Sputnik–A Remembrance

Sixty-five years ago today, the Russians fired Sputnik into the October sky.

Sputnik. NASA photo. Public Domain.

Of all people to kick off the Space Age—the Russians!

“Humiliation” does not capture the angst of a twelve-year-old American boy, which is what I was at the time. 

“Disaster” would be closer. 

Some adults may have been startled that humans had flung a projectile into space—a basketball-sized object that immediately took up a patrol of the heavens, blinking and beeping its way across the sky once every ninety-six minutes.

No twelve-year-old boy—as I was, at the time—batted an eyelash at the fact of space travel. Robert Heinlein, Lester Del Rey, and other fiction writers had conditioned us to expect it with confidence. But it was to have been done by Americans.

That the Russians launched the satellite was wrong on four counts. 

First of all, the Russians were Bad Guys. They were communist dictators. They mocked everything we, the Free World, stood for. They tried to undermine us. They were evil.

Second, everybody knew the Russians could not invent anything. A-bombs and H-bombs, they had acquired by trickery. Spies like the Rosenbergs had given them our secrets. Virtually all  goods in Russia—cars, airplanes, telephones—were copies of American models.

Third, since Russia was our enemy in a colossal struggle for world power, having their hardware pass over the United States sixteen times a day raised the specter of a surprise attack from outer space—maybe in the near future. This was a big-time worry for Pentagon planners.

My Own Nemesis

The fourth consideration was peculiar to me. Sputnik arrived on a day that was already my downfall. We were moving from Streator, Illinois (population 17,500), to Kenosha, Wisconsin. Kenosha was a much larger city: It was industrial, foreign, and most of all, it was not Streator, where I had oodles of friends. 

I was hardly in a mood to understand the great advantages of my father’s upward job change. 

On Saturday morning, October 5, the one appliance that had not been packed in the moving van was a small table radio. Mom was about to unplug it to put in the car with the other odds and ends when the CBS Radio News announced the launching of Sputnik. They even played a recording of the new satellite’s strange, plaintive beep. 

That beep signaled that not only had my parents betrayed me by uprooting me from my accustomed home, but the treacherous Russians were piling on. The failure of America’s Vanguard rocket a few months later only added to the misery.

#

Now that it’s sixty-five years past, I’ve learned to be philosophical about it. I even have some good memories of Kenosha. But the emotions of a star-struck young lad still resonate after all those years.

I hope all your orbits, Gentle Reader, will be happy ones.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Mountain Climbing

I started to climb a mountain, but I did not know how high it was. 

Denali. National Park Service photo by Albert Herring. Public Domain.

I wrote a story when I was in third grade. I’ve always been good at words, at ease with grammar, fascinated by the process of converting thoughts into sentences.

When young I thought it would be swell to be a writer. I made a few attempts at writing novels and short stories, but do you know what? 

It was too hard. I moved on to something else.

Besides, there was life to be lived. There was a war. There was college. There was marriage. There was a child. There were dogs—an endless parade of dogs, down to the present day.

At length, I ran out of excuses.

#

I began to look again at writing a novel. I’m a talented writer. How hard could it be?

At first it was great fun, tramping steadily uphill, writing page after page, chapter after chapter. 

Then, it was challenging—revising, rewriting, and refining those early drafts. 

I finished the book and rejoiced. That hadn’t been so hard after all. The mountain was only a hill. 

#

But I wanted it published. I wanted a traditional, royalty-paying publication contract from a traditional, royalty-paying publisher. How hard could it be? 

I sent it to agents. I sent it to independent publishers.

No agents responded. One independent publisher offered a contract; but it was a poor contract, and the publisher’s emails put me off. I turned it down.

Two more publishers agreed to read my full manuscript. Both of them sent back polite rejections, each with two or three sentences of what was wrong with the book. Triangulating their comments, I achieved a sudden, shattering insight. 

My book was not good enough. 

The mountain was higher than I thought.

#

I could see a way the book might be improved to meet the objections of the two publishers who had given me comments. But it would require another year or more of work, because the story had to be completely rewritten, turned inside out, major sections added and formerly important material subtracted.

I was not sure I could do it. An angel (Christine DeSmet) whispered in my ear, “Yes, you can.”

A year later, Dan Willis of DX Varos Publishing bought a vastly improved book.

Finally, it was good enough.

The mountain had been higher than I thought.

#

Why do I tell you this?

Because I learned a lesson, and it is one you might take to heart, whatever personal challenge it is that you are facing. 

The work needs to be really good. You must reach down deep inside yourself and use all your resources. The mountain you must climb is higher, and more difficult, than you could have imagined when you started out.

But the thrill of achievement when you reach the summit is worth every bit of effort and courage that it took. 

Immediately, you are given another mountain to climb: A mountain of publicity and recognition. A mountain of public indifference that must be overcome. 

If the first mountain was worth the climb, so the second mountain will be also.

But higher. 

You will never get to the top if you don’t start.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met

Joe Nelson, businessman and politician

He made me angry, and it could be hard to resolve one’s anger at Joe Nelson.

He made everybody angry. He was an equal opportunity annoyer. You had to take a number.

And before your number came up, he had done something to make you love him. 

It wasn’t fair.

#

Fred Hampton. UIC Library Digital Collection, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 .

In the late 1960s, when the Black Panthers were one of many radical groups trying to start The Revolution, Joe Nelson used to debate politics with Fred Hampton, national vice-chair of the Black Panther Party. Hampton would come into Joe’s print shop in Maywood, Illinois, just to argue. 

Joe, once a socialist, was by the 1960s a rock-ribbed Barry Goldwater Republican. He and the bright, articulate young black radical saw most things through opposite ends of the telescope. Both enjoyed the stimulation of their running squabble.

When Hampton was gunned down by law officers in a pre-dawn raid at his Chicago apartment, Joe did not hesitate to call it a police-led assassination. He was a conservative, not a fool.

#

Since he was my father-in-law, I spent a fair amount of time with Joe Nelson. 

One day I saw him provoke a local store manager. The man was spitting mad. Within a minute, the two were good buddies. They parted with broad smiles. Joe did that kind of thing all the time. You could say it was his M.O.

His dad had been a printer and editor who worked for a newspaper chain, starting small-town weeklies in the Dakotas. Once the local clarion-ledger-press-herald was up and running, he turned it over to someone else and moved on to another little burg to repeat the process. It must have been a sketchy living. Six-year-old Joe and his older brother Maurice were farmed out to a Catholic orphanage for two years because their parents couldn’t feed all four boys. The Nelsons weren’t Catholic, but the good sisters would not turn anyone away.

Even when the family was together, they moved continually. Joe attended thirteen different public schools en route to his high school diploma. 

Some kids would wilt and turn inward in such circumstances. Joe toughened up and turned outward. He figured if you wanted friends, you had better make them quickly. He honed that skill. 

When I met him, he was in his sixties, a master at getting along with people. He got along with everybody, to whatever extent he chose. He was always in charge of the relationship.

#

I met him because I was attracted to his daughter, Joelle, whom I met at Knox College. Fair, feminine, and flirty though she was, I have since come to realize that her sterling character was formed more by her flinty father than by her gracious mother.

Elsa was the soul of respectability and conventionality. Joe, not so much. His mind was keen and penetrating. He did things the way that made sense to him.

When Joelle was a teenager, she had no curfew. By the wisdom of the day, she should have become a wild, out-of-control teen—one of those “crazy, mixed-up kids” the adult world talked about. It never happened. Her father taught her that arbitrary rules were no substitute for good sense and human kindness.

He often called himself an anarchist, of the purest stripe. “If we actually followed Christ and lived the Golden Rule,” he said, “laws would be unnecessary.”

When Joelle went on a date, Joe insisted the young man come into the house and engage in a few minutes of conversation. He always checked the boy’s driver’s license—to make sure the boy had one. Joelle may have chafed at this indignity; but she suffered in silence, then stayed out as late as she pleased. 

When she came home—whether at midnight or four a.m.—Joe would be awake in the living room, reading a paper by the light of a table lamp. “Did you have a good time?” he would ask. “Yes, Daddy,” she would say. As she flew up the stairs to her bedroom, he would fold his paper, lock the door, and turn out the lights.

She knew he would never complain about the lateness of her arrival. She also knew he would be at work by six the next morning. 

“On a weekend?” I hear you ask. Let me explain, Dear Reader. He was the owner of his print shop. His employees had limited hours; Joe did not. He had to make it work.

#

Joe had not always been a printer, though he had learned the trade at his father’s knee. 

Sidelined from military service in the Second World War by a pair of disease-scarred eardrums, he had served as a civilian flight instructor at Purdue University, training the pilots of our South American allies.

After the war, having survived the macho antics of his Latin flying students, he got a job as a mechanic at Sky Harbor airport in the Chicago suburbs. He serviced private aircraft for Chicago’s high rollers. Entertainer/impresario Tommy Bartlett, soon to become a Wisconsin water-ski maven, was one of his clients. 

When a wealthy customer crash-landed his plane in a field somewhere, Joe would pack up his tools, take a train to the site, patch up the plane enough to get it into the air, and fly it home. 

It was a life he loved, but it was an all-hours occupation. It kept him away from home. When he did come home, he found his young tot, Joelle, terrified of her own father. He had become a stranger to her. 

So he gave up flying and went into the printing business. That also was demanding, but he was home every night, and his daughter got acquainted with him.

#

Joe, right, with his brothers Bob and Maurice. Family photo.

Did I mention that Joe was sociable? His early life gave him the skills not only to form firm friendships quickly but also to negotiate with anyone about anything, on a very practical basis. He had boundless energy, a deep well of patience, and an endless fascination with people. 

So naturally, besides running a business, raising a daughter, and participating in church and social functions, he entered politics. He ran for school board and won a seat. The Proviso school district was split between the suburbs of Maywood and Melrose Park. Joe was from Maywood, a town that had been racially integrated since its founding after the Civil War. It was integrated in this sense: Black residents lived in South Maywood and white residents in North Maywood. 

The school board, however, was dominated by members from Melrose Park, a heavily Italian city. 

Things were done Chicago-style. Joe had run as a reformer, so he was taken for a tense ride in the back of a large automobile, where the facts of life were explained to him. Contracts to paint the district’s several schools were coming up. By long tradition, these contracts were not let by open bidding but were simply divvied up among school board members. Each member got to choose the contractor for one school. The message was loud and clear: Don’t rock the boat.

Joe accepted his status as contract czar for a single school. Competitive bidding on contracts was not a hill he wanted to die on. He found a Maywood neighbor who needed the work and could do the job. [In the original version of this post, I inaccurately asserted that he recruited a minority-owned business to do the job. My wife pointed out that this was not so. I’m afraid my heroic mental image of Joe overwhelmed my usually accurate memory cells.]

The next election cycle, Joe recruited a black candidate, Dr. John Vaughans, for the other Maywood-connected seat on the school board. They campaigned together in the next election and both won. Two mavericks on the seven-member board did not work a miraculous change. But it was a start.

Joe believed in the American ideal of equality, and he could see that African Americans consistently got the short end of the stick. That did not make him a liberal. When teachers went on strike, Joe took a hard line in defense of taxpayers. 

He was a tough negotiator. He made sure there were pitchers of cold water at the negotiating table, but he abstained from drinking any. Bargaining sessions could hinge on the relative bladder strengths of the negotiators. Joe’s frequent line was, “Wait a minute. We can always take a recess later, but why don’t take a few extra minutes right now and hash this out? Nobody leaves the table till we settle this point.”

In later years, after retiring from the school board, he was appointed to Maywood’s human relations commission. The work often involved mediating conflicts of view between the city’s white and black residents. He poured all his patience, skill, and goodwill into it.

#

We were driving around one day, and Joe stopped to point out a rather ordinary-looking playground on a patch of land in South Maywood. “That was a vacant lot,” he said. “The city owned it. It was just doing nothing, no good for anybody. I thought it would be good if were a playground. A lot of kids in this neighborhood could use it. I started mentioning it to people, but it still took twenty years before we got it.” 

“Why so long?”

“Inertia.” Joe snorted derisively at the memory of inertia-bound bird-brains in city hall. “Nobody wanted to do something new, unless they themselves got something out of it. You know how we finally got it done? We suggested the playground be named after the guy that was the biggest obstacle standing in the way. So there it is, the Alderman Doakes Playground.”

I let out a sigh.

“It proves you can do something, if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

#

In his public persona, Joe Nelson was by turns cunning, stubborn, and ingratiating. His incredible versatility brought to the fore whatever strengths were needed at the moment. 

But what bound me to him, what made me love and admire him, what it was about him that helped inform my own slowly maturing character, was most observable in private moments. 

Joe had not an ungenerous bone in his body. He regarded opponents as unfortunate, misguided people whose perspective might yet be transformed if he kept on patiently presenting the truth, as he so clearly saw it, to them. He called this “planting seeds.” In all the times I saw him arguing political or other points with people, including myself, I never saw him give way to anger. 

His opponents got angry. Furious, even. Joe would smile, wink, and repeat their own points back to them, stripped down to their absurd essentials. He never left an argument untended. If his opponent walked out on him, he considered the conversation unfinished—an investigation to be resumed at leisure.

His and Elsa’s only child, Joelle, was the apple of their eye. Anything that was theirs was hers, automatically, without question. When I became her husband, anything that was theirs was mine also, because I was part of her and part of them.

I did not understand this. How could people be that giving? In my own family, gifts were stintingly given. We tended to operate on a presumption of scarcity. Joe and Elsa worked on a principle of abundance. There would always be plenty when it was needed, even when there did not seem to be enough to go around. 

I could not accept Joe and Elsa’s open-handed love in a gracious way because nothing had prepared me for it. 

Callow though I was, once I joined the family, I was theirs and they were mine. The price of my inclusion was that I had to learn to relax and enjoy it. 

It took me years.

#

Joe and Elsa made a buy-sell agreement with their print shop foreman, and they retired to a house on a wooded hill near Dodgeville, Wisconsin. 

Retirement was harder on him than on her. He poured his prodigious energies into building and improving the house and property. He took up skiing, eventually breaking his leg on a cross-country trail. 

Joe in retirement, at the hill in Dodgeville.

Little ailments began to creep up on him. A couple of larger ills—a serious bout of diverticulitis and a small stroke—made him an invalid, much against his will. You might say they reduced him to an invalid. He became smaller, suddenly, involuntarily.

He had no gift for inactivity, much less for being dependent on others. He rallied, for a while, but the second stroke killed him. 

He lay in a bed in the Dodgeville hospital looking up at us, unable to speak. He summoned all his powers to utter the single word, “Why?” We had no answer. 

Most people uttering that monosyllable would have been saying, “Why me? Why did this have to happen?” Something of that sort. 

But you had to know Joe. He was a realist. I am confident his final “Why?” meant, “Why not face the facts? It’s over. Why prolong it?” 

He tried to pull the IV tubes out of his arm. Although he did not succeed, he died a day or two later anyway, sometime in the fall of 1987.

He had run a good race. 

At 42, I was still a mixed-up youth. But I had learned a lot about life just by knowing Joe.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Chaos Aforethought

I stagger through a dystopian world. 

It is bizarre. 

Disorienting. 

Post-Apocalyptic.

#

The bread is where the Cheerios used to be. The coffee and tea have moved one lane over, down at the far end on the wrong side of the aisle. Canned soups are usurping the spot where only last week Nabisco Premium Saltines reigned supreme.

Ramen, ramen, wherefore art thou ramen? Photo by Takeaway, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Shoppers, desperate for dinner, lurch from shelf to shelf, grimly focused on survival. A woman shoving her cart along a cross aisle is blind-sided at an intersection by a man trundling a load too high to see over, his face gripped by a manic rictus of obsession. 

Oh, the humanity.

She shakes off the impact to her T-boned shopping cart and charges forward, hell-bent to complete her mission.

I have asked three red-smocked workers where I might find the pudding. The first of them said, “Who knows? I’m as stumped as you are.” The second simply gave me a blank stare. The third whipped out a printed map of the new arrangement and shouted, “Aisle Three!” 

I pushed my cart to Aisle Three, where hung tranches and troves of plastic pudding cups for kids’ lunches. Angst. How can I go back and tell the red smockers I’m looking for pudding powder that comes in a little cardboard box, that you mix up yourself?

Fundamental Questions On the Order of the Universe

They have re-stocked our supermarket, putting everything on the wrong shelves. Why overturn a system that has worked well for months, if not years? 

How can They do this to us? Who is this monstrous They (Pronouns: We / Us / We’ve Got You Where We Want You, Little Consuming Worm)?

Who are these godlike beings with the power, and apparently the authority, to wreak blind havoc in people’s lives?

Dammit, Jim, there are lives at stake here!

Sanity Asserts Itself 

When you are mired down in bottomless confusion, there’s nobody like my old friend Milo Bung to set you straight.

Sure enough, here he comes, pushing one of those pint-sized carts, whistling.

“Milo! I haven’t seen you since the start of covid.” 

“Oh, that,” he says, as if the global pandemic were already decades in the rearview mirror. “How have you been?”

“Well, all right, I guess. Until now.”

“Why? What’s the problem?”

“What’s the problem? What’s the problem!” I cry. “Have you not noticed that nothing is where it should be?”

“That’s a hum-dinger, ain’t it?” Milo chuckles. “I couldn’t find the ramen noodles, so I picked up some light bulbs instead.”

“Light bulbs?” 

“It’s what was there,” he says. Five boxy cartons of regular bulbs top his cart, plus a four-foot fluorescent tube. “You never know when something will burn out.”

I snicker. “Next time you need a quick lunch you can munch on some 75-watt Soft Whites.” 

“Naw,” says Milo. “Thought instead of ramen I’d pick up a little peanut butter. Look, it’s right here.”

“Swell. Now if I could only find pudding.” 

“Pudding? Aisle Three.” 

“No, that’s the kind in little cups. I want the chocolaty powder in little boxes.” 

Milo furls his brow. Then it unfurls. “Go ask a store employee where to find the Jell-O.”

“Where to find the Jell-O.”

“Sure. The pudding will be right beside it.”

#

A red smocker told me the Jell-O would be in Aisle Seven. And it was.

The pudding was right beside it.

I hate when Milo is right.

I bought sixteen boxes.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Lollygagging

My keyboard rests on a glass tabletop, on a sunny balcony overlooking the Gulf of Trieste.

Across the Riva del Mandracchio from our hotel stands an old administrative building, the Molo Bersaglieri. It occupies the pier where cruise ships dock.

Trieste sunset. Larry Sommers photo.

There were two liners when we checked in yesterday, one each side of the pier, their tall hulks spoiling the view of the harbor. But both steamed out at five, civilized guests, well-versed on when to leave. 

Since then, we can see the sea, out to the horizon. That horizon is lost in afternoon shimmer as all Europe smothers under a blanket of heat. Global warming? Climate change? Normal fluctuations? Who can say?

Whatever its cause, I don’t mind the heat, because I was a child in downstate Illinois in the Fifties (pre-A/C). Also because I live now in Madison, Wisconsin, where the Ghost of Winter Past and the Ghost of Winter Yet to Come haunt each day from May through October.

Dolce far niente

So I’m happy to sit on the balcony of this luxury hotel, flanked by two honest-to-god Greek pillars, each two stories high and topped by a handsome Ionic capital. With my laptop and a bottle of literary-looking Italian soda pop—La Nostra Gazzosa, quella con il limone sfusato di amalfi—I engage in the splendid Italian pursuit known as il dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing. 

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), Dolce Far Niente, oil on canvas. Public Domain.

Where I come from, this is called lollygagging. It’s one of those American expressions like rubbernecking, flabbergasted, and bumbershoot; an honest, all-purpose word with no humbug or hokum about it. Still, the Italian rendering is more poetic and less accusatory. Italians know that while a certain amount of doing may be unavoidable, life itself is being. And it takes a mature tranquillity to simply be.

A river runs through it

We have brought our daughter and two grandchildren across the world to experience Italy and, incidentally, to help us celebrate our Golden Wedding Anniversary. Two years late. The trip was scheduled for the summer of 2020, but Something Happened to prevent it. That Same Something was still happening in 2021. But now, That Something’s prefix has changed from pan- to en- . So we are globetrotting again, like almost everyone we know, in a great lemming herd of pent-up travel demand.

The good news: Europe is still here. 

The bad news, Dear Reader, if you choose to see it that way, is that “we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven.” We, unlike our progeny, have gotten old. 

Škocjan funicular. Photo by Rochester Scouder, licensed under CC BY 2.0

So when we sojourned a few days in Croatia, my wife, Joelle, chose to stay in Zagreb while I accompanied our offspring on a day trip to Plitvice Lakes National Park. She was wiser than I. She would not have well endured the hike over hill and dale, treading shifty duckboards over rushing waters, climbing back up at least three feet for every one foot descended. 

A couple of days later, all five of us visited the Škocjan Caves in Slovenia. Joelle and I should have left it to the kids. We barely survived the climb back up. There’s even a purposebuilt funicular tram provided to lift unhardy travelers through the toughest 150 meters of the ascent. But first you must scale an infinite staircase to reach the foot of the funicular; then, from the top of the funicular, hoist your expiring carcass up another endless flight to regain the visitors’ center.

A helicopter, oxygen tanks, and a crack team of paramedics would have come in handy. 

Was it worth the effort? I would have to say yes. The geological extravaganza, both inside and outside the massive cave in the Istrian karst, was ASTOUNDING. But do yourself a favor and go see it before you get too old. 

Škocjan Caves entrance. Katie Sommers photo, used by permission.

On the Other Hand

Is there no silver lining to this tale of age and incompetence? 

Well, yes, Gentle Reader, there is a silver lining. Or maybe a gold one, judging by its cost.

On previous travels we have used a method I call Rick Steves Lite. We go by train, taking rooms in hotels or pensions near the stations. We have bumped our roller bags over cobbles and trolley tracks in many a city, homing on rooms that provide overnight rest and a cheap pied-à-terre while we explore the environs on foot or by metro. Not quite youth hostels but several cuts below the Ritz. This method has preserved our funds while yielding up many a chuckle over things experienced in some of the Fawlty Towers-style hotels that dot the European landscape. 

For the present safari, however, we asked Vicki, our travel agent friend, to simply line up good European hotels for us. Comfort and convenience were the goal; money, for once, was secondary. Vicki’s Croatian colleague Nicolina booked all hotels for this trip.

So we stayed in the Zagreb Esplanade, one of the grand old hotels of Europe. The Esplanade was built in 1925 as a deluxe oasis for travelers on the Orient Express. Yes, that Orient Express—the one Hercule Poirot is always solving murders on. The train oozes countesses, movie stars, and secretive diplomats. Such folks require high-class digs when they get off the train at an intermediate stop. Zagreb is one such stop, and the Esplanade is high-class digs.

Zagreb Esplanade.

We arrived in the hotel’s driveway by private transfer, a guy driving a Mercedes van from the airport. A squad of uniformed bellmen surrounded us, inhaled our luggage, and exhaled it mysteriously into our rooms. We sat in comfy chairs while a check-in specialist entered our passports and other information in a sleek computer. 

There was a lovely bar, a great dining room with a scrumptious and multifarious morning buffet, and a bistro staffed by enchanting waitresses who served gourmet options for casual dining. 

But the room! Whoever designed it thought of everything and finished it off with Art Deco elegance. The bed was firm; the space, well . . . spacious. The bathroom was nicely sequestered from the sleeping space. The shower rained tropical water down upon your morning self at perfect pitch. 

I would stay in the Esplanade any time.

Ah . . . Italia!

Here in Trieste, Italy, on the eastern ashore of the Adriatic, we are in the Savoy Excelsior Palace Hotel. A pretty fancy name, you must agree. The hotel is in the same class as the Zagreb Espanade but does not have as much of it. Art Deco is replaced by a curious mix of Italianate Rococo and Nondescript Modern. Still, the room is spacious and fully appointed, the hotel sports an army of attentive helpers, and the bartender mixes a good neat Drambuie.

It’s a far cry from the old Hotel Speronari in Milan—before its recent renovation—where you humped your luggage up three or four flights of winding stairs; where the aged manager plied you with a free cappuccino before allowing you to attempt the climb; and where your stomach was jolted awake at four a.m. by overpowering aromas from the bakery next door.

Despite lacking such touches, our first-class hotels are not all bad. I could get used to luxury.

I can hardly wait to see what Nicolina has booked for us in Venice. 

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ 
We are not now that strength which in old days 
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; 
One equal temper of heroic hearts, 
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
          —Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses”

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite (Travel) Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Spoon River

Violin. Auckland War Memorial Museum, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
Fiddler Jones
The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands
For beeves hereafter ready for market;
Or else you hear the rustle of skirts
Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove. . . . 
Spoon River Anthology, first edition, in its original dust jacket, quoting a laudatory review. Fair use.

Galesburg’s literary fame does not rest only on the shoulders of Carl Sandburg and Jack Finney. There is also Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950), who published a poetry collection titled Spoon River Anthology in 1915.

Usually we think of an anthology as a collection of poems or other content by various authors. Spoon River Anthology still qualifies in a sense, because its central conceit is that each poem is voiced by a deceased town resident speaking from the grave. The lives and viewpoints thus chronicled are diverse and lively. Consider the reminiscence of a long-lived lady, with its flinty valedictory:

Lucinda Matlock

I went to the dances at Chandlerville,
And played snap-out at Winchester.
One time we changed partners,
Driving home in the moonlight of middle June,
And then I found Davis.
We were married and lived together for seventy years,
Enjoying, working, raising the twelve children,
Eight of whom we lost
Ere I had reached the age of sixty.
I spun,
I wove,
I kept the house,
I nursed the sick,
I made the garden, and for holiday
Rambled over the fields where sang the larks,
And by Spoon River gathering many a shell,
And many a flower and medicinal weed—
Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.
At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you—
It takes life to love Life.

The young Edgar Lee Masters. Photo by unknown photographer. Public domain.

Born in Kansas, Edgar Lee Masters grew up in Illinois—first at Petersburg in Menard County, then in Lewistown, Fulton County, where he attended high school and had his first publication in the Chicago Daily News. In 1889-1890 he attended the Knox Academy in Galesburg, a college-prep school run by Knox College in those days, but was forced to drop out for financial reasons.

Masters became an attorney, poet, biographer, and dramatist. He published twelve plays, twenty-one books of poetry, six novels and six biographies, including those of Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Vachel Lindsay, and Walt Whitman. None of these many works ever matched the success of his graveyard poems collected under the banner of Spoon River—a quiet stream that drains the prairies east and south of Galesburg, snaking its way down to the Illinois River at Havana.

Spoon River at Seville in Fulton County. NOAA photo. Public Domain.

Here are more examples of Masters’s craft:

Griffy the Cooper
The cooper should know about tubs.
But I learned about life as well,
And you who loiter around these graves
Think you know life.
You think your eye sweeps about a wide horizon, perhaps,
In truth you are only looking around the interior of your tub.
You cannot lift yourself to its rim
And see the outer world of things,
And at the same time see yourself.
You are submerged in the tub of yourself—
Taboos and rules and appearances,
Are the staves of your tub.
Break them and dispel the witchcraft
Of thinking your tub is life
And that you know life.
Mrs. George Reece
To this generation I would say:
Memorize some bit of verse of truth or beauty.
It may serve a turn in your life.
My husband had nothing to do
With the fall of the bank—he was only cashier.
The wreck was due to the president, Thomas Rhodes,
And his vain, unscrupulous son.
Yet my husband was sent to prison,
And I was left with the children,
To feed and clothe and school them.
And I did it, and sent them forth
Into the world all clean and strong,
And all through the wisdom of Pope, the poet:
“Act well your part, there all the honor lies.”
The Village Atheist
Ye young debaters over the doctrine
Of the soul’s immortality
I who lie here was the village atheist,
Talkative, contentious, versed in the arguments
Of the infidels. But through a long sickness
Coughing myself to death I read the
Upanishads and the poetry of Jesus.
And they lighted a torch of hope and intuition
And desire which the Shadow
Leading me swiftly through the caverns of darkness,
Could not extinguish.
Listen to me, ye who live in the senses
And think through the senses only:
Immortality is not a gift,
Immortality is an achievement;
And only those who strive mightily
Shall possess it.

Generations of students have read these poems—in other anthologies, fittingly, high school anthologies—and, perhaps in olden days, memorized some of them, free verse and all. They were, among other things, indicators of the stern and happy potentialities of life. I do not know whether Spoon River Anthology still holds a place in public school curricula. If not, we are the poorer for it.

Wikipedia notes, “Masters died in poverty at a nursing home on March 5, 1950, in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, age 81. He is buried in Oakland cemetery in Petersburg, Illinois.” I wonder if he felt at all like his creation, Fiddler Jones—

. . . How could I till my forty acres
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill—only these?
And I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle—
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

To have left on earth behind you some bit of music, art, or poetry, quivering in the air for those with ears to hear—perhaps it’s not such a bad epitaph.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

The Burg

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.

The original Ferris Wheel at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Public Domain.

Some of the memories attach to me. 

Body Snatchers cover. Fair use.

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.

Antecedents

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.

Icebox

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. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Memorial Day, Observed

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.

Colonel Heg and some of his descendants.

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.

However, nobody’s really forcing us, Dear Reader. 

This is the Land of the Free. It’s up to you.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Sanburn’s Cabin

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.

Grandma LaFollette

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. 

Surprise!

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. 

The parking lot where Grandma’s house once stood.

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

Sanburn’s cabin today.
Notches.

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. 

In the store.

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. 

Cabin as kitchen, Christmas 1952. Clockwise from lower left: Cousin Steve, Aunt Sue, Aunt Linda, my sister Cynda, and me.

Surprise, Too

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.

The old courtroom where Aunt Sukey’s fate was argued.

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.

CONTINUED NEXT TUESDAY.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Get One Early–Avoid the Rush

Once upon a noontime soggy,
While I dithered, stunned and groggy,
Over many a curious item of social market lore—
As I boggled, nearly dizzy,
Suddenly I wondered, “Is he—
Is he really knocking loudly on my chamber door?
Some old kibbitzer,” I muttered,
“Knocking on my chamber door: 
Milo Bung, and nothing more.”

Here I opened wide the chamber door.

In stepped, with many a flirt and flutter, my old classmate, a direct descendant of Æthelred the Unready and fourth cousin to Slats Grobnik.

“Milo!” I complained. “What brings you here?”

“Fine way to greet an old friend,” he harrumphed. 

“Well, look, old friend, I’m really busy.”

“You—busy?” He said it like it was an oxymoron.

“Trying to dope out which buttons to push in my email server to set up automatic delivery of my reader magnet through the double opt-in gizmo.” 

His eyes grew wide. “I arrived in the nick of time. You could hurt yourself on stuff like that, without supervision.”

“It’s the price we artists pay.” I sighed. “Was there something you wanted?”

He grinned and nodded. “An autograph. It’s not every day a guy knew a famous author from way back.” 

With a becoming blush of modesty, I pointed out, “Price of Passage won’t be published until August 23. We’re not even taking pre-orders yet.” 

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“You know,” I said, “so I can sign your copy.”

“Oh,” Milo said, “don’t bother yourself about that.” He rummaged in his ratty old Sorbonne hoodie and pulled out a wrinkled cocktail napkin. “Just put your Hancock right here.”

I gave him the fish eye. “What about the book?”

“I’ll tape this to the inside cover,” he said. “Gotta strike while the iron is hot. If I wait till August 23 and stand in line at your launch party, I’ll get an inferior specimen.”

“How’s that?”

“Writer’s cramp,” he explained. “Just sign here.” He thrust the napkin and a black Sharpie into my hands.

In a moment of weakness, I complied. 

“Thanks,” Milo said, and skedaddled.

#

Now I can get back to banging my head on my laptop. One must suffer for art.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)