Gunpowder vexes the night
in booms and bangs
to celebrate our Independence
and a little something troubles my bare arm
as I recline in the warm evening.
I look down, perchance to swat away
the affrontive mosquito—but no,
it is a larger bug, with long, dark wings,
almost a rectangle:And I ask it “Can you light up?”
And, as it flies away, it does.
A lightning bug!
As a boy in the flatlands of Illinois
I chased them by the hundreds,
catching them in my hands
and sequestering them in glass jars
with holes poked in the lid
so they could breathe.
We were not so callous
as to kill them by suffocation.
We would only imprison them overnight
and release them the next day
if we remembered—our innocence
exceeded only by our youth.
Here in this boreal clime
where I am resolved to age in place,
we do not see so many lightning bugs.
Still, they are with us
and more than welcome
as we pass our summer evenings
in contemplation of
how far we have traveled.
Galesburg is an old town for Illinois, having been established in 1837.
Since then, it has gathered thousands of distinct strands of memory.
Some of those memories attach to famous people. Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters, poets. Mother Bickerdyke, the indefatigable Civil War nurse. George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., inventor of the big wheel that takes people up in the air and brings them down again.
Some of the memories attach to me.
I don’t mean to compare myself to Great Figures of the past, Dear Reader. You see, it’s just that we were all jumbled together—George Fitch who spun droll fin-de-siècle yarns about football and other college hijinks; Grover Cleveland Alexander, Hall of Fame pitcher whose career started in Galesburg; Jack Finney, Knox College graduate who wrote such classic speculative fiction novels as The Body Snatchers and Time and Again; Edward Beecher, abolitionist preacher, close friend of the martryed Elijah P. Lovejoy; plus tens of thousands of other folks you never heard of.
Oh, my dear—that brings us back to me.
Why I mention this is that all of us, famous and otherwise, contributed strands to the giant skein of recollections and speculations that is Galesburg. And the reason I belabor the point is not that Galesburg is much different from other small Midwestern towns.
Only that it is mine. What commends it to comment is the homeness of the place.
Mom and Dad graduated from Knoxville High School, five miles from The Burg, in 1940. They might have gotten married there and then, but Dad was ever slow and deliberate. The Army got him before Mom did. After he got back from the Southwest Pacific, in September 1944, they married, in a home ceremony in Knoxville. By the time Dad entered Knox College the following September, I had been added to the ménage.
Dad was not the only veteran who wanted a college education. Uncle Sam catered to the aspirations of millions by providing funds, under the GI Bill, to make their dreams come true. Cheap housing units were thrown together on college campuses for returning veterans and their young families. We lived in one such apartment.
We did not have a refrigerator; we had an icebox. The iceman would come once or twice a week—more often, I think, in summer—lugging a huge block of ice using iron tongs, sliding the ice into the upper compartment of the icebox. The lower compartment was where we kept milk, meat, eggs, and butter.
The Burg was a gridwork of purple brick streets, lined with glass-globed street lamps which cast a soft glow on warm summer nights. My little friends and I played on green grass crisscrossed by walks of crushed white gravel.
Mom and Dad stayed up late, playing bridge with their neighbors. I lay in my tiny bedroom with my teddy bear and listened to the thwop of cards being shuffled and the more distant roll-and-bang of trains being assembled in the nearby Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy freight yards. By day, passenger trains dashed by on the main line—just across Cherry Street from where we lived—pulled by big black locomotives, streaming white vapor from their stacks.
A Durable Pageant
Later, in the 1950s, Aunt Bertha and Uncle Harry would take us across town to get ice cream at Highlanders’. It was a little stand run by a family who made the product in their own kitchen. I knew about chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. But it was not until we patronized Highlanders’ that I learned ice cream could be infused with crushed bits of peppermint sticks. Zowie!
Mom liked black walnut fudge. Yechhh!
Even when Dad graduated in 1949 and we moved away to little Dwight, and then Streator, where he had chemistry jobs, we always came back to The Burg and its little satellite Knoxville. Because that was home. It was where all our people were.
Aunt Bertha would pile us kids into her Ford Victoria and take us to Lake Bracken for swimming. There was a nice sandy beach and a big clubhouse where you could get a Snickers bar that was frozen. Another zowie.
Sometimes we went to Lake Storey or Lincoln Park at the other end of town for picnics. Life was pretty good.
The Small End of the Telescope
All that was decades ago, Gentle Reader. Things have changed dramatically. Highlanders’ is no more. Purington Bricks folded up long ago. The Lake Bracken Clubhouse burned down in 1987.
But the memories mean something. They stick in people’s minds. In 1960, when The Body Snatchers and other work had already made him rich and famous, Jack Finney reached back and penned a short story called “I Love Galesburg in the Springtime.”
We are not just a jumble of experiences. We are a bundle of associations.
Even on increasingly rare visits to The Burg of today, I sense immediately that I have come home.
I pray, Dear Reader, there is a place like that for you.
Stuff of the moon Runs on the lapping sand Out to the longest shadows. Under the curving willows, And round the creep of the wave line, Fluxions of yellow and dusk on the waters Make a wide dreaming pansy of an old pond in the night.
—Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), “Nocturne in a Deserted Brickyard,” 1916
Ever been in a brickyard? It’s a factory where bricks are made. Today there’s a computerized, robotic operation in Brampton, Ontario that makes 200 million bricks a year.
In Sandburg’s time, brickyards were smaller. They were numerous; they dotted the countryside.
There would be a large building where bricks were formed, kilns to bake them into hard pavers or building bricks, square stacks of finished product, and a tall smokestack or two, or three. By night, moonshadows might mold the place into a mystic realm of keeps and turrets, standing sentinel over the sleeping countryside—or else brutal, stolid hulks suggesting somber reckonings in the chill moonlight.
Charlie Sandburg knew all this. But he describes only a pond—the softest, most horizontal piece of the picture. Brickyards had ponds, formed where clay and shale were scooped from the earth. But the pond in this poem is a pond and nothing else—not an artifact of industry or a byproduct of production. It is a pool of water, swayed by breeze, by gravity, by the moon.
The “brickyard” in the title gives us a setting but makes no demands on the “wide dreaming pansy.” Sandburg was a romantic.
He was also one of the the great American poets, a singer of plain people and their lives, a successor to Walt Whitman.
Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois, in a three-room cottage at 313 East Third Street. He lived his first twenty years mostly in and about Galesburg. After brief service as a private in the Spanish-American War, he returned to Galesburg and he attended Lombard College. Besides glimpsing the life of the mind and acquiring a habit of poetry, Sandburg captained the Lombard basketball team in days when they stopped the game after every score to retrieve the ball from the peach basket.
Even after leaving Galesburg, Carl Sandburg remained a Midwesterner, a son of the prairie.
Galesburg had several brickyards. The greatest of these was the Purington Brick Company of East Galesburg. They made heavy bricks that paved the streets of Galesburg and other cities, even as far as Panama City, Panama.
As time went on, cities quit paving their streets with brick. The Purington brickyard ceased production in 1974. If you drove through East Galesburg today, you would be hard-pressed to discern there was ever a brick-making factory there. Above the surrounding woods you may glimpse a tall chimney, now crumbling. That’s about all.
I know this, Dear Reader, because I do get back to Galesburg once in a while. Like Sandburg, I am a native. My birth took place in Cottage Hospital on North Kellogg Street, in 1945. By that time, the 67-year-old Carl Sandburg—winner of Pulitzer Prizes in both poetry and history, a recognized national treasure—was relocating to Flat Rock, North Carolina, where he would dwell the last twenty-two years of his life and produce a third of his work.
Something of Galesburg made Sandburg who he was. Today, his birthplace is preserved as a sort of historic shrine. There is a small visitor center. You can visit the tiny cottage where the poet was born. You can see Remembrance Rock, under which lie the ashes of Sandburg and of Lillian Steichen Sandburg, his wife of fifty-nine years.
The place is worth a visit, if you’re ever in Galesburg.
But Sandburg is only one memory that clings to the skirts of this old prairie city.
I have dragged myself out of bed after midnight on a good sleeping night—one of those rain-blessed nights when you hear the tap and drizzle of the storm just outside the window—because this musing has come to me.
If I wait till morning, I’ll lose it.
It’s a message for you, Dear Reader, about creativity.
Maybe you have thought you would like to write something. Something true from your life and experience, be it written as fact or fiction. Something you might share with your children, your grandchildren, or the world.
But you have answered yourself: “No. I’m no writer.”
Or maybe: “No. I’d start and then not know where to go from there. I’d get writer’s block.”
But before you give up on the idea, consider my case. I resolved six years ago to start the writing career I had always promised myself. I knew not what I would write, nor how. But there was something inside me that had to come out. Surely if I gave it a whirl, something would turn up.
So I plunged in.
Are you still with me, Gentle Reader? Just plunging in is not unheard-of. People do it. You could plunge in, too—if you so chose.
When I plunged in, I wanted to write about the past—the place where I spend most of my time. But the first thing that came to me—it came in a dream one night—was a brief, whimsical character study of Skeezie, our woebegone old Siberian husky. I sent it to Fetch! magazine—“For dogs and their humans”—and they bought it.
What a morale booster! But it was an isolated victory, something of a fluke. I buckled down to my real aim of writing about the past. I wrote short stories about a young boy named Izzy Mahler, growing up in the ’Fifties. I submitted one to The Saturday Evening Post, and they published it in their online edition.
Wow, another fluke.
Over the next couple of years, the Post bought a couple more Izzy Mahler stories (here and here).
But I wanted something more. I hankered to write a novel. My wife, Jo, had unearthed my Norwegian ancestors, and the framework of their lives, as shown by her research, suggested the beginnings of a plot.
Plunging in is fine, Cherished Reader, but I craved a surer sense of what I was about. What kind of Pandora’s box would I open if I embarked on a novel? So I signed up for the University of Wisconsin–Extension’s “Write By The Lake” conference in the summer of 2016. There, the inimitable Laurie Scheer encouraged me to go ahead and write my “immigrant novel.”
So I plunged in. Does this suggest any writing strategy to you, Dear Reader?
I wrote most of the novel on my laptop but part of it in longhand in a notebook I took with me to a church meeting in 2017. I recruited volunteer beta readers to read my work and give feedback.
Sensing I was in over my head, I joined Tuesdays With Story, a writers’ mutual critique group led by Jerry Peterson of Janesville, Wisconsin. Jerry is an author with plenty of publication credits, a master of great stories. When I showed my early chapters to the group, I had to swallow a lot of guff arising from amateurism in my writing. It was galling, Dear Reader—but I could not ignore the truth in the critiques.
My writing started to get better.
We talked a lot in the group about “writer platforms,” about one’s “social media presence,” about “blogs” and “podcasts.” It seemed you had to do that stuff to be successful. My heart screamed, “No! No! No! Here I am trying to burrow into the past, and you’re trying to shove me into some godforsaken future. I won’t go!”
But at some point in those discussions, Jerry said, “Well, instead of thinking of a blog as something to promote your writing, you might look at a blog as being your writing—at least, part of it. If nothing else, it’s a chance to write something and get it in front of the public, on your own terms.”
To Blog, or Not to Blog: That Is the Question
It was an agonizing decision. For a blog to be worth doing, it ought to be posted regularly, maybe as often as once a week. I would have to spend a lot of my precious time composing and posting blog entries.
I had heard somebody say, “It’s easy. Just rattle off something and post it. A few minutes a week.” But I could never do that. Why would I put something into the world under my name that was not carefully written? Pondered? Revised? Crafted? To do so would be the opposite of what I was trying to do. If I was going to start a blog, the entries needed to be high in quality.
That meant significant time spent each week, and that would cut into my novel writing time. Besides—where would I come up with all the material needed for a weekly blog post?
I’m hearing an echo now, Kind Reader, as you murmur, “What if I tried to write something? Where would I get the content?”
Well, I’ll tell you what Your New Favorite Writer did.
I plunged in. Here we go again. Do you see a pattern?
Since April 2019, I have posted 164 blog entries. What you are reading now will be Number 165. I have posted almost every week, usually on Tuesday morning. I have written about my grandmother’s postcard collection, the Springfield race riot of 1907, the losses of two of my uncles in World War II, General Grant, the onset of autumn in Wisconsin, the craziness of coping with COVID, how to use a chainsaw, the philosophical reflections of Milo Bung (a direct descendant of Æthelred the Unready and fourth cousin to Slats Grobnik) and more than a hundred other topics. I have even posted a few not-quite-ready-for-prime-time short stories.
Where did all that content come from?
All I can say is, there’s always something. I never run dry.
Wellspring of Creativity
That’s my message to you, Fair Reader: There’s always something. When you start to create, you reach down into some magical place, where there’s always more stuff ready to bubble forth. As soon as you take some out and write it down, more wells up to take its place.
I think of it as a wellspring of creativity. I’ve spoken to other writers, and I’m assured the situation is the same in all other kinds of artistic endeavors: The more you produce, the more there is to draw from.
You can never run out. There’s a wellspring of creativity inside you.
I’m not talking about Creation. That would be presumptuous. In my theology, only God creates. The best we can do is recombine elements of that primordial Creation in new ways. That’s not Creation—but it is creativity. Somehow, when we do this kind of work, we participate in God’s creative work.
Yes, Distinguished Reader. I’m saying it’s a Divine Calling.
Ignore it at your peril.
Despite the time and effort required for the weekly blog post, I have completed and sold an epic novel, due to be published August 23. I have a middle-grades novel for which I’ll soon be seeking a publisher. And there are other projects in the works, which I’m not ready to talk about yet.
The more you dip out, the more comes in to take its place.
You might think about trying it, too, Dear Reader.
Just plunge in. You have but to stretch forth your hand.
When I was a boy we called it Decoration Day. It was the day to decorate the graves of the fallen with flowers.
It was on held on May 30. They ran a 500-mile auto race the same day at Indianapolis.
Congress decreed the official name was Memorial Day, and that starting in 1971 it would be observed on the last Monday in May. Because people already thought of May 30 as Memorial Day, calendars said “Memorial Day” on May 30 and “Memorial Day (Observed)” on the last Monday of the month.
This year the last Monday happens to be May 30.
Let me tell you what I observed.
On May 29, one day before the general Memorial Day, we rededicated our statue of Colonel Hans Christian Heg, the Norwegian American hero who led the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War. The larger-than-life statue had been toppled, dismembered, and thrown into a lake by rioters. Now, after two years, it is restored to its pedestal on the east approach to the state capitol.
Norwegians are happy and relieved. But not just Norwegians. Colonel Heg, who gave his life at Chickamauga, speaks to the aspirations of all nationalities—people who came here and without hesitation sacrificed their lives for their new homeland. Heg symbolizes the price of passage from an old life to a new one.
The ceremony was long—elaborate and drawn out to fit the mood of the occasion. The colonel was well and truly rededicated.
On Monday, May 30, hundreds of people gathered at Union Rest, the cemetery-within-a-cemetery where 240 Union soldiers from the Civil War lie buried. A band played a number of selections, mostly military marches, with éclat. Speeches were made, salutes were rendered. The mood was solemn but not oppressive. Sunshine filtered through giant oaks, and a nice breeze riffled through the grounds.
The people present, many of us old but some young, did not seem to be there to celebrate the unofficial start of summer, or to take advantage of a Memorial Day blowout sale. No, we seemed to be there to pay our respects to those who died for us.
A female veteran played Taps on a period bugle, with a nice tone and elegiac phrasing.
After the ceremony, my wife and I were among those who hiked a hundred yards or so to view the graves at Confederate Rest, the other soldiers’ cemetery enclosed within Forest Hill. Low stones there mark the graves of 140 Confederate soldiers, most of them members of the 1st Alabama regiment who died in Union custody as prisoners at, or en route to, confinement here at Camp Randall.
Along with the 140 dead soldiers is buried Alice Waterman. She was a Southern woman who, having relocated to Madison, took it upon herself to spruce up the gravesites during a period of official neglect in the late nineteenth century.
Great controversy arose recently over these graves. In January 2019, a stone cenotaph etched with their names was removed from the cemetery by the Madison Parks Department and transferred to storage at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum.
Yesterday, no echo of that strife sounded, nor did a single eyelash bat at the Stars and Bars flag posted at the entrance to the graves, where a young woman in period dress chatted with visitors.
This is the northernmost Confederate graveyard in the nation.
Memorial Day is not all about the Civil War, however. My friend Brian lost his son, a cavalry scout, to an improvised explosive device in Tikrit, Iraq, in 2006.
Brian has never gotten over it. Every Memorial Day is a fresh source of pain. Brian lives with it, but not quietly. Every year he explains patiently for those who may have forgotten, or who never knew: Memorial Day is not a happy day; nor is it a recognition for living veterans—we have our own day in November; nor yet a recognition for currently serving members of the military—they have their own day, too.
Memorial Day is for remembering the fallen. Like Ryan.
Or like my two uncles, Stanley and Franklin. They died before I was born, one in the cockpit of a B-17 in the Southwest Pacific, the other in a B-26 over France.
Do I miss Stanley and Franklin? How could I miss them? I never even met them.
Yes, I miss them. Of course I miss them. The world misses them.
And millions of others.
It’s good we have one day each year when we are brought back in touch with these facts, forced to think about our losses.
We viewed the now-restored courtroom where celebrated 19th-century tussles had taken place. I made a photograph of it. Then Ron led me around the corner and pointed out an old wagon from the Abraham Lincoln era.
On the wall near the wagon hung a photo that stopped me in my tracks.
“Whoa!” I said. “I know this picture.”
“You do?” Poyner was goggle-eyed.
“I have a copy at home. Do you know who these people are?”
He shook his head. “A farm couple, for sure.” He squinted at a small plate on the lower corner of the frame. “Says the oxen’s names are Buck and Bright.”
“But you don’t know the people’s names?”
“No.” He looked at me expectantly.
“The man is my great-great-grandfather, George Witherell. And the woman is his wife, Martha Stolipher Witherell. He was a Civil War veteran. Fought with the 77th Illinois under Sherman. Went all over the South and marched in the victory parade in Washington in May 1865.”
Ron whipped out a small notebook and started scribbling. “How do you spell that? And what relation did you say they were?”
I started to spell it for him, then stopped. “Well, the thing you might want to know is, he was the maternal grandfather of my Grandma LaFollette, who donated the cabin to the town. Don’t bother trying to write it down. When I get home, I’ll email you a complete summary.”
So that’s how we left it.
When we got home, I dug out my copy of the photograph.
I scanned it and emailed the JPEG to Ron Poyner, just to confirm it was in fact the same photo. Then I started going through the materials my wife had compiled, years ago, about George and Martha Witherell.
George was the son of Ephraim Witherell and grandson of Asaph Witherell, a veteran of the War of 1812.
Asaph Witherell, son of Ephraim Wetherel Jr. and Tabitha Harvey of Norton, Massachusetts, was born in Keene, New Hampshire, in 1783, the very year that King George III renounced his claim to the American colonies via the Treaty of Paris.
Asaph was 29 in 1812, when the U.S. again fought the British, and he joined the fight. After the war he married Joanna White, ten years his junior, and they lived in her home area of Windham County, Vermont, where their son Ephraim was born in 1816. In 1817 Asaph was awarded a war bounty of 160 acres of land in what would become Stark County, Illinois. But it was impractical at that time to pick up and move west.
Ephraim, Asaph and Joanna’s son, grew up and married a Pennsylvania girl, Rebecca Donaldson. They moved to Washington County, Indiana, in 1840. There, on September 8, 1845, George Witherell was born.
The Witherells Come to Illinois
The whole family, including George’s grandparents, Asaph and Joanna, moved to Peoria County, Illinois, when George was three. Despite his tender age, George retained a lifelong memory of seeing, while en route to Peoria County, a victory procession for newly-elected president Zachary Taylor. That would have been 1848.
In 1851, when George was six, the family moved again, this time to Knox County. He spent the rest of his life there, on the family farm about a mile south of the Old Courthouse in Knoxville where now hangs the photo of himself, his wife Martha, and their two oxen, Buck and Bright.
It is unclear whether George’s grandfather Asaph Witherell ever claimed his 1812 bounty grant, which was in Stark County—not Peoria or Knox County.
Apparently the only time George Witherell left Knoxville was when he joined the 77th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. That was on 11 February 1864. He was eighteen years old. He was vaccinated against smallpox in March and shipped south to join his unit in Louisiana, where it was engaged in the disastrous Red River Campaign under Major General Nathaniel Banks.
Although George was not wounded in the campaign, his left upper arm got inflamed, swollen, and afflicted with a running sore—all in apparent reacton to the vaccination he had received in Galesburg after enlisting. This reaction lasted until November 1864. After-effects plagued him for the rest of his life, resulting in a disability pension from the U.S. government.
The 77th Illinois and a sister unit, the 130th Illinois, continued operations in the Gulf region for the rest of the war. When George mustered out of service in 1965, it was as a member of the 130th, to which he had been transferred.
So many of the “facts” I had told Ron Poyner were based on wrong assumptions. George Witherell was indeed a member of the 77th Illinois, which under General Sherman had fought throughout Grant’s Vickburg Campaign of 1863. But by the time George joined the unit in 1864, it had been shuffled out of Sherman’s command and into a dead-end action that kept it in the lower Mississippi basin for the rest of the war. Even during that action, my great-great-grandfather spent months on extended sick call because of his arm problem.
He did not serve in the 77th when it was under Major General William T. Sherman, as I had said. Neither he nor his unit, the 77th, “went all over the South and marched in the victory parade in Washington in May 1865” as I had promised Ron Poyner. Open mouth, insert foot.
Oh, well. The facts are the facts. George did serve honorably in the Union cause.
He married Martha Stolipher in 1866, shortly after returning from the war, and never left Knoxville after that. As the photo attests, they acquired a team of oxen and grew old farming the prairie soil south of town.
One of their children, Minnie Witherell, married John Dredge and became the mother of Berneice Dredge LaFollette—my grandmother, who in 1963 donated the Sanburn cabin to the City of Knoxville.
For the past sixty-five years I have lived as a Wisconsinite. I’ve grown to love the Badger state—its saucy lingo full of bubblers and hotdishes, its full spectrum of tasty cheeses and sausages, and its gentle yet unmistakably corrugated landscape.
But through age twelve, I was all Illinois. My family was Illinois before me. Flatlanders, every one of us.
My mother’s parents, Alvin and Berneice LaFollette, dwelt in a rambling, single-story house. It sat on the south side of the town square in Knoxville, Illinois, facing the old abandoned courthouse across the square. Knoxville was once the county seat of Knox county, but it did not grow enough to keep the distinction. When I was a boy, in the 1950s, it was a town of about two thousand souls.
My grandparents’ house must have been built bit by bit, expanded over the years by adding rooms. The dining room and kitchen were down a step from the living room and bedrooms. You had to go outdoors to get to the indoor bathroom, which was not only behind the house but also down a flight of stairs; it was basically a plumbed storm cellar, with toilet, shower, and laundry tubs. The whole house, except for this unique subterranean bathroom, was clad in weathered brown clapboard siding.
Time passed. Grandpa died. About 1963, Grandma needed to sell the property and take up a more practical and frugal mode of living. Buyers would want the lot only if the tired old house were first removed. Grandma found a man who agreed to tear down the house for free in exchange for the salvage—a good deal, she figured.
Demolition began. All went well. But when the man took his crowbar to the kitchen, what he found beneath the clapboard siding was not framing studs but the solid walls of an old log cabin—square-hewn timbers, saddle-notched to lock at the corners, no nails needed. Gaps were chinked with prairie clay and hay.
Everything stopped while local historians scratched their heads and searched old records. It turned out that Grandma’s kitchen had once been the first permanent structure built by a white man in Knox County. Pioneer settler John Sanburn built it in 1832 to house his general store. Naturally, it also became the town’s first post office.
All that was well and good, but Grandma still needed the land clean so she could sell it. She donated the cabin to the village on condition that it be moved from her land. They jacked it up, put it on wheels, and eased it across the square. There it sits to this day, beside the old courthouse.
Grandma sold her land and went to live with three daughters and a son-in-law in Albuquerque. In the old place, where we held family picnics in the big yard under Knox County’s largest elm tree, where we caught lightning bugs after dark, where the town band serenaded us with Sousa from the bandstand in the square on Saturday nights, and where we met the Yule with aunts and uncles and cousins around the roaring kerosene heater in the ramshackle old house—there now stands a jim-dandy asphalt parking lot.
The Past Restored
Meanwhile, the old cabin on the north side of the square has come under the stewardship of the Knox County Historical Sites, Inc., which also maintains the old courthouse, the old jail, and the Knox County Historical Museum. The cabin has been restored to what it must have been like in John Sanburn’s heyday.
Last weekend, having an hour free during the course of a Knox College class reunion, my wife and I met Ron Poyner, current president of the Knox county Historical Sites, Inc., for a quick tour of the cabin.
It was a poignant moment for me, being inside an 1832 general store which I had last visited when it was a modern 1950s-style kitchen featuring great meals served by Grandma LaFollette. Aunt Sue made peanut butter sandwiches for me in that kitchen. Aunt Linda, still a kid herself, sat with me and my sister and our cousins at the “kids’ table” in that kitchen while the grownups ate their Christmas dinner in the dining room.
Ron offered to show me also the second floor of the old courthouse. “We’ve restored the courtroom to the way it was in the old days,” said Ron, who is also Knoxville’s chief of police. “It’s where the trial was conducted that resulted in the only legal hanging in Knox county history.”
I wish I had thought to ask how many illegal hangings there were, but my mind was on other things. I knew the old courthouse had also been the scene of a fierce legal fight over Susan “Aunt Sukey” Richardson, a black woman who had fled a brutal situation of indentured servitude that was tantamount to slavery. Although the legal proceedings came out muddled, Aunt Sukey did stay free and lived out her life in nearby Galesburg and later, Chicago.
Naturally I wanted to see and photograph the old courtroom, which was on the second floor of the stately courthouse. So up the steep, narrow stairway we went. I viewed the courtroom and shot a picture.
Then, as I turned to go back downstairs, a photo on the wall stopped me in my tracks.
“S-1,” says the copilot’s voice on interphone. “Rotate.”
The nose lifts, the wheels leave the ground.
The Boeing RC-135M tilts skyward, pressing the twenty of us into our harnesses chestwise, for we have swiveled to face aft while slipping the surly bonds of earth. A Renaissance tune piped by Ed Flaspoehler on his recorder whistles bravely through the bluster of four jet engines and the whoosh of the fuselage as it parts the air.
Off we go, into the wild blue yonder.
Marking time. One more bottomless day.
But coming soon, for me: Liberation from all this glory.
“S-2.” We cross an unseen threshold in the sky, en route to our twelve-hour recon mission. Our faces glint green and orange from the freq scopes and nixie tubes that surround us in the darkness of the cabin. We are airmen of the 6990th Security Squadron, U.S. Air Force, flying out of Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.
The Allied Powers defeated Japan in 1945, my birth year. Innocent of the war just behind me, I was a bright-eyed, precocious little learner—smiling, always merry, long-winded and talkative, yet also shy and timid.
Now it’s 1969. In twenty-four years I have picked up a lot of baggage, have grown a hard shell wrapped in a muffling batt of sullen. Well, you need to get through some way, don’t you?
The Japanese island of Okinawa remains occupied, though Japan is now America’s friend. We use Okinawa as a staging area for our war against a new enemy, North Vietnam.
Today’s mission is part of that war. Our platform—dubbed Combat Apple by some wizard in the Air Force’s Bureau of Baffling Nomenclature—will speed south, swoop round Hainan Island, and fly a long oval above the Gulf of Tonkin at thirty-seven thousand feet, keeping thirty nautical miles shy of Vietnam to the southwest and China to the northeast.
Our cockpit crew, from the 82nd Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, are simply bus drivers. They will keep us on course, zooming along the charted racetrack while we back-enders in our windowless box do The Mission: scooping up signals from Vietnam and South China.
After twelve hours and two mid-air refuelings, another aircraft will relieve us on the orbit over the Gulf. We will jet home to Kadena with our take—hundreds of enemy transmissions recorded on reel-to-reel tape and hand-scribbled traffic logs.
Anyway, that’s the plan.
It’s a routine. Each of us endures three to six such flights every month. At first I was airsick every time. Then somebody taught me to chew soda crackers and control my breathing. Now, after forty-two missions, I’m an old-timer.
But this trip, my forty-third, is different, being my last. Tomorrow I will turn in my headphones, brain bucket, and oxygen mask. I will climb aboard the Freedom Bird and fly home.
There, a spot in the junior class at the University of Wisconsin awaits—my earliest opportunity to atone for past failure. There’s also an exhilarating young woman from Chicago, Joelle Nelson. I will leave the military and return to real life.
But not till tomorrow.
Wouldn’t you know my final mission would turn hairy?
There’s a storm—not quite a typhoon, but big enough to fill the Gulf and strong enough to garble electromagnetic signals, even VHF, beyond recognition.
Combat Apple’s main job is to overhear Vietnamese surface-to-air missile controllers. However, the back-end crew of twenty also includes three of us who work what is termed “the Chinese Problem.” We are graduates of Robert Tharp’s uncanny 32-week Mandarin Air Force Aural Comprehension course, on board to give early warning in case the Chinese Communists decide to scramble on our plane. Four ChiCom fighter bases—Haikou, Lingshui, Jialaishi, and Mengzi—lie within a MiG-21’s flight range of our orbit.
The MiGs fly a lot, mostly practicing ground-controlled intercepts and air-to-air gunnery. So far, they have never come out over the water to get us, but there’s a first time for everything. Splashing the Apple would cost them something, a couple of planes and pilots lost at sea by running out of fuel. But if that old man in Beijing, the one with the high forehead, had a sudden craving for a U.S. spy plane, his pilots would have a fair chance of giving him one.
Normally we can hear what they’re up to—vectoring on imaginary intruders for practice, shooting at targets towed behind AN-2 biplanes, or sometimes just flying around, shouting inane slogans: “Long live Chairman Mao! All reactionaries are paper tigers!”
The pilots’ and controllers’ voices blast out in clear speech, in regional accents of Mandarin, the national tongue. We ought to be able, theoretically, to detect hostile intent in time for our plane to beat a swift retreat.
But today weather blitzes the airwaves. I can catch only a few callsigns.
As our confining cabin bucks up and down, tilts left and right at odd moments, sweat bathes my face. I breathe deep and slow to calm my stomach as the bottom drops out repeatedly. Worse, I can’t make out what the MiGs are saying. Is there hostile intent?
Last April a North Korean MiG-21 shot down a U.S. Navy EC-121M over the Sea of Japan, sending thirty-one souls to watery graves. Men unknown to any of us, but colleagues just the same.
I see myself donning brain bucket and mask, buckling my straps, standing up and waddling under sixty pounds of parachute and survival gear, through smoke and flames, hoping for a clean drop through the slim emergency hatch as the Boeing cartwheels in flaming loops toward the sea. To bail out at thirty-five thousand—even if the conditions were ideal, which they never will be—is something near a death sentence.
I have come this far—have survived college disgrace, military exile, and forty-two of these disorienting, sinus-busting, strep-throat-inducing joyrides—and stand now on the brink of a new opportunity to prove myself worthy of adult life, maybe even with a delightful bride at my side. Only—could this be the day the MiGs have us in their sights?
To get blown out of the sky and miss my chance to show what I can really do in life would be par for the course—just one parting humiliation.
Tech Sergeant Cooper is with us today as a performance evaluator. I call him over to my console. “Plug in here. See what you make of it.”
Cooper, standing, jacks into my panel, sways as the airplane lifts and drops. He listens. “Got some call signs. Seven-eight-ex.”
“Out of Jialaishi. I think. Can you tell what they’re doing?”
Cooper frowns. “Could be a practice GCI. Or maybe the real thing. Too barfy to tell.”
Cooper is one of three Chinese ops conceded by all to have golden ears. If Cooper can’t pull anything out of this traffic, neither will I.
I swipe the back of a hand across my damp forehead.
Cooper listens, stares through the rolling tape recorder on the bulkhead. He holds his hands over the earcups, brows beetling.
He takes off the headset. “Let’s abort,” he says.
I exhale. My heart slows to normal. I slump in my seat, feeling for all the world like a mound of SOS plopped on a tin mess tray.
Cooper scoots down the aisle to the airborne mission supervisor and speaks in his ear. The AMS nods. He calls the pilot, Major Martin, on private interphone. The plane banks away, out of its assigned orbit.
I’m glad Martin is our bus driver. He’s one of the good ones. You know the landing at Kadena will be smooth, even if there’s a crosswind.
Over Ie Shima, Major Martin stands on the dive brake, and our aircraft drops like a rock. Civilian airliners make gentle descents, but military pilots like Martin prefer to stay high as long as possible and then make a steep dive for the runway. It’s accepted practice.
There’s a fifteen-knot wind across the runway. Martin sets the heavy plane down softly but glues it to the tarmac. No three-bounce landings for him.
We roll to a stop on the apron. We walk down the portable steps with helmet bags slung over our shoulders, board our Air Force blue school bus, go to the ops building for debriefing, get back on the bus, and ride to our barracks.
I drop the helmet off in the barracks room I share with Tom Stehura, who is out somewhere. As usual after a nineteen-hour flight, I’m dog-tired but can’t sleep. I stagger like a drunken seaman two blocks to the base bowling alley, where there is a little snack bar with a juke box and formica tables. I order my usual—peach pie à la mode and root beer—pick up the Pacific edition of Stars and Stripes, and sit down at a vacant table.
I glance around me, checking the room. The horizontal line of the panel wainscoting bobs up and down, tilts left and right in irregular rhythm. I focus on my newspaper and pie.
“HO IS ‘SERIOUSLY ILL’,” screams the 54-point banner atop the first page, summing up a rumor-based UPI story out of Paris. Maybe he is, but it’s not that big a deal. Don’t they realize Ho Chi Minh could drop dead this morning, and General Giap would keep fighting the war as if nothing happened?
Another front-page headline reports progress in the Paris peace talks. I’ll believe that when I see it. Why we’re talking with the Vietnamese Reds at the same time we’re bombing them to smithereens is a bit hard to dope out. Must be part of Nixon’s secret plan to end the war.
There’s an article on page two titled “The Killing Pace of College.” Guess I’ll find out soon enough. The peach pie is tasty and comforting, as always. One of the best things Okinawa has to offer.
Page thirteen has a profile piece on three black musicians—Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, and Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. Very nice.
The pie is all gone. I sip at the root beer and look up at the room. It holds pretty steady now. I get up and walk back to the barracks, not swaying much at all.
The next day is spent out-processing. I sign a form stating that I will be prosecuted to the maximum extent of the law if I ever breathe a word about anything I did, saw, heard, learned, produced, or processed as a member of the United States Air Force. I turn in my green Top Secret Cryptographic access badge.
I turn in my white, spherical brain bucket with oxygen mask and hose.I turn in the rugged, olive drab field jacket that has been with me since Basic Training. I can keep all my uniforms, summer and winter flight suits, duffel bag and B-4 bag, flight jacket and parka, flight boots and aviator sunglasses. But my field jacket—the one item that might be of use in civilian life—that’s an accountable item I have to give back so it can be issued to some newly-minted zoomie at Lackland Air Force Base. That and the switchblade jackknife with the special sharp hook in case you have to cut tangled parachute lines. I don’t suppose I’ll have much need for that in Wisconsin.
The foregoing narrative is true and accurate as best I can recall it over the intervening space of almost fifty-three years. It was written to be part of a more general personal memoir, only I don’t know which part.
Last Tuesday would have been your hundredth birthday, Dad, though you did not live to see it.
You were the fourth of five children. There was Edward first, then Mabel, then Stanley, you, and Franklin. When you were ten, your family moved to Knoxville, Illinois. With two thousand people, Knoxville was a metropolis. Dahinda, where you formerly lived, was just a bend in the road, a place where you and your brothers ran wild in the woods.
By the time you graduated from Knoxville High School in 1940, you had acquired a sweetheart, Barbara Bantz LaFollette, a classmate.
But Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo had other plans for you.
The Lowering Front
Though America’s policies were isolationist, everybody knew war was coming. In September 1940 Congress passed the first-ever peacetime draft. Top generals wrestled with the mere logistics of swiftly building a large Army. National Guard units would play a key role.
In April 1941, you enlisted in the 33rd Division, Illinois National Guard—a unit that had already been called into federal service. You took part in a huge war game called the Louisiana Maneuvers, the Army’s way of testing and validating its rapidly growing force.
On 7 December, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Your regiment, the 132nd Infantry, was rushed to the East Coast, assigned to guard bridges and power plants against possible attack by saboteurs. Being at war with Japan meant the U.S. was also at war with Germany and Italy, who were thought to have sleeper agents in America.
Things were being done in a crashing hurry, thrown together on the fly. In mid-January 1942, you got new orders. The 132nd Infantry Regiment was removed from the 33rd Division and shipped to New York as a free-standing regiment. At the Brooklyn Army Terminal you boarded USS John Ericsson, a troopship. In pre-dawn darkness on 23 January, you and 17,000 new friends slipped out of the harbor on Ericsson and seven other ships.
The eight-ship flotilla was designated Task Force 6814. Its vessels hosted a collection of miscellaneous units, including the 132nd. It was imperative to get under way quickly.
Your ship, the John Ericsson, had been the Swedish American Line’s flagship, MS Kungsholm, until 12 December. As she sailed out of New York harbor, shipfitters and carpenters were busy tearing out the Kungsholm’s luxury accommodations for 1428 passengers, replacing them with plywood bulkheads and tiers of pipe bunks to accommodate five thousand troops.
Once under way—expecting to cross the Atlantic, your duffels stuffed with heavy coats and winter gear—the task force turned right and sailed southward instead. You steamed through the Panama Canal and took a zigzag course, to confuse the enemy, across the Pacific. Resources on board were strained. The water ration was reduced to one canteen a day.
Task Force 6814 arrived in Melbourne on 26 February 1942. Disembarking the crowded, stinking ship, you encountered Aussie troops in turned-up hats, wheeling a squadron of horse-drawn buckboards into place to receive you and take you to your temporary camp.
After a week of Australian hospitality you got back on the boat and sailed to New Caledonia, arriving at Noumea 12 March. The 250-mile long, cigar-shaped island, 800 miles east of Australia, was a French possession. Its loyalty was an open question: Would New Caledonia be governed by the Nazi puppets of Vichy, France, or by General DeGaulle’s government-in-exile operating from London?
An Allied force on the island could decide the issue. Hence the rush to throw Task Force 6814 across the Pacific. It was hoped New Caledonia and nearby islands would prove a stumbling block to the Japanese march across the Southwest Pacific.
Once landed at Noumea, the units of Task Force 6814 were eformed into a division, called Americal (AMERIcans in New CALedonia), commanded by Major General Alexander M. Patch. After several months spent securing and defending the French island, the Americal was relieved by other units and started reorganizing itself to prepare for combat in the forward area.
Into the Fight
In October through December, the Americal landed on the contested island of Guadalcanal in the Solomons. Its mission was to reinforce the Marine units which had invaded the island back in August. The 132nd was the last of three Americal infantry regiments to arrive on the island. It was given the task of capturing Mount Austen, also known as Hill 27, a high point of land from which the Japanese could see and shell the U.S. landing strip at Henderson Field.
This moment, in December 1942, may have been your greatest exposure to combat. We’ll never know, because you didn’t talk about it, except in very general terms. I know that you were a Signal Corps sergeant, part of regimental headquarters, and thus spent a lot of your time repairing and operating radios at headquarters. You admitted, however, having gone on some combat patrols, lugging a heavy backpack-mounted radio set.
“I saw dead bodies,” you told me. “Some of them were guys I had known.”
The danger that seems to have stuck in your mind was when a Japanese “Betty” bomber, performing one of those solitary overflights collectively referred to as “Washing Machine Charlie” raids, buzzed your tent area near Henderson field and loosed a stick of bombs.
He must have been flying low. “The nose gunner was so close I could have reached out and shaken his hand,” you said. You were all tangled up in sleeping bag and mosquito netting, trying to find your helmet. One of the bombs landed quite near, but it burrowed underground before detonating, so the explosive force was dissipated.
After Guadalcanal was secured in late winter, the Americal was withdrawn and sent to Fiji for rest and refitting, arriving there in March 1943. You remembered Fiji as a wonderful place, full of great, friendly people. Possibly because they were not shooting at you.
The division went back into action December 1943 at Bougainville, an island in the Northern Solomons. The Americal spent most of 1944 pushing back stubborn Japanese defenders on this large island. In September 1944, however, your time was up. You rotated back to the States.
During your two and a half years in the Southwest Pacific, you had learned of the deaths of two brothers: Stanley, flying a B-17 in the Pacific, and Franklin, in a B-26 over France. “Other guys lost family members, too,” you said. “There was nobody to talk to about it. You just had to suck it up and keep going.”
The first thing you did on returning home was marry your high school sweetheart, Barb LaFollette. Then you went off for about nine months in military hospitals getting fixed up. You were below 140 pounds on a five-foot-ten frame and had numerous health problems.
We have all seen war movies with strong, hardy soldiers played by strapping, handsome actors. In truth, our forces in the islands of the Southwest Pacific were at the very end of a long, overtaxed supply chain. “The only thing we had plenty of was mutton,” you said. “The Aussies shipped us all we could eat. I will never eat mutton again in my life.” And you never did.
Life After War
Somewhat aimless before the war, you had acquired some sense of purpose. Upon discharge from the military hospitals, you enrolled in Knox College on the GI Bill. I was born in June 1945 and spent my first four years on campus.
You graduated with a degree in chemistry. You became a high school chemistry teacher. A couple of years later, disillusioned with teaching, you got a job in industry, working as an analytical chemist for decent money. You and Mom had another child, my sister Cynda.
We all participated fully in the roaring postwar economy. I remember the 1950s and early 1960s as an idyllic time. We had everything we needed, because you were providing it.
I was especially blessed to be a Boy Scout. The camping, hiking, merit badges, and the companionship of other boys like myself added a lot of interest, meaning, and sweetness to my life. I became a Scout largely because you invested yourself in the movement. You were an adult Scout leader for probably twenty years or more, staying with it even after I was off to college and the U.S. Air Force. It met some need in your soul. You could become emotional talking about the influence of Scouting on your life when you were a boy in Dahinda and Knoxville.
As I grew and became a smartass teenager, and then an independent young man with my own agendas, you and I sparred and sometimes wound up at loggerheads. But our relationship mellowed as we both got older.
Like others in my generation, I was blessed to live in a family headed by a man who did his duty in a long and terrible war and then came home, turned on a dime, and adapted to decades of sober-sided family life in order to make a stable home for our generation.
I’m not sure how you did this, but I will always be grateful.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23. No fooling.
America, in the era leading to and through the Civil War, was filled with formidable women who shaped the course of history though they seldom rate more than a footnote in standard accounts.
Maria Nybro, the main female character in my historical novel Price of Passage, is one such woman. The seventeen-year-old daughter of a small-town boat builder, she resolves to follow her heart’s desire, Anders Gunstensen, to America. She cajoles her father and uncle into a scheme that sends her across the sea with other family members, as caretaker to her strange Aunt Osa.
In central Illinois, where Anders has settled, Maria moves heaven and earth, taking a tough scullery job to stay near him—while meeting her family obligation to care for the bewildered old aunt.
Aunt Osa herself is one of a kind. Marked as a “different” child from infancy, Osa sees herself as a changeling, one of the babies left with unsuspecting human families by huldrefolk, reclusive beings who live in Norway’s forest glades. When asked why she does not have the long, hairy tail of the huldrefolk, she explains that her mother took her to be baptized soon after the exchange, and her rudimentary tail dropped off within days of becoming a Christian.
Another strong woman in the story is Kirsten Haraldsdatter, mother of four, who fearlessly leads her family’s expedition across the sea to join her husband Osmund, who has gone on ahead to establish a farm. Like Maria and Osa, she is fictional but based on a real woman, a shipmate of my great-great grandfather Anders on the brig Victoria in 1853.
These strong women and others in Price of Passage meet challenges as great as those facing the male characters. Some of those challenges, indeed, are posed by the male characters. When Anders goes off to fight in the Civil War, for instance, Maria must fend off the advances—financial and carnal—of a seedy land speculator. She finds an original way to defend both her farm and herself.
The Real Thing
Actual historic women also appear as characters in the book, such as “Mother” Bickerdyke. Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke, a middle-aged widow from Galesburg, Illinois, who practiced “natural medicine” in that community, went south with a wagon of medical supplies in 1861 to aid the sick and wounded soldiers at Fort Defiance in Cairo, Illinois.
Focused on healthy food and good care for ailing soldiers, Bickerdyke shrugged off Army regulations and red tape. Backed by the Sanitary Commission and the ordinary soldiers, she soon won the full support of Generals Grant and Sherman, who cheerfully deferred to her in matters of soldier care.
Mother Bickerdyke stuck with the Army until the war’s end, serving on nineteen battlefields and establishing three hundred field hospitals. After the war, she continued her work on behalf of the veterans she called “my boys,” lobbying and aiding in their fight for pensions and other benefits.
Bickerdyke was just one of many women who served ably as nurses and Sanitary Commission workers—but she was the most colorful and legendary. When a surgeon questioned her authority to take some action, she replied, “On the authority of Lord God Almighty, have you anything that outranks that?” In a day when male surgeons ruled the Army Medical Department, Bickerdyke caught and held the ear of the generals. Sherman called her “one of his best generals,” and others referred to her as “the Brigadier Commanding Hospitals.”
The soldiers just called her Mother.
She’s only one of the strong, pioneering women you’ll meet when you read Price of Passage.
HISTORY IS NOT WHAT YOU THOUGHT.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23. No fooling.