I don't get out to West Knoxville as much as I should. But I had a business lunch at the Diner in Downtown West a couple of weeks ago, and driving back on Gleason Road approaching Morrell, I came across a startling barren landscape, like a ridge on Uranus.
It took a minute to realize that this red-clay desert was about where Deane Hill Country Club used to be.
I hadn't been to Deane Hill in a long time. The last time was nearly 20 years ago, when an attractive girl I'd met at the Last Lap invited me to a sorority dance there. It was a rare opportunity for me or any other guy who spent his Saturday nights alone drinking longnecks at the Last Lap.
We parked in the boxwood-lined parking lot and went inside this old place I knew from long ago. But once we were on the ballroom, Ellen made it clear that she had no intention of actually dancing. She sat and talked with her friends, while I wandered around this grand old house I hadn't seen since I was a kid.
Back before West Town, back when you could hear cattle mooing on this hill, my family went to Deane Hill to swim. It was cheaper than most country clubs, especially for folks like us who promised never to use the golf course. In those days, when even our rich friends didn't have pools in their backyards, Deane Hill must have been the only swimming pool we had access to.
We'd leap barefoot out of the Fairlane wagon, hot-foot it across the parking lot, and race barefoot down the long tree-shaded walk between the house and the boxwoods, impatient with how slowly moms can walk. We'd round the right turn at the end of the walk, then the left, and we'd know we were almost there. From the crest of that hill, down the grand concrete stairway before us, was a sudden vista of delight.
Invisible from the road, a discrete distance down the hill from the house, surrounded by woods and rose gardens, was the best swimming pool in the world. From there you couldn't see any cars, or parking lots, or steel fences. On summer Saturdays the pool was so crowded there was no actual swimming going on. It was a big, half-submerged party: Marco Polo and cannonballs and kids begging their moms to come on in. But the moms all seemed content to line up in deck chairs smeared with aromatic Coppertone, reading Dr. Zhivago.
There was a snack shop at the south end of the cabana, with a patio overlooking the eastern slope, tall trees growing up alongside it, like a scene in an old Japanese painting. The first time I ever ordered something for myself, and paid money for it, was from that window, right there. ("I want a hot dog," I said to the guy, who reminded me of a bartender in a movie. "Do you want that with everything?" the guy said. An unexpected dilemma. I considered running back to mom. "Sure," I said.)
The big, dark-paneled rooms in the old house at Deane Hill hinted at the mysteries of adulthood. When liquor-by-the-drink was still illegal in Knoxville, Deane Hill had a real bar, with a real bartender like in the movies. I sometimes caught glimpses of it, men in jackets and narrow ties, a grown man's place with an unexplainable language of highballs and cocktails. For years, that was my only image of a real bar in Knoxville.
On Wednesday nights I put on a jacket and clip-on tie--because I was told that men were not allowed into Deane Hill after 6:00 without a jacket and tie--and my mother and grandmother and an old man in a dark suit called Mr. McKee would go to Deane Hill, a completely different place after dark. There, in the foyer by the staircase that wound up to the unknown second floor, was a basket of square cards printed BINGO. I chose mine carefully.
The place was usually crowded with elegantly dressed gray-haired people I imagined to be professors and barons and ambassadors. I don't remember other kids. There, at age 8, I would have regarded other kids with disdain.
We always sat in a corner room near the back, with windows onto the ballroom. With bookcases and stuffed chairs and ottomans, it looked like an elegant private parlor. I was careful to get down off my big chair and stand whenever a lady came into the room. I was told that was a very important thing for a young man to remember, and for the rest of my life, people would know that I was a gentleman. At Deane Hill, adulthood was cryptic and complex, an elusive state of perfection.
The place was changing by the time we quit, the old-fashioned marble and dark-wood ballroom remodeled to look more like a suburban-chic restaurant.
I wasn't there for another decade--but for those years, without thinking, I'd read books and picture the action at old Deane Hill. The spooky old house in the Hardy Boys' While the Clock Ticked. The gentleman's club in Around the World in 80 Days. The ballrooms in Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise.
Back there for one night, at that sorority nondance 20 years ago, I drank gin and roamed alone around the house, wearing the jacket and tie that were apparently no longer required. It was smaller than the palace I remembered, but I still knew my way around. When I returned to the ballroom, Ellen seemed embarrassed about how talkative I was getting to be. She insisted on driving back to campus. I don't think we went out again.
I've never gained admittance to that distinguished adult world that I prepared myself for at Deane Hill 30 years ago. And now, Deane Hill has vanished from the earth.