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

Lollygagging

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

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

Trieste sunset. Larry Sommers photo.

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

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

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

Dolce far niente

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

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

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

A river runs through it

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

The good news: Europe is still here. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Other Hand

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

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

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

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

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

Zagreb Esplanade.

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

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

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

I would stay in the Esplanade any time.

Ah . . . Italia!

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

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

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

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

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

Blessings,

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

Tenth of Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood

Franz Kafka in 1923. Public Domain.

The startling tenth step, Gentle Reader, involves what our old friend Kafka might call “Metamorphosis.” Or even, as our old friend Ovid would have it, “Metamorphoses.” 

Latin poet Ovid. Public Domain.

The difference between the two—one letter—decided the question on a recent Jeopardy! answer.

But I digress.

What I mean is: Signing a book contract—the very definition of success in the literary game—changes you instantly into A New Thing Altogether.

Butterfly and caterpillar. Public Domain.

Let’s Review

As a HUGE FAN of this blog, you must surely have noticed that Your New Favorite Writer did set forth for the benefit of all, in public, beginning 4 August 2020, Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood. Those steps were, in order:

Step One—Cut the line. Go ahead and become a literary lion from the start, before you have a speck of achievement to point to.

Step Two—Write. Actually put something down on paper. To be a writer, one must write.

Step Three—Get feedback. Show your work to somebody and consider using their response to help you improve that work.

Step Four—Associate. To soften the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer, you must find your tribe.

Step Five—Submit. You must offer your work to the only judges who really count: Publishers.

Step Six—Build your platform. Gather about you, on social media and elsewhere, an army of friends who will help you sell your book.

In outlining these six steps, I cautioned repeatedly that although they are simple, they are not easy. Each step requires courage, cunning, and purity of purpose. If they were easy, everyone would be J. K. Rowling, or maybe Barbara Cartland.

Having set forth the Six Simple Steps, I smiled with satisfaction, knowing I had done a good work—even though I, myself, had as yet no published book to my name. 

As to that . . .

. . . the beast remained elusive. Having applied the Six Simple Steps to my own case, I began to come close to publication. I could smell it. I could amost taste it.

I was offered a contract on my debut historical novel, but had to turn it down! Can you believe that? It was gut-wrenching. But this turned out to be a necessary first step to getting a good, fair contract with a publisher I could work with. 

It was my good fortune that a couple of publishers who did not want to publish my novel took the time to write very helpful notes of rejection. Ever note, Dear Reader: A helpful rejection is better than a harmful acceptance.

I added a Seventh Step to the Six Simple Steps. Step Seven was the same as Step Two: Write. Or to put it more precisely, Rewrite. The two explanatory rejections told me that the book wasn’t good enough yet. This was a hard pill to swallow, but as Donald Maass observed, “At some point attention must be paid to the writing.”

Steps Eight and Nine were just like Step Seven, only more so. Write, write, write. I plunged in and spent a year rewriting the book, from tooth to tail with the help of stellar book coach Christine De Smet. 

This rewrite was radical. It gave me, at last, a book worth publishing. One of my two rejectors agreed to look at it again, and bought it.

The Next Step

This brings us back to where we started, and my discovery of Step Ten in the Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood. You may as well prepare for it now, as it involves metamorphosis.

The instant you sign a book publication contract, you change from a writer into a salesman. All your waking thoughts are questions you never asked yourself before. How can I maximize pre-publication sales? Where are book clubs that would like to read my book? How can I get a celebrity to interview me? Do I need to buy a weather-proof canopy for outdoor book fairs? How does that Square thing work? Should I wear an ascot to signings, or just my regular bib overalls? 

I kid you not.

It’s no good saying, “It won’t happen to me. I’ll remain an artist, above the fray.” No. You will not find that possible.

It’s no good cursing the book industry for forcing you into this commercial role. The publisher did not do it to you. The bookstores did not do it to you. You volunteered by hard, persistent  literary work. You did it to yourself.

To begin with, you wrote the damn thing. You poured yourself into it, day by day, for years. You wrote, you rewrote, you cut the line, you got feedback, you found your tribe, you hammered away at your platform. And you kept writing. 

By the time you had a book good enough to attract somebody’s notice, you were so deeply involved that you could not bear to think that nobody, or only a few loyal friends, would read it.

You can’t help wanting more. If you don’t get at least a respectable level of sales, you’ll be disappointed. So you plunge into the prospecting, the interviewing, the personal appearances, the social media, and hope for a light at the end of the tunnel.

A good friend of mine—a wonderful author with a powerful book—got so absorbed in the commercial end of things that he didn’t write a word of new material for two years. He’s writing again now, but he says it’s like pulling teeth to get started again.

I count myself lucky. I’m still writing a bit of new material, in the odd moments. 

But don’t think I’m not absorbed in my new occupation of selling books. I just can’t help myself.

By the way, there’s still time for you to pre-order Price of Passage at a 30 percent discount. Just go to https://www.dxvaros.com/price-of-passage-preorders. But don’t delay. After 22 August, the price is full retail ($19.95 paperback; $4.99 e-book). 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

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

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

P.S.–COME TO MY BOOK LAUNCH PARTY, in person or online. Details here: https://www.mysterytomebooks.com/larry-sommers-price-of-passage

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

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

The Wellspring

Public Domain.

I have dragged myself out of bed after midnight on a good sleeping night—one of those rain-blessed nights when you hear the tap and drizzle of the storm just outside the window—because this musing has come to me. 

If I wait till morning, I’ll lose it.

It’s a message for you, Dear Reader, about creativity.

Maybe you have thought you would like to write something. Something true from your life and experience, be it written as fact or fiction. Something you might share with your children, your grandchildren, or the world. 

But you have answered yourself: “No. I’m no writer.” 

Or maybe: “No. I’d start and then not know where to go from there. I’d get writer’s block.” 

But before you give up on the idea, consider my case. I resolved six years ago to start the writing career I had always promised myself. I knew not what I would write, nor how. But there was something inside me that had to come out. Surely if I gave it a whirl, something would turn up.

So I plunged in.

Are you still with me, Gentle Reader? Just plunging in is not unheard-of. People do it. You could plunge in, too—if you so chose.

Early Scores

When I plunged in, I wanted to write about the past—the place where I spend most of my time. But the first thing that came to me—it came in a dream one night—was a brief, whimsical character study of Skeezie, our woebegone old Siberian husky. I sent it to Fetch! magazine—“For dogs and their humans”—and they bought it

What a morale booster! But it was an isolated victory, something of a fluke. I buckled down to my real aim of writing about the past. I wrote short stories about a young boy named Izzy Mahler, growing up in the ’Fifties. I submitted one to The Saturday Evening Post, and they published it in their online edition.

Wow, another fluke. 

Over the next couple of years, the Post bought a couple more Izzy Mahler stories (here and here).

Getting Serious

But I wanted something more.  I hankered to write a novel. My wife, Jo, had unearthed my Norwegian ancestors, and the framework of their lives, as shown by her research, suggested the beginnings of a plot.

Plunging in is fine, Cherished Reader, but I craved a surer sense of what I was about. What kind of Pandora’s box would I open if I embarked on a novel? So I signed up for the University of Wisconsin–Extension’s “Write By The Lake” conference in the summer of 2016. There, the inimitable Laurie Scheer encouraged me to go ahead and write my “immigrant novel.”

So I plunged in. Does this suggest any writing strategy to you, Dear Reader?

I wrote most of the novel on my laptop but part of it in longhand in a notebook I took with me to a church meeting in 2017. I recruited volunteer beta readers to read my work and give feedback.

Sensing I was in over my head, I joined Tuesdays With Story, a writers’ mutual critique group led by Jerry Peterson of Janesville, Wisconsin. Jerry is an author with plenty of publication credits, a master of great stories. When I showed my early chapters to the group, I had to swallow a lot of guff arising from amateurism in my writing. It was galling, Dear Reader—but I could not ignore the truth in the critiques. 

My writing started to get better.

We talked a lot in the group about “writer platforms,” about one’s “social media presence,” about “blogs” and “podcasts.” It seemed you had to do that stuff to be successful. My heart screamed, “No! No! No! Here I am trying to burrow into the past, and you’re trying to shove me into some godforsaken future. I won’t go!”

But at some point in those discussions, Jerry said, “Well, instead of thinking of a blog as something to promote your writing, you might look at a blog as being your writing—at least, part of it. If nothing else, it’s a chance to write something and get it in front of the public, on your own terms.”

To Blog, or Not to Blog: That Is the Question

It was an agonizing decision. For a blog to be worth doing, it ought to be posted regularly, maybe as often as once a week. I would have to spend a lot of my precious time composing and posting blog entries. 

I had heard somebody say, “It’s easy. Just rattle off something and post it. A few minutes a week.” But I could never do that. Why would I put something into the world under my name that was not carefully written? Pondered? Revised? Crafted? To do so would be the opposite of what I was trying to do. If I was going to start a blog, the entries needed to be high in quality.

That meant significant time spent each week, and that would cut into my novel writing time. Besides—where would I come up with all the material needed for a weekly blog post?

I’m hearing an echo now, Kind Reader, as you murmur, “What if I tried to write something? Where would I get the content?”

Well, I’ll tell you what Your New Favorite Writer did.

I plunged in. Here we go again. Do you see a pattern?

Since April 2019, I have posted 164 blog entries. What you are reading now will be Number 165. I have posted almost every week, usually on Tuesday morning. I have written about my grandmother’s postcard collection, the Springfield race riot of 1907, the losses of two of my uncles in World War II, General Grant, the onset of autumn in Wisconsin, the craziness of coping with COVID, how to use a chainsaw, the philosophical reflections of Milo Bung (a direct descendant of Æthelred the Unready and fourth cousin to Slats Grobnik) and more than a hundred other topics. I have even posted a few not-quite-ready-for-prime-time short stories. 

Where did all that content come from? 

All I can say is, there’s always something. I never run dry.

Wellspring of Creativity

That’s my message to you, Fair Reader: There’s always something. When you start to create, you reach down into some magical place, where there’s always more stuff ready to bubble forth. As soon as you take some out and write it down, more wells up to take its place. 

I think of it as a wellspring of creativity. I’ve spoken to other writers, and I’m assured the situation is the same in all other kinds of artistic endeavors: The more you produce, the more there is to draw from.

You can never run out. There’s a wellspring of creativity inside you.

I’m not talking about Creation. That would be presumptuous. In my theology, only God creates. The best we can do is recombine elements of that primordial Creation in new ways. That’s not Creation—but it is creativity. Somehow, when we do this kind of work, we participate in God’s creative work. 

Yes, Distinguished Reader. I’m saying it’s a Divine Calling.

Ignore it at your peril.

Despite the time and effort required for the weekly blog post, I have completed and sold an epic novel, due to be published August 23. I have a middle-grades novel for which I’ll soon be seeking a publisher. And there are other projects in the works, which I’m not ready to talk about yet.

The more you dip out, the more comes in to take its place

You might think about trying it, too, Dear Reader. 

Just plunge in. You have but to stretch forth your hand.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

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

Sanburn’s Cabin

For the past sixty-five years I have lived as a Wisconsinite. I’ve grown to love the Badger state—its saucy lingo full of bubblers and hotdishes, its full spectrum of tasty cheeses and sausages, and its gentle yet unmistakably corrugated landscape. 

But through age twelve, I was all Illinois. My family was Illinois before me. Flatlanders, every one of us.

Grandma LaFollette

My mother’s parents, Alvin and Berneice LaFollette, dwelt in a rambling, single-story house. It sat on the south side of the town square in Knoxville, Illinois, facing the old abandoned courthouse across the square. Knoxville was once the county seat of Knox county, but it did not grow enough to keep the distinction. When I was a boy, in the 1950s, it was a town of about two thousand souls.

My grandparents’ house must have been built bit by bit, expanded over the years by adding rooms. The dining room and kitchen were down a step from the living room and bedrooms. You had to go outdoors to get to the indoor bathroom, which was not only behind the house but also down a flight of stairs; it was basically a plumbed storm cellar, with toilet, shower, and laundry tubs. The whole house, except for this unique subterranean bathroom, was clad in weathered brown clapboard siding.

Time passed. Grandpa died. About 1963, Grandma needed to sell the property and take up a more practical and frugal mode of living. Buyers would want the lot only if the tired old house were first removed. Grandma found a man who agreed to tear down the house for free in exchange for the salvage—a good deal, she figured. 

Surprise!

Demolition began. All went well. But when the man took his crowbar to the kitchen, what he found beneath the clapboard siding was not framing studs but the solid walls of an old log cabin—square-hewn timbers, saddle-notched to lock at the corners, no nails needed. Gaps were chinked with prairie clay and hay.

Everything stopped while local historians scratched their heads and searched old records. It turned out that Grandma’s kitchen had once been the first permanent structure built by a white man in Knox County. Pioneer settler John Sanburn built it in 1832 to house his general store. Naturally, it also became the town’s first post office.

All that was well and good, but Grandma still needed the land clean so she could sell it. She donated the cabin to the village on condition that it be moved from her land. They jacked it up, put it on wheels, and eased it across the square. There it sits to this day, beside the old courthouse. 

The parking lot where Grandma’s house once stood.

Grandma sold her land and went to live with three daughters and a son-in-law in Albuquerque. In the old place, where we held family picnics in the big yard under Knox County’s largest elm tree, where we caught lightning bugs after dark, where the town band serenaded us with Sousa from the bandstand in the square on Saturday nights, and where we met the Yule with aunts and uncles and cousins around the roaring kerosene heater in the ramshackle old house—there now stands a jim-dandy asphalt parking lot.

The Past Restored

Sanburn’s cabin today.
Notches.

Meanwhile, the old cabin on the north side of the square has come under the stewardship of the Knox County Historical Sites, Inc., which also maintains the old courthouse, the old jail, and the Knox County Historical Museum. The cabin has been restored to what it must have been like in John Sanburn’s heyday. 

In the store.

Last weekend, having an hour free during the course of a Knox College class reunion, my wife and I met Ron Poyner, current president of the Knox county Historical Sites, Inc., for a quick tour of the cabin.

It was a poignant moment for me, being inside an 1832 general store which I had last visited when it was a modern 1950s-style kitchen featuring great meals served by Grandma LaFollette. Aunt Sue made peanut butter sandwiches for me in that kitchen. Aunt Linda, still a kid herself, sat with me and my sister and our cousins at the “kids’ table” in that kitchen while the grownups ate their Christmas dinner in the dining room. 

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

Surprise, Too

Ron offered to show me also the second floor of the old courthouse. “We’ve restored the courtroom to the way it was in the old days,” said Ron, who is also Knoxville’s chief of police. “It’s where the trial was conducted that resulted in the only legal hanging in Knox county history.” 

I wish I had thought to ask how many illegal hangings there were, but my mind was on other things. I knew the old courthouse had also been the scene of a fierce legal fight over Susan “Aunt Sukey” Richardson, a black woman who had fled a brutal situation of indentured servitude that was tantamount to slavery. Although the legal proceedings came out muddled, Aunt Sukey did stay free and lived out her life in nearby Galesburg and later, Chicago.

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

Naturally I wanted to see and photograph the old courtroom, which was on the second floor of the stately courthouse. So up the steep, narrow stairway we went. I viewed the courtroom and shot a picture. 

Then, as I turned to go back downstairs, a photo on the wall stopped me in my tracks.

CONTINUED NEXT TUESDAY.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer