Leaving home

I walked out of my childhood home for the final time this morning.

I knew this day was coming, but that doesn’t mean it was easy.

As my sister and I sat in the offices of the title company across from the Clark County Courthouse early on this Monday morning, I looked at the papers that showed my parents had purchased the house in the Ouachita Hills neighborhood of Arkadelphia in the spring of 1961.

I was not yet two years old.

In other words, it was the only house I knew as a boy.

What’s now Ouachita Baptist University had begun developing the wooded hills near what’s known locally as The Bluff (it overlooks the Ouachita River) in the late 1950s for faculty housing. Indeed, most of the houses when I was young were occupied by Ouachita faculty members, coaches and administrators. My father and mother were Ouachita graduates, but they didn’t work at the school. They ran a business downtown.

I didn’t realize it as a child, of course, but I was living in a special place where my neighbors included a noted musician, a talented playwright, a famous basketball coach, a philosopher, a writer, a theologian, the state’s lieutenant governor and more. It was the kind of neighborhood you would be unable to find up the road in Malvern or down the road in Camden. It was the kind of neighborhood that could only be found in a college town.

And there was much more than intellectual capital. What a playground this neighborhood was. It was just a short walk to the Ouachita River and Mill Creek, where I could wade, throw rocks and fish. There was a pond across the street to fish in and an old barn to hide in. Ouachita had cattle and horses in the pastures in those days. So even though we were in the city limits, it was like living in the country. It was the best of both worlds.

In the winter, the abundant hills in the neighborhood provided the perfect venue for sledding when there was the occasional south Arkansas snow.

In the spring, floods on the Ouachita River provided opportunities to look for turtles and snakes in places we might not otherwise find them.

In the summer, the Little League baseball field was an easy bicycle ride away.

In the fall, the huge pecan trees along the river provided the nuts we would use at Thanksgiving and Christmas (if I would pick them up, my dad would shell them). And the practice field for my beloved Ouachita Tiger football team was just down the street, giving me a place to hang out after school as a water boy until I had my own team’s football practices to attend in junior high and high school.

It’s human nature to look back on things with rose-colored glasses, but there really was a Mayberry element to that neighborhood where everyone knew each other and socialized together. Most of us even attended the same church, the First Baptist Church of Arkadelphia.

I lived in a dorm the entire time I was a student at Ouachita, but I could come home each afternoon to check my mail, deliver dirty laundry and wind down for a few minutes before returning to my job at the newspaper.

When Melissa and I were newlyweds and short on funds (I had moved back to Arkansas after several years in Washington, D.C.), she sometimes would say: “Would you like to spend the weekend at your parents’ home?”

That meant that we didn’t have the money to eat out, but we knew we would eat well in Arkadelphia. Mom would fix the side dishes inside while Dad would fry crappie, smoke a turkey or grill burgers or steaks outside.

And our boys — now ages 22 and 18 — enjoyed nothing more than weekends spent with their grandparents at 648 Carter Road.

In bed late at night when the house was quiet, you could hear the trains as they crossed the Ouachita River. We promised our oldest son that if he would become potty trained, his grandmother would take him on a real train trip (it was a short Amtrak jaunt from Arkadelphia to Texarkana). On the night before that trip, Austin couldn’t sleep because he kept hearing trains. Each time he would ask if he had missed his train to Texas.

We realized the day when my parents could no longer remain in the house would arrive. As my father’s dementia and other ailments took hold, we were forced to move them to a facility in Little Rock. Even though neither of us lived in Arkadelphia, my sister and I hung onto the house. After all, there was more than 50 years’ worth of “stuff” to clean out and for the longest we had neither the time nor the will to take on the task.

We left the water and the electricity on, and I occasionally would spend nights there after broadcasting Ouachita football games in the fall.

I held out the hope that I could renovate the house as a weekend writing retreat. Finally, Melissa convinced me just how impractical that plan would be.

Last spring, my sister retired following a career in public education and began what turned out to be a new full-time job: Cleaning out the house in Ouachita Hills. She did the bulk of the work. I’m not sure I would have been able to do it. I would have wanted to read every old newspaper clipping and save those things that really aren’t worth saving.

Thanks, Lynda, for your hard work.

I sat in my chair at home in Little Rock yesterday morning, reading the two newspapers I get each Sunday and drinking good, strong coffee from Louisiana. In the background, I had on one of the few television programs I watch, “CBS Sunday Morning.”

Steve Hartman, the network’s modern-day Charles Kuralt, had a piece about moving his father out of the house in Toledo, Ohio, that had been in his family since the 1950s. I don’t remember his exact words, but his ending to the story went something like this: “A house with no one in it is no longer a home. It’s just a house. What endures are the memories and the lives that were touched by those who once lived there.”

I thought of those words as I drove from Little Rock to Arkadelphia early this morning.

I thought of my father, who has been gone for four years now.

I thought of my mother, who will turn 90 in August.

I thought of my older brother. He got to grow up in that house for less than three years before leaving this earth in 1964 when he was nine and I was four.

I met my sister at 7 a.m. for breakfast at the Cracker Barrel in Caddo Valley. We sipped our coffee after the meal and didn’t say much. Neither of us looked forward to the real estate closing, though we knew it was something that needed to be done.

We signed the papers shortly after 8:30 a.m. My sister stayed to visit with the real estate agent, and I made one last trip to the house.

I walked through the kitchen where I ate most of my meals, the den where I spent so many nights in front of the fireplace watching sports events on television, the living room where we would place our Christmas tree and open gifts on Christmas morning.

I walked for the final time into the recreation room my father had added to the house, the one that had the pool table and hosted hundreds of Ouachita students and others through the years.

I walked into my parents’ bedroom, the bedroom I once had shared with my brother and my sister’s bedroom.

Then, I took my key off the chain, laid it on the kitchen counter, took a long look and shut the door before the memories could totally consume me.

It was time to say so long to 648 Carter Road.

I stepped into the carport where my dad once had parked his big Oldsmobile, started my car, drove slowly around the circle and then headed for U.S. Highway 67, Interstate 30 and the office.

The tears didn’t clear until somewhere east of Malvern.

 

 

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