Back in My Old Stomping Ground

I feel like there were cosmic forces at work last January to get me back to my hometown in rural Illinois.  The first time I heard about this event for a large global consultancy company, I had an odd feeling about it.  “Where is it, again?” I asked a few times.  “The Q-Center,” I was told like I should just know what that meant.  I asked a few more probing questions, because “The Q-Center” rang familiarly in my mind, but I couldn’t figure out why.

“It’s in St. Charles,” someone finally told me.  Ah.  St. Charles. That’s right. It’s the old Arthur Andersen training facility.  I vaguely remember that being conveyed some years back.  It’s smack dab in the middle of my old stomping ground.  Quite literally.  I used to caddy at the St. Charles Country Club that borders the property to the north and attended the Lutheran church that borders the property to the south.  It’s probably been 15 years since I’ve been back to the town I grew up in. I moved away a year after graduating from high school in 1986.

It snows

Getting to St. Charles for the event was a chore.  Weather and computer issues conspired against me to turn a direct flight that should have landed at 10:30 AM into a long day that ended in me getting in from Indianapolis at 7 PM – having spent 6 hours in the Indy airport waiting to leave 30 minutes at a time.  There’s a blanket of snow on everything as I ride to the Q-Center.  As I rode in from the north to St. Charles, nothing really seemed to pop up in my memory.  Snow makes everything different.  It also makes everything much more beautiful than it normally is.  That white blanket was pristine, covering everything equally, and was fresh enough that it still balanced on the tree branches. Undisturbed as of yet – like a freshly made bed.

Very familiar territory

I’d never been to the Q-Center, however.  Back when I lived there, that was a closed, gated area for employees only.  Arthur Andersen used to hire their new consultants and send them to St. Charles for indoctrination for about a month, I hear.  You don’t ever have to leave the facility.  Too bad.  I really wanted to go grab my favorite pizza at Salerno’s, just across the Fox River from the Q-Center.

Even though I’d never been to that property, it was built around the same time as a lot of other things in the area and had a very familiar feeling for me.  I started to feel waves of nostalgia sweep over me.  I purposely didn’t get a car, I had a colleague drive me in because I would have wanted to drive by the two places I used to live.  I wanted to drive to all of my old areas and see how they are now.  Even as I write this, images are crowding back of the various shops and restaurants I used to love going into.  It was a great town to grow up in.

I could live there again

I left town after I failed out of college.  I have no connections to St. Charles anymore, outside of a few friends who have migrated there from other areas.  Ironically, my college roommate who witnessed the very reason I only lasted at college for one year, now lives in St. Charles with his kids.  There’s another business acquaintance and partner who lives in town as well.  But I have no real reason to fear coming back into town.  I moved away 30 years ago – no one will recognize me now.  I wasn’t someone who stood out.

I found myself thinking, “I could live here again.”  Even thought there’s feet of snow on the ground, which I absolutely abhor, I found myself falling back into a romance of my youth and wanting to live here again.  I wanted to be able to experience the town as an adult.  I want to share the area with my wife, and show her around the areas where I spent time, maybe helping her completely understand why I am “The way I am.”  I don’t think the town made me, though.  But it’s a nice thought to think that there was an impression the area left on me, and now that I think about it, there definitely is.  I love the Baker Hotel, the Baker Methodist Church, the theatre downtown that was built at the dawn of talking films, and still operates today, albeit for special events.  I still remember sitting in the velour-covered seats, rocking back and forth comfortably.  We have comfortable movie theaters now, with beer, and all sorts of amenities.  Back in the 1970s, theaters were not comfortable at all.

It also speaks to my nature that I assume everything is the same, even when I know it’s not.  The town has grown substantially.  When I lived here, it was the last suburb of Chicago – now the suburbs extend another 15 or 30 miles. There was only one high school back then.  The growth has spawned two now.  Some things haven’t changed, though.  My favorite pizza place in the world is just across the river.  I didn’t get to go that trip.  Something I bitched about for quite a while.  Going back in the freezing cold, and snow, and not getting the one thing I really wanted out of that trip irritated me.  It’s probably better.  I didn’t need to fall in love with this town any more than I already am.  I won’t move there, because I love where I live now, and I can’t imagine having to fly in and out of O’Hare airport all the time.  I have blinders when it comes to all things Chicago, and especially St. Charles.  My naive nature is at its worst when I’m here.  Why the hell would I put myself in that situation?

I’ll go back for the pizza

Someday, I will come back for a long weekend.  I’ll visit all my old favorite areas, see my college roommate, show my wife the houses I grew up in, and maybe then this irrational love for my hometown will subside a little.  But I haven’t done that because what if my wife falls in love with it, too? That might be tragic. Don’t get me wrong, again, I love the area, but as I drove in, with my employee driving, I waved a few times to people as we drove by, just out of Texas habit.  No response.  I giggled.  “Oh yeah, waving is a Southern thing,” I said to my employee, who lives in Atlanta, and grew up in Louisiana.  “Yeah, it is,” he replied.  I’ve changed, the town has changed, and generally everything is different now than it was when I was 8 to 17 year old.  Looking back, that’s all the time I spent here, and there was a two-year gap when I lived somewhere else.  As old as I am now, this area feels a solid part of me that somehow I feel is who I am.  When someone asks me where I’m from, I stutter and stall.  “It’s a long story,” I normally say.  But when pushed on the issue, St. Charles is where I most feel like “I’m from.” It’s where my most impressionable moments were for the longest time growing up.

Every time I come back, I feel this a little more and a little more, but we get more nostalgic as we get older.  And there’s the pizza.  I haven’t had Salerno’s in probably 10 years – I hope they make it through the pandemic.  I know the saying is, “You can’t go home again,” but I disagree.  You can.  You can remember what it was like when it was part of you, and you can see how it changed without you, just as you changed without it.  Sure, it’s sad, but it’s also reassuring.  If this little place has made it through, and thrived, over the last 30 years, maybe, just maybe, I’m going to be OK too.

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