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!)

EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT!

All Hands On Deck.

If you’re at all like me, Dear Reader, you want people to know and appreciate the work you do.

More than six years ago, I set out to become a serious writer. If you read this blog regularly, you already know about the ups and downs, the travails and triumphs, of that journey.

A big victory is scheduled for eleven days from now, when my debut historical novel, Price of Passage: A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, will be published. 

It’s hard to express how gratifying that will be. 

Me, an author. Who’d a thunk it?

But that’s only the beginning. 

The Dirty Details

Publishing, Gentle Reader, is a business. It relies on income from books sold to make it all worthwhile. My publisher—Noble Creature though he is!—did not get into it solely for cheap thrills. He is looking to make a profit.

“Profit” is a word that a novice book writer is not justified in breathing. Only established authors, represented by New York agents and published by the Big Four, dare hope to make enough in royalties to cover the cost of incidental writing expenses (conferences and such), let alone repay the time and effort they put into their work. 

Lion. Photo by Kevin Pluck, licensed under CC BY 2.0

I do not fall into the Stephen King category. So you might say this “Literary Lion” thing is a mere ego trip. You might even say that my book, though published under a traditional contract by a traditional publisher, is essentially, in some way, a vanity proposition.

The Pitch

So here’s the deal, Friend: I need your help to make Price of Passage a wildly successful book. Don’t just buy and read it yourself, but also please mention it to every intelligent reader you know. If they enjoy historical fiction, this is an excellent specimen. If they never read historical fiction, this is their perfect introduction to the beauty, and the value, of the genre.

Besides simple word of mouth, I need your help in finding book clubs, book stores, and libraries where I might make a presentation and perhaps sell a few books. I am based in Madison, Wisconsin, but can travel under the right circumstances. Or I can use Zoom to make presentations to distant groups.

In short, Fair Reader, I want you as a willing co-conspirator. I have a newsletter for co-conspirators. It’s called The Haphazard Times because it comes out on no regular schedule—only when there’s important news to pass on. Consider it the official club organ. The Haphazard Times is where you’ll find upcoming events, marching orders, secret codes, etc. It will help you be a good co-conspirator.

Fill out the orange box at the top of this page, and then reply to the confirmation email which will be sent to you. That way you’ll be in on all the fun of a Major Literary Campaign. As a bonus, you’ll receive Steam, Sparks, and Iron—a brief, bite-sized look at a nineteenth-century explosion of new technologies that impacted the characters in Price of Passage

Do it now. 

Thanks for your help.

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!)

Rome, Rome, Wherefore Art Thou Rome?

All roads lead here, they say.

And I guess it’s true. We stayed a few days in Croatia, Slovenia, and Trieste; a few more days in Venice, a grand old city that’s been falling apart for a thousand years; and then a week at an agriturismo villa in the Tuscan hills. These sojourns gave rich experiences to the grandchildren.

But eventually, we came to Rome. We arrived by train at Roma Termini, one of the world’s great railroad stations. The Number One Great Thing about Termini is getting out of it and finding your way to a cool hotel lobby. 

I already like the Hotel dei Borgognoni—Hotel of the Burgundians! It’s in the heart of Rome, halfway between Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. Its claim to four stars is, one may say, aspirational; but it is a pretty good hotel. The people are friendly, and there is a nice family restaurant nearby.

When we checked in on August 6, the desk clerk noticed from our passports that it was Elsie’s thirteenth birthday. A congratulatory fruit basket appeared in the kids’ room, compliments of the house. It was a nice touch—the kind of thing doting grandparents will not soon forget.

An hour after check-in, we were off on a pre-arranged tour of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. Virginia, our guide, knew her stuff, but when her planned route led up a long, steep street paved by the ancients with jagged, irregular flagstones, we dropped out. 

Arch of Constantine. Photo by David Jones, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Virginia went on, escorting Katie, Elsie, and Tristan, while Joelle and I waited by the Arch of Constantine to be picked up and returned to our hotel. Joelle found us a leaning post by a brick wall. The afternoon sun beat down.  

I went scouting for water. Three hundred meters down the street, a vendor held out a bag of half-liter water bottles. 

“How much?” I asked.

“On bottle—two Euro,” said the vendor.

“Give me two. No, three.” 

“Why don’t you just buy out my stock?” He opened his bag to show there were four bottles left.

I bought them all, and he threw in the plastic bag. As I limped back with my prize to where Joelle waited, I saw another man selling water fifty feet from where she stood. No doubt he had been there all along. Blinded by my belief that water was far away, I must have walked right past him. 

While we waited for a ride, Rome entertained us. Bridal parties descended from black cars to get photos made with the Colosseum as background. A fashionable couple strode by, restraining a matched pair of sleek, hungry-looking, yellow-eyed wolf dogs on leashes—descendants, perhaps of the she-wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus.  

Overhead, a lone peregrine falcon patrolled.

This place was not built in a day.

Nor can it be fully explored in less than a month or two. We merely hoped to give the children a quick introduction. 

Our desk clerk assured us that everything in Rome is still where it was the last time. 

Trevi Fountain. Photo by David Iliff, licensed under CC BY 3.0.

So yesterday we all walked to Trevi Fountain. It spouts streams of water amid statues of hippocamps and Greek water deities. People throng the piazza and toss coins into the swirling waters. At mid-morning, it was already gosh awful hot—we are gripped by the fiercest and longest heat wave in Europe’s memory. Just viewing the fountain was so enervating that we all had to stop for gelati.

Then, on to the Spanish Steps—a monumental staircase of 135 steps in the middle of Rome. The kids ran up the steps; we took the elevator from the Metro station at street level. Then we all went on to enjoy the large park and gardens at the Villa Borghese.

Spanish Steps. Photo by Arnaud 25, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

But the day’s highlight was a train/bus trip to the pleasant suburb of Frascati. There, mentored by a young chef named Nico, we made and cooked fresh pasta. Kids and adults enjoyed making, cooking, and eating the noodles, with typical Italian sauces. For growups, there were also some nice wines.

At last we had found an excursion that did not tax our capabilities.

Do as the locals do.

When our train rolled into Termini around nine o’clock, the Metro station was closed. So we took a cab home. It turned out to be a gypsy cab, a wildcat operation not licensed for the trade.

“The Hotel Dei Borgognoni,” I said.

“Oh, Borgognoni. Center of city?”

“Si.”

“I take you there, thirty Euro.” 

Not a bad price. I nodded.

He led us across Via Giovanni Giolitti to his van. A young woman sat at the wheel, revving the engine. She could have been his daughter but might have been his wife.

When he told the young woman “Hotel Borgognoni,” she shot him a bewildered look. The man climbed into the front passenger seat, with us in the capacious rear seats. Off we shot through the serpentine streets of a perplexing city.

The man and the woman consulted, argued. She turned this way and that. After twenty minutes, we stopped in a brightly-lit street, sidewalk restaurants lining both sides.

“Here,” the man said. “Borgognona.” He motioned for us to get out.

“No.” I shook my head vehemently. “This is not it.”

He waved his hand. “Here. Via Borgognona.”

“Not Via Borgognona. Hotel dei Borgognoni.” 

Katie chimed in. “It’s on Via del Bufalo.”

Hotel dei Borognoni.

Doubt crept into the man’s expression. “Hotel? Hotel Borgognona?”

The young woman at the wheel consulted her smart phone. Her face brightened. She looked up from the phone. “Hotel dei Borgognoni?” 

I nodded vigorously.

She showed me the screen—a glowing picture of the front door of our hotel.

“That’s it!” I cried.

She smiled and put it back in gear. After ten more minutes of narrow streets and alleys, we ground to a stop. “Here,” the man said, waving outside the cab. “Hotel Borgognoni.” 

Nothing looked familiar. In the back seat, Katie stared at her little phone screen and nodded. “Yeah, this is it.”

We got out, I gave the guy his thirty Euros. We hoofed our way a block through a deserted street, turned a corner, and there we were. Home at last.

Thus did we survive an amusing travel anecdote of the old style. 

Today, after our morning tour of the Vatican was over, Katie called us an Uber to get back to the hotel. Perfectly satisfactory it was. But not much drama, if you ask me.

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!)

Charlie Nash’s Big Guy

It was the size of a double-wide house trailer, but flashier. Green and silver and glass and shiny, like a future mode of transportation.

I didn’t think Galesburg had seen anything like it before, and in fact the old town might not be ready for it yet. It was only 1963.

I leaned on the lampost at Simmons and Cherry, watching. In five minutes, the thing did not move. The only hint of its identity was a big sign on a steel pole: CHARLIE NASH’S BIG GUY. 

Some clue. 

The green panels are now red, and the sign has changed; but in six decades, the future mode of transportation, pictured here with a couple of present modes of transportation, has still not moved. Photo from Google Earth 18 July 2022.

I went in. Tables and chairs stood along the front windows. On the other side, a short man in a white shirt stood behind a counter. His crewcut head resembled a ripening peach. 

“What is this place—a restaurant?” 

“Could be,” the man said. “You need a job? Where you from?” 

“Kenosha. Wisconsin.”

“Kenosha, fancy that. I’m from Fort Wayne.” He stuck out his hand. “Charlie Nash, the Fort Wayne Flash.” 

Perhaps I gave him a strange look, for he winked. “That’s okay. I need a busboy-dishwasher-salad set-up man for the noon rush. You can be the Kenosha Flash. Think you can handle it?”

I mentioned my weeks of service at the Keno Family Drive-in Theater concession stand. 

We shook hands.

#

Charlie Nash turned out to be a peach of a boss. He taught me to run the dishwasher and how to set up salads and garnishes. When things were slack, he taught me to grill hamburgers and manufacture his signature sandwich, the double-decker “Big Guy” with shredded lettuce and Charlie’s special secret sauce. “It’s just tartar sauce,” he said, “but we’re the only ones that use it on hamburgers.” Contrary to my expectations, it was tasty.

In between rushes, he taught me all I know to this day about sports betting. If I give you Notre Dame and six-and-a-half points, my team needs to beat the Irish by a touchdown.

I worked all that autumn from eleven to one, six days a week, at a dollar per hour, which was standard for scullery work in those days. I believe Harley made a dollar and a quarter an hour, or maybe a dollar and a half. Harley was the actual fry cook, spinning out Big Guys and all sorts of other burgers during the thick part of the noon rush. 

Harley was gaunt, lanky. He had a tattoo on one hand and smoked Kools, a dire mentholated cigarette brand. Harley was a rough customer, with greasy black hair and a wasted look, like Johnny Cash before June Carter got hold of him. He was middle aged—like forty-five, only maybe he was thirty-five and looked ten years older, if you know what I mean. Haggard look aside, he seemed like a nice guy, quiet and reserved.

Charlie Nash’s only reservation, which he told me in private, was that periodically Harley did not show up on Monday morning. That meant he was “off on a toot” and would come dragging in two days later, after the hangover had passed and he remembered he still needed money. 

Another employee, who probably made a dollar ten plus tips, was Winnie. She was, like me, a Knox student. Only she was a first-semester freshman, whereas I was a sophomore. She was a bustling hive of competence, her waitress uniform packed with capabilities. 

It was a joy to watch Winnie work. I was not the only spectator. I think quite a few of the regular lunchtime guys actually came to ogle Winnie.

One day in late October, lunch counter heroism was called for. There was no Harley, which was not terribly unusual. But there was also no Winnie. More than sixty dollars was missing from the till. 

“We won’t see them again,” Charlie said. “They’ve probably gone off to Peoria, and who-knows-where after that.” Sixty bucks could take them quite a ways. It would be a couple of weeks before they really needed to work. They could be in Wichita by then.

Charlie looked fuzzily forlorn, let down by those he had trusted. But he took the loss like a philosopher, not being the kind of guy who would hold a grudge. 

His wife, whose name I no longer recall, issued quite a few “Hmpfs” as she dashed about the small diner, taking orders and clearing tables. But she was a loyal trooper. You could tell this was not the Nashes’ first disaster.

We survived the day and carried on. 

Harley’s absence got me promoted to approximately one-half dishwasher-busboy-setup man, and about one-half short-order cook. By then I knew the menu and could turn out each item flawlessly, thus giving Charlie the breathing space to schmooze with the customers, a vital necessity of trade.

#

One day a month later, as I was shucking my apron to return to campus for afternoon classes, an old kibbitzer at the counter made some wisecrack about “what Kennedy got,” which puzzled me. I paid attention to the news in those days, but I didn’t know what Kennedy had gotten. 

The Galesburg Register-Mail’s printing plant was just a block west of my route back to campus, and I jogged over there to see the morning’s headlines. The pressmen always wrote them in crayon on a big sheet of newsprint and taped it in the window before they took the afternoon paper to press.

This day no headline sheet was posted. The big press visible through the window stood idle, no pressmen in sight.

As I walked back to school, I saw no other pedestrians. No cars cruised the streets. I seemed to be the only citizen at large. 

A figure came toward me from Seymour Union, the main gathering place for Knox students. It was Ray Gadke, a campus personality.

“Hi, Ray,” I said. “What do you know?”

“They killed him,” he said, tears flowing down his cheeks. He kept walking.

In 1963 there was only one television on campus. It was in Seymour Union. The place was packed. The television lounge was full, students and faculty members spilling into the halls. People leaned against walls. Some lay limp on the floor, sobbing. 

JFK in Dallas, 22 November 1963. Photo by Walt Cisco, Dallas Morning News. Public Domain.
Martin Agronsky. Public Domain.

You could not get near the big floor model TV set in the back corner of the lounge, but the volume was turned all the way up. Martin Agronsky, an NBC reporter, his voice trembling, stated that President Kennedy had been pronounced dead. 

#

Harley and Winnie never did come back. 

Neither did John Kennedy.

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!)

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!)

Through the Lens Backwards

Today, Galesburg, Illinois, is unprepossessing. My old hometown has seen better days. As you drive through various residential neighborhoods, you see signs of urban decay. 

Still, there is a vitality. People are doing things. 

Main Street Underpass. Contractor photo.

New overpasses and underpasses have liberated Main Street traffic from its former bondage to the railroads’ freight-hauling schedules. 

The commercial section of Seminary Street was remodeled decades ago, its old brick pavement lovingly restored. Stores, restaurants, and a coffee shop line both sides of the street for a three-block stretch, south and north of Main. Establishments like the Landmark Café have been in business for a long time now and do a steady trade. Redevelopment of this old street is a retail success story.

Knox College looks prosperous. There are new buildings, and some of the old classics, such as Alumni Hall, have been rehabbed and repurposed beyond their former glory. The Knox Bowl football stadium is a big step up from the old field where we used to watch the hapless Siwashers struggle against the bruisers of Lawrence and St. Olaf. 

The very term “Siwashers,” once a proud and unique moniker, has been officially retired in favor of “Prairie Fire.” Ladies and gentlemen, applaud as the Knox Prairie Fire take the field. It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but we learned in 1993 that “Siwash”—which the college had used in all innocence for nearly a century—was also an ethnic slur against Native Americans, used especially in the Pacific Northwest. 

Victorian house, Buffalo, New York. Note the fishscale siding on the tall mansard roof. Photo by Andre Carrotflower, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0.

Another sign of the times: There is now a nice soccer pitch beside the Knox Bowl. Not quite as nice as the gridiron for American football. Still, it’s something.

The tony streets north of Main in the central part of the city—Broad, Cherry, Prairie, Kellogg, and Seminary—are still lined with very nice, well-kept houses. Some of them are gorgeous Queen Annes or other late Victorian castles. Here and there one of these old dowagers crumbles down towards her foundations—neither rehabbed nor yet plowed under. Such eyesores tend to bring the neighborhood down. But it’s still a nice neighborhood. Some of the streets are still made of brick and lined with old globe-style streetlamps. 

Charming it is, as in quaint.

That fin-de-siècle architecture, and the town’s disused streetcar tracks, prompted the late Jack Finney to pen a classic short story called “I Love Galesburg in the Springtime.” In case anyone under sixty is reading this, I ought to explain the story’s title was a sidelong allusion to a line from “I Love Paris,” a very popular song penned by Cole Porter in 1953.

Finney, a Milwaukee native, was a 1934 Knox college graduate. Most of his best work was what today we call speculative fiction—a mélange of sci-fi, fantasy, and magical realism. The basic thrust of “I Love Galesburg in the Springtime” was a comforting conceit that the old red-brick and fishscale-sided town was possessed by a benevolent antiquarian spirit which actively subverted the schemes of developers to tear things down and modernize. 

You might not enjoy the story—if you can even find it. I, however, have long been captivated by Finney’s atavistic sensibility. 

James Daly in “A Stop at Willoughby.” CBS Television photo. Public Domain.

The late Rod Serling penned a favorite episode for the first season of The Twilight Zone called “A Stop at Willoughby.” In it, a harried, hounded, and henpecked New York ad exec looks out the window of his commuter train as he goes home in the evening and sees a little town called Willoughby—a town that’s never been on the train’s route before. 

In Willoughby, the sun always shines. A band plays in the park. Men and women in outdated garb stroll down streets traversed by horse-drawn rigs. Young boys roll hoops along board sidewalks. The ad man, portrayed by actor James Daly, longs for the slow-paced serenity of the little town. 

The story has a Serlingesque dark side in the harsh forces of modern life that impel the ad man to crave a life in Willoughby. I won’t reveal any spoilers, but my point is that the protagonist’s yearning to turn back the clock is pure Jack Finney. 

Maybe Jack was right. Maybe Galesburg harbors a stubborn, almost animate, resistance to change. Perhaps that’s why not everything has gone right for this grand old American city. 

But speaking as a native, I still love it—springtime, summer, or fall. 

Winter is another thing altogether.

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!)

Knox County Romance

Stuff of the moon
Runs on the lapping sand
Out to the longest shadows.
Under the curving willows,
And round the creep of the wave line,
Fluxions of yellow and dusk on the waters
Make a wide dreaming pansy of an old pond in the night.

—Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), “Nocturne in a Deserted Brickyard,” 1916

Ever been in a brickyard? It’s a factory where bricks are made. Today there’s a computerized, robotic operation in Brampton, Ontario that makes 200 million bricks a year.

In Sandburg’s time, brickyards were smaller. They were numerous; they dotted the countryside. 

Abandoned brickyard in Ohio. Photo by Theodor Jung (1906-1996). Public Domain.

There would be a large building where bricks were formed, kilns to bake them into hard pavers or building bricks, square stacks of finished product, and a tall smokestack or two, or three. By night, moonshadows might mold the place into a mystic realm of keeps and turrets, standing sentinel over the sleeping countryside—or else brutal, stolid hulks suggesting somber reckonings in the chill moonlight. 

Charlie Sandburg knew all this. But he describes only a pond—the softest, most horizontal piece of the picture. Brickyards had ponds, formed where clay and shale were scooped from the earth. But the pond in this poem is a pond and nothing else—not an artifact of industry or a byproduct of production. It is a pool of water, swayed by breeze, by gravity, by the moon.

Moonlit Panorama” by j.edward ferguson is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The “brickyard” in the title gives us a setting but makes no demands on the “wide dreaming pansy.” Sandburg was a romantic.

He was also one of the the great American poets, a singer of plain people and their lives, a successor to Walt Whitman.

Carl Sandburg in 1955. Photo by Al Ravenna, World Telegram. Public Domain.

Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois, in a three-room cottage at 313 East Third Street. He lived his first twenty years mostly in and about Galesburg. After brief service as a private in the Spanish-American War, he returned to Galesburg and he attended Lombard College. Besides glimpsing the life of the mind and acquiring a habit of poetry, Sandburg captained the Lombard basketball team in days when they stopped the game after every score to retrieve the ball from the peach basket. 

Even after leaving Galesburg, Carl Sandburg remained a Midwesterner, a son of the prairie.

#

Galesburg had several brickyards. The greatest of these was the Purington Brick Company of East Galesburg. They made heavy bricks that paved the streets of Galesburg and other cities, even as far as Panama City, Panama. 

As time went on, cities quit paving their streets with brick. The Purington brickyard ceased production in 1974. If you drove through East Galesburg today, you would be hard-pressed to discern there was ever a brick-making factory there. Above the surrounding woods you may glimpse a tall chimney, now crumbling. That’s about all.

I know this, Dear Reader, because I do get back to Galesburg once in a while. Like Sandburg, I am a native. My birth took place in Cottage Hospital on North Kellogg Street, in 1945. By that time, the 67-year-old Carl Sandburg—winner of Pulitzer Prizes in both poetry and history, a recognized national treasure—was relocating to Flat Rock, North Carolina, where he would dwell the last twenty-two years of his life and produce a third of his work.

Sandburg’s birthplace. Photo by Robert Haugland, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Something of Galesburg made Sandburg who he was. Today, his birthplace is preserved as a sort of historic shrine. There is a small visitor center. You can visit the tiny cottage where the poet was born. You can see Remembrance Rock, under which lie the ashes of Sandburg and of Lillian Steichen Sandburg, his wife of fifty-nine years.

The place is worth a visit, if you’re ever in Galesburg. 

But Sandburg is only one memory that clings to the skirts of this old prairie city.

More next time.

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!)

Buck, Bright, and Company

After he showed me through the restored 1830s cabin that my grandmother had donated to the City of Knoxville, Illinois, historical society president Ron Poyner brought me to the second floor of the Old Courthouse.

We viewed the now-restored courtroom where celebrated 19th-century tussles had taken place. I made a photograph of it. Then Ron led me around the corner and pointed out an old wagon from the Abraham Lincoln era. 

On the wall near the wagon hung a photo that stopped me in my tracks.

The photo.

“Whoa!” I said. “I know this picture.”

“You do?” Poyner was goggle-eyed.

“I have a copy at home. Do you know who these people are?”

He shook his head. “A farm couple, for sure.” He squinted at a small plate on the lower corner of the frame. “Says the oxen’s names are Buck and Bright.”

“But you don’t know the people’s names?”

 “No.” He looked at me expectantly.

“The man is my great-great-grandfather, George Witherell. And the woman is his wife, Martha Stolipher Witherell. He was a Civil War veteran. Fought with the 77th Illinois under Sherman. Went all over the South and marched in the victory parade in Washington in May 1865.” 

Ron whipped out a small notebook and started scribbling. “How do you spell that? And what relation did you say they were?” 

I started to spell it for him, then stopped. “Well, the thing you might want to know is, he was the maternal grandfather of my Grandma LaFollette, who donated the cabin to the town. Don’t bother trying to write it down. When I get home, I’ll email you a complete summary.”

So that’s how we left it.

My Copy

When we got home, I dug out my copy of the photograph. 

Buck and Bright, left; George and Martha Witherell, right.

I scanned it and emailed the JPEG to Ron Poyner, just to confirm it was in fact the same photo. Then I started going through the materials my wife had compiled, years ago, about George and Martha Witherell. 

George was the son of Ephraim Witherell and grandson of Asaph Witherell, a veteran of the War of 1812.

Asaph Witherell, son of Ephraim Wetherel Jr. and Tabitha Harvey of Norton, Massachusetts, was born in Keene, New Hampshire, in 1783, the very year that King George III renounced his claim to the American colonies via the Treaty of Paris.

Asaph was 29 in 1812, when the U.S. again fought the British, and he joined the fight. After the war he married Joanna White, ten years his junior, and they lived in her home area of Windham County, Vermont, where their son Ephraim was born in 1816. In 1817 Asaph was awarded a war bounty of 160 acres of land in what would become Stark County, Illinois. But it was impractical at that time to pick up and move west.

Ephraim, Asaph and Joanna’s son, grew up and married a Pennsylvania girl, Rebecca Donaldson. They moved to Washington County, Indiana, in 1840. There, on September 8, 1845, George Witherell was born. 

The Witherells Come to Illinois

The whole family, including George’s grandparents, Asaph and Joanna, moved to Peoria County, Illinois, when George was three. Despite his tender age, George retained a lifelong memory of seeing, while en route to Peoria County, a victory procession for newly-elected president Zachary Taylor. That would have been 1848.

Old Courthouse

In 1851, when George was six, the family moved again, this time to Knox County. He spent the rest of his life there, on the family farm about a mile south of the Old Courthouse in Knoxville where now hangs the photo of himself, his wife Martha, and their two oxen, Buck and Bright.

It is unclear whether George’s grandfather Asaph Witherell ever claimed his 1812 bounty grant, which was in Stark County—not Peoria or Knox County.

Apparently the only time George Witherell left Knoxville was when he joined the 77th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. That was on 11 February 1864. He was eighteen years old. He was vaccinated against smallpox in March and shipped south to join his unit in Louisiana, where it was engaged in the disastrous Red River Campaign under Major General Nathaniel Banks. 

Although George was not wounded in the campaign, his left upper arm got inflamed, swollen, and afflicted with a running sore—all in apparent reacton to the vaccination he had received in Galesburg after enlisting. This reaction lasted until November 1864. After-effects plagued him for the rest of his life, resulting in a disability pension from the U.S. government. 

The 77th Illinois and a sister unit, the 130th Illinois, continued operations in the Gulf region for the rest of the war. When George mustered out of service in 1965, it was as a member of the 130th, to which he had been transferred.

Beware Assumptions

So many of the “facts” I had told Ron Poyner were based on wrong assumptions. George Witherell was indeed a member of the 77th Illinois, which under General Sherman had fought throughout Grant’s Vickburg Campaign of 1863. But by the time George joined the unit in 1864, it had been shuffled out of Sherman’s command and into a dead-end action that kept it in the lower Mississippi basin for the rest of the war. Even during that action, my great-great-grandfather spent months on extended sick call because of his arm problem. 

He did not serve in the 77th when it was under Major General William T. Sherman, as I had said. Neither he nor his unit, the 77th, “went all over the South and marched in the victory parade in Washington in May 1865” as I had promised Ron Poyner. Open mouth, insert foot.

Oh, well. The facts are the facts. George did serve honorably in the Union cause.

He married Martha Stolipher in 1866, shortly after returning from the war, and never left Knoxville after that. As the photo attests, they acquired a team of oxen and grew old farming the prairie soil south of town.

One of their children, Minnie Witherell, married John Dredge and became the mother of Berneice Dredge LaFollette—my grandmother, who in 1963 donated the Sanburn cabin to the City of Knoxville.

George and Martha Witherell, front row center, surrounded by their eight children. George wears the Knoxville constable’s star he earned in later life. Seated to George’s right is daughter Minnie, my grandmother’s mother.

Now you know . . . the rest of the story.

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!)