I hate this place.
This place, as in the town that I live in. I have never spent more than 3 days in a place worse than this town. When I describe where my family and I live to people who have never been, I tell them that every year we have one month of spring, one month of summer, one month of fall, and 16 months of winter. It feels like it hasn’t stopped snowing since the August day my family and I moved here in 2008…15 miserable years ago.
We live in this northwest PA town because the people I work for wanted us to live here as a condition of employment; our manufacturing plant and global headquarters are located here. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but in defense of my judgment at the time, when our relocation was suggested I was unemployed, broke, and a little hungry…I would have agreed to anything short of prostitution.
The first time I saw this little hamlet perched on the Allegheny River, it was in the spring (July). The trees were green, the streets were clean, the air was pure, and smelled of spring flowers, mountain streams, and opportunity. It was a fresh start. My family needed a fresh start.
The second time I saw this town, it was in the winter (February), my first day on the job. It snowed 20 inches that day…twice.
When I was a child I thought snow was pretty and fun. However, Corinthians 13:11 teaches us: When I was a child, I spoke as child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: when I became a man, I put away childish things. Like snow.
I think the best way to close the snow subject would be to put it this way; most of us get sick of winter, we all get a little stir crazy during the cold season. But every now and then winter gives you a break… a day where you can go outside and absorb a little vitamin D, put on a light jacket or a pair of sandals and feel the warmth of an Indian summer sun. Yeah, we don’t get that here.
Don’t get me wrong, this town is not without its charm. The 3 months of the year when it’s not winter are pretty sweet, if you don’t mind the rain.
So why do I stay? This is question is like a tiny pebble in my shoe that just won’t shake its way out.
I work in a support industry that serves the energy sector, and that sector is hot and healthy. My family and I have been offered a handful of opportunities to move away from this place that I hate, but we keep choosing to stay. They say, “Opportunity only knocks once”. I mean no disrespect to whoever “they” are, but I say, “That’s bullshit”. Opportunity knocks all the time, but it only knocks…softly, it doesn’t bang. It won’t camp out on your front porch and wait for you to answer, and it almost never beats down the door. But it will come back in a different form, shape, or size. If you don’t answer the first time, it will find you again, if you understand what it looks like…that’s been my experience, and I’ve seen it with others.
So I could go. We could go…and we still might go, but for whatever reason, I just don’t see it.
Because if we left…
If we left, my new employment opportunity might not be as secure, and as enjoyable as the one I have with the 113 year old, privately held, family owned company that I work for now. It’s not the best job in the world, but I’m a human being, I’m not a Triple Crown winning thoroughbred stallion who has been retired to stud at Calumet Farms, and is now charged with the task of creating future Triple Crown winners. So my current job is the second best job in the world.
If we left, we might move to a place where they don’t have a river running through the middle of town, and I wouldn’t get to travel a road that parallels the beautiful running stream of water for about 40 miles. Water always brings me a sense of calm…even if glacier sized chunks of ice are floating in it. Why would anyone want to leave the peace of a river?
We live in a regional hotbed of high school football – western Pennsylvania. The football field that our local team plays on is a state of the art facility, and rain or shine (and that usually means rain) the people of our town come out and support this team that they’ve grown up with. This is a small town – everybody doesn’t know everybody, but if they don’t, they know someone who does, so there is no anonymity for our players, their parents, or the coaches – that can be good and bad. It certainly adds a wrinkle.
I’ve sat with some of our young local hero’s parents; the passion, the pride, and the prejudice (the good kind) are something that’s always fun to watch or listen to. If you sit next to the mother of a defensive lineman, her kid gets held on every play. The quarterback’s mom insists that her child is roughed on every other down, and all incomplete passes are a result of either poor coaching, or ignored, ruthless, pass interference. Extreme prejudice (the good kind), that only a parent can know, fills our stands on a Friday night home game. I’m not like that, I’m objective in all matters, but it’s great to watch this prejudice (the good kind) in others. I would miss these “Friday Night Lights” if we left.
My daughter marches with the high school marching band on that same state of the art football field under those same rain soaked “Friday Night Lights” in the fall. Because our town is so small, she’s been marching with this high school band since she was in middle school – they needed bodies. I find this charming because I graduated high school with over 800 classmates, I think they may have even had cuts in my high school marching band; here they recruit kids from the middle school. My little girl is the lone piccolo player in this band, and she’s the very best musician on the field, most likely the best musician in the history of the school – maybe even in the history of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. She just finished her sophomore season, and if she isn’t the drum major next year as a junior, I’m sure that someone is probably being paid off, or my wife and I haven’t played the proper political games. No prejudice here (the good kind) I just call it like I see it, through the eyes of a father who understands magic. I can tell you without shame that I still get a little misty every time I watch her out on that field…that little girl…my pigeon toed, marching baby girl is out there doing something I can’t do, something that I can’t teach her. It’s amazing. I might not get the opportunity to be home on Friday nights in the fall if I left this place. I would miss that.
My neighbors are always ready for a beer and a little fellowship come Friday evening – sometimes even on a Saturday afternoon or a school night. There’s always something to talk about; it can be as spirited and obtuse as the effect of strawberries on the male libido, or as mundane and simple as alternative uses for kitchen utensils. We speak on local politics, music, Jen’s next race, or our kids’ busy schedules. Most of our conversations and interactions are about as light and meaningless as a participation trophy, but in the 7 years that our family has lived here, it seems like all of us have had to count on each other for some help; even if that help was just a hug and some kind words of consolation. There are times when I have sneezed a delicate little sneeze in my kitchen, and I’ll hear Mark offer a “Bless You” from his back porch at the house behind us. We care about each other here. Will I find that somewhere else? I don’t know.
Our neighborhood is an area called “Hooktown”, we call our little get togethers “Hooktown Happy Hour”, or “H3”…we even have a logo and t-shirts and stuff celebrating our “hood”. All the other residents of Hooktown grew up together, having years of history with one another, and still our family was welcomed, unconditionally, pretty much the first weekend we lived here. If you asked them, they would tell you that we were accepted because our house is centrally located, we have a pool, and all the guys like my wife’s big cans. But it’s because they’re good people (our pool is only usable on the 3 days a year that it’s not frozen over). Who wouldn’t miss a group like this? You can’t leave something this special, unless you have no other choice.
We have a Bailey in Hooktown, she lives across the street from us. She’s a senior at the high school, she’s a stand out academic, she’s a captain on the volleyball team, and she’s as pretty as an ocean sunset. But mostly, she’s just cool. I’ll always remember her making a point to come over and give me a hug before I left for a business trip to Saudi Arabia, “…in case you don’t come back.” Sweet, smart ass, awesome kid.
Bailey was on the homecoming court this year because she’s beautiful and cool and smart. Because I’m absolutely prejudiced (the good kind) I was sure that she would bring home the crown on a Friday night in October (winter), under those lights on that state of the art football field I told you about…but she didn’t. When they announced a name that wasn’t Bailey, I was immediately thinking of how ridiculous it was, and who was paid off, and how soon I could remove myself from the Booster board of directors. But then I saw her face, and it was all good. This 17 year old “kid” showed more class, more maturity, and more grace than I will ever own. I was so proud of her, proud of the example that she set for my kids, and after having thought about it, I was proud of the example she set for me. Her display of class also reminded me that I wasn’t even on the Booster board of directors, and that I should stop saying that I am.
I don’t know if Bay was disappointed or not – I can only imagine that she would have to be, but I’ll never know, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is how she handled that moment, that split second…she handled it with a graceful and sincere smile, clapping her hands, and showing an appreciation for the moment – even if that moment sorta belonged to someone else. I won’t dismiss the honor, because if she had won, it would have been way cool – because winning anything is cool. But when all is said and done, this year’s queen is replaced by next year’s winner, and that’s how it goes. There are lots of Homecoming Queens, but there’s only one Bailey. I would miss her if I left.
I’ve met some truly amazing people in this town – adults (not grown-ups…believe me) and kids alike. The neighbor kids from around the corner, Ben and Callie, are two of the most creative minds you’ll ever see. They are a throwback to the time when playing in creeks, and building forts were daily kid activities…it comes from their artist mom. Their mom and my wife get together and laugh until they can’t talk – it’s like music. My son’s besticle, Marcus, can come up with more off the wall shit in a single conversation than I’ll print in the entire Large Man Chronicles catalog. Last month, Bailey’s younger sister, Kelsey, stopped me in the street downtown to give me a birthday hug – right in front of her teenage friends who couldn’t possibly think that was cool –Kels didn’t care, ‘cause she’s cool. These kids (even the grown up ones) keep me young.
There are few sights that make me smile more than seeing my neighbor, Phil, walking around the corner with his jumbo cold thermos mug filled with his drink of the day – he’s on his way to my house, or Bob’s house, or Barb’s, and I can tell by his gait if he’s pissed off (Obama), or jacked up excited (recently acquired concert tickets, a good day at work, good swim meet times for his kids) and no matter his “gait” the conversation that ensues never disappoints. I would lose that if I left.
And then there’s my boss, and his family, and my crazy, sick, talented coworkers, and my wife’s breakfast buddies, and her friends at the Y, my golf buddies, my Sunday night basketball games, and our theater, and our reservoir, and our 4th of July parade, and our Leek festival…there is a lot here, in this place that I hate.
And then…there’s Aaron. My hometown has an Aaron. Aaron is the spawn of the neighbors who live behind us. Aaron was a 3 year varsity football player who played under those lights and on that field I keep telling you about. I watched a lot of his games sitting next to his mom, Barb. The poor kid was held on every play, but he still managed to have a nice high school football career, and was a captain his senior year. I always like talking football with Aaron, the conversation started when he was in 8th grade, and it continues today. We agree, and we disagree, that’s the way discourse on sports should unfold. There is little point in any conversation, if we all see it the same. Aaron is one of the smartest kids I’ve ever met, and I always felt that I was something of a mentor to him.
Aaron is now in college at Penn State, and he seems to be adjusting well (and his mom is too…God help me when mine go away). He came home for the homecoming game, and it was the first chance I had to chat with my little protégé since he left for college. I was sharing some of my college stories with him, things I had hoped to study…business, with a minor in creative writing. I was explaining how my college experience didn’t work out, and how he should be mindful of the pitfalls that I experienced when I was his age. He looked at me and smiled, and nodded, respectfully.
“So what’s your major gonna be, Aaron?” I asked.
“Well, I actually just changed it to Molecular Biology with a Molecular and Cell Biology option”
“Oh” I replied.
I was pretty much done with the conversation at that point. I washed out of the strenuous business program at Northern VA Community College (pretty much, the 13th grade at the time I registered) so I’m not really gonna have a lot of relatable lab anecdotes to share with a “Molecular Biology with a Molecular and Cell Biology option” major.
But he wouldn’t let it die…
“Yeah,” he continues. “I just did a paper titled The Frequency of Genetic Recombination through Crossover of Sordaria Fimicola under Optimal Laboratory Conditions, that thing was a beast! But I got through it. Fun stuff.”
“Oh”, I replied.
And then I told him to go fuck himself. I didn’t want to do it, but he forced my hand with his “Genetic… recombination… Fimicola” bullshit. I felt like I owed it to him as his mentor. He took it well, but I’m thinking my “mentoring” days are over. It will be cool to see how this kid turns out, he’s showing some promise. If I left, I might miss it.
All the names I’ve mentioned here won’t mean much to most of you readers, but they sure mean a lot to me. I hope that fact makes this a relatable Chronicle, because I hope you have these things too.
All these people I’ve mentioned, from this place that I hate, are people I could call at 3:00 in the morning if I was in a jam – if I needed more than a “bless you” from the back porch. I could make that call without shame, or fear that they wouldn’t help. I’ve never needed it, I hope I never do…or they never do. But it’s a precious thing to have, and it’s not taken for granted…it’s a privilege. That’s a lot to leave behind in one’s quest for fortune and fame. Money doesn’t buy it, and cold, shitty, snowy weather doesn’t dilute or diminish it. I would miss that if I left.
This place is my hometown. I love this place.
Thanks for reading.