Some people have that one place they call home. They spend their entire lives there. They know everybody and everybody knows them. Part of me has always envied those people. With so much uncertainty in life, they have one less thing to worry about. That must be nice.
Others are like me. Life sent us off to chase dreams in faraway locales. Since leaving Maryland forty years ago, I’ve lived in ten communities. The smallest was Clarksville, Missouri, population 400. The largest was Kansas City. Each had its own uniquenesses and peccadilloes. But for me, each, while wonderful in its own way, fell short of feeling like home.
Except one - Perryville, Missouri.
You might have heard that Perryville was hit by a tornado last night. At least one person lost their life. Homes were blown away, including those of some long-time friends.
But you know something? Perryville will bounce back. I’m as certain of that as I can be of anything, because I know the people of Perryville. They care about each other.
I know that because, in 1982, I moved to Perryville. I knew nobody – zilch. The house I lived in was large, and I didn’t have enough furniture to fill it. I also didn’t have a refrigerator or stove. For the first six weeks, I got by with a Styrofoam cooler and a camp stove that blew the circuits every time I turned it on.
I didn’t have much money, either. I arrived in late-July and discovered it would be September before I received a paycheck. It was going to be a stretch, making it two months on what seemed like pocket change. Then, one morning I found a pot of soup on my front step. Ground beef vegetable. No name or any way to identify who left it. More soup appeared a week later. And the week after that.
Then, I heard about something called the Seminary Picnic. “You ought to go,” people said. Why in the world would I want to go to a seminary picnic? The name conjured up images of nuns eating deviled eggs under a tree. But you know what? I went. Arriving at the picnic grounds, I was greeted by a sign. Beer Garden – Left, Food – Right. Beer at a seminary picnic? A large tent advertised something called kettle-cooked beef. The price was cheap, so I went in. When the ladies in charge discovered I’d never heard of kettle beef, they loaded me down. Several helpings and a large pot to take with me. Despite having almost no money, I found myself gaining weight in Perryville, Missouri.
Over the next decade, Perryville became home. Teachers were held in particularly high regard. I grew sad every spring when school was about to dismiss for the summer. I taught juniors and seniors, and it would be the last time I got to spend with many of them. They called me Mr. Woo or just Woo. It wasn’t disrespectful. It was love, and it went both ways. If you had trouble with a student, you called their parents. They invited you to their house, offered you a beer (It seemed there was always beer), and assured you that their child would not be a problem anymore. And they weren’t. Those same kids are in their forties and fifties today, and almost all turned out well. I loved them then and I love them now.
There are so many memories! One night, just before Christmas, someone banged on my front door. “Your chimney is on fire!” Within minutes, the entire fire department was there. Not just a few firefighters – all of them. They had been in the midst of their annual Christmas party at the Knights of Columbus Hall. Though they were in various stages of inebriation, they saved my roof.
Then there was the time when I was visiting a friend at a business on the downtown square when I heard someone yelling, “Is Paul Wootten here? His car is rolling around the street!” Sure enough, a brake cable had given out. My car rolled through an intersection and struck a furniture store, before coming to rest in front of the courthouse. The only damage was a blue scuff on the front of the furniture store. Ten years later, it was still there.
Eventually, it became time to move on. The exact reasons escape me now, though being closer to the University of Missouri had a lot to do with it. My colleagues threw me a wonderful surprise party with lots of gag gifts. The biggest surprise came later, when I went back to my house and found they’d wet down my underwear and put it in the freezer. Have you ever been hit in the foot by a frozen pair of tidy-whities? It isn’t pleasant.
All these years later, the names and faces fade, but memories remain of the kindness and generosity Perryville showed me. Soon after arriving, someone cautioned me that Perryville never truly accepted anyone who wasn’t born there. Don’t believe it. The list of people who reached out to me, who showed compassion and support, who cared, is long.
Thank you, Perryville and Perry County. I’ll continue praying for those who have experienced loss in my second hometown.