Adventure and travel writing

You can Never Go Home Again, by Steve Van Bakel

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It’s been twenty-five years since I packed my bags and left home to join the army. I still remember the trepidation I felt about leaving my family, friends and the neighbourhood I grew up in to venture out on my own. I had no idea where life would take me once I left the city limit signs, but I was determined to spread my wings and seek out adventure that the small town of Oakville, Ontario couldn’t offer. Though I’ve seen a great deal of the world and have worked in jobs I never would have dream of when I left home, I still often think back to life in the old neighbourhood where carefree summers were spent hanging with friends and winters were spent playing hockey in the park or tobogganing at the local hill.


Recently, I took my ten-year-old daughter, Grace back to see the neighbourhood where I grew up. We have often talked about where I spent my childhood and Grace was excited to see firsthand the places she had heard me talk about, especially the supposed ten-mile route to and from school, which was uphill both ways. 


For me, this little adventure reminded me of the saying "You can never go home again." Because no matter much some things hadn't change, many other things had. And ultimately, though the area held many memories for me, it just wasn't the home I knew growing up there. But for Grace it was all new and this was an opportunity to see that her dad really had been a kid at one time.


We decided the best way to truly see and experience the old neighbourhood was to slow things down by walking the area as opposed to driving. Since my parents had also moved out of the neighbourhood, I hadn't been back to the area for close to fifteen years. The changes were pretty obvious as we drove in and saw that the community that was once at the edge of town was now buried deep in suburbia. The subdivision used to be reached by a winding country road the followed a deep gully on one side and farm fields on the other. This road offered some great thrills in my early years of driving, but it was now a nicely paved straight city street, lined on both sides with homes and strip malls. 


As we drove into the community of Sunningdale, I started pointing out the homes belonging to the friends I grew up with. The first thing I noticed was that the trees had gown exponentially sense my departure, and some places were hard to recognize because the vegetation was not well maintained. That got me wondering about how quickly the vegetation will reclaim the land once we are all gone. I think of the Mayan ruins in Palenque and how the first explorers who found them could only see the tops of the giant pyramids.


I was also surprised to see the legendary home built by a friend’s dad had burnt to the ground and was replaced with a modern infill. That house had started out as a small war-time bungalow but we often joked that our friend’s dad would add a new room every other weekend or so just for something to do. The last time I saw the house it was looking pretty haphazard on the outside but the inside was a maze of beautifully constructed rooms with intricate woodworking throughout. It was sad to see that all that work had ended in ashes.


We decided to park at the Sunningdale Public School, which was just a few minutes walk from each of the two places I lived in while growing up.


Directly in front of the school was Miller Road, the street that would be my stomping grounds for the first fourteen years of life. Walking down that road towards my first home, I was surprised that I was still able to recite the names of most of the neighbours on the street and a little story about each of them. As we walked, I told Grace about how I used to walk that same route to Cub Scouts when I was younger. She laughed when I told her how I was too proud to admit that I was scared and had to bolt home after Cub Scouts as darkness had settled in while we hung out in the school's gym. It was easy for her to laugh because it was daytime, and the dark shadows that loomed over my path home and concealed all the horrors of my nightmares, were now non-existent. 


As we got closer to the house I grew up in, I pointed out that the cedar fence I helped by dad build some forty years ago was still standing, despite all the times I climbed over it.  And the trees that we had planted at about the same time, were now massive which made me feel even older. We didn't want to disturb the current owners, but while standing in their driveway, we could see into the backyard and discovered that the playhouse my father had built for us was still there. I explained that this was the inspiration behind the playhouse that Grace now has in our backyard in Calgary. The house itself looked very much unchanged from the outside and I was very curious what had been done on the inside. I wondered if the extra-large bedroom in the basement, that I had claimed when I was four, was still being used. And I wondered if my signature, left in the rafters the day we moved out, could still be seen.


The street itself held many memories of a time when kids spent every waking moment hanging around the neighbourhood because there were no video games, and only limited television, to distract the youth from being outside. I told Grace about the elaborate ball hockey games that were played with all the kids in the neighbourhood and how they were only interrupted by the shout of "Car!" which meant the nets had to be momentarily moved to allow the car through. I showed Grace the curb I attempted to jump with my bike and was responsible for the light scar I still have on my knee. And we talked about one of my favourite pastimes, which was building and racing go-carts. At the time it seemed that every kid had a go-cart and we were always on the look out for wheels or scrap wood to build our carts.  There was never a shortage of kids willing to provide the manpower needed to race a friend down the street. However, the true test of go-cart quality was determined by the speed reached on the paved hill behind the school.


The park across the street was the next stop on our trip down memory lane and it also held many fond memories. Here, I learned to golf while using a putter to drive golf balls across the park, skate in the winter, and participate in team sports in the summer. I always remember one of the oldest kids always set up the teams fairly, ensuring not only that every kid got placed on a team, but also that they were given the opportunity to play. This is where I first encountered a big kid on my fourth birthday that asked to see my brand-new green squirt gun I received as a present, only to break it in half before sending it down the slide. I'm happy to say that big kid has been one of my closest friends for over four decades now and he still hasn't lived down the squirt gun incident. However, in all fairness, he did replace that squirt gun some thirty years later. 


Sadly, this park is now also remembered because one of the guys we grew up with decided to return there many years later to end his life. I can only assume he returned to the park because that was a place of peace for him.  A place with memories of a time of innocence, where life was easy and free of the burdens placed on us by adulthood. 

Next stop was the ravine lot down the street, which provide a background for so many childhood games and amusement. I showed Grace the great toboggan hill we used which had a lot less trees and seemed a whole lot higher when we were kids. I remember when they first put in the wooden stairs to make our climb back up the toboggan hill easier. Sadly, I also remember the harsh lesson I learned about splinters and sliding down wooden banisters. At the bottom of the toboggan hill we found the creek that still trickled through the ravine. The creek where we first master our engineering skill of building damns, and spent countless hours catching crayfish and minnows. 


The ravine also offered us one of many childhood battlefields where our arsenal was only limited by our imagination, ammunition never ran out and the worst real injuries were some cuts and bruises. As a child, these war games fostered our imaginations, encourage team play with the other neighbourhood kids, and got us so much exercise we were often asleep before our heads hit the pillow. Little did we know at that time that a few of us would later enlist in the real military, encounter real war zones, and lose fiends to real enemies. 


 As we headed back towards the school so we could check out the other home I grew up in, I began to wonder whatever happened to all those kids we grew up with. Of course, some of those kids remained friends, but there were may more that drifted in other directions. I have heard that a number of them passed tragically such as the handicapped boy on our street who was killed by a careless driver in a hit and run, or the playmate who was killed on a motorcycle shortly after getting his license.  But there are also happier stories like the one of the boy who chased his life long dream of flying. He ended up in the military flying fighter jets, then moved on to flying our Prime Minister around in his own personal jet before leaving the military behind to fly commercial planes in Dubai. I can only hope that the others kids have also gown and have had the chance to venture out to follow their dreams and find their own path in life. 


As we walked, I continued to disclose more childhood memories to Grace. I told her how my dislike for bagpipes were the result of laying in bed on hot summer nights unable to sleep because our neighbour insisted on marching up and down his driveway as he squeezed the life out of those poor pipes. I told her about our experiences on the Glen Abbey golf course and how we used to be called River Rats because we would hang out in the water hoping golfers would pay us for retrieving their golf balls that landed in the water traps. And how the security guards would chase us off the golf course during the Canadian Open, forcing us to watch from behind the fence deep in the trees. I showed Grace where as kids we had built a tree fort behind the school before they had turned those open fields into another subdivision. I also pointed out that we had good taste for location because when my parents decided to leave Miller Road, they bought a house built in the same location as our tree fort.


I wonder if our kids will one day look back with fond memories of the subdivisions they grew up in. Or has modern society taken away their freedom to roam the neighbourhoods out of fear for their safety? Likewise, has modern technology taken away their need to be outside making friends and using their imaginations to keep themselves entertained and active? I remember hearing my parents talk about how lucky we were to have all the things growing up that they didn’t have. We in turn want to give our kids everything that we didn’t have, but has that evolution reached a point where we’ve taken away children’s ability to experience a fun, active, stress-free childhood?  I think every generation ends up questioning the younger generations but somehow society continues to prosper. I am sure that one day my daughter will look back on her childhood and think the same thing while having the same concerns about the younger generation.