It’s fitting that it rained on the morning I chose to walk around North Carroll High School. Of the five senses, I find that smell is the most underrated, and there are few scents that bring me back home quite like the smell of rain and fresh cut grass, both of which filled the air around the school that was once the source of Hampstead’s everything – pride, social gathering, rites of passage.
It’s closed now, the school. But it doesn’t matter if you shutter the doors or tear the school down; the memories are forever locked in place, right on that grassy hill with the uneven parking lot and the lopsided basketball hoops and cracked tennis courts.
Little has changed in the two years since I last saw North Carroll. Not that I expected much to change. The only thing about that wonderful, perfect school that has been altered throughout my 27 years on this earth is my perception of it.
I can remember, as a boy, going to Panther basketball games, reveling at Robbie Vaughn and Kevin Swecker, Cory Ditzel and Brandon Tomlinson, Josh Kling and Taylor Bosley. I remember sitting in the stands and going ballistic when I saw Lewis Graninger dunk in a game for the first time. I remember going home that evening and begging my dad to install a flood light in our driveway so I could shoot hoops well into the night, so that one day maybe I could play on that court.
Those were the days when a North Carroll Panther was what I strived to be.
I swelled with pride when, in seventh grade, Phil Shephard’s dad pulled me and his son aside one basketball game and introduced us to a few adults as two pieces of the next fab five of North Carroll basketball. Neither of us became a member of the “fab five,” but that memory remains one of my favorites.
It’s been a long time since these memories have surfaced. Nostalgia does that to you – unlocks fragments of your past you haven’t thought about in more than a decade, allowing them to flood back with a staggeringly crystalline clarity.
And it is funny, the memories that do come back. I walked past the pull up bars just outside the gym, where my best friend Jason Wheatley and I used to do 100 pull ups on the way home from the gym. I cheated every time. He did every one. Now we both live in California, and he probably can’t tell you the last time he’s done a pull up. He’s busy being a husband and a dad, as are an alarming amount of my former classmates.
Some things do change. Some things don’t. Just beyond those pull up bars was the spot that once, as a sophomore, I asked out Elizabeth Cook. I was shirtless and freezing, having body-painted for the football game that night. Her dad was no more than five feet away. I had impeccable timing for romance as a teenager, let me tell you.
I don’t know why I remember that, seeing as we did not, indeed, go out, and we were never even that good of friends. Memory’s a weird thing.
I do know I remember those Friday nights, and I know exactly why. Our football team was atrocious – beyond atrocious. North Carroll went generations without a winning season prior to my upperclassman years. And yet every Friday night home game was packed, because football games were less about football games than they were massive community events.
It was a touchy subject for my older brother, Tyler, an offensive lineman. He always believed the Panthers could put together a winning season, though he was also a member of the team that once lost 81-0 to Urbana, which was always the argument I used, for how can you really argue against 81-0?
Yet even in the epoch of 81-0 beatings, our bucolic little town shut down on those Friday nights. If you’ve seen the movie or the show Friday Night Lights, it paints an accurate picture. Except for the winning state part. We never did that. But shops did close early for Friday night home games, and the game provided fodder for conversation for a few days, before conversation turned, midweek, to the next week’s game.
It’s a stark contrast to where I live now, in Cost Mesa, California. I’ve covered plenty of games for the Orange County Register. The schools there have brilliant stadiums – Huntington Beach, in particular, is excellent – yet remain half filled. Students don’t really pay attention, focused instead on their phones. It bums me out to see that, because those students will never have the experience I did on Friday nights. But if I’m being honest, that’s probably the way North Carroll would be now, too. Nostalgia, though, puts a nice coat of armor around our memories, and it paints my high school days in a magnificent portrait.
I backtracked from the football field, passing by the baseball field that’s a little overgrown but still a nice diamond. I laughed at the memory of Tyler being featured in our local newspaper, the Carroll County Times, after a post-season baseball game. He was quoted as saying that the Panthers were enjoying a second-season renaissance, which is funny, because the words “second-season renaissance” have never, and will never, leave my brother’s mouth.
Yes, that little paper is an anachronism of another time, when I’d wake up every Saturday morning and pour through the high school football box scores with my dad. Even the Times hasn’t changed. The same writer, Pat Stoetzer, who wrote stories about my golf and basketball teams is still writing stories about Carroll County golf and basketball teams. It still delivers on a daily basis.
Isn’t that something?
The Times was where my writing career truly took off. The editor, Bob Blubaugh, gave me an internship my freshman, sophomore, and junior years of college, during breaks, and I made so many mistakes and wrote so many bad stories it’s a wonder I was there for three weeks, let alone three years. That was my dream job then, to be the sports editor of the Carroll County Times.
Dreams change. Hampstead, Maryland, does not.
There’s a profound beauty in a town that refuses to change in a world where the only constant, it seems, is that very thing.
The view from my deck is the same as it was when I, bundled up in my Miami Dolphins starter jacket and snow pants straight out of A Christmas Story, was jumping off of it into piles of snow. The McDonalds and Wendy’s still welcome visitors into my neighborhood. We still don’t have a Starbucks. Our local gym has no cell service.
Our watering hole, Greenmount Station, has expanded, though even in its expansion, it seems determined to preserve our town as it was, putting up pictures of teams from North Carroll Panther past.
I like it that way.
I don’t think many 27-year-olds who were raised in Costa Mesa will return to their high school, 10 years later, and sit in the stands of the football field, and drink in all of these memories as I did one random September Wednesday morning.
My friends have changed in the sense that we are all inevitably older, but we’re still very much the same. I don’t think there’s another group of 11 people on Earth who went to the same elementary, middle and high school, who played on the same sports teams for 10-plus years in some cases, who still share a regularly updated group chat.
But I climbed down from the stadium, and I walked past the baseball field and the weed-filled outdoor basketball courts, past the pull up bars and to the parking lot, because life doesn’t stop, even though time, it seems, does in Hampstead, and I hopped into the same Ford Explorer my little brother, Cody, drove in high school, and I drove home.
I’ve been living out of state for four years now, and it has been 10 – 10! – since I began my senior year at North Carroll, but neither the roads nor the way home have changed.
I’ll always know my way home.