I clicked my seatbelt, turned on the car’s ignition, and steered to the southeast. Quickly, the highway was sweeping me out of the New Mexico city where I went to high school, and I was headed home to Brownwood.

A five-day trip last November reminded me once again how massive the Lone Star State truly is. After weaving my way through El Paso, I still had 500 miles to drive.

This Interstate highway in far West Texas is as familiar to me as it is endless. I made this trip many times while a student at Howard Payne, and countless times since to visit friends — typically to attend high school homecomings. That was the reason for this particular visit. Our 1968 class from Las Cruces Mayfield was marking its 50-year reunion.

It has taken repeated trips of this sort to shake that uneasy feeling of “leaving home” that I experienced whenever I turned my car east toward Van Horn. Recently, that sensation itself failed to materialize, but its memory would wash over me in a rush of melancholy.

College freshmen often face a difficult time of transition when they find themselves in a strange city making new friends and — perhaps for the first time — forced to make “grown-up” decisions. Most can take comfort in knowing that they can always retreat on weekends to their parents’ homes in the towns where they grew up. My experience was a bit different.

My parents moved from New Mexico to North Carolina two weeks before I started college in Brownwood. They were in a new place, just as I was. And after several drives back to see old friends in New Mexico, I learned that in many ways, they had “departed” without moving.

Some had literally moved. Those included the ones who had gone away to college as I had. Then, some had joined the Armed Forces during the height of the Vietnam War. A few were married and had better things to do than hang out with me. One or two, sadly, were in prison after running afoul of the law. Drug abuse, primarily.

Those who did remain in town were busy with their new friends. They were cordial when we met, but it was different. We were all changing, even though only a few months had passed.

Repeatedly, whenever I pointed my car to my adopted home, Brownwood, I did so with a sense that something meaningful was left behind. It was something valuable that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time, and it was not to be captured again. Certainly, it was not to be found with these people, and not in this same place. Never again.

Or so I thought.

The homecoming committee lost contact with me for a while, but since Year 35, I’ve been faithful in going. But no previous reunion had been as well attended as this one, our 50th year.

Perhaps it was the allure of Number 50, or the fear that there may not be many reunions after this one, but many longtime friends and classmates whose names — if not faces — I remembered were present. For three days, we had a great celebration. It wasn’t “just like old times.” It was better.

On my way home, traveling that highway east of El Paso felt different. The sadness I once recalled was replaced by contentment. Truly, home is where the heart is.

 

Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at news@brownwoodbulletin.com.