September 22, 2012
The day started out ordinary enough. Nothing special was going on at the office.
Then out of the blue here comes walking through the front doors a face from the past. I caught my breath. I felt my eyes widen.
I felt a jolt of joy. But I also was cautious. And intensely curious. I felt a pang of envy. Now keep calm, I told myself. Don’t act foolish here.
In had walked into Kent, who similarly recognized me and reached out to shake my hand. I was glad he recognized me. I didn’t expect him to remember. It had been a long time.
I met Kent the summer following my graduation from high school here in the hometown. At that time we both were headed to journalism school in the fall, and I made a mental note to look for him once I got Down East.
I learned Kent was the son of a barber in another small, mill town elsewhere in the Piedmont. Being the son of a mill worker here, I felt a connection, that we had similar backgrounds.
Starting out on similar paths, how would things turn out for us? Were we headed for similar destinies, maybe become co-workers some day? Or in the coming years would we branch off onto dissimilar paths?
But I never saw Kent again. Over the course of three years in school Down East our paths never crossed. I stayed here at home during the fourth year as my mother was ill.
Some time later I noticed in an alumni newsletter that Kent had gotten a job out of school at a newspaper in Virginia. Until I saw his name in the boldface type I had forgotten about him. I had not known whether he had even made it down to school.
So nearly 20 years after our initial meeting as teenagers here comes Kent strolling into the newspaper office where I worked.
Dark-haired and with a thick mustache that would have served him well as a movie actor, Kent told me he now worked for “The Washington Post,” moving there from the Virginia newspaper. I was impressed. That was a jump that required much more than just a drive a few miles up the road.
I once applied on a lark for a summer internship at “The Post” in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal of the 1970s that had made the newspaper even more famous and an even more intensely desired destination for aspiring journalists.
Hundreds, thousands, maybe millions, applied with me for dream jobs at “The Post.” My application went nowhere. Oh well, their loss.
But Kent had scored with “The Post” and scored big-time with a dream job in the newsroom.
He told me he had come back to his hometown for a month of Christmas vacation (a whole month?!), and he wanted to research an old, unsolved murder case there for a possible story for “The Post.” So “The Post” gives you a month-long vacation but still expects you to work, I thought.
Then he asked me what I had been doing. I told him I had recently inherited my parents’ house up near the foot of the mountains.
“A house?” Kent replied excitedly. “Where?” He wanted to know all the details, short of the number of bricks, it seemed. I was glad to give some details.
He didn’t seem to want to talk about “The Washington Post” or any of that stuff. Either he was being modest or kind. Perhaps he could only dream of owning a house up there in expensive Washington. I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to pry.
As we talked briefly, mostly about me, Kent seemed tired.
I had to get back to work and leave Kent to his task. But before I said goodbye Kent shook his head and said as an afterthought, “A house sure sounds good to me.”
I never saw Kent again. A quick check of the Internet now tells me Kent moved on from newspapering to the more lucrative profession of corporate public relations, still in D.C. I hope he’s doing well. He seemed like a nice guy.
Once in a while I get asked about coming back to the hometown. After Dad died I spent an entire summer going through the house and trying to decide what to do. I finally decided to come back home.
It took a number of years but I finally got to the place where I could cut my ties where I was and start a new phase of my life here, where I spent my formative years.
I left a good job. I left some OK money. I left some good people. Why did I do it?
About the best, succinct explanation I can give is to describe a possibly tired, burned-out, small-town Carolina guy touched with a bit of homesickness and toiling away in the big city a long way from home who once shook his head and muttered out loud, “A house sure sounds good to me.”
It sure does. So I came back. A lot of my peers who left here have not.
As a reminder of why I did it, I made up a little poster with Kent’s quote in big, black letters and his photo from the newspaper. I put it up in my office at home.
It’s about more than a house, of course. But after more than 20 years back here in the hometown, it still sure sounds good to me.