Phil Gulley Reveals His Inner Child

Floating back home in a rubber tube.

The author Thomas Wolfe once wrote “You can’t go home again,” and we have accepted the adage as gospel truth. Which just goes to show that if something is repeated enough times, it will seem true even if it isn’t. Defying conventional wisdom, I moved back to Danville and found home right where I had left it two decades before. I’ve given considerable thought to Wolfe’s proverb and have wondered if he meant the home we return to is not the home we left, that the tides of time sweep away the place we knew as children. But even that’s not true, since I regularly turn corners and find places, people, and features unchanged from my childhood. Scientists can now detect sound waves birthed by the Big Bang, still echoing in space these billions of years later. If that’s true, it isn’t absurd to believe remnants of our childhood are still reverberating, still with us, still rustling the leaves of our lives.

Behind my childhood home, through two fields and a patch of woods, lies a marshy pond where some of the more dramatic moments of my youth were staged. It’s still there, and every spring I return to hear the peepers and bullfrogs and seek the elusive morel. A quarter-mile past the pond is an elbow bend of White Lick Creek, where I used to build fires and camp overnight. In the early 1990s, that land was sold, the trees cut down, and a Kroger store built. As near as I can tell, I used to pitch my tent where the produce department now sits, in the general vicinity of the banana display. I suppose Thomas Wolfe was half right—I can’t go back to my campsite again.

There is another thing missing today that was abundant in my youth, which made life on the pond all the more pleasant—the inner tubes of tractor tires. The Farm Bureau Co-op on Lincoln Street would discard used inner tubes in the Dumpster behind its garage, which we would retrieve, patch, fill with air, and take to the water. Because the inner tubes were precious to us, we assumed the Co-op valued them as well. So one of us would distract the clerk with a discussion of crop yields while the others made off with the loot. The tubes were in the trash bin and meant nothing to the Co-op, but the whole affair seemed more thrilling with the added component of thievery.

The invention of the tubeless tire must have been a sore disappointment to boys everywhere. Inner tubes served as our boats in the summer and our sleds in the winter. The man who came up with the tubeless tire was no doubt proud of his accomplishment, not realizing he was denying children the world over the finest toy ever devised. To strap boards to an inner tube and push off the shore of a pond, poling across to the other side, was to understand the pure elation of Columbus crossing the Atlantic in search of new lands. Our passage seemed no less momentous, and when Mr. Evanoff, my fifth-grade teacher, taught the names of famous explorers, I thought of the pond and mentally added my name to the list.

I will toss out the following idea to anyone who wishes to capitalize on it. Each year,
Americans spend $22 billion on toys—a princely sum, to be sure. But it would pale in comparison to the wealth generated were one to open an inner-tube store. The tubes could be sold at a modest price along with a bicycle pump (a fine toy in its own right), and overnight the video-game market would collapse. Children would take to the lakes, streams, and ponds, rediscovering the delights of navigation and exploration. Builders could leave scraps of lumber lying about for children to appropriate for their ships and schooners, and old men in garages could teach youngsters how to patch a punctured tube. In one fell swoop, we could acquaint children with nature, eliminate childhood obesity, stimulate developing minds, and bridge the yawning gap between young and old, all while resolving the dilemma of what to get our children for their birthdays, since a kid can never have enough inner tubes. At the height of my childhood summer voyages, I owned six of them and skippered the Spanish Armada, a notable accomplishment for one so young.

But it wasn’t until winter, when snow covered the hillsides, that the glory of the inner tube shone forth. There’s nothing more exhilarating than hurtling down a slope on one, with five or six friends draped alongside you, launching into the air at the slightest bump and riding the cold currents before settling to Earth. Our hill was on a wooded slant of ground that every December became a graveyard for wooden sleds, which would splinter and break when striking a tree. The inner tube, on the other hand, would happily absorb the blow, spring back to its original form, and continue downhill, its riders intact. Someday they will make cars entirely of inner tubes, and automobile fatalities will drop to zero.

If the parents of my generation had been able to spend $22 billion on toys, I never would have witnessed the lifecycle of a frog from my perch on an inner-tube raft—the jellied eggs diminished daily by raccoons and herons; the tadpoles, so universally enjoyed as fare that even their parents ate them; the handful that survived growing into frogs. Had the inner tube not been invented, I never would have known the feel of cattails, their brown velvet fading to tan, their skins bursting like an overcooked hotdog, their white silk hitching a ride on the wind.

July is the high-water mark for going home. During evening walks on streets I pedaled as a child, under the same green canopy, I often stop at the Dairy Queen I frequented as a kid. If the Dairy Queen ever stops selling Buster Bars, then I will know Thomas Wolfe was right, that the tides of time have swept away the home I knew.

I feel sorry for those who long to go home but can’t, and a similar sympathy for those who wish to leave home but are unable. To be in one place while yearning to be elsewhere is a profound misery. We have a word for the unease felt by those who miss home: “homesick.” But no word describes the unhappiness of those who wish to leave and can’t. “Teenager” comes closest. I have known both miseries, but in the end felt the pull toward home stronger, to know again the beauty of the days gone by.  


Illustration by Ryan Snook

This column appeared in the July 2014 issue.