The haunting hope of home by
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I can never go home again,

Never really find my town;

I can see  things

Aren’t like they used to be,

No need in me hangin’ around.

                           — We Five (1964)

 

Going home can produce dramatic results, but probably not the ones you were expecting.

As a college student, We Five was one of my favorite singing groups. When I say that, even some folks from my same era sometimes ask, “Who are We Five?”

It’s not surprising since the San Francisco folk/rock band founded by Michael Stewart (brother of the Kingston Trio’s John Stewart) produced only one bona fide hit, nominated for a 1965 Grammy (Best Performance by a Vocal Group.) .

That song was, You Were on My Mind. If you’re having trouble remembering it, that link should take you there. I loved the song but, over the course of a year, it turned out not to be my favorite one on the album of the same name.

A song to ponder

The song that stuck in my mind and heart was another one called, I Can Never Go Home Again. I’m pretty sure you won’t remember that one so, again, there’s the link that should take you to it.

As the years passed, and I took flight from Oklahoma to start what I call my world tour of jobs, I thought about that song a lot. Seems like every time I’d pick up my guitar, I would be singing that song somewhere before I put it down. Still do, actually. Not just because it’s a catchy tune, but because it deals with that issue of going home and wondering if it will be the same when and if you do.

I’m not just talking about going home to visit the folks or for a holiday reunion with friends and family. I’m talking about what happens when you let the memories of those good times and places sweep over you and lure you back home to live and work.

“It was such a great place, and I remember this little burger place near my college dorm,” you say to yourself, often winding up with the question, “Wonder what it would be like to go back?”

I have tried going home twice as an adult, for different reasons and with different results.

Home in 1995

The first time was in 1995 when I felt the need to return to my roots for a few months to recenter myself after a personal tragedy left me devastated. Ironically, on that occasion, my own pain encountered a far greater collective pain and tragedy that was the Oklahoma City bombing.

It was soothing to be surrounded by the familiar town and people, most notably Mom an Dad and my sister C.J., who did a lot of listening and gave me needed support.

Author reporting on Murrah Building bombing.

Then, when the bombing occurred on April 19, I thrust myself back into my journalist’s role that I had left a  decade before for college teaching.

Focus on others

In that role, I was able to search for and provide answers to questions about the bombing, who was killed and injured, and how the recovery was going to the many people in Oklahoma who were craving such answers. That began to distract me from my own pain and I felt I was in a community of others who were hurting. As I told their own stories of grief and recovery, I was also telling my own.

I fell in love with the people of Oklahoma again, after so many years of trying to put distance between me and the state. I reported on the bombing’s aftermath for a couple months and decided to move on with my life and career elsewhere. But that going-home experience put me on the road to personal recovery and healing.

Home in 2000

The second time was different. It was the fall of 2000, and my new wife Anne and I had just moved from our Memphis home and jobs, back to Norman, Oklahoma. I had accepted an endowed professorship at my alma mater, the University of Oklahoma.

Part of the reason for taking the job was the belief that, somehow, Norman would be the same wonderful college town that had provided me so many good experiences and memories as a student there in the 1960s. I realized I hadn’t really seen the town since 1968, and I knew it might be somewhat different, but the allure was still strong enough to go.

A lot of changes

Yes, there were differences with the town and with the campus. Both had grown and become more beautiful, but that didn’t help me connect with the place I knew. And my old fraternity house was gone, maybe the target of Janis Ian’s song, They Paved Paradise and Put up a Parking Lot? That hurt some.

The real differences, though, were in who my colleagues were and who I was myself.

In the 1960s, I had been a wide-eyed college student who dreamed the dreams all college kids do as they tried to make their grades so those dreams would come true. I was in the company of — and empathized with — the thousands of other students who were doing the same thing I was. Not to mention that it was all happening in the tumultuous counterculture decade of the 60s that seemed tailor-made for idealistic dreamers such as we.

The year 2000 posed a different scenario: I was no longer a student but a new faculty member in the company of absolutely no colleagues who lived the memories I had lived and, since most of them were not even from Oklahoma, didn’t have the same attachment to OU that I had.

A different lens

So I was viewing “home” from a different perspective and through a different lens than I had three decades before as a student. Added to that, several of the faculty were in a cold war with each other for perceived wrongs. In some cases, they were acting more immature than I remembered us college students acting years before. In hindsight, though, that statement may be a stretch.

Nevertheless, within the first three months, I concluded that this was not the home I had remembered it to be. Anne was finding her own work over the School of Dance to be more than she had bargained for, so we decided to pull up stakes at the end of the school year and head back to the University of Memphis.

We had only been gone from there a year, and we knew this time that things couldn’t have changed that much.

We were right about that.

Profile photo of Jim Willis Jim Willis
I am a writer, college professor, and author of several nonfiction books, including three on the decade of the 1960s. Several wonderful essays of gifted Retrospect authors appear in my book, "Daily Life in the 1960s."


Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Dave Ventre says:

    I do remember the We Five, but only their one big hit.

    College memories are often bittersweet; so much changes in our 20s to 40s.
    Hell, they sold off my campus! Your story expressed this beautifully.

    I try to avoid nostalgia…except when I am writing about it here, of course.

  2. Thanx Jim for this wonderfully written and captivating story of some of your life journeys – homeward bound, outward bound , and that most intense journey inward.

    And no I’ve not heard of We Five, but 1964 is the year I first left home, and a few years later I did briefly circle back – haven’t thought of that in years!

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Like Dave, I remember “You Were on My Mind” (it’s going through my mind right now). I am so committed to my alma mater that I chair my reunions, am on the board of their very fine art museum (I will chair a Development Committee meeting tomorrow), I am a Fellow (whatever that means), I’ve been on their National Alumni Board (one term was enough for me), but I live 20 minutes from the campus. I have seen a lot of changes since I graduated 49 years ago and I have never seen it from your perspective – as a faculty member. If “home is where the heart is”, you’ve had yours in a few places, but Oklahoma seems to be at the center.

    • Jim Willis says:

      Thank you, Betsy, and congratulations to you for staying to connected and supportive of your alma mater (Brandeis, was it?). I have another friend like that down in Texas who has stayed on with her alma mater, Tyler Junior College, as director of alumni relations.She is a former “Apache Bell” (dance team member) and her support has never wavered, just like yours has not!

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    I remember and love the songs you references. So often, songs evoke clear images in my minds of who I was and how I felt at different stages of life.

    • Jim Willis says:

      Thanks, Laurie. I agree about the transportive power of music. It’s like a time machine that takes your ight back to that moment. You may not remember all the details, but you do remember the feelings of that moment.

  5. pattyv says:

    I love your musical references, they add so much depth to the story and I appreciate the links. This was a sad reflection for me, too much expectations turning into disappointment. Almost as if the memories only exist in the time spent, but never to be revisited. By not going back and trying to refresh them, we’re able to think we actually can, and so the dream stays intact.
    I feel as a journalist after the bombing, you were totally back home, driven by consciousness and a determination of helping those in need. Totally applaud you for that.

    • Jim Willis says:

      Thank you, Patty! I’ve always felt one of the best ways for me to re-experience past moments is to listen to some of the my favorite songs of the era. They were usually meaningful to me for a reason and, for at least a few moments, they take me right back to those times.

  6. I greatly enjoined your web cum anchor of music. Where ever I go, I travel with sounds and rhythms. Being a classicist, Bach, Brahms, Dubcek and others are always weightless in my baggage. The sixties full of Seeger, Mitchell, Josh White and other social/cultural activists stirred my heart and purpose.

    Like you, perhaps, I am sandwiched with music between my past and present.

  7. This was a well crafted chronology that swept me along with your changing expectations and emotions. It also left me wondering if I had ever truly tried to, or even imagined, “going home” again. Maybe it has to do with being raised by parents who had never gone home, once they left. Thanks for leaving me with a reserve of motifs to contemplate.

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