Childhood houses, changing times, and the meaning of being at ‘home’

Here's my final home in Deer Lodge, Montana. It was the last of six houses where various stages of my youth took place.

Here’s my final home in Deer Lodge, Montana. It was the last of six houses where various stages of my youth took place. I returned here many times, but as an adult. It was a homey place, a refuge.

By Kevin S. Giles

I lived in six houses in the 12 years I spent in public schools, all of them in Deer Lodge, Montana. Each time we moved I left a piece of me behind, less perceptible than the pencil marks on the walls where my mother measured my escalating height. Scattered behind me, like pages ripped from a diary, were memories formed by physical proximity. They linger in the shape of walls and size of rooms, and the number of rooms, and stairwells and pantries, and dim lights that made it tough to see a textbook at the kitchen table after dinner. Physical spaces frame events and interactions that make us who we are. It’s destiny to find our more mature selves in unfamiliar rooms of the next house.

The Primary Year: Our first house in Deer Lodge, on Cottonwood Avenue, caught fire 40 years after we moved out. The wrecking ball finished what the flames didn’t. We moved into the dilapidated rented house on a winter night. I arrived in the back seat of a 1950 Ford, unbuckled and threaded through the metal legs of four kitchen chairs. My mother, driving the Ford, assured my father (driving a cargo truck) that she wouldn’t move into the house if her life depended on it, or at least until she could give it a proper inspection in daylight. Memories: Hanging out with friends Earl Cook, Bob Pitman and Pat Burdick. High school kids stealing my father’s fresh-laundered slacks from our car and driving off as he ran after them. My grandfather, patching the cracked kitchen window with masking tape while the National Guard practiced shooting with tanks on the west side of the valley. With each boom, the cracks grew.

The Primary Year, Part 2: After six months in the Cottonwood house, we moved into Ada Holt’s house on Kohrs Street. She and her son Clifford moved to Dillon while Ada studied at Western Montana College. The 1959 prison riot occurred while we were living there, and in the midst of it, mortician Ralph Filcher came to the door during the night while my dad was at the prison. My mother thought (wrongly it turned out) that he was making a death notification. Memories: My brother Jeff running through the locked glass storm door, ripping his arm to the elbow, and my mom stemming the blood with a dish cloth. Cowboys driving herds of cattle past the house, down St. Mary’s Avenue — then a gravel road. Me sitting closer and closer to the television, unaware that I needed glasses. Meeting a new best friend, Dennis Burns, who lived across the alley.

The Elementary Years: After a single school year we moved again, this time into the “Townsley house” on the portion of Montana Avenue below the Hill. We had two bedrooms and a bath, and an unfurnished basement where Jeff and sister Kathy and I mimicked various scenarios we saw on the westerns on television. In my new neighborhood, I made new friends: Gary Newlon, Rick Lortz, Kay Lynn Price among them. I saw the “Wizard of Oz” for the first time in that house and cowered from the witch. Memories: Convincing my brother we should ride down the hill, in a wagon, over a landslide of big rocks. Watching a neighbor chop heads off chickens with an axe and seeing them fly headless until they dropped. Going to Gary’s house after school where we ate soda crackers and watched cartoons. Buying candy cigarettes at Frank’s Little Store, a neighborhood grocery.

The Formative Years: We returned to the Hill in the winter of 1962, when my folks bought a stucco house at College and Claggett. They borrowed Harry Knuchel’s milk delivery truck to haul furniture. This was the house that became the model for Paul Morrison’s home in my novel Summer of the Black Chevy. This was the house that was most influential in my upbringing, the home I knew the longest, keeping me grounded to all things Deer Lodge. I became a teenager in that house. We lived a block from where I went to school. I spent a good portion of three or four winters at the ice rink there. Dennis Burns and his family moved to a house a few doors up the street. My buddy Fred Denton lived a block away. When I was a freshman in high school I moved to the bedroom in the garage. It was freezing cold in winter, but a space heater helped, and it was a great place for a teenager to hang out. Memories: My younger sister Kerry was born when we lived at College and Claggett. I was nearly 14. I spent the summer before high school taking care of her. I had some accidents: a head-collision on the skating rink, in the dark, and a spill off my bike riding at high speed down Powder House Hill.

The High School Years: We sold the College Avenue house in 1968 and moved to a rented two-story house on Missouri Avenue, two blocks east of the high school. Jeff and I lived in attic bedrooms. Mine had a dormer window that looked onto the street. Our closets were nothing more than doors that opened into the attic, freezing cold in winter, but the house had some 1940s charm to it. I was a sophomore. The spring of my junior year, our father nearly died from a heart attack on the living room floor. I came to see my parents as mortal, finally grasping that life doesn’t go on forever. Memories: One of my best friends, Rick Dues, lived across the creek behind our house. Christmas with my sister Kerry, then 3, enchanted with colored lights on the tree.

The Graduation Year: In the spring of my senior year in high school, my parents bought the house on the portion of Montana Avenue that’s on the Hill. That house would become their long-term home. I lived there just a short time. Three classmates lived on that block: Lynn Jennings, Anne Hoffman, Kathy Donich. My good friend Eric Coughlin lived a block away. I graduated, worked the summer mowing lawns at the schools, and left for a residence hall at the University of Montana in the fall. Jeff and Kathy and Kerry grew up and graduated while living in that house. Some years later, Dad died. Mom eventually sold the house. The new owner painted it blue and cut down the mighty pine trees that stood in front of it. The basketball hoop that was so much a part of our family is gone too. Memories: Gathering on the patio my dad built off the garage. The warmth of the basement, with the built-in bar, and my dad’s handiwork everywhere. Watching him struggle with three heart surgeries that extended his life 19 years. Packing for college. Leaving behind my Deer Lodge life.

And so the page turns.

I asked my Facebook friends to tell us what “home” means to them. Here are some of their responses:

¶ A safe place where loved ones gather to enjoy life.

¶ Home is not a place…it’s a feeling in your heart!

¶ Home is the people I am able to enjoy between the times when I take my hat off at the door and push my shoes under the bed.

¶ Home is where I want to go when the vacation seems too long.

¶ Home is acceptance and love even when your behavior is unacceptable and you feel unlovable.

¶ A place, situation, or environment, where Love, security, happiness, and a feeling of self-esteem and belonging are prevalent.

¶ The place, sometimes emotional, sometimes physical in which I feel most centered.

¶ This sounds old fashioned but ‘home is where the heart is.’

¶ A haven, protection from the storm.

¶ Home is where you unpack your heart.

¶ Home is my happy place where I can love and feel loved.

¶ Home is my homeland and my new land.

¶ A welcome place I can be myself.

¶ Home is where the military sends you.

¶ Home is wherever I am with people that I love who love me.

¶ Home is comfort, safety, love, reunion, pleasure, relaxation; but also projects, work, responsibility, liability.

¶ Home is a sigh.

¶ Home is where my heart and soul are filled with love, peace and memories, aka Montana!

Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books are set in his native western Montana. Two of his books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)

2 thoughts on “Childhood houses, changing times, and the meaning of being at ‘home’

  1. This might be my favorite post of yours. I smiled at your realization of needing glasses and cringed at the mention of the chickens. 🙂 I loved being able to picture the location of all of those houses and felt lucky to already be familiar with a few of those memories from our discussions this fall.

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