Getting My Griswold On – Day 9: A Homecoming

Miles traveled today: 67.4
Total miles traveled: 3123.8

You Can Go Home Again

I set out on this big adventure because of an overwhelming curiosity about the places I grew up. A lot of people spend their whole lives in the same area, but in my case, I moved every three years or so. Because of this, the things I associate with my childhood seemed distant and, in fact, almost nonexistent. I lived in Dayton once, but that was a long time ago. The only thing I had left were memories. I would dream of the home I lived in here often, always magically transported back to 1979 in my mind, but I had no idea if it even actually existed anymore. I found it on Google Earth a couple of weeks ago, but even then, I wondered if the image was outdated. Coming back here was taking a big gamble: even if the house still stood, could it ever possibly live up to its mythical status in my mind? Could any of this area? Therefore, when I left my motel room around 9 AM this morning, I was a little nervous. This was an honest-to-God homecoming, one I had dreamed of forever. Turning onto my old street, my heart started racing. And then suddenly, there it was.

My house in 1979.
My house today.

The siding was different, of course. The tree in the front yard was taller (or a different tree). But otherwise, the house looked pretty much the same as it did when I last saw it 31 years ago. Thirty-one years! I’ve lived a couple of lifetimes since then. The neighborhood has changed. Two other duplexes in the court have been torn down, replaced by trees. The big, empty field we used to play in is now fenced off and, apparently, a landfill. I headed in the direction of my youth – the little patch of forest we always affectionately called The Woods. It was still there, thankfully. And – wonder of wonders – the steep hill we used to ride our bikes down or go sledding on, tucked beneath the tall trees (the very same ones that towered over a much younger version of myself), was still there. I hiked down it and walked around for a bit. There was a creek we used to play in. That’s still there, too. Only it’s also fenced off. I was irritated by this at first, until I realized that it’s a good thing – they’re protecting the trees and the stream for future generations. I can live with that. It was amazing, to be retracing my footsteps from several decades ago. The entire time, I was in a state of disbelief. I couldn’t believe I was really there, in the happiest place of my childhood.

I walked around the neighborhood, and then, back to the house. My house. It’ll always be my house. There was a car in the driveway, so I figured somebody was home. I grabbed the photo album I’d brought along – pictures of me and my brother and the house, circa 1977 – and rang the doorbell. Dogs barked. Nobody answered. I tried again. Nothing. So I left a business card with my phone number and a brief note, saying I lived there once and would love to chat. I tucked it in the screen door, but nobody called back. I explored some more. When I returned to my car, a woman was just pulling out of the driveway. So, she had been home! I let her go without trying to flag her down, though. I can imagine it must be creepy to have a stranger knocking on your door insistently. I always figured the odds of anybody letting me in, or even being home for that matter, were slim. Oh well, I tried. I was giddy enough just seeing the house from the outside. Walking around to the backyard. Remembering. I did a lot of remembering today.

And then, it was time to check out my old elementary school.

Chasing Ghosts

This whole trip, I’ve felt like I was chasing ghosts from my past. I knew, through a bit of internet sleuthing, that my elementary school in Fairborn had been turned into a senior apartment complex at some point. When I turned onto Central Avenue this morning and spotted the hulking brick building – so historic and old and recognizable – I literally gasped out loud. There it was! My old school!

I parked the car and walked over to it. Met up with a kind lady who happens to work as a secretary there. I told her I’d gone to school here in the 70s, and she said she had also gone there, though well before me. She thought it was ironic that she worked in a building she had always considered “creepy.” And then, even though she had no idea I have a strong interest in the paranormal, she started telling me about a ghost that wanders the halls of the place at night. An old woman, she claims. She has seen the apparition herself, and many others report it. Wow…my old school is haunted!

I walked through the front doors and wandered the hallways. It is so obvious that the place was once a school – there are signs everywhere: lockers in the hall, an auditorium with bleachers, custodial closets, boys’ and girls’ bathrooms. Only, the classroom doors have been replaced with solid wooden doors that now house elderly residents. I saw a couple, struck up a conversation with one. Everybody there was friendly and thought it was great that I’d returned to my old school. My story, it turns out, intrigues most who hear it.

I left the school, and drove into downtown Fairborn, where I wandered around for a bit. It’s a cute, historic-looking downtown. Dayton and its suburbs are very proud of their heritage and link to the Wright Brothers, and this is evident everywhere. Literally, on every street corner in Fairborn.

Next, it was time to visit one of my favorite places in Dayton: Carillon Park.

The Wright Stuff

Carillon Historical Park is a charming step back in time. The main attraction – a 57-bell carillon – is one of Dayton’s most recognizable landmarks, and chimes every 15 minutes. After paying an $8 admission fee, I wandered through the park, which includes attractions like a one-room schoolhouse; Newcomb’s Tavern – the oldest building in Dayton; a printing shop; a bicycle museum (Wilbur and Orville Wright owned a bike shop before they began designing airplanes); and a transportation museum, with everything from stage coaches to trains and buses. The highlight is a recreation of the Wright Brothers bicycle shop and an exhibit devoted to their passion for flying, including the Wright Flyer III, the actual plane they used on their first successful flight in 1903. It’s pretty amazing to see. I toured the park for a couple of hours, and stopped for a Sprite. It was hot, in the upper 80s, and I am not used to being so thirsty all the time! I left the park and drove through downtown Dayton for awhile, eventually finding a bike path with a photo opportunity to capture the Dayton skyline.

I wandered back to Fairborn and stopped for dinner. No fewer than two friends from this area told me I had to check out a place called Skyline Chili, which serves “Cincinnati-style” chili. I was told this has a sweet kick to it, kind of like cinnamon, and the description was right on. I was advised to order the house specialty, the “Three Way,” which is spaghetti covered in their chili and topped with cheese. I did just that, adding onions, and it was really good! I bought a 4-pack of chili (they sell it in cans) to take home, and bought a bottle of hot sauce for my friend Erik, who promised me a home-cooked dinner in return.

I am now back in my motel room – or actually, the Bob Evans parking lot – trying to wrap up this post. Tomorrow I begin my trek back home. I’m sad about that; it’s hard to believe I’ve reached the end of my journey. One of my friends commented that she wishes I could keep going, because she feels like she’s watching a reality show with my daily updates. I wish I could, too. Life on the road isn’t all roses, but it’s been fun, and if I could keep going, I would. But reality is intruding, and I must start my journey home. I may take an extra day to get there; my parents are dubious I can cover that much ground in three days, and are willing to watch the kids should I get in a day later than planned. I’m playing it by ear. Tomorrow is going to be a crappy traveling day; a heat wave is about to grip the midwest, and my destination in Missouri is predicting a high of 99 with a heat index of 108. Yikes.

Me in front of my old house!
My old school - now a haunted senior apartment complex. Cool!
You can still see evidence that the senior complex was once a school everywhere.
Street lamps in Fairborn are decorated with airplanes.
Downtown Fairborn, OH
Historical Carillon Park in Dayton.
Wright Bros. Cycle Shop in Historical Carillon Park.
The Wright Flyer III - Wilbur Wright made the first successful manned aeroplane flight on (in?) this plane in 1903.
Downtown Dayton along the banks of the Miami River.
There are 57 bells in the carillon, and it chimes every 15 minutes.
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22 thoughts on “Getting My Griswold On – Day 9: A Homecoming

    1. Mark Petruska says:

      I guess, being from Kentucky, you’d be familiar with Cincinnati-style chili. I was quite impressed myself! I say, take the trip. You only live once, and I don’t have a single regret.

      Like

  1. aka gringita says:

    I don’t want to freak you out or anything, since we have the split-high school thing in common… but my elementary school was converted into a retirement home too. Weird, right?

    Sorry you can’t keep heading east, but safe journeys home… and I hope you’ll take us on more roadtrips in the future!

    Like

  2. Ron says:

    Mark, I actually got very emotional reading this post.

    One, because I’m so happy for you that you made this journey and got to go back to your hometown. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

    And two, because I did the same thing when I first moved back east. I returned to my old home, grammar and high school, my first place of employment, and I could remember how I felt then while reading this post. Therefore, I could truly indentify with all your feelings.

    ” I was a little nervous. This was an honest-to-God homecoming, one I had dreamed of forever. Turning onto my old street, my heart started racing. And then suddenly, there it was….”

    Yup…I felt the same way!

    Great photos! Love the one of your high school – what a great-looking building. Mine looked nothing like that. Mine looked more like a prison center for the Joan Crawford School of Discipline – HA!

    Anyway, I’ve rambled enough. Have a safe and happy journey back, buddy!

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  3. Tracy says:

    Oh how I would love to travel to some of the places that are just in my memories right now. I keep on saying “someday” and I think I may just have to do it and not think too much about it. I’m happy for you Mark and this trek that you have been on. It’s been a very enjoyable journey to take with you and for that I am eternally grateful that you shared it with us.

    I thought about you today while I was at the EMP and the Nirvana exhibit. Yeah…I knew I would get that reaction from you. It is certainly worth the money to go see it. Just so you know.

    Stay safe my friend!

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    1. Mark Petruska says:

      If I hadn’t gone on this trip, I’d have been up to Seattle to visit the exhibit this week. Good thing it’s going to be there for another year (or is it two?) – there’s plenty of summer left, and now that my appetite for travel has been stoked, Seattle is a no-brainer.

      Like

  4. Jess Witkins says:

    Wow, your school looks awesome. And it’s haunted too. So jealous. I went to Catholic school, 2nd and 3rd grade were in a portable building, that is until the racoons got in…

    So, anyway, glad your trip back home was a meaningful one and most of your old time jaunts were still there! Keep safe!

    Like

  5. Mikalee Byerman says:

    I have to admit: creepy stranger insistently knocking on my door + creepy stranger taking self-pix in my driveway = I’M NOT ANSWERING THE DOOR EITHER!

    But you’re not creepy. I’d answer the door for you, my blogging friend. 😉

    Fun story, and what a cool use for an old school. My dad grew up around Dayton — he never told me what a charming place it is!

    Thank you for sharing…

    Like

  6. The Edmonton Tourist says:

    What a charming town! I so happy for you 🙂 I don’t think you tried hard enough being creepy. You were too considerate. I would have chased her down and demanded she let me in, then I would have had free accomodation at the local holding cell! I am loving your trip!!

    Like

  7. Renee Davies says:

    I remember driving by the old house I grew up in when I went back to my hometown. It was never as lovely as what my memory remembered. I find it interesting that you went back to your hometown and retraced your childhood steps, so to speak. I wonder if it will satisfy something in you. Going back discouraged me a little because my thoughts were grander than reality.

    Like

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