May 22, 2015
My last significant trip to Hamburg, in 1987, had been bittersweet — my brother, sister-in-law, and I visited for about a week to help my dad pack and get ready for his move to Altoona, Pennsylvania. Worried about becoming less independent, he wanted to be closer to his sisters and other family members, which I thought was wise. My connection to the familiar, already weakened by distance, time, and events, was about to be severed, which weighed on me even during a gloriously sunny, colorful week in early October. I didn’t want to let go, but had no choice. I had returned once that I remember, in 1999 for a high school reunion, but didn’t see much beyond the banquet room.
In the years since then, sometimes I’ve dreamed about my hometown. Most of these dreams have been the garden-variety “I’m in high school again and can’t find my locker/locker combination/class/schedule” expressions of stress.
A couple, however, stood out. In them, I had returned to Hamburg to discover that the familiar had become the strange, or at least dominated by it. In one, a roadside had been transformed into the unrecognizable in some undefinable but palpable way. In another, narrow, high houses dominated the sky where the woods behind our trailer used to be, with the magic valley in those woods that I used to dream of obliterated by a reality that I saw in a dream.
I digress. When we’d driven along Route 20 the night before on the way to Sharon’s Lakehouse, I’d been struck by how familiar the way seemed, even in the dark, even with whatever changes there had been. It’s not that Route 20 south of Amsdell Road looks radically different from any other place. It is, however, different from most of the parts of Illinois I’ve seen. It’s more wooded along the roadside, with a house, cluster of houses, or small business breaking up the darkness of the trees. The front yards are deep, some filled with older trees. The lights inside peer into the darkness, but mostly don’t overwhelm it. In Illinois, the area that comes closest were parts of the way between Harrisburg and Golconda in the Shawnee National Forest. The southern part of western New York isn’t as open or flat as the central part of Illinois, nor nearly as densely populated as northern Illinois around Chicago. I relaxed into the familiar comfortable place that I’d been missing and reshaping in my dreams.
Our first day, to be devoted to exploring the Hamburg area (I was deciding this as I went) dawned as sunny, comfortable, and perfect as I could want, with just a bit of extra wind to keep Lake Erie choppy.
After checking out the lake view and the Steel Winds wind turbines, and eating a gourmet breakfast in the company of our hosts and a fellow guest, we picked up my school friend BL. Her mother, my former 6th grade English teacher, looked great, and I told her so. “You’re still lying!” she said, feigning (I hope) a tone of disgust. “Still?” I said in disbelief. We were told BL was hopped up on Tim Horton’s coffee and to keep her out as long as possible.
I didn’t know where to begin, but I had J. take us to Pleasant Avenue and to the dead end where it’s cut off by I90, aka the New York State Thruway. I used to ride my bike here to sit among the trees and weeds. Somewhere I have a photo of my old Huffy Superstar parked in the road, among the light and shadows.
I’m not sure I remember the order of where we went or stoppped, but here’s the list:
- The Centennial Art Center of Hamburg in an former little red schoolhouse on Pleasant Avenue (which really is pleasant)
- South Creek Road overlooking Eighteen Mile Creek
- First Baptist Church of Hamburg, where the outside looks the same
- Comfort Zone Café, where BL informed me that one can’t drink coffee without some kind of treat
- Braymiller’s Lanes (1942)
- The Palace (showing Tomorrowland, which is what all the old-style town theaters seemed to have on tap that week)
- Hamburg Optical, which has more staying power than I’d have expected
- Amsdell Middle School (formerly junior high), Frontier Central High School, and Cloverbank Elementary School
- Red Top Charcoal-Broiled Hot Dogs (take that, Chicago)
- Ford Stamping Plant, my dad’s workplace for about 27 years
- Tony’s Bayview Drive-In for Perry’s Ice Cream (formerly known as Jim’s and an occasional stop for us when my dad went to the UAW union hall that was next door)
- The Lake Shore Branch of the Hamburg Public Library just before closing, which, incredibly, smells just like it did in 1979
- The train siding in Hamburg near where the feed store used to be (I didn’t have a chance to see if it’s still there)
- Hamburg Trailer Park, formerly Frank’s, which has changed dramatically. Neither BL nor I could tell where my old trailer used to be, partly because the road has been shifted over, and the trailers are further out from the woods
- Lakeside Memorial Park, which I remember as a peaceful spot punctuated at night by lonely-sounding train whistles demonstrating the Doppler effect. A sign by the tracks notes that trains don’t blow their whistles anymore. BL spotted an unusual name near the road. It proved to be the family grave of a classmate who was killed in car accident in 1983. She is there, with an old-style nurse’s cap to mark the profession she was so new to.
- The other part of Pleasant Avenue, away from town, which was new to BL. We saw an election sign for our former music teacher, who’s running for the school board. We knew him in his late 20s, maybe early 30s, when his passion was John Denver music. I don’t like to think of his age now.
We took BL home perhaps a little less hopped up on coffee and visited a little more with her and her mother, sister, and brother-in-law. Oddly, even with as much time as I’d spent there during my teen years, I might not have recognized the house or the yard.
They gave us some dining options, so after checking out the sunset over Lake Erie we ended up at Uncle Joe’s Diner on Route 29 near Seoules Road. J. was able to get a version of a local favorite, beef on weck. I can’t be sure I’ve ever tried it myself. After that I was ready to relax and reflect on my rediscovered love of creeks, which I’d known about all along.