Tuesday, January 24, 2012

This Little Light of Mine

I grew up in a little speck on the planet Earth called Meadow, Texas.  My small town-America childhood was of Norman Rockwell proportions--riding bikes up and down the street, roller skating in neighbors' driveways, baking mud pies, claiming the Smith's wisteria bush as our neighborhood fort, scooping up tadpoles from mud puddles after a big rain, mothers cooking dinner and washing dishes, grandmas baking pies, and church on Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday evening.  Everyone knew eveybody and in a lot of cases, were related to each other.  The town was full of first cousins, second cousins, third cousins and well, kin to 'em somehowsins.  The list of people who had climbed the kettle water tower in the middle of town was legendary.  This was the same little town in which my father and grandfather had grown up before me.
It was a magical childhood chock full of memories.  But something changed during my teen years.  All of a sudden, this little town was no longer a place of adventure and wonderment.  I knew if there was any fun to be had, it was not going to be found in Meadow, Texas. 
Many nights, I would sit on my parents' front porch and stare at the twinkling lights of Lubbock, the "big city" that was only 25 minutes away.  Oh, if I could just make it to Lubbock!  I was sure that all kinds of things were going on there--and I was missing the party!
On one particular Saturday night, I was feeling rather sorry for myself.  All of my friends had made plans of their own and I was left to my own devices in this boring little town.  Since we only had three channels to choose from on the television and my dad held domain over the remote control, I decided to take my crossed-arm sighing and eye rolling outside. 
It was a warm summer night and a gentle breeze blew in the air.  I sat down in the porch swing under the big fruitless mulberry tree on the South side of the house and begin to sway back and forth, staring at the Lubbock lights in the distance.  If I could just be anywhere--anywhere but here!
After a while, I heard the front door of the house open and saw my dad step out onto the front porch.  He leaned up against one of the cedar posts and looked off into the distance.  Hmmm--maybe he was wishing he was some place else, as well.
He wandered over to the swing and asked, "Mind if I sit with you a while?"
I didn't answer--I just scooted over a little further to right side of the swing and he took a seat on the other side. 
As usual, he placed his elbow on the arm of the swing and wrapped his hand around the chain and we began to slowly sway, lightly pushing off from the well worn dirt below us. 
He inquired, "So, not much happenin' tonight, huh?"
"Nope.  Everyone else had plans," I said as I looked out into the plowed field in front of us.
"Yeah, not much excitement to be had in this town," he said.
Oh great! Now even my dad was sympathetic to my miserable social life.  I must be a hopeless cause!
Then my dad asked me to turn around and look at something behind my right shoulder.
As he pointed down the street, he asked, "You see that street light there on the corner?"
I'm sure I rolled my eyes as I thought to myself, "Wonderful! Another one of my dad's stories".  My dad loves a captive audience--and on this Saturday night, I was shackled and padlocked.
He continued, "That's my favorite street light in the whole world."
What?  I knew if I didn't get busy getting out of this little town, I would face the same pathetic predicament of actually having nothing better to do in my life than picking out a favorite street light.  Good grief!
I took the bait and responded, "Ummm, you have a favorite street light? That's weird."
My Dad took a deep breath and began to tell me why he held so much fondness for that boring, obscure lamp, "You see,  Mama and Daddy's house used to be on that street.  It's not there anymore.  They tore it down long before you were even born.  It was on the other side of the Knight's house, there on the corner.  That's where I grew up.  Mama and Daddy were still living there after I graduated from school and got drafted into the Army."
He took a long pause.  So--that was it?  That's why it was his favorite street light in the whole world?  Whoop-ti-do! Big deal!  I huffed and rolled my eyes--again.
As I contemplated my choices of either staying put and being regaled by one of my Dad's infamously "hang on, I'm getting to my point" stories or going to my room and listening to Joan Jett or ACDC scream through my head-phones, my Dad took another deep breath and continued his story.
"I'll never forget coming home," he said, with a far off look in his eye.
He wasn't referring to coming in from the farm, driving home from going to town, or any other small trip.  I listened a little more intently now, because I realized he was about to tell me something I hadn't heard before.  He was talking about coming home from the Korean War. It was hard for me to think of my Dad as a world traveler.  But then again, he hadn't done it to get another stamp on his passport.  He was part of a rare breed--the kind that knows what is really important in life and places himself in harm's way to protect and preserve freedom for the rest of us.
He continued, "I didn't make it home in time for Christmas.  After getting off the ship in California, me and a buddy took a train because there weren't enough plane tickets to go around.  It was a long train ride, but it wasn't too bad.  I got to see a lot of pretty country.  It was a real treat--considering where I had come from.  We made it to Lubbock a few days after Christmas.  You see, back then, we didn't have a way to get in touch with people to tell them where we were or when we would get to where we were going.  So there wasn't anyone in Lubbock waiting to pick me up at the train station. 
When I got off the train, it was snowing.  There was a cold wind blowing out of the North.  But I had my Army issue trench coat on to keep me warm.  I picked up my duffel bag and started walking. 
I lucked out because a fella that was going my way stopped and offered a ride.  I was thankful not to have to walk the whole way."
Then he paused again, pointing to the end of the street, "Right down there--that's where he dropped me off, on the other side of the railroad tracks.  I got out, grabbed my duffel bag out of the back seat and thanked him for the ride.  When I turned around, I looked down the street and saw that street light.  It was shining down on Mama and Daddy's house.  I was never so glad to see a place in my whole life.  I'll tell ya, after spending my share of time in cold fox holes and drafty tents in the middle of a foreign country, not knowing if I was going to wake up the next morning or not, this little town looked mighty good."
He went on to tell me that his Mama had greeted him at the door with open arms to welcome him home.  She hadn't allowed anyone to open the Christmas presents yet.  The family had waited for him to come home before celebrating the Holiday.  But my Daddy's best gift that year was the privilege of being home, with the ones he loved.  He had developed a new appreciation for his home town--and knew it was where he wanted to stay. 
That story has stayed with me ever since he shared it with me on that warm summer evening.  And I understand the point of his story now more than ever before.  Sometimes, life comes full circle and you find the place you have been running from ends up being exactly where you were meant to be. 
After years of chasing the bright lights of the big city, I am back in the same small town.  There is no place I would rather be--for now.  It is safe, we are free and this town is filled with some of the best people in the world. It is my gift to our son's future.  Even though this town isn't big enough to have a school band or convenience store--he can ride his bike down the street, skateboard in his neighbors' driveway, play hide & seek behind the neighbor's shed, have water balloon fights with his buddies and scoop up tadpoles from puddles after a big rain--a place to make the best kind of memories. And it's the kind of place where he can sit on a porch swing on a Saturday night and listen to his grandfather tell him fascinating stories-- about street lights.
My son now has his own street light.  My hope is--no matter where he goes in this great big world or how far away he may wander, that street light will always be a beacon for him--waiting and watching on the place that he calls home, just like the good men who came before him.