In the summer of 1979, my mother moved us from Phoenix, AZ to Greenbelt, MD. I was 12 at the time, and to say that the move changed my life forever would be like saying that the Grand Canyon is a big hole in the ground.
Mind you, I hadn’t wanted to move. I had just finished 7th grade (which turned out to be the best school year I ever had before college) at Grandview, a great public school that, sadly, is no longer there (the school district tore it down and put up Osborn Middle School in its place).
I had been in the talented and gifted program and on the student council, and I had lots of friends (including a very pretty girlfriend named Mary). I loved Arizona and I loved Phoenix. I didn’t want to live anywhere else.
Yet move, we did. My mother had been working two jobs for several years since my folks divorced, clawing to keep us out of poverty (Child support? What child support?). There were much-better paying jobs, she said, in LA or DC. So, I got rid of a lot of things, said goodbye to my friends (including Mary), and off we went to the East Coast.
While my mom packed up, found a place, and resettled us, I spent the summer with my friend Bob Hughes and his parents, Bill and Chickie (Bill was like a father to me, and was later the best man at my wedding). Bob and I had met and become best friends a few years earlier, and he, too, had moved away, to Elk Grove Village just outside Chicago.
That summer, Bill took us on road trips to see the Commemorative Air Force in Harlingen, TX; across Canada to Newfoundland; then down to Wells beach, ME before putting me on a plane in August 1979. I landed at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where my mother picked me up and drove me to our new home.
She had bought a third-floor condo in Greenbelt, MD, right across the street from NASA’s Robert Goddard Space Flight Center. Greenbelt lived up to its name: there were acres of woods ripe for exploring, and Washington DC was only a few stops away on the Metro. The new neighbors had told her about the blizzard they had the previous February—coming from the desert, I was all about experiencing snow. I began to think that maybe this move wouldn’t be so bad after all.
But then came 8th grade, at Robert Goddard Middle School. If 7th grade was the best year I ever had, 8th was the worst:
I hated riding the bus (back in Phoenix, I had ridden my bike about a mile each way to and from Grandview).
I hated a lot of the other kids (especially the 9th grade boys, several of whom had been held back several years) because they were stupid, racist, mean, and quick to make fun of anyone (like me) who didn’t have the right clothes or shoes.
I hated my school: it was a feeder for DuVal High, which was one step above reform school. Consequently, discipline was the top priority of the administration, and none of my teachers seemed to give a shit whether we learned anything or not.
To top it off, I found out that usually, it hardly snows much in Maryland. Those 20+ inches back in February 1979? A fluke that wouldn’t happen again for another 4 years.
I daydreamed about running away from home, riding south on my bike, along the highway, to the warm part of the country, then west until I hit Phoenix. But what to do then?
Needless to say, I didn’t go anywhere. I just swore to myself that I would finish 8th grade, get through high school, and go the hell back to Phoenix. Screw Greenbelt, screw Maryland, and screw all those asshole, snot-nosed, preppy douchebags and illiterate, knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing troglodytes I had to deal with every day.
As I was biding time, a lot of good things happened:
I got out of Goddard and went to Eleanor Roosevelt High School, the best in the county, and one of the best in the state.
I met some cool people, some of whom I’m still buds with today (indeed, I met my best friends Patrick and Saunooke there).
I learned how to juggle, to play guitar, and discovered the awesome fun that was Dungeons & Dragons.
I started writing poems, and short stories, and even novels again, like I had back in Phoenix.
I was on the school newspaper and in the literary magazine.
I played pick-up games of football at lunch, and found out that I was really good at tennis.
In AP English, I read all kinds of mindblowing stuff, and decided that’s what I wanted to study in college.
And I had girlfriends.
By the time I graduated, in 1984, it didn’t even occur to me to go back to Phoenix.
Instead, I went to the University of Maryland, married a girl, bought a home, went to grad school at Washington College, had a kid, moved to the Eastern Shore, had another kid, and got a job with the Feds.
But though I had lived in Maryland since 1979, it still didn’t seem like “home.” I didn’t feel like I belonged here, that years later, I was just as much an outsider as when I had stepped off that plane. I easily imagined myself living in other places: Pittsburgh (where my wife is from), or back to Phoenix (where I took my family to visit in 2004), or even other countries (Germany, France, England, Iceland).
I stayed not because I liked Maryland more than those other places, but because it was convenient.
Lately, though, my thinking’s changed. It happened as I was writing my novel, This Wasted Land. Alyx, the book’s feisty teenage heroine, is a recent arrival to Kent Island, MD, and has trouble fitting in. A discussion with her boyfriend reveals why.
“Maryland has the prettiest sunsets of any place I’ve been,” I said.
“How are the sunsets in Korea?” Sam asked.
“I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been.”
“Weren’t you born there?”
“No, I was born in Georgia.”
“So, you’re a citizen?”
“Just asking. What’s Georgia like?”
“I don’t remember. We didn’t live there long. We left when I was maybe three.”
“Where did you move to?”
“Texas. Then North Carolina, I think. By then, my dad had got out of the Army. But we kept moving around. Illinois. Louisiana. All over.”
“At least you got to see different places.”
“Places that suck. Not like Kent Island. You’re lucky. You’ve lived here your whole life, right?”
“So, what’s that like?”
“It’s okay, I guess. I mean, it’s not like exciting, or anything. There’s really not much to do. It’s this quiet little place all on its own, separate from the rest of the world, where nothing ever happens. You know, like The Shire.”
“What’s ‘The Shire?’”
“Never mind. It’d take too long to explain.”
“But you like it here?”
“Yeah, it’s all right. I’m not going to stay forever, but…I belong here. At least, for now.”
Belong here. What is that even supposed to mean? Like, being from somewhere, maybe the same place your parents are from? Living in the same house, or if you do move, it’s just down a couple streets so you can have a place with more bedrooms and bathrooms? Knowing people their whole lives, and them knowing you, and you going to the same schools together, and doing the same things they do? Is that what belonging here is?
“That sounds nice.”
“You could belong here.”
I shook my head.
I shrugged. “I don’t belong anywhere.”
“That’s because you make yourself so…remote. You give off this vibe like you know you don’t fit in, and you don’t want to. Like when you used to sit all by yourself at the top of the stairs during lunch.”
“I don’t do that anymore.”
“Yeah, now that you sit with me and my friends. But you don’t talk to them.”
“I’m not into gaming, and that’s all they do.”
“Okay, but they like you. They think it’s awesome that you’re an artist.”
“I’m not that good.”
“That’s not the point. The point is that I’m the only person you hang out with—except when you don’t, like when I wanted to take you to the cast party.”
“I don’t know anyone in theater.”
“You know me, and I could have introduced you to everyone.”
“Parties aren’t my thing.”
“They could be if you ever went. There’s an Art Club at school, but you haven’t joined it. You could get a job—Chick-fil-A is always hiring—”
“I’m not working at Chickaflicka.”
“There are lots of other places you could apply to.”
“Uncle Tony gives me gas money.”
“I sing in the teen choir here at church. You could come with me and mom.”
“You’d rather step away from anything than be part of it—doesn’t that get old?”
“Stop giving me shit about what I do.”
“What do you do, besides sketch and listen to old music and ride your bike too fast?”
“I thought you liked that about me.”
“I do, but I want you to have more than just me. I want you to have friends. I want you to have fun. You say you ‘don’t’ belong, but I think you really mean ‘won’t.’”
I didn’t answer.
“And I don’t know why you do that, because you don’t have to.”
As I wrote that scene, I realized that like Alyx, I had become entrenched in my identity, born out of my teenage years, as an outsider. That though I was living in a place of great natural beauty, where people know and look out for each other, a place that’s the perfect spot for raising a family, I was keeping myself at arm’s length from it. For no reason other than I was a bit too proud of being from somewhere else.
So now, after all these years, I consider myself a Marylander.
Which is not to say that I love everything about the state: I’m not fan of DC’s suburbs, and Baltimore is…well, it is what it is. Taxes and politics are ridiculous. The traffic is nuts (especially when it snows: a mere dusting will make Maryland drivers lose their shit). And the only time I’m going to root for the Ravens is when they play the Patriots.
It’s like Daffy Duck’s brother-in-law, the one who’s always in jail
But the sunsets, as Alyx said, are beautiful. So, too, are the beaches, the woods, the Bay, the fields of corn, the blue wildflowers and Queen Anne’s lace, and the Black-Eyed Susans (the state flower).
Summer is when fireflies (not to be found in Arizona, sadly) are tiny stars in the evening trees, the same trees where the cicadas spend all day going zeep zeep zeep. Autumn is chilly and often gray, but welcome after July and August’s heat.
Winter means wood stove fires, and on the rare occasions of heavy, deep snow, the world goes still and silent for a while, until neighbors start to dig out. Spring is a relief from winter’s cold rain, but it never lasts long enough, summer shoving it out of the way and settling itself in its spot.
On almost any day, most any time of year, I can come out of my house and find either deer or rabbits, raccoons, possums, or foxes. Bats. Woodpeckers, mallards, owls, ospreys, egrets, herons blue or green. Turtles (box- and snapping-) and terrapins. Snakes–almost all of them harmless–spiders (some build webs that stretch from tree branches to the ground), katydids, ladybugs, bees (honey- and carpenter-), dragonflies and (alas) their favorite prey, mosquitoes.
I love Maryland’s small towns, its history, its spunkiness, its hapless-but-still-lovable O’s, its crabs and Old Bay seasoning, even its Natty Boh (but then, I like cheap beer). And, obviously, Best State Flag Ever (Arizona’s is a close second).
Maryland is where I’ve put down roots, where I’ve raised my kids, and where I expect to spend the rest of my days. I’ve lived in my current house for 18 years, and I don’t ever want to leave.
After all these years, I’m home.
Been here, lived that, bought the t-shirt
Kenton Kilgore writes killer SF/F for young adults and adults who are still young. In his latest novel, This Wasted Land, high-school senior Alyx Williams learns that witches are real when one attacks her and her boyfriend Sam, dragging him off to a nightmare world where Alyx must go to get him back.
Kenton is the author of Lost Dogs, the story of the end of the world as seen, heard–and smelled–by a dog. He also wrote Dragontamer’s Daughters, like Little House on the Prairie…with dragons! With Patrick Eibel, he created Our Wild Place, a children’s book about the joy to be found in exploring Nature. Kenton also published Hand-Selling Books to help authors better their sales.
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