Darrell Ehrlick: The curse of Thomas Wolfe

2013-10-20T00:00:00Z 2014-03-21T10:34:21Z Darrell Ehrlick: The curse of Thomas WolfeBy DARRELL EHRLICK Editor The Billings Gazette
October 20, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Wow, what a homecoming.

When I left Billings in 1994 — a freshly minted Billings Senior High graduate off to college — I was certain I’d be back before the millennium.

Now, nearly two decades later, with more pounds and less hair, I have been honored to help guide The Gazette news operation.

During these past three weeks since coming home, I have been completely blown away by the kindness of folks welcoming me back, and the strong bonds of friendship that have remained dormant, but still present nonetheless.

So many people have gone out of their way to stop and say “hello” to me. And all of you have been kind not to point out that I’ve aged terribly. A journalist’s diet, complete with stale pizza and nearly mummified cookies left over from some other department’s celebration, have obviously caught up with me.

Encountering ghosts

During one encounter, I met an old friend that I hadn’t seen since I left. We shook hands again and I said, “Well, what happened to you these past 20 years?”

I’ve gotten the question repeatedly: What’s it like returning home?

My stock answer remains: It’s like encountering a lot of ghosts.

While I can honestly say that every meeting I’ve had with someone I knew a long time ago has been positive, coming back to a place that holds such great memories is indeed a bit surreal. When I left, I did so without much of a thought of how I’d return and what I’d do. I, like all 19-year-olds, was just ready to be anywhere but my parents’ house.

Now, with my own family soon to follow, I come to a place that is comfortably and unmistakably familiar, and yet the context is completely changed.

I am reminded of Thomas Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again.” The book played with themes of hometown and memory.

“You can’t go back home to ... the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of time and memory.”

Maybe it’s more like dreaming — you know, where fragments of your life intersect in familiar surroundings but they’re slightly out of context.

As much as I see our community through nostalgic eyes, I am now able to look at it as a newcomer, too. I am still learning how to navigate the exit near Zoo Drive. I am not even sure how to get to Cabela’s. Some of those places were still open land when I left.

Then there’s vibrant downtown Billings. I remember Montana Avenue when it was more eyesore than trendy. What an absolutely amazing transformation. Having lived in other towns that dreamed of revitalizing a downtown core, Billings can rightfully boast it has done what others can only imagine.

Figuring out the future

And yet for all the dynamic growth and innovative change (and I am not just talking about the roundabouts), it’s more than a bit shocking to learn that last time Billings built a school, I was in Mrs. Seitz’s sixth-grade class at Poly Drive Elementary. That fact looms large in my mind as my wife and I begin to look at schools for our daughter, who will enter kindergarten in less than two short years. And, it makes me realize that I want the same thing for my children that I had growing up in this tremendous community.

We are not just poised for amazing growth here — it’s happening and if we want to thrive, we’ll have to figure out the tough questions, like schools and sprawl.

Wolfe was absolutely right: You can’t go home again, even though I consider myself extremely lucky to come back to this place.

In many ways, I don’t want to go back to that old Billings — the kind that wondered if downtown would make it, or the kind the couldn’t have imagined the explosive growth.

Instead, I am happy to come back to a new home, a new place. And yet, one that has also given a guy like me the chance to go off to other places and come back, changed but still nourished by the roots sunk long ago.

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor of the Billings Gazette. He may be reached at 406-657-1289 or by email at dehrlick@billingsgazette.com

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