There is a parking lot next to Harry Spence, my old elementary school in La Crosse, Wisconsin, where I stop to drink the same black Starbucks coffee that I purchase from the same drive-thru at roughly the same time every day. It’s a habit I formed after the shutdown days of early Covid, and I’ve carried it forward into … whatever we might call the era we’re living through today.
I often make Facebook posts from there, accompanied by a photo I take of my cup placed next to the dashboard monitor that shows whatever song is currently playing on my Spotify early-1970s playlist—the self-compiled soundtrack of my pre-adolescent childhood. Mostly AM-radio pop hits like “Midnight at the Oasis,” “Rock the Boat,” and “Beach Baby.” Innocent stuff and, for me, evocative.
From my front windshield, I can look out over the large field and playgrounds where I spent recess over the seven years spanning kindergarten through sixth-grade. Seven years no longer seems like much to me as an adult of fifty-eight, but those seven childhood years encompassed an astronomical expanse of time. Worlds of time.
At the farthest eastern edge of the school property, there is a large blacktop area, where a salient memory has me walking with the principal, Mister Adamson—a middle-aged, retired army major. He walks slowly, deliberately, with his hands clasped behind his back. I am doing the same.
As a second-grader in 1970, I idolized the man, in part because he’d served in the Second World War, the history of which had become a recent obsession of mine. I had just seen the movie “Patton” with my mom and dad at the Cooper Theater in the Twin Cities, and I was quoting lines I’d memorized to him. One was from a speech at the film’s beginning, delivered by General Patton to his troops, where he berates the “bilious bastards” at the Saturday Evening Post, who, in his opinion, “don’t know any more about real battle than they do about fornicating.”
Of course, I didn’t know what fornicating meant then; and “bilious bastards” was a just a neat, alliterative phrase I’d never heard before but now really liked. So perhaps Mister Adamson took my innocence into consideration when he heard me utter what no second grader in 1970 should have uttered in school, least of all to the principal. But I also had a slight speech impediment back then. So maybe he didn’t hear me clearly.
In any event, nothing came of it, and we went on talking about World War II for the remainder of recess—both pacing along with our hands behind our backs, like the victorious old soldiers I imagined we were.
Nostalgia is a relatively new term made up of two ancient Greek words: nostos, which refers to a sort of homecoming or return to one’s place of origin, and algos, meaning pain or suffering. Its first use dates back to the seventeenth century, when it was a catchall medical term for various physical ailments presenting among transplanted people who yearned for their native lands. By the twentieth century, the word had lost its physical connotations, and had come simply to denote the mental act of looking back in a way that romanticizes the past, often at the expense of a more proper, sober analysis.
At its best, nostalgia is a harmless, if sloppy, use of the human mnemonic faculty. Through it, we invent golden eras, sometimes making monuments out of mundanities. We celebrate what we consider the less complicated days of yesteryear: when items and events were cheaper, when we somehow managed life without the internet and social media, when we experienced a perceived “innocence” of childhood. Nostalgia has monetary value too: It spawns theme parks, sells products, and finds its way into the more homesick lyrics of artists like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger.
In one of the songs on my early-70s Spotify playlist, “The Way We Were,” Barbara Streisand sums up the sentiment neatly, asking, “Can it be that it was all so simple then; or has time rewritten every line?”
As a student of history, I was cautioned against nostalgia. And over recent years, I’ve witnessed its political utility: How it is often employed to critique present-day transformations in demographics, ideas, or culture. Demagogues and certain religious fundamentalists might resent or feel threatened by legalized gay marriage or other recent social phenomena, and pine for a return to the “God-fearing” days when such things were prohibited. The use of so-called radical theories in American public school curricula now spurs the publication of books hoping to resurrect a sanitized, uncritical, and more “patriotic” version of the national story. And, of course, political campaigns the world over have been run, and won, by stoking nostalgic longings for a mythic time of greatness before some stereotypical “other” came along and ruined things.
I am aware of all of this. And, for a long time, I considered myself above nostalgic yearnings.
Still, here I am in my car, grasping at the tethers of a sanitized past of my own making, knowing full well that it is only part of the story.
These days, I wake up nearly every morning with the question, “what’s next?” knocking about in my brain.
Physically, I often feel the question as a dull ache just below the solar plexus. Sometimes it sits as a flutter in my chest, or a pain behind the eye. Mentally, it triggers desperation. I want to fall back asleep, to hide, to dull my senses to it. On the best days, it’s a mere annoyance—like the hangover from a bad dream. I can sometimes shake it off.
On the worst of days, I no longer want to be in this world. I want to be gone.
Generalized anxiety disorder is, at least in some manifestations, a runaway preoccupation with the future. It affects millions of Americans, so I’m not exactly a special case. But I have my own experience with it that dates back to childhood. The earliest obsessive worries I can recall circled around the war in Vietnam, when I frequently drove myself to tears over the prospect that my dad might be drafted (even though he was in his forties at the time), or that ultimately I would be called up (I was about five). And once I learned about terminal illnesses and car accidents, my focus shifted to these. I recall fidgeting at my desk at school so many times, unable to concentrate on my studies because I couldn’t stop ruminating over what was certain to be my parents’ imminent deaths from lung cancer. And many a babysitter would spend the last part of her shift consoling me to no avail, especially if my folks were as little as ten minutes late getting back, so sure I was that they’d met their ends in a fiery wreck.
This conjuring of future terrors didn’t come out of nowhere. I’m hard-wired for it. I’ve been told that my grandpa Brown would lie awake night after night, fearing that the rubber shoe factory where he worked would burn down before morning, putting him out of the job he needed to feed his big family. And a mental image I retain of my own father has him sitting disquietedly on his perch, a swivel stool along our kitchen breakfast bar. He’s silent, lost in some tomorrow’s torment—hunched over a half-empty tumbler of whiskey and Seven-Up, with his tenth, or twentieth, cigarette burning down between his fingers.
My wife Katie thinks it odd that I park next to my old elementary school for coffee every day. I can see her point, but I would also argue it’s no different from other quirks I exhibit—nearly all of which pertain somehow to a personal fixation on what has gone before. She knows, for example, that if a song from my past comes over the radio, I will immediately try to place what year it came out and will ask her to confirm my guess by looking up the release date on Google. Saint that she is, Katie indulges me as I then proceed to ramble on about whatever I was doing at the time. She knows my life story by its soundtrack.
But it doesn’t stop there. For years, at both Thanksgiving and Christmas, my paternal family (now just us cousins) has gathered at my first-cousin Jeanne’s house on the north side of town for dinner. On the way there, I’d typically pick up one or both of my children (from my first two marriages) and, before continuing to Jeanne’s, I’d first take them on a driving tour of the places where their ancestors lived during the twentieth century.
It was never a choice for them, and I’m sure they saw it as a sort of forced march. (Kind of like when I’d make them listen to a recording of FDR’s “Day of Infamy” speech on the eighth morning of every new December when they were growing up.)
I’d start by driving slowly past a tiny house on the corner of George and Logan streets, the first place that city directory research shows my grandpa and grandma living in La Crosse, in 1919. From there, we’d proceed to Loomis Street, where the young family moved during the late-1920’s, and where my dad spent his early childhood, attending Roosevelt elementary school (named after Theodore).
During the last years of the Great Depression, they lost the Loomis Street house and were forced to move to another location, this one a two-story rental on Rose Street. But their stay there was brief: They lived along Rose only long enough to be recorded on the 1940 federal census: My grandparents and their non-adult children, my father included, lived downstairs. Their oldest child, Genevieve, and her new husband, Al, occupied the upper apartment.
Soon after that, they all moved to a larger home on Wood Street. There, my dad—by then a teenager—worked on a railroad section crew; fought with other boys on the northside streets; and, from there in 1945, he left to serve in the navy.
(Just this week, I noticed that the Wood Street house was up for sale. It’s been improved upon significantly over the years—no longer the working class digs of a large family living paycheck-to-paycheck. Now it stands ornate: freshly painted and landscaped; and sporting a new wrap-around, pillared porch. According to the sign, there was an offer pending. But God help me if I wasn’t tempted to call the realtor anyway.)
Buddhists contend that the past is ungraspable, and that the same is true of the future. Philosophically at least, I can wrap my head around this notion. After all, through the practice of meditation we learn that only each momentary flash of present experience is substantial, palpable, and even that is slippery as a wet fish in our hands.
In the iconography of ancient Rome, two-faced Janus—the god of gateways, of transitions, of duality—stands in the present, with one set of eyes focused on the past, the other looking into the future.
When I imagine historical time, I see it as a continuum where I stand, much like Janus, at a single point along that line, with yesterday behind me and tomorrow before me.
On the surface, It seems like an equal arrangement—both past and future being literally out of our hands. But to me, the past, if not physically graspable, is at least more accessible than that future I so often fear. I am comforted by the knowledge that, when I look into the night sky to view a star, I am truly looking back in time. But I also know that if I were somehow able to travel toward that star, the closer that my ship got to it—closing the gap of time and space between us—I may well discover it no longer exists.
So what practical use is the past for me? Why do I spend so much of my present time delving in select aspects of these former worlds, former lives? What is it that draws me to that parking lot by my old school day after day to sip my coffee, listen to period-appropriate music, and commune with … what?
Well within view from my parking spot at Harry Spence is an area of field where the fourth-grade kids played at recess. Nowadays, that open expanse of land is punctuated by a fenced-in garden that, I suppose, is intended as a living didactic display by which students learn something about the natural world. The lawn around the garden, indeed the grass making up the entire multi-acre lot the school building occupies, is now routinely trimmed by a city employee, who passes by me with his rider mower over and over again on a seemingly endless circuit, rain or shine.
It wasn’t so fastidiously maintained in my day. I remember scattered lumber piles; wind-swept paper trash and tumbleweeds; and, at certain times of the year, long grasses bearing wheat-like seed heads.
On a fall day at the beginning of my fourth-grade year in 1972, those seed heads gave me an idea. And that idea and what developed from it—while perhaps trivial in the scope of the long play of my life—remains as one of the more vivid and affirming of the thousands of memories tucked in the folds of my brain.
But before delving forward, I must pause to point out something about my younger self for context: For the first eleven years of my life, I was about as unathletic as a normal, healthy kid could have been. I was hopeless with a ball—couldn’t catch or throw to save my life. I wasn’t fast enough to be of any use in relay races. And when it came time for team captains to call sides in gym class games, I’d consider myself blessed, almost vindicated, to be chosen second-to-last.
Unfortunately for me, at this point in time gender roles and expectations were still rigidly defined. The sporty attributes I lacked were not only considered preferable for young males; they were indisputably the very thing that made boys boys. Even teachers were part of the indoctrination process. I remember them not always hurrying to break up schoolground fights, and in fact sometimes cheering for their favorite contenders. And my own homeroom teacher one year, upon learning that I normally went by the name, “Ricky,” abruptly announced to the class that, henceforth, my name would be Rick, since Ricky, as she put it, was an undesirable “sissy name.”
I always had friends, even among the athletic kids. It wasn’t like I was shunned for not being good in sports. My torment was internal, self-inflicted. I felt, believed, that the things of which I was capable paled in comparison to those of other boys my age. Because of my athletic deficits (and indeed, my complete lack of interest at the time in sports) I could never quite accept the possibility that my male peers would ever take me seriously. I could not conceive of them following me into battle, for example, or anywhere else of consequence.
One thing I could do well, though, was to read books—especially American and European history. I could probably have won on Jeopardy! if the categories had included World War II, pirates, Vikings, or the life of George Armstrong Custer.
And, most important, when left alone with my thoughts, I could imagine worlds into being and express those imaginings verbally.
So on that fall day in fourth grade, I beheld that plot of long grass with those seed heads swaying back and forth in the wind and decided it resembled a Kansas wheatfield. And I knew from seeing antiquated photographs that, in days of old, wheat was harvested using teams of horses that pulled some manner of reaping machinery.
We could replicate that process here and now!
Nearby was a long two-by-six plank, probably left behind by a school janitor who was trying to fix something. Also handy on the playground that day was a long jump rope, capable of accommodating two or more jumpers if two other kids operated the handles on each end.
My brain zipped with ideas. I tied the jump rope to the ends of the two-by-six and called out to some kids that there was farming work to do. A couple of the huskier boys assumed the roles of horses, almost as if it was expected of them. They put themselves behind the rope to pull the plank and off they went. Running back and forth across the field, their labors tossed up clouds of chaff and blades of grass, which other kids stooped to gather up.
The spectacle garnered the attention of one of the fourth-grade teachers, a tall, gangly woman by the name of Miss Hatch, so much so that she rolled open the window of her classroom and thrust her head out to see what was happening. To this day, I can see the look of bewilderment on her face, her mouth open wide, watching those boy-horses trot up and down the field with the gatherers running in their wake.
But most importantly, she had no choice but to also witness me standing at the center of it all, in full and unimpeachable glory, directing the operation!
In the end, two things come to mind: Possibility and my belief in it. That’s what keeps me coming back. Nostos for my algos. A happy homecoming of my choosing.
Because doubt creeps in as I grow older. It’s harder to take things for granted. I’ve lost people—my parents, mentors, far too many classmates. Life’s heartbreaks chip away.
I worry for my now-adult kids, like most parents do. But being who I am, I elevate that worry to Olympian proportions. I want to crawl inside their heads, make decisions for them, head off and eradicate any problems they might encounter along the way. Toy with their futures, rather than mind my own business and let them figure it out.
Of course, I worry about Covid—though not the virus itself anymore so much as the way it has transformed everything: how it has altered the world I’d grown comfortable with for the more than half a century I’ve been around, its familiar edges and predictable contours now rendered unrecognizable.
I’ve also reached the age where I’m witnessing some of the physical landmarks of my early life disappear or become remodeled out of recognition, leaving me bereft of those handy reminders that I have walked the earth, built worlds, laughed and cried, made friends. For me, and by extension for people like me, these school buildings, old homes, and even vacant fields, are sacred spaces—every bit as alive as we are and worthy of reverence. They are wellsprings of hope, reservoirs of possibility, as long as they remain visible. And crucially, as long as we remember them.
It is said that we are never closer to our true divine nature than we are as children, that all that follows in life—while it may be in ways glorious—is a sort of descent. This is not to suggest that childhood is a paradise, or that adulthood is hell. Obviously, I was just as much a basket case then as I am today. As far as I can tell, I’ve always been wary of some ominous happenstance lurking around the next corner. I don’t expect that to change. And who knows: that trepidation may have saved my life at one point or another.
But it doesn’t have to run my life. That’s one outcome I can control. And part of that control involves, if not grasping, then at least glancing back. Anyway, that’s what my nature tells me.
So, I will return to this place as long as the energy remains. It’s my daily reprieve, the embodiment of a solemn pact I make with that residual essence of my youth—the buoyant, world-building spirit that still runs these fields, and will continue to as long as I show up and join him in believing.
Rick Brown is a landlord who much prefers to write. He earned a Master of Arts in History from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University. His work has appeared in Brevity Blog, On the Seawall, The Dillydoun Review, and elsewhere. Recently, he completed a book-length nonfiction manuscript, his first, titled, My Own Man: A Memoir of Becoming. He lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin, with his wife, Katie, her kids, and seven pets.