Bringing back the Past

Nostalgia is a funny thing. Originally it was considered a disease, “a morbid homesickness producing derangement of mental and physical functions.” Today, it is more placid, “a bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past.” Quite different, but both consistent with its etymology, from Greek algos “pain, grief, distress” and nostos “homecoming.”

We have all viewed the past with some degree of nostalgia. We create an imaginary world that likely never existed, but one from which we derive our identity, at least the way we would like to see ourselves (more heroic and honest than we ever might be). The danger comes in trying to actually reclaim or relive that (imagined) past.

I have long since abandoned “that guy” (an airborne ranger cavalry officer that would one day be another Patton). He has been replaced by an older, less romantic version that sometimes forgets a conversation (not even yet finished) and often aches in places that didn’t hurt yesterday.

Yet, as I age (rather ungracefully), I do wish to visit places I have lived (if only to see how they have changed). Not long ago, my brother and I tried to find our grandmother’s house in Tampa. I had a vague recollection but discovered that many of the old cinder block ranch houses have been replaced by little “McMansions.” I do desire to return to Germany (a place I lived for ten years and from whence I graduated high school). I’d also like to visit those places in Czechoslovakia I observed across the fence when I patrolled the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. Not necessarily bucket list items, but trips I want to take. Perhaps it is a quixotic search for closure on unfinished parts of my life (the Road(s) Not Taken).

People are both easier and harder to reconnect with. More difficult because some have disappeared. A West Point roommate died of cancer mere years after we graduated. I was deployed and could not return for his funeral. I stayed in touch with his wife for a while, but she remarried and moved on with life, as did I. I had an engagement that broke off in a brief ten-minute phone call across the Atlantic when I was stationed in Europe. I never really understood “why?” and never will.

However, I did take advantage of a recent opportunity to link up with some old classmates. I almost did not for all the usual excuses (I was busy. It was a long way to go). I rationalized my reluctance. I don’t have a home place (filled with old friends) and none of these guys live within a six-hour drive of me now. But as I get older, the excuses lose some stature. There may not be many other occasions to see people that I once knew and who once meant so much. It was worth the effort.

One is as old a friend as I have. Kevin and I went to high school and West Point together. Served together. Taught together. And lived together (long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away). Two of our other classmates were making an epic journey, biking across the country. We would meet up with them. Kevin would join them biking for several days, and I would be the support (I know…wimp).

We met up in New Orleans. Barb and I got to visit Café’ du Mond, a place my family would go for beignets after church when I lived there as a kid (Yeah, as an Army Brat I lived lots of places…hence no home). We also linked up with a Naval Academy guy who played soccer with us for one season when he was on an exchange program. We had not seen Joe in over forty years. Yet, it was like yesterday, regaling each other of past adventures (some remembered, some not). Perhaps nostalgia (although none of us had a desire to return to that past), but more a shared intense experience that gave us linkages spanning the decades. I felt comfortable with them all.

Four of us left New Orleans headed east. For three days we were reminded of who we were and discovered who we had become. Kevin took some wear and tear and joined me in the support vehicle. The protagonists (Keith and Dave) persevered, putting in their usual sixty miles a day. We ate lunches together, occasionally biked together and spent the evenings chatting over dinner and camping. It was a wonderful experience.

On the way home, I stopped at another classmate’s home in Atlanta. Alex and I had been roommates and running buddies in our (sometimes misspent) youth. We each took our separate paths. He ended up there and I landed here. Through the a group text and social media we had remained “in touch,” but there is nothing like a steak dinner and a nightcap to re-cement a friendship.

There’s an old adage, also the title of a 1940 Thomas Wolfe novel, that states, “You can never go home again.” True enough. Nostalgia can cause us to view the past in an excessively positive light. Like a snapshot, we freeze the frame, capturing people and places as they were. It can also be an impediment to personal progress. Ultimately, we must see and accept the world for what it really is.

I was happy to get home (I missed my wife and the dogs). But the experience was cathartic. People and places pass through our lives (sometimes fleeting sometimes more permanently). Those experiences are real. We should hold them close but keep them in perspective. They belong in that special place in our hearts that holds the treasures we have accumulated on our life’s journey. They have helped shape us, but they do not define who we are today.

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