Imagine Greenville NC with one of the world’s great rivers as its eastern boundary – Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Forty-three years ago I sought refuge there by chance. Last week we returned for a visit with Blondie’s mom and with a group of local guys and gals from back in the day. It was, once again, refuge from a world of increasing discord and uncertainty. “Hometowns” can do that.
It was June 1969. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin (and Michael Collins – everyone forgets Michael!) had just returned from their great adventure as I was starting out on mine. My first job out of college was on Dan Devine’s staff at Mizzou. With all my possessions in a ’68 Chevy Malibu (I loved that car!) I headed west from Kinston NC to some mysterious place called “Missouri” 1,400 miles towards the setting sun.
Today that overland journey is 13 hours with a couple of Cracker Barrel stops. In 1969 it was 19+ hours with no I-40 and no Cracker Barrels. This wayfaring pilgrim crossed the river after midnight seeking refuge at a “Bates Motel”. That little motel is still there and Cape has become one of three “hometowns” in our family.
Cape Girardeau is the only inland “cape” in America and named for a French trader who settled there in 1790. Blondie’s family moved to Cape when she was seven. Everyone just calls it “Cape”. It has around 40,000 settlers now and, like Greenville NC, is a regional medical center and has a thriving university- SEMO that, like ECTC, also started as a regional teacher’s college.
Cape has one of the two bridges across The Mississippi between St Louis and Memphis. The “new bridge” is spectacular. The “old bridge” was very narrow and scary as hell. Recall my “thing” about bridges. Cape also has EVERY single mainstream national retail franchise in America all located within one square mile of the intersection of I-55. Including “the baby billboard”. I love “the baby billboard”.
I’ve visited Cape numerous times over the years from that first happenstance in 1969. My second visit in 1979 directly involved the town’s most (in)famous citizen!! That’s a story for another day. That visit in ’79 ultimately led to my meeting Blondie and Cape becoming a permanent part of my life and of our family’s life.
I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like “Cape”. I’m sure there are some who don’t but I’ve never met them and don’t care to. People who don’t like their hometown or where they live usually don’t like much of anything else. “Self-induced constipation” is too infectuous to be around.
I’ve always unabashedly liked my “hometown”. The guys and gals I grew up with and still see at formal and informal reunions like it too. That’s probably why we enjoy seeing each other over the years. Many, like me, left “home” to chase rainbows and setting suns. Some others stayed around to become local butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, and city fathers.
Some goofball you played wiffle ball with ending up as a mayor or a school board chairman can be unsettling. I guess every semi-responsible adult was once a rambunctious kid wiping his runny nose on his shirtsleeve.
Your hometown is “a place” but its also “a feeling” and memories. Growing up is a one-time rite of passage. Done properly it has its moments and some are stressful, or seem so at the time. I appreciate that there are for real traumas associated with some upbringings, but for both Blondie and I, none of ours were so traumatic that a healthy dose of the sands of time could not heal. That seems to be the case with our respective sets of friends from “back in the day”.
Such a group of a dozen or so gathered last week for dinner at “the country club” in Cape. This was not a formal reunion at all but simply a get-together that Blondie and several of her gal-pals had arranged to coincide with our visit.
We were on a week-long trip to see Kid in St Louis and Blondie’s 80-ish mom in Cape. Blondie’s mom (widowed 20 years ago) still lives in the same home where Blondie and her three brothers grew up in the 60s. My late mom had an eerily similar situation in my hometown.
I have often compared my growing up to Richie Cunningham and Wally & The Beav. The mythical “Springfield” of TV sitcom fame. Not the really small town of a Mayberry and definitely not a “big city”. A town big enough to have at least one of most every thing you need and multiples of such things as barber shops and movie theaters. They were single screen “picture shows” and NOT multi-screen cineplexes.
I employed the Leave It To Beaver analogy with several of our dinner partiers. They “got it” and it served to identify me as of a similar ilk. “Of a similar ilk” is important when one comes from 1,000 miles away from a place that reasonably educated folks have “heard of” but never actually visited. The “heard of” being Raleigh. I did not bother going further down the municipal food chain.
Had the situation been reversed they would have used St Louis as “Cape” would only mean “Lookout” or “Hatteras” to my homies. Even in a world of 100s of cable channels and the Internet, there is still a rather comforting regional security bubble that we all tend to curl up in.
I had met several of the dinner partiers over the years but not to any “get to know” level. I was “Blondie’s husband”. Having been “Blondie’s husband” for 28 years, I am comfortable wearing that sobriquet. “Blondie’s husband” and “Kid’s daddy” are MUCH nicer than some things I have been called in my often contentious professional dealings.
I was very comfortable going into the evening. I had not given much thought to how it might evolve but am naught if not flexible in such social settings. It evolved pretty much “wonderfully”. Yes, “wonderfully” describes it perfectly.
I had several delightful conversational interludes with those in close proximity to me. Beyond mindless elevator chatter but not venturing into the political minefield or other such combustible realms. We were, coincidentally, all of the same ideological stripe but that was only semi-relevant to the pleasure of the occasion.
That we were all the same ideological stripe probably played into why Blondie had stayed in touch with them over the years and why they were all eager to get-together socially. We were the out-of-towners and the focal point of getting together. But living in the same community does not mean you run into each other that often. Lives tend to get mini-compartmentalized even among 40,000 citizens. I sensed a comfort factor within the group. I’m sure there was “a history” between some and maybe a few “incidents” but conviviality was the order of the evening.
Once I passed muster as “Blondie’s husband” I was set politely aside as a spear carrier in this one act play which was fine with me. Explaining “what I do” can get tedious for all concerned so I sometimes pretend “I work for IBM” which abruptly ends any interest whatsoever from inquiring minds.
This time I said “I’m an Internet provocateur” which is obscure enough to confuse people yet intriguing enough to generate curiosity on the drive home.
“Honey, what do you think Blondie’s husband really does?” ….. “Beats me. Probably operate ones of those porn sites.” If they only knew.
I found Blondie’s friends delightfully “normal” by my standards. I found myself assigning “he/she is like _____” comparisons to my homies. Was every community of baby boomers in the 60s assigned the same life script? Apparently.
Yes, there was a lot of retelling of “that time we all _____” which was, once again, pretty much what “we all” were doing 1400 miles to the east at about the same time.
Cape had its social strata and Cape Central High had it cliques. Duh, didn’t every town? Everyone had their own perception of where they fit and where others fit. Some still occupy those roles. Some evolved into other roles.
Blondie had given me a thumbnail of the attendees but I didn’t let that limit my appreciation of each one. If we were relocating to Cape I would probably gravitate to certain ones over time and distance myself from others as is normal. But for one evening, I could eavesdrop on various conversations for the pure enjoyment of the moment.
Chuck The Jeweler (aka “Mick Jagger the ageless rocker”) did a riff on several “town characters” that were Cape’s version of our “Butch” and Mayberry’s Ernest T. The time that “Crazy Mike blew up the sewer culvert with the homemade bomb” …. I mean who doesn’t have that growing up memory.
Town floozies…. Dr Kinder (aka Marcus Welby) looking for Frank…. Mr Leuder’s store window….. the McClure game (EVERY town has a “the game”)…. partying down by the river….. whatever happened to ______ ………
No one asked Blondie if she could still belt out “There’s No Business Like Show Business” from her memorable role as Annie Oakley in Cape High’s production of Annie Gets Your Gun. She wasn’t expecting them to, but I was kinda hoping.
Oh well, a darn good reason to get together again on our next trip….. “back home”.