UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Spring 2006
[belonging]
A Moveable Feast
Professor Dennis Clausen feels that the idea of one's long-ago home is as important as the reality of the place

You can’t go home again. Those familiar words reverberate with our sense of loss when we realize we can never reclaim the place we once called home. I was reminded of that adage when I watched displaced New Orleans residents flee their homes in the days surrounding Hurricane Katrina. Many wanted to stay — and who could blame them? Where else could they find the rich culture that made New Orleans such an unforgettable city?

All of us have at least one place we call home, the place where we were born and raised. Once we leave, home becomes the place we carry inside of ourselves and es-cape to when the world seems too frantic and out of control to bear.

My hometown is Morris, a small community of slightly over 5,000 people in west central Minnesota, near the South Dakota border. Main Street is about four blocks long. Although some of the stores have been abandoned, there’s a McDonald’s at one end of town and a Burger King at the other. The buildings in between haven’t changed much. They’re mostly brick, with the dates when they were constructed — ranging from roughly 1890 to 1915 — imprinted just below the rooflines.

What has changed are the small town merchants who owned those stores when I was a boy. Although they’re all long gone, I can see them as vividly today as I did 50 years ago.

Bud Schultz owned a gas station in the middle of town. He’d always stop whatever he was doing to fill our bicycle tires and reminisce about earlier times when he’d ridden his own two-wheeler down dirt roads. Art Carlson, who worked in a hardware store in a building constructed in 1895, would sometimes roll an old unicycle out of the back of his store and ride it up and down side streets while we gazed in wide-eyed wonder. Middle-aged René Wagner, a mentally challenged man who did odd jobs for local merchants, would crank the canvas awnings out over the storefronts in the morning and crank them back up later in the afternoon. In between, he rode his bike all over town while talking to imaginary friends, carrying on a passionate running discourse about the sky and the trees and anything else that caught his attention.

At night, Main Street became another world. Most of the stores closed late in the afternoon, when the owners and employees went home to their families. That was when the pool hall in the center of town came alive, the soft snick of balls clicking against one another echoing into the night air. As darkness settled in, the lights in the popcorn stand on Main Street would flicker on, advertising popcorn for 10 cents a bag (buttered popcorn for 15 cents). The rest was shadows and silence.

When I think of Main Street today, I remember turn-of-the-century brick buildings huddled beneath a hot August sun; quiet, lonely nights with stars hovering high above a small prairie town; and winter scenes of snowflakes falling leisurely out of a dark sky, creating a downy, white carpet that glistened beneath streetlights.

But “main street” has also become the place that we small- town Americans carry in our hearts throughout our lives, no matter where our wanderings might take us. It’s the place we return to periodically to reassure ourselves that some things are still sheltered from the ever-accelerating, destructive changes we see elsewhere.

Now when I visit my hometown, I always walk the length of Main Street. Very few people know me anymore, which is just fine. I prefer it that way. After all, I’m not walking down their Main Street, the one that has a McDonald’s at one end of town and a Burger King at the other.

I’m walking down the relaxed, friendly Main Street I remember from my youth.

And in my mind’s eye, the small- town characters come alive again: René Wagner rolls the canvas awnings. Art Carlson rides his unicycle up and down the side streets. Bud Schultz stands in the doorway of his gas station, waving at children riding by on bicycles.

They’re all still there, every one of them.

I hope someday the residents of New Orleans are as fortunate. I hope someday they, too, can walk down familiar streets and remember the many unforgettable characters who sang and danced and told wonderful stories on their street corners.

Everyone needs to be able to go home again.

Professor of literature Dennis M. Clausen has taught at USD since 1972. He has published numerous articles and books, including an award-winning book of creative nonfiction, Prairie Son.