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Charles Barnard's USA: Home Sweet Homeland
by Charles Barnard

"Safe trip home," we say to a departing friend.

"Home Sweet Home," in framed needlepoint hangs on the wall.

"Safe at home," is the baseball term.

Concepts of home are imbedded in our language and in our hearts.

Now President Bush has created a new cabinet-level department of our government — the Office of Homeland Security. Good news.

This "homeland" is a realm where places of refuge are, we say, each man's castle. . . castles with diplomatic immunity.

(All-ee, all-ee in free, kids! Hustle yourselves over the drawbridge! Supper's ready!)

But, you wonder: the government already had a Department of the Interior. Why wasn't that good enough?

Maybe because, in this hour, we need to assert that there is more to this homeland of ours than just an "interior." That, like a home, it is a place mystically endowed.

Home always was, for me.

Still is.

Travelers understand this better than most, perhaps. Travel involves leaving home (and returning) — with all the related emotions. It is travelers who often confess to being homesick. . . a yearning of the heart. . . an element of love.

It was my fate as an only child to travel to many far-away places with a widowed Mama for whom one Grand Tour seemed always to lead to another. I was brought along. For many years, my home was left behind. I became as hotel-savvy as Eloise.

But even as I was led, trudging, through Europe's cathedrals and museums there was, I vaguely remembered, a big old house back in Massachusetts that had been home. I couldn't quite see it, but I thought if I drew pictures of it, I would preserve it, recapture it.

This I did, over and over. Sometimes the house I drew had many chimneys, or dozens of windows, or a barn with horses in a surrounding paddock. I drew this virtual house as I thought it would look at Christmastime in snow. Or in summer when mowing machines were haying in the meadows. In fall, my lost home stood among Crayola-crimson sugar maples.

And there was often an American flag on this American house of mine, of course. It was sometimes drawn with too many stripes.

"Why for heaven's sake don't you draw something else instead of that funny collection of houses?" Mama would ask. "Don't you suppose the Eiffel Tower would make an interesting drawing?"

"It's not a funny collection," I pouted. "It's home."

General or private, when you get sent off to war, you never know where you may end up. It might be someplace relatively nice, like Hawaii — or some deadly foxhole. It's all luck. Of those servicemen who readily adapted to both the good and the bad of the Second World War it was said, "That guy found a home in the Army." A compliment? Well, maybe.

For some months in 1944 I found myself in residence on a Pacific island called Kwajalein. It had had its day as the scene of a mighty invasion and a great battle, but now the war had moved on to later struggles called Iwo Jima and Okinawa. War-littered, left-behind islands like mine became depressing backwaters.

Kwaj had a reputation for being one of the most dismal. Like Alcatraz, it was known in the mid-Pacific as "The Rock" — and its unfortunate prisoners were said to have become "Rock Happy."

Kwajalein was about a mile long and crescent shaped. Its maximum elevation above sea level was seven feet. It had once been densely covered with swaying palms, but the invasion had taken care of those and now there was no living green on the island and no shade fell upon the mass graves of enemy dead. We had rats, weevils in the bread, fierce red ants, brackish water and six canned beverages a week, beer or cola — your choice, soldier.

One starless night, flying back to this devil's island from a duty assignment on another atoll, I looked out into the black void for what seemed hours, wondering how aerial navigation really worked, knowing that there was absolutely nothing below on which to land our seaplane but the vast Pacific wasteland. The Martin Mariner, with its two pilots, was a roaring, rattling box. I was the only passenger, tired and hungry, getting anxious to be. . . where? The only word that came to mind at that moment was "home."

Home? No, not that home in Massachusetts but home on Kwaj. For better or worse, my sandbar island was somewhere out there in the blackness tonight and I hoped the pilots knew how to find it. I had two warm beers waiting there, and my saggy-mattress cot, and a prized seashell collection that gave off a curious perfume of dead fish and bleach — and maybe there would be a new movie to see at the Boat Pool Theatre.

In a while, one of the pilots, a Navy lieutenant no older than I, beckoned me up to the flight deck and pointed ahead. A tiny string of jewels was floating on the inky sea — runway lights. . . beautifully parallel. . . Kwajalein. I knew then that aerial navigation did work and I had made it home.

Home sweet island? Yeah, right. The pilot and I grinned at each other. He'd done his job — and now we might both see a movie tonight.

Well, young Americans returned from all that after 1945 and we tried to get life going again. The G.I. Bill sent many of us to college — and later guaranteed mortgages so we could buy houses in Levittown or wherever. I found my Cape Cod cottage in a small Connecticut town and it became a first-home for a Fifties family.

We prospered. . . enough to take advantage of our "expansion attic" option and add two bedrooms up there. Then we bought the lot next door and added the family room. Life was a happy cycle of seasons and birthdays, from Easter eggs to Trick or Treat. The Borden's man delivered milk in glass bottles every morning, rain or snow. We watched Sid Caesar in Show of Shows on our Dumont TV. We bought a Nash Rambler. I made my first color photos. We liked Ike — but we liked Adlai better.

When our third child arrived, we had to look for a bigger place. Everyone said the shingled Colonial we bought was a fine move up. Better neighborhood. One-acre zone. The in-laws were impressed. The son-in-law was doing okay.

Moving went easily. Piece by carton, everything was packed and trucked until, in the dusk of one November afternoon, there were only a few last boxes for me to pick up at the old house.

When I flipped the light switch inside the front door, the sound echoed in the now-empty living room like the snap of a whip. The silent, disconnected telephone sat tilted on the bare floor, handset dangling. I looked into the cold, blackened maw of the fireplace and saw years of weekend fires — and many Christmas stockings hanging from the mantle. In the kitchen there were memories of birthday cakes and row on row of glass jars holding "canned" tomatoes from all the summer gardens.

The small bedroom, painted before our first child arrived, was still Arizona Gold — the "safe" color we had selected for a boy or girl, either/or, we knew not which it would be.

I felt tears welling by now, so I hurried to gather up the last boxes. Then I went out the front door, never to return.

Success has a price, I thought, driving back to the new place in the one-acre zone — the fine new house that wasn't yet home.

Sorry. I've said too much here, taken too much of your time. The new Department of Homeland Security got me started, I guess.

But one more confession, if you have the patience.

A magazine editor asked me not long ago if, as a frequent-flying travel writer, I carried any particular good luck tokens with me as I went here and there around the world.

"You mean like a rabbit's foot?" I asked. "Or a lucky silver dollar?"

"Yeah, that sort of stuff. . . "

I thought about it. . . and my answer was about to be, No, nothing like that. Then I remembered the well-worn brass keys on my key ring: front door, garage, workshop, terrace. These are the last thing I toss into my toiletries kit when I'm packing for a trip.

Then, when I am in some far away place, I spot the shiny keys among all the clutter at the bottom of the kit and I pick them up to hold for a moment and to muse, "In only a few days I will slide one of you into a lock — and you will open up much more than my front door."

My editor friend was still waiting for an answer.

"Oh," I said then. "I just thought of something I carry with me. . . something that always brings me safely home."


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