12 years that weaved themselves into my life and stayed there.
The smell of our lawn just after a summer rain gave way to sunshine… warped, buckling concrete sidewalks in old parts of town where ancient trees reclaimed their roots … stately brick buildings that looked as if they had grown out of the ground long, long ago … family gatherings inside bungalows where immigrant friends and relatives spoke English with heavy Greek accents ….
All of these things define my Muncie, Indiana experience and crowd my memory with black and white snapshots in time. As I begin to think about revisiting Muncie in a few months for my high school reunion, I know it will be an emotional experience for me. It will remind me of family members now long gone, make feelings surface I had long forgotten, and force me to feel a bit ashamed of my nearly constant preoccupation with escape during the twelve years I lived there from 1961 to 1973.
Those of you who knew me before I left Muncie knew I never considered myself part of the town’s fabric, as my father had been. I couldn’t understand why my dad had made the decision to move us there even though we visited there each summer from California. Kids simply don’t process this stuff. Our existence in Muncie during the time I lived there revolved around my father’s store on West Charles Street in Muncie’s downtown – a small place full of pianos and “home” organs. You see, before we moved to Muncie I never got to spend much time with my dad except for those 4-day long summer road trips to Muncie from San Francisco. We’d pile into the two-toned 1955 Mercury, stopping along the way for snapshots with Indians, dipping our feet in the Great Salt Lake, or looking down from a single suspension bridge at the Royal Gorge. Dad worked a “corporate” sales job in San Francisco which kept him on the road much of the time meeting with and entertaining clients. It was a treat when he was home, but I could see the toll it was taking on Mom, who felt less and less needed by everyone. Feeling needed was a huge part of her life. So when my father quit his job and announced we would be moving to Muncie, I didn’t know how to take it. What would it mean?
Through my 9-year old eyes, suddenly Muncie transformed from a family vacation destination (to visit my father’s parents and siblings) into something much different. It took on a new persona that was both confusing and curious -- a place where no one made tacos except for my mom, and pizzas were not gooey. There was a sing-song-y quality to people’s voices as the emphasis for some words were placed on syllables different from the ones I knew. Even the words themselves were different. A sofa was a “davenport.” A Coke was “pop.” Mangoes were no longer a tropical fruit – they were bell peppers. In order for my mom to get a leg of lamb for Easter, she had to order it through the meat counter way ahead of time. The butcher had never even heard of pastrami. And she couldn’t buy wine vinegar on Sunday. One had to watch weather reports all week long in order to plan an outing on the weekend. There were no mountains to gaze at and no oceans to drive to. But amazingly enough, there were little bugs that lit up like tiny headlights on balmy summer nights. And the expanse of everything green around us was never-ending.
Aside from the comparisons I made to our former life on the left coast, my parents did not make things any easier on me. They forbid me to have much of a social life in high school. In fact I didn’t have my first date until college, so even proms were out of the question. Their reasons stemmed mostly from fear, I think, but none of it was ever adequately explained to me. So I retreated farther and farther into isolation until I entered Ball State, where the new and the shiny offered me some freedom.
I look back now and think about what those years in Muncie truly meant in my own big scheme of things. In the end, I have decided that the town was my springboard, offering a foundation for knowledge and a sense of security. My time there also taught me the beauty and simplicity of small town life -- the thrill of local teams’ sports victories and how a simple stroll down Muncie’s main drag on a Friday night could cure any lousy week prior to it. Muncie schools lent a framework and served as guide to what lay ahead. Its citizens helped my father become a successful business owner, creating enough income for the grandchildren of barely-educated immigrants to earn college degrees from the town’s beautiful university. My own education provided for study abroad – twice — through programs at Ball State University. And it was this time far, far away from family and familiarity that shaped me.
As I visit Muncie this summer, I plan to let these thoughts wash over me. I won’t go there with any focused expectations, and I won’t go looking for what Muncie once was. My intent is to see it for the the many threads it wove into the fabric of my life, both colorful and mundane, but all necessary. And I know I will be grateful for whatever role those twelve years played in what I consider to be a wonderful life.