My wife and I were driving in one of the “new” parts of Charlestown a few weeks ago and passed by a field that was being prepared for new houses to be constructed on-site. My initial feeling was loss as I saw a portion of my childhood being taken away when I realized that it was an area where I had hunted with my friends as a child. The land was being subdivided and developed and I felt a small portion of my past being taken away.
I know that farmers can realize more profit in selling the land to a developer in a single sale than by farming it for another thirty years. The sons and daughters of farming families may not wish to continue their family legacy and their parents may not have any other viable option for their farm. Developers can subdivide and build homes on the property. Such new construction can continue to employ others and make incomes for many families. All these considerations for the development of property in “new” Charlestown are valid, but I ask you to briefly consider mine.
People choose to live in an area for any number of reasons. I returned to Charlestown after finishing a career that took me all over the world. My reason to return and stay here was the “quality of life” argument that is never the same for any two people. I missed the uniqueness of the “old” Charlestown where I grew up. The field we passed gives one of the best illustrations of that “quality of life” and I hope that my written efforts reflect my true feelings.
I used to hunt rabbits in that field in the early 1970s with my friends. I grew up with two other Charlestown boys that were also avid hunters. Dickie, Steve, and I would leave school and immediately head for the fields or woods to hunt squirrels, quail, and cottontail rabbits. Of the three, I was the only one that had both parents; Dickie’s dad had died in an auto accident and Steve’s mom and dad had divorced. Steve lived with his mom and four other siblings. He worked at paying jobs a lot and never had the fashionable clothes or other items so desperately needed by teenagers. Nevertheless, he had two friends and a shotgun that his father had given him. My friends and I learned many things during our long walks in the fields and woods. All three of us wanted to work outdoors. Dickie wanted to be a farmer, Steve wanted to be a wildlife scientist, and I wanted to be a forest ranger. Steve and I would be roommates at Purdue University, knowing that our friendship would help us overcome future academic obstacles. Two of us make it to our chosen careers but the third was cut down as he entered the threshold of his adult life.
At the end of a hunting day, we would go to one of our houses to clean the game. Dickie and I knew that Steve depended on his rabbits and squirrels for more than just a hunter’s pride of success. As we cleaned the game, more meat would be in Steve’s pan of saltwater than in ours. Nothing would be said. Dickie and I would just put the meat there and Steve silently accepted the gift. It was offered with quiet charity and accepted with silent grace. We never directly talked about it between ourselves.
My dad, who had given me a magnificent Winchester 20 gage pump-action shotgun that he had purchased new, often chided my about coming home with only a couple of rabbits but minus ten shotgun shells. My marksmanship must be not as good as when I hunted with him, he would say. One season I came home with six squirrel tails but only two skinned carcasses. He asked me if Steve had been hunting with me, smiled at my affirmative response, and patted me on the shoulder as he left the kitchen. He realized that his youngest son’s aim was still true, and his spirit was beginning to square as well. I still remember my dad every time that I go into that same kitchen as that house on Main Street is, and always has been, my home.
One of our favorite hunting spots had four graves in a small overgrown glade of trees. The markers, mere creek stones, had various dates from the 1700s craved into them. We wondered what had happened to those early settlers and if anybody but us knew where the graves were located. As the markers needed cleaning each squirrel season, we realized that we were the sole caretakers of our remote cemetery. We took care of the graves and put wildflowers on them until our last fall hunting season, our senior year of high school. I didn’t return until twenty years later.
Dickie became, and remains, a farmer in New Market. He has endured hard labor and has the self-respect that farmers know well. We still nourish our close friendship. I became a National Park Ranger for ten years but left after I could no longer prostitute my convictions to remain loyal to politicians and bureaucrats. Steve died in a motorcycle wreck our senior year after working a late shift at The Night Owl on the “old” Charlestown City Square. We never got to share that room at Purdue.
My career took me away from Charlestown for many years. When I would come home to visit my parents, I would walk to the graveyard to visit Steve’s grave. I moved back just over five years ago. Even today, when I see Steve’s image on his headstone, my eyes still tear over – after all these years. I see the emotions as evidence that I still grieve and miss my friend. During my 20th high school reunion in 1994, I traveled to that remote settler’s graveyard that we cared for each fall. I was amazed to see a subdivision of fashionable houses. The trees were gone, and a BMW coupe sat on a driveway where the graves were located, underneath a circular asphalt driveway. I elected to remain silent about the graves, it was probably best to remain silent and not upset these “new” Charlestown residents.
As “old” Charlestown becomes nothing but memories, we need to greet the “new” Charlestown with the spirit that many of us remember and want to hold on to. I suggest that land be developed with fewer houses and more green spaces to allow wildlife and streams to flourish. Charge a little more for each house to make a reasonable profit while allowing part of “old” Charlestown to remain with the rabbits, squirrels, and turkeys roaming freely. You can name the development after something that is preserved rather than something that was obliterated. Maybe our children, grandchildren, and the future generations of a “new” Charlestown can experience the lessons of quiet charity and silent grace that I learned so many years ago in “old” Charlestown.
Many of us remember “old” Charlestown for many such reasons. We know what a special place Charlestown was, is, and can be in the future. We know the blessings that we want other residents to feel. Better that than a paved-over past that will die with the memories of those who knew the area before it was developed.
Ed Byers is a resident of Charlestown and a retired United States federal agent. He is finishing his Ph.D. program at the University of Louisville in Criminal Justice with a specialty in policing and is an adjunct professor at that university. His dissertation examines factors involved in police shootings.