ESCANABA - I was back in my hometown for my niece's wedding and had some time to kill so I drove around, which is something I hadn't done for years.
It's amazing how little things change in a small town despite the march of time. I've been gone nearly 30 years and to my eyes it looks the same.
I drove past the old junior high with its ornate Tudor exterior that makes it look like it belongs in 1850 London, not 2011 Upper Peninsula. It hasn't changed. I get the feeling I could walk inside to the dark little science lab - in the front door, through the double interior doors, left at the first hallway, take a right at the next intersection, last room on the left - and find Mr. Ferguson in his jacket with the elbow patches still dissecting frogs and lecturing in his monotone mumble.
I drove past the high school football field. It looks the same, too. I grew up across the street from it. My brothers, friends and I used to comb the massive concrete grandstands the morning after home games looking for money people dropped. We usually found a buck or two. One time I found a $20. Just thinking about it makes we want to go look again. A $20 would still thrill me. A quarter probably would, too.
I drove past Lakeview Cemetery, where my dad, his mom and my brother are buried. God, I miss them. I stopped for a while and talked with them. I doubt I'm the only one who does that sort of thing. Relationships outlast death. Why stop talking when there are things left to say?
I swung past the ore docks, the little ramshackle bar an old girlfriend's dad used to own, the Little League and Babe Ruth diamonds, where glory sought was seldom captured, but fun was had nonetheless. All matched my memory perfectly. Looking at them, it was if time had stalled.
Then it was on to Ludington Park, which is still the nicest public park I've ever seen anywhere - in cities big and small, foreign and domestic. It stretches along a half mile of sparkling waterfront and has a harbor, a lighthouse, and a band shell. Escanaba still has a city band that stages a concert there every Fourth of July.
I passed many a summer hour in Ludington Park, sitting on the high hill that runs along the top of it. It was the perfect perch to watch ore boats chug past on the lake and to see who was cruising the loop road that circles the park.
Finally, I drove through the old neighborhood. For some reason that's always been hard for me to do. There's something about looking at the house I grew up in that's disquieting.
That was my house - our house - after all. It still doesn't seem right - all these years later - that someone else should be living in it. And they've made changes - how dare they! Where's the mountain ash tree my dad planted in the front yard? And why'd they paint the house beige when it was a perfectly wonderful blue with white trim? (I spent a whole summer painting that trim while listening to the Bee Gees and Billy Joel on AM radio.) And where's my dog Barney?
I looked around at the other houses. The Vennes lived there. The Nordins lived there. And next door lived the Mongues. Dr. Mongue was superintendent of schools. I'm surprised he never complained about the Heller kids next door rattling his walls with "close schools" vibes whenever it snowed.
All those families have moved on. Mine has, too. Some still live in town, but not where my memory says they should. That's one thing that always changes in a small town - the people. Time scatters them like autumn leaves.
How I wish it weren't so. I wish the people in my past - like the schools and parks and homes - could somehow stay in place so I can roll past and see them when I need to. I suppose that's what memory is for but it's a poor substitute.
I guess that's what they mean when they say you can't go home again.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Andy Heller, an award-winning columnist for The Flint Journal, appears weekly in the Daily Press. He graduated from Escanaba Area High School in 1979. For more of his work, visit his blog at blog.mlive.com/flintjournal/aheller. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.