The sweetest place on earth

“A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step,” my horoscope said. I’ll literally be taking a journey of a thousand-plus miles when I get to China in another week, but I got the sense that this meant something less literal and more metaphoric.

And so, quite by surprise, I found myself inexplicably drawn to the place where my current journey began. I’d been driving to Virginia for battlefield duty when I felt a sudden urge to go see my brother outside of Gettysburg—but as I got closer, I was struck by an even more powerful urge to take an even wider detour.

The sign along U.S. Rt. 322 calls Hershey, Pennsylvania, “The sweetest place on earth.” I call it the place where I grew up.

Many places hold claim on me, but I spent my childhood in Hershey. My mother and brother and I moved there at the start of my first-grade year following her divorce from my father and our relocation back from Maine. We chose Hershey because that’s where my mother’s sister, my Aunt Barbara, lived.

My years in Hershey were, in many respects, the greatest years of my life. 

We moved into a gray, asbestos-sided duplex at the end of Half Street, which got its name because it had been cut in half by U.S. Rt. 422. On the far side of the road, the Reese’s Peanut Butter factory churned out peanut butter cups and the all-new Reese’s Pieces. The Hershey Foods Company would also roll out Whatchamacallit candy bars at some point during our time there.

Half Street looped back on itself to form a teardrop-shaped turnaround with a patch of grass and a proud weeping willow in the center. I learned to ride my bike on that street-ending oval of pavement and, after I mastered that, learned to stick baseball cards in the bike spokes to make that invigorating flapflapflapflapflapflap sound as I rode. In the summer, my friends from the neighborhood and my brother and I would ride our Big Wheels in ferocious laps around the tree, prescient of today’s NASCAR races.

One year for my birthday I got to trade my Big Wheel in for a Green Machine, which might have been the coolest thing to ever own unless I could’ve owned a spaceship. I tore around the loop, riding low to the ground and fast through the air. An older kid from the neighborhood commandeered it from me for a test spin and, being too big for it, broke it, thus ending the Green Machine’s short cruising career and my short career as the coolest kid on the street.

Beyond the willow, beyond a manicured lawn, sprawled a labyrinthine apartment complex called Briarcrest where most of our friends from the neighborhood lived. While we could just walk across the lawn, cars had to access through “Gate Four,” which was the last of the complex’s four subdivisions. Our friends had to catch the bus by the gate, but my brother and I caught the bus with some of our other friends down at the end of Half Street, which gave us a one-stop advantage for picking the best seats, which we saved for our friends in case anyone tried to jump onto the bus between our stop and the next.

Technically, the bus stop was at the corner of Half Street and West Areba Avenue, but the people who owned the house on the lot let us use their entire side yard while we waited. In the mornings, we’d line up on the eastern edge of the yard and wait for a blue Chevy Nova to turn the corner from Hockersville Road onto West Areba. And like Speedy Gonzalez from Looney Toons, we would yell “Areba! Areba!” and then we’d dart across the lawn, racing the Nova to the lawn’s western edge, and whoever broke the plane of Half Street first won. We would stand in the street, panting, as the Nova continued on past Briarcrest’s gate four and three and on to the larger world beyond where Novas presumably cruised at will.

The end of one of Briarcrest’s apartment buildings faced Half Street, offering a smooth brick wall for my brother to bounce tennis balls against so he could practice his fielding skills. I would join him occasionally, but I was more apt to be playing with our massive collection of Fisher-Price Adventure People and our Star Wars figures. If it was Saturday, I’d be watching Creature Double Feature on Channel 29 from Philadelphia.

I had dual residency when I lived in Hershey because I not only lived in the town but also in my imagination. My brother and I turned ourselves into super heroes and ran in circles around the outside of our house until the pursuit of evil exhausted us. We climbed the cherry tree in the back yard along the hedge that separated our lawn from the Troyers’ and pretended we had an arboreal fort. We explored all the exotic locations in the neighborhood, adventuring to places like Big Rock and the back alley that ran behind our house, and the video game parlor way down by Briarcrest’s “Gate One.” There, I learned to play Asteroids and Space Invaders and Pac Man, but I could master none.

On the Fourth of July, my brother and I would play in our side yard and use sparklers to imitate the lightsabers we saw in Star Wars. During the Bicentennial, the fireworks display launched from Hersheypark was especially extravagant. I still remember the explosions casting red and green and gold light onto my brother’s face as he watched wide-eyed. By watching the fireworks with such awe, we knew we were doing our Great Patriotic Duty.

We were elementary school kids, yet we roamed far and wide across the neighborhood and the entire town. We had a license to roam that kids today could never dream of. Hershey was safe and cozy. My brother and I traveled inseparably, and we frequently had a friend or two with us, usually Kelly Ramsden or Chris Richard or Ramsi Nahas or Anthony Elby. Scott Cranston, who lived across from the bus stop, hung out with us, too. So did Holly Bangert, whose family lived in the other half of our duplex for a few years until they moved away. Sometime around then, Ray Rutledge moved in two houses down.

Felicia Willard and her older sister, Shelly, moved into the neighborhood around then, too, after their folks built a house on a vacant lot midway down the block. During construction, my friends and I jammed pine branches into the mounds of dirt around the hole that had been dug for the basement; we hoped to fool workers into thinking trees had begun to grow, which would discourage them from continuing to build.

The first girl I ever had a crush on was Katie McKinney, but I developed a crush on Felicia Willard, too. Shelly, it turned out, had a crush on me. One day she and a friend stood outside my house, calling to me like sirens, cajoling me to come outside. My mom had to go shoo them away for me because I was too mortified by their attention.

I watched my first Elvis movie, Clambake, at the Willards’ house. When my own house caught fire during sixth grade, Mrs. Willard intercepted my brother and me as we walked up the street from the bus and she took us in to keep us out of harm’s way. My mom came down to tell us what was happening and asked us to stay there for the time being. However, my bike was on the front porch of my house, and I was certain it was going to be destroyed in the fire if I didn’t go to its rescue. Mrs. Willard, in what I still to this day consider one of the greatest acts of kindness ever shown to me, assured me that if my bike hadn’t been saved by the firefighters, she would get me a new one. The bike, it turned out, was safe.

The Willards’ house, long since sold by the Willards, looks so much smaller now than it did when it finally rose out of that construction pit thirty-three years ago. Half Street itself looks so much smaller. The smallness of the neighborhood surprised me—although it shouldn’t have because I’ve been by before. It’s been perhaps two or three years since my last drive-by.

I circled around the tiny loop and parked. I got out. The willow tree is decades-gone. A pre-fab-looking duplex with pale yellow vinyl siding sits on the lot where my own house once burned down. Signs in front of the other half of the duplex—not 109, where we lived, but 111—say “No Trespassing.” As much as I love the click of my cowboy boots on pavement, I didn’t even bother to circle around the loop for a closer look.

The PennSupreme convenience store down the block, where I bought so many of my first comic books—including The Hulk, which I used to teach myself to read—sits vacant. The bus stop is mostly blocked off by a wooden fence, leaving no room for Nova racing. Across the street, Scott Cranston’s old house has become a day care.

A hedgerow still separates my old backyard from the Troyers’, but where they once had a rose garden plagued by Japanese beetles—which I used to watch for what seemed like hours at a time—there now sits a swimming pool.

Two houses down, between Ray Rutledge’s old house and the Willards, stands a house surrounded by a cinderblock wall. At its highest, the wall is four blocks tall. In one of my daredevilest moments, I tried to balance-beam along the top of the wall but fell off, tearing open my left knee in the tumble. It remains, to this day, my largest scar.

Downtown, along Chocolate Avenue, the streetlights are still shaped like Hershey Kisses. Chocolate World, where we all went to pass countless hours because it offered free admission, still shows visitors how chocolate gets made. In front of the chocolate factory itself, gardeners still trim the bushes to spell out “Hershey Cocoa.” The Reese’s factory still sits on the far side of Rt. 422, although every time I hear news from Hershey it usually involves the loss of jobs to Mexico. (Milton Hershey must be rolling in his grave.) At least his school for underprivileged kids, a beautifully manicured campus on the far side of town, still carries out Hershey’s noble vision.

I took one last look around my old neighborhood. I didn’t feel a lightbulb go off over my head or an epiphany in my heart. I didn’t feel especially grounded by a sense of place. I wasn’t even sure—still—why I’d come all this way to drive down Half Street.

…except my journey of a thousand miles started here.

And as I continue onward in this new part of my journey, it felt unexpectedly good to remind myself where I came from. Even though I don’t belong here any more, Hershey still belongs to me—and that is what makes Hershey the sweetest place on earth.

Because nothing is so sweet as nostalgia.

2 replies »

  1. You know, I went to school in central PA (PSU) for four years and never made it to Hershey. The closest I came was flying into the Harrisburg airport.