You Can't Go Home Again

Delta Winds cover 2014Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


You Can't Go Home Again

Chad Hammerback

I grew up in a small town of a thousand people in South Dakota. Nestled atop a bluff overlooking the Missouri River, it was a quiet and peaceful town. From the age of seven, I was free to run the streets with little to no trouble. And should I be the one causing the trouble, it was guaranteed that I would be chastised and set straight by someone in no time at all, regardless of who they were or if they even knew me, or I, them. All in all, it was a good place to grow up and, should one happen to leave, a good place to come back to when it was time to settle down.

We had everything we needed there. Nothing more, nothing less. All of the basic necessities were there: a grocery store, drug store, clothing store, bank, service station, newspaper, and a lumber yard. For entertainment, there was the bowling alley, parks, and the free swimming and boating in the river. We had the ever-present Tasty Treat for hamburgers, hot dogs, and ice cream cones, a café for the traditional "home-cooked" meals, and for fine dining, a steak and seafood joint at the marina. Primarily, it was a farming community, but we did have one factory, a private school for under-privileged Indian girls, a small state college, and several churches.

Community was everything and we took great pride in ours. Despite its small size, or perhaps because of it, there was always something to do in this little town, and the entire town usually turned out for whatever was taking place. There was football and basketball (both high school and college) in the fall and winter, Bingo at City Hall every Saturday night, and the city softball league just about every weeknight during the summer.

The 4th of July and Homecoming (which by some miracle of scheduling brought both high school and college alums on the same weekend) came complete with parades, carnivals, races, and competitions of all kinds. August brought the annual Farm Show to the college gymnasium for an entire week of farming, gardening, and building extravaganza. Then, there were the Christmas pageants at the churches, Christmas programs at the public school, and the county-wide Easter Cantata every spring. I couldn't even begin to count the number of potluck lunches or soup suppers thrown every year, nor the myriad reasons for the occasion of such. Last, but definitely not least, there was hunting and fishing all year long.

Yes, all in all, it was a very good life. One couldn't ask for a much better place to grow up. In fact, it is my opinion that any one of us could have spent our entire lives in that little town, never once stepping foot outside of it, without missing a thing at all.

But we all know that the only constant in life is change, and when it came, it came with a vengeance.

It all started when I was in the sixth grade. I was stoked because after that year, I would be in the massive three-story building attached to the elementary school where the middle- and high-school students were housed. Finally, I would be one of the "cool" kids! About halfway through the year, however, it was announced that the high school was being combined with the high schools of two other towns in the county. Our class sizes were too small for the communities to support on their own, and so, due to lack of funds, the high-school students would be bussed to the county seat where the composite school was to be located. Meanwhile, the middle-schoolers were kicked back to the elementary school building, where we were to be relegated to the two classrooms that were once the Art and Music Rooms. These rooms were moved to the basement of the old high school while the rest of the building was sealed off.

Two years later, our beloved governor, in all of his benevolent wisdom, announced that he was closing down the state college. It, too, was no longer profitable and had to go. After the massive uproar of disapproval, he offered to sell the college to whoever was willing to take it over for the unheard of price of $1. For Sale signs went up, and in protest, several of us kids stole all of them and placed them on the lawn of the grade school. There was another roar of protest until it was discovered just who it was that had had the audacity to pull such a prank. Instead of chastisement and rebuke, only sadness emerged from the town as the adults realized that, as young as we were, even we realized that our town was for sale to the lowest bidder. A few businessmen considered buying the college for various purposes, but in the end, no one came forward to save our college. It was shut down, and the state legislature turned it into a prison instead. How that was any more profitable than a college, I'll never know.

The gymnasium went with the college; apparently the prisoners had more need of it than the locals did. The loss of the gym also meant the loss of the annual Farm Show and the local National Guard unit. Both had utilized the gym, and the town had nowhere else to host either one.

The library was lost as well. Where we once had public access to a state-of-the-art college library with additional access to all of the other campus libraries throughout the state via a lending program, our new library became a 15' x 20' room in the basement of City Hall. The entirety of the college library was either divvied up with other campuses or retained for the sole use of the prisoners. Again, the prisoners apparently had more need and right to the educational opportunities of library materials than did the law-abiding citizens of our fair town.

We left town shortly after and moved to Nebraska, where I finished out high school. Sadly, the changes in my hometown were far from over, and tragedy continued to strike. Two years after the college closed, the school for Indian girls finally ran out of money. It had been unable to obtain sufficient donations to continue to run the school. This, too, was taken over by the state and turned into a school for delinquent boys.

Things settled down for a few years, but change wasn't finished ravaging our town. The local factory was eventually bought by a French company that promptly shut it down within a matter of days of the sale and moved the operation to Mexico. As the employees were working one day and laid off the next without notice, the supervisors and lead-employees were offered the caveat of a few extra weeks of pay if they were willing to go to Mexico to train the people that took their jobs. With this last fatal stroke, change had officially turned our town into nothing more than a dusty prison town.

At this point, many years have passed since I left my hometown. The population has dropped drastically from one thousand people to less than five hundred. All of the schools, with the exception of the elementary school, are gone, and in their place, prisons stand. The factory is gone. The National Guard unit and the Farm Show; the softball league and the Homecomings; the café, the restaurant, and the bowling alley. All gone. Everything that once made this town a happy and vibrant place is gone.

Even the hunting and fishing are gone. As farming has become less profitable, the local farming families, in order to survive, are saving the hunting and fishing rights to their private property for city-slickers. The city boys carry far more coin than the locals who tended to pay with a share of the take by way of open invitation to the end of season cookouts.

A few years ago, as I was passing through the area, I decided to go a bit out of my way to stop by and see my hometown again. I was devastated to discover that my hometown was gone. The town was still there; it was just not my town anymore. Instead of the vibrant town I grew up in, all I found was an emaciated skeleton of what once was. There was nothing left. Only the prison, with the hopes and dreams and the very soul of this little town jailed up inside, remained. As I walked through the town, I found that all my old haunts were just that . . . haunting memories of a time past. It saddened me to see that this place, which was once as energetic as I, had turned into this old, gray man dying a slow, cancerous death. I could only hope that as I walked those streets once again, it too remembered those days, and me, as fondly as I remembered it, and gave a little smile to see me once again.


Growing up in that little town, as with most kids from small towns, I couldn't wait to leave. I wanted out to see the world, make my name, and move to the city. Now, I yearn for that quiet little town that I loved so much. My soul cries out in anguish at the very thought of all that has been lost. For after living in cities on both coasts, and in several places in the Midwest, I have finally come to understand just what it was that that little town had offered me. It offered a simple life. A life where one could exist and just live. We worked hard, and we played even harder. And we enjoyed life and everything it had to offer, far away from the rat race of the world. As I have become older, I have come to appreciate that little town and the lessons it taught me, for it is those lessons more than any other that have made me the man that I am today. I can honestly say that I am proud of where I come from, and should any person ask, I stand tall and with much pride declare, "I come from Springfield, Sout' Dakota. It didn't offer much more than a good life. But THE Good Life it was."