area is for me. It can be a solitary pursuit, but for a time can give great pleasure.
Epilogue: Middlesboro KY and Harrogate TN were founded by an English corporate representative to exploit the local coal and iron ore deposits, with Middlesboro to be the working town (a Southern Pittsburgh) and Harrogate a peaceful retreat for those with money associated with the mining activities. The built a 700 room resort and sanatorium called The Four Seasons in Harrogate. At around the same time, Reverend A.A. Myers (his wife was Ellen Myers, namesake of my first school in Harrogate) started
the Harrow School to provide education for the mountain children. He invited Dr. Oliver Howard to give some lectures there. Gen. Howard was a Medal of Honor winner from the Union Army, and had been appointed by Lincoln as head of the Freedmen's Bureau. Lincoln had expressed to him a particular desire to do something to help eastern Tennessee because that area had remained loyal to the Union although the state as a whole had seceded. Remembering that desire, Howard (for whom Howard University is named) arranged to start a college to be named in Lincoln's honor. They took over the crumbling remains of the Four Seasons resort and the university was chartered on Lincoln's birthday 1897. When we were there in the early 1950's I suspect the student body was only several hundred students, many of them on work-study programs. Now it includes a nursing school, physician's assistant school, veterinary school, law school, and osteopathic college.
In 1956 we had returned to Charleston and my father had resumed teaching at The Citadel. One afternoon I was in the car with my parents. My recollection is that we were going to pick up my oldest sister at school or
Me learning to ride first bike 1954
In front of LMU apartment. Large building in background was the old music conservatory, torn down many years ago
perhaps I was being picked up from school. My parents told me that Annie Parker had died of a cerebral hemorrhage. I had never thought of, or been confronted with, mortality. I can remember to this day, ⅔ of a century later, the emotional wrenching this news caused me. We visited the Parkers at their place in Estes Park CO a few years later, but it is my understanding the family had a fairly tragic outcome.We were back in Harrogate a couple of years after leaving there in order to attend the graduation of one of the young women my parents had befriended, but I never saw it again until 2014. Somehow, my leave-taking occurred the afternoon I heard of the death of Annie Parker. I was brutally reminded of her in the late 1990's when we used the Gamma Knife to treat a little 6 year old girl with a brainstem arteriovenous malformation that was inoperable. Despite our treatment, she suffered a bleed and died. Suddenly I was transported back to an earlier time. Perhaps, as Faulkner said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past"
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