I actually wrote this last year on December 4, 2009. When I got back from my Thanksgiving trip to Pampa this year, I sat down to write something about it and realized I never published this one. It's somewhat of a cop-out, but I didn't publish this originally because it was so depressing. It made me want to stop writing, and I pretty much did. I've decided to publish it, for catharsis (thanks, Mr. Nooncaster) if nothing else.
The south end of Christy St. dead ends into a pump jack. Looking west, across the street, through the gap provided by the Crawford's empty lot and the vacant lot on Farley St. that we called 'Sandra's Lot' (because it was next to Sandra Green's house) and the horse corral across from Sandra's, there were more pump jacks and tank batteries and pipelines. You could also see Celanese and the carbon black plant. There were no trees or hills blocking the view.
Farley and Christy were the last two streets in our town. I don't recall ever seeing the Christy St. pump jack actually running, but I do remember seeing plumes from the stacks at those plants and the smell from Celanese making me nauseous on hot summer days. I marvel at the things I learned in those few blocks in the southwest corner of Pampa, Texas. And I wonder if I've done the right thing in abandoning my small town for the big city suburbs.
I drove through the old neighborhood the other day. Things have certainly changed. It is an epidemic of bare dirt front yards, chained up dogs and rickety fences around tired houses. One house, on Faulkner St., across from Hobart St. Baptist Church, was mercifully being repaired. On the back of that house a sheet of plywood was nailed over the spot where the sliding glass door would be and on that plywood was a sign spray painted with foot high red letters that said:
"Stay Out Or Die Drug Attics"
Since I moved away, whenever I go back to visit, regardless of the circumstances, a profound melancholy always sets in. It's worse when I drive. The landscape pulls me inward. It forces me to reflect and remember the countless trips I've made over that same road for funerals and weddings, for celebrations and interventions, for running to and escaping from. Over the years each trip has gotten harder and the sadness lasts longer. The questions never change and I have yet to find an answer. I don't go up there very often anymore, and I when I do, I usually fly.
Pampa, and my connection to it, has always amazed my wife. I have lifelong friends from Pampa because simply being from there is enough to build a bond upon. For the past 25 years we have steadily run into people with connections to Pampa ... 'my Grandmother lived on Somerville and we used to climb the trees in the median' ... 'my Aunt taught school at Horace Mann' ... 'my college roommate was from Pampa' ... 'I used to date a girl from Pampa' There is, of course, a simple explanation for this phenomenon. Everybody leaves.
Well, not everyone, but many if not most. Of course, it's not just Pampa, it's every small town, particularly the ones that are isolated or that have a limited economic base. Celanese has shut down and you can feel the impact that loss has had on the community. With limited opportunity many young people choose to leave. When I was younger I never understood why anyone would stay. At about 13 years old a big part of my future plans revolved around getting out of Pampa. Well, at least I accomplished that much.
Now, at fifty years old, I understand why some people would want to stay, and in some ways, I wish I would have. On the long drive home I usually wonder what would need to happen to make Pampa vibrant, or at least as healthy as I remember from my high school days. What would ease the economic burden, or improve their schools or revitalize their churches? And then I remember that I left, it's not my home anymore and there is really nothing I can do. I suffer from the curse of always wanting to fix things, to make them better, and the depression that comes from knowing that on the really important things, I can't.
Going home should, I suppose, trigger powerful feelings. They are not totally unpleasant and the resulting introspection can make you feel like you almost get it, like you are quite close to an answer, perhaps even the answer, but so far I have not put my finger on it and I am left with the melancholy of not quite knowing. Me and Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. His were hulking giants to be slayed and plundered. Mine are just Aermotors.