Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Oh, To Be Home Tonight ...

I grew up in Conway, Ark.

Does the name of the town sound familiar? If it does — and if you don't happen to be a product of the place — you've probably heard of Conway because that is where "American Idol" finalist Kris Allen lived while he was in college. Maybe he still lives there. I honestly don't know.

I lived in Conway for most of the first 20 years of my life. Allen, who is 23, hadn't even been born when I left Conway.

Truth is, we probably lived in entirely different places. Same name. Different places.

The Conway I lived in didn't even reach 20,000 in population. In fact, I think there were fewer than 10,000 people there when I enrolled in first grade. Most of the time that I lived there, there was one movie theater in town, the old–fashioned, single–screen type downtown with a big marquee out front. I have vivid memories of going there as a child. When our family went to the movie, we stopped at the drug store on the corner and bought candy bars to eat instead of paying the higher prices for snacks at the theater. My mother would then smuggle them into the theater in her purse and hand them out to my father, my brother and me when we got to our seats.

In the summers, the local merchants sponsored free movies for kids. Each week, the mothers in my neighborhood took turns driving the kids in to see the movie, and the mothers got a few free hours to do with as they pleased.

A two–screen theater opened when I was in junior high, and the old theater downtown went out of business. A Wal–Mart and a McDonald's also opened around that time. Folks thought Conway was really becoming cosmopolitan.

In 2006, Conway had more than 57,000 residents. That means it is probably around five times the size it was when I was in elementary school.

Conway has had its moments in the spotlight. When I was a kid, one of our neighbors was one of the top Democrats in the state. In fact, when I was in third grade, he ran for the Senate and his wife ran for governor. Neither won.

Before he won NBA championships with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen played college basketball at the University of Central Arkansas, which is located in Conway. When I was growing up, the school was known as State College of Arkansas, but many of the locals waged a successful campaign for it to be given university status.

I remember the current mayor as a fairly ordinary kid who was a year or two behind me in school. Speaking of which, the building where I attended high school (which seemed new and very state of the art at the time) is still being used, but the enrollment in grades 9–12 has grown so much that they now have grades 9 and 10 on one campus and grades 11 and 12 on another.

The mascot is still the Wampus Cat. You don't know what that is? Well, it's a six–legged cat with "four to run with the speed of light and two to fight with all its might."

Doesn't that sound positively "It's a Wonderful Life?"

Actually, it did seem like a pretty good place to grow up. At least, it seemed that way to me. I grew up outside the city limits on a manmade lake. Summers were wonderful there. We swam in the lake. We camped out. We went fishing.

It was like being Huck Finn with an air–conditioned home in which to sleep. And Conway was always hot and humid in the summer so you thanked whatever higher power made air conditioning possible.

There wasn't much traffic so we could ride our bikes in the middle of the road if we wanted to.

And, in the winter, a fresh snowfall would turn those rustic woods into a winter wonderland.

I'm sure a lot of things about Conway are different now.

And I don't know how much of his life has been spent there. Allen was born in nearby Jacksonville. I don't know if he attended Conway High at any point, but he didn't graduate from CHS. He's a worship leader in his church in Maumelle.

But I think Allen went to school at UCA, and the city has adopted him as its own. From what I've read on the website for the town's newspaper, they're having "watch parties" around Conway, and folks have been snapping up official Kris Allen T–shirts.

This week, he's in the finals of "American Idol." The winner will be revealed tomorrow night.

You can bet they'll be watching in Conway.