Twenty years ago I began my first year at Greencastle High School. In the two decades which have followed, both of us have changed. By and large, those changes have been for the better.My adopted home town sits on top a small knob in western Indiana. Ten-thousand years ago, the glaciers reached this part of the state, screeched to a halt, and then shifted into reverse. Two hundred years ago, German immigrants settled here. They found this knob—that residual foothill crafted by those ancient sheets of ice—and named it Greencastle, after the Pennsylvania haven many of them had left behind. And twenty years ago, I rolled into the front parking lot of Greencastle High School, manning a 1985 Honda Accord—woefully out of alignment and sporting a primer-black, aftermarket front fender.
I landed here on a whim. After clocking in my fifth year at Warsaw, Indiana’s enormous high school, I knew I wanted to both work and raise my kids a smaller environment. Had I stayed up in the northern-third of the Hoosier state, I’m sure everything would have worked out. Warsaw is a beautiful, affluent town full of some of the friendliest people I’ve ever known. But that school…that magnificent, gargantuan edifice housed almost 2,000 kids. And even though I was getting used to the cultural differences up north, I felt a need to return to my own universe. I needed to get back to that part of Indiana where it’s socially acceptable to drink cheap whisky and smoke an expensive cigar while wearing a $10 pair of work boots.
So, in the early months of 1997, I sent out applications. I started at the top of the alphabet and looked for college towns. I needed that dynamic. The Bloomington North opening looked interesting: IU, bigger city, but the school was still large. After sending my résumé to Greencastle, I stopped…just before the letter “F.” I figured I would resume my search, but work and life kicked in, and I never got around to finishing the alphabet. Months later, Greencastle’s principal, a stout ex-wrestler with ears so cauliflowered the fluorescent lighting cast a sheen off of them, called me down for an interview. I went. We talked. He called back and offered me the job. And that’s when indecision hit me. Warsaw was big…yes. Northern Indiana was weird at times for someone like me from the sticks south of Indy…sure. But the kids up there liked me. I often got that emotional rush from walking the hallways every passing period, and getting high-fives from kids who called me out by name. I felt liked. Loved, maybe. Did I want to walk away from that? Did I want to start all over after investing five years in my new home?
In my back yard, standing next to my little boy’s turtle sandbox, I did the only thing a rational person does when the decision is impossible…when the list of pros and cons fills up each column to the identical line: I flipped a quarter.
Even when it landed on the “Greencastle” side, I still waffled. And in the first few months of my stint at GHS, there were times when I thought I had made a mistake. Moments when I wondered if maybe I should have stayed up north.
Twenty years later, however, I never think about it. So much has changed in that time. The world Greencastle sits upon is a different one than then. The Greencastle I moved into was a different city than the one I haunt today. And the Donovan Wheeler who walks its streets is not the same man who opened class on that second week of August. When I began my first day at GHS, Princess Diana was enjoying her last week among the living. No one knew who Monica Lewinski was. The Chicago Bulls were unstoppable. The UPS strike was the biggest story on the news, and everyone was abuzz about the first Men in Black film.
In the summer of 1997 DePauw’s football field was grass. The parking lot sat hidden behind a wide copse of trees, and the school’s nature park was an abandoned stone quarry. The Julian Building, the art building, the Hoover dining hall…none of those were there. The Green center sported a little retaining pond by the front entrance, and Jackson Street was walled by in professors’ homes and tenement rentals. In 1997, Wasser Brewing Company was an auto parts store. The Tap House was a run-down video rental joint (with an infamous “dirty movie” room up the stairs). Almost Home was a modest, mid-day tea room. The Fluttering Duck was tucked into a postage-stamp-sized alcove inside the old Walden Inn. Moore’s was a bonafide honky-tonk, and most of the night-life per se happened on the south end of town. In 1997 a “night out” usually meant a trip to Plainfield (which didn’t have a mall) or maybe a slightly longer trip to Terre Haute. The fair parade took place in the middle of Sunday (always miserably hot), the McDonalds was tucked into a hillside just west of the high school, and the dingy liquor store a few hundred feet from there had deservedly earned its nickname: The Crotch.
I was 28 when I showed up in this past version of the city. As a college undergrad, I was convinced—convinced, mind you—that I was going to teach briefly, write the great American novel, and live life as Indiana’s next Vonnegut. Then I got married. Then I had children. My life is the reason I’ve only watched Mr. Holland’s Opus one time. My aspirations now changed, I decided I was going to define myself the way all public school teachers defined themselves. I was going to be a kick-ass athletic coach. I started on the gridiron. I never played the game (not a single down), but I “equipment-nerded” my way through high school and parts of college. I found out pretty quickly I wasn’t cut out for it. I moved to golf. I had played the game in high school…my grandfather owned and started my Owen County’s first course. I played a lot, practiced some, and was fantastically average—which at the high school level means “bad.” I made up for my lack of physical talent with my adept ability to be petty, insecure, and paranoid. Near the end of my coaching gig there was the divorce…and the bankruptcy…and the general mental breakdown. Getting fired from my coaching duties wasn’t much of a surprise. Never knowing who exactly wanted me fired among the half-dozen people in charge…? That wasn’t a surprise, either.
Two decades later DePauw’s football field is now turf, the woods gone, the quarry now an elaborate nature park. Over that time DePauw has spouted and expanded buildings faster than skin-tags on a middle-ager. That little pond is gone, and the hodge-podge collection of houses on Jackson razed, making room for a pristine row of DePauw-owned, antiseptic town houses. The auto parts store is now the aforementioned brewery, the swanky video joint now a hip and urban beer haunt. Almost Home grew into a full-fledged restaurant, then it added its bar which is arguably the birthplace responsible for the city’s cultural renaissance. The “Duck” is bigger, slicker, and cooler (some disagree…they’re wrong, but that’s okay). Moore’s is decidedly less honky-tonk (sometimes the crowd overrules that, but not always), and the south side of town has been mothballed. The fair parade goes down Friday evenings (everyone seems grateful), and a night out usually means choosing one of 6-10 different options right here. That McDonalds has relocated, and the old Crotch is now a new, cleaner, snazzier crotch (something everyone wishes they could claim I’m sure).
And all these years later, I am much like the city I’ve claimed as my own. Changed. For the better. The man who needed sports to define himself, now enjoys his life in the classroom. The man who once thought of writing as something of a missed opportunity is at the keyboard again…cutting his teeth as if he were still a twenty-something. He’s 48 now. He’s lost a couple feet of his intestine thanks to cancer. He lost his house after that divorce. But he’s gained much more.
And I sit here now on yet another knob, just north of the one those long forgotten German immigrants claimed two centuries before. The Greencastle they began may not resemble the Greencastle I inhabit. But given that change is the one thing time guarantees our shared location and name is all I need to feel one of them. What happens to my home town in the next two decades swirls around in the fuzzy parts of my crystal ball. And what happens in the next twenty decades…? That’s way deep in the core of the thing, far too impossible to tell.
What I do know is that I have had twenty rough, messy, and blissfully beautiful years to have grown. Coin-flip aside, none of it has gone according to plan. None of it has gone down without ugly failures and catastrophic fuck-ups. But they have been my two decades. I claim them: every wart and every rose. I hope I get twenty more. If so, I would promise you that I would do these twenty the right way. But I’m too human to follow through, and too experienced to believe myself.