A Vanishing of Place

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Larry D. Thacker is a Kentuckian writer and artist living in Tennessee. He is a veteran of the US Army and seventh generation native of the Cumberland Gap area. His MFA in poetry and fiction is from West Virginia Wesleyan College. Larry served as a guest editor for Issue 11 of Longridge Review.

“Place is so obviously varied among us. But we should wonder on what it means, not just try writing stories and poems with only a sense of place. I think we too often let place remain stationary when it, in fact, moves with us, too.”

This act of constructing our unique place experiences sometimes runs too quickly to the physical. We too often go back to the homeplace and reminisce, assured we can always return to something to jog our memories, that though an old home or barn or neighborhood inevitably changes with time that the skeletal structure remains loyal to us in some mysterious relational way.

©Larry Thacker

We often speak about place in the writing world. About how vital it is to preserve essences of our home worlds, our life experiences both past and present, how that assists in preparing for and appreciating a future. Much of the concept of place is a memory-dependent act. A sensual act. An act indwelled of mind, body, and spirit. Place can be a hard thing to locate. To describe. To conjure upon the page. Simple at a glance, varied and challenging from one writer to another.

I ventured out once to the old property where my grandfather built his cabin and raised my father’s older siblings. My aunt talked me through it via my mobile phone: out along a hollow, a dead-end road, down a trash-strewn four-wheeler trail, a trickle of a trashed creek, up a hill, to an approximation marked by what I described to her as probably the foundation of the cabin she knew as her first home. There were bricks and stones and decaying mortar and earth upon which to stand. I took a brick home with me. Though most of this “home” was gone, I could imagine what growing up was like for my two aunts and uncle. What visiting there was like for my father when the cabin remained. When crops grew there. When the boys were chored with moving the outhouse. 

What happens when even the earth beneath your feet goes missing from a place? When it becomes impossible to walk the literal old grounds of a homeplace? When you’re left with memory. No landscape. Photos may persist. And stories, yes. But how does the literal vanishing of the landscape up the ante when we’re dealing with a concept as important as place?   

Here is where I ate my first Paw Paw with my grandfather. We planted a seed and we watched that new tree grow for years.

©Larry Thacker

The rumors of the Food City wanting to expand back in my hometown of Middlesboro, Kentucky, started some five years ago. Before long we knew it was true after a realty representative from the corporation started feeling out property owners surrounding the store. They were eyeing an entire two-block area. That space not only included where my mother and father lived at the time, but also my mother’s childhood home, built by my grandfather, and the house I grew up in until my sophomore year of college. What’s more, the house my parents lived in at this time was owned by my sister for almost 10 years as well; in other words, this potential expansion of a grocery store seemed to require what I remembered as most everything I associated as my neighborhood – my home. How else would the store eventually vacate its current building, build another larger facility, expand parking, and add a fuel station, if not by buying up close to 20 homes and two businesses?  

I wrecked my bike here in this ditch after a yellow jacket struck and stung me in the eye. 

Of course I was concerned when my mother and father complained about the growing drug problem up the street. Sure the house they were in was haunted. It had problems with “visitors” back when my sister lived there. Sure the idea of them selling that tiny place and moving across town was appealing. Sure the idea of my mother finally getting away from reminders of where she grew up that also reminded her of her deceased father would be nice. Yes, the incentives for getting the hell out were there. But at what cost? What would require sacrifice for a prettier place to buy groceries, the town’s first Starbucks, and yet another fuel island? 

We grew gigantic Korean tomatoes about here, and strawberries somewhere over there, and corn from here to there. The dog house was here.  

From the time I was six until my sophomore year in college we’d lived in a home my grandfather had bought from the Baptist church. At the time we were renting a house across the street from my grandfather’s house. The house he bought was a two-bedroom, one-bath sort of wreck sitting behind the church parsonage down the road a bit. They wanted it gone. My grandfather obliged for a paltry five-hundred dollars and arranged to have it moved on Halloween afternoon, 1975. 

I sometimes still smell that mix of horse manure and tomato vine in the summer air. 

©Larry Thacker

It fascinated me how an entire house could be dislodged from the earth and dragged two blocks, across a field I was accustomed to playing in, and parked on half of my grandfather’s garden plot he’d given us. That house was like a dryland ship creeping up the hill looking for some final port. We’d be his next door neighbor, right across a tiny road we called the alley. 

It needed so much work. My mother, father, and he would spend the next few years toiling on the house while we lived in it. It was home. The first dwelling our family owned. Behind us rested what remained of my grandfather’s garden, the barn he’d built in 1933 out of rail road ties, where he kept Smokey the horse we always called a pony. It was the perfect micro-farm in the middle of town.  

My grandfather found the World War I French bayonet hidden on a rafter here when he and my father were building onto the back of the house.  

When I say I grew up within this two-block area, I mean it. After school I’d pick up my newspapers from the Daily News which was located behind our home. Many of my customers lined these roads. I had an empire of yards I mowed regularly. I learned to be a kid in the big field behind our home. Learned to throw a football there, to fly a kite, throw Frisbee, taught our dog, Snoopy, to fetch. Played hide-and-seek there. My father timed me in the 40-yard dash there when timed trials were coming up during summer football practice. When a portion of the field was paved for a parking lot, my sister and I learned to drive there. When my parents bought the house my sister sold them (right next door to the house moved by my grandfather – a third house in a row on the same street, mind you) and began hosting annual 4th of July reunions, family members parked there and walked the few steps to the back yard where we’d barbeque, talk all evening, and wait for the city fireworks.      

I would begin my paper route here, then head down the alley, turn left, then hit Cumberland. Almost everyone had porches then. I liked that.     

I learned to plant and harvest a garden with my grandfather behind the house. Tomatoes, corn, green beans, cucumbers, peppers, strawberries. I was his “little buddy” when he made his rounds about town on errands. I learned so much of what I am today from just being around him. He died my freshmen year of high school. His house was sold. 

I hid here and shot my BB gun at the crows pecking at our corn. I never hit one, I don’t think. 

One by one the families and property owners agreed to fair market values for their pieces of the puzzle and reality started setting in. There were a few hold-outs at first, either against the idea of it all or for better money, but eventually, everyone agreed to sell off and move on – including my mother and father. I heard about much of what was happening from a distance. I’d moved on, two hours away to where I live now in Johnson City, Tennessee. 

From this spot I can see where seven generations of my family have lived since the 1770s. 

As deals closed, properties started emptying. Once the grocery corporation owned a property the former owners had X number of days to clean out. In fact, you could strip a property down to almost nothing, even having a sell off of the interior and exterior, leaving the property looking like locusts had striped the green from a field. They didn’t want your house, your trees, your flowers, your front porch, your furniture. Moving trucks appeared everywhere up and down the blocks. Plants and trees were dug up from the ground. Windows disappeared from houses. Piles of domestic junk, identifiable and not, accumulated along sidewalks. It was picked through like a dump. The police had to step up patrols to keep thieves out. This went on for months. 

I learned to drive a stick-shift over there. 

I’d visit home. Go to my parents’ place before their move. When the house was an upheaval, a mix of sudden late-life reprioritization, of unexpected optimism. The packing up process evident in every glance. Boxes sitting and stacked everywhere, empty, full, being filled. Drawers, the same. Trash bags filled with discards. Memories, reminders, everywhere, everywhere. 

My best friend, Kurry, and I were watching the lightning from here just a few minutes before the tornado of ’88 hit. It hopped over our house and went tearing up Cumberland Mountain. 

Our old street lined the outermost border, so right across the street was “safe,” depending on whom you asked. Those neighbors, many of them friends over decades, just watched. Some of them worried what the end result of all this mess would look like, how close the new build would be to their front doors. Some were jealous of who was getting to escape the old neighborhood. Some acted like they weren’t noticing. Others were simply entertained by the ruckus. 

A lady down the street had so many cats you could smell them from the sidewalk. 

My parents’ home was situated on the highest rise of the entire footprint in question. The deck my father built on the back of the house offered not only a sweeping view of town, but of this unfolding process. As more properties sold, the neglect set in. Sheer abandonment, even given unto an apocalyptic mood. It morphed with every visit I made. 

©Larry Thacker

Here is where my grandfather’s room was, here where I would stay on weekends when he was the sickest. 

As much as I tried to avoid dwelling on what was really happening back home, it gnawed on me constantly. Who knew what the final landscape would ultimately look like, but I suspected it meant an entire removal of what I knew as my physical space of upbringing. It would, indeed, eventually require that literal of an excision. My imagination just couldn’t do justice to how horrible it would be. I was glad to not live in tow, to watch it happening bit by bit every day. The occasional visit, the updates by phone or a photo, spared me the bleeding out of what I knew was gone one square foot at a time of “my old stomping grounds.” 

The handprints of my sister and me are here in the sidewalk concrete. 

My mother would call: Sew-n-Sew sold theirs yesterday. Those others are holding out still. You should see the mess down the alley right now. They clean out the Johnsons last weekend. They’ve moved over the mountain already. My father would call: Sew-n-Sew Salvage is coming in a few weeks, so you better tell me what you want before they strip this place down, son. You want any of these tools?   

I was mid-stream through my low-residency creative writing MFA at West Virginia Wesleyan College at this time. I took an entire semester to write only on what was happening to my home neighborhood. And while I may have been lamenting the demise of the map of my youth, the writing I found within was as much a chronical of those years as anything. I was bringing back memories I’d forgotten. Re-remembering in the loss. It was the only way a part of me managed getting through the idea of my helplessness amid it all.  

Here was the tallest banana tree my father ever grew – taller than the house. 

Once all the homes were sold and vacated, real change came, and quickly. The new building – eventually twice as large as the old one, which, by the way, wasn’t being torn down – required flat land. This part of town was a sweeping hill. Heavy equipment hung ’round for months leading up to this stage. With the homes absent of life, the mass destruction commenced.  The earth-moving started. Backhoes and bulldozers went to work knocking down houses, crunching it all down into a fine splintery mess enough to scoop up and haul away to some landfill. My mother witnessed her childhood home, built by her father in the early 1930s, laid waste. The house next door where I grew up was next, down in a day. Then the house my parents had just moved from. As if that wasn’t enough, several acres of topsoil, some of which my grandfather’s little garden plot contributed good ground to with all those years of horse manure, was scraped away carefully and hauled off to who knows where.

The weeping cherry tree grew just outside my bedroom window. My father brought a tiny limb to transplant here from Chicago. It’s two feet thick now.

It’s the rainy season. The bare earth is orange and tan, void of that dark and healthy soil, dotted with pocked-craters of little mud lakes like a World War I no-man’s land or an Agent Orange-poisoned field of fire you’d see in Vietnam War photos. I wonder if the scene reminds my father of that aesthetic. 

We’d catch the bus at the stop sign down at the intersection, visible from our front porch

A step further, the final stab into the heart of any lasting physical place within the land, is how the machinery dug dozens of feet down under where all our homes were in order to flatten the land and make ready a massive retaining wall. The back of the new building, its roofline eventually only at the height of our old road, will line up nearly perfectly along the old sidewalk. 

I can see the steeple of our church from the back yard. 

In other words, even the ground, for up to twenty feet deep under everywhere I wandered around as a child through adulthood, is removed. Carted off. Where my grandfather’s old barn stood is near the indoor Starbucks now. I stepped it off. Where his home stood is bisected by the very back wall of the new store, just like my old home and where my parents lived. 

©Larry Thacker

Where I ate Paw Paws off my grandfather’s trees. Carted off. Where we planted gardens. Where our dog, Snoopy, lived. The pony, Smokey. The field. So much of my old newspaper route. All the spots we’d Trick-Or-Treat. 

My kite always gets hung up in this one large tree down in the field. 

Yet how is all this any different than the family homeplace deserted when a coal company needs to blow the top off a mountain to get at that little seam of coal? Or how farms and towns are lost when a valley floods with water for a dam project? Or when the erosion of tides and storms eats away at the sandy ground under your family’s beach home? 

We lived in a rental across the street for a little while, but the day my mother saw the snake crawl across the kitchen floor was the day we moved out and back in with my grandfather. 

Two thoughts stay with me in my continued mulling of this experience: First, that our definition of place is a malleable thing; and second, that we ought to embrace an improved awareness of our feet on the ground more often. Place is so obviously varied among us. But we should wonder on what it means, not just try writing stories and poems with only a sense of place. I think we too often let place remain stationary when it, in fact, moves with us, too. What’s more, we should slow our lives enough to connect with the land and other natural elements. What anchors us. This helps feed our memories. Photographs and heirlooms are important. Family stories and songs, essential. But our grounding in the landscape feeds something mysterious within us. 

We should talk about this mystery of place. Like anything important to us and to our mutual culture, perhaps that which we assume is immoveable, can vanish.    

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You can find Larry on Twitter, @Thackalachia. Follow him, he likes to chat about writing, place, art, and large red clown noses.

3 Comments

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  1. Beautiful, poignant, direct and resonant statements, Larry — oh my! Your BB gun, the tornado tearing up Cumberland Mountain, the hand prints of you and your sister, you on your bike, and then these photographs!
    Intense and shocking . , . Brilliant! Good on you! -Devon

  2. That was very touching. There is so much about Middlesboro that I don’t ever want to forget. Thanks for your story. ❤️

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