A Sense of Direction

From my point of view the map below leads to the center of the universe: 365 Williams Street in the town of Lebanon, Oregon.   This is the address of the first house I lived in when my parents took me home from the hospital on December 15, 1951.  My main focal point would have the be the view off the small front porch.   On a nice warm summer evening, this was a great vantage point from which to watch the world go by.


The house was a little two bedroom, one bath (949 sq.ft) that had been built in 1947.   It was situated on the Truck route through town which ensured a steady supply of log, sawdust and dump trucks passing by, mostly during daylight hours.    We were 4 blocks from the nearest stop sign so we were mostly spared the noise of the trucks building up to speed.   Since the aforementioned stop sign  was the only one along the entire 4,250 ft of Williams street, we also had fairly high vehicular traffic of all types.   I think this probably accounts for my lifelong fascination with most anything with wheels attached.
365Williams#4But it wasn’t just vehicular traffic.   We lived a short distance from Field’s Grocery, which was on the SE corner of Williams and E Rose St., a half block to the South.   This ensured a fairly steady stream of foot traffic as well.  This being the 1950’s, people actually left their houses and went for walks through the neighborhood.   Being a small town, people actually would stop and chat with people who happened to be on the front porch, and would sometimes chat for quite a while, or maybe even “come in for a drink”.    Kids riding pedal cars, trikes, apple crate scooters and clamp-on roller skates with steel wheels, the occasional pair of wooden stilts or even a pogo stick.

I remember lots of neighborhood kids on the way to the store to get candy and/or soda pop.    The earliest memory that I can put an exact date to is from the summer of 1955.   A group of kids (Mostly the Roosa Family) were walking by and I was playing with my matchbox cars on a “road” I constructed in the front lawn.  Somehow, the conversation involved identifying everyone’s ages, and I remember that I was three.   The group was on the way to get some candy and I also remember them walking by on the return trip, chomping on red whips and drinking soda, and looking like they had won the lottery.

I can remember playing with sparklers on the fourth of July, “swimming” in my little inflatable pool and “Hula Hoops” in the summer of 1958, just before I entered the first grade.   In the evening in the summer, most kids would be out of the house and playing.    “I’m going out to play.”, I’d say.  This would give me the freedom to roam the neighborhood, which initially was the block I lived on, and by the time I was around ten, consisted of pretty much anywhere I could ride my bike to and get back home before dark.  This could be as late as 9:30 in the middle of the summer in Oregon.

There seemed to be an almost endless supply of playmates.  It would be almost impossible to walk more than 100 feet in any direction and not find another kid, if not a group of kids, within a couple of years of your age doing something outdoors.    We had softball or workup games in the vacant lot across the street.   Or sometimes a kid would yell in through the screen door: “Hey we’re playing hide and seek, can you come out?” On a truck route, playing in the actual street wasn’t much fun, but it was a short distance to a side street.

Being the place I called “home” for the first 12 years of my life, I pretty much reference my sense of place back to that spot.  My concept of direction, like most kids from any town that was laid out in “blocks” and 90 degree corners is pretty much connected to the streets that ran either North/South or East/West.   Since most houses followed the same rigid paradigm I automatically  assume any structure does the same. When I first moved to San Diego, which is covered with mesas and canyons, it took a while to realize that few roads run directly North/South or East/West.  Right now as I sit here and type this it feels like I’m facing dead East, when I’m actually facing Southwest.  I intellectually know that the street I live on does not run East/West and is actually on a 45 degree angle, but my internal GPS tells me different.

I also tend to think this same directionality extends to the interstate system, where I assume that I-5 runs directly North/South.   Since I currently live nearly the same distance from I-5 as I did when I was growing up (about 8 miles) it came as a little bit of a shock to find that San Diego is some 250+ miles to the east of the place of my birth.

Another navigational habit I acquired in my home town and further  developed over the years has been to orient myself by looking for mountains or hills.    Every place I’ve ever lived, I’ve been able to do this and when I spent some time in Minneapolis I was lost the entire time.   It was overcast the entire time I was there, so I received no clues by the position of the sun.

My memories usually have a directional component to them, as do my dreams.  When conjuring up an image from the past, I’m usually aware of  where North is.

On a trip to London, England a few years ago, the area around the hotel we stayed in seemed turned around 180 degrees from what I thought it should be.  The direction I was sure was North was actually South.   Since I’d checked out the neighborhood via Google street view, this was disturbing.  We’d taken the tube from Heathrow, and just popped out of the ground at Gloucester Road Station, and despite knowing the direction we needed to go it just felt wrong.  

Everywhere else we went in London,  I had no problem figuring out the direction I was facing , but get back to the Hotel and I’d be all turned around again.  It still confuses me if I go to Google now and look at the neighborhood.  I can get lost on Google street view in a one block area.  The window from our hotel room faced North, but in my memory, it faces South, and try as I might, I cannot reconcile that fact.   I can look at a map and think:  “Now, I get it.”   But, I don’t.

And this all goes back to the place I grew up in.   Somewere in the ride from the Airport, that connection, either through actual observation, or from looking at a map, with the internal feelings associated with facing a particular direction was lost. My internal compass wasn’t working here.  For whatever reason, when I came out into the daylight I had to rely on a whole new directional paradigm completely separate from the one that had been serving me for the last 55 odd years.

A sense of direction might very well be the sixth sense, but it’s as much knowing where you’ve been as where you are.