Thomas Wolfe Refuted
by Glenn Washburn
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I was at the short end of a long trip; that place in the journey where there are more empty coffee cups on the floor boards behind you than there are miles ahead of you. It was at that point I saw the sign: “Wrentham, next exit.” In an instant I was flooded with the childhood memories of a small town and an even smaller boy who lived there. I knew the town had grown quite a bit since last I saw it. I had read of the “mallification” of my boyhood home and the tripling of its population seemingly overnight; but before I could stop him, that little boy inside of me, who had been biding his time for just such an occasion, grabbed the wheel and I found myself heading “home.”
The street into town was filled with more cars than that child would have seen in a month. The town square was unrecognizable; having gone through an “Extreme Makeover: Town Addition.” There was not a single storefront I recognized or a face that looked familiar. In short time I had seen enough and it was time to get back on the highway…unless. Maybe it was an accidental thought or an impatient memory, maybe it was unspoken hope or unexpected optimism, or maybe it was the whisper of that little boy; but whatever it was, I found myself heading for the one place that might still be there. Perhaps it sported a different color, a new addition or strange landscaping; but just maybe…
As I pulled the car over at the remembered address, I felt my spirit smile. There it was; a little cleaner and a little better looking than I remembered; but there it definitely was…my old house! As I walked up the driveway a small boy appeared out of nowhere waving his arms joyfully, inviting me to come and play. Suddenly, aware that the quiet sadness of this overcast summer day had vanished with his appearance; I walked the rest of the way up the driveway to meet him. Without a word, the boy smiled up at me, took my hand and led me through woods that were vaguely familiar. We walked along an overgrown path that only he could have known was there to the base of a large towering pine. I looked down at him questioning. He just kept smiling and then slowly looked up. I followed his gaze and then felt my heart leap for joy; it was still there. It’s weathered, paint-chipped boards were held together with bent nails and a thousand forgotten dreams; but my tree house was still there. Before I could gather up all the memories that were falling out of that old pine like autumn maple leaves we were off again; the boy tugging excitably on my hand, urging me to run faster.
Soon we came to an old foundation; long forgotten by all except the boy and me. It was our foxhole, our frontier fort and our castle. Thousands of faceless enemies had died trying to storm this impenetrable fortress; the last line of defense for frightened farmers, a war-torn village or a beautiful princess. Many brave soldier’s had fallen here; many mighty knights had sacrificed their lives for the greater good. Heroes were born and evil was vanquished. It was a place where good always triumphed, a place where imaginary brothers laid down their lives for you, and a place where a lonely boy could be war hero, a general or a king. When I looked down; the boy was smiling knowingly as he took me by the hand and led me off once more.
Soon we came to an old cart road that had long outlasted the vehicles that had forged its passage. Walking past a pile of rusted cans that had almost managed to return to the earth; we headed deeper into the quiet woods. Suddenly I knew where we were going. And just as suddenly, I saw them looming ahead of us; completely out of place among the decaying leaves and pine needles. It was a great wall of boulders that I had once imagined were haphazardly dumped there by some passing giant. The boy raced around the largest one trying to find a passage to the top. There wasn’t one; many summers filled with skinned knees and elbows and one broken wrist had educated me to that fact. Still the boy continued to look and probe; hoping to find a way. I knew what he was thinking, “If only I could get up there; I would be able to see the whole world.” I could have helped him, I suppose; I was big enough now. But in all my boyhood journeys to this pile I had never discovered that it wasn’t the top of the world; and I didn’t want him to.
Without warning he dashed down a path that led to the bottom of a hill and then up and over another one. When he saw that I didn’t follow, he returned and looked up at me with questioning eyes. Then he hugged me and laughing joyfully he dashed down the path with all the excitement I used to know. He seemed to know that I could go no further; for I knew that this path would eventually end up on a road somewhere or in someone’s back yard. I knew it without having to see it. However, his sight was the sight of possibility; his eyes could imagine an enchanted cottage around the next bend or a pirate ship set at anchor just off a rugged coastline over the next hill. And I would not, for the entire world, mar his wondrous vision with my common rationality or edit a single frame of the whimsical and fanciful feature film he was producing. He would know soon enough; for now, I would safeguard his passage by my absence.
As he neared the top of the hill he stopped and turned; then with a wave and a smile he disappeared as if swallowed by an early morning mist. I had anticipated this moment since the boy first appeared and had steeled myself for the bittersweet feeling that I was convinced would soon follow. Yet, when I examined my heart I discovered it had been well compensated with this visit and was contented with what it had received.
As I turned and slowly walked back to my car; I pondered what had just happened. Was it a vision, a memory, a psychotic episode or something more miraculous? I had just spent the afternoon with myself and found myself less burdened for the visit. As I drove back into my life, I took a moment to the thank the only One who could have made this possible; for the lessons that still needed learning, and for the opportunity to remember what had long been forgotten.
But what of the child within me who had wanted me to come back to this place so badly; that he was waiting for me when I got here? I have it on good authority; that he is just over the next hill, laying in the grass and smiling at passing clouds.
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