Thomas Wolfe, the early 20th century author responsible for novels including Look Homeward Angel and You Can’t Go Home Again, got it wrong.
Reno, Nevada is my home town. I wasn’t born there but my family moved there when a few months before my second birthday. I went to elementary, junior high, high school and college there. I made my first friends there, kissed my first girl there, dragged Main with my buddies for the first time there, got drunk for the first time there, proudly earned my first paycheck there, sheepishly accepted my first traffic ticket there and amazingly became a father for the first time there.
My parents were employed there, then started their own business and employed other people there. They had homes in and around Reno for more than fifty years and our family still has business interests in “The Biggest Little City in the World”. I arrived there in 1957 and left for good in 1983. Life, work, and nostalgia brought me back several times in the more than 30 years between then and now; the last time just this week.
Reno, in the 60’s and 70’s was a great place to grow up. The sky above and the water in the Truckee River, which runs right through the center of town, was crisp and clear and clean. We walked, or rode our bikes, to school, stores, friends and parks. We played outside until, and sometimes, long past dark. You could hop in a car and be at noon and have lunch at Lake Tahoe, then dinner in San Francisco. Gambling was legal and so was prostitution (not that I partook in either as a lad) and there were many days when we would go skiing in the morning then tee it up for 18 holes of golf in the afternoon.
We saw Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Sammy Davis, Jr., Debbie Reynolds, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Diana Ross, Olivia Newton-John, Alan Sherman, Bob Newhart, and so, so many more on showroom stages in casinos around town. We could get steak and eggs for 99 cents as well as a chili cheese omelets at 3 o’clock in the morning. People said please and thank you, hello and goodbye and more often than not they did it with a smile on their face.
I was going to be back in Reno for a couple of days. Our family started and helps fund the Lee D. and Virginia D. Hirshland Scholarship at the University of Nevada. Al Stavitsky, the Dean and Fred Smith Chair at the Reynolds School of Journalism on campus, was kind enough to facilitate a visit for me with Professor Patrick Fine’s class examining the history of broadcasting. I had personal experience with the subject matter. My parents were part of television history in Reno starting, then managing, KTVN-TV Channel 2 the third network affiliate station in town. I worked there before landing jobs with a national production company and two sports cable networks. I wrote a book about my parents and my life in television and shared some of those stories with the students. Visiting with the dean and the students was exhilarating and enlightening. While it was the reason for the visit it in no way took up all of my time. So I took a trip down memory lane.
I drove by two of our old homes, houses in which our family lived for the majority of time while I was growing up. I stopped at one, rolled down the window of my rental and snapped a photo. Memories flooded back. Christmas eve’s, wrestling matches on the living room floor, racing upstairs to grab the tweezers for my dad while he sat in his favorite chair and timed both of my brothers and me. Family dinners, playing football and baseball in the front yard that then seemed so expansive and now looked so small. As I reminisced the front door to the house opened and two young men emerged. There I sat, in a ruby-red, rented, Chevy Impala, taking pictures of their home. I waved and started to drive away then stopped, parked and got out of the car. I wanted to let them know I wasn’t some weirdo; that I actually grew up in this house, and I did. They were friendly and in understanding and mentioned they were just renting the place. We shook hands and said goodbye and I drove on past the Mortensen’s house and the Garfinkle’s place and the place down the block that gave out nickels on Halloween.
My next stop was the house in which we lived while I was in High School and beyond. It looked mostly the same although the sport court on the side of the house was now a parking space for a recreational vehicle. More memories; this time they included the time I drove home drunk and woke up with my Camaro parked halfway in the street and halfway on the lawn. That was no Bueno and my folks told me so in no uncertain terms. Happier memories included my dad surprising my mom with a new car, with a big bow on top, that he had somehow managed to park in the garage between the time we went to bed then woke up on Christmas morning. No body came out of the house this time and I drove on.
I went past Jessie Beck Elementary, which still seeks to educate Reno’s youth, and the site which once was home to B. D. Billinghurst Junior High, which no longer does. I went to Reno High School (proud to be part of the class of 1973), parked the car and headed inside. In my hand I held the two books I have written (I added a novel, Big Flies, to my resume this year) with the hopes that my alma mater would include them in the school library. I went to the office, signed in, received a hall pass, and headed to where the books were kept. I met Barbara Whiteley, the librarian, and told her my story. She accepted the books with enthusiasm then showed me around. We stopped at a shelf that housed the schools yearbooks and I grabbed a copy of the Re-Wa-Ne from 1973. There was Dave Hill and Joe Bradley, Rich Jameson, Mark Rose and Scott Russell, Cathy Poncia, Tom Casazza, Joni Churchfield and other familiar names and faces. Great people, good times I thought and meant it.
From there I went to the Washoe County Golf Course, where I spent too much time as a kid and the Washoe County Library where I spent too little time. I stopped by Sundance Music and Books and was thrilled to see Big Flies upstairs on the shelves of the “Mystery and Suspense” section. At my downtown Reno hotel I ran into Glenn Carano. He, along with his twin brother Gene, and I were classmates at Billinghurst Junior High. After that I went to Reno High while they went to arch-rival Wooster where Glenn became an all-state athlete. He went on to play quarterback at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL. We caught up, as much as you can in a hotel lobby, said how great it was to see each other, and it was, and then I was off again to see some more old friends.
It was a small group of former KTVN employees who had reconnected mostly thanks to the wonders of Facebook. Men who I owed a great deal, had for whom I reserve a special fondness and a great deal of respect. We met for a drink at Louie’s Basque Corner, a legendary Reno eatery that was going strong when I was a kid and is still going strong decades later. Six people tied together by a common thread. Six men who shared much more than a simple place of employment. One thanked me for the mini-reunion saying that “I was the only one that could have dragged this group out on a Wednesday night.” While I appreciated the sentiment I knew deep down it wasn’t true. I wasn’t the impetus, it was the memory of and the respect for my mom and dad. But I was more than willing and happy to be the conduit.
As I look back I am struck by how little some things had changed and how different other things were. Earlier I mentioned chili cheese omelets; that pace that served them at all hours of the day and night was an eight seat diner on Virginia Street called Landrum’s. It’s still there but now it’s called Beefy’s and I have no idea what the menu is or if anyone goes there at 3 AM. Downtown has changed but the Truckee River that runs through it is as beautiful as ever. Billinghurst is gone but Jessie Beck and Reno High are still there educating the future leaders of our state, the nation and quite possibly the world.
As I headed for the airport I couldn’t help but smile. I thought You can go home again, you just have to have an open mind about the remodel.