Well, I've proved old Tom wrong for almost two years. Back in April of 2003, I returned to my hometown of Lumberton to work for The Robesonian after an absence of more than 20 years.
I was hired - fittingly, it seems to the people who know me best - on April Fool's Day.
I was decades removed from the skinny, towheaded kid who refused to wear either a shirt or shoes for about seven months of the year, running around the Linkhaw Apartments half-naked, like some extra from "Lord of the Flies." I had transformed into a "respectable" college-educated adult, now embarrassed to go shirtless even at the beach, with soles as soft as the tanned calfskin that protects my feet from the joy of cool summer mud squishing between my toes.
Looking into my rearview as I passed the old home place, I saw my father's face staring back, not the tan, unlined visage of the mouthy, hyper kid my grandma used to tie up to the clothesline next to the family dog so she could watch "The Edge of Night" in peace. The clothesline was still there, though, drying out some working man's Dickies and his wife's tent-sized negligee.
I found Lumberton a changed place, too. Biggs Park was no longer the center of the town's shopping universe, it's hierarchy supplanted by Wal-Mart and Lowes and Goody's. There were also far, far fewer businesses operating in the downtown, victims too of the aforementioned superstores and strip malls.
My old school, St. Francis, was gone. Passing by the empty building where I'd earned a respectable catholic education, I thought I saw the penguin-like ghost of Sister Geraldine, her ruler raised in a preemptive strike, ready to swat all non-Christian thoughts from my brain, via my knuckles. Turned out it was just a black garbage bag twisting in the wind. Still, I locked my car doors and self-consciously rubbed my fingers, feeling the pain there like a war veteran feels an itch coursing up his long-amputated arm.
The Tastee Freeze on Pine Street, where I froze my brain with blue Slushees slurped far too quickly, and the warehouse next door, where I'd sneaked through the always-open window to steal half-melted Hershey bars ... all gone.
But the harder I looked, the more I found things that hadn't changed. First and foremost were the people. Still warm, still friendly, still a little closemouthed and skittish around Yankees and strangers, even if one of those strangers was cut from their own flock, 20 years and 40 pounds removed from the kid who escaped the inertia of his sleepy hometown as soon as he was street legal, leaving black, burned rubber trails out on N.C. 211 like some souped-up snail.
When the people I interviewed and talked to as they stood behind convenience store counters or took my order at the Dixie Drive-In found out I was one of them ... a prodigal son ... they opened up, dropped their guard and flashed that welcoming smile, as warm as the Lumber River in August. They talked of knowing my people and my people's people. Some remembered my grandma, who worked at the hospital for more than 20 years, or my mama, who sold TVs at Tarts and then fixtures and chandeliers at her own place, Carol's Lamps. Some even remembered my daddy, who, like me, fled as soon as he found a car powerful enough to break the gravitational pull of the place. A Chevy Impala, I think it was.
I'm telling you all this because this is my last column for The Robesonian. A brand new weekly paper is starting up in Moore County, and the good folks there think I have what it takes to be the editor. My enthusiasm for the challenge of captaining that ship on her maiden voyage through the treacherous waters that surround any new business venture is tempered only by the sadness of leaving my adopted, extended family here at The Robesonian.
I'll also miss you folks, the readers, who have sent so many kind words my way in reaction to what I've penned in this space ... and even those who have read my musings and suggested I consider another line of work.
But who knows, if my latest adventure crashes on the rocks, maybe y'all will welcome me back home ... again.
Tim Wilkins can be reached at 739-4322, Ext. 122, or by e-mail at email@example.com