Exiting the Beltline
09/09/2015 02:56PM ● Published by Aubray Onderik
By: Bill McFadyen
Musing in black and white does wonders for my soul. The financial reward, though, does not even cover the tab for the Father’s Day gifts lovingly charged to my account. Thankfully, the conversation on “community” happened during a walk-through prior to the next day’s real estate closing (which is how McFadyen bills really get paid). My counterpart was a military wife. She had been in town a couple of years. Her family was headed to Fort Drum. Hers was a significantly different perspective from mine, as I was born in Highsmith Rainey Hospital and I have only lived elsewhere for four college years and two post-graduate years of independent study in Maui. I am a local. Fayetteville is easy for me. Many of you struggle to assimilate into this community.
We shared the view that Fayetteville can be a tough
place for that. She opined that actually
this is a small town of people somewhat like me surrounded by 200,000 people
much like her.
They are committed to being here only for a little while. I likened the scenario to an imaginary beltline around a city. There are lots of places to get onto and off of the freeway, but there is always the hustled congestion of traffic driving round and round and round. Much of that traffic comes here and leaves here as a result of orders from the Commander in Chief. Often times that traffic whirls around Fayetteville for about two years and the people in those vehicles spend the whole time thinking how none of the exits lead to anything that makes it worth getting off the beltline. So for a couple of years, families like hers just drive.
Then there are the ones like her who managed to find a way into some compatible neighborhood with people who reached out and welcomed at the same time her family made efforts to assimilate. She told me of how they hated to leave now and of how she always saw people she knew at the grocery store or the Mexican restaurant. She lamented missing the upcoming year’s Halloween block party, especially given the frigidity of upstate New York. She and I were on opposite ends of a real estate transaction, but we had something very important in common. We both considered Fayetteville “home”.
A true sense of community, one that offers salient comfort and meaningful interaction to its inhabitants, is primarily found in small groups. It seems to me that only in times of great tragedy is there enough emotional impact to create a vast oneness of community. I think of the national unity that followed the destruction of the Twin Towers as my best example. I still see the space shuttle disintegrating with Sally Ride on board and the collective mourning and compassion that followed. I study Pearl Harbor and the resultant history-making oneness that became The Greatest Generation’s fight and victory over evil. Those types of events create a sense of multi-million-man-togetherness. The rest of the time, it seems “community” is found in tighter clusters.
I was a star student for 12 years in the Fayetteville Public School system, scoring pretty well on my SATS and doing enough things right that a respected college extended their invitation. I knew three people out of 1,400 when I arrived. On the first day of class, Dr. Bruce “Smiling F” Jackson welcomed me into his calculus class. He was the sweetest man. For better or worse, my last math teacher at Terry Sanford High School was one beautifully feminine thing. Confessionally, I spent more time looking at her write the problems on the board than I did trying to follow the thought-process of the logistics of the trigonometry. Dr. Jackson exuded no similar physical allure. So in his class, I was pretty darned focused on calculus. I never worked harder in school than in that first quarter of my freshman year, trying to calculate, both in class and in special afternoon study sessions with Dr. J. Sadly, and to the great detriment of my overall GPA, I learned first-hand how “Smiling F” got his nickname. He smiled as sweetly as Nanna’s pecan pie when I begged for a D despite my 69.4 average, post-exam. That F sat with us at the dining room table on my first night back on fall break.
I wanted to stay in my community, but Dad said no. Thereafter, I drove around miserably on the imaginary college belt-line right by myself, round and round and round.
When I did finally exit, I parked my dented and sputtering ’61 Psyche at a somewhat ratty little building in the center of campus. Inside was a community of about 35 other misfits who had been high school stars at everything they tried, but who were now fighting to survive. The building was called a fraternity house. In actuality, it was a community. It was a small group of like-minded people trying to accomplish something side-by-side. And it absolutely saved me at that stage of my life.
I gathered together 18 of those guys at the NC coast last October. I told my middle child upon my euphoric return home that it was like we never left each other, though I had not seen at least seven of them in 30 years. To quote my 15-year-old son’s attempt at understanding, “was it like you just got back from Spring Break?” Yes, it was exactly like that! (But what do you know about Spring Break, 15-year-old son?) The point is that even after the parts break up and disperse, the wholeness of true community never dies.
Two things need to happen to build “community.” The people in the car whirring around the imagined belt-line have to be willing to take the exit ramp to a place they do not know. That family from the real estate closing was willing to drive into town, get out of the car and look optimistically at our city. They expected to find “community” and they strove to enhance it after they found it. The other thing is that the people already here, especially the ones of us who have been here all along, have to invite the newcomers into our lives. We have to invite them to church, promote our events and involve them. We have to befriend them. We have to do it genuinely.
While freedom reigns in the US, we can live anywhere we want. Living inside a community trumps life on the beltline.