According to Thomas Wolfe, you can't go home again. But I wanted to try. Over the years I'd gone back from time to time, but those visits had been focused on people, with little attention to surroundings. Now I would visit an ailing sibling, but I wanted also to look at the land where I grew up, the fields, the old houses, the school and churches that I still remembered.
Driving north, alone, on the mind-numbing interstate, I eventually reach Charlotte and turn east on U.S. 74, labeled the "Andrew Jackson Highway." (When it reaches Robeson County, home of many Native Americans, highway markers for the next 19 miles call it the "American Indian Highway.") Past Charlotte's urban sprawl, I eventually enter my home county, named in 1750 for Lord Anson. In the county seat, where I visit my sister, the Confederate soldier still stands on his pedestal in front of the courthouse.
Farther along, I turn north to pass in front of my old school. The dignified three-story building where I spent most of 12 years is gone, replaced by a modern, low-slung elementary school. I circle through the little town. Buildings are boarded up. The structure that once housed "Pete the Greek's" restaurant is. The white house where my mother spent the last 30-plus years of her widowhood has burned to the ground. A mobile home stands nearby.
North of town, I go out the "Ridge Road," past fields where hundreds of Army pup tents sprang up in 1942, spread for miles. When the Army moved on, acres of cotton fields returned. Now a paper company owns thousands of acres of the county, and pine pulpwood forests have replaced the fields, some where I chopped cotton, plowed cotton, picked cotton. Of the scattering of homes, I recognize a few. Churches seem the least changed.
Now the road begins dropping, sloping rapidly toward the Pee Dee river a few miles ahead. At the end of a long grade, I pull off into a level, shaded churchyard. I've heard that the congregation of the ancient Methodist church has dwindled to nothing. There is a restful quietness there, no cars on the road. I stand under trees where our neighbors once stood before Sunday services and discussed the war and rationing and the fact that a new Ford now cost one thousand dollars. I walk through the small cemetery. Over there lies my closest childhood friend, and here his wife, my classmate for 12 years. I study many familiar names, recalling their faces, their laughter, their kindnesses.
For a moment, I imagine I hear soft, sweet, long-ago voices coming from the church, singing "This Is My Father's World." But it's only wind in the trees. I cross from the cemetery and open the unlocked church door, which I last entered so long ago when we moved miles away, closer to another church. I'm not prepared for the emotional impact of standing in the small, silent sanctuary for the first time in 70 years. The pews, pulpit, windows, all unchanged. There is a balm in the soft air. I absorb the stillness for a long time. I pray at the altar, then turn to leave, noting the placard on the wall marking the last time a service was held: "Today's Attendance: 8."
Departing, I pass other fields now blanketed by pulpwood crops, like kudzu covering an old barn. Commercial peach orchards, cornfields, pastures -- all now obliterated to provide minimal income for local laborers and maximum profit to what was once a British paper company. Originally, before splitting up and selling off, it pumped pounds into the purses of those back in England whom I think of as Lord Anson's descendants. I try to ignore the unending sameness of the pines crowding in on me as I drive.
Stopping along a road, I gaze for a long time at the house I was born in. My father built it from the ground up, using only hand tools, the nearest electric current being five miles away. It was in use until recently, when the owners built a more modern home nearby.
A mile farther up the road, I stop at another United Methodist church. My parents, with unwarranted faith in my future character, named me after a pastor of this church. The sprawling graveyard is the final resting place of dozens of my relatives. I visit each grave: parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins and siblings, down to the youngest, a sister born three years before me and a brother born two years after. In those primitive days, they each lived only hours. I wonder at my own good fortune. I go away, then come back and visit all the graves again before starting home, lingering longest at the two babies'.
So, yes, you can go home again. But it won't be waiting there unmarred. The passing years and the growth of new generations will have blurred margins and destroyed landmarks. I was rewarded, though, by the opportunity to polish my old memories again and commune with the dead. All in all, not a bad outcome, in a world where only memories and the dead remain unchanged.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."