What really got me was the 5.3-magnitude earthquake.
One night last summer, when I was working late at home in Palm Springs, Calif., I heard a huge, eerie roar, as if a jet were taking off outside my front door. A second later, the floor started rolling, and I grabbed the edges of my desk and hung on to keep from rolling away in my chair.
When the movement stopped, in about 30 seconds, my heart was pounding, and my first thought was, “Oh, God, I don’t want to die in the desert. I want to die where I was born.”
The next morning, I made one phone call to Pennsylvania, to my childhood friend, Jane Kishbaugh, and said that if she heard of any places for rent, please keep me in mind since my lease would be up in three months.
“Oh, I’m thinking of renting the apartment at the back of the house where Mother lived. Would that interest you?”
Yes! A sign! And like that, with just one call, I found a place to live, in a house I knew and where I had visited as a little girl.
So now, at age 75, I am living in Shavertown and have my library card from the same place where I got my first card: the Back Mountain Library.
The early years
I was born in Wilkes-Barre and grew up in Dallas, so I’m a native daughter who has just returned to the Wyoming Valley after a 36-year absence because of my career as a journalist and editor.
My first newspaper job was at the Times Leader, which was co-founded by my grandfather, Col. Ernest G. Smith, in 1907. After his death in 1945, my father, Harrison H. Smith, inherited the job as publisher and president of the Wilkes-Barre Publishing Company.
Back then, Wyoming Valley had two daily newspapers: The Wilkes-Barre Record and the Times-Leader Evening News. In those days, there was a hyphen in the name.
So newspaper ink is in my DNA. I fell in love with the business the first time I saw the presses run and felt the vibration of those big old heavy presses with the whirling noise of the half-ton newsprint rolling through the web of metal plates. And as I watched the papers come out on a conveyor belt on the other side of the pressroom, the newspaper business had me, then and there, at age 11, in 1953.
When my family sold the publishing company to Capital Cities in 1978, I was hired by the new owners for three reasons: I had editorial experience from working at Time magazine; I was willing to cross the picket line during the strike, when most of the Times Leader union members went on strike; and I lived in the area.
I had just returned to Dallas because of my stepmother’s funeral. As a result, I got on-the-job training as a copy editor. I also got my tires slashed more than once, probably by someone who worked for the strikers’ new paper in town, the Citizens’ Voice.
But that was 39 years ago, and it appears the enmity has evaporated.
21 moves in 38 years
My newspaper career has taken me all over the country.
I have worked for two major dailies — in Washington, D.C., and Miami — and many other papers, including Calgary, Canada; Santa Barbara, Calif.; and on Nantucket Island, 40 miles off the coast of Cape Cod.
I thought I’d found my forever home on the island, but my family’s house and the half-acre it was on washed out to sea in a three-day nor’easter in 1992, so I was on the move again. The decline and shuttering of newspapers since 1980 meant I had to keep moving in order to keep working: 21 moves in 38 years. If nothing else, I know how to break camp and set up camp fast. Being divorced without children allowed me that freedom.
What prompted me to write this column was the op-ed piece Times Leader publisher Mike Murray wrote May 13 reflecting on his first year in the Wyoming Valley. He had high praise for the people of Wilkes-Barre, and I share his sentiment.
I returned in December and love being back. It’s the first move I’ve made where I’m not a stranger. And I keep meeting people who knew my family or went to school with my four sisters and me. It’s wonderful to feel part of a community.
All the people I meet are so nice, whether it’s at the laundromat on the Harveys Lake highway or the Citgo gas station across from Weis’ market. Or whether it’s the dry-cleaner owner at the Country Club Shopping Center in Dallas, or the man who owns the storage facility in Swoyersville, or the polite doctors and receptionists at the Geisinger clinic in Dallas.
And then there’s the quiet and the greenery. I drive to North Mountain, past Ricketts Glen State Park, to walk my dog for a big dose of fresh mountain air and to smell the perfume of the soil after a rain. Every day when I walk my dog on the Irem Temple Country Club access road, I meet more friendly people.
There was a young man working in the mechanic’s building on the property, and I asked if he could destroy my external hard drive. I couldn’t break the darn thing with a hammer and wanted to protect all my information. He said, “Sure, I’d be glad to help,” and took a sledgehammer. Five whacks later, all the info was scattered into small, indecipherable pieces. After all, just tossing an external hard drive into the trash is like leaving a key in your front door.
I remember a passage from “Gone With The Wind,” and what Rhett Butler said when he explained why he was leaving Atlanta and returning to Charleston: “I want a life lived by gentle folks. I’ve grown tired of shoddy manners and cheap emotions.”
That’s what prompted me to leave Los Angeles, where I had lived for seven years: I could no longer stand the noise, the traffic, the summer heat or the general rudeness. When I moved to Palm Springs, two hours southeast, I discovered that I’m not a desert person. The searing and relentless summer heat was unbearable — 100-plus degrees every day for more than four months. And with all that brown and beige landscape, including the houses and buildings, I was dying to see some green.
And then there was the earthquake.
But there’s another facet: The green of the countryside is part of my DNA too. I can trace it back to my distant ancestor, Benjamin Harvey, who discovered Harveys Lake in August of 1781. So my ancestors and relatives have been here for a long time. No wonder I felt a natural gravitation to return to where my family had been settled for centuries.
When I was a young girl, I used to walk the four-mile round trip from our house on Shrine View to the library on Main Street in Dallas to get my Nancy Drew books. After reading the first one, I remember standing in my bedroom and saying out loud: “I’m going to write a book!”
And so all these years later, I have.
In May, my first book was published. “Home At Last” is a memoir that tells all the family secrets of growing up in a privileged but nutty, colorful household. My father used to write the Little Studies column in the Times Leader about his trials and tribulations of dealing with his five daughters and their antics. And everyone would say, “Oh, that Smith family is so colorful!”
My four sisters and I all went to the Day School and then went away to boarding school (where I used my middle name and became known as DeWitt Smith because there were four other Barbaras in my class). I was the only Smith sister who returned to the Back Mountain to live, back in 1979, for a year, before moving to Washington, D.C. to work for the Washington Star. As for my sisters, one of them died and the other three live out of state.
So I am the last of the Smiths here and plan to be buried in the family plot at Oak Lawn Cemetery in Wilkes-Barre, where my grandparents, my father, my aunt and sister are buried. There’s something I find very reassuring about that. And how fitting — the plot is on the crest of a hill, under a big oak tree, amid all that greenery.
Home at last.