Twenty years ago or so, I was listening to the song "My Hometown" and thinking, "Oh how sad ... my town is a little like this, too." I was a teen, desperately wanting to get out of my hometown, and wondering what it would be like after I was gone. I never imagined moving back here permanently, but I did, 15 years ago. It's not a sad thing, necessarily. But the hometown where I live in 2007 is not the hometown I left in 1987 (and returned to in 1992).
There was one incident that shattered the idyllic nature of small-town life as most locals had known it: the Tammy Haynes murder. Tammy Haynes was a teenager who literally lived within shouting distance of our house (if I remember, it was the next street over, not too far from my church). In December 1973, she was kidnapped from a nearby laundromat, and later raped and murdered. I was 4 years old, and I remember the town being absolutely stunned; NOTHING like this had ever happened before! Not here! This is our town; we watch for our own. How could this have happened on our watch?
You can best believe that every girl of my generation heard this phrase a million times: "You be careful going out! You remember what happened to Tammy Haynes, don't you?" When I went away to college, my mother admonished me about my laundry: "You be careful -- Tammy Haynes was kidnapped at a laundromat, you know!" I shook my head and said, "Mother, poor Tammy Haynes will never rest in peace as long as the mothers of (hometown) keep reminding us of it! I will be fine. I promise." I used a laundromat for years and nothing remotely scary happened. The fact that it was fully staffed at all times helped a lot with that -- and that an officer stopped in regularly. But I digress.....
In spite of poor Tammy's sad tale, we still gallavanted all over town in broad daylight, with no fear of being kidnapped, picked up, or anything else. One of my best friends and I would walk to the Speedy Mart (about 2 blocks away and crossing a US Highway) to buy nickel candy. Or we'd walk about 4 blocks out to Mr. Owens' store for Astro-Pops (and if anyone remembers those concoctions, God love you!). I rode my bike around the neighborhood until it was dark. I walked home from high school, and occasionally accepted rides from neighbors or other students. Even with the whole Tammy Haynes thing looming in our town's collective past, we all felt safe with each other.
If I had a child growing up here now, there is no way in hell I'd let him or her walk home from school, be out past suppertime, or walk to the convenience store. My hometown has changed for both good and bad. Even my neighborhood is not what it used to be. When I was a kid, it was working/middle-class folks living here in some older homes. Half of them are rentals now and attract a slightly less affluent crowd. Not that there's anything wrong with that... please don't take it that way.
I know almost none of my neighbors -- as a kid, the entire neighborhood lived by "mi casa, su casa." To get to my mom's best friend's house, I'd cut through 2 backyards, and no one ever thought anything of it -- because we all knew each other, and they all knew I was on my way to L's house. No big deal. We played in each other's backyards, and one house in particular was the neighborhood gathering spot (my next-door neighbor's). She was another grandmother to us all. The last time I went to L's house (to offer my condolences to her family upon her death), I walked along the street. My initial impulse was to walk through those yards again, but the neighbors are all different now..... it was sad.
What keeps me here (besides purely economic reasons)? I don't truly know. I know that if given the opportunity, I would still live somewhere in this area ... this is home. My roots here run deep. My families (maternal and paternal) settled in various portions of the Upstate generations ago and did not leave. There's something about this place they loved enough to stay -- and I feel the same way.