In his 1940 novel, Thomas Wolfe suggested that “You Can’t Go Home Again.” But to the literal-minded, it is always possible to go home again, although now you can’t take liquids and gels with you on the plane.
Of course, if you do go home again, you may find that the place and people have all changed, which is why Wolfe was right in a certain sense. I found this out for myself last week.
I went home to Brisbane, Australia, which I left 33 years ago to seek fame and fortune. So much for that.
It was eight years since my last visit, which sadly was for my father’s funeral. One of my first acts on returning was to pay a visit to the memorial wall behind his church, where, underneath a fragrant frangipani tree, his ashes and my mother’s are interred.
The old guy is right next to my mother, no doubt still receiving instructions into eternity. I had not seen his plaque before, and I was moved by the simple description of his life: Loving Husband and Father.
It might also have said Good Friend.
For most of us, that’s what it’s really all about. Human qualities are the final measure of a person, because when the paths of glory lead but to the grave, the essential virtues are distilled. Fame and fortune? What are they compared to the basics? (If my senior editors are reading this, let them please note that any pay raises are nevertheless welcome.)
Although the plaque was fittingly modest, my dad was really much more than it said. For one thing, he was a war correspondent attached to the headquarters of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, which is how the family came to be in Brisbane in the first place _ and how I was inspired to enter journalism. It was from Brisbane, then just a big country town, that MacArthur planned the island-hopping strategy that was to win the war in the Pacific.
The many GIs who came to Brisbane in World War II would hardly recognize the modern city that exists now. After eight years away, there were times when I didn’t recognize the place.
Thoughts of the past were much in my mind on this trip, because my excuse for coming back was to attend my 40th high-school reunion. I went to a traditional all-boys private school, and this lent a special flavor to the event.
In the first place, the reunion was attended only by men. It was generally understood that no spouse or girlfriend would want to hear the happy reminiscences of the bullies and psychopaths who made our school days what they were. Also, they would have interfered with the drinking.
In anticipation of that, Bev, my mate Steve’s wife, offered to be our designated driver, and she dropped us off at the school for the evening. We saw a crowd of old people outside and wondered who they were. To our horror, we realized that they were our former classmates and they were thinking the same thing about us.
Later, Bev would say: “What is wrong with you guys _ don’t you have mirrors?” Australian women have a way with words.
About 60 “old boys” _ as the alumni are called _ attended the reunion, and I recognized perhaps 10 of them, or at least remembered their names well enough to make a connection. Most of them didn’t recognize me or recall my name, either. I am now resolved that the next time I attend high school, I will develop a personality that will make me memorable.
But I still have a few mates and assorted relatives, including my older brother, who do remember me and bear no serious grudges despite that. They made the visit memorable.
Brisbane, which is located in the southeast corner of the state of Queensland, is currently undergoing a drought. It is subtropical and usually lush like Florida, but now it is dry, and its residents are under serious water restrictions.
On the upside, there is a glut of wine in Australia. You can buy an excellent red for less than $2 _ which is cheaper than bottled water. Besides, water is overrated. Fish swim in it and they are most unsanitary.
Between the wine, the shining city, the incredible blue sky, the trees full of parrots and other exotic birds, including the kookaburra, the favorite of humorists because of its famous laughing call, I found that going home was possible _ even when you feel like a stranger in your old homeland.
(Reg Henry is a columnist for Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com)