Hardly a Trace Remains

On a clear winter day in Streator, Illinois, we gathered with our sleds at the top end of the Snake Path. 

Flexible Flyer sled. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.  

Sturdy sleds they were—Flexible Flyers and American Flyers— on which you lay full length, gripping the wooden crossbar that bent the steel runners right or left to turn in a seemingly impossible radius, aided by a rubber-galoshed toe planted at a crucial moment.

The Snake Path was a twisty trail that dropped down a field of dried grass and milkweed stalks, wound through a thicket of scrawny maple and basswood trees, and emerged on a large hump that formed something like a ski jump. If you kept your speed while turning amid the trees, you could fly off the big bump to the shale road below, land hard on your belly (OOF!), jink ninety degrees right, and coast all the way to the little bridge over the Stink Creek. What a ride!

That was sixty-five years ago. Today there is no snake path, there is no big hump. There is hardly a hill at all. Only a few weeds and bushes mark the spot where a magic woodland once stood. The road survives, but the green, odorous understory of woods it once penetrated has vanished. Only a few yards down the road, a steel gate now bars the way to all but authorized personnel. Some company bought up the land beyond for private uses. You can’t even smell the Stink Creek anymore. 

A few trees, a lawn, and a shed fail to suggest the vast jungle that once reigned here, skewered by the tortuous Snake Path.

Hardly a trace of the past remains.

#

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
—Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”
Ramesseum in Egypt. The Ozymandias Colossus:” by Christopher.Michel is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Shelley’s inspiration for “Ozymandias.”

Hardly a trace remains.

#

It’s a small thing when a childhood playground vanishes, and perhaps not much larger when a mighty king’s monument is buried under the sands.

But works of vast importance can also disappear, leaving little or no sign of their existence. Something big is then lost to humanity, unless a record of some kind—a jotting, a memory— survives.

Potsy, Richie, Fonzie, and Ralph at Arnold’s, from Happy Days. Public Domain publicity photo.

Even my grandchildren know the Fabulous Fifties for the birth of rock and roll, for roller-skating parties and sock hops. Thanks to Richie Cunningham and Marty McFly, those marks of the era are well documented. 

But have you heard of basement houses? Maybe a quarter of the kids I knew lived in them.

In the postwar building rush, one common strategy was the basement house. The would-be homeowner—most likely a Second World War veteran—would buy a city lot and hire somebody with a bulldozer to dig a basement. A concrete floor would be poured, cinder-block walls raised, and the below-ground enclosure covered over with joists, sub-flooring, and tar paper. What funds remained were used to install plumbing, electricity, and room partitions in the basement. Then the family moved in. They lived in this basement, often for several seasons, until they could save enough money to build a regular house on top. Conditions were cramped and less than ideal—but they had housing!

In the town where I lived, there were whole subdivisions of basement houses. One by one, as the occupying families prospered, the upper floors were finished. My Uncle Dick and Aunt Jane lived in their basement house for several years. When they finally built up from the ground, they had a fine suburban house. Gradually, almost all of these basement homes were finished. Today they stand, in hundreds of neighborhoods, cheek-by-jowl with conventionally-built houses. You would have to be a construction expert to detect which houses had been occupied in their early years as basement homes. 

I scoured the internet a while back for a photograph of such a basement house. There were none to be found. It seemed the basement house had altogether vanished from view. But just today I Googled again and found, to my delight, a May 2022 real estate listing for just such a home—perhaps the one remaining basement house in Illinois that was never finished above ground. You can see it here. The weird black hump rising from the tar paper in some of the photos is, of course, the above-ground door leading down a stairway into the basement.

The text advertising this house uses terms like “unique,” “unusual or interesting,” and even “amazinggggg.” Whoever wrote it did not know houses like this were once common. 

I sometimes feel like the messenger who came to Job. (That’s Job 1:15, if you’d care to look it up in the Bible.) The Fifties have been abducted, “and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

Basement dwelling was a way of life for millions of kids and their families.

Hardly a trace remains.

#

It’s not only my little, parochial, Illinois past that sinks out of sight. Consider the Great Hedge of India. 

Most educated people know that the greater part of India was once ruled by the British as a colony. Those who have seen Richard Attenborough’s remarkable 1982 film about Gandhi know that the British paid the costs of their occupation by means of a salt tax that was very burdensome to the health, not to mention the finances, of Indians. 

What goes unmentioned is the method by which the tax was enforced. A Brit who served in India, Sir John Strachey, wrote: “To secure the levy of a duty on salt . . . [a] Customs line was established which stretched across the whole of India, which in 1869 extended from the Indus to the Mahanadi in Madras, a distance of 2,300 miles, and it was guarded by nearly 12,000 men. . . . It consisted principally of an immense impenetrable hedge of thorny trees and bushes.” [My emphasis.]

What is the Englishman’s answer to all land questions? Plant a hedge. 

An Indian Customs commissioner elaborated: “In its most perfect form the hedge is a live one, from ten to fourteen feet in height, and six to twelve feet thick, composed of closely clipped thorny trees and shrubs, amongst which the babool (acacia carecha), the Indian plum (zizyphues jujuba), the carounda (carissa curonda), the prickly pear (opuntia, three species), and the thuer (euphorbia, several species) are, according to salt and climate, the most numerous, with which a thorny creeper (guilandina bondue) is constantly intermingled.”

This hedge required enormous maintenance. But it was effective at keeping smugglers from bringing in untaxed salt from the Princely States to the west of the British Raj. When India gained independence in 1947, the hedge project was abandoned.

In 1995 an Englishman named Roy Moxham discovered written references to the Great Hedge. Curious, he spent years researching its history, traveling to India armed with maps obtained from British libraries and Indian government agencies. In 1998, he at last found a remnant stretch of the Great Hedge, a few hundred yards long, in north central India. He documented the whole quest in his unique book, The Great Hedge of India.

Think of that: In barely fifty years, a major feature of the physical, political, and moral landscape of that great subcontinent had all but disappeared. 

Hardly a trace remained.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Potential–A Remembrance

After almost two glorious months of living in Knoxville, with Dad coming to visit us on the weekends, we moved back to Streator. Our new house was at 601 West Stanton, just three blocks west of where we had been living. I still attended Grant School, but now I had to walk farther.

The house was smaller, only one story, and I had to share a bedroom with Cynda. 

Georgy Malenkov. Photo by unknown, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 nl

The Korean War had ended in July. The new Russian leader Malenkov said that the Russians now had the Hydrogen Bomb. 

We were supposed to be terrified. People on the radio said we were in the Atomic Age and the world might blow up at any time. In Streator we were at least sixty miles from any target the Russians would deem worth an H-bomb. We yawned and went about living our lives.

Much more explosive to me was an event that happened in October. I was in third grade, under the eye of a kindly old teacher named Mrs. Winders. One sunny Friday afternoon, she took me aside after class was dismissed.

“Larry,” she said, “when you come to school on Monday, report to the fourth grade.”

Time stood still for a while.

“Yes, Ma’am,” I said at last.

On the way home, my brain boiled furiously. I tried to work it all out. What could this mean? Why would I go to fourth grade? I was in third grade. It made no sense.

“Oh, well, that,” Mom said when I came home and announced the mysterious news. She looked away. “Sit down, and let’s talk.”

“Why do I have to go to fourth grade?”

Alfred Binet, inventor of the I.Q. test. Public Domain.

“Do you remember taking something called an I.Q. test?”

“No.”

“Well, you did. And you scored very high.” 

I stared at her blankly.

“And because you scored high, you get to go to fourth grade now.”

“You knew about this?”

Mom leaned back in her chair and lit a cigarette. “When Daddy and I went to the parent-teacher conference, they told us about it. You know Rue Rhymers?”

“Miss Rhymers? She comes and sits in the back of our class sometimes.” A nice lady with glasses, who dressed in a tan suit.

“Yes. And do you know why she comes to observe your class?”

I shook my head.

“Because of you.” Mom exhaled a stream of smoke and tapped the ash off her cigarette into the ashtray on the end table. “She comes to watch you, to see how you do in class, how you answer questions, things like that.”

“No, Mom, not just me. She comes to watch us all, to see the whole class.”

“Mm-hmm. Anyway, your scores are in the genius category, so they have to move you up a grade.”

The room tilted. “I don’t want to go to fourth grade.”

She looked at me. 

“Mom, all my friends are in third grade. And Missus Winders is nice.” I did not mention that Mrs. Winders sometimes let me do other things, like write stories, when the rest of the class was still working on a classroom task I had finished. As far as I knew, that was our secret, between me and my teacher.

“But pretty soon, you will get bored with third-grade work because it’s too easy for you. And then you’ll stop paying attention, and you won’t do your school work, and you won’t fulfill your potential.”

“What’s that?”

“What’s what?”

“Potential.”

“Potential?” Mom rolled her eyes back in her head, leaned forward, and stubbed out her cigarette in the ash tray. “It means, if you can do a certain level of work, like a high level, you should do that. If you’re only doing low-level work, you’re not living up to your potential.”

“This . . . potential. It’s something I have?”

She nodded emphatically. “You have it.”

Good old Teddy.

“So it’s mine. So I can do what I want with it, right?” 

“Right. You can do great things.”

“Or I can leave it sitting on a shelf, like a toy I don’t want to play with.” 

Mom frowned. “No.” She lit a new cigarette, shook the flame off the match, and dropped it in the tray. “It would be a sin to waste your potential. You’re such a smart boy, you can do anything you set your mind to.”

I went to my room and lay down on my bed, hugging my teddy bear and chewing my lip.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Turned Out– A Remembrance

1953

It’s July and hot, even at night. Cynda and I have gone to bed in the large room we share with Mom and Dad, just off the kitchen in my old second-grade teacher’s house. 

Cynda is already asleep, her little three-year-old snores drowned out by the adult voices coming from the kitchen.

“I know this comes as a BOMBSHELL to all of us,” my baggy old teacher says in her loud, foghorn voice. I don’t hear anything after “bombshell.”  What? A bombshell? For all of us? Is a bombshell a kind of bomb? Or is it like a bomb? Do bombs have shells? 

The door opens. Light floods the room for a second as Mom bursts in and slams the door behind her. She flings herself on the big bed she shares with Dad and lies there, sobbing. 

This is some kind of disaster.

Cynda sleeps through it. 

I have to do something. I climb out of my bed, go to Mom, and hug her. “Don’t cry, Mommy.” 

She rolls over and gathers me in her arms. “Oh, Honey, don’t worry. I’ll be all right. It’s just . . . we’ve been turned out.”

“Turned out?”

“We have to leave.” 

Dad comes in and stands mumbling.

Mom gets up. “Come on, Lloyd.” 

We pack all our things there in the dark bedroom. Five minutes later, we’re out the back door, standing in the alley with suitcases. We get into our 1939 Chevrolet and scram out of town, headed for Knoxville, where we know we’ll be good enough.

#

As my second-grade year at Grant School ended, we faced a dilemma. We were moving out of our nice house at 303 West Stanton June 30 and moving to another place farther west, but the house would not be available until September 1.

The large-framed, loud-voiced woman who had been my second-grade teacher offered to take us in for three months when we would otherwise be homeless. It was a good solution. The teacher’s two children—Freddy and his little sister, whose name now escapes me—were our frequent playmates. The family lived just a block away, on Grant Street. Mom and Dad put our furniture in storage, and we moved in with the teacher’s family.

Things started out amiably, but the arrangement went sour after only a week or so. Maybe we were just too many people to live together in a small house; maybe it was something else. But our invitation to stay the summer was suddenly revoked one night, with the result that we crept out of Streator in the dark of night and fled to our ancestral home of Knoxville. 

I never knew why we were set to flight in such a dramatic way—the code was never revealed to me. I figured out later that when my old teacher said it was “a bombshell to all of us,” she didn’t mean it was a bombshell to her—just to us. It seemed we were not worthy to live with my baggy old teacher’s family. 

Somehow, for reasons I did not know, we were not good enough.

Our exodus to Knoxville took place on a weekend. Monday morning, Dad was back at work in Streator. He stayed in a rented flat all week, then drove to Knoxville to spend the weekend with us. This became the pattern for the whole summer. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

The Big World–A Remembrance

1952

“Mom, what does Kefauver mean?”

Senator Estes Kefauver. Public Domain.

She lifts the iron from the collar of Dad’s white shirt. “Estes Kefauver is a man who wants to be president.”

“Why do they yell when they say his name?”

“That’s what politicians do at a convention.”

“So, Kefauver will be president?”

She laughs. “No. They’re going to nominate Stevenson.”

Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson in 1952. U.S. News and World Report photo by Thomas J. O’Halloran. Public Domain.

“So, Stevenson will be president?”

“I don’t think so.” She hangs the white shirt on a wire hanger, picks another one out of the basket, and sprinkles it with water out of a re-purposed Coke bottle.

#

Little fragments of the Big Picture were starting to become clear—as clear as mud. Still, I held out hope that I would eventually figure everything out.

Big things were afoot on the earth. Without beginning to understand them, I knew there was a world of people and events outside the little prairie towns of my experience.

Fulton Lewis Junior. Public Domain.

I knew this because the radio told me. Our fine old wood-bodied Philco sat on a table in the hall and was seldom silent, day or night. We heard news broadcasts by Lowell Thomas, Fulton Lewis Junior, and Edward R. Murrow—whom I thought of, phonically, as Edward “Armurro.” 

Lowell Thomas. Public Domain.

Many details of the news escaped me. What was “the House Un-American Activities Committee”? What was “French Indo-China”? All things of that nature were beyond my ken. But I knew they were out there, and someday I would figure them out.

#

The small city of Streator—population 17,500—was in those days an almost magical place, filled with new opportunities every day to reframe and re-understand the world. There was such a thing as Little League. I was only seven in the summer of 1952, but maybe I could try out. Dad explained baseball to me.  You had to hit the ball, run around three bases, and end up back at home plate. That much seemed clear. 

Grover Cleveland Alexander playing for the Phillies in 1915. Public Domain.

For the rest, Dad took me to see a movie about Grover Cleveland Alexander, a famous old-time pitcher, who by the way had gotten his start with the lowly Galesburg Boosters. In the movie, a fielder threw the ball and hit Alexander in the head, which caused big problems because it made him see double. Dad explained that hitting base runners with the ball was not the right way to put them out. But what the right way was, he did not say.

I tried out for Little League, but the grown-up men who ruled the tryouts were not impressed by my skills. I did not understand all they wanted me to do. “Force him at second!” they cried. Or, “Hurry now, tag up!” I stood there mute, not knowing the code. On the outside, looking in. 

They relegated me to something called “the Farm League.” This meant I could go play ball with other unskilled kids. Maybe I would magically improve enough to be chosen for Little League next year. Or maybe not. 

As I scuffed across the dusty diamond en route home, a pair of boys I didn’t know approached me. “Hey, kid. Give us a dime.”

I stood and stared. “I don’t have any money.”

“Oh, yeah?” The larger of the two grabbed me by my shirt and pulled me close.

“Yeah,” I said. “I really don’t have any money.” I was almost in tears.

The two boys looked at each other. 

The big one let go of my shirt. “Look, kid. Next time we see you, you’re going to have a dime for us, right?” 

I bobbed my head up and down, hoping to show abject agreement. “Right!” I said.

I shuddered inwardly on the way home. Those boys would beat me up if I didn’t give them a dime. Why did people want to beat you up? 

One thin dime. Brandon Bigheart photo, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

It was impenetrable. I never wanted to beat anybody up.

When I told Mom about the bullies’ threat, she turned into Roger Benckendorf. 

She walked with me to practice the next day.

“Do you have a dime for them, Mom?” I asked,  thinking she might not understand the requirement. “I’m really supposed to bring them a dime.”

Mom gave me a strange look. “I’ve got a dime for them, all right.” 

I spotted the boys and pointed to the other side of the baseball diamond. “There they are.” 

Mom charged across the sun-baked infield and corraled the two kids. I couldn’t quite hear what she told them, but I know she did not give them a dime, and they ran away rather fast. I never saw them again.

I puzzled over why Mom told me she was going to give them a dime when she clearly never intended to do so, but I was starting to understand that you were not supposed to give in to extortion. What the alternative was, though, I still had no clue.

#

November came.

General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, President-elect of the United States, 1952. Photo by Fabian Bachrach. Public Domain.

The “I Like Ike” folks greatly outnumbered the “Madly for Adlai” folks, nationwide. We had a new president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, a smiling, bald-headed, grandfatherly man who talked a lot about “nucular” weapons.

Mom told me he meant “nuclear.” Nuclear meant the Atom Bomb.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Streator and Knoxville–A Remembrance

In 1952 we moved from the little house by the glass factory in Streator, Illinois, to a two-story house at 303 West Stanton Street. Mom explained the number 303 meant we were three blocks west of Bloomington Street, the second house on the south side of Stanton Street. I could see how that pattern made sense. It was a kind of code.

1939 Chevrolet. Image by Photosleuth, licensed under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The house on Stanton was a nice one, with three bedrooms and a bath off a large landing on the second floor. The picket-fenced back yard contained a brick barbecue pit. Across the alley stood Grant School, a red-brick cube where I would attend second grade. 

A garage stood at the back of the lot. When Dad came home from work, driving our black 1939 Chevrolet, he could drive up the alley, stop the car, get out, pull the swinging garage door open, get back in the car, drive the car in, get out, and push the garage door closed. Then he could open the back gate in the white picket fence and walk through the yard to our back door. It was simple and convenient. 

hollyhock lady 2” by Jay Erickson is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Mom and Dad paid sixty dollars a month to rent this palace. Hollyhocks grew by the barbecue. Cynda and I learned to pluck off the blooms and make “hollyhock ladies” of them, the ruffled edges of the red, pink, or purple petals forming the ladies’ billowing skirts.

The house had a full basement, where stood an asbestos-padded furnace, thick round ducts sprouting from its top into the murky realm of floor joists overhead. My cold-weather chore was to shovel coal into the furnace twice a day—once right after school and again before bed. Dad handled the job in the mornings, and I suppose Mom did it in mid-day. On Saturdays Dad and I scooped out the spent coal—a mixture of white, powdery fly ash and hard, iridescent cinders or “clinkers”—and carried it in a five-gallon bucket to the alley, where the garbage men would collect it on Monday morning.

Life settled into a routine. I kept busy working out answers to life’s big questions. 

But our family life was not all centered in Streator. Knoxville, a hundred miles away, was still our real hometown. That’s where the relatives lived. There was a real difference between these two places that I had yet to grasp.

Knoxville was a town of about two thousand souls, ten miles west of the Spoon River and five miles southeast of Galesburg, the city where Dad had gone to college while I sucked ice chips and envied my playmate’s adventure at the hospital.

Parts of Mom’s family had lived in or near Knoxville since before the Civil War. Dad’s family had relocated there from tiny Dahinda when he was about ten. 

Grandma and Grandpa Sommers

Grandma and Grandpa Sommers lived alone in their house at the east end of Knoxville. Grandma, a Gold Star Mother twice over, was a large-framed woman with big white buttons in both ears, wired to a microphone-and-battery pack that hung on the front of her baggy, flower- print dress. She was a warm, comforting presence—unpretentious and accommodating. 

Grandpa, William P. Sommers, was a bantam rooster—small and fiery, given to profane outbursts, sharply critical of children. 

I was terrified of him and comforted by her.

We were their closest kin, geographically. Dad’s older brother, Edward, was a pilot for Pan American World Airways and lived far off in Germany or England or someplace like that. Dad’s older sister, Mabel, had married an aircraft mechanic and lived in Southern California. Their other two children, Stanley and Franklin, had been killed flying bombers—one in the Solomon Islands, the other over France. 

Grandma and Grandpa, different as they were from each other, formed a unit, an odd-yoked pair going through life with a strange mix of anger and acceptance.

The Old Courthouse. Larry F. Sommers photo.

On Mom’s side of the family, we swarmed with present kin. Mom was first of seven living brothers and sisters—some married, with children, and others not yet full-grown. Mom’s mother, Grandma LaFollette, had a brother and sister in Galesburg and many aunts and uncles living nearby. 

Grandma and Grandpa LaFollette lived in a slouching house on the west end of Knoxville, facing the Old Courthouse across the town square. Neither of them was as critical as Grandpa Sommers or as comforting as Grandma Sommers. They were warm, friendly, and commonplace. Aunts, uncles, and cousins moved through the house. You never knew who might turn up. 

I preferred life at the west end of Main Street to the stifling ennui at the other end of town. This was especially so at Christmas time, when all the LaFollette aunts and uncles and cousins sloshed together in a burst of amiable chaos that included turkey, gravy, and wishbone-pulling. Even then, we usually slept at Grandma and Grandpa Sommers’s sedate place. They had bed space for us, whereas the LaFollettes often didn’t.

Christmas 1950 at Grandma LaFollette’s house.

Knoxville, where our roots were planted, was home. There, we were good enough. 

Our usual dwelling place, Streator—a perfectly fine town—seemed like a place where we had something to prove. Mom and Dad lived in a web of grown-up associations, some quite relaxed and friendly but others apparently fraught with unfamiliar expectations—an element of tension that did not exist in little Knoxville, among the relatives.

I could not have identified it then and do not fully understand it yet. But it came out, over and over in the following years, as a gnawing sense of insufficiency which pervaded our household. Mom and Dad both experienced it, in their separate ways, and by the time we grew to be adults ourselves, my sister and I had both caught serious cases of it. 

It was a code that would take many years, and much heartache, to decipher.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

School Days–A Remembrance

When I was six and a quarter, in September 1951, we moved to Streator, Illinois.

After Dad got his bachelor’s degree at Knox College, we had moved away from Galesburg—away from Dale and Hado, away from warm-globed lamps on purple-bricked streets, away from iceboxes and late-night card games and the rumble of freight cars in the night—to little Dwight, a hundred miles east. Dad taught chemistry in the high school there. After two years, he threw in the towel and got a job that paid a living wage, working as an analytical chemist for the Smith-Douglass Fertilizer Company in Streator.

Dad about 1950.

My sister, Cynda Jo, had been born in 1950, when we lived in Dwight. With that single exception, we left the town no richer than we came.

The house we rented in Streator was on First Street, in the shadow of the Owens-Illinois glass bottle factory. The house was small, but we were a small family.

My father was a slender twenty-nine-year-old with brownish hair, a high forehead, and wire-rimmed glasses—studious in appearance, methodical in all his doings. A scientist by nature. He was sociable, even garrulous, yet far from smooth or accomplished in social graces. He was a nice guy, might say, even if he seemed a bit bewildered. He could bore you with things you did not want to know, yet clam up about things you did want to know.

Mom’s 1940 graduation picture.

My mother was our dynamo. She was a statuesque blonde, also twenty-nine—beautiful, smart, energetic, and hard-headed. She was a flash typist and stenographer, with perfect spelling and grammar. She had the drive and determination that Dad seemed to lack. She was forthright. She would tell you what was on her mind, often in terms you could not figure out.

Cynda, about age 3.

Cynda Jo, my little sister, was sixteen months old when we moved to Streator. She was beginning to walk and talk. Already her personality seemed, from my perspective, crabby and self-centered.

Me? I was high-spirited and inquisitive. I still thought I could decipher the world’s secret code. I was eager to start school. When I finally got there, it was a smashing success. 

#

Our teacher, Miss Gamble, showed us a picture on a big white card. There was a boy named Dick and a girl named Jane. 

“They are brother and sister,” said Miss Gamble. She pointed to words printed in big letters under Dick: “Look. Look. I can see.”

There were words under Jane also: “Look, Dick. Look. Can you see?”

The poetry of Dick and Jane. Fair use photo.

The speeches were not very interesting, but I could read them. “Look” had different letters, and a different shape, from “see.” They meant the same thing but sounded different. You could tell which was which by their shapes. Other words, like “I” and “can,” had other shapes.

It was my first day of school, ever, and already I could read! This was a promising development.

#

I soon learned that reading was a little more involved. There was something called “phonics,” which meant you had to know the sound of each letter. The great benefit was that you could look at a word and “sound it out.” You did not have to know what a word was already. You could figure out the code on your own. This appealed to me. 

Naturally, there were oddities. For example, f was sometimes spelled ph. Even so, it was a kind of system one could master.

There was also a social system, which was harder to master. 

#

A skinny kid named Allen and his chunky cousin Donny Bill sometimes blocked my path home from school. They were well-known bullies, with a little gang of hench-kids who aided their bullying. None of them struck me, but they danced around, made fun of me, called me names—especially when I walked home hand-in-hand with a cute little girl named Mary Lou.

I knew not what to make of these kids’ rudeness. What if they went from taunts to actual hitting? How could I protect myself? The idea of counter-punching, of bravely facing them down, was nowhere in my brain. 

When I confided in Mom, she told me to stand up for myself. I could not imagine what she was talking about. She said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

One winter day when Allen’s gang bothered me on my way home, Roger Benckendorf, my next-door neighbor, stepped in. Roger was in fourth grade and towered over my tormentors. He took Al, Donny Bill, and their friends aside. They all stood in the dirty purple snow at the side of the street. 

“Look, youse kids,” said Roger in a voice that was soft yet just loud enough I could hear every word. “Larry is my friend. Youse lay off of him, see? Leave him be, if you know what’s good for youse.”

Just like that, my problem was solved. 

It pays to have friends.

#

After Roger solved my problem, Mom kept trying to solve it, by interpreting Allen to me. 

“He’s a year older,” she said. “He had rheumatic fever and was off school a year. Because of that, people spoiled him. So now he thinks he’s king of the mountain, and he hasn’t got any real friends of his own. That’s why he acts like a bully.”

She arranged a play date. Allen and his family lived up the street from us, in a two-story house. I showed up at the appointed time. Al answered the door and let me in. “You wanna go upstairs and play with my train?”

Lionel passenger cars, ca. 1950.

“Sure.” I followed him up to a large room. A big oval of track was laid out on the shiny hardwood floor. A couple of switches formed an inner loop. There was a Lionel diesel-style engine and a long string of passenger cars, all identical, a dozen or more. 

Al worked the lever to speed the train around the track, occasionally flipping the control buttons for the switches. 

It was interesting to watch these operations. Here was something I could surely master.

“Let me try,” I said.

Al’s eyes flashed. “No,” he commanded. “You watch. I run the train.”

He had invited me upstairs to play with his train. But he didn’t mean that. He meant that he would play and I would watch.

I was no longer afraid of Al. Somehow, it now seemed he was afraid of me.

Feeling embarrassed for him, I left. 

I didn’t need to play with his train as much as he needed to be the only one who played with his train.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

The Units–A Remembrance

1948

A kid has drunk turpentine that Mommy left on the porch in a tin can. 

What is “turpentine”? What is “the hospital”? What does it mean to “get your stomach pumped”? 

“Darn that Dale Price,” Mommy says, “always getting into things.”

We do not have stomach pumpings every day. Most days, it’s only ice chips.

We beg them from the iceman when he goes back to his truck with empty tongs after bringing a huge cake of ice to the kitchen in one of our units. The iceman always has loose chips in his truck, mixed with straw flakes and dirt. He gives a chip to each of us. We wipe the end clean and suck on it as long as our fingers can stand to hold the other end.

Iceman. Library of Congress, Public Domain.

Why is ice so cold? Why is it mixed with straw? Where did last week’s ice block go? What did the icebox do with it? 

Maybe Daddy knows. In winter he broke an icicle off our unit’s roof, brought it in, and ran hot water over it. He looked sad when the icicle went away, but he wanted to show me that it does go away. Ice can’t stay under hot water.

I have a girlfriend. Her name is Hea-th-er. That’s hard to say, but I call her Hado. She is a year younger, so I always have to tell her things. Her mommy and daddy play cards with my mommy and daddy every night, in our unit or theirs. When they play next door, I lie in bed listening to switch engines shuttling cars in the “Q” yards till Mommy or Daddy comes back to check on me because they’re dummy. When they play in our unit, I hear the thwop of cards being shuffled, the slip, slip, slip of cards being dealt, and the odd words that follow: “One heart . . . one spade . . . two diamonds . . . pass . . . .” 

What’s it about? Why are they a “dummy”? What are clubs and spades for? Where do you find diamonds? If you don’t have a heart, does that make you a dummy?

What is a no-trump? I don’t think they want me to find out. The grown-ups drive me crazy. They know all these things, like a secret code. I can only ask questions, over and over. 

Soon—maybe today, maybe tomorrow—Something Great will be revealed.

Then I can tell Hado, so she’ll know, too, and we won’t be left out anymore.

#

When I was three years old, life was exciting. I thought once I grew up, I would have it all figured out. I would no longer be on the outside, looking in. 

The way to gain enlightenment was to worm the facts out of my mother and father, since they already knew everything. The trouble was getting them to take my questions seriously. 

Today we worry about the formation of our children’s psyches. Back then, children were only small, deficient beings who ought to be ignored until they reached maturity and somehow became adults. Of course, we children were sent to school to cure the worst of our ignorance; but not much could be expected from us, at least until we held full-time jobs.

As to my parents’ magisterial authority, I had no doubts. Mommy and Daddy were primeval; they had always been there. I never inquired into their antecedents. 

It took years before I understood that I had come in at the end of a great war—a long ordeal that devoured half the world and damaged the rest. My father, Lloyd Sommers, had joined in that war when he was barely out of high school. He had served in the 132nd Infantry Regiment, Americal Division, on the Southwest Pacific islands of New Caledonia, Guadalcanal, Fiji, and Bougainville. 

Then he had come home to the small town of Knoxville, Illinois, and married his high school sweetheart, Barbara LaFollette. I was born nine months later, in June 1945. Both my parents were then twenty-three years old. 

In September, at three months of age, I moved with Mommy and Daddy to the campus of Knox College in nearby Galesburg, where Daddy had enrolled as a freshman, hoping for a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Such a goal might have been out of reach if not for the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944—the “G.I. Bill”—which sponsored a college education for millions of war veterans. America was raising a great wave of future scientists, engineers, teachers, and managers out of the surplus manpower shaken loose by the largest military demobilization in history.

Postwar student housing at Beloit College, almost identical to ours at Knox. Public Domain photos.

At Knox, our friends were other young families like ourselves, headed by young men four years older than the usual college freshman, men who had tasted war and who yearned to make up for lost time now that peace was at hand. We all lived together in “the units,” triplex shacks lined up like barracks at the south end of campus. 

Each apartment held a small living room, a kitchen, a bathroom, a small bedroom for the parents, and a smaller bedroom for one or possibly two infants. There was a sofa and a lamp, an icebox and a stove, a large bed and a crib. Daddy put glow-in-the-dark images of five-pointed stars on the headboard of my crib—“decals,” he called them. I liked the glowing stars. The idea was that I would be hypnotized by these stars and would fall into blissful sleep. This might have happened had not my parents spent every other evening playing contract bridge, at full voice, with Helen and Bud Steele in the next room.

Even on those nights when the card game was held next door, my ears registered the all-night operations of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, whose hump yard fanned out just south of the units. Switch engines pushed cars over a hump, where they were cut loose. Each car rolled down a long incline, through a switch, and onto a pre-assigned track to couple with a string of standing cars. The grunt of a diesel engine, the long roll of wheels on steel track, and the bang released by a fifty-ton car smacking into a stationary string of other cars: These mere sounds, not yet cluttered by explanations and rational understanding, held me entranced.

I was not alone in the adventure. My bear, Teddy, huddled in the dark with me and shared the drama. Teddy’s shiny eye caught a glint of light from a streetlamp outside my window. By placing my eye next to his, I could see through that tiny glint into a translenticular world of strange machines crawling over jumbled terrain—an industrial landscape, where mechanical beasts toiled at obscure tasks. This scene—immensely packed into its microscopic sphere—perfectly illustrated the alien sounds from the railyard.

What if I could actually crawl through the glint and descend bodily into that bear’s-eye world? Would I fit in? Would I measure up to that test?

Teddy today.

It was a harsh, black-and-white place, lit from high above, almost a lunar landscape. The ground was jagged, all up-and-down, in-and-out, strewn with I knew not what, so the not-exactly-animals but not-quite-machines which ranged over it had to rise and plunge like boats in a sea-storm, requiring huge wheels (or something) to master the chaotic substrate. 

How could I find my way in that remote domain?

Teddy is still with me. He sits like a sphinx on my dresser. Between the two of us, we hold the secrets of seventy-five years. Our eyes have frosted over. Ted’s pupil is no longer a gateway to an alternate world. For me, no separate vision remains. 

The stark bear’s-eye vision is only a memory—the lingering enigma of an astonishing landscape still waiting to be discovered.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

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

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

Hail! Hail! The Gang’s All Here

Bradford High School

Saturday I attended the 60-year reunion of the Mary D. Bradford High School Class of 1962.

It was a great time. 

I lived in Kenosha, Wisconsin, only a few years, from 1957 to 1962. I arrived as an eighth-grader at Lincoln Junior High. So my friendships among high school classmates were not of the kind that went all the way back to first grade.

But one of the things you learn when you are old, Dear Reader, is that it’s always great to gather with friends you have known for more than half a century. Even if you hardly knew someone way back then, you have so much in common sixty years later! So, at a reunion you can bond closely with someone you hardly knew in days of yore. 

It’s hard to explain, but mere propinquity (as Zelda Gilroy would say) six decades ago can cement a relationship in the here and now.

Our class started with 831 freshpersons and graduated 537 seniors. In those days, there was a lot of attrition. 

At least 147 of our 537 graduates have passed on—a frightful toll, considering that we are only in our late 70s. Of the remaining 390, some are now in poor health, while others live at a great distance. 

Among the 75 classmates who showed up for this year’s reunion, there were many whom I remembered, and who remembered me. None of them were especially good buddies sixty years ago—but they were long-lost pals now!

Wayne Blackmon was there, who used to sing a very suggestive verion of the innocent 1920s song, “Does Your Mother Know You’re Out, Cecilia?” I exchanged greetings with Armand Mattarese, our legendary quarterback, who also shared a beachfront beer-and-bonfire bash with me and a few nice girls on our graduation night. 

Rose Marie Pellegrino, who used to be one of the real spark-plugs of our class, spoke with me of the books she likes to read. She commended Louise Penny’s mysteries to my attention, and I mentioned to her Romain Gary’s excellent 1961 memoir, Promise At Dawn.

I learned of the lives, the trials and triumphs of classmates Sandy Zacho and Lucille Turco. Len Iaquinta put in a good word and followed up with an offer to connect me with a Southeast Wisconsin podcaster. Abby Cohen Schmelling was fascinated to hear I had written a novel based on my family’s genealogy.

Walter Modjelewski had a wonderful long career in the metal castings business and is doing great. We exchanged health info. “I take nothing,” he said. I’m in awe. I think I’m healthy, but I depend on three or four regular pills.

Joyce Sawicki, a beautiful girl then, is still a knockout–and a caring friend.

Some of my Class of ’62 friends even knew about my forthcoming book, said they had pre-ordered it, and wished me good luck. 

But selling books was not the main point of the exercise. Mainly, I was just glad to learn I was not the only survivor.

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!)