Four young native sons of the hometown came back just long enough to help bury their dead. During two funerals I couldn’t help but look on and wonder.
The young people now looked so grown up, so poised, confident, talented. And I thought how I miss them.
One retired from the military and, instead of returning to the hometown, settled into business in his wife’s hometown, in Arizona. Reasonable enough. But what if, I wished, he would’ve come back here?
His kid brother did stay home but saw his retail employer close the doors. The onetime department manager took big brother up on a job offer out West with him. Eventually the whole family ripped up their hometown roots and settled out there.
A third graduated from a university and, though a family business beckoned here, she chose a career in New York City. Her kid brother still is at a university. I await to see what he does.
Four fine young people. Why did we lose them or likely will? What could have attracted them back home to enrich our town and our lives?
One of my favorite fellow newspaper columnists is based not in New York City or Washington, D.C. Instead, David Cook is based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He left newspapering some time back to teach in high school. But he continues to write a weekly hometown column (sound familiar?) for the Sunday ‘paper there that I check regularly.
Cook is far-out leftist. A social-justice warrior. Sometimes aggravating. And deserving attention because he has his finger firmly on the pulse of his hometown.
The Chattanooga columnist is not a poster boy for the chamber of commerce. With a bent toward the plight of the poor and dispossessed, he tells it like it is. He points out the dirt and the pain and the wounds and the scars in the picturesque city on the Tennessee River across the mountain, sometimes to the discomfort of city leaders.
For instance, Cook’s year’s-end column in December threw some cold water on Chattanooga’s tourism promotion accomplishments in 2017, such as the opening of a new, swanky downtown hotel, a park renovation and new bike lanes.
“Cities aren’t meant to be marketed,” Cook groused. “The purpose of a city isn’t tourism. It’s to provide life and health to its citizens. In the bidding war for shiny, happy people — that’s what tourism is — city government diverges from its real purpose, which is not … ‘sales.’“
I think back to Light Up Night in Elkin in December. During the Façade Park dedication the mayor gave a little speech during which he hailed the area’s celebrated tourism economy.
“We’ve gone from a manufacturing base to a hospitality base,” Mayor Sam Bishop said, “and that’s what we’re going to be doing here in Elkin.”
Manufacturing defined Elkin in the 20th Century. Manufacturing made Elkin. We were in essence a mill town.
But the big, family-owned Chatham textile-mill operation collapsed in 1992. Chatham jobs, Chatham careers, Chatham lifestyles for the most part evaporated, were short-circuited or never started.
The mill didn’t pay well but at least did pay, and its jobs served as a safety net for people who grasped for a reason, any reason, to stay home even if greener pastures beckoned elsewhere.
Our 21st Century tourism economy — highlighted by the vineyard industry and heavily promoted by government, chambers of commerce and local and state media — is much welcomed and appreciated. Some fine people from other places have found their way here and made businesses, careers, families and fine lives. Good for them.
But then there are others who found no opportunity here and left. Our 21st Century tourism economy could not hold them. We’re poorer for the losses.
Some say those good ol’ mill jobs are never coming back. A new administration in Washington is attempting to win them back. We await to see how that goes.
Excuse me while I throw some cold water: a 21st Century tourism economy never will fill the shoes of our old manufacturing essence. We will never be Las Vegas, Orlando or Myrtle Beach.
It’s time to take a second, fresh look at reviving and promoting our manufacturing essence.
On a personal note: In the eighth grade one of my best buddies stabbed me with the point of his lead pencil. It was an accident and he said he was sorry. Oddly, the black pencil mark from Marion Byrd remained near my right wrist, and I’ve carried his mark in my flesh for nearly 50 years. Marion, of Roaring River, died Feb. 1, but I will continue to carry his mark as well as many good memories of a good friend. RIP.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.